Leaders show a red card to those playing the race card

20th November 2009 By: Terence Creamer - Creamer Media Editor

One positive that could eventually emerge from the unhappy saga that unfolded at Eskom earlier in the month could be that it becomes increasingly unacceptable within South Africa, but especially within corporate South Africa, to flash the race card in the absence of firm evidence.

That’s not to say that racism is in hand – it certainly is not. But, given the seriousness of the allegation, particularly in the South African context, racism can surely no longer be an automatic refuge for those feeling aggrieved.

The response to intimations made by the increasingly discredited Black Management Forum (BMF) and the mostly reckless African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) that former Eskom chairperson Bobby Godsell was a racist was not only well coordinated, but timely.

Leading the charge was the country’s largest labour federation, most notably the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which has had a long-standing association with Godsell – whose credentials are also pretty impeccable.

Indeed, Godsell played a significant role ahead of, during, and since South Africa’s transition to democracy.

In the late 1980s, he, together with the then general secretary of the NUM, Cyril Ramaphosa, navigated the “bruising” 1987 miners strike in such a way as to create the basis for free trade union activity.

During the early 1990s, Godsell worked with other civil society actors, including church leaders, to draft the Peace Accord, which drew on lessons learned from the miners strike in a bid to craft a code of conduct around political activity, which had descended into violence.

Godsell was active in just about all of Anglo American’s initial black economic-empowerment endeavours, and was the key figure in supporting the creation of Patrice Motsepe’s African Rainbow Minerals.

Arguably, he has also been corporate South Africa’s leading intellectual, writing and speaking extensively on issues affecting business in the country, having been involved from the mid-1980s in providing thought leadership on the shaping of South Africa beyond apartheid.

However, this impressive record somehow escaped the attention of his critics in the BMF and the ANCYL.

Fortunately, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the NUM, which both defended Godsell’s nonracial credentials, did not suffer from the same bout of selective amnesia.

Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, who cochaired the Millennium Labour Council with Godsell, said that the former gold-mining boss was a supporter of transformation and that his departure was a loss to Eskom.

Cosatu, like the NUM’s general secretary, Frans Baleni, also rejected any suggestion that Godsell was a racist, for which, it said, there was “no shred of evidence”.

Cosatu said it agreed with the NUM that the use of the race card – when it was “completely irrelevant” – made it “difficult for all of us to confront real racism where it exists”.

Similarly, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, who also has a long association with Godsell, having been the previous NUM general secretary, said it was “out of place” to allege that Godsell was a racist. “Everybody must be careful. If there’s a crisis, they begin to be personal and begin to go to the lowest level of irrationality,” Mantashe added in an interview with the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC).

But, perhaps, the sharpest critique, and the one that could hurt the BMF the most, came in the form of a Business Day op-ed, written by AngloGold Ashanti executive and former Godsell colleague Thero Setiloane.

In the piece, Setiloane said that, while racism persisted in corporate South Africa, it was not justifiable for the BMF and the ANCYL to assume racism was at the root of every misfortune to befall a black manager.

Setiloane said that there was a dangerous tendency for a “select group” to use “racial chauvinism” to advance personal careers.

Black managers and professionals, he added, were being done a disservice by such behaviour: “Anyone with basic self-respect would prefer to be judged on the value we bring to our employers and the customers, clients and communities we serve. We do not want honest judgement of our performance to be muted by fear of a racial backlash.”

Now that’s what I call showing a red card to those using the race card opportunistically.

The next step would be to try to move beyond race, and reignite support, specifi- cally within government, for institutions of good governance at the State-owned enterprises (SoEs).

There is no question that the Eskom saga –like the Transnet saga before it and the SABC saga before that – has raised all manner of governance problems that simply have to be nipped in the bud as soon as possible.

For starters, the Public Enterprises Ministry must be allowed to play its role of shareholder Ministry, without feeling as though there are acres of space above it in which opportunists can manoeuvre.

Secondly, government has to allow SoE boards the relative independence they require to operative effectively, or face the very real prospect that the best and brightest will simply avoid playing a role at these critical corporations.

And, finally, we need some decisive leadership at the highest level to create far better role definition between the party and State, so that we can move away from the current situation where the lines are extremely blurred.

Unless such action is taken, this country is bound to lurch from one crisis to the next, simply because certain individuals are emboldened not by an astute analysis or sound strategy, but simply because they have the ear of Albert Luthuli House.