Daniel Mminele. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
Daniel Mminele. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

Three years ago I was privileged to stand alongside Daniel Mminele when the Association of Black Securities and Investment Professionals (Absip) conferred on him a Lifetime Achiever award, and I was humbled to receive the CEO of the Decade award from the same esteemed association.

There was great excitement and anticipation, as he was preparing to retire from his lofty responsibility at the Reserve Bank, where he had spent more than two decades, part of which included two consecutive five-year terms as deputy governor, to assume the mantle as the first black CEO of Absa.

Mminele stepped down from Absa at end-April, a few months after African Bank’s first woman CEO, Basani Maluleke, also vacated its summit. Across the black professional fraternity, and indeed across progressive society broadly, a quiet storm is understandably simmering in the absence of credible public disclosure or rationale for these two high-profile departures.

With his Reserve Bank background and a pedigree in international banking, Mminele’s exit as head of the country’s third-biggest banking group by assets comes as a shock, especially amid reports of misalignment with the board on strategy.

In the case of Maluleke, a lawyer with an international qualification in corporate finance who had joined African Bank as a nonexecutive director in 2015 when it was still under curatorship and subsequently led its turnaround over a three-year period, her sudden exit as the first black woman CEO of an SA commercial bank remains a sad and unexplained mystery.

Given the painful and obstinate history of our republic, in the same way that the ascendancy of a black leader in any sphere is a source of great pride, so too is their departure under a shroud of mystery.

SA needs more black leaders across the corporate spectrum, not fewer. The number of black CEOs and board chairs across the private sector are pitifully low. This is even more alarming in the case of black women leaders, including in the state-owned enterprise (SOE) sector, where the past decade witnessed a disconcerting trend of black women leaders exiting under similarly disturbing circumstances.

Credible explanation

Using the latest data compiled by Who Owns Whom to understand the extent of transformation among the Top 100 JSE-listed companies, only 16% of CEOs are black (comprising both black men and women) and only 2% are black women. These numbers show the excruciatingly slow pace in transforming the leadership of SA’s top corporates 27 years since the dawn of democracy. Black people are still largely excluded from the driving seat across the country’s economy.

Given the long and hard fight for the right of black people to rise, the exit of black executives in the financial services sector demands a reasonable and credible explanation. In the face of their individual distinction and impeccable credentials, which is the basis upon which they were sought for their positions in the first place, it is irrational — incomprehensible — and in poor taste to even question their competence. Our history therefore compels the question: are they victims of an antitransformation fightback? 

These concerns are given greater fuel and currency by the new wave of strident opposition against the legitimacy of funding majority black-owned and managed enterprises to drive inclusive growth, despite overwhelming evidence that SA’s economy remains significantly untransformed.    

While the economy is in desperate need of recovery to set us on a growth path, the corporate sector needs its full strength of talent, integrity and vision. The country needs more, not fewer, black leaders and women at the helm. The private sector should be reminded that transformation is not an option but a moral imperative and a historical obligation.

In its fullest import transformation requires changing the structure of the SA economy to locate black people and women at the centre, while addressing socioeconomic imperatives such as poverty, inequality, culture, gender, employment equity, disability and discrimination.

To the extent that the departure of black and women leaders from the highest echelons of the private sector may be a result of discrimination, society must take a stand against those who wield power to perpetuate a discredited status quo.

• Mthethwa is CEO of the National Empowerment Fund.

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