Perceived by many as a controversial businessman, the local media has often portrayed Ranga Haikali as the ‘bad boy’ who gets what he wants when he wants it through his political connections, especially the multi-billion dollar deals.
We recently caught up with him to get insight on the ‘rough’ journey he has travelled thus far in business development, not only for him but for this nation too.
All has not been smooth sailing, he submits. He has, however, done what he believes is good for Namibia despite the obstacles. He has, indeed, opened opportunity doors for Namibians.
PF: Would you call yourself a businessman or an entrepreneur? When did you discover that person inside?
RH:It is difficult to separate the two. One has to start somewhere to get where they would like to be. Let’s just say circumstances forced me to become who I am today. While as a Namibia National Student Organisation (Nanso) student leader during the apartheid era, I developed the skills to make profit out of every situation.
I started to sell whatever I could lay my hands on to earn an income to pay for my school fees, my soccer equipment, football, body building and other sport codes I was participating in at the time - I needed a lot of money to sustain myself. Raised in a middle-income family, nothing came from my parents’ budget. I had to make sure I had soccer tops or boots every time I needed them out of my own pocket.
I would assist my parents whenever I could afford to. Unfortunately due to political doings, my mother had to single-handedly raise us until she passed on. My siblings and I, after her passing, had to ensure our utility bills were paid.
My involvement in extra-curricular activities was spurred by the state of affairs in my surrounding at the time. After examination periods, for example, it bothered me that learners roamed the streets idle in Kuisebmund.
So I consulted with the principal of my school to organise football tournaments after every class had written exams. We began playing against each class and then bidding for prizes by contributing funds. Obviously, the prize money was a combination of the entry fees classes would pay to play.
The girls and other non-soccer players would form part of the spectators. We would also sell foodstuff against profits. There were times when I would lend some money to my teachers at my school in Walvis Bay because they were often broke by mid-month. This was because [being part of the Cape Province] they were paid from South Africa before the actual month-end.
I would not really call it cash-loaning because they obviously paid it back with interest. Do not ask me how much or how it was regulated. The bottom line is, we had an agreement. Given the mutual respect and discipline we had amongst us, they would not want to owe a pupil or learner money, so they would pay, on time.
I would also lend money to some newspaper vendors who sold Namib Timesin Walvis Bay because they had insufficient capital to buy the newspapers in bulk. So I would either advance them the money or buy the newspapers in bulk against the profit, after which we would agree on how many cents per-paper-sold would be my income. I even managed to negotiate with the owner of the newspaper to sell me an exclusive number for a good price so that whomever wanted to buy them would do so from me at an agreed fee, which had been structured according to the number of newspapers bought.
Charity begins at home
At home, I sold homemade ginger and “polony sausages” cut from whole polonies. It earned me a lot of nicknames - Papegaai, Katalati, etc. The teasing did not bother me one bit because I was making good money out of my small business. Having seen teachers buy and sell chicken wings at school, I also started doing the same. Although I was copying what they were doing, I found a way to lure the pupils to buy the chicken wings from me instead of them.
Whatever remained from a stock would be taken on credit to be paid at the end of the week or month. I employed hard-handed tactics without any violence to ensure my money was paid on time. If a debtor failed to pay what they owed, I would ensure they could not participate in social events; they would be outcasts at school in all manner of things.
This was done to instill discipline in my fellow learners. I figured; if one has the habbit of borrowing, they must have a habbit of paying their dues.
My hustle did not end there. I would also take up contract work. I remember being contracted [as a boy amongst my peers] by a Cape Town-based firm to paint at the then military base in Walvis Bay. We were tasked to paint their caravan pre-fabricated houses. The likes of Kapembe Johannes, Pingle Haufiku, Johannes Niigambo, my elder brother Erastus Haikali and I, amongst others, would paint wood fences with tar.
We would earn a good N$24 a week on Friday and Saturday afternoons, painting walls to avoid corrosion [because of the salt content from the fog or mist in Walvis Bay]. We would go into military bases, particularly into houses that had access to troops’ kitchens; they would give us left-over eggs after finishing our work.
I remember collecting the left-over eggs and selling them to various vendors at Walvis Bay’s Kuisebmund. We (my group and I) soon formed soccer clubs. I remember Blue Waters had a junior team and another team called Gem-Waters while Eleven Arrows had junior teams called Iwisa and Amazulu, which were mostly active during December holidays.
The elder boys would come from hostels or boarding schools for their holidays and then we would host tournaments. As soon as the senior teams stopped playing, we would start playing among ourselves.
It was a means of identifying talent for Blue Waters, Explorer XI, Namib Woestyn and Eleven Arrows at regional and/or national levels under the South-West Football Association (Swafa). The likes of Leo Kuutondokwa and Brito Shipanga, Colour Isaacks and Milla Gertze played for these teams and that is how they were discovered and then contracted to play for senior teams.
We would hold year-end parties with the profits we earned from the tickets sold to watch the tournaments. We would attract a good crowd because apart from the residents, the rest of the players were mainly visitors whom everyone was always eager to see play. It kept us off the streets and made us active youths.
So such are the skills I developed over time and as I grew up, I obviously became politically conscious. Our house was highly ‘political’; my parents were very involved in Swapo party activities starting from the Swapo Party Youth League or Swapo police [as we would call them], the Swapo elders’ council to the Drum Majorettes who were led by my late mother while my father was the transport secretary of the Western Region.
Political meetings at the time when the late Nathanael Maxuilili was under house arrest were held at our home. I clearly remember the night police picked my parents for questioning about all kinds of things.
As student leaders, our political consciousness heightened along the way and we would soon get arrested to spend 90 days without trial in jail, as per the South African Security Act, which had been enacted by the South African apartheid president, PW Botha.
People like Ambassador Wilfred Emvula, who was then a legal advisor at the Legal Assistance Centre advice office in Walvis Bay, would organise legal representation spearheaded by the likes of Judge Dave Smith, Advocate Andrew Corbett and Advocate Pierre Roux, amongst others. They all worked together to help us get out of jail.
After our release from jail, we were put under house arrest and were not allowed to move in groups of more than two people at a time. This was because some of our comrades had just been released from prison for various reasons including graffiti; demanding that Walvis Bay be returned to Namibia; and that no military base be established near schools in the North. After their release, they went into exile in 1987. The following year, we were re-arrested.
Since most of us could no longer play football nor move in groups, we started jogging to keep fit. We were banned from attending school, so while some of us jogged along the ocean, others did so inside fishing factories.
We ensured we steered clear from the security police, lest we get into more trouble. We soon started educating factory workers about their rights [during their tea or lunch breaks] and the benefits of joining trade unions. I specifically focused on the fishing and manufacturing workers because my work-out route was along Metal Box, Canning Factories and Gearing Engineering where the late Nathanael Maxuilili worked, amongst other factories. I did this until I was tasked to concentrate on Metal Allied Namibian Workers (Manwu) while in its initial stage.
A colleague of mine who is now a National Council member called Hafeni Ndemula, had been tasked to focus on the Namibia Food and Allied Workers’ Union (Nafau) while Tjumba Niilonga concentrated on Adult Literacy and Education together with Meme Gertrude Kandanga and Meme Aune Lucas (now in Odulami). We gave each other tasks until I joined trade unions.
The trade unions terrain
The interesting part about joining trade unions was, I would build bridges between, say, the local metal and allied industry and the trade unions in South Africa, specifically National Union of Mines in South Africa (Numsa).
I also built bridges between the local workers and the Labour Relations Services (LRS) in Cape Town. While at it, I built links with many multi-national companies that were involved in trade unions both in South Africa and Walvis Bay, to get their working conditions negotiated in both countries. This went on until Manwu asked me to become the organiser for its Walvis Bay branch after which I became the western regional organiser. Before long, I became the national organiser at the Manwu head office in Windhoek.
I was soon elected the secretary-general after the first one, Barnabas Tjizu, moved to the federation of the National Union of Namibian Workers (Nunw). Tjizu was later followed by the late Helmut Rukoro who served in the same position during the time of the late John Pandeni (Nafau) and Petrus Iilonga’s (Napwu) tenure.
Under Nunw, we set up a lot of industrial unions of which the Mine Workers’ Union (MWU) was the strongest because it had workers concentrated at one place; the mines. It was easy to mobilise and organise operations in this regard under the likes of Ben Uulenga (Mun) and John Shaetonodhi at Oranjemund.
After the Manwu secretary-general’s position, I became the national education co-ordinator at the federation where I was later appointed the deputy secretary-general to Benard Esau. When he left for Government, I became the secretary-general of the federation.I have no doubt it was the fastest development for a man of my age in Africa and the world. No trade union had had a 22-year-old secretary-general.
Passion for big businesses
So came our national independence and I developed a passion for business while working for trade unions. But this passion was heightened when the industrial strike by TCL in Tsumeb, which was owned by Gold Fields, started crippling the local economy. That’s when I met a gentleman called Andre Neethling for the first time. He is the one who informed me about a management turnaround strategy under Gold Fields then.
Because of a strike that had just occurred, devastating its operations, Gold Fields had to abort the implementation of that plan. At that stage, I was merely an observer between MWU and Gold Fields’ management.
After the company had been liquidated due to the financially crippling strike, I called Neethling to meet me at my Nunw [head] office from his at the Otjihase mine. He explained to me his management team had figured out how this turnaround strategy would work for the company. Although we had no capital, we had a skilled unemployed labour force comprising of both smelters and miners, as well as a technically skilled management team.
Feeling motivated, we approached the then Mines and Energy Minister Jesaya Nyamu who laughed us off, wondering what workers knew about management.
But I saw an opportunity, from his reaction, to save jobs. I figured, we could obviously run this as a team based on management principles. We had the technical support of the management, so we put up a very brave strategy between the management and the workers to get this company out of liquidation.
As you can imagine; there was a lot of negativity and opposition among the union’s leadership. They debated over whether it was a worthy cause or if it was just best that we represent workers in a colletive bargain.
Since most of my family members were born and bred in Tsumeb including my grandmother, Meme Maria Wambuyo, who was the first president of the Swapo Women’s Council, this cause meant a lot to me.
Meme Wambuyo’s firstborn son, Frans Kambangula, was the Swapo party national transport secretary. I also have nieces and cousins who once worked for the then TCL. As jobs became scarce, utility bills began to pile up. One could feel the emotional attachment to the situation at this mine.
I must admit that became my greatest drive. I figured; if we could pull off this cause together, the impact it would have on the local economy would be quite big. Since our Founding President believes in broad-based economic empowerment, I approached him to support our idea; to allow the mine’s management to have access to this country’s natural resources. He was more than eager to support our cause.
I still believe [and no one can challenge me on this] we fostered the biggest broad-based economic empowerment structure under Ongopolo, mine workers and the management. All of them had shareholders’ control of more than 70% of the shares together with Mun and Labour Investment Holding (LIH) while the founding directors and key stakeholders [including myself] had less than 20%. The workers’ shares were owned by the Gold Silver Trust, which was represented by them in exchange for their pensions.
We saved jobs and tried to re-employ the majority of the employees who worked for TCL. It was a process that got workers talking about economic independence and income-generating projects. I was sent to Zimbabwe in 1989 for training, just before Namibia’s political independence. In Zimbabwe, I would be trained in co-operatives and trade union-related activities. I spent a lot of time learning about income generating projects, which were basically about business and self-reliance. The rest is history.
Trade unions and business deal controversies
The debate around trade unions and business ownership increased. Concerned parties asked whether or not trade unions needed to be involved in business operations.
As an organisation, we knew we could not sustain ourselves with the membership fees we were asking for. Given the sparse population of Namibia and the vastness of distances in between towns, it drained the resources of the organisation to drive to all corners of the country to attend to workers’ needs. The required logistics, transport and human resources to mobilise workers also became a costly part of the trade unions’ affairs.
We would take a congress resolution to seriously generate more income for the trade unions. The federation and the Namibia Mine Workers’ Union were the pioneers and would be followed by the Namibia Public Workers’ Union. Ours was to ensure this resolution was fully implemented, not only through the Ongopolo acquisition but also through the generation of new business opportunities.
Government soon started discussing the policy of economic empowerment. Unfortunately to date, we do not have that policy in place in Namibia. That is when the discontent among the trade unions heightened, with certain people arguing trade unions had become businesses when they needed to be separated from the pack.
I am sure it was and continues to be a healthy debate but a glance at some of the success stories on the ground cannot write that off. When I left trade unionism, I became one of the three people who were tasked to turn around Air Namibia.
Air Namibia debacle
This was yet another sad experience that saw a parastatal struggle to pick itself up from an inherited situation. I definitely took a bigger bite having been appointed the general manager, human resources to sort out human resources issues; the general manager commercial, to sort out the commercial agreements; and the general manager finance at that stage. Three general managerial positions held by one person! Although it was an enriching and learning curve, it was a challenge I had prepared myself to take up. We managed to stabilise the company and turn it around.
To my disappointment, my colleagues at the unions started organising demonstrations against me and not the company for trying to address core and pertinent issues surrounding Air Namibia’s wage liabilities. I only worked there for about 17 months.
Leaving Air Namibia
Because my family matters and professional commitments clashed, I could no longer manage to work at Air Namibia. I had just become a single parent because my ex-wife was studying in South Africa. I had to look after our kids.
Extensive travelling, especially out of the country, became an emotional and physical drain. I will forever value the support I received from those who helped me manage the pressure. I knew I had to look after my health, so I decided to tender my resignation.
Managing joint ventures and returning to school
Government had just established joint ventures within the Namibian Fishing Industry (Namfish). So Namfish approached me to help it manage the joint ventures, especially with upcoming or new entrants into the fishing industry.
It was a more relaxed job compared to the one I had at Air Namibia, yet very challenging.
I had 15 new joint ventures under Namfish and newcomers to manage. Each one of them had a shareholder and a joint venture agreement to complete, after which we had to find space for them in various subsidiary companies in Walvis Bay and Lüderitz under Namfish. They also had to acquire vessels or buy shares in existing vessels.
It was quite an enriching encounter, especially because I was older by age and advanced in leadership and managerial experience. My professional life advanced so fast that I never created room to return to school and finish my Grade 12. However, I soon sat for the mature-age entry test at the University of Namibia (Unam), which I passed and then I started my bachelor degree in business administration. It was a tough four-year long part-time course, since there were other businesses I was developing, in the meantime.
Growing the business portfolio
We established Prosperity Health, which then provided the biggest medical aid package in the country. I also started farming. I bought a farm under the Affirmative Action Loan and have never skipped a single payment on my installments to date.
I developed that farm up to where it is today by establishing myself as a Bonsmara stud-breeder [or stud farmer, if you like]. I got involved in many other business ventures, which included strategic businesses that would become part of a BEE consortium that bought into FNB Holdings.
Some of the businesses I established include the Namibia Stevedoring Services. I also became part of Namibia Hanover Group, which later became Preferred Namibia Services. It dealt with alienation schemes for municipal houses; we developed properties. I have always wondered where I got the energy to do all that from. It was an enriching experience. I even subdivided my subjects of study because I wanted to serve as an example to encourage my children to take education seriously.
That was the same time the Founding President enrolled for a geology degree course at Unam. I would soon change some of my subjects into distance modules to give myself some breathing space. It gave me time to do what I needed to do; business development and looking after my children.
Above all this, the trade union asked me to continue developing the Labour Investment Holdings, which is the investment arm of the labour unions. I did. I have a sixth sense for business opportunities, I must say.
I managed to finish my bachelor degree in business administration, specialising in entrepreneurship for which I was the only major student.
I am certain our country has many entrepreneurial opportunities for small to medium enterprises (SMEs) to develop. We just need to focus to achieve them.
Apart from buying a lot of shares, I also established many companies, such as the Namibia Liquid Fuels (NLF), Namibia Plastic and Liquid Foods (NPLF), which manufactured cooking oil bottles and then filled them with cooking oil. I have to admit I got a lot of experience during this process.
The rough patch
Not everything went smoothly. Some businesses never developed as anticipated and I learnt from those experiences. NLF’s success rate was and can still be embraced by the Namibian government. It was a potential private sector initiative that could have also been very well broad-based. Unfortunately, it was unnecessarily politicised and thus lost its potential to empower and develop the local fuel sector.
Back to square one
We currently sit with a back-to-square-one situation where Namibia’s oil companies are mainly foreign-owned. Had we been allowed to do this when we could, we could have developed this sector at a wholesale level by now.
I am not crying over spilled milk but the secondary sectors, including exploration, wholesale, logistics and storage can still be developed, not forgetting the retail sector, which would exist in the form of fuel service stations.
Admittedly, Government gives all the support one would need and provides a conducive environment for businesses to grow. However, there are instances where lack of understanding, propaganda and jealousy becomes the obstacles that hinder us, as Namibians, from achieving economic independence.
Individuals drive business growth
As much as we desire to be broad-based, we also have to understand individuals drive the economy. Communities can benefit from shareholding, bursaries, profit-sharing, investments, social responsibilities done by corporate companies, as well as salaries or incomes but not from ownership alone.
Although one has to take this combination into account, you will obviously find those who work harder and smarter than the rest. Such a lot deserves rewards to attract more and more investment.
Passion for football
My passion for football never died until I made what many called a ‘silly decision’; I invested in a local football team Black Africa Football Club. I, however, believe it was part of my social responsibility. The success we have since achieved at Black Africa FC through that decision speaks volumes.
Seeing young people who do not have tertiary skills other than their football talents earn a worthwhile living in a league that is not well-funded is satisfaction enough for me. That is especially because football keeps them off the streets unlike my former football colleagues. Most of them have retired or passed on. It is, however, a pity to see them struggle because they did not take their education seriously.
I have committed my resources to this cause, so that history does not repeat itself in Namibia as far as youth’s fate is concerned. That is why I invested in football.
I have been diversifying into other businesses. As such, I have ventured into logistics, specifically the cargo department through companeis called Stevedoring Services and Morgan Cargo Namibia. I have also extended my interests into IT-related companies, such as the PC Centre and Fleet Management Services. This is besides my attraction to the financial services sector through my investment in FNB Namibia. In the property and real estate sector, I have, through the establishment of Safland in partnership with Kallie van der Merwee (the establisher of Frontier Property Trust under the GIPF unlisted portfolio), achieved significant success.
The Development Capital Portfolio (DCP) saga
GIPF, through the DCP, has given us the mandate to develop property. It’s there to be seen because it benefits the local economy. It will still come to fruition despite the so-called “investigation”.
Because of the DCP, which was also driven because of my former colleagues in the trade unions for reasons best known to them, I do not see these criticisms and propaganda only in the negative perspective but they can also cripple economic and socio-development of an economy like Namibia. There are those who are all out to destroy others while there are those who just try to exploit the situation.
If you look at the money that has been spent on the investigations where extensions were requested or made by specialised forensic people to investigate the DCP, you would find that we had warned them some of the DCP projects were failures. It does not mean people put their hands on that.
People have politicised the DCP situation. That’s why some of the investigations will never end. There are certain individuals who want to cash-in on the never ending procedures. They end up draining the tax payer’s pockets with inconclusive proceedings. If only they could conclude their “investigations” and make the necessary arrests of the “culprits” and then make them appear in court, we would avoid all the discomfort that come with such dealings including tarnishing people’s public images. Worst part is, they do this through the local media.
We made mistakes, we did not commit crimes
Knowing the backgrounds we grew up in, not to mention our family responsibilities and values, one cannot risk tarnishing that kind of reputation for a quick buck. Yes, we all make mistakes; but we did not commit crimes. We did it for the love of our country; to develop the local economy. But people need to understand in doing so; you lose some and win some.
As much as we are all required to learn from such experiences, it does not mean one should not be granted a second chance in life. One’s past failures do not determine future failures. Let us not spend tax payer’s money on unproven rumours.
Looking back at where we have come from, I’m greatly satisfied with the milestones. Today, I’m happy to share with upcoming entrepreneurs and SMEs the noble experiences they could borrow from to develop our country. Unfortunately, there are politicians who tend to see progressive entrepreneurs, like myself, as a threat to their positions. We should let the legal process take its course, as per the Constitution of Namibia.
As much as we remain Swapo cadres and are supported by the ruling party, not all of us have political ambitions - just as not every politician can be a business person. Of course, nothing stops them from running their own businesses.
However, they should not try to enforce unnecessary laws based on the perceptions created by the local media. Should someone commit a crime in the process of developing a business, let them be tried in a competent court of law and not be scrutinised by the media.
Developing FNB Namibia from where we started is one of my proud moments and I’m always happy to share some of the details.
We were given an option price to acquire its shares in stages at N$5.13 over a period of time. After seven years of hard work and value addition, the share prices’ worth have grown to over N$18.
As we develop businesses, our responsibilities not only lie with family and friends but we also employ people. Most business people or entrepreneurs have sleepless nights trying to generate ideas on how to keep their employees financially secure. According to my calculations, there are 30 000 employees who earn an income from the businesses I am directly involved in. This gives me satisfaction because these people earn an income, pay taxes and provide for their families.
The best part is, some of the profits earned return to the society. Black Africa is one of the beneficiaries. I do not have to make money out of Black Africa FC’s successes.
Apart from aiding football players’ fate, seeing a jam-packed stadium of spectators eager to watch their favorite players play competitive football is more satisfaction for me than making money.
As a young businessman in post-independent Namibia, I have since grabbed every opportunity Government has ever created to help local businesses grow. The wealth of experience gained from student leadership, politics, to trade unions, amongst others, will forever remain a source of inspiration for my growth.
Some of my highlights include the success of Safland, FNB Namibia’s empowerment share, the jobs created under the Africa Personnel Services, Namibia Stevedoring Services, Black Africa, Innexma Electrical Namibia and Gecko Holdings (which is currently building the VIP industrial and chemical plant, a private habour and a salt manufacturing plant in Otjivalunda in Etosha).
There is also the Graphite Mine, the Merten Mines, the soon-to-be-listed Mertens Mining Corporation and the Morgan Cargo Namibia (which uplifts a lot of cargo from Namibia to various destinations, including Europe). Do not forget the properties under the Frontier Properties Trust in Otjiwarongo, Windhoek and Gwashamba Mall in Ondangwa; the soon-to-start Rundu and Katima malls; and the outstanding development of the Walvis Bay Civics Centre into a mall.
Besides the lodge and spa that I am yet to look into at my farm, all these ventures I am involved in are not only to make business but aim at addressing the local economic deficits.
Of course I am no longer a “previously-disadvantaged” Namibian but that does not take away the fact that I grew up as one. As much as I make money at the end of the day, I do it all for the love of my country; for the love of economic development.
I have thus developed some strategic links for business opportunities outside Namibia, so that should things become too tough to handle one day, I will not have to start afresh because I know I will no longer have the same physical and mental energy I have had all my life.
I want the future generations to go through its education hoping to be employers, corporate citizens and business people and not only hope to qualify for tertiary institutions and graduate years later to become employees. That is the mindset we need to develop our economy.
The connection myths
Despite my portion of figures, I open doors for myself. I do not gate-crash. I build relationships to form networks.
Yes, it is true one has to be well-connected to the right links but what stops them from that? One must ask themselves; do they mingle with the right people? Do they build networks to know people or do they just want to come up with their ideas and hope everyone else listens to them?
There is a saying in English that it is not who you are but who your friends are that make you what you become.
I have lost a lot of money due to lost business opportunities based on emotional decisions. I have, however, learnt from such and grown to a stage where I do not want to be spoon-fed or wheeled into the corporate world.
I take risks myself by raising personal capital through my assets to buy corporate shares. I do not have to own each and every company, that much I know. But I aspire to, at least, be a strategic minority shareholder to do business with a company.
The road ahead
Going forward, I am building networks for every business I am currently involved in.
Yes, I was once one of the complainers who moaned about denied opportunities; access to funds by commercial banks, for instance. But now that I sit on the other side of the desk, I understand what financiers and banks use to assess every credit application. I’m glad the experience I gained [while at school] from making people responsible for their debts pays off today.
I am not saying all blacks are like that but the majority of those who complain a lot and often take credit or loans and then default, are blacks. Sadly, they spend the loans on luxury cars and other plush accessories and then fail to pay their debts. That culture needs to change. Otherwise, nobody will have access to credit.
As much as we find it difficult to take responsibility for our debts in the businesses we own, it reaches a point when it is inevitable to own up. People wish they would write off debts for political reasons because they think since they vote, whomever is in that business must then turn a blind eye. That culture also needs to change and I am saying this with all due respect. We can only sustain the discipline if we build assets to provide security in this regard. It is wrong to start a business and then fail to pay your dues. PF