Louis Luyt: Businessman and rugby union leader whose career was tarnished by controversy

 

Louis Luyt was best known as the boorishly fractious South African rugby boss who briefly won kudos for the Springboks' 1995 World Cup victory, but soon fell out with the rest of the rugby world, his own players and with Nelson Mandela. But his notoriety had been secured two decades earlier thanks to his role in the "Infogate" scandal.

Prime Minister BJ Vorster's ruling clique had decided that drastic measures were needed to boost their image internationally and among English-speaking South African whites. They illegally channelled millions of rands into a slush fund used for clandestine propaganda projects, headed by the Secretary for Information, Eschel Rhoodie. One of their schemes was to fund Luyt to buy out the liberal Rand Daily Mail, but when that failed they used him to set up a pro-apartheid English language newspaper, The Citizen. Eventually the Rand Daily Mail exposed the scheme, bringing down several big beasts, including Vorster. Luyt, who survived relatively unscathed, was described by Rhoodie as "probably the most dishonest man I've ever met".

Despite being handpicked for this front-man role, his relationship with the Afrikaner establishment was prickly. They regarded him as more boor than boer and he was never invited to join their secret society, the Broederbond. Max du Preez, who founded the Afrikaans anti-apartheid newspaper, the Vrye Weekblad, said: "In all my dealings with him, I never got the idea that he believed in anything else but himself and the power of money. He hated the Afrikaner establishment because they thought he was common and ill-bred, but ran with them when it suited him and was pathetically grateful when they asked him for favours, like The Citizen."

Unlike the mandarins of the apartheid establishment, Luyt started out in relative poverty in a small Karroo town during the Great Depression. He came into the world as Oswald Louis Petrus Poley but his father was exposed as a polygamist, prompting his mother to annul her marriage. Louis later took his stepfather's surname.

His first job was as a railway clerk but he had a key asset to trade on (aside from his brains, ambition and unquenchable self-regard): he was a fine rugby player, eventually captaining the Free State province, and, at least by his own account, coming close to making it as a Springbok lock. He used his rugby connections to break into the business world and he went on to make his fortune through founding Triomf Fertilizer group.

But by the mid-1980s he was losing traction after several business failures, and it was at this point that he plotted his next big move: to become South Africa's rugby supremo. First, he took over the Transvaal Rugby Union by pushing out the old guard and introducing the cheque-book professional era, with under-the-counter inducements to recruit leading players. He appointed some of the big names of Springbok rugby on to his company's board and this helped ease his way into becoming President of the South African Rugby Football Union in 1989.

He simultaneously adjusted his sails politically, joining a delegation to meet the exiled ANC leadership in Lusaka, Zambia in 1988. An often volatile relationship with the movement followed. Max DuPreez observed that Luyt got on well with some ANC leaders – "but, at the same time, he had all the prejudices of his generation of Afrikaner men."

This was reflected in his approach to rugby, which he seemed to regard as an Afrikaner fiefdom. He set up boycott-busting rebel tours of South Africa, and when the country was readmitted to world sport in 1992 he allowed the Afrikaans national anthem, "Die Stem", to be played at the Springboks' first post-boycott Test match, More significantly, he made little effort to transform the game's racial profile in the way that Ali Bacher was doing for cricket.

The 1995 World Cup triumph was his proudest public moment, but he blew it at the official post-tournament dinner, first by announcing that the Springboks would have won the previous two world cups if they'd been allowed to play, and then by congratulating Derek Bevan, the referee from the semi-final between France and South Africa, for controversially denying France a last-minute match-winning try. Bevan turned down the offer of a gold watch and joined a walk-out from the event.

Three years later Luyt was called to appear before a presidential commission of inquiry into allegations of racism, nepotism and graft in South African rugby. Instead he launched a legal challenge against the commission, winning in the High Court but losing on appeal. Mandela, who appeared at the initial hearing, called Luyt "a pitiless dictator", a view shared by many of those who crossed his path. Du Preez, for instance, described him as "a bit of a sociopath".

By then he had fallen out with the rugby establishment, including the players, and he resigned his post to enter politics, forming the Federal Alliance and becoming an MP in 1999. But the Alliance broke with Luyt, who responded by backing the far-right Freedom Front Plus, which advocated a white Afrikaner "boerestaat". It was hard to escape the perception that his true colours were finally revealed.

Gavin Evans

Oswald Louis Petrus Poley (Louis Luyt), businessman, rugby union executive and politician: born Britstown, Northern Cape, South Africa 18 June 1932; married Adri (one son, two daughters); died Ballito Bay, Kwazulu-Natal 1 February 2013.

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