Friends & Friction: End of the era of “first blacks”

2013-11-27 10:00

Look at the sky in the night – stars don’t compete with each other, but together they make our world beautiful and give direction to travellers in the desert and at sea.

Stars don’t try to copy each other, each one is unique and recognisable. And they certainly don’t try to gobble each other up.

I knew people on both sides when Nedbank tried to swallow Standard Bank. When it first announced its intention, Nedbank went on confidence overdrive.

Its chairman at the time was Chris Liebenberg, the man who had been personally asked by Nelson Mandela to be his finance minister after the apartheid minister, Derek Keys, had dumped him.

Accepting an award for transformation at a Black Management Forum function, then Standard Bank CEO Jacko Maree said it had been a difficult year, made even more difficult by people like Lot Ndlovu, who was with him on stage. Ever magnanimous, the late Ndlovu laughed and shook hands.

The hunted didn’t stand still. It mobilised its staff and the rest of the country against the takeover.

Two people held the key to Standard Bank’s fate – Donald Gordon, the founder of Liberty, who held significant shares in Standard; and the new finance minister, Trevor Manuel, who probably didn’t like the non-ANC minister who had been planted in Mandela’s Cabinet.

They both said “no”. Before you knew it, heads rolled down the stairs in Nedbank and blood dripped down the windows. That is how the fantasy story ended for Liebenberg, the boy who came in as a messenger at Nedbank.

His CEO Richard Laubscher also faced the chop. A new CEO was brought in. There were calls that Nedbank had to appoint a black CEO, and Ndlovu was the only standing candidate, but the board chose Tom Boardman – yes, the man who started homeware retailer Boardmans.

The new CEO was brutal in his rebuttal. He said Ndlovu was part of the management that got the company into trouble, so the board appointed Reuel Khoza, another black business stalwart, as chairman. It was game over for the naysayers. Boardman had the air cover he needed to restructure the company.

Whereas the decapitated bodies lay naked for the vultures to feast on at Nedbank, at Standard Bank they disappeared quietly and were buried in unmarked graves where there is no risk of bodies turning up to haunt you.

Even though Laubscher left with millions, from time to time he opens his mouth, trying to set the record straight, which shows that money can’t buy happiness, much less class.

The deadwood at Standard Bank were replaced with young guns, among them people like Sim Tshabalala, who is now the bank’s joint CEO; and Kennedy Bungane, who is now the CEO of Barclays Africa.

Nedbank made several losses, the biggest of which was self-confidence. That was made worse when the controlling shareholder, Old Mutual, put up a “for sale” sign. It is hard for staff to do their best when they don’t know what the future holds.

But Nedbank did also attract black executives quietly. Among them were people such as Sam Bhembe and Ciko Thomas, who steered the bank away from the dead end of elitism to one that sells its products to everyone from golfers to soccer fans.

Young stars are rising every day – in business, politics and civil society – and, in doing so, are bringing an end to the “first-black-this” and “only-black-that” hollow awards, thus giving Africa a new direction.

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