On March 26, President Jacob Zuma’s eldest son, Edward, opened a charge against the country’s richest man, Johann Rupert, under the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act. This is just another shot fired in the factional battle that is ripping the ANC in half, a fake ideological war with very real stakes. In a country in which the business and political orders are trying to stay richer than God, the only losers are those who are always on the outside looking in.
Call him Rupert the Bear.
Johann Anton Rupert, who in 2014 was once again confirmed by Forbes as South Africa’s richest man, thinks we’re going down the toilet. I’m translating loosely from the Afrikaans missive Rupert wrote last week, which was circulated by Netwerk 24 and ended up making front-page news countrywide. The gazillionaire (he’s only worth $7.6-billion or so, but still) was responding to charges made in a speech given by President Jacob Zuma during the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting held last weekend. Zuma claimed that Johann Rupert had flown in from London in order to scuttle the finance minister Cabinet shuffle that resulted in Nhlanhla Nene being replaced with a programmable replicant named Des Van Rooyen. This, intimated the president, proved that “state capture” was not just a Gupta gambit, but also a “white monopoly capital” thing.
Rupert’s response? “Ter wille van ons kinders se toekoms, bedank asseblief!” wrote His Richness in perfect, Stellenbosch-grade Afrikaans. “For the future of our children, please, resign!”
The sudden interest in the country’s children may have had something to do with the fact that in the bare-knuckle battle for South Africa’s resources, Johann Rupert has now become a meme. Zuma’s NEC speech, in which he assured his comrades that he was not the Gupta Brothers’ political Simon Cowell, mostly because they’d appeared on the scene during President Thabo Mbeki’s tenure. This one single fact, suggested Zuma, rendered him totally innocent of any ill doings regarding the infamous interlopers. (We’re talking about a speech that would serve as the nadir of the Zuma presidency if there weren’t already so many low points to choose from).
The factional battle within the ANC was never more brilliantly defined. In the first corner, wearing the sharp Italian-tailored suits: old school Western style corporate/government collusion represented by arch neoliberal Cyril Ramaphosa, coached by white monopoly capital. In the second corner, wearing leather bomber jackets and fatigues: old school Third-World run-n-gun shysters represented by Jacob Zuma, backed by brown minority capital.
Sadly, the distinction between the two factions disappears the closer you examine the combatants. But the fight is nonetheless real. And in the middle of it stands South Africa’s richest citizen, who claimed in his online unlove letter that it was impossible for him to have flown in from London and intervened during the unhappy Van Rooyen interregnum because he was already in South Africa presiding over a Stellenbosch University convocation. (How entirely perfect.) The New Age, the largely unreadable Zuma/Gupta loudhailer, insisted that Rupert had in fact met with no one less than Deputy President Ramaphosa—to which Ramaphosa replied that he had not met with Rupert or anyone nearly as loaded, and that he had most certainly not plotted with white capitalists in order to find appropriate replacement for the hapless Van Rooyen.
And yet an “appropriate” replacement was found, just four days later, in the person of Pravin Gordhan. And there was pressure from a business delegation, one that included the head of the local Goldman Sachs branch, among other organisations that have so recently tanked the global economy. To say that Van Rooyen was replaced by white monopoly capital is a bit of a stretch. To say that he wasn’t replaced by white monopoly capital is also a bit of a stretch. In his haste to capture the Treasury and pair it with the already captured security apparatus, Zuma acted with the subtlety of a junky in a meth lab. They may currently be coming down from their botched trip, but you wouldn’t want to say they’ve given up.
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Which brings us to Rupert the Bear, and his social media plaint for a replacement president.
The Ruperts of Stellenbosch and their mega-wealth may be one of the stranger stories to bridge apartheid South Africa with its post-apartheid iteration. Dr Anton Rupert, the famously moderate scion of ye olde establishment, made his money by giving the country cancer. His Voorbrand Tobacco Company, started in his garage with 10 quid and some rolling papers in 1940, would later morph into a massive industrial conglomerate. As apartheid wore on, the tobacco interests were consolidated as Rothmans, while the rest of Anton’s many businesses were melted into Rembrandt.
The family’s status is in part derived from the fact that Anton was named as a possible successor during the #VerwoerdMustFall campaign of 1966, during which the Western Cape caucus of the National Party sought to replace the crazed pariah with a moderate, better-mannered party boss. Verwoerd was assassinated later that year, the National Party installed someone more insane then him when they picked John Vorster, and Anton decried the rot from the sidelines – while getting really freaking rich in the process.
Nelson Mandela absolutely loved the guy. And over the course of the transition, the Ruperts and dozens of hyper-wealthy Afrikaans families intimately connected to the old regime were allowed to maintain and grow their bank accounts. Stability would ensure that foreign capital would not do the chicken run, and all those glinting ducats would trickle down to those who needed them most.
We know how that worked out.
It did, however, work out for the Ruperts. Anton died in 2006, with a net worth of almost $3-billion. His son has more than doubled that amount in the past decade. Six years before Anton’s death, Rembrandt was cleaved into two companies, one of which was Remgro, the investment holding company that serves as the primary driver of the Ruperts’ wealth. It’s the classic developing world financial vehicle: it owns a bit of this bank and a bit of that insurance company, a bit of this private healthcare provider and a lot of that media company. Now, Remgro wields R94.69-billion worth of assets, and is the ninth biggest publicly traded company in the country.
What’s kind of amazing is that, given the recent global financial system meltdown, Rupert still reaps mega bucks from being the chairman of a Swiss-based outfit called Compagnie Financière Richemont SA. Richemont serves as an umbrella corp for an array of luxury goods purchased in the main by Saudi teenagers, American lottery winners, and ranking members of African liberation parties. It functions as one of the universe’s most perfect closed systems: local political arrivistes hoover up Rupert’s Cartiers, Chloés, Dunhills, Schaffhausens, Lancels, Montblancs and other dusty, euro-tinged brands, all of which are available for purchase in desert über-malls or spanking Asian airport terminals. This is how South Africa’s richest man got rich: by buying up gold-plated dreck for the “global market”, and selling it back to the elite who maintain the conditions under which he was able to buy the dreck in the first place.
I’d guess that some of his better customers have emerged from the Zuma clan, most of whom do not deny themselves shiny stuff crafted by former colonialists. And yet, despite the fact that his #ZumaMustFall letter was written in respectful, meticulous Afrikaans – or, perhaps, because of it – Rupert has fallen out of favour with the the president’s family. So much so that the eldest son, Edward, was tasked with felling our very own Richie Rich. Edward has lately been elevated to the family’s head hatchet man, a job for which he is manifestly unsuited, mostly because he is unsuited for just about any job. Nonetheless, just as the court-case-loving Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane opened a charge against the Guptas under the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act, Zuma Lite went to a police station on March 26 and opened the exact same charge against Johann Rupert.
And where did he perform this important job? Why, at the Nxamalala police station near Nkandla.
You see how we might be suffering from an irony overload in this country?
“Whiteness is on steroids these days,” spat Zuma Jr in a statement. “For [Rupert] to call for President Zuma’s resignation is a confirmation of what we have always known: that he and others have been funding the opposition‚ plotting and orchestrating conditions favourable for the defeat of our National Democratic Revolution.”
That Zuma the Younger is even familiar with the NDR, the set of principles that serve as the underlying commie impetus for everything the ANC says that it says it does, is a wonder of modern politics. Put it this way: “Edward Zuma” and “communism” are not exactly nestling up against each other in a word cloud.
Zuma II then swivelled easily from glancing references to the enduring socialist revolution to, well, something else. “We spend more time criticising black business and less time disrupting the accumulation path of real white monopoly capital. This should renew our efforts and commitment to transform the colonial apartheid ownership patterns. Rupert Must Fall! I’m disgusted by his arrogance.”
Defensible sentiments all. But Zuma’s ANC is, of course, utterly disinterested in “black business” and much more interested in the “accumulation path” of “capital”. Ed the Younger, a proud nativist xenophobe with a sleazy business history, possesses none of his father’s charm or wiles. Amazingly though, like a sort of ersatz-Rupert, he also has a history in the tobacco industry. In 2013, it was revealed that Amalgamated Tobacco Manufacturers (ATM), in which Edward was a shareholder, was busted for human trafficking offences and the smuggling of contraband cigarettes. The South African Revenue Services (SARS) was investigating company linked to ATM (funny how this acronym also refers to a machine dispensing cash) during Gordhan’s previous tenure – and now, weirdly, SARS, currently in the hands of the Zuma camp, is pursuing a vendetta against Gordhan.
Confused? You really shouldn’t be. Payback’s a bitch.
It has been left to Edward Zuma to visit the Nkandla cop shop in order to file some paperwork against a billionaire son of an apartheid billionaire. It’s like the old regime is finally reaching its Homeric conclusion – an epic generational battle played out epically over the generations! Except for the fact that it’s nothing like the old regime finally reaching its Homeric conclusion. This is just a bunch of rich dudes duking it out in a cage match where the prize money is literally trillions of rands – Batman vs. Superman featuring people who can’t fly.
Rupert’s Remgro is listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, so he needs the stability provided by a neoliberal in the Treasury if he hopes to keep getting richer, which he most certainly does. The Zuma/Gupta nexus thrives off the practice of a brutal shock economics that results in total ownership of the patronage system and the systematic gutting of the political party they profess to serve.
You could say that one is a long-term view and the other short-term, but that’s nonsense. These are two different, equally valid approaches to getting unbelievably goddamned rich, and it’s currently what counts as the battle for the “soul” of South Africa – a country run by soulless men and women for soulless men and women, none of whom have any real ideological bent outside the need to keep acquiring capital, white, brown, black or otherwise.
You could also argue that it was beyond daft for South Africa’s richest man to call for the felling of the country’s president. But it hardly matters. The gods are battling it out on their Richemont-branded Olympus, while the rest of us are casting around in the garbage for their scraps, whenever they deign to leave any. DM
Richard Poplak was born and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He trained as a filmmaker and fine artist at Montreals Concordia University and has produced and directed numerous short films, music videos and commercials. Now a full-time writer, Richard is a senior contributor at South Africas leading news site, Daily Maverick, and a frequent contributor to publications all over the world. He is a member of Deca Stories, the international long-form non-fiction collective. His first book was the highly acclaimed Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa (Penguin, 2007); his follow-up was entitled The Sheikhs Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop-Culture in the Muslim World (Soft Skull, 2010). Poplak has also written the experimental journalistic graphic novel Kenk: A Graphic Portrait (Pop Sandbox, 2010). His election coverage from South Africas 2014 election, written under the nom de plume Hannibal Elector, was collected as Until Julius Comes: Adventures in the Political Jungle (Tafelberg, 2014). Ja, No, Man was longlisted for the Alan Paton Non-Fiction prize, shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Literary Award and voted one of the Top-10 books of 2007 by Now Magazine. Richard has won South Africas Media-24 Best Feature Writing Award and a National Magazine Award in Canada. Since 2010, Poplak has been travelling across Africa, seeking out the catalysts and characters behind the continents 21stcentury metamorphosis. The coming book, co-authored with Kevin Bloom, is called The Shift.