The best ‘man’ for the job

2010-05-19 00:00

LAST week was a tough week for Business Unity South Africa’s new president, Futhi Mtoba, who was mistaken for being both a man and a coconut. No doubt, she will shrug it off and give both coherence and shape to her term as president of Busa, the organisation aimed at finding a unified voice for business in South Africa.

Mtoba is a fellow sister of mine in the Africa Leadership Initiative, a programme conceived by Isaac Shongwe of Barloworld and the Aspen Institute.

I have learnt a lot from her, but the lesson that prods at me the most is her injunction to our class that we should buck up and do some proper projects because, as she said: “I will not be associated with failure.” So she doesn’t suffer fools gladly and will perform with characteristic excellence.

It’s also quite likely that she hasn’t lost a moment’s sleep after­ President Jacob Zuma, in his salutation to her as the new Busa­ president, referred to her as “he”.

Given our president’s propensity for gaffes, you might give him the benefit of the doubt. However, bloggers are not buying it and say that Zuma believed his confidant and challenger in the Busa presidential race, Sandile Zungu, had the election in the bag.

Mtoba’s election as president has been welcomed by most significant business organisations, but the initial response of the Black Management Forum (BMF) must surely be challenged, even though it climbed down from its first criticism on Friday.

Instead of sisterly solidarity, BMF deputy president Tembakazi­ Mnyaka issued a breathtaking statement, saying Mtoba’s election is “a blow against transformation” and that “established business and its allies­ have won the day against progressive forces”.

As if businesswomen need added pressure from disparaging sisters. Mnyaka’s response was classic evidence that we excel at pulling each other down. But even more worrying is that she appears to be little more than BMF president Jimmy Manyi’s proxy.

She misuses the term “progressive forces” to assume that big business is somehow regressive, while small to medium-sized businesses and spaza shops are the only ­legitimate forms of business. In her reductionist thinking, established is bad and emerging is good.

If this is her view of Mtoba, then does she think the same of FirstRand CEO Sizwe Nxasana, Standard Bank SA CEO designate Sim Tshabalala, Arcelor-Mittal’s Nku Nyembezi-Heita and other black corporate titans and amazons among the blue chips? That they are all regressive coconuts? There was a time when the BMF was the proud home of leaders like these. No longer.

Luckily, other organisations did not buy into this and the furore against the BMF position saw it being forced to retract its statement. Mtoba’s appointment was hailed by, among others, the black accountants’ organisation, the Eastern Cape and Mpumalanga chapters of the BMF and by the Business­women’s Association of South Africa (BWA).

The BWA said: “For a black woman to take up the reins is a double victory for transformation. To wake up in a country where the appointment of a competent black professional with a sterling pedigree, a pioneer in her own right, and a woman who has unequivocally been a champion for transformation and gender empowerment, begs the question ‘what is Mr Manyi’s understanding of transformation?’ ”

There was a time when the BMF set the path with a mandate to ensure that black executives were appointed to top positions, to secure black economic empowerment and to support black business ownership and organisations. When I last attended a BMF meeting, it was a shadow of its former self. It resembled an NGO more than the powerful lobby it should be, becoming a personal hobby-horse of one man instead of an organisation of progressive business people.


• Ferial Haffajee is the editor of City Press.

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