‘…we all choose the way in which we organise our society and how we’re governed. It’s got nothing to do with race’
SOUTH AFRICA’S economic development has benefited immensely over the generations from the power and productivity of several dynasties – in the past mostly white but now reflecting the realities of our society with the emergence of fledgling dynasties such as that of Tokyo Sexwale and Patrice Motsepe.
Few literate South Africans will not be aware of the role played in our commercial history by families such as the Oppenheimers in mining, finance and industry, the Ruperts in tobacco, banking, mining and luxury goods, the Ackermans in retailing, the Lubners in manufacturing, the Venters in telecommunications, the Grindrods in shipping, and so forth.
Some have been more active than others in public life. For example, the late Harry Oppenheimer’s son, Nicholas, prefers a far lower profile than that enjoyed by his illustrious parent. It remains to be seen how Jonathan, fourth generation in that dynasty and living in Britain, handles his heritage.
The late Anton Rupert was, like Harry Oppenheimer, a well-read intellectual with a taste for the arts and a business mind like a surgeon’s scalpel. His addresses were always of the cerebral, understated style. But he didn’t mince his words when he warned us decades ago that unless our neighbours are well fed and housed we would never enjoy peace in the region.
Today his son, Johann, strides the stage of world business as the creator of the world’s second largest luxury goods empire and the creator, as was his father, of massive wealth for shareholders. He’s not as subtle as was his father – thus better suited, perhaps, for the fast-paced rhythms of 21st Century international commerce. Those who deal with him know he drives straight to the point at hand. And nowhere was that better illustrated than in an address filled with insights and practicality that Johann Rupert delivered last month at the University of Pretoria in honour of his father.
A huge rugby fan, he took a not so gentle swipe at Luke Watson, the player who has claimed the game in SA is being run by “Dutchmen” and that he wished to vomit on his Springbok jersey, thus earning him the sobriquet from sportswriters of “Puke” Watson.
Rupert told his audience that – as a “Dutchman” and one who wrote his own speeches – he asked for forgiveness for any grammatical errors. He then twitted the media for paraphrasing and using extracts from quotes out of context, thereby creating wrong impressions.
In reference to criticism of the late rugby giant, Doc Craven, by those opposed to the retention of the Springbok brand, Rupert pointed out that Craven didn’t say (as alleged) that a black would never play for SA. Putting the record straight, Rupert gave the correct Craven quote: “For as long as this (Nationalist) government is in charge there will never be a black player playing for South Africa.”
In his address, Rupert ranged from subSaharan life expectancies to infant mortality rates, the prevalence of HIV, unemployment, the rule of the National Party, the flood of immigrants and other areas of interest to all South Africans.
Your ageing correspondent was pleased to read Rupert echoed an argument I put forward in the dark days of apartheid, when I argued in the Sunday Times in the Sixties that we didn’t have, as our Nat masters claimed, a market system, that how could we have a market system when we didn’t allow the vast bulk of the population to participate, when we denied folks the right to own a home where they chose, to marry whom they wished, to send their kids to the school of their choice, to compete on equal terms in the job market, and so on.
Rupert forcefully made the point that “there are no democracies that do not have free market economies”. He provided five bases for a successful, free society. They are: 1. Unlimited and free transferability of
property. 2. Protection of private property. 3. Ownership incentives for capital
formation. 4. Strong and convertible currencies. 5. Flexible labour markets and entrepreneurship. There are, he added, “no democracies that don’t have free market economies”. Adding the caveat: “There are still free market systems that are not true democracies.” China and Chile were examples he provided.
He asked why was it that, while 150 years ago living standards worldwide were roughly uniform, today there are vast differences between, obviously, developed and undeveloped nations. Why have some prospered and others declined? “Africa,” he told his audience, “has gone backwards.” However, he hastened to add: “It’s got nothing to do with us being African or black. Forget this old racist line of ethnicity.”
If the ethnic argument held any water, Rupert implied, why is that “similarly educated people with the same ethnic background end up experiencing such different qualities of life?”
Here he referred to East and West Germany, to Mao’s China compared to Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. He asked why it is the average South Korean is 6cm taller than his northern counterpart?
His conclusion was that the “truth seems to be found in the choices made by societies as to the economic and political system under which they choose to live. In other words, we all choose the way in which we organise our society and how we are governed. It’s got nothing to do with race.”
While he supports employment equity, Rupert warned against a “policy of advancement at the expense of any form of competence” and cited “institutions where experienced managers were ‘encouraged’ to leave – Eskom, the Land Bank, SA Airways – I can go and on.”
Let’s hope he does. We desperately need business leaders of Rupert’s calibre to speak out against mindless race-based policies that are crippling us.