Meyer Kahn, who died in Johannesburg last week, was described by a close friend and business colleague as “an ordinary man possessed of quite extraordinary abilities”.
That handsome tribute to a business leader and former executive chair of SA Breweries, who with CEO Graham Mackay co-piloted SAB (later SABMiller and now merged into AB InBev) to global heights, ranks as one of SA’s last industrial giants.
Just over a month ago I addressed an informal webinar of businesspeople and was delighted to see Kahn in the virtual audience. Apart from having a chance to exchange warm words with him, his attendance allowed me to remind the group of one of the many memorable observations he offered, which perhaps today has an even more urgent meaning.
In the mid-1990s I visited Kahn, then SAB chair, at its iconic headquarters at 2 Jan Smuts Avenue, Braamfontein. A visit to Kahn always resulted in his imparting some wisdom, offered with a warm slap on the back and peppered with expletives. He was splendidly politically incorrect to boot.
Kahn — who had been outspoken in the demand for more economic freedom and greater law and order — said: “You know, Tony, the Nats (NP government from 1948-1994) did their best to f*** up our economy and they failed; the ANC seems equally determined, and they will fail too.”
Not long after our conversation, in 1997, Kahn accepted then president Nelson Mandela’s request that he serve as chief of the police. It was in so many ways an extraordinary time. Cadre deployment and racial profiling were not yet chiselled into the government edifice. Mandela was always on the lookout for people outside the ranks of his party hacks to set SA to rights.
Kahn joined others from the private sector such as Nedbank chief Chris Liebenberg, who served as finance minister, and Dirk Ackerman (disclosure — we are business colleagues) who was sent to run the airports as head of the Airports Company of SA. National service meant a willingness to lend a hand to a government that was, in those times, willing to extend it.
Kahn did not find entering the belly of the beast of state a satisfactory experience, stymied as he was by an ingrained bureaucratic culture. As he ruefully pointed out afterward: “You can’t just hire good cops and fire nonperformers.” While crime was on a steep rise here in the late 1990s, 25 years later we face a veritable tidal wave of rampant criminality. Figures for the first quarter of 2022 indicate, as this newspaper noted, that “living in SA is twice as dangerous as living in a war zone” such as Ukraine.
A remarkable irony relating to Kahn donning policeman’s blues in 1997 was that his successor as acting SAB chair was none other than Cyril Ramaphosa, who served for two years. The mushroom cloud of criminal allegations that the heist on Ramaphosa’s game farm — detonated by wronged former spy boss Arthur Fraser — suggests that, on the most benevolent interpretation, Ramaphosa never paid much attention to the stringent SA Reserve Bank rules and regulations on forex and currency trading.
Given its expanding global reach, SAB would have been immersed in these, but clearly the board chair had other matters on his mind when they were ventilated. Whatever the outcome of this extraordinary saga, which could have been the script for a Mafia movie, Ramaphosa is severely wounded and his once vaunted image as a business-smart, ethically uncompromised strategic mastermind is shattered.
He continues in office for much the same reason as Boris Johnson does — Tina (there is no alternative). At the time of Ramaphosa bestriding lucrative boards such as SAB he was in political exile after being bested for the presidency by Thabo Mbeki. But the fact that back in 1997 the ANC had a credible bench of successors to hand, stands in dismal contrast to the plunging fortunes of the party and the dearth of plausible new leaders in its ranks today.
In Britain earlier this week, Johnson survived — with a poor showing — a vote of no-confidence by his party in parliament. His “win” was immediately written off as indicating that he now represents “the walking wounded”, is “drinking in the last chance saloon” and has entered zombie territory, suspended between political life and death, in terminal condition.
But for all his failings Johnson has often defied his political obituarists and, like Ramaphosa here, there is no single credible leader around whom his circling enemies can coalesce. However lame and wounded Ramaphosa may be, mention the phrase “President DD Mabuza” and the chattering classes and Twitter bots get the vapours.
A good explanation for why the once popular Johnson has crashed so spectacularly in the court of public opinion is the correct belief that he and his courtiers blatantly broke the stifling Covid restrictions he had imposed on his country. The “two sets of rules” narrative is never a vote winner.
The unanswered questions about the Ramaphosa scandal are from the same territory — the implication that the president did not comport to a slew of laws, from exchange and currency controls to the legal obligation that thefts of monies beyond a certain amount be reported to police. Adding flavour to this gruel is the untested allegation that state resources were used to kidnap the thieves, and that hush money was paid. “Lawmakers cannot be law breakers” informs the narrative both in SA and the UK.
Another tip I received from Kahn was to always surround yourself with the smartest lieutenants. He certainly did — hence SAB emerging as the second largest brewer in the world. In his political travails Ramaphosa and his circle will point the finger of accusation at Fraser and impugn his motives. Except for the highly inconvenient fact that when the DA challenged Fraser’s appointment as head of correctional services Ramaphosa deposed to an affidavit certifying the excellence and integrity in public service of his accuser.
Back in 2001, when the recently formed DA (a merger of the Democratic Party and New National Party) was under threat as the NNP component turned every issue of contention into a battle for the soul of the party, I again sought the wisdom of Kahn. He knew about branding and rebranding products, and had enthusiastically backed the merger as he felt the opposition brand needed refreshing.
He advised: “Always give way on matters of dignity but be unyielding on issues of principle.” But I discovered that in the new party leadership set-up it was often impossible to disentangle one from the other. With an imploding ANC and a much reduced president at its helm, the crowded SA opposition, about to be joined by a significant new party, has its greatest shot at power.
But can its leaders agree, stand fast on ironclad principle and yield on issues of status and position? Answering that question, nationally, will be the real test of leadership on their side.
Tony Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications. @TonyLeonSA