Anton Edward Rupert was born on 4 October 1916 in Graaff-Reinet in the south-central Karoo. He enrolled at the University of Pretoria for a medical degree, however, due to lack of funds, converted his studies to a chemistry degree at the same institution, where he lectured for some time after completing his studies.
His first business enterprise was to set up a dry cleaning shop. During the depression Rupert noticed that even in difficult financial times, the sale of tobacco and alcohol did not diminish, and that decided the direction his main undertakings would concentrate on, though he also had interests in mining, banking, media, beverage, food and health care sectors. He moved to Stellenbosch, where he formed the Rembrandt Group in the 1940s, which was renamed Rothmans in 1972. His company grew to such an extent that it had to split into several sectors such as Remgro, an investment company with financial, mining and industrial interests and Richemont, a Swiss-based luxury goods group.
Though he was critical about apartheid both at home and abroad, he avoided confrontations and he did not support the struggle. Between 1958 and 1959, the Congress Alliance and the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), called for the boycott of smoking of cigarettes from Rupert's companies and labeled him ‘a capitalist architect of business apartheid'. This stemmed from the fact that he refused to help them with finances when they were in dire need to finance their struggle against apartheid.
Since 1964, his companies have been prominent in funding the fine arts and he used part of his profit in the promotion of education, art, music and the conservation and restoration of historical buildings. Rupert will be remembered for his immense contribution to the South African Business Development Corporation, a non-profit organisation, which helped to create half-a-million jobs in 1981. He was co-founder of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). His last big project was creating the Peace Parks Foundation, a non-profit foundation, founded in association with Mandela and the late Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, aiming to allow free movement of animals and people across country borders within the parks.
He was once credited with having 35 companies in six different continents, with a yearly profit of 10 – billion US dollars. In 2004, he was voted 28 th in a list of the top 100 greatest South Africans. His eldest son, Johann Rupert is the Chief Executive Officer of Richemont and the chairperson of Remgro.
Anton Rupert died peacefully in his sleep on 18 January 2006 in his home in Stellenbosch. Tributes poured in from across the country. Former President Mandela called him his friend and described him as “a giant of a man …famous for his approach of helping others to help themselves rather than fostering dependency …”. President Mbeki said: “Dr Rupert played a pivotal role in the development of South Africa's industrial and commercial sectors. Not only did he distinguish himself in the Afrikaner community, but also played a significant role in supporting and initiating significant transformation of South Africa's business.”
He believed firmly in affirmative action and black economic empowerment and he will always be remembered for his ingenuity, generosity, modesty and firm belief that everything is possible if the idea is worthwhile and well thought-out.