Growing in pre-1990 South Africa you’d be hard-pressed as a young African youth to find a role model in the ICT sector that somehow looked like you. This was important, for me at the time at least, because as a young person at the time who was lucky to have access to a second hand XT computer with a lime green monochrome monitor, I needed to know that people like me had a future pursuing a career in the sector…in South Africa.
So, you can imagine my ear-to-ear grin one day in the 1990s after high school when I walked into a small Software Connection store at Sanlam Center in the Pretoria CBD looking to buy a Pascal compiler with my pocket money and I was greeted by two young African males who offered to assist me.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, they would go on to build a behemoth of an ICT company, BCX, that would later be sold to South Africa’s Telkom for approximately $200 million.
Coming from Ga-Rankuwa, a township north of Pretoria, and being sent to a private school in Kimberley, the Mophatlane twins were fish out of water.
As Isaac would once relate to me during 2017. They were not exactly good soccer players and definitely not athletic, having not been exposed to sports like rugby, cricket, and hockey early on. They did, however, play chess, and this opened several doors for them.
“One thing that was quite cool is we were both in the chess club. Our late father had invested a lot to make sure we played chess regularly, and we had a chess tutor when we were young,” said Isaac.
Their interest in computers came through Paddy O'Brien, a Catholic brother, at CBC Kimberley who encouraged them to join the computer club. The computer club’s lab ran on BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) manufactured computers on a network with a single file server.
Growing interest in computers
This regular access to a computer lab at an early age allowed the Mophatlane brothers the time and resources to hone their programming (Turbo C++ and Pascal) and computing skills more regularly than many young people at the time. Looking back, it also set the foundation of what was to be an illustrious business career in ICT across Africa.
Now, if you were a programmer or electronics enthusiast in the mid to late 1990s in Pretoria, there were two likely places where you probably bought your books, manuals, software, compilers, electronics and other supplies from - either you shopped at Communica or Software Connection at the Sanlam Sentrum. If you shopped at Software Connection especially on Saturdays, you wouldn’t be blamed if you regularly mixed up the names of the two sales people at the store.
To cut a long story short, they would go on to leverage every opportunity they to to eventually build Business Connexion, later renamed BCX.
BCX acquired for $200 million
At first, Telkom made a failed bid to acquire the company in 2007. Telkom would eventually make a successful $200 million (R2,6 billion) bid to acquire BCX in 2014, with the deal being approved in 2015.
The Tefo Mohapi Show: Isaac Mophatlane talks about government accountability, the ICT sector, and tech startups
However, during negotiations for that deal, it would be a period of time that would also mark the saddest time in Isaac’s life. In the middle of 2014, while the deal with Telkom was being negotiated, Isaac’s twin brother and then CEO of BCX, Benjamin, passed away.
Despite that, Benjamin and Isaac remain one of the pioneers of South Africa’s ICT industry.
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