Chris BishopBy Chris Bishop|June 16, 2021|4 Minutes|In Editor's Desk

Editor’s Desk

Farewell the humble and pragmatic      wit in the hat.

COVID-19 has dealt yet another cruel blow, to yet another African family, by taking the life of one of the leading voices on business in the continent.

Jabu Mabuza – the pragmatist in the hat – has died, aged 63, from complications due to COVID-19. His trademark hat, sharp wit and gentle twinkle in the eye graced many a conference – from Davos to Cape Town -and board meetings in some of Africa’s most powerful companies. He was the group CEO of Tsogo Holdings; he was the chairman of huge multi-nationals like AnBev and the head of Business Leadership South Africa.

Mabuza was brought in to head up the troubled national power generator Eskom in an attempt to keep the lights on in South Africa. He was one of the few executives at the parastatal to have the integrity to fall on his sword when he failed.

Fittingly, the passing was announced on June 16 Youth Day in South Africa – the commemoration of the scores of schoolchildren gunned down by police in Soweto as they protested against being educated in Afrikaans.

The Soweto uprising changed Mabuza’s life – he was expelled from school for attending the protests. From then he was bent on not only the liberation of his country, but also the direction of the economy in democracy. He wrote papers on black empowerment and earned a lifetime achievement award by Ernst and Young for his work as an entrepreneur.

His beginnings were humble as his plaudits were grand. He was born in the small South African town of Waterval Boven, in 1958. Like many, his family was shunted around under the old apartheid laws until the young Mabuza ended up with his aunt in Daveyton east of Johannesburg.

It was in Daveyton that his career began, in 1980, when he became a clerk to the court for what was then known as the Department of Bantu Affairs. To pay for his studies, he took up the hazardous job of driving minibus taxis. He learned the rough-trade and rose to become a taxi owner five years later.

From Davos to Cape Town, I interviewed Mabuza many times and knew him well. He was always a straight shooter – almost never without his hat -who could cut through the wall of noise at conferences with a few frank and memorable comments. He was a man who didn’t bother with fancy suits and tie clips; he was more interested in getting to the heart of the issue.

I will always remember his heartfelt humour. One day, at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Durban in 2017, I interviewed him live, on camera, on investment.

I noticed, like a lot of interviewees he had put his hands in his pockets to stop his moving his hands while he spoke.  I also noticed he whipped both hands out of the pockets as if there were red hot coals in both. My look of surprise said it all.

“My father always used to give me a clip around the ear for putting my hands in my pockets,” he answered.

As sons and fathers, both in our sixth decade, we laughed in the moment about the absurdities of family life. That was the man: no stories, no secrets, no bluff, happy to face the world as he was.