The Stellenbosch Mafia: Inside the Billionaires’ Club by Pieter du Toit, 2019. Jonathan Ball Publishers. Kindle Edition.
The Stellenbosch Mafia tells the story of those – well, some of those – belonging to a group “of influential white Afrikaner businessmen” who allegedly “use their clout informally to steer the economy and pull the strings of government from their Boland lair. The term, which got a lot of media air during the height of the Bell Pottinger-inspired defence of the state-capture network in 2017, has been around for many years but its definition has changed in recent times. ...
“It has now,” Pieter du Toit tells us, “become a swear word and conjures up images of conspiracy and control, of back-room dealings and illegal influence. ...[I]t has taken on a much more sinister image, with the Mafia being accused of manipulating the economy and even being in charge of the country and controlling society. And, in Johann Rupert, the Mafia had its don, a larger-than-life figure who controlled Stellenbosch and the country” (location 89).
As we know, these accusations emanate mainly though not solely from Julius Malema and other EFF members, BLF’s Andile Mngxitama, the aforementioned Bell-Pottinger nexus (now seemingly vanquished), and also, let’s not forget, from the SACP – which “takes a more measured line [sic] and locates the Mafia, with Rupert and Naspers chairperson Koos Bekker named as prominent members, within the context of rabid global capitalism” (loc. 275).
That these men are billionaires, financially powerful and influential is not in dispute. I stress “men” because there seem not to be women in this club, not in the power seats anyway, only occasionally in the background, dispensing sound advice or guidance – such as, at one point, before the Steinhoff debacle, Rupert’s wife Gaynor giving Rupert an important clue indicating that Markus Jooste (Steinhoff) might not be kosher (loc. 2668).
“Between them, [these businessmen] have major or direct stakes in no fewer than 16 of the JSE’s top 100 companies. This includes three among the top 10, seven among the top 30 and nine in the prestigious Top 40 Index.
“Naspers, where Bekker now serves as non-executive chairman after many years as chief executive, is the biggest of the bunch, with a market capitalisation in excess of R1.5 trillion. Rupert’s Richemont comes in at number six, with R607 billion, and FirstRand, born after Rupert sold his bank to [Paul] Harris, [GT] Ferreira and Laurie Dippenaar, is at number eight (R385 billion). Shoprite is at number 18 (R130 billion) and Rupert’s Remgro at number 22 (R108 billion), followed by Rand Merchant Bank Holdings at number 23 (R106 billion).
“Capitec sits at number 24 (R100 billion), [Edwin] Hertzog’s Mediclinic at number 32 (R70 billion – almost as big as its major competitors, Netcare and Life Health, combined) and Steinhoff Africa Retail (or STAR, Steinhoff’s South African operations, previously Pepkor) at number 39 (R57 billion). .... These companies’ interests encompass almost the entire spectrum of the South African economy and, given the fact that the Top 40 Index represents almost 80% of listed shares on the JSE, they carry some clout” (loc. 373).
Du Toit’s main aim in the book is to examine whether indeed all the businessmen mentioned above are indeed a bunch of Mafiosi – or incubi intent on financially and politically screwing the rainbow nation.
And, since “all [these businessmen] have their roots in, or demonstrably strong ties with Stellenbosch,” Du Toit also seems, secondly, to want to establish whether there is something about Stellenbosch and those living there that makes it an allegedly prime locus of evil.
If my summary of Du Toit’s secondary thesis seems vague – it’s because I am a bit unclear about it. As I understand it, Du Toit, having “come of age” in Stellenbosch, seems to feel personally responsible for clearing “Stellenbosch” of any opprobrium – Stellenbosch, that is, as the seed bed of Afrikaner culture, values and rugby, as represented by Paul Roos Gymnasium, the university, its rugby club, etc., about all of which Du Toit seems to feel deeply reverent. But, since I’m not an Afrikaner and in any case have scant awe for so-called old-school values and particularly for Stellenbosch’s, I doubtless lack the necessary empathy and therefore understanding.
Whatever the case, I enjoyed this book a great deal. Apart from the odd and unnecessary repetition of certain “views,” it’s a well-written (and/or well-edited) and engrossing story. Especially interesting was the re-telling of Anton Rupert’s career and ascent to wealth and “power,” as well as Johan’s.
Above all, reading about the circumstances under which Afrikaner entrepreneurs built economic power and influence was also fascinating. I have read about this previously, in the work of historians and political writers. But it certainly has been more than worthwhile re-reading this history as told by Du Toit. The malfeasance relating to the Stellenbosch Rugby Football Club, involving Steinhoff’s Jooste and others quite well-known to us, was also riveting reading – and then most of the rest of the book is given over to the story of Steinhoff, Jooste and Christo Wiese.
The Steinhoff saga has also been well told by others, notably by Rob Rose in Steinheist. But, again, I enjoyed re-reading the story in Du Toit’s limpid rendition of these events and their “effect” on Stellenbosch.
By now readers will have noticed the good ol’ Sherlock Holmesian dog that hasn’t barked in the night-time. I.e., I haven’t mentioned whether Du Toit finds that the Stellenbosch billionaires do represent a malevolent mafia grouping, a sort of Economic Protocols of the Elders (and some Youngsters) of Stellenbosch.
Thing is, you already know the answer. Obviously, Du Toit did not find that the rich, mainly Afrikaner billionaires of Stellenbosch are involved in “manipulating the economy and even overseeing the country and controlling society”. The whole notion, as expressed by the EFF et al, is clearly codswallop; and the motives of those who have made and continue to make such accusations are patently obvious.
In this connection, just by the way, it’s interesting to learn that, prior to Johann Rupert’s notorious PowerFM interview (see Politicsweb here), Floyd Shivambu and another EFF colleague visited Rupert and Ferreira in Stellenbosch to ask for help building a hospital in Limpopo. This is according to Rupert. Also according to Rupert, Shivambu “actively advised” him to do the PowerFM interview. Shivambu has, of course, denied meeting Rupert and advising him or receiving any help from him (loc. 835).
So, I have a question. Given that any person with a modicum of rationality knows that the screams of “Stellenbosch mafia” and “white monopoly capital” are propaganda manure, and that the motivation for these imprecations is to strew the Seffrican road with dung and red herrings (bizarre mixed metaphor, but anyway), why have Du Toit and his publisher bothered with an extended analysis of an issue that is not really one? Why write and publish a book about it?
I believe the answer is straightforward. The bottom-line is that we all love to read about the rich and famous. Look again at the fifth, sixth, and seventh paragraphs of section (1) above; I bet you read them with a great deal of attention and were impressed. I was. And publishing houses, which feel the economic pinch as much as any other business, are entitled to commission books that are likely to sell well – and I’m told by a reliable source this book is already selling well. All of which is fine and dandy. If there’s a “gap in the market” and you, the publisher, can fill it with a decent product, why not?
But the question I am asking is slightly different. It’s this: Should the hate speech (which is what it boils down to) of the EFF et al be graced with a detailed response, which by its very nature is almost apologetic in parts (though Du Toit does well to avoid overt apologetics)?
Perhaps there’s nothing amiss with such a response. But it does give rise to another set of thoughts and questions.
Although the book is ostensibly aimed at investigating, without fear or favour (as we like to say these days), the members of the Stellenbosch billionaires’ club, the only people who come out of this book looking corrupt and malevolent are Jooste, present SA rugby boss Jurie Roux and, given his involvement with Jooste, Wiese, though the last would appear to have been more sinned against than sinning.
Talking of whom, how’s this for a little light relief: “Days after Jooste’s resignation, details of the ex-Steinhoff CEO’s ‘style’ – which [Whitey] Basson and others had expressed so much concern about – emerged when it was reported that the married father of three had allegedly been having an extramarital affair. If he had known about the affair, he would not have done business with Jooste, Wiese later said” (loc.3088; my emphasis). Really? If businesspeople stopped doing business with those guilty of tediously commonplace peccadilloes, seems to me not much business would get done.
At any rate, everyone besides Jooste, Roux and Wiese, comes out smelling of roses, or at least not smelling bad. Not a negative word about Bekker, Whitey Basson, Ferreira or any of the others. There’s some discussion about whether Anton Rupert and his ilk benefitted from the apartheid regime, which they could hardly help having done, but the emphasis is placed on Rupert senior’s documented and significant differences with HF Verwoerd and PW Botha. As for Johann Rupert: after reading what he had to say in this book, and about what he has apparently done to ameliorate life for all Seffricans, I almost wanted to prostrate myself in homage at his feet.
This is not to say that Rupert has learnt to desist from saying some of the “patronizing old-white-man things” that got him into trouble during the PowerFM interview. E.g., he tells Du Toit “of his visits to Soweto with a black friend, Lucky Michaels, who introduced him to the Pelican Jazz Club. ‘I went there on Fridays to listen to jazz … up until 1983, at which point Lucky told me it was becoming too dangerous’”(loc. 1464). It so happens that I (Gordin) spent much of 1982/83 in the company of Michaels, researching shebeens (which became a chapter in Conspiracy of Giants: The South African Liquor Industry, eds. Michael Fridjhon and Andy Murray, 1986), and I can tell you for free that there was no “jazz” at the Pelican; it was a hard-drinking, rough, disco-type venue. But this is not the point; the point is that Rupert thinks that having hung around at the Pelican in the 1980s affords him some kind of “cred” – and, sadly, also seems to believe that his detractors, such as Iman Rappetti (at the PowerFM interview), even care.
Now then, perhaps most of the members of the Stellenbosch billionaires’ club are “good men and true”. Still, true life does suggest to those of us older than nine that there exist very few people, especially those involved in the tough, cut-throat business of mega-bucks’ capitalism, who are squeaky clean; and a little bit of history suggests that if during the apartheid era you were an Afrikaner entrepreneur, who didn’t mess with the status quo too much, you not only got to run on the inside track in every race but also were allowed to start in front of everyone else. Let’s not make a big deal of this; let’s move on; but let’s not deny that that’s how it was.
So then: aware that Jonathan Ball Publishers (JBP) is, as stated, “a division of Media24 (Pty) Ltd” (loc. 4214), that Bekker was chief executive of Naspers for many years, and that Du Toit is an employee of Media 24, are we seeing in this book a bit of a whitewash of many people? Could one even go as far as to suggest that this is an “orchestrated” response of the billionaire’s club, and especially of Johann Rupert, to the gunk that has been thrown in their/his direction?
I’ve thought hard about these questions. I don’t believe The Stellenbosch Mafia: Inside the Billionaires’ Club is a conscious, orchestrated push-back – a case of the Empire striking back.
It seems to me, as noted above, that JBP saw the possibility presented by the attacks on some (most?) of the country’s richest men, all living in one place (or close to it), most of them Afrikaners, and got Du Toit to go for it. And if, along the way, one could also warm the cockles of the hearts of many of the country’s most financially powerful people, why not? As Du Toit himself writes: “[JBP] CEO Eugene Ashton not only persuaded me that Stellenbosch was a story to tell but didn’t let up when I told him I had my doubts” (loc. 4168). It seems clear too that Johann Rupert feels, correctly in my view, that he never got a fair hearing – so why would he not cooperate in this project? And from what I know of Du Toit’s work, even if he sometimes tends toward being politically correct (the Media24 version), he doesn’t strike me as a sell-out of any sort.
Still, although the Stellenbosch billionaires are clearly not Mafiosi, not at least according to the EFF definition, they remain a powerful, influential and clearly prickly bunch – made even pricklier by having been shoved into defensive mode by the likes of Malema and other big-mouths.
So, “investigating” them – while knowing that among them is one’s employer and his friends – and then writing and publishing a book at which they’d not take offence, must have been a ticklish and difficult undertaking, requiring very skilful tap-dancing and juggling, all at the same time.
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