He is the poster-boy of white monopoly capital and the man Zuma accuses of bringing the Rand to its knees. But who exactly is Johann Rupert and just how much power does he yield?
Of the top richest South Africans listed by Forbes, the first five are white men. Rupert, the eldest son of an industrialist who founded tobacco company Rembrandt Group, trails only diamond heir Nicky Oppenheimer.
In the first day of the State Capture Commission appearance by former president Jacob Zuma, startling revelations were made. A number of ANC stalwarts were accused of being spies and working for the apartheid government.
However, the most worrying of the revelations was a threat that was issued by Rupert. Zuma alleged that when Fikile Mbalula attended “an activity” at Rupert’s home, he was told to warn Zuma that if he went on to fire former finance minister Pravin Gordhan, Rupert was going to move to “shut” economy and make the Rand flat.
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Zuma testified that ‘they’ did indeed interfere with the Rand, telling the commission that Rupert’s threats had been realised just after he had been defied.
Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have made accusations of the Rand being rigged before. Most seem to have taken it lightly. The implications of such threats coming from a man of Rupert’s power and stature are not to be taken lightly. This is considering that, in 2015, South Africa’s Competition Commission began investigating market manipulation in currency pairs involving the rand by a host of local and international banks, including Bank of America Merrill Lynch, BNP Paribas, JPMorgan Chase, Investec, Standard New York Securities, HSBC, Standard Chartered, Credit Suisse Group, Standard Bank, Nomura, Macquarie, Absa and Barclays.
EFF leader Julius Malema scathingly refers to Rupert and an elite group of white billionaires as “The Stellenbosch Mafia”, the very worst example of white monopoly capital.
But who exactly are these mega-wealthy individuals, and what influence do they exert, not only on Stellenbosch, but on South African society as a whole?
Johann vehemently denies he is a monopolist of any sort. His critics argue that he owns almost everything in the economy, from banks and financial services companies, industrial and fast-moving goods consumer (FMCG) companies, to luxury brands. He has a more than average portfolio of shareholding across key sectors of the economy which are held by Remgro (business/financial services), Reinet (industrial mainly British American Tobacco – BAT) and Richemont (luxury goods).
Rupert’s argument is that many of his shareholdings in most of these companies are minority stakes. He also argues that most of these companies also are not monopolies in the industries they operate in.
However, companies like BAT, Unilever, Distell and many others in his shareholding portfolio, do have some level of monopoly power but that’s not the argument being made here. If we use the FSR/RMBH for example, we see that the majority shareholders of FirstRand and RMBH are white and male. RMBH, in which Remgro has 28% stake, is a significant shareholder of FSR (at 33%), the biggest banking group by market capitalisation in the country.
Remgro, a star child of the Rembrandt empire, is the vehicle through which the Rupert’s maintain a grip of the South African economy; with interest in the production and distribution of tobacco, retail and investment banking, life and non-life insurance activities, industrial activities, production of wine and spirits, exploration, extraction and sale of marine diamonds.
In the face of recent attacks from the right-wing politicians, the man has remained unseemingly defiant and unmoved by the blows he receives so often.
He once explained to journalists that run-ins with the ruling class were nothing new and that the apartheid government was adept at bullying by, for example, blocking import permits during the 1980s.
“At a dinner of the Urban Foundation once Magnus Malan (minister of defence under PW Botha) openly threatened me in front of the late Gavin Relly, saying that they (the National Party government) will ‘break Rembrandt’, and that ‘politics is a cut-throat business, and I mean that literally’.”
In a high sounding tribute to him in News24 by Pieter du Toit, it is said that “when fund managers on Wall Street want to understand what South Africa’s prospects are, they call Rupert. Or when big government bondholders in Europe worry about their returns, they ask him. When institutional investors in the UK want to understand the lay of the land, they pick his brain.”
Whilst South Africa has been watching the investigation into Zuma’s relationship with the Guptas, another section of SA politocs has also put Ramaphosa’s relationship with white billionaires such as Rupert under scrutiny.
Rupert claims he has known President Cyril Ramaphosa since the early 1990s and they formed a good relationship in 1994 and 1995, when then-president Nelson Mandela established a working group to help revamp the country’s labour legislation.
Noble as the cause sounds, some have said it was under such circumstances and meetings that Cyril Ramaphosa became a lapdog for white capital. Even Rupert acknowledges that although he may want to work closely with government to revamp South Africa’s image, his closeness to the president may have politically damning consequences.
In the leadup to the just ended South African elections, Neville Williams, chief financial officer of the Stellenbosch-based investment company controlled by Johann Rupert, was not shy to speak up about their hope for a strong mandate for Cyril Ramaphosa. To them, he was the hope for “much needed reforms.”
One of the reforms could be the new lease of life that Pravin Gordhan has been given in Cyril’s government as the Public Enterprises Minister. Is it not the same ministry in charge of the Public Investment Corporation which has joint investments with Rupert’s companies? What a placement.
Whether Zuma’s allegations are true, the power that is yielded by Johann Rupert’s money and connections are undoubtable.