‘Insert the topic of billionaires in a book title and you have a seller”, is the view of Jeremy Boraine, publishing director at Jonathan Ball Publishers.
Indeed. Of the top five bestselling titles in SA right now, three of them deal with that tiny subset of local billionaires, the Afrikaans super-rich.
The Stellenbosch Mafia by Pieter du Toit, which sits at number one of local bestsellers, is now north of 45,000 copies sold, a huge total in the relatively small book-buying market here. At a recent book-signing event at an Exclusive Books store for my own recent work, the store manager told me an interesting tale.
When I commented that the Du Toit book was not on the shelves and a sign directed customers to the counter to buy a copy, she advised: “You cannot believe how many copies of this book have been stolen.”
Apart from the normal “shrinkages” which are the dread of every retailer in lawless SA, she concluded that some of the shoplifters presumably wanted the secret sauce for billionaire status without the sweat of actually paying for the ingredients.
Of course, no books have a formula for instant riches, beyond the normal recipe of hard work, street smarts, chutzpah, resilience, and opportunity. But any billionaire, real or wannabe, is incubated by the environment in which they operate. Even battle-hardened, vaccine-deprived, and misgoverned South Africans can take comfort that the direst market conditions allow new opportunities to be sourced.
Happily, we are not yet close to the credo offered for contrarian investors by Baron Rothschild in the 19th century. He said the “time to buy is when there is blood in the streets, even if the blood is your own”.
Less controversial is the view offered locally by Ebbe Dommisse, the author of a top-selling current title, Fortunes: The Rise and Rise of Afrikaner Tycoons.
He opens his account by laconically noting that among the outcomes “not generally foreseen” by the transition of 1994 was the rise of “a dozen or two Afrikaans businessmen who have achieved unprecedented success”, of which a handful now occupy dollar-billionaire status, in each case achieved after whites surrendered political power.
Far more controversial is Dommisse’s assertion that while the state assisted white-owned businesses on a large scale, “there is little evidence that the state deliberately favoured Afrikaner firms”.
But on the law of unintended consequences, the book is right on the money. The most interesting example is a sort of cautionary tale ushered by current practices and policies. The story of Curro, SA’s largest provider of private school education with 57,000 students at 164 schools, at relatively affordable fees, is revealing. Its origins in 1998 are attributable to two facts: its founder, Chris van der Merwe, was “transformed out” of the Western Cape education department, and he and his wife saw that parents wanted good education chances for their children the ailing state schools did not provide. Today Curro is a R6bn JSE-listed company.
Not one of the Stellenbosch billionaires, nor any of their successors, of whatever colour, language group or political stripe, would likely flourish were the state to excavate under the basic building blocks of current and future empires. But that is what is on the go right now.
He wrote: “Just for the record, we were planning to acquire a large piece of land in [a suburb near Cape Town] to build a new factory and distribution centre. Apart from the potential jobs in what would have been a R100m+ project, we would have permanently employed at least 100 more people in our manufacturing operation. Enter EWC! I know that certain ‘safeguards’ are apparently in the proposed new bill, but we felt that once government could mess with our constitution, they could over time reverse any ‘safeguards’.”
He concluded: “So we declared our dividends, took the money offshore and increased imports instead of producing locally. If that was my mindset, as a dedicated South African, imagine the mindset of overseas investors. Touch the constitution and you put us back 100 years.”
As the old saying puts it: “Talk is cheap, money buys the whisky”. And the jobs and the billion-rand enterprises too.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
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