Obituary: Jabu Mabuza was so much more than a ‘taxi driver’ at Eskom

Many people would probably remember the late Jabu Mabuza as the chairperson and acting chief executive of Eskom. They are likely to recall the famous media briefing, amid acute power cuts, where he mentioned the “rubber” as the main culprit causing the dreaded load-shedding, after which, some dismissed him as a mere “taxi driver” who had no business leading the ailing power utility. It can be safely argued that Eskom was not one of Mabuza’s finest hours, evidenced by his premature departure from the troubled state owned enterprise.

But there is more to Mabuza’s life and contribution than Eskom. His tenacity, far outweighing his short stint at the power utility, started way back in the 1980s after his family’s poverty forced him to abandon his law studies at the University of Limpopo, then known as Turfloop. He ventured into what most people who have tasted university education, even those who did not complete, would have loathed to do at the time: he became a taxi driver and later an owner. As they say, however, fortune favours the brave and it was this leap of faith that was to launch his long business career.

Ever the activist — he had been an active participant in the 1976 student protests — he joined the ranks of the Southern African Black Taxi Association (Sabta) and quickly rose through the ranks to become the communications manager by the mid-1980s. Back then, the taxi industry was dubbed the “success story of black business” by many a commentator. This put Mabuza in the pound seat; he became a regular feature in the speakers’ circuit nationally.

Together with fellow travellers, in what is sometimes referred to as the “golden generation” of black enterprise, Mabuza used the ample platform to address business audiences and float the concept of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) into the mainstream as they agitated for the levelling of the economic playing field.

In the late 1980s, Sabta, with Mabuza as one of the protagonists, became the main launching pad for the Foundation for African Business and Consumer Services (Fabcos). He became one of the “Young Turks” within the organisation, together with the likes of Ashley Mabogoane, David Moshapalo, Mike Ntlatleng, Khehla Lukhele, Eldridge Mathebula and Khehla Mthembu who were ready to force their way into the country’s economy. They were under the watchful eye of the veteran activist Dr Ellen Kuzwayo, Sabta’s strongman James Ngcoya, who was elected president at Fabcos’ launch, and former Robben Islander Joas Mogale, who became the secretary general.

The formation of Fabcos sparked tension with the more established National African Federated Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Nafcoc), which saw the fledgling outfit as an encroachment into its hegemony, but with the nimble feet of Mabuza and fellow Young Turks, such as Moshapalo and Mabogoane, relations were smoothed and the two organisations collaborated closely to advance the black business agenda in the run-up to democratic rule and thereafter.

Mabuza’s star was soon to rise to new heights when South African Breweries (SAB) appointed him group advancement director to specifically drive the empowerment process within the then diversified SAB Group, with interests in beer, beverages, retail and hotels. It came as no surprise that he became the obvious choice to lead Tsogo Sun when SAB teamed up with Fabcos and Nafcoc in the mid-1990s to establish the entity, as a vehicle to venture into the gaming industry. Mabuza’s mandate was to secure casino licences for Tsogo Sun and build a new business from scratch, on the back of the government’s liberalisation of the market.

The company got off to a good start, securing two licences in Mpumalanga. Buoyant by the early success, Mabuza’s Tsogo Sun went for the jugular in Gauteng, submitting three bids in Fourways, Benoni and Pretoria with the objective of being successful in two of them. He almost pulled it off, coming tops in all areas, but was only thwarted by the provincial authorities who felt that awarding two licences to a single company, in the lucrative Gauteng market, would be politically unpalatable. Tsogo had to settle for one licence and that saw the birth of Montecasino. Mabuza went on to secure additional licences throughout the country, building the company into a massive R12-billion asset that listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.  

But this phenomenal achievement at Tsogo Sun was brought to an abrupt halt when the new majority shareholders of the company, HCI, through their chair, Johnny Copelyn, felt Mabuza did not have the “temperament” to run a listed entity and removed him as CEO. To manage the potential fallout from the decision, Mabuza was appointed deputy chairperson of the company in a non-executive capacity, a position he kept until 2014. His removal from the Tsogo Sun CEO position was probably one of the low points of his career — it hurt him deeply, but he took it on the chin.

The setback did not last long as the government soon came knocking. He found himself at Telkom as chairperson. He often joked that when he was appointed chairman the share price was sitting at R13, but it went on to surpass R100 during his tenure. He is credited with neutralising potential government interference in the company, giving the management breathing space to take some hard but necessary decisions, including staff reductions. This gave Telkom a chance to compete in the highly contested telecoms industry.

In between all this, Mabuza became the president of Business Unity South Africa and was one of those who stepped up to the plate in December 2015 when former president Jacob Zuma fired Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister replacing him with the lesser-known Des van Rooyen, colloquially known as“Weekend Special”. He lobbied hard within and outside the ruling party to prevail on Zuma to reverse his decision on Van Rooyen. That saw the return of Pravin Gordhan to national treasury, saving the country from a potential economic meltdown.

Away from the glare of his colourful corporate career and subsequent directorships, Mabuza played hard. He loved his golf and would tell anyone who would listen that “a bad day on a golf course was better than the best day in the office”, quoting his former boss and mentor Meyer Kahn, who had led the SAB Group during its diversified era and had brought Mabuza into the SAB family.

Every May, Mabuza and fellow golf lovers would embark on the annual pilgrimage to the Masters at Augusta in the United States, such was his commitment to the sport.

He also loved travelling both locally and internationally. Locally, he always had good things to say about Beverly Hills Hotel in northern Durban and Selborne on the south coast. The latter had a good golf course.

As was the case when he left Tsogo Sun, Mabuza’s hurried departure from Eskom opened other opportunities, he was snapped up by media and entertainment giant, MultiChoice, which appointed him the lead independent non-executive director. It was a position he held until his untimely demise this week.

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Mzimkulu Malunga
Mzimkulu (Mzi) Malunga is a businessman and a former journalist. He started his career at Mail & Guardian’s predecessor, Weekly Mail in 1988.

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