inner circle

The (well-connected) network of MTN boss, Ralph Mupita

By Quentin Velluet

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Posted on July 19, 2023 11:17


Ralph Mupita has been at the helm of MTN since 2020. Having steered the finances for three and a half years, he is no stranger to the group’s inner workings. His next goal is to transform the operator into a tech powerhouse by drawing on the support of well-advised friends and relations.

At the age of 52, the Zimbabwean has just celebrated his mid-term as the head of MTN. For the past two years, Mupita, a civil engineer who switched to finance in 2001 and then to telecoms in 2017, has been driving a strategy that should turn the pan-African operator into a diversified tech champion by 2025. We profile his network.

In the transformation of the 290 million customer-strong Johannesburg giant, which includes network infrastructure, financial services, digital services, business services and a marketplace app, Mupita is supported by a hand-picked team of loyal associates appointed during the first few months after he took the post in August 2020.

Outside of MTN, Ralph Mupita also takes advice from friends in high places around the world, all of which make this adopted South African a heavyweight figure in local business. 

On MTN’s Board of Directors, Mupita can count on the support of chairman Mcebisi Jonas. Nicknamed “MJ”, South Africa’s former deputy minister of finance from 2014 to 2016 has become an unrivalled mentor over the years. Mupita joined the Board in 2017 when he became chief financial officer. But it’s Mcebisi’s knowledge and network within the ANC party that have enabled Mupita to establish his legitimacy with the South African authorities, particularly among the more radical fringes.

When it comes to political support – which sometimes means having to operate in highly nationalistic spheres that he absolutely must be in a position to benefit from – the native of Zimbabwe can count on his wife. Makole Mupita is a member of the ANC’s historic aristocracy and has a political network that underpins the legitimacy of MTN’s CEO. A chartered accountant who has also worked for Old Mutual and Investec, she is also an entrepreneur, and in 2009 founded the Mahlako A Phahla Investments fund, through which she provides financial support for renewable energy projects in particular.

On the business side, Mupita learned everything he needed to know from Paul Hanratty, Old Mutual’s managing director since 2020. “He was a sort of godfather to him when they were both at Old Mutual and Ralph was in charge of the group’s emerging markets. He helped him to dissect internal policy,” says a source close to the MTN chief executive. Hanratty, who also sat on the operator’s board of directors, was recently replaced by Nicky Newton-King, the director of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.

Phutuma Nhleko, CEO of MTN from 2002 to 2011, and entrepreneur Gloria Serobe, co-founder of Women Investment Portfolio Holding (Wiphold) and investor in women’s entrepreneurship, are also among the people who inspire him on a daily basis.

Mupita often exchanges text messages with his Cameroonian friend Acha Leke to fine-tune his strategy or make certain important decisions. The African chairman of McKinsey, a graduate of Stanford and Georgia Tech, acts as an informal personal advisor to the CEO, as does Frenchman Xavier Leroy, senior partner at Egon Zehnder in Johannesburg. A graduate of SciencesPo and Essec, the headhunter, who has made several hires to the board and management of MTN, knows Mupita and his family intimately.

Safroadu (Saf) Yeboah-Amankwah is reputed to be even closer to Mupita than Leke and Leroy. American-Ghanaian Yeboah-Amankwah, a former McKinsey executive, left South Africa for the US and joined Intel, where he is senior vice president and director of strategy. “They still talk, but distance has taken its toll,” says a close friend. 

Tsholofelo Molefe is one of the candidates pushed by Xavier Leroy who has become close to Mupita. As the group’s right-hand woman and finance director, the ex-Telkom graduate of East London University is, according to our information, one of the few women who genuinely have the confidence of the CEO.

Seven years his senior, Nkululeko Sowazi, a member of the MTN board since 2016, is also one of Mupita’s loyal supporters at the highest levels of the group. Described as a “great sage”, Sowazi sits on numerous boards of South African groups as chairman or non-executive director.

Very close to Mupita, Azmi Mikati, a member of the Lebanese-born family behind InvestCorp, which was bought by MTN in the early 2000s, is also a major shareholder and a loyal board member whom the CEO particularly values.

Exiled to the US, Zimbabwean compatriot James Manyika is like an “American cousin” whom Mupita, fascinated by the country where his eldest daughter is studying, also likes to consult on future-oriented issues. Also formerly of McKinsey and now vice-president of technology and society at Google, Manyika is also part of the management team at the parent company Alphabet.

Ndebele Nothando, a Harvard and Oxford-educated former Absa Group employee, is highly regarded by Mupita. Since 2021, the economist has headed Bayport Financial Services, which provides banking and financial services to civil servants in South Africa and Latin America.

Their relationship is less direct, but Strive Masiyiwa, head of MTN’s rival, is a shadow supporter of Mupita. During the board’s deliberations over the succession to telecoms tycoon Rob Shuter, the founder of Cassava Holding used his influence and powers of persuasion to defend Mupita’s candidacy. It was partly thanks to him that Mupita was elected by 10 out of 12 votes.

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