The ongoing legal, political and ideological skirmishes taking place in South Africa are far from over, and while they continue, they’re casting all sorts of shadows over the heads of individuals who have, for many years, been regarded as credible leaders.

As a result, increasing numbers of hitherto untouchable leaders are fast losing their lustre as they get dragged through the mud in our statutory courts and in the ever-vociferous courts of public opinion.

Not to mention traditional media and the increasingly merciless, invasive social media and other digital platforms. All of these are known for issuing swift judgements on the basis only of news headlines cleverly crafted to drive sales, gossip, or malicious and inadvertent misquotes.

Leadership is an important element of any brand’s journey towards the realisation of its vision. This is irrespective of whether the brand under discussion is a personal or product brand, service brand, a destination brand, or other.

Leadership sits at the apex of brand management, alongside the Brand Vision and Values Charter which must determine the tone, the ‘how’, and the ‘with whom’, of the journey the brand must travel; clearly separating the acceptable from the unacceptable.

Big brands taking the heat

We have seen in recent times how many great brands have suffered either irreparable or very hard-to-repair damage when leadership fails.

Brand South Africa has been one such casualty, under President Cyril Ramaphosa’s predecessor. The climb to regain respect for South Africa in the rest of Africa and around the world, is proving to be a steep one indeed for our country’s current administration.

This is unlikely to get better while those who should be driving their combined energies towards a recovery plan are busy tearing one another apart, fighting battles that many of us had hoped would stop on the other side of the 2019 general elections.

It will be interesting to watch person brands such former finance minister Trevor Manuel, President Cyril Ramaphosa, and Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan make it through the skirmishes in their worlds.

What is clear in Manuel’s case is that even if round one against the EFF has been won by him in our statutory courts, the bruising battle against the red berets, plus the Old Mutual versus Peter Moyo legal tussle, will likely not leave this member of the unofficial ANC royalty reputationally unshaken.

The same thing is happening to President Ramaphosa and Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan. We could even put Derek Hanekom in the mix. Together with Manuel, one could say these men’s pedigree as fighters against past apartheid injustices has never been questioned. They have therefore come a long way and survived many battles over the years to get to where they are today.

But in the glare of social media, they cannot get involved in fights with the likes of the EFF without getting muddied, at the very least in the eyes of their opponents’ supporters.

Similarly, Old Mutual may not say it publicly, but it must be facing a conundrum following news that it paid legal fees for a skirmish involving its board chair when said skirmish had nothing to do with it.

Its shareholders must ask the difficult questions and, mindful of the need to remain squeaky clean in terms of corporate governance ahead of its next audit, this listed company cannot afford to falter in the public eye. If it does kick the can down the road, it will be interesting to hear the auditors’ opinion on the matter when they find that can outside their door.

Reputational battles outside the courts

In the era of social media, reputation battles are not won in statutory courts alone. If the many voices and, often, uninformed or biased social media ‘opinionistas’ do not like the statutory court victor, the latter is unlikely to be allowed to walk in public again with their head held high without being subjected to unsavoury whispers and having to endlessly explain themselves.

All the issues being dragged into the public space about the funding of the CR17 party leadership election campaign, plus Ace Magashule-led contradiction of Ramaphosa’s well-meant pronouncements, cast more aspersions on the president’s name – and the hopes of those who believed this president had the magic wand to make all our problems go away.

In his position as CEO of South Africa Inc., Ramaphosa cannot convince investors at home and around the world that South Africa is truly open for business, clean business, if people in the party he leads routinely contradict him and things get thrown into the public that might leave the impression that he is no different from those in his party who remain heavily implicated in criminal wrongdoing.

We live in a world that paints us in the colours of the last ten or twenty media articles that were published about us. To bury them deep in the dark wells of Google is not easy and getting them removed entirely from the internet can be a costly, if not impossible, battle. The more protracted the skirmishes, the more seedlings they spread all over the place that are guaranteed to stand between the image they inform of us and good things we aspire to stand for; the things others expect us to stand for.

Those who advise the leaders whose names are being dragged through the mud have to be very careful how they help them navigate the trenches, as any mistakes they make might only give birth to more seedlings that will make reputational recovery impossible to realise.

A leader with a damaged reputation will struggle to get good, reputation-conscious people to invest in their causes. It’s important that we do all we can to keep the standards as high as possible; else South Africa will continue to be “normalised” in the negative African stereotypes that will hurt its developmental aspirations.