TO APPRECIATE the late Anton Rupert, in all his grandeur and reserve, through the barrage of plaudits and pundits, through the uncomfortable prism of history and politics, requires a leap of imagination.
This is so partly because so much of his life and achievements are counterintuitive and seemingly contradictory. Rupert was a consummate businessman interested in, of all things, the environment. He was extremely rich, yet he lived modestly. Rupert belonged to that odd brand of philanthropist businessmen who believe in business, not so much as a money-making enterprise for its own sake, but as an opportunity to do good in general. Yet, the primary source of his wealth is a product now internationally reviled as an addictive health risk.
And so his life story will doubtless be told with due acknowledgement but with tempered praise according to SA’s modern political fractures.
But beyond his exemplary personal achievements, his enduring significance may well be vested not so much in his own past but in what his life and approach to business teaches the new generation of South African businesspeople. And yet this is the very area that is most open to misunderstanding.
Black business in SA stands now in the same relationship to white business as Afrikaner business stood to English business in the middle part of the last century.
Ebbe Dommisse’s excellent book on Rupert — Anton Rupert: A Biography — records the depressing statistic that “in the decade since the First National Economic Congress, turnover in Afrikaners’ business had almost doubled, but it still amounted to only 11% of total turnover”. How many times have you heard comparable statistics cited about black business in SA?
Rupert, especially in the early years of his business life, believed in “volkskapitalisme”. Black businessmen today often talk in the same terms about the need for “patriotic capital” or “stakeholder capitalism”.
The comparison is full of obvious flaws and surprising similarities. Rupert is so closely associated with Afrikaner politics and the rise of Afrikaans business that it is often assumed he built his empire with government help. Yet the evidence suggests otherwise. Rupert started his businesses not with government loans or a helping hand provided by English business, but from groups of investors he often sought out personally.
His success in business was so against the odds, often repeated in new areas, and so founded in his own innovations that you really have to be a cynic to deny it.
Rupert was a child of the depression, and his involvement in the tobacco business was the result of a study of business in general, and his discovery that the tobacco business was one of the most resilient during times of economic depression.
Although Rembrandt is often thought of as a cigarette company, it originally did not make cigarettes because it was not permitted to. When it did start making cigarettes, it faced a range of enormously powerful cigarettes companies.
Rupert’s success in the business was based on innovation that seems not unrelated to his lifelong concern with honour and elegance.
Dommisse notes that the innovations Rupert brought about in the cigarette business were to introduce a number of things that are now so commonplace it is hard to imagine a time when things were done differently. “He was never happy about ordinary filter-tipped cigarettes, sensing that smokers subconsciously felt they were being short-changed since the filter replaces some of the tobacco. So he came up with a brand new idea: a king-size filter-tipped cigarette.”
Rembrandt also introduced the “all seal” packet, a paper packet lined with aluminium; the first mentholated filter-tipped cigarettes in the world; the first “multifilter” king-size cigarettes; the first cigarettes with multivent super-porous paper; and, the world’s first luxury-length cigarette.
He was a massive risk-taker. In 1953, when cigarette company Rothmans’ decision to sell to Carreras hit the rocks, he pounced. He made Sydney Rothman a take-it-or-leave-it offer of £750000. There was only one snag, he had only £50000. The remainder was loaned to the company by Sanlam and a group of other companies. Dommisse notes that years later, when asked whether he ever bought a Lotto ticket, he said: “No, I have taken enough big risks in my life.”
It is obvious that in the early years at least, Rupert was very conscious of his leading role in Afrikaner business. In 1953 he remarked that the success Rembrandt had achieved had dispelled the illusion that Afrikaners could not compete with their English and Jewish compatriots in the business world. “It was essential that some one should break down the illusion.”
This role as trailblazer for Afrikaner business has echoes for black business in our times. But it is important to note the differences too. Right from the beginning, Rupert was against set-asides and quotas, arguing against politicians who would later become leading political figures. Academic Hermann Giliomee — who cited Rupert as one of the five great Afrikaners in his book, The Afrikaners — said during their discussions prior to the book’s publication that Rupert felt that if companies allowed themselves to be empowered by another body, they would always be subservient.
History may judge Rupert badly for one thing: his early association with the Afrikaner Broederbond. Yet the picture is less clear than it might seem. Rupert’s involvement in politics was arms-length and his role was as a critic and interlocutor rather than a gung ho cheerleader.
Yet it is strange how history repeats itself. The pressures on Rupert are comparable to those on black businessmen today. Rupert’s passing underlines how desperately SA needs a new-generation businessman like him: someone strong enough to keep off the political bandwagon, someone independent-minded enough to be critical as well as being supportive of his “volk”, someone shrewd enough to outfox mightier opposition, someone dignified enough to leave a legacy of modesty without humility.