Black Capitalism Won’t Save Us Either

Richemont chairperson Johann Rupert is interviewed by Power FM chairperson Given Mkhari.

On Tuesday, in an interview on Power FM, Johann Rupert the billionaire chairperson of the luxury-goods company Financière Richemont SA turned out to be exactly as I hoped he would: thoughtless, patronising, and deeply alienated from the realities South Africans find themselves in. If he had thought that this was going to be a big win for him and his class, he was sorely wrong. As a strange, unintended moment of class antagonism, it was perfect.

I wasn’t surprised by just how flippant and thoughtless Rupert turned out to be. He is the scion of tremendous wealth and privilege that landed on his lap the day his cigarette-baron father Anton – the real entrepreneur here – died. We live in the age of the tyrannical failson: from Donald Trump, and Mohammad bin Salman, and even (waiting in the wings) the Bolsonaro sons, surely not since the collapse of European feudalism has there been such an elevation of clueless and cruel oafs to the highest rungs of wealth and power? Rupert isn’t very far off…

The interview was the perfect indictment of the central thesis of capitalism: that those who have risen to the top have been sorted and placed there by a system that rewards individual endeavour, innovation and hard work. Listening to Rupert mumble incoherently about ‘the darkies’, and ‘those Venda boys’, and how blacks spend too much of their money in nightclubs, hence racialised poverty, put paid to the idea that he gets to have all the money because he’s better than us all. Even if you think he is, what, he’s several hundred thousand times better than the average worker in South Africa?

On Tuesday, more South Africans got to see and hear that for themselves in a way that is more persuasive than a thousand angry missives from me and all other critics of the capitalist system.

You know what else you get? Power FM chairperson Given Mkhari, who in spite of his literal business being the employ of experienced broadcast journalists, decided to host the interview himself. The result was predictably bad, and Rupert was never challenged on any of the lukewarm bullshit he was serving up.

It was just as well I guess, because apparently the takeaway for many people is: well, he is a rude and impersonable man, but you know, he had some interesting thoughts…

Writing in News24, Mpumelelo Mkhabela says we should swallow our indignation and take hard lessons about “the culture of instant gratification, the display of crass materialism and low savings, from the chairperson of the company that produces watches, jewellery and other trinkets under the Cartier brand! What is the Richemont business model, if not to indulge people’s desires for trinketry and frivolous nonsense? (I cannot over-emphasise the fact that his father was a cigarette salesman. How many people did he kill that way?) What a joke, my darling.”

Yes, the Rupert family was once poor, if you go back far enough. One wonders how much of the wealth that they amassed and hid away in stocks, options, trusts and so forth would they have to give back to all the black workers who helped build it under the circumstances of apartheid?

Put it differently, how much do the Ruperts owe their employees, since the 1940s, at today’s minimum wages? (Leaving aside the very concept of a fair wage, just for a moment…) How much of that fortune is because, for the longest time, they never had to even pay Cyril Ramaphosa’s minimum wage?

How much of his personal wealth would Rupert still have if all the people who helped make it over the years got to collectively decide what happened to it?

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Here’s an interesting question for all the black capitalists out there: whose wages do you intend on stealing on your way to becoming billionaires? Poor, black people? How many apartheids must we endure to make a whole new generation of Ruperts? And why are you so eager to reproduce the class divide?

Rupert’s wealth is entirely underserved. The reason why he gets to keep it is because the decision about how to disburse of the surplus labour produced by the collective workforce at his companies was made undemocratically.

In Fin24, Ferial Haffajee argues (after clumsily shoehorning in her favourite thesis about the psychological inferiority of black people) that we should be looking to a better class of capitalists, like her pals that she hangs out with, who donate to charity, and have business incubators and all that stuff.

She misses the point entirely. Rupert isn’t objectionable just because he has a difficult personal manner and no desire to think beyond cursory, Hallmark-card pabulum. He is objectionable because he is a Capitalist in a capitalist system, one who was greatly aided by apartheid, and one who continues to enjoy class-based power and privilege that he didn’t earn. None of Haffajee’s special friends, no matter how nice they are, belie the fact that the distribution of resources as we see it is deeply undemocratic, and reproduces class inequality.

It was genuinely hilarious for me to watch this roomful of simpering wannabes get the laziest, nonsensical advice from a supposed champion of the system.

What was deeply sad though was watching them lap it up nonetheless. It’s magical thinking: these people see him as an avatar for their ambitious selves – that if the successful Rupert deigns to bestow wisdoms upon them, some of that shine will rub off on them.

Feudalism never ended, folks. It merely evolved into this disgusting mess, where the very ones whose bones were ground into flour for Rupert’s morning bread, are now falling over themselves to deify him. Have a word with yourselves, people…

Featured image via eNCA