Adila Chowan’s legal victory against Mark Lamberti and Imperial Holdings leaves Thulani Gcabashe, former chairperson of the Imperial board, in a precarious position.
The court judgement implicates Gcabashe for siding with a group of white men who ostensibly harassed a black woman, Chowan, using racist and sexist tools. It’s a compromising position to be in for a black man, Gcabashe. Alongside everything else, individuals like Gcabashe are expected to be progressive agents within corporations and not defenders of the old order.
Gcabashe, who also serves as Standard Bank board chairperson, does not come out shining in Judge Piet Meyer’s ruling. Meyer ruled that Chowan’s charge that her dignity was undermined on the basis of colour and sex were reasonable and justified. That therefore means Gcabashe erred big time when handling Chowan’s grievance.
A frustrated Chowan turned to Gcabashe twice for help. She wrote two letters to Gcabashe pointing out unacceptable behaviour by Imperial CEO Lamberti and another executive, Janse van Rensburg. Gcabashe did not only dismiss her charges but subjected her to a disciplinary process for raising the grievance in a behaviour characterised by the judge as somewhat irrational. And she was subsequently suspended by the company for raising the grievance. She felt frustrated and quit.
Here’s what happened as laid out by the judgement. Chowan, a chartered accountant, raised a grievance against Lamberti after he had dismissed her as an employment equity appointee. Chowan wrote a letter to Gcabashe complaining about Lamberti’s behavior. In response, Gcabashe promised to appoint an independent person to look into the matter.
In his response letter Gcabashe did say that “the allegations (about Lamberti) are of a very serious and most troubling nature. It is therefore necessary that a proper and detailed investigation must take place, to determine the veracity and accuracy of your claims…”
A law firm, Dewey Hertzberg Levy, was appointed to conduct the grievance investigation. The judge raised questions about the independence of the firm and the process followed.
And then Chowan fired a second letter complaining about Van Rensburg’s behaviour.
The grievance investigation was subsequently completed and the company concluded that Chowan’s allegations were “completely without foundation” and “devoid of substance”.
In his letter to Chowan communicating the findings, Gcabashe stated that: “I am satisfied that your allegations are completely without foundation in fact, and are devoid of substance.
“Accordingly your ‘grievance’ application is dismissed, and is now closed.”
However, added Gcabashe, this is not the end of the matter. “As your actions constitute misconduct and an abuse of the grievance procedure, it has been decided to institute the disciplinary procedure (against you).”
The judge notes that “It is not clear, on the evidence before me, why the decision was taken to institute the disciplinary action against Ms Chowan…”
And so amongst other considerations the judge ruled that “Ms Chowan has established the common law requirements for her dignity claim to succeed. Imperial and Mr Lamberti are liable, jointly and severally, for Ms Chowan’s damages, as quantified in due course, as a result of the impairment of her dignity.”
Gcabashe quit the position of Imperial board chairperson towards the end of 2015 to take up the position of Standard Bank board chair. He was succeeded at Imperial by Suresh Kana. The job of rectifying Gcabashe’s injustice now rests with Kana.
Will Kana in the interest of justice act against Lamberti? His colleagues in the Imperial board will also come under the spotlight. These include deputy chairperson Ashley Tugendhaft, Roderick Sparks, Peter Cooper, Graham Dempster, Thembisa Skweyiya, Phumzile Langeni and Valli Moosa.
This article was lifted from ProBonoMatters, an online media platform that exist to serve public good.