Can South Africa trust its Professionally Designated Practitioners?

By Dr Ivor Blumenthal

This tidal wave of corruption which has swept through South Africa is now being found out and being made subject to public scrutiny. It may potentially result in the prosecution of those responsible, for their criminal liability. Whichever way this genie which is now released, will fly, it should result in multiple consequences, in the months and years to come both for the individuals perpetrating these crimes as well as for the companies employing them.

The question we need to ask though is whether Professional Bodies in South Africa, those organisations which represent the collective of Individuals instead of corporates in a Sector, are showing that they appreciate and understand and are willing to act on their obligations to the Public, their “Public Compact” when Designating their Members as Professionals, when faced with an obvious need to investigate and prosecute those members, or whether because of the ineffectiveness of Professional Bodies to self-regulate amongst their Designated Members, self-governance and Sectoral Policing will have to be left to Associations of Organised Employers instead?

Will companies have to be continuously called to account, in isolation for the activities of their employees because collectively employee’s who on the one hand want and fight for the right to be treated as “Professionals” on the other hand simply do not have the integrity or political will to take action against each other, when the need presents itself out of an unwritten sense of mutual loyalty rather than public responsibility?

Despite being designated as Professional Practitioners by acknowledged and seemingly respected Professional Bodies, those individuals who are now falling on their swords, often as scapegoats for the hidden and real culprits in the various corruption scandals emerging in this country, have much to answer for or at least to disclose in full and frank remorse, but are not being called, at least publicly and transparently, to account by their respective Professional Bodies, here in South Africa.

There are those who would point to these crestfallen anti-hero’s, using them as the reason for criticising Professional Bodies and calling for the abandonment of Professional Recognition, CPD and Self-Regulation of Industries, by themselves, for themselves and of themselves. Their reasoning is basically to argue that it is these Professional Bodies which empowered these would-be Professionals to begin with but that in the light of damning evidence are failing to act against their charges.

It seems however that this problem is not isolated to South African Professional Bodies.

Examine the case of Bell Pottinger. Huge in the world of Public Relations, this company has suffered dramatically in the course of a few short months, to the extent of now having been forced to close its global doors and abandon its long legacy of accomplishments, because of a ridiculous, stupid and ill-advised campaign of interference in the politics of South Africa. Thanks, in-large-part to the effective investigation, self-governed prosecution and conviction by their respected and venerable Association to which corporates belong in the UK, this firm has been driven out of business because of what was found eventually to have been the company’s collective and unethical conduct. It doesn’t really matter that not all of Bell Pottinger’s employees were complicit in the wrong-doing under investigation. The company was held accountable by the Association which it is part of and defers to.

In this instance therefore, the fact that Bell Pottinger was a member of the Public Relations and Communications Association of the UK and was therefore subject to a Code of Conduct which Bell Pottinger accepted and subjected itself and its employee’s to when joining the PRCA, empowered the Association to consider a complaint from the DA, to investigate and ultimately on Appeal, to confirm that it was correct to take the action it initially was intent on taking, in removing Bell Pottinger as a PRCA Member, in disgrace.

However little is known about the Professional Conduct Review of the individuals concerned in this scandal or whether they are even subject to a Professional Body review in their own, independent capacity?

If corruption has decayed and eroded our collective trust in Professionals, then surely we need to look to the collective presence of those Professional Bodies standing behind those individuals and companies, to restore that faith? Accountability! That is, after all why those Professional Bodies exist for the individual and the Associations for the corporates.

To account for the behavioural conduct and confirm the competence of the individuals it awards with Professional Designations and in so doing to attest to the credibility, morality and good standing of the companies for which they work.

The simple answer to the question of who can be trusted has to be that those who remain in good standing with a Professional Body as an individual or the companies which have a clean or at least remediated record with their respective Association, can be trusted, until they do something wrong, at which time they have to effectively, timeously and conclusively be called to account. To that Professional Body or Business Association – preferably covering all bases, to both.

What Professional Bodies, either Statutory or Voluntary (in South Africa we now have the luxury of both) have to understand is that if they have a Code of Conduct they are legally bound to enforce Ethical Behavior amongst their Members in-terms of that code. More importantly, they have the opportunity to stamp their moral authority on a Sector in so doing.

The question that needs to be asked is to whom Professional Bodies in South Africa are accountable. That question is more easily answered when it comes to Statutory Bodies such as the Pharmacy or Engineering Councils of South Africa. They are answerable to Parliament and therefore directly to a Ministry and Minister. They can be called to account as a Statutory Body, for being ineffective in policing the moral and ethical behaviour of their Designated Members either by the Director-General or Minister in that Government Department, or to the Portfolio Committee in Parliament and ultimately to the President under whose stewardship the respective Act of Parliament giving rise to that Statutory Body was initially affected.

When that question is posed about voluntary Professional Bodies, if registered with the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) and not all voluntary Professional Bodies are obliged to register with SAQA, then SAQA is duty-bound to pursue against a Professional Body under its stewardship which is errant in pursuing its mandated responsibilities which in this case would be the enforcement of its code of ethical behaviour prescribed in its Code of Conduct. Whether SAQA has the understanding of this obligation and even the political will to take such action against its charges is debatable given its conduct in this regard to-date when it has had so many opportunities to stamp its own moral authority on this world of Professional Bodies, but seemingly has not done so.
Professional Bodies are nothing other than the collective or recognised and registered Professionals in a particular Industry or Sector. Self-regulated and regulating. What Professional Bodies do when they fail to act against one of their own, is to erode the public confidence in their structural integrity as an authority and confirm that they are nothing other than an old boys and girls club, more intent on creating a sweetheart environment with their members, than a respected and veneered domain of self-governance.

Dr Blumenthal is CEO of ArkKonsult which specialises in consulting to Business Associations and Professional Bodies.