News / Opinion / Columns

William Saunderson-Meyer
3 minute read
7 Oct 2017
5:40 am

Female CEOs, the top knobs with no balls

William Saunderson-Meyer

Maybe women have not evolved to understand that corporate survival is best ensured by keeping one’s head down and as close as possible to the butt that must be kissed.

MAGDA WIERZYCKA Chief Executive Officer: Sygnia Group. Picture:

Can it be that the only CEO of a major South African corporate with balls is a woman? Well, duh! Why the surprise?

The business landscape is still dominated, as the #WMC sloganeers never tire of pointing out, by white men. With a handful of exceptions, the companies they head were cowards during the apartheid years.

Unfortunately, the black men – and they mostly are men – who have since joined the corporate luxury liner, Top Knobs SA, are largely cut of the same cloth.

And this is how the old boy networks have always worked: be a team player; don’t rock the boat; we’ll look after you, my boy.

The smug motto of corporate SA has always been that “the business of business is business”.

It is only now beginning to dawn on them that an incompetent, thieving government will destroy the conditions necessary for commerce to flourish.

What a breath of perfumed air, then, when the CEO of Sygnia Group, Magda Wierzykcka, took on KPMG-SA. She was the first to demand an explanation on why they could still be trusted to audit Sygnia, given their apparent involvement in state capture and creative accounting.

The KPMG executives spent an entire day trying to convince her that their moral and ethical bankruptcy was illusory. The KPMG emperor, they pleaded, did have clothes.

Look! they said, everyone else sees our fine raiment. No. The emperor is naked, said Wierzykcka, and fired them. That single act of corporate courage triggered the events that have since brought KPMG-SA to their knees. Not the audit profession’s regulators. Not the Hawks. Just one person, a gutsy woman.

Given that timidity is writ large in the DNA of corporate SA, it is perhaps unreasonable to expect such courage. After all, the herd instinct comes from the reality that those who break from the pack are more vulnerable to predation.

So the actions of Wierzykcka and another woman, Bianca Goodson, are perhaps evolutionary throwbacks.

Maybe women, unlike men, have not evolved to understand that corporate survival is best ensured by keeping one’s head down and, preferably, as close as possible to the butt that must be kissed.

Goodson, the former CEO of Trillian Management Consulting (TMC), certainly has paid a high price for her principles. Disturbed at what she identified as irregularities and unacceptable practices at TMC, Goodson resigned.

Goodson joined Sage, the international software giant. Sage trumpets its “rigorous anti-bribery and corruption policies”.

However, when Goodson realised that the extensive docket she had prepared for the repeatedly delayed parliamentary hearing on state capture was never likely to see the light of day, she decided she could not remain silent.

She released a detailed dossier online. Before doing so, she warned Sage and said that if they thought this would place them at reputational risk, she would resign.

The offer was accepted with alacrity. There is a happy-ish ending. When Wierzykcka this week heard what had happened, she offered Goodson a new job even faster than Sage had dumped her from her old one.

Wierzykcka says: “Anyone fighting state capture should be applauded … I was livid, thinking that if this is what corporate South Africa does, I want no part of it.”

Perhaps all those pathetic male top knobs should grow a pair. And I don’t mean breasts.

William Saunderson-Meyer

William Saunderson-Meyer.