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Remembering A Corporate Legend

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Colonel Satya Pal Wahi

It has been a year since FORBES AFRICA lost one of its staunchest supporters and readers, Colonel Satya Pal Wahi. He was an ardent admirer of our magazine and the great stories of African entrepreneurship in it.

In India’s industrial and business world, Col. Wahi was a legend himself, having had a highly-decorated career in the armed forces and then, as a corporate titan.

Through him, stories of Africa reached the pristine parks and walking trails of Gurugram (formerly Gurgaon), about 32kms from India’s capital New Delhi, home to some of the biggest Fortune 500 companies.

In his later years, on his morning walks in the park, he carried copies of FORBES AFRICA. There was always an erudite audience looking forward to impromptu conversations with the genteel, illustrious Col. Wahi.

Thus, the doyens of business in Africa, 8,000kms away, invariably became a part of Gurugram’s misty mornings.

Col. Wahi visited South Africa many times, and also the offices of FORBES AFRICA, when he regaled staff with rapturous stories of his own leadership journey. His lessons and legacy are being carried forward by his son, Rakesh, who was also in the Indian Army and is co-founder of FORBES AFRICA. His grandson, Sid, is the Executive Director of the magazine.

Col. Wahi, born in Khushab, a small village near Lahore in what is now Pakistan, went on to do his engineering at the prestigious Banaras Hindu University in India and thereafter attended the Indian Military Academy. He worked with some of India’s greatest political leaders such as Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.

He says in his book, Leading From The Front: From Army To Corporate World: “I have never bowed down to anyone and have learned to stand on my own legs and fight my own battles.”

The book vividly illustrates him as a man with an insatiable hunger for knowledge and information; his attitude to rebel against injustice remained with him throughout his working life.

The Indian Army gave him a strong foundation for leadership. On retiring from the army, he served many corporate enterprises, including Bokaro Steel Plant, Bharat Heavy Electricals and Cement Corporation of India.

A leading light in India’s energy sector, he was inducted into the Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC) in June 1981 as chairman of the public sector behemoth. He was a firm believer that an organization or individual, which does not grow, stagnates and finally decays.

His decade-long stint at ONGC coincided with the development of Bombay High offshore oilfields and he is credited with contributions in raising India’s oil output from 9 million tons to 32 million tons per annum. He brought about several paradigm shifts, modernizing office facilities and setting up training centers for ONGC.

His contribution in India’s various public sector undertakings is unparalleled. Of the array of awards he has won is one of India’s most shining medals: the Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian honor, which he received in 1988. He is the recipient of the Giants International Award and Indian Geophysical Union’s Silver Jubilee Award. He was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award Petrotech in 2007. To recognize his contribution to the energy sector, he was conferred the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013. He was also a recipient of the degree of Doctor of Science (honoris causa) from three Indian universities.

Col Wahi passed away on 13 February last year, at the age of 88, leaving an aching void and an empty park bench southwest of Delhi.

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A Country On A Roll

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The tiny country of Rwanda is now producing factory-fresh Volkswagen cars from its rolling hills. Next up are ride-hailing and public car-sharing services by the German carmaker.

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The Heroes Among Us

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Heroes exist in history, on celluloid, in pop culture or in these digital times, at the forefront of technology. These are the mighty who shine on the front pages of newspapers, as the paradigms of victory and virtue. But every day in public life, surrounding us are some of the real stars, the nameless, the faceless we don’t recognize or celebrate. In the pages that follow, we look at some of them, exploring the exemplary work they do, from the war zones to your neighborhood streets. They are not flawless, they are not infallible, but they are heroes.

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The Power, Humour And Anger Of Mandela

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It is a century since Nelson Mandela came kicking and screaming into a world that he would change.

In one hundred years, his name has been spoken with pride from the paddy fields of Vietnam, through the savannahs of Africa to the smoky steak houses of New York. His legacy appears more contested with every passing year.

I was fortunate to have a front row seat in the Mandela years and saw the power, humour and anger of the man. I used to feel 10 feet tall at press conferences when he used to greet my questions with: “Mr Bishop, how are you?” Once I was walking to a TV interview with him, at an African Union summit in Harare, the day after I had ruptured my knee playing football, he noticed I was hobbling far behind – something he was not used to. He turned and inquired of the cause of my pain.

“May I suggest you take up boxing, it’s safer!” says the old man with that million dollar smile. I shall take the warmth of that smile to my grave.

Make it clear, I am no Mandela worshipper. He was no saint and certainly didn’t want to be one: he could be angry and petulant with the best of them; his past was chequered by domestic troubles; a man of the people, yet distant from his own family, according to many close to him. A man who promoted press freedom, yet like many of the lesser politicians who followed him, wanted his picture on every page of the morning newspaper. Mandela drew the line at the sports page – he joked that he didn’t want to risk being associated with losers.

The greatest fear Mandela had was that his ideals – not his name – would be forgotten after his death. Not for Mandela the greed of rule, nor the trappings of power.

Yet it is very fashionable these days to run Mandela down as something akin to a sell-out. Those who claim, erroneously, that Mandela sold out his people. They say he didn’t stop poverty overnight nor right the wrongs of the past with the wave of his wand. They need to talk to those who were there in the negotiations for a new free South Africa.

“People say we gave up too much in negotiations yet we had nothing to start with,” Denis Goldberg, a man who faced death with Mandela at the Rivonia Trial in 1964, once told me.

READ MORE: Mandela Through Their Eyes

The negotiations with an entrenched elite – that held most of the cards and only grudgingly acknowledged Mandela and his comrades – were difficult to say the least. Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) could not even threaten to go back to war because the depleting arms of its military wing posed little or no threat to the state.

Even so, a deal was hammered together somehow. In the next two years, in the run-up to the 1994 elections, Mandela won his leadership spurs as he steered South Africa away from the civil war that many feared was inevitable. He flew to Durban and told bloody-thirsty faction fighters to throw their weapons into the sea and they listened. When revered freedom fighter Chris Hani was gunned down on his front drive, in 1993, many were ready to take the law into their own hands.

Mandela barged into the SABC studios in Johannesburg that night and made a broadcast to the nation to calm down and put its weapons away. He wasn’t even in Parliament then and I wonder to this day how many lives that broadcast saved with this canny display of leadership.

Then, when into power with a virtually bankrupt Treasury, Mandela steered the National Development Programme that built millions of homes and schools; electrified the homes of legions of poor people and rolled out roads to connect the nation. Yet, the money was never going to stretch far enough and millions still have no roof over their heads and too many schoolchildren attend classes under trees.

It is fashionable these days to say the majority of South Africa must rise in a civil war in which the nation will be cleansed of its past, restored of its land on the path to righteousness. It probably sounds even better after a few drinks.

READ MORE: Celebrating Mandela From Where It All Began; Soweto

I say this is bunkum and anyone who has ever seen or smelt a civil war will agree with me. How a vile, stinking trail of dead fathers, raped women and children, destruction and disorder, can lead a country to the light beats me. Those who scream for war have clearly never seen it.

The first time I clapped eyes on the great man, at the Harare Agricultural Show, on his first foreign visit to Zimbabwe in August 1994, he walked alone, without a security man in sight. I didn’t ask for a selfie – they didn’t exist then, anyway – I was tongue-tied. We merely smiled at each other in passing.

So when people in political circles told me that South Africa’s new president Cyril Ramaphosa didn’t care for wealth and power – he merely wanted to put his name up there with Mandela – I smiled like I did on that August day in Harare.

This does seem feasible as President Ramaphosa – a millionaire in his own right – was the man who stood next to Mandela, holding the microphone, on the town hall steps in Cape Town, on February 11 1990, during his famous address on release from 27 years in prison.

“I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people,” said Mandela to deafening cheers on that bright summer’s day.

Clearly this humility and willingness to serve rubbed off on President Ramaphosa on that fateful day in 1990. In his first 100 days, he has made manful attempts to stop the rot in South Africa by merely enforcing the rule of law. A course of action he made no secret of even before he took power on February 15.

“There are no holy cows. Anyone who is caught doing wrong things will end up behind the bars of a jail,” says Ramaphosa, with microphone in hand and humble service in mind at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January.

True to his word, Ramaphosa cut swathes through the corruption of the past. Former president Jacob Zuma ended up in the dock on corruption charges something that many – including me – thought they would never see in their lifetime. He removed the rookie finance minister Malusi Gigaba and replaced him with the people’s choice Nhanlha Nene who has staved off more downgrades of the economy. A clean-up of the state-owned enterprises and the institutions is underway and many who thought they were invincible six months ago have been cut down to size.

I am sure the old man, who must have been spinning in his grave over the last few years, would approve.

“Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another,” says Mandela at his inauguration at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

As we mark 100 years since his birth, it is time for cool heads and clear thinking to make sure this utopian ideal of liberty and tolerance lives on after his death. Our grandchildren will judge us harshly if we don’t.

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