OPINION

bruce whitfield
Bruce Whitfield
  • Former President Jacob Zuma's children are apparently having a hard time because of their association with their father. 
  • Public figures who betray the public's trust face a special set of penalties. 
  • South African businesspeople also need to be reminded that, like in politics, reputation is everything.
  • In short: don't be an idiot.
  • For more stories, go to Business Insider SA.

What would you give to be a fly on the wall at your own funeral? Who will turn up just to make sure that you are really dead, finally? Who will be there to lie for you and cover up the uncomfortable truths you wished nobody knew, and who will be there just to commemorate your life for all of its twists and turns, failures and successes? 

If ever there was a warning that you need to protect your reputation, and not in the Bell Pottinger way of crass public manipulation, it came through loud and clear this week as former President Jacob Zuma, still apparently bewildered by the negative attention he garners practically everywhere he goes, bemoaned the fact that his children struggle to find work because of their association with him.

The sins of the father, and all that.

He is oblivious to the fact that his ineptitude at running the economy, and as Ranjeni Munusamy put it in Business Day this morning, treasonous behaviour, deprived a whole generation of young South Africans of a fair chance to get ahead in the world. Not just his own kids.

That’s the trouble with power. It either deletes your memory, or causes you to become wholly oblivious to the impact you have on the world around you.

The reality is you are held to a higher standard if you choose to enter the public domain. Especially when you take an oath - not once, but twice - to uphold the Constitution.

That’s why Markus Jooste’s name is mud, and he can’t, apparently, go out in public beyond a few safe zones around Stellenbosch. He betrayed the trust of anyone whose retirement depended on the performance of a company which committed fraud of more than R100 billion.

He also betrayed the public trust placed in him as CEO of a listed company, and as a chartered accountant, the industry body which recognised him as an individual above reproach.

Being a public figure requires you to behave differently to everyone else.

And it’s not only you who suffers when your reputation is flushed down the toilet.

At the height of his tax troubles, businessman Dave King told friends that he had no issue with the robust nature of the process, but was devastated by the fact that his kids were picked on at school because their dad was accused of failing to pay his taxes.

He had chosen to enter into open warfare with the state over his tax affairs and felt justified in doing so, but there were consequences for those close to him.

Just as this week, friends of rugby hero James Small leapt to his defence, berating Rapport newspaper for publishing the salacious circumstances surrounding his death. The same happened to the late Joost van der Westhuizen, filmed enjoying what he thought was a private moment, whose private life was of tabloid interest.

Being a public figure supported by an adoring public and a pliant media seeking to boost its circulation means that you sacrifice the right to privacy, especially when things go badly.

When the world’s least interesting footballer Ryan Giggs was exposed for having an affair with his sister-in-law, he was obliged to take it on the chin. Tiger Woods is one of only a few sporting superheroes to rise up from the ashes of their own self-destruction to once again rise to the top of his game. Despite his great success, he will also be remembered for betraying his family and having his wife smash in his windscreen.

Public figures who ride the positive PR wave when the going is good and win the admiration of the public in good times have to be able to take the rough with the smooth.

Oscar Pistorius, a national treasure until he killed Reeva Steenkamp by firing four shots through his bathroom door, will never be seen in the same light again and nor should he be.

Our society creates heroes.

We want people to look up to. Some of them stay humble.

The national outpouring of grief this week over the death of Johnny Clegg shows that it is possible to enjoy considerable success, yet remain grounded in a genuine humility. His family won’t need PR companies to spin his greatness now that he is gone. His fans are doing that naturally, because he gave them no cause to doubt his integrity.

Warren Buffett, on and off the world’s richest man and probably the most quoted Business leader in the world, once warned employees of the now failed Salomon Brothers: “Lose money for the firm and I will be understanding, but lose just a shred of reputation for the firm and I will be ruthless.”

In business, as in life and politics, reputation is everything.

Without trust, your name is worthless.

Over the past twenty years, Judge Mervyn King - with the help of some notable business luminaries - developed codes of corporate governance, providing guidelines to directors on how they should behave in the hurly-burly corporate world.

With scandals erupting everywhere from Steinhoff, to Tongaat Hulett, Old Mutual and EOH, there are some suggestions that South Africa’s corporate governance framework is failing.

It’s not. People are failing.

Greed, combined with a fear of failure and the belief that they are unlikely to ever be caught, is leading to extraordinary levels of bad behaviour.

Over time, the King Codes had to expand and grow in an attempt to anticipate the worst intentions of those whose goal is to earn money at the expense of other stakeholders.

Perhaps the guidelines are too complicated. Perhaps directors, overburdened with compliance requirements have stopped paying attention to the detail of what happens inside companies and whether bosses are behaving ethically.

The Readers Digest Company took long, often verbose texts and made them more readable, shorter and accessible.

If Readers Digest were to condense King IV, it might choose to do so in one of two ways, one even shorter than the other. 

The first: “If you would be unhappy with the decision you are about to take being emblazoned on a billboard outside your home or your kids' school, don’t do it.”

Or perhaps the more succinct version might read: “Don’t be an idiot.”

I prefer a four-letter word once muttered by Ernie Els from the tee box of a major golf tournament, but the Press Ombud doesn’t approve of that kind of language. Just don’t be that person.

Perhaps someone could have summarised the Constitution in the same way for the President as he took the oath of office and there would be less of an issue with recruiters not returning his kids' calls.

What you do matters. Your behaviour matters.

The way you are seen to behave as a public figure, matters.

Beyond just the consequences for yourself.

One last quote from Warren Buffett: “It takes 20-years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

Bruce Whitfield is a multi-platform award-winning financial journalist and broadcaster.

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