By Marc Gunther

(FORTUNE Magazine) – WHEN MARTHA STEWART GETS HER own edition of The Apprentice this fall on NBC, she will not be the first boss with a prison record to take command of the reality TV program. Tokyo Sexwale, host of the new South African version of The Apprentice, spent 13 years as a political prisoner on the infamous Robben Island during the apartheid era, only to emerge as one of the most celebrated leaders of his nation's new black elite.

In the last year or so, The Apprentice has unexpectedly become a global TV phenomenon. Reruns of the U.S. program hosted by Donald Trump have been seen in 41 countries, according to Mark Burnett Productions, which created the show. In 22 of them, including Britain, Brazil, Finland, and Croatia, as well as South Africa, broadcasters also opted to produce locally flavored versions featuring their own tycoons. The BBC, for example, cast Sir Alan Sugar, an outspoken computer mogul and sports-team owner, in the Trump role. Meanwhile, the government-owned South Africa Broadcasting Co. turned to Sexwale, a 52-year-old politician-turned-executive whose improbable life story reflects the transformation of his country.

Born in the impoverished black township of Soweto, Sexwale was dubbed "Toyko" as a kid because he loved the martial arts. He joined the underground military wing of the African National Congress, trained as a soldier with the the Soviet army, and was subsequently convicted of terrorism and conspiracy to overthrow the apartheid regime. Sentenced to prison in 1977, Sexwale served on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela, who named him premier of Gauteng province after the ANC won South Africa's first free elections in 1994. (This is the rough equivalent of being governor of New York or California.) Four years later Sexwale left government to help launch Mvelaphanda Resources, a gold-, platinum-, and diamond-mining company where he is now executive chairman. The publicly traded firm has joint ventures with mining giants De Beers and Anglo Platinum.

Even a casual viewer of The Apprentice SA, as it's called, will see that Sexwale is no Trump clone. "We're looking for a leader. So remember ethics, ethics, ethics," the soft-spoken Sexwale told the 16 original contestants. The would-be moguls competed to help a Johannesburg street vendor of vegetables develop a sustainable business model. But in part because South African labor laws protect employees against arbitrary layoffs, no one will be abruptly "fired" on The Apprentice SA. Instead, one contestant after another will be gently "dismissed" until an eventual winner is rewarded with a job at Mvelaphanda. "I like to see myself as a friendly leader," says Sexwale.

Although the ANC was shaped for years by South African Communists and left-wing trade unions, Sexwale now argues that a compassionate brand of capitalism offers the best hope for improving the living standards of black South Africans. Still, a book about Che Guevara sits beside Michael Porter's The Competitive Advantage of Nations on his office shelf, and until recently, Sexwale was barred from entering the U.S. because he had been labeled a terrorist. "The same impulse that propelled me to be a guerrilla fighter," he has said, "makes me want to be a successful businessman." Sounds as if Tokyo might just be the one boss who could intimidate Martha and the Donald. -- Marc Gunther