Things have changed dramatically in South Africa over the past couple of decades. Ivor Ichikowitz discovered just how much a few years ago when his son asked him for help with a school project. “He said to me: ‘Dad, we’re learning about apartheid at school; can you explain it to me’. My first reaction was anger. Not at him but because I suddenly realised that here was a generation that didn’t get what I got. We call them the ‘born frees’ — kids who grew up after apartheid ended.”
Forty-five-year-old Ichikowitz, who has made a fortune primarily manufacturing and selling military equipment, feels that young South Africans, and particularly young Jewish South Africans, need “a wake-up call”. He says that the Jews historically had an intimate relationship with the anti-apartheid movement but that history is in danger of being forgotten. “We are the biggest kibitzers in the world. We are amazing at distancing ourselves from the issues and shouting the odds from the sidelines. We have no right to disown the new South Africa because we were part of making it what it is today.”
So when Ichikowitz, who grew up as a student in the anti-apartheid movement and maintains close relationships with Nelson Mandela, President Jacob Zuma and other senior figures in the ruling African National Congress, was approached by the South African Board of Deputies to help produce a pamphlet about the Jewish contribution to the anti-apartheid cause, he decided to get involved. “I said let’s employ proper researchers. Let’s see what photographic evidence there is, because I wanted stories that will hold up to scrutiny. So I put a team behind it. If you put enough money into something you can speed up the process.”
The result is Jewish Memories of Mandela, a lavishly illustrated coffee-table book which documents the story of the Jewish contribution to the freedom struggle, including the likes of Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Mandela’s lawyer
Sidney Kentridge and freedom fighter Albie Sachs.
Ichikowitz, a loud, engaging man with a profitable habit of making friends with heads of state in the African continent and beyond, became involved in the struggle by accident. He was raised in a liberal family in the small town of Springs, around 70 kilometres from Johannesburg. He says: “I knew about apartheid but I didn’t really internalise it until I pitched up at university to study drama. The day I arrived a guy by the name of Ivan Izikowitz was arrested under the state of emergency legislation. He was a law student. I never met the guy, but suddenly the whole community of Springs was up in arms because they thought I’d been arrested.
Suddenly I was a hero by default and a whole world opened up to me that I didn’t know existed. It was a world I identified with. I got involved with protest theatre. I discovered that all aspects of African culture fascinated me.”
Through his involvement with the liberation movement, Ichikowitz ended up travelling extensively at the age of 22. “I had a letter from the ANC and I was running around fund-raising. So I went to Kenya and met the president. I also went to Ghana and Tanzania and fell madly in love with the continent. There is an energy to Africa which is very difficult to explain to people who don’t get it. I realised that the African continent had huge potential.”
He also realised in the wake of Mandela’s release from jail that there was potential to make large amounts of money from what he calls, the “peace-keeping industry”.
Ichikowitz is the first person I have met who has the ability to make selling military hardware sound like a moral crusade. He believes deals he has brokered have made his continent a safer place.
He explains: “I started in the defence industry because I could see that South Africa had some amazing peace-keeping technologies which could help bring security to Africa. We created the capability and the finance and used what the South African regime had created under apartheid for the purpose of bad, for the purpose of good.”
He cites the example of Rwanda. “Rwanda is like a miracle. I was one of the first foreigners in there after the genocide. The president said: ‘If you can’t help me create an army, I can’t prevent this genocide continuing’. And we did it. We made a plan and the little bit we could do allowed Rwanda to lay the basis to become one of Africa’s most successful economies.”
He not only has personal relationships with world leaders, he refuses to do business with any country where he does not have a close understanding with the head of state. “There are countries like Equatorial Guinea where the president is accused of being a dictator, but you have to see what he has done for that country.”
However, there are other countries where a sense of disquiet has prevented him concluding a deal. “There is a story that I could not have told you a couple of months ago. I was on the cusp of the biggest deal I have ever made. It was in Libya. It was a several billion dollar deal and was due to be signed around 10 months before the drama erupted in that country. I spent an hour-and-a-half with Gaddafi in his tent. I’d had several meetings with Gaddafi before and got to know him quite well. I picked up the phone to my chief of staff and said to him: ‘We’re not doing this deal’. I realised that here was the first time in my life that I could have stepped into murky waters. I had to make a choice between huge profits and never being able to live with myself again. In the end it was a very easy decision to make.”
As Ichikowitz says, there are plenty of other deals out there. And some of the vast profits go to his charitable foundation which supports an African oral history archive, a number of Jewish charities including one called The Tefillin Bank of Africa, plus other projects, including field hospitals in African crisis zones. “It’s crazily expensive and 100 per cent self-financed. The focus is African development and Jewish causes in Africa.”
As we speak, Ichikowitz’s mobile phone rings several times, and there are discussions about trips to meet leaders at opposite ends of the world.
Clearly he is a man who has little time to relax. Yet one gets the impression that this is one defence industry billionaire who has no problems sleeping at night.