Zuma’s New Black Buddies: Industrialists or Oligarchs?

President Jacob Zuma has been spending a lot of time in Russia. Geographically, our two countries have little in common, although there is no reason why the much-criticised Russians should not be lapping up South Africa’s fine wines and produce by the imported container-load, and cooperating on mining and energy projects.
Certainly, there are massive opportunities for Russia to cash in on SA’s planned nuclear programme, with opportunities for graft and facilitation fees which will make the current FIFA scandal look like a storm in a vodka glass.
But a chat recently with one of our leading South African entrepreneurs gave me an insight into what may actually be happening below the surface. And it’s scary.
Last year I did a lot of work editing a new book on the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). ‘Halfway There’ is an excellent read for a number of reasons, as co-authors Chris Hart and Glenn Silverman of Investment Solutions are two of the brightest people I have ever met, and were able to draw on their own visit to Russia to analyse and understand how each of ZA’s BRICS partners works. Or doesn’t.
A key economic development in Russia has been the emergence of a class of Oligarchs. Small in number but big in wealth, these people emerged in the chaos that accompanied the fall of Communism and the rise of capitalism, cashing in on numerous opportunities as state assets were switched to, or stolen by, the private sector. Many dirty tricks and much villainy appears to have accompanied this process, and there is no doubt that Vladimir Putin is very close to most of these people. If he favours you, you will prosper; if he fails to favour you, then you had better be fearful.
A bunch of powerful businessmen with a ruthless streak, with immense power and patronage, beholden to a protecting President. Where have we heard of that before?
Switch to Midrand a month or so ago, when I last saw President Zuma in the flesh.
He was pushing ahead with a plan to transform the (mainly-white) face of ZA industry, by fostering the emergence of 100 new Black Industrialists (BIs).
A benign interpretation of the President’s plan would see many dozens of worthy, talented people being helped up from the trenches, becoming our new black Captains of Industry. The example was given at the conference of the way in which the apartheid strategists of this country sought to eclipse the colonial heritage of English entrepreneurs and industrial giants, by encouraging the growth of Afrikaans-led industrial giants. Sasol and Iscor were two of the best examples of this.
What may happen when the white dominos fall and the black ones are stacked up? Well, if JZ has been learning anything from Putin’s undoubted personal success, which is believed by some to include self-enrichment beyond the dreams of the Czars, he will been impressed by the role of the Oligarchs. What might be disturbing, then, about the perfectly understandable plan to transform the business landscape of this country, making room for these cohorts of BIs?
Well, if the cynics are to be believed, political favour comes at a price. When our President travels with delegations of businessmen, they can often be categorised as Friends of Zuma.
What would be more natural than those fledgling BIs who are to be supported with billions of rand of taxpayers’ money being picked from the (fire) pool of Zuma’s buddies? And what would be more natural once they have been elevated to immense wealth, wisdom and influence if they were to show their gratitude? By helping out a President whose appetites far exceed his income? The era of the BI Oligarchs may be just around the corner.

I often hear of cuts in this county’s newsrooms, and this fills me with despair. Even the most talented hacks will fail to get ideas, inspiration and scoops if they fail to get out and about. The best bosses and editors understand this; the cash-conscious often fail to fund journalistic jaunts, with a shortness of sight and budget which is disgraceful. The ideas above are not all my own, but stem from conversations with people who are at the coal face of business. Long may my own conversations with these people – black and white – continue.

Tweet of the Day:
Mike Levington (@navitassa): I would love to see the list of “black industrialists” that have been anointed by the SA government.

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