South Africa's Blacks Switch From Protests to Business

Vusi Khanyile, former anti-apartheid activist, typifies new class

VUSI KHANYILE is no stranger to political persecution. Six years ago, he and two other community leaders escaped from prison and staged a six-week sit-in at the United States consulate in Johannesburg to protest the detention without trial of South African activists.

But that was then.

Today, the only sit-ins Mr. Khanyile participates in are meetings at Thebe Investment Corporation's stylish neo-classical headquarters in Johannesburg, where he is managing director.

Khanyile is not alone. In the past 18 months, since the first all-race elections brought President Nelson Mandela to power, many erstwhile black revolutionaries have moved from the front of protest lines into the once all-white arena of South African business.

For Khanyile and others in this new class, the struggle for economic power is a natural follow-on, not a contradiction of their former activism.

Gone are their brightly colored T-shirts emblazoned with political slogans. These new black business leaders now don designer suits, carry ostrich-skinned briefcases and share portfolios, live in mansions, and drive BMWs.

For the new black establishment, this is the second struggle of liberation. These business leaders are slowly but dramatically altering the balance of power in a resource-rich land.

Three years ago, there was not a single black-owned business listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. Today, wholly black-controlled companies make up nearly 1 percent of the JSE and have a market value of $1.08 billion.

One example is Don Ncube's Real Africa Investments Ltd. (RAIL). A year ago the firm was hardly a twinkle in the eye of this dynamo, a former political activist who was raised in the squalor of Alexandra township outside Johannesburg. Five months ago, his $165 million company - a consortium of financial interests, trade unions, church groups, and a life-insurance company - was listed on the stock exchange.

The surge of black business is often likened to the way Afrikaners, after winning political power in 1948, managed to lift themselves from poor status to control of key sectors of industry here by the mid-1960s.

Enterprising black businesspeople have high expectations that they can repeat the Afrikaners' success in the corporate world. But with an unemployment at 42 percent among blacks, high illiteracy, and rampant crime, analysts see meaningful black empowerment as a pipe dream.

The future for black business, according to Khanyile, lies in job-creation and the transfer of technology and wealth to blacks by forging alliances with the market leaders of the world.

"It has to be done, we have no choice," he says. "Otherwise political change becomes meaningless." Looking back on his days of protest, he observes: "I see what I was doing then as saying: 'Our people do not have to live in these conditions, there must be a better life'.... That's exactly the same in the economic arena."

"We don't really go out of our way to pursue the social objectives. We do want to show that the market can work for the collective benefit of the people of South Africa," he says. "But the bottom line is generating a good return for our shareholders."

That's why Khanyile recently brought Thebe into an alliance, through an equity swap deal, with white South African billionaire Bill Venter's Altron group. Venter, with links to international multinationals like French Alcatel Ahstom C.G.E. and Swedish-Swiss Asea Brown Boveri, probably made more money busting sanctions than any other South African, insiders say.

Though Khanyile laughingly shrugs off the title of "tycoon," he, too, seems to have something of the Midas touch. After just three years in operation, Thebe has already reached its five-year target, with a consolidated annual turnover in excess of 150 million rand ($40 million). In its stable are property developments and airline, banking, electronics, tourist, and entertainment interests.

Khanyile, who studied economics while in prison for anti-apartheid activity and later at a university in Britain, says foreign investors snubbed black South Africans at first. This gave them little choice but to prove themselves in their "own backyard."

"This was crucial," he says. "We had to show our track record." The turning point for Thebe Investments was forming an airline company, SA Express, that feeds the national carrier South African Airlines.

Another prominent political activist-turned-tycoon is Ntatho Motlana. He was weaned on "the struggle." As a young doctor, he was imprisoned without trial and harassed regularly by police. But, in Soweto, the sprawling black township of Johannesburg, he was a leading light, chairing 20 community organizations. Today, Mr. Motlana's net worth has shot up from a few hundred thousand rand to around 15 million rand. He is chairman of New Africa Investment Ltd., with holdings in the Sowetan newspaper, African Bank, and a cellular-telephone group.

Still, black pioneers are scarce, and many of them resent the way white business has benefitted from the transition to black majority rule.

The Johannesburg Stock Exchange is the 10th largest in the world. Foreign investors, who kept well away during the days of political upheaval and sanctions, are keenly eyeing South Africa as an exciting emerging market. That makes it harvest time for white business.

"White business has got a real bargain for the transition. They have got off very lightly. White South Africans are walking tall through the African continent and trading worldwide," Khanyile says. "But when you ask yourself whether Mrs. Mkhize living in a shack with no water and no electricity has got a bargain, then you know the real challenge."

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