Date : 06 December 2009 07:00
Producer : Susan Purèn
Presenter : Bongani Bingwa
Show : Carte Blanche
At 80 this lady is not yet ready to slow down. Still steady at the wheel, Dr Annique Theron often pops into the head office of the company she founded 40 years ago.
The name Annique Theron has been synonymous with rooibos tea for more than forty years. She is widely credited for discovering the exceptional healing properties of the indigenous plant, and having made rooibos one of South Africa's most recognisable exports the world over.
Suzette Ferreira: 'She remains the centre, the culture, the motivator...'
Daughter Suzette Ferreira, is marketing director of the company founded by her mother's company.
Suzette: 'The one big thing that I picked up is you've got to keep your mind going otherwise your body will stop.
'Bongani Bingwa (Carte Blanche presenter): 'Because she just doesn't stop does she?'
Suzette: 'No, well, it is good or bad. We don't know... ja, it is hard to keep up with her.'
Ernest du Toit., the CEO of her company, says a selfless motive brought her this success.
Ernest du Toit: 'She never thought about this as a commercial enterprise. She was in the business of helping people, of saving lives, of changing and improving people's lives.'
Dr Annique Theron: 'I was driven. That's the best I can describe it. I was absolutely driven.'
But the journey has had its ups and downs.
One of several books that flowed from her pen has been translated into Japanese and she's been honoured across the world.
Dr Theron: 'The first one was when I was 60: 'Entrepreneur of the Year'. And then, of course, the two I received in Geneva.'
Among the honours - 'Best Female Inventor' and for 'Discovering the Therapeutic Value of Rooibos'.
Dr Theron: 'That was glory... that really was a wonderful thing to happen to me. I couldn't believe it. I was floating on air .'
But ten years ago, Dr Theron was accused of illegally registering the name rooibos in America.It's something she denies emphatically.
Dr Theron: 'A plant cannot be registered as a sole trademark in the country of origin, but in another country it can. Like rooibos doesn't grow in America so it was legal and acceptable to register it as a trademark.'
Bongani: 'Growing up in what was then rural Northern Transvaal there was almost nothing that could have prepared Annique for the road that lay ahead except her insatiable curiosity and enquiring mind.'
As a child she played with foxes, squirrels and steenbok, but later dreamt of becoming a medical doctor.
One day the determined teenager asked her teacher what subjects she needed for medical studies.
Dr Theron: 'And you know Bongani, he looked at me as if I was an alien from another planet. And later on I realised it was because girls didn't pursue medical careers. You know there were so few, if there were there were so few, and here I wanted to know... That was a goal I actually set for myself.'
Bongani: 'And did you achieve that goal?'
Dr Theron: 'Yes, but 60 years later.'
That happened at the age of 72, and the doctorate wasn't just bestowed on her. This hefty thesis was the result of over 30 years of research.
But if that wasn't enough, she spent the next eight years writing her autobiography, which was launched in time for her birthday in April.
Bongani: 'From its humble beginnings as a foul smelling brew first introduced to the Dutch by the Khoi Khoi at the Cape, rooibos tea has made its transition to be the drink of choice served in homes, in restaurants, and even amongst royalty.'
Dr Theron: 'Today I call it an aroma, Bongani, because I have elevated it from what it was at that time to what it is today.'
Rooibos grows only in a small area in the Cederberg region of the Western Cape and the herbal beverage is manufactured from the plant's needle-like leaves and stems.
The modern day hype around the brew began in 1968 by what can only be described as a twist of fate.
Annique's youngest daughter, Lorinda, suffered from colic as a baby.
Dr Theron: 'She cried from the third day. And right through her next 14 months we had a terrible time with her.'
One morning, to warm up the baby's milk, an increasingly desperate Annique added some rooibos to Lorinda's bottle.
Dr Theron: 'Bongani, it was the first time in her life she slept longer than half-an-hour. I was up and down in the hallway, listening to see if she was still breathing... and after three hours - three hours! - she woke up and I was so relieved. But my life went on...'
Bongani: 'It took you a while to see what had happened?'
Dr Theron: 'Yes, I had to find out what I had done out of rhythm so to speak that could have brought on this wonderful positive result. And I came to the tea that Monday morning... the only time I'd given it to her. And I said to myself, 'That couldn't be.' After about six weeks I realised that I'd stumbled onto something miraculous and I started telling everybody.'
Just as excited was the Rooibos Tea Control Board.
Dr Theron: 'They wanted to know whether they could use if for promotions for their product and what they would have to pay me. So I thought to myself, 'The moment they pay me I lose it,' and I decided to do it myself.'
And she did.
Over the next few years she received a stream of pictures and letters from grateful mothers, whose allergic babies were helped by rooibos during those early days.
Her late husband, Meiring, provided most of the funding for Annique's work.
Dr Theron: 'My husband sponsored me because you know it was manageable in the beginning.'
But not for long.
What Annique needed was something she could sell and she found it in a slimming product.
That led to a series of weight loss competitions in national magazines and newspapers, which cast Annique the entrepreneur and her rooibos remedies in the spotlight.
It was a marketing success, especially as one of the winners happened to be Deirdre Barnard, the daughter of famous heart surgeon, Dr Chris Barnard.
By 1976, a unique rooibos skincare range had been launched and Annique's ever-youthful complexion became the face of the products.
Dr Theron: 'I had to learn everything about skincare, Bongani, because it doesn't fall into your lap.'
Bongani: 'Not everyone who invents something or stumbles upon a discovery is able to take it to the next level where it becomes a successful enterprise. It takes a unique combination of skills, vision and tenacity.'
Today, a business that began in a garage in 1968 has a turnover of more than a R150-million a year, and it's still one hundred percent family-owned.
12 000 distributors sell more than 300 products in the range, which is also exported.
Last year the top distributor's turnover was around R60-million.
Bongani: 'Did rooibos discover her or did she discover rooibos?'
Ernst: 'You know, that is a wonderful philosophical question. At the end of the day I believe that everything happens exactly the way that it should. And if Dr Theron didn't discover rooibos , rooibos would have discovered her because she had a purpose to fulfil, she had a role to play, there were people who were waiting for this to impact their lives. So I believe that it was a mutual two-way street. They would have found each other somewhere along the line.'
Dr Theron: 'Bongani, I regard my discovery as my gift to the world.'
But, despite all the recognition she's received Dr Theron wants to be remembered most of all for bringing happiness to people's lives.
Dr Theron: 'It was a long but delightful journey. And I'm so happy that I could've been the instrument to have achieved that... as far as rooibos is concerned.'
Bongani: 'Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently on this journey?'
Dr Theron: 'I would never change what has been given to me so generously and so benevolently.'
Bongani: 'Any regrets?'Dr Theron: '
No regrets either.'
While every attempt has been made to ensure this transcript or summary is accurate, Carte Blanche or its agents cannot be held liable for any claims arising out of inaccuracies caused by human error or electronic fault. This transcript was typed from a transcription recording unit and not from an original script, so due to the possibility of mishearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, errors cannot be ruled out.
Producer : Susan Purèn
Presenter : Bongani Bingwa
Show : Carte Blanche
Dr Annique Theron ( Rooibos ) - Carte Blanche