Losing Mark Lamberti is a step forward

entrenchedMark Lamberti
entrenchedMark Lamberti

In Setswana nomenclature there’s an adage thus: “Mafoko ga a boe, go bowa monwana” (words can’t be retracted once uttered).

Imperial Holdings CEO Mark Lamberti claimed, in his letter of resignation as an Eskom board member, that “there were no findings in the judgment of race or gender discrimination against Associated Motor Holdings (AMH), Imperial or myself”.

But, as Lamberti surely knows, lies have short legs!

Let me explain.

Mark Lamberti is one of the most accomplished, influential and, ostensibly, bigoted businesspeople in corporate South Africa. He sits on many companies’ boards, too numerous to even fit on his personal letterhead.

Lamberti has ignited a raging employment equity inferno which compelled him to step down from the Eskom board.

The Johannesburg High Court recently delivered a scathing judgment against Lamberti, Imperial Holdings and AMH, a subsidiary of Imperial.

Lamberti’s judicial lambasting followed a legal duel in which race, gender, employment equity and justice inexorably collided.

Former AMH group financial manager Adila Chowan sued, inter alia, “Imperial and Lamberti for payment of damages [for civil defamation] as a result of alleged injuries to her reputation and to her sense of self-worth”.

Chowan claimed that because of, inter alia, affirmative action … the skin colour-coded company vehicle … she was overlooked for promotion because she was black.

If Lamberti is to be believed, and most people don’t believe him, the entire record and judgment in the said matter is contemptuously misdirected.

Although Lamberti was available as a witness, he elected not to testify and instead dispatched his proxies to do his bidding. The court drew adverse inference on this apparent snub.

Lamberti’s coterie of apologists included Thulani Gcabashe, former Imperial nonexecutive chairperson, who was compelled to testify under force of subpoena. As it emerged, Gcabashe sacrificed Chowan and the transformation project at the altar of serving his corporate masters, Lamberti and Imperial.

Not only did the court find that Chowan was a credible witness, but also that she had “established the common law requirements for her dignity claim to succeed”.

Clearly Lamberti must have been reading off a different judgment, or is an incorrigible storyteller, to have made such spurious comments.

Evidently, in their quest to subvert employment equity and, by extension, BEE, Lamberti, Gcabashe and others trampled on a litany of laws with reckless abandon.

That such conduct can still be countenanced more than two decades after apartheid was defeated, boggles the mind.

As with most people, I find it disquieting that black women are still treated in the manner that Chowan was treated by Lamberti, Gcabashe and some of her former superiors.

As with most entrepreneurs, I have resigned myself to accepting the reality that for as long the Lambertis of this world are at the helm of corporate South Africa, economic transformation and employment equity will remain buzz words. His legacy at Massmart speaks woeful volumes.

For instance, during his tenure as CEO of Massmart employment equity and preferential procurement never crossed his mind.

Not much has changed at his alma mater though, as procurement from black-owned companies at Massmart stands at less than 0.0001% despite a five-year-old order by the Competition Appeal Court that Massmart procure more from previously disadvantaged businesses.

Massmart has successfully subverted that order, thanks largely to black executives, particularly its black chairperson, who passionately aids the company in this sorry state of affairs.

What really irks me more is the active role Gcabashe, himself a beneficiary of BEE, played in enabling Lamberti and Imperial to injure Chowan’s reputation and her sense of self-worth.

Gcabashe, incredulously, dismissed Chowan’s complaints as “completely without foundation in fact and devoid of substance”. The court held otherwise.

Gcabashe’s conduct isn’t an aberration. It is a microcosm of a bigger malaise afflicting our society.

For as long as black executives like Gcabashe, who unashamedly collude with the Lambertis, are ensconced in corporate SA, we will still be seized with economic transformation battles for many generations down the line.

Is it by happenstance that out of the 20 biggest companies listed on the JSE, 11 have appointed black nonexecutive chairmen? With the exception of Aspen Pharmacare and Standard Bank, all these companies are run by pale-male chief executives like Lamberti.

Whereas false perceptions could be created that those companies with black chairpeople are pro-transformation, some of these black executives only help entrench the economic status quo.

Seemingly, the perks and prestige that often accompany being a chairperson provide sufficient inducement for these BEE askaris in suits.

Lamberti’s wondrous belligerence and egotism couldn’t be better exposed than through his pious protestations since his imperial brown stuff hit the fan.

Never mind the broken laws, Lamberti and Gcabashe’s ethical conduct are incongruent with basic tenets of ethical business leadership and this, at a minimum, invites censure by all those organisations with which they are linked.

While his resignation from Eskom is welcomed, Lamberti’s non-apology apology is pitiful – and offends our sensibilities.

Lest we forget, the scene of Lamberti’s indiscretions and sepsis remains at Imperial where he still carries on as head honcho, unperturbed by the import of the court ruling against him.

Consumed by his egotism, Lamberti laments: “A lifetime of clear conscience and a distinguished record of business leadership appear to have been in vain.” And what about Chowan’s livelihood, career and persona he injured?

If Lamberti has any morsel of conscience left, he must accept that his continued presence in the body politic has become intolerable. Lamberti thus has a perfect duty to resign from Imperial, at the very least.

As we continue in our stride to forge a common nationhood, this country can do with one less Lamberti.

* Tebogo Khaas is chairperson of Corporate SA, a strategic consulting firm, and trustee of the Institute for the Advancement of Public Interest. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @tebogokhaas.

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