By Heather Dugmore
Why did you choose Wits?
The army led me to Wits. I had zero political awareness but I was part of a generation of white males with the army hanging over their heads. I’m not army material, I’m this non-sporty Jewish guy, and the best thing to do was to go to university to avoid the call-up. It’s a common story. Given the choice, I would have preferred to travel then, but the army decided my direction for me.
How did you come to study Computer Science?
As a child I played with electronics and made primitive computers with circuits. I had my first computer when I was 15 – an Atari 800.
What was life on campus like?
It was a privilege to go to Wits and I took studying way too seriously for the first couple of years. Then I smoked a joint at the age of 21 and things changed. I discovered girls and became a bit of a rubbish. Life on campus was wonderful. We didn’t have crime problems and you could leave your bags unattended in Senate House for the entire day and no one would steal them. As a white South African student I experienced a real sense of freedom. This is available to all students now, but I don’t sense the same kind of freedom.
Did you become politically aware at Wits?
I was more technologically aware. People think there was this extensive political awareness, but it wasn’t like that for everyone. At a recent dinner an African American academic from Stanford asked me what I thought about apartheid when I was growing up. When I replied that I didn’t think about it she got irate. There’s a tendency these days for these super-privileged people to come over here and tell us how bad we were or to try to save us, when they have no idea about the country at all.
How did you make money in your early years at university?
I sold T-shirts, ties and caps at the Market Theatre flea market on Saturdays. It was a fun day’s outing and a real soulful time because it was the only flea market around. Then came the Rosebank flea market and Bruma and everything became mass market.
Do you have any regrets about your time at university?
Yes, there was this girl Carla that I let get away. I shouldn’t have but I did. I didn’t understand women then and I don’t understand them now. It’s not a bad thing; it’s part of the challenge.
Have you tried to find her on Facebook?
Please, that was 20 years ago.
What inspired Internet Solutions?
We were crazy about technology, we wanted to do something magical with computers and we knew the Internet would be something everyone would want to explore.
How did you get Internet Solutions up and running?
We set up an office with furniture from home, our own computers and whatever we had lying around. It was a tight and humble operation and didn’t need too much money to start. The biggest cost was the fixed-line infrastructure from Telkom. They supplied service and only billed us months later, which helped us from a cash flow perspective.
How did you make such a success of Internet Solutions?
Our timing was really good. We were there from the start of the global Internet phenomenon. We were relentless. We had to be smarter than the rest, and we had to work harder to carve out more market share. We knocked on every door we could find. People were afraid of this new technology and what it would mean to their business. So we made them laugh. We told them anecdotes – like about my friend whose husband thought he had broken the Internet. We were also fortunate that when Time magazine ran the first big Internet story at the start of 1994, with the word “Internet” in big letters on the cover, a lot of people thought they were writing about us.
Who inspires you?
My brother Alon Apteker, who was also one of the founders of Internet Solutions. He is a wonderful source of stability in my life. He’s the opposite of me. He’s stable, happily married and has four children and he manages his money well. I don’t manage my money well and no woman will put up with me for longer than a month because I’m a workaholic. My other source of inspiration is my mother Daniella Apteker, who is an estate agent in Hyde Park and Sandhurst. She was in the Israeli war for three years and she doesn’t have time for self-pity. When I’m feeling sorry for myself, she gives me a slap and says: “What have you got to complain about?”
What is one of your favourite quotes?
Winston Churchill: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
What do you do for fun?
Fun is when you’re not under pressure. Fun is when you can watch the sun set and not feel that you have to rush back to work. Everything comes at a price. Fortunately I don’t feel I’m missing out not being on the jol – I’m not missing anything. I do have fun when I’m travelling, though, and I particularly enjoy Eastern Europe. I speak Russian, I’m single and the world has changed.
You speak Russian?
Yes, I loved Kiev and thought it would be interesting to learn Russian, so I hired a tutor.
Are you still a nerd?
Once a nerd, always a nerd. What has changed is that when I was a student at Wits I had white nerd friends. Now I have black nerd friends, Indian nerd friends, all sorts of nerd friends. We’re different colours and we come from different cultures and backgrounds but we don’t see that; we’re just nerds together.