Biographies of Famous South Africans
Special South Africans


Those who have inspired us. Those who have defined us.
Those who have shown us our common humanity.

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Tokyo Sexwale
Charismatic Freedom Fighter
5 March 1953 - ?

Mosima Gabriel (Tokyo) Sexwale Once an ANC activist, political prisoner and populist politician, leading businessman Mosima Gabriel (Tokyo) Sexwale is a man with a personal history as fascinating as the changes that have taken place in South Africa. 

He was once of the ANC's most ambitious politicians and tipped for great things. Nelson Mandela named him premier of the country's largest Gauteng province. Apart from his other qualities, personal courage alone made Tokyo Sexwale an extraordinary premier. From the beginning, during his first days in office in 1994, he ventured into hostels in East Rand townships where, before the elections, death tolls had sometimes risen to over 20 a day. Hostels were no-go areas for everybody save Inkatha Freedom Party warlords. But Sexwale ignored the risks. He left the Inkatha hostel-dwellers singing and dancing and agreeing to make peace with their neighbouring communities - which they did. Three months later South Africa's most conflict-ridden province descended into a calm broken only by the clashes of criminal syndicates. 

It must also have taken considerable nerve to have walked alone in the dead of night into a darkened, mutinous prison, lit only by fires and with injured people littering the floors, to negotiate the release of a white warder. When Sexwale came out of Modderbee on the East Rand at dawn that day in the middle of 1996, he left a peaceful prison - and he had the young warder safely with him. His bravery, and a belief that if a job were difficult then he personally should do it, sometimes frustrated colleagues. But if there are reservations about his leadership style among the many people canvassed on the subject, their judgements have been tempered by more than equal measures of praise. A senior aide who worked closely with him says: 

"He has tremendous leadership ability, but often has difficulty in translating good ideas into action. He can see what needs to be done, but does not always trust those around him to carry out his plans."

In 1977 Sexwale was sent to Robben Island to serve a life sentence. He recalls one of his first impressions on arriving on the island and seeing Mandela: 


"There is Nelson Mandela - the tall man amongst all prisoners on Robben Island - figuratively and literally. He was also taller than the jailers. Here is a man who, for 27 years, had to reshape himself, to emerge as ... some people call him, a saint. He is not a saint. He is fallible. And he's quick himself to admit whenever he has been rash, that he is also fallible. But in full glory you find Nelson Mandela towering above Robben Island. You meet him in the position of chancellor of the university of Robben Island."

Fellow Robben Island prisoner and close friend of Sexwale, Mzi Khumalo, formed the Pan African Mining Group with Sexwale and involved them both in mining and oil across Africa. He recalls a time there when prisoners became angry with elderly Rivonia trialist Wilton Mkwayi whose practice it was to squirrel away food to feed the pigeons. The birds would repay this kindness by defecating over the small recreation area the prisoners shared. Mkwayi had back problems, however, and was too frail to clean up the mess.

The prisoners decided that they had had enough. They called a meeting at which consensus was sought on compelling Mkwayi to stop feeding the pigeons. Khumalo recalled the mood of the meeting.

"Tokyo disagreed with us; he said this man had been there for 20 years, and that the birds kept Mkwayi sane. I did my nut. Eventually Tokyo won the day; he offered to clean up the mess."

But the saga did not end there, Khumalo recalls with a laugh:

"Now, if Tokyo has one serious fault it is this - he loves to talk. So when the time came to clean he began, but some new people came into the section, so he put down his spade and went to speak to them, and the rest of us did the cleaning. He cleaned on other occasions; he does not shirk responsibility but if he can delegate he will."

A former Gauteng cabinet colleague expressed a slightly different view:

"He didn't always delegate, particularly if he felt he could make a stronger personal impact. However, he wasn't scared to take the rap." 

 Another close aide said: 

"One of his biggest frustrations was that he went into government as a hugely successful mobiliser of popular support and a shrewd tactician, but he could not use that effectively in a government context."

To see Sexwale at a public event like the launch of Johannesburg's Inner City renewal campaign was to see him at his best. Switching between English, Afrikaans, Sotho and Zulu, he had the crowd laughing, cheering, pondering and applauding. No other politician could compete. Thabo Mbeki, who shared the platform with him, was well spoken in English only, and lacked the easy charisma so typical of Sexwale and Mandela. His style has not found favour with Thabo Mbeki of whom he said, "The president's shoes are huge and Thabo has tiny feet." (In 2001 Sexwale was accused, along with Cyril Ramaphosa and Mathews Phosa, of plotting to overthrow Mbeki from power. Sexwale denied the charges and all three received the backing of Nelson Mandela.)

In the end, government stifled Sexwale, aides say. He too has acknowledged that he became exhausted by internal African National Congress intrigues.

Khumalo says:

"One day he phoned me and asked me to come and talk. On the island it was our practice when discussing serious issues, to walk. We walked up and down, talking for about two hours. He told me he was thinking of leaving government for business, and I said, "Tokyo, Gauteng is too small for you." 

Sexwale's primary interests are oil and diamond mining, for which he has concessions across Africa and Russia in a company he established called Mvelaphanda Mining (mvelaphanda is Venda for "progress").

Not long after Sexwale announced his resignation from government, Harry Oppenheimer, patriarch of the Anglo-American and De Beers corporations, remarked at the opening of a diamond college in Johannesburg that few understood the local and international diamond-mining industry the way Sexwale did.

Trained by the Soviet army during his Umkhonto we Sizwe days, Sexwale is reported to have networks among some of the major industry executives in the Russian state diamond company and has been offered concessions in the Federation. He has finalised diamond concessions in a number of Southern African states including Angola and is negotiating oil and diamond concessions in other African states.

Finnish president Martii Ahtisaari approached him to be Finland's honorary consul-general in South Africa, and after Mandela gave his consent - there is little Sexwale does even now, without seeking Madiba's approval - the Finnish flag went up outside his Houghton home.

Sexwale is a firm believer in economic patriotism:

"Japanese businesspeople work for Japan, the British work for Britain. The success of the African renaissance in repositioning our part of the world, depends upon economic patriotism. South Africans have to work for South Africa. Black business people will have to become economic freedom fighters in the true sense of the word. There needs to be greater opportunities for all, particularly in rural areas. Marx says if capital does not grow, it stagnates. We must see opportunities - and not only crises or global meltdowns."

He has a range of suggestions - from corporations freeing up their training centres at weekends for skills training and education to harnessing non-governmental organisations more effectively in developmental work.

Sexwale has not made himself available for any elected ANC position; but he iremains active in his branch.

"A good leader must also be a good follower and as a member of the rank and file, I am prepared to be led. I love the ANC, it is a lifelong commitment to me. However, I am not cut out for government politics, it's too restrictive."

As a successful entrepreneur Mr Sexwale is deeply committed to pursuing the dream of economic prosperity of the country's black majority. Relaxing at his office at home, his guitar and piano on one side, books lining the walls - a thick volume on Che Guevara wedged between a tome on The Competitive Advantage of Nations and Who Owns Whom - Sexwale muses: 

"The challenge of existence is to fall in love with life and come to terms with all its joys and sorrows."

Other famous quotes by Sexwale:

"The liberation struggle of our people was not about liberating blacks from bondage, it was about liberating white people from fear."

"Associate yourself not only with success but with failure too. Know your limitations, surround yourself with experts and good critics."

"If blacks get hurt, I get hurt. If whites get hurt, that's my wife, and if you harm coloured people, you're looking for my children. Your unity embodies who I am." 


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