A Tribute to Eric Samson
By Ilan Preskovsky
During the more than two-hour-long tribute video to Eric Samson that was hosted by Chief Rabbi Goldstein to mark the end of Samson’s shloshim (the thirty-day mourning period), Phillip Krawitz of the United Jewish Campaign summed up just why there was such a lengthy tribute to Eric Samson in the first place.
In what is probably an apocryphal tale, Krawitz tells of how a certain king approached the patriarch of the famous Jewish banking family, the Rothschilds, and asked him, “So, tell me, how much are you and your family worth?” Mr Rothschild gave him a sum that, though very, very large, was demonstrably nowhere near the amount of money that the family had amassed by that point. Taken aback, the king balked at the suggestion and called him out for greatly under-representing his wealth. Rothschild replied, “You asked me what I was worth; not how much money I had. My worth is the amount of money I have given away, and that is the amount I told you.”
While there are a great many multi-millionaires and billionaires in the world who, by this metric, aren’t worth very much at all, Eric Samson was, clearly, a truly wealthy man indeed.
Samson, who passed away on 19 January 2021 at his home in Newport, California, was the South African billionaire behind the country’s most prominent steel company, Macsteel, and one of our country’s great titans of industry. With Macsteel, he created something that was and is a huge boon to our economy, a significant source of employment, and a company with crucial international trade ties. As was testified to by a number of Macsteel employees in that tribute video, Macsteel is also a company that offers massive opportunities to the less fortunate in our society, those with real potential, but who, until then, never had the money or resources to live up to that potential.
To so many, though, he was probably better known as a philanthropist of little equal, both in his own capacity and through the organisation he set up with his wife, the Eric and Sheila Samson Foundation, which has improved the life of countless people – both Jews and non-Jews – in South Africa, Israel, and the United States.
Despite his well-known genuine friendship with Nelson Mandela and having the likes of President Cyril Ramaphosa and Benjamin Netanyahu offering eulogies to their friend at the opening of that same shloshim tribute video, he was known to be a private and soft-spoken man who seldom did interviews even with major publications. He mostly let his deeds do the talking for him. And they talked. A lot.
In a rare interview with Howard Feldman for the South African Jewish Report in 2013, Samson himself credited his old friend, Mendel Kaplan, OBM, with spurring him into action way back in 1974, just as Samson’s business ventures were really starting to take off. “Mendel came to me and he said we have to set an example.”
He admits that he gave about R20 000 a year to various community charities at the time, but after a gentle reminder by Kaplan that he was earning more than ever while many in the community were in need, he immediately gave Kaplan a cheque of R100 000 to give to whom he thought needed it most. From then on, Samson didn’t just become an exceptional philanthropist, he is known to have constantly worried that he wasn’t giving enough.
It’s virtually impossible to count the number of people whose lives he improved through his myriad philanthropic works and it’s only slightly less difficult to try and list all the communal and philanthropic institutions that benefited from or were created by Eric Samson and the Eric and Sheila Samson Foundation.
In our own community, he was a benefactor of everything from the South African Jewish Board of Deputies to the Chevra Kadisha to the Rambam Trust. He was also always willing to lend a financial hand to Torah and Jewish-education institutions and has been a major benefactor in what seems to be every one of the South African Jewish community’s many communal efforts.
Slightly further afield, he served on the board of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Trust and gave one-million rand to it every July in honour of Madiba’s birthday. He donated one-hundred-million rand to help the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital get off the ground. Indeed, he clearly put great value in the medical field because, along with the Nelson Mandela’s Children Hospital, he invested in and/or helped create the Cleveland Clinic in the United States, the Samson Institute for Ageing Research in Cape Town, and various medical institutes in Israel, including the Barzilai Medical Centre, the Eric and Sheila Samson New Emergency Surgical Hospital in Ashkelon, and the Samson Assuta Ashdod Hospital. He also gave millions to Keren Hayesod – the United Israel Appeal.
And this, truly, is only the tip of the iceberg.
In his later years, Eric and Sheila Samson divided their time between Cape Town, Jerusalem, and Los Angeles, spending precious time with their three children, ten grandchildren, and two great grandchildren. While the Samson family still holds a majority share in Macsteel, about a quarter of its holdings were sold off to a conglomerate of black businesses – including one owned by President Ramaphosa – in 2006. Over the next decade, while stepping down from a more active role in Macsteel to spend more time with his family and on philanthropic endeavours, he sold off more parts of the company, but retained a 51% share of its holdings.
His legacy, then, is more than secured. Macsteel remains one of the largest privately owned companies in South Africa, but it is his philanthropic efforts that will most continue to echo down the years. In what was perhaps the most moving segment in the shloshim video, after hearing various heartfelt tributes to the man himself from Samson’s friends, admirers, and some of those he helped over the years, the video closed out with many of those same people and – perhaps most notably – his children and grandchildren talking about ways in which they themselves plan to continue Samson’s legacy of unparalleled philanthropy. Whether trying to emulate his charitable works or the love for humanity, generosity, and humility that lay at the core of his character, these messages were a call to action for all of us and a comforting affirmation that Eric Samson may be gone from this world, but his impact on it certainly isn’t.