This column is not about making excuses for cases where there have been clear abuse of public resources or position, even though professional reputations also get damaged in such cases.
It seeks to discuss the increasing number of cases in which the public never gets to know the truth, which is often the first casualty and, relevant to our topic, the impact on the professional reputation of persons who get barred from talking to the media about what really happened after their fall-out with their employer, often government.
There are many examples to think about: More recently, Monwabisi Kalawe; former SAA CEO (and several predecessors in that position), Anwar Dramat, recently resigned Hawks boss; Brian Dames, former Eskom CEO; Tshediso Matona, the suspended Eskom CEO and his executive colleagues, etc. There have been many similar cases since the dawn of our young democracy where the truth was sacrificed and reputations were forever destroyed.
The journey we’ve travelled
Today, South Africa is replete with ghosts; ghosts of former high-flying professionals who used to be in the lime light at various stages since the dawn of our democracy in 1994. Before they were turned into ghosts, many of these men and women used to be the subjects of national pride and celebration wherever they made an appearance.
They were the ‘nouveaux arrivés’, the newly arrived who walked corporate and government corridors chins-up, confident of every step they took. They were the pride of their respective families and the nation, at least that part of the nation that was excited about South Africa’s new democracy project.
Their communities saw them as ones who had been chosen to lift the weight of political victory off the understandably tired shoulders of our liberation heroes and heroines – our collective ‘Moses’ – and cut it up into smaller, edible, socio-economic cookies for the masses.
They would do this by facilitating the opening of doors of opportunity for the rest of us and through the delivery of essential public goods and services. All this would be done in the glare of the African diaspora, for too long hungry for a positive African example to boast about, and of the rest of the world, sceptics and supporters of the new South Africa.
Our new-born democracy relied on these newly liberated professionals to prove to naysayers and Afro-pessimists of all kinds that our liberators had come back home well-prepared to run the socio-economic machinery of a relatively modern African country.
These ‘nouveaux arrivés’ had been trained in law, engineering, economics, commerce, business and public administration, politics, medicine, etc., in foreign and local universities.
But it wasn’t long before we started hearing and reading about fall-outs between many of them and their employer. One by one, our once proud professionals were snatched from the limelight after accepting the infamous ‘golden handshake’ that always comes with strict conditions of silence.
Here is how it usually works: the person first gets suspended, often without knowing the exact charges against them, as these often get trumped-up and amended over time.
In the meantime, they’re systematically barred from talking to the media about the reasons for their suspension, threatened to lose the promised ‘golden hand-shake’ if they do so. But this condition never applies to the employer.
The latter will access and use endless opportunities to drill his side of the story into the often receptive public. The immediate impact of this is that the principle of “Audi alteram partem” is often thrown out of the window in such instances. The only version that gets communicated over and over again is that of the employer.
Incomplete as it is, it gets to dominate media and, by extension, mind space, ensuring that whatever version would have been brought by the barred party is never known.
In the recent example of Monwabisi Kalawe, the public will probably never get to know exactly why the besieged former CEO remained adamant that his problems only started when he got in the way of illegal attempts by the apparently highly-connected board chairperson – Dudu Myeni – to amend board resolutions on the procurement of new airplanes.
He was reportedly persuaded that she wanted to favour one supplier, Airbus, with which she was already in communication without the knowledge of other board members, for possible personal gain. Those allegations will probably never be probed.
Once the ‘golden hand-shake’ has been handed over, the former high-flying professional disappears into the sunset. Further employment opportunities also disappear because the only things that get remembered about them would be the one-sided employer’s version that enjoyed uncontested media space, often painting a dark picture of the professional.
Ultimately, is it really worth swopping one’s professional reputation for a ‘golden hand-shake’ if a professional still has years of potential economic activity to live? What should professionals in such situations do to ensure that their reputation remains intact, that in rendering them wealthy, the ‘golden hand-shake’ does not at the same time shut doors in their faces? And what of the public’s right to know what really happened?