by Robbie Stammers

A prosperous mind

Dr Iqbal Survé: from Struggle doctor to Midas-touch global leader

Dr Iqbal Survé
Dr Surve 3_opt.jpeg
When I looked up the meaning of the name ‘Iqbal’ on Internet genealogy sites, I was not at all surprised to find out that the translated meaning is ‘prosperity and success’. These words would certainly sum up the life of this month’s cover personality.

Dr Iqbal Survé is a man of many talents and one of South Africa’s brightest minds. He is a medical doctor, sports medicine specialist/psychologist, philanthropist, social entrepreneur and an extremely successful businessman. He is also a very politically connected individual, both here at home and abroad.

But unlike other old Struggle stalwarts who, one could argue, have abused their powerful positions, Dr Survé is a self-made person who has remained an accessible leader and family man, with his feet firmly planted on the ground.

A brief glimpse at his current portfolio of responsibilities will prove he is more than worthy.

Dr Survé is the founder and chairperson of the Sekunjalo Group, which has a private investment holdings company, Sekunjalo Holdings; a private equity fund, Sekunjalo Equity Fund; and a public subsidiary, Sekunjalo Investments Limited.

The group has over 130 investments, primarily in Africa. The Sekunjalo Group has invested mainly in the oil and energy sector, mineral resources, defence, telecommunications and power, and is the shareholding partner to Siemens AG, Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN), British Telecom (BT) and Saab AB in their African businesses. Dr Survé serves on all the aforementioned boards.

He is chairperson of the board of the Graduate School of Business at one of Africa’s top university, the University of Cape Town (UCT), as well as a governor of the UCT Foundation.

Globally, Dr Survé is a founding board member of Siemens Global Sustainability Advisory Board, a founder member of the Clinton Global Initiative, chairperson of the South Africa–Saudi Arabia Business Council and a council member of the South Africa–United States Business Forum.

He is also a Fellow of the Africa Leadership Initiative and The Prince of Wales’s Business & Sustainability Programme, as well as a regular Davos World Economic Forum (WEF) participant.

Dr Survé is the recipient of many awards including Businessman of the Year, and is widely regarded as one of the most influential business leaders who will ‘shape the future of the 
African continent’. He was one of the first non-Afrikaner, non-white South Africans to receive the Die Burger/Afrikaanse Handelsinstituut Sakeleier Van die Jaar award from the Afrikaans business community.

He has accompanied presidents Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma on state visits as a captain of industry, and participates in many prestigious presidential, ministerial and public institutions and advisory boards. He was a guest speaker at the Fortune Global Forum held in Cape Town in June 2010.

Last, but by no means least, Dr Survé is a dedicated philanthropist whose family foundation, the Survé Family Foundation, is a trust committed to the rights of children and young people all over the world. Major projects of the foundation include being a proud supporter of the World’s Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child, Youth Edujazz Programmes in Africa, Sports Academy Programmes in support of young people, and youth leadership initiatives.

To date, the Survé Family Foundation has supported 168 projects globally, impacting on the lives of more than 25 million global citizens, particularly youth and rural women from 
developing countries in Africa and Asia.

Not too shabby a curriculum vita, especially considering his ‘tender’ age of 49 years!

What most people do not know is that Dr Survé initiated and set up the emergency services group to look after victims of torture under PW Botha’s apartheid government; was part of the team of doctors who cared for former Robben Island prisoners including Mandela; and even played a large role as a ‘mind coach’ to a previous Bafana Bafana team, the Indian national cricket team and the Springboks before the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

I met Dr Survé in his plush but understated top-floor office in Claremont, with wonderful views of the southern suburbs and Table Mountain literally metres from his windowsill. It is a far cry from his childhood home, which is a mere two kilometres from where we 
were sitting.

He grew up in Kenilworth in a very poor but contented family home, and attended Livingstone High School. Livingstone has a rich history of providing its pupils with alternative perspectives on South African history and sociopolitical issues, and is the alma mater of many other ANC members such as Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi and former Western Cape Premier Ebrahim Rasool.

Survé’s father was the eldest of 13 siblings and played a large role in the upbringing of his younger siblings – no less than three of them became doctors. It was with this strong influence on education and medicine, that both Survé and his sister also entered the medical field at UCT following their schooling years, and based on accomplished bursaries at a time when it was unusual to have black south Africans at that university.

“Medicine was in the family blood and it was not only a way of getting out of poverty, but a great way to give back to our community,” recalls Dr Survé. “It was a very difficult environment, as there were only about 10 black South Africans in a class of 200 – but it was the most worthwhile effort I have yet undertaken.”

When I ask him if he believes there is a straight-line correlation between leadership and medical principles, he disagrees. “I do not think so, but I think there is something about the systems approach to diseases and illness; and if you understand the way things are interlinked in medicine, you can take that context into any business or life experience you are involved in. You cannot treat the heart in isolation to the brain – they are interconnected. This is what leadership and medicine have in common,” he says with a wise smile.

“What the field of medicine also does, is teach empathy. It brings out the human side of you because you have to interact with people who are living, recovering or dying. It’s about recognising that some people have great 
deficiencies and great gifts at the same time and it’s all about getting them to appreciate their gifts and overcome their deficiencies.”

Upon reflection, I am sure Dr Survé would now see the correlation between medicine and leadership but, like him, I feel it depends on the person ‘applying these skills’ to access each situation and how they may override each other.

It was with these intrinsic skills and a history draped already in political – or in his case, socio-economic – turmoil that he opened a medical and detention treatment centre that helped and dealt with those impoverished and injured souls who were suffering at the hands of the hard-core PW ‘Krokodil’ Botha and his apartheid regime. Dr Survé helped pioneer post-traumatic stress disorder counselling for former 
political prisoners.

He soon became known as the ‘Struggle Doctor’ and in 1989 at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris, Amnesty International honoured him for his medical and ethical work with victims of detention and torture.

Due to his efforts in this regard, however, Dr Survé invited unwanted attention from the government of the time and could not return to work at Groote Schuur Hospital (GSH) because he had become ‘too close to the prisoners of Robben Island who had come to GSH for specialised treatment’. He helped them to report their ill treatment and to send messages to their families and their friends through a well-organised network of health practitioners at these hospitals.

He took this in his stride and, without a means of income and on the advice of Professor Tim Noakes, he pursued a postgraduate honours degree in Sports Medicine, which did not require him to work in the hospital setting.

After conquering this ‘minor’ hurdle, Dr Survé was tasked with further assisting former Robben island prisoners upon their release from Robben Island, including none other than Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela and Govan Mbeki.

If that was not enough to contend with, our South African soccer team was lagging well behind their potential. Dr Survé was asked to assist Bafana physically and ‘turn them 
around, please’.

He soon discovered the problem was not physical skill, but a lack of confidence. Through psychological intervention and confidence building, he miraculously turned Bafana Bafana around. That year (1996), the team won the Africa Cup of Nations.

Thereafter, Dr Survé was pursued (against his will, he admits) by the Indian Cricket Board to motivate its country’s team.

“It was a wonderful time in my life,” he says. “The problems were not about skill; it was all about mindset, and I developed a systems approach based on self-belief – and it worked!”

Leadership looked into this, and factually Dr Survé is right. Bafana Bafana won after his input for a record two years, culminating in the Africa Cup of Nations glory; the Indian team, hoisted by young Sachan Tendulkar, became the best cricket team in history; the Springboks won the most momentous World Cup in our national sporting history. Could the fact that he was firmly entrenched and involved in each of these be a mild coincidence? I find it very unlikely.

By the late 1990s, Dr Survé, like many of his comrades, had grown frustrated by the huge economic disparities that existed in South Africa, even though its progressive constitution afforded all citizens equal rights. It seemed the government’s black economic empowerment (BEE) policies were enriching only a few. He answered the call by President Mandela and others for black people to play a greater role in meaningful economic transformation.

Following a Senior Executive Programme from the Harvard Business School (HBS) in partnership with Wits University, he decided it was time to follow the wise words of one of his heroes, Mahatma Gandhi, and ‘be the change you want to see in the world’.

Dr Survé and three of his comrades founded Sekunjalo, an investment holding company that sought to offer ‘a gentler capitalism’ that stressed putting people before profits, and talent development as a means of raising the lives of previously disadvantaged South Africans. By 1999, the company had listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), making 36-year-old Survé the youngest chief executive of a listed diversified conglomerate.

There is a case study about him and the Sekunjalo Group taught at HBS. His case is an example of someone ‘who has shown outstanding moral leadership in the face of numerous challenges’, according to the professor at the business school.

Sekunjalo has been crowned the most empowered company on the JSE in 2006, 2010 and 2012 – the only company to achieve this award more than once, and is something of which Dr Survé is proud.

But this was his goal all along, and he sets the bar high for himself and his team. “From the outset, our company’s ethos was one of transformation. Our business values are linked to our people and our BEE strategy.”

Dr Survé admits, though, that it has not been a walk in the park. Sekunjalo has a few scars and had its back against the wall a number of times. It has survived a couple of life-threatening market crashes and there was the LeisureNet debacle as well.

From its inception, Sekunjalo only purchased controlling stakes in companies, hoping to empower black workers. In 1999, it had purchased a 11% stake in LeisureNet, a white-owned and -run South African company that operated health clubs globally and was seeking a BEE partner. As a result of an over-ambitious international expansion and two CEOs who were charged in 2000, the company went under in one of the biggest corporate scandals in South African history – resulting in Sekunjalo, as a passive investor, losing R160-million along with major investors such as Investec, Coronation, Sanlam and others. In one day, Sekunjalo’s stock dropped 44%.

Dr Survé, already a very public figure in South Africa, had to decide what to do, particularly what to tell his loyal employees who had invested so much in Sekunjalo’s mission. “It was the most difficult year of my life so far,” he admits. “At times, I wondered whether I shouldn’t simply return to the medical profession. I saw very little of my family. I worked nearly 20 hours a day that year.

“Many observers thought we wouldn’t make it. Companies of more or less the same size as ours had collapsed in similar circumstances, but we succeeded in surviving.”

And survive it has; in fact, Sekunjalo has mastered the saying: ‘What does not kill you makes you stronger.’ At the Inaugural Annual Meeting of the New Champions held in Dalian, China in 2007, Sekunjalo was identified as one of the 125 Founding Members of the Community of Global Growth Companies.

This has allowed Dr Survé to pursue other ventures – with his family, his philanthropic ventures, the numerous other boards on which he sits, and wonderful initiatives such as the Clinton Global Initiative and the WEF.

“I promised myself when I turned 40 years old, that I would balance my time. Family was always my number-one priority, so weekends and long holidays away with them were critical,” he says. “My partner is actually currently writing a book on all our family travels over the last 15 years and all the incredible experiences we have had, especially travelling with children.”

As far as the ‘other 100%’ of his time is concerned, Dr Survé explains: “Thirty percent is what I give to civil society: the universities, the NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and the Survé Family Foundation; 30% goes to my personal businesses and initiatives to bring change to the world, such as the Clinton Global Initiative and the WEF, various state visits and various councils; the other 40% of my time goes to Sekunjalo.”

To me, it certainly sounds like an incredibly full plate, but he seems completely relaxed and jovial for a man with so much responsibility – 
a sign of a true leader.

When Dr Survé starts talking about the things that really matter to him, it is contagious. He is a firm believer in the future of Africa and the bigger position it will hold one day.

“I am one of the young privileged people who came out of the Mandela era, so I feel I have a huge responsibility to help change Africa,” he says enthusiastically. “China was number 100 in 1975 in terms of its economy; today it is the second largest economy in the world. That is because it made a commitment to change and embraced a long-term vision.

“By 2050, Africa will have the most young skilled and literate people than any other continent in the world; in spite of the challenges, the conflict and some of the corrupt leaders, we all need to make it happen – starting with our youth. We need to create that vision: success breeds off success. We are a huge geographical mass with abundant resources and we have great institutions as well in South Africa, 
for instance.”

Dr Survé is no slouch when it comes to education and his involvement with UCT, and the Graduate School of Business proves this so.

“We have been getting global recognition at the Graduate School and people are starting to talk about us in the same way one would mention Oxford or Harvard. It has an MBA that is the number-one value-for-money MBA in the world (even though it is not the cheapest), and its executive programme is number six in the world,” he states proudly.

Dr Survé is putting his own money where his mouth is with the Survé Family Foundation. “I have the Iqbal Survé Bursary Trust, with which we have sent close to 100 students to study in health sciences. It is a full three-year bursary to study in either medicine, occupational therapy, physiotherapy or logopaedics, with the first batch of doctors already having graduated.

“We have chosen some people from the poorest part of the country, from rural communities. One young woman used to have to walk five kilometres every day to get to school and studied by candlelight. Today she is a doctor. It is so important to enable people to achieve their dreams,” he says with passion.

Another major accomplishment Dr Survé has just added to the other notches on his belt is the new South Africa and Saudia Arabia joint holding company, of which he is co-chairperson. In June, Minister Rob Davies of the Department of Trade and Industry announced to the press that a new investment company – Saudi Arabian South African Holding – would be capitalised with R20-billion and that many South African companies could expect to be on the upside of the venture.

My time with Dr Survé was already way over the hour we had scheduled and he had to leave to fly off to Saudi Arabia that day. He had certainly inspired me and so, in closing, I asked what or who was his own inspiration.

“It is almost a cliché by now, but you have to say Mandela, especially due to all the personal interaction I have been blessed to have with him and also by what he says and who he is. There are many great leaders in the world and each has his/her strengths – and each has his/her deficiencies, by the way.

“I like to learn from everyone: someone who works in a factory, someone you meet on the road, someone with whom you play sport, a musician or artist – that’s collective wisdom.

“Carl Jung, the psychiatrist, always speaks about the collective consciousness, and that is what we should all aim for. If you look for one leader who has all the talents of the world, you would be looking for God, right? You need to look for the collective leadership and take the best of the best from different people.”

A prosperous mind, indeed. 


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