Family man, farmer, fitness fanatic: At home with Nhlanhla Nene

2018-02-27 12:44
PHOTO: Brian Spurr Photography, Gallo Images/Afp/Getty Images/Mujahid Safodien/Waldo Swiegers, Supplied

PHOTO: Brian Spurr Photography, Gallo Images/Afp/Getty Images/Mujahid Safodien/Waldo Swiegers, Supplied

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President Cyril Ramaphosa is cleaning house – which means a familiar face is going to be back in the finance minister hot seat.

It’s been like a game of musical chairs in the past few years, with former president Jacob Zuma hiring and firing finance ministers faster than you can say “pay back the money”.

But under SA’s new leadership, it looks as though Nene is back to stay.

“I haven’t been sworn in yet, [the position] is a tall order, it’s going to take a lot of doing,” Nene told Fin24 last night. “I was very comfortable where I was.”

It’s the ultimate plot twist for Nene, who YOU spoke to in the wake of his sacking by Zuma in 2015.

At the time, the 59-year-old businessman said he “wouldn’t change a thing”.

Here’s a look back on that interview.

Fields and hills roll by as we make our way to Kranskop in rural KwaZulu-Natal to meet the town’s most famous citizen. Everyone knows his name, everyone knows his house – and also that it has a big swimming pool.

We got lost, so Nhlanhla Nene meets us at the local petrol station, rolling up in his black Mercedes-Benz, casually dressed in a black Hugo Boss shirt and khaki chinos.

It’s a far cry from the dark suits and ties he used to wear before he was sacked as finance minister, a move that left the economy bleeding.

His wife, Lisa, is in the car too – they’ve just driven back from Durban where she’s undergoing treatment for back problems. We follow his car to the family homestead, where a neat house is set back across a well-kept lawn and son Siyabonga (33) is washing a car on the paved driveway. 

At the front door Nhlanhla bends to move a pair of boots out of the way. “This house is such a farm,” he apologises.

Then he leads us into their home, through the living room with its leather couches, family pictures and a photograph of Nelson Mandela, and onto the patio.

There’s the pool the locals speak of, the water covered by a net to keep his two-year-old granddaughter, Abelo, safe. Lisa has dashed off to a church meeting, so he’s babysitting the little girl.

Abelo runs up to her granddad to show him a burn on her hand and Nhlanhla blows it gently and settles her on his lap, where she promptly falls asleep.

Relaxed and clearly at peace, this man hardly looks like someone who was unceremoniously sacked at the start of a series of bizarre events that South Africa – and the economy – is still reeling from.

He first took a liking to the world of finance when he opened a tuck shop in his parents’ home – although not even he could have dreamt he’d go on to hold the country’s purse strings some day.

In fact, he didn’t really want the job of finance minister and was “taken aback” when he was given the job in 2014, he tells us.

His appointment came in the middle of a platinum mine strike and public servants’ negotiations, but he had a good team. “You work within a collective, sit and brainstorm. But the final authority rests with you as the minister, and I think that’s the most challenging part.”

He was puzzled when he was released by President Jacob Zuma from his duties, he says. “But you journalists, when I say I was a bit surprised, you say ‘he was shocked’,” he says with a chuckle.

Yet he admits he didn’t expect it. Zuma told him he’d be nominated for the position of head of the Africa Regional Centre of the Brics Development Bank – a nomination many now believe the president lied about. Nhlanhla is sanguine about it all.

“I always say a nomination is a nomination. Beyond that you leave it with the bank. I just left it at that.”

He’s decidedly matter-of-fact about his sacking too.

“The president decides on appointments, so it doesn’t help to question ‘why me’. So I accepted it as such and that was that.”

After his firing on 9 December last year he called his wife to tell her there was going to be an announcement but she shouldn’t be too concerned. Everything was going to be okay. Then he arranged for his ministerial houses in Pretoria and Cape Town to be packed up and moved home to Kranskop the next day.

“The first thing my daughter said to me was, ‘Dad, is it true we now have 100 percent of you? And you’ll drive us around, no protectors?’ And I said, ‘Yes’.”

That’s when the father of three realised how much his family missed him and was relieved they took the news so well.

“It was a call for celebration,” Nhlanhla says. But while his family were happy he was home, the rest of the country wasn’t. The rand dipped from R14,60 to R15,40 against the dollar overnight after Nhlanhla was replaced with the short-lived David van Rooyen, and billions of rands were wiped off the JSE.

“I was a bit overwhelmed by the turn of events,” Nhlanhla admits.

“But I kept saying it’s not about the individual but the institution.” He found being at the centre of such a fierce storm overwhelming, he says.

His name was “flashing and popping” all over the place, and he eventually just tried to shut it all out.

Nhlanhla was happy Pravin Gordhan was reinstated as finance minister, but doesn’t feel it’s his place to comment on David.

He tried to put himself in David’s shoes, he says. “I imagined what it would have felt if, after I’d been appointed, people had said, ‘I wonder how he’s going to fit into Pravin’s boots?’ ”

It didn’t take him long to adjust to fulltime family life, he says.

“I’ve been having a wonderful time with my family.”

Siyabonga, an IT graduate, owns a small internet café in Greytown. Daughter Nkosingiphile (27), Abelo’s mother, helps her brother in his business and also runs a small catering company with her mom.

Baby of the family Sibusisiwe (20) is studying social sciences at the University of Cape Town.

Nhlanhla and Lisa had a stillborn baby after Siyabonga was born. “It was devastating but it brought us closer together I believe,” he says.

The couple, who celebrated their 31st wedding anniversary this month, have lots in common, including farming, a love of the church and “making a little money on the side”.

When he was a government minister he and Lisa were apart a lot but still shared “every moment” with each other.

He’d be sitting in a meeting and his wife would send him a picture of a cow giving birth, he recalls.

“My daughter would say, ‘Look at your wife – she’s supposed to be resting but this is what she’s doing!’ ”

Nhlanhla is now a board member of investment company Allan Gray and a resident adviser at the Thebe Investment Corporation.

He received many offers after the finance minister fallout but these companies “struck a chord because of their community involvement”, he says.

“They also allow me flexibility and I’m not stuck in an office.” He says he’s still finding his feet at the two corporations and will contribute by helping with the decision-making process and providing financial advice.

Nhlanhla is grateful the positions will allow him time to devote to his three main loves: community, church and family. “They have made me who I am and they’re everything to me.”

“I reached the point where I didn’t like watching the news because it was like I’d caused this event, though I knew I hadn’t.”

He goes to the Lutheran church down the road where he’s a lay preacher, just as his late dad, Thembinkosi, was.

He also chairs the parish council and sits on the circuit committee. His mother, Frida, was a nurse for 38 years at a local hospital and his dad was a teacher.

“I can say my family was lucky. We were not a poor family – not rich, but almost well off in the area.”

He and his brothers did all the chores in the home and cooking was his favourite. When he stayed in Cape Town with his son during Siyabonga’s student years they’d take turns in the kitchen.

“When it was my turn to cook he’d do the dishes and vice versa,” says Nhlanhla , who also often does his own laundry.

“Sometimes if my wife’s busy I’ll iron my clothes and she’ll complain and say, ‘I was going to do that for you.’ And I’m like, ‘Don’t spoil me because you’re not always around to do it’.”

There’s a punching bag, an exercise bike and a set of weights on the patio of Nhlanhla’s home – which bear testament to how he lost 15 kg in 10 months.

He exercises every morning and jogs to the family farm a few kilometres from their home in Kranskop.

His heart lies in farming now, he says, his eyes lighting up at the subject. He and his wife keep chickens, ducks, pigs, and a small herd of cattle, and they grow cabbages, spinach and mealies which they supply to local shops.

“The other day I’d forgotten that my wife is the boss and I said, ‘You’re making it a habit of coming to work late.’ And she looked at me with the expression that says, ‘You know who the boss is’.”

Neither of them is very experienced at farming, he admits, and they’re learning as they go along.

“I’m approaching retirement age and would like to retire to do some serious farming. It’s therapeutic, especially the relationship with animals. It’s a Godgiven thing.” He treats the chickens like his children.

“You don’t expose them to excessive heat or cold, just like babies. They’ll die if you do.”

The country may be going through economic and political turmoil, but he believes there’s reason to be optimistic – we just have to be patient. In the meantime it’s time we all become proactive.

“When the economy is struggling you must ask yourself what role you can play. “Citizens must adopt the culture of sustaining themselves. There are times when everything on the table here at home came from the farm – juice, greens, meat and eggs . . . everything except the salt.”

South Africans also need to adopt a culture of saving, and sharing resources. “You don’t need lots of money to be compassionate.”

As we’re leaving, we run into a group of Nhlanhla ’s neighbours with a sheep they brought to say thank you to the Nenes for lending them a car while their vehicle was in for repairs.

“I have a simple philosophy in life: be content with what God has given you at any given time. And when you’re given a job you must give it your all, but don’t claim any entitlement.” He hasn’t spoken to the president since he was fired, he adds.

“Even when I was a minister I only got calls from him when there was need.” And if the phone did ring and it was the president offering him another ministerial role? He can’t say what he’d do, he replies.

“In life they say never say never. If you’re still a member of an organisation [the ANC] and it’s about serving the people more than your organisation, if you say no, who’s going to do it?”

But for now he’s living a tranquil life and he has no regrets. “I wouldn’t change a thing,” he says. “But of course there’s always room for improvement.”

Photos: Brian Spurr Photography, Gallo Images/Afp/Getty Images/Mujahid Safodien/Waldo Swiegers, Supplied

Read more on:    cyril ramaphosa  |  nhlanhla nene  |  finance minister

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