Former president Nelson Mandela. Picture: REUTERS
Former president Nelson Mandela. Picture: REUTERS

Tributes from around the world have flowed in for the late SA steel mogul and renowned philanthropist Eric Samson, who died at his home in Newport, California on Tuesday at the age of 83 after a long illness. In a business career spanning six decades Samson, primarily through steel and real-estate assets, was responsible for building his company, MacSteel, into one of the largest privately owned companies in SA and an international trading and shipping business operating in over 35 countries across three continents.

In addition to his business successes, Samson was also famed for his extraordinary record in philanthropic field. In a statement following his death, the SA Jewish Board of Deputies described him as “a visionary leader and nation builder and a man of unsurpassed generosity” while Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein referred to him in his tribute as one of the greatest philanthropists ever produced by the SA Jewish community.

Born in Cape Town in 1938, Samson was educated at Parktown Boys in Johannesburg before joining his father’s fencing and wiring business, Pan Africa Staalhandel in 1958. He became MD of the company after it merger with competitor S Machanick and Co in 1965 and went on to found Machanick Steel and Fencing — today, MacSteel. By 1974, he was sole owner of the company, having by then bought out his partners.

Following the 1976 Soweto Uprising, MacSteel opened its first trading offices in Houston and London. In 1996, through a joint venture with ArcelorMittal SA, Samson formed Macsteel International, a global steel trading company based in Amsterdam. Two years later, he bought 49% of Iskoor, then a joint venture between the state-owned SA steel producer Iscor and the Israel-based Koor Industries. He gained full control of the combined company shortly afterwards.

In 2006, about a quarter of the business, Macsteel Service Centres SA, was sold to a consortium of black shareholders, in line with BEE principles, one of the buyers including a company controlled by then Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. In 2015, MacSteel was valued at some $1.1bn by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index of that year and over $1bn by Wealth-X in 2018. In his tribute to Samson, Macsteel Global chair Mick Davis said that he had always focused on creating value for all of Macsteel’s stakeholders. In a rare interview given to the Financial Mail in 2006, Samson himself said that selling shares to the public had never been an option and that the company had always looked to plough back its profits and funded its own expansion.

Samson first met with Nelson Mandela in 1992, when Mandela was seeking donors to fund the purchase of houses needed for returning ANC exiles. Over time, the relationship deepened into an enduring friendship, with numerous other joint philanthropic projects being implemented. Among other positions held, Samson served on the board of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund for two decades, and every July donated R1m to it in honour of Mandela’s birthday. In 2014, when the envisaged Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital project in Johannesburg was in serious difficulty due to lack of funds, he put in R100m to ensure that it remained on course and eventually become a reality three years later.

Together with his wife, Sheila, Samson set up the Eric and Sheila Samson Foundation, which has since seen the family recognised as absolute leaders in the field of philanthropy, supporting anything from hospitals to schools to all communal causes and beyond in SA, the US and Israel. In recognition of his status as a leading philanthropist in the Jewish world, he was presented with the title of Honorary Life World Campaign chair of Keren Hayesod.

Despite the exalted circles in which he moved and the multiple honours bestowed on him, Samson generally eschewed the limelight and seldom granted interviews. In later years, he divided his time between Cape Town, Los Angeles and Tel Aviv.

SAJBD national chair Shaun Zagnoev said that innumerable organisations and individuals had benefited from Samson’s unstinting support over the decades. This was true not just for the SA Jewish community, of which he was a devoted member, but for the people of SA as a whole and for the state of Israel.

Samson is survived by his wife Sheila, three children, Dorothy, Franki and Jeffrey, 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

• Saks is an associate director of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies

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