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What are we to make of all the movement at the top echelons of the corporate and government sector in recent times? Whatever else, it represents a dramatic break with that long-held tradition that when senior people left an organisation, under suspiciously controversial circumstances, there was no public discussion.
A pithy formal announcement was made to the effect that senior executive Joe Bloggs woke up one morning and realised he should spend the rest of his working life smelling the roses with his wife and children. Or, we’re told, Joe decided he wanted to pursue personal interests. No indication is ever given as to whether these interests might involve stamp collecting or laundering money for an Afghan drug cartel.
After a few incredulous “huh?”s, things continue as normal and people suppress whatever cognitive dissonance was created by thoughts of a one-dimensional, excessively determined senior executive walking away from the promise of hugely generous remuneration packages because he woke up one morning and realised how pointless and shallow his existence was.
Earlier this year MTN dominated the spotlight when a whole swathe of its senior executives, led by the chief financial officer, decided, almost cult-like, to pursue “personal interests”.
Around the same time Sasol announced that its chief financial officer Christine Ramon had suddenly decided it was time to exit a job that was very well paid.
In the case of MTN the rumours of “irregularities” were met with the traditional response of “no comment”. Sasol ignored all requests for clarity and for a few days rumours swirled about tensions between the departing chief financial officer and chief executive.
Last week came the news that long-time corporate survivor Jacques Schindehütte was suspended from his position as chief financial officer at Telkom. The immediate speculation that this was linked to a totally legitimate transaction in Telkom shares was met by a formal statement from Telkom notifying the speculators that they were completely off the mark. Seemingly keen not to spoil the guessing game but to ensure the players were a little better informed, Telkom told us all that the suspension “relates to allegations of personal misconduct”. This inevitably moved the speculation up a few juicy notches.
Much more disturbing than these recent corporate machinations are the personnel changes in government circles. Leaving aside the rather strange choice of SABC board members there is, more recently, the potentially disastrous decision to remove competition commissioner Shan Ramburuth following an unrelenting witchhunt that lasted a few years.
And while we were trying to work out the implications of Ramburuth’s removal from a world-class organisation that he played a major role in creating despite operating within the dysfunctional Economic Development Department, came the absolutely shocking news of John Oliphant’s suspension as principal officer of the Government Employees Pension Fund (GEPF). ANC MP Arthur Moloto, the chairman of the GEPF’s board of trustees, announced his suspension last week. There is to be a disciplinary inquiry into alleged unauthorised signing of contracts, which apparently relate to supply chain management.
Pension fund industry specialist Allan Greenblo, writing for Moneyweb, suggests a much darker reason for the suspension – and for those who know Oliphant, a much more credible one. “It’s that Oliphant had met with the displeasure of certain politically orientated interest groups because he resisted black empowerment transactions that he considered unlikely to show sustainable long-term returns suitable for pension fund investment,” writes Greenblo, referring to growing fears that politically well-positioned individuals regard the GEPF’s huge resources as a massive piggy bank for them to access funding for some or other empowerment scheme. Perhaps, when faced with a R1.2 trillion fund, these people believe R1 billion or R2bn will not make much of a dent in returns for pensioners. Oliphant probably knows better.
Whatever the machinations in the corporate sector, it is time the government took action to protect the limited skills base it has from opportunists who are increasingly allowed to flourish.