MAVERICK British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson says South Africa needs a leader of Nelson Mandela’s stature to reach its potential.
PHOTO: ELVIS NTOMBELA THOSE WERE THE DAYS: The late Nelson Mandela and Richard Branson at the launch of ‘ The Elders ’ during Mandela’s birthday celebration at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg a few years ago
“Any political uncertainty can hold a country back. It would be great that when President Jacob Zuma steps down we can get a really good leader who can take the Mandela-type of figure and embrace all that’s good about South Africa and take the country forward to greater things.
“It all ricochets down from the person who leads the country. The country can be even greater than what it is today. There’s work to be done,” Branson said.
Asked if he had any relationship with the Zuma government, Branson replied: “Not really specifically with the government. We’re talking to Zuma about getting an African Disease Control Centre going and they have been a bit slow … ”
Branson, 65, who is on his annual pilgrimage in the country, paid a courtesy visit to Virgin Active RED gym in Jabulani, Soweto, last week. The club is the most successful of the seven using this concept that opened across SA in July 2014.
The man whose net worth Forbes magazine puts at $5-billion delivered a thinly veiled criticism of Zuma’s leadership style.
Nevertheless Branson said he still had confidence in South Africa.
“As far as Virgin Active is concerned, we have a big investment programme with 20 new clubs every year. We will continue to invest.”
Virgin Active RED is pitched at the “younger, cooler” members of the Virgin Active health club portfolio. The gyms are designed to be simple and quick to understand, with an oversized Grid area, live DJ sessions and a Box studio.
Branson, who shared a birthday with Mandela, July 18, said he kept coming back to South Africa because of his love for “the people, the wildlife and the spirit of South Africa”.
“It was Madiba who first persuaded me to get involved in gyms here. He rang me at my home in England. I was in a bath and he told me to get down to South Africa and save these jobs.”
Branson bought the assets of the Health and Racquet Club chain after its parent company, Leisurenet, had been placed in liquidation in 2000 for over R319m.
“Now he (Mandela) would be so proud and pleased to see what he has effectively created. I’m sure he’s here in spirit, to see the wonderful atmosphere.
“To be able to create something affordable to most people in Soweto, the whole team can be proud of. It’s more than a club, it’s a place to meet and make friends and do work. We have the best wifi system in Africa.
“Our vision was that everyone should be fit. It’s a good quality club and in other parts of the world you would be paying 10 times what you pay here.