Eric Samson talks to Howard Sackstein about his life
Following the death of iconic businessman and philanthropist Eric Samson this week, we are reprinting this interview done in 2013.
I had the privilege to be a fly on the wall when Eric and Sheila Samson spent an hour telling Howard Sackstein about their roller-coaster ride from starting with nothing to becoming bigger than De Beers in July. Why a privilege? Because Eric Samson is renowned for keeping out of the public arena and has refused even to speak to the Sunday Times, the Financial Mail, and Business Day in recent stories they have written about him.
So secretive has Samson kept his private life, most among South African Jewry know of him only through three things: his massive philanthropic activities; his close friendship with Madiba and Graça Machel; and the enormous wealth he generated (although not being a listed business, the numbers are anyone’s guess).
But let me not get ahead of myself, read this amazing account of an amazing conversation, with some added research from what little information exists to give flavour.
Where it all began…
Eric Samson showed signs he would make a great businessman while still at school. After a cake sale at Parkview Junior, the principal announced that Samson had raised the largest amount of money ever from selling biscuits and sweets, a whopping £19, 9s and 6d. That was 65 years ago.
Samson’s business career goes back to his late teens when he joined his father, David, in business back in 1958. His father was in the agency business, Samson says, mainly selling wire products. “I got my degrees from my dad,” he says of the financial training he received. But he and his father didn’t always see eye to eye.
When young Samson wanted to start holding stock and merchandising the products five years later, he says his dad was against it. “I wanted to be the master of my own destiny. We were agents for fencing wire and a little bit of steel product, and I started merchandising in 1962.”
Samson was now on his own in business, and that desire to be master of his own destiny has never abated. To this day, he wants control of the businesses he’s involved in.
One of the young agent’s major principles at the time was wire producer S Machanick of Cape Town. But the Machanick family sold their products only in the Cape. Samson and his father represented them in what were then the other three provinces in South Africa
“After a few years of shortages of allocations [of steel] from the mills,” Samson says, business wasn’t going too well for the Machanicks. “They approached me in 1965, and I entered into a joint venture with the Machanick family.” While fencing material remained the main business of Mechanic Fencing, in 1969 Eric led an expansion into the steel side of the business.
In 1974, Samson bought out the Machanick family’s interest, and he now owned 100% of a business called Machanick Steel & Fencing. “I decided to make the name Macsteel,” he says, laughing, I knew I couldn’t go wrong in a business with a Scottish name and a Jewish owner.”
Samson had learned by now that he needed to “think big and to work out a game plan – how one could grow in the market”. Over the years, he grew the steel business to the extent that wire products now represent only 5% of Macsteel’s business.
Samson had developed the innovative model of steel service centres where people could order any amount of any steel product, cut to any size. They started popping up all around the country, and it wasn’t long before Macsteel was moving a sizable percentage of the steel sold in South Africa.
“The local business always carried on and grew,” says Samson, but his entrepreneurial spirit wasn’t going to be satiated in the South African marketplace. In the late 1970s, Macsteel started exporting to African states and by 1980, he had started to export to markets in the Far East and South America.
Shooting for the stars…
By now, the growth bug had bitten Samson hard. Whatever he touched turned to steel. He was on a roll. “In 1982, I took over Leo Raphaeli & Sons who were then the biggest commodity exporting company in South Africa.” Samson was mainly interested in their steel business, he says, but with it becoming tough for South African firms to trade internationally, the Raphaelis were happy to sell it all.
Now in his mid-forties, Samson wasn’t planning to stop for anything. Having ensured that he had a sound management team behind him, Eric largely trusted them to absorb each new business he acquired and assimilate it into the rapidly growing and globalising Macsteel group. He had bigger fish to fry.
The following year, in 1983, Samson decided it was time to take his successful service-centre model further afield. Not shy of anyone, he decided to start in the United States, where he worked with the giant Associated Metals & Minerals.
In 1985, “Associated Metals got into trouble and I did a joint venture with them,” says Samson nonchalantly. “They were global and that gave me the breakthrough of being able to distribute worldwide.”
A builder, but not a gambler…
Today, Macsteel has offices in 36 countries and on every continent in the world. When Sackstein asked Samson if this rapid expansion into globalising his business hadn’t been a gamble, his retort was that “it wasn’t a gamble, it was a well-calculated risk!”
Besides, he said, “I’ve always had the strong home base that allowed me to expand overseas.”
Along the way, Samson, who is and has always been passionate about Israel, established a service-centre business there. Cleverly called Iskoor, it was originally a joint venture with Iscor and Israel’s largest industrial and steel company Koor Metals. After a while, says Samson, “Iscor’s managing director came to me and said he was having trouble with trade unions in Israel. He offered me the opportunity to take over its interest as, he said, ‘only a Jew could handle another Jew’.”
Eric and Koor were left with 50% each, but he later bought 1% from Koor, “as I always like to have management control.”
Samson was shipping steel from anywhere to everywhere, and it didn’t take him too long to see the opportunity that created. Macsteel International, a joint venture between global steel giant ArcelorMittal and Macsteel, (“We have controlling interest,” says Samson) added a large shipping business to the Macsteel empire.
The African steel service-centre operation, known as MSCSA, is a subsidiary of Macsteel Holdings, which has never listed. The company as a whole had a turnover of about $9 billion (R135.2 billion) in 2011, according to the Financial Mail – bigger than De Beers – and is the largest privately held company in South Africa. MSCSA alone employs more than 5 000 people according to the Financial Mail.
Asked if he had ever been involved in manufacturing steel, Samson told Sackstein that Macsteel has never even considered manufacturing. “We never had a mill, we cut and sell steel. We have stuck to what we know best.”
And now, aged nearly 75 and with none of his children interested in the business, Samson has started to sell up. He promised his family he would retire at 55, says his devoted wife, Sheila. But she has become resigned to the fact that he will probably never retire – she’s happy that he’s just cutting back.
Samson began the process of scaling back two years ago when he when he sold his US operation, Macsteel Service Centres USA, to Germany’s Klöckner and Company for $660 million (R9.9 billion).
“Your timing was good,” remarked Sackstein.
“I’ve always been known to sell high and buy low,” responded Samson laughing.
Now the South African service-centre business is up for sale.
Samson says that he has been “very fortunate” in not having had to take any hard knocks in his charmed career. “The closest I came was some disappointments, at times, in the earlier days with Iscor before I came right with getting export distribution rights.”
He says has also found it “tough when going into overseas ventures”. Business is about people, he says, and “when you take over companies you like to take over the management”. But applying that principle meant not always having the best people in the job.
Eric Samson the philanthropist…
Samson says his deep pocketed involvement with the South African Jewish community harks back to “my good friend Mendel”, the late Mendel Kaplan. “He was already deeply involved, and I always gave accordingly,” says Eric. In 1974, “Mendel came to me and he said we have to set an example.”
Samson says that in those days, he used to give about R20 000 a year. Kaplan reminded him that he, Samson, was now earning more and that the community need was greater. “I gave Mendel R100 000, and afterwards he said he was only going to ask me for R50 000,” says Samson laughing.
From that day on, he was hooked on philanthropy.
He recalls Cape community fundraising supremo Fritz Frank. They called him the Boston Strangler, says Samson as an aside. “Fritz had 30 people in a room and he said, ‘Eric is at last giving what he should.’” Samson says he stood up, and said, “Mr Chairman, I have always given, and now that I am more successful, I am giving more!”
“Giving to Israel has always been close to my heart,” he says. He recalls his grandmother showing him pictures of their family in Europe. “Only two of them survived,” and that’s why he feels Israel is so important.
“Thank goodness I have been blessed and have been able to give,” Samson says. I have been charitable, he confirms, pointing out that “the more you give, the more you get”.
- The full version of this story was published in the ‘Absa Jewish Achievers Magazine’ in 2013.
SA government and politicians show bias as Israel conflict escalates
As Israel faced a steady bombardment of deadly rockets fired by terrorist groups in Gaza this week, the South African government, politicians, and activists condemned the Jewish state, ignoring the myriad complexities of the violence.
And as Hamas escalated its barrage of rockets targeting innocent civilians, to which Israel retaliated, there has been no condemnation of Hamas from either the South African government or any of its politicians.
Israel’s right to defend itself and diffuse tensions in a bid to save the lives of all its citizens including Jews, Muslims, and Christians, hasn’t been acknowledged by the government in its condemnation of the Jewish state.
Siding wholly with the Palestinians, the government earlier this week expressed its “deep concern at the continued clashes at Al-Aqsa Mosque wherein Israeli soldiers attacked Palestinian worshippers while praying at the holy site”.
The Economic Freedom Fighters said it noted “the genocide” committed by Israel against the Palestinian people during Ramadan, saying “We condemn with contempt the violence perpetrated by the apartheid Israeli state on unarmed Palestinian people.” It called on the government to close down the South African embassy in Israel and recall all its representatives there.
No mention has been made about Palestinians at the Al-Aqsa Mosque stockpiling rocks, fireworks, and stone slabs around the site in preparation for violence and attacking Israeli police.
Focusing all its attention on the land dispute and potential eviction of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah, the government ignored a multitude of issues that have contributed to the rising wave of violence since April.
The department of international relations and cooperation (DIRCO) issued a statement saying, “The South African government strongly condemns the attacks and planned evictions of Palestinians from annexed East Jerusalem to make way for Israeli settlements.
“It’s perplexing that during these unprecedented times, as the international community addresses the global challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, Israel is exploiting the situation to advance its de facto annexation of Palestinian land. These acts aren’t only illegal but also risk undermining the viability of a negotiated two-state solution and will have negative consequences on the entire peace process.”
In response to this, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) called on the government, all political parties, and the media to show “even-handedness” and acknowledge the complexity of the situation.
In a joint statement, SAJBD National Chairperson Wendy Kahn and SAZF Chairperson Rowan Polovin, said, “In their determination to condemn Israel come what may, the government has reversed cause and effect. The reality – and not for the first time – is that the initial clashes were deliberately orchestrated by the Palestinian leadership and have now culminated in a lethal barrage of missile fire on Jerusalem and other heavily populated cities.
“Rockets are indiscriminate. They imperil the lives of all who live in the Holy City, whether Jew, Christian, or Muslim. In spite of this, the South African government has chosen to single out Israel for exclusive condemnation, disregarding completely the more than 1 200 deadly rockets fired thus far against Israeli civilians.
“The double standards don’t stop there. Whereas countries throughout the world sent condolences to Israel following the tragic loss of 45 lives in Meron, South Africa has yet to follow suit even two weeks later. However, within 24 hours, it was able to issue a statement condemning Israel.
“If the government, and indeed all political parties, wish to be part of ending this latest tragic outburst of violence, they must show genuine even-handedness. Those who unquestioningly endorse the claims and actions of one side while completely ignoring those of the other do nothing to resolve the conflict. In fact, they only make a bad situation worse.”
They went on to say that demonising Israel, as was the case with certain statements, was “irresponsible, inflammatory, and dangerous”.
The Israeli ambassador to South Africa, Lior Keinan, told the SA Jewish Report that no country in the world would tolerate this level of terror.
He has called on the international community and South Africa to condemn the rocket fire and Palestinian terrorism targeting Israeli citizens in the “strongest manner”, as well as to support Israel’s right to self-defence.
Keinan said that these events were part of a “wave of terror” that was being led by Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and were the result of “reckless and irresponsible incitement to violence”.
Concerning earlier violence, he said, “Israel sought to achieve calm in Jerusalem. We took every measure to prevent conflict or violence and to allow freedom of worship. These measures include postponing the Supreme Court hearing regarding Sheikh Jarrah, blocking Jews from visiting the Temple Mount, changing the route of the flag march, and then cancelling the event. Moreover, Israel acted in a measured manner in response to the rockets and incendiary balloons that had been launched from the Gaza Strip to prevent any escalation during this sensitive period.”
He said responsibility for the situation rested completely with Palestinian terrorist organisations and “on the unrestrained incitement by the Palestinian Authority”.
“No country will allow rockets to be fired on its children, women, and men. Israel will take any action necessary to protect its citizens. It’s the right and the duty of every state.”
Meanwhile, small protests were held by pro-Palestinian groups at the Israel Trade Offices in Sandton, Johannesburg, and Cape Town, all of which blamed Israel for being solely responsible for the violence.
Interestingly, in an open letter to DIRCO Minister Naledi Pandor, the South African BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) Coalition said it was “extremely disappointed” by DIRCO’s statement about the conflict, calling for more action by the government.
The Democratic Alliance said Israel must “employ maximum restraint in the use of force” adding “violence from both sides must cease in the interest of peace, saving lives, and protecting the human rights of both the Israeli and Palestinian people”.
Dr Corne Mulder of the Freedom Front Plus said, “The ANC government has never tried to hide its hostility towards Israel, and has now once again chosen the terrorist side in the Israel-Palestine conflict. It’s time for the ANC to honour Israel’s sovereignty.
“It’s lamentable that the South African government is always so quick to side with Israel’s opponents and condemn the country,” he said.
In Cape Town, a protest organised by Africa4Palestine (formerly BDS SA), brought a number of anti-Israel groups together. But only about 200 members of the public gathered to condemn Israel, many of them children.
Speaking in front of parliament, the late Nelson Mandela’s grandson, Mandla Mandela called for the closure of the South African embassy in Israel. “We are clearly asking South Africa not to downgrade its embassy in Israel, but to close it down!” he shouted to cheers from the crowd. “We also want to deny [Israeli international carrier] El Al from coming into South Africa!” he said to more cheers of support.
He called for South Africans to “boycott products from apartheid Israel. The only thing we expect from our government is to place sanctions on apartheid Israel!” He then called on the crowd to join him on 18 July in Pretoria (the date marked to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s legacy) outside the Israeli embassy in Pretoria. “We want to see it shut down and for the ambassador to leave. We won’t compromise,” Mandela said.
Rise in anti-Israel sentiment leads to calls for vigilance
The Community Security Organisation (CSO) has witnessed a marked increase in anti-Israel rhetoric as well as expressions of hate directed at Jews online following violence in Israel, and has appealed to the community to be extra vigilant and report all incidents.
Jevon Greenblatt, the director of CSO Johannesburg, told the SA Jewish Report on 12 May that tension in Israel had escalated dramatically over the past few days, with levels of open conflict growing exponentially over the past 48 hours.
“It’s not uncommon for anti-Israel anger around a situation like this to spill over into diaspora Jewish communities,” he said.
“Since Monday, we have seen a significant increase in concerning online rhetoric and numerous protest action called for over the coming days across South Africa.
“We are seeing a huge campaign by the anti-Israel lobby to dehumanise Israel with massive distortions about what’s really happening on the ground.”
Political leaders, social-media influencers, and celebrities are lending their voices to the pro-Palestinian lobby.
“This creates the perfect environment for a potential lone-wolf actor to carry out an attack. Whenever something like this takes place, our concern is that the anger created can be misdirected against the local community.”
He said that while CSO staff and volunteers were working hard to ensure the continued safety and security of the community, it was a “collective effort”.
“Vigilance is crucial. We should always make sure our facilities are as secure as possible, and we should always be doing the best we can to strengthen our security.
“It’s at times like this that we are reminded always to implement the best safety protocols because the threat is always out there.
“It requires the active participation of all community members. We ask you to maintain heightened awareness and report any emergency, potential threats, suspicious activity, or antisemitism related to the Jewish community or Jewish facilities to the CSO on 086 18 000 18 (or 086 18 911 18 in Cape Town).”
Guarding Jerusalem from the “end of the end” of Israel
The Golan is the true gatekeeper of Jerusalem, particularly in mitigating against the Iranian threat across the border, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Major (Res) Yaakov Selevan said during a talk to commemorate Yom Yerushalayim this week.
“People who live in the Golan claim that it’s the most naturally beautiful region in Israel. But they aren’t living here for the views; they are here because there is something for which they’re willing to die – the redemption of the heart of the Jewish people.”
Selevan, a Jerusalem born-and-bred military official who now works as a tour guide and public speaker, was hosted for the webinar by Mizrachi SA and the South African Zionist Federation, in collaboration with other partners.
Although Selevan grew up with “the Western Wall as my backyard”, he now lives with his wife and three daughters in the Golan. Over the years, he has come to realise how deeply intertwined the fates of these two Israeli regions are.
Logistically, the Golan has always been a key strategic point, both in its proximity to neighbouring countries and major water sources, including the Sea of Galilee. Politically, its significance is even greater.
Even in the Roman era, when Roman soldiers were unable to penetrate the Jewish resistance in Jerusalem, they elected to try and attack from the periphery and move down. At the time, the Golan was rich in Jewish life with more than 30 synagogues. In the year 67, in spite of the efforts of Jewish revolutionaries, after a number of attempts, the Romans did overtake the ancient city of Gamla in the Golan. “They killed more than 4 000 Jews. Jewish independence fell, and then the Romans started moving down towards the heart of the land – Jerusalem. Three years later, we know, the second temple was destroyed.”
Fast forward thousands of years, when the Golan was redeemed from Syrian control by the IDF in the 1967 war, a number of fascinating ancient Jewish artefacts were found. The most striking of which was an ancient coin from the era of the Jewish revolt against Roman control. Engraved in Hebrew, its inscription reads “for the redemption of Jerusalem, the holy”.
In the modern political landscape, the Golan remains a contested hotspot particularly in relation to Iran and its ongoing incursions into the borderlands of Lebanon and Syria.
Selevan said that for many years, Iran had also used Israel and Jews symbolically as a strategy to forge allegiances across Muslim and Arab states that otherwise would be divided across Sunni and Shiite ethnic lines. These distinctions are derived from a dispute over the line of succession after Muhammed.
After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, “Iran wanted to ‘export the revolution’, and it realised it had a problem. While they were Shiites, most of the people around them were Sunni.” So, said Selevan, they chose a “common interest – the holy city of Jerusalem. Who controls the old city of Jerusalem? The filthy Zionists.” Moreover, as enemies across the Arab world sought ways to attack Israel, they turned to Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran.
Iran remains a threat to Israel on a number of levels, Selevan said. The first is its nuclear programme; the second its Precision Guided Munitions project, which designs missiles that use GPS to hit specific targets. Third, is its political take over and proxy power in various countries like Lebanon and Yemen. The next key territory which Iran is looking to control in the region is Syria, itself riddled by a civil war that has been appropriated by a myriad of interests.
In Lebanon, Iran controls networks of tunnels and occupied villages where local people are being used as human shields and whose homes are utilised for the storage of missiles and rockets. It hopes to use the chaos in Syria to take over using a similar model.
However, along with military action, Israel has made huge inroads diplomatically to prevent this, Selevan said.
“Iran used us and Jerusalem as a common interest, a common enemy, and a step in the door to the Sunni world. However, in the past few years, with what’s happening just here in Syria, people in the region are seeing what the Iranians are doing and how they’re taking over this region. They realise that they are next in line: Saudi Arabia, even Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, all these countries said, ‘Oh my G-d, all these years, we thought the Jews were the problem. Now we understand the greatest threat is the Shiites. Who can help us against the Shiites? The Jews!’”
Israel has thus turned Iran into the common interest which is “our step in the door of the Muslim world”. The most recent result is the Abraham Accords peace agreements, said Selevan.
Israel has another way in which it continues to forge towards peace – humanitarian aid.
Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, Israel has helped, offering medical services and distributing food, clothing, and other products for basic needs, proving, “you can stop Iran with baby diapers”.
At its core, the motivation for the action is humanitarian, said Selevan. “We did it because we’re Jewish; we cannot stand by when we see people suffering.”
Nevertheless, it also had an impact on political engagement. Terror groups, such as those under Iranian control, are reliant on local populations for support, access to land, and soldiers. As Israel continues to reach out to her neighbours, “there’s a whole generation growing up in Syria knowing that we’re not the devil”.
Although this doesn’t mean there aren’t still many who are against Israel and are manipulating the aid system, nevertheless there are shifts. For Selevan, this is encompassed by a drawing made by a seven-year-old Syrian Muslim girl. Her portrait of the Israel flag, captioned in Arabic, thanks the Israeli who saved her life.
In spite of the huge upswing of attacks on Israel in recent days, Selevan said he was hopeful. His life in the Golan is a contract between him, his country, and his community.
“I’m here at the end of the end of the end of the country because someone needs to be here, because my community is the greatest answer to the Iranian threat. That’s my purpose. That’s my essence.” Holding out a replica of the Jewish-revolt-era coin, Selevan asserted, “Each and every one of us needs to ask ourselves: what’s my job in the redemption of Jerusalem?”
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