Winning Women – Simi Pillay-van Graan: Crime buster
Advocate Simi Pillay-van Graan, the versatile CEO of Business Against Crime SA, faced guns, knives and crime syndicate bosses before doing an MBA and moving to Bacsa, writes Sue Grant-Marshall
It’s hard to believe that deep-thinking and profound former state prosecutor Advocate Simi Pillay-van Graan has had only one good hour of sleep the night before we meet.
Yet this is almost the norm for the CEO of Business Against Crime SA (Bacsa).
Bright-eyed and intensely alert, she says: “I never stop thinking and strategising. There’s so much I need to do that there are not enough hours in the day to accomplish everything. Also, I have great energy.”
Pillay-van Graan chose the role of state prosecutor, known for its long hours and relatively poor pay when compared with private sector advocates, soon after she graduated in 1996.
“It wasn’t about the money. I wanted to serve people and to see that the criminals who had done them harm ended up in prison.”
That was back in the 1990s, when it was not unusual for her to walk into her office each morning and see 80 new dockets lying on her desk.
“Each one of them meant something bad had happened that affected many lives. My work involved helping the desperate person who went to a police station and reported a crime. When this concerned women and children, I felt even more determined to assist them.”
She started in Durban, where she worked on petty crime cases, but soon moved into prosecuting criminals working in syndicates. She was involved in cases dealing with serial murderers and serial rapists, so it is not surprising that her work involved real personal danger.
Once, an accused lashed out at her with a knife in court. She once found herself looking down the barrel of a gun that was also turned on the presiding magistrate.
When she was the prosecutor in a money laundering racket, she learnt that an assassin had been hired to kill her.
“What is certain in life, is death. I’m not afraid of it and I would rather meet mine helping someone,” she says mildly. “Also, I’d rather face the threat head-on than take a bullet in my back.”
It would be hard to think of someone more suited to the role of tackling crime than this advocate, who studied for, and obtained, her MBA in between pregnancies.
Well armed on both the legal and business sides of life, she joined Bacsa in 2004.
In a country awash with crime and corruption, where some might have become jaded and cynical over time, she has instead felt increasingly passionate about the role that her organisation can play, in tandem with government and business, to reduce crime.
One of the early initiatives she was involved in was to organise the blacklisting of stolen cellphones with service providers.
“They agreed to terminate services for such a phone once a customer had called them with the details and a police case number. That alone forces someone to report the theft.”
Pillay-van Graan tells of statistics in 2005 of 120?000 cellphones being stolen a month.
By July that year, the figures had dropped by 50%, “and the decline has been sustained for many years”, she says with satisfaction.
Right now, Bacsa is working on an initiative involving automatic vehicle number plate recognition cameras.
“With this system, we’ll be able to help the police in cases ranging from hijacking to kidnapping by detecting stolen vehicles.
“Bacsa has signed a memorandum of understanding on this with the SA Police Service,” she says.
Bacsa’s role is to identify various initiatives that require business support.
“We go to business and tell them what budget we require. And then we are accountable for it.”
But she explains that she speaks about much more than just money to the business world.
“It might concern leveraging skills such as mentorship, change management, IT development where systems are needed, and training courses in government or for the police.”
The small woman with the determined gaze believes that when it comes to addressing crime in South Africa, it requires “every single one of us to help, and not just government”.
She feels that the private sector needs to reach out to government, “and so this is what Bacsa does”.
Pillay-van Graan has built good personal relationships with Cabinet ministers and directors-general, “which are based on trust”.
She talks about corruption in both the government and private sectors: “It’s a symbiotic relationship.”
Then, she expounds on what she feels lies at its core: “It’s a lack of leadership. People use company vehicles for private reasons. They arrive late for work, and take pens and paper when they leave.
“Executives employ their children or family members.
“These are simple things, but it is excellent leadership that should set the bar.”
She believes that extends into our homes, where parents need to be good role models and help change distorted values in which success is measured primarily by material gains.
“If only more of us would realise that we can’t take stuff with us when we die.”
This CEO believes that, in spite of her humble beginnings, we come into the world empowered to make something of our lives.
“Life doesn’t owe us anything and self-pity takes us back a thousand steps,” she says gently.
The little black book
You become a leader when you reach a point where you understand who you are. Then you can lead.
My grandfather, whose unconditional love encouraged me to become what I wanted to be, without any restrictions placed on me.
How Successful People Think by John C Maxwell. I keep it in my handbag and read it whenever I have the chance to.
My parents, who moved away from our traditional approach towards the education of women and enabled me to attend university.
When I realised how our children are born smart, pure and innocent. They see things for what they are. Adults need to learn – or unlearn – in order to experience a fulfilling life.
Serve others and, in return, life will serve you in abundance – provided you have the purity to see and embrace it.