John Rudd: Diamond miner whose love affair with a dancer led to his imprisonment in South Africa

John Rudd was born to a dynastic connection with De Beers, the South African diamond mining giant founded by Cecil Rhodes and C.D. Rudd, John's great-grandfather. His father, Bevil Rudd, had not followed C.D. Rudd's son into De Beers but had achieved fame by winning a gold medal at the 1920 Olympics and breaking the 400 metres world record a year later. Born in Kimberley, where the family home is now a museum called Rudd House, John and his younger brother Robin were sent to Eton, where John became captain of athletics and played cricket against Harrow at Lord's, as did Robin, the Eton captain in 1945.

John was commissioned into the Coldstream Guards and after being awarded the Sword of Honour at Sandhurst he made the army his career, served some two years in Palestine and was injured in the Irgun attack on the King David Hotel in 1946. Invalided out of the army with osteomyelitis in 1949 he found De Beers waiting for him and, as P.A. to Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, chairman of the Anglo-American Corporation of which De Beers was a component, Rudd returned to South Africa in 1947.

He proved no standard "Anglo" man with the greasy pole his chief objective. He was appalled by the South African government's moving in the opposite direction from the rest of the western world, where genuine democracy, the abolition of colour bars and liberation of colonies were the goals of many. He joined "Sailor" Malan's Torch Commando which in 1951-2 opposed the disenfanchising of the "Coloureds" in the Cape Province, but white politics did not suit him and he demonstrated his beliefs more directly in his private life. He made friends in the new generation of black journalists, entertainers and politicians, hosted many "mixed" parties at Mingary, his house in prosperous Bryanston, and was an habitué of the Johannesburg township haunts of his black friends.

One such, the writer Lewis Nkosi, wrote a perceptive piece likening him to Prince Hal at the Mermaid Tavern in Eastcheap, though he never repudiated the Falstaffs and their kind. He had married in 1954 but the breakdown of the marriage in 1958 intensified his bohemian life across the colour line. It peaked with his involvement with Todd Matshikiza's great musical, King Kong, as backer and supporter, in 1959. An affair with a dancer in the chorus led to a six-month prison sentence under the Immorality Act, a savage blow to his reputation and credibility in white South Africa. He served four and, typically, held a "coming out" party at which the Governor of The Fort, where he had done his time, was a guest.

Harry Oppenheimer, successor to his father Sir Ernest, stood by Rudd, however, but moved him to London for a long perod, followed by Japan, which was seen by many as exile. He was a very great success as managing director of the De Beers Industrial Diamond Corporation for South America, South-East Asia and the Pacific. Still his own man, he edited an intriguing monthly, Indiaqua, which laced technical and trade items with photographs of glamorous women, an idiosyncracy with Rudd, who had known so many, from Jacqueline Bouvier to Christine Keeler. It gave pleasure and interest to a wide eastern and western readership but not to the new team at Anglo.

In 1966 a second marriage, to Anna Kinglund, daughter of a Swedish diplomat, brought a second beautiful woman to share his life. They had a son but the marriage again did not last and back in South Africa, retired from Anglo, he turned his hand to a directorship of Benguela Concessions which "mined" offshore diamonds on the Atlantic coast, competing with De Beers, together with a wine farm at Fransch Hoek and finally a five-star "B&B" on the edge of the Great Karroo, which he delighted in naming "No 1, The Karroo".

His second marriage had failed but Anna became a great support. His old friendships surivived – with Oliver and Adelaide Tambo, and the Sisulus of the ANC foremost among many who relished his company and sometimes scurrilous, often biting wit. He had seen the South Africa that was to come and though he had played no political role his example must have made more credible white denials of racism when the talking began.

Randolph Vigne

Bevil John Blythe Rudd, diamond miner: born Kimberley, South Africa 7 April 1927; married 1954 Tessa Laubscher (divorced), 1966 Anna Kinglund 1966 (divorced; one son); died Worcester, Western Cape, South Africa 31 August 2009.

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