An economic freedom fighter.

Author:Yedder, Omar Ben
Position:Interview
 
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Tokyo Sexwale is one of South Africa's BEE successes and, some say, will be a presidential aspirant at the country's next elections. Last month he co-chaired the World Economic Forum's Africa regional summit in Cape Town. Omar Ben Yedder went to South Africa to meet this most accessible, amiable, and influential business person and heard an undoubtedly clear message of intent for his people and his country.

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Q I have read that you still consider yourself a freedom fighter. What do you mean by that?

A: Our national struggle was for freedom, especially political freedom. I'm not a normal business person. Remember, business in three continents, i.e. Latin America, Asia and Africa, played a side-by-side role with colonialism. There are still business people and investors without a conscience--digging holes here and there and all over the continent, my continent, not closing them up, not caring for the environment, not bringing people into the fold, behaving in a world of their own, an island surrounded by an ocean of poverty.

So we are different business people, we come with a conscience and we adhere to the strict protocols defined by the World Summit on Sustainable Development. We talk here about our partnerships between business, communities and government which must be formed to create growth. So in a way my political struggle has changed into an economic struggle, one that I wage within the economic arena. So you can call me an economic freedom fighter in that sense.

We are engaged in business, and business is about profit. Business is about high returns for your shareholders. But it is what you do with the returns that matters. You don't take all of the money and return it to your shareholders. You use part of the money to address the communities. You use also part of the money to pay better wages to your workers because after all, they are the ones who create the added value.

Let us not beat about the bush. Machines, money and resources on their own can't turn themselves into commodities and products that people buy. You need labour to partner with, and turn natural resources into commodities.

"Businesses have been avoiding the truth," observed Karl Marx. "The creators of value are the working people." I myself come from the ranks of working people, so I understand the importance of paying better wages. So you cannot find it acceptable to be surrounded by a sea of poverty. We want to infuse a social and moral consciousness into the economy and we are succeeding. Investments by multinational corporations are now checked with those important yardsticks and if they fail the test, the powerful lobby groups are prompt to react. More often than not, companies find it in their best interest to behave better, putting social responsibility first on their agenda. People can't get away with the old business standards, not even here, in Africa. Back in Europe and North America, international companies are accountable and measured on the basis of very high standards--otherwise you have your Enrons and Worldcoms.

Whilst you need good governance in terms of countries and governments, you also need good governance in enterprise. Everyone must be a stickler on the question of good corporate governance. I see myself in that role, while still making a lot of money for our shareholders as our returns on gold, platinum, diamonds and, now oil and gas, are excellent. I think we have succeeded.

Q: Regarding the Sino-Africa relationship, we hear people complaining that subsidised and state-owned Chinese companies have been allowed to tender for contracts at prices which are almost impossible to compete against. In effect, there is no longer a level playing field. What is your opinion of this matter and do you see the role of government as creating opportunities for private enterprise?

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A: It's important to emphasise that government by itself does not create jobs. That is not solely the role of the government. The role of government is to create the broadest enabling environment for businesses and the communities to operate within in order to create wealth and to generate jobs. We can even take it a step further. Government has got the right as well as the duty to intervene. If you leave capitalism to its own devices, it tends to recreate...

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