Beyond the dreams of avarice

Jeremy Gordin reviews Pieter du Toit’s book on how certain members of the ANC elite got so very, very rich

The ANC Billionaires: Big Capital’s Gambit and the Rise of the Few by Pieter du Toit. Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2022 [i].

Last week, as part of an article on the Zondo commission and President Cyril Ramaphosa’s report-back to the nation on the issue, I reviewed Days of Zondo: The Fight for Freedom from Corruption by Ferial Haffajee and Ivor Chipkin (2022).

Then, earlier this week, I read “Transformation has collided with reality,” by Devon Windvogel, an article that clearly pinged a chord for many Politicsweb readers, in which Windvogel described “Transformation” as a prime example of the ANC’s arrogant ignorance that has inter alia led to the mess in which the country now finds itself.

I mention Haffajee’s book and Windvogel’s article together, along with The ANC Billionaires, not to minimize or “understate” any of them, au contraire, but by way of saying that it seems to me that a major line of thought and discussion (or discourse, as academics might call it) goes something like this:

Those with eyes, ears, a heart and a brain can’t help but realize that South Africa and its people are in serious trouble – in as deep trouble as a seven-year-old who’s toppled into a pit latrine at some godforsaken rural school – that the ANC is largely and clearly responsible for this, and that, moreover, at this juncture, a great deal depends on what Ramaphosa, nominally the head of the ANC and the government, will do. 

Or, as unfortunately seems to be the case with Ramaphosa – and is being increasingly realized by many – a great deal depends on what Ramaphosa will not do.

In other words, Haffajee’s book is of course about state capture but it’s simultaneously about the massive failure on the ANC’s part regarding corruption, theft and cadre deployment; and Windvogel’s article, while zeroing in on the idiocy of Transformation in practice, is obviously also about the destructive effects of the ANC’s arrogant ignorance.

Similarly, although The ANC Billionaires is, as Du Toit writes, “an attempt to explain the rise of ANC-connected billionaires and millionaires by tracking attempts by big capital to influence and direct the political transition [of the 1990s and even the late 1980s], and the ANC’s progression from an organisation with socialist leanings and communist sympathies to a government that reluctantly [sic] embraced the free market” – this book is simultaneously, it can’t help itself, a realization (to quote the author again) that the relationship between “business” and “politics” is a “fraught relationship beset at every turn with the danger of corruption and patronage ... If the years of state capture have taught us anything, it should be that”.

And Du Toit continues in his introduction: “[The late Michael] Spicer [ii] expressed his frustration with billionaire Ramaphosa’s reluctance to make difficult decisions as head of state ... [With Ramaphosa,] politics trumps everything ... ‘We’re unstrategic and unfocused ...’ Spicer added, ‘The trouble with [Ramaphosa] is that he believes in leading from behind, and our problems don’t allow for a gradualist approach. But that’s the guy’s nature ...’”.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Let me get back to the text.

The ANC Billionaires was, presumably, the obvious next book for Du Toit to write after his well-received [iii] The Stellenbosch Mafia: Inside the Billionaires’ Club (2019). But whether this book turned out to be what Du Toit might have expected, only he can tell us.

For the issues covered in this book are, for obvious reasons, far more vexed and vexing than those in a book like The Stellenbosch Mafia and its conclusions don’t make for good bedtime reading. As Du Toit himself notes, this book has been his “toughest”.

One difficulty, I think, is that two-thirds (at least) of this book is mainly about periods for much of which (I estimate) Du Toit would have been a teenager or maybe a little older; 1985-90 and 1990-1996.

So he’s had to do a great deal of historical research – the chapter titles give us a taste of what he’s sought to cover, from “The Long road to Lusaka” and “Marxist-Leninists and fears about the ANC” to “Brenthurst and meeting Oppenheimer,” “Betrayal and the end of the RDP,” and “The new South Africa accepts new rules”.

As far as I can tell, Du Toit’s narrative throughout these chapters is accurate, pretty unbiased, and is well-written and/or extremely well-edited. The material covered here could have been at least three times as long – but isn’t – and it moves along smartly and interestingly.

Du Toit also makes use, all the way through, of key historians and journalists (e.g., Hermann Giliomee) and, above all, of the voices of 12 former participants and “players” (as the ANC might call them), whom he has interviewed during the last couple of years – such as Jeremy Cronin, Theuns Eloff, Bobby Godsell, Trevor Manuel, Jay Naidoo, and Clem Sunter.

The predominant voice is that of the late Michael Spicer [iv], who performs the role, one might say, of Virgil guiding Dante Alighieri through the dark netherworld in The Divine Comedy.

I have written “as far as I can tell” (above) because it’s been a while since I revisited the numerous books and studies, many with very different viewpoints and renditions, about big business’s famous meetings with the ANC and then the later developments.

For example, I can’t think off-hand of a better guide than Spicer yet I do have a feeling that there are many more people still alive to whom Du Toit could have spoken. I also think that, when it comes to discussing Ramaphosa in particular, Du Toit should have “used” Anthony Butler’s authoritative Cyril Ramaphosa: The road to presidential power (2019) far more than he has.

This brings us simultaneously to the second difficulty and to what I assume is supposed to be the cherry on the top of the book – Part III, “Harvest,” an examination of, or discussion about, four actual ANC billionaires. (“Having looked previously at the Stellenbosch billionaires, well then here, dear readers, are the ANC ones.”)

The difficulty is that, given the situation in the country, the four billionaires – Ramaphosa, Vusi Khanyile, Saki Macozoma, and Patrice Motsepe – hardly strike one as great men or wonderful people, as did at least some of the Stellenbosch folk (even if you didn’t want any of them to marry your daughter).

This is not Du Toit’s fault – it might have been different if he’d written about them even three years ago. And this is particularly the case when it comes to Ramaphosa [v].

As Du Toit diplomatically puts it: “Views on Ramaphosa’s prowess as businessman differed. Former colleagues described him as ‘a good person to work for’ ... Others, however, said he was prone to dithering, and was someone who preferred ‘discussion to decision’ ... It was [is?] a hallmark of his presidency: an inability to take difficult decisions, an unwillingness to make enemies in service of principle, and a lack of conviction.”

Here is one of Du Toit’s concluding paragraphs: “Before his death in 2022, Michael Spicer ... defended big business’s actions before, during and after the transition. He said that capital had clearly had to do something in order to bring black South Africans into the fold, both as a measure to defend itself and also as a way of evening out the playing field.

“But the system, he believed, no longer functioned. ‘It has now become a sort of an expectation that there’s a free give-away for everybody, and frankly there’s a lot of greed involved, and a lot of the individuals think that the minimum you should make in one hit is a couple of hundred million.’

“[Spicer] said BEE ‘has become entitlement’”.

In short, the story of the ANC’s billionaires ends, as TS Eliot might have said, not with a bang but a whimper – though it’s not the billionaires who are whimpering, it’s South Africans from Diepsloot to Parkview.


[i] Recently AN Other and I signed a book agreement with Jonathan Ball Publishers; I trust this won’t cause me to be any less critical or impolite than usual; still I hereby “declare an interest,” as they say.

[ii] See note v below.

[iii] Sales were, by all accounts, excellent – though whether that mainly had to do with the large “disposable incomes” of those about whom Du Toit was writing, one doesn’t know. But, hey, sales are sales are sales.

[iv] Spicer died in March this year. The following is from a News24 obituary. “Spicer was an executive director at Anglo American for 20 years. His role in South Africa’s transition to democracy is well known, when in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he – as deputy chair of the Consultative Business Movement – was intricately involved in negotiating with the ANC [and] supporting the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), which negotiated the constitution. He was also instrumental in helping to get the Inkatha Freedom Party to agree to participating in the elections in 1994.”

[v] I speak under correction, but it seems clear, from going through the Endnotes, that neither Ramaphosa nor Motsepe agreed to be interviewed for this book. Again, this is not Du Toit’s fault – but it does rather detract from whatever lustre they might have been able to garner. The chapter on Motsepe ends with the sentence “Motsepe is an enigma”. This refers specifically to Motsepe buying 37 percent of the Blue Bulls Company which controls the well-known rugby team – of which Johann Rupert also owns 37 percent. But it also seems applicable to the whole chapter on Motsepe.