South Africa

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Roger Kebble: In life and death, inextricably linked to his son Brett

Roger Kebble: In life and death, inextricably linked to his son Brett

Mining boss Roger Kebble, who for years insisted his son Brett did not orchestrate his own suicide, killed himself in his car in the upmarket suburb of Bishopscourt in Cape Town yesterday. The 78-year-old, who was found with a gunshot wound to the head, leaves an incredibly complex legacy. By MANDY WIENER.

It comes as no surprise that the death of one of the key players in a sensational South African story, is underscored by such immense irony and theatrical tragedy that it could be the culmination of a Hollywood movie script.

Mining boss Roger Kebble, who for years insisted his son Brett never orchestrated his own suicide, killed himself in his car in the upmarket suburb of Bishopscourt in Cape Town yesterday. He was found with a gunshot wound to the head.

The 78-year-old leaves behind a son, former Springbok rugby player Guy, a daughter, and an incredibly complex legacy.

Roger Kebble began his career as a shift boss, a mine captain who endeared himself to his men by drinking Black Label in shebeens on Sunday afternoons. Those who knew the Kebbles during those years, as they moved from one tumbleweed town on the reef to the next, describe Roger as being “as rough as a goat’s knee” or alternatively “as rough as a bear’s ass”. Over the years, he worked his way up the company ladder. Despite being crass and uncouth, he saw to it that his sons attended the prestigious St Andrew’s school in Bloemfontein, his own alma mater.

By the early 1990s he had retired and went off to spend his twilight years on a wine farm in the Cape. But he grew bored and threw his cash into a 65-year-old embattled mine called Rand Leases. In stepped his son Brett, fresh from a stint as an article clerk, who helped him orchestrate one of the great, brazen takeovers of the industry.

Backed by London-based Mercury Asset Management, the Kebbles manoeuvred a buyout of Randgold & Exploration by purchasing just enough shares, and with just enough chutzpah, to get a seat at the boardroom table. Before long, management had been voted out and the Kebbles were in power. The industry was blown away.

Reacting to Kebble’s death on The Money Show last night, mining entrepreneur Bernard Swanepoel remembered that era fondly, when Roger Kebble brought him in to run mining company Harmony during the restructuring of the mining landscape.

Roger himself influenced the industry positively,” recalls Swanepoel. “He initially set in motion a set of circumstances that was very good for me and a lot of other young people and I think the gold mining industry looks different today because of Roger Kebble. The original Roger Kebble. The man who unseated Randgold, the London-based fat cats who ran South Africa-based mining companies. Roger was such a great man for the early phases of the restructuring, the revolution, as I would like to call it. Roger was not always on the side of all ethical decisions but when the history of South African mining, changing from bloated arrogant corporate structures is written, Roger will get a good mention.”

But Roger’s son Brett had greater ambitions and was intent on building his own empire. He set off into the lucrative world of politics and empowerment deals, dragging his father along with him. As a result, Kebble senior was led into a world of shadowy espionage and corporate skulduggery, entrapping himself in a web of malfeasance and fraud.

Roger Kebble was first accused of wrongdoing by Durban Roodepoort Deep (DRD) head Mark Wellesley-Wood in the early 2000s. Ironically, Wellesley-Wood aka ‘The Pinstripe Bandit’, was brought into the company by Roger as a Mr-Fix-It. The Kebbles were overthrown in a palace coup and this was to be the start of an ugly legal brawl which saw Roger being arrested at the then Johannesburg International Airport on 62 charges of fraud amounting to close on R7-million. He cried foul, claiming his arrest was designed to humiliate him. It was alleged that while on the board of DRD, he had channelled money through a close corporation he owned, called Skilled Labour Brokers, to a labour consultancy and had siphoned off the money for himself. The case was struck off the roll in 2005 but it was also the source of a long and arduous battle between Kebble and the taxman. Advocate Barry Roux, who went on to represent Oscar Pistorius, was responsible for getting Kebble off the charges.

It was also this acrimonious battle that led the Kebbles to underworld characters like their head of security Clinton Nassif, as they engaged the services of his company to spy on Wellesley-Wood.

The relationship between the Kebbles and former national police commissioner Jackie Selebi was also exposed during the top cop’s corruption trial. Extensive details emerged of how the Kebbles paid Selebi more than $1-million, via Glenn Agliotti, for access and protection, which saw the erstwhile commissioner attending dinners at the family’s Johannesburg home and intervening in matters on their behalf.

Meanwhile, there was a deepening chasm in the relationship between Kebble and his son Brett. There was always the widely held view that Brett, cultured and flamboyant, had been maligned by his rugby playing brother Guy and his gruff father with some even suggesting that Roger referred to him as his “other daughter”.

Brett’s butler, Andrew Minnaar, testified in court about how he bore witness to a spectacular fistfight between the two at a board meeting, during which an ornamental frog was broken. Increasingly, Brett turned to Australian associate and JCI director John Stratton as a mentor and father figure.

He cut us out of his life almost totally,” Roger admitted to me during an interview in late 2010. “We were never invited to his house. He was always buying things and we couldn’t work out how and he just tended to keep us away. Brett played huge corporate games,” admitted his father. “He used to have this vision in his mind that he would become a Barney Barnato and I think in a way that affected him. I very seldom ever got a meeting with him, if ever, by himself. He always had somebody there. We had to wait and see when there was nobody around and then walk in.”

During our interview at a luxurious Bantry Bay hotel overlooking the Atlantic seaboard, Roger Kebble struck me as being simultaneously simple yet astonishingly complex. He discussed truffle hunting in France and called someone a “bloody poes” in the next breath. Over lunch, he and Guy chatted about whether to keep their box at Newlands rugby stadium and they were very concerned about my breeding and what school I had attended. He was also passionate about pasteurised milk, the new business venture he had embarked on with Guy.

Roger was adamant that his son did not orchestrate his own murder. I got the overwhelming sense that he thought he did not have the balls to do it. Instead, he believed Brett was going to come clean about his misdemeanours and was taken out to avoid bringing the house down with him.

Brett loved his kids. Brett wasn’t the sort of person that was going to go and dive off a cliff,” said Roger. “Look, I don’t think that he ran the company in any efficient way, but jissus, he wasn’t going to go and kill himself.”

During Agliotti’s trial, Nassif testified that Roger Kebble knew about his son’s intention to have himself killed. Nassif claimed he had personally told Kebble senior, but the old man strongly denied this. Roger also avoided several attempts to get him to testify at his son’s murder trial, blaming his poor health for not being able to appear in court.

His attorney Kim Warren believes Roger never recovered from Brett’s death and the subsequent, very public murder trial. “He did take Brett’s death very hard. I know that he struggled emotionally with Brett’s death and it did have an impact on him. It definitely took a toll on Roger,” she says.

Reacting to the news on Tuesday, Guy said his father had been in poor health for some time. He was struggling to walk and was worried about becoming a burden. Roger had undergone knee operations and had a weak heart. It is also suggested he had become depressed and had been considering taking his own life for some time. The irony of this was not lost on Guy, who remarked that he and his father still believed 10 years on that Brett had not planned his own death.

Roger Kebble’s legacy is inextricably linked with that of his controversial son Brett. And so it seemed uncomfortably fitting that both men’s lives ended under curiously similar circumstances, with powerfully ironic images captured for posterity. Both slumped over, behind the steering wheel of a silver Mercedes-Benz, on a quiet suburban tree-lined road, with gunshot wounds to the head and police officers looking on.

One was undoubtedly a suicide, the other … well, we may never truly know. DM

Photo: Roger Kebble, father of murdered mining magnate Brett Kebble, arrives for his son’s funeral in Cape Town, October 4, 2005. (Photo by Reuters)


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