Professor Mervyn King has forever changed the way businesses worldwide measure and report on their performance, which has directly contributed to the betterment of our planet. He’s widely known for this, but what many don’t know is that he’s the boy the girls love.
King has a BA, LLB, PhD in Law and a Higher Diploma Income Tax, all from Wits University.
“I like parties, people and girls,” said confident, smiling, vital, handsome Mervyn King. All girls? “I like plain girls best. They’ve got life and go in them and are usually the best dancers. The made-up doll type considers that her looks exempt her from intelligent conversation. But an exquisite complexion cannot make up for a dull personality.”
This is what 19-year-old, third year Wits BA student Mervyn King said in 1956 during a newspaper interview with reporter Hazel Fine. The outcome was an article headlined: ‘The boy the girls love likes Plain Janes’.
It was one of many interviews during his shining reign as Wits cheerleader – a highly prestigious position in its day – with King as the chosen leading thousands of Witsies in the singsongs, chants and revelry during the hotly contested rugby intervarsity with the University of Pretoria (Tukkies).
Chatty as a blackbird he told Fine he was mad about ‘bop’ and popular jazz and demonstrated his cheerleading style – a mixture of the splits, back bends contortionist arm twists and leaps, all the while yelling ‘Come on Wits…Wits…WITS!’
Asked whether he didn’t find it embarrassing, he replied ‘Not at all. I love it’. And the girls loved him. They crowded round the young King who was once hidden in a women’s residence for the night to stop the Tukkies students from kidnapping him before the big game. He was highly discreet about that night in the women’s res, niftily avoiding the wrath of jealous boyfriends.
King sailed through his BA and in 1960 at the age of 23 he achieved seven distinctions in his Bachelor of Laws (LLB) degree, for which he studied part-time while doing his articles.
Once again the newspapers were full of smiling images of King and glowing headlines. ‘Brilliant student’ stated the Sunday Times. “Our most brilliant law student of the last ten years,” was how Professor HR Hahlo, Dean of the Faculty of Law at Wits at the time described King in the article that followed. From the Rand Daily Mail to The Star to the Chronicle in Bulawayo (he is originally from Zimbabwe), King was king.
Fifty-three years later and 75 years of age he’s still king, he’s still handsome, he still weighs the same as he did at age 23 and he’s still constantly in the media as the renowned King of King I, II and III. He is the originator of integrated reporting, combining economic, environmental and social performance (the triple bottom line) as the measure of a company’s success. This is now the international standard for global best practice. Which is why King is always on an aeroplane.
As the Chair of the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC), a position he’s held for the past ten years, he is constantly in a different city for an average of 48 hours. In March he was in Washington, Seoul, Tokyo, Mumbai, Perth…the list goes on. “My wife Liz says I’m the most travelled person who has seen nothing. All I see is boardrooms and airports,” smiles King, adding that he is home so seldom these days that “even our dog barks at me”.
Liz occasionally sees her husband of 46 years, but he’s sure she still loves him. “I’m the boy the girls love, remember,” he laughs, then explains that throughout his life he has worked extremely long hours – until midnight most nights, including weekends, with the exception of a few hours on Sunday afternoons, which was family time.
Little wonder he was appointed a Supreme Court Judge of South Africa in 1977 at the age of 40, and became the youngest Supreme Court Judge ever to resign, two years later. “I crossed swords with the government so I left.” From here he was invited onto several boards as a non-executive director, which is how he got involved in companies. “I started seeing corporate life both as an advisor and doer,” he explains.
Recognising the pressing need for good corporate governance in South Africa and around the world, in 1994 King published the King I Report on Corporate Governance. It emphasised the need for companies to become responsible members of the societies in which they operate. Towards achieving this, it advocated an integrated approach to good governance and encouraged the practice of good financial, social, ethical and environmental practice.
It was before it’s time but not for long because, as King explains, “by 2000 everyone realised the planet is in crisis; that we are using more resources than the planet can sustain.”
In 2002 the King II Report on Corporate Governance was published.
“In King II we said as a listing requirement companies must do sustainability reporting.” In response, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) requested listed companies to comply with these recommendations or to explain their level of non-compliance.
After the 2001 Enron and 2002 WorldCom corporate accounting scandals, and several others, King II was liberally quoted in the US Congress and aspects of it were adopted by the New York Stock Exchange. In 2006 King was appointed Chairman of the United Nations Committee on Governance and Oversight that produced a governance code for the United Nations.
King III was released in 2009 with an enhanced focus on sustainability.
Today, the JSE and stock exchanges all over the world require sustainability reports. Companies of all sizes are also increasingly realising the necessity of including sustainability in their long-term planning. “Companies are the greatest users of the natural assets of Planet Earth, which are finite and diminishing,” he explains. “Water, for example, is now the scarcest commodity on Earth. At the same time, the demand for beneficiated goods is increasing, and the Earth’s population of seven billion will be up by another two billion in 25 years time. So it has to be business as unusual for everyone, otherwise welcome to the age of stupidity.”
King is adamant that we cannot rely on politicians to solve the natural resource crisis. “They failed us at Rio and at all these meetings. This puts the responsibility in the hands of companies because the way they behave is hugely impactful on society and on the environment,” he says. Which is why integrated reporting is so important, and which is why this approach is now adopted by so many companies in the world, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because if they don’t plan sustainably, they will go out of business.
King’s dream is to see all companies doing an integrated report, as opposed to the outdated annual report, and he’s well on his way to achieving this, with many of the world’s biggest companies, including Coca Cola, Marks & Spencer and HSBC, completely on board.
He is particularly encouraged by the uptake of integrated reporting in South Africa and says our country can be proud that it is leading the world in this area.
“There is nothing more fulfilling than making a difference and contributing to the sustainability of the planet. I believe in what I am doing, which is why I jump out of bed at first light and I’m ready to go.”
On the rare occasion he’s at home, you’ll find him driving across Joburg before 6am, from his home on Houghton Ridge to his office in Sunninghill. Born and bred in Joburg, as a young man he dreamed of living on Houghton Ridge.
“My family lived in a flat in Yeoville and we were certainly not monied people. My friends and I used to tell each other that one day we would cross Louis Botha Avenue, which separated Yeoville and Houghton, and we would live in the lovely houses in Houghton with edge-to-edge lawns. We all lived in flats so we never had gardens, and we also didn’t have motor cars; we caught the trams,” King recalls.
His father was a bookkeeper and his mother a housewife and he helped to pay for his studies by working as a waiter in a traveling bar. “We did weddings, bar mitzvahs, that kind of thing, and I made sure that everyone I served knew I was a poor, struggling student so they gave me good tips.”
Once a year he takes a nostalgia drive through Yeoville and Hillbrow to Wits. “A lot of rehabilitation is needed in Yeoville and Hillbrow and I absolutely believe they can be rehabilitated; just look at what’s happening in the inner city and Newtown, they’re starting to look great.”
For rehabilitation or transformation to take place on a micro or macro level requires “determination, intellectual honesty and a mindset change from self-interest and self-enrichment to the interests of the people,” says King. “The essence of intellectual honesty is that you act and make decisions in the interests of the whole community or, in the case of South Africa, all the people in our country.”
The obvious lack of governance and community-mindedness in South Africa is having a dire impact on the country, as illustrated by the appalling state of South Africa’s government education system. “It is deeply concerning what is happening in our schools,” says King, adding that teaching epitomises the creation a better future and a better society for all.
“It’s a very honourable profession to mould young minds and I believe that our teachers have a moral obligation not to go on strike because the result is that the children suffer,” says King who feels their grievances should be voiced and addressed through the administrative channels, which is not happening, hence the entire educational and political system needs a mindset change. Will we ever achieve this?
“If I was prescient I would answer that question but I’m not so I won’t,” he smiles – that same smile that had the girls crowding round him in a res one night.
Ever youthful, King says his secret is his passion for what he does, he exercises daily, he listens to Mozart and he eats fish.
“Mozart is my man – his music is eternal,” says King who pumps up the Mozart while doing his air force style exercises. “I can do them anywhere in the world – press-ups, sit-ups, sliding up and down the wall with my back, balancing on one leg – they work!”
It’s impossible not to ask for one last bit of life advice from the man. “Have a goal,” he states. “Plan how you are going to get there and know that your plan will keep falling apart because no plan is perfect, but keep going for your goal.”