The importance of decisive action

Sunday, July 5, 2015


By Dr Bridgette Gasa

On the 8th of March 2015, City Press published an article headlined: “Is this South Africa’s dodgiest CEO?” in reference to the now former CEO of the Dube TradePort Corporation (DTPC): Ms. Saxen van Coller. This article went to great lengths in detailing a list of transgressions which, at the time, were yet to be proven.

Quite curiously, no one saw it fit to acknowledge that the timing of such an article was a thousand steps behind those already taken by the Board of the DTPC, weeks prior. Some unnamed, yet quoted sources, all of a sudden became purveyors of information as if it were freshly discovered. The questions the DTPC Board was asking itself were: “Why it was that these citizens assumedly in right-standing had not furnished this information a while ago?” Why wait until a process is underway to peddle untested theories and take ownership in presenting them prior to their conclusivity being determined?

As a Board, we have a responsibility to set the record straight in relation to this matter. Arguably, at the time the City Press article was published, a lot of detail couldn’t be furnished as there was a process already initiated by the Board and as such this rendered the matter sub judice. It was the DTPC Board that initiated its own Risk Assessment and Due Diligence exercise as far back as October 2014. This exercise was concluded in January 2015 with serious findings made against the former CEO. The findings were presented to her and she failed to satisfactorily respond to them. As a result of this, we served her with charges and placed her under immediate suspension pending the outcome of a disciplinary enquiry.

The questions raised about the former CEO not only impacted on the integrity of the corporation itself – they impacted on the decision-making and judgment of the people appointed to oversee its affairs. I can honestly say that we have emerged from a very difficult moment as an organization. No organization would want to go through what the DTPC has just gone through. This not only impacted on the integrity of the corporation itself – it also impacted on the reputations of the people appointed to oversee its affairs.

At the end of the day, the Board is ultimately responsible for ensuring corporate governance and upholding the integrity of the Dube TradePort as a flagship development project of the KwaZulu Natal Provincial Government.

DTPC has a number of critical stakeholders. Included in these are its own employees; National Government, represented by the Department of Trade & Industry and the Department of Economic Development who have worked tirelessly to bring foreign investors to the DTP IDZ; Provincial Government, where the Premier and the MEC for Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs have invested time and energy to promote one of South Africa’s most successful IDZs. And of course our tenants, business partners, airlines and global investment companies who all have chosen the Dube TradePort as their investment destination of choice.

To our credit, we acted swiftly to suspend the former CEO pending an investigation into a few important issues that she had failed to declare in her application for the post she would later assume. We had intensified our investigation so that within a space of three months, an independent probe had been concluded that the former CEO had in fact failed to disclose a previous conviction – a serious offence which in itself amounted to grounds for dismissal.

Upon receipt of the findings and recommendation made by the independent Chair of the enquiry, the Board resolved to summarily dismiss the CEO. The rest, as they say, is history.

Of course, there are lessons to be learnt from this. What is important in our view, is that organizations respond with agility once these issues are brought to their attention. That is how one should really measure good governance and integrity.

We could have allowed the investigation to drag on for months, even years, as has been the case with some organizations. Or we could have given her a “golden handshake”, as has been the case with others.

But we did not: we acted as swiftly as possible, whilst still ensuring a fair process. Our bottom line is that anyone who is dishonest in a job application must go. Failure to disclose a previous criminal conviction is a very serious misrepresentation. It undermines the integrity of the entire corporation, and cannot be tolerated under any circumstances.

And because of the seriousness of the situation, we have laid criminal charges against the former CEO, to establish whether any of the money paid to her during her time as CEO can be recouped by the state.

Many people – journalists included – have raised other questions about this episode. We believe some of these questions are valid, and should be posed in any situation where a senior manager has brought an organization into disrepute.

One of these questions is about the allegations that the former CEO changed her identity and was effectively leading a double life. The simple response to that is that a number of charges were indeed pursued. These were assessed, and the disciplinary process found there was no doubt the former CEO was guilty of failing to disclose a previous criminal conviction. This on its own was sufficient grounds to warrant a summary dismissal, and the Board acted accordingly. The other charges then became moot, in light of the seriousness of the failure to disclose a previous criminal record.

There is also a question about who ultimately takes responsibility for this entire affair.  In our view, we can be held responsible for ensuring good governance – but we cannot be held responsible for people who choose to misrepresent themselves. If people are prepared to be dishonest to get a job, the most an organization can do is to act against them once they are made aware of the dishonesty.

That we did. We moved as quickly as possible, we acted firmly and decisively, and we are taking remedial action. And “South Africa’s dodgiest CEO”, as this newspaper called her, is no longer the CEO of the Dube TradePort Corporation.


Dr Gasa is Chairperson of Dube TradePort Corporation

 

An edited version was also published in the City Press on 5 July: click here to view.