/ 6 April 2018

‘My victory should help all women’

Adila Chowan
Adila Chowan

Challenging Imperial Holdings chief executive Mark Lamberti for calling her a “female employment equity” candidate was not about self-enrichment but rather to help other women speak out, says Adila Chowan, the former group financial manager at Imperial subsidiary Associated Motor Holdings.

“For me, I was trying to come out there and tell women that you can make a difference, and you can be heard and can stand up for yourself,” Chowan told the Mail & Guardian this week.

“And it doesn’t matter who the other person is … whether it is another Mark Lamberti [or not], there is an opportunity for women to speak up for themselves and come out victorious.”

Chowan said that, by telling her story, she was representing other women who have suffered worse fates than hers and have kept quiet.

“Remember, being an Indian Muslim woman, you are seen as marginalised and [you are] basically invisible behind the scarf.”

Chowan won her case against Imperial Holdings this week, when North Gauteng High Court Judge Pieter Meyer found that Lamberti had impaired her dignity. It ordered the company to pay her costs, as well as damages that are yet to be set.

She was dismissed in September 2015 on allegations of misconduct after she had lodged a grievance with Imperial’s then-chairperson Thulani Gcabashe, accusing Lamberti of calling her an “employment equity” candidate in front of other senior managers.

“To date, I do not even know why that happened … he has not clarified what [the] misconduct is. Is it because I wrote a complaint against him for calling me ‘black, female and employment equity’?”

Asked what the grounds were for Chowan’s dismissal, Imperial’s group investor relations manager, Esha Mansigh, said: “We would like to draw [to] your attention that Ms Chowan did not have any employment contract beyond her letter of employment, which provided for one month’s notice.”

The company also did not say why Lamberti remained chief executive when the company’s code of conduct prohibits any form of sexual harassment, physical attack, coercion, bullying or verbal attack; the same applies to any intimidating, hostile or insulting behaviour.

The company instead referred the M&G to its statement, in which it said that it noted the high court judgment and was pleased that there were no findings of race or gender discrimination against Associated Motor Holdings, Imperial and Lamberti.

Chowan also questioned why Lamberti had been intimately involved in the disciplinary process that led to her losing her job in 2015, claiming he had told the committee to suspend her.

Legal expert Prince Mafojane said: “This was improper, as Mr Lamberti’s involvement in the process relating to the grievance by Ms Chowan would give the complainant [Chowan] a reasonable apprehension of bias against her by the company.”

Chowan said: “Mark Lamberti basically subjected me to being suspended without reasons and Mr Gcabashe, the chairperson, was not aware that I had been suspended.”

The high court found that both the company and Lamberti were liable for her economic loss and the impairment of her dignity.

Judge Meyer said it was indisputable that the company’s senior management, comprising mostly white and male employees at the time of Chowan’s employment, had “fared very badly in redressing the imbalances and wrongs from the past”.

After the hearing, Lamberti reportedly said it was not his intention to insult or demean Chowan and apologised “unreservedly”.

“He has not apologised to me; he has apologised to the media. He has never apologised to me personally or given me the opportunity to even understand why he embarked on such [a] call,” said Chowan.

She said that she had been hurt by media reports that reduced her victory to being only about money, when instead she feels that it was more about her believing that women were not given fair and equal opportunities in the private sector.

“This is not just in South Africa but internationally as well, where you see a differentiation between [the attitudes towards] men and women,” said Chowan.

Meanwhile, Lamberti, a newly appointed Eskom board member, has been criticised by various groups for his comments and calls to remove him have been mounting.

Trade union federation Cosatu blames the government for failing to transform the economy, saying that it is not surprised that people like Lamberti still dominate private-sector boardrooms.

“What is shocking and disappointing is the fact that our government, that is supposed lead transformation, not only tolerates them but sometimes protects them,” Cosatu spokesperson Sizwe Palma said.

Constitutional law scholar and blogger Pierre de Vos said: “Mr Lamberti has, in turn, been exposed as a sexist and racist bigot. It is time for his head to roll.”

On Monday, TimesLive reported that Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan is seeking legal advice on the ruling against Lamberti so he can decide on a course of action. The news site said that Eskom is also studying the verdict and will soon make a public statement.

Thulebona Mhlanga is an Adamela Trust trainee financial reporter at the Mail & Guardian