If you want to understand the career of Theunissen ‘Ton’ Vosloo, under whose direction Naspers became one of the largest media groups in the world, you need to consider him as the role-model journalist, the ‘supremo media manager/strategist’ and the philanthropist.
This is according to media academic Professor Lizette Rabe. “He was such a catalyst for so many developments (at Naspers),” says Rabe, who is a professor of journalism at Stellenbosch University.
Vosloo is currently director of Media24 and MultiChoice South Africa Holdings, chairman of MIH Holdings and non-executive Naspers chairman. He retires in 2014, bringing to a close one of the most influential careers in South African media.
Vosloo, the journalist, began as a bookish child who discovered an early love of words.
He was born in 1937 and grew up in Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape. His mother single-handedly raised Ton, his brother Freddie and his sister Joan after his father died in 1944. Tragedy hit the family again just two years later when young Freddie died during an operation. Vosloo tells The Media: “[My mother] was a trained teacher but worked as an industrial caterer. But she never neglected the town library. Uitenhage had a well-stocked one and she took me along with her from when I was in pre-school. As a result I became a bookaholic for life.” Colleagues still speak of Vosloo’s wide reading and range of passions – such as art and nature – and his talent as a raconteur.
While still at high school, Vosloo began writing for two local newspapers and realised that all he wanted to be was a journalist. After matric, in 1956, he joined Die Oosterlig (now Die Burger Oos) in Port Elizabeth, filling in for one of their reporters who was on leave. Shortly after that, he went to work at Die Landstem in Cape Town, covering, among other big stories, the Rheeder poison murder (the woman who was hanged for murdering her husband by putting poison in his coffee) and the All Black tour to South Africa. In 1960, he married Lorna, a well-regarded journalist, and the couple had a daughter, Nissa. (The Vosloos divorced in 2001 and Lorna died in 2007.)
In the early 1960s, the Vosloos moved to Johannesburg and Ton became a political reporter for Perskor’s Dagbreek. Cape-based Naspers was at that time attempting a move into the Transvaal, establishing Die Beeld, a Sunday paper, in 1965. Die Beeld and Dagbreek merged in 1970 to form Rapport as a 50/50 venture between these two rival companies. Naspers then established the daily Beeld in 1974, when Vosloo became its news editor. He was appointed Beeld’s third editor in 1977.
Naspers’ siege on the Transvaal market was made very difficult, both politically and commercially. The verkrampte Afrikaner establishment saw the southern group as upstart liberals aligned with the verligte (enlightened) elements of the National Party and instituted boycotts against Beeld. Says Rabe: “Everything is relative. In Afrikaner politics, and for the conservative north, Naspers and the south have always been regarded as liberal. So there was major opposition against anything Naspers in the north. Now the liberals wanted to invade the market in Perskor country!”
And it wasn’t just about political pressure. Perskor fraudulently inflated their circulation figures by thousands over an extended period, says Rabe. “It was all about the battle for the heartland of Afrikanerdom and Perskor would not shy even from foul play. Beeld had in effect won the ‘circulation battle’ years before, but because of Perskor’s fraud, Naspers estimated that the battle cost them millions and it eventually sued Perskor for R12 million.” (Perskor merged with Caxton/CTP in the mid-1990s, which is when Vosloo, in one of his last acts as chairman, felt considerable satisfaction in leading Naspers to buy Perskor’s 50% of Rapport).
When Perskor’s fraud was uncovered, the company lost advertising and their five titles (including Die Transvaler and Hoofstad) folded or merged with other publications. Naspers’ dominance was entrenched and their more liberal influence felt. “[This] is regarded as having influenced Afrikaner thinking towards their capitulation in the political revolution between 1990 and 1994,” says Rabe. Vosloo says of this time: “The great satisfaction was to clean up five opposition papers in the old Transvaal and in the process knock the verkrampte rightwingers off their perch. I believe that without that seminal move, the great political shift in our politics would not have happened.”
Vosloo has always insisted that Naspers was the most democratic media group in South Africa. In 1970, he was awarded a Nieman Fellowship from Harvard University and his year in the United States gave him perspective on the unsustainability of apartheid. In his time as an editor, he annoyed then Prime Minister PW Botha by calling for the scrapping of the Group Areas Act and caused controversy when he predicted that the National Party would one day negotiate with the African National Congress.
In 1983, Vosloo was asked to join Naspers as managing director and the ‘media manager supremo’ was born. As MD, Vosloo was focused on preparing the company for “what I knew would come: a government under majority rule”. The transformation of the group under Vosloo was spectacular, says Rabe, both commercially and ideologically.
Under Vosloo, Naspers bought the black titles DRUM, TRUE LOVE and City Press from Jim Bailey. Says Rabe: “This was such an event that the then SABC dedicated half an hour to a discussion of what this momentous occasion meant…” Khulu Sibiya, City Press news editor at the time and later editor, has said that he and his colleagues were worried that Naspers’ ownership would mean editorial interference. Naspers may have been verligte, but it was still aligned with the National Party. However, said Sibiya, “True to his promise, in my more than 20 years as a senior editorial member of City Press there was never any interference from the [Naspers] board.”
When Vosloo took over as MD of Naspers, he began the strategic transformation of the company with planning for a pay TV channel. These early efforts meant that “the company eventually had the financial muscle to bridge the digital divide, as, sadly, so many other companies were not”, says Rabe. His most important act was hiring a young man named Koos Bekker. “There were several quantum leaps in [Vosloo’s] time as MD to catapult the company every time into a new orbit. An informed observer said Vosloo’s appointment of Koos Bekker in 1984 to plan the M-Net strategy was one of his first major decisions, a decision which has changed the media scene in South Africa dramatically and drastically, and paved the way for Naspers to become the media giant on a global scale it is today,” says Rabe.
Getting M-Net going was not all smooth sailing, but by the time Vosloo became Naspers chair in 1992, they were making a profit. Bekker and Vosloo headed M-Net’s drive into Africa, considered ill advised at the time, and beyond. Vosloo gives Bekker all the credit for the success of M-Net. “I did the political lobbying to get a TV licence and Koos did all the hard work to make the station – the first of its kind in Africa – viable,” he told The Media.
As for the philanthropist part, Vosloo is a patron of the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra and a trustee of the World Wildlife Fund. He is also interested in the preservation of Afrikaans and says that promoting the language was important to him during his career. He says, “Naspers, started in 1915, was nurtured as a company by the wisdom of the first chair, Willie Hofmeyr, who used to quote the saying of a dominee uncle: ‘A language without a commercial basis will wither and die.’
“Those are my sentiments too. That is why we constantly strive to keep our newspapers, magazines and books relevant and useful, and why we invest in new internet media to bolster Afrikaans as a relevant and important language,” Vosloo says.
Vosloo may be retiring next year, but he won’t be resting. “There’s a book in me waiting to burst forth,” he says. And he remains the critical journalist. Back in 1993, he told journalist Gus Silber that the day would come when “a lot of people would long for the good old days of the Nats” because the ANC would be no more interested in press freedom than the NP was. When The Media asks Vosloo if this has come to pass, he replies: “Just about there. Most of the folks who wanted to get rid of the Nats are now longing to get back to a sound government and administration at all levels, which the Nats were, if one excludes the ideological madness of their racial policies.” It seems he’s still sticking to his old adage: “Never trust a politician.”