PracticeConsultingThe corridors of power …

The corridors of power ...

A few days ago, I sat in on some of the fun surrounding president Thabo Mbeki's state visit to the UK.

While Nelson Mandela was locked up on Robben Island, Mbeki was one of those ANC men who opted to go into exile. For Mbeki, this involved three years at Sussex University – possibly a worse punishment than Robben Island.

Few appreciate the role played by Britain’s accountants in assisting the transition of power in SA. In the late-1980s, before Mandela was released, the ANC approached KPMG in London for advice on the economics of running South Africa. The firm was only too happy to share its expertise.

The ANC’s stewardship of South Africa’s economy cannot be faulted, but much-needed foreign investment – the reason Mbeki came here – remains as elusive as ever.

Addressing an investment seminar in central London, Mbeki acknowledged negative perceptions of Africa. People think of crime, corruption, HIV/Aids and all the rest.

Yet with its excellent infrastructure and stable economy, South Africa offers much to foreign investors.

Why should they bother? Undoing the evils of apartheid is one thing; investing for the sake of it is quite another.

Yet SA has some powerful supporters. Niall FitzGerald, co-chairman of Unilever, spoke of South Africa’s huge potential. Mind you, Unilever does have $800m locked up in the country. Digby Jones, the CBI director general, blamed the press for reporting negative things about SA.

KPMG, meanwhile, would be happy to pick up where it left off. It so happens that Colin Sharman picked Cape Town for his final partners’ meeting before bowing out as senior partner. The highlight was an address by Nelson Mandela which had even Gerry Acher reduced to tears.

Mbeki, for all his sincerity, can never hope to match the saintliness of Mandela. And only a hard business case will persuade investors to open their cheque books.

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