Ronnie Apteker has not slept. He went to bed at three am and was up at five. That’s normal for this Wits alumnus (MSc 1994 cum laude) who describes himself as a nerd and who was one of the founders of Internet Solutions in 1993.
Launching South Africa’s first Internet service provider at the dawning of the era of the World Wide Web is just one of Ronnie Apteker’s achievements. He’s also an author, public speaker, online business founder and movie producer. At the time of the interview he was about to premier ‘Material’, the South African movie he co-produced Which is why he doesn’t have much time to sleep.
“We invent things to save us time but we have less time than ever before. It’s called the progress paradox,” he says, ushering the way into his office at Internet Solutions in Bryanston. He still keeps an office here even though the company has been sold to the Japanese, along with his shares.
His office could be mistaken for a ten-year-old boy’s den, with toys everywhere, including a retro computer arcade game from thinkgeek icade. Instead of slotting money into the machine he slots his iPad, and delights in the challenges of Atari classics like Asteroids.
He’s insistent that nothing gets moved in his office; he knows exactly where everything is in the industrious chaos where cinema billboards cramming the walls speak of the 11 movies he has produced… Purpose, Jerusalema, Crazy Monkey, Straight Outta Benoni, Material…
“The world is made up of stories. That’s why I make movies,” he comments. “People think it’s fun, and making a film can certainly be a lot of fun, but selling it is another story altogether. I often get anxious about the money side of things because as the producer everything lands on your shoulders and when things go wrong, not only financial things, I mean anything, big or small, you take the fall.
“A few days ago, for example, someone with a stake in ‘Material’ was offended by something one of the cast said to him, and even though I had nothing to do with it, he phoned me and screamed at me for an hour. I listened to him and kept saying ‘I’m really sorry sir’ but he kept on screaming and I kept on listening. My attitude is that if he thinks I’m important enough to be screamed at for that long, I’ll let him vent – it’s all part of my day’s work.”
Apteker, who is now in his mid-forties, has been working since age 12 when he would wash cars for R3 apiece. “My whole family is entrepreneurial. My father started out with nothing; he was an orphan in World War II and he and my mother know the horrors of war. After emigrating to South Africa to start a new life, they opened a clothing manufacturing company in Cape Town, made a success of it and created a good life for us.”
One thing everyone needs to succeed and create a good life is “hard work and luck”, says Apteker. “I also believe in keeping your promise, never letting people down, remembering to laugh, and surrounding yourself with good people,” he says. He explores his nice guy approach to business in the books he has written, including ‘Funny Business: The secrets of an accidental entrepreneur’ which he co-authored with Gus Silber.
At the same time he emphasises that success is not all moonshine and roses. “Success is also about getting back up again when you’ve had a proper beating, which I’ve had repeatedly. I get back up again because I’m obsessed with what I do and because I have a lot of people depending on me.”
His experience of the world is that many people do not share his tenets. They do not believe in honouring their word or giving others a gap, and he harbours horror stories from the United States where he lived for a while, exploring the Hollywood film industry.
“They’ll shake your hand and smile at you, and you’ll think you’ve reached an agreement only to discover they’re out to destroy you. America is the most predatory place I have ever experienced and American greed is such that they leave nothing on the table for anyone else.”
He launches into a description of America’s so-called captains of industry who take their companies for hundreds of millions of rands, seemingly without conscience. He talks about the 2010 Academy award-winning documentary ‘Inside Job’, which looks at the behaviour in the late 2000s of giant corporates and banks such as the Lehman Brothers. Its CEO Richard Fuld took US$484-million in salary, bonuses and stock options; then filed for bankruptcy in 2008. Several years before that was the Enron scandal, a similar story and it is happening all the time.
“These guys don’t make the money, they take it and leave millions of people without work. That’s pure evil. People are getting totally screwed because they’re naïve. It’s come down to the rich and rest. And we’ve only seen the tip of it. I reckon there is far worse to come. You can’t take and take and take without consequence, and then come up with this word ‘bail out’. The world hasn’t seen the worst of it. The way things are going, they’ll be calling the Great Depression, the Great Depression I.”
Super-greed is a subject on which Apteker has been known to speak at length. “It’s destroying the world, along with the death of communication,” he explains. “The youth don’t know how to communicate anymore. Sending an sms is not the same as talking to someone. Finding online friends on Facebook is not the same as making friends faced to face. You don’t build trust, confidence or rapport that way.”
As for young people who seek his advice and when he makes time to meet with them in his oversubscribed schedule and they sms and answer their phones during the meeting…“they certainly don’t impress me”.
Apteker believes everyone is so wired today that people have become dysfunctional. “It’s destroying the soul. People are becoming disconnected and isolated and this destroys confidence.”
Technology is not the problem, it’s people allowing it to control them that’s the problem,” says Apteker adding that he and his partners were “innocent and quite naïve” when they founded Internet Solutions. If he could do it all again, of course he would, but he never envisaged how much it would contribute to the pace of life becoming so intense. “Technology fuels this intensity. You have sms’s and emails coming through at the same time as landlines and cellphones are ringing. It’s insane. And if you’re a nice person you feel obliged to respond.”
He finds himself trapped in this whirlwind, which is why one of his favourite quotes is Ghandi’s “There is more to life than increasing its speed.”
“We all like quotations because we believe in them but they’re not easy to live,” says Apteker who already has three more film projects on the cards. One is a “zomromcom” – a zombi romantic comedy, which he describes as “a low budget guerilla filmmaking project”. The second is based on a compelling novel by AHM Scholtz titled ‘A Place Called Vatmaar’, and the third is about a British man who meets a Russian woman – we’ll have to wait and see what happens from there.
In the meantime South Africa will immerse itself in ‘Material’ and Apteker will know if it’s been a box office success or not.
What he likes about the movie is that it combines an entertaining story with an incredibly reconciliatory message. “We have this distorted picture of Muslims whereas this film is about a normal Muslim family in Fordsburg, Johannesburg, making their way in life with all their traditions, dreams and aspirations for their son.
“It goes without saying that I would like the movie to go all over the world,” says Apteker who applauds the team with whom he made ‘Material’. “It’s the best team I’ve ever worked with and Riaad Moosa who plays the son is the nicest, humblest guy I’ve ever met.”
Moosa who inspired the movie is, in real life, a medical doctor turned comedian and actor.
Material certainly got Barry Ronge all choked up and he described it as “such a wonderful film”, so bets on it’s going to be a giant success and earn back Apteker some of the millions he has invested in film-making over the years. “I really hope so or I’ll have a lot of people screaming at me on the phone,” smiles the man who, when once asked how to make a small fortune from the movie business replied: “Start with a big fortune”.