Decoding the Stellenbosch mafia
Historical parallels are sometimes useful - but not this one
Ah, the Stellenbosch Mafia! No, it’s not the title of the next Scorsese film or a secret society that meets in wine cellars to discuss world domination—though, who knows, they might! Imagine a club so exclusive it makes a VIP lounge look like a bus stop. Hailing from South Africa’s own Beverly Hills-meets-Napa Valley, these are the uber-rich, mostly white, often Afrikaner business moguls who’ve turned the idyllic winelands of Stellenbosch into South Africa’s unofficial economic command centre.
Don’t let the name fool you; they’re not trafficking illegal merlots or engaging in vineyard heists. Rather, they’re the power brokers and kingmakers in sectors from mining to finance, all with a zip code to kill for. ‘Mafia’ might be stretching it, but let’s just say if you want a taste of South Africa’s economic pie, you’ve got to get past these godfathers of industry first. They’re like the Illuminati, but with better wine and a killer view of Table Mountain.
Quirky, sure, even funny, and somewhat obtuse. This is what you get when you ask ChatGPT to define ‘Stellenbosch mafia’ in a way that would get readers interested. I’m pretty sure I have your interest, dear reader.
The ‘Stellenbosch mafia’ is frequently in the news. Speaking at a Black Management Forum seminar, Reuel Khoza (former chair of Nedbank, Eskom and now chair of Discovery) noted that ‘We probably have the densest concentration of billionaires in Stellenbosch. It is not without accident; it is by absolute design.’ Business Day editor-at-large Peter Bruce wrote a column about this in July. Investec economist Brian Kantor responded earlier this month.
But like many things in South Africa, defining the ‘Stellenbosch mafia’ is in the eye of the beholder. Some might indeed say that the term is used to highlight the influence and economic power that this group of wealthy, predominantly white Afrikaner businessmen based in or around the Stellenbosch area wields, both in South Africa and, to some extent, globally. And indeed, the ‘Stellenbosch mafia’ is sometimes criticised for perpetuating economic inequalities in South Africa, a country with a painful history of racial discrimination and economic disparity.
Yet to think of them as a club of villains twirling their moustaches while plotting global economic domination over a fine glass of Pinotage would be, well, wrong. Knowing their origins might help us understand why.
Let’s begin this story three centuries earlier…
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