'Champagne communist' at helm of key South African province
August 5, 1999
From Johannesburg Bureau Chief Charlayne Hunter-Gault
He was the fiery and effective head of COSATU, the country's biggest federation of workers, a follower of the African National Congress -- and, on top of all that, a dedicated communist.
"He would have been regarded very much as an ogre and something that you would never want to freely associate with," says Marius DeJager of the Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce.
But after elections earlier this year, Shilowa, 41, was selected as premier of the South African province of Gauteng, which includes Johannesburg and much of the country's economic heartland.
Although it is physically the smallest of South Africa's nine provinces, Gauteng generates 38 percent of the nation's gross domestic product. In earlier days, having a communist sitting as the head of the province would have been unthinkable. But in the new South Africa, business leaders are taking his elevation in stride.
"Especially in the last five years, with a number of prominent communists in senior government positions, all of us South Africans have come to recognize that they're not what we were led to believe they were," says DeJager. "They're ordinary human beings."
Shilowa does not fit the stereotype of a communist. He has traded in his working-class T-shirts for sleek business suits. His fondness for good cigars and fine wine has led to him being termed a "champagne communist."
And while he remains an admirer of Cuban President Fidel Castro, Shilowa's brand of communism has evolved.
"The approach that the Communist Party takes is to say, 'This is not 1917, after the revolution in Russia.' This is South Africa. These are prevailing conditions in South Africa and therefore we will make our contribution as communists in South Africa rather than communists elsewhere," Shilowa says.
Shilowa says he is willing to work with business leaders --provided they understand that priorities have changed, that his government has a mandate "to uplift the plight of the poor."
Gauteng has its share of economic despair, with sprawling landscapes of poverty alongside rich, white suburbs. Shilowa says he is prepared to use whatever "ism" he needs to help solve his province's problems.
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