The Underdog

Every dog has his day. So too the underdog. And its day may be done. You’d be hard-pressed to find the underdog in the empty national stadiums watched either by people worried their season ticket was an ‘I-told-you-it’s-a-waste-of-money’ prediction come true or corporate guests who can’t tell the difference between a drum majorette’s bum and a rugby ball; you might just possibly have a sniff of the underdog in school teams on a cold Saturday morning with the mothers screaming like butcher dogs in heat and the fathers trying not to cry behind their Oakley’s.


Like most the myths that shape our lives, the underdog has been impounded by Hollywood, nabbed while limping home from a good thrashing, filling the air with the bark of ‘If we’d just run that line and if we’d had just kicked that touch and if we’d just fielded that sitter…’. The underdog is now an endangered cock-and-bone nameless stray condemned to exist triumphant only in the silver slippery world of cinema.

Blame it on television and sloppy sponsorship and gambling-addicted fanatics with access to too many cell phones. Blame it on the Me Decades of the ‘70s and ‘80s; blame the swamp-slurping Goldman Sachs muppets of the 21st Century. Blame bloated sports administrators who can describe every business class lounge in every city that has a stadium but couldn’t tell you the captain’s name of their national team. Blame your spouse. Blame the cat. Blame the referee.

But don’t blame the athletes.

Sir Sebastian Coe, one of the members of that all male club of sub-four minute milers (the women’s record is still 12 seconds off from a sub-four), told journalist Gary Smith that the members had ‘bond among us…which Lady Macbeth describes as a sickness: ambition and the pursuit of excellence’. That’s the true definition of an athlete.

The founding member of the club Sir Roger Bannister said, ‘I think the four-minute mile has been overrated. After all, it’s only a time. The essence of athletics is racing against an opponent rather than a clock.’ He was right: 46 days later, the Australian, John Landy joined the club, besting Bannister’s time by one second.

Bannister was not an underdog when he broke the four-minute mile barrier in May 1954. He was a determined athlete—and a medical doctor—who trained a paltry three times a week but he knew what the human body was capable of and he knew what he could achieve. Three months later, at the 1954 Commonwealth Games, he was the underdog when he finally ran against John Landy in what the media billed as ‘the miracle mile’. It was the first time they’d met on the track. Landy led from the start only to be passed by Bannister in the final straight.

But being an underdog does not mean winning against a supposedly superior foe. That happens all the time. The allure of underdog, the thing that elicits a primordial growling and rumbling, that distant howl resonating with recognition and redemption, the thing for which myths are made rests on a single premise: honour.

We don’t just want our underdog to win. We don’t even care if they don’t win. Sure, we want them to win—but only with honour. That’s why there are no underdogs in top league football: you’ve just got crap teams and good teams. Occasionally a crap team will win and the usual shit will be thrown around about referees and diving and other matters of foul play. Or some one will get fired and some one bought and another sold.

Boxing? All boxers are underdogs so they don’t figure. Boxing’s a bewitching sport made mad, however, by men of feral cunning and rapine viciousness who never enter the ring except to hoist their boxer aloft in victory or haul him off the canvass in defeat. The only time anyone vaguely resembling an underdog got into a real boxing match was when Jake La Motta whipped Sugar Ray Leonard in their second meeting. But La Motta was not a honourable man: a great fighter but not an underdog. Martin Scorsese and Robert de Niro portrayed that perfectly in Raging Bull. As the critic Pauline Kael said, Jake was a champ and a bum.

Cricket? Ever since Hansie Cronje praised the Lord, passed the ball and opened another Caribbean bank account, it’s been hard to watch any ‘underdog’ team triumph and not shudder, and feel the faint lick of some venal lounge lizard’s tongue tickling your neck.

Horse racing has the outsider—not to be confused with the underdog. The outsider is usually a horse with an iffy pedigree and, according to the New York Times study on horse racing in the United States, trainers that pump the horses full of ‘chemicals that bulk up pigs and cattle before slaughter, cobra venom, Viagra, blood-doping agents, stimulants and cancer drugs’. And that’s just for the training sessions. No need to mention the owners or the anorexic, drug-fuelled jockeys.

The great and true stories of boxing and horseracing were the first to be ensnared by Hollywood, from Raging Bull to Seabiscuit. And to be fair, Seabiscuit was a true underdog, in every way. But, as the poet said, that was in another country, and besides the horse is dead. But Hollywood did what it does best and re-mythologised the underdog in Rocky, Million Dollar Baby and National Velvet. And if the movie ratings are to be believed, they will continue to do so.

Rugby. Now, that has all the ritual and reverence, all the fanaticism and murky fury and clarity required of myth. Rugby fans proudly support the underdog—there’s no room to mention that the underdog is perhaps now no more than a mangy mutt barking in the darker recesses of their brain.

They will tell you proudly and loudly that topdogs such as the Stormers pay their scrumhalf the equivalent of the ‘entire salary of the Cheetahs team’. They will tell you that the Cheetahs’ players turn up ‘110%’ for every game (maths not being a requirement for underdog believers). They will cheer for Argentina’s Pumas. They will tell you, as if speaking of their school mates, that the Pumas are a bunch of electricians, motor mechanics and café owners that get together after work, buy their own kit, pay their own airfares and play bruising, ‘real’ rugby.

The underdog believer yelled with delight at the Italian Azzurri, even before Nick Mallet made them into a team. When the Azzurri beat France by one point in the 2011 Six Nations —the first time in 31 encounters—their supporters told the les bleus fans that if they wanted to run with the underdogs they’d have to lift their legs high.

There’s a bone always gnawed over during this tail wagging: filthy lucre. The dog in the litter always picked up, the runt, is the one that can’t be sold. The one that can’t be bought. It’s not part of the mythology that the athlete born with a silver Nike on his foot can be the underdog. The underdog is one of us, the kid who struggles to make the U13 team, the adolescent hungering to run on with the First XV, the young man dreaming of donning his country’s colours.

But way back in the ‘80s high schools in the US sports management types started their culling. Kids were getting the message: if you don’t have megabuck potential, don’t even try out for the college team. Sport was no longer an extra-curricular activity: it was a career choice. The talented and goofy guys, who may have made sport fun to watch, went skateboarding or surfing or created digital games (where they always won). That’s a short way off from happening in South Africa. (I know, it’s not happening at your child’s school, and neither are the first team taking steroids.)

And so we follow the money trail and it leads back to… television. As Roone Arledge, who when he ran American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Sports in the ‘70s, told US Sports Illustrated’s Steve Rushin in 1995, ‘everything is magnified by television’. He would know. He’s the man who stuck a microphone in a dead zebra so viewers could hear what it sounded like being chomped by a lion. He’s the man who pioneered the instant replay in the ‘60s—and television sport was never the same again.

With that television magnification came the munificence of advertising. Wodges of splonga. When ABC bought the rights to broadcast the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, it cost $3-million. Eight years later the 1976 Montreal Olympics cost R25-million. The same escalation was happening in professional sport, as players became commodities to be bartered and exchanged, usually for huge sums of money. Teams became franchises with more marketing and branding staff on the team than players.

And we sucked it up. We installed DStv, not for the educational channels for our kids to watch, but for the six or seven or nine channels of 24-hour sport. Re-runs. Hand-held videos of unintelligible fishing competitions filmed on drab grey dam water with incoherent commentators. Black and white documentaries of boxing tournaments in dodgy halls between equally dubious fighters. Golfing play-0ffs at three a.m. in the morning. Mind-numbing views through camcorders mounted on ugly, shiny insect-like vehicles showing the backside of a similar vehicle travelling at 300kmph down a swath of asphalt.

And, of course, football and rugby and cricket. TV gives us a chance to watch the underdog, without having really to support him—like buying a ticket and showing up at the game. This is where myth was deflected, overtaken and even altered. In what some one once called ‘the boom bard bombardment board’ — television. With it, the original myth was fractured.

Consider the Cheetahs of the Free State Rugby Union—excuse me, the ‘Toyota’ Cheetahs. In the heart and bones of its supporters there is no more magnificent team. This is the underdog who not only is triumphant but whose triumph—and defeat—is cloaked with honour, whose players are the archetype honourable warriors. These are local boys made good. Who cares that Ashley Johnson comes from Wynberg or that Kabamba Floors is from Oudsthoorn. To the underdog believer, they are of the same ilk as Heinrich Brussouw and Adriaan Strauss. The Cheetahs don’t have draw-card foreign players past their sell-by date. Some may say they simply can’t afford them. Others will say that’s not their game. But as the song goes, ‘the truth bites and stings’ and both sides will come out bleeding and itchy.

That’s what happened to supporters watching the Cheetahs—the underdogs—in their SuperRugby 15 game against the Crusaders on Saturday. With a weak front row, the Cheetahs scrum was crushed. It was not a pretty sight for those of us who still refer to Os du Randt as ‘Sir’—and those less impressed call ‘god’. The Free State breeds props as easily as it grows mielies so what was happening? Coach Naka Drotske was obviously equally crushed.

Then it was down to uncontested scrums as all of the Cheetahs front-row forwards proved crock. We are 63 minutes into the game and the Crusaders are leading 21-11. Within 12 minutes the scores are even, and there’s less than five minutes to go. The Crusaders rampage like—well, like Crusaders—but the Cheetahs snarl and scramble and keep them out. Then the line breaks and Israel Dagg crosses over for a try and Taylor slots it to make the final score 28-21. The underdogs were bruised but proud. Bliksem, even the Kiwi commentators couldn’t hold back the praise bites.

But something was licking at the back of my neck. The uncontested scrums had definitely helped the Cheetahs. Was it a tactical move? And if so, so what? There is talk of dropping one of the South African SuperRugby teams to make way for the new franchise, the Southern Kings, in 2013. With that hanging over your head, any South African team—meaning the Lions or the Cheetahs—would do what it could to make sure it’s not left holding the wooden spoon—and an empty purse—at the end of this season.

But if it was tactical, the Cheetahs are no longer our underdog. They are mere pack dogs hounded by Mammon to tow the line. A management decision like this would besmirch even the colossus Os du Randt, the last of the South African players who started his career as an amateur and ended it in the professional era: an honourable and good man.

We need our mythologies—the underdog—in our life to lure us closer into the pool of understanding that leaves us sated by the ‘pursuit of perfection’ embodied in 80 minutes of methodical savagery and physical virtuosity; or in a one-mile long three minutes and 59 second of oxygen-depleting epiphany. We need our underdogs because without them we can no longer keep our head above water in the swamp pool of social constructs, ritual and regulation, taboo and transgression through which we sink or swim. And then get up and go to work every day.

After watching re-runs of that game and talking to a few trusted rugby observers, the Cheetahs are still the underdog, the beast that we cradle in our belly.  But the decision made in the last quarter of the Cheetahs vs. Crusaders game may be a faint hint of Gabriel’s hounds howling, warning us of the imminent death of the underdog, and that desolate moment when myth becomes nostalgia.

[This first appeared in Sports Illustrated August 2012]


When rulers replace leaders.

Who Rules South Africa?

By Martin Plaut and Paul Holden (Published by Jonathan Ball)

If you wrote a book called, Who Rules the USA? the clamour of conspiracy theorists from David Icke’s collection of lounge lizards to the Twitters of the  #Elvisisinthesupermarket followers would be deafening. The book would be a best seller but no one would take it seriously, let alone read it.

But Who Rules South Africa? is taken seriously and read in South Africa. South African-born, Martin Plaut was an advisor on Africa and the Middle 
East to the British Labour Party from1978 to1984 (spanning the James Callaghan and Michael Foot years) after which he joined the BBC, working primarily on Africa. He was an Associate Fellow of the Royal Institute of 
International Affairs, leading their Africa research programme and continues
 to be an active member. He is
 currently Africa Editor, BBC World Service News and has written, co-written and/or edited seven books. Paul Holden, a South African, is the author of two other books, both dealing with what has become known as ‘the arms deal’: The Arms Deal in your Pocket and The Devil in the Detail.

Conspiracy theories do dribble through this deeply researched book. But at the end of the last page you are faced with some glaring truths. (One of which is that since 1948 South Africans have been ruled by a one-party state with ’democratic trimmings’.)

The simplistic answer to who rules is, of course, the African National Congress (ANC). For the ANC—the ostensible ruler of the country—the state train, however, is beginning to pop a few rivets and may be close to derailment. The tripartite alliance of the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu)—the real rulers—are no longer on the same train, let alone the same track.

Plaut and Holden claim the alliance was never really in agreement and was simply bundled onto the same goods wagon by the ANC in exile with no written agreement, no constitution, no minuted meetings and no public accountability. It still operates in this clandestine manner.

Part of the problem in fathoming who runs the country goes back to black economic empowerment (BEE), the murky unstable structures of which are beginning to teeter. They quote businessman Moeletsi Mbeki who derides BEE as a plan by the white economic ‘oligarchs’ to ‘co-opt leaders of the black resistance movement by literally buying them off’. And it seems to have succeeded. By August 2011, ‘about three quarters of Cabinet’s 35 members were found to have financial interests outside their main occupations…’ as did ‘59% of the country’s 400 members of parliament’.

Some say the increasing middle class will stabilise the government and thus play an important role in who rules. Transformation in the public service has been the primary driver of black middle-class growth and continues to do so. The middle class comprises just under 10-million people, of which 50% are black Africans. But the abrogation of power by the middle class—both black and white—means it has become docile.

A 2007 Public Services Commission report on the indebtedness of public servants found that 20% of all public servants had been served with garnishee orders (instituted when a person defaults on a credit repayment which is then serviced by a third party, in this case the State). Business Day columnist Mzukisi Qobo says the complacency of the black middle class is result of the economic security: holding a professional job and having a regular income.

He says, however, the white middle class think it is the job of the black middle class to challenge the government. This, he says, is ‘a convenient escape from individual responsibility to whiteness as a de-legitimated category that can exist politically only as a victim of the black-led ruling party’.

The SACP and Cosatu are challenging the rapaciousness of the BEE elite and the ANC’s ‘cadre deployment’ in key government and economic sectors, stirred by their members call for service delivery. It is feasible these two could form their own opposition party and vote the ANC out of power. But now, the voters—of whatever class—are not the rulers in South Africa, due partly to the mix of proportional representation and cadre deployment.

Plaut and Holden see it is a little more sinister. Zuma has created a cabal of BEE elites, a prejudiced intelligence service tracking political opponents, a compliant Judicial Services Commission and a corrupt police force working hand-in-glove with organised crime to maintain his position of power. He has been able to do this as ruler of the ANC—not as the country’s leader. Parliament and the Cabinet operate very much as does the Chinese National People’s Congress—to rubberstamp the decisions of the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) very much in the manner of the Chinese Politburo.

The influence of China on trade and policy decisions may well mean that the ANC may not respect the power of the ballot box should it lose the elections. And that’s when we’ll really know whether the ANC rules or leads the country.

This review was originally published in the Cape Times.

Chief Inefficiency Officer makes his mark.

Born into a distilling dynasty, Rob Samuels is the eighth generation to work in the family firm of Maker’s Mark.


Rob Samuels is trail-runner thin, with prominent cheek bones and a quick smile. In typical American fashion he wore chinos and a pale blue button-down shirt, tucked in when we met during the Whisky Live festival in 2010. Samuels is the President of Maker’s Mark Distillery, based outside Loretto, Kentucky, alongside a creek in the aptly named Happy Hollow.

Maker’s Mark is possibly the smallest bourbon distillery in the USA (though since 2005 it has been owned by Fortune Brands, the world’s fourth largest premium spirits company). And while the Samuels family have a long-history of bourbon making going back to their Scottish roots, Maker’s Mark is a relatively young brand. “The early American whiskeys – bourbons – were abrasive and harsh; stuff that would blow your ears off. Maker’s Mark was invented by my grandparents to appeal to consumers who didn’t like bourbon. We’ve even before Kentucky existed and trace our whisky making roots all the way back to Scotland where as early as 1530, the Samuels family were farmers in Scotland producing Scotch whisky. (Hence the spelling on Maker’s Mark is the Scotch spelling.) We, as a family, owned a distillery called TW Samuels, and we made a whisky for more than 120 years from a recipe that was passed down through generations.”

Meet the Family
The Samuels are steeped in bourbon and “wild west” folklore – one member of the family was the step-father of the notorious James brothers, Jesse and Frank. The Samu- els moved to America in 1680 and settled in Pennsylvania, where they farmed and made whisky. After the whisky rebellion Robert Samuels packed up and moved south to set- tle in Bourbon County, Virginia.

“He settled on a 1 000 acre (400 hectare) lot of land that was given to him. All he had to do was agree to grow corn and build a house. But, as with everything in life, nothing’s for free. There’s always strings attached. The strings attached to that land grant was that the people on this remote western edge of the county would fend off the Native Americans rolling in from the west.”

Bourbon County, Virginia, 10 years later in 1791 become Kentucky. TW Samuels built the family’s first commercial distillery in 1840. By then there were more than 200 commercial distillers in Kentucky, and really all of those produced equally horrible whiskey. As Samuels said: “With all the early American whiskies, the market was the cowboy. It was a harsh life and the whiskies reflected that harsh life. Our family whisky was no worse than all the others but it was still a thriving business.”

Ironically, the taste of Maker’s Mark was developed by Samuels’ grandfather, Bill – the man who sold the 120-year-old family-run business. He decided he wanted to be a banker. “Bill didn’t sell the TW Samuels distillery because he was rude or disrespectful towards his family. He simply did not have a passion for it.” Nor did he have an aptitude for banking. Samuels reckons his grandfather’s bank is the only one in the history of the US to open and close within 60 days. He fared no better when he went into the automobile business: it lasted six months before it went bust.

“All the distilling families in Kentucky are really famous for their incompetence at everything else. There are numerous stories of distillers going off and trying something else and failing miserably and my grandfather was no exception. It was my grandmother who, after having watched him fail at his bank and fail at his auto dealership, encouraged him to get back into distilling.”

Grandmother Marge Samuels was smart; the first woman ever to graduate from the University of Louisville engineering school – and first in class too. She met Bill Samuels Snr., also an engineering major: he graduated at the bottom. “Whenever they had a disagreement –not very often – she’d subtly remind him who graduated first in the class…,” says Samuels.

Back in business
But Bill Samuels said if he was going to get back into the whisky business it would be on his terms. “This meant he was not inter- ested in quantity; he was going to focus on quality. He was going to try for the very first time to bring together bourbon and good taste. Within the laws of making bourbon he’d break down each step of the process and spare no expense to craft a bourbon by hand that would get rid of that abrasive bit- terness of traditional American whiskey.”

In 1953, Bill and Marge Samuels bought a 640 acre (258 hectares) site in the rolling hills of Kentucky alongside a 15 acre spring- fed lake and set out to “chase his dream”. It is still the only distillery in America that has never utilised city or county water at any stage of the bourbon making process. Marge Samuels supervised the layout and design.

“I really marvel at two things: the first being was it even possible to make bourbon that tasted good, because no distillery had ever attempted to make bourbon with a fine taste profile – a premium-tasting, premium- positioned, hand-made bourbon? And, second, if it was possible, would consumers ever give a damn?”

But Bill Samuels was not a business man, he was a craftsman. “His measure of success was to make a bourbon he’d be proud to share with his friends. Maybe, one day, it would be celebrated in the nicest restaurants in the big cities in the South and the rest of the US.”

Bill Samuels started out making 19 barrels a day, and to this day, the batch size remains 19 barrels. By comparison, the average distillery in Kentucky produces over 250 barrels per batch and will make several batches per day. But the real change that Bill Samuels made was in the use of grains. All bourbons use three grains but must contain a minimum of 51% corn (maize). Traditionally, the two other grains are malt and rye. Rye is the flavouring grain that American distillers use and is what gives bourbon its abrasive taste characteristic.

“What my Marge and Bill did, in their family home, was they baked loaves of bread and experimented with potential flavouring grains. The decided that in place of rye they were going to use a soft red winter wheat, whole flavoured and balanced. But there is no bitterness.”

Maker’s Mark does not use any genetically modified grain – and never have – and all the grains are sourced within 100 miles, except the malt which comes from the Dakotas. Maker’s Mark is 70% corn, 16% red winter wheat and 14% malt. Samuels says that for the past three or four decades they have bought all their red winter wheat from a group of nuns in Loretto – the Sisters of Loretto – and apparently pay them in whisky.

The other big change Bill Samuels instituted was to cook his bourbon slowly and not pressure cook it. “When I say Maker’s Mark is hand-made, I mean it’s people who make Maker’s Mark. Even today, in the age of technology, there is no computer in our distillery. We’re the smallest distillery in America and we’re the only distillery that makes only one brand and we have more employees than any other distillery in Kentucky,” says Samuels. When he was appointed Chief Operating Officer, he promptly changed the title to Chief Inefficiency Officer. “My job is to make sure we don’t become efficient and we are the most inefficient distillery in the world.”

Distillers in Kentucky all build warehouses in a similar manner: six stories high, built on the side of a hill to get direct sunlight and to trap heat and humidity so there’s very little ventilation. Each batch size of 19 barrels starts on either the fifth or sixth floor which is where the intense ageing occurs because the heat rises. Samuels said one year of ageing in Kentucky “is the equivalent of four years ageing in Scotland. After two summers, they move those 19 barrels to the middle floors of the warehouse and then after a farther two summers, move them to the bottom. Samuels says Maker’s Mark is “the only distillery in the world that rotates barrels”.

The distinctive Maker’s Mark bottle (based on early cognac bottles), the name and the red wax seal were all products of Marge Samuels’ creative mind. “Because my grandfather was a craftsman — who leave their mark — she said he should call it Maker’s Mark. Each bottle is hand sealed by one of 10 women (who do almost a dozen bottles a minute).”

Samuel spent his summers as a child working in the distillery. “I am the eighth generation in whisky,” he says proudly. “And I always had respect for that, proud of my grandfather and proud of my father for not wavering. I never wanted my father to feel he had to hire his son so I spent 10 years doing other stuff in the industry. My goal was to get him to invite me back.”

He did so in 1996. And as bourbon began to look up, he started to look for new markets. South Africa is one of 12 countries where Maker’s Mark is available. His strategy is the same in each country: bottle by bottle. “This is not a brand you build over night. My grandfather did not like traditional marketing. Slapping the consumer on the rear end with a big message was not his style. We want to talk to consumers as friends and only if they’re interested. Once they are, we’ll share the heart and soul of what we do.”

Samuel drinks Maker’s Mark as a double over ice. “My grandmother liked it with a splash of ginger ale, but either way it has a unique, taste flavour.”

Insinuendo: on words

The last tycoon

In mid-1860, a party of 72 Japanese “ambassadors” arrived in New York to observe on behalf of their Shogun (Emperor) the American way of life. In November of that year, Abraham Lincoln won a landslide presidential election. Lincoln was nicknamed “Tycoon” by his closest aides, a word wrought from the visiting men in inscrutable silks who described their Shogun as a “taikun” — meaning “great lord”. Lincoln’s men used it to describe not just their President’s great wisdom but his inscrutability — considered even then a particular Asian characteristic.

Six months later, America tore itself apart in a four-year long civil war that killed 620 000 soldiers and countless civilians.

The word has an earlier usage in English. In 1857, Townsend Harris, the first American Consul-General in Japan wrote in his diary that the correct term for “Shogun” — spelt by him as “Ziogoon” — was “taikun”.

It was not until 1926 that it was used to describe a “businessman of exceptional wealth, power and influence” when the London Times referred to the rags-to-riches businessman and one-time barber Fred W Fitch as a “rich hair-tonic tycoon”. Fitch was exceptionally wealthy and hugely influential. He helped found the Des Moines College of Pharmacy and in 1949 donated $100 000 (approximately $1-m in today’s value) to Drake University to construct the Fitch Hall of Pharmacy. Significantly, Fitch started small and grew big.

From then on the word “tycoon” went on to lose much of its profane greatness. It soared to some height with the publication in 1941 of Scott Fitzgerald’s posthumous novel, The Last Tycoon. And then, a few years later, in 1947, Quant, a character in WH Auden’s poem, ‘The Age of Anxiety’, spoke of “With diamonds to offer/A cleaned tycoon in a cooled office…”.

But few people seem to read either Fitzgerald or Auden these days, which may explain why the word has lost most, if not all, vestige of significance. It’s become as popular as a headliner in our tabloids and even some broadsheet papers. There was a period during prohibition in the USA when it was occassionally used to describe the godfathers of organised crime, but in the main, along with mogul (another imported word) and magnate (from the Latin “great”), it correctly referred to enormously successful businesspeople.

Some months ago, a Sunday paper referred to convicted fraudster Kenny Kunene as a “tycoon”. Rather like describing a pimp as a gynaecologist. A tycoon, as the 1926 citation shows, referred to people who, like Fitch or Cornelius Vanderbilt, turned “small businesses into gigantic ones”. Kunene, along with a convicted bank robber, Gayton Mckenzie, took control of Johannesburg-listed Central Rand Gold in 2010. (“How?” is another story.) Within a few years he had reduced it to nothing. When the company listed, it sold 58-million shares at a price of £1.25 The number of shares has risen to 1.6-billion, “ranking the stock as one of the most dilutive in modern global history”, as one commentator put it. At just over a penny a share, this represents a loss of 99% for the initial investors. Apparently, CRG’s mining activities have stopped.

Kunene is best (meaning politely) described as a philoplutary — a lover of wealth — not a tycoon — a creator of wealth.

Who are we talking about here?

This is from a recently published online magazine. And I bet you know who it’s talking about.

“… [political] parties had gone from being vehicles of popular sentiment, to “machines of power and clientelism” which colonised the state. Ten years later, the XXX’s scandal hit. Today, its descendant … reveals an even more pervasive and toxic mix of corruption spanning politicians, businesses and organised crime. It is this particular mix, this system of power, which keeps XXXX afloat, above and beyond any popular political consensus he may have. This system relies on clientelistic – often nepotistic – ways of managing public affairs combined with electoral legislation which makes it practically impossible for citizens to vote leaders out of office. XXXX is the archetypical expression of this system: …  he is not just a political leader, but is independently capable of conferring patronage…. The XXXXXXXXX magazine recently labelled XXXX a “plutocrat.”

Renewable leadership: A partnership of passion for the environment

Climate change, global warming, fossil fuels peaking, world water wars and the host of other issues that confront us – not only globally , but right in our backyard – necessitate that we start doing things differently if we are to sustain our life on the planet. Two activists, Lewis Pugh and Jonathan Deal, are forging a new management dynamic: renewable leadership.

Toward the end of his autobiography Achieving the Impossible, lewis Pugh says: “There’s a perfect speed for hostile water, and you’ve got to find it.” He was describing the waters of the Magdalenefjord in Norway , where he had gone in preparation for his first swim within the Arctic Circle, which took place at Vergelegenhuken.

The temperature was below 4°C; and after the 21-minute swim, his core body temperature had dropped to 35°C — the point at which hypothermia sets in. Some years later, in 2007, Pugh would use this strategy when he actually swam in the Arctic Ocean — known as the Black ocean — a mass of water some four kilometres deep and with a surface temperature in summer of minus 1.7°C. Pretty hostile.

He swam one kilometre in this water, wearing only a speedo, goggles and a swimming cap. He did it in 18 minutes and 50 seconds. He wrote about that moment: “What I feel is not victory nor vindication, but the sense of having survived.”

Pugh is trained for survival; and that is not simply because he was a corporate lawyer at the shark-infested Bar of London. Of the 200 applicants who entered with him on the gruelling, drawn-out ordeal of training to become a member of the United Kingdom’s elite Special Air Service (SAS), only he and two others received the coveted beret. When he left the SAS, he admits he wept on the train ride back home.

Law did not appeal to Pugh, and soon he was hankering for something else. When his six-month contract with the law firm he had joined after leaving the military expired, he decided it was time to do something different. As he says: “You don’t see many statues of corporate lawyers.”

He had wanted to be a champion long-distance swimmer. But a chance meeting with Clare Kerr of the world wide Fund for nature put his swimming in perspective: he was swimming in places where he should not have been able to because of climate change. The world was warming up, and unless we changed our way of managing our resources and our lifestyles, we would not survive.

“I swam in the Arctic Ocean — not because I am brave or foolhardy or a show-off. I swam because I should not have been able to do so,” Pugh says. “Global warming is a reality: the Arctic ice cap is melting; I swam in the glacial lakes of the Himalayas beneath Mount Everest, knowing that it should have been solid ice; I have seen the Maldives gradually being submerged by the rising waters of global warming.”

He became an environmental activist.

When Pugh heard that oil and gas companies planned to use hydraulic fracturing (see box below) to prospect for shale gas in the Karoo, he made a quick decision: he would get involved. he could connect the dots between the environmental damage it would cause (mainly contamination of the water aquifers), the resultant social conflict and the impact on climate change (the pursuit of more fossil fuels).

Pugh is decisive — and believes it to be a crucial trait in leadership — but his years in the SAS have taught him that planning, preparation and alternative plans are as critical. So he immediately contacted Jonathan Deal.

Deal grew up in rural honeydew, “running in the bush, catching snakes and riding horses”. He now owns Gecko Rock Private Nature Reserve in the Karoo, a 4 000-hectare eco-destination that offers a range of activities that are environmentally friendly and educational. Deal says he bought the farm in 2000 when he decided the corporate world no longer interested him — he ran a physical risk management consultancy — but the natural world did.

He is the co-ordinator of the Treasure the Karoo action Group (TKaG) – the reason he was the first person Lewis called when the latter decided to get involved. Deal remembers that first conversation. When he answered the phone, this calm, authoritative voice said: “Hello, Jonathan. This is Lewis.”

His response was: “Lewis who?” and the answer made him take a breath: “Lewis Pugh,” said the voice. And, as Deal says, “That was that.”

Pugh offered to help in any way he could. “We agreed to meet in Noordhoek for a sandwich the following Sunday. It was quite an occasion for me,” says Deal. “I was amazed at how easy-going he was and I also thought he’d be a lot younger. We clicked immediately.”

That same day, Pugh, the strategist, started marshalling ‘the troops’. He called around and got the name of a public relations firm, HWB Communications, and set up a meeting for the next morning at 8:30 a.m.

One can tell much about the way people handle their first meeting: not only had Pugh and Deal just met, they were now in a business meeting with a group of strangers, and presenting a common face. Deal is reserved, soft-spoken — almost laconic — and observant. Pugh is a presence, immeasurably polite, attentive and forceful. Both have reservoirs of intelligence upon which to draw.

Within the first few minutes of introductions, Pugh had stated his needs, his objective and his commitment. He talks strategy in military terms: he began this first meeting by repeating some words of advice given him by his commander on his first assignment in Iraq – “when you get into an encounter, the way you use your first magazine will determine whether you live or die.”

While the table was digesting that, deal started to ask questions. This pattern is reflective of their leadership style. Pugh often gets to his feet and paces the room during meetings. It is not a sign of impatience: it is more like a way of exorcising the need to stop the talk and simply ‘do something’. But he is too clever and too well-trained to do that. Deal makes notes and asks who is going to do what. They prepare, and act.

Both admit they still know very little about each other’s private- and business lives, but share a passion to stop further environmental degradation of the planet. Deal says they work well together, simply because they each have “a single-minded determination to achieve the same goals.”

Pugh agrees: “We know little about each other, outside of the work we are doing to stop fracking in the Karoo. But we have had to collaborate to win.” Deal has immersed himself in the technicalities and science of hydraulic fracturing. Pugh works the big-picture strategy through the media, legal and environmental angles.

Deal makes himself available for interviews, fighting every daily skirmish on the ground. Pugh uses his global influence and connections to find out what is happening in Europe and the United States; Deal works with local advertising schools to get the youth involved. Pugh asks how we can win the battle for the hearts and minds of the South African people; Deal attends the hearings in the Karoo. Pugh evokes an African vision, a commitment to our Constitution; while Deal works to grow the circle of supporters.
Pugh once said that he “always believed that there is nothing more powerful than a made up mind.” But he equally believes there is nothing more fragile than a made up mind. By this he means that in order to survive, you need to have the courage to make a “radical tactical shift”. We have relied on — and believed in — fossil fuels for so long, we need to make that radical tactical shift if we are to start thinking seriously about renewable energy.

Their collaborative leadership commitment is backed by their wallets: both have put large amounts of money into the campaign, and even more time. The leadership position taken by Pugh and Deal was never questioned or even discussed between them. Deal puts the collaboration down to an “almost instinctive” feel. “I know when to defer to him and he knows when to defer to me. It never gets to the point where there is conflict,” he says. “There’s no game plan — it’s just a wonderful working relationship.”

Pugh agrees. He says the battle for a good, clean and fair environment is the next logical step of the civil rights movement. “We fought for liberty — and won; we fought for equality — and won. Now we need to fight for our survival as a species.”

It is this environmental commitment that unites them, this willingness to look beyond the immediate solution of relying on yet more fossil fuel. What they want to see is a sustainable future based on renewable energy supplies.

“There is a tremendous amount of mutual respect,” says Pugh, but adds that there is very little “waffle”. They are decisive and move quickly, and are willing to delegate so that others within the campaign are never left waiting to act.
Deal says they talk every day on the phone, and willingly admits that he relies much on their friendship. “We talk about our frustrations and moments of despair,” he says “It’s not a macho, tough-guy relationship.”

Pugh concurs: “I am there to support him when he is shattered, and he’s there for me. What is most significant about this collaborative leadership is that it is renewable. First, because they are able to work within their areas of expertise without friction; secondly, because they use their bond of friendship to offload outside the core business concerns; and thirdly, because they are willing to incorporate and include others to participate actively within the campaign.

They are, in short, the civil rights leaders of the 21st century.

Fracking what?

The oil and gas companies, including Royal Dutch Shell, use a controversial modern drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing (fracking), properly termed “high-volume slick-water horizontal hydraulic fracturing”. This process did not exist prior to a decade ago, having been developed by Halliburton after the year 2000. A drill is sunk through the water table and down into the shale rock and then horizontally into the shale (previous hydraulic fracturing relied only on vertical drilling). Millions of litres of water, mixed with a toxic compound of chemicals, is forced down the hole and the pressure fractures the shale, releasing the trapped gas. More than 30% to 40% of the chemical-laden water mix remains below the surface. The rest is pumped out and has to be disposed of as hazardous waste. Fracking will deplete the scarce water resources of the Karoo and may lead to contamination of the groundwater table.

[This story first appeared in Leadership magazine in June 2011.]

Land restitution, small holder farming and food security

Land reform, land restitution and food soverienity dominate the headlines. Land restitution has been given political priority over agricultural production. The challenge of land reform is how to speed up the transfer of land and encourage and support productive use of the transferred land. There remain, however, a substantial number of citizens who go to bed hungry every night. Food security is not just about prducing enough but also about distributing it efficiently. The following links are to The Daily Maverick in which these three issues — land restitution, small holder farming and food security — appeared. Shorter versions of the features also appeared in Business Day.

This series of three articles was made possible by an Open Society Foundation for South Africa Media Fellowship.