Louis Luyt did not admit easily to mistakes. It was not in his nature to do so. The one instance in which he found himself compelled to publicly show contrition was when he was caught acting as a front for the secret state funding of The Citizen newspaper which the Nationalist government launched in the 1970s to counter English-language newspapers’ criticism of its policies.
The money was secretly channelled via the defence budget into the newspaper under the name of the then fertiliser magnate, who died at his home in Ballito on Friday at 80.
He had agreed to the ruse under the spell of Eschel Rhoodie, the high-flying secretary of information of the time, with whom he subsequently got into such bad blood that he described him as “probably the most dishonest man I have ever met”.
In his autobiography, Walking Proud, published in 2003, he claimed to have told Rhoodie: “You are a James Bond. You don’t talk to me like that. I hire guys like you.”
When the scandal broke, it brought down the conniving triumvirate of Rhoodie; information minister Connie Mulder, who had designs on becoming prime minister; and General Hendrik van den Bergh, the head of the Bureau for State Security.
It forced out John Vorster as non-executive president, which he became after he had stepped down as prime minister at the time that the secret propaganda dealings were starting to rock his administration.
In his autobiography, Luyt wrote: “We all make our mistakes. I had made my most significant one in the mid-seventies when I relied entirely on emotions instead of good business sense. In retrospect, I can certainly say that entering into this grandiose project with the government bordered on recklessness.”
But it was typical of the Luyt character that it was not long before he bounced back. He complained that for a while the Information Scandal “scarecrow” kept being dragged out in public when his opponents found themselves at a loss. But by the closing years of the PW Botha regime – with its growing resort to states of emergency towards the late 1980s to stem the tide of upheaval against white minority rule – he was back in politics, working behind the scenes, then increasingly upfront to get the disparate white opposition groups to the left of the National Party to band together.
He was at it again in the late 1990s, this time to “fight against the ANC’s Stalinist tactics”. After failing to get the minority parties to join together against the new rulers, and having fallen out with one after the other of their leaders, he formed his own Federal Alliance party. He got elected to Parliament, but within a year he had his tiny party merge with the Democratic Party and the National Party to form the DA. He then resigned his seat and went to live in Ballito.
As with his sorties into politics, whichever area of life he ventured into, he inevitably caused a stir. As regularly, he would leave behind broken relationships and hurt feelings.
A bulky figure with the frame and the puffy ears of the rugby lock – he played for the Free State and was nearly selected as a Springbok in the 1950s – he was the archetypical bull in the china shop. He was admired, feared and generally not much liked.
He had a tough childhood in Britstown in the Northern Cape where he was born on June 18, 1932. He was christened Oswald Louis Petrus Poley, but changed his surname to Luyt after his stepfather. His mother had annulled her first marriage after discovering that the man she had thought to be her husband was a polygamist.
The family were poor, and perhaps all this played a part in moulding his brusque character and steely determination to succeed. Behind his boorish façade, there lurked a sharp intellect and a cunning that seemed constantly to wrong-foot those he had dealings with.
There are several suggestions in his autobiography of how he got cold-shouldered and in some instances even bullied by the Nationalist Afrikaner elite. Yet he had no qualms about making liberal use of his ethnic credentials among the farmers in turning his Triomf fertiliser company into a business giant.
The urbane Cape tobacco baron Anton Rupert found himself drawn into an unseemly skirmish with the northern fertiliser king when he joined him in a business venture that included the liquor trade.
Luyt was not going to play second fiddle to his respected partner. He was his own man. He even called his beer brew after himself. Their association was short-lived.
His beer brand, incidentally, did not last long on the market. But in his closing years in Ballito he revived it by setting up a local brewery.
Of all, however, it was his years as a rugby administrator that best defined the enigma that was Louis Luyt. He manipulated his way into the sport’s hierarchy by getting rugby legends such as Frik du Preez into his fertiliser company and SA Rugby Football Union president Dr Danie Craven and former Springbok captain Dawie de Villiers on to its board.
He made his entry into the sport’s administration via the ailing Transvaal (now Lions) Rugby Union in the mid-1980s, sweeping aside its moribund office holders. He brought his son-in-law Rian Oberholzer into the management. At a time when so-called chequebook recruitment of players was still done under the table, he got top talents to join his team. Soon he set the union and Ellis Park on a firm financial footing and headed for a golden era.
In the late 1980s he won admiration from the rugby-starved white establishment when he set up rugby rebel tours to South Africa, most prominently by a group of All Blacks, as a counter to the anti-apartheid sports isolation of South Africa. But it was typical of his extreme brand of individualism that he soon after drew sharp censure from FW de Klerk, then minister of education, and Botha, when, in 1988, he joined former Natal rugby star Tommy Bedford and others in meeting the exiled leadership of the ANC.
He, in turn, drew flak from the ANC when he allowed Die Stem to be played as the national anthem for an All Black Test at Ellis Park in 1992. The situation in the country was on a knife-edge as negotiations between the government and the newly unbanned liberation movements faltered and white right-wing sentiments threatened to get out of hand. Conditions called for delicacy, but Luyt responded: “I was not about to deny the existence of a national anthem merely to please the ANC or any of the wimps who wished to roll over and play dead.”
His assumption of the presidency of the SA Rugby Football Union, after Craven, brought some of the most brutal infighting into South African rugby. It also put him in charge of the 1995 Rugby World Cup. It brought him into the public eye as never before. It was a twist of fate of epic consequence.
There he was after the Springboks’ historic victory hugging president Nelson Mandela who had, in keeping with his nation-building crusade, taken calculated but serious political risk in publicly bolstering the Springbok team. There he also was sharing in the unbridled joy and pride of Springbok rugby captain Francois Pienaar and his victorious band.
That same evening things started to unravel. At the reception after the game for the Springboks and the vanquished All Blacks, Luyt, as host, remarked that the result showed that had the Springboks played in the 1987 and 1991 World Cup tournaments, they would have won as well. The All Blacks left the reception, describing the speech as boorish.
Luyt blamed the All Blacks’ response on the Springboks arriving late for the dinner.
He proceeded to fall out badly with Pienaar and his players for confronting him with player contracts which they drafted after the game and which he held to be the reason for their bad manners.
Besides, he said, he did not have a prepared speech for the dinner party and his remarks were intended as a joke. But the subsequent turn in his relationship with Mandela was even less funny.
He had the president summoned to appear in court when he tried to have a commission of inquiry into sport set aside as unconstitutional. Mandela denounced him to the Bench as a “pitiless dictator”, adding: “No leader can stand up to him.” Luyt lost the case.
He leaves his wife, Adri, and a son and two daughters.