Steve Booysen, Chief Executive of ABSA: Holder of the key to Barclays' African deal

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The Independent Online

Unlike many of his South African counterparts, Steve Booysen will not be coming to London later this month to see the Springboks take on England at Twickenham.

The chief executive of Absa, the South African banking giant being stalked by Barclays, will be delivering his company's half-year results instead. However, if Barclays succeeds in its plans to acquire a majority stake in the Johannesburg-based bank, all that will change.

"We're announcing interims on the 22nd, we have a September half-year end. If the Barclays deal is successful that will change to June. Obviously that will allow me to adjust my priorities and I will be able to see some more games," Mr Booysen says.

Joking apart, the 42-year-old banker is on track to conclude a deal that will give Barclays a way back into South Africa, a market it abandoned 18 years ago after belatedly succumbing to the vehement domestic pressure in the UK opposing the old apartheid regime.

As early summer arrived in South Africa last week, with glorious sunshine and perfect temperatures, Absa's share price blossomed again as speculation mounted that a deal was close to conclusion. Absa's value has been pushed up to about 40bn rand (£3.5bn) on the back of the talks but given Barclays' regrettable track record, it hardly seems the obvious partner for a South African bank that proudly announced recently that more than 50 per cent of its customers are now black.

"We haven't encountered any negative sentiment towards Barclays. If we've had 5-6 customers complaining about Barclays because of the past that would be a lot. We've only had a handful of enquiries about Barclays. I don't think it's a risk. What is more important is that South Africans are looking at this proposed deal and what it means for the country. The government has been very successful in nation building and reconciliation. South Africans are making progress and there is a level of maturity that is good for the country and for confidence," says Mr Booysens.

In other words, any political squeamishness in the UK about the deal is not going to be reflected by South Africans - an optimistic lot driven by a pragmatic approach to the future.

Although the circumstances were vile, the apartheid years had one legacy for the likes of Absa which international investors such as Barclays are going to have to address if they want to profit from the political and economic stability resulting from 10 years of democratic rule.

"The one thing that isolation brought was [customer] loyalty," says Mr Booysens about what happens if you have little choice of where to bank other than the domestically owned incumbents.

"These international players try to make inroads into South Africa but the South African banks are so strong that I'm sure the likes of Standard Chartered [strongly rumoured to be keen to buy a South African bank] and Barclays recognise that if you really want to make headway you have to acquire one of the biggest players. You won't make headway if you don't. That's exactly what's happening because the South African banks are so strong."

Absa now has 6.3 million customers, 670 branches, 4,600 cash machines and is number one in the mortgage market and second in credit cards. Its 31,000 staff reckon it is one of the best companies in the country to work for and Absa's last set of results showed earnings up 29 per cent. "That's why it's attractive for Barclays," Mr Booysen said.

Barclays' enthusiasm to buy control of Absa also reflects the received wisdom that the long-term outlook for the South African banking sector is sound.

To anyone popping into one of its smart red and white branches, it becomes immediately clear where Absa sees its future growth. "We've seen an explosion of the black middle class taking place," Mr Booysens says. "We dominate in that segment."

This social phenomenon is perhaps the most important positive legacy of 10 years of democratic rule. Wealth creation and an aspirant society are things that could only have happened thanks to the political and economic stability a decade of ANC rule has delivered.

There have been negatives - president Thabo Mbeki's myopic attitude towards the HIV epidemic being one of the worst, unemployment another - but the scene is now set for Barclays, and others, to start hoovering up South Africa's choicer assets.

"Ten years ago the divide between the government and the private sector was quite big," Mr Booysens says. "That has narrowed significantly. The private sector was under great pressure to restructure. We've handled the pressure quite well and we are still positive that we can keep a 3-4 per cent economic growth in the long term.

"It's very much about political stability. Look at India. You have an election and anything can happen. In South Africa, you have a stable political environment. You know who's going to win. The one thing I can really compliment the government on is stability and focus. They have really stuck to their guns. The focus on macro-economic planning will now move down to the micro-economic environment and hopefully that will lead to job creation."

Having achieved low interest rates, low inflation and steady growth, the government is now tackling the detail of poor transport infrastructure and liberating essential sectors strangled by red tape, such as telecoms which in February will be deregulated, leading to lower prices.

But the spectre of HIV continues to stalk South Africa and with an estimated one in five people infected, it represents an apparently insoluble economic and social problem. "HIV is the biggest threat to the country and the region. You can't deny that. There is a lot of commitment from business and the government has recently changed its approach [until recently Mr Mbeki argued there was no proven link between HIV and Aids]. It is a threat and the end game and the end result is something that is very unpredictable."

Mr Booysen's gloomy candour is relieved only by a faith in the country's education system. He points out that education spending, as a percentage of South Africa's GDP, is 7 per cent, one of the highest levels in the world. "We have lost a generation in South Africa but if we invest a lot of money in educating new generations then they will be far better equipped - for me that's a positive."

Mr Booysen is the product of a peripatetic childhood, thanks to a stepfather who worked for the government's roads department. He saw lots of the country and studied for his accounting degree by correspondence with the University of South Africa.

At 42, he is still at the start of his senior business career, having been appointed to Absa's top job only this summer. Although he has spent his entire career at the Absa group, he is specifically a product of its investment banking arm and is confident he can handle himself in the talks with Barclays. "I've always liked a challenge. We've always had a vision for this company and with this transaction it can speed up the implementation of that strategy."

Family man and career man

Post: Chief executive, Absa

Age: 42

Education: Mr Booysen says he attended "eight to 10 different schools" as a child as he travelled around the country with his family. He has a degree in accounting after taking a correspondence course with the University of South Africa

Career: Absa man and boy. The group is a conglomeration of banks and building societies that has been brought together in a series of deals. Before becoming chief executive in August, he was in charge of Absa's wholesale, international and business banking operations. He cut his teeth in Absa's investment banking division.

Pay: As he only got the job in August, Mr Booysen's chief executive's pay has yet to appear in the company's annual report. However, his predecessor Nallie Bosman was paid 3.8m rand, or £340,000

Family: Married with a daughter who turns 10 next week and a son aged six

Hobbies: His family