Ron Derby | The case of SA's first black female bank CEO and my male privilege

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 African Bank announced the shock resignation of its CEO, Basani Maluleke on Monday.
Photo: Gallo Images/Business Day/Freddy Mavunda
African Bank announced the shock resignation of its CEO, Basani Maluleke on Monday. Photo: Gallo Images/Business Day/Freddy Mavunda

The African Bank board has some questions to answer. In putting out a statement that their former CEO was leaving to pursue other career opportunities, the board had already conspired in a lie ultimately to their shareholder – the South African public, writes Ron Derby.


I am that black man at the table who, through years of assimilation, has learnt to fit into virtually any setting – or so I'd like to think. Whether discussing last week's Sharks and Bulls rugby match, the possible rise of a duopoly, the not-so-stellar Soweto derby or yet another Arsenal loss, I can banter with the best of them.

It comes rather naturally, my accent rolls off the tongue, depending on which table I'm sitting at, all in an attempt to fit in.

Many of us play this game in our everyday lives as we seek out our little acre in an exclusive corporate space still dominated by white males. In these spaces, where one has to compromise oneself to a degree dependent on just how close you are to the real seat of power, I am certain of one thing – black women, and to a lesser extent white women, don't quite fit in.

It's been my eternal discomfort as a middle-aged man to discuss frivolous sporting matters, the state of the economy and our "bad politics" at tables that don't make much room for her voice to be heard, let alone for her to be seen. Any feelings of awkwardness may have, of course, been outweighed by thoughts of my own selfish advancement in a country where transformation has been stalled. Now this is true, I suspect, for many black men who have managed to build a career or amass a fortune in South Africa's first round of empowerment deals that were all the rage at the turn of this century.

I thought about my privilege when I considered the story of Basani Maluleke, who resigned as chief executive officer of African Bank just last week. At the young age of 44, her occupying that position in the context of this country was not insignificant.

Women may make up more than half of the working-age population, but they don't feature in corporate boardrooms. Of the companies in the top 40 of the JSE, there's only one female chief executive – Anglo American Platinum's Natascha Viljoen, who only started in April last year.

According to a PwC report, some 95% of all CEOs on the JSE were male, 87.2% of the chief financial officers were male and 91% of executive directors were male. A total of 19 women are in executive positions in listed companies on the JSE and only 6% of the 329 CEOs are female. The numbers tell a desperate story, and a dire one for black women, as you would imagine.

When news broke that Maluleke was leaving to pursue "other career opportunities", I scoured the newsfeeds to check if any of the country's major lenders had come calling. By all accounts, as an executive she played a leading role in the resuscitation of a bank that was led to the abyss by the reckless stewardship of its former CEO Leon Kirkinis. I mean, why else would she choose to leave just three years into her role, and for greener pasture? Disappointingly, it seems personality clashes with African Bank's recently appointed chairman Thabo Dloti were ultimately the reason for her sudden departure.

For me, this was all but confirmed in an interview she had in this past weekend's Business Times, where she said she'd simply be taking time off and was not on any path of career advancement.

"I am disappointed not to have been able to see through the turnaround of the organisation, but I think the business is in good hands," she was quoted as saying.

Quoted in the same story, Dloti, who was appointed chair in 2019, was quick to point out that the transformation of the bank since it came out of curatorship five years ago couldn't be ascribed to the leadership process of just one person. The process, he said, had begun before. It came across rather spiteful and, in truth, was a rather mean-spirited send-off.

Now, boardroom politics and a bit of tension are par for course in any company or organisation. This I understand. This can be especially true with a relatively new chairman in Dloti, with a bit of a point to prove after an unceremonious departure as Liberty CEO almost four years ago.

For the most part, I'd even suggest some tension is good as it keeps everyone on their toes. But a functioning board or, at the very least, an attentive shareholder – in this case the South African Reserve Bank and the Public Investment Corporation – should never allow personality clashes between a non-executive chair and its CEO to affect operations. I'm no governance expert, but in my understanding a chair's only interaction should be with the company secretary and board colleagues at quarterly meetings. That's unless you are running the ship along the lines of a state-owned enterprise, where the lines have long blurred or rather disappeared.

If indeed personality clashes led to the ouster of Maluleke, I think the African Bank board has some questions to answer. In putting out a statement that their former CEO was leaving to pursue other career opportunities, the board had already conspired in a lie ultimately to their shareholder – the South African public.

Whether she understood it or not, Maluleke always represented so much more in the context of a country still grappling with transformation. I doubt the Dloti-led board – that has only two women and that includes the company secretary – paid any regard. Their argument perhaps being that it's business, right. But not quite. Context always matters, especially in a country with our history. We can't merely wish it away.

I've pondered this question a few times; just how much of an onus is on a black and invariably male-led entity to ensure deeper transformation? Do men such as Patrice Motsepe, Saki Macozoma and executives such as Dloti bare greater responsibility than the likes of Johann Rupert to the project?

The simple answer is that if you care and are kept awake some nights, at the very least, by the slow pace of transformation, all of these men, including managers such as myself, shoulder that responsibility. If you don't care, then what has just happened to Maluleke becomes rather meaningless. African Bank, its Dloti-led board and its shareholders have certainly made their feelings clear and the black woman continues to pay the highest price in maintaining the privilege not to care.

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