Those Irish eyes are smiling with tears of grief for its iconic global legend

Sir Anthony O’ Reilly (1936-2024) will be buried in his native Dublin on Thursday.

Sir Anthony O’ Reilly (1936-2024) will be buried in his native Dublin on Thursday.

Published May 21, 2024


By Marlan Padayachee

Sir Anthony O’ Reilly (1936-2024) – to be buried in his native Dublin on Thursday. The former chairman of Independent Newspapers SA, renowned media magnate and international rugby player, passed away after a short illness, aged 88, at Dublin’s St Vincent’s Hospital last Saturday.

As I set out to write another obituary – this time on Ireland’s global rock star of quality newspapering, rugby prowess and tastefully smooth butter and tomato sauce brands, Sir Anthony O’Reilly– I am borrowing this quote on the genesis of obituary-writing from Nigel Farndale, Obituaries Editor of the Times of London: “Obits should be life affirming rather than gloomy, but they should also be opinionated, leaving the reader with a strong sense of whether the subject lived a good life or bad; whether they were right or wrong in the handling of their public affairs.”

In the 1990s, on the cusp of South Africa’s dramatic journey into the realm of a new nation, a distinct departure from decades of tight-fisted apartheid rule; the sensational release after 27 years of Nelson Mandela and his ANC lieutenants in February 1990 from Robben Island – where he was subjected to censored news clippings of print media articles that were published by 12 newspapers from the Argus Company – Mandela was keen to probe the chequered media economy and the role of the media ahead of a developing democracy: “South Africa should put the freedom of the press and the media as one of its top priorities as a democracy. None of our irritations with the perceived inadequacies of the media should ever allow us to suggest even faintly that the independence of the press should be compromised or coerced. A bad press is preferable to a technically good, subservient press,” President Mandela assured the Institute for Advancement in Journalism at the tenth anniversary of the forerunner for media democracy.

How did newspapers change hands? Sources close to Mandela at that time revealed that Anglo-American chairman, Harry Oppenheimer, owners of the Argus Company, feared an ANC control of the newspaper group, and had informed Mandela that his conglomerate had agreed to sell the 12-title newspaper group to Tony O’Reilly.

As the ANC’s presidential candidate, Mandela appeared to hand out white doves to international business leaders and progressive and established democracies to invest and rebuild the Rainbow nation – including Sir Richard Branson’s launch of the Virgin Active gymnasiums.

By the 1990s, as chairman and president of the Heinz Corporation and Mandela’s personal friend, who was rated as the youngest British and Irish Lions rugby-playing legend and CEO of a State-owned company as an inspirational captain of commerce, O’Reilly secured a 31% stake in Argus Newspapers, SA’s giant newspaper group. He was credited for bringing the winds of change to a controversial and divided industry that battled 100 censorship laws under apartheid laws and a sharp ideologically split between dominant English-language and Afrikaans newspapers, divided by dual loyalties between the hardline race-based regime and liberal politics.

A charming, flamboyant and very presidential head honcho of global business, Ireland will forever remember Sir Tony O’Reilly, knighted by Queen Elizabeth 11 in 2001 for his “long and distinguished service to Northern Ireland” as a true-blue patriot: “The Irish in many countries concealed their identities. I got the Irish to be rather proud of the Irish.”

He rose to national prominence when he unwrapped Kerrygold butter, a phenomenal success story for an island nation that was ranked as a commercial backwater. Then came the quantum leap into the mahogany row at HJ Heinz in Pittsburgh, USA, as chairman and president. At home before that his strident business leadership transformed the bottom-of-the-log Ireland dramatically into the money-spinning boom times era as a rebranded Celtic Tiger economy.

At age 57, O'Reilly was Ireland’s richest man, with a bank balance of USD 500 million. Before he exported his cash to SA, he controlled Australian newspapers, Waterford Wedgewood, Ireland's number two largest supermarket chain stores, and the Irish Independent Newspapers Group. Under his entrepreneurial leadership style, his products grew exponentially in the marketplaces with Heinz products, often emerging as par for the course with Ireland’s century’s old favourite tipple, Guinness beer.

O’Reilly was among a cohort of world-class entrepreneurs – including his fellow UK counterpart Sir Richard Branson to run the Virgin Active gyms – were invited by President Mandela to invest here and transform a pariah nation into Africa’s economic powerhouse.

While in prison, Mandela was aware of how the Argus Company had sanctioned a bunch a militant movement of media workers – Media Workers Association of South Africa – with dismissals over a 13-week strike – the old country’s longest-running labour dispute led by his right-hand political peer, Walter Sisulu’s son, Zwelakhe in the turbulent 1980s. Major shareholder Anglo-American Corporation ended the impasse and all 1 200 sacked workers were reinstated – including myself.

By 1994, the Johannesburg Consolidated Investments-owned stable of newspapers had changed hands to the Irish.

In this spirit of transformation that witnessed leading black editors, like Kaiser Nyatsumba, taking the helm of newspapers – The Mercury in Durban – I made it a point of duty to engage the new chairman, who was tasked with the mission by Mandela to change the newspapering landscape, and his CEO compatriot, Ivan Fallon. As a political journalist, who had engaged and reported on the banned ANC leadership in exile, and Africa, having worked at Argus and Sunday Times London bureau in Fleet Street and Hatton Gardens in the 1980s, I moved across for an exciting new venture as political correspondent on the eve of ground-breaking 27 April 1994 democratic polls. 

On the multi-million rand deal-making that ushered a breath of fresh air into old-styled newspapering, Ivan Fallon, the enigmatic media baron’s biographer, wrote: “In 1994, as South Africa moved towards its historic election, [Tony O'Reilly] pulled off the best deal in Independent's history with the acquisition of Argus Newspapers, the biggest newspaper company in the country. Again it was a close-run thing, with [Conrad] Black and Rupert Murdoch among a number of interested parties. The balance was tipped however by his friendship with Nelson Mandela, whose blessing was required by the owners, JCI.”

Fallon, whom I engaged in interviews for the political editor’s job in Cape Town, penned The Luck of O'Reilly: A Biography of Tony O'Reilly and The Life of O'Reilly: A Biography of Tony O'Reilly, reviewed as a fair, surprising and compelling portrait of a flamboyantly powerful tycoon.

 At Parliament, in the presence of PAC MP Patricia De Lille, Fallon inquired about my knowledge of India’s premier language, Hindi: “We are looking to sending you to India to negotiate to partner or buy off some of the leading newspapers.’’

Instead, Fallon and his editors concurred and dispatched me to India as the group’s foreign and diplomatic correspondent on President Mandela’s history-making State visit to New Delhi in 1995. The India newspaper deal did not take off.

The Irishman’s presence in SA was not without controversy. Critics, cynics, media watchers and journalism industry and institution accused O’Reilly’s new management posse for repositioning the publishing entity towards a pro-ANC government publicity posture. A case in question is the full-page advert in The Star newspaper of the GCIS’ rebuttal of President Thabo Mbeki’s controversial “denialist” views on the HIV and Aids epidemic that struck lives in post-apartheid SA. Apparently, the editors were unaware of this external support for free advertising space from the Irish dynasty. Mbeki told the Time magazine that “this is precisely where the problem starts” when quizzed about his link between HIV and AIDS”. Howard responded to criticism, saying of the free adverts that the “public interest interventions” of that kind were “both the right and duty of a media group” that was committed to ‘the betterment of South Africa and all its people”.

With pre-tax profits running into billions of the rands, the group’s cost-cutting operations attracted scathing criticism and discomfort about the “juniorisation” of newsrooms and retrenchment of “deadwood” senior journalists.

In 2013, the newspaper group was sold to Dr Iqbal Surve, Sekunjalo Investments Public Investment Corporation and China International Television Corporation China Africa Development Fund – the year before that marked the Irish dynasty losing money and management control of the media industry. Heir-apparent Gavin O'Reilly stepped down as chief executive of Independent News & Media, ending an era of 40 years of control of newspapers: Simon Kelner, ex-editor of London’s Independent penned on Twitter (X): “It always ends and it always ends badly. The sad demise of the O'Reilly newspaper dynasty. A family of huge integrity who believed in papers.”

His bereaved family - six children, Susan, Cameron, Justine, Gavin, Caroline and Tony, sons-in-law, daughters-in-law, 23 grandchildren – wrote on social media: “In the coming days there will be many worthy tributes made to Tony O’Reilly’s unique and extraordinary achievements in the fields of business and sport.”

For now, Ireland is in a state of sorrow and deep mourning over the demise of one of its best-known sons of the soil – still credited widely for creating a philanthropic fund project for border development of divided and troubled precincts of resistance politics and intra-religious wars.

Sadly, the once titan of the world of sports and business had fallen from corporate power and grace and had battled mounting debts in court battles years before his death.

*A still-practicing media strategist Marlan Padayachee is a former political, diplomatic and foreign correspondent at Independent Newspapers and visited the Irish newspaper head offices in Dublin en route to the UK from his USA fellowship in 1996.