In recent years, billionaire businessman Johann Rupert has avoided the spotlight. And yet he appears to be more famous than ever. At some point, his name was a signifier for the archetype of the counter revolution, the epitome of white monopoly capital (WMC), with a side business in the Stellenbosch mafia.
He is, after all, one of the wealthiest people in South Africa.
And he was also one of a number of business leaders who openly called for former president Jacob Zuma’s resignation, following Zuma’s axing of Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister in December 2015.
And well, there appears not to have been much love lost between the two since then.
Rupert has claimed that Zuma went so far as to hire private investigators to gather information about him as part of a smear campaign that was amplified by the disgraced British public relations company Bell Pottinger.
Rupert has further alleged that the campaign was meant to distract the nation from state capture and the influence of the Gupta family and instead pin corruption on him, his family and their businesses.
Following Rupert’s calls for Zuma to step down, those in support of the then president lashed out at him.
Then ANC national spokesperson Zizi Kodwa described Rupertas an “arrogant white-monopoly capitalist who benefited from the apartheid and the colonial system”.
Zuma’s son Edward also hit back at Rupert, saying that “whiteness is on steroids these days” and that Rupert’s call for his father’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.”
While ANC Youth League KwaZulu-Natal provincial secretary Thanduxolo Sabelo asserted that only the ANC can remove Zuma from his position.
“It is only branches that can remove him, not some faction representatives no matter their current standing in society or struggle credentials and especially not by some imperialist who wants to continue looting the resources of our country,” Sabelo said.
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) feel a mafia-like group of influential people in Stellenbosch are in control of government, political parties and media in South Africa.
“If the Stellenbosch boys don’t want you to be anything, you will never become something in life,” Malema said in 2014.
Rupert is the chairperson of Swiss-based luxury-goods company Richemont and South Africa-based corporation Remgro. Richemont designs, manufactures and sells luxury jewellery brands that include Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Piaget, Montblanc and Alfred Dunhill Limited. Remgro is an investment company that is based in Stellenbosch and has more than 30 companies in its profile, according to its website.
Aside from smear campaigns that may, or may not have been concocted to tarnish the reputation of his empire, Rupert has been reticent about matters of politics and social redress.
That is until Tuesday night.
Speaking at PowerFM’s annual Chairman’s Conversation hosted by the chairman of MSG Afrika and PowerFM boss Given Mkhari, Rupert spoke candidly about corruption, politics, his Afrikaner heritage, business and the economy.
There were several moments during the interview that sent parts of the live audience into fits of giggles, while others were left appalled.
At one point Mkhari had to correct Rupert on his use of language such as calling black people “blacks” to which Rupert responded, “Sorry, I’m now with the snowflake generation, sorry.”
“Snowflake” is an offensive term used to characterise a generation seen overly sensitive and less resilient than previous generations.
And it got worse, though Rupert certainly did help untangle some of the mythology attributed to his name.
When asked what the phrases “white monopoly capital” and “Stellenbosch mafia” mean to him, Rupert denied knowing anything about these terms.
“Yes I am white, and yes I believe in the free enterprise system, as for the monopolist – I don’t know where they get that from,” he said.
Rupert quipped that he did not get an invite to the Stellenbosch mafia since he doesn’t even live there.
“I have never been a member of a secret organisation and I get concerned about the necessity of secrecy,” he said, admitting separately that his father was once a member of the Broederbond.
In a statement on Wednesday, the EFF said it was “pleased that finally the ultimate face of white privilege has been exposed for the whole country to see.”
The party described Rupert as an “arrogant white Afrikaner who sees nothing beyond his selfish racist white capitalist interests.”
EFF Statement on Johann Rupert and his arrogance. pic.twitter.com/SjHkvh4ymc
— Economic Freedom Fighters (@EFFSouthAfrica) December 5, 2018
The EFF however has not been alone in their express rejection of Rupert, and all that he represents.
Several public commentators, writing on social media platforms on Wednesday expressed consternation at Rupert’s tone-deafness. There were several moments during the interview in which Rupert appeared to be either wilfully ignorant, or wilfully uncaring about working class South Africans and their struggles.
But it was his characterisation of young people as spendthrifts and entitled that has particularly rankled with many.
Rupert told Mkhari that Afrikaner people who survived the concentration camps during the Anglo-Boer War, like his parents, were focused on what was important instead of spending their money on frivolous items.
“In a sense the Afrikaner was downtrodden. They were driven but they studied. They studied like crazy and saved like crazy. They didn’t go and buy BMWs and hang around Taboo and The Sands all the time,” he said.
During the Q&A session, Power FM talk show host Iman Rappetti took Rupert to task over his comments, calling them a “classic case of cognitive dissonance”.
“How do you breach the divide amongst a lot of people who are listening that you’re out of touch a little bit with how South Africans will be receiving your message which comes across racist from the tweets I’m reading?” Rappetti asked.
Rupert’s response was that he is not racist and that he takes “a bit of exception” to being called one.
Rappetti further noted that Rupert’s comments on black people buying luxury cars perpetuates certain racial stereotypes. Rupert however argued that his comments were misconstrued.
“I didn’t say black people. I said people. Do you think white kids don’t do the same? Do you think a whole generation of children don’t do the same? I am talking in general. I am not saying race bias.
“I am sorry if it came across as racist. It’s not racist. It is a philosophy that you can’t consume now and pay later,” he said.
Although Rupert’s comments had many members of the audience laughing and clapping, several people looked unimpressed with Gauteng MEC for education Panyaza Lesufi walking out during the discussion.
I respectfully left https://t.co/YbhYOnBcsR
— Panyaza Lesufi (@Lesufi) December 4, 2018
What emerged late on Wednesday, is the feeling that Rupert simply does not, or refuses to understand the plight of South Africans who are not already wealthy.
South African Communist Party deputy provincial secretary in the Eastern Cape Lazola Ndamase disagreed with Rupert’s opinions on black people and their relationship with saving money. According to Ndamase, Rupert “doesn’t know about stokvels and contributions to burials in villages and townships” as well as the role of mutual banks.
Johann Rupert thinks this is a BMW taking lazy passengers to Taboo rather than a Train carrying workers to work and from work! pic.twitter.com/FFBfGmz3iu
— Lazola Ndamase (@Lazola_Ndamase) December 4, 2018
Rupert however did indicate that significant movements towards land redistribution have not been made in South Africa,
“The land issue is very emotional and it’s emotional for blacks and for whites, sorry the black people and the white people, but it’s obvious that there has to be a redress.
“I don’t think we’ll ever have peace unless there is a proper redistribution. I wouldn’t say land, I would say property and that we grow the economy… It’s not a question of doing it, it’s how it’s done… Let’s not fall into the trap of Zimbabwe and Venezuela. Everything looks good on paper, but the game is played on grass,” Rupert said.
In sum however, we had a wealthy South African man, shock people by showing exactly how out of touch he is with the inflections of national conversations, and not being sorry about it at all.
And that shouldn’t surprise at all.