T.J. Strydom, Koos Bekker’s Billions (Cape Town: Penguin, 2022)

JUDGING by the number of published titles, the reading public appears to have a fascination for the lives of businessmen who have raked in billions, even though their lives do not necessarily make for very interesting reading. Koos (Jack as the author translates) Bekker is well-known as the CEO without a salary. His deals with Naspers, the retreaded pro-apartheid press group, have been based on share options. In other words, he worked as an effective co-owner, incentivised by an eventual payday. From this he has profited mightily, in particular during two sabbaticals when he quietly sold off shares.

The journalist T.J. Strydom received no help from Bekker in the writing of this book. The latter prides himself in the fact that as one of the richest people in South Africa he can buy a loaf of bread at the local supermarket incognito. Strydom projects his book of fifteen chapters as a guide to the making of millions, but there is little to distinguish it from standard business biography and any thematic approach drowns in a welter of deals and options.

In the final analysis, Bekker unsurprisingly emerges as a person of strengths, weaknesses and contradictions. There is nothing in this book to suggest he would dispute this banal truth and indeed he admits to ‘luck and circumstance’. As is found in other business biographies there is a tendency to dress up common sense as acumen, even genius. For instance, given the right circumstances, sport and entertainment seem guaranteed winners; researching the wishes of target consumers essential. Some business imagery is downright crude: throwing metaphorical spaghetti at a wall in the hope that some sticks clearly works if there is enough of it, but it is hardly sophisticated.

Bekker grew up on a Heidelberg mielie farm and as a schoolboy was marked out as a clever all-rounder. As a businessman he has distinguished himself as both thinker and doer and been notable for embracing opportunity in technology, shrewd forecasts, and often throwing caution to the wind. He was lucky to have a patron in Ton Vosloo because on the route to success he inevitably experienced failures. His great successes were launching pay TV (MNET) in South Africa and then investing in China, Tencent in particular, and turning Naspers into an e-commerce outfit. The publishing house is long gone.

As an employer, Bekker had virtues. He encouraged informality (there’s an implausible tale that a switchboard operator claimed not to know a Mr Bekker) and preferred flat management. At meetings he would listen to shades of opinion, then make a decision. From time to time, he involved himself in hands-on experience. Conversely, colleagues referred to KSS: Koos sê so, suggesting an authoritarian streak. Some described him as a slavedriver and a workaholic. Clearly ruthlessness has played a part in success, but the appearance of venture capitalist is tempered by long-term patience. However, Strydom is somewhat enigmatic when he writes that ‘very few colleagues will say anything about [Bekker] at all’ (p. 99).

His career intersected with a disturbing socio-political development. In turning a newspaper group into an entertainment and online retail business he helped to kill off newspapers, a key component of democracy and an agent of social cohesion. Bekker persuaded them to invest in pay TV in the 1980s, which reaped beneficial results but had detrimental long-term consequences. Naspers indulged in asset stripping and destroyed or diminished the careers of hundreds of South African journalists. Bekker unashamedly pronounces newspapers as ‘history’; apparently, the price of business success. Yet an enormous amount was invested and ultimately lost in a Brazilian print media company. Chinese profits were wasted in Brazil while large swathes of South African journalism were destroyed.

Bekker is lauded as an international businessman yet his greatest triumphs have occurred in remarkably authoritarian countries; China and Russia to be precise. Tencent has collaborated with the Chinese government’s crackdown on dissent, for example, and a man who called the president in a private communication a dumpling finished up in jail. Bekker grew up in a police state while his father ended his working life with the Bureau for State Security (BOSS). He has also suppressed publication of a history of Naspers, which refused to testify before the Truth Commission, although a number of its younger journalists did appear and much later Media24 made an apology. The motives of those who would cover up history are always suspect.

Then there are the contradictions. Bekker has noted the diminishing returns of amassing personal wealth. Beyond a comfort zone, what is the point? Yet today Bekker is worth an estimated $2.8 billion. By 2018 Naspers provided 25% of the value of the JSE, but this was largely Chinese business and the South African fraction was not performing that well. Bekker had made an inspired decision at the right time. Some of his earnings have predictably gone into a Cape wine farm and an English country house in Somerset, bizarrely described by Strydom as in the Cotswolds two hundred kilometres south-east of London. That would place it somewhere in France, so geography is not a strong point of the author.

For a cerebral character, Bekker has made some unfortunate remarks. His opinion of good governance as akin to washing hands was irresponsibly flippant. And in recent years restless investors have complained about not benefiting proportionately from Naspers. This has led to some unbundling, but the share holdings are cleverly stitched up and change has been limited.

The distribution of annual largesse to newsrooms in the form of bags of mealies or punnets of plums was laughingly referred to by journalists as the ‘fruits of their own labour’ (p. 99). Here they were closer to crucial truth than maybe they realised and a point that is routinely ignored by business writers. While Marx got almost everything else wrong, he (or more likely Engels) was on the button when he described the expropriation of surplus labour. Successful enterprise depends on unremunerated goodwill, the profits of which are accumulated by just a few. The increasing concentration of wealth is a global concern, but warrants no mention in this book.

And when Strydom declares that Bekker has created ‘immense wealth for South Africans’ (p. 174) he evades much grim reality. There has been a swathe of destruction, too.

• Disclosure: The reviewer’s formal working life was prematurely terminated, together with those of friends and colleagues, by Koos Bekker’s Naspers.