South Africa's powerful National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) has defended the nonracial credentials of former Eskom chairperson Bobby Godsell and has also raised concerns about seeming breaches of good governance principles at the State-owned enterprise (SoE).
Speaking with Engineering News Online on Tuesday morning, the NUM general secretary Frans Baleni stressed that the union had had extensive experience of working with Godsell, who "is not a racist".
His comments gelled with one made earlier in the day by Cosatu general-secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, who also co-chaired the Millennium Labour Council with Godsell. He told the SABC that Godsell was an individual who supported transformation and that his departure was a loss to Eskom.
In a later statement, Cosatu rejected any suggestion that Godsell was a racist, for which, it said, there was "no shred of evidence". The country's largest labour federation said that it regretted the resignation, adding that Eskom desperately needed managers with skills and experience to rescue itself from its severe crisis.
"It is now vital to resolve the turmoil and conflicts on the board so that it can focus on the real problem facing Eskom - its financial crisis which has led to a proposal to raise tariffs by 45% a year for the next three years, which Cosatu has vowed to oppose," the union added.
Baleni said that the NUM, which was Eskom's biggest union, was also concerned about the recent handling of the Eskom leadership crisis and the seeming undermining of good corporate governance principles at the utilty.
"The board should be allowed to govern," Baleni insisted, adding that, if the shareholder was unhappy with the board, it could intervene to change its composition.
He also indicated that, if for Eskom's sake, both Godsell and CEO Jacob Maroga had to leave, "then they must walk".
Earlier in the day, Institute of Directors CEO Lindie Engelbrecht told Talk Radio 702 that it appeared that best practices had not been followed at Eskom during recent weeks.
She indicated that the board should be within its rights to remove a CEO should it believe he or she was either underperforming, or if there was a breakdown in trust.
However, Engelbrecht did acknowledge that there was some blurring of roles, owing to the fact that the shareholder Minister, in this instance Barbara Hogan, had the prerogative to appoint chairpersons and CEOs at State companies.
Meanwhile, Bloomberg reported that ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, who has a long association with Godsell, said it was "out of place" to allege that Godsell was a racist. "Everybody must be careful. If there's a crisis, they begin to be personal and begin to go to the lowest level of irrationality," Mantashe added in an interview with SABC.
Baleni's statement was at odds with recent remarks by the Black Management Forum (BMF), which, together withthe ANC Youth League, hinted at racism. The BMF also argued that there had been a "flouting of corporate governance by both the chairperson and the board", while some SoEs were being turned into "slaughterhouses" for black professionals.
However, Cosatu said it agreed with the NUM that the use of the race card - when it was "completely irrelevant" - made it "difficult for all of us to confront real racism where it exists".
In a Business Day op-ed AngloGold Ashanti executive and former Godsell colleague, Thero Setiloane said that, while racism persisted in corporate South Africa, it was not justifiable for the BMF and the ANC Youth League to assume racism was at the root of every misfortune to befall a black manager.
Setiloane said that there was a dangerous tendency for a "select group" to use "racial chauvinism" to advance personal careers.
Black managers and professionals, he added, were being done a disservice by such behaviour: "Anyone with basic self-respect would prefer to be judged on the value we bring to our employers and the customers, clients and communities we serve. We do not want honest judgement of our performance to be muted by fear of a racial backlash."
Meanwhile Business Leadership South Africa's CEO Michael Spicer, who leads an association of South Africa's largest corporations and major multinational companies, described recent developments at Eskom and some of the racially charged commentary surrounding them as "lamentable" and "problematic".
The BMF and the ANC Youth League comments about Godsell were "infantile", and would have been "laughable if they weren't so tragic".
Spicer said there had been a worrying lack of leadership shown by government, which seemed not to fully grasp the importance of safeguarding institutions of corporate governance.
Godsell, he added, had played a pivotal role ahead of, during, and since South Africa's transition to democracy. He, together with the then general-secretary of the NUM, Cyril Ramaphosa, had navigated the "bruising" 1987 miners strike in such a way as to create the basis for free trade union activity.
During the early 1990's, Godsell worked with other civil society actors to draft the "Peace Accord", which drew on lessons learned from the miners strike in a bid to craft a code of conduct around political activity.
Godsell was active in just about all of Anglo American's initial black economic-empowerment endeavours, and was the key figure in supporting the creation of Patrice Motsepe's African Rainbow Minerals.
He was also arguably corporate South Africa's leading intellectual, writing and speaking extensively on issues affecting business in the country, having been involved from the mid-1980s in providing thought leadership on the shaping of South Africa "beyond apartheid".
On Wednesday October 28, Maroga reportedly offered to resign and the board accepted the resignation. But this was later disputed.
By Monday, November 9, Godsell said that he had decided to resign when government, Eskom's sole shareholder, was unable either to support the board's original decision to accept the resignation of Maroga, or its "two attempts at resolving this dispute".
The board reportedly offered to submit the dispute over whether Maroga had indeed resigned to "binding private arbitration". However, Godsell said that Maroga had not responded to this offer.
"In these circumstances, and with the best interests of the organisation in mind, the only course of action seems to me to resign as chair and as director," Godsell said.
Further board resignations were also possible, Bloomberg reporting that Allen Morgan was still weighing his options. There have also been reports that Lars Josefsson, a Swedish national, had expressed some discomfort over his continuation on the board.
No formal board resignations had been announced by Tuesday morning, and it was uncertain how senior management were reacting to developments. Eskom's so-called "Top 60" managers were currently in a breakaway session.
The Department of Public Enterprises reported on Monday afternoon that Mpho Makwana had been appointed acting chairperson of State-owned power utility. Makwana was appointed to the Eskom board in 2002 and is also chairperson of Epitome Investments and a director of the Monitor Group.