David Lewis. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
David Lewis. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

I have a clear memory of the ceremony when I first graduated nearly 50 years ago. My parents came up from Klerksdorp to be at my graduation. They were not university-educated people. But they wanted to be there partly to witness the graduation of the first member of their nuclear family to receive a university degree, but also to see the celebrities that they revered.

And who had they come to see? Not the mining magnate who was the chancellor of the university and who officiated at the ceremony. The person they really wanted to catch a glimpse of, and whose actual appearance really excited them, was Prof Phillip Tobias, the great palaeoanthropologist and outspoken liberal opponent of apartheid.

Who are the great celebrities of our age?

Mark Zuckerberg, who dispensed with the ideal of democratising the internet as soon as he realised that there was more money to be made from violating the privacy of those who trusted his product?

Jeff Bezos, who treats those who work for his great innovative company, Amazon, like latter-day slaves, maybe worse?

Maybe R. Kelly, whose musical talent is combined with a taste for underage girls? Or Floyd Mayweather who enjoys beating his wives and girlfriends as much as he enjoys beating his opponents in the ring?

How about the Kardashians who are celebrity celebrities, famous for being famous?

These people share certain commonalities. Varying degrees of innovation for sure, whether innovation that, as in the case of Amazon, has upended the entire global retail trade, or that of the Kardashians, who have worked out how to build a multi-million-dollar global brand out of thin air and lots of cosmetic surgery.

But mostly what they have in common is their unimaginable wealth. This is what currently ascribes celebrity status. It leads to all sorts of perverse behaviour. It derives from and supports small pockets of vast wealth. It becomes not an opportunity for increased taxes on multi-billion-dollar incomes and wealth but an argument for tax cuts! It supports executive remuneration unmoored from economic factors like demand and supply and productivity, not to mention from social factors like the unspeakable gap in earnings and wealth levels.

There are potential solutions of each of these problems. However, the problem is not that we merely face an economic crisis, or an environmental crisis, or a public health crisis, or a crisis of democracy. We also face a moral crisis which may well be the critical factor that underpins the other crises besetting the globe.

As you rise in the business world you will arrive at many moral crossroads. Will you blow the whistle when you realise that your boss paid a bribe to get the huge public-sector contract that you are working on? As you rise higher will you be the executive who insists that you could not possibly commit your all to your employer unless your already outlandish bonus was increased by more millions?

But the moral questions will come earlier than that. Will you accept a lucrative job offer, one that offers endless opportunities for stratospheric upward mobility, from a firm which entered into a large contract with Purdue Pharmaceuticals? In case you missed it, this is the manufacturer of the opioid OxyContin, a drug that has already killed over 200,000 Americans alone. The contract in question is to advise and implement a strategy on how to turbocharge sales of the addictive drug, counter efforts by drug enforcement agents to reduce opioid use, and “counter the emotional messages from mothers with teenagers that overdosed” on the drug.

If that offends your morality then you’ll have to refuse that offer from McKinsey. And if that is not enough of a deterrent, this is the firm who has looted millions of rands from Transnet and Eskom.

Would you work for a firm that accepted a contract to effectively dismantle the operating systems of a revenue collecting agency, that was, at the time, widely recognised as one of the most effective such institutions in the world? You wouldn’t? Well in that case you are going to have to think twice about working for Bain & Co.

And when they protest that they have not been found guilty in a court of law and so must be presumed innocent, tell them that while they may not yet have been prosecuted by the criminal justice authorities, in the court of ethics and morality they are guilty as charged.

In East of Eden, the great American novelist John Steinbeck, writes:

“Humans are caught — in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too — in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and it occurs in all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last … A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clear questions: was it good or was it evil? Have I done well — or ill?”

The sooner we start asking ourselves those questions, the more likely are we to be satisfied with the ultimate answer.

So good luck to every one of you. You will make your way up the business ladder, backed by the huge advantage of a degree from a great university and a great business school. By all means use this to your personal advantage — many of you have sacrificed hugely to arrive at this day.

But also remember the socially conscious, questioning, robust, but always tolerant, environment in which you were taught at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibs). This will not only enable you to sleep well at night, but it will also enable you to play a role in restoring trust in the business sector, a critical determinant of the wealth of nations and all who live in them.

David Lewis is executive director of Corruption Watch. This is an extract from a speech delivered at a University of Pretoria ceremony for graduating students of Gibs.