Inspirational Millionaire of the Week: South African Patrice Motsepe

The Man with the Golden Touch

"The new face of Sanlam," the headlines proclaim. On the accompanying photo, smiling between the cupped hands of the Sanlam logo, are Dr Johan van Zyl, executive head of Sanlam, and Patrice Motsepe. Anew face indeed for a traditionally white Afrikaner corporation. Patrice Motsepe is from Ubuntu Botho Consortium which has just acquired a 10 per cent interest in Sanlam. Meet SA's black billionaire," screams nother headline. But just who is this black businessman who, after a complex transaction, will eventually acquire a 10 to 12 percent interest in Sanlam and will be the biggest shareholder in this life assurance giant? Who is the man who'll in total cough up R1,3 billion? After three days and lots of effort I finally track him down. On Saturday he was at soccer - his great love after rugby. He'd gone to see Kaizer Chiefs beat Silver Stars and wasn't available.

On Sunday he had to attend a family gathering outside Pretoria regarding his mom's death in October. In the afternoon he was off to watch his own team, Sundowns, play the Black Leopards. Once again not available.

On Monday morning his first meeting was at 6am and his entire day was fully booked. American businessmen were flying in. Others were arriving from Cape Town.

But in the middle of all his cellphone calls he juggles his diary and fits me in. We meet at his home in Johannesburg's northern suburbs. No further jetails because Patrice and his family are extremely private.

The glittering blue pool hugging the patio at right angles has two Kreepys. And the long table on the sun patio has place for 14. When their families come to visit there are a lot of people, he explains.

I immediately notice his Afrikaans. It's flawless and without accent. He enjoys speaking it too. Although I try to put him at ease by speaking English, he switches back to Afrikaans.

He grew up in Pretoria where his parents lived but when he was five his dad sent him to school in Aliwal North.

"There were two reasons: he wanted to give me a good education and, just as important, he wanted me to speak proper Afrikaans. That was in 1968 and he enrolled me at the St Joseph Mission School.

"I was there for ten years - and they were ten difficult years. Do you know how it feels to go to bed on an empty stomach? The food was terrible. I really had a hard time."

He intentionally tries to speak Afrikaans as much as possible these days.

"From five to 15 at boarding school I spoke better Afrikaans than any other language. Since then I've lived and worked in an English milieu so I grab every chance I get to keep my Afrikaans alive. I love the language."

He comes from the royal Motsepe tribe, established at Mmakau in Ga-rankuwa north of Pretoria centuries ago. His uncle is head of the tribe.

"Are you a prince?" I ask.

"That's what they say but I don't want to talk about it."

The Motsepes are Tswana but, Patrice says, "rather leave it there. It's politically incorrect and irrelevant in this new South Africa we're building to talk about a black or white person or what tribe people come from."

His first name comes from statesman Patrice Lumumba, first prime minister of the independent Republic of the Congo.

His second name, Tlhopie (or "Kloppie" as he was called at boarding school), comes from Tlhopane which means "the chosen one".

Patrice (who turns 42 next month) and wife Dr Precious Moloi have three sons, Tlhopie (13), Kgosi (7) and Kabelo (1).

The stylish and petite Dr Moloi is well known in her own right. Until the birth of her youngest son she had her own practice in Johannesburg and wrote medical articles for our sister magazine "True Love" and is chairman of the SA Cancer Association.

Patrice reveals his interest in business started when he was a child. His dad, ABC Motsepe, started his own business in Garankuwa years ago and by the 70s was known as one of the most successful black businessmen in the country.

"When I came home from boarding school for the holidays I'd rather work behind the counter at my dad's shop than play outside like the other kids.

"I must have been about eight when my dad said one day, 'We make so much money when you're behind the counter you should take over the business when you grow up'.

"But it was hard work, from 6am to 8pm. I soon realised I needed to choose a career that would keep me away from that shop!

"That's how I came to decide when was only eight that I'd become a lawyer.

"The fact is I've had the entrepreneurial spirit since I was a child. It was part of the way I grew up."

His entire life was focused on one goal - not only to do well when he tackled something but to be the best. And that took hard work.

"Even at school I had to be first. I was miserable if I came second or maybe third.

"For me it was always about hard work, blood and sweat and coming out on top.

"One of my first goals was to be a good lawyer. In 1994 I became the first black lawyer to be made a partner at the firm Bowman Gilfillan.

"Then I suddenly got restless and had to find a new goal.

"My shop work from my childhood came back to haunt me. So I decided: now I have to become an entrepreneur and tackle something on my own."

That was the start of his entry into mining. He specialised in mining law and developed an interest in the industry. He'd always dreamt about founding a world-class gold-mining company. Without money or experience it was easier said than done. But after struggling for five years his company won its first contract for small-scale mining activity. That was barely nine years ago. Today he's the biggest single shareholder of the world's fifth-largest gold mining company.

His firm, African Rainbow Minerals, controls 43 per cent of a mining conglomerate worth more than R10 billion. Earlier this year his ARMgold merged with Harmony and was listed on the stock exchange. His family trust owns 55 per cent of this company, valued at R7 billion.

In his study are several awards, among them last year's Sunday Times business leader of the year and South Africa's entrepreneur of the year awards.

PATRICE is relentlessly positive about everything South African.

What about the previous regime and the apartheid era?

"I'm often so politically incorrect I have to watch my words," he says.

But then he continues: "We should focus more on the good stuff. One of the most important things is there have always - even in the past - been good relations between all South Africans.

"We have to separate politics and relationships between people. We should think about the future, hold on to the good from the past and build on it. We mustn't drag the mistakes of the past with us.

"I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in the country we're building for all our children, white and black - a country with a future."

That's why he decided to aquire an interest in Sanlam, he says. He admires this company, especially the way it uplifted poor Afrikaners.

"I can learn from them. Sanlam's future is everyone's future.

"An Afrikaans businessman once told me, 'You black businessmen must learn from our mistakes. Don't make the same ones.' I still remember those words.

"Today we live in a democracy and are surrounded by beautiful developments. Our kids don't see colour any more - and that's what makes South Africa so beautiful and unique."

Does politics have a place in his future plans?

"No. I'll never get involved. I'm simply too incorrect! As a businessman I have to keep everyone happy.

"But I also have a dream. That our children, black and white, will join hands and believe with confidence in South Africa as their country of the future."

He smiles broadly as he adds: "You know, my eldest's best friend is nogal a Botha! And he often spends the night with us."

Then he hits the nail even more firmly on the head: "And I support the Blue Bulls! I played rugby at Aliwal and I'm mad about the sport. I'm a Blue Bull these days. One of my dreams is to get involved with a rugby club.

Source: YOU Magazine
Date: 18 December 2003.