The buck starts here
25 April 2017 02:55 (South Africa)
Politics

Is Godsell the last businessman to accept a government appointment?

  • Branko Brkic
    branko3048 a ray
    Branko Brkic

    Brkic is the founder and editor of The Daily Maverick.

    He has edited magazines on business and politics, technology, and wildlife. He has also published fiction and non-fiction books, most of them in Serbian. Though he has never pretended to be a reporter, his wide knowledge of politics (especially in America), combined with his experiences in a disintegrating Yugoslavia, gives him an unusual outlook on events in South Africa.

    Despite the vowel-poor surname, he tells anyone who asks that he hails from Hyde Park, Johannesburg, having spent most of his adult life in South Africa.

    Recent columns:

  • Politics
godsell 03

Why do the wise owls of South African business keep getting offered jobs in the public sector? Why do they accept these jobs? Why do they flee after short stints? Why do they never explain what went wrong? Questions, questions.

Newspapers on Tuesday morning generally quote prominent business organisation and unions bemoaning the fact that Bobby Godsell declined the offer to re-take his position as chairman of Eskom.

Department of public enterprises spokeswoman Ayanda Shezi described Godsell’s departure as “a loss”. Business Day quoted Business Leadership SA’s Michael Spicer saying that Godsell not returning was “a pity and missed opportunity”.
Business Report quotes Business Unity SA chief executive Jerry Vilakazi saying that it appeared to be "a very complex situation" that had driven Godsell away. He said it was a pity the situation had deteriorated to such a point that Godsell had opted to resign in the first place.

Fin24.com reported, "It is very unfortunate and regrettable to lose Godsell's leadership," said National Union of Mineworkers secretary general Frans Baleni. "We know he has his integrity to protect and hope Eskom can still find a way to utilise him."

Fin24 also quotes Solidarity deputy secretary general Dirk Hermann saying the organisation was "very disappointed" about Godsell's departure. "We lost a really strong business leader who wasn't influenced by any political viewpoints, he was just a businessman throughout."

Yet this outpouring of disappointment runs counter to the long-term experience of senior businessmen being called on to help public enterprises and government departments. Almost to a man, businessmen who have been called on to help have first accepted, then left after shorter stints than anticipated or finally not really bothered to explain in clear terms the problem.

The trend started with former finance minister Chris Liebenberg, a former Nedcor chairman, who stayed for a single year. Despite great expectations, current SABMiller chairman Meyer Kahn stayed with the SA Police Services for only two years, and fairly or unfairly, his impact was not sufficient to stem the soaring crime rate.

It was so quick that it’s easy to forget that former Absa boss Nallie Bosman resigned as acting CEO of the Land Bank barely three months after being appointed. The joker in the pack would be SAA CEO Coleman Andrews whose impact on the parastatal is controversial, but at least he did stay for four years. However, he too left early, albeit very willingly since departure included a R232-million cheque. (Andrews, unlike others though, had his spell in Georgia, US, politics before he joined SAA. Perhaps that explains our theory.)

So, why do businessmen accept? Former finance minister Derek Keys, perhaps the most successful business-import during the transition years once said that you accept because, when the president puts his hand on your shoulder and says “can you help your country”, no businessman can refuse.

Most businessmen spend years complaining about government, so when they are asked to help, it seems churlish and disobliging to refuse. The mentality of recently retired businessmen is perhaps also a contributing factor; authority figures suddenly without authority, seeking a crowning achievement to their successful, but one-dimensional careers.

Once in the hotseat, however, they soon find that playing endless rounds of golf seems eminently more sensible than a government job. They discover that the skills required to run a company are totally different to those they had honed in business.

Generally speaking in business, the base concept is that the boss has the responsibility, and in exchange for that responsibility, they have primary decision-making power.

They can and do listen to their subordinates, but generally speaking the buck stops with them. The result is that big decisions are often taken quickly, sometimes wrongly, but seldom with substantial delay.

Government departments and parastatals are completely different entities. Every decision requires the sign-off of a myriad of constituencies. Political horse-trading is everywhere. Simple obvious decisions take months. Nobody really knows where the real authority actually lies.

Even managerial appointments, which private sector managers regard as an absolute crucial decision within their sole discretion, now have to be run past some vague body called the ANC appointment committee. Quite often, they get instructed to appoint someone whom someone else owes a political favour, but who is transparently unsuited for the job.

Amazingly, your subordinates can and do complain that you are not running the organisation “democratically”, a concept so far from the mentality of business managers that often at first they can't believe it.

Problems lie on the other side too. The pool of senior business managers that government might wish to entice to help run parastatals are all too often people who have come to the end of their business careers and are staggeringly rich.
After putting up with the political cat-calls and sheer idiocy of running a public company, they tend to ask themselves “what on earth am I doing here, I’m supposed to be retired”.

Many, but not all, of the senior business people drafted into government are also white, which makes them sitting ducks for the transformation brigade, totally independently of their actual history.

For Godsell, perhaps the least racist business person in the history of gold mining management in South Africa, to be attacked on the basis of his race must have been a terrible shock. But more shocking was the lack of immediate support from public enterprises minister Barbara Hogan or President Jacob Zuma.

Why do they not explain clearly the problems they face when they leave? Shame, perhaps, at leaving so soon. A desire to do as little damage as possible. Residual loyalty to the organisation.

But by not explaining clearly the challenges they faced, business people are probably making it harder for the next generation of business people who are called on to help government.

Each successive failure of a businessman given the task of helping government progressively complicates the already fraught relationship between government and business.

The departure of Godsell, one of SA business’ most capable, most rounded, most respected figures, is a calamity for the Zuma government – yet its also a calamity for government/business relations.

Can it be fixed? From here it seems a very steep road. But more importantly, does anybody want it to be fixed? That is the real, as yet unanswerable, question.

By Tim Cohen

Read more: Business Day, Business Report, Fin24

  • Branko Brkic
    branko3048 a ray
    Branko Brkic

    Brkic is the founder and editor of The Daily Maverick.

    He has edited magazines on business and politics, technology, and wildlife. He has also published fiction and non-fiction books, most of them in Serbian. Though he has never pretended to be a reporter, his wide knowledge of politics (especially in America), combined with his experiences in a disintegrating Yugoslavia, gives him an unusual outlook on events in South Africa.

    Despite the vowel-poor surname, he tells anyone who asks that he hails from Hyde Park, Johannesburg, having spent most of his adult life in South Africa.

    Recent columns:

  • Politics

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