Billionaire Vivian Reddy – Zuma’s my friend first, President next. So was Madiba. Get over it.

Billionaire Vivian Reddy – fired for attending a Whites-only office party, he turned that trauma into building what is now a massive business started from the back of a run-down bakkie

I love interviewing self-made South African entrepreneurs. They have a naivety and level of honesty one struggles to extract from battle hardened corporate executives. KZN billionaire Vivian Reddy is very much in that league. We’ve supped, shared seats next to each other on an SAA flight, had numerous email and telephone conversations, and now shared a television studio. On each occasion I left  feeling warmer than before. He has that quality, something which no doubt helps account for his business success. But Reddy also has his critics. Those who claim he is one of the biggest beneficiaries of Crony Capitalism SA-style, a poster boy for the politically connected. We explored those issues, too, in this fascinating interview with one of SA’s elite club of Dollar Billionaires. – AH 

To watch my full interview with Vivian Reddy on CNBC Power Lunch click here. 

ALEC HOGG: In a different world I’d be talking to the Chairman of Reddy Electrical, but now I’m talking to the Chairman of Edison Power. That’s a lovely story, Vivian Reddy. Good to have you in the studio

VIVIAN REDDY: It’s great to see you again Alec.

ALEC HOGG: The white guys wouldn’t give you any business as Reddy Electrical?

VIVIAN REDDY: Absolutely. In the Apartheid days I created Edison. I named the business Edison Power because I wasn’t getting work as Reddy’s Electrical., and it was amazing. Once we changed the name after Thomas Edison work came in and people used to phone for Mr Edison and I used to say ‘Mr Edison is not here. Can I help you?’ and we got awarded contracts and when it was discovered that it was the Indian who owned this company, we were persecuted. But we performed. We learned in the Apartheid days to do our best. We became the best in whatever we do and eventually people forgot the colour of the skin and they realised the quality of the work we did was something exemplary. And that is the message today: whatever you do, you’ve got to do your best.

ALEC HOGG: You almost want to tell the ‘whiners’, if you like, saying: ‘I can’t work in this country’, that you did it under more difficult circumstances.

VIVIAN REDDY: Absolutely. Those days it was quite interesting that I masqueraded as Mr Edison and now you find Thulane’s Electrical and you ask for Thulane and a Mr Van Der Merwe says ‘he’s away’. It’s changed I believe South Africa is right now a place of haven for the White South Africans. I’ve just come from a shopping centre conference where our Newcastle Mall won the Best Shopping Centre Award in the country for this year and I notice 95% are White South Africans. The property industry is booming. Everyone is making profits and since the democracy I believe White South Africans have benefited most. They’ve got nothing to whine about because everywhere you go they are there.

ALEC HOGG: Are you resentful about the past – about the difficulties you had?

VIVIAN REDDY: At one stage I was very resentful and this is what Madiba taught us. Madiba taught us to forgive and forget about the past. I think his famous words when he left the cel. He said he never looked back there and he looked forward, and that was Madiba’s teaching. And I was a really close friend of his since 1990 and he really taught this country so much, and we put away our hatred. At one time we were very bitter and things have changed in this country. People work together. When I get my international guests and they come and see our rainbow nation they say ‘it’s amazing – this country’. Our kids will not know about Apartheid and we’re bringing up children in the country that’s normal.

ALEC HOGG: But you’ve got a fantastic business. It employs 7500 people according to Forbes Africa. That’s where it was a good interview with you. You’re a billionaire how many times over?

VIVIAN REDDY: People say that, Alec. The reality is I’m involved in the power company which I started 35 years ago. Edison is, I think now, the biggest power company in South Africa. I’m involved in the casino business and the property sector and we’ve been able to move with the market change, and that’s something I tell people. We – the electrical industry – when we found the construction boom had died down, focused on wind energy, solar and smart meters, which is the future. And that’s what businesses have got to do. You’ve got to look at the trends and change. Too many businesses in South Africa stick with the old method and they fail.

ALEC HOGG: So when you’ve got an opportunity here you’re often accused of being the poster boy for ‘crony capitalism’. You’re very close to the ANC – very close to Jacob Zuma. Tell us your thoughts.

VIVIAN REDDY: Alec, I’ll tell you; I’ve heard that accusation and I think sometimes it’s an amazing thing, especially in the media. People say these things and they tend to believe the wrong information. The reality is; the ANC came into power in 1994 and since then, it was the first time that Black business had opportunities. They opened the doors. We only really progressed after that. We really made serious money, and it’s not due to cronyism. My electrical business is what I’ve done. I’ve been doing it for 35 years and it’s the thing I do. We’re the best in the country and I do not believe that being close to politicians… I believe it’s a disadvantage. People actually become cautious. I was at a property dinner last night and a leading banker told me ‘we are not giving monies to any people politically-connected’. And I said ‘why?’ and he said ‘there’s a perception out there’. And it’s actually, I believe, a disadvantage being close to politicians.

ALEC HOGG: Well, it could be if the politicians get thrown out of power and you were to have a different… It might be the second coming. It could occur. It’s always possible. So as a good businessman you don’t really want to get too close to politicians. But you’ve got – there’s a perception that you’re very close to them – extremely close.

VIVIAN REDDY: Let me start off; I was extremely close with President Mandela – extremely close. He was a friend of mine. I was close to President Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma who I’ve known since he got back into the country. The family were very close to me. Sundays, when we played pool and my kids were little. We played pool in my garage. So he’s a family friend.  So most people in power today: I’ve known them since they came back into the country, so I regard them as friends. President Zuma is my friend first and then the President of the country.

ALEC HOGG: But you don’t “do a Gupta” and use your influence to land aeroplanes….I hope?

VIVIAN REDDY: No – no.  Definitely not.

ALEC HOGG: Have you got a jet yet, by the way?

VIVIAN REDDY: No – no.  It is something I’ve had for a while. It’s just too expensive. I think it’s wrong when people abuse political friends, it’s totally wrong. There are equal opportunities for everyone and it’s very, very important people. I don’t do name-dropping. I’ve never used the ANC or the President’s name in vain. I do not go to Luthuli House looking for tenders. They always tell me; they said ‘when you come in there you bring in funders for the ANC’ and that’s what we do. If you’re good at your business you give it your best and it’s amazing. You don’t need any political…

ALEC HOGG: So we are looking forward to following the process – the progress – of Edison Power.

VIVIAN REDDY: Absolutely.

ALEC HOGG: And Vivian, it was really a pleasure. Thanks for coming.

VIVIAN REDDY: No, absolutely. Edison Power is going great and I have a principle. It’s called CANEI. It means constant and never-ending improvement. If we make today a better day than yesterday and tomorrow better than today it’s amazing how success comes. Now I’m off to the Bill Clinton Global Initiative next week in New York and I’m looking forward to meeting people there and having a wonderful time.

ALEC HOGG: And when you learn whatever you learn in New York I’m sure you can take back to my hometown of Newcastle where Vivian Reddy should be the mayor, should be the president if they had a president of a town because he owns half of it now – your big shopping centre and the casino.

VIVIAN REDDY: Well, we employ 2500 people. We are the biggest employer in Newcastle and we’re expanding the shopping centre by another 20 000m2.

ALEC HOGG: Fantastic.

VIVIAN REDDY: So it’s a great place. It’s been very good to me.

ALEC HOGG:  Thank you Vivian.