Harold Pupkewitz: Great mind, weary body (orbituary)



Exactly three weeks after our last interview with Harold Pupkewitz – on Friday 13 April 2012, to be precise - the man who had worked like a horse for more than 75 years (1937-2012) stopped going to his Ausspanplatz office and began having management meetings at his house.
Even until that Friday the 13th, Pupkewitz would climb the 42 stairs of his office building to get to his little third floor corner office. No elevator.
I do not know why I counted the stairs the day I interviewed him but am glad I did, because now I realise that climbing those stairs kept him going.
I sat on his left, because his right ear was by now deaf as we spoke and often he would tap my right wrist as he spoke.
“I have lived an athletic life. I enjoyed the days of my youth,” he remarked when he proudly showed me his wrestling medals and rugby photographs while telling me how good a swimmer he was.
“I do not grumble. We are all mortals. We should accept matters factually. If I am still around, I will rest and stop coming to work every day by the end of this year.
“I will only pop in to say hallo and update myself on a couple of things. When I am gone, the company will continue to carry out business as a powerhouse,” he said.
When I interviewed him in 2009, Pupkewitz said he kept fit because he still swam thrice a day – in the early morning, in the afternoon and after hours.
He was 93 then and looked fit and robust unlike in March 2012 when he looked tired and fatigued. He admitted it.
“I am not the same any more. My body is tired. I do not weigh the same like I used to back then,” he explained.
“But your mind is super sharp,” I told him.
“My days are numbered. It may not be two days, or two weeks, or two months. I am no longer the man I used to be. My body needs a break,” he answered.
He said he had planned to retire in February this year but could not because ‘things are not well for my people’ as he was in the process of finding a CEO.
“The Business Trust will take over the management of the Group. I will still be executive chairman while Advocate Theo Frank will be the non-executive chairman.
“But I need a CEO. It is a matter of weeks now. I am sorry to say so but I have reached an age where my exit for the business world will depend on my state of health. My mind is still active but physically, I am not the man I used to be,” he explained further.
Realising that he could have said much, Pupkewitz turned and whispered, “Do not write some of these things because they will create panic in the organisation, which is something I do not want.
“I do not want to create panic. There are thousands of stomachs counting on me. They think they cannot do without me. I don’t want them to panic, that’s one of the reasons I have stayed a little longer here.”
But it appeared as if not only his workers thought they could not do without him but Pupkewitz too was worried because he could not get an heir from within his family, “That also explains why I regret that there is no family member who is experienced in the business to inherit the mantle of responsibility for the future of the Pupkewitz Group. I want someone who will not harm the workforce,” adding that: “There won’t be any distribution of assets after I am gone. I have made it appropriate that no one loses their job. I have people working here that I have known for more than 50 years. There is a man who started as my driver. No qualification whatsoever but he has been by my side. Why should such people suffer when I am gone when they did not suffer when I was here? You need to write about such people.”
He was, however, certain that the company can go on without him despite his regret because of the mechanism in place.
“If anything were to happen to me tomorrow, what I have established would be enough to ensure continuity. Pupkewitz will continue as a national asset and it is something all stakeholders will be satisfied with. Our secret is that we pay no dividends, as profits stay in the company and that secret will continue,” he said.
One would say Pupkewitz knew he would not be here today because, despite being a Jew himself whose parents came to Namibia in 1925 escaping from Hitler’s anti-Jewish policy: The Final Solution, he spoke a lot about Christianity and the 10 Commandments.
It was because of this background, Pupkewitz said, he would never practise discrimination in his lifetime, “I came to this country fleeing discrimination, how can I practise it?”
And he said he was not as rich as people thought he was, “I am not filthy rich. I am left with very little but I am not poor. I will not die poor.”
Pupkewitz was working on his memoirs last year ahead of his retirement and they may be released later this year. At 15H00 on Friday, he asked to be taken to Catholic Hospital and three hours later, he breathed his last. He went with his ideas, his influence and authority. Namibia may not have an authority of his calibre in the next 97 years. He is survived by his wife Ethel, two children and two grandchildren. editor@thevillager.com.na