A child being thrown in the air by a guardian. (Gallo Images)

Few South Africans would argue with the view that our country is at a crossroads, with a set of interrelated challenges threatening to undermine the social fabric of our democracy.

"To put the country back on track for a prosperous future and fulfil the promises of our transition, we need to focus on four key areas," says Deon Rossouw, CEO of the Ethics Institute of South Africa (EthicsSA). "Some of the ethical foundations of a stable and just society have become compromised, and they need to be strengthened."

The first area of focus, according to Professor Rossouw, is unambiguous ethical leadership in both the public and private sectors. "We are in desperate need of ethical leadership that does not require 'spin doctoring', and that clearly sets the right tone," he says. "For example, President Zuma's recent comments about the business benefits of supporting the ANC, at best, caused confusion about government's true ethics. The statements and actions of government, civil society, and business leaders have to set a clear moral compass for the rest of us to follow."

A second priority for 2013 is the need to transcend narrow self-interest.

"Short-term thinking is dominating the debate at present, as we can see in both the mining and agricultural sectors," Professor Rossouw observes. "All parties have to consider the longer term impact of their actions on society, if only because their own long-term survival is tied up with that of society. One of the good outcomes of the ANC's Mangaung conference was that the National Development Plan has been placed at the centre of government's strategy and it emphasises the need for a social compact that builds society as a whole."

Thirdly, South Africa has to halt its slide down Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index. This ranking affects the country's ability to attract investment, and raises the costs of doing business for the local economy. Professor Rossouw argues that the only way to reverse this trend is to build a strong service ethos in the public sector. "Our public sector is plagued by conflicts of interest between officials' own business interests and the public good. Public servants need to understand that their only priority is to serve citizens," he notes. "We have made a good start by outlawing the practice of public servants doing business with government at the municipal level, but we desperately need legislation that covers the provincial and national spheres of government.

“I am hopeful that we will see progress in this area during 2013."

Finally, Professor Rossouw believes we need to support the development of an engaged citizenry. "Building an ethical, just society is not something that leaders can do alone. As the notion of the social compact demonstrates, we all have to take individual responsibility for the society in which we live," he says. "That begins with something as basic as keeping to the speed limit, and refusing to take the easy way out by paying a bribe or 'facilitation fee'.

"We seem to have thought that we could build the South Africa we all want through legislation. Important as the Constitution and laws are, we must now recognise that they are simply words on paper unless we make it live.

“Ethical behaviour begins at the individual level and works its way upwards and downwards."