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Ethics must drive Wits grads

- By Schalk Mouton

All graduates that received their postgraduate degrees in Accounting and Economic Sciences on Tuesday on 31 March 2015 are going to end up as captains of their industries. As such, they have a duty to commit to three values: ethics, transformation and Ubuntu.

Addressing the graduation ceremony of post graduate students in the Faculty of Law, Commerce and Management, KPMG Managing Partner of the Tax Practice in South Africa, and Head of Tax for KPMG across Africa, Devon Duffield said it would be remiss not to speak about three burning issues in our country at the moment.

Students at the University of Cape Town have been protesting to remove a statue of Cecil John Rhodes, while it was becoming increasingly clear that the country was on the edge of a "tax revolt", he said.

"It would be ridiculous for us to not recognise that in this country right now, we are as close to a tax revolt as we are ever going to see," he said.

The bottom line is that South Africa does not collect enough tax for what the government plans to spend. That revenue is collected from very few people, he said.

But the problem does not lie with the amount of money collected in taxes, but in the way it is mismanaged.

"None of us has a problem with paying taxes when it is correctly spent and it can be accounted for. The heart of the matter is that so much of what is collected, is simply wasted in - you have heard these terms before - 'fruitful and wasteful expenditure' and worse 'fraud and corruption'," he said.

"If you are a graduate from this institution you need to understand your ethical obligations.

"Whether you become an auditor, a businessman, a CEO, a regulator ... All of you are going to land up in incredible positions of authority and power. What is your responsibility, what is your duty in regards to the ethics of corruption in this country, and the damage that it is doing?" he asked.

In the 20 years of democracy, South Africa has not come far enough in terms of transformation, Duffield said.

"Transformation is not done in this country. We've got a long way to go. And this university is making a major difference in this regard, because every single one of you sitting here are going to be a captain of your industry," he said.

The graduates were "a small nucleus of an incredibly privileged elite, who will rise to the top" of their fields, he said.

This imposes a duty on the graduates.

"I want you to reflect on what your duty is, to make a difference to the next two generations of people, and that theme is going to reflect throughout."

Ethics plays a major role in transformation and the duty to make a difference.

"Ethics is the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, and then to do the right thing. Ethics mean doing the right thing, even if the law does not require it," he said. "Did you notice there are two parts to that?"

"The law is the mere base," he said. "Our ethical and moral obligations go well beyond legal." 

"Ethics cannot be about rules. It should be about principles. If you're in any doubt whether something is right or wrong, ask someone. If you are not prepared to ask someone, then you already know the answer."

Duffield reminded the graduates that above else, they are part of a community, and the difference they make in each others' lives is what matters most in the end.

"What difference are you going to make for those who come after you? Because paying taxes is simply not enough," he said.