How does a parochial press company evolve in the space of a century to operate in more than 130 countries? Professor Lizette Rabe traces the company’s evolution.
Naspers will celebrate its centenary anniversary in 2015. After a beginning that saw the company on the brink of bankruptcy a few times, the initial volkspers (people’s press) has morphed into a company that today operates across print, pay-TV and the internet. In the internet division, Tencent is probably the most well-known offshore investment. The company’s other online interests include MWEB, OLX and PriceCheck.
In the pay-TV sector, some of the well-known brands are M-Net, DStv, MultiChoice and SuperSport. The print sector includes Media24 and Abril in Brazil. Media24 is described as “Africa’s leading publishing group and offers information and entertainment 24 hours a day”. The group has interests in newspapers, magazines, the internet, book publishing, printing plants and distribution companies. Recently retired Koos Bekker has been replaced by Bob van Dijk as Naspers chief executive. Bekker will succeed Ton Vosloo in April next year as chairman of the board.
Naspers might stand as a metaphor for the country in which it originated, as it is a product of its time in every decade of its existence. It is no wonder that the concepts of evolution, development and progress are linked to this company in every single decade.
Naspers was not only fuelled by idealism, but also, unapologetically, by capitalism. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish which imperative was more dominant: service or profit. Or maybe it was just a case of entrepreneurial thinking that has been carried throughout the company’s existence. As one of its editors and later company chair, Piet Cillié, used to say, Naspers wanted “to be firstest with the mostest”.
Naspers was previously Nasionale Pers and before that De Nationale Pers Beperkt and – at the company’s founding meeting – De Nationale Koerant- en Drukpersmaatschappij Beperkt. Established as a parochial volkspers (people’s press), it’s grown into a global player – unlike its ‘twin’, the National Party, founded at the same time, and which went under for obvious reasons.
In 1990, when Naspers celebrated its 75th anniversary, Cillié quoted fellow Afrikaner and entrepreneur Anton Rupert who said that a little knowledge is dangerous, but in the case of the entrepreneur, the opposite is true. If you know too much, you can reason yourself out of an opportunity and will never accept the risk. It was a good thing the founders of Naspers did not realise what they did not know, Cillié said, or they would never have taken the risks.
The founding of Naspers in 1915 was a gamble. The more conservative ‘northern’ Afrikaners, those on the other side of the Gariep and the Vaal Rivers, were still suffering from the psychological trauma of losing ‘their’ land in the Anglo Boer War. A decade later, the government added insult to injury by supporting arch-enemy Britain in World War I. This led to another tragedy: the rebellion of 1914.
It was during this traumatic time that the more liberal ‘southern’ Afrikaners seized the opportunity to establish a press company to be the voice of the white tribe of Africa.
At the time, there was a strong belief that Afrikaners were not business people. This belief was also held by the economically impoverished Afrikaners themselves, who suffered from a major inferiority complex as a result of imperial superiority that suppressed them in every respect. When shares in the new company were offered, not many were in a position to buy them. Those who could afford a £1 share or two regarded it as their contribution towards the ideal of Afrikaner nationalism, doing so in the belief that they would never see their money again. In fact, Afrikaners were economically and socially so low on the social scale that Naspers founder Willie Hofmeyr said they regarded themselves as lowly labourers, only good as “hewers of wood and drawers of water”.
And that is why his mission was to empower this white tribe of Africa. Hofmeyr went on to establish Santam, Sanlam, Federale Volksbeleggings, among other massive companies. He was a one-man catalyst for empowerment on all fronts: culturally, socially, economically, and, of course, politically. And this was at a time when the British business establishment in Cape Town – there were no Afrikaans businesses at the time – tried its best to destroy the Afrikaner upstart that was perceived to be a danger both to colonial, commercial and political interests.
For this new company that was struggling to survive, it
was all about “sorrow and hope”, as it was written on 26 July 1915 in the company’s first edition of its first newspaper, Die Burger. Sorrow, as a result of all that was lost; but hope in looking to the future.
It would become a huge social re-engineering project to “give back” to the Afrikaner “that which was taken from him”. This was ironic considering the tragedy of apartheid that followed. This was an idealism that morphed into a blind ideology and an inhumane authoritarianism, in which the formerly oppressed suppressed their fellow citizens.
But the first critical voices were soon heard – even before the republican ideal was achieved when the Union of South Africa was declared a republic in 1961. Both Cillié and Schalk Pienaar, his Stellenbosch school, university and journalism comrade, warned about “taking from others what (had) been taken from them”. In Pienaar’s words, written in 1960, “We will not deny the Bantu what we have claimed for ourselves; and do not use against them the argument that was used against us, that they are a lesser breed incapable of achievement.”
A decade earlier and four years before he assumed the editorship, Cillié warned that the disenfranchisement of the coloured people was an “ugly thing and no cleverness is going to make it any more attractive”.
Cillié also wrote, “If Nationalist papers and their journalists are going to become paid parrots and a bunch of hurray papers they will set as sure as the sun – followed by the Government, their party, and Afrikanerdom.”
In 1961, Cillié, who is remembered along with Pienaar for powerful political columns, warned fellow-Afrikaners not to become a race of “political dinosaurs”. He said: “Our Ice Age is upon us.”
And so the transformation took place from inside and worked through the Afrikaner establishment – although from outside both the media company and Afrikaner community might have been regarded as fossilised.
The “adapt or die” DNA transformed the company and its original target market into a company that expanded, diversified, multiplied and magnified itself into many different life forms. Cillié was the first to say Nasionale Pers must become a national press to serve all of South Africa. He referred to the company as an entity with the same DNA, but with various manifestations – the egg, the caterpillar, the chrysalis and the butterfly.
Through every decade this DNA adapted the company to its environment. In so doing, Naspers remained at the forefront of innovative thinking and, therefore, innovative technology. This laid a solid foundation for that critical moment in the mid-1980s when two forces met – a media manager with a vision and a media entrepreneur with a dream, Ton Vosloo and Koos Bekker.
Vosloo, at the time chief executive of Naspers, was a worried man. He realised newspapers were bleeding to death because television robbed them year-on-year of their advertising income. And Bekker had the plan: encrypted pay-TV.
After a shaky start, M-Net was born, and thanks to the extremely deep pockets of Naspers, it thrived. This was the catalyst for the creation of MTN, MWEB, and others, which transformed Naspers from a media company into an e-platform and e-trader. Almost all the print-side of the business was compressed into Media24.
When Vosloo turned 60 in 1997 he retired as chief executive, handing his duties over to Bekker. Vosloo remained non-executive chair of the board.
Again it was the right development at the right time. Naspers was positioned as no other South African media company to ride the digital wave, which soon became a tsunami. Together the dynamic duo catapulted Naspers to never-imagined heights.
What are the DNA strains that ensured Naspers not only survived for 100 years but thrived to become a contender in a global market? Maybe it is merely a case of the Darwinian dictum “survival of the fittest”. So visionary leadership throughout its 10 decades and ensuring that new technologies were embraced helped the company morph into the next era. One can only wonder what the new combination of Bekker and Van Dijk will dream up in the new digi-economy.
Lizette Rabe is professor of journalism at Stellenbosch University, and is currently researching the centenary history of Naspers.
IMAGE: Die Burger archives / Editor of Die Burger, 1954-1985, Piet Cillié, conducting a newsroom diary meeting
This story was first published in the June 2014 issue of The Media magazine.