THE Reputation Institute published a raft of findings this weekend, introducing significant new questions on the state of politics and business in SA - including a worrying suspicion that SA's black economic empowerment (BEE) effort may end up being a very, very costly failure.

Of course, it is critical to know who and what is being surveyed, and particularly why, because often survey results are as much a matter of interpretation and a reflection of reality. Yet these results do seem to tally in many respects with what might be described as conventional wisdom - in fact, in some cases they rendered a kind of hyperconventional wisdom result.

The institute phone-surveyed just more than 1300 respondents, gender and regionally weighted. The big caveat is that the people involved were LSM 6 (living standards measure) and above. This apparently was mainly because surveying people below LSM 6 is difficult and expensive. However, this group constitutes a lot more than just the middle class, and is generally representative of adult, engaged, working South Africans. The cut-off does mean the survey is a little biased toward races other than black.

This cut-off must have been partly, but surely not totally, responsible for perhaps the most eyecatching result, the extraordinary poor showing of President Jacob Zuma.

The dual surveys try to measure the reputations of the top 20 most well-known companies, and then separately, the reputations of the 24 best-known politicians and business people. There is a quite a big overlap, which in itself yields some interesting results.

In the company survey, the significant finding is that the reputation of the best-known companies is slipping. The overall winner is Woolworths, which ousted all four of last year's top companies, MTN, Absa, Old Mutual and Standard Bank. Not only did Woolworths win, but it trounced the others and topped all seven reputation drivers - products and services, innovation, performance, citizenship, workplace, governance, and leadership.

Significantly, the institute's MD in SA, Dominik Heil, says that apart from Woolworths, all the other 19 companies scored below the critical 70-point level. This, he concludes, suggests the populace is losing confidence in the leadership of the private sector.

This is much more important than it might seem, because oddly enough, business leaders all over the world are generally held in higher esteem than politicians. This is also true, but less so, of SA.

Heil says the poor showing of companies in this year's survey is mainly because of an "an implosion of visible and socially conscious leadership", with South African CEOs and board chairs seeming to be unwilling to engage in the public space as responsible leaders.

That's a devastating judgment, but it seems to me pretty accurate. And there is more.

In the leadership survey, the findings show that not only is Zuma's reputation fabulously low, but the reputations of the BEE segment of business have slipped too, with the notable exception of African Rainbow Minerals chairman Patrice Motsepe. It is worth noting that not only is Zuma's reputation on the pavement, it is lower than not only those of his deputy, his general secretary, and Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille, but also Zille's effective deputy Lindiwe Mazibuko and even Congress of the People leader Mosiuoa Lekota.

The interesting thing about the survey is that respondents seem to be able to distinguish between leadership, or reputation, on the one hand, and the actual function or business the person is involved in.

Put head-to-head, the reputations of business people and politicians are an interesting mix of race, political orientation and function. Motsepe leads the group, and second is not a politician or a businessperson, but Congress of South African Trade Unions general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. Third was Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, fourth MTN CEO Sifiso Dabengwa, then came SABMiller CEO Graham Mackay, Zille, Anglo American CEO Cynthia Carroll, African National Congress secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, and BHP Billiton CEO Marius Kloppers.

The big conclusion the institute draws is the comparatively poor showing of the icons of BEE, Cyril Ramaphosa, Tokyo Sexwale, and Saki Macozoma. This trio was placed 13th, 15th, and 16th respectively.

This is a "huge shift", says Heil. Previously, people like Ramaphosa would bounce to the top of the survey. Now they are seen in much the same way as other business leaders, positively but without the same enthusiasm. In previous surveys, BEE leaders were seen as illustrations that ordinary people could make it to the top, says Heil. Now the survey shows the time has arrived for a different kind of conversation.

"Despite their philanthropic initiatives they have failed to convince the public that their involvement in the economy has helped to build a more equitable society or has benefited South Africans at large."

If you think about it, this is a quite devastating finding. One company, Anglo American, has facilitated BEE deals worth R600bn, and the response of society has been, well, pretty nonplussed about these new business titans, it seems. "They are no longer proxies for people's aspirations," Heil says.

Motsepe's position at the top doesn't detract from this finding, it reinforces it, because what people appear to like about Motsepe is that he is seen as the most innovative and entrepreneurial of the quartet.

An interesting side issue here is the comparison between the reputations of companies and their leaders. This is crucial because in large companies, this is really why the CEO gets appointed; the actual running of the huge arms of the company is usually delegated.

The big problem area here is the banks. Generally, this group of companies have better reputations than their CEOs, but the disparity is really marked when it comes to the CEOs of the banks. By far the worst is Absa CEO Maria Ramos, who has a reputation score of 48,1 compared to the bank's of 69,1, but the disparities between Standard and its CEO Jacko Maree and Nedbank and its CEO Mike Brown, are noticeable too.

Surprisingly perhaps, the best result on this matrix is BHP Billiton CEO Marius Kloppers, whose reputation is much higher than that of his company, although this is partly because it is comparatively low. Significantly, Anglo American CEO Cynthia Carroll also has a better reputation than the company.

The real "takeaways'" from the survey are that the reputations of business and political leaders are judged on a range of criteria that include not only what they do or who they are, but how they approach what they do. Engagement, ethics, independence, creativity and a general attitude of caring are all important. And on all of those scores, SA is slipping.

ANGLO American seems to have jumped most of the hurdles to acquiring the Oppenheimer family's stake in De Beers. It announced on Friday it had received consent from Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu to acquire the 40% stake.

The decision to make an offer was strongly backed by shareholders, but I can't help wondering whether it was the right way to go. Firstly, perhaps it is just their history and reputation, but it seems extraordinary to bet against the Oppenheimers, especially on an industry they know so well. This is, essentially, what is happening here: Anglo is betting this is a good business, and the Oppenheimers, well, let's just say they are exiting with rather less resistance than you might expect from the family that dominated this business for almost a century.

Its easy to see why De Beers fits into Anglo's general strategy: Anglo likes to have a dominant stake in a given mineral category. Hence, it might not dominate the mining industry as a whole - that battle has been lost - but it still can dominate parts of it.

In addition, this is a business it knows exceptionally well and in which it already has a major stake. In terms of Anglo's current view of the world, the choice was to get in or get out. With the Botswana government having signed a new, long-term deal, the chips fell on the "get in" side.

But the problem is a much larger one: is the diamond business still a good business? When De Beers was able to control the flow of diamonds, it was undoubtedly a good business. But now that it no longer markets Russian production, and its proportion of global mining is stagnating, the old cartel is gone.

I suspect the Oppenheimers were shocked at how volatile the diamond industry has become and this was demonstrated during the comparatively small global downturn in 2008-09. There are better ways of investing your money, especially if you have so much of it, with much less risk than De Beers.

This presents a poser to Botswana : it now has the option of lifting its stake in De Beers from 15% to 25% in terms of the joint shareholders' agreement. It might feel it has little choice but to follow its rights, but it will be interesting to see if it wants to go that route.

JUST a quick "shout out", I think it is called, about a report produced by auditors Deloitte concerning the auditing of municipal governments, titled Local Government: Municipal Government and Clean Audit, a topic in which the group obviously has an interest.

The report reflects some of the things we already know about municipalities: that they are stagnating at a horrible rate, but also that there is some serious work happening to ensure a turnaround. Is it working? The answer is, sort of.

The story briefly is this: there are 343 municipalities in SA; only 17 got clean audits last year. That's 5%. More over, 43 municipalities did not bother to submit their annual financial statements at all.

The government effort to turn this around is helping. The number of municipalities with a "disclaimer of opinion" decreased from 103 in 2008-09 to 58 in 2010-11. But the number of qualified opinions has increased, and so has the number of "financially unqualified with findings" category.

The question is what to do about it. Deloitte's solutions are complex; this is not a simple situation. But they include creating an office specifically devoted to the task, called the Programme Management Office.

I will be watching to see if this idea gets taken up.