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‘Africa needs more Zondo Commissions’: Zim billionaire Strive Masiyiwa

Daily Maverick logo Daily Maverick 2019-10-08 Rebecca Davis

a group of people wearing military uniforms © Copyright (c) Daily Maverick , All Rights Reserved Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

Delivering the ninth annual Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture, Zimbabwe-born telecoms magnate Strive Masiyiwa termed corruption Africa’s ‘pandemic’, and called on young Africans to take up the fight against it. Among those applauding his message was the 88-year-old Archbishop himself.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu turned 88 years old on 7 October 2019, and despite his frail condition, he was able to be present at the ninth annual lecture given in his name in Cape Town.

Though he did not speak, Tutu waved and smiled from his balcony seat to an adoring City Hall audience who sang Happy Birthday to him twice — while his granddaughters brought out a cake complete with lit birthday candles.

On the same occasion a year previously, Tutu’s health had not permitted him to attend in person. Giving the lecture in 2018 was President Cyril Ramaphosa, who surprised some observers with a forceful addresson the need to accelerate land reform.

Twelve months later, land was not on the agenda: an indication of how the national conversation around the land issue has quietened. In 2019, the topic deemed most pressing by lecture organisers from the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation was that of corruption.

Zimbabwe-born telecoms magnate Strive Masiyiwa was the speaker saddled with tackling the issue, something he said he did with a “heavy heart”. When it comes to influential African business people, they don’t get much bigger than Masiyiwa — with an estimated net worth of $2.9-billion, according to Forbes, and the distinction of having the most engaged Facebook following of any business leader in the world.

I have been in business in Africa for 33 years,” Masiyiwa said. “I can tell you a lot about corruption.”

Masiyiwa first came to public attention in his homeland through his struggle to establish a mobile network at the height of late president Robert Mugabe’s power in the late 1990s. The young tech entrepreneur took the fight to Zimbabwe’s courts, where he waged a five-year battle which brought him to the edge of bankruptcy.

I could have ended it in a single day by just ‘accommodating’ certain people,” said Masiyiwa. “I said no.”

The Constitutional Court of Zimbabwe would eventually rule in Masiyiwa’s favour, allowing him to establish what he calls “the only mobile network in the world licensed by a court of law”. But the price he paid for his hardline anti-corruption stance was immense: Masiyiwa left Zimbabwe in 2000 and has never been back.

Since then, the businessman’s encounters with corrupt practices on the continent have continued. He told the audience of his experience running a mobile network in competition with MTN in Nigeria.

One day, Masiyiwa said, his shareholders came to him and told him that a non-negotiable aspect of doing business in Nigeria was to pay the government $4-million. He refused.

They said: ‘Then you’ll have to leave’. So I left.”

That triggered a court battle which ended in the successful prosecution of a Nigerian governor for corruption.

On another occasion, Masiyiwa attempted to purchase a building in Lagos which belonged to the Liberian embassy in Nigeria.

I’m going through the papers, I’m about to sign, and I notice the transfer is to Switzerland,” Masiyiwa recalled. “I said: ‘Don’t they have an account in [Liberia’s capital] Monrovia?’”

The Swiss bank account into which he had been instructed to deposit payment for a Liberian government building did not even have a name attached to it. Masiyiwa refused to deposit the funds, saying he would make payment only into a Liberian account. He was told by the Liberian ambassador that the president of Liberia would call him personally to explain, but Masiyiwa held firm and the deal fell through.

That president was Charles Taylor,” Masiyiwa said. “A couple of months later he was taken down. I’ve seen a few things along the way, shall we say.”

The billionaire was at pains to stress he had also encountered corruption from white Americans: “Corruption has no colour, no religion, no gender,” he said.

But he believes that in Africa, corruption has reached crisis proportions — and to stop the rot will take “a generational fight, just as we had to take on apartheid and colonialism”.

Masiyiwa suggested tackling corruption on the continent would require the reform of business policies and legislative framework, and beefing up the enforcement of both. Particularly when it comes to trans-national money laundering, he said.

You can catch the guy who shakes you down at the traffic department. You can catch the guy who shakes you down over your passport,” Masiyiwa observed. “But to go after the big guys, we need a global architecture.”

Masiyiwa, who lived in South Africa for a decade after he left Zimbabwe in 2000, said that he wanted to express particular appreciation for the work undertaken by the Zondo Commission into allegations of State Capture.

That’s what we need to be doing,” he said.

But he warned that for the culture of impunity around corruption to truly end, processes like the Zondo Commission have to conclude in a definitive way.

It must end up with prosecutions,” Masiyiwa said.

It must end up with those having been found to have let us down, taking the punishment. Not because we seek vengeance, but because we seek justice.” DM

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