Now Nene’s into the finance of farming
‘BEE attracts opportunists’
Nhlanhla Nene, the former finance minister, who is currently an adviser at Thebe Investment Corporation, says BEE was only partly successful.
“If people do not have to work to get to the top, there is a tendency that opportunists start believing they have a right to simply and quickly get to the top,” he said this week.
“For that reason it is very important that practical and meaningful plans are made to support the enforcement of BEE.”
Thebe is one of South Africa’s black empowerment success stories, but ironically, it is not a BEE company.
The company was founded as a trust by luminaries such as former president Nelson Mandela, along with Walter Sisulu, Beyers Naudé, Ernest Mabuza and Vusi Kanyile in 1992.
At the time, there was no BEE legislation.
The intention of the founders of Thebe was to start a black company that would help black people get access to mainstream business in the new, democratic South Africa.
They initiated some businesses themselves, and bought, developed and resold others. One of these was the state-owned airline, SA Express.
Today the company manages assets worth R6 billion and it still has a majority black shareholding.
“Yes, there should be more companies like Thebe, which was founded to create value – unlike today’s companies, which are only established because of benefits to be reaped from the BEE regulations,” said Nene.
“These days, people establish BEE companies purely because there are immediate advantages for them.”
After Nene was fired as finance minister last year, he received numerous job offers, including one from Thebe.
“Thebe’s culture and vision appealed to me,” he said.
“To this day the company still aims to, first and foremost, build communities, while also contributing to transformation and to growing the company.”
– Inge Kühne
December 9 marks exactly a year since Nhlanhla Nene was fired from his post as finance minister.
A day or two after vacating his position, he took his youngest daughter shopping – because he had the time. He also helped his wife, Lisa, to plant 10 000 cabbages on their 22-hectare farm near Kranskop in KwaZulu-Natal.
Before long he was involved in a development project for preschoolers, and took up the chairmanship in board meetings of the local hospital.
After Nenegate – known in the corridors of Treasury as “9/12” – Zuma tried to calm the markets by claiming Nene would be taking up a high position at the development bank being mooted by Brics, the acronym given to the coalition of the five emerging national economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. But nothing came of that.
However, many in the private sector queued with offers in hand for Nene.
In April, he accepted a position as a nonexecutive director of Allan Gray. Since May, he has been an adviser at black investment group Thebe Investment Corporation, which manages assets worth more than R6 billion.
Nene describes these opportunities as vastly different from his ministerial duties. “It offers me a new life because the private sector forces me to focus on new challenges.”
He admits to missing the breakneck pace of his former life in politics. “My children can testify that they were never really sure whether they had a father. But now they know they have one. I introduced myself to them again.”
He feels less stressed than during his ministerial days, and enjoys what he does now.
Government’s loss is business’s gain. Vusi Khanyile, the chair of Thebe, attests to this, saying Nene’s “immeasurable skills set” will be invaluable to the growth path of the business.
For Nene, who is involved in his family’s farm, agriculture is of critical importance to the economy. He places its importance as being on a par with mining.
“Agriculture’s role in addressing three of the country’s biggest challenges – unemployment, food security and its contribution to the wider economy – should not be underestimated.”
But there are many obstacles, especially for people farming on a small scale. “It would help if every town had a market where local farmers could sell their fresh produce, be it 10 bags of potatoes or 100,” he suggests.
“These markets could start as a government initiative, and state institutions such as schools and hospitals could buy their products locally.
“This would stop the process of vying for supply tenders and provide opportunities for private entrepreneurs, such as for contractors who transport the farmers’ produce to market.”
Nene stresses the importance of good relationships between producers, the markets and government agencies. “If you look at some of the failed agriculture and land reform projects, poor links between the various role players, or misunderstanding the role each was supposed to play, was a problem.”
He says Thebe is in a position to re-evaluate some of these failed projects, get involved and make them commercially viable again.
One of the projects that has been identified for a revival is situated in Mpumalanga.
According to Nene, Thebe representatives are already in talks with community members on the matter and will soon meet with the department of rural development and land reform to discuss possibilities. “Farming is not a get-rich-quick scheme. It is sufficient to sustain you and is an asset that grows. But your heart has to be in it.”