Solly Moeng: Brands in shining armour

Solly Moeng (SUPPLIED)
Solly Moeng (SUPPLIED)

When respected personalities are brought in to clean up following political and corporate scandals, we must ask: are their personal brands enough to inspire trust?

President Cyril Ramaphosa

Former President Jacob Zuma called on (now) President Cyril Ramaphosa to join him as running mate for a second term in office, in 2014, amid growing scandals in and around Zuma’s personal and political lives.

Zuma’s image was already tarnished, but not Ramaphosa’s – many had envisaged him as president after Mandela.

There are many explanations around what made Ramaphosa leave politics for the private sector after Mbeki scuppered this reported bid, or expectation, instead.

Some say he was strategically deployed into the private sector by the ANC, ensuring that he benefitted from many sweet BEE deals that turned him into a billionaire within a short space of time.

Others say he slammed the door when he left, angered by betrayal, and used his political clout to go into lucrative business deals.

It’s an open secret that in those early days big business was hungry for highly politically connected individuals as business partners, hoping for access to the corridors of power, where decisions that determined economic policy and affected their ability to do business with government were made.

Ramaphosa was in the right place at the right time, and going into the private sector ensured the preservation of his political image, as many remembered him for the excellent role he played, alongside the National Party’s Roelf Meyer, in leading the multiparty negotiations and the process to develop South Africa’s post-apartheid Constitution. He was known to be a balanced, calm, skilled negotiator who understood that there would be no room for "winner takes all" in modern politics.

So it came as no surprise, when Zuma convinced him to return to politics, that his presence alone offered Zuma a little reprieve from negative media and public scrutiny. Many hoped that Ramaphosa would bring a semblance of order. But, Zuma being Zuma, even that only lasted a short while.

Sadly, the rot had begun to set in within the ANC and, arguably, most of the public institutions it had been running; it had gone too deep even for Ramaphosa’s personal brand to clean up. State capture-related activities and other forms of corruption continued unabated, as brazen as they could be, and while he waited his turn to be president without rocking the boat.  Some have said he should be given more time, but we should remain constructively cynical, armed with the knowledge that 'asking for more time' is the politician’s most dangerous weapon against gullible and unsuspecting populations.  

Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu

Earlier this year, the reputationally, if not criminally, embattled KPMG managed to recruit the eminently respectable – and respected – Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu to help it deal with a fast-descending avalanche of image and credibility problems.

Many wondered how this professor, with his sterling reputation, would rub off on a formerly respected corporate brand fast losing its lustre thanks to self-inflicted reputational wounds. Moreover, when these wounds came about due to greed and, by the looks of things, a corporate culture devoid of values-driven ethical leadership.

Following the announcement of his appointment as KPMG Chair, Nkuhlu said: "If the intention of KPMG is merely to use my stature and reputation to appease stakeholders and stem the loss of clients, they are making a big mistake. I value my reputation, that’s all I have. There is no way I can be compromised." 

I wrote at the time that it remained to be seen whether he would be given complete and honest answers to all the questions he asked of KPMG so that he could, in turn, advise the company on honest, transparent steps to take in order begin rebuilding a credible reputation.

Would the wise professor be allowed to cast his probing eye into the auditing firm’s questionable past activities so that he could, one day, stand on a public platform without flinching and – mindful of his reputation – tell the world all was well at KPMG?

It seems like an eternity since then, but Professor Nkuhlu remains at KPMG – recently appointed Executive Chair – following the poorly explained departure of Nhlamulo Dlomu, who had also been appointed to stabilise the ship and help regain confidence after the sudden departure of her predecessor, Trevor Hoole, in September 2017.

Now Dlomu is said to have stepped down to allow a new leader to restore KPMG’s reputation after a corruption scandal that saw the company lose several major clients.  

This could be a reference to the alleged involvement of a former senior KPMG partner, Sipho Malaba, in the VBS scandal that saw some R2bb siphoned away – benefiting several politically connected or powerful individuals – in what the Reserve Bank described as a heist. Scandals involving the once-shining KPMG brand are now so numerous that it is difficult to know which may have caused Dlomu’s departure, ostensibly for a promotion to a global position.

As for Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu’s reputational impact on KPMG, all is still too murky to interpret. Stellar personal reputations, if badly used, cannot be automatic antidotes to poor corporate cultures.     

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni

Now, back to national politics. Continued public frustration, weakened faith in the revenue system, and damaged investor confidence following some ten years of kleptocracy under former President Zuma and the ANC (followed more recently by an unexpected and destabilising 'Et tu, Nhlanhla Nene' moment) President Ramaphosa was forced to scroll through hundreds of tattered pages of the ANC’s overused political deployee manual in search of someone whose reputation could make him/her a suitable finance minister in troubled times.

Fortunately, a good name caught his eye: Tito Mboweni, businessman, former labour minister under Nelson Mandela and, later, Reserve Bank governor. Mboweni is also known for having a brilliant, independent mind and sense of humour. His Twitter pages make for fun reading on a boring afternoon, when all else seems hopeless.

It is noteworthy, however, that he recently (tongue-in-cheek?) asked the public to go easy on him as he attempted to begin sorting out the mess left by Zupta-era looting and dysfunction.   

Ramaphosa’s once-sterling personal brand is still more or less intact, but it has, recently, taken some of the knocks that come with operating in the political arena. Will it take Tito Mboweni, working in tandem and attaching his personal reputation to the struggling revival effort to bring more life to it – more credibility, optimism and order?

What will the world be saying about Tito Mboweni in six months or a year’s time? Will he bring new ideas and courage to say what many fear to say, or will he simply turn out be one more enjoying a ride on a gravy train?

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