Executives abandon South African state companies over indecision

Top South African businessmen called upon to help save ailing state-owned companies are abandoning their posts, frustrated by indecision and political interference.

Post Office chief executive Officer Mark Barnes, a former investment banker, on Thursday became the latest chief executive officer to quit.

His announcement came after former banking executive Phakamani Hadebe left power utility Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd and ex-Vodacom executive Vuyani Jarana resigned from South African Airways last month.

The departures highlight the quandary confronting South African president Cyril Ramaphosa. His plans to revive the country’s faltering economy are floundering because of infighting in the ruling party and legal challenges that are undermining his authority.

“It’s become increasingly obvious to private-sector talent that there is too much micro-management going on and too much political balancing and interference, which blocks decision-making,” said Peter Attard Montalto, the head of capital markets research at research company Intellidex.

“Ultimately it means if all this plays out that talent levels decline.”

The walk-out of top talent has forced the government to often appoint placeholder executives. Four critical state institutions – Eskom, transport and logistics company Transnet SOC Ltd, South African Airways and state pension-fund manager the Public Investment Corp – all have acting CEOs.

The circumstances under which executives have departed various entities were decidedly different, said Adrian Lackay, a spokesman for the Public Enterprises Ministry, which oversees the biggest state companies, including Eskom and SAA.

The government will prioritize strengthening and reconfiguring their boards, and vacant CEO posts will be filled as soon as possible, he said.

It’s not a wholesale exit. Business executives like Rothschild & Co chairman Martin Kingston and former Absa Group Ltd CEO Maria Ramos are helping out at South African Airways and the PIC respectively.

In order to attract more talent from the private sector, the government is going to have to address key issues such as separating the roles between government boards and executives, according to Cas Coovadia, managing director of the Banking Association of South Africa.

The organisations’ mandates also need to be clarified, he said.

“To me this is the elephant in the room,” Coovadia said. “If you put an executive in place to manage an organisation that has virtually no possibility of viability the executives will get frustrated and leave.

A very tough discussion needs to happen on which are strategic SOEs and which have the possibility of becoming financially viable.

Read: Eskom has a 4-point turnaround plan – but you’re not going to like it

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Executives abandon South African state companies over indecision