Godfrey Marawanyika/Roadwin Chirara
A RACIST slur threatens to scupper a deal between Econet Wireless Global and Johannesburg Securities Exc
hange (JSE)-listed Allied Technologies (Altech) after a senior manager of Altech allegedly called blacks “kaffirs”.
The remark, which is documented in court papers, is now at the centre of a dispute that threatens the nine-month marriage between the two companies.
Econet founder Strive Masiyiwa has since said he would rather walk out of the US$70 million deal than save it, knowing that some senior executives have such a low opinion of black people.
Last year, the two companies entered a joint venture which resulted in Altech investing US$70 million in Econet Wireless Global.
Under the deal, Altech seconded Adrian “Wessie” van der Westhuizen as chief operating officer of the joint venture company.
Van der Westhuizen allegedly referred to black people as “kaffirs” in remarks during a conversation with another white Econet employee in the UK.
A report was made to Masiyiwa which led to the suspension of van der Westhuizen pending an independent inquiry into the matter.
One of the white executives at the meeting, Marko Signorini, challenged van der Westhuizen in an email, but he (van der Westhuizen) refused to apologise and instead made further derogatory remarks, referring to black people as “s*** feed”.
In his emailed response, van der Westhuizen claimed there was a different Afrikaans slang which has evolved that refers to “Ka-voer”.
He said: “I take note of your comment. For the record, just one correction. There is a different Afrikaans slang which has evolved that refers to Ka-voer, which is used in the context of uselessness and has nothing to do with race or ethnic differences.”
Van der Westhuizen’s suspension did not go down well with the founders of Altech, the Venter family, one of the wealthiest families in South Africa, who demanded that Masiyiwa reverse the decision since van der Westhuizen was their appointee.
Masiyiwa refused despite the threat of the Venters’ withdrawal of their investment.
Masiyiwa challenged them to take their money and proceeded with an inquiry led by a top black lawyer in terms of South Africa’s labour laws.
The Venters then applied to the Botswana High Court to wind up the joint venture perhaps hoping to scare Masiyiwa, but the latter refused to bow to pressure and instead went public releasing copies of the email correspondence which has created a furore in South Africa.
The joint venture between Econet and Altech, known as Econet Wireless Global, is a holding company for Econet operations in Botswana, Nigeria, New Zealand and the UK.
The deal does not involve other operations in countries like Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Kenya.
The Venters have said they will leave the joint venture if Masiyiwa pays them US$100 million for their 50% stake.
They are also prepared to pay Econet US$100 million for its 50% as an alternative, but Masiyiwa insists he is not a seller and will only pay them the US$70 million they brought into the joint venture.
Masiyiwa said two things had led to the break-up of their relationship with Altech.
The first was the issue in Nigeria involving Vodacom.
“Vodacom apparently approached Altech with a proposal, and I rejected their proposal to work with Vodacom,” he said. “Altech came to me with a proposal and I said I’m not interested.
“And so we had a good little row about it. But we thought, married couples do have rows – but my spouse in this particular business venture was embittered by that. And they were also upset about the fact that I suspended an employee that had been seconded to the company by them, and I suspended the employee for remarks which he allegedly made, and I set up an independent inquiry.”
Masiyiwa, other Econet executives and board members are concerned at attempts by Altech to negotiate a deal with Vodacom South Africa which is also embroiled in a bitter fight to buy a stake in Vee-Mobile, formerly Econet Wireless Nigeria.
Econet is claiming pre-emptive rights to increase its stake in Nigeria’s third largest mobile network operator.
Altech’s negotiations violate a policy by the Econet group not to do business with Vodacom, which they regard as a hostile competitor.