By Chris Bishop
South African Billionaire Christo Wiese says he is an incurable optimist who believes his country will adapt to survive and rise above the COVID-19 outbreak that threatens to decimate its shaky economy. He also believes his struggling British High Street clothes stores will weather the storm.
Wiese also spoke of plans to announce his own relief fund – as many African billionaires have done- to feed the hungry rather than save small businesses.
“I think the most urgent need at the moment there are people going hungry. We forget that we have to keep small businesses going, we have to keep big businesses going, but there are literally thousands of people who need a square meal a day. So, all of us will do things in a different way,” Wiese told CNBC Africa.
Wiese admitted in the interview that the COVID-19 was the biggest catastrophe he had seen in more than half a century of thick-and-thin in business.
“It is the worst I could have ever imagined. I mean if somebody had told me such a thing is possible, I would have disputed that.- I don’t think the world has seen anything like it is going through at the moment,” says Wiese.
“I am an incurable optimist and I believe that through this crisis that a lot of things may shake out correctly in a shorter space of time than they would otherwise have been. You know people talk about can the economy survive? I don’t know what they mean by that because there will be an economy when the dust has settled on this thing, so it is not a question of survival, but how we adapt…People are resilient, South Africans in particular, and we will adapt.”
Wiese also believes his struggling fashion store chain in the United Kingdom will weather the storm with the help of restructuring at the end of last year. He owns New Look fashion stories through his investment vehicle Brait and shut down a number of them as the High Street struggled.
“New Look has upped their game as far as e-commerce is concerned they have got their warehouses running so here and there people are managing to keep the ship afloat. People have been predicting the death of the High Street retailing in the UK for the last two or three years. I don’t think businesses just die like that, businesses do adapt and we have taken several initiatives in the last year with New Look in terms of a CVA (a cut down of store space and employees) to lessen the burden of leases and all those actions are being taken with a view to survive,” says Wiese.
CNBC Africa also asked Wiese about when the lockdown in South Africa should be lifted. “One of the many things that I am grateful for is that I am not the person who has to make that call. We are all by now fully informed about what the risks are and the downsides are and it is not a South African problem it is a global problem. It will be a very, very, tough call that has to be made but having said that I think people have learned a lot of lessons over the past few weeks and hopefully those lessons will be properly applied so we can start with gradual relaxations as you know people are talking all over the world, in the United States and the United Kingdom, and I just hope common sense will prevail,” says Wiese.