Published 9 years ago

Getting to know Dr. Precious Moloi-Motsepe is like peeling an onion. The fashion powerhouse and philanthropist is reticent about her net worth, but it is clear that she has stepped out of the shadow of her mining magnate husband, Patrice Motsepe.

Dr. Precious, as her trusted lieutenant Kyle Boshoff calls her, wears many hats. And, like all women, she has the ability to multitask. Her current and most important venture to date is as a fashion entrepreneur.

Her debut into the fashion world has not been without detractors. Many have sought to downplay her as a rich man’s wife, amusing herself at being a businesswoman. But those who dismiss her and her business as second rate, do so at their own peril.

“I don’t want to be a sideline player, a supporting act…

[I] want to be big, very big. I think in the next five years we will have a very strong footprint,” she says confidently.

Moloi-Motsepe admits she took a massive risk when she entered the industry and formed African Fashion Inter-national (AFI), a company which promotes and develops designers. She had to develop a market, because at the time, there was little excitement around local designers. Also, the designers needed help to produce garments that were on par with their international peers.

According to figures supplied by her company, the decision to invest a “huge amount” has started paying off.

AFI operates on a number of platforms. The exposure value of the company was in excess of $3.9 million from events in 2008, compared to more than $14.2 million in 2011. In 2012, with the launch of the inaugural Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in Johannesburg, the event garnered in excess of $3.2 million in PR return.

The immense brand value generated by AFI has resulted in the creation of a global platform for designers, international networks and it has attracted Mercedes-Benz as its headline sponsor. This is in line with many of the other fashion capitals worldwide. Moloi-Motsepe is very clear about her vision: she wants to conquer the fashion world, a notoriously unforgiving and cut-throat industry. She is determined not to rest until she has a store in every major city in the world.

“We want to take African fashion globally,” she says.

“When I’m traveling and I’m wearing a design by one of our designers, honestly, I do get feedback: ‘Oh that looks nice. Where did you buy that from?’ I know that there is a market out there.”

Fashion is big business worldwide. In South Africa, the industry is valued at more than $3 million. Globally, the apparel retail industry was valued at $1.1 trillion in 2011, and Neverblue Fashion Performance Network, which provides analysis for the sector, estimates it will grow to $1.3 trillion in 2016.

“Locally, I think we are not there yet, but there is a growth of high net earners on the continent… that is why we have gone into the African luxury space. The middle class is clearly on the rise, you have leading agencies such as the World Bank and the African Development Bank that recently put the middle class between 200 and 300 million and it is even expected that by 2060, the number of middle-class Africans will grow to 1.1 billion. Additionally, the rapid growth in the number of high net worth individuals is noteworthy. Africa currently boasts 16 billionaires; most of them residing in Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa. Can this growth support retail? Absolutely I think so,” says Moloi-Motsepe.

She believes the continent’s high-flyers are prepared to spend large sums of money on clothes made by Africans in Africa.

“There is a huge pride amongst Africans for their own. We now want to tell our own stories. Now we want to celebrate our own. When we launched the first Africa Fashion Week [in 2009], I was overwhelmed by the support we got from people all over the continent who came to see African designers showcased on a world class platform. There is so much pride, and the clothes sell.”

But the fashion queen does not believe a price tag needs to be excessive to indicate exclusivity. She says her Privé line, which she showcased for the first time in March, ranges in affordability.

Moloi-Motsepe knows that in a country bedeviled by structural inequality, crass displays of excess do not go down well. She also knows that style has nothing to do with money. For her, true exclusivity is about unique craftsmanship handed down through the generations.

“You can get a scarf that maybe was made in Mali and it has that motif. Or you can get a camisole that was made by Taibo [Bacar] in Mozambique or something South African.

I don’t think it’s about spending lots and lots of money on outfits. It’s about getting pieces that you can use with your current wardrobe that would be so unique that they bring to life just a plain, simple black suit, for instance.

“But African fashion is about more than accessories. There is a market, on the continent and worldwide, for unique and well-made clothing, designed by and made in Africa,” she explains.

The Privé line also has allure because its items are handmade, uniquely African, and most are one of a kind.

Although Moloi-Motsepe’s ambitions reach beyond the African continent, for now, AFI will target three countries: South Africa because of its infrastructure, Nigeria as it has a large population, and cash-flush Angola. For the next five years, it will focus on events and making more fashion content available for print, radio and television media, as well as on mobile devices.

AFI is planning to intensify the development of young designers with increased funding and a mentorship program, as well as pairing newbies with established designers. Commercially, AFI will be involved in retailing African luxury and bespoke items.

“We are refining our business model based on our learnings as we go along because you have to ask yourself do you want to take established designers into your portfolio like Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy? Or do we establish our own brands? It will probably be a hybrid of what others have done, based on what works best for the group,” she says.

Moloi-Motsepe is sanguine about Africa’s haute couture market. “Very soon, hopefully, ‘made in Africa’ will be as good as ‘made in Italy’,” she says.

A cursory glance at the trends in global fashion shows a clear appreciation of the African aesthetic beyond curiosity value. Many fashionistas and designers are incorporating African prints into their collections in an innovative and fresh way. They include Miuccia Prada, Marc Jacobs and Karl Lagerveld. Moloi-Motsepe, through her relentless efforts to showcase and support African designers, both on the continent and around the world, is in no small part responsible for this momentum. African haute couture has indeed arrived.

A number of well-known designers have sought out AFI’s different business platforms. One of them is Thula Sindi, whose designs were first available in retail chain store Edgars and are now sold by several stockists across South Africa. Others include David Tlale, who has his own store, and Dax Martin, who has previously supplied the Miss World contestants with swimwear.

Moloi-Motsepe says although there is a market for “made in Africa designs”, it makes business sense for clothing to be universal.

“If you want to be just African you are going to stay more artistic, appreciated and inspired, whereas, if you become universal, you become commercially successful.”

The South African fashion industry is not without its challenges. Most people struggle to access finance. And the ailing textile sector makes it difficult to source a variety of materials locally, so many designers have to import them, says Moloi-Motsepe.

The country’s fashion schools and design colleges are often very expensive and untransformed. One of AFI’s aims is not only to promote up-and-coming designers, but also those from underprivileged backgrounds. Moloi-Motsepe believes black economic empowerment has not had enough of an impact.

“Broad-based black economic empowerment – you can only comment with hindsight. The policies were brought in with good faith. They have gone some way, maybe not a long way… We could have done better; for women, I think more needs to be done.”

She also believes the manufacturing sector does have a future, but only if everyone comes to the party. The sector has been decimated by the increase in cheap clothing imports, particularly from Asian countries, over the last decade. It continues to bleed jobs, as companies struggle to come up with dynamic ways to beat slow growth.

“Government [needs to] work hard. There is a lot of upgrading to be done and there’s a lot of re-skilling that needs to happen. The big retailers must support local manufacturers… The fashion design industry can serve as a driving force,” Moloi-Motsepe says.

One of the main reasons the fashion fundi, who describes her own sense of style as “classic with a twist”, decided to become involved in the industry, was to reach out to more women. Empowering women has been always been a driving force in her life and is often behind her

career-changing decisions.

Before she entered the fashion industry, Moloi-Motsepe worked as a doctor. But she became increasingly frustrated with the limits of her small practice. She would help women who would only return the next day because they were caught in the vicious cycle of poverty resulting in disease, and resulting poverty.

At that time, there was an opportunity for the Motsepe family to buy into a company that organized events, including fashion. It was a perfect fit; they had always wanted to get involved in the retail sector.

“For us, as a family, we thought: this is an industry that can absorb a vast number of people in employment, particularly people who cannot get the highest-paying jobs because of their levels of education. It absorbs a lot of women… it was really chosen for that, and the small businesses it can create for other people,” she recalls.

Also, perhaps subconsciously, Moloi-Motsepe says she wanted to be involved in the rebranding of the continent. A powerful tool in communicating ideas, the creative industry is an innovative way to achieve this.

The Motsepes are no strangers to helping change the way Africa is perceived. Through the Motsepe Family Foundation, they have also undertaken a number of initiatives to build communities.

This year, in an unprecedented move in South Africa, the family announced they would be donating half of their wealth to the foundation. The donation, which is part of the international Giving Pledge initiative, is being used to fund education, health care and other social initiatives.

The move sees the Motsepes joining the likes of United States business magnate Warren Buffett and Microsoft founder Bill Gates. They started the Giving Pledge, encouraging the super-rich to donate at least half their wealth to charities. So far Buffet and Gates have managed to convince around 100 billionaires to follow suit, most of them American.

Moloi-Motsepe and her husband are South Africa’s richest black couple. FORBES estimates Motsepe’s net worth to be around $2.9 billion.

Although many admire the couple for pledging half their wealth, the truth is that philanthropy, when it is done properly, makes business sense. Educated, equipped and healthy citizens will help ensure economic growth.

The Motsepes initially started off by giving money to charities. But after forming the foundation, of which Moloi-Motsepe is the deputy president, they shifted focus to programs and projects with a long-term impact.

Established in 1999, the foundation’s primary objective is to assist and uplift poor communities. It chooses what projects to support after consulting members of the community. This way, the beneficiaries themselves identify their most pressing needs.

“Different people do their philanthropy differently. And we felt that we need to be relevant for our conditions and that’s why we are really on the ground,” she says.

The foundation focuses on the concept of cooperatives. By forming partnerships and businesses with the communities, there is more chance for real change.

“I think that it is one way of making sure [philanthropy] is sustainable… I’m sure a lot of people want to feel that they can help themselves. So we are guided by the saying, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’. No handouts, [but rather] giving them hand-ups. When I studied with a student loan, it was a hand-up,” she explains.

Moloi-Motsepe studied to be a doctor at one of Africa’s top tertiary institutions, the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). Unlike many black teenagers at the time, she was able to apply for a student loan. Companies where her father worked helped her out, and then later, Nedbank.

Back then, stellar institutions such as Wits were for whites only and she had to apply to the education minister for permission to study there.

Her reasons for choosing Wits instead of the Medical University of South Africa (Medunsa), where many black students preferred to obtain their qualifications, were both aesthetic and practical.

“When I was still a [pupil], we used to go to Wits University… and I just loved the environment. I loved the buildings, the feel of the university. I knew that’s where I wanted to study. Also, my parents liked us to be close by.”

Moloi-Motsepe had wanted to be a doctor for as long as she can remember. Her mother was a nursing sister whom she admired greatly.

“I was also inspired by the doctors, particularly the few African doctors, who were already in Soweto where I grew up. I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives.”

She met her husband at the Johannesburg university, where he was studying law. She is coy about their relationship, which began as a friendship.

“I thought you said we were just going to talk about business,” she retorts, laughing at my efforts to get her to spill the beans on how she met the billionaire.

“We sort of bumped into each other at the Wartenweiler Library at Wits University and became friends, and many years later we have three grown-up boys,” she says.

And with that, she artfully dodges my attempt to get the inside track on a partnership that has spanned nearly three decades.

Moloi-Motsepe displays the same reticence about her 28-year marriage as she does about her net worth. But she has firm views on what she does not want as a married African woman.

Asked if she supports polygamy, which is common practice among the rich and the not-so-rich in Africa, her reply is that it is not for her.

She explains that she was never exposed to polygamy in her family, and points out that her Catholic upbringing prevents her husband from taking more than one wife.

Although she does not judge those who practice polygamy,

Moloi-Motsepe is clear, “personally, it’s not for me”.

Describing herself as a Soweto woman, Moloi-Motsepe says that back in the day, she never imagined herself married to a multi-billionaire. But one thing she was certain of, was that soccer would play some kind of role in her life.

“I thought [Patrice] was going to own a football club; he has always been passionate about that. When we would talk, he would say, ‘I’m going to own a football cub one day’. I knew I was going to become a footballer’s wife,” she laughs.

Motsepe is the owner and president of South Africa’s Mamelodi Sundowns Football Club, the third-largest in the country. Although he has had many successes in the mining industry, the same cannot be said for Sundowns. The club does not have the golden touch and has suffered a number of poor seasons due to coaching and squad difficulties.

But this does not make the game any less sweet for the family.

“Soccer is how we relax as a family. Patrice is very passionate about the sport, as are our three sons, so it is how we as a family choose to spend our leisure time,” says Moloi-Motsepe.

She says one of the reasons she was attracted to her husband, who is also the founder and chairman of diversified mining company African Rainbow Minerals, is because he displayed a quality that appealed to her: ambition.

“We became very close friends because I was about studying for my medical degree and he was about studying for his law degree. So that worked for us. There was a clear connection.”

After graduating, Moloi-Motsepe took a break to raise her children. The couple then got an opportunity to work in Virginia in the US, where she joined the Medical College of Virginia and her husband a law firm.

At the college, she had an epiphany about her future. She was exposed to clinics for girls and women, and rea-lized that health care back in South Africa could be implemented very differently. Also, her experience had shown that women and girls mostly prefer doctors who are their own gender, as they are easier to relate to.

When she returned home, Moloi-Motsepe enrolled at the University of Stellenbosch to fine-tune her focus. Afterwards, she opened one of the first women’s health clinics in Rivonia, Johannesburg.

Although she no longer practices, Moloi-Motsepe believes that once you are a doctor, you are always doctor. Up until today, she is still very involved in women’s health.

She is a past president of the Cancer Association of South Africa, and raises awareness around breast cancer through her Design for Life campaign. The initiative encourages local fashion designers to create T-shirts which are sold and used in the fight against the disease. The Motsepe Family Foundation is working with UN Women and the South African Women, Children and Persons with Disabilities Department on gender responsibility initiatives. Moloi-Motsepe also supports The Clothing Bank, a non-profit or-ganization based in Cape Town, which focuses on enterprise development programs to teach women how to run small retail businesses.

From the outside, Moloi-Motsepe seems to have it all, successfully weaving together the numerous threads in her life.

“I don’t know if it is luck, honestly. But somehow I found things that seem to fit. You know the word disease means ‘dis-ease’ and whether it’s in health, or employment for women, or job creation through the businesses I am involved in, I remain true to always trying to remove ‘dis-ease’. People often ask me why the shift from medicine to fashion. I guess that’s what holds them together.”

Asked if the next thread could possibly be politics, Moloi-Motsepe says she does not believe it will help her or her husband’s cause. She says the couple is better positioned to support and influence change as businesspeople.

But she does believe it is time for a woman president to lead South Africa, defining power as the ability to influence change in a positive way.

Moloi-Motsepe believes women bring qualities to the workplace that are imperative, such as empathy and prudence. “Am I like that? I think so. I think I do think a lot about things.”

She also describes herself as pioneering and a risk-taker, but only after she has done her homework properly.

Being well-heeled has certainly helped Moloi-Motsepe achieve her ambitions and she is not embarrassed by it.

“Wealth is a blessing. It’s an honor. It’s an obligation to make good use of it… We will be comfortable, our children will be comfortable, but we can make so much good use of the wealth by helping others help themselves. It doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable. I don’t think about it.”

Moloi-Motsepe is certain about what she wants to be remembered for, although she quips she will mean different things to different people once she has died.

“I want to be remembered for having had a major contribution to changing the African fashion landscape, on a global scale. In the bigger picture, every day it’s about how I can change other people’s circumstances. How can I make a difference? Whether it’s at home, with workers at my business or the community we are involved in, it’s about how do you make the world better for others.”

Although Moloi-Motsepe is more than capable of making a difference, she remained guarded about her net wealth throughout the interview, even joking at one point that as a journalist, I probably knew more than she did about how much she is valued at. All she would say is that she is a beneficiary of a trust, which owns all the Motsepe family assets.

After spending half the day with Motsepe-Moloi, probing her on her business acumen and what makes her tick, I walk away with the distinct feeling that while I may know more about her, many of her facets have yet to be peeled away.