Mpumelelo Mkhabela

Mpumelelo Mkhabela: André de Ruyter and the corruption of transformation

2019-11-22 06:00
Andre de Ruyter (Photo: Nampak)

Andre de Ruyter (Photo: Nampak)

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The corruption of transformation is one of the reasons public entities have become no-go zones for some talented black people who care about their reputation. They regard the entities as slaughter houses, writes Mpumelelo Mkhabela.

Under ideal circumstances, the race of a person appointed to a position of influence at a state-owned enterprise (SOE) shouldn't really matter. In this era of globalisation, where sought-after, skilled people circulate globally, even the nationality of the appointee shouldn't be a big deal. It should only be about whether the appointee has the right skill, know-how and attitude to do the work.

But we are not yet the ideal society envisaged in our Constitution. We are struggling along. It sometimes feels like we are moving one step forward and three back. We are a society characterised by race-based inequalities - a product of our painful history. It's unfortunate that some political leaders in our country are colonial/apartheid denialists.

Because of our past, the appointment of André de Ruyter as Eskom's chief executive officer inevitably triggered a debate, not only about his qualification, but also about transformation. Opponents of the appointment have argued that the government has betrayed its own transformation agenda. The government, they say, has no faith in the many black people who have the qualifications and experience to run Eskom.

The debate has also moved to the arena of speculation: Will De Ruyter succeed? If he does, would it confirm the racist stereotype that black people, who have been unsuccessful in the same position in the last few years, are incapable of running a complex company like Eskom?

Neglected in the debate so far are the circumstances under which black executives failed in the past. The transformation debate is often incorrectly located in a black vs white binary. The truth, however, is that a black-led government has presided over the destruction of a number of black executives in state entities.

The executors of the destruction have been appointing/supervisory authorities in all spheres of government. During the ruinous state capture presidency of Jacob Zuma, the scheme, which was not new, was elevated to the president himself.

The destruction happens at many levels: directors general, boards of SOEs (non-executives) and executive directors. How it is executed makes for a sad observation.

Wherever black people are appointed to high positions they get two contracts: the formal, written contract and the informal, unwritten one. The latter is about being amenable to undue influence by the appointing/supervisory authority (MMC, MEC or minister) to do what he/she wants.

Illegal instructions include giving contracts to people preferred by the appointing/supervisory authority and giving jobs to certain people with political, family, regional and ethnic links. Usually, it is a combination of these links.

Some differences of opinion, typically about tenders and appointments between the appointing/supervisory authority and the appointee at national level, would be mediated in political circles, including by Luthuli House.

Black executives have been made to feel they are appointed on the basis of political favour - not because they are professionals. There is, as a result, a consistent high turnover of directors general and non-executive directors at SOEs when a new administration takes over or there is a Cabinet reshuffle.

Politicians want to exercise undue influence over directors general and CEOs of SOEs. They therefore prefer their own appointments, usually people amenable to undue influence.

When these incompetent political appointees fail, racial stereotypes of black incompetence abound. Conservatives clothed in so-called classical liberalism are quick to declare transformation a failure. Conveniently, their understanding of transformation is the corrupted version.

The corruption of transformation is one of the reasons public entities have become no-go zones for some talented black people who care about their reputation. They regard the entities as slaughter houses.

The political appointing/supervisory authorities have elevated kowtowing above competence, independence and professionalism. Some highly skilled black executives who joined SOEs with their reputation intact have been tarnished through suspensions, dismissal and harassment.

What should be purely professional appointments have become political appointments. The expectation that black executives must sing the tune of the appointing/supervisory authority, even if the tune is corrupt, is now firmly entrenched.

This is not to say black appointees have been mere victims who lacked agency. Some have been willing participants or pioneers of the destructive scheme to please their bosses to the detriment of state institutions and public coffers.

Whenever some of the executives were exposed by investigative journalists, they would quickly let it be known that they had given deals to people (including white-owned companies) who, in turn, made donations to the governing party or some faction of it. It is almost as if the message is: "Excuse us, we are paying our rent of loyalty to the landlord". Some executives at Eskom, the Passenger Rail Agency of SA and the Public Investment Corporation, among other institutions, have played this game.

Those who have refused to participate in the scheme and became whistleblowers suffered the pain of losing jobs, stalling career progression and placing their lives at risk. We have heard of some of these stories which were painfully told to Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo.

Now, will De Ruyter succeed? He can. Like any competent person, if he is not burdened by unwritten, corrupt arrangements or undue political interference. He will need support, not political interference. It is in the interest of the country that he succeeds.

But the debate about transformation should continue. It must be about how we can rescue severely damaged transformation projects so that we can march together towards non-racialism.

- Mkhabela is a regular columnist for News24.

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Read more on:    eskom  |  andre de ruyter  |  corruption  |  transformation  |  race


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