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By Alec Hogg
South Africans watched with fascination and then horror at the nuclear-type fallout after Cape Town-headed New Yorker Justine Sacco’s inappropriate tweet about HIV/Aids, Africa and being White.
Justine Sacco, high profile Public Relations executive, achieved global notoriety after she tweeted from Heathrow en route to Cape Town for Christmas with family. The story took on an added dimension when she called South Africa the land of her father. Soon more of her tweets surfaced, among them evidence that when travelling, she evidently flies First Class.
A picture soon emerged of an expatriate member of a wealthy South African family with an unusual Italian surname. A Google search immediately turns up another famous Sacco, SA mining billionaire Desmond, whose family controls R48bn ($4.6bn) Assore, one of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange’s Top 40 listings.
Matters weren’t helped by the fact that Des Sacco keeps an excruciatingly low profile. He rarely grants media interviews and his mobile number is a closely guarded secret. Add that it’s the middle of SA’s holiday season when the business sector pretty much shuts down, and with no denial, rumours that Justine was his daughter or grand-daughter soon became “fact”.
Fortunately, the hapless tweeter Justine Sacco is not related to Sacco the billionaire. And appears to share nothing other than the last name with the SA branch started by Guido, an immigrant Italian mining engineer whose discovery of the Kalahari Manganese Field was the base for what is today a mighty mining corporation.
Assore’s Group Accountant Ross Davies confirmed today that the late Guido had two children, Des and his sister Sally. Des, now 71, has two sons, Patrick and Nick, both of whom are in their 30s. And half a dozen grandchildren aged between one and six years old.
Davies told me he had discussed the “Justine issue” with Assore CEO Chris Cory, who has been associated with the Sacco family for decades. Cory confirmed Justine is no relation to his boss. Bill Urmson, an Assore non executive director and another who knows Des Sacco and his family well, told me he has never heard of Justine.
All of which will be a relief for many in politically sensitive South Africa where it is hard to exaggerate the damage a rich, White and well-related loose cannon might cause.
Mining is heavily regulated with licences tightly controlled by an increasingly populist Government. Mining executives work hard to address one of the highest HIV/Aids infection rates of any business sector. Thousands of employees have literally died on the job.
For Assore in particular, the potential for embarrassment extends further. Its major asset is 50% ownership of AssMang, a joint venture with influential, well-connected black mining entrepreneur Patrice Motsepe.
Plus, before he returned to politics, the Deputy President of the ruling ANC political party, Cyril Ramaphosa, served on the Assore board of directors (resigned August 2011). His company, Shanduka, was introduced as Assore’s Black Economic Empowerment partner in 2005. An initial investment of R280m ($27m) was cashed in six years later for R2,7bn ($260m).
The last public disclosure showed Ramaphosa, the front-runner to become South Africa’s next President, personally owns 5m Assore shares, now worth R1.75bn ($168m).
Des Sacco, who has chaired the Assore board since 1992, directly owns 24% of Assore currently worth R11.7 bn ($1.1bn). Still athletic despite advancing years, Sacco still plays competitive squash. He was a first class cricketer and as a 20-year-old opening the batting for Transvaal B five times in the 1962/63 season.
At the time Transvaal’s top six was Ian Fullerton, Eddie Barlow, Peter Carlstein, Ali Bacher, Tiger Lance and Johnny Waite – all of whom represented their country. Johannesburg born and bred, Sacco presumably saw little chance of breaking through that top class group so focused his attention to his studies at Wits University. He joined his father’s business after graduating in 1968 as an in-the-field geologist.
* Alec Hogg, a writer and broadcaster, is the publisher and editor of Biznews.com. He ran Moneyweb from inception until October 2012.
Cyril Ramaphosa: The Audio Biography
Listen to the story of Cyril Ramaphosa's rise to presidential power, narrated by our very own Alec Hogg.