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The Transnet `train smash’

Black empowerment suffered a body blow when Transnet high-flyer Sipho Nyawo was fired for abusing his company credit card. Andy Duffy reports

MISMANAGEMENT and racism turned what could have been a quiet, early censure into a spectacular, politically embarrassing downfall, say former colleagues of sacked Transnet executive Sipho Nyawo.

Little else, they claim, can explain the events that led to Nyawo’s dismissal last week – an action that damaged the credibility of Transnet and that of its shareholder, the public enterprises ministry.

Nyawo, formerly chief executive of Portnet, racked up 181 alleged abuses of his company credit card between February 1994 and last December. No one, it seems, chastised him for doing what he should not have been doing and the practices went on unchecked.

Only when Nyawo’s promotion to head Portnet beckoned were the details – a weighty, official-looking “charge sheet” – leaked to the media

But the Transnet board and minister Stella Sigcau decided in July to appoint Nyawo anyway, deciding that the claims at that stage were “mere allegations”, a spokesman says.

Four months later, last week, Nyawo was fired, after 65 of the charges were validated in an investigation ordered by Sicgau and carried out by retired judge John Trengove. The charges – worth around R50 000 – include unauthorised ATM withdrawals, paying for first-class plane tickets, fast food and gynaecological bills for a third party.

Nyawo is now taking court action against the parastatal and Sigcau, and they are considering bringing criminal charges against him.

Sigcau’s office, determined that it act correctly throughout, says the allegations at the time of Nyawo’s appointment were unproven. The claims might have been floating around since the end of 1995, but Nyawo had always denied them.

Transnet chairman Louise Tager agrees, but goes further. “We had to walk a narrow path between rumours and allegations against him on the one side and racism and victimisation against black management on the other,” she says. She also says Transnet does not know who drew up the 181 allegations against Nyawo. “We imagine it was a group of people. We can’t tell where it came from.”

This statement surprised several of Tager’s colleagues. Human resources director Joe Ndhlela, called in for the initial investigation in February, found the allegations had been compiled by Nyawo’s superiors at Portnet – including port management chief executive Neil Oosthuizen and port operation chief executive Philip Venter.

Ndhlela found it puzzling that the charges had not been dealt with as they occurred – credit card spending is supposed to be reconciled every month. Instead the irregularities had been allowed to build up, dating back to the month after Nyawo joined Transnet as planning and development manager at the Port of Durban.

Oosthuizen and Venter have now moved on, but most of the other managers are still there. For the past four months they should have been answering to Nyawo.

Ndhlela, mindful of Nyawo’s legal action, is reluctant to comment. Other senior staff, however, are less reticent.

“This has been a study in management inefficiency, for both the new and the old management,” one source says. “Why should these managers have let these abuses accumulate for so long and then for us to read about it first in the press? There was an issue of racism in that people were not implementing procedures in an even-handed manner.”

In his report, Trengove found that Nyawo “rendered valuable services in connection with the transformation of Portnet, often under difficult circumstances”. These “difficult circumstances” will have included Nyawo coming up against Portnet management – viewed as a bastion of the old order, stuffed with white Afrikaans males who spend much of their time looking out for each other.

The South African Railway and Harbour Workers’ Union has previously claimed that conservatism within Portnet is central to attempts to “destabilise and polarise the workforce under black management. It is obvious the objective is also to embarrass transformation processes, eliminate those responsible for transforming Transnet and destabilise the black empowerment agenda,” the union said last month.

Described by Tager as knowledgeable and intelligent – “his abilities were never questioned” – Nyawo began attracting critical media attention as the seat on the Transnet board drew closer. Most of the critical stories surfaced first in the Afrikaans press.

After the credit card allegations, questions were raised about Nyawo’s doctorate and his links with the Strategic Planning Institute – an organisation he helped found which counted Portnet as a major customer. The latter story appeared on the day Nyawo was suspended.

Such attention has not been concentrated solely on Nyawo.

It was the Afrikaans press which also broke the first stories concerning pay for the new Transnet board. Such coverage missed the far larger package former managing director Anton Moolman commanded – a guaranteed R1- million a year – until Sigcau revealed it in Parliament last month.

Nyawo, however, also did himself few favours. His repeated denials of every allegation failed to convince those he might have counted as allies. The numbers involved also jarred. The parastatal once operated 4 000 credit cards for management. Nyawo notched up 65 proven infringements in 22 months; among the 3 999 other card users, another investigation uncovered only 121 cases over 14 months.

In June, one month before his appointment to the board, Nyawo and other alleged card abusers were offered amnesty by Transnet – four weeks to repay what they had taken from the company, with no further reprisal. None of them took up the offer.

Tager is determined to draw a line under the affair, saying the process, “long and painful”, is now over.

Nyawo thinks otherwise. And the door has been left open to his legal action by an apparent botch-up by Transnet in handling his dismissal. Trengove did recommend that Nyawo be dismissed – “the picture is one of disregard of the rules and practices which Nyawo as a manager should have operated”.

But he also says Nyawo had not personally gained from the transgressions, that Nyawo had undertaken to repay any loss Transnet might have sustained, and that the transgressions “occurred in circumstances of equally appalling and even greater laxity”. He recommended that his report be considered by the Transnet board.

The Transnet board did not see the report before the dismissal, and still hasn’t. The decision was made by Sigcau after discussions with Tager. “That was only a recommendation,” Tager says. “The report is a very thick document.”

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