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R100-bn JR Lifetime Achiever blasts Obama




Jewish Report honoured Natie Kirsh with a “Special and Extraordinary Lifetime Achievement Award” at the 2013 Absa Jewish Achiever Award celebrations in 2013. The mega-billionaire, said to be the wealthiest South African worth the staggering amount of over R100-billion, jetted into SA on his private plane for the event and flew out immediately afterwards. (Nominations will shortly open for the 2015 event.)

In an interview published in BUSINESS DAY this week, entitled “Kirsh lets rip at Obama’s government over Agoa snub”, Kirsh flayed the US government for excluding Swaziland from benefits of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) from this January. Agoa, implemented in 2001, allows African countries to sell certain goods to the US duty free in an effort to kick-start export-led growth.

Achievers Natie with Brett Levy

RIGHT: Past Achievers winner Brett Levy handed Kirsh his “Special and Extraordinary Lifetime Achievement Award” in 2013. Said Levy, “Natie has left our generation great footsteps to follow in – let us hope that the next generation is as proud of us as we are of him.”

Picking up on the story from stablemate the Sunday Times, Business Day said that Kirsh, 83, “had launched a scathing attack on President Barack Obama’s government, accusing it of hurting Swazi citizens in a bid to send a message to Swaziland’s absolute monarch, King Mswati.”

Kirsh flayed the US government for excluding Swaziland from benefits of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) from last month. Agoa, implemented in 2001, allows African countries to sell certain goods to the US duty free in an effort to kick-start export-led growth.

But late last year, the US government said Swaziland had made no “measurable progress towards the guarantee and protection” of worker rights, among other failures, so it would be excluded from Agoa.

Kirsh says this was done with “no care for the man in the street or the worker in the factory.” Textile factories that opened and hired tens of thousands of people to take advantage of Agoa could now be closed and “Up to 30 000 formal sector jobs will be lost,” he said.

Achievers Natie and Raymond

LEFT: Natie Kirsh with another past-winner of a Jewish Report Jewish Achiever Award, Raymond Ackerman, at the 2013 Achievers gala dinner function.


The US had based its decision on benchmarks laid down by the International Labour Organisation.

Kirsch is used to getting or buying what he wants.


So he fired off furious e-mails to Lewis Lucke, the former United States of America ambassador to Swaziland, in which he lambasted the decision.

“Agoa is now gone, and with it the loss of thousands of jobs.

The ILO sanctimoniously ignores the misery it initiated, and continues to promote what it says are important issues of principle,” he wrote to Lucke.

Natie Kirsh berated the ILO’s Southern African representative, Vic van Vuuren, for being unable to justify its position “other than to waffle on about workers’ political rights.”

Swazi business owners have also lamented the US decision. Jim Wang, an administrator at a Taiwan-based garment company with a factory in Swaziland, said his company had retrenched 1,500 people from factories operating solely to supply the US market.

2014 mag COVER - small

RIGHT: An in-depth three-page interview with Natie Kirsh appeared on pages 9 to 11 of the 2013 ACHIEVERS MAG – click to download a PDF of the magazine, as well as of the 2014 ACHIEVERS MAG (cover depicted) – they both offer a great read and can be printed or downloaded and sent to friends and family


Wang said some of those workers had found jobs, but others had returned to subsistence farming.

Agoa countries had many benchmarks to meet, including instituting democracy, the rule of law and worker rights.


Kirsh said the government did not act quicker because it didn’t “realise the jobs would be gone in one day.”

Nduduzi Gina, the deputy secretary-general of the trade union congress of Swaziland, said: “It’s unfortunate that workers are in the crossfire, but our hands are tied.”

In a second article in the sister-newspapers aptly titled “Let my people Agoa” the reporter says that “in his office in Johannesburg, the only obvious indications of Kirsh’s vast wealth are the eye-wateringly valuable paintings and drawings adorning the walls. His daughter Wendy Fisher, a major art patron, ‘has almost bankrupted me’ with her purchases, Kirsh said, laughing.

Kirsh is known to be blunt, difficult and demanding and it is these traits that arguably helped make him one of the wealthiest men in the world.

He made his first real money in Swaziland when, in 1958, he founded a corn milling and malt business. His attachment to the tiny country was such that he chaired the Swaziland Electricity Board for more than two decades. He still loves Swaziland, he says, but it’s clear his attachment is purely emotional – his total turnover from his Swazi businesses equals two days’ turnover from his businesses in America, he says.

Achievers 14 Live BlogHOME

LEFT: The LIVE BLOG of the 2014 Achievers Gala Dinner and prize-giving event, arguably the top highlight on the SA Jewish social calendar, attracted almost 3,000 users.

For the first time, the general public could enjoy the R2,500-a-plate fundraiser with the rich and famous.

In fact, many more saw it online, live, than attended the event


During the ‘60s and ‘70s to South Africa and began to dominate the retail and wholesale space through his holding company Tradegro, which owned Checkers, Metro Cash & Carry, Dions, Russells and JD Group. Then Natie Kirsh made what was probably his biggest business blunder during his amazing career.

In the early ‘80s, he partnered with Sanlam in Tradegro. Then the state president, PW Botha, delivered his Rubicon speech, and the South African economy fell off a cliff. International credit lines to South Africa were cut amid the chaos, just as Kirsh needed financing to fund a serious restructuring programme.

Instead of coming to the party, the chairman and the CEO of Sanlam, Fred du Plessis and Marinus Daling, discovered a lacuna in the shareholders’ agreement that allowed them to refuse to get involved.

Kirsh threw in towel on his first fortune

Faced with a big, expensive and protracted court case in a politically dubious country, Kirsh threw in the towel in 1986.

He went to the US, where he started up Jetro, that country’s biggest wholesale cash and carry company, which now has more than 81 stores nationwide. The company is colossal, but then so is Kirsh’s appetite for making deals and buying companies.

Kirsh likes property, too, and snapped up a few high-rises in London. In 2011, he sold out of property developer Minerva, netting himself a cool £50-million. To get a sense of the returns, he had bought 29% of Minerva for 15 pence a share at the height of the global crisis in 2008, before selling out three years later for 120.5 pence a share.

But Swaziland is Kirsh’s real love, and he often refers to the country as his “fourth child.”

He has set up major philanthropic programmes to kick off small businesses and put IT equipment into “every high school in Swaziland.”


US showed “no care for the man in the street”

The whole of Africa needs help, he says, but “Swaziland is small enough for me to make a difference.”

Achievers Natie Mag-page

RIGHT: Part of the in-depth three-page interview with Nate Kirsh in the 2013 ACHIEVERS MAG – click to download a PDF

That’s why he is so furious about the extent to which Swazi business is suffering from the US’s decision to kick Swaziland out of Agoa. The US did this with “no care for the man in the street or the worker in the factory,” Kirsh fumes.

Agoa, which was implemented in 2001, allows eligible sub-Saharan countries to send certain manufactured goods to the US duty-fee. The idea was to kick-start export-led growth and economic development in these countries.

It was an even bigger boost because the trade agreement was nonreciprocal, so imports from the US continued to generate much-needed income duties. Agoa was about getting African economies off the ground — but it was also a carrot for these countries to institute democracy, the rule of law and political pluralism, among other things.

The US decision is seen as a bid to whip Mswati’s “oppressive” leadership into line. But Kirsh says it’s had little effect on the king — and a far more devastating impact on the everyday Swazi. “Up to 30 000 formal sector jobs will be lost” as the effects of the withdrawal kick in, he says.

Kirsch lobbied fiercely to reverse this decision using his considerable influence, but it has proven fruitless. The fact that the famously media-shy Kirsh went public and lashed the US for what he considers an ill-considered move is indicative of how passionately he feels on the issue.

Natie Kirsh made headlines in SA last year when he handed over “tea and biscuit money” to marry Dr Mamphela Ramphele’s Agang party to Helen Zille’s DA. The sum he gave was a drop in his ocean, but the subsequent high-profile divorce between Ramphele and Zille made waves across South Africa’s political waters.

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  1. Denis Solomons

    Feb 27, 2015 at 11:09 am

    ‘I think that 100 billion Rand makes Natie Kirsch the richest South African , period , Jewish and/or non-Jewish !

    I stand to be corrected but I don’t think that any of the other super-rich South Africans are in his league.

    Quite an achievement !

    All those kosher latkes !

  2. Zeitgeis

    Mar 3, 2015 at 9:32 am

    ‘how many time are you going to mention R100bn – is that really what is so important?’

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