What does it take to be an ethical leader? 2021 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient Unathi Kamlana and Dr Sizwe Mabizela discuss

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Unathi Kamlana
Unathi Kamlana

By Sam van Heerden, Masters in Philosophy student



Leadership across the globe faces a crisis. Those meant to guide us through historical changes and challenges are failing. But this is not without exception.  In August this year, the Old Rhodian Union Committee awarded four Distinguished Alumni Awards to outstanding University alumni, one of whom is the newly appointed Financial Sector Conduct Authority Commissioner, Mr Unathi Kamlana. As a part of the first Rhodes University Leadership Conversations for this year, he and Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor Dr Sizwe Mabizela reflected on what it takes to be diligent and excellent in public service and why it is important. One of the key points of discussion was on ethical leadership.

“[Ethical leadership] starts with the individual. It is a values-based leadership,” explained Mr Kamlana. The annual Distinguished Alumni Award is given to alumni who contribute significantly to their profession, provide service to society and the University. “It is up to every home and every individual to inculcate strong values that become the basis upon which leadership responsibilities are built,” he said. Principles, honesty, trustworthiness, respect, diligence, integrity are learned from a young age.

Kamlana’s journey began on the dusty streets of Mdantsane Township in East London. It was here and later at Rhodes University where he would learn many invaluable lessons on leadership that would guide him in later life. “I was taught in Mdantsane to dream, to pray, to serve, and to fight for what is right. To work hard, and to realise one's dreams. And importantly, given that context, I was also taught to hope,” he said.

Kamlana also reflected on his time at Rhodes University, where his Friday nights were spent in a dimly lit basement worshipping God with the Assemblies of God Society. “It was to be the best four years of my life,” he said. He was inspired by both the resilience and dedication of his friends and peers. “I meet many young people, with incredible stories of triumph over adversity, who against all odds won the fight to make it to university,” recalled Kamlana, “People who appreciated that failing was not an option, because our success was not just our success. It was to determine the fortunes of those who are going to come after us.”

Kamlana also fondly remembers those who foresaw his promising future and believed in his potential before he did. Of mention was Mrs Esté Coetzee, who was the then Coordinator of the Extended Studies Programme in Commerce when Kamlana was at Rhodes University. “One of the things I learnt from her is the importance of visionary leadership,” said Kamlana. “When you believe in something, [you should] give it your all, regardless of your current circumstances. She invested in us when it was probably risky to do so.”

Leaders have significant impacts on the world around them. “Everything turns on leadership,” said Kamlana, who explained that people tend to emulate the values of their leaders and the people around them. This then grows into the culture of an organisation or workplace like the public sector. Dr Mabizela lamented the culture of corruption and greed that permeates society. He asked: “How might we develop our individual sense of enoughness?  So that I can say ‘I have enough. I can live on this. I can share the rest with those who are less fortunate than I am.”

“It starts with how we define success,” replied Kamlana. He is an active member of the Assemblies of God Church in Soweto and is engaged in talks with the community about the importance of sound financial planning. In our society, it is common to conflate success with money, status, and material achievement. But that can be changed.  Kamlana explained: “It starts with the individual, with what we reward, what we acknowledge, what we celebrate in terms of success for our children and ourselves. Our appreciation of contentment, our appreciation of patience, and so on.”

Kamlana’s own journey was a gradual one. After Rhodes University, he worked at Standard Bank for three years before returning to Rhodes University to enrol for a Master of Commerce degree in Taxation. He then joined the National Treasury as a Senior Economist, occupying various roles until he was appointed as the Chief Director: Financial Markets and Stability. Before his current position Kamlana was Head of Department responsible for policy, statistics, and industry support at the Prudential Authority of the South African Reserve Bank. Despite a burgeoning career, Kamlana makes time for his communities. He is an active member of the Assemblies of God church and is one of its financial advisors. It was only recently, in April 2021, that Kamlana was appointed as the Commissioner of the Financial Sector Conducts Authority.

On the international level, Kamlana has also slowly risen to success. Helping to break boundaries, he joined an international delegation to Canada and Australia in 2016 that led to the adoption of the current Twin Peak model in South Africa. In doing so, he helped to introduce stricter regulations for the financial sector. He is a World Economic Forum Young Leader Award recipient and the Chairman of the 2020/21 Financial Stability Board Peer Review of the United Kingdom.

In addition to patience and values, and given its potential for abuse, meaningful leadership must be checked. Kamlana stressed that despite the structures of power, and its checks and balances, citizens are also responsible for holding leaders in public service accountable. Citizens need to understand that their leaders are under an obligation to deliver on services and promises. But simultaneously, Dr Mabizela insists that citizens need to be empowered to be their own leaders, too. “If you have empowered citizens, they then become their own support system, their own protection against abuse and wrong-doing,” said Kamlana.

As Kamlana’s own story shows, leadership from below and above is about foresight, having the courage to take initiative and push boundaries, and selflessly serving and being accountable to the community. As Dr Mabizela said, “We need to understand leadership not as some kind of entitlement or opportunity for personal accumulation, but as an opportunity to serve.”

To read more about the other Distinguished Alumni Award recipients, follow this link.

To watch the virtual conversation, go here.