Nowadays there can be no neat separation between public lives and private lives of political leaders, writes Anton Harber in Business Day. Revelations such as those about the private affairs of President Kgalema Motlanthe reflect on his character, and have particular relevance at a time when government is campaigning for people to change their sexual behaviour because of Aids.   

Anton Harber writes in Business Day:

LET’s hope the revelations last week about President Kgalema Motlanthe’s private life get all public figures thinking about the links between the public and the private. It is about time.

Jacob Zuma, president of the African National Congress, stated his view in his online letter last week: “(Motlanthe’s) private life has nothing to do with the way he runs the country .” He even, Mbeki-like, quoted the Bard: “The flying rumours and gossip are to us just ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.”

Of course, that is what you would expect Zuma to say. He would like nothing better than to put his own life and lifestyle beyond scrutiny and have people stop asking about his messy finances and attitudes to women.

But the boundaries between private and public are no longer clear. In the age of AIDS, of freedom of sexual choices and of lifestyle politics, it is no longer possible to package one’s life into two separate containers, one transparent and one opaque.

Until we have a vaccine, we have to fight AIDS by trying to get people to change their most personal, most private behaviour. We have to break down traditions that prevent us from talking about sex. The government is pumping resources into convincing people to be faithful to one partner and reduce promiscuity. What then does it mean if it becomes clear that our president is not following his own government’s advice ? If it is true that he is estranged from his wife and has two women, including a pregnant 24-year-old, competing for his affections, then this must raise questions about the seriousness of his AIDS prevention message.

THIS is not just sound and fury. It has significance when we are trying to understand why the campaign to make people think twice about their sexual behaviour is not sufficiently affecting the spread of HIV. It reinforces the sense that there is one set of rules and norms for those with power and money in this country, and another for those without. It seems only the poor and powerless are expected to change their behaviour to prevent disease, or to stand trial when accused.

Zuma wrote: “There can be no justification for this type of invasion of the privacy of any individual by the media. Once we remove all boundaries, we begin to undermine the right to human dignity, for which we all fought for so tirelessly.”

Are we removing all boundaries? I hope not, and certainly there is a history of respect for the private lives of public figures in this country. But where such information reflects on the person’s capacity to lead, where the person is saying one thing in public and doing another in private, then it is relevant to how they serve in office and cannot remain hidden in an open society.

Zuma is right that the fight against apartheid was a fight for human dignity, but it was not a fight to keep politicians from being accountable for their behaviour.

When the governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, a family-values moralist, was found to be consorting with call girls, he was forced out of office. When French President Nicolas Sarkozy was telling everyone he was happily married, and it emerged that his wife could not even bring herself to vote for him, it came out and embarrassed him considerably, forcing him to stop the pretence.

Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama have shown us that leadership is about character and values as much as it is about intelligence, capability and policies. Remember this event: Mandela, while still in office, was summoned to give evidence in court by an old-style apartheid judge in the South African Rugby Union case. Outside the court, he said his legal advice was that the summons was not valid and he could challenge it. But he had chosen to come of his own volition because he wanted to show respect for the court and the rule of law. It was the institution that mattered, not the judge. It was the value that he stood by, not his pride. And he duly gave evidence like any other citizen, claiming no special rights.

That was leadership.

* Anton Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University. This column first appeared in Business Day on 4 February 2009.