Newsmaker – Mo Ibrahim: It’s time we started talking about real issues

2013-08-18 14:00

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Billionaire philanthropist Mo Ibrahim believes SA can still attain social cohesion by narrowing the gap between the haves and the have-nots

I’m curious about Dr Mo Ibrahim’s accent. It’s heavily Sudanese, even though he has spent 40 years living outside of Africa and hasn’t returned to his homeland for eight or so years after becoming “fed up with what is going on that side”.

“I’m lousy at languages actually. That’s the problem,” explains the billionaire philanthropist in typically self-effacing style.

TV crews are already waiting when he arrives from the airport on Friday after a flight from France, tired and unaware he has a rigorous interview schedule lined up ahead of his 11th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture the following day.

Yet Ibrahim is smartly dressed, cleanly shaven and on fine form, cracking jokes and answering questions briskly in a boardroom at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in Houghton, north of Joburg.

Ibrahim, who made his money as a pioneer in Africa’s mobile phone industry, was asked by the centre to deliver this year’s address on the theme of social cohesion. He never writes his speeches, preferring to work from notes, but knows exactly what’s on his mind.

He acknowledges South Africa’s race problems, but believes the nation has bigger social-cohesion issues to worry about. “I am personally concerned about the gap between the haves and the have-nots. If you look at the Gini coefficient, this country comes right at the bottom.

“Unemployment is a major issue, especially among young people. I hope we have some plans for what we’re going to do about those young people.”

As mobile technology revolutionises access to information on the continent, half of Africa’s population is below the age of 19, while the average age of our rulers is 60, he says.

“We even have a leader next door who is 89 years old. This is strange. Ninety-year-old people deciding the future of 19-year-old guys when they have no damn clue about what those guys want, what they need, that there’s a new world coming up.

“Why are our young people not given the opportunity and the space to really start to help run it? It is their future.”

South Africans are not great fans of criticism from outside and Ibrahim irks some people. Preparing for the interview, I am surprised to encounter so much criticism of one of the good guys, a man who has decided to use his own money to create forums, bursaries, scholarships, the world’s richest award – for democratic African leadership – and a yearly index rating African governance.

I put some of it to him. His index employs barely any African experts, they say.

Ibrahim blinks, perplexed. “First time I hear that actually. The advisory board of the index, the vast majority of it is Africans. The majority of our board is Africans. The majority of our prize committee is Africans.”

So why does he base his foundation in London, England, and not in Africa?

“I don’t think that we’ll have the same freedom in doing what we’re doing in any African capital. And, very sadly, if you want to travel across Africa, you need a base outside because we have terrible airline connections,” he explains. “You have to fly out of Africa to come back to a neighbouring country.”

Yes, but he’s a billionaire avoiding taxes by living in the Principality of Monaco in western Europe.

This one he has heard before.

When he started his foundation he was living in London, he says, but that nation’s charity commission refused to register his admittedly outlandish leadership prize – bestowing wealth on former presidents – and the millions of US dollars involved would be taxed 40%.

“I said, I paid tax already on all the money I made. This money is intended for Africa, not for the exchequer in the UK. So the lawyers said okay, you just have to move out of the country. So, I’m a victim of the foundation actually. I had to move to Monaco,” he says.

And has he got used to Monaco? I ask. He chuckles. “Actually, it’s not that bad because I was raised on the Mediterranean and I love to be back on the Mediterranean.”

The truth of it, I think, is that South Africans distrust anyone who gives their money away. Some see his philanthropy as a vanity project. The foundation is, after all, named after him.

Is he in it to run for office one day? He’s heard this one before too.

“This is the sort of cynicism we need to fight because it’s absolutely acceptable for people to go into civil service without expecting anything in return. Civil society is so important.”

We return to the theme when I try to get him to reveal more about his personal life. “It’s irrelevant. It’s time for us to move away from the cult of personalities. Let’s talk about issues, ideas and principles ...  Maybe it was a mistake calling it the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

I should have thought of a better name actually.”

Of course, Ibrahim is not entirely egoless. I ask about his ambitions as a young man and he reveals that it was his lifelong dream to win a Nobel prize. I secretly suspect it still is. He earned his master’s degree for electrical engineering and his PhD for mobile communications, not by way of an honorary doctorate.

“I actually wanted to be an academic,” he tells me. “I’m a techie. I just wanted to be a good engineer and to be an academic.

“Doing some good work and hopefully one day, with time, win a Nobel prize or something like that. But really, I’m just a failed academic.”

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