The president’s hipster son is the brain behind a much-hyped AI conference — but is it the tech mini-equivalent of the infamously flopped Fyre Festival?
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s younger son is the brain behind a much-hyped conference which aimed to “showcase the latest technology and trends” in artificial intelligence and blockchain. Tickets went for between R3,000 for a regular one-day pass and an eye-watering R50,000 for the full VIP experience.
But the entire event was a no-show, now postponed to April or May 2020, leaving at least some would-be attendees irate.
In dreaming of his blockbuster conference, did Tumelo Ramaphosa — younger brother to Andile, whose work with Bosasa helped drag his father into a funding scandal — sleepwalk his way into a mini business-tech equivalent of Fyre Festival?
The event was to be held at the exclusive Summer Place in Hyde Park, Johannesburg, from 3 to 4 December 2019 and in Cape Town a day later. Now a notice on the conference website says that it has been “postponed till April 2020 due to unforeseen circumstances”.
In response to detailed questions this week, Ramaphosa Jnr blamed an unnamed event company — and envisaged holding the conference at “a later date in May” only.
He said in an email that “my business associates and I took the decision to postpone the event, when we experienced difficulties with the company that was hired to plan, market and co-ordinate the event. We are currently engaged in legal action with the above-mentioned organiser.”
For his full response, see Ramaphosa Jnr responds below.
Earlier, Ramaphosa Jnr went on the offensive when confronted on radio by an employee of a company that bought three tickets at R3,000 a pop.
The day after the conference was due to begin, Jade-Lee Herman took on Ramaphosa Jnr in a heated interview on North West-based YOU fm.
Herman accused him and the conference organisers of cancelling the event without any prior notice, and failing to provide refunds. She said that the organisers continued advertising the event on social media and accepting payments up until the last minute.
Ramaphosa Jnr responded, saying that “none of the people that have bought tickets have asked to be reimbursed; I’ve spoken to all of them personally; I’ve been doing so for the past four days, and we’ve given them complimentary tickets in addition to what they bought… Why have they not taken the money back — because they have confidence in what we’re doing.”
He then hit out angrily, accusing her of not only “making false accusations” but of being “false”, much to the shock of one presenter, who exclaimed: “Wow Tumelo, you didn’t have to take it that far!”
Herman told amaBhungane that three of her colleagues pitched up at the venue on the day of the conference, only to be told that it had been cancelled.
“I then went online to see if there were any notices of it being postponed or anything, and there wasn’t. I called the venue and the venue confirmed that there wasn’t an event taking place.”
Herman said that she then began to suspect that the event was a sham; even that someone had been impersonating Ramaphosa Jnr.
When she called Ramaphosa Jnr via WhatsApp at 10:42am on 3 December to ask for a refund, she said he hung up on her. According to Herman, she then texted him from another number and he responded, saying the event had been postponed until April.
He made no mention of a refund and asked if he could call back, but never did, said Herman. Her company subsequently asked Payfast, which handled online payments for the event, for a refund.
Ramaphosa Jnr forwarded correspondence to amaBhungane in which he authorised the refund on December 6. Hermans confirmed her company received it on Tuesday.
Payfast said in response to questions:
“To date, we have only received one refund request and this person has already been refunded.”
Blockchain of unfortunate events
The conference was organised by Ramaphosa Jnr’s California-based StudEx Wildlife Fund. The conference’s website is thin on information, but promises those who can afford to splurge R50,000 for a three-day ticket a “two-day Safari stay”, “elephant adventures”, “rare species” and non-described “after-hour sessions”.
Cutting through the thin veneer of gloss, it did not take much scrutiny of the website to see that the whole event had been chaotically thrown together.
Very little effort seems to have gone into the site, which is a generic template, barely altered and shows pictures of unrelated TEDx talks.
At first glance, the schedule, a dictionary of start-up buzzwords, offers a range of events to entice any eager tech entrepreneur — fireside chats about the future of banking and reinventing retail, panel discussions (most of them including Ramaphosa Jnr) on topics like digital tokens and new value creation, and a keynote address on the fourth industrial revolution.
The list of speakers, which has been chopped and changed many times over the short life of the site, has included some big-name industry players, among them Minister of Communications Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.
The minister’s spokesperson, however, said that Ndabeni-Abrahams turned down the invitation upon receiving it.
“Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams was invited to be a speaker at the Unlocking Blockchain Africa event, however, apologised due to prior work commitments.”
That, however, did not stop the organisers from including her in the line-up.
Another speaker, Colin Thakur, was surprised to learn that his name was on the list, as a representative of the Reserve Bank and BankSeta.
Thakur says he never agreed to be a speaker and is not even an employee at the Reserve Bank.
“I happened to give a lecture to the staff at the Reserve Bank, but that does not mean I work there.
“I’m research chair in digitalisation for BankSeta — if I’m going to speak on their behalf the ethical and responsible thing to do would be for them to approach either BankSeta, my university or at the very least me beforehand, and that did not happen. This becomes even more necessary as this, as I understand, is a fee-paying conference.”
It was a similar story with Candy Steyn of Edcon, who was supposed to be discussing “reinventing retail” with the president’s son.
Steyn said that Ramphosa Jnr did mention the conference to her, and she expressed an interest in it, but it ended there.
“I was never given anything to believe it was going to happen,” said Steyn.
It gets weirder. The photo accompanying Steyn’s name is not of her, but of a Costa Rican woman whose Twitter biography describes her as a clean economy advocate, and who appears to have had nothing to do with the conference.
Another speaker, who did not want to be named, said she knew nothing of the event and only realised that she was listed as a speaker when someone raised it with her after the event date.
And yet another said that the organisers did invite him to speak, but he declined right away and said he did not have the time.
He said he was first approached on 5 November 2019, and on 7 November, less than a month until the conference, Ramphosa Jnr asked him to help sponsor the event, which he also declined to do.
Some of the speakers have subsequently been removed from the site.
Ramaphosa Jnr seems unfazed by all of this. Defending himself and his company, StudEx, on-air, he said:
“We’ve been in this space for a year and this is the third event that we’re hosting in a year.”
Ramaphosa Jnr was involved in at least one other blockchain event that took place in August 2018 in Sandton. World-famous singer Akon was supposed to be speaking, though there is no evidence that he ever pitched up.
One listed speaker from that year told amaBhungane that he never went to the event and did not even know he had been listed.
But at least one high-profile person was in the audience: Ramaphosa Jnr’s supportive mother, Tshepo Motsepe.
Ramaphosa Jnr tends to play down the leverage his family affords him — something he gets asked about frequently.
Asked on YOU fm if he was “a legitimate businessman” or “hiding behind [his] surname”, Ramaphosa Jnr responded to his stunned host with a burst of laughter. “I think my surname needs to hide behind me,” he added.
In another radio interview, the presenter suggested that it would be easier for Ramaphosa Jnr to “knock on doors” since his father had been announced as president.
Ramaphosa Jnr’s response: “Look man, I’ve been involved in this space even before all of this noise… Yes 2017 your family also got put on full blast on 18 December, but also at the same time my company also just became the best in the world. You know, so, when you’re one of the top 20 companies in the world, for me that’s a lot bigger than being just the president of a country, you know there’s over 300 countries in the world.”
Ramaphosa Jnr’s estimate of his own company may or may not be as off target as his geographical knowledge — he claims that StudEx is one of the world’s top 20 cryptocurrency companies.
But, aside from an interest in high-value livestock — a passion he shares with his father — it is hard to get a sense of what StudEx is all about.
“What we’ve done is that, from the animals we breed we’ve created copies of them,” he told one interviewer.
“We’ve created essentially electronic copies that we can now sell, as copies of our animals. So, we tokenise the artificial copies and then we can replicate them from the real ones. So you could have a $12-million buffalo and you could replicate it a hundred times but now sell it to other people, and now what they would do is that, with their essentially CryptoKitties, they would take their animals and they would reproduce with other people and they would breed.
“And this would all be using the Ethereum ERC-721 code, and every trade, every buy or whatever happens, it is based on cryptocurrency.”
He might have refined his elevator pitch since that interview. A 2018 article profiling Ramaphosa Jnr and StudEx put it more simply:
“In layman’s terms, StudEx is digitising animals, which includes livestock, that can be traded, sold or bred. Each animal is essentially its own coin.”
The former St Stithians student’s confidence — the sort you need to attempt to magic up a global tech conference overnight — may come from being a president’s son.
It may also have something to do with the cryptocurrency business, as a largely unregulated, fast-paced, frontier industry dominated by bullish young techpreneurs who are guided by the slogan of disruption and told they can innovate their way out of any problem.
With his beard, bitcoin baseball cap, thick-rimmed spectacles and biceps, Tumelo Ramaphosa fits the mould of Silicon Valley hipster-bro perfectly.
Ramaphosa Jnr responds
Tumelo Ramaphosa said in an emailed reply on Thursday:
“For purposes of setting the record straight, it is important to start by stating that the conference scheduled for the 3/4 December has actually been postponed to a later date in May, due to unforeseen circumstances.
“The conference was supposed to take place at Summer Place, as advertised however my business associates and I took the decision to postpone the event, when we experienced difficulties with the company that was hired to plan, market and co-ordinate the event.
“We are currently engaged in legal action with the above-mentioned organiser, to recoup expenses spent organising the conference for the 3rd and 4th of December, as the company hired to organise the event, was unable to deliver on the agreed upon terms of engagement, and only communicated this fact to me and my associates a few days before the said conference.
“The decision to postpone was not an easy one; however for purposes of hosting a quality conference we decided it was appropriate to fully investigate what went wrong with our former organisers.
“The tickets that have already been purchased are still valid for purposes of the postponed conference, as communicated on the conference website and Facebook social media page.
“This conference was planned to provide value to those in the retail space, by showing the applicability of Blockchain and Artificial Intelligence in that sector, as such our speakers for the conference were handpicked personally as leading experts in their respective fields.
“As you are aware, this conference was not the first we have hosted, having successfully hosted two previous conferences in Johannesburg and Cape Town respectively. Where Charles Hoskinson was the keynote for the first Unlocking Blockchain Africa conference last year 2018. Ran Nue Nur, the crypto trader, was one of our key speakers as well. It is however unfortunate that our decision to engage the services of an official event organiser led to the situation we find ourselves in now, where the legitimacy of our work is now in question.
“We have prioritised the proper organisation of the subsequent postponed conference in order to provide those who have supported us with a quality event that has been marketed and organised as agreed…
“With regards to people personally contacting me, I would like to firmly state that I did not receive any phone call from any ticket buyers on the day, disgruntled or not. The only correspondence I have received was that involving a request for sponsorship.” DM
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