Choose hope over fear and leadership over victimhood, former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela urged South Africans on Friday.
Fearmongering over the recession would not do the country any good, she added.
Madonsela, currently a professor of law and chair of social justice at Stellenbosch University, was guest speaker at the Momentum Consult annual conference.
"Hope keeps us going no matter how dark the night or [how] cold a winter may be. Hope tells us tomorrow will be better than today," she said.
"The question we have to answer today is what kind of leadership emerges in times of disruption - what kind of leadership allows you to achieve your goals despite disruptions?"
Madonsela said despite current uncertainties, SA still offers possibility.
"There are lots of possibilities for South Africa, but there are lots of challenges. Added to that are the problems of corruption and state capture," she said.
She noted poverty levels at 50.5%, unemployment at 26.7% and persistently high income inequality. On top of that, she said, there was social unrest, racial conflict and tension over land.
"Some complain that we had Ramaphoria, but that it has now gone. That brings some to claim that the Ramaphosa dawn has now turned to dusk."
Some blame former president Jacob Zuma, who left the country with debt and mismanagement, compounded by State capture and corruption, she said.
"But if we sit here and argue too much about who caused what, we will not get anywhere," she said.
Her advice is to opt for the kind of leadership that is ethical, purpose driven and one that is committed to service.
She recalled how, when she first met Zuma upon being appointed as public protector, he told her to operate without fear or favour – which is what she did.
Madonsela said the Constitution made it clear that it was not just lawfulness that mattered, but also ethics.
"I learnt that mistakes often bring an opportunity to redirect your purpose. It will make you stronger. SA can get through its current challenges."
For her, this means finding a win-win situation for everyone in the country.
Hunger and anger
"It is about how to reduce the structural inequality in South Africa, which is a threat to businesses, because people who are hungry and angry lose rationality," said Madonsela.
Everyone in an organisation, from the cleaner to the CEO, must interrogate the impact of their decisions, she said.
Hope always wins the day compared to fear, she added.
"As a leader you have to inspire hope: in yourself, in others and in your industry. Currently there is a lot of fear-mongering about the recession, which will not do us much justice," said Madonsela.
"When Chris Hani was killed, Madiba had to think about what his purpose was, and what kind of country he wanted to create. He chose to inspire hope, and to affirm both black and white fears, as well as the contribution both blacks and whites can make."
She emphasised that SA was built on hope and adversity, and that it has bloomed – something the world has taken notice of.
"Let us look forward to the challenge. It will not be easy, but through epic leadership and showing it is okay to fight for justice for everyone, we need to look beyond just us – even when dealing with the land issue," she said. "We can do this."