New Era (Windhoek)

3 May 2012

Namibia: Inside the Aged - Ode to a Departed Icon

Photo: New era
The late Harold Pupkewitz.

opinion

Windhoek — Interviewing the country's most recognizable business mogul is obviously not quite as frightening as a confrontation with a vampire, but probably just as daunting a task.

Many think of Harold Pupkewitz as a workaholic and a man with the Midas touch, who strove for excellence in whatever he laid his hands on, but the baby-faced magnate was a man who could look back on his sporting career with a great deal of pride. With ahealthy bank balance to his credit at the advanced age of 96, many of his peers would have preferred a quiet life at the seaside to wind down their final days on mother earth,but uncle Harold was a man with an unbelievably massive passion for life and sports.

I was pleasantly surprised when the chance presented itself to do a feature on the sporting life of Namibia's most popular business mogul, the late Harold Pupkewitz, but it also gave me some goose bumps. I have known this likeable gentleman since my younger days when we used to deliver newspapers for John Meinert after school. At that stage of my life, I was first totally unaware of who Harold Pupkewitz was, but I have since come to realize what a prominent role he has played in lifting the Namibian economy to greater heights and the positive role he has played in the Namibian society at large.

So, why was I concerned? Well, I knew that the old man would be damn peeved if I ever posed a silly question. I vividly remember the occasional mild threats accompanied by some finger wagging in the event of failing to deliver his favourite Windhoek Advertiser newspaper the previous day. Occasionally, we would deliberately make a short delivery as we sold few of the consignment on the sideways to make a quick buck. How wrong I was because I was instantly put at ease by his warmth, unbelievable memory, notwithstanding his advanced age and above all, the fashion in which he articulated himself.

Born to Jewish parents in the capital city of Lithuania, Vilnius in 1915, young Harold came to the then South West Africa with his mother and two brothers in 1925 to join their father who worked for his brother-in-law H. Charney, a noted hotelier and general dealer in the southern town of Mariental. Aged 9, Harold enrolled at the government primary school in Windhoek during the bad old days of ethnic schools. Being an energetic boy, it was only fitting that he would try his hand at various sporting disciplines at school. Young Harold took part in the South West Africa Inter Schools Championships. He excelled in the track and field events notably the 100, 220 and 440-yard sprints, as well as the long and high jump. Competing against much older athletes, the 13-year-old Harold did not enjoy much success in the first year, but eventually came out of his shell the following year. He went onto make a clean sweep in most events he took part in, which culminated in him being awarded the prestigious Junior Victor Ludorum.

"The championships were conducted on an open piece of land opposite the Roman Catholic Hospital in Tal Street, but was eventually relocated to the Windhoek Show Grounds in later years," recalled the 96-year old Harold, exactly months before he passed on. It was at this particular venue where his promising athletics career would end prematurely after he suffered a career threatening injury through a damaged kneecap when he collided with a fellow runner at the start of the 220-yard sprint. The multi- talented Harold also enjoyed great success in the swimming pool as he stroked himself to a gold medal at a local swimming gala in Windhoek. For a tiny-built boy, he set tongues wagging when he swam around the Mole in Swakopmund in 1928, which was quite a feat for a youngster his age.

"I almost drowned but somehow managed to get ashore." His undying love for swimming persuaded him to financially support various swimming galas for schools countrywide through the Pupkewitz Group, which encourages the participation of previously disadvantaged schools. The Pupkewitz Group is also the proud sponsor of the popular annual Jetty Mile in Swakopmund. In the meantime, Harold, a highly gifted footballer as well, would regularly feature for the Windhoek High School team as a speedy winger before he was persuaded to turn his attention to the oval ball (rugby) by the school principal WDJ Anderson in 1928. He played lock. Upon completion of his secondary education in Windhoek, he was dispatched to South Africa to further his studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Although he still had the desire to resurrect his fading athletics career, he had to carefully choose between sports and education. "Look, my parents could not afford to finance my university fees and there were strict conditions attached to my bursary which were performance based. I was made to study hard to attain good marks for my bursary to be renewed every year and even though I would attend the odd training sessions, it was just impossible to compete at the highest level." He joined the Celtic Harriers Athletics Club in Greenpoint after he completed his studies in the Mother City. "As a result of my injury, I was just there for fun, but the interest was still there." Ode to a departed icon Interviewing the country's most recognizable business mogul is obviously not quite as frightening as a confrontation with a vampire, but probably just as daunting a task.

Many think of Harold Pupkewitz as a workaholic and a man with the Midas touch, who strove for excellence in whatever he laid his hands on, but the baby-faced magnate was a man who could look back on his sporting career with a great deal of pride. With a healthy bank balance to his credit at the advanced age of 96, many of his peers would have preferred a quiet life at the seaside to wind down their final days on mother earth, but uncle Harold was a man with an unbelievably massive passion for life and sports. Armed with a University degree and the necessary expertise to enter the tough and demanding job market, Harold returned to his adoptive land and joined Wanderers Rugby Club, where he quickly established himself in the White Stallions' starting line-up until 1946.

In the meantime, he also excelled in wrestling under the guidance of Bull Hefer, a South African who came to Windhoek as an employee of the South African Railways in 1938. Harold was unbeatable in his weight category and won all his bouts before his wrestling was brought to an abrupt endwhen Hefer retreated to his homeland. With wrestling having fallen by the wayside, Harold had to find some other recreation and very soon, the man with the Midas touch finally found refuge in horse riding in 1942. "I bought two horses from Mister Mertens, owner of the Gochaganas farm outside Windhoek and rode on one of the horses back to Windhoek. My whole body and backside was pretty sore after that journey."

Captain Botha established the Windhoek Turf Club and started to organize regular horse competitionsat the venue. As founder member, Harold was elected on the Executive Committee in the role of Master of the Scales. "During the first race, I entered my two geldings Thunder and Fury, but I eventually gave one of the horses Fury to my old buddy, the late Sam Gorelick. We used to compete against farmers from as far as Kapps Farm, Gobabis, Okahandja, Leonardville, Otjiwarongo, Rehoboth and Mariental."

Training his horse and riding himself, Harold could not believe his luck when he won the first race on the back of Thunder during the first hack race. In the 3rd race, he asked permission from Sam Gorelick to race on Fury and much to the amazement of everybody, he won the race again. However, his fairytale run came to a premature end when club members resolved to abolish the hack race. This did not end his love for horse racing as he bought Solist, a stallion from farm Claratal in the vicinity of Windhoek.

"Two of my business friends Louis Barman and Boytjie Kovenski decided to purchase thoroughbred horses to compete in meetings. Their horses were meant to be superior to my horse so we became rivals on the racing track. I always enjoyed taking my horse Solist and his sister, Summer Wind, through the ropes during training sessions with the assistance of my stable manager Festus "Kaitao" Veseevete." Solist won eight successive races until 1962, but had to be put down in the most undignified fashion. "Solist developed a throat infection and had to undergo an urgent operation, which was successful but tragedy struck again during the rehabilitation process.

My stable boy did not properly take care of the horse as he mostly left the horse wandering on its own. At some point, the animal got its hoof entangled in wire and severely injured the lower leg to such an extent that we had no other alternative but to put the horse down." Although that particular incident abbreviated his physical involvement in horse racing, Harold has always maintaining a healthy lifestyle through regular body exercise.

"My boyhood buddy, the late Jack Levinson introduced me to the idea of keeping fit and maintained proper nutrition because a positive outlook on life is very important and is a threefold composition, body, mind and soul." At 96, Harold Pupkewitz would always spend between 8 and 9 hours in the office as Executive Chairman of Pupkewitz Holdings (Pty) Ltd, five days per week. "Hard work breeds success, while confidence reduces stress," concluded the business mogul. May his soul rest in eternal peace.

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