OBIT: Mike Rosholt – POW, Apartheid critic, promoter of Sullivan Principles and SA Business Titan

LONDON — It has become fashionable in South Africa to promote a simplistic, binary narrative of the Apartheid era, with heroes and villains divided by race. As a result, the legacy of late business titan Mike Rosholt is unlikely to be afforded due respect. But even one-eyed revisionists cannot gainsay SA’s Presidency which, when awarding him with a national honour in 2009, described Rosholt as “a visionary business leader who was critical of the evil system of apartheid.” My abiding memory of Rosholt, who died last week at the age of 97, was a strange one. He insisted on keeping the temperature in his office in icy low single digits, an aid, perhaps, to the concentration of those who entered. To me he came across as a thoughtful and reflective leader who counted his words and was happiest away from the limelight. So the details of the extraordinary innings played by this Michaelhouse old boy was not well known: from Second World War officer who spent years as a POW, to SA’s top CA student and the co-builder of what was the country’s dominant industrial corporation. At my request, his son Halvor put together this touching obituary after telling me Mike Rosholt had passed away peacefully, surrounded by his close family. Fitting closure for one who contributed so much to his fellow South Africans. – Alec Hogg


13 November 1920 – 26 February 2018

One of South Africa’s business titans, Mike Rosholt, the former CEO and then Chairman of Barlow Rand, died peacefully in his sleep last week at the age of 97.

Loved by his many friends and small family, revered and respected by his colleagues and the business community, both in South Africa and abroad, Rosholt retired from Barlows in January 1991, but continued to work for social change and improvement as chairman of the National Business Initiative, the Joint Education Trust and the Claude Leon Foundation among others.

During his long and distinguished career, and in parallel with his business commitments, he met with international luminaries, including President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and was instrumental in the late 1970s, with other senior business leaders, in engaging with the Reverend Leon Sullivan, and adopting the Sullivan Principles, developed to apply economic pressure on South Africa in protest of its system of apartheid. In his later years, he also had a warm relationship with President Nelson Mandela.

Widely commended for his foresight that business could not be conducted in an environment of racial animosity, he was one of the first business leaders to recognize black trade unions, and is remembered as a pioneer of non-racialism in the workplace. In recognition of this contribution, he was awarded the Order of the Baobab (Silver) in 2009 by President Kgalema Motlanthe.

Mike Rosholt lived a long, rich and colourful life. Born in Johannesburg, he spent his early years in Beira, Mozambique, where his father was a ship’s agent. There being no schools in Beira in the 1920s, he was sent at the age of 7, to PTS as a boarder, travelling with his tickets on a string around his neck. The first part of the journey, by sea was in care of the ship’s purser from Beira to Lourenço Marques, where he joined the SAR&H for the train journey to Johannesburg, now in care of the conductor. There he was met by the PTS headmaster, with whom he often spent his school holidays.

From PTS, Mike went on to Michaelhouse, where he excelled both academically and in sports, particularly on the cricket field and squash court. He later represented Transvaal in the former, and was runner up in the SA Squash Championship in 1948. Golf later became his ongoing activity, and he scored his first hole-in-one at the age of 89 at the River Club, which he and Punch Barlow were instrumental in founding.

From school he was articled to what would become Cooper Brothers, but joined up when war broke out, in the 2nd Field Regiment of the SA Artillery. Commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant, he was shipped north to Egypt, and then the Libyan desert where, one morning his company was attacked by a squadron of German fighters. Wounded, he was in an ambulance convoy on its way to Benghazi hospital, and intercepted by a German tank column, which was the start of three and a half years in the “bag” in Italy and Germany. Interestingly, his ambulance door had been flung open by a German officer – his captor was Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, who was in the habit of accompanying the lead vehicle of German tank columns.

During his time as a POW, many lifelong friendships were formed, and his studies towards his CA continued, tutored by men who would, after the war become his colleagues and mentors in the profession. Though a terrible time, his captivity was formative, and in later years, Mike often spoke of the experiences he’d had “in the bag”.

In 1945, this normally robust 190lb man was liberated, weighing 120lbs, by George Patton’s American army – not a moment too soon, as there were indications that the SS had been planning to murder all their POWs.

Returning to Johannesburg, via demobilization in London, Mike resumed his CA studies, and came out top student in South Africa in his final exams, joining the prominent firm of Goldby, Panchaud & Webber, eventually becoming senior partner. During this time, he was invited onto the board of Thomas Barlow & Sons as a non-executive director, and in 1963 joined Punch Barlow as an executive director.

Also in 1947, he met, fell in love with, and married a very attractive young woman, Beatrice Ash, who is remembered with great affection in Johannesburg’s business and social circles for her charm, warmth and hard work on, in particular the African Children’s Feeding scheme, of which Mike was chairman for many years. This was the defining relationship of Mike’s life, and when Bea died in 2010, they had been married for 63 years, raising a family of three sons, and starting in 1954, over the years building their simple, but gracious garden home in Sandhurst.

During his long career, Mike also sat on the boards of among others, SA Breweries, Standard Bank, the Old Mutual, and ASA Limited, an American investment company. He was chair of the Urban Foundation, twice the Chancellor of Wits, chair and/or trustee of the Michaelhouse Trust, the IDT, the SA Foundation, the Stellenbosch Community Development Programme and many other bodies.

Mike’s life and career should be examples to us all – integrity, decency, great modesty and compassion writ large. In an era defined by greed and dubious practices, his belief that a director’s role is to take care of all his stakeholders before himself seems a bit unusual and old-fashioned. His example of dedicated and unselfish service should be a beacon for us all.

He leaves behind three sons, seven grandchildren and four great grandchildren.

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