`Apprentice' of change in apartheid-free land

For South African Tokyo Sexwale, race is a reality on television show spinoff.

February 23, 2005|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - Tokyo Sexwale was a political prisoner on infamous Robben Island during the apartheid era, a provincial governor after the arrival of democracy and is now a member of an emerging black elite.

He is also being called the country's Donald Trump for his latest venture, as the future host of South Africa's version of The Apprentice. On each week's episode he will, Trump-style, "fire" another contestant vying for a big-money job with Sexwale's company, until a winner emerges.

There are Apprentice knockoffs all over the world. But here, more than a decade after the end of apartheid, even reality television is examined through the lens of race.

In 2002, South African Idol caused a stir when viewers voted a white singer to victory over a black soul singer who was widely seen as more talented. And Sexwale's decisions will be watched for any sign of racial bias.

Even the decision to pick Sexwale has raised eyebrows.

The state-owned South African Broadcasting Corp. says it chose Sexwale, 51, because he can appeal to all viewers and also serve as a role model to black South Africans.

Taking a risk

Yet the show, due to begin airing in June, is not without risk. It will be up to Sexwale to decide who in the racially diverse Apprentice cast stays or goes, and viewers are sure to pay attention to the winner's race, given Sexwale's unabashed advocacy for greater involvement by blacks in business.

To many South Africans, especially whites, he embodies a government affirmative action program that has vaulted politically connected blacks to riches without significantly improving the lives of most black South Africans.

"The TVs want to use Tokyo Sexwale as a kind of poster boy for capitalism," said Ian Glenn, associate professor of film and media studies at the University of Cape Town. "The cynical view is Tokyo Sexwale has never been in business. He was a revolutionary and a guy who has certainly done well," thanks in part to a government program for black economic empowerment.

Glenn added, "There are many ironies here - an ex-socialist lecturing us on the virtues of capitalism."

To the SABC network, Sexwale's life story is a reflection of both his adaptability and a changing country. A self-made, white Internet mogul named Mark Shuttleworth was considered for the Trump role. But the network deemed Sexwale a better fit in an era of widening opportunity for blacks.

"We are in the process of establishing a different kind of society and therefore a different kind of ethic in our business dealings," said SABC spokesman Michael van Dyk.

`You're dismissed'

If Trump reflects a cutthroat, American style of capitalism, van Dyk said, Sexwale stands for a more congenial, collaborative approach to success. He won't bark Trump's signature line, "You're fired!" Instead, according to his publicist, he will utter the more soothing, "You're dismissed - for now."

Sexwale seems less overtly ego-driven than his American counterpart. He has resisted the urge to name buildings after himself - there is no such thing as a Sexwale Tower - and the headquarters of his investment company is tucked away on a leafy street north of downtown Johannesburg.

And, in the view of van Dyk, "he's certainly nicer looking than Tump."

Sexwale may also be more complicated than his critics acknowledge. He is part of an interracial couple - his wife is white - and he has shown awareness of the anxieties of whites, people of mixed race and blacks.

"If blacks get hurt, I get hurt," he has been quoted as saying. "If whites get hurt, that's my wife, and if you harm colored people, you're looking for my children."

Doing it their way

In a statement, Sexwale said The Apprentice will be a vehicle to "sharpen the skills" of entrepreneurs around the country. "In South Africa," he said, "we'll have to do it our own way, the South African way with African characteristics."

Sexwale's life story reads like a history of the modern times here. He grew up poor in a Soweto squatter camp, where a fondness for martial arts earned him his lifelong nickname, Tokyo.

As a young man in the 1970s, he became a member of the guerrilla movement attempting to bring down the white apartheid government through pressure and sabotage. In 1977, he was arrested and sentenced to 18 years imprisonment on Robben Island, joining Nelson Mandela and other African National Congress leaders behind bars.

In 1990, with apartheid about to crumble, the government released Sexwale. Four years later, when Mandela swept into the presidency under the ANC banner, Sexwale became premier of the province that includes Johannesburg, South Africa's biggest city.

He quit politics after one term for what he called a truer passion, the corporate world. "The same impulse that propelled me to be a guerrilla fighter," he told an interviewer in 2002, "makes me want to be a successful businessman."

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