Sabine Plattner takes pride in her affinity with nature. The German philanthropist likes the fact that her 19th-century farmhouse and the stable block she built in 2000, when she acquired the 1,100-hectare property, blend into the natural contour of the dunes near Yzerfontein. Plattner also believes the 100-plus thoroughbreds she keeps on the site (one of three studs she owns in South Africa) do well as a result of the peaceful setting, 90 minutes’ drive north of Cape Town on the wild west coast.
However, the publicity-averse wife of Hasso Plattner, the billionaire co-founder of the software company SAP, did not grant this interview to discuss her approach to raising and placing racehorses, and she swiftly directs the conversation to her current preoccupation: an effort to protect the rainforest and to improve the lives of those living within and close to the Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville).
“My selfish side drew me to this rainforest. I want my children to be able to breathe clean air when they’re my age,” says the 62-year-old mother of two grown daughters. Plattner is currently focusing her attention on a diverse mix of projects: two five-star lodges, a three-star conference centre, a community centre, a mobile theatre, a school curriculum that’s more relevant to the lives of rural Congolese, and an education programme to help foster a sense of individual accountability for rainforest preservation.
Plattner has been pacing the wooden deck where she stood and watched southern right whales frolicking in the Atlantic Ocean the previous day, and suggests we seek relief from the afternoon sun indoors. En route, we walk through a tidy and colourful garden that includes a smattering of wild Namaquq daisies, Arum lilies, fynbos and African marigolds that flourish in the sandy soil.
During a lightning tour of the sitting room, Plattner says she likes the room’s comfortable proportions, and that the setting showcases the natural beauty of the dunes. But, as is typical of Cape farmhouses, the kitchen is the heart of the home. It has a small window, limestone walls, and dark wooden floors so that the room stays cool during the hot summer and warm in the wet winter. Copper pots and pans from local antique shops hang over the large Aga. “Cooking for me is relaxation,” she says. “I don’t like people to help me. This is my room where I can let my thoughts wander.”
Seated at the kitchen table, Plattner talks about the step-by-step approach she adopts for all her projects. These have ranged from helping her husband and his partners with the start-up phase of SAP, to introducing new teaching methodologies in the school in Germany where she worked before her children were born, to establishing crèches in George, South Africa, after she and her husband bought their first property in the Eastern Cape. She and Hasso raised their two children near Heidelberg in Germany, but the family developed a love for South Africa during their first trip to Cape Town to visit Hasso’s mother soon after she moved there more than 40 years ago.
Plattner’s previous philanthropic work has focused on helping disadvantaged young people in South African communities obtain access to quality education and healthcare. And she has spent the past six years getting to know the issues facing the 40,000 people living in the 71 communities bordering Odzala-Kokoua National Park. Plattner expresses frustration at having to build an upmarket tourism industry, because education is her enduring passion. But she claims that an influx of international visitors with an interest in conservation will help the local residents of Odzala, and influential Congolese, to appreciate the economic value of the park – and help to conserve the area’s natural assets.
The Congo Conservation Company, a private entity Plattner established and funded, is her vehicle for bringing local and international tourist traffic to Odzala. The region had no existing tourism infrastructure or international tourism traffic when Plattner first visited. Wilderness Safaris, one of southern Africa’s leading eco-tourism companies, has played an instrumental role in providing marketing, management and logistical support.
Meanwhile, the Hasso Plattner Foundation has made a multimillion-euro commitment to Odzala-Kokoua over the next five years for community health and education initiatives, the launch of a new global social media programme (www.odzala.com), and a gorilla habituation programme.
Plattner explains that her interest in Congo developed after meeting Ian Cockerill, the founding chairman of Leadership for Conservation in Africa (LCA), and Chris Marais, the founding chief executive. She joined the board of the South Africa-based NGO because she trusted the founders’ ability to build effective partnerships with business and government. The LCA’s goal is to protect 200,000 sq km of rainforest and other ecosystems across Africa by 2015. Odzala is 13,650 sq km.
The daughter of poor refugees from Siberia and Prussia (present-day Russia), Plattner says she has at times drawn on the same toughness and resilience that helped her parents survive the second world war and life thereafter. In the early days at Odzala-Kokoua, “there was no flush toilet, we were bitten to pieces by bugs, there was no bath, the mattress was full of fleas, and there was little in the way of fresh food,” she says.
Warren Buffett’s son Howard is the other business representative on the LCA board. Together, they hope to recruit more international talent and investment to the LCA’s projects. But they realise that outdated perceptions of Congo frighten people off. “People only jump on a boat when it’s cruising gently. Right now the boat is navigating really rough waters. Our highly motivated team, in collaboration with Henri Djombo, Congo’s visionary minister of the forest economy, still has to steer that boat for quite some time before other patrons might jump on board.”
Plattner spends an average of three months a year at her Yzerfontein farmhouse, and she says that frequent walks with the family’s two resident dogs, Twistùr, an Icelandic Spitz, and Tara, a stray they adopted, help clear her mind. Moving to the conservatory, the only room they added to this 162-year-old farmhouse, she points to the spot where she will watch the sunset. Speaking over the cacophony of weavers nesting in a tree as old as her home is a losing battle, and she lets the birds have the last word.
An untitled oil painting by Klaus Fussmann of a German landscape evokes happy memories of early summer near the Plattners’ home on the German island Sylt in the North Sea. She says the artist was reluctant to sell her this work but she “fell in love with it” and insisted she have this image from her “other” life for her new home in Yzerfontein. Sabine also adores the bold red clock on the kitchen wall. The collectable reminds her of her ability to find a bargain – it was R100 (£7) in the country stores in nearby Darling – and of the precious value of time. “Once my life is switched off, I can say ‘I’m happy’. I’ve made so many mistakes, but I have no regrets. I learn a lot along the way.”