Book Review – The Stellenbosch Mafia

In One Sentence: The Stellenbosch Mafia are a group of wealthy billionaires based in the Cape Winelands, all of whom are involved in an intricate network and control some of the largest companies in South Africa – Markus Jooste is the villain of the story.

Recommended Summary: I could not find an appropriate summary, so hopefully the below will suffice. Pardon the biases.

While the title of du Toit’s book screams expose, it is, in reality, far more of a collection of stories about the individual members of the mafia. A significant part of the book (the first third or so) is dedicated almost exclusively to the “mafia don” Johann Rupert and his father, Anton.

Populist leaders are eager to condemn the actions of the wealthy and there are many in current South Africa who will jump at the opportunity to throw stones on the Afrikaans people for their contribution to Apartheid – which is why we found du Toit’s unwrapping of the roles that the Ruperts played during that era refreshingly different. In essence, the book portrays Rupert as a misunderstood patriot with honourable intentions and traditional morals who is unfortunately rather out of touch with the changing political landscape. Here is an interesting article outlining the Rupert chapters.

(This photo on the left is of Decameron, a favourite of Rupert’s. This Italian restaurant is said to be the meeting place of the mafia – rumour has it that they meet for lunch on a Friday.)

The second third of the book is seemingly dedicated to vilifying Markus Jooste and providing an exposition of the downfall of Steinhoff. The pages herein document wild parties, reckless spending and an oddly incestuous blend of horse-racing, Stellenbosch rugby, and koshuis relationships. They paint Jooste as someone who the “big wigs” (Rupert, GT Ferreria, and the Moutons) never really accepted and as Steinhoff as the immoral Goliath doomed from the start. As those previously ignorant of Afrikaner corporate politics, we found this part surprisingly interesting and thoroughly enjoyed the attitudes of the aforementioned “big wigs”, particularly Jannie Mouton’s outrage at his chommies trading in their PSG shares for Steinhoff.

The final third of the book outlines the enigma of Christo Wiese’s legacy. As the once-richest man in South Africa, he has seen his fortune collapse alongside Steinhoff and, perhaps even more upsetting to him, has been occasionally linked to the financial shenanigans – darkening his reputation as an upstanding businessman.

All in all, the book seems to point out that there is no real mafia, that the “don” is a recluse, and that the rival gang (Steinhoff) failed due to greed and a lavish lifestyle. A very interesting read, but not whoppingly conclusive.

Author: Pieter Du Toit is a journalist for News24. A respected contributor, he focuses predominantly on writing about economically slanted politics, but will foray into broader politics occasionally. As a Paul Roos old boy and a Stellenbosch graduate, it is little wonder this chap wrote a book on his hometown’s heavyweights. Does this lad not just look like he came from the ‘Bosch?

Review & application to Vineyard Holdings: Let us start the review with a recommendation: Frederik van Dyk wrote a fantastic review on this book over on litnet.co.za – much of what he says I echo, barring perhaps the mild cynicism.

I found this book certainly an enjoyable read, and as those who work and play in the South African business sector, any knowledge about the big guns is good knowledge to have. It is worth a read and can definitely be escapist – who doesn’t enjoy a little spice and politics – but other than that I cannot say this book has any further application.

Takeaway: My takeaways are threefold:

  1. Real life heroes and villains are largely subjective. While I (along with Rupert himself apparently) believe that the Rupert family and their ilk have contributed massive amounts to South Africa, I can also viscerally see why many view the “white monopoly capital” as detached from reality.
  2. I flipping enjoy the Moutons.
  3. Hindsight is 20/20. Many claimed to have predicted the downfall of Steinhoff, but I know of nobody who was actively shorting the stock. At the end of the day, if you do not understand something, if your impulse says “trust the charismatic CEO”, or if you find yourself sipping the Kool-Aid while turning a blind eye to lavish excess, turn and run a mile.

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