THE late, great South African lawyer, Ernie Wentzel, had an arresting turn of phrase. He opined in 1981 that the problem with being an advocate was that "there are too many magistrates who think they are judges, and some judges who ought to be magistrates".

As I was drawn into the Oscar Pistorius bail hearing, I couldn’t help think that Wentzel’s observation had, happily for our international reputation, been inverted, with the truly magisterial judgment of Desmond Nair in Pretoria on Friday. For all the cruel light the shoddy forensic work of the former investigating officer, Hilton Botha, had shone on the inadequacies of our policing, along came the chief magistrate of Pretoria with a closely reasoned and impeccably researched ruling to repair the battered image of our justice system.

Of much lower media wattage, on the same day as Nair’s ruling, was the decision of the Judicial Service Commission to exclude Jeremy Gauntlett from the Constitutional Court short list yet again. Doubtless, Gauntlett can now reflect on the observation about Oscar Wilde that he "would lose his best friend for an epigram". His witty put-down of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng along the lines that, unlike the latter, he did not feel that God had called him to judicial service, was not drawn from How to Win Friends and Influence People, the Dale Carnegie bible on getting ahead. It was also strange that while Gauntlett’s intellectual independence is unassailable, his "campaign" for office roped in nominations from opposition leaders Helen Zille and Mangosuthu Buthelezi. I can just imagine how uncomfortable some would have felt had a nominee for judicial office included a nomination from, say, African National Congress secretary-general Gwede Mantashe. Meanwhile, given some of the strange appointments to our bench recently, and some of the more startling omissions from it, Nair should be considered for an early elevation.

But all of this sits low in the cumulus clouds of national and international attention. Pistorius alone inhabits the stratosphere — and the world is drawn in, with voyeuristic fascination, at our home-grown combination of the OJ Simpson trial and the death of Princess Diana. You also cannot but contemplate, as Pistorius moved in less than a year from the pinnacle of Olympic achievement to the pit of the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court, that lurking inside his fall from a great and dizzying height to the precipice of criminal infamy is, less dramatically as well, a sort of metaphor for our national story.

Last weekend, I completed a fellowship in the heady atmosphere of the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies, one of SA’s most impressive (and most hidden) centres of thought excellence. Among a firmament of academic stars in residence was Prof Bo Rothstein of the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. He is an international expert on "the quality of governance" and its baleful twin, corruption. He disarmingly put it: "I don’t have expertise about the South African situation, but I can say that the quality of governance and the absence of corruption in certain African countries are higher than it is in countries like Greece and Italy."

He recounted at a seminar that a US student had expressed surprise that a Scandinavian studying corruption was akin to a "nun running a strip club". However, the observation he did offer about our national projection abroad, a la the morphing of Pistorius from hero to zero, is that there has been a steady depletion of SA’s moral capital in the world. He noted that, like a successful corporation, if a country has prodigious amounts of what Harvard professor Joseph Nye termed "soft power" — or the power of its example rather than the hard stuff, such as the example of its power — then "you should be careful not to diminish it". And we certainly have fallen hard in recent times.

Rothstein has certainly not studied our National Development Plan (NDP) and doubtless ministers Lindiwe Sisulu and Trevor Manuel, who last week championed its key recommendation of creating (after 20 locust years) a professional, corruption-free public service, are unaware of Rothstein’s presence in SA. But the three of them are actually in agreement. And so is the NDP.

Rothstein cites the example of that most life-essential delivery of all, the provision of drinkable water. He notes: "A conservative estimate is that 14,000 people die every day in the developing world from water- and sanitation-related illnesses." Yet the shortage here is neither an absence of engineering technical solutions, but rather corruption and "other forms of bad governance".

Given that the Pistorius case sucked up most of the media oxygen, President Jacob Zuma’s announcement that the NDP will now be front and centre of all government policy-making received little attention. But if this wish translates into real reforms, then we could climb slowly again up the summit of achievement and admiration.

• This article was amended on February 26 2013 to correct the author of How to Win Friends and Influence People.