Izak du Plessis’s non-fiction dive into the fascinating if mortifying world of Afrikaans scoundrels, crooks and high rollers should also have been published in English. To those Afrikaans speakers who can read Boereverneukers – Afrikaanse swendelaars, swierbolle en swerkaters (there’s a mouthful!) it is undoubtedly a tasty treat of “Yellow Journalism” – though it has been thoroughly researched, and many of the facts are from serious, established newspapers, investigative journalists, court documents and so on. Why publish a book on a hundred years’ worth of these guys who all reminded me of the characters played by Steve Martin and Michael Caine in the 1988 film Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (in the banner, above)?
The title explains it; a “boereverneuker” is someone, particularly a salesman, who cheats a farmer. The term is typically Afrikaans and these days refers to anyone who tries to do in an Afrikaner or someone who is Afrikaans-speaking. Who are the Afrikaners? Du Plessis does weigh in with a definition, but to get a proper academic, historical and genealogical explanation, you’d best read Hermann Giliomee’s classic tome, The Afrikaners. South Africa has had its fair share of boereverneukers, many of whom had spectacular success, even with the most outlandish schemes such as bringing people back from the dead and selling rotten milk. So these stories were just waiting for someone to turn it a book. And, having read it, let it never be said that the “nasie” (people) lack gumption and ingenuity, albeit wrongly applied!
Why did these scoundrels succeed?
Du Plessis explains this cultural phenomenon when describing one of the most successful of these con artists, Adriaan Nieuwoudt (my translation and parentheses):
“Perhaps it is because [the] scheme was so clever, chic, creative, grandiose, blatant and patently crooked that South Africans [not only Whites] shrugged off their losses. Perhaps it is because so many people realized they were caught out fair and square by someone cleverer than themselves…Perhaps it is because he was not really a criminal but just a plain old trickster…no-one knows.” (P.88)
I can add a few more reasons to that: In hard times, people will try anything that promises relief (and farming in South Africa is a particularly hard and tough living), even if there’s no free lunch. Secondly, there really is a sucker born every minute, and lastly, most of these con men were only after fame and money, they did not murder. Most, that is. Some were actually killers too.
Hot off the press!
The book has been withdrawn from bookshops. Du Plessis said on 3 November 2017 on his Facebook page that some of the people he wrote about have started a class action suit against him. Whoo-hoo! I officially own a contentious book! Get your own while you still can!
Who did Du Plessis include in this rogues’ gallery?
- Scotty Smith, the Robin Hood of the Kalahari (fled and dead)
- Paul Kruger – Scandals, gold mines, dynamite, wars, etc. (Became President, died in Switzerland. His descendants object to his inclusion in the book.)
- Cecil Barnard – Illegal elephant hunter and people smuggler (died from old age on his farm.)
- Fritz Joubert Duquesne, “The Black Leopard” – tough guy, adventurer, charmer, wanted by the FBI. (Died in jail.)
- Pierre Basson – the one exception: found guilty of murder posthumously of at least nine people. Mad, bad and dangerous to know. (Died by suicide during a shootout.)
- Ruitertjie Ruiters, The Lion of the Langkloof – cattle thief, burglar, habitual small time crook, smuggler, with an image much larger than his stature. (Arrested and amused the courts.)
- Derek Whitehead and Willem Antonie van der Merwe – The Great Bank Robberies – Sheer blatant nerve. (Served their time and released.)
- Adriaan Nieuwoudt, The Kubus King – Biggest con on record in South Africa, and the first ponzi scheme shut down by the South African government, with world-wide impact. Also diamond smuggling…and kaolin mining…and seaweed harvesting…and White Settler homelands… ( He is still alive and kicking.)
- André Esterhuizen, The Fake Doctor. (Did his time, now requalified in IT. Watch out world.)
- Martin Radloff, The Houdini of the Crime World – flamboyant, a fake, a complete fraud and never found guilty. (Died of natural causes.)
- Gervan Lubbe, The Emperor Who Had No Clothes – A true snake oil salesman who made millions off his pseudo-scientific gadgets, and won awards for them. (Sentenced to 43 years in jail in 2013.)
- David Francis, The Prophet of Hertzogville – A preacher who misled his followers by claiming he can raise the dead.
- Arno Smit, The Cattle Baron – He had many women but no actual cattle. He became internationally infamous for his cattle cons in the USA. A different case involving him and his cohorts is still in the courts in 2017.
- Ralph Haynes, The Godfather of the West-Rand. The title says it all. (Disappeared without a trace.)
Perhaps because so many of these cases are still being fought in the courts, Du Plessis relied mostly on information already in the public domain, and did not include a single photo or illustration. (Though he did quote an email conversation with Adriaan Nieuwoudt.) Despite the lack of graphics, the book is highly entertaining and in places very funny.
So here, for your delectation and edification, are the faces of a few of the Greatest Afrikaner Boereverneukers in a century, selected by the daring Izak Du Plessis. Isn’t it interesting how handsome and macho they looked?