Issue: July/Sept 2010
Editorials

PROFILE

A unionist trustee

Prabir Badal

Badal...social commitment

Big changes at the GEPF have been brought about by people with big minds and big visions. Meet one of them.

Sceptics are inclined too easily to dismiss the model of member-elected trustees in the governance of retirement funds. For all the examples that can be shown not to work, there are many that do. Outstanding amongst them is the Government Employees Pension Fund.

Its metamorphosis is profound. The tanker has turned from the lethargy of a rusted government operation to leadership of the modern-day SA pensions movement: a founder-signatory of the UN Principles for Responsible Investment; an activist agenda to advance implementation of these principles through muscle as a shareholder in the largest corporates; by transferring registration of its shares from the Public Investment Corporation to itself, making it clear which is the principal and which is the agent, so there can be no doubt who’ll call the shots.

This 180-degree turn is a consequence of the GEPF’s democratisation, from the days to the mid-1990s when the sole trustee was the finance minister and the PIC solely directed the fund’s asset management. Since then, a 32-member board equally representing government (as employer) and members (employees and pensioners) has made its imprint. If the transition from old to new should have been difficult anywhere, it should have been at the GEPF; not least because of its cumbersome nature and enormous size.

But a dynamic factor was at play. The changes were driven by trustees who initiated them and wanted to make them work. Look at it through the eyes of one, deputy chair Prabir Badal.

Prominent in Cosatu – amongst other roles, he’s national treasurer of the 245 000-member National Education, Health & Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) – he joined the GEPF board in 2005. It was initially a tense environment, for him as a struggle veteran and novice trustee suddenly to find amongst his colleagues an experienced admiral and a brigadier, as well as a former director-general, who’d served the P W Botha government.

“At first, things were a bit edgy,” Badal recalls. “We newer trustees were playing a political game and saw Afrikaners from the old public service as reactionary. But as things progressed, we began to appreciate the value of what they produced and a good rapport developed. Today I have the highest respect for them.”

When people reach understandings to drive a common cause, backgrounds and stereotypes pale to insignificance. Here the trustees were joined in their understanding of “fiduciary”, finding practical expression in at least two ways.

First is in the long-term nature of pension funds, and hence the GEPF’s commitment to environmental, social and governance criteria as cornerstones of its investment policy to sustain returns. Second is in improved administration, which meant investment in systems. It’s resulted in the time taken for retirees to receive their pensions being reduced from 180 to 60 days, with 25 days as the next target.

Badal, 40, is an activist from way back. Born to a Chatsworth family, where his father was a teacher and his mother sewed clothes, an early lesson in the nastiness of apartheid was being assaulted by whites at a Kingsmead cricket match. Aged 10, he led a primary school campaign for “equal rights and a swimming pool”. Later, as a student, he cut his teeth in protests against the tri-cameral parliament.

Having received a diploma in cost and management accounting, he joined a small accountancy firm in Durban. Since 1997 he’s been with SARS where, with the old guard still well established when he joined, he battled to launch Nehawu. “Allied” in its name represents workers in the public service. No other Cosatu union is organising as effectively, it might be claimed.

Nominated through union structures by the Public Services Coordinating Bargaining Council to serve on the GEPF board in 2004, when he also became involved in discussions for the proposed national savings and social security fund, he now chairs the GEPF’s audit and finance committee.

In his early GEPF days, he knew little about trusteeship. Since then, he’s become as expert as the best. And, released from his SARS job to perform union duties at national level, he’s mellowed into firebrand-free relationships with erstwhile adversaries in labour negotiations. But the fire remains constant.

“There are few of us left who really want to uplift the downtrodden,” he says. “To assist people get their lives into perspective, protect their interests and make a social impact are worth more than monetary reward.”

The GEPF and Nehawu are his complementary platforms, both of which he’s helped shape into forces consistent with his own well-grounded beliefs.

“There are few of us left who really want to uplift the downtrodden. To assist people get their lives into perspective, protect their interests and make a social impact are worth more than monetary reward.”