“Apartheid tried its damnedest to shackle me as a black person,” wrote Jeff van Rooyen in the preface of his memoir Unshackled: My journey from the township to the boardroom.
Van Rooyen is a child of the townships and his story is the classic rags-to-riches tale, but put forward in a different form.
He was born in Alexandra in 1950 and later moved to Newclare and Riverlea in the 1960s. He also resided in Eldorado Park.
The aforementioned areas are all familiar impoverished Johannesburg townships, which also defined the forced removals under the apartheid government’s Group Areas Act.
These “kasies” also have something in common: they are notorious for crime and violence. As they say in new age parlance:
And not much has changed – indeed, life has become much worse for the residents of these townships. But such is the same harsh environment that hardened Van Rooyen.
The book, with its apt title, transports the reader through the man’s extraordinary journey, literally from the township to the boardroom.
Van Rooyen defied the odds during the apartheid era to become one of the first few darkies – four, to be precise – to graduate as a chartered accountant in 1981 and later prospered in a space that was mainly reserved for the white man.
He became aware of politics and apartheid at the age of six. Van Rooyen and a childhood friend were excited about going to start school, but it did not end well because they were separated along racial lines when it was time to enrol – Jeff was classified as coloured, while Mishack was regarded as a black African.
As he marched on and reached greater heights in his life, Van Rooyen’s Afrikaans surname caused a lot of confusion because it did not correspond with the colour of his skin.
He recalls a few times when some of his would-be white colleagues would be disappointed when they finally put the face to the name, after they had thought that a Jeff van Rooyen would be “one of their own”.
But, to some, his is a story of hope and courage, as Pick n Pay pioneer Raymond Ackerman put it in the foreword of the autobiography.
From virtually nothing, Van Rooyen climbed his way up to the summit of the corporate ladder, and was even elected as the inaugural president of the Association for the Advancement of Black Accountants of Southern Africa in 1985.
Bra Jeff, as he is known to others, also held directorships on the boards of major JSE-listed companies that include mobile network provider MTN, as well as Pick n Pay, where he was handpicked by the legendary Ackerman to lead the auditing committee.
Van Rooyen has travelled the world and mingled with people in influential positions within society, but he does not forget where he comes from, as is reflected in the other parts of the book.
He’s giving back to the communities through his company, Uranus Investment Holdings.
Van Rooyen wrote in one of the chapters:
In March, the keen golfer extended an invitation to City Press to cover the launch of Finding the Fair Way Foundation, an initiative that raises awareness of the plight of golf caddies in the country.
The event, which attracted people of influence such as UDM leader Bantu Holomisa and former deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke, raised some good money for the golf bag carriers at the Johannesburg Country Club.
Aside from his entrepreneurial skills and philanthropic side, there are other lessons that Van Rooyen provides: time management and self-care, as well as being a good leader.
There is also a sense of his personality throughout the book; he’s warm and meticulous.
At 71, Van Rooyen said being a septuagenarian offered him the right space to reflect on his life and share wisdom with those who are driven despite life’s challenges.
Indeed, his story is that of hope and courage. His autobiography may just be an ideal gift this festive season.
*Unshackled: My journey from the township to the boardroom is published by Bookstorm and is on sale at reputable bookstores countrywide