By Jeanette De Klerk-Luttig

The word integrity is used so frequently these days in speeches and newspaper reports, that it has become almost blasé. But what does it really mean?

The word integrity comes from the Latin “integritas” or “integer”, which means wholeness or unity. Just as an integer or prime number has no divisibility, someone with integrity is a whole whose morning and evening views coincide. Their public action on stage in front of others is in line with their behaviour behind the scenes in their private lives. Their words and deeds do not contradict one another, because they do what they say and say what they do, and so others can trust them. People with integrity live without pretentions and masks, and do not claim to be something they are not.

Integrity implies that you meet your appointments and promises – those that you have made with yourself and with others, and that you would rather not make promises if you cannot keep them. It means that you are honest with yourself, and do not rationalise your mistakes – or place those of others under a magnifying glass. Integrity also implies that you do not claim for yourself the applause and recognition that belongs to others.

Integrity asks that you guard against white lies and any distortion of the truth that will affect your credibility, and that you apologise sincerely when you realise that you have acted wrongly.

Integrity is evident particularly in what you do when no one else can see and you are sure that you will not be caught out. It is the cornerstone of healthy self-respect, but you have to constantly work on it because it can be very quickly destroyed.

According to the writer Stephen Carter, integrity sets high demands because it comprises three parts:

People with integrity have the ability and the wisdom to distinguish good from evil and right from wrong.
They have the moral courage to do the right thing.
They are brave enough to stand up in public for what is right.

There are many examples in our country’s history of people who lived with integrity. Emily Hobhouse was a woman with integrity. She was a fighter for social justice and was deeply convinced of the injustice to women and children in the Anglo-Boer War. She acted against it despite great opposition from her countrymen and, with moral courage, did what she believed was right – often in the most difficult circumstances. She also openly stood up for what she believed in, and adopted a strong position against the depredations of the British Empire, even though it was often to her disadvantage.

General De la Rey was a leader who lived with integrity. After the victory of the Boer forces
during the battle of Tweebos in 1902, he gave orders that the seriously wounded British General Methuen should be transported in his carriage to the hospital in Klerksdorp. The decision made the Boers furious and they signed a petition in which they demanded General Methuen’s death. General De la Rey had to quickly send a scout to stop Methuen, while they held a council of war. He had to persuade almost 1 000 Boers that it was the right thing to show mercy to a wounded enemy. Max Weber, a Swiss geologist who fought with the Boers, recorded the general’s words as follows: “Burgers, I have been your leader right from the beginning of the war. From the beginning, I have never done anything that would dishonour your or my name. Brothers, is it right to degrade ourselves by taking revenge against a defenceless man? Must we knowingly and willingly do the wrong thing?” He succeeded, with great moral courage, to go against the anger and convince the Boers to save General Methuen’s life. It led to a lifelong friendship between De la Rey and Methuen, and De la Rey will be remembered not only for his outstanding military genius – but also for his moral leadership and integrity.

Former President FW de Klerk also showed integrity after he realised that apartheid was wrong. He acted with great moral courage and integrity when, in his historic speech of 2 February 1990, he made an end to apartheid and led our country in a new democratic direction. He was brave enough to stand steadfast in this decision in the face of widespread opposition.

General Eisenhower described the link between integrity and leadership as follows: “The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army or in an office.”

According to the economist Francis Fukuyama, a nation’s wellbeing, as well as its ability to compete, is in direct relationship to the levels of confidence that it can achieve – in other words, directly dependent on its levels of integrity. He claims that a pervasive lack of trust imposes a form of taxation on all economic activity, a tax that is not paid by communities where there is trust and integrity.

Research shows that the total return for shareholders in organisations where integrity and trust are present is three times higher than in organisations where they are absent: because trust and integrity diminish cultural entropy. Cultural entropy is the proportion of energy in an organisation which is wasted on non-productive activities such as bureaucracy, internal conflict, back-stabbing and the building of personal kingdoms. The less collective integrity there is, the more cultural entropy and corruption occur, and the more trust is eroded. Integrity is thus the best remedy for all forms of corruption and distrust.

Integrity, and the confidence that goes with it, is the glue that binds families, schools, communities, companies, economies and nations together, because without it everything falls apart.

What does integrity in politics, schools and people’s personal lives look like?

Integrity in politics is shown when the promises that were made to voters before an election are kept after the election; and when you, if you have lost the election, vacate your office and hand over the reins without excuses or demonstrations.

It includes an honest and transparent public service without mutual gratification, concealment and self-enrichment, where collected taxes are effectively spent and where no form of corruption is tolerated.

Integrity at a school level means that teachers do not talk or preach one thing – and then themselves live out another – because learners are sensitive to any lack of integrity. It implies that teachers do not expect learners to work hard and be disciplined if they themselves do not also work hard and be role models for self-discipline.

When teachers coach learners to play unfairly or dishonestly so that they can win inter-school competitions, and when no one does anything to the bully on the playground because everyone is scared of his influential father, learners experience the negative consequences of the absence of integrity.

Integrity means that when a teacher promises the hockey team that he will ride with them to the match on Saturday, that he will not, without a very good reason, stay away – but will keep his promise, even if it is difficult for him – because that is how trust is built.

On a personal level, integrity means that you carry out your responsibilities and promises and are honest, even though it might be to your disadvantage. It entails that you do not use different criteria in the evaluation of your own and others’ behaviour. It will demand that you – insofar as it is possible – do not break promises to yourself, the people you live with, your friends, and your colleagues.

The personal advantages of a life of integrity include i.a. that your self-respect and self-appreciation will be strengthened, your reputation will be built, your relationships will be strengthened, and you will experience peace of mind because you will be free from feelings of guilt.

Every one of us should work to consciously build our integrity and become more trustworthy each day. In so doing, we will finally be able to change the situation in our country and avoid having to pay such a heavy mistrust tax.

In the words of rabbi Israel Salanter:

“When I was a young man I wanted to change the world. I found that it is difficult to change the world. I then tried to change my nation. I then realised that I could not change the nation. I began to focus on my town. I could not change the town, and as an older man, I tried to change my family. Now, as an old man, I know that the one thing that I can, in fact, change is myself – and suddenly I realised that if I had changed myself long ago, I could have made an impact on my family. My family could have made an impact on our town, their impact could have changed the nation, and I could, indeed, have changed the world.”