Portfolio for black power

Thanks to one South African woman's business acumen, the poorest are gaining a stake in their new country. Karina Robinson reports
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BLACK empowerment in post-apartheid South Africa has been unflatteringly compared to a cappuccino - essentially a milky white concoction, with just a sprinkling of the well-educated black male elite invited into the nation's boardrooms. Black women are stuck at the bottom of the queue for the orderly redistribution of wealth in the new multi-racial South Africa.

Wendy Luhabe, a successful 40-year-old black businesswoman, stands out as an exception. She commands respect and credibility in South Africa's corporate boardrooms as well as among the nation's women who are scraping a living in the townships and in the rural outposts. Ms Luhabe founded an investment company especially for women, the Woman Investment Portfolio.

About 18,000 women, including some of the poorest and most badly educated of villagers, have already seen a fourfold return on their investments in WIP. At a road show last August, which visited some of the remotest parts of the country, Ms Luhabe raised 22 million rand (pounds 2.68m) for WIP in a private placement. The shares were sold at two rand each and have since risen to be worth eight rand.

With her powerful political connections - not least her husband who is the head of the Congress of South African Trade Unions - Ms Luhabe was able to bypass the slow-moving state machine to give her clients the chance of gaining financial independence. "We wanted women to see it as an opportunity to develop their own financial independence to protect their family structure, for example by being able to educate their children - because their male providers are not always dependable," she said.

Ms Luhabe and a few other women founded WIP four years ago. The company takes stakes, mainly in financial services companies such as the Forbes Group, a firm that also deals with insurance. It bought a 5 per cent stake in Forbes last month. In buying the stake, WIP aimed to get a decent return on the investment, and to leverage the financial skills of a large company.

The Portfolio encapsulates Ms Luhabe's philosophy and her goals for the new South Africa where profit-making is being merged with a social agenda of reform. This is a concept which receives a lot of lip-service but she seems to be a person who is acting on her vision. "I see absolutely no contradiction between affirmative action and profit," she said forcefully. "Quotas in a country with a black majority is a ridiculous notion."

As well as running WIP, Ms Luhabe is a director of a number of South African companies, including Telkom South Africa, the national phone operator. Her business acumen has made her a millionaire.

Humphrey Borkum, chairman of Merrill Lynch Smith Borkum Hare, said: "Her ability is enormous, I've got great respect for her. She's an inspiration to a lot of women across this country - people who say if she can do it, I can do it."

For Ms Luhabe, the year 1994 marked an exceptional point, besides being the founding year of WIP. First, South Africa had its first free and fair multi-racial elections. Then, she married Sam Shilowa, an important figure in the African National Congress. President Nelson Mandela was among the guests at their wedding. "For me it is significant that we got married in 1994, I think there must be a meaning to it," she said.

With Mr Shilowa, she forms one of the most influential and striking couples in Johannesburg.Beautiful and elegant, she has a low-key charm mixed with quiet forcefulness. Mr Shilowa, at well over six feet tall, dominates a room with his black cap, African shirts and the Cuban cigar he often carries. They have two children, aged 23 and 14, from previous relationships.

Observers in the business community, however, believe there must be a conflict of interest, or at the very least humdinger fights in a household composed of a businesswoman and a trade union leader.

"Wendy and I don't take work home," said Mr Shilowa. "We also share a lot in common: Wendy is as passionate as I am about skills development. For example, she also would not want to move ahead with privatisation where the main outcome would be destroying jobs." They share other convictions apart from the shape of a new South Africa. When asked whether she shared her husband's love of good wine, Ms Luhabe burst out with, "we haven't just got a weakness for wine, but a passion for life!"

One of the other initiatives in which she has been involved is the bringing in of black and perhaps female deputies to top Telkom South Africa management posts - such as the director of strategic planning. The recruits are given special training to take on the senior positions, although there are no guarantees unless they make the grade on ability.

"Wendy would have been successful anywhere," said Mac Geschwind, chief operating officer of Telkom. "She is one of our best members and is a very constructive participant in board meetings as well as in the remuneration and human resources committees, on which she sits."

Empowering the average black worker is more difficult. But progress is made through positive discrimination and workers buying stakes in companies through funds. "It's inevitable that empowerment is a slow process, especially as it is about teaching people, not giving to them," said Ms Luhabe.

However, she does criticise white businesses for not doing enough to employ and train black workers. "Business haven't come forward with solutions. They need to define solutions, such as tax incentives, which would be workable for them," she said.

WIP is now raising 500 million rand, with preference for existing shareholders, to pay off debt incurred in acquisitions made over the past six months. This will leave the company with no debts on its balance sheet. Ms Luhabe and her colleagues are also considering starting a second investment vehicle, which will take stakes of about 20 per cent in the financial and industrial sectors and will be listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.

One of her latest ventures is working as chairman of Alliance-Odyssey Capital Management, a venture between a black empowerment group and an associate of US firm, Alliance Capital, which manages $230bn (pounds 140bn) in funds around the world.

Alliance-Odyssey will launch a unit trust in the future which will have similar aims to those of WIP. "We will also make contact with people who have five rand a month to save," she said. "When people have invested something, however little, they take more interest in the condition of their country."

Ms Luhabe decided earlier this year that the time had come to cut down on some of her directorships. Her aim now is to create a holistic think- tank in the bush, a place where business people, politicians and thinkers can gather to consider South Africa's problems and perhaps come up with some solutions.