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Louis Luyt was a man of many parts who was variously admired for his accomplishments and reviled for the boorishness he could display at times. Delicacy and diplomacy were not his strong points. A burly figure with an ego to match, his ambitious and combative nature at one time or another put him at odds with just about every business person, sports person and politician with whom he had dealings.
Nelson Mandela once called him a “pitiless dictator”, adding: “No leader can stand up to him.” He said this not many years after he, as president of the country, and Luyt, as president of South African rugby, had hugged each other as they rejoiced over the Springboks’ 1995 World Cup win over the All Blacks at Ellis Park.
Luyt rose from humble beginnings to become a powerful businessman and sports administrator who ruled the roost in South African rugby during its most tumultuous period, stamping his decidedly rough brand of authority on the game and those involved with it. He even tried his hand at politics, covertly and overtly, and in both instances got himself burnt in the process.
He was born on June 18, 1932, in the Northern Cape village of Britstown. He was originally named Oswald Louis Petrus Poley, but his surname changed to that of his stepfather, whom his mother married after she had her first marriage annulled when she discovered the man she had thought to be her husband was a polygamist.
He grew up in extreme poverty, but from his school days excelled in sport, particularly rugby. In 1952, not yet 20, he was selected to play lock for the Free State. He missed out on becoming a Springbok, to his surprise and enduring disappointment.
After school he worked as a railway clerk, a miner and a salesman for an oil and later a fertiliser company before he set up his own business, Louis Luyt Enterprises, in 1961. He expanded into various business fields, but it was the success of his fertiliser company, named Triomf, that brought him into the big league.
In his autobiography, Walking Proud, published in 2003, he made a point of dispelling notions about having traded on his Afrikaner identity and using his contact with the Nationalist government to build his business empire. He detailed how he was, on the contrary, obstructed by the government and cold-shouldered by the Afrikaner business elite, surmising that it was probably because he was not a member of the Afrikaner Broederbond secret society.
There was indeed a touch of genius about the way he developed his company. He did so by selling shares in Triomf to agricultural co-operatives and farmers, his clients, and getting financial backing from powerful overseas companies like America’s Esso, now Exxon Mobil.
Buoyed by his success with fertiliser, in the early 1970s he entered the beer business with industrialist Anton Rupert in direct opposition to South African Breweries, which, ironically, was the one South African company that was prepared to help set him up in the fertiliser business.
The idea was that Rupert would get a share in the beer and fertiliser business and that Luyt would, in return, get a market for his brew through the former’s many liquor outlets. The deal saw rivalry in the beer business develop into a brawl that even spread to shebeens in the townships, where the sale of liquor was at the time prohibited under the apartheid laws.
But the urbane Stellenbosch tobacco baron and the abrasive northern fertiliser king were such a bad match that their quarrels soon saw them part ways. Rupert carried on the beer business on his own for a while before he threw in the towel.
Luyt called the venture a blunder, but an even bigger one, by his own admission, happened when, in the mid-1970s, he got drawn into the clandestine propaganda and manipulative activities of the John Vorster government and its Bureau of State Security and Department of Information.
It started with him being persuaded to assume the chairmanship of the Committee for Fairness in Sport, not realising that it was not a private association of concerned individuals but one of several front companies Information Department secretary Dr Eschel Rhoodie and his operatives had set up to fight South Africa’s growing international isolation and to counter the anti-apartheid campaign.
Next he was persuaded to act as the front man for an attempted take-over of South African Associated Newspapers, publisher of, among others, the Rand Daily Mail, which was increasingly reviled by the white establishment as being anti-South African for its strident opposition to apartheid. The failed attempt even involved the likes of Sir De Villiers Graaff, leader of the United Party as the parliamentary opposition.
But the act that drew the strongest denunciation was his agreement to pretend to be the founder of The Citizen newspaper, which was in fact published with R12 million in secret funds from government. The paper hit the streets barely two months after the outbreak of the Soweto pupil riots, but it doggedly pursued the government propaganda line.
Of his experience when the Information Scandal started to unravel, he said in his autobiography: “I had become a recluse at Saxonwold (his Johannesburg suburb), licking my wounds and wondering how I could have been so naïve as to become involved with such a losing proposition.”
He then fixed his sights on rugby, preparing the way for his ambitions by taking stars like legendary Springbok lock Frik du Preez into his fertiliser company and getting the likes of South African Rugby Football Union president Dr Danie Craven and former Springbok captain Dawie de Villiers onto its board.
His takeover of the ailing Transvaal (now Lions) Rugby Union in the mid-1980s was a brutal affair as he rode roughshod over the old establishment.
He had no qualms about bringing his son-in-law, Rian Oberholzer, into the management. Through remarkable initiatives and substantial financial investments, not least in players through what was then still the unspoken means of cheque-book recruitment, he soon turned round the fate of the union and of Ellis Park stadium.
The late 1980s saw him emerge in a seemingly contradictory role, but one that served to underscore his particularly robust brand of individualism.
He became a major promoter, also financially, of rebel rugby tours to South Africa, most prominently by a group of All Blacks and then a South Pacific team. This won him praise from the rugby-starved white establishment.
He drew harsh establishment censure, however, not least from FW de Klerk, then minister of education, and from PW Botha, the confrontational president, when in 1988 he joined former Natal rugby star Tommy Bedford and others in meeting the exiled leadership of the ANC. De Klerk denounced him for talking to terrorists, and Botha warned that he should not allow terrorists to make propaganda out of sport.
He drew flak from the other side when, in 1992, he allowed Die Stem to be played as the national anthem for an All Black Test at Ellis Park. He was accused of rubbing the symbols of the past into people’s faces, but his response was typical: “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 South African Rugby Football Union after Craven brought some of the most brutal infighting into South African rugby. But it also allowed him to oversee the staging of the World Cup and celebrate South Africa’s victory, cheering with and hugging Mandela.
At the reception for the Springboks and the vanquished All Blacks after the game once again the bull in a china shop burst forth. As the host, Luyt 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 insisted that the reason the All Blacks left was because the Springboks were late in arriving. He blamed the latter’s bad manners on negotiating financial deals for themselves when they should have been joining the party. He also said that he made the remarks jokingly.
There was nothing funny when he had Mandela summoned to appear in court when he tried to have a commission of inquiry into sport set aside as unconstitutional. That was when Mandela denounced him as a pitiless dictator.
In 1998, Luyt was ousted as rugby union president as the case involving Mandela proceeded to the Constitutional Court, where he ultimately lost. His challenge to the revered statesman caused him to become increasingly isolated. It caused severe strains in the family when Oberholzer joined in ousting him as rugby president.
He established his own political party, the Federal Alliance, which in 1999 saw him take a seat in Parliament as one of its two members. The next year, after it amalgamated with the Democratic Party and the New National Party to form the DA, he resigned his seat. Soon after he moved to Ballito on the KwaZulu-Natal north coast.
He and his wife, Adri, had a son and two daughters.