Who gave him the power?

Why did peo­ple al­low Jo­hann Ru­pert’s com­ments to de­fine them?

The Witness - - OPINION - Fe­rial Haf­fa­jee

AREALLY rich white guy says re­ally dumb things and an en­am­oured ra­dio in­ter­viewer lets him get away with it. And sig­nif­i­cant parts of black South Africa come to a stop.

Why? I asked my­self, as I woke on Wed­nes­day morn­ing to see the out­rage that Rem­gro CEO Jo­hann Ru­pert had un­leashed after a gauche two-hour in­ter­view with me­dia mag­nate Given Mkhari.

Is he that im­por­tant that a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of peo­ple felt him pow­er­ful enough to de­fine them?

Sure, take on his out­moded per­spec­tives, but what I found trou­bling was how peo­ple seemed to in­ter­nalise them; to feel a gen­uine pain. Why was he be­queathed with so much power?

I watched the in­ter­view, found it in­ter­est­ing in parts, cringe-wor­thy in oth­ers; the busi­ness ad­vice seemed to have the en­trepreneurs in the room in­ter­ested. After all, Ru­pert is eye-pop­pingly wealthy. I won­dered why his eru­dite friends, like Trevor Manuel, Thabo Mbeki and Wendy Luhabe, have not checked his Ne­an­derthal bent when he uses racist lan­guage like “Shangaans are …”, “Venda are …” and “dark­ies” to speak about a coun­try whose di­ver­sity should be a strength, not a divi­sion.

I had thought Ru­pert might dish on how he had taken out Bell Pot­tinger, which used his im­age as the meme of its aw­ful “white monopoly cap­i­tal” cam­paign to de­flect from its client, the Gupta fam­ily’s as­sault on the state. He didn’t, so I didn’t give the in­ter­view an­other thought.

The pol­i­tics of bil­lion­aires in South Africa, es­pe­cially white ones, is of­ten dotty. In the case of two I have en­coun­tered, Christo Wiese and Ru­pert, their ahis­tor­i­cal anal­y­sis of the South African econ­omy and there­fore, of their wealth, is ig­no­rant enough for a book to be writ­ten about it. I have heard both men keep a room spell­bound with their rags-toriches sto­ries. Those his­to­ries are in­ter­est­ing, but not when you care to re­mem­ber that they were aided by laws that de­fined group ar­eas, job reser­va­tion and the sys­tem of Bantu Ed­u­ca­tion, which were de­signed to sup­press the ma­jor­ity to priv­i­lege a mi­nor­ity, and so to ease the path from rags to riches.

Be­ing a stu­dent of Steve Biko, I’ve long clicked that Black (Wo)man you’re on your own, is a phi­los­o­phy still to live by. I wrote a book called What if There Were no Whites in South Africa, to ar­gue that black South Africa too of­ten de­fined it­self by whites, as I tried to track how well many had done when given a lit­tle help­ing hand by a pro­gres­sive gov­ern­ment. The book sales were okay, but the ideas I wanted to thread into the na­tional fir­ma­ment failed mis­er­ably, I am sad to say. We re­main trans­fixed by the opin­ions of white South Africa. The fact that Ru­pert’s in­ter­view so in­censed peo­ple shows that the pat­tern I dis­cerned, of a black ma­jor­ity coun­try plac­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for its philo­soph­i­cal well­be­ing and its self-un­der­stand­ing in the hands of white cap­i­tal is still a thing. I wish it wasn’t.

I guess an­other rea­son I was not that touched on my stu­dio by Ru­pert’s in­ter­view is that I tend to hang out with bet­ter cap­i­tal­ists. This means I know that his ver­sion of be­ing a good cor­po­rate cit­i­zen (I pay my taxes, I give lots to char­ity, in­clud­ing my salary) is gone with the wind.

The peo­ple I lis­ten to are prac­ti­tion­ers of a much more am­bi­tious in­clu­sive cap­i­tal­ism, where they see their roles as chang­ing so­ci­ety, not just pay­ing taxes and do­ing their bit for char­ity.

Take Yel­low­woods chair­per­son Adrian Einthoven, own­ers of Hol­lard and Nan­dos, among other com­pa­nies. He’s so un­der the radar that he pos­si­bly won’t like my writ­ing this, but his work in grow­ing artists, in seed­ing the Africa Lead­er­ship Ini­tia­tive, in help­ing to cul­ti­vate Busi­ness Lead­er­ship South Africa (where he is deputy chair­per­son) as an ac­tivist force in our coun­try and in fund­ing demo­cratic civil so­ci­ety, is a far more res­o­nant model of what we want and need from busi­ness lead­ers in SA.

So are Isaac Shongwe and Derek Thomas of Let­sema Strat­egy and Man­age­ment Con­sult­ing. Rudely pushed aside by McKin­sey (who went for a Gupta com­pany as part­ner) after be­ing their part­ner for years, the com­pany’s strait­laced way of do­ing busi­ness has earned it ad­mi­ra­tion for decades. Shongwe is an As­pen In­sti­tute fel­low who has trained gen­er­a­tions of SA lead­ers to use their po­si­tions to im­pact their coun­try.

Futi Mthoba, the former chair­per­son of Deloitte South­ern Africa, and her busi­ness part­ner Mothomang Di­aho, have put hun­dreds of high-cal­i­bre grad­u­ates into South African class­rooms through their pro­gramme Teach SA.

The work those fel­lows have done is phe­nom­e­nal, and it sig­ni­fies a way to think very dif­fer­ently about the role in so­ci­ety out­lined by Ru­pert on Tues­day.

Then there’s an­other friend of mine: Bruce Robert­son, also part of the Africa Lead­er­ship Ini­tia­tive, who took his ac­tivism from the univer­sity cam­puses into agri­cul­ture. He is now the mul­ti­award win­ning cot­ton king of Uganda, where he has built a sup­ply chain of or­ganic cot­ton from the fields of east Africa to fash­ion rails across the world.

There are many sto­ries like this, all ev­i­dence of busi­ness­peo­ple who are prac­ti­tion­ers of in­clu­sive cap­i­tal and shared growth. I’m not sure to what ex­tent they are the rule and not the ex­cep­tion any longer, but I know enough to see this new model mak­ing a dent of hope.

By the end of the in­ter­view, Mkhari was try­ing to push a re­luc­tant Ru­pert into men­tor­ing fu­ture busi­ness lead­ers and shar­ing his tips on how to get rich.

I’d coun­sel some­thing dif­fer­ent: there are al­ready won­der­ful cir­cles of men­tor­ing in good or­gan­i­sa­tions, and it would be far prefer­able to learn and grow from pro­gres­sive and in­vested busi­ness­peo­ple than to make a gen­er­a­tion of black Ru­perts. He is an in­ter­est­ing and suc­cess­ful busi­ness leader, but all his in­ter­view showed me was that he rep­re­sents a re­ally out­moded kind of busi­ness and po­lit­i­cal think­ing. — Fin24.

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