June 27, 2004

Robopaddy and the new Africa

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The picture on the front of Monday’s Cape Times, the biggest selling newspaper in Cape Town, said it all.
Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa, was surrounded by his top foreign wise men at a special summit designed to plot South Africa’s future over the next five years.

The president smiled at the lens, shoulder-to-shoulder with his closest confidants, the two Irishmen, Niall Fitzgerald, chairman of Unilever, and Tony O’Reilly.

Downtown, Irish property company Howard Holdings, led by Frank Gormley, unveiled the biggest development ever undertaken in central Cape Town.
The venture called Mandela Rhodes Place – to which Nelson Mandela personally lent his name – is causing great excitement in Cape Town, and the launch was hosted by an A-list of South African dignitaries, ranging from the minister for education to the prime minister of the Cape province.

That weekend, Howard Holdings sold close to 100 apartments off the plans (the entire opening launch),underscoring local financial interest in the scheme.

At the other end of the scale and further out of town, Irish businessman Niall Mellon continues to rebuild a township in Houte Bay, replacing the appalling shacks with concrete houses.

The Paddies have arrived in South Africa. We are fast becoming the most important foreign investors in the country, while exerting a disproportionate influence at the highest level in the ANC government.

Why now? And can a country where the disparities of wealth and opportunities are so stark ever be a stable long-term bet?

The Irish interest in South Africa and the South African interest in Ireland are fascinating examples of two apparently conflicting characteristics of the New Ireland. On the one hand, the South African, particularly ANC, fondness for Ireland seems to stem from our traditional portrayal of ourselves as victims.

It is arguable that in a sense the ANC likes us because of our impeccable post-colonial credentials. They empathise with our history and everything Ireland stood for from 1921 to 1990 – let us call it `Ireland of the struggles’.

Ireland of the struggles shook off imperialism, forcefully allied itself with the anti-apartheid movement, ploughed a non-aligned furrow and generally painted an unimpeachable right-on image for itself.

The financial counterpart of this was relative poverty and perennial economic underachievement that actually reinforced the overall package of post-colonial chic.

Exiled ANC leaders bought into this, and once in power were able to find more common ground with emissaries of Ireland than with almost any other whites.

Fraternal brotherhood may be good for sloganeering at conferences, but it doesn’t cement a proper relationship where both sides bring something unique to the table. What makes the difference today is the cash, ambition and chutzpah of the new Ireland.

Since 1990, and particularly since the late 1990s, the speculative wealth of the new Ireland largely built on property (here, then in Britain, and latterly on the continent) has given nice, funny, witty, decent, empathetic Paddy real commercial balls. Let’s call the new wedged-up global Irish investor Robopaddy.

Robopaddy is today moving around the globe, chasing yield, mainly in property. e has an unparalleled risk-taking appetite fuelled by 20 per cent plus leveraged returns on properties notched up in Ireland and various parts of Britain since 1996.

His exit strategy is simple – he buys, develops, builds and sells on to fledgling Robopaddies who are feeding further down the food chain.

The more ambitious Irish banks are financing Robopaddy, safe in the knowledge that he will sell on to younger, smaller Robopaddies whose mortgages will be secured against their smallish property portfolio in Dublin, Cork or Galway.

Therefore, global Robopaddy is aggressively entering far-flung markets on leverage secured on decent property here.

Robopaddy has one crucial characteristic distinguishing him from other, mainly English-speaking, white investors: he has empathy. He has the memory and the vocabulary of the Ireland of the struggles, the historic Ireland of the 1960s,1970s and 1980s.

In South Africa for example, he is the only big investor who will chat away to the black taxi driver. He feels uncomfortable when a black man addresses him as `boss’, and is probably more keenly aware of and sensitive to, the story of a downtrodden nation disenfranchised in its own land.

As such, Robopaddy is a formidable adversary, a valued adviser and a guaranteed player. This is his trump card.

Robopaddy has the gut feeling of the downtrodden, combined with the bank balance of the overlord. He is unique in the white financial world, and other investors should underestimate him at their peril.

This apparent contradiction explains his disproportionate success in South Africa. To the leftist ANC he is the acceptable postcolonial face of successful capitalism.

The question is whether South Africa is the right place to be investing. First impressions would argue for caution.

How can a country of close to 50million people where the life expectancy is barely over 40 postpone indefinitely a violent revolution of the poorest? How can the vested interests keep the lid on a place where the sprawling, filthy, festering townships are home to possibly 20 million people?

These questions are posed daily, yet the miracle is that so far South Africa has ploughed a centrist furrow, where the middle ground of the black middle class (estimated at 11million) and the whites (possibly five million) continues to hold sway.

Back in 1994, most commentators forecast a Bosnia-style ethnic war that would lead to the whites being kicked out. This has not happened, and although thousands of whites have left, in recent years the capital flight evident from 1995 to 2000 has reversed.

Most people put this benign outcome down to one man – Nelson Mandela, with his extraordinary charisma, wisdom and leadership. What happens when he dies? The apocalyptic voices say that the real deal only begins then. However, there is another, almost, supra-state possibility.

This scenario involves analysing a `country’ on the various societal levels on which it operates. South Africa is the classic example of parallel universes.

One universe is white, European in feel, reasonably well integrated, efficient and accountable to some rule of law. The other is desperately poor, black, isolated, and increasingly lawless.

Every so often both universes scrape up against each other, but by and large one needs the other. The European world needs the black labour and the black labour needs the European money.

The ANC realises this, and has positioned itself on an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary course. The road-map of gradual change has been punctuated by a series of national – typically sporting – celebrations such as the Rugby World Cup, the Cricket World Cup and the big one, the Football World Cup in 2010.

It is almost as if the ANC uses these events to bring the nation together with a potent cocktail of ambition and optimism. The golden rule appears to be `Look forward; never look back’.

In a sense, South Africa is simply a microcosm of the New World, where enormous wealth and desperate poverty coexist side-by-side. For South Africa think Brazil, or the continent of Europe versus the continent of Africa, or North America versus Latin America, or indeed Dalkey versus Darndale.  


  1. Paul Rux, Ph.D.

    David, I recall, when I was a student at Trinity College
    in Dublin, 1964-65, protests against the South African
    rugby team in Ireland. At the time, it had no persons of
    color on it.

    Also, I recall one of our debates at the College
    Historical Society was “This House Condemns South
    Africa.” The chair was Joe Slovo, leader of the South
    African Community Part, who was in exile in Ireland.

    A young man from Portage, Wisconsin, USA had no reason to
    know about South Africa. Slovo met with me personally for
    coffee to state his case. Since then, I have tracked with
    interest the turn of events in that country.

    I also recall a rally in the winter against Apartheid in
    one of the large meeting halls in central Dublin. Various
    intellectuals spoke their pieces.

    Somehow, a drunk got into the middle of the audience, and
    from time to time he would shout, “Have you ever been to
    Africa?”

    The ushers could not get to the drunk without trampling
    lots of people. Therefore, the heckler remained.
    Fortunately,he was too drunk to shout his question too
    often!

    I share this because Ireland and South Africa have been
    identified in my mind ever since then. It is an example
    of the association which you describe in your “Robo” piece.

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