In a rare public interview, the chairman of Remgro and Richemont, Johann Rupert, discussed his life and opinions with businessman Given Mkhari on Tuesday in the annual Power FM Chairman’s Interview.
There was talk ahead of the evening about a boycott of the event due to allegations of domestic abuse in the Mkhari household, with the MSG Afrika Group owner and his wife, Ipeleng, having opened assault cases against each other in July – before both withdrawing them and asking for privacy.
Given Mkhari and Ipeleng arrived together on Tuesday night, all smiles. When Mkhari acknowledged her in the audience, he said she was “looking hot”.
However, the evening focused primarily on the multibillionaire Rupert, whose detractors – particular the leadership of the EFF and BLF, as well as certain factions of the ANC – have often accused him of leading so-called white monopoly capital in South Africa, and for being part of the so-called Stellenbosch mafia.
Rupert was dismissive of both concepts, saying he had only learnt about the former from the now defunct UK PR firm Bell Pottinger, which had targeted him as a way to deflect attention from the controversial Gupta family. He said the idea of white monopoly capital didn’t make any sense to him; he was not aware of any white monopolies, nor was he part of any. He added that the idea of a Stellenbosch mafia was also ridiculous and he was similarly part of no such thing. He appeared to hint at not even liking Stellenbosch and its leaders, though said he would prefer not to say anything as he was still the chancellor of Stellenbosch University.
Later, when Mkhari half-mockingly attempted to return to the idea that Rupert may be the head of a secret cabal, Rupert asked him if he also believed “in Father Christmas”.
Between jokes and snappy answers, the 68-year-old offered stories from his life and the long years it had taken his family to reach a point where the companies he now controls have a market cap of about R687 billion, according to Mkhari. Remgro in South Africa makes up about R116 billion of that, with the international firm Richemont (based in Switzerland) largely making up the remainder.
Rupert started the interview by making a joke about the “Shangaan” in Mkhari, which Mkhari did not seem to mind despite the word “Shangaan” often being considered a pejorative term for Tsonga people.
Rupert continued with an appeal to the people of South Africa to work towards common goals and to attempt to engage with each other without “screaming” at each other.
“If we can’t talk openly then I really think we have an issue in this country. You [Mkhari] had a lot of allegations you wanted to ask about. So go for it,” Rupert said to applause and laughter.
He said his father had started their first company with nothing but 10 pounds, and both his parents had grown up poor during the depression.
“She [Rupert’s mother] saved until she was in her 80s.”
Rupert explained how and why his father Anton had taken the decision to become independent and a self-made man, often then having to go abroad to create brands and form partnerships.
“The ironic thing is they did far better outside of South Africa than in South Africa.”
When Mkhari told him there was a view around freedom of movement and “the ability to go overseas and come back … [that] there would have been a certain heads-up for them just by virtue of them just being white”.
After a sigh, Rupert answered: “What could they do? They were white,” an answer that evoked laughter in the audience.
Rupert, however, needed to be corrected by Mkhari when he then referred to “the blacks” when discussing how his family had never been political during the apartheid years, had not tried to keep “the blacks down” and had partnership “with blacks throughout Africa”.
When Mkhari corrected him to say, “Black people, Johan,” Rupert apologised and said: “Sorry. I’m now with the snowflake generation, sorry … black … people.”
“Black people, not blacks,” Mkhari insisted again.
Rupert admitted that his children often “lectured him on this”. Rupert subsequently made an exaggerated point of saying “black people” carefully whenever he referred to black people. To protest his innocence when it came to his relationships with black people, he boasted about being friends with numerous black people, particularly A-list celebrities overseas. He even name-dropped supermodel Naomi Campbell, basketball legend Michael Jordan and Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton (though he appeared not to get around to saying his name) into the mix as apparent friends of his.
Rupert insisted his family had never worked with the apartheid government and both he and his family had been threatened and targeted by the National Party government. He said that, had his family chosen to emigrate, they would probably have been far better off, but they had decided to stay out of a sense of loyalty to the country.
Later, he added that he had been hounded by the SA Revenue Service post-democracy for eight years, belying allegations that he or his companies were ever given special treatment. This was in apparent contrast to the revenue collector in Switzerland, which had sent him a thank you letter.
Later he spoke about why his father had left the Broederbond and why he was not part of any secret organisation.
“Surely what I’ve tried to do in my life belies the fact that we ‘want to keep the darkies down’. My black American friends in America and New York will find it incredibly funny.”
Towards the end of part one of the interview, Rupert said the early “downtrodden” generation of Afrikaners from which he was descended were “driven” and had raised themselves up by “studying like crazy and saving like crazy”.
“They didn’t go and buy BMWs and hang around at Taboo and The Sands all the time, okay?” This comment also drew laughter and applause from the audience.
UPDATE: When later challenged about his having said this to mean his views on black people, he qualified it by explaining that he had meant people in general.
READ MORE: I’m not racist, says Johann Rupert
“I hear this narrative that Madiba was a sellout. I mean … it’s totally disrespectful. I don’t see your age group … I don’t see you going to jail for two, nearly three decades. No, you’ll miss The Sands. Be respectful to your elders. I haven’t seen leadership coming out of your generation.
“Remember, I met Steve Biko when he was in his twenties. And he wouldn’t have carried on in Taboo [a popular night club in Sandton].”
Watch the rest of part one of his interview here:
This is part one of a series of articles.
Twitter already had a lot of reaction following the interview: