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Lamberti victim Adila Chowan speaks out

Apr 18 2018 12:16
Lameez Omarjee

Cape Town - It is unfortunate that the Imperial's internal governance process was compromised and this has had such serious repercussions for the company's CEO Mark Lamberti.

This was the reaction on Wednesday of chartered accountant Adila Chowan to news that Lamberti had resigned as Imperial CEO after four years at the helm.

She recently won her race and gender discrimination case against the Imperial Group, its subsidiary Associated Motor Holdings (AMH) and Lamberti. 

Lamberti's resignation as Imperial CEO follows his stepping down from the boards of Eskom and Business Leadership South Africa after the North Gauteng High Court found in favour of Chowan in the case where Lamberti was said to have referred to her as "female employment-equity" in front of fellow managers. He also said she would need as many as four more years to develop her leadership skills.

The series of incidents started in 2014, and Chowan was eventually dismissed in 2015. She then sued for race and gender discrimination. Damages in the case have to be proven in due course, Imperial said in its shareholder announcement on Wednesday.

Chowan told Fin24 by phone last week she is now studying law in the hope of helping others.

Although she was happy with the outcome of the case, she said it was regrettable that Imperial's governance processes were compromised.

She said she had pursued the case as her reputation had been tarnished by the Imperial incidents. Chowan said she was dismissed in December 2015 following an investigation into a complaint she had laid that race and gender discrimination was the reason for her being overlooked for a promotion.

She then said she decided to pursue the matter in court as justice was not served.

"There are a couple of reasons I took this case to court. My reputation was definitely tarnished. I refused to resign. I could have resigned and walked off with my name clear. But I decided you have to draw a line at some point and not become a victim.

"I had done nothing wrong. For me it was a matter of principle. I sought legal advice from the onset to assist me through the process," she said.

"Interestingly enough, with everything that transpired, I am now studying law.”

Chowan started studying law at Unisa in 2016 and expects to complete her degree in 2019.

She plans to use her degree to help others, she told Fin24. Women in the workplace were not being given opportunities, particularly in the private sector which still had a long way to go to effect transformation, she said. 

"A lot of people have reached out to me to assist them," she said. "I don't want to mention their names, I don't want to mention their issues, but I am assisting them where I can. It is not unique to me. I was just one of those who became vocal about it and I took the matter on. There are a lot of people who are in my shoes."

Breaking glass ceiling(s)

When asked if the judgment could have a ripple effect on the industry, Chowan described her lawsuit as a "landmark case". She believes people will start reconsidering how they treat women in the workplace.

"I would encourage women to speak out," she said. 

Referring to her court case, which spanned more than two years, Chowan said women must understand it is not an easy process. "You have got to be mentally strong and you have got to be prepared to ride the wave."

"It took two and a half years to get justice," she said. "The journey requires courage and strength, as well as financial resources."

She also said the support from her family helped her persevere. Among the lessons she learned, Chowan said it is important to be a person of integrity. "If you are a person of integrity and do everything above board, no matter what investigation they throw on you, they won’t find dirt on you."

In its statement on Wednesday announcing Lamberti's resignation, Imperial said its board had carefully studied the judgment and accepted its conclusions.

In addition to finding that Chowan had suffered damages arising from her dismissal by AMH, Lamberti was found to have impaired Chowan's dignity during a conversation on April 15 2015. Lamberti has since apologised unreservedly for any unintended hurt, said Imperial.

Lamberti had come under fire during the court case, with the Economic Freedom Fighters calling for his head.

In his letter of resignation from the Eskom board, which he sent to Public Enterprise Minister Pravin Gordhan, Lamberti made reference to the high level of public attention around the case, calling it a "mainstream and social media frenzy of generally inaccurate commentary".

He said that a "political agenda" and "legally incorrect interpretations of the judgment" culminated "in the most vitriolic defamation" of his person.

Imperial, in its statement announcing Lambert's resignation on Wednesday, further resolved to implement corrective action to address deficiencies in its gender and race relations culture highlighted in the judgment.

The JSE-listed, logistics and vehicle firm added that it had made substantial progress in gender and racial transformation within its ranks over the past three years.

"The board has noted the content and tone of the judgment in which there is no finding of defamation, racism or sexism despite extensive and frequently inaccurate publicity directed at Mr Lamberti suggesting that there was."

Imperial's spokesperson Esha Mansingh, told Fin24 last week that Imperial remained committed to driving transformation.

Over the past five years since Lamberti joined Imperial, the demographics of the company had changed to be more inclusive. Of the 137 chartered accountants employed at Imperial, 51% were from previously disadvantaged backgrounds and 40% of these were women, according to Mansingh.

Lamberti was not immediately available for comment on Wednesday. 

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