From ‘bag carrier’ to businessman

2007-12-19 00:00

Babu Baijoo admits that his real name — Vidyavrata — is quite a mouthful. A Sanskrit word, it literally means “a vow of knowledge”. The name was given to Baijoo, who was born in Pietermaritzburg in 1948, by his late uncle, a Sanskrit and Hindi scholar.

“I just about remember how to spell my name so it is understandable that my parents chose to call me Babu, which was intended to be a pet name but stayed on,” says Baijoo.

One of seven siblings, Baijoo remembers growing up in a close-knit family in Raisethorpe before moving to a farm where Copesville is now located. Here, Baijoo’s father farmed wattle and traded in wood and coal. When his father died in 1960, much of the business was sold and the family returned to Raisethorpe.

It was from his parents that Baijoo learnt the value of both commerce and philanthropy. Although a successful businessman, Baijoo’s father was virtually illiterate.

“He could barely sign his name,” recalls Baijoo. Yet he believed in education and used some of his money to establish the Baijoo State-Aided Indian School in 1935 on the corner of Khan and Greytown roads, which his son later attended before moving on to high school in Woodlands. (Later, when K. P. Maharaj donated funds for extra classrooms, the school took on the names of both benefactors.)

Unlike her husband, Baijoo’s mother was schooled. Although not a qualified social worker, she did voluntary work for religious and welfare organisations.

It was Baijoo’s mother, then a widow after the death of Baijoo’s father in 1960, who insisted that her son leave South Africa to study. So in 1967, the 19-year-old Baijoo found himself in Dublin where he enrolled for a three-year diploma in electronics at what was then the College of Technology in Kevin Street.

Much to the chagrin of his family, he chose to focus on television, which was virtually unheard of in South Africa at the time.

Baijoo’s nine-year stay in Ireland was an intensely positive experience. “The people were so generous. It was like my second home,” he says.

It helped that he was “welcomed warmly” in Dublin by Kader Asmal, the former ANC cabinet member who was in exile in Ireland at the time. Baijoo also connected with over 1 000 South African students in the city. The presence of members of the Bhamjee and Cassimjee families from Pietermaritzburg and the Hargovan clan from Durban helped to create a veritable home-away-from-home.

Baijoo quickly became involved in the anti-apartheid movement in Ireland, helping to found the South African Students’ Association which produced a monthly newsletter and kept South African students focused on the political situation back home.

During a holiday in South Africa in 1973, Baijoo and his high-school sweetheart, Vija, married secretly in a Hindu temple in Stanger. Soon afterwards, Vija joined her husband in Dublin, making a living through dressmaking.

It was the first of four weddings the couple would undergo. The Stanger wedding was followed by an Irish civil ceremony. When the couple eventually returned to South Africa, they were told that their marriage wasn’t recognised. Thus another ceremony was held at the Indian Affairs department, followed by a religious ceremony at the insistence of the couple’s parents.

The Baijoos returned to South Africa in 1976 — a year of political turmoil. But it was also significant on the popular culture front. In 1976, a national television station was introduced and, for the first time, South Africans were buying television sets.

Baijoo secured a job in Pietermaritzburg with Dick’s Radio and TV. Although highly skilled as a television technician, being black in a world of mainly white skills meant that he “carried the bag” for a less experienced white colleague. Baijoo recalls being turned away by whites who didn’t want a black person to work on their TVs.

But it wasn’t all bad. In 1980, Dick’s owner Paul Eckstein closed his workshop to concentrate on sales. Eckstein sub-contracted all the technical work to Baijoo, who was able to start his own business called Telecare.

“Eckstein effectively kickstarted my business, giving me finance and mentoring as well as business,” says Baijoo.

After suffering a heart attack in 2001 and undergoing a triple bypass in 2002, Baijoo closed the door on his business. “I reckoned it was time,” he says. “With the advent of globalisation, we were heavily exposed to global markets. Chinese imports were flooding in and we were unprotected, so the business was less profitable.”

With a flexibility typical of entrepreneurs, Baijoo set up an agency, known as Baijoo Agencies, before joining local Pietermaritzburg company Media Com SA as its special projects manager in 2005.

Since his heart attack, Baijoo says he has had to manage his time and stress more rigorously.

“In the last two years, I’ve tried to spend as much time as I can at home with my family.”

Baijoo has three daughters — Anuka, Sheethal and Juthika — and an adopted 13-year-old son called Siyanda. He has one granddaughter called Millan.

Moving between politics and businessBABU Baijoo’s mother wanted him to be a doctor. But her son’s passion and aptitude lay with electronics: as a youngster, he couldn’t keep his hands off radios and PA systems.

It was an interest that would eventually launch him into the world of business, first as the proprietor of a television installation and repair business, and later, into organised business through the Chamber of Commerce movement.

Today, the Pietermaritzburg-born-and-bred Baijoo wields influence at the highest levels of the national chamber movement — as the deputy president of the newly-launched South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the national business body (formerly known as Sacob) which promotes the interests of South African businesses and acts as an interface with government.

But there’s more to Baijoo than business. His sensitivity to the injustices of apartheid, honed during his school days through his involvement in a history club, found expression in his membership of the African National Congress.

In 1990, he became an executive member of the local ANC branch and from 1997 to 2001 served as deputy chair in the greater Pietermaritzburg region.

His civic-mindedness earned him a place on the city council in 2000, a position he still holds.

Thus the interface between politics and business is familiar territory for Baijoo, moving as he does in and between both worlds, understanding their respective interests and how they intersect. In this space, Baijoo has found a constructive and stimulating role, one that understands the value of partnership and co-operation in the multi-faceted arena of sustainable economic development.

Since the mid-nineties, Baijoo was at the forefront of the bid to bring together the black and white business chambers operating in the city. The vision was finally realised in 2002 when the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business (PCB) was launched, uniting the Midlands Black Business Chamber (of which Baijoo was deputy president), the Afrikaans Pietermaritzburg Sakekamer and the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Commerce and Industries.

“It was a pioneering process that led the way for other segregated chambers in South Africa,” says Baijoo who served as PCB president from 2005 to July this year and still plays an active role as a director.

But uniting the racially-divided chambers was not Baijoo’s only mission. He was also concerned with transforming the vision of the chamber and renegotiating its historically antagonistic relationship with local government.

“The chamber movement used to be seen as a private men’s club where members sat around with cigars and fought with the municipality. But that’s changed,” says Baijoo. “It now has a new vision, and it’s engaged in partnerships and issues around social responsibility.”

For Baijoo, partnerships hold the key to any successful development initiative.

That’s why he’s so excited about the Msunduzi Innovation and Development Institute (Midi), a three-way development-oriented partnership between the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the PCB and the Msunduzi Municipality.

“Midi is the right vehicle to take full advantage of the city’s educational, cultural, commercial and professional resources and to build the human capacity which is needed for sustainable growth,” he says.

For Baijoo, Midi is a promising response to the government’s repeated calls for assistance with delivery.

“The government has said it can’t achieve on its own because of the past dispensation and limited resources. No delivery is possible without partnerships.”

According to Baijoo, a 10-member trust has been set up to give expression to Midi’s four pillars — a safe city, a playing city, a busy city and a learning city — and to set in motion a process which will “re-imagine” the city and produce results over the next 30 to 40 years.

“It’s time for Pietermaritzburg to recognise its competitive edge,” says Baijoo. This includes its range of educational institutions, geographical location and strong and passionate NGO sector, which Baijoo says is leading the way in breaking down racial barriers.

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