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South Africa: Sexwale, the Apprentice

By By Sue Cullinan in Cape Town and Sello Mabotja in Johannesburg
Posted on Monday, 22 March 2010 11:46

South Africa’s Minister

for Human Settlements Tokyo Sexwale has abandoned his business empire to return to full-time politics. With President Jacob Zuma’s government increasingly divided, party members may already be looking at other leaders waiting in the wings

Less than a year into Jacob Zuma’s presidency, South Africa is in a state of flux. Loyalties and alliances are already under strain ahead of the ruling party’s congress to choose its next presidential candidate in two years’ time.

The cast list is headed by incumbent Jacob Zuma, already vulnerable as a self-proclaimed one-term president. The other leading contenders are Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, former ANC Secretary General Cyril Ramaphosa, Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu – and the energetic Minister for Human Settlements, Mosima Gabriel “Tokyo” Sexwale.

In many ways, Sexwale – billionaire businessman and former premier of Gauteng, South Africa’s financial heartland – embodies the country’s long journey to democracy. Born to a poor family in Soweto’s Orlando West, he joined the African National Congress (ANC) in exile, trained as an insurgent in Moscow and was jailed for more than a decade on Robben Island alongside Nelson Mandela.

Those are the kind of credentials the ANC treasures. But Sexwale has added a second set of qualifications since the first democratic elections in 1994. In 16 years he has laid the groundwork for political advance while at the same time amassing a fortune, making him both oligarch and possible presidential contender – one of a new and ambitious breed of power-brokers and one of South Africa’s wealthiest post-apartheid entrepreneurs. Last year, South Africa’s Sunday Times calculated his fortune at R1.2bn ($162m, up from R978.8m in 2008).

Sexwale timeline


Born in 1953, Sexwale was inspired by the Black Consciousness Movement and Winnie Mandela to join the exiled ANC in Swaziland and undergo military training in the Soviet Union. Arrested in 1976, he was ‘accused number one’ in a terrorism trial with 11 others


Sexwale spent 13 years on Robben Island alongside Nelson Mandela and comrades such as Mikki Xayiya, now executive chairman of the Mvelaphanda Group. It was also there that he met Judy van Vuuren, a member of his legal team and now his wife, business partner and mother of their two teenage children

Early 1990s

Released after the Groote Schuur agreement ending ANC/government hostilities.Elected to ANC National Executive Committee. As head of public liaison and special projects, he helps defuse violence in East Rand


In 1993, Sexwale was first at the scene of the murder by right-wing extremists of former ANC military commander Chris Hani. His appeal for calm, endorsed by Mandela, forced the government to accede to ANC demands for democratic elections. “April was not just about the death of Chris, it was about the birth of a new nation,” Sexwale said. Appointed by Mandela as Gauteng premier in 1994

Late 1990s

1997 Leaves government for business, with associates saying he was pushed out by Mbeki?1998 Enters the BEE arena, founding Mvelaphanda Group, with subsidiaries in mining, property and finance


In 2001, Mbeki accuses Sexwale, Cyril Ramaphosa and Mathews Phosa of plotting to unseat him. In 2007, Sexwale exposes conspiracy in an ANC NEC meeting and tips the balance against Mbeki. Agrees to stand for the ANC presidency but at final hour, throws weight and money behind Zuma


Zuma wins ANC presidency in December 2007 and is elected national president after elections in April 2009. Appoints Sexwale to his cabinet as Minister of Housing, renamed the department of Human Settlements. By early 2010, Zuma appears weakened by sex scandals and ANC leaks suggest he might not be the party’s choice for leadership in 2012. Tensions in government between nationalist and leftist groups break out into the open along with potential rivalries for the ANC’s top leadership positions

As housing minister in Zuma’s cabinet, Sexwale has secured a platform to cast himself both as a loyal player within the party and a font of largesse to the people – in ANC terms, providing ‘service delivery’ – to the homeless poor who form one of South Africa’s pivotal constituencies.

But with the factional manoeuvres that have characterised Zuma’s reign, what are the chances of Sexwale emerging victorious? “This time around he thinks of himself as a strong contender in his own right and is also well-positioned to stake his claim to both the ANC presidency and that of the country,” said professor Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for Democracy. “But he has not really presented a clear blueprint in the past on what he can do for the country and the ANC.”

Rather like the Vatican conclave when it chooses a new pope, the ANC frowns on those who advertise their ambitions for high office. Sexwale has already broken once with that practice, putting himself forward as a compromise presidential candidate between Thabo Mbeki and Zuma in the run-up to the ANC conference in 2007. When Mbeki declined to stand down, Sexwale abandoned his bid and backed Zuma.

This time Sexwale is more circumspect, almost reclusive. He is reluctant to give interviews and his public relations staff has thrown a protective laager around his public image.

The 2010 World Cup football tournament in South Africa – the first on the African continent – may force the ANC to put some of its disputes on hold. But disputes between communist-leaning and nationalist-inspired factions are likely to play themselves out in prolonged and bruising infighting before the party’s conference in 2012. As a measure of the suspicion surrounding the succession debate, most officials contacted for this article preferred to speak off the record.

ANC Pedigree

Though not the only contender, Sexwale’s appeal – across the racial divide – lies as much in his charisma as in achievement. “If he walks into a room, everyone notices,” observed a close business associate.

Sexwale’s strength may lie in the diversity of his networks. His association with the ‘Mandela mantle’ began during his schooling in Soweto during the 1970s. Boarding with Winnie Mandela during her husband’s imprisonment, he saw the effect of their separation and deeply absorbed the ANC’s liberation theology. In his political journey, from joining the ANC underground to exile in Swaziland and later military training in Moscow, Sexwale forged powerful relationships with the exile group which has thus far dominated government positions. At the same time, his former Black Consciousness colleagues also knit him into the ‘inziles’ group who fought the apartheid regime from inside the country. As the ANC makes the transition from an organisation dominated by the ‘exiles’ to one reflecting a new generation, ?would-be leaders may need a foot in both camps.Given the ANC’s uncertainties, with Zuma’s tripartite government unravelling into its constituent elements, the perception of Sexwale as party benefactor may serve him well. ANC veterans remember his role at party headquarters soon after his own release in overseeing the resettlement of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) cadres returning from exile.

“Tokyo showed that he could work with people and that he had respect for elders. He was young and going up in the ANC, but he still had the humility to listen to advice from older comrades. He showed that he knew the values of the ANC,” recalls Thukela Jantjies, a member of the ANC Veterans’ League and later a campaigner for Sexwale’s abortive first bid for the ANC presidency.

This role as patron was resumed in a different guise in the late 1990s. Mbeki, who had already dispatched one rival for the presidency in Cyril Ramaphosa, turned his attention to another fast-climbing competitor. Tensions were not eased by a comment attributed to Sexwale around the time of the Mandela-Mbeki presidential transition. “The President’s shoes are huge, and Thabo has tiny feet”. Abruptly, after falling victim to Mbeki’s conspiratorial politics, Sexwale announced that he was “left with no choice” when in 1997 Mbeki commanded him to be the ANC’s face of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE).

Mr Delivery

True to form, Sexwale seized on his new mandate with gusto, delivering deals that have changed the way South Africa does business – ?becoming, in the process, an overnight millionaire. “He demonstrated an amazing skill and sure-footedness in financial dealings,” said Michael Spicer, an Anglo American executive at the time and now CEO of Business Leadership South Africa (BLSA).

Sexwale established Mvelaphanda Holdings (Mvelaphanda meaning “progress” or “evolution” in Venda), primarily a mining company but with tentacles reaching into many strategic sectors including energy, transport and telecommunications, property, hotels, engineering, health, banking and financial services [see box].

He became known as ‘Mr Deal-a-Minute’, the man everyone wanted to do business with – the handsome face of BEE and the leader with all the right connections. These included Richemont’s Rupert family and other leading corporations looking for the ideal partner to comply with new legislation and safeguard their ?interests. Anglo American patriarch Harry Oppenheimer famously said that that “few understood the local and international diamond-mining industry the way Sexwale did,” and today the group’s network extends from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo to Nigeria, Kazakhstan and Russia.In 2006, BEE verification agency Empowerdex calculated Sexwale’s “market influence” at R134bn. Since re-joining government, his portfolio is held in a blind trust.


In the early 2000s, however, Sexwale’s newfound wealth turned out to be something of a poisoned chalice. He was now expected to bankroll the party, its leaders and its infrastructure. As one observer put it: “If the lights went off in Luthuli House [ANC headquarters] because the bills weren’t paid — phone Tokyo. A shortfall in the election budget? Comrade Tokyo will be there with his cheque book. Madiba needs an aeroplane to attend a rally? Use ?Tokyo’s.” This political philanthropy has nonetheless given Sexwale a vital role within the party and allowed him to build strong allegiances at many ?levels. It may also count against him.

In 2007, when Sexwale disbursed shares in Absa held through a Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) consortium, Batho Bonke, critics accused him of dispensing patronage in a bid for the presidency. And Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s quip during last month’s budget speech that “Minister Sexwale is going to add R1bn of his own money” to the government’s housing budget, played straight into the perception of Sexwale as the unrivalled party benefactor.

Most rate Sexwale as a strong leader and his time as premier of Gauteng, South Africa’s richest province centred around Johannesburg, as an unqualified success. “He was a galvanising leader of Gauteng”, said former ANC MP Andrew Feinstein who worked alongside him at the time. “He’s charming, charismatic and bright and surrounds himself with very smart people, to whom he is incredibly loyal. On the other hand, he was sometimes more interested in the showbiz of politics than the nitty-gritty of government.” ?

As minister for human settlements, both traits are present too. Moving swiftly to demolish poorly-constructed housing built under his predecessor (and possible political rival), Lindiwe Sisulu, the ministry appears to be on the brink of a major policy change. This would recognise the fact of urbanisation and upgrade existing settlements, including squatter camps, rather than evict and relocate people to newly-designated areas. But his well-publicised ‘walkabouts’ among shack dwellers in Soweto and Cape Town earned disapproval from some who saw these as PR stunts.

The same constituency argued that hosting the television show The Apprentice in 2005 similarly accentuated showmanship over substance.

After a decade in business, Sexwale’s return to politics last year may be as much about political ambition as a return to doing what he loves best. The uncharacteristic manner in which he put the knife into Mbeki at the ANC’s 2007 national executive meeting ­– helping decide Mbeki’s fate – perhaps revealed his own deep wound at being pushed off the political stage.

?Nationalist Battles

Now back in the political limelight, Sexwale’s combination of both friends and wealth may go a long way – though perhaps not as far as the 2012 Mangaung conference. Political battles in municipalities and provincial governments will affect the ANC’s showing in 2011 local elections and township protests threaten both Zuma’s government and his key development ministries. These events could help or hinder Sexwale, depending on delivery by departments still dealing with an inherited backlog and corruption in the tender-procurement process.

More ominously, Sexwale’s support for controversial youth leader Julius Malema may come to haunt him. Sexwale’s defence of Malema has brought him into conflict with ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, whom the Youth League wants to replace with Deputy Police Minister Fikile Mbalula.

This puts Sexwale in the same camp as the Youth League and the loosely termed ‘nationalist’ faction – and on a collision course with the ANC’s left wing. “Tokyo needs to realise he is playing with fire” an SACP official tells The Africa Report. “What Malema epitomises is a very, very dangerous axis between demagogic politics and cowboy capitalists, white and black.”?

South African newspapers are running a campaign to expose Malema’s unaccounted-for riches and Finance Minister Pravin Gordon has hinted there could be a tax avoidance case to answer. Although Zuma has equivocated on trade union calls for a ‘lifestyle audit’ of top ANC officials, there is a groundswell of opinion that conspicuous consumption no longer buys votes.

If Sexwale is to continue backing the Youth League, he will have to tolerate Malema’s antics and back Mbalula for ANC secretary general. “Those three will work together to ensure that the ANC is secure in the hands of the nationalists,” said a Youth League insider. But the Youth League itself is divided, with a faction supporting deputy president Andile Lungisa to replace Malema at its conference next year.

Sources close to Sexwale variously claim that he is either indifferent to, or desperate for, presidential office. “It’s his lifetime ambition,” says one. “He’d like to retire and enjoy his life and money,” says another. And well he might: In addition to luxury homes, private jets and flashy cars, Sexwale owns several wine estates and was reported to have bid for a 35ha resort on Quilálea Island off Mozambique.

The debate around nationalisation, crony capitalism and billionaire lifestyles will play an important part in the days ahead. Sexwale’s wealth may set him apart from key ANC constituencies but “he has a very substantial foundation in liberation and post-liberation politics, and has created a successful business organisation,” says BLSA chairperson Bobby Godsell. “South Africans are entitled to have high expectations of him in the future.”

Feinstein is almost certainly right: “The final chapter on Sexwale’s role in South African public life has not yet been written.” But South Africa’s political ground is shifting and the ANC’s national general council in September is likely to produce a ?major fallout. The weight of the party may well come down on the side of Motlanthe as a long-term successor to Zuma post 2012. But if Sexwale manages to navigate between party factions, he could be a serious contender.

Says commentator Adam Habib: “There are other potential candidates who are stronger and more entrenched within the ruling party. But do not write him off. He has a profile. He has resources. And three to four years is a long time in politics.”

This article was published in the April-May 2010 edition of The Africa Report

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