At the informal wake held after Taco Kuiper’s death, a letter titled ‘Not to be opened until after my funeral’ was revealed by his maid of 34 years, Sinah Tshabalala. Malcolm Rees opens the envelope…
Taco Kuiper’s last letter contained instructions for a sum of R1 million to be divided equally among the families who had signed the register at his funeral. So with mixed sentiments, 92 families each received a little under R11 000. This was the final act of a shrewd businessman, a dogged investigative journalist, a selective philanthropist and, as some would suggest, “a scoundrel”.
The story around Kuiper’s funeral is, ironically, probably his most famous, and the moral ambiguities behind that parting gift – somewhere between welcomed and unwelcomed – have formed a fitting cap to the legend of man who is remembered in his duality.
Originally a Dutch national, Kuiper was born in Indonesia in 1941. He spent the first years of his life in a Japanese internment camp as a prisoner of war before arriving in South Africa in the 1960s.
After a stint at Barclay’s Bank and a number of other financial institutions, Kuiper – aided by a couple of disadvantaged youngsters – established The Investor’s Guide from a small flat in Hillbrow.
The publication, which sought to track and explain the performance of listed South African companies, would form the basis of his vast wealth, and went hand-in-hand with his work as a financial investigative journalist.
Controversial satirical columnist and author David Bullard says Kuiper was inspired more by a desire simply to expose those who he felt where operating unethically than in a pursuit of wealth or fame. Bullard, who was also a trader on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, had a relationship with Kuiper that began 35 years ago. Kuiper was relentless in his pursuit of financial abuse, says Bullard.
He was “like a terrier”, according to Dion de Beer, a long-standing friend of Kuiper’s. “Once he got hold of something, he wouldn’t let go… He was a great friend, but if you made an enemy of him, you better run like hell.”
He understood finance when most journalists didn’t and brought to light financial malpractices at a time when the conventional financial media, according to Bullard, had “an awful lot of people schmoozing up the rear end” of corporate establishments.
While the major business publications – out of sloth, disinterest or a fear of upsetting their advertisers – failed to pursue the exploits of certain white-collar criminals, Kuiper would pursue “with great passion” those who he got “in his cross-hairs”, says Bullard.
He felt that there was a great need for an improvement in financial investigative journalism in a country that he loved, because “the crooks are far better resourced and better protected (through the best spin doctors and lawyers money can buy) than the public sector”, says Alec Hogg, founder and editor-in-chief of the financial news agency Moneyweb.
With this in mind, Kuiper established The Valley Trust, which has as its primary mandate the development of investigative journalism in South Africa. The trust still has as much as R70 million in its coffers, according to De Beer, who is its chairman.
Margaret Renn currently holds the Wits Chair for investigative journalism, which is entirely funded by The Valley Trust. She says that the contributions made by the trust have done a “terrific amount for Wits journalism” and for the development of investigative journalism as a whole.
Kuiper’s trust has enabled the prestigious Taco Kuiper Award for Investigative Journalism at Wits, Wits’ Power Reporting conference on journalism and Wits’ Justice Project. It also provides funds that go towards the development of community radio, and has contributed to the publication of various novels related to journalism.
Kuiper’s success as a businessman, his loyalties as a friend and his contributions to the development of investigative journalism in this country are unquestioned.
He was described by Bullard as being “great company and a great person”, with a “very English sense of humour”. He was straight-talking and his own man, he was a “bit of a wild card, but never boring”.
But, while singing Kuiper’s praises, Bullard admits that he probably wouldn’t have gone into business with Kuiper, that “you had to take what he said with a pinch of salt”.
Despite the significant praise attributable to Kuiper, one gets the sense from discussion with those that knew him that he wasn’t altogether saintly.
Noseweek’s editor, Martin Welz – while making clear that many of those personal aspects of Kuiper that have left some with a less-than-glowing opinion of the man are “best buried with Taco” – would point out that Kuiper was a man of subtle contradiction.
“He was anti-establishment but desperately wanted to be accepted by the establishment,” says Welz, who claimed while being “most unlike anyone you would expect to be a member of the Rand Club”, Kuiper was “almost pathetically grateful” to have been granted membership to the prestigious club.
Kuiper had been a great supporter of Welz’s publication as it fought off the “completely psycho, mad American” Robert Hall in an expensive legal battle, in which Hall claimed that Noseweek had defamed his character when it published reports of his unsound business practices.
However, when a competitor came to market and began eroding Kuiper’s profits, he was desperate that Noseweek should come to his aid by discrediting them.
And Kuiper attempted to get Noseweek to back off from a story it was doing around the divorce proceedings of then-director of Anglo American Platinum Corporation, Barry Davison, in March 2004, which “raised issues of the honesty and integrity” of Davison.
Kuiper had apparently told Welz that he owed Davison “big time”.
This meddling, says Welz, didn’t parry with a man who was totally committed to investigative journalism, but was “rather in line with someone who used the press for his own ends”.
As Welz wrote in an editorial shortly after Kuiper’s death: “Despite his wealthy circle and his personal fortune totalling millions, Taco always had something a bit seedy about him.”
Kuiper was controversial, very outspoken and “quite arrogant,” in the words of Sandra Gordon, publisher of Wag the Dog Publishers.
If you came in to fix his curtains and they were a centimetre too short, he would take you to court, says De Beer, who claims that Kuiper had as many as 70 court cases open when he died, brought by and against him. “He was that kind of man.”
As Wits Journalism head, Professor Anton Harber, pointed out, some would call Taco a “scoundrel”, that his name could still enter a conversation followed by a shallow sigh and a mournful shake of the head. But he was “a colourful and eccentric character, who had lots of money and decided to use it in quite interesting ways… and thank goodness for that, I think his contribution has grown to be quite valuable.”
The winners of the 2010 Taco Kuiper Award for Investigative Journalism were Mzilikazi wa Afrika and Stephen Hofstatter, Sunday Times, for: “Police commissioner and the SAPS lease”.