Across Boundaries: Does Naspers still have a soul?

Across Boundaries by Jonathan Ball Publishers.
Across Boundaries by Jonathan Ball Publishers.

The question of Naspers's 'soul', and 'the cause' Nasionale Pers had to advance, fixes one's attention again on the evolution the Pers underwent in the 1970s and 1980s in terms of its political orientation and relationship with the National Party.

The last sensational instance of declaring solidarity with the National Party was the parting of ways between the Nasionale Pers board and its former managing director, Advocate Lang David de Villiers, when the latter promised his support to an independent candidate in the 1987 par­liamentary election. His resignation from the board was followed by the resignation of the editor of Fair Lady, Dene Smuts. Both of them left because they could not identify with the political road of Nasionale Pers that, in 1987, still strove to live up to its former promises to the National Party.

Izak de Villiers saw this parting of ways in terms of an irreconcilability of souls. He put it like this: 'If I should one day become convinced that my soul is in conflict with the company's soul, I would have only one option. I would have to leave.'

So how did matters stand with regard to Nasionale Pers's 'soul' by 1987? The company had by then moved far beyond new employees' having to confirm with their signature on a company form 'that he/she is well-dis­posed towards the Nationalist aim of the company'.

At the time of the departures of Lang David and Dene, the chair, Piet Cillié, made the following comment, as mentioned earlier: 'You know, if we have to ask everyone at Nasionale Pers whether he is a Nat, we will lose a lot of talent. We will lose some of our best people, because it is always the dissenting man who has brains.'

In other words, by 1987 Nasionale Pers's promises to the National Party no longer really served our professional and business interests, and Piet Cillié acknowledged this albatross around our neck.

On my appointment as managing director of Nasionale Pers in 1984, I inherited the company's commitment to support the National Party. My first Christmas and New Year's message to employees in 1984 still attested to the spirit of a company that was dedicated to a cause: 'Naspers people are always asked: why is your company what it is? The answer is simple: we believe in our people and our people believe in us. The 'cause' still matters and carries the most weight, regardless of how diverse we are.'

But by 1984, the ties between the National Party and papers such as Rapport and Beeld were almost worn through. Since its founding in 1974, Beeld had been no party organ, despite the fact that it still campaigned for the party during elections. As a former editor of Beeld, I felt that my soul was ready for the reform that the country and Nasionale Pers required, a shepherd of souls may have said.

As editor of Die Burger, Ebbe Dommisse severed the formal bond between Die Burger and the Cape National Party in 1990 with the agree­ment of the party leader, Dawie de Villiers. Both parties felt that mutual detriment was thereby eliminated. The need for Nasionale Pers to review its political alliances became more and more apparent with our entry into the English-language mar­ket. Publications aimed at black readers, in particular, were irreconcilable with outspoken loyalty shown to the government that had enforced apart­heid.

A formal bond with the NP was prejudicing Nasionale Pers to an increasing extent. As the Pers expanded its operations across the world, its anachronistic association with an old, dying political party in South Africa served only as an obstacle on its path to expansion.

One of the typical questions about the state of Naspers's 'soul' that I was regularly called upon to answer was how Naspers could have expanded, in good conscience, into states such as communist China and the formerly communist Russia.

The counter question is why companies such as Microsoft, Volkswagen, General Motors, Maersk, Apple, Philips ? just about any multinational company one can think of ? operate in countries such as China. As in all countries where Naspers does business, we operate in accordance with the local regulations and laws of the land, and we strive, just like other multi­nationals, to make a profit, guided by business principles.

In the case of Tencent, we work in partnership with a successful Chinese company. China's economic success has brought about a great degree of personal freedom for a great many of its citizens. This is borne out, for instance, by a recent finding that Chinese from the People's Republic now make up the majority of international tourists.

Citizens' access to information, found effortlessly on the Internet, and their ability to communicate via cellphones, e-mail and digital voice and text messages, are vital aspects of the opening and reform of China itself.

Naspers's main business in China is information and communication services that are delivered digitally. Even though the Internet is censored quite strictly by the Chinese government, Naspers, as a partner within Tencent, still offers communication and information services of great value to hundreds of millions of people. The mobile messaging and social media app WeChat, which is similar to WhatsApp, already has about 900 million users worldwide, but above all in China. These services are used on a vol­untary basis, and without cost to the user – in other words, solely because of their inherent value for people. Revenue is generated from optional ser­vices such as advertisements and microsales.

How could one even ask whether supplying information and communi­cation services to countries such as China and Russia impairs the 'soul' of Naspers? This is not the case. In fact, providing these services contributes to the new openness of those societies.

* This extract was taken from Across Boundaries: A life in the media in a time of change by Ton Vosloo, published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.

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