Nhlanhla Nene: His name may mean luck, but his ran out

Dudu Msomi.
Dudu Msomi.

I place experiences in my life into two categories: What is my lesson to learn and for whom am I a vehicle for them to learn from what I am experiencing.

The two major incidents surrounding Nhlanhla Nene: His being fired in December 2015 and his resignation in October 2018 are replete with life lessons as a human being and a leader. With the name Nhlanhla meaning luck, one can speculate that his luck has finally run out. For those who are wise, it is an opportunity for us to learn from what has befallen him so that we can do better with our choices. In expending energy to judge and feeling holier than thou at someone else’s perceived downfall, you miss precious learning opportunities.

The nauseatingly replayed eNCA interview of Nhlanhla Nene at his home in Kranskop where he was less than forthright about his interactions with the Guptas, which contributed to his resignation among other matters, is really tragic because he was a private citizen. He did not have to do that interview. The one distinct lesson all leaders can learn from the Nene Masterclass is captured in Maya Angelou’s saying: “When you know better, you do better.” There are three lessons I would like to share.


As a leader, you must never let your guard down when interacting with the media, regardless of how cordial your relationship is with them. They still have a watchdog role as the fourth estate and some may have their own agenda to catch you out should you be less than forthcoming, especially as a public figure. Before you agree to an interview, you must enlist the expertise of a media professional to guide you. The professional will be able to work out various scenarios with you, particularly if the situation you are encountering is one fraught with reputational risk, such as state capture. If you are not adequately prepared and you have not figured out how to handle questions, such as “Have you interacted with the Guptas?”, don’t put yourself in front of the camera.

But the greatest lesson is that as a private citizen, you are not bound to have media interviews because you do not owe the public anything.

Compartmentalising relationships

There is no doubt that there are benefits to public and private sectors interacting and these cannot be through only big business organisations that exclude many entities in South Africa because of out-of-reach membership costs.

But such interactions carry seeds of potential conflict of interest, such as the abuse of inside knowledge, influence and information for unfair personal or commercial gain.

Public officials do not stop having relationships and lives just because they are appointed to serve. It is important to create clear boundaries. The protocol should be that you never meet anyone in their home if it is an official meeting.

Meetings should take place in your office or in a public place. Even in public places, the cost implications must be clearly delineated upfront through assistants so that you are not later accused of being bribed because you are meeting in exclusive private rooms where bills are picked up by private-sector individuals lobbying you.

Conflict of interest

Taking on a public leadership role should be a family commitment. Public officials must invest in educating their children and family members on corporate governance.

This is how seriously individuals need to protect their reputation and image.

The reality is that people do seek out family members of influential public officials to unfairly obtain information. Officials must not be naive. Ethics cannot be legislated. The onus is on the official.

  • Msomi is chief executiveof Busara Leadership Partners
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