Bringing Money, Power to S. African Blacks

New head of nation's development agencies aims to ensure that economic empowerment accompanies freedom. PROFILE

WISEMAN NKUHLU has a mission to empower the poor and powerless.

"Political liberation will not mean much to the man in the street," says Professor Nkuhlu, "unless it can deliver housing, jobs, skills, and participation in small-to-medium-sized business activity." Nkuhlu, South Africa's first black chartered accountant and a former university head, this month became the country's most powerful player on the socioeconomic development scene.

Nkuhlu is the new chief executive of the Independent Development Trust (IDT), the country's primary development agency, mandated to help the poor by providing grants for utilities and schools and by undoing the legacy of apartheid in the development field.

Last November, he was appointed chairman of the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA), an apartheid-linked development agency in the vital area of providing such services as roads, water, and rural electrification.

He is the first black South African to occupy either post and the first person to hold both positions simultaneously. They are the country's two major development agencies and command access to some $3 billion in resources.

Many of his colleagues say he has taken on a superhuman workload, but they point to his remarkable ability to deliver.

"You cannot just talk about transformation," Nkuhlu told the Monitor in a wide-ranging interview in his IDT office on the slopes of Table Mountain. "You have to make it happen."

The organizations he heads "belong to all the people," he says. "They are national assets. I will be giving high priority to heightening the involvement of disadvantaged communities in the creation of development programs."

"It is essential to involve the community at all stages of a project and allow the community to elect their own leaders to run the project," he adds.

His daily schedule would stagger a seasoned corporate executive: For starters, he must fly to the DBSA in Pretoria for two days a week. He is a hand-picked guest at intimate dinners for African National Congress (ANC) President Nelson Mandela. He is looked upon as a close ally of the rival Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). And he is frequently called in by President Frederik de Klerk for consultations on development issues.

When the ANC was legalized three years ago, it did not want to cooperate with the DBSA. So it had Nkuhlu appointed to head a committee (backed by the Rockefeller Foundation) to investigate the creation of a new development bank. The committee's mission soon changed to reforming, rather than replacing, the development agency.

"The financial community was not receptive to the establishment of another development bank," Nkuhlu explains. "So we're using the mainstream institution to serve the same purpose."

Nkuhlu says that once the tribal black homelands are reincorporated into South Africa - this has been agreed to, in principle, at multiparty negotiations - then the bank can quickly become a legitimate body that will serve the whole population.

The bank was unacceptable in the eyes of many blacks, because it channeled funds through the discredited homelands.

"Once representation of the homelands on the DBSA board is done away with," Nkuhlu says, "the bank can become a fully recognized body, seen to stand for the aspirations of the people...."

"I'm a great supporter of black advancement," Nkuhlu continues, "but I am also the first to criticize those who use oppression as an excuse." He prefers not to discuss his political affiliations and is one of the few former political prisoners who conceals his jail term on his resume.

"I don't care what the political orientation of people is," Nkuhlu says. "The only criteria in evaluating a project is whether it makes development sense."

Nkuhlu parries a question as to whether his early involvement with the Pan Africanist Congress has anything to do with his achievements. Then he asserts that black pride and belief in the power of scientific knowledge are the key.

"That is what will really liberate us," he says. "And the only way to get it is to make sacrifices."

Nkuhlu, born and raised in the rural Transkei town of Cala, has personal experience of the passions aroused by the oppression of apartheid. He served two years in the notorious Robben Island political prison for giving vent to those feelings.

He became obsessed with the two years of schooling he forfeited during his imprisonment. He took his final high school examination by correspondence and began saving money to go to college while working as a clerk at a gold mine.

A month before black students in Soweto led the historic rebellion against apartheid in June 1976, Nkuhlu became the country's first black chartered accountant.

Now he has emerged as the vital link between the politically empowered black majority in South Africa and the economically empowered white establishment that is seeking to redistribute the country's resources among the entire population without a revolutionary upheaval.

He says that the politicians of tomorrow do not have development issues high enough on their agenda.

"I do not believe politicians are giving development issues the priority they deserve," Nkuhlu says.

But he is pragmatic enough to realize that he cannot motivate any foreign loans for development until the ANC gives the green light to lifting international economic sanctions against South Africa.

He says that the politicians hold the key to resolving the political crisis which, in turn, is the only way to make the development capacity of government accessible to the whole population.

United States Ambassador Princeton Lyman is full of praise for Nkuhlu's role in restructuring development institutions.

"The challenge is: How do you marry government-type institutions with grass-roots community groups that are looking for political credibility as well as development stamps?" Mr. Lyman says. `I think Wiseman Nkuhlu's role is a very positive one."

Despite his influential reputation as a visionary development economist, Nkuhlu keeps in touch with the grass roots.

"I know Nkuhlu from the early days," says Archie Nkonyeni, president of the National African Associated Chambers of Commerce, "and he is one of the most humble men I've ever met. He has always seemed to believe his accomplishments were not an individual asset but something that could help complement the development of the broader community."

Nkuhlu says the most important thing in life is to stay accessible, and to be able to see yourself as other people see you.

"I've always found it important for people to be able to have an honest conversation with you," he says, and "be able to say: `You are spending too much time with the top brass and forgetting where you come from.' "

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