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Jabu Mabuza: From taxi driver to CEO of a JSE-listed company

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By Hlubi Xaba
17 Jun 2021 10

Hlubi Xaba is a follower of business history and is an anthropologist of the boardroom. Hlubi, a nom-de-plume, is at present working with a number of corporates and revealing his identity at this stage could potentially unwittingly compromise the current or future business of people he works with. However, his identity will be revealed in future, and he has undertaken to write uncompromisingly, with the highest ethical outlook, always accepting the facts, as bitter as they may be.

A few can claim to have accelerated their career paths from the perceived low rank of a taxi driver to steering a JSE-listed entity at Group CEO level. Jabu Mabuza did it.

Sadly, the Jabu Mabuza, who often donned a fedora hat, neatly trimmed grey beard and untucked shirts around his round belly, breathes no more.

The baritone voice of this short strong man has been muted by what has been deemed as Covid complications. Mabuza (63) sailed to the celestial shores on Wednesday, 16 June, a historic day commemorating the youth of 1976 in South Africa. 

Although he was physically deprived from a height perspective, Mabuza was what the Nguni people would refer to as “Mdengentonga”, meaning short physically but tall in achievements.  

Eskom board chairperson Jabu Mabuza testifies at the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture on 22 February 2019 in Johannesburg. (Photo: Gallo Images / Times Live / Masi Losi)

A manoeuverer of note and driven by the Winston Churchill mantra of “never let a good crisis go to waste”, Mabuza will be remembered for, among other things, bringing leadership during a disastrous moment in South Africa. 

He demonstrated this when the country was in a tailspin following the firing of the markets admired Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene by former president Jacob Zuma in December 2015. It was a period when the country battled a looming sovereign debt rating downgrade and a bleak global economic environment. 

At the time Mabuza and Pravin Gordhan coordinated efforts between government and business to work together in rescuing the country from sliding to a banana republic. Mabuza was one of the people critical to the mending of the shattered trust between government and business in South Africa. 

Appointed by President Zuma in 2016 as the CEO of the Business and Government Initiative to look into the state of the South African economy, Mabuza led an effort where honest conversations were held about South Africa. It was from these engagements that business was asked to do more to contribute to South Africa. One of the outcomes was the establishment of the over R1bn SA SME Fund to aid small businesses. Equally it was at the same platform where government was asked to properly manage its fiscal affairs.      

Mabuza also tried to preach unity in a period where black business formations such as the Black Management Forum and Black Business Council increasingly distanced themselves from Business Unity South Africa (Busa) then seen to be biased towards the interests of established white business at the expense of economic transformation. 

A product of Black Business formations himself, Mabuza did not support a segregated approach in driving black economic empowerment. He believed black business needed to be part of Busa as this was where mainstream economic decisions were engaged upon. Despite being the then president of Busa, Mabuza still commanded the respect of the Black Business Council.

 Mabuza defended and supported black excellence to the core. 

Before he passed on it was under his chairmanship at technology firm Net1 that the company poached the charismatic banker Lincoln Mali from Standard Bank to become Net1 UEPS Group CEO. 

When the Telkom CEO Sipho Maseko faced allegations of taxi rank like misbehavior involving bogus car number plates, Mabuza as chairman of the telecommunications group, unapologetically stood behind Maseko. He was firm in his belief that Sipho Maseko was the best person for the job, despite the alleged shenanigans. Mabuza was proven right as Maseko steered Telkom to unimagined heights.   

When Mabuza stepped down as Group CEO of Tsogo, he invested some of his capital and time in Sphere Holdings, a black business investment holding company ran by brilliant people younger than him. Some used the Sphere Holdings relationship to sully Mabuza’s character. 

Sphere Holdings, way before it associated with Mabuza, held amongst its investments an industrial company called Babcock. This company was a supplier to the power utility Eskom. And so, the conspiracy emerged when Mabuza chaired Eskom that he was giving business to a company he had interests in. 

As street smart as he was, Mabuza had a tough time at Eskom. He would ultimately resign after failing to fulfill a promise of ensuring the power utility kept the country’s lights on. It was an accountability move rather than a push to jump from his comrade Pravin Gordhan, the Minister of Public Enterprises.   

Despite the dark times at the electricity provider, Mabuza passed on leaving a solid legacy. 

In his high school years he was caught up in the 1976 student uprising and was expelled. He completed his matric at the heritage Ohlange High School started by the educator and founding president of South African Native National Congress, John Langalibalele Dube. After his high schooling Mabuza enrolled at the University of the North for a BProc degree but dropped out to generate income. He worked in the civil service briefly. He drove taxis in Johannesburg until he bought his own.

In the mid-1980s he became a taxi owner and a key member of the South African Black Taxi Association. 

In 1988 Mabuza was part of the visionary leaders who founded the Foundation for African Business and Consumer Services (Fabcos). He established Fabcos alongside business leaders such as James Ngcoya (President of the SA Black Taxi Association at the time), Ellen Kuzwayo, Joas Mogale, Andrew Lukhele; Sam Tuntubele, Zithulele (“KK”) Combi, Knox Tsotsobe and Sam Buthelezi. With the dawn of political freedom in South Africa, Fabcos put the black economic empowerment project on the agenda in order to ensure that small black businesspeople, especially from the informal sector, were properly represented to participate in the mainstream economy. He was also involved in the Urban Foundation at the dawn of democracy.

Mabuza was a corporate leader extraordinaire.  As far back as 1997 he was country adviser to Union Bank of Switzerland. He had a successful career at Tsogo Sun, having helped the firm to gain market share, including key casino licences. Before ascending to Group CEO at Tsogo, Mabuza was Managing Director of Tsogo Sun Gaming from 1996 to 2006. Mabuza did so well as MD of the gaming division prompting then group chairman Johnny Copelyn to announce him as Group CEO in 2006. He stepped down in 2011 after a five-year term. In his corporate life he held a number of board directorships, including chairman of AB Inbev Africa. 

A real soldier has fallen. BM/DM

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All Comments 10

  • Well if a peasant herd boy can be indoctrinated in Russia and become a two term president of thieves,what was stopping Mabuza? If a total moronic lunatic like Malema can run a misfit Political Theft Party why can’t others????

  • Yet another prominent South African has died, not passed away, died, of a vicious virus, or is nowadays called, “due to Covid-19 complications”. A good South African, who tried to assist an organisation in ruins. Like many other good South Africans. People like Karima Brown, Jackson Mthembu. and thousands of others, most unknown, died long before their time, whilst serving their country. And as we are now firmly in the 3rd wave, many more will die. And still, the world is paralyzed, and will be, for a long, long time. Despite vaccinations. Names like Johnson & Johnson, Phizer, Sputnit. With some you need one shot, with another two shots. And then, suddenly, one is withdrawn because of some kind of problem, only to be re-introduced a few weeks later. The average man in the street, in this country, has no idea of what is actually going on. Where to be vaccinated, or when you are eligible to be vaccinated. Must you be a health worker, a teacher, a prisoner, a mine worker, a policeman, a shop assistant, or a 60-year old. I was told I must register, which I did almost 3 months ago, never to hear another word. Now I understand you don’t need to register, and can simply join the queue. But in my far away town, there is no queue, because there is no vaccination site. All I know for certain, is that I must wear a mask, practise social distancing, and sanitise on a regular basis. Which I do. But where I can be vaccinated, I do not know, because none around me knows either.
    Rest in peace Mr. Mabuza, as well as all those others that died from the virus world-wide. Many others will follow you in time, because governments around the globe did not, and still does not, take this seriously enough. And South Africa is on top of the list. Few vaccines, even less information. the popular activity from our Department of Health is rather to use the vaccine as an opportunity to enrich themselves, and others friends around them. And that is O.K. because you then can go an special leave

    • Coen, if you’re a member of a medical aid it will help. Like you we registered on the govt app and nothing happened until we registered separately with the medical aid and then, hey presto, we got vaccinations two days later. The follow up injection is going to take time. It should have been this week but the time period has been extended and I’m sure will be stretched out for as long as possible.

      • I am Charles, and paying them R6000 a month, as a retired person. Also registered with them…no recent news yet from that side either. My 78 year-old medical doctor has not been vaccinated either. He travelled 300 km to Cape Town, only to stand in a queue for many hours. When he reached the front of the queue, they ran out of vaccines. Our only chemist in town, have had a similar experience. Unless you live close to a big city, you have a major problem as you cannot make an appointment to be vaccinated. You are lucky, I’m not. I’ve lost trust, as did many of my fellow community members, all with medical aid. It is not easy for all. The closest private hospital from where I stay, is 90 kilometers away. I once got an email from my medical aid, about a month ago, saying I can be vaccinated at a certain date, and certain time. The date was the same day I got the email, the time 2 hours after I’ve read it, the site, 250 kilometers from where I live.

        • My one a week gardener, a Malawian, is more than a gardener, and we share many a tale with each other. His problem is much, much bigger than mine. He has no medical aid, and he has a work permit, but no permanent visa. He is scared to go to Malawi to get a vaccination, in case the government closes the border again, with his family then trapped here, with little or no income, and him, the bread winner, sitting in Malawi. And even if I have a medical aid, why should I be treated differently from those that don’t

          • Charles, you are becoming a friend. But thought let me put in some more work. At the moment I stay at my holiday house in St Helena Bay, Western Cape., although I live permanent some 350km away to the east. In the area there are only 2 vaccination centres. One in Velddrif, one in Vredenburg. Both Public. Neither has vaccines available and hope to get some at the end of next week. However, it appears that certain occupational groups, primarily heathcare workers and teachers, will get preference, and proof of such will have to be provided, as not many vaccines are expected. This illustrates my point. No private centres, only public. And due to a lack of vaccines, preferential treatment to certain occupations, although I do understand that. But the general trend….lack of vaccines

  • Coen, there has been a vaccine supply constraint but that will start easing now that the J&J supplies are starting again. It might be a month or so before you get vaccinated but that shouldn’t be too much of a problem in a rural area. We have a huge problem now in Gauteng.

    • Well Charles…lets hope you are right. Even though you have been vaccinated once, keep staying safe. I can only pressume in a highly dense area like Gauteng it is very difficult to adhere to social distancing. But so much is a stake here, and one really has no choice put to hope that the Government will become more diligent in execution and rollout of the vaccines. Fortunately it appears that that there are a lot of people from the private sector involved.

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