Activist Doctor Turned Capitalist

Forbes Africa
Published 9 years ago
Activist Doctor  Turned Capitalist

He calls himself an African optimist; in the coming days, he faces a test of this comforting belief.

Iqbal Survé has made millions investing in the continent, turning himself, in less than a decade, from a medical doctor into one of South Africa’s top entrepreneurs. Now, he faces controversy and opposition around his newest deal to buy a clutch of Africa’s most powerful newspapers.

At the same time, he will promote the continent in the global economy, as a member of the recently launched BRICS business council. South Africa came late to the party. It joined the group of significant emerging economies in April 2010, turning BRIC into BRICS, nine years after its inception. Today, the southern African nation plays an important role within the forum. It acts as a gateway to the continent for China, Brazil, India and Russia; as a catalyst for African integration. BRICS launched a business council in March, which consists of five key business leaders from each nation.

“The council is an important development to foster intra-BRICS economic ties. It will not only focus on trade, but also on technology transfer, skills development, banking, manufacturing and industrialization,” says Survé.

He will direct South Africa’s role within the BRICS council together with mining magnate Patrice Motsepe, Business Unity SA CEO Nomaxabiso Majokweni, Zungu Investment Company executive chair Sandile Zungu and Transnet CEO Brian Molefe.

“The members of the business council are people who understand the nexus between business, politics and economic growth,” says Survé, who serves as an economic advisor to South African president, Jacob Zuma.

The business council will work to boost trade, encourage entrepreneurs in member countries to pool capital and form joint ventures; while the five governments will usher in market access by easing visas, registration of companies and exchange controls.

“Our purpose is to create the smoothest possible interaction between companies,” says Survé.

Already, trade between BRICS and Africa has increased tenfold since 2002, with an estimated current value of $340 billion.

But there’s more to it. South Africa wants to use the BRICS business council to advance, not only, its own agenda but also that of the continent. Part of this will be moving trade relations with China, India, Brazil and Russia away from the narrow focus of commodity exports.

Africa’s progress is something close to Survé’s heart. The former ‘struggle doctor’ cared for political prisoners and victims of detention and torture during apartheid, including former South African President Nelson Mandela. He left medicine, in 1997, to launch investment holding company Sekunjalo Group, which is known for purchasing controlling stakes in firms to empower black workers.

Sekunjalo has investments in more than 170 companies and is South Africa’s top-rated black empowerment company. It comes as little surprise that Survé, from a poor family in Cape Town, has made a fortune from investing in oil in Africa and is regarded as an entrepreneur who is shaping the continent’s future.

“At Sekunjalo, we pay serious attention to skills development, corporate social investment, enterprise development and transformation. It’s a gentler form of capitalism that puts people before profits,” he says.

The newest acquisition by Sekunjalo could prove a test of these words. A consortium, led by Sekunjalo, bought the South African arm of Irish Independent News and Media for $200 million.

The deal means that Sekunjalo will acquire newspapers such as The Star, Pretoria News, Sunday Independent, Cape Times, Cape Argus, Mercury, Daily News, which employ around 1,400 people. There has been an uproar about the failure to disclose the identity of the other funders. Survé was sworn to secrecy by the Irish media house but revealed the funders in late June after a general meeting of the sellers, when it emerged that the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and some of its affiliates comprise a major portion of Sekunjalo Independent Media’s (SIM) shareholding and that employees of Independent News and Media South Africa (INMSA), would get 10% of shares in the company. It has been reported that if the sale goes through, banks could write off €100 million ($133 million) of the group’s debt. Sekunjalo Independent Media, will claim 75% ownership, while the remaining stake is reported to be held by the Government Employees Pension Fund. But Survé has refuted this statement. Staff at the media group—who formed a trust to acquire the remaining 25%—say it is being bought by a newly formed company with no records, turnover or assets.

Away from acquisitions, Survé believes BRICS presents an opportunity for Africa to attract more foreign direct investment (FDI).

“FDI is key for development. Our continent is on the threshold of dramatic change. For the first time, we are at a point where all people might be able to access capital,” the black empowerment pioneer and philanthropist reckons.

This economic growth is closely tied to the continent’s fortunes, Survé stresses: “BRICS is not a South African exercise. It’s good for the whole of Africa and will lead to stronger bridges between South Africa and its African counterparts, too,” he says.

If all goes to plan, Africa could emulate the Asian tigers.

“Some African countries, like Mozambique and Ethiopia, do it already. Thirty years ago, China was in exactly the same place where Africa is today. It has seen enormous development from not being among the top 100 of the gross domestic products in the world to being the world’s second largest economy,” he says.

A key role of the BRICS business council, which will convene twice a year, is to examine business models.

“The idea is to learn the lessons of how some of the countries, such as Brazil and China, have achieved their phenomenal economic growth. How do they support the private sector? What policies and capital initiatives were put into place? What are the lessons in terms of infrastructure development?”

Survé stresses the fact that the formation of the BRICS business council does not mean trade relationships with western countries will be put on the back burner.

“From our perspective, we need the African economy to grow. For that to happen we need to do business with multilateral partners, whether they come from BRICS, North America or Europe.”

With his foray into newspapers, Survé may need nerve as well as optimism.