YONELA DIKO: Absa must come clean on Sipho Pityana

OPINION

Sipho Pityana joined the Absa board of directors in May 2019. In that period as a board member of the company, he has been the chairperson of the remuneration subcommittee, member of the director's affairs committee and lead independent director. In the two-and-a-half years since joining the Absa board, not once was he ever accused of dereliction of duty or lack of conscientiousness.

At the time of joining the board, he was also the chairperson of the Anglo Gold Ashanti board. He left Anglo in December last year. In the year since he left the mining company, not once was he ever accused of leaving behind an unresolved charge nor was there a formal judgement against him of sexual harassment. If there was such a formal charge or pending case, it is unlikely that Absa would have accepted him as their new board member or that the Prudential Authority would not have flagged such a judgement as potentially making him unfit for board membership.

It is curious then that now, on the verge of Absa considering a replacement to outgoing chairperson Wendy Lucas-Bull, where Piyana's experience as a chairperson of boards stands shoulders above the rest and puts him atop other possible candidates, that accusations of old cases of sexual harassment and some loose dereliction of duty are being raised as reasons for him being unfit to chair of Absa's board. If these old accusations were true, coming as they are from his time at Anglo Gold Ashanti, Pityana would have been unfit to join the Absa board in the first place. You cannot be good enough to join a board, but be too scandalous to chair it.

It is also curious that where Pityana is still chairperson of boards at construction companies like Redefine and others and where he is just an ordinary member of the board, they are showing no interest in the matter, are not accusing him of anything and are not asking him to step down. They seem puzzled by this circus. What is it about Absa that Pityana would be good to chair all these boards, but not be good enough for Absa?

It is also curious that some key figures who, for no rational reasons, have jumped into the fray, playing loose with facts and clearly targeting reputational damage. It is not clear why Lucas-Bull as outgoing chair is speaking on the matter of her possible successor with a negative view, unless she has an interest and would like to influence who should succeed her. It is not clear why the chief executive officer of the Prudential Authority, Kuben Naidoo, is speaking on the matter of sexual harassment, clearly sullying the waters so that Pityana can have a dark cloud hanging over him and be seen as unfit to hold the office.

What is at the core of this conflict?

Pityana is accusing the Reserve Bank's Prudential Authority of having informal engagements with Absa about him as a potential replacement to Lucas-Bull. This would be highly unethical as the Prudential Authority is a regulator, which is supposed to hold commercial banks accountable and not get involved in the affairs of the regulated to influence or dictate who should lead them. This would make the Prudential Authority both the referee and player.

Pityana is also accusing his own successor at Anglo Gold Ashanti, Maria Ramos, who use to be Absa chief executive (who like Lucas-Bull seems to have an inexplicable interest on who should be the next board chairperson) of triggering this whole mess by approaching the Prudential Authority with unproven allegations of sexual harassment. This again would be an indictment on Ramos, who seems to think she is CEO-emeritus of Absa and to treat bank as her fiefdom and the Reserve Bank as her benefactor.

These are all allegations by Pityana and remain unproven. Both Absa and the Prudential Authority have gone on to say Pityana was not formally nominated for the position of chairperson of Absa board yet, showing him to be entitled and demanding.

The bank has since relieved Pityana from the board itself, citing the sexual harassment case and dereliction of duty.

The problem of course is that all this is over two years late. Pityana joined the Absa board in 2019 and left Anglo Gold Ashanti in 2020. Why are we having this conversation now?

This is all not very prudential.

Absa does not want Pityana as chairperson

It is clear to any South African who has been following the matter and has an interest in good governance in the financial sector that it is only when Pityana wanted to become chairperson of the Absa board that these accusations arose. If Absa does not want Pityana in that position and neither does the Prudential Authority as Pityana seems to suggest, it must be said that if Pityana was good enough to be a member of the board and chair its crucial subcommittees, then he cannot be unfit to lead.

Pityana currently holds chairpersonship of Redefine and University of Cape Town's council. It is not unreasonable for him to expect his name to be seriously considered at Absa and it is no entitlement if he considers himself more experienced than others who have applied to chair the board.

Pityana's principled leadership is established

Pityana claims that on 2 November 2021 he received a letter from Absa instructing him to resign. Naturally, the accusations that were stated forced Pityana's hand to challenge what he found to be without merit.

Pityana has an established reputation as a principled, fearless and capable leader. There is nothing that suggests he could risk all that he has worked hard for to make false accusations against the Reserve Bank's Prudential Authority. Pityana has no record of being crazy and demanding a fair chance at the Absa role is no entitlement. It's understanding his ability to excel as a candidate.

One has to depart from a reasonable position that there is merit to Pityana's accusations. Unlike other board members, Pityana has been a regulator before and has no problem calling the authority if he thinks they are interfering with those they are suppose to independently regulate. Unlike other board members, Pityana has taken on a whole sitting President before at the height of his powers. when doing so had grave consequences. Pityana is unlikely to be intimidated by the faceless Prudential Authority and it's misguided CEO who seems to be in too deep in this matter that he does not know which way is up.

It is this fierce independence and fearlessness that has made Pityana a sort-after shareholder representative on a long list of boards.

Conclusion

Absa is not being transparent about their reasons why Pityana should not be chairperson of their board. All the reasons the bank has given thus far are without merit.

Given that Lucas-Bull also could not deal with CEO Daniel Mminele over differences in strategy and other loosely defined tropes, forcing a capable man to stay only 16 months in the job, maybe a pattern is emerging that seems to be have an anti black-male face. As Denker Capital founder Kokkie Kooyman said on the departure of Mminele: "It does seem as if the board did not give enough attention to transformation and this seems to have frustrated the new CEO."

If that is the case, it would be unfortunate.

Yonela Diko is the former spokesperson to the Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation. You can follow him on Twitter: @yonela_diko