A loading crane straddles a freight rail track at Transnet’s container-handling terminal at City Deep inland port in Johannesburg. New Transnet CEO Portia Derby deserves a chance to prove herself, the writer says. Picture: BLOOMBERG
A loading crane straddles a freight rail track at Transnet’s container-handling terminal at City Deep inland port in Johannesburg. New Transnet CEO Portia Derby deserves a chance to prove herself, the writer says. Picture: BLOOMBERG

Portia Derby’s job is already hard. As Transnet’s new CEO she has to work at cleaning out the rot in the state-owned freight company, which was looted during the so-called state capture years, and get it operating optimally.

She also has to manage perceptions that she will shield her former husband, Brian Molefe, from being implicated in corruption investigations at Transnet.

Molefe and other former executives are already facing a lawsuit lodged by Transnet to try to recover money lost in dodgy contracts. It has also been recommended that the former executives face criminal charges regarding several anomalies in procurement processes followed when General Electric, Bombardier, China North Rail and China South Rail were awarded contracts for the acquisition of locomotives to the value of R54bn.

Derby, whose tenure started on Saturday, was married to Molefe, who headed Transnet from 2011 to 2015 — when he was drafted in at Eskom in the middle of economically crippling power cuts.

Her divorce to Molefe was finalised a decade ago, long before politicians, their friends and executives at state-owned entities (SOEs) were lining their pockets with taxpayers’ money in the state capture project.

A government insider has told the Sunday Times, sister publication of Business Day, that Derby and Molefe had a “serious fallout over the Guptas”, a trio of politically connected business leaders at the centre of SA’s postapartheid political scandal.

Derby said she has asserted herself as her own person and should not be made to answer for the mistakes of others. We are fully behind her sentiment

It seems she had the fortitude to stand up to her husband when things did not seem right. But as the country watches in justifiable dismay and anger at revelations of corruption at the state capture inquiry, Derby is forced to address the perceived conflict of interest in her appointment.

“I find it funny now that my professional standard is contingent on another person,” she told the Sunday Times.

“For many years we worked in similar spaces and that level was never an issue. And suddenly, because his integrity is in question, my integrity becomes maligned.”

Derby said she has asserted herself as her own person and should not be made to answer for the mistakes of others. We are fully behind her sentiment. 

In a society in which male-dominated power structures are still deeply entrenched, relegating women to legal minors under the perpetual custody of their fathers, brothers, sons and husbands, it easy to see why she needed to reassert herself as her own person, not Molefe’s former wife.

It would be unfair to cast a shadow over her integrity based solely on the tarnished image of her former husband. Derby went through a rigorous recruitment process before her new appointment as Transnet CEO. She was recommended by the Transnet board, and her appointment has been endorsed by the cabinet.

She has experience within the public and private sector. She served in the government in the Thabo Mbeki era. In the early 2000s she was COO of the department of trade & industry, and from 2004 worked in the department of public enterprises, which oversees SOEs such as Transnet.

In 2005 she was appointed director-general of the department, under minister Alec Erwin, and stayed there until her resignation in 2009.

Deserves gratitude

On leaving the public sector she joined Erwin’s Ubu Investment Holdings. In 2018 she was appointed executive director for clients, Africa, at global engineering consultancy Aurecon.

Derby is now re-entering the public service while SOEs are in a dismal state, posing the biggest risk to our investment-grade rating and putting off private sector executives from even considering applying for jobs. For that, she deserves our gratitude.

This will probably not be the last time Derby will have to answer questions about her links to Molefe, and she probably knew this when she accepted the job.

She has already been the target of a backlash from the likes of the EFF, which accuses her of improperly benefiting from a multimillion-rand tender by the mineral resources department.

In the end, it will be up to Derby to prove the naysayers wrong and do the job she was hired to do.