Tributes pour in for Michael Spicer

Rhodes University media statement:

A long-serving Rhodes University Board of Governors member and Chairperson, Mr Mike Spicer, passed away this week.

Mr Spicer started his journey at Rhodes University as a student in 1971, where he completed an MA in History in 1977. In 2009, he was elected to the Board of Governors and by 2012, he was serving as Chair. He served as Chair until 2019, after which he was awarded a Lifetime Honorary Award at a special ceremony in Franschhoek (2020).

At the event, Mr Spicer thanked Rhodes University and members of the Board for having helped shape his experiences. He told the current Board: “It’s been a most rewarding seven years of my life [as Chair].”

Rhodes University will fly its flag at half-mast for a week in recognition of Mr Spicer’s role in our University.

In honour of his significant contribution to Rhodes University, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Professor Peter Clayton, shares a fitting tribute:

Tribute to Michael Spicer by Professor Peter Clayton

It is with sadness that we inform the Rhodes Community of the death of Michael Spicer, alumnus (1971-1977), member of the Rhodes University Board of Governors since 2009, and Chair of the Board of Governors (2012-2019).

Born in 1953, Michael matriculated at St John’s College, Johannesburg, before enrolling at Rhodes University, where he graduated with a BA degree in 1974, followed by a Masters degree in History in 1977. He was a prime example of the implicit benefits of tertiary education, displaying all of the skills and cognitive abilities that one acquires which extend beyond the disciplinary boundaries of the subject one is studying.

Drawing on all facets of his humanities-based education, Michael became one of South Africa’s most influential business figures. Like many who come through our halls of learning, Michael met his wife Ireen at Rhodes University.

In his early career, Michael worked at Royal Institute of International Affairs in the UK and the South African Institute of international Affairs, where he was appointed as Deputy Director. He rose to prominence in the business world in a 20-year career at Anglo American, becoming Executive Vice-President of Anglo American PLC, and Non-Executive Director of Anglo American South Africa, occupying the position of non-executive chairman from 2012 to 2015.

His tenure at Anglo coincided with the turbulent period of putting an end to apartheid in South Africa. The leadership of Anglo American played a crucial role in brokering dialogue with, and between, the ANC in exile and prison, and the apartheid government. Michael, together with close colleagues such as Gavin Relly and Clem Sunter, had an enormous influence on South Africa’s socio-political tightrope walk during this period.

Michael later served as CEO of Business Leadership South Africa (2005-2011) and as its Vice-President (2011-2014). He was a member of the board of Rothschild South Africa (2006-2015), and non-executive chairman of BDFM (2011-2013). In 2013 he was appointed as an independent Non-Executive Director at Adcorp Holdings Limited and in 2014 as Deputy Chairman of the board of the Western Cape Tourism, Trade and Investment Promotion Agency (Wesgro). He also served as a board member of Accelerate Cape Town and the Brenthurst Foundation.

Michael played many roles in public life. He was appointed in 2006 as an inaugural member of the Presidential International Advisory Board of Mozambique and subsequently chaired that body. He was Chairman of the Council at St John’s College, and in 2012 was invited by President Joyce Banda of Malawi to be a member of her Presidential Economic Advisory Council. He served as a trustee of the Birdlife National Trust, and, as a keen cyclist, was president of Team Africa Rising.

Michael will be warmly remembered by the Rhodes University community for serving the University with dedication and distinction, for his wide involvement in business and public life, for his contribution to our country’s transition to a peaceful democracy, and for being a momentous role model for our slogan ‘Where leaders learn’.

He is survived by his wife Ireen, and their sons Nicholas and Simon. We express our heartfelt condolences to them, and to all who will miss him.

Minerals Council South Africa media statement: 

The unexpected passing of Michael Spicer, an influential businessman, leader and intellectual who helped steer South Africa to democracy, is a loss for our country, says Minerals Council South Africa CEO, Roger Baxter.

“We are profoundly shocked on hearing of the passing of Michael who played such a significant role in our country’s history and championing business. Our deepest condolences go to Michael’s family,” Baxter says.

“He was a remarkable person who achieved so much good for so many people. As an executive director at Anglo American, we worked closely on a number of issues,” he says.

With a Masters in History with distinction from Rhodes University, Michael was one of those rare individuals who learnt from history and worked tirelessly to make sure it did not repeat itself.

He joined Anglo American in 1985, rising to the position of Executive Vice President of the multi-national resources company in 1999. He stayed on with Anglo after it moved its primary listing to London and was the chair of Anglo American South Africa when he retired in 2015.

It was during his time at Anglo American, and working closely with then-chairman Gavin Relly, that he played a key role in engaging the then-banned African National Congress (ANC), opening the way for business to engage the exiled party and start political negotiations that culminated in the landmark 1994 elections and peaceful transfer of power.

In his role as deputy chairman of the Consultative Business Movement (CBM), he helped facilitate these engagements. The CBM was then instrumental in drawing up South Africa’s new constitution.

“The major point to make about this transitional period was that leading businesses invested heavily in influencing the transition because they believed it was necessary for their short, medium and long term interests,”  Michael wrote in 2016 as he traced the role of business in the national discourse from shortly before 1994 into the fractious years under then-President Jacob Zuma when relations with the government soured and became deeply acrimonious and distrustful.

“Business and government communities in South Africa are less homogenous and have the burden of an apartheid past and an increasingly fractious liberation movement held together more by referencing the divided past than building the unified future,” he noted in a remarkably prescient observation.

Michael was a driving force behind unifying big business in its engagement with the government. He served as CEO of Business Leadership South Africa, an influential organisation.

BLSA media statement: 

By Busi Mavuso

Michael was a believer that South Africa benefits when business and government work well together.

BLSA is to a large extent the outcome of Michael Spicer’s efforts to create a future-proof business organisation, ready to contribute to the development of South Africa. It was under his guidance that the South African Foundation, an organisation more focused on protecting business during Apartheid, was transformed into BLSA in 2005. Michael led our organisation for the next six years, building it into an effective voice for business that could research and engage with government and other social partners. His death last week came as a shock to all of us, but he has left a proud legacy at BLSA.

Michael was a historian, businessman and passionate believer that South Africa benefits when business and government work well together. He was often in the middle of forging that relationship.

When appointed out of academia to look after public affairs at Anglo American by chairman Gavin Relly, one of his first tasks was to attend PW Botha’s infamous Rubicon speech in 1985 that dashed the hopes that the Botha government would reform. Five years later he became deputy chairman of the Consultative Business Form, a group of business leaders formed to engage with Cosatu and the United Democratic Front and ultimately the new leadership through Codesa. He was known for his incisive analysis of the trade-offs required between opposed counterparts and was not afraid to speak truth to power, often leaving many of his political counterparts quite uncomfortable. But he knew when discomfort was entirely appropriate and would stand firm.

He later played pivotal roles in SA Tourism and Brand SA, marketing the country to the world. Michael was a keen advocate of the potential that business has to generate employment and ultimately eliminate poverty and he persisted throughout his career in engaging government to make the case for a positive environment in which business could thrive.

Despite officially retiring in 2015 when he stepped down as chairman of Anglo American South Africa, he remained a tireless advocate for the country. He was a prolific communicator to the end. I really appreciated getting messages of support and comments, unsolicited, from him in my email inbox in response to various public stances BLSA took. I know many others across our society similarly benefited from Michael’s regular emails and WhatsApp messages of encouragement and support.

Many business leaders have commented over the last few days on the profound contribution that Michael made to this country. His legacy is clear in BLSA as well as many other organisations. My condolences to his wife Irene and sons Nicholas and Simon.