OPINION | Bruce Robertson: Rob Hersov, a graceless charlatan and patronising paper tiger

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'Voetsek ANC' | Cape Town businessman Rob Hersov has called President Cyril Ramaphosa 'useless' and a 'disgrace' in a speech that went viral.
'Voetsek ANC' | Cape Town businessman Rob Hersov has called President Cyril Ramaphosa 'useless' and a 'disgrace' in a speech that went viral.

Watching Rob Hersov on stage, mindlessly spewing bile without displaying an ounce of self-awareness, is galling, writes Bruce Robertson.

Watching the horror show of Rob Hersov strutting the stage at recent BizNews conferences, I've been less disturbed by his charlatan ramblings than by the apparent delight with which his "opinions" are being hoovered up by the leisured classes. Ruddy faces atop a sea of Gant shirts and Gucci slip-ons can be seen nodding in approval, at this smooth talker sticking it to the corrupt politicians. "He's being honest and open, about time" we hear them mutter. "We need someone to tell it like it is, no more mumbo-jumbo."

Watching [BizNews editor] Alec Hogg smirking in the background, like a proud parent of a loveable rogue, is disappointing, as I would have thought he would have more insight than to let a strident narcissist loose on his stage with no counterweight. At the very least I would have thought that the unbridled arrogance, the unquestioned self-confidence of Hersov would provoke a journalistic instinct, apparently long buried in Hogg's inner sanctums, to ask some questions:

What is it that gives Hersov such confidence?

And why do so many (but certainly not all) rich white South Africans love his unedifying displays?

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Having had the good fortune of never having met the man, answering the first question is a matter of conjecture, but let me have a stab; I have done myself the favour of not digging deep into his life, but from anecdotal accounts his bottomless confidence cannot be attributed to personal success. Various meandering accounts over the years come to mind.

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The friend who ran a DJ outfit with him in his first business venture at UCT in the early 1980's, who summed up his experience of Hersov with the pithy phrase "very little of what comes out of his mouth can be believed"; the breathless reports of his sports marketing company that in the late 1990's was worth USD 400 million, and the more muted accounts a few years later that the company was sold for a dollar, (yes, USD 1.00, or R7.50 at the time. Not bad for a car guard, but not the stuff of billionaires); the shady associations with German fraudsters, the cosying up to dodgy politicians; the apparent visa fraud for an eastern Europe "actress" to attend his birthday party.

Pots? Kettles? I found myself wondering as I listened to his "open and honest" character assassination of President Cyril Ramaphosa and others.

If own achievement is clearly not a basis for his arrogance, then what is?

That's when things start getting sinister, and where Alec Hogg's failings as an arbiter of South African business experience are most evident. Surely a curious mind, looking over the well-fed faces staring admiringly up at Hersov mouthing off more "open and honest" opinions, would want to investigate a little further. Would want to pry a little, to prod the foundations of his self-regard.

A good way to do this would be to put up on the conference stage a mineworker.

Not a mineworkers' union leader, eloquent and familiar with clever phrasing and sound bites of the conference circuit. Just a mineworker, preferably one who worked on the Hersov Orange Free State gold mines – Anglovaal – in the 1970's or early 1980's (if any have survived this long). And ask no more of him than to tell his story.

His story would be a personal account of the migrant labour system which smashed rural black families for generations across Southern Africa, destroyed the fabric of rural communities and was the fountainhead of the plague of fatherless homes which the audience no doubt bemoan today. He would tell of his efforts to keep his family alive through meagre remittances, seeing them once a year for four weeks and spending the other 48 weeks living in a single sex hostel, working for wages which, up until the early 1980's were set entirely at the discretion of the mine owners.

None but those who were there would be able to describe the brutality of working conditions on South African mines in the days before the mining unions were legalised but a story told by Bobby Godsell, who would have stood out like shining beacon at the BizNews gathering, can give us direction: He told of the difficulty, as a young human resources manager in the 1970's, of getting a mining house to put doors put on the toilets of its workers accommodation. This at a time when the gold price reached USD 800/ounce. You do the maths – paying workers R50 per month and earning USD 500 - 800/ounce of gold. Nice if you're on the owner's side of the equation.

But what challenged that lovely money-making spree for the Hersov family?

READ | Russian actress apologises for false asylum claim to enter SA to attend Hersov's swanky parties

The mineworker would be able to describe from his humble perspective the formation of the National Union of Mineworkers and how that put at least a brake on the worst excesses of white capital. And he would be able to tell the audience that the General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, displaying levels of leadership and courage quite foreign to white South Africans at the time, was none other than that dastardly coward Cyril Ramaphosa.

But as he explained in his last show, Hersov doesn't think studying history is at all worthwhile. Not surprising, given how he and his family would be exposed by even the faintest whiff of remembrances of things past. For the life and times of the Hersov empire building, capital was white and labour was black. Not their fault, they may argue, but they went along for the ride, and what a ride it was. Railing in the Rand Club against the uncouth Afrikaner, but raking in, for decade after decade the fruits of an iniquitous system.

Watching Hersov strut his stuff on the BizNews stage is galling.

Not displaying an ounce of awareness that the only reason he is there at all is because of inherited privilege, not reflecting for one moment that the plummy accent and jet-set chums may have something to do with the obscene wealth his family generated through their energetic complicity in the apartheid state's iniquitous economic system, not having the breadth of imagination to reflect for a moment on the lives shattered by the grubby conditions generations of miners endured when some generosity from the family, some empathy, some recognition of the plight of others would have made such a qualitative difference, not showing the slightest discomfort with the ease of inherited wealth, and lapping up the adulation of an unthinking, unsympathetic, unctuous audience.

There is no doubt that our government is underperforming, and our leaders need to be held to account. Digging deep, naming names, speaking openly and honestly are part of the fabric of our society, and actually things our media do very well. What we do not need are the mindless meanderings of a patronising, unthoughtful paper tiger, who after decades away from South Africa reappears as our greatest patriot astonishingly full of advice, but off a very narrow base.

Hersov is a graceless charlatan and should be treated as such.

- Bruce Robertson is a Ugandan cotton ginner and KwaZulu-Natal South Coast surfer

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