Saturday, October 23, 2021

‘BR needs Kalanga and / or Tswapong executive managers to thrive’

The previous Botswana Railways and its Chief Executive Officer were not happy campers and for the latter, one of his lowest points was when two male Board of Management members allegedly told him that the executive management team was staffed with people from the wrong tribes.

The last bullet point of a section headlined “insults and verbal abuse from [names withheld]”, reads: “Insinuations along tribal lines to the effect that because of the absence of a Mokalaka and/or Motswapong on the current Executive Team, things will never go right at Botswana Railways.” The author was Dominic Ntwaagae who stepped down as BR CEO with a month still left on his contract.

About the resignation: Two weeks prior, the Minister of Transport and Communications, Kitso Mokaila, had issued a directive that all trains should be grounded as a precautionary measure against Tropical Cyclone Dineo which was bringing heavy rains. Due to some communication breakdown, the message didn’t reach some relevant departments that are in charge of train movements, resulting in a train being derailed. From what Sunday Standard learns, Ntwaagae took responsibility for this lapse and resigned his position. However, he has applied for the CEO post and there is a chance he might come back to BR and a new board. Mokaila dissolved the old one last month and from what Ntwaagae’s October 26, 2016 letter to him expressly states, the two parties didn’t get on well at all.

Whether this letter had anything at all to do with the board’s dissolution is unclear but the allegations that Ntwaagae makes in it are mind-boggling. The two board members, whose names form part of the sub-heading, are said to have been in the habit of hurling “accusations, insults and verbal abuse” at Ntwaagae and his executive team. The letter says that during one meeting, the two board members in question said to the BR Executive Management Team: “Le boroletse.” Ntwaagae explains the phrase as a “Setswana expression used to describe the posture of sheep.” Within proper context, the expression would describe people who ÔÇô like sheep – are sedate in a highly competitive corporate environment. The executive management team would also be accused of being willfully deceitful, insincere, sloppy, presenting issues that are not well thought out and not being analytical.

While the letter characterises the two tart-tongued board members as having worked as something of a tag team, one is said to have been particularly egregious. Save for the “one or two instances” that one board member, Lesedi Moakofhi, intervened, other members are said to not have raised their voices. This board member in question is said to have meddled in operational issues, often calling staff at the Operations Control Centre to enquire about the daily movement of trains. Ntwaagae says that this board member would then use this information “against me and my team in board meetings.”

At a later stage, Ntwaagae had a private meeting with Moakofhi at the latter’s request. At that meeting the CEO (as he then was) “aired my grievances and frustrations primarily as a result of the ill-treatment that I had been receiving from the board for an extended period of time.”

The deepest cut would have been from a blow that was delivered at a meet-and-greet session between some board members and staff at the BR headquarters in Mahalapye. Ntwaagae says that he was “called to order in front of the staff” by a chairperson of a board sub-committee. The roving microphone was then taken away from him, “embarrassing me in front of my staff in the process.” Ntwaagae also alleges that during what sounds like a protracted stand-off period, the board would lock him out of important meetings which he was qualified to attend as an ex-officio member of the board.

The board is also alleged to have “usurped” Ntwaagae’s authority, one instance being with regard to the suspension of a manager following a passenger train accident late last year. The usurpation of authority here was of the board resolving to suspend the Safety Health Environment and Quality Manager (SHEQ) and instructing Ntwaagae to implement such resolution.

“The board in this instance usurped my executive authority in spite of them not having the authority to suspend a manager below the level of Executive Management, this being the SHEQ Manager,” writes Ntwaagae, adding that he found as illogical the Board’s resolution to suspend the Director of Operations and Engineering whilst investigations into the accident were still ongoing.

Oddly though (at least in the author’s appreciation of the situation), the board decreed that no action should be taken against the crew (engineman and train man) of the train that was involved in the accident. His speculation is that this “immunity from prosecution” was part of a deal in terms of which his chief tormentor would be fed with information that he could subsequently use against Ntwaagae at board meetings.

However, the letter singles out five board members as having been immensely supportive and highly professional in the conduct of their board assignments. They are Raymond Watson, Satar Dada, Cross Kgosidiile, Adolph Hirschfeld and Legodile Serema. Interestingly, Hirschfeld has been reappointed to the new board as chairman.

In an ironic twist, Sunday Standard gets mention in the letter for being used as some board members as a conduit for highly confidential issues that were discussed at board meetings.

“Whereas as a management team we have tried to manage negative publicity in the media concerning the organisation, it is disheartening to note that most, if not all of the issues discussed by the board in camera, seem to always find their way to one particular media house, this being Sunday Standard newspaper. These are issues which management was not privy to. This therefore, brings to the fore issues of confidentiality as regards matters discussed by the board in camera. Suffice to say, given the trends observed in the recent past, I will indeed be pleasantly surprised if this letter or its contents does not appear in the media as part of a negative article written about Botswana Railways, once issued to some board members,” Ntwaagae’s letter says. 

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