As a small boy, Zondwa Mandela regularly visited his grandfather Nelson Mandela and grew close to the legendary leader of the anti-apartheid struggle. After Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he would often interrupt his paperwork to conduct impromptu exercise sessions and dispense advice to his young grandson.
“We would do press-ups … and he would do them on two fingers, he was a very strong man.” laughs Zondwa Mandela, who is the son of Nelson Mandela’s youngest daughter. “The big key, he used to say, was education and that you always needed to remain grounded. But the lesson I always learned from him is that everything is possible.”
Two decades on, Zondwa Mandela, who is now 25, is putting his grandfather’s counsel to the test as he sets his sights on a business career. Together with another man with a prominent political name, Khulubuse Zuma, the 39-year-old nephew of South Africa’s new president, Jacob Zuma, Zondwa Mandela has launched an ambitious venture that will invest in African emerging markets.
“We want to find something, improve it, and expand on it. But we want to do something for Africa and empower its people,” says Zondwa Mandela. His language clearly seeks to echo the idealism that led his grandfather to sacrifice the best years of his life to the fight against apartheid.
His new venture still has much to prove if it is to be seen as a serious business and not an instance of two scions of prominent families trading on their famous names.
The business will certainly have a rather easier ride than his grandfather faced in his youth. The pair are well placed to benefit from controversial black empowerment policies, under which, since 1994, large chunks of corporate South Africa have been transferred to black owners.
And the Mandela name is a valuable asset both in South Africa but also abroad as the ruling African National Congress promotes more actively South Africa’s connections to the rest of Africa, Brazil, China, India, and the Middle East.
Blessed by senior family members and backed by entrepreneurs from Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates, the two men and a third colleague — Sheshile Ngubane, who like Khulubuse Zuma comes from the president’s home province of KwaZulu Natal — have set up Aurora Empowerment Systems. Within the past few weeks, they have bought two companies and are eyeing a string of other potential acquisitions.
The first purchase, an obscure electrical products manufacturer, simply provided a Johannesburg Stock Exchange listing and its underlying assets have been sold. “The listing was acquired for corporate governance and transparency reasons. I wanted shareholders and others to have a good clear picture of exactly what they were getting into,” says Zondwa Mandela.
The other, Redwood Timber Merchants, is more typical of the undervalued oil, diamonds, coal, and other commodity businesses that are being looked at. Redwood Timber Merchants, one of Africa’s biggest forestry and sawmill operations, cost R92.5m (11.9 million US dollars, 8.4 million Euros, 7.2 million British pounds), with the overseas backers supplying a third of the money upfront and the rest coming from future profits, but Zondwa Mandela claims its hardwoods are worth a multiple of that figure.
At face value, there is some cause for scepticism. Neither man seems to have much experience. Zondwa Mandela only recently qualified in a local university course in business management and economics, specialising in marketing, and still seems to struggle with terms like “social capital” and “sustainability”. He has been working with an “upscale corporate” marketing company, but one of its main clients appears to be the ruling ANC.