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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Tito Mboweni : Shaping South Africa's Post-Apartheid Economy

September 23, 1990|Scott Kraft | Scott Kraft is The Times' bureau chief in Johannesburg. He interviewed Mboweni at the economist's Johannesburg office

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — The economics department of the African National Congress began working inside South Africa only a few months ago, but Tito Mboweni wasted no time in posting a few choice decorations on the office walls.

Next to pictures of ANC president Oliver Tambo and deputy president Nelson Mandela is a chart showing several dozen boxes knitted together by twisting lines. The title of that work of art is: "McGregor's View of Anglo Control." It is a research company's analysis of the businesses owned or controlled by South Africa's business giant, the Anglo American Corp.

"I love this," Mboweni said, chuckling as he held up a copy of the chart within easy reach on his desktop. Then he turned serious. "We have to do something about this," he said. "I mean, we really have to."

Mboweni's choice of art wouldn't bring many smiles in the plush executive suites at Anglo American, the white-run firm that controls at least one-third of the total capitalization on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. These days Anglo American feels like a big, delicious pie that the ANC wants to share with its hungry, disenfranchised black supporters. And Mboweni, a genial 31-year-old, appears to be holding the knife.

The ANC's chief economist in South Africa was a student activist under threat of arrest when he left the country in 1980 to join the ANC in exile. He earned an economics degree at the University of Lesotho and a master's at the University of East London in England.

Now he's much in demand among the white business Establishment, which is curious, to say the least, about his plans for their future.

The ANC's commitment to nationalize the mines, banks and monopoly industries was spelled out back in 1955. But, as the ANC scrambles to turn its theory into practical economic blueprints, there are signs that some in the organization may be rethinking the Marxist solutions it once favored.

And today Mboweni is meeting South Africa's top executives over lunches and dinners. He's speaking to business organizations, writing articles for local financial publications and hosting potential overseas investors.

So far, at least, Mboweni hasn't let all the attention go to his head. He called a businessman from the airport not long ago to ask for a lift to the office. Minutes later, a large, chauffeur-driven Mercedes-Benz arrived. "Perhaps," Mboweni said, "they thought they should show me the benefits of the private sector."

Question: You have been meeting many white business leaders in South Africa, conservative Afrikaners as well as more liberal English-speakers. What has surprised you?

Answer: When you are an academic, you tend to view business as a kind of monolithic "capital." Sometimes the assumption is that "capital" thinks the same way, that the caucus thinks together. I'm finding that it's not as easy as that. . . . There are certainly sections, certain individuals within the South African business community who hold a completely different view from others. There are lots of differences and tensions. Some sections of business, I think, are prepared to go a long way with the process of transformation; others are not. Some are willing to listen; others are not.

Q: Who is most willing to listen?

A: My most exciting times have been with Afrikaner businesses (descendants of the first white settlers in South Africa). . . . Those are really true South Africans, those ones. We have very frank discussions, and they confront the issues. . . . Once you've done that, I'm telling you, you've got comrades there.

They are committed to the country. They are not going to invest somewhere else; they will invest here. And you have the feeling that you are making progress with the Afrikaner business community.

Q: How about the non-Afrikaner white business Establishment, such as Anglo American Corp.?

A: There are also differences there. But there are some big companies, whose names I won't mention, that are very arrogant. They are playing merry-go-round with us. And we don't have time to play. There's work to be done. . . .

So when we go for a dinner or a lunch with some of the arrogant businesses, we've just wasted our day, because they spend too much time trying to show us how foolish we are. They think we don't know economics. It's not very productive.

I'm not saying we will stop discussions with those who are arrogant. We are all . . . stuck together. And therefore we have to find ways of breaking the logjam where it exists. . . .

Q: On the whole, do you find businessmen pretty fearful?

A: They are concerned . . . about the future. They are concerned that a new dispensation (political system) must create an environment for business. . . . And we are equally concerned, actually.

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