Everything you read about Johann Rupert is wrong

Jeremy Gordin writes on the businessman's controversial appearance on the PowerFM Chairman's Report

Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night (1968), chronicling the 1967 anti-Vietnam march to the Pentagon (and Mailer himself), begins: “From the outset, let us bring you news of your protagonist. The following is from Time magazine, October 27, 1967.” Mailer then quoted the Time article in full; it takes up 95% of chapter one of Part I.

But before moving to chapter two, he wrote one more sentence. “Now we may leave Time in order to find out what happened.” Gorgeous, isn’t it? Boom! In one short and unadorned sentence, Mailer lets us know exactly what he thinks of the veridical value of the Time report.

Now then, dear readers, you have doubtless read and listened to the tsunami of words unleashed in the wake of the televised and broadcast Chairman’s Report on 4 December in Sandton. This was where Remgro and Richemont head honcho Johann Rupert was involved in a discussion with Given Mkhari, CEO of MSG Afrika.

We may now leave all those words in order to find out what happened.

To keep the wordage as low as possible, I’ll need to focus on the more contentious issues. But first a brief overview and some comments. The point of the Chairman’s Report – at least in Rupert’s view – was apparently to talk about Seffrica’s woes and especially his view that “we” all really need to talk to one another openly and frankly. Rupert was obviously talked into doing this by Mkhari (apparently a “friend”) on the basis that he (Rupert) is a very rich, successful (at making money) and therefore influential Seffrican – and people, especially business people and budding entrepreneurs, would therefore want to hear what he had to say. Judging from the reaction of most in the audience, this was so.

Also, it’s no secret that Rupert has been targeted by Black First Land First (a group about whose funding one would love to know), the EFF and others for being part of the “Stellenbosch mafia” and “white monopoly capital”. So, besides entrepreneurial tips, there’d presumably be some spicy chat as well.

Regarding Rupert: he’s 68, plain speaking, verbally a little ponderous, as is his humour. He drops names a bit (Michael Jordan, the late President George HW Bush, etc.); but, hey, you know your audience of budding rich people loves to hear that stuff, so why not? Rupert is also, like most folk, largely a product of his times and environment and probably wouldn’t be chosen by the SA Human Rights Commission as an instructor of gender and/or race sensitivity classes. He’s pretty witty nonetheless, and one may assume he expects people to listen to him carefully and to be amused by him. If your net worth is conservatively estimated to be $6, 1-billion (that’s US dollars by the way), then, in the words of the Yiddish proverb, “you are wise, you are handsome, and you sing well too”.

Moving on. First, there were the utterances of that sweet chap, Black First Land First leader Andile Mngxitama, in response to whatever he claimed Rupert said. Mngxitama claimed Rupert had “declared war on us black people.” He continued: “For each one person that is killed by the taxi industry we will kill five white people. For every one black person we will kill five white people.” He added: “We kill their children, we kill their women, we kill their dogs, we kill their cats, we kill anything that comes before us.”

Why the dogs and cats should be killed is something of a mystery. But regarding the taxi industry, Rupert, dropping another name, joked that a friend of his, Jabu Mabuza, now chairman of Eskom, had once been chairman of a taxi association; apparently Rupert knew him because the association had been a tenant of one of the companies with which Rupert was connected. This comment followed quite a lot of good-natured joshing and purportedly witty verbal fencing with Mkhari about the red berets “being after” Rupert. And Rupert said: “So I also have my own army when those red guys come.”

Mngxitama claimed this throw-away comment was a declaration of war and insisted therefore that we whites should be killed, at a ratio of 5:1, and our dogs and cats too. (I’ve informed my bull terrier, Olsen, who’s grumpier than Rupert the bear and who doesn’t take threats lightly, even if I do.)

Besides sweetie-pie Mngxitama’s harangue, there were also responses at the event from three or four people actually in the audience. Sadly, they were all even more inarticulate and convoluted than a parliamentary speech by the EFF’s Floyd Shivambu, so I genuinely don’t know what precisely they were saying.

One man, whose name I unfortunately didn’t catch, said Rupert was “too academic”. Even Rupert’s mouth was hanging open in wonder. (“Academic” Rupert is not.) The man also said Rupert had shown scant respect for black farmers. This was apparently in response to Rupert’s comment that “Boerdery is nie for sissies nie”. This was in connection with a discussion on “returning” farm land; and all Rupert was trying to say, inter alia, was that there’s little point in expropriating productive arable land if (a) no one really wants it (they want their former land in towns and cities) and (b) being a profitable farmer is extremely difficult – “Boerdery is nie for sissies nie”.

Finally, the Twitterati apparently had their say. This was delivered on their behalf by radio/TV journalist Iman Rappetti. She’s a known as a “fearless fighter” for human rights because she once stopped some highly emotional fellow from re-circumcising former President Jacob Zuma’s image on the Brett Murray painting, The Spear.

“What would you say to South Africans for whom your message jars in the way in which you deliver [it],” Rappetti asked Rupert, “who feel that the message you are communicating is that white people have to be caretakers of black people in our country?” Where the white-people-as-caretakers came from is unclear. Perhaps it emanated from Rupert’s remark that “I can’t be Father Christmas for the whole of South Africa” – but he said this after he’d been branded as a “racist” by Rappetti.

Anyway, as I understand it, what the Twitterati were most annoyed about was Rupert’s remark that the younger generation seemed more interested in buying BMWs and hanging round at swank clubs. Asked whether he thought the fact that his father had grown up during the great depression in South Africa had something to do with his drive and ultimate success in business, Rupert said yes.

“That's the reason… In a sense, the Afrikaner was downtrodden. The poor white question… but they were driven. They studied like crazy, they saved like crazy. They didn’t go and buy BMWs and hang around at ‘Taboo’ or ‘The Sands’ [clubs] all the time.”

Rupert then added that what was being said about former President Nelson Mandela being a sell-out was “totally disrespectful”. He said to Mkhari: “I don't see your generation going to jail for decades, no, you’ll miss The Sands.

“Remember I met Steve Biko [caution: name drop] when he was in his 20s and he wouldn’t have carried on in Taboo.”

There’s a fellow on the Sunday World called Vusi Nzapheza who writes a column called Straight & 2 Beers.

He wrote this: “I heard later that [Rupert] rubbed a lot of my people the wrong way when he accused them of wasting their dosh at Taboo nightclub and buying BMWs instead of creating real wealth. I was surprised that my people were angry since that’s common knowledge and practice. ...

“It is a familiar sight to see a gusheshe [the BMW 325 iS] parked near a mkhukhu [shack] for the night because in some quarters, a car is mightier than a house. A BMW is a panty-dropper while a bonded house is unlikely to get you laid on a Saturday night. It’s simple kasinomics, which Rupert knows nothing about because he never grew up ekasi [in the township]. A house is impossible to drag to the car wash on weekends while a beemer or VrrPhaa [sound made by a hot sports car] guarantees monate mpolaye [“a ‘killer’ of a good time”]!”

I think Nzapheza – who missed the show because of load shedding – actually heard Rupert better than anyone else did.