Lubumbashi, DR Congo | AFP | Rebels have wanted to kill him, NGOs accuse him of exploitation and Chinese newcomers have rattled his Congo mining empire, but George Forrest, one of Africa’s biggest businessmen, remains unbowed.
The head of the Forrest Group, which is worth an estimated $800 million (650 million euros) and was ranked second in sub-Saharan Africa by Forbes in 2016, ascribes his durability to one crucial fact.
“We’ve come through many events and a lot of crises because we don’t get mixed up in politics,” the 78-year-old entrepreneur told AFP at his office in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo’s mining hub and its second-biggest city.
It was in this city that Forrest was born in 1940 when the country was known as Belgian Congo. He was born to a father from New Zealand, who served as honorary consul for France at the time and who set up the firm which would later become the Forrest Group.
Initially a transport company, it moved into mining, energy, banking, food processing and eventually cement manufacture.
Over the years, Forrest’s life has been intertwined with the history of this vast conflict-torn central African nation.
And although he took Belgian nationality in 1995, many Congolese see him as one of their own.
– Before a firing squad –
Just five years after Congo achieved its independence in 1960, General Joseph-Desire Mobutu seized power in a coup, renaming the country Zaire.
He installed a regime which became notorious for its widespread graft and which let the national infrastructure fall into ruin.
In 1974, Mobutu nationalised the economy and the Forrest family, which had been active in the southern Katanga region since 1922, lost everything.
“There was no compensation,” Forrest recalls. “Soon afterwards, my father died. It was the shock.”
But Mobutu’s nationalisation programme quickly led to bankruptcy, forcing him to turn to foreign investors, with Forrest taking charge of the family’s affairs in Kolwezi, the second biggest town in the region.
In 1978, Kolwezi was invaded by rebels who massacred Congolese citizens and white residents.
“I was targeted. They said I was a friend of France and of Mobutu. I was put up against the wall to be executed. It was my workers who saved me,” he told AFP.
Mobutu quickly turned to France which sent paratroopers to free Kolwezi.