Reader impression: The Stellenbosch mafia by Pieter du Toit

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Title: The Stellenbosch mafia – Inside the Billionaires’ Club
Writer: Pieter du Toit
Publisher: Jonathan Ball
ISBN: 9781868429189

This reader impression was written and sent to LitNet on the writer's own initiative.

I did not have many expectations when I started reading The Stellenbosch mafia. When you have a book with the faces of Anton Rupert, Christo Wiese, Markus Jooste and Jannie Mouton on the cover, but it comprises only 193 pages, you do not hold very high expectations. And to make matters worse, there is also a “cast of characters” with their photographs in the front of the book. Here you will find, among many others, the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters Julius Malema, as well as Anton Rupert and Nelson Mandela.

But you will not find me shaming The Stellenbosch mafia and ridiculing it as a bad book. If you have never read up on any of these characters, if you typically have very little interest in or time for popular media, but have developed a recent interest, then a lot of the information in the book might be very interesting to you. The idea of an interconnected group of business people from Stellenbosch who control much of the economy of South Africa is not a new idea by a long stretch. There are two main recurring issues that bind all the businessmen covered in the book together – most of them studied in Stellenbosch as undergraduates, and they all live in Stellenbosch, with Jooste and Wiese notable exceptions.

And then, they are all Afrikaners – white, Afrikaans and male. The Afrikaner identity is one that is very much in disarray today, but Afrikaner nationalism is a historical reality; in fact, it is a force to be reckoned with historically. And Stellenbosch is notorious for being a bastion of white privilege, and for breeding Afrikaner politicians who developed and transformed the concept of apartheid. And so the town became closely associated with the term white monopoly capital, so ingrained in the South African political narrative today. The author continuously toys with this idea of a Stellenbosch mafia, all the while also maintaining a healthy skepticism of it. In the process, many of the old stories of how these businessmen created their empires are recounted. How these men are linked, but also, importantly, the tensions that have always existed between some of them.

The correlation between Afrikaner nationalism and African nationalism that emerges between the pages is striking. It appears to me that any nationalism has an underlying socialist base, with an apparent fear of capitalist greed, but a quiet longing for similar financial and economic success. Afrikaners used to be poor. Then they gained political power, and eventually started to build business empires with a global footprint, resulting in astonishing, even incomprehensible wealth. They benefited from apartheid as all white citizens did directly or indirectly, but the contrast could not be more striking, as many of these businessmen, most notably the Ruperts, had always been very critical of apartheid, as the book exposes.

There are some details which were really new to me. For example, a lot is written about rugby, in particular Jurie Roux, Markus Jooste and the Steinhoff sponsorships of rugby in South Africa. I can clearly recall my confusion at Steinhoff’s sponsorship of the Varsity Cup when I was a student during the early years of the Varsity Cup. Steinhoff as a brand was completely unknown to me. “What do they sell?” I can remember asking a friend. “Furniture,” was the reply. “But where are their shops?” I asked ... But the book offers an explanation – a possible explanation, I should specify – of all of this. And it also goes into many of the controversies surrounding Jurie Roux, the CEO of the South African Rugby Union and a quite controversial character.

The book also covers the rise of Medi-Clinic, the history of which I knew very little. It also features a mention of Jan Braai, a popular character who “is paid to organise braais and social-media campaigns to usurp Heritage Day in favour of Braai Day” (p 15). Du Toit links Jan Braai, whose real name is Jan Scannell, with that of Michiel le Roux, founding member of Capitec Bank, and ultimately with Steinhoff. Although Braai Day is an interesting piece of counterculture, and does add somewhat to the idea of disrupting state propaganda, it cannot be said to be counter-productive to the ideals of the South African Constitution, as it in fact promotes South African patriotism.

Speaking of Steinhoff, a big chunk of the book, as can be expected, focuses on the Steinhoff crash, but this offers very little that is new or interesting. The book relies mostly on internet articles, published books and newspapers for its sources, with some interviews and reports added to the mix. A lot has been written about Steinhoff, and no doubt a lot will still follow, but unfortunately very little of what is presented in this book can be said to be fresh information.

In summary I would say that if you are somewhat knowledgeable about the topics and characters covered in this book, then the book might frustrate you. If, however, the stories of these Afrikaner business tycoons are completely unknown to you, a reading of this book could and would be of great benefit and could assist you in understanding South African politics much better.

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