Patrice Motsepe's ups and downs

by Loni Prinsloo
SA's richest man outlines a vision for growth and racial harmony - and expresses his optimism about Africa.

One of South Africa's most successful entrepreneurs, Patrice Motsepe, is excited by a wave of new African entrepreneurs, who he believes will help the continent unlock its many opportunities.

Named as South Africa's wealthiest man in the Sunday Times Rich List, Motsepe believes the next two decades will be about Africa and doing business in Africa.

"There is a new generation of Africans that have studied in different places, such as France, the US, the UK, and who have returned to the continent with a wealth of experience and knowledge.

"I am excited when I meet these people across the continent and believe that they will provide the energy, passion and enthusiasm to drive Africa forward. The future of this continent is looking very promising in the hands of these dynamic entrepreneurs."

Regarding South Africa, he said: "We have a country of exceptional business and entrepreneurial talent in both the black and the white communities and we should build on that going forward, not as black and white, but as South African business.

"The strength of this country is its people."

Motsepe was born and bred to be an entrepreneur. His father, Augustine Motsepe, owned a small grocery store and later a restaurant and liquor hall frequented by mine workers in the Hammanskraal area. This childhood environment gave the young Motsepe his first exposure to two of his life's biggest passions: business and mining. A third one is football.

"My father use to say that the family made a lot more money when I worked behind the counter, which I was doing from the time I was about five years old. But I realised very soon that I didn't want to be behind that counter my whole life. That is why I went to study law in the end."

Motsepe became the first black partner in corporate law firm Bowman Gilfillan. Later he began building the first black-owned mining business in the country, African Rainbow Minerals (ARM). ARMgold, formed in 1997 and listed on the JSE in 2002, merged with Harmony in 2003 and this ultimately led to the takeover of Anglovaal Mining.

ARM has interests in gold, ferrous metals, base metals, coal and platinum, and Motsepe was worth about R23-billion at last count.

A constant stream of people came up to greet him and to take his photos as we proceeded to the private dining area at the Sandton Sun Hotel to discuss his latest meeting with the Black Business Council (BBC).

In 2003, Motsepe was responsible for bringing organised black and white business together under one flag when the BBC and Business South Africa merged to form Business Unity South Africa (Busa).

However, the two groups are now at odds, with the BBC deciding to reform as a separate entity this week. The two parties bumped heads in September last year when black businessmen felt their interests and challenges were not being adequately addressed within Busa.

Black business turned to Motsepe for leadership and he took on the role of interim chairperson, hoping to play a mediating role and to possibly unite the two sides again. But negotiations deadlocked, and now Busa and BBC will operate as separate entities.

"This is not ideal," said Motsepe, emphasising that it was important for South Africans to start thinking and doing business in nonracial terms.

Nevertheless, he added, black business still had a unique set of issues and challenges stemming from legacy issues.

"When we formed Busa there were an equal number of white and black companies in the organisation to ensure an equitable partnership, and for no one interest group to dominate another. However, this is not the case any more, and black business felt that they were being dominated by white business within the structures of Busa."

Motsepe said he would not accept the presidency of BBC again, but would still play an active role behind the scenes. "We need these institutions to walk hand-in-hand to ensure the success of South African business."

He noted that South Africans had great business ability and had produced some of the biggest businesses and most successful entrepreneurs in the world.

"It is not that well known, but even in the apartheid era there were many successful black entrepreneurs who had to be very creative and innovative to make good business. I had the privilege to watch some of the most successful black business people operate when I was a little boy," said Motsepe.

He told the story of a Mr Molope who worked for a bakery and then bought his first kombi to deliver bread to his father's business. "In the end he had about 50 trucks delivering bread and made big deals with companies such as Sasco. And there are many others, such as Richard Maponya, who is seen as the founding father of black retail business."

Motsepe added that many white families had contributed greatly to the growth of South Africa, including the Rupert, Oppenheimer and Gordon families.

Motsepe said the success of business was essential to alleviate the plight of the poor and marginalised in the country.

"The inability of business to really make a difference to the lives of all our people has been at the root of the calls for nationalisation in this country."

Asked for his own views on nationalisation, Motsepe said it had been a failure worldwide and had now been identified as not viable for South Africa by a research study undertaken by the ANC.

However, he warned that people would still vote for failed policies if they did not see current policies working for them.

"As long as the growth of the economy does not benefit the majority of our people, calls for nationalisation will return."

Motsepe, an avowed capitalist, said South Africa still needed to be a developmental state for many years to come.

He said that the private and the public sectors needed to work in partnership to alleviate the plight of the poor.

"The state needs to create an enabling business and country environment, while business should keep its focus on not only creating value for shareholders, but on creating real value for communities and for the people of South Africa."

Useful resources:
Sunday Times
The Sunday Times is South Africa's biggest-selling national newspaper. Includes Sunday Times Magazine, Lifestyle, Business Times and Metro sections.
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