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Welcome to Episode Nine of The Alec Hogg Show, a long form audio biography where we look behind the headlines at the lives of interesting South Africans. Our guest in this episode is Rob Hersov. Wealthy, educated, and just turned 60, Hersov is on a mission to help fix South Africa, something you’ll hear plenty about in what follows. A Harvard MBA and scion of a mining dynasty, his CV includes having worked under the direct tutelage of media mogul Rupert Murdoch and luxury goods baron Johann Rupert. Hersov put those lessons to great effect, achieving significant entrepreneurial success including the building of a successful private jet business which he sold to Warren Buffett. He has clearly inherited the energy of his famous father Basil, Anglovaal chairman, World War Two fighter pilot and still active in his mid 90s. With the wealth and experience to go anywhere on earth, three years ago Hersov junior chose to return to South Africa after three decades abroad. Like other guests on this show, Rob was selected on the basis that if his story were captured in book form, it would likely be a best seller. – Alec Hogg
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Have to say that the interview with Rob Hersov was the most interesting I’ve heard yet – biased because his sentiments resonate so very strongly with my own views.
Once again a superb interview – a well spent 43 minutes listening.
Welcome to Episode Nine of the Alec Hogg Show, a long form audio biography where we look behind the headlines at the lives of interesting South Africans. Our guest in this episode is Rob Hersov.
Wealthy, educated and just turned 60, Hersov is on a mission to help fix South Africa, something you’ll hear plenty about in what follows. A Harvard MBA and scion of a mining dynasty, his CV includes having worked under the direct tutelage of media mogul Rupert Murdoch and luxury goods baron Johann Rupert. Hersov put those and other lessons to great effect, achieving significant entrepreneurial success – including the building of a successful private jet business which he sold to none other than Warren Buffett.
He has clearly inherited the energy of his famous father, Basil, Anglovaal’s chairman and a World War Two fighter pilot who is still active in his mid 90s. With the wealth and experience to go anywhere on earth, three years ago, Hersov Jr brought his family back to South Africa after more than three decades abroad. We’ll find out why and what he thinks about that decision in the next few minutes. But like other guests on the show, Rob was selected on the basis that if his story were captured in book form, it would likely be a bestseller. That’s no maybe.
Many people in South Africa know about the Hersov family. But what they might not know was that your grandfather – Bob Hersov – and Slip Menell started this company, Anglovaal. Then they handed it on to your father, Basil, and Clive Menell. Then there was Rob Hersov and Ricky Mennell, who was supposed to be the next generation. What happened?
Well, there was also Brian Menell and James Hersov, the younger brothers. But what happened was, you know, third generation and two families. There were 16-17 heirs. Not all of them wanted to be involved in business at all. Many of them didn’t want to be involved in business or live in South Africa. So it sort of boiled down to the four boys. James and Brian were doing their own thing. Rick had a lot of experience in mining in Australia and had returned to South Africa to join Anglovaal.
I happened to be overseas. I’d done Goldman Sachs, Harvard Business School. I was working as Rupert Murdoch’s right-hand man in 1989 to 1991/1992 when I got a call from my dad. He said, ‘if you’re going to come back and run the company, you better come back now.’ I’d sort of got my life organised overseas. I’d been to Harvard Business School, I’d had investment banking training.
Working with Rupert Murdoch, as a 30/31-year old was unbelievable. I just wasn’t ready to come back to South Africa. So I think dad and Clive decided that maybe the next generation couldn’t really be Herzov’s and Menell’s together. That’s when they split mining and industries and the rest is history.
So if you’d come back, we might still have an Anglovaal?
If I’d come back, there might still be an Anglovaal and who knows? It’s a tough one to think that maybe I should have come back or maybe not.
Because the funny thing is you did come back. You came back a lot later, almost swimming against the tide. Had you come back then, it would have been a very different country to the one that you did return to.
You know, big parts of Anglovaal still exist. There’s AVI, Aveng. Patrice Motsepe, his mining company, is Anglovaal mining. So the businesses have still continued and most of them extremely successfully. But I think my career has been an extraordinarily interesting one for me. I’ve had failure and success, and came back three and a half years ago to a very different country.
Why three and a half years ago did you make that decision?
Well, I’d lived 31 years abroad, six years in America and 25 years in Europe – Italy, Holland and mainly in London. I’d had failure and success and I built a number of businesses. All of a sudden, I realised that the businesses that have succeeded and based in London all had great chief executives. I was the majority shareholder, but I could pretty much live anywhere as chairman and leave them to get on with the business.
So I asked a few friends – including Johann Rupert – and said here are five or six reasons why I could actually live anywhere in the world. I’m thinking of going back to South Africa. I miss the country. My second innings of children should see the country I grew up in. And he, the others and my dad said, ‘fantastic, come home.’ I would have gone to Johannesburg because I am a Johannesburg boy at heart. But my New Zealand wife Katie said ‘if it’s South Africa, it’s going to be Cape Town.’ So here we are in paradise.
Johannesburg boy at heart. Did you go to school there?
Well, I went to The Ridge, Michaelhouse, UCT and then two years in the army.
And then off to?
Two years at Goldman Sachs in New York as an investment banker. I arrived in 1985. In 1985, the market was going through the roof. I didn’t know what an IPO was, and within a week someone said, ‘Oh, you’re from South Africa – and Hersov/Anglovaal – you must know about mining.’ They shipped me up to Canada to work on an IPO. A mining company called Campbell Red Lake. I had no idea what I was doing at that point.
Rob, you were also quite well known internationally as a bit of a playboy. If you Google Rob Hersov, you’ll see pictures of yourself and your first wife, who – I think after you got divorced, dated Jude Law, a big film star.
She had good taste.
It sounds like a very rarefied atmosphere that not only you grew up in, but that you worked in and lived in.
Yes, I was very lucky. I was born into the most incredible, loving parents, family and beautiful home. Want for nothing. Very, very lucky. I married Kim – my first wife – a fantastic Californian in the fashion industry in London. I’d get invited to all sorts of investment banking and all the other related parties and shooting and golf type things.
She’d be invited to all the fashion parties and we’d go together to all of these. So we’d be seen at all the ‘who’s who’ parties in London for a number of years. So maybe that’s what the Playboy moniker came from – but I was always with her.
Rupert Murdoch. How did you get to work for him so closely?
I was dating a beautiful girl when I was at Harvard Business School – a redhead – and it was my second year. I said to her, ‘I really want to get into the media industry.’ Things were starting to happen. It was before the internet and mobile phones – before multi-channel television.
She said, ‘Oh, I’ve got this great friend at Allen & Company, which is a media investment banking firm. I’ll arrange for you to see him.’ By the way, I’ve never told this story and it’s a fantastic story. So I went to see Stan and he said, Look, Rob, I think you want to be in media proper, not investment banking. You should go work for News Corp. I’ll tell you what, I’ll set up a meeting for you right now, but not yet with Rupert. You’ve got to get to see a guy called John Evans.’.
He picks up the phone. ‘Yep. Yep. South African, Rob. Yeah. He’ll come down now.’ So he said, ‘Off you go. It’s four or five blocks away. John Evans, he’s unusual. you’ll like him.’ I walk in and there’s this older gentleman with long gray hair. I’ve sort of got a G.I. Joe haircut, tie and a suit. I walk in and I say ‘Mr Evans, my name is Rob Hersov.’.
He said, ‘Before you say anything, I want to tell you I’m marrying a girl half my age and I’m a reformed drug addict and alcoholic.’ Then he just started talking. He was Rupert’s visionary. He’d say in a supermarket, the fish should be next to the chips. He was this fantastic guy.
I’d really only said two words, ‘Hi, I’m Rob Hersov.’ After half an hour talking, he said, ‘look, if you’re going to join News Corp, you have to meet Rupert, so hold on. He picks up the phone. ‘Rupert, yes. South African. Rob. Yes, I’ll send him over now.’ I hadn’t said anything to John. So I walked four or five blocks of Rupert’s office, walked in and he goes, ‘Oh, you’re Rob. Lovely to meet you. Please take a seat.’
Then he asked me one question. ‘So what’s the future of the media business, the media industry? I replied, ‘technology?’ He said no, ‘it’s content.’ He spoke for about twenty minutes. So I said two words to John and one word to Rupert. At the end of the conversation, Rupert said, ‘Well, it’s fantastic that you’re joining News Corp. Can you be here Monday morning?’
I hadn’t even graduated. I was supposed to go on holiday with my parents. I said, ‘Yes I can be here Monday morning.’ He said, ‘Well, what are you going to do for me?’ I realised I’d been hired and I said, ‘Well, why don’t I work for you for a few months? If it works out, great. If it doesn’t throw me into one of your divisions.’ He said ‘Great, see you at 8:30 Monday morning. He shook my hand. That was it. Got the job.
I worked for him. Carried his bag, helped write the speeches, analysed business plans. What an extraordinary man.
What happened on that first day? You have an interview with a guy, arrive at his office and say, ‘Here I am, Rupert’ – or Mr Murdoch, I presume.
So Monday morning, I turned up at his desk. ‘Oh, Rob, good to see you. Look, everybody has access to me, and they all give me business plans to invest in. Here’s a pile of them, the ones in the bin are from people that I really don’t even want to bother looking at. But these three or four, why don’t you read them, analyse them, come back and present them to me? If they’re worth looking at, I’ll look at them.’
Off I went. One of them was Country Music Television. In those days – the late 80s, early 90s – multi-channel television hadn’t arrived. Christian music – evangelical music – was going like a rocket, but no one had really heard of country music outside of Nashville and Memphis. So I was reading through it and the statistics were credible, how fast this was growing.
So, the next day I go in and Rupert says, ‘Right, what are you presenting?’ I say, ‘Country Music TV.’ He goes, ‘That’s ridiculous. Forget it’. I told him a little bit about it and he listened to me. Then he asked me five questions only. Those five questions defined the industry, the sector, the company, but more importantly – how it fitted into his business.
At the end of 15 minutes of answering those five questions, he said, ‘Hmm, interesting. Alright, offer them U$29-million. if they don’t take it, move on.’ Well, they didn’t take it because they knew what they were worth. Today it’s worth many billions of dollars. But he knew exactly how it would fit into his organisation. Extraordinary.
What did you learn from him? That you can apply now?
I’m glad you asked that, because obviously he’s a very, very decisive man. The greatest thing I learned from him was his kindness, humility and treating everybody as an equal. He would chat to the taxi driver – and we took taxis in those days – he would chat to the doorman. He would ask them what newspapers they read. He would treat everyone as an equal. He was interested in everyone. When he was speaking to you, you felt like the most important person on the planet.
He really did focus and listen. He and I went to some other billionaire’s drinks party and we walked in together – this is in Manhattan – and he said, ‘Rob, have a quick look around’, because the children of the billionaire were at the party meeting people and there were some young ones.
He said, ‘Look at the people talking to the children. They’re the ones who made it in life. They’re not selling anything, they’re really interested in what the children say.’ An extraordinary man.
And his children, particularly the two boys – did you get to know them?
Not really. No, I didn’t. They hadn’t quite come into the organisation. Elizabeth was in London and the boys were starting to come in. Rupert was obviously preparing for their arrival, but they hadn’t arrived yet.
James is being painted as one of those people that you would describe is on the left or ‘woke-ish’, whereas Lachlan is pretty much in his father’s image. James, having left News Corp, Lachlan, is still there. Having known the family the way that you do, did this surprise you that there was that split?
I don’t know if James is as ‘woke’ and as left as people painting him be. Nor Lachlan as conservative as he’s painted to be. I think they’re both very sensible men. Elizabeth, too, is a dynamic businesswoman. She’s extraordinary. She’s built great content and media business. She’s very impressive.
Your exposure to Rupert Murdoch would have prepared you pretty well for the next Rupert – Johann Rupert.
Well, the families knew each other anyway. Johann’s dad – the great Anton – knew Bob Hersov. And then Basil knew Anton and Johan knew Basil. The families kind of knew each other and got on fine. We always used to go at Christmas to Hermanus – we’ve got a house there. Johann’s exactly 10 years older than me, so he knew me as the sort of irritating kid in shorts, but he kind of knew who I was.
Then he heard from someone who said, ‘There’s this South African – Harvard MBA – working as Rupert Murdoch’s right hand. When he found out that it was me, he couldn’t believe it. He had kind of lost track of where I was going with my career. Johann was looking for a third leg to his business. He had tobacco – cash generative. Luxury goods – big success. That was his success, not his dads. He got the family into luxury goods. He said, ‘I need a third leg to the business. I think it’s pay television and media.’.
He got me to come present to his board in Switzerland. Here’s a 31-year old with an inkling of knowledge about media, presenting the future of media to mainly Swiss lawyers. They looked at me like I was completely insane. I was told about holograms and multi-channel television, and I was talking about something that resembled the Internet. Johann got it. I mean, he saw the future.
The rest of the board thought I was a lunatic. Johann said, ‘Do you mind waiting outside?’ An hour later, he came out and said, ‘I’d like you to join the board, I’d like you to come in, be on the main board of Richemont and help me build a media business.’ How can you say no? People often say he doesn’t keep quiet. But he feels like he’s the smartest guy in the room – and he often is. That’s the thing. He actually is a very smart guy.
And so, he tends to believe that he knows better than most and he does – in most cases, not all. Johann is an acquired taste. I respect, admire and like him very much. I’ve become a great friend of his. But he is also an extraordinary businessman. You know, his attention to detail is second to none. He is an extraordinary man.
Paul Harris once told me that of all the people on earth, no one is better connected than Johann Rupert. I thought at the time, he’s exaggerating. But having watched the way that he operates in an international – in a global – environment, that might well be true.
You know, Johann doesn’t seek to be well connected. He’s not selling anything, but he does attract people. He’s got a character that’s an acquired taste – I’ve definitely acquired it. He’s fascinating to be with. But what he does have is something no one else has. No one else. The best pro-am golf tournament in the world.
For those people who are golfers, the best invitation on the planet is to be invited to the Dunhill. No matter how rich, powerful and extraordinary are, unless Johann likes you, you don’t get invited. There’s a certain president of a superpower who sent a letter to him saying, ‘If I’m to be invited, I will accept. Johann just said, ‘Forget it, you can’t come.’
Mr. Trump. But has he leveraged that to South Africa’s benefit? Is he able to do that to the country’s advantage?
Enormously so. He took a lot of heat over the last three to four years by the bad guys. He stood up and didn’t back down. He said and did things that most South Africans can’t afford to say and do. He took a pounding.
He really took a lot of heat from Malema and those lunatics, but he didn’t back down. He also took on Bell Pottinger toe to toe and helped take them down – which they so deserved. So, whatever you think of him, he has stood the ground on all of our behalf and has done so very bravely.
I remember the very famous speech he made at The Sunday Times top companies, where he said the things that did not endear him to those who would attack him. But, he said afterwards that he was very disappointed at the lack of support that he got.
If you look at the top echelon of 20 wealthiest, most powerful South African business people – black and white – they all were absent. Very few stood up. He really did, on behalf of everyone. I’m not surprised that he was upset that others didn’t. They are all squirreling their money overseas or getting their kids out. But they didn’t stand up and protect the people that need protecting.
So far in this conversation, people will think, ‘Oh well, here’s this rich guy who was well-born, got all the breaks, worked with some superpower business people.’ But then you kicked on. You had a flirtation with the Internet, with Sportal.
I’ll tell you about Sportal. So, I had worked with Johan, built this great media business and sold it. And then, in the process, learned about the sports media rights and sponsorship business. I lived in Milan – on and off – for two years. I was the first foreigner to buy a football team in Italy. I owned Vicenza Calcio. A friend from Harvard Business School and I ended up buying it for nothing and selling it for a decent profit.
I didn’t even follow football. I’d met the head of A.C. Milan, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain and I decided those were priceless relationships. Turned it into a business. I set up a sports Internet business. No one believes this, but I still have the contract. I own the exclusive, wireless and internet – no one knew what they were in 1997/98 – rights in perpetuity (which is now illegal under law) to AC Milan, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and 20 other smaller clubs.
If I just sat on those and did nothing, I’d be the richest South African there is. Anyway, I tried to build a business. We aimed to bring broadband to people. We were way too early and we got wiped out and lost a lot of money. I had to lay off 220 people. So that was a big fail and I learnt a lot.
Then I decided enough is enough of sports and media. What’s forever? Well, rich people are forever. There are always going to be rich people in the world and if someone’s worth five billion and they lose two billion, they’re still worth three billion. What is the biggest ticket item? Private jets!
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Two friends – American friends – from business school were negotiating with NetJets to create this jet card – sort of 25 hours on the NetJets fleet. So I called them and said, ‘Why don’t I do Europe for you?’ So I founded Marquis Jet Europe and it was a huge success, to the point where Warren Buffett – the tail was wagging the dog in Europe. My Marquis Jet was doing better than their jets. We were becoming their biggest customer.
Buffett called me in 2004 and said, ‘I’m buying your business.’ And it wasn’t an offer, it was basically saying, ‘I’m buying you business.’ So, I did very well out of it, but if I’d held on three more years I would’ve done much better. But he was the only buyer. So I did that and then became chairman of NetJets Europe. Then in 2008 – the company was in trouble then – the American lawyers had a look, ‘Who’s this guy earning a lot of money in London, Hersov?’ They were starting to cut.
I ended up having lunch with Thomas Flohr, who was like a minor competitor, he had 10 aircraft – we had 150. At those two hour lunches that go for eight hours, at the end of it he explained to me how NetJets was never going to succeed and how his little business, VistaJet, would.
I said to him, ‘You’re absolutely right.’ He said, ‘Well, why don’t you join me?’ I said, ‘Okay, but give me a position where I have lots of authority and no responsibilities. I’ll be chairman of your advisory board.’ To this day, I’m chairman of VistaJet Advisory Board. We’ve gone from 10 aircraft to 160 – and we’re profitable.
After the experience with the dot.com and the building of NetJets, you would have been forgiven for going off to wherever and writing your memoirs. But you haven’t done that. You’ve done kind of the opposite. Now, just to go back in your history a little.
Your father, Basil – I remember interviewing him some years ago – was a World War Two pilot. He is now in his mid 90s and still full of energy. Antoinette, his wife, is still around. That must have been a really interesting household to grow up in, on the one side. But on the second side – your energy, your work ethic, your drive – was that inherited?
Possibly, but obviously not everyone got it. You know, I’ve always worked. I’ve always tried to do well. I love entrepreneurial activity – starting something and trying to make a success of it. I actually think business is my hobby. I mean, I love golf and swimming in cold water, but I actually think business is my hobby.
I turned sixty recently and I feel like I’m just beginning my career. Funny enough, Johann Rupert left me a message. My wife did a surprise weekend for me. She got tons of friends all over the world to do video messages and Johann said to me, ‘Getting old is ordained. Growing up is optional.’
When I met my wife, Katie, my gorgeous New Zealand doctor wife, he took me aside – when he first met her – and said, ‘Now, listen. This could be the best woman you ever meet. It actually could be the best woman in the world. You better bloody grow up before she does.’ She’s 21 years younger than me.
Was he right?
I think she’s an alien sent from another planet, because she is so amazing and perfect – and all my friends agree. I didn’t make it up. She is amazing.
It’s one of the Buffett things as well. He says, when you marry, make sure that you marry well – because that’s going to be the difference between success and failure. It is wife number two for you. So I guess you had to be pretty clear that you got this one right.
I wasn’t going to get married again. I was very happy being single. Traveling the world, working on business, seeing my friends. I was in New Zealand – I went to some rugby and visited a friend there. He organised a party. He must have called all four corners of New Zealand to say, ‘Do we have any pretty charming, attractive and intelligent girls?’ I’m not very religious or spiritual, but I saw this girl across the room and that was it. I mean, that was it. Love at first sight. Most people don’t believe in such a thing, but I went down hard.
Was New Zealand ever an option to settle in?
No – and it won’t be. Not enough is happening there. It’s a little bit ‘woke’ for me. Particularly now. They’re fantastic people. They’re very much like South Africans. But, I like South Africa. You know, it is dangerous and it’s edgy, but things happen here every day. My wife loves it here, too. In fact, about a year ago, the penny dropped.
We’ve been here three and a half years and she walked up to me and said, ‘I can’t stand reading about this ANC corruption and all the stuff going on. Why don’t you do something about it?’ I said, ‘Aha. I am and I will. Now, I’ll get serious.’ She actually kicked me into action.
What are you doing about it?
Did you watch Game of Thrones? So everyone has a favourite character. I’m Mance Rayder. Mance Rayder was a character who was in charge of the wall. He crossed the wall and gave up his duties – traitor to the realm – but he crossed the wall and went north to unite the Giants, the Wildlings and all the disparate tribes.
While the Lannisters and Starks were fighting each other, the walkers in the north were getting stronger and stronger and they were going to come and destroy everyone. I feel that that’s the case here in South Africa. You know, the DA is working hard. The boere solidariteit, AfriForum, the Cape Party, Mmusi Maimane and One SA – but I always had people stabbing one another in the back.
To me, it doesn’t make any sense. We all should be focused on getting rid of the ANC, making sure that the EFF doesn’t get in and fix this country. Why fight with each other? We have a problem. It’s the ANC. Let’s vote them out of power. So I’m trying to pull everyone together and make sure that they don’t stab each other in the back.
You’ve mentioned the Cape Party. There is a groundswell of opinion now which suggests the Cape should get its own independence. How do you view that?
Look, there’s a lot of logic to it. You know, there are cultural and economic reasons. You know, the Western Cape delivers way more money than it receives as a percentage. Many other countries in the world have had secessions successfully. South Africa has and the ANC government has signed the international agreement that secessions allow.
You know, it’s a legitimate movement. The chances of it happening, I think, are low. I think we need to try and fix South Africa as a whole. Before we carve the Cape out and disappear. But, I do think that if you have 10 issues and you agree on seven, you’re on the same side. I’m trying to get all the people who agree on those seven issues to work together.
You didn’t mention Herman Mashaba?
I’m sorry, I forgot that. And Herman, I apologise. That was my mistake. There are other groups, too. You know, Herman is a very brave man. I think he’s doing an amazing job. I’d like to see him and the DA and all of these people work together, at least for the next elections.
So are you going to help fund any of them?
Yes, I’ve given donations to most of the names that I mentioned before.
Jakkie Cilliers wrote a really good book where he projected – prior to the previous election – that if there were a split in the ANC, the country would be better off for it. He was looking at some kind of coalition politics going into the future. How are you seeing this evolve, given that you’re spending much of your waking time on this goal?
It’s amazed me how few of these people actually know one another well. Everybody’s doing their own thing, whereas we should be on a regular basis speaking to one another, comparing notes and at least agreeing to disagree, but focusing on the job at hand, which is to win a majority of the population at the next election.
I’m told there are 17 to 19 million people registered to vote, who didn’t vote. Mmusi Maimane said to me – and Michael Louis has done an incredible job in changing the electoral dispensation to allow individuals to stand, this will be a game changer – if they just focus on those 17 to 19 million people, they can win a majority or we can win a majority. But it’s an eye opener.
There’s huge disillusionment with the ANC, even within the ANC.
It does upset me a bit that I have some great black friends voting for the ANC. I don’t actually know any white people voting for the ANC, but I’m sure there are. There are some great black friends of mine voting for the ANC. They need to now stand up and say it isn’t working. Some are doing it, but some are not. And those apologists are the problem.
I heard it described once that the ANC is like a football club. The manager changes, the players change, but you don’t stop supporting them. Why?
Moeletsi Mbeki – who I think is fantastic and very intelligent – said it’s an African National Congress. He said nationalist organisations are a problem. They can’t think of anyone but themselves. They can’t think of the country. He said they need to break up. But that time is numbered. All nationalist parties’ times are numbered. This one is for sure. Got to make sure they don’t win this next election.
Rob, before you came back to South Africa three and a half years ago, were you thinking in this way or were you perhaps a little naive about what you were going to find when you came home?
I said to my wife that we’re only going to be in South Africa for four years, because Zuma was in charge. I said, I think South Africa’s got four years left before it goes into the abyss. And she goes, ‘Well, what does that mean?’ I said, basically most of the pillars of democracy have been compromised.
We had treasury, judiciary, media and finance that hadn’t yet. When I got back, finance and treasury came under attack. It was really just the judiciary and media left, standing against the forces of evil in the ANC. And to turn off the media takes 24 hours. A government – an autocratic government – can just say ‘You’re out of business.’
But the judiciary, there are only two ways. Replace judges one by one. So you get the verdict you want, like Erdoğan did in Turkey. I think one week after he got elected, 7000 judges were replaced. He’s compromised the judiciary. If you don’t do it that way, I reckon it takes six years to replace judges. So, I reckon we were two years in, four years left.
My wife said, ‘What does that mean in four years’ time?’ I said, ‘In four years time there will be civil unrest and the police and army will not be incentivised to look after the population. And that’s it. We’ll leave.’
Cyril Ramaphosa got elected and she said, ‘What does that mean?’ I said, ‘We just kick the can down the road. The trouble is going to come, but it’s going to come a bit later – and I think it is coming.
So you feel that it’s perhaps that the time span might have extended a little, but the consequence is the same?
So I think we will have economic collapse. And I think it’s in the next two years. You know, the flames are burning. It’s going to be a big fire soon.
Are you short on South African stocks?
And the rand, presumably, as well?
Yes, and the rand. In the short term, anything could happen. Stocks can go up and the rand can strengthen. But, Eskom is broken. SAA is dead. The SOEs are not working. If you’ve got any money, you’ve got your own Borehole, your own security plan, your own electricity, you’re paying for your own private schooling. Unemployment is heading to 50%. The ANC have ruined everything. Do they ever mention economic growth? Never.
The country has been written off many times before. I’m sure you’ll recall in the head up to the 1994 election, we had Boipatong, Bophuthatswana, things that have been long forgotten now, where – if there was a crisis on a social level – it was even worse then than it is today. Is there anything that gives you hope that maybe your prediction is not going to be fulfilled?
Cyril Ramaphosa is starting to just do a little bit. There are rumors of Ace being pulled into court. He’s at last said something about farm murders. Although again, he sort of washed it down by saying there are lots of murders and farm murders are one of them. I mean, he just doesn’t have a spine or he doesn’t have the support around him and he can’t do it.
I don’t think there’s any way of averting a meltdown of the economy.
Eskom alone and the disaster the ANC is imposed upon Eskom alone will destroy this economy.
Even with De Ruyter who says he’s now starting to feel more optimistic?
There’s a lot that we aren’t hearing. Cuba is going to have to go offline. I don’t know if people know that, to have it’s – I’m going to get this slightly wrong – new steam something replaced. Forty five days is the estimate, if it’s done properly. That’s two gigawatts of electricity that goes out of the system. Who’s to replace that?
Unless the government allows independent power producers to develop their own businesses and supply directly to cities or municipalities – of which basically Cape Town is the only one that’s solvent – we’re in for serious, serious load shedding in the next year or so.
That is the plan. We’ve known that for a while now, that Eskom is being broken up into three and anybody can produce electricity and anyone can distribute.
But they haven’t allowed us to.
Would that change your mind, certainly on the Eskom story?
Here’s the biggest problem. Population growth and economic growth. If population growth exceeds economic growth and continues to do so, you cannot win. And that’s the case here.
What about Covid and the way that’s been handled?
I don’t specifically blame Zweli Mkhize and the South African government. But it’s become very clear that most governments in the world have screwed it up. You know, Sweden said we’re going to treat you as adults. In your family, make a decision over protecting your older people or children, and you make your own decision. Treated as adults, they’ve done it right.
Here, they’re micromanaging us. ‘You can smoke. You can’t drink. You can do this.’ When you’ve got bad government and you give them the ability to micromanage. Then the stupidity comes out as clear as the driven snow. Our government – other than three or four of the members of parliament – are not very intelligent.
So you’re pulling people together politically. But what about pulling age groups together? What about getting the smart youngsters who have grown up as digital natives, who are very much better informed than the older generations are? To get them motivated and understand that they don’t have to leave the country to find a future somewhere else, they just have to change those who are making the rules here.
But nothing changes. If you look at Zimbabwe, there’s a whole generation that have basically seen their country fall through the floor. It could easily happen here.
We’ve become another Argentina. What we don’t want to become is another Zimbabwe or Venezuela. But it’s not impossible, with this lot in charge. It’s highly likely we’re going to head in that direction. They have no idea how to fix this.
We do. A friend and I have written an open letter to the president, which we haven’t published yet. In there, are the 10 things to fix the economy.
I won’t mention his name, but I had a very smart black friend have a look at it. And he said, there’s no way the ANC would ever do half of these. They can’t. They’re a somewhat socialist, kleptocratic, patronage based and not very smart nationalist organisation. They can’t do these liberalising things. So we are heading towards the abyss.
But there is an economic advisory council, have you had a look at that or the members?
They’re not being listened to. I’ve sent the letter to one of them who said, ‘In an ideal world, Rob, that’s what we do, but it isn’t going to happen with this government.’
So you’re still sticking around in South Africa for now?
My wife and I love this country. Our children love it and we’d like to see it succeed. But I’m lucky. I’ve got wealth abroad, businesses abroad, options abroad. I came back. I’ve got a world overseas. I could be the last chopper out of Saigon, so to speak. But I feel it’s my duty to do something about it, to help people that haven’t got those opportunities, who can’t get overseas or who don’t want to as this is their country. So I’m going to try and do my best.
Why? Why is it your duty?
Because I can. I can say things. I can’t be fired. I can say things other people can’t say. I can do things and afford to do things other people can’t do. I feel that I have to do it.
Is anyone listening?
Yes. In fact, I’m being pushed to do more. I just don’t like politics. That’s not what I want to do. But yes, I’m being listened to.
If it’s not what you want to do or you, are you hinting that you might actually go into politics?
Definitely not. I mean, I actually love public speaking, standing up, leading and being in the front, but not in the political sphere. There are better people than me. I just want to empower them and get them to talk to each other.
If you were to say that journey, it’s a train ride from Johannesburg to Durban. How far along that train journey would you be right now in getting these anti ANC forces to collaborate?
Halfway. It’s happening. They’re talking. The agreeing not to stab each other in the back has begun. The actual cooperation? Not yet. But there’s so much good in this country, people doing great things that it wouldn’t take much for them to agree about what can be done and do it very quickly.
So Herman is doing a very good job up-country. The DA is running an amazing operation. I get angry when some of my friends backstab things that the DA says. Leave them, they’re doing a great job. Focus on the bad guys. And, Mmusi Maimane – watch that space. He’s on the move. People say he’s a spent force. No, he’s just begun. His One SA movement – he and Michael Louis – will make an announcement soon. Very impressive.
So in five years time, what’s your high road and your low road?
Well, I hope I’m still in South Africa and that things aren’t just burning to the ground.
I think we’ve got 10 years of really hard times before – and Willem Petzer said this once. He is a brave young man. I think we’ve got 10 years of hard times before we can create the country that South Africa is meant to be, not based on race. Much more capitalist. Truly democratic with economic growth that exceeds the population growth. We have to get there.
And that’s your high road?
That’s the high road. The low road is, my wife and I look each other in the eyes and say, ‘This is it. Switch the lights off and let’s leave.’ I really hope it doesn’t come to that.
Cyril Ramaphosa: The Audio Biography
Listen to the story of Cyril Ramaphosa's rise to presidential power, narrated by our very own Alec Hogg.