Our Unilever South African history

Unilever's corporate mission – to add vitality to life – shows how clearly the business understands 21st century-consumers and their lives. But the spirit of this mission forms a thread that runs throughout our history.

Unilever started operations within South Africa (SA) in 1891 when the company registered the Sunlight trademark. The green bar was still being imported from England at the time due to high costs of imported raw materials like vegetable oil.

Unilever came to South Africa in 1887 when William Lever, the founder of Lever Brothers, registered the Sunlight trademark. His first visit to South Africa in 1895 was to an under-developed country crippled by drought with poor communications and few skills. However, he believed products would ultimately be manufactured locally.

Initially, this was not viable as tariffs on imported vegetable oils were considerably higher than those on imported soaps. As a result, consignments of Sunlight, the first wrapped and branded soap, were shipped to South Africa.

Lever Brothers

Lever Brothers was incorporated as a company in Cape Town in 1904. By 1906, it purchased a block of land in Cape Town. It was also one of the first to be granted reclaimed land alongside the Durban port. This became the site for Lever Brothers’ first South African factory at Maydon Wharf that opened in 1911. This was Lever Brothers’ second largest plant in the world and introduced mass production to South Africa. 

In 1912, Lever Brothers purchased the Transvaal Soap Company and began building its second factory in Salt River, Cape Town. By the time this opened in 1913, the company had a strong national presence.

Expansion continued

By 1920, Lever Brothers had seven companies in South Africa and was looking to integrating these. The company moved into the edible oils and fats market. From 1936, Lever Brother’s invested in new equipment for the edible oils and fats business, the soaps factories in Maydon Wharf, Auckland Park and Cape Town were expanded and a modern office block in Auckland Park was built for its Transvaal headquarters.

Just before the Second World War, Lever Brothers’ four factories were operating at maximum capacity. Staff had increased from 7 in 1907 to 1475 in 1939, soap sales were 10 times what they were in 1907 and the edible oils and fats business, with sales of many thousands of tons a year, was flourishing. However, during the Second World War, the company struggled to obtain raw materials and skilled labour. Nevertheless, it played an important role in supplying the soaps and edible oils and fats throughout the war.

After the Second World War

South African agriculture expanded and local oilseed production became a priority. Lever Brothers was instrumental in persuading the South African government to allow the manufacture of margarine. Up until then this was prohibited to protect butter manufacturers.

During the post-war years, factories were again modernised to increase capacity and a new Boksburg factory was opened in 1955. Lever Brothers also introduced a number of new products and entered new markets. In 1947, the company began making toothpaste and then added shampoos and talcum powder. In 1953, Levers entered the packaged soups market and in 1959, the Walls Ice Cream factory was opened in Boksburg.

In 1969 consolidation led to the registration of Unilever SA with Lever Brothers, Van Den Bergh and Jurgens, Walls Ice Cream, Hudson and Knight, Elida Gibbs, SA Warehousing Service, Consumer Research Services, Silicate and Chemical Industries and Lever Stock Feeds as operating companies.

In 1976 Unilever acquired the Glenton and Mitchell and Pitco tea businesses, which were added to Lipton South Africa. Warehouses were built in both Boksburg and Durban and capacity added to the margarine business.

During the eighties

Many multinationals began to withdraw from South Africa as disinvestment gained momentum. Unilever’s decision to remain hinged on opportunities to influence change and protect jobs. Capital Expenditure between 1980 and 1985 exceeded R192 million with Lever Brothers purchasing Reckitt–Columbus, the industrial division of Reckitt and Colman, in 1982 and then adding a new NSD Plant and Oil Mill in Boksburg, an upgraded Bath soap manufacturing facility in Durban and production facilities for silica gels.

1985 marked the acquisition of Brooke Bond Oxo, followed by Cheesebrough Ponds in 1987, Simonsberg Cheese in 1988 and the local Elizabeth Arden business in1989.

Ola ice cream was established in 1994 and Van Den Bergh & Jurgens and Lipton were merged to establish Unifoods as an integrated foods business. Extensive capital investment was made in new IT systems, innovation in soap powders (concentrates), and in new foods.

Unilever continued to consolidate and, in 1996, Lever Brothers and Elida Ponds merged to form a strong home and personal care company called Lever Ponds. In 2004, in line with the Global name alignment, Lever Pond’s was renamed Unilever South Africa Home and Personal Care. On the same basis, the Foods business was renamed Unilever South Africa Foods.

In 2007 , Unilever South Africa Home and Personal Care and Unilever South Africa Foods were merged together to form the company we today proudly call Unilever South Africa Pty Ltd.

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