If you were asked to name the world’s fastest-growing e-commerce company behind Alibaba and Amazon, it’s a pretty sure bet that names like eBay and Japanese giant Rakuten would spring to mind.
But the answer – as measured by year-on-year growth in monthly average desktop visits – is South African company Naspers.
Few Australians would have heard of Naspers, or know of its roots as a publisher founded to provide a voice for nationalistic Afrikaners after the Boer War defeat. But it just might provide a perfect example of how a modern media company can adapt to the digital world.
Before it began re-inventing itself as an internet, e-commerce and pay television business in the early 1990s, Naspers (short for Nasionale Pers, Afrikaans for “National Press”) was a strong supporter of white minority rule and cruel apartheid policies.
Its first newspaper was Die Burger (The Citizen) and the paper’s first editor, Daniel François Malan, was a clergyman and ultra-conservative politician. In 1948, Malan led the National Party to victory over the more moderate United Party in white-only parliamentary elections, becoming prime minister. Later he would lay the framework for apartheid.
These policies were supported by Naspers until the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990.
But it was only in 1997 that Naspers sought to publicly sever its ties with the past (though you won’t find any mention of this in the history section of its website). That was also the year it appointed Koos Bekker, a graduate of Columbia University as chief executive.
Bekker, who had pioneered pay TV in South Africa (now called DSTV), led the company into the digital age.
In 2001, Naspers made its most significant investment when it paid just $US32 million ($39 million) for a 46 per cent stake in China’s Tencent Holdings, which was at the time the operator of unprofitable instant messaging platform QQ.
Today, Naspers has a market capitalisation of around $US66 billion, thanks mainly to its 34 per cent stake in Tencent, which has grown into a Hong Kong-listed mass media giant through mobile chatting applications like WeChat, which has more than 470 million subscribers.
Dozens of e-commerce investments
Off the back of this, Naspers has invested in dozens of other e-commerce and internet ventures targeted at emerging markets like India, Russia, eastern Europe and Latin America, with fast-growing populations and rising internet use.
Naspers has a 29 per cent stake in Russian online portal mail.ru, and owns global online classifieds business OLX, which receives 11 billion monthly page views, and online payment system PayU.
Of the $US6.5 billion in revenue Naspers raked in for the six months to September 2014, more than half came from its online investments and activities, with pay TV responsible for a third.
The company still prints newspapers, although print accounted for just 10 per cent of total revenue.
Chinese internet censorship
While the story of Naspers’ re-invention is the stuff of legend and the envy of struggling media companies the world over, questions have been asked of its role in policing China’s harsh online censorship regime on behalf of Tencent.
China was recently ranked third worst country in the world for internet freedom by US independent watchdog Freedom House.
Naspers chief executive Bob Van Dijk , who replaced Koos Bekker in February 2014 when he retired, has responded only by saying that Naspers complies with the laws of the countries in which it operates.
This prompted South African Sunday Times business columnist Rob Rose to note: “When the Chinese government says it fancies trawling through your servers, you probably lift your skirt.”
None of this is likely to trouble Naspers’ biggest shareholder, the South African government – through the Public Investment Corporation – which recently inked a free trade agreement with China.
As for Bekker, he elected to receive Naspers stock options rather draw a salary, leaving him with a $US2.5 billion fortune (the Naspers share price has risen more than fifty-fold since 2001).
No wonder the expression “You never lose with Koos” has become popular in South African business circles.
A version of this article first appeared on afr.com