Geoff Johnson: Promoting SA’s “10th province” by leveraging Diaspora support

It’s almost 30 years since the late Frederick Van Zyl Slabbert led a group of five dozen white South Africans to Dakar for a historic first meeting with Thabo Mbeki’s 17-person ANC delegation. Slabbert, the one-time Leader of the Official Opposition who abandoned Parliament in disgust, was accompanied by leading anti-apartheid protagonists like Breyten Breytenbach, Andre Brink, Willie Esterhuyse, Max du Preez, Alistair Sparks and Jimi Matthews. Among the the group was Geoff Johnson, then an executive at the SA Perm, who had joined the ANC a year before after activist David Webster. After Webster was assassinated on May 1, 1989, Johnson decided to relocate to the UK where he has remained a committed supporter of all things South African. Among them is his creation of the biggest annual charity golf day in the Northern Hemisphere where he taps into the diaspora “SA’s 10th province” to raise funds for worthy causes back home. In almost 20 years, the golf day has sent almost £2m to SA charities. Johnson was one of the earliest employees at St James’s Place, the FTSE 100 wealth management business established in 1991 by fellow South African Sir Mark Weinberg. Here’s Johnson’s story. He takes us along road winding from disrupting rebel sports tours through to being an early stage employee at two massive businesses built by among SA’s finest entrepreneurs. Fascinating.  – Alec Hogg 

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I’m here with Geoff Johnson who lives in London, he’s a senior partner at St James’s Place Wealth Management. Many South Africans who live in London took an interesting path – how did you get here?

Well, I am passionately South African. I’ve lived here for 26 years. I came here basically because of politics. I joined the ANC in 1986, met a guy called David Webster and one of the first things David said to me as a white South African back in the mid-eighties, “You’ve got few alternatives, you can hibernate like 95 percent of South Africans have done, you can immigrate and some have done it and very successfully, or you can participate” and he knew I’d query that and he said by participating he’d introduce me to 95 percent of the population I’d never met before.

Geoff Johnson
Geoff Johnson: Promoting SA’s “10th province” – South Africans who live outside the country’s borders.

What were you doing in 1986?

I was actually working for the SA Perm; I was Head of Public Affairs. A lot of the social responsibility programmes, in fact, all of them fell under me. I’d reported to Bob Tucker and Bob was a fairly sort of wide-eyed man who was a little bit different to the other people within the Perm who were owned by Old Mutual.

People, who don’t know, don’t recall Bob Tucker was very progressive for the time. He certainly rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way as far as the government was concerned, but he had a social conscience, ex-lawyer, I remember him well.

Very much so, Bob I thought was a tremendous guy. The Perm were the first to give ‘bonds’, as we first called them to blacks, almost against the law and I think one of the reasons why he brought me on was because of my, I suppose political involvement, but to connect with all of South Africa and people like Winnie Mandela and Dr Nthato Motlana, who were regular visitors into the Perm. It shocked a lot of people. I knew Van Zyl Slabbert very well and Van Zyl Slabbert was then running IDASA, the Independent Democratic Alternative for South Africa, with Alex Boraine.

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He organised that clandestine trip up north and invited me to go on it. I still remember we were attending a conference just coincidentally at the Sunnyside Hotel and during one of the breaks Van said to me “Geoff, lunchtime pop outside, we’ll meet in the carpark”. I thought that’s strange and he said, “Would you like to go and meet the ANC?” and of course I said “Fantastic”. He said “Now this is why we’re meeting in the carpark, because I can’t trust anyone. If anybody finds out about this, it’s dead” and that’s how he put the group together.

Extraordinary man van Zyl Slabbert, but getting back to David Webster, he was a great hero of the ANC….

Wonderful guy and I attended quite a few meetings. Having gone up with Van and I became very close to Steve Tshwete, who I really admired and Barbara Masemola, but Steve was the man who impressed me, I think because I’m a sports fanatic and so was Steve and so on the first trip back from South Africa, I decided I’ve got to make a conscious decision and I joined the ANC and I became what was then called ‘listed’, which meant that our phone was tapped and there was invariably a black car with two guys sitting in it outside.

This while you were in business – you were working for the SA Perm?

Yes, I was with the Perm. One of my functions at the Perm was to take on the sponsorship role as well, so I became very close to Ali Bacher and Ali came to me one day and said, again very confidentially, he said “I’m trying to bring a cricket team to South Africa, an English side which is going to have all the top English players in it” and he said “Geoff, will you please check this out with the ANC?” and I said “Sure” and got hold of a few guys who I knew many, Steve Tshwete and I arranged for Ali to go and meet Aziz Pahad in London and they said “No, do not do this” and he came back to Joburg and he contacted me again. He said, “Look, I’m committed and Geoff Daikin has put his signature on the line and we’ve got to go ahead with it, we’ve got backing from SAB”.

I said “Ali, if you do this, count me out and I will openly oppose it” and so I became one of the main organisers with Ngconde Balfour to disrupt the tour, which got me into more trouble and we met with Mike Gatting, I remember. Unbeknown to us the government were in heavy talks with the ANC at the time and we were carrying on trying to prevent this tour taking place. Then all of a sudden we got a message saying “Hold back, things are changing”.

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The tour was cancelled and they all went back and we wondered what was going on and then I got an opportunity to leave South Africa, which I did do, straight away almost because of course in May of 1989 David Webster was assassinated outside his home and that shook me enormously and we were living in Parktown North at the time and my wife got very worried and said “We’ve really got to try and get out of here”. So we tried to get into Australia and eventually we got into England and I got offered a job here. Of course, no sooner do I leave, de Klerk stands up and as I say, in 42 minutes and banned, released and abolished what we’d been try to do for 42 years.

Moving forward 10 years, I met de Klerk in 2000 over here. I was invited to meet him and actually declined, I said “What do I want to meet him for?” You know, I can’t quite say I was a supporter of his. I admired what he did, but you know I met him over here, Alec and one of those times you know, you meet somebody for the first time, you shake hands and you make eye contact and I knew I could like this guy.  I think he had the same feeling and today, I must say, in his words he said “We’re close friends” and I deeply admire what he’s done and what he’s still doing. I’m a great supporter of the FW de Klerk Foundation and more particularly the Centre for Constitutional Rights. I think they’re playing a major role in South Africa.

So you came to England just before things started changing in South Africa. Were there any thoughts of maybe returning because many exiles did?

Absolutely, Steve Tshwete was in touch with me straight away and said, “Please come back and you’ve got a position within the Ministry of Sport”. I had lots of fax discussions with him bit said, “Steve, there’s no ways I could work in government. I’m not political, we’ve achieved what we wanted to do, democracy is now up, and running and I couldn’t be a government servant. There’s no way, the bureaucracy, I wouldn’t last five minutes” so I declined that.

At the same time my children were now established in schools and my wife was determined not to go back. She was quite anti what was going on in South Africa with all the toyi-toyiing and the marches and then Chris Hani getting killed and she just thought that wasn’t the right thing to do, so I stayed on.

But by staying on I actually then sat down and I said to myself, I may be living in the UK, but I can still remain passionately South African, I believe I can make a difference. I started saying to people There are five reasons why I’m not going to go back. The first is a very simple one; by living in London you’re actually just up the road, you’re not that far out of South Africa. Timewise it’s virtually the same. If I’ve got to be in South Africa tomorrow, I jump on a plane, I can attend a meeting.

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The second reason is that I’m earning Pounds and of course as the Rand depreciated, the Pounds became more valuable and I also realised the amazing opportunities there were here by getting South Africans to do more with their Pounds and that’s why the golf day started and I’ll get back to that later.

The third reason is, I just felt the vibrancy of London and I thought if we could harness this vibrancy amongst all our South Africans and use it to South Africa’s advantage by telling Brits about South Africa, by telling other nationalities about South Africa and what has been achieved and what can still be achieved in South Africa, I never wanted to lose that vibrancy.

The fourth reason, I knew if I went back to South Africa, I would hibernate. A lovely place on a golf estate and that’s me gone with my involvement and connection and what I could do for South Africa. And the fifth reason, and I’ve said this to a few government ministers, it’s so easy for you guys to be in touch with the diaspora. I coined the phrase then, ‘the tenth province’ and that came about when I met Mandela for the first time when he addressed 120 000 people in Trafalgar Square in 1996. I think it was July 1996 and there was a small gathering inside South Africa House which he addressed and he was talking about the nine provinces from four provinces, we’re now going to have nine provinces and how each province could play its role in the future South Africa in different ways in the industry, with mining, with manufacturing, agriculture, each province had its own little contribution to make and when it came to question time I stood up and I said “Mr President, there are not nine provinces, there are ten provinces”, “No, there are nine provinces” he retorted very quickly and I said “No, Mr President, with respect, ‘the tenth province’ are all of us sitting here, all the people who have left South Africa, we are still South Africans and you should refer to us as ‘the tenth province’ because we could all play our part in helping South Africa”. He looked at me and said “Hey, I really like that”.

It didn’t take much hold until Pravin Gordhan was over here with Zuma’s state visit in 2010 and he asked me to do a paper on ‘the tenth province’ which I did. It’s fascinating. As you know yourself, what South Africans have achieved throughout the world is absolutely amazing and whenever I hear a South African accent I’ll quickly Google the person and find out what they’ve done. In America in particular, it’s amazing.

So I think if, whether it be three million or six million, no one would ever know how many South Africans there are because technically I’m not a South African, I no longer have a South African passport, I have a British passport and there are possibly even millions like me throughout the world, Australia, New Zealand. So if we could all be used as salesmen, if any commercial organisation said “We’ve got four million salesmen out there, we’re not paying them any commission, no salary”, I mean it would be fantastic and that’s why, getting back to your organisation, BizNews, I think it’s amazing that this can be distributed worldwide. I think the government should be more proactive in trying to recognise what I call ‘the tenth province’ and I think they should even appoint an ambassador.

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In fact, the guy who heads up Brand South Africa, Kingsley Makhubela, has ambassadorial experience, he was the ambassador in Portugal, and I think somewhere else as well. He should actually be given a remit to harness South Africans around the world and let’s face it there are some incredibly wealthy South Africans, but also some very influential South Africans in politics, in business, in religion as well. And get them to firstly keep on supporting South Africa, which they can do purely by just saying they want to support South Africa as a simple thing, but a lot of them could help out in the various NGO’s that South Africa, where they’re needed desperately, but in skills  as well.

I remember when London was given the Olympic Games, I wrote to the South African Olympic Committee and I said to them, we’ve got six years, why don’t we start identifying young athletes now, in the country, bring them over here, every year for four weeks? I’ll find South Africans to host them. I spoke to Sir Steven Redgrave, he thought it was a great idea and he said he’ll find the clubs, whether they be rowers, athletes, whatever and we can put them alongside a club, just for four weeks every July and that would prepare them for when they come over in 2012. I think they could have identified many, but it was turned down.

How are you building bridges, or are you able to?

I think it’s actually getting easier as South Africa becomes more difficult, particular at this particular time right now. It’s always been difficult because people sort of looked at me and said, “You’re kind of a traitor. It’s all very well for you to speak, you’ve got a lovely home in England, whereas we are going through blackouts and all sorts of problems here and hijackings and all sorts of stuff, it’s easy for you to talk”, but then when I spell out, and I’m going to mention the golf day, when I spell out what the golf day has done in particular in raising funds, I mean almost £2m we’ve distributed, the change we made with children’s lives, even in HIV AIDS and other medical advancements that we’ve been able to assist and support, then they start saying, “Actually Geoff, you’re doing some good”.

This golf day, that was the one that you hold every year, it’s one of the biggest on earth? 

Well, it’s the biggest in the Northern Hemisphere. We actually wrote to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St Andrews about 12 years ago and we said could they please make the statement that we’re the biggest and they said they can’t, but they said “Go out and claim it and wait for someone to oppose it” and no one ever has done. At one stage when Callaway were fairly large sponsors of ours, they said they recon it’s the biggest golf day in the world because they knew nothing of this even in America, where 360 to 400 golfers get together at one club on one day.

Are they primarily South Africans?

They used to be Alec; they used to be 100 percent South Africans.

Where did the idea come?

I was in financial services, I still am and I had clients, mainly dentists and some of these dentists were in a society called The Proteas and The Protea Golfing Society were mainly Afrikaans guys from Tuks, Pretoria, and Stellenbosch.

Why dentists?

Because I was introduced to one, they make lots of money, so therefore the need for financial services is very important to me.

There are also many South African dentists in the UK.

Over 3 000 and a lot of them are keen golfers and then there was another dental society of golfers called The Impalas and they were mainly Jewish guys, but they were from Wits and Cape Town.  I had clients in both camps, so I used to go and play in their society day every now and then, they’d invite me and one day I said to The Proteas, the Afrikaans guys, I said “Hey, why don’t you play with The Impalas?”, “Nee glad nie, bladdy Jode, ons gaan nie met hulle speel nie”. I thought okay fine, so I want to The Impalas, the Jewish guys, I said “Hey guys, why don’t you get together with the Proteas?”, “No, bunch of Dutchman, we’re not going to play with them”.

I thought, you know what, Apartheid’s alive and well here in the UK, so I organised a day and I didn’t tell them, I invited both camps, I said come and play at Mentmore Golf Club and they did and there were about 16 from The Impalas and about 18 from The Proteas and they absolutely loved it and they said “Geoff, do it again next year”. So I did it again the second year again the next year and we had about 56 golfers and in the third year I invited Francois Pienaar and the late Clive Rice.

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They were both very close friends of mine, Francois still is of course and Francois said to me, “Why don’t we do this for charity, why don’t we raise money for develop and Rugby development cricket?” I said “Francois, great idea”, so we formed a charity and we called it SAINT and that appealed to Francois because of its Christian connotation, but SAINT actually stood for South Africans In Need Trust and every year I used to go back to Ali Bacher and Riaan Oberholzer and I used to give them a load of money which I had collected from the golf day and then in 2001, a few months prior to this I’d met FW de Klerk and he told me he was a golfer, so I said come along to this golf day and he did and we had 428 golfers. It was just phenomenal, I mean, it was just uncontrollable almost, but we did it and Raymond Ackerman came along and they both marvelled.

They said “Geoff, how this happened, we just don’t know” and then it was mainly South Africans, but then South Africans used to bring like their neighbour or their boss or someone at work and they’d come along and say “Geez, you guys really know how to do things, next year I’m going to bring my brother” or my whatever, so more and more non-South Africans came along, but then importantly, as we got major sponsorship with organisations like Nedbank, Old Mutual, SAB Miller, British Airways, Globeflight, South African Airways also.

They’re not trying to attract South Africans; they’re trying to attract British people or high net worth non-South African individuals. So all their guests, as part of their sponsorship would be non-South Africans and so today in, a way sadly, we possibly only have about 15, 20 percent South Africans, but the Brits come along and they enjoy their boerewors roll, their halfway house, they just have never seen a day like this.

It’s still called the Nedbank South African Charity Golf Day.….

Very strongly so and that I will not change, I’m happy to call it Nedbank, because they’ve come on with the tidal sponsorship. I’m very grateful to them. They’ve been with us for five years, they contract ends next year and I hope they renew, but with them brought along Old Mutual as well and of course they’re now diversifying, so we’re under a challenge to keep them, we possibly won’t. SAB Miller has been sold, so we’ve lost them, we have to try and find a new beer sponsor, so yes, we have a challenge, but we’ll do it.

How much money did you raise this year and where does it go?

We raised £110 000 this year. Collectively we’re just over £1.8mn that we’ve raised and distributed. We’ve supported various charities. Our format has always been children, so like cherishing children, addressing, originally the challenge of AIDS kids who suffered directly or indirectly from AIDS. We’ve moved from that basically to concentrate on education, so organisations like Thuthuka, which is run by the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants, giving bursaries in respect of Chartered Accountants from impoverished backgrounds. The Warwick in Africa Programme is fascinating. They send out about 40 students every year to teach teachers English and Maths and then those teachers in turn teach and they’ve had a remarkable success rate. They have now improved pass rates in the schools they’re at by 65 percent and that’s fantastic, so we support them.

Nutrition is important as well, so we support Food Bank, it’s now called Food Forward, they’ve had to change the name, but in turn, they then introduce us to other little smaller projects, not even registered charities. We came across a place in Philippi, these two women, they both had disabled kids. They used to take on more disabled kids to allow the parents to go to work and they had about 30 disabled kids and they used to cook the food with open fires and primer stoves and of course there’s no electricity there.

We bought them a six-plate gas stove. It’s transformed their lives. I mean that cost us, whatever £200 or something. It’s a drop in the ocean for us, but for them it made a huge difference. We came across some “Gogo’s”, old people who are all 75, 80 plus who meet every day in Gugulethu and all they do is, it’s for socialising and they knit and all sorts of stuff, but the place leaked and oh, it stank, so we rebuilt the whole roof and made it more secure and that cost us about £2 500.

So it all goes back into South Africa for worthy causes, not being thrown into some pot that employs bureaucrats?

Absolutely, I wouldn’t like to use the word ‘monitor’ because we don’t, but we do visit a lot and the reason why I like visiting is just to continue my enthusiasm and my inspiration to keep this day going and I’d like to see it go for, who knows, long after I’d gone because it has done, it’s made a major difference. Africa de Koen, the FW de Klerk Foundation, who look after the Alta du Toit School for Handicapped Kids, I mean the difference that they’ve made.

You mentioned FW de Klerk – how did that connection come together given that you were on different sides of the political fence?

Well, one guy back in 2000 said to me “I think you should meet FW de Klerk” and I said “I’m not particularly interested” and he said “No, I think you should do”. So I said “Okay, well I’m happy to meet him” and it’s one of those occasions when you meet for the first time and I just thought what he had done for South Africa and the more I learnt about what he is still doing for South Africa, he’s quite amazing. I mean he has travelled, I mean I don’t’ know how many millions of miles he must have clocked up. I have never heard him give a negative speech about South Africa. He’s been pragmatic, he’s been balanced, he’s issued challenges, he has not said it’s a land paved of gold, but he’s always ended on a very positive note, every speech he’s given.

It is not the best of times at the moment, how do you stay positive?

I think you have to be pragmatic. Like in all countries, politics or politicians are temporary. Way of life is permanent and if I see the change made in the rural areas that I can refer to mainly NGO’s like the LIV Village run by Titch Smith, the difference he’s making to the lives of so many young kids, a lot of the other education programmes and the major difference I’ve seen is the up and coming, and I’m going to use the word ‘black’, I don’t like using it, but I will do, who is now 35, 45, he’s a professional, whether it be a doctor, a dentist, solicitor, accountant and he’s got his values. He’s married, he’s got young kids who are possibly going to private schools, he’s joined a club, he doesn’t want the status quo as it is right now and I think these are the guys that are going to change the country.

Their vote alone will change it, but there are also those who are going into politics or into local government and making a difference and I think the DA’s advancement in Tshwane, Johannesburg and Mandela Bay is significant. The fact that Fort Hare University Student Council is now run by the DA and also I will no longer vote for the ANC, I will vote DA because I think the ANC has to change and it will change and I think it could happen next week.

What else are you doing here in the UK?

I am with a company called St James’s Place Wealth and Management Group and I’ve been here 23 years. I started by a South Africa, by Sir Mark Weinberg. That’s not the reason why I joined, but it’s a company that has grown just incredibly, we celebrate our 25th anniversary next year and we’re now in the 83rd largest company on the London ~stock Exchange. But it’s a company which has also had enormous social conscience.

We run the St James’s Place Foundation, which I sit on the committee, and we distribute between £6m and £7m a year to about 600 charities in the UK. About 35 percent of our funding goes overseas and I’ve been successful in trying to get some of that channelled into South African charities. Afrika Tikkun is one. We were big supporters of CIDA University, which sadly is, I think no longer. I think Taddy Blacher, just, I don’t know what happened there, but great pity about that.

But I basically, as an individual give financial advice to individuals and to corporates, mainly concentrating on pensions and investments. Obviously when I started off, I was fortunate in creating a very big and instant South African client bank purely because of my contacts and my referrals and I still look after many South Africa, but gradually over time, again you meet with South Africans who introduce you to their bosses who are British, so my client bank again, like the golf day has become mainly British and not so much dependent on my South African colleagues.

Warren Buffett says the greatest attribute one can have is the ability to get on with others. You clearly it’s have that attributes you have. Where does it come from?

I can only give credit to my mother. I’ve often said I’d love to write, well first let me tell you I’m hopelessly dyslexic and dyspraxic, so reading isn’t easy for me. I take ages to read.

So how do you learn?

I learn by listening. I do a lot of listening and as you can hear, I love talking, but I love listening even more and I love introducing myself and one of the things my mother taught me, she said “Never forget a person’s name. Your name is the nice a sound you’ll ever hear, never forget others’”.

That comes from Dale Carnegie as well.

Does it really? Well, I didn’t know that, but it came from my mother as well.

“The sweetest sound you’ll hear is your own name”.

Yes, my mother said to me “Go back to your school days and you don’t like being called somebody else at school, it would upset you if teacher called you somebody else, so I do, I’m very conscious of remembering names and repeating names when I meet people for the first time and I think just maybe, I don’t know naturally I am interested in what people do, what people think, what people say. I’m a sports fanatic and I think sportsmen talk a lot. That’s the banter in change rooms that maybe that’s where I got a lot of it from as well and sportsmen are naughty guys and naughty guys talk a lot, but in a nice way, but I think also sportsmen tend to have a great feeling for others.

It maybe doesn’t apply with a lot of sports around the world. We’ve seen horrible things happening, drug taking, I don’t’ think the footballers behave themselves particularly well, but I think, and mainly in rugby, when you see them hammering the hell out of each other on the field and they can still sit together afterwards, have a beer, but Anthony Foley’s death two weeks ago, when you saw the Rugby world come together, that shows you how great sport can be. That happens in other sports as well, in adversity they’ll stick together. So I think communication in sport has played a lot, I mean I used to do a lot of commentating back in South Africa with Trevor Quirk and the SABC, so I think maybe sport has also helped me a lot in my communication skills.

Any regrets?

Oh gosh, it’s a strange regret. I wish I had got a degree. I was totally useless at school. I went to a school called St Martins and I’m still in touch with some of my ex masters.

That’s in Johannesburg?

Johannesburg yes, southern suburbs, used to be called the “Communist” school, but I never passed anything and the only reason why they kept me at school is because I was good at sport, I was first team rugby, first team cricket and rowing and everything like that and my  father was disappointed with me with regard to my education. I wanted to go the army desperately because I thought it’s something I could do, but I was declined as medically unfit, which is totally nonsense because I’m not, but then my father put me in the bank. He sent me off to the Standard Bank and said “You will go and get a career in banking”.

So you went off to the bank?

So I went off to the bank and I was in the bank for about a year in Commissioner Street, Head Office Branch and a notice came round saying “Would you like to go to Swaziland or Botswana or Bechuanaland?” and I immediately replied,  said “Yes, I’d love to go” and that actually did me a lot of good because  going down to Swaziland, I was there for a year and I met Natie Kirsh and Natie, I think has had possibly the biggest influence of my life. I’ve worked for him for 14 years and when I saw the way that guy operated and still operates today, I think he’s South Africa’s most successful businessperson, entrepreneur. He may be not the wealthiest, the Elon Musk’s and Dr Patrick Soon-Shiong, though, but what Natie’s done throughout the world is phenomenal, and it started off in Swaziland. I am enormously proud that I was with him at the beginning of that journey.

Did Standard Bank help him?

Yes, they did possibly. I don’t know at the time. I was just purely a teller and I met him because he was the Chairman of the Manzini Country Club and I used to go along there every day with a mate of mine and we used to work behind the bar and we used to help out and do everything we can and one day Natie said to us “Hey, you must join the committee of the Manzini Country Club” so we did and we ran all sorts of events for the club and for the members. That obviously impressed him and he called me one day and said “Come and see me” and I did and he offered me a job and I said to him “Gee, Natie do you mind if I speak to my dad?” and he said “Not at all”.

So I spoke to my dad and my dad said “Look, I can’t make any judgement unless I meet the man”, so I said to Natie would he meet him and they did in Joburg at Dawson Hotel. I was there as well and after the meeting my dad said “Look, he looks like a good guy, I think you should join him”. Then my dad said “Well, what’s he going to pay you?” and I said “I don’t know”. I mean I didn’t know you had to ask that question, so I went back to Natie and I said “Natie, I’ve got something to ask you”, he said “What is it?”, “No” I said “Not important”. He said “Well look, what is it?” I said “Look, it’s not important, I just want to know what am I going to be paid?” and he said “Well, what are you paid now?” I said I’m paid R60 a month. He said “Well, to start with we will double it and I said “No you can’t, that’s too much” and he still remembers that.

Do you see him?

Not as much as I’d like to I think. I mean obviously he travels a lot, but at 84 he’s still enormously active. I actually had lunch with him a couple of weeks ago and his success, what he’s done in Swaziland or growing from Swaziland, his American projects, I worked for him, when I went to America that’s where I ended up actually. I lived in New York for three years working for Natie for Jetro Cash & Carry, but since then, I mean what is achieved in Israel, in these projects there, India, Brazil, Italy, throughout the world and diversified into various different industries and he’s got his finger, you sit and talk to him you say “What’s the pharmaceutical industry like in Israel?”, he’ll give you facts and figures of their turnover and return on investment, he’s amazing.

Jetro is an interesting story. How did you get involved there?

Actually to be quite honest, Jetro actually started quite a few years before that. Natie left South Africa after his business basically collapsed, I think it was about 1982, 1983, I’m not too sure, somewhere around there, but Jetro actually started in 1976 and I was then working for Metro Cash and Carry and the reason why we didn’t call it Metro Cash and Carry is because that’s associated with the Underground in New York, so we called it Jetro Cash & Carry and in a way we kind of taught the Americans about cash and carry because their cash and carry wasn’t 100 percent cash and carry and we started off with the first branch, well the only branch them was in Brooklyn, in Red Hook and I was sent over as development manager, so I had to set up the store and buy all the equipment and it was a huge learning curve. I remember coming up against the mafia with the refuse disposal.

The proper mafia?

The real mafia, this is the genuine stuff. I still remember one of the most favourite expressions I heard was one of the guys said, “I curse your mother’s grave”, but my mother’s not dead, and just you remember that. So no, I signed a contract for our refuse removal and the next day a big burly guy of Italian decent, or obviously, whatever his name was Capriano or something, came in and said, “My truck’s outside to remove the refuse” so said “No, you’ve got to take them away because I’ve given the contract to somebody else, “No” he said, “You haven’t, you’ve given it to me and here it is, sign it” and that’s when I realised who I was speaking to, so yes, it was a big learning curve for us.

Natie
Natie Kirsh

Natie Kirsh is, as you say, one of the great entrepreneurs South Africa has produced. Are there others that you bump into here in London of a similar calibre?

Yes, I think Gary Lubner, I think again Belron, Autoglass, what they’ve achieved is phenomenal. My own foemer boss Mark Weinberg really for many years was known as a doyen of financial services in the UK. All right, he’s retired now, but we still call him our president, but he started the One Percent Club. Stanley Lipworth, who is head of Mergers and Acquisitions, the guys in House of Lords, Peter Hain, Joel Joffe….

It’s a significant number of people at the very, very top level who have made a big contribution.

Yes, well just Simon Walker, Head of the IOD, is soon to retire, highly influential, but very proudly South African.

So there’s a whole group of people here who are wishing the country well, not just because they want it to succeed, but because they have a vested interest in it doing so. Are they being given that opportunity?

I don’t know. I think their interest is largely emotional and there was an article written by Rowan Philp who used to be the Sunday Times correspondent for South Africa and Rowan did a whole lot of interviews with successful South Africans and he asked them that question, “Why are South Africans so successful?” and a lot of them said “You know, it’s our schooling. The schooling we had in South Africa taught us how to be entrepreneurial. We had to fight for ourselves, we had to learn for ourselves, and we had to pass. There was a great emphasis on succeeding”.

I thought that was quite interesting, but yes I think David Potter’s another one I’m just thinking, coming to mind, also David King. I think they still feel a huge part of them is still South African and I don’t know personally what they do, but I’m pretty sure Dr Geoffrey de Jager, they still put an awful lot back into South Africa with regard to charitable giving and that and I’m sure a lot of them still have investments there.

Well, next week was supposed to be an event here in South Africa that you were pretty closely involved with, bringing Zweli Mkhize over to talk to a group of South Africans here. He’s not coming anymore, but do you get involved in that kind of event?

I certainly would do if ever I can do and I try to. I’m sometimes almost deliberately excluded because I can be quite outspoken, of late in particular and like you I was looking forward to the discussions with Zweli because I think he’s a guy who’s prepared to open up. It may be Chatham House Rules, but I think he was prepared to expose to us some of the inner workings and thinkings and complexities within the ANC. That’s my belief and I think he would have given us a lot of positivity as to what can take place and what should take place and again I think even within the ANC there are certainly some very astute mindful people. We know of Pravin Gordhan and I’m always mystified by it, that people like Pravin Gordhan, Trevor Manuel, Gill Marcus, didn’t do more to avoid what’s happening now or what has happened now.

There is a school of thought that believes that South Africa is on its way to becoming another Zimbabwe. Where do you stand in that discussion?

I don’t think so at all. I think there are two big positives about South Africa. That’s the judiciary is independent of government, independent of politics and extremely well-run and highly respected and I think our constitution, yes it can be broken, but I think it’s going to be very difficult for Zuma to try and change the constitution. He’s trying to change people who think they can change the constitution, he hasn’t succeeded. Therefore, I think on those two lets alone, South Africa can stand very firm into the future.