A pragmatist who earned others' respect

By Maureen Isaacson Time of article published Jan 22, 2006

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Anton Edward Rupert, who died this week at 89 and who has left behind a R10-billion empire, has been elevated to the status of hero.

Tributes provided a fine send-off for the magnanimous conservationist and humanist.

President Thabo Mbeki's deep respect for Rupert's contributions was widely echoed.

"Mooi loop," said former president Nelson Mandela, who praised Rupert "for helping others to help themselves rather than fostering dependency". This neatly worded tribute says it all.

On February 6, 1978, an editorial in The Citizen newspaper praised Rupert for his continued resistance to universal franchise. Rupert was quoted: "One man, one vote is no guarantee of democracy.

"Those who think it is, should study where and how dictators came to power in the past half-century.

"What is really needed is one man, one job."

In September 1996, in the face of what he saw as the continued failure to create jobs, Rupert reiterated this view in an interview in The Sunday Independent: "I was opposed to one man, one vote - once. I have also said it would be better to create one man, one job than one man, one vote. I stand by that: if everybody can have a job then everybody can have the vote. But if you have half the people out of work, then I start worrying."

Rupert, who was among the world's 500 richest people, according to Forbes magazine, saw himself as a white African, with a responsibility to the continent. As early as the 1960s he pointed to South Africa's potential role in stabilising Africa.

Slow to motion for change, said his critics, he was not one for the public political fray, but Rupert did not fail to speak out against apartheid. Nor did he remain aloof from political life.

He came out in defence of senator Owen Horwood, then finance minister, whom Rupert believed had come under fire for his Afrikaner connections.

Rupert was expecting retribution. At this time, he famously declared his preference for "loyalty over money". That he was driven by self-confessed passion for profits makes this statement risible, had his sincerity not been apparent.

"I was asked somewhere else to remove Jews from international boards because of a fear of boycotts. I refused with this message: 'Tell people who want this, if they expect this of me, they should rather resign. I do not let friends down. I prefer loyalty and friendship to money.' "

He confronted the fears of white South Africans, crippled by phobias of "forced socialism and Uganda-type governments". Rupert was anti-socialism and reviled communism, for apparently practical reasons. He said famously that "if the black man does not eat, the white man does not sleep".

He warned against a future Nuremberg, should the apartheid government continue to undermine the lives of blacks. He called consistently for industrial "partnership" and "co-existence".

He was reticent and aloof and he chose his fights. He clashed not only in business - with Louis Luyt and Sanlam - but with the fiercest of apartheid rulers, Hendrik Verwoerd and PW Botha.

In 1961 he proposed that apartheid be replaced by "co-existence".

In Anton Rupert; the biography, an excellent, if polite account of Rupert's life by Ebbe Dommisse, we learn that Rupert, via his son, Johann Rupert who had succeeded him as CEO of the Rembrandt group, sent a scrubbed record to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in November 1997.

Johann Rupert claimed the company had a staff turnover of only two percent in a period of 50 years.

The commission also learned of Rupert's clash with Verwoerd and about Rupert's decision to establish a "partnership" company within the coloured community.

The Rembrandt company had introduced a minimum wage of R2 a day in 1963, despite opposition from other employers, said Johann Rupert.

The minimum salary package in the Rembrandt group at the time, November 1997, was R3 600. Whether the man who believed the 24-hour day was not long enough was fun to work for is unclear, but he certainly garnered respect. "I don't get the migraines, I give them," was a famous quote.

The Graaff-Reinet lawyer's son, prohibited from pursuing a career as a medical doctor by lack of funds, and who settled for a master's degree in chemistry instead, sought to create opportunities.

Never forgetting his origins, Rupert said he had no need, nor the time, for a wine cellar; a fridge would do just as well. Dommisse reports that Rupert's lifestyle in Stellenbosch, where he and his wife Huberte raised their three children, remained modest.

His trademark knotted silk ties, his manicured hands, much commented on by journalists, appeared to be the only gestures towards show.

Rupert donated R20 000 to victims of the urban violence that rent asunder South African life in the 1970s. He set up the Small Business Development Corporation in the 1970s, which created half a million jobs.

With Harry Oppenheimer, Rupert established the Urban Foundation in 1977. Rupert was convinced that free enterprise was the route to a stable black urban middle class. He believed that people have a vested interest in their own survival.

In November 1982, addressing an audience at the Rand Afrikaans University, Rupert said black farmers must be allowed to work and own their own land: "The farmer must at least have the feeling that the ground he works and the fruit of his labours are his own for a generation."

This was consistent with his request to Verwoerd in the 1960s that blacks be allowed to own their own homes. In 1976 his group announced a proposal to provide housing for their own staff.

Rupert's measured public declarations and guarded privacy did not conceal contradictions.

The Star reveals that Rupert and Oppenheimer were not always brothers beneath the skin.

In 1997 Rupert attacked Oppenheimer for "the formation and financing of political parties".

Simmering suspicions that Rupert's company was funding the National Party were confronted.

In a statement to the Afrikaanse Handelsinstituut in May 1977 Rupert said: "My organisation never donates any money to any political party in any country. I have followed the policy of never having any contact with anyone from my group he becomes a minister of state."

Although in the 1950s Rupert had successfully countered a countrywide ANC boycott of "Nat-owned" companies such as his Rembrandt and Distillers Corporation, insinuations remained.

Dommisse reports that when Rupert threatened to take the ANC to court over the boycott, Bram Fischer, then an advocate acting as junior with Sydney Kentridge for the ANC, settled the matter out of court with Rupert.

In 1956 Albert Luthuli, the ANC leader, said in his evidence at the treason trial that Rupert had spoken about the importance of worker's wages.

Four decades later, Rupert's son Johann was to defend his company's international interests. And he had some defending to do.

The tobacco, liquor and luxury goods such as Cartier, Montblanc and Dunhill sold through his overseas empire, Richemont, are among those that had legs in every country in the world.

Johann Rupert assured Cyril Ramaphosa, then the Cosatu secretary-general, that although two thirds of the group's income came from outside the country, revenue was returned to South Africa.

There could be no argument against Rupert's unrivalled contribution to conservation.

He brought South Africa under the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and is responsible for the creation of cross-border peace parks by collapsing borders between some of southern Africa's largest national parks. He pronounced this the most gratifying part of his life's work.

History demands a contextualisation but it does not allow for a rewriting. Rupert's early association with the Broederbond, from which he later resigned, was not forgotten.

That he mellowed is also remembered and his commitment to Afrikanerdom was key to his impetus. He wished to carve out a place for the Afrikaner in an English-dominated market; his understanding of black empowerment arose from this experience. Trevor Manuel, the finance minster, paid tribute this week to Rupert's commitment to black empowerment.

Dommisse's biography, much relied upon in recent hurried obituaries, charts without apparent irony Rupert's successes in the businesses of tobacco and liquor, chosen because both were resistant to the forces of economic depression.

This week we learned again of Rupert's risk-taking introduction of the king-size cigarette, his inspired product naming and in particular the powerful association of the Rembrandt company with the 17th century Dutch artist, Rembrandt van Rijn.

No expressed regret emerged about the ill-effects of tobacco and alcohol. When smoking restrictions were introduced in South Africa, Rupert said people should be allowed to make their own choices.

If there is a logical connection between the fact of enormous wealth, generated by an industry that revealed itself to be perilous to consumer health, and Rupert's great generosity, it is not spelled out.

Nonetheless, money poured into art collections, into heritage, into conservation and education. Rupert gave until he hurt, or until he was hurt. He apparently withdrew warmth as readily as he withdrew funds.

He was as clear about what he did not like as what he did.

Rupert took his chances and he made his choices. He puffed to the end on his preferred brand: Dunhill light.

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