Louis Luyt and his son Louis Junior outside Ballito Manor, their expensive mansion at Ballito Bay, KwaZulu-Natal in 2004. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES.
Louis Luyt and his son Louis Junior outside Ballito Manor, their expensive mansion at Ballito Bay, KwaZulu-Natal in 2004. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES.

THE last thing written about Louis Luyt before he died was not particularly flattering. In a Daily Maverick article sparked by further revelations about The New Age newspaper’s financial dependence on the ruling party and on certain parastatals, Brooks Spector reminded readers that this was an all-too-familiar South African story. Forty years ago, the characters were different but the narrative was more or less the same: a deeply distrusted but much-feared government trying to change public opinion by purchasing column space with public money.

In the 1970s, prime minister BJ Vorster, information minister Connie Mulder and a handful of National Party cronies embarked on a propaganda campaign. Their first move was to bid for ownership of the most prominent anti-apartheid publication of the day, the Rand Daily Mail. When that failed, they started their own newspaper, The Citizen.

The names of Vorster and Mulder’s collaborators are not remembered by many. They included Hendrik van den Bergh, the chief of intelligence services and the notorious Bureau of State Security; Gerald Barrie, head of the department of information; diplomat-cum-spy and fraud Eschel Rhoodie; and, you guessed it, Louis Luyt, who acted as the business’s frontman. Luyt, a fertiliser magnate, thus tried to position himself as a would-be media mogul.

As the extent of financial misappropriation became clear, Mulder and then Vorster were forced to resign (despite their attempts to make Rhoodie and company the fall guys). The only person to emerge from the whole affair more or less unscathed was Luyt, who sold The Citizen for virtually nothing and retreated to the safety of his millions.

Spector’s article was published on January 29. Three days later, Luyt was dead. Since then, Luyt has received glowing tributes across all media platforms — focusing, understandably perhaps, on his career as a rugby administrator.

In only a few instances have the phrases "Information Scandal" or "Muldergate" been used. There have been passing references only to Luyt’s role as a "media entrepreneur" and the misinformation that "he made his fortune in publishing". The only money Luyt made in publishing came straight from the apartheid government.

You can imagine present and former journalists of The Citizen — who have to maintain the newspaper’s credibility despite its dubious origins — cringing at every mention of Luyt’s name as "founder". That is no excuse for neglecting to inform their readers in full about Luyt’s (and the paper’s) past. But most other media outlets have done consumers a disservice in their obituaries.

Here they were following the cue of political and sporting spokesmen, most of whom evidently disliked Luyt, using euphemistic words such as "enigma" and "maverick". Historian Jonathan Hyslop describes this phenomenon rather succinctly: "Being nice about dead scumbags is a distinctive South African failing. There’s nothing wrong with speaking ill of the dead, if they deserve it. And Luyt certainly does."

If we are looking for nice things to say, we might accept the mythos that Luyt created about his upbringing and early business success: the rags-to-riches story of the boy from Britstown, determined to escape a childhood of rural poverty, willing to get his hands in the muck (literally) to make money.

Let us even accept that he was ostracised from certain Afrikaans business circles and didn’t get a leg-up from the Broederbond. That’s not saying much. I doubt that any of the Gupta brothers benefited from the Broederbond either. But to the point: what did Luyt do with his money after l’affaire Citizen? He lost a chunk of it in a failed beer-brewing venture, before turning his attention to the lucrative business of rugby. Luyt played as a lock forward at provincial level — never for the Springboks, much to his chagrin — and maintained a presence in rugby circles until, in the 1980s, he rose to power in the Transvaal Rugby Union. By the time he became president of the South African Rugby Football Union in 1989, national and world history had begun to take a different course from the one imagined by Vorster and Mulder et al. Ever the pragmatist, Luyt realised that the advent of democracy in SA was inevitable and carefully positioned himself as a political "moderate" during the transition. This allowed him to remain in charge of rugby during the difficult process of unifying black and white sports organisations. Unlike cricket under Ali Bacher, however, rugby was slow to transform its racial profile; this was largely attributable to the man in charge.

As a savvy businessman, Luyt knew rugby players were assets and he treated them in a transactional manner; "looking after" them and then "dispensing" with them as necessary. The professional era would have dawned with or without Luyt, but he was canny enough to protect South African rugby from the clutches of Rupert Murdoch. Idioms about rocks and hard places, or the devil and the deep blue sea, come to mind.

The footage of Luyt most commonly broadcast over the past few days has shown him standing alongside Nelson Mandela on the field at Ellis Park shortly after the Springboks won the World Cup in 1995. Madiba, always an expert at idle small talk with his moral and intellectual inferiors, managed to pass the time until he could hand Francois Pienaar the William Webb Ellis trophy.

But Mandela lost his patience with Luyt a few years later. When, in 1998, Mandela rightly instituted an investigation into racism, graft and nepotism in rugby administration, Luyt had the hubris to take him to court. (The summons was issued by Judge William de Villiers, a known reactionary who had previously opposed the admission of black advocates to the bar.)

Luyt had gone too far, and eventually had to surrender his rugby crown.

This gave him the opportunity to show his true ideological colours. He started a political party, the Federal Alliance (FA), with a manifesto including the telltale aim of protecting Afrikaner minority rights. When the FA merged with the Democratic Party, Luyt chose to side with the Freedom Front Plus under Pieter Mulder.

A familiar surname? You bet. Our deputy minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries is none other than Connie Mulder’s son. So Luyt’s political affiliations had come full circle — in fact, they never changed — from his enthusiastic support of, and enrichment by, the apartheid state.

South Africans are rather proud of our supposed national propensity to forgive and forget. But forgiveness is not the same thing as tolerance of wrongdoing; we tolerate corruption, nepotism and authoritarianism far too readily. Nor is forgetting desirable — those in power always benefit from citizens’ ignorance of history.

If we’re not careful, we will end up saying things such as: "Remember Louis Luyt? All those crazy comments he made about the All Blacks at that post-match dinner in 1995? But he was one hell of an administrator, hey, he knew how to run rugby."

That is a dangerous, lazy summary of a man whose life and work should be recognised but not lauded.

So: rest in peace, Oswald Louis Petrus Poley. Wherever you are, may you be as happy (pardon the phrase) as a pig in s**t — like the s**t you purveyed as a fertiliser salesman, National Party propagandist and Machiavellian rugby boss. I hope we shall not see your like again.

• Thurman is a senior lecturer at Wits University.