Ferial Haffajee: So a really rich white guy said really dumb things, and you're surprised?

A really 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 and to define their response?

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 Rupert’s erudite friends with whom he shares his hearth, like Trevor Manuel, Thabo Mbeki, and Wendy Luhabe, had not previously 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 their client, the Gupta family's assault on the state. He didn’t, so I switched to Narcos Mexico and didn’t give the interview another thought.

Dotty billionaire politics

The politics of billionaires in South Africa, especially white ones, are 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-to-riches 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 to still 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 OK, 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.

Does Rupert define capital?

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. While Rupert was enamoured with the Swiss revenue authority sending him a thank-you letter, SARS here had been thanking all of us for paying our taxes, not just the really rich people, for years until the administration of former commissioner Tom Moyane effed it up.

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 your taxes and doing your 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 to funding democratic civil society, is a far more resonant role model of what we want and need from business leaders in South Africa.

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 strait-laced way of doing business has earned it admiration for decades. Shongwe is an Aspen Institute fellow who has trained generations of South African leaders, both old and young, to use their positions to impact their countries.

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.

What is business’s role in society?

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 multi-award winning cotton king of Uganda, where he has built a supply chain of organic cotton straight from the cotton fields of East Africa, all the way to fashion rails across the world.

There are many stories like this, all evidence of business people 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 very reluctant Rupert into mentoring future business leaders and sharing his tips on how to get really 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 business people 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.

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