Friday, July 12, 2024

Pius Molefe: The Shakespearian twists and turns of his tenure at BBS

The country is gripped and intrigued by events playing out at Botswana Building Society where the Board and executive management are at each other’s throat.

The unfolding drama has all the hallmarks of a Hollywood blockbuster.

The star performers are the BBS Chairperson Pelani Siwawa-Ndai, Managing Director Pius Molefe, Board Secretary Sipho Showa  and other directors.

As in all the previous encounters Molefe always has a shiftless message: when it comes to BBS don’t mess up with me.

That is the same message he delivered to Serwalo Tumelo when he was permanent secretary at the Ministry of Finance. He has also delivered it to the then executives of BIFM Capital.

Before then a similar message was delivered to his predecessor at BBS, Phophi Nteta.

Pius Komane Molefe joined BBS in 2004 from the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning as it then was called.

Before joining government, he had had a short stint at Barclays Bank of Botswana.

He joined BBS as General Manager, Operations, reporting directly to Nteta.

At BBS for a little less than twenty years now, Molefe’s stay there has been awash with Shakespearian twists and turns all of which have played in full public glare.

When Nteta’s time for retirement came, Molefe applied to replace him as the BBS top man. He got the nod.

But there was a slight problem. Nteta was not immediately ready to vacate the company house.

At first he vacillated. And then sought the BBS indulgence to be given three months which he got. But still did not leave.

For the media, the whole spat playing in public was a fascinating spectacle to watch.

Nteta was given three months to wrap up and leave. At the end of it all, he still did not leave.

Molefe’s patience ran out. He was also nudged on by members of his executive team that included Bashi Chiepe and Jacob Nkala. They pleaded with him to man up and take control. An eviction was arranged for the former BBS managing Director.

From that moment on, Pius Molefe never looked back.

It was not long before another battle front presented itself at Molefe’s doorstep.

This one was much fiercer and involved much more powerful and more determined antagonists with state resources behind them. By that time Molefe was battle ready.

Botswana government had from early on held an indefinite shareholding in BBS.

For some few years past, the Minister of Finance Baledzi Gaolathe had been repeating in his budget speech that government would soon be disinvesting from BBS.

BBS management became jittery.

They took the minister’s statement as sufficient notice for them to prepare themselves and not get caught napping when government took a decision to pull out.

Their worry was that a disinvestment by government which held a significant shareholding would leave a big hole in their books that would be hard to fill. They immediately scavenged around for a replacement of government as a shareholder and BIFM Capital came in for the rescue.

The BIFM deal resulted with BBS writing a cheque of a little less than P120 million to Botswana government with a letter effectively notifying Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Finance, Serwalo Tumelo that they were now hence, no longer shareholders in BBS.

This rubbed Tumelo the wrong way. When he received the letter one April morning Tumelo was livid.

A proud and experienced man of government Tumelo felt slighted.

The situation was not helped by the fact that Molefe had earlier been very much his distant junior colleague at the ministry.

Never a man to hold back punches, Tumelo immediately got the ball rolling. He wrote back to BBS essentially directing Molefhe and his management team to put back the government shares and restore everything as it was before.

The letter was delivered the same afternoon accompanied by the same cheque.

“It was clear that Tumelo had mistaken BBS for a parastatal. Parastatals have Boards that are appointed and controlled by the permanent secretary or the minister. But BBS was never a parastatal and it took time for government guys to realise this,” said a source close to BBS.

Tumelo was a strict disciplinarian who, as was the case with many civil servants of his generation believed in the sanctity of hierarchy.

For him the Ministry of Finance was sacrosanct. It was the most important ministry in the whole of government machinery.

This was a ministry that had produced and nurtured not only presidents but also the cream across the entire public service. Whenever there was a nag in any ministry, an official would be dispatched from the ministry of finance as a kind of viceroy to come and untie the gridlock.

It was this same ministry that had sired people like Quill Hermans, Festus Mogae, Titus Madisa, Baledzi Gaolathe, Ken Matambo, Freddy Modise and many others; true titans of the public service.

As vice president, Quett Masire was both a godfather and patron saint of the ministry.

It was thus natural that Tumelo felt not only undermined but also publicly disrespected.

He was left with no choice but to cut Molefe to size and show him his rightful place.

And so the battle ensued.

Tumelo had multiple armour in his arsenal.

He had already written to the Building Societies Regulator seeking to get access to BBS books to do an inspection. BBS had turned down this request citing a clear conflict of interest on the part of the permanent secretary and his ministry.

After failing to arm-twist Molefe, BBS Board and management team to reverse their action, the ministry turned to one of its parastatals, the Public Procurement and Asset Disposal Board (PPADB) to join the fray.

PPADB gave BBS notice that the sale of shares to BIFM was done by stealth. This was therefore un-procedural.

According to PPAD Act any disposal of government property had to involve PPADB to protect and safeguard public interest.

The thinking in government was that BBS was now cornered.

Molefe went to court where his lawyers argued that BBS was a private company and could not be expected to be treated like it was a parastatal much less a government property.

PPADB was led by Armando Lionjanga who found himself facing defeat.

Tumelo and the ministry of finance accepted the setback but not defeat. They were not done yet.

This was not the issue they could give up on easily. For them it was a matter not only of corporate governance but of honour and pride.

To them a defiant upstart at BBS was not only out of order, but was also running amok. 

The ministry then turned on BIFM and Sanlam, the owners of BIFM.

The enormous pressure heaped on the two entities was to get BIFM Capital to withdraw its shareholding from BBS.

BIFM Capital executives relented and approached Molefe to reverse the deal.

He would have none of it. He essentially told them to go to hell.

BIFM Capital was led by Tim Marsland and Rees Carr.

By this time many people were worried about the turn the spat was taking.

Not only was all of it fought in public, it was also getting extremely combative.

Exuberant businessman Parks Gaobakwe was appointed as an emissary who would try to broker first a ceasefire and then a deal between government and BIFM on one hand and BBS on the other.

BIFM was especially eager for a reconciliation not least because they were abnormally conscious of the regulatory power wielded by the ministry of finance especially across their sphere of interest. 

Government had put forward their set of conditions, chief of which was that the BBS board should resign before any talks could even start.

The board had people like Pontius Mokgosana, Nightingale Kwele and Oaitse Mapitse in it.

Mapitse who was assistant attorney general at the time declined to resign when others left.

It was generally a turbulent time for both Pius Molefe and the BBS.

The latest showdown will determine not only the future of BBS but also of Molefhe.

This time, Molefe is pitted against Board Chairperson, Pelani Siwawa-Ndai.

It looks like it will be a do or die, especially for Molefe.

Siwawa-Ndai has been the first to draw blood.

She says she has sacked both Molefe and Showa.

Molefe and Showa insist that the board chairperson has overplayed her hand.

Onlookers are intrigued by the fact that the Molefe and Siwawa-Ndai would have known each other for at least forty years now. The two were together at Gaborone Secondary School and also at the University of Botswana.

It is almost more probable that Molefe would have played a role in interesting Siwawa-Ndai into joining the BBS Board.

It is hard to tell where the fallout started. All public statements released so far by both sides do not shed much light. What is clear though is that BBS demutualization and also the transformation process to becoming a fully-fledged commercial bank has not been a smooth sail.

Completion of the auditing process was lengthy and protracted. Many people questioned the length of time it took. It is likely that this alone, together with the process to apply for a banking licence would have annoyed some in the Board.

Molefe is adamant that the Board wants a free pass to staying beyond their statutory limit.

If Molefe loses this one he will go down as a CEO who became too powerful, overstayed and was in the end brought down by his obdurate nature.

He will no doubt disagree.

More hurtful for him will be the fact that were he to lose the duel it would mean he would not be the one opening a champagne bottle when BBS ultimately get a banking licence. That would no doubt hurt.

Getting BBS a commercial banking license has for years now been Molefe’s ultimate trophy.

Everything he did was with that in mind.

Whatever happens Molefe’s stay at BBS has been both long, eventful and epochal.

A friend says Molefe fancies himself a governance crusader.

“He inspires loyalty. He sees himself as that one good man who is fighting evil,” he said.

Another acquittance from their university days said Molefe has always been strong willed.

A veteran journalist who has covered BBS for a while called Molefe a “street fighter.”

“He doesn’t stop fighting. Personally, I wouldn’t want to be the one fighting him,” he said.

“Call him a thug if you want. But he wants life lived in his terms,” said another acquittance.

Molefe will no doubt need to draw deeper from experiences of his past battles to win this one.

Public opinion is divided.

Many are simply amused by his grit.

Others are of the view that he has overstayed at BBS.

The jury is still out. One thing is however clear: Molefe is not yet done at BBS.

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper