THE Reputation Institute's survey results, published at the weekend, give an excellent breakdown of what South Africans expect from their leaders in terms of personal and professional attributes. The real utility of the survey is that it is function-agnostic, and therefore the judgment passed on South Africa's top business and political leaders is not dependent on their job but on how they do it.

It should be noted, however, that the survey has one major weakness: it canvassed the opinions of people in living standards measure (LSM) six and above. This includes more low-income earners than might be expected as LSM 6 begins at a monthly salary of R6000. But, in a sense, this is also a strength because the reputations of people are being judged by South Africans intimately and immediately engaged in the economy - in other words, excluding scholars, students and welfare dependants. It is a measure of the views of engaged, working citizens.

The exclusion of the lower rungs of the LSM ladder perhaps provides a partial explanation of the extraordinarily poor showing of President Jacob Zuma, who came second last out of the 24 leaders on whom opinions were canvassed. Mr Zuma's support base obviously extends below the LSM 6 measure, but this is not a total explanation, since Congress of South African Trade Unions general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi's support would, one assumes, also come predominantly from the base of the earnings pyramid. And yet he came second.

The survey demonstrates graphically how poorly Mr Zuma's reputation is regarded and how little his leadership is valued. It is bad enough that he should be surpassed by his own deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, who came third, but he also trails leaders from opposition parties. What should worry Mr Zuma and his supporters most is that his reputation appears to be affected by perceptions of ethical lapses and managerial shortcomings.

Perhaps the most telling finding of the survey is the comparatively poor showing by icons of black economic empowerment (BEE) in South Africa. In previous surveys, BEE heavyweights ranked in the top half of the table, and often right at the top. But this time figures such as Cyril Ramaphosa, Tokyo Sexwale and Saki Macozoma featured around mid-table. There was one exception - African Rainbow Minerals chairman Patrice Motsepe.

This disjunction is interpreted by the institute as highlighting an interesting new trend. It appears that the old iconic status of the leaders of BEE has all but disappeared. It is not that they are disrespected, but they are being judged on the same basis as other business leaders. They are, in the words of the institute, "no longer regarded as proxies for people's aspirations".

This is a subtle but significant trend and it does stand to reason. From a reputational point of view, South Africans appear to feel empowerment icons cannot be respected simply for being fortunate enough to be the recipient of BEE riches, and they are increasingly suspicious of their political connections. They now expect these riches to be deployed to the benefit of South Africans in general.

This explains Mr Motsepe's exceptionalism, since he is seen - perhaps incorrectly - as having been more entrepreneurial and engaged than the others. Still, it does suggest new expectations of BEE icons. They want BEE businesspeople to be more like MTN CEO Sifiso Dabengwa and SABMiller CEO Graham Mackay, who came fourth and fifth respectively.

A positive aspect of the survey was how reputations appear to be increasingly judged on a nonracial basis. South Africans seemed to attach no real value to race and put only a medium value on effective communication. What they do value is real engagement, effective management and entrepreneurial drive, and in that finding lies an encouraging trend.