CEOing While White

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The struggling State-owned arms manufacturer Denel made news headlines and the Twitter trending list this week after the appointment of Daniel du Toit as CEO. The sin committed by the company that made R2 billion loss in the 2017/18 financial year was the fact that they dare appoint a pale male to head up the enterprise.

After announcing Du Toit’s appointment, various organisations such as the Black Management Forum (BMF) as well as the Cosatu-affiliated trade union the Liberated Metalworkers Union of SA (LIMUSA) criticised Denel for appointing a white man to the position.

It is worth noting the horrendous financial and structural background of Denel. The company has been marred by allegations of corruption and involvement in State Capture. Furthermore, the poor financial health of the State-owned arms manufacturer has led to the South African government having to provide guarantees to Denel in order to pay its employees their salaries. The situation is so dire that in September 2018 it was reported through a leaked memorandum that the company couldn’t even afford to provide toilet paper to its employees.

According to Denel chairperson Monhla Hlahla, during the whole appointment process Denel considered and approached nearly 100 executives as potential CEOs. Moreover, during this process preference was given to black candidates. It would seem that Denel complied with its compulsory transformationist employment equity due diligence.

Despite the fact that Du Toit has a Master of Commerce (MComm) degree, has completed a top executive development programme, was managing director at SAAB Medav Technologies in Germany, was an executive at Altech Multimedia and is said to have been the top candidate that applied, this apparently fails to make up for the fact that he is a white man. Du Toit is guilty of CEOing while white.

The Black Management Forum seems to have been so traumatised by this “gross offence” that it has stated their intention to approach a court to challenge the appointment.

What is surprising about the brouhaha made is the shortsightedness of fussing over a white male CEO. Firstly, Denel’s troubles are not secret. As a State-owned company, it costs taxpayers huge amounts of money. Money that would not have been necessary had Denel not been in such dire financial straits or had Denel not been a State-owned company in the first place. Having a competent CEO, regardless of his or her skin colour, would be beneficial to the whole country, by stopping the financial bleeding.

Secondly, should the BMF have their way and a black person is appointed as CEO, the fact that the CEO is black does nothing for the poor. Transformationism at CEO level does not lead to substantial transformation for those that most need it. Focusing on CEO level transformationism leads to our current predicament where during the past 24 years substantial transformation has not occurred despite the window-dressing at top levels.

Most South Africans agree that transformation is important. Most South Africans want to see the whole country economically empowered. But complaining about a white CEO will do nothing to create the 270,000 jobs per year that the ANC promises.

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