SA’s corporate top knobs have no balls

William Saunderson-Meyer says the smug motto of big business has always been "the business of business is business"


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

The business landscape is still dominated, as the #WhiteMonopolyCapital 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 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, by instinct, 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.

The smug motto of corporate SA has always been that “the business of business is business”. It is only now beginning to dawn – as it eventually did in the closing years of Nationalist 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 CEO 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. Look! they said, everyone else acknowledges our fine raiment.

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 their knees. 

Not the audit profession’s supposedly independent regulators or oversight bodies. Not the Hawks. Not the National Prosecuting Authority. Just one person, a gutsy woman.  

Given that timidity is writ large in the DNA of corporate SA, it is perhaps unreasonable to expect courage of this nature. After all, the herd instinct comes from the biological reality that those who break from the pack are more vulnerable to predation.  

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 CEO 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 rands 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 government as Van Rooyen’s adviser to help swing deals to companies in the Trillian stable. 

After her resignation from TMC, 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 that 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 again decided she could not remain silent. She released a detailed dossier online. 

Before doing so, she alerted Sage and said that if they thought this would place them at reputational risk, she would resign. The offer was accepted with alacrity.

There is a happy-ish ending. When Wierzykcka this week heard what had happened, she offered Goodson a new 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