Anton Rupert

Billionaire founder of the Peace Parks
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Anthony Edward Rupert, industrialist and conservationist: born Graaff-Reinet, South Africa 4 October 1916; married 1941 Huberte Goote (died 2005; two sons, one daughter); died Stellenbosch, South Africa 18 January 2006.

The lifetime of Anton Rupert covered the rise of the Afrikaners of South Africa, many from depressed, rural second-class citizenship in white society, to their political triumph in 1948, when Rupert was in his early thirties. Their 40 years of political supremacy as an exclusive, nationalist population bloc involved the denial of rights to the great black majority, which led to the loss of Afrikaner power during the last 10 years of his long life.

His own trajectory was very different. He was not, paternally, of old Afrikaner stock: his Rupert great-grandfather, a member of the German Legion, settled on the eastern Cape frontier by the British after the Crimean War, married an Englishwoman and attended the Anglican church in the Great Karroo town of Graaff-Reinet, where Anton Rupert was born in 1916, the son of a local solicitor. But he grew up within the Afrikaans community in the depression years, became a nationalist student leader at Pretoria University and was for a time a member of the Broederbond, the secret Afrikaner society that successfully deployed its members in key positions throughout the country.

With the outbreak of the Second World War he and some comrades pleaded with General J.B.M Hertzog, the ousted prime minister, to lead an armed revolt against the pro-British government which had taken the country into the war, against strong Afrikaner sentiment. Hertzog rejected their plea, saying that he would never act outside the constitution, a position Rupert adopted as his own.

He had to live with much that was deeply unacceptable in the apartheid years that followed the taking of power by the Afrikaner Nationalists after the war. He played little part in their power structures, however, striking out in a different direction that took him, from buying a defunct tobacco company for £10 in 1941, to proprietorship of the giant Rembrandt Corporation, based on cigarettes and liquor, two products which could survive the sort of depression he had known in his youth. He diversified into luxury goods, mining, and other fields, amassing a fortune said to be worth £1bn.

His relationship with the apartheid regime, especially with its dominating prime ministers, H.F. Verwoerd and P.W. Botha, and with the financial institutions, was at best uneasy, though he did not overtly reject the apartheid policy. When it came to a turning point, with the state of emergency following the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, he had a secret meeting with black political leaders, to seek common ground for a changed South Africa, but the real leaders were already in prison and there was no way forward.

He preached African economic advancement over political emancipation, with slogans (a forte of his) like "If they don't eat we don't sleep", and called for "one man one job" rather than "one man one vote", but could do little to improve the lot of oppressed black South Africans.

By meeting African leaders as Afrikaner power ebbed away in the early 1990s he won a new respect outside white South Africa and achieved a firm bond with the first president of democratic South Africa, Nelson Mandela. At the end of his life he had won widespread popularity, as he came to exemplify the sort of Afrikaner whose life was an expiation of apartheid guilt, though he had never rejected his people, nor, but for the extreme fringe, been rejected by them. The head of a major South African newspaper group described him as "a powerful leader and a warm and gentle friend".

A commitment all his life was nature conservation. He said that the action he prized above the winning of his huge fortune was his founding in 1997, with three recruited colleagues, of the Peace Parks Foundation, which is creating vast trans-national wildlife reserves, eliminating national frontiers which prevent the natural cycle of wildlife movement, especially vital during drought. By 2006 there were three of these already established and a further five in gestation.

The Peace Parks gave expression to an idealism in Anton Rupert's make-up that was thwarted for most of his life by the times he lived in and the business career he adopted. They are his monument.

Randolph Vigne