South Africa's 'Mr Malaysia' - Don Mkhwanazi has long seen himself as a champion of black economic empowerment.
The irony is that his most sensational effort in that direction has been the enrichment of Liberia’s former finance minister, who emerged this week as one of the West African country’s most notorious rogues.
Mkhwanazi, the man at the centre of the controversy surrounding the appointment of Emanuel Shaw II to a R3-million a year state job, took the stand this week at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s hearings into business’s contribution to apartheid. As one of South Africa’s foremost black empowerment gurus, Mkhwanazi was naturally not appearing to confess, but rather attended in his capacity as chair of the anti-apartheid debt committee.
It was, nevertheless, not the ideal week for Mkhwanazi to pay a visit to the truth body. For Mkhwanazi’s only other public statements this week have been aimed at explaining his bizarre decision to appoint Shaw chief adviser to South Africa’s state- run oil company.
Mkhwanazi’s chairmanship of the company is one of a string of posts he holds as a leading light in South Africa’s black business community. He chairs at least 10 other corporations, and sits on many other black empowerment and business organisations.
Mkhwanazi’s family wanted him to become a doctor, but he says he nursed a passion for the law. In the end, however, he pursued a bachelor in business administration at the University of Zululand. He does not have any post-graduate qualifications, but his curriculum vitae states that he completed ”90% of an MBA” at Wits Business School.
It also states that in 1992 he was ”humbled, but declined a nomination by the University of Zululand students to become a candidate for the university rectorship and vice-chancellor position”.
The Mail & Guardian reported last week that, wearing his hat as chair of the state oil company, Mkhwanazi gave Shaw the job in July without going through a public tender and without the imprimatur of the Minister of Minerals and Energy, Penuell Maduna.
Mkhwanazi, who has impeccable African National Congress connections, also said he introduced Shaw to the liberation movement in 1992, effectively launching Shaw’s lucrative South African career.
Mkhwanazi has no experience in the vastly complicated, highly regulated South African oil industry, at the centre of which lies the operation he runs, the Central Energy Fund. His staff is predominantly white and male, inescapably tinged by the sanctions- busting operations it carried out on behalf of the apartheid government.
With this in mind, one can understand how Shaw could have appeared as a refreshing antidote to this white, National Party edifice.
With his eye on so many balls, Mkhwanazi has devoted little time to the Central Energy Fund since taking over the chair in March. He briefed Parliament on the company for the first time last week, fighting off with boisterous charm any suggestion that he had neglected his duty to report to Parliament.
He is frequently abroad – either on his own business trips or as part of government delegations – and has developed a reputation for being South Africa’s ”Mr Malaysia” – after striking a number of important deals with the Asian country. All of which makes it easy to see why one of the few criticisms openly levelled at Mkhwanazi is that he is far too overstretched.
After leaving university, Mkhwanazi worked in several South African companies for about 12 years, reaching senior executive positions which were the preserve of whites, before going on to team up with Dr Nthato Motlana to found South Africa’s pre- eminent black empowerment company Methold, now called New Africa Investments Limited.
His main focus, however, is his National Empowerment Trust Investment Fund over which he also consulted with Shaw.
While he developed his business empire Mkhwanazi nurtured his links with the ANC, becoming the movement’s senior economic adviser in 1990. He worked closely with Thabo Mbeki on international business relations until 1993.
Mkhwanazi also co-chairs the finance and investment working group of the USA/SA Business Development Committee, part of the team set up to promote trade between the United States and South Africa by Mbeki and his counterpart Al Gore.
Mkhwanazi clearly has substantial power within the ANC. Although Maduna’s office – and perhaps the minister himself – complained about the appointment of Shaw, probably after receiving advice from the National Intelligence Agency, Mkhwanazi stood his ground.
It may reflect the confidence of a man who wields more power in the government than is generally appreciated.
Vital Statistics Born: April 11 1953 in Durban Defining characteristics: Confident, ambitious
Ambition: ”The economic emancipation of my people”
Favourite car: He is fond of his Jeep
Favourite people: Thabo Mbeki, ”a great thinker and a strategist”. And his mother, who is ”humble and dedicated to the betterment of all people”
Least favourite people: No names, but ”what I hate most is betrayal”
Likely to say: ”It’s all for the good of black empowerment”
Least likely to say: ”Let me just check that with the relevant authorities”