Counting bodybags in the boardroom

2009-09-05 08:38

SO, Siyabonga Gama, the chief executive of Transnet Freight Rail

(TFR), is incompetent and his conduct “falls far below the standard

that may reasonably be expected of a person in his position”, the

parent ­company of TFR tells us.

Tell that to the birds.


treatment of Gama is a classic case of how a black executive can fall

in and out favour with power brokers, or those who think they are, both

in business and particularly in state-owned entities.


reveals how this endangered species, the black executive, can be

alternately demonised and glorified as a business leader, not based on

his performance but according to other people’s vested interests.


us briefly review a little history here. Gama has come a long way with

Transnet. Formerly a port manager in East London, he has blazed a trail

of career success at Transnet – and no one did him any favours.


he was CEO of the National Ports Authority (NPA), he provided a new

paradigm for the operation of our ports and harbours. To him, ports and

harbours were not mere collectors of rent and revenue, but economic

gateways for the imports and exports that drive our economy.


Dolly Mokgatle left Spoornet (or was she put in another bodybag of

Transnet boardroom politics?), Gama was appointed acting CEO. His

success at the NPA had not gone unnoticed.

A professional

and not a beneficiary of boardroom patronage, Gama soon distinguished

himself at the then Spoornet. In no time, he was confirmed as the CEO

of what is today known as TFR.

On the occasion of his

permanent appointment in April 2005, Transnet spoke glowingly of him,

stating in a press release penned by its John Dludlu that Gama “has

been able to score some quick wins – more trains are running on

schedule and clients’ confidence in Spoornet is returning. Crucially,

Mr Gama has now put together a turnaround strategy for Spoornet”.

Although Gama’s star in the corporate world and within

Transnet in particular was rising, some might never have thought he

would one day want to lay claim to the ultimate crown. But whoever

thought so was naive.

Gama was always going to be the

internal candidate for the top job. Unfortunately, once he had made his

intentions known it unleashed all sorts of forces against him. Though,

of course, it was hard to attack a man who had risen through sheer hard


So a disinformation campaign was started about him. I

personally became aware of it early in the year and up until then I had

never met Gama. When I learnt what was being plotted against him, my

sense of justice was insulted.

I did not approach Gama

about this but spoke on different occasions to three black captains of

industry – Reuel Khoza, Bongani Khumalo and Lot Ndlovu – about the need

to support Gama. Some of us have grown weary of counting black bodybags

in the corporate world and in parastatals.


careers have been destroyed in the past without anyone being held to

account. This cannot be allowed to continue. We have far too few

Siyabonga Gamas in this country and how they are treated should be a

matter of concern.

I once raised this subject with a

senior leader of the ruling party in 2005. It was shortly after Sandile

Zungu and the late Victor Moche had been unceremoniously booted out of


The ANC leader concurred and expressed his

dissatisfaction with the way black executives were being treated in

parastatals once some self-styled dispensers of power and ­patronage

felt they no longer needed them.

His words to me were:

“When we want to attract black executives from the private sector to

come and serve in state-owned entities and even in government, we will

encounter resistance from them. They will point out to how some of

their counterparts were destroyed in the public sector.”


do not know whether Gama is guilty of that of which he has been

charged, but that he has been charged at a time when the Transnet CEO

position is vacant is suspicious, and at worst appalling. Even taxi

warlords are more sophisticated, though they leave real bodybags in

their wake.

Mona is deputy director-general: communications in the presidency. He writes in his personal capacity


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