In search of independence – whispers of the future – the Bidvest Story?

Zimbabwe, for example, will turn 29 years old this coming Saturday followed by South Africa that will turn 15 on 27 April. The power of being able to enjoy a permanent well-being irrespective of the disposition of those from whom Africa calls itself independent from has yet to be realised.

During the colonial era, the power to make laws, to execute and to apply them, to impose and collect taxes and levy contributions, to make war or peace, to form treaties of alliance or commerce with foreign states, and the like was vested in the colonial power. Independence was supposed to bring with it legitimacy and accountability as well as the establishment of a new social contract between all citizens and the state.

The state as a body corporate was established in Africa as part of the colonial system of governance. The concept of the state was adopted by all former colonies as a viable form of exercising supreme political authority, frame of government and its administration.

The supreme, absolute, uncontrollable power, the absolute right to govern was vested in the people. Sovereignty, therefore, implied the necessary existence of the state and that right and power which necessarily follow from the exercise of the power as applied to political affairs.

Our collective understanding of the challenges and opportunities of independence have been shaped by Africa’s ugly past. Race has played a big part in shaping the worldview of many Africans to the extent that any failure to seize opportunities has been blamed on the historically defined racial architecture.

The majority of Africans are black but it is not factually correct to say that all Africans are black. The contemporary identity of Africans has been largely shaped by the colonial past.

However, the post-colonial African economy is yet to be democratized and the ghosts of the past have tended to distort the manner in which Africans respond to economic opportunities available for them.

It was easy to allege that white people in Africa were enriched economically by the politics of the day. It was, therefore, justifiable to many Africans to claim that whites were rich because blacks were poor and whites had to be rich because they controlled the colonial state.

However, the transfer of state control to blacks has not yielded the intended economic benefits to the majority of Africans leading Mr. McKenzie in his article entitled: "Who is whispering?" to raise a number of fundamental issues that ought to inform any debate on the promise and challenges of independence.

One would have naturally expected that the advent of independence will slow down the pace of wealth accumulation by non-blacks. What is, however, striking is that the post-colonial era has strengthened rather than weaken the economic power of non-blacks while the state has been monopolised by a few blacks.

The link between economic and political power has to be better understood if Africa’s prospects have to improve. It would be inaccurate to conclude that whites are rich simply because of the past or the colour of their skin.

Equally, it would be wrong to allege that the past has permanently enhanced the capacity of whites to take advantage of the abundant economic opportunities that Africa offers.

Asians have done well in Africa to suggest that the failure of blacks to absorb economic opportunities may be caused by other factors including low financial literacy.

Africa has invested immensely in education and yet in the field of money and its role in nation building many of Africa’s intellectuals are found wanting.

It is for this reason that I joined Africa Heritage Society (AHS) to use the platform to network with fellow professionals and businesspersons to bridge the knowledge, capital and execution gaps that confront us as we try to build an inclusive and prosperous continent.

This week is special for AHS as we are to celebrate Zimbabwe’s independence. After 29 years of the post-colonial experience, we have no choice but to use the independence day of a country that has dominated the airwaves and news to pause and think about what kind of Africa we want to see.

It is obvious that Zimbabwe at this defining hour in its history can claim to have produced over the last 29 years remarkable men and women who have distinguished themselves in business and the academia but such remarkable "brain trust" has failed to produce a functioning state that is accountable and responsible.

The role of leadership in advancing the promise of independence cannot be overstated. Zimbabwe knows of only one leader and until recently only one party dominated the political market. Zimbabwe cannot feed itself today and is challenged economically to the extent that without external financial support, the country’s future is uncertain and risky.

Behind Zimbabwe and other African countries’ sad stories are stories of triumph and hope.

It is important that these stories are told so that those who need inspiration can divert the focus from politicians to other Africans who have with little or no limelight accomplished more in advancing the cause of Africa.

One of the persons whose life and accomplishment African need to appreciate is Mr. Brian Joffe, CEO of the Bidvest Group Limited, a company incorporated under the laws of South Africa that was launched in 1988 with an R8 million cash shell. Mr. Joffe is the founder of the company that is evidently younger than Zimbabwe.

Mr. Joffe a trained Chartered Accountant (CA) was born on 2 June 1947 in Johannesburg. He comes from a family of traders, millers and bakers. As a child, he worked in the family business. Over the last 21 years, he has been able to provide leadership in transforming a start-up capital of R8 million into an R110.48 billion (year ended June 2008) conglomerate through acquisitions and organic growth. The total asset base as at 31 December 2008 stood at R41.8 billion. The group’s operations have now diversified out of the continent and it employees about 106,225 people.

The seed to build this remarkable company was African and its flag and voice is now seen and heard in many countries.

Some may conclude that Joffe was a product of apartheid and, therefore, credit must go to the system. Yet some would say that Joffe has a Jewish (not Afrikaner) heritage and, therefore, the success should not be attributed to Africa. Others will be quick to say that he succeeded because blacks were denied opportunity and the role of the post-apartheid state should be to slow him down. Many would see a genius and wealth builder in Brian and regard his as such.

In the construction of the state, the most important variable is that for the state to be viable it needs people like Brian to innovate and challenge the status quo ante. The traditional Randlords have no choice but to acknowledge the success of Brian and allow him safe passage because ultimately they know that their security in Africa lies in new capital being created and in so doing keep hope alive. Through the experiences of Brian, people in the valley can at least look up the mountain and proclaim that if he can rise up so shall we. The roadmap is clear and the harder one works the luckier one can become in Africa.

Instead of thinking small at the outset, Brian’s journey was informed by his own experience that size does matter. His first business venture was in the animal feed market that he built, sold and retired to the USA (diaspora) at the age of 32 years. He returned to South Africa in 1983 and consulted for Standard Merchant Bank’s corporate finance division before joining W & A. In November 1988, the story of Bidvest began with the reverse takeover of the ICLEF shell.

The Group’s principal activity is supplying ingredients, finished products and equipment to the catering, hospitality industries, financial services and auto distribution. The Group serves the hospitality, leisure and catering markets with a comprehensive range of food products and consumables. This division also manufactures and distributes premixes, food ingredients, spices, seasonings and other products to the bakery, poultry, meat and food processing industries and is represented in all urban areas and tourist centres across southern Africa.

The Group also provides private sector freight management with a presence in every major port in southern Africa. Port operations are reinforced by distribution and airfreight capabilities. This division focuses on terminal operations and logistics in southern Africa, international clearing and freight forwarding and marine services. The Group also has business relating to the supply of electrical products and cable, and furniture and stationery products. The group is also involved in financial services and auto distribution.

The market capitalisation of the group stands at about R30.6 billion. Although his stake may only be about 1% of the market capitalisation, there is no doubt that Brian has been the driving force of the group. Other Africans would not expect him to share the upside and glory as it has become the norm that even the historically disadvantaged want to control and hold 100% of the issued share capital of any company that they are involved in.

Brian knew that a shared vision can prevail and grow. Bidvest can be compared to Zimbabwe at independence. Mugabe, for instance, inherited a shell that was called Rhodesia and the challenge was to convert the shell into a viable economic entity that could provide economic security to its citizens.

Brian has demonstrated what is possible in Africa using Bidvest and after 29 years of independence and 15 years of democracy in Zimbabwe and South Africa, respectively, it is important to ask the question about the role of leadership in the transformation process.

The major consumers of Bidvest’s products and solutions are black and it has regrettably not been possible for economic generals to emerge in Africa who have a black skin. If South Africa was a communist country, Brian’s ideas would have amounted to nothing.

Many African expect the government to provide solutions rather than citizens. The Chairman of Bidvest is Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa, who is also a member of the National Executive Committee of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

To the extent that Cyril is the Chairman of a uniquely capitalist business model, it is not evident how he reconciles the contradiction of serving as Chairman of Bidvest as well as in a party that is committed to transforming the South African society into a socialist state.

The future of Africa is contested and the role of people like Brian in helping rebrand Africa cannot be overstated.