Jewish moguls and apartheid leaders
These men whose names the community associate with the highest levels of philanthropy, have been tarnished by documents unearthed in apartheid archives.
Men such as the beloved business icon, Bertie Lubner, the late insurance king Louis Shill of Sage Financial Group fame, the late Bennie Slome, founder of the Tedelex television rental company, Macsteel’s Eric Samson, and retired banking and head, Basil Hersov.
This dirty laundry came to light in a book called “Apartheid Guns and Money: A Tale of Profit”, written by Hennie van Vuuren that opens a Pandora’s box into the covert and secret funding of the oppressive regime.
During his research Van Vuuren and his team at Open Secrets came across a chest of archival documents detailing individuals and corporations that he says helped fund the NP.
Open Secrets is an independent non-profit organisation aimed at investigating the links between economic crime and human rights abuse. Its main focus is research and advocacy on economic crime during apartheid, which has culminated in the publishing of this book.
Van Vuuren found folders marked “National Party donations” in the archives of the University of the Free State. He identified about 70 individual donations to the NP from 1979 to 1989.
A handful of highly placed Jewish businessmen were found among the 70. Their funding was minimal in comparison and it represented a fraction of the countless other donations. The Jewish men were known liberal English-speaking businessmen and traditionally supporters of reform and of the opposition.
According to the Open Secrets team, the folders contain “indisputable documentary evidence” of funding by way of letters of thanks and receipts.
Worldwide the marriage of business and politics is a complicated affair, often leading to and characterised by uncomfortable bed-hopping and strange liaisons.
A letter written by Lubner to the then Prime Minister PW Botha, shows that the much loved, philanthropist and industrialist, Lubner, his brother Ronnie and associate Lucien Levy, had dinner with Botha in June 1982. This is the same Bertie Lubner – the Jewish community’s favourite uncle – who devoted his life to redressing the injustices of the past and alleviating poverty with his numerous foundations and charitable organisations.
Lubner co-founded Afrika Tikkun and various other social upliftment organisations, like the Field Band Foundation, which continues to end the cycle of poverty for tens of thousands of South Africans.
While Lubner may have spent an evening with Botha, he spent many, many hours with his dear friend, Nelson Mandela.
The year of the dinner was a tumultuous time in South Africa, characterised by deaths in detention of political prisoners, including the death in Security Police custody of trade union leader Dr Neil Aggett.
There were pre-dawn raids by the special branch of the police, work stoppages, car bombs, sporadic explosions, insurgents, and an intensification of special branch activities and banning orders.
The country was literally on fire.
So, what was Bertie Lubner and his brother Ronnie doing that night around the dinner table with PW Botha? We will never know. Could it have been his way of driving reform and encouraging a new dispensation?
Did he have similar dinners with the leader of the Progressive Federal Party? Top business people generally meet with politicians across the spectrum.
On behalf of him and his brother Ronnie, Lubner writes in a letter to Botha thanking him for “a very wonderful evening that we spent with you, charming members of your family and other guests”.
He paid tribute to Botha for his “outstanding leadership of this country which we hold so dear and to wish you continuing success with the very dramatic part that you have now undertaken to ensure a better future for all sectors of the population… I am delighted to have the privilege of being able in a very small way to assist and support you in your endeavours.”
There are other letters of a similar nature from Slome and Eric Samson. Samson declined to comment this week.
In January 2016, author Hennie van Vuuren asked Lubner about his support for the then ruling party. He said: “Let me just get my position clear: I made it clear to any government minister, including (FW) De Klerk, when I was asked to join the NP.. I indicated there were three reasons why not.
“One, the membership card said total national Christian education – how can I as a Jew? Secondly, the whole profile of apartheid is an enigma (anathema) to Jews who have suffered all around the world, particularly in the Holocaust, because of an idea that people are not equal; there is no way I could support that.
“Thirdly, we needed to start a programme of upliftment, in terms of employment, training etc in order to make people’s lives better.”
Lubner’s son Marc,said this week: “My dad devoted his entire life towards the upliftment of all South African communities irrespective of race, religion and was a stalwart in working for peaceful change.
“I know of no other man or woman who devoted themselves to the well-being of so many communities, from the impoverished to the disabled, irrespective of whether Jewish or non-Jewish. He was and always will be, remembered as a man who loved his country and worked tirelessly and selflessly, including the very day he passed, towards creating a better world for thousands.
“It is what it is and it is sad that instead of building our country, we have so much effort going towards pulling it down. I have nothing more to add as I was not in the country at that time.”
A Parliamentary inquiry is currently investigating whether public funding of political parties is adequate, and is considering the need to regulate private funding, including its disclosure as well as ensuring transparency.