By John Battersby*
Cyril Ramaphosa’s plane had already lifted off the runway en route back to South Africa by the time Johann Rupert, the other billionaire South African given a hearing at the Financial Times Africa Summit, took up his seat on the stage.
Ramaphosa had made a passionate and well-researched case for investment in Africa and South Africa’s role therein, to a sceptical audience of some 250 global bankers, investors and chief executives who pay dearly (R38,000 a pop) to hear several present and past African leaders.
Investors, while acknowledging Ramaphosa’s sincerity and skills as a negotiator and strategist, doubt that he is able to root out corruption and revive a moribund economy in a single term of office. They believe that despite Ramaphosa’s protestations to the contrary, the damage of the Zuma era has gone too deep to be excised and that there is no solution in sight for Eskom’s crippling debt running to some R460bn.
While grateful to have heard Ramaphosa and impressed with his personal qualities, few investors seemed to have changed their scepticism that he could carry out his promises.
It fell on Rupert to help him out. Bankers and captains of industry like success and are more likely to listen to a billionaire peer than they are to an African leader with the odds loaded against him.
Financial Times editor Lionel Barber had introduced Rupert as “one of Africa’s most distinguished entrepreneurs”, who had re-invented himself several times, notably the transition from tobacco magnate to one of the world’s leading producers of luxury goods as head of Richemont.
There was a poignant irony in the fact that Rupert, who was vilified by Zumarites in the ANC and Black First Land First as the White Monopoly Capital devil incarnate, was probably the only person in the room who could even make a dent in the investor scepticism.
Ramaphosa had told the investors that no effort would be spared in following up those responsible for criminal activity both inside and outside the country. He was responding to a question from Barber about what the chances were to bring back the Gupta brothers to face justice.
“I am more confident than I have been in the past that our prosecuting agents… will definitely be going after those who are complicit in criminal activity,” he said.
Ramaphosa also responded to criticism that he is moving too slowly to implement his reform plans and not providing sufficiently visible and audible leadership.
Critics argue that he could transcend attempts to undermine him by accelerating the prosecution of corrupt elements and taking decisive steps to attract investment.
Ramaphosa insists the he is making steady progress and there is more to come.
“In the last year and months we have made tremendous progress in turning the country around,” Ramaphosa said. “We have stemmed that bleeding and we are now ready to open a new chapter.”
Rupert did his best to bolster the President’s claims. He said the rot had gone deep, all the way to municipal level, and it was “shocking” how quickly it had happened. But he said investor sentiment could change.
“Ramaphosa is running a clean government and the investor sentiment will come back,” said Rupert. ”With proper leadership – ethical leadership – things can return a lot quicker than people fear.”
Rupert, speaking a few hours after Ramaphosa, tried to reassure investors that Ramaphosa was making good headway in his campaign and that the damage to the economy could be reversed.
“We have been through all of this before,” Rupert said, referring to the dismal level of state finances in the dying days of apartheid under the former National Party.
“The ANC were shocked at the state of the finances when they took over,” Rupert said, adding that “rogue elements” of the ANC had brought the country to the same pass. But it was nothing that could not be reversed with sound and ethical leadership.
Rupert noted that Ramaphosa was more popular as the President of South Africa than he was as the President of the African National Congress.
“He is the President of South Africa and not the ANC… the majority of South Africans would like to see him as the President of the country.” (Understood to mean that more South Africans approve of him as President than ANC members do of his position at the helm of their organisation.)
The audience listened to him with rapt attention, intrigued by his brash and confident style but warming to his straight talk and sense of humour despite his vilification.
At networking and social events on the fringes of the conference, Rupert was one of the most sought-after celebrities, with delegates queuing to get a few words with him.
Here were two passionately patriotic South Africans, who could arguably be achieving wonders by collaborating for the revival of a South African economy pushed to the edge of collapse after a decade of corruption and mismanagement.
The two men had shared a table at the speakers’ dinner the night before – reportedly the third time they had met in five years – but they cut lonely figures on stage, fielding questions from FT editor Lionel Barber, who displayed his skill as a political choreographer.
“It is so sad that if you are a businessman you cannot speak to the President of your country,” the straight-talking Rupert lamented.
He recounted his spat with former President Jacob Zuma who had accused Rupert of threatening to tank the rand if Zuma fired then Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.
Rupert insisted that he had never picked a fight with Zuma but admitted that while sitting with friends on holiday in the Bahamas in 2016 he had said that Zuma should go (step down), “for the sake of the children”.
Rupert was subsequently singled out and harassed in a social media campaign devised and directed by the defunct London-based public relations firm Bell Pottinger which was hired by the Gupta brothers to discredit him.
Ramaphosa had conceded earlier – in a question-and-answer session after outlining progress on the African continent and South Africa’s key role – that damage done to institutions such as the prosecuting authority (NPA) and tax collector (SARS) was “worse than you think”.
He said damage to the economy was more than the R500bn suggested by Barber and “could even be as much as a trillion rand”. This sum amounts to about 10% of the country’s gross domestic product.
“It was much bigger than I think most people could ever have imagined,” Ramaphosa said. Even the sceptical investors seemed shocked by this kind of talk.
Asked by Barber how he felt about being labelled in media articles as South Africa’s last hope, he admitted it was a “scary” role to be cast in but said he was not alone in the task.
“There is an army of South Africans who want South Africa to do good…who want to go back to embracing the practices and values that Nelson Mandela stood for,” Ramaphosa said.
Turning to the disastrous state of Eskom, Ramaphosa was at pains to convince investors that there were solutions to the utility’s problems and that government was ready to overhaul the management, strengthen the board and deal with the utility’s massive debt.
He said details of the plans would be disclosed in coming days and predicted that the rating agency Moody’s – the last of three rating agencies not to have downgraded South Africa to sub-investment grade – would be “happy” with the proposed changes.
The only occasion when Rupert was at a loss for words was when Barber asked him what he would do if he was given the job of heading Eskom.
After a long silence, which brought some laughter from the audience, he said that he had asked the current chair and acting CEO of Eskom, Jabu Mabuza, why on earth he had taken the job.
“I asked him if he had lost his mind,” Rupert said, buying time for a more serious response, which eventually came.
“I would split it into three units (as Ramaphosa said would happen earlier), but then I would privatise it as much as possible,” Rupert said, adding that he was producing hydro power on his farm which he was not able to connect to the grid because of Eskom’s restrictions.
“The electricity is running into the sea,” he said.
Ramaphosa and Rupert were of one mind when it came to the potential of Africa. Rupert predicted that Africa would achieve and maintain a growth rate of five or six percent.
He said the European Union was far more fragile than Africa because the options for lifting its economy were running out.
And they were of one mind when it came to South Africa’s potential if it returned to ethical government.
There were lighter moments.
When Rupert referred to South Africa’s proposed nuclear deal, Barber asked him if he meant the “Putin deal”.
“No, no, don’t call it that. Please call it the Russian deal. I don’t want to have him as an enemy,” said Rupert in an uncharacteristically plaintiff voice, to roars of laughter.
It was in some respects an insightful pas de deux in absentia between the two South African heavyweights. DM
- John Battersby is London-based journalist, author and consultant.