Women show­ing us in SA what it takes to man up

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE -

CAN it be that the only chief ex­ec­u­tive of a ma­jor South African cor­po­rate with balls is a woman? Well, duh! Why the sur­prise?

The busi­ness land­scape is still dom­i­nated, as the #WMC slo­ga­neers never tire of point­ing out, by white men. With a hand­ful of ex­cep­tions, the com­pa­nies they head were cow­ards dur­ing the apartheid years, and more wor­ry­ing is that most of their suc­ces­sors have done lit­tle since to rec­tify mat­ters.

Every now and then a head pops up above para­pet, only to be shot off. An­drew Can­ter, of money-man­age­ment com­pany Fu­ture­growth, last year ended lend­ing to six state-owned com­pa­nies be­cause of “over­sight and gov­er­nance con­cerns”. Par­ent com­pany Old Mu­tual was quick to force him to back down.

Un­for­tu­nately, the black men – and they mostly are men – who since have joined the cor­po­rate lux­ury liner Top Knobs SA, are largely cut of the same cloth. There are few of the cal­i­bre of Bo­nang Mo­hale of Shell and Busi­ness Lead­er­ship SA, or Sipho Pityana of Iz­ingwe Cap­i­tal and the Save SA cam­paign, or Jabu Mabuza of Telkom and Busi­ness Unity SA. And this is how the old boy net­works have al­ways worked: Be a team player; don’t rock the boat; we’ll look af­ter you, my boy.

What­ever their colour, most of these men in­cline to­wards gen­u­flec­tion and sup­pli­ca­tion. They share the ap­pease­ment gene, a so­cially de­bil­i­tat­ing con­di­tion first iso­lated sci­en­tif­i­cally in Ger­many in the 1930s. It is only now be­gin­ning to dawn – as it even­tu­ally did in the clos­ing years of Na­tional Party govern­ment – that an in­com­pe­tent, thiev­ing govern­ment will de­stroy the con­di­tions nec­es­sary for com­merce to flour­ish.

What a breath of per­fumed air, then, when the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Syg­nia Group, Magda Wierzykcka, took on KPMG-SA. She was the first to de­mand an ex­pla­na­tion on why they could be still be trusted to au­dit Syg­nia, given their ap­par­ent in­volve­ment in state cap­ture and cre­ative ac­count­ing for the Gupta clan’s busi­nesses.

The KPMG ex­ec­u­tives spent an en­tire day try­ing to con­vince her that their moral and eth­i­cal bank­ruptcy was il­lu­sory. The KPMG em­peror, they pleaded, did have clothes. No. The em­peror is naked, said Wierzykcka, and fired them. That sin­gle act of cor­po­rate courage trig­gered the events that have since brought KPMG-SA to its knees .

Given that timid­ity is writ large in the DNA of cor­po­rate SA, it is per­haps un­rea­son­able to ex­pect courage of this na­ture. So the ac­tions of Wierzykcka and an­other woman, Bianca Good­son, are per­haps evo­lu­tion­ary throw­backs. Maybe women, un­like men, have not evolved to un­der­stand that cor­po­rate sur­vival is best en­sured by keep­ing one’s head down and, prefer­ably, as close as pos­si­ble to the butt that must be kissed.

Good­son, the for­mer chief ex­ec­u­tive of Tril­lian Man­age­ment Con­sult­ing (TMC), cer­tainly has paid a high price for her prin­ci­ples. Dis­turbed at what she iden­ti­fied as ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties and un­ac­cept­able prac­tices at TMC, Good­son re­signed.

Al­though par­ent com­pany Tril­lian de­nies all al­le­ga­tions, it ap­pears from the in­for­ma­tion that Good­son has made public that TMC fa­cil­i­tated ac­cess to po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sion-mak­ers for con­sult­ing multi­na­tion­als McKin­sey and Oliver Wy­man. In re­turn, she states, Tril­lian was to share in bil­lions of rand in fees from state en­ti­ties, with no work in­volved.

Good­son also re­vealed that Tril­lian ex­ec­u­tives had prior knowl­edge that for­mer fi­nance min­is­ter Nh­lanhla Nene was go­ing to be fired, that Gupta acolyte Des van Rooyen would take over, and that a col­league of hers at the time, Mo­hamed Bo­bat, would join as Van Rooyen’s ad­viser to help swing deals to com­pa­nies in the Tril­lian sta­ble.

Good­son – hounded, re­viled and threat­ened – joined Sage, the in­ter­na­tional ac­count­ing and pay­roll soft­ware gi­ant. Sage trum­pets its “rig­or­ous anti-bribery and cor­rup­tion poli­cies”, so her new em­ploy­ment must have come with a re­as­sur­ing sense of re­lief.

How­ever, when Good­son re­alised the ex­ten­sive docket she had pre­pared for the re­peat­edly de­layed par­lia­men­tary hear­ing on state cap­ture was never likely to see the light of day, she re­leased a de­tailed dossier on­line. Be­fore do­ing so, she warned Sage and said if it thought this would place it at rep­u­ta­tional risk, she would re­sign. It ac­cepted.

There is a happy-ish end­ing. When Wierzykcka this week heard what had hap­pened, she of­fered Good­son a job even faster than Sage had dumped her from her old one.

Where was the rep­u­ta­tional risk to Sage? asks Wierzykcka. “Any­one fight­ing state cap­ture should be ap­plauded… I was livid, think­ing that if this is what cor­po­rate South Africa does… I want no part of it.”

It’s a case of sis­ters do­ing it for them­selves, and the rest of us, be­cause they have in­tegrity and courage. Per­haps all those pa­thetic male top knobs should grow a pair. And I don’t mean breasts.

● Fol­low WSM on Twit­ter @TheJaun­dicedEye

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