jose mujica
jose mujica

Jose Mujica / Palm Partners (p)

“The President of Uruguay, Jose Mujica drives a Volkswagen Beetle, stays in his own house, donates 90% of his salary to social projects, and is reputed to be the poorest president in the world.”

mick goss
mick goss

Mick Goss

Summerhill CEOThis morning we brought you a story on the opulence of Dubai, and there’ll be more on the subject of the World Cup and its surrounding events before the weekend. This story comes from the other end of the spectrum, and with elections as topical as they are in South Africa at the moment, it’s a story worth telling.

Not a day goes by anymore that we don’t hear about the income disparities between citizens, about the inequalities in our society, and you’ve all heard the lament at our School of Management Excellence that “talent is spread equally across the globe, but opportunity is not.” Where we grew up, we were taught that humility was the best of the human virtues, Warren Buffett taught us to live modestly, and the University Of Life keeps reminding us about the value of mutual respect. There are times of course, when we get ahead of ourselves and need to recall the five rules for the “good chairman” of the late Meyer Khan. He should know; he grew up at the top tables of companies like South African Breweries, Southern Sun, and OK Bazaars at its height, and was advisor to the first South African administration of Nelson Mandela. This was his recipe:

  1. Set your clock five minutes fast.
  2. Never sit at the top of the table.
  3. Drive a car everyone else around the table can afford.
  4. Encourage people to be creative, encourage them to be adventurous, and forgive them their risk-taking mistakes.
  5. Chairmanship is a simple task: there is no rule five.

As Chairman of Berkshire-Hathaway, Warren Buffett pegged his salary at $100,000 a year many years ago: he drives a twelve-year-old Toyota Camry, and he still lives in the house he occupied forty years ago. We have parallels at Summerhill: we drive aging Opel Corsa bakkies, and we still wear the shoes we arrived in thirty-five years ago; though ours is driven by commercial reality, not the morally praiseworthy act of self-denial!

Back to politics, on Sunday our former Minister of Reconstruction and Development, Jay Naidoo related a story on a much grander scale. The President of Uruguay, Jose Mujica drives a Volkswagen Beetle, stays in his own house, donates 90% of his salary to social projects, and is reputed to be the poorest president in the world. The latter is a title he disputes, saying “he has a way of life that I don’t change because I am president. I have everything that I want, I earn more than I need, even if it’s not enough for others, and I am not poor”. That title, he says of the poorest presidents, belongs to politicians who need blue-light cavalcades or Christian Louboutin shoes, or who sneakily claim business-class flights for their relatives at taxpayers’ expense.

The country is proud of its social traditions and Mujica, like Lula did in Brazil, affirms the right of his people to food. For those of us who believe that the free market should determine this, we might be afraid to learn that Mujica’s government sets prices for essential commodities such as milk, and has nationalized key energy and telecommunications industries. But his policies are more akin to the pragmatism of the Lula administration in Brazil than the hard-line policies of a Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

The president insists that all government policies promote the use of renewable energy and recycling. Uruguay has set an ambitious goal of producing 90% of its energy through renewable sources, though he grudgingly accepts he must focus on jobs and growth first.

Inspired by these philosophies and a new stability in the economic affairs of their country, visionaries of our sport in Uruguay recently ploughed tens of millions of dollars into the refurbishment of their splendid racecourse in Montevideo, and today Hipodromo Nacional de Maronas stands as one of the grandest facilities of its kind anywhere. As unlikely as it might sound for a country we hear so little about in the world of racing, a local breeder provided the world with a World Champion of his era in the form of the mighty Invasor, who wowed us all on Dubai World Cup day in 2007, and accumulated a further 8 Group One races in the United States and South America.

As veteran revolutionaries, Mujica and his wife chat fondly about meetings with Che Guevara and other leaders, but he has mixed feelings about the recent revolts and protests in Brazil, Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere. “The world will always need revolution. That doesn’t mean shooting and violence. A revolution is when you change your thinking. Confucianism and Christianity were both revolutionary,” he says. But he is less excited about demonstrations organised by social networks that quickly fizzle out. “The protestors will probably finish up working for multinationals and dying of modern disease”.

Not everything he has to say is necessarily my cup of tea, I have to admit, but I’d also be quick to say that Mujica is a man I could easily go to war with, or for that matter, to the Dubai World Cup on Saturday. He is obviously a man who is comfortable in his own skin, who’d rather be remembered for what he left behind than what he went away with. That’s a model we South Africans might take something from, and we can have our say on 7th May.