Rupert: a realist who relied on miracles


Rupert: a realist who relied on miracles

KERNEELS BREYTENBACH read the revised edition of a biography he describes as ‘a metaphysics of the dangers and great possibilities of our South African setup'


“WHOEVER does not believe in wonders is not a realist." In Anton Rupert: The Life of a Business Icon, Ebbe Dommisse quotes this perception of Rupert. Those of us who were young in the Sixties and Seventies will remember it well as an advertising slogan.

I like to believe in wonders. The best would have been if that sleazeball Verwoerd had had a business brain like Rupert's.

Dommisse tells the story of the huge debt Verwoerd was plunged into during the war years when he and Piet Meiring, later South Africa's  information chief, were co-directors of a business started by former journalist Rammie Botha and one Whiskers van Niekerk. (Just that nickname would have made any sober person run away, but you have to understand that Hendrik Frensch was grossly insensitive to things like nicknames.)

The business involved a garage and an agency that delivered market products to housewives. A visionary idea that first started taking off in South Africa during the Covid era but collapsed under Verwoerd and Meiring's leadership, like most things Verwoerd later launched.

According to Rupert, this was the cause of Verwoerd's dislike of capitalism, which directly led to him not wanting to allow white capital in the black homelands.

But what if the garage and delivery businesses had been a huge success? Perhaps Verwoerd would have thought differently about homelands and economic growth, even racial segregation. Everything would have been different. No Sharpeville, no soap lying around in John Vorster Square, no exodus from the Commonwealth. Education for everyone at a high level, because educated people become workers with purchasing power. The three sister churches would have converted the racists in their congregations to humility and charity.

But wonders do not happen randomly. It takes hard work, 12-hour workdays and longer, huge chunks of every year spent on aeroplanes, the ability to be able to harness an almost superhuman ability to concentrate, stay informed about people and their needs, so you can serve the entirety of your business interests.

Like Anton Rupert, therefore. Granted, Verwoerd had some of it, but figures weren't his strong suit.

Realism works in other ways.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:


Dr Stuart Saunders, former vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, told the anecdote of how he had to take Harry Oppenheimer, then chancellor of the university, to the airport after a meeting. He asked Oppenheimer's permission to stop at an ATM so he could withdraw money.

Sure, Oppenheimer replied. Provided he could come along to see how it worked, because he had never worked with such cards or machines.

Something like this would never have happened to Anton Rupert. In fact, someone who once received a beautiful top-of-the-range Mont Blanc fountain pen as a gift from Rupert said they were in London when he received the gift. He immediately went to the nearest dealer to buy ink. The woman behind the counter recounted that she had been dumbstruck that morning when the big boss of Mont Blanc walked in to buy that pen from her.

Rupert was a kindred spirit of George Unwin, the legendary British publisher, who refused to bring home the books his company printed so his children could give them to friends as Christmas presents. “If my family and I don't buy our own books, how can I expect friends and the public to buy them?"

In Dommisse's biography, Rupert echoes these words — one of the numerous examples of the kind of sobriety that guided his actions and behaviour.

Anton Rupert: The Life of a Business Icon was one of the wonders of my time in publishing. The process was a little more involved than Dommisse describes it in his foreword; no miracles, just extremely thorough and incisive work by an ex-journalist who had to endure many knocks in his career and did not allow himself be diverted from the story itself.

The book has now experienced a second revision after the first edition came out in 2004. The first edition — written by Dommisse at the request of Hannes van Zyl, one of the giants of South African publishing — had a visionary impulse: to describe the life and career of someone who had a remarkably formative influence on the economic and cultural landscape of 20th-century South Africa. It appeared while Rupert and his formidable wife, Huberte, were still alive. Dommisse and Van Zyl personally handed them the first copy.

The second edition was published after their demise, and in some respects one could say for sure that it was conclusive. One has to look at the second revision, this third edition, from quite a different angle to realise that the book's value now has to be assessed at a much higher level. I don't believe Van Zyl and Dommisse could ever have foreseen that the biography would morph that way; it has become a work by which one can reflexively measure the South African state of affairs and evaluate its political and economic leadership.

Such as: how do the buffalo farmer or the power ship shareholder or the Nkandla warrior or the masked reaper from Mpumalanga compare to the child of the Karoo? “We can only make ourselves indispensable through service and performance," Rupert would say.

In essence, the biography is a work reflecting 20th-century South Africa. Rupert's life, from infancy until his retirement from business in 2003, infolded within the framework of the emerging political and economic power of the Afrikaner and the eventual abdication of the political side. The country has benefited from his business successes; his countrymen from his support of their spiritual welfare via his patronage of the arts and artists.

There was a consciousness in the ANC of Rupert's political philosophy post-1994; on the party's website, none other than Thabo Mbeki hailed him as prophet of an inclusive future for all. Nelson Mandela praised him for his way of supporting those in need: “His way of giving was never a patronising handing out of alms. He was known for his approach to helping others help themselves instead of cultivating dependency."

Oh, the irony!

I read the new edition of the biography with the depressing realisation that for the second time our country has been handed over to a political substrate of trivial populists who rely time and again on the fears and hatred of an electorate who believe their votes can bring them prosperity on a personal level.

In a country where the racial card is so often the trump card, this book is remarkable because it forces you not to think in racial terms but to focus on real achievement and service.

Our current generation of politicians will benefit from carefully reading the passages about Rupert's clashes with Verwoerd and how he handled the apartheid framework, his focus always on post-apartheid. Without sacrificing his principles, Rupert thrived in coexistence with the National Party. I wonder if peace was ever declared. Some of his statements and formulations that Dommisse quotes suggest that early on he thought the National Party was heading for extinction. The impression he made on Mandela and Mbeki was enormous, but unfortunately it was not internalised by the tenderpreneurs of the Zuma and Ramaphosa era.

Cigarette smugglers

The despondent battle British American Tobacco waged during the Covid period against illegal cigarette sales tells a worrying story of just how far the country has tumbled since Rupert and Mandela disappeared from the scene.

The biography describes a great historical arc. But you also know the reader of 2024 will read it differently than the reader of 2004. As we approach an election, it's refreshing to read how Rupert found his own trajectory and stuck to it despite many attempts from the ranks of right-wingers to thwart him. Afrikaner politics was a filthy business, operating under the guise of divine sanctity. Rupert stayed out of politics, I think, because he wasn't stupid.

Can the country, while there are still visible signs of prosperity and entrepreneurial spirit, hope that we will produce more Anton Ruperts? Possibly, but it's abundantly clear that the politicians of the alms brigade don't set stock by Rupert's advocacy for small business. That's the lesson from Rupert — that even within the new paradigm, there is also the flip side of an opportunity.

How would one determine the value of Anton Rupert: The Life of a Business Icon now? It's definitely more than a biography. It's an inspiring book for businessmen and entrepreneurs who feel ready to surrender to a kleptocracy. It is a side history, and a metaphysics of the dangers and great possibilities of our South African setup.

Is the book fully successful? The main criticism one can offer is that Dommisse does not get to the private person behind the public image. But if you read with a keen eye, there are many indications of the kind of man Rupert was. There is information that he had a sharp temper, that he had an inflexibly strong belief in his own ideas. I suspect that some of them relied heavily on the insights of Huberte. They were an unbeatable team.

He had a special aesthetic flair, which radiates from the book. He was also someone who evoked awe-inspiring loyalty from those he allowed close as confidants. I know of only one of them who proclaimed from the rooftops that he was an inner-circle friend, and he only dared to do so after Rupert's death. It is fitting that the man's name does not appear anywhere in the biography.

Seen in its entirety, Dommisse created an exceptional historical document — and preserved the human enigma at its core. To what extent Rupert's example inspires will depend on us and our leaders.

Anton Rupert: The Life of a Business Icon, by Ebbe Dommisse was published by Tafelberg and costs R316 at Graffiti

♦ VWB ♦

BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you.

Speech Bubbles

To comment on this article, register (it's fast and free) or log in.

First read Vrye Weekblad's Comment Policy before commenting.