Swans Commentary » swans.com December 2, 2013  



WWF's Special Founders


by Michael Barker



"[F]or me... [Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands] was without doubt the most important person in nature conservation in the twentieth century. He has achieved a lot."
—Anton Rupert. (1)


(Swans - December 2, 2013)   In his long and eventful lifetime, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands (1911-2004) was the consummate networker and myth maker. But perhaps his two most significant achievements were the leading roles he played in founding the Bilderberg group and the World Wildlife Fund (now known as the World Wide Fund for Nature). Prince Bernhard never acted alone in such entrepreneurial enterprises and one key billionaire friend who remained close to him throughout such organizing endeavors was Anton Rupert (1926-2006) -- an Afrikaner capitalist who took an early interest in using philanthropic power vis-à-vis nature conservation to promote Afrikaner nationalist sentiments. Rupert joined WWF International's board of trustees in 1968 (a position he held until 1990), and resided on their executive committee as of 1971. (2) So who, one might ask, is this influential businessman?

Well, Anton Rupert is the founder of the Rembrandt Group ("the owner of famous brands such as Rothmans, Montblanc and Cartier") and a longstanding member of the secretive nationalist society, Afrikaner Brotherhood. Although, with time, Rupert became critical of apartheid policies, there is no doubt that historically speaking his keen support of conservation issues "offered possibilities... to network with international business" in the face of the "economic boycott of South Africa." (3) This helps explain why in 1968 Rupert chose to create the Southern African Nature Foundation (SANF). Yet owing to the reign of terror then being caused by apartheid, SANF was "denied an official status" in the IUCN (the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources); that is, the institution to which other branches of WWF were initially affiliated to as fundraising bodies. Nevertheless, despite such teething problems SANF and WWF still worked closely together. (4)

Conservation practices, however, offered more to rapacious capitalists like Rupert than simply increased international trading opportunities. Thus there is a long and intimate history of collaboration between military strategists and conservationists. For instance, "In the 1960s, the apartheid government's spending on national parks steadily increased, and in 1975-1976 a considerable sum of money was allocated to fortify the border between Kruger National Park and Mozambique, as a reaction to the latter's recently won independence." (5)

The involvement of conservation organizations in the militarization of national parks eventually "culminated in what became known as Operation Lock." During the late 1980s this controversial project meant that WWF worked with mercenary forces (supplied by KAS Enterprises) in their alleged efforts call a halt to ivory and rhino horn trafficking. Significantly, one major player in such trafficking was the South African Defence Force (SADF), who used the money raised through such illegal trade to help support the apartheid regime. (6) This is important because as a result of their close working relationship with local mercenaries, WWF was made aware of the SADF's involvement in such unsavory practices, and as a result chose not to target South Africa in their international campaign against the rhino horn trade. In the end: "Operation Lock spun out of control and the mercenaries started to become involved in smuggling rackets themselves and in the process participated in anti-ANC activities which were part of the general strategy of apartheid's 'general onslaught'." When it became public, John Hanks, the head of WWF International Africa programmes, eventually took the flack for the entire covert operation, and amazingly was subsequently made head of WWF South Africa, replacing Frans Stroebel, who in later years went on to serve as Rupert's personal assistant. (7)

Given such a history, it is little wonder that "earlier plans for cross border cooperation in nature conservation in southern Africa had always been suspected of being 'primarily intended to reinforce white domination in the region'"; but with the fall of the apartheid state Anton Rupert "emerged as a leading promoter and fundraiser for transfrontier conservation through his Peace Parks Foundation." (8) Rupert's old friend Prince Bernhard quickly came on board as a patron of the Foundation, as did Nelson Mandela, whose uncritical support of the project made it easier to sell the idea of trans-frontier conservation to other regional leaders. To top it all, in 1997, John Hanks of Operation Lock infamy became the founding CEO of the Peace Parks Foundation.

It should come as little surprise then that such trans-frontier conservation areas and the Peace Parks Foundation serve to "foster cohesion between the old -- mainly white -- and new political and business elites in post-apartheid South Africa. This is done by developing a new 'Super-African' identity based on bonding with nature." Through such work old elites are able to "show concern for the formerly disadvantaged groups" promoting the misnomer that is community conservation. An activity which in turn is centered "around the invocation of a depoliticized, aesthetic Edenic landscape... based on a colonial -- rather primitivist -- discourse on Africa and Africans." (9)


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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work.   (back)


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1.  Marja Spierenburg and Harry Wels, "Conservative Philanthropists, Royalty and Business Elites in Nature Conservation in Southern Africa," In: Dan Brockington and Rosaleen Duffy (eds.), Capitalism and Conservation (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), p.179.

For a detailed critique of Prince Bernhard (written in Dutch), see Annejet van der Zijl, Bernhard: Een verborgen geschiedenis (Queridos Amsterdam, 2010). From April 1933 until December 1934 Bernhard had been a member of the Nazi Party's paramilitary wing, the Sturmabteilung (SA). "The SA-membership was preceded by an obligatory six month novice membership, which means Bernhard must have applied for membership as early as 1932, a year before the Nazis rose to power, Van der Zijl argues. 'At that time in history there was no pressing reason for him to do so,'..." After leaving the Nazi Party Bernhard joined IG Farben, and it may be the case that his later marriage to Princess Juliana "may even have been a deliberate company strategy" to improve their connections to important international business networks, as his marriage "gave him, in addition to his already existing networks, almost unlimited access to political power holders around the world." (p.188, p.189) For more on Bernhard's wife, see William Hoffman, Queen Juliana: The Story of the Richest Women in the World (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979).  (back)

2.  Spierenburg and Wels, "Conservative Philanthropists, Royalty and Business Elites in Nature Conservation in Southern Africa," p.182, p.187. "Afrikaner nationalists and German national socialists shared an ideology in which mythical connections between the 'Volk' (the people/nation) and a certain type of landscape were central." (p.184) For further details of the interface between nature conservation and Afrikaner nationalism, see Jane Carruthers, "Dissecting the myth: Paul Kruger and the Kruger National Park," Journal of Southern African Studies 20 (2), 1994.

In addition to Prince Bernhard's key role in forming WWF and the Bilderberg group, "Bernard's other network is less well known and is called Mars and Mercury, established in 1926 in Belgium, in order to commemorate the bonding and friendship between military officers during the First World War, and to promote the idea of a necessity to combine and cooperate in commercial interests. ... In the 1960s it invited other NATO partners to follow the example which led, among other things, to the installation of the Commission de Liaison Internationale Mars et Mercure (CLIMM). Four years later Prince Bernhard offered to become its patron." (p.190)  (back)

3.  Spierenburg and Wels, "Conservative Philanthropists, Royalty and Business Elites in Nature Conservation in Southern Africa," p.186, p.183.

"Rupert's [early] employees included Piet Meyer, sometime chairman of both the Broederbond and the South African Broadcasting Corporation, as well as I. M. Lombard and A. Stals. After the electoral victory of the National Party in South Africa in 1948, Rupert's political connections allied to his own business ability guaranteed his success." Stephen Ellis, "Of elephants and men: politics and nature conservation in South Africa," (pdf) Journal of Southern African Studies 20 (1), 1994, p.60.

In 1972 Rupert in collaboration with the Union Bank of Switzerland established the Economic Development Bank for Equatorial and Southern Africa (EDESA). The founding chairman of this group was Karl Schiller, the former West German Minister of Finance, while Wynand van Graan "a senior colleague of Rupert's, was seconded to take charge of EDESA's operational base for Southern Africa in Swaziland." Following the Soweto riots, in 1977 Rupert joined Harry Oppenheimer and other businessmen to create the Urban Foundation. W.P. Esterhuyse, Anton Rupert: Advocate of Hope (Tafelberg, 1986), p.60, p.69.  (back)

4.  Spierenburg and Wels, "Conservative Philanthropists, Royalty and Business Elites in Nature Conservation in Southern Africa," p.187. The Director General of WWF between 1977 and 1993 was Charles de Haes, who had spent the previous six years as the personal assistant of Prince Bernhard, and prior to this had been "attached to Rupert's Rembrandt Group." During his time at WWF de Haes's salary was paid for by Rupert. (p.191)  (back)

5.  Spierenburg and Wels, "Conservative Philanthropists, Royalty and Business Elites in Nature Conservation in Southern Africa," p.192.  (back)

6.  According to Malcolm Draper: "There appears to be evidence of an intimate relationship between the apartheid regime's Defence Force and Inkatha which involved the use of KwaZulu's conservation resources, including their reserves and intelligence." On this point Draper cites the following report, Nature Conservation and the Military (Durban, Network of Independent Monitors, 1997). Malcolm Draper, "Zen and the Art of Garden Province Maintenance: The Soft Intimacy of Hard Men in the Wilderness of Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa, 1952-1997," Journal of Southern African Studies 24 (4), 1998, p.821.  (back)

7.  Spierenburg and Wels, "Conservative Philanthropists, Royalty and Business Elites in Nature Conservation in Southern Africa," p.192, p.193. "From 1980 to 1989 Frans Stroebel was the chief executive of the SANF. Previously Stroebel had been a diplomat and private secretary to the then Foreign Minister of South Africa, Pik Botha." (p.187)

"To appreciate the significance of the WWF's failure to make any substantial mention of South Africa in the publicity it has given to ivory and rhino horn smuggling, one may make a comparison by imagining a major international report on the cocaine trade which were to devote substantial attention to the North American drug market while devoting only two lines to the role of Colombia." Ellis, "Of elephants and men," (pdf), p.64.  (back)

8.  Spierenburg and Wels, "Conservative Philanthropists, Royalty and Business Elites in Nature Conservation in Southern Africa," p.193, pp.193-4.  (back)

9.  Malcolm Draper, Marja Spierenburg and Harry Wels, "African Dreams of Cohesion: Elite Pacting and Community Development in Transfrontier Conservation Areas in Southern Africa," Culture and Organization 10 (4), 2004, p.343. The authors cite Roderick Neumann's book Imposing Wilderness: Struggles Over Livelihood and Nature Preservation in Africa (University of California Press, 1998) where he notes: "The Edenic vision of the landscape was capable of accommodating an African presence, because incorporated in the Eden myth is the myth of the noble savage. The noble savage, being closer to nature than civilization, could, hypothetically, be protected as a vital part of the natural landscape." (Neumann, 1998: 18, italics added) Draper et al. continue: "Here we wish to explore Neumann's distinction, introduced above, between 'good' and 'bad natives' in relation to the history and current practices in nature conservation. 'Good natives are those having a 'traditional' livelihood sustained by 'indigenous knowledge'. They are perceived to be closer to nature and thus compatible with the environmental managers' design for parks in protected areas. Bad natives are those who are in some sense 'modern', and thus removed from nature, their modified lifestyles and greed for consumer goods representing a particular threat to the natural treasures enclosed'. The good native is given a place to stay in wildlife areas. The bad native is 'naturally' evicted." (p.346, p.347)

For more on this subject, see Malcolm Draper and Harry Wels, "Super African Dreams: The Mythology of Community Development in Transfrontier Conservation Areas in Southern Africa," Presented at the Seminar on Ecotourism and Nature Parks in East and Southern Africa, November 12, 2002, African Studies Centre, Leiden.  (back)


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Published December 2, 2013