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Billionaire Patrice Motsepe Joins Club of African Philanthropists

South African businessman and billionaire Patrice Motsepe pictured on May 07, 2008.
Africa has numerous examples of economic dynasties: the relatives of well connected political and business leaders who have amassed incredible wealth in dubious ways.

But that’s not how the story has ended for everyone.

Take, for example, South African billionaire Patrice Motsepe. Earlier this year, Motsepe who made waves when he pledged to give half of his money to his foundation that helps poor and needy South Africans.

By doing so, Motsepe assured his family name would be forever associated with his deeds, not just his wealth. That makes him a part of a growing club of elite African families who have it all -- and are sharing it.

Motsepe is South Africa’s richest black man. He made his billions through a series of shrewd investments in the mining sector and was helped by South Africa’s post-apartheid business policies that encouraged black-owned business.

Humble beginnings

But he came from humbler origins. He said he was inspired by his experience working as a child at his parents’ grocery store and watching his mother give free groceries to poor customers. It’s that spirit that has motivated a growing number of wealthy African businessmen and women to open their pocketbooks.

Another African billionaire, Sudanese telecoms magnate Mo Ibrahim, started a foundation dedicated to improving governance in Africa. South African activist Jay Naidoo sits on the Mo Ibrahim Foundation board, and says Ibrahim’s decision changed the playbook for wealthy Africans.

Sudanese telecom magnate Mo Ibrahim speaks to the media at an event in London in 2008.
Sudanese telecom magnate Mo Ibrahim speaks to the media at an event in London in 2008.
“I think that Mo Ibrahim represents a new breed of African entrepreneurs because, historically, most of the wealthiest people on our continent have really just taken their wealth and established themselves in Europe or North America," said Naidoo.

"It was obligation and a responsibility as an African to put some of that wealth back into Africa."

Ibrahim’s efforts have improved Africa’s global perception, Naidoo added.

“The evidence is there that Mo has become a billionaire through doing business in the right way, and ensuring that he never, ever paid a bribe. And it sends a really good signal to anyone wanting to do business in Africa that Africa is open for business. It is the fastest growing market globally, and that we want ethical businesspeople, both African business and international business that invests in Africa. So, Mo has set a very important example, and it’s been followed in suit by other wealthy African businessmen and women," said Naidoo.

New trend

In 1936, Lt. Col. James Donaldson started the Donaldson Trust to protest South African legislation that denied blacks the right to vote. Today, the nearly $3 million trust is involved in many community projects.

Elizabeth Donaldson, his great-granddaughter, sits on the board, and says she sees a trend among wealthy men and women who give up their wealth. Her great-grandfather came to South Africa as a poor orphan before striking it rich in the mining sector. His wealth is largely inaccessible to his descendants - much of it was lost over successive generations, and the rest is sunk into the trust.

“And I think like many men who are self made, including Patrice Motsepe, they realize that money is not something that has any value as it collects in a bank," Donaldson said. "It only has value because it can allow somebody else, who like you, started at the bottom, to get that chance. And my great-grandfather the colonel was exactly that person. He was a little boy who was denied access, because he was not from the right class. And Patrice Motsepe spent his teenage years packing his dad’s stockroom in Mamelodi. And he has learned, I think, like many of those men, that unless you give something back, it almost has no value.”

But that philanthropy has cost the Donaldson family. The family’s opposition to the apartheid regime led to police surveillance, travel restrictions and harassment. But today, Elizabeth Donaldson believes that that experience has given the family something valuable.

“My children, like me, will not inherit money," she said. "If they want money, they will have to go and make it. And I hope that by the time they get there, they have an incredible love of Africa and what we really stand for. Not the excess, not the corruption, not the lack of understanding of what the person next to you needs. But a real understanding of our value and our contribution and what we owe Africa as successful happy people and products of that place.”

That, she said, is worth all the money in the world.