Dismissed by a new generation, Oppenheimer played major role in 20th century SA

Review: Archie Henderson

Harry Oppenheimer: Diamonds, Gold and Dynasty. By Michael Cardo (Jonathan Ball)

Michael Cardo’s book can be read on two levels: as biography of a titan and as history of a country that experienced dramatic changes in the subject’s lifetime. And because he was Harry Oppenheimer, his life bisected key historical moments through famous people he knew.

Oppenheimer was born in 1908, two years before union; he was 10 when one world war ended and 21 when the next broke out. He served as an intelligence officer with Colonel Dennis Newton-King’s famed 4th Armoured Car Regiment, a widely admired South African unit in the Western Desert campaign against the Germans of Erwin Rommel.

Having been born into a family of huge wealth, created by his father Ernest with the Anglo American Corporation, Harry or HFO, as he was widely known among those close to him, had a more than privileged upbringing. He attended Charterhouse, a posh English public school and went up to Oxford where he developed a liking for the finer things. That kind of life led to a natural snobbishness (he didn’t approve of people who ate naartjies in a car, for example), which was partly offset by his wife, Bridget.

The silver spoon and inevitable nepotism notwithstanding, he did prove himself in the world of business, taking the empire his father had begun to greater heights. At its peak, Anglo produced most of the world’s gold and De Beers 90% of its diamonds. In his lifetime his world changed: world wars, apartheid, revolution and democracy. He died in 2000, so he was not witness to the descent of a country in which his companies played an ambivalent role in building.

The ambivalence came in labour relations. In the late 1980s, his Anglo companies controlled about 50% of listings on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, produced after-tax profits of R13 billion, paid dividends of R7bn and taxes of about R5.5bn. Yet it was done on the backs of cheap black labour and oppressive legislation, elements for which HFO was genuinely contrite in his later years.

Even before democracy in 1994, he tried to make up for much of this, improving wages of black miners, building better houses for them and their families (though not enough, as he later admitted) and spreading some of his wealth through philanthropy.

His achievements also came despite much hostility from the state. The Oppenheimers had long been portrayed as a malign geldmag by the Afrikaans press, caricatured by the anti-Semitic Hoggenheimer cartoons, and after Afrikaner nationalism prevailed at the polls in 1948, it grew. Not until late in PW Botha’s reign did a Nationalist prime minister or president agree to meet HFO, by which time it was too late anyway.

The regulation obstacles that the Afrikaner government put in the way of Anglo, and much of free enterprise, did not disappear with democracy. Nevertheless, Oppenheimer embraced the need for black empowerment, and indulged the ANC’s new grasping class who came to his door. For the first time since Jan Smuts, an Oppenheimer felt at home with a governing class. It helped, of course, that he was dispensing largesse.

While he was helpful in setting up new black tycoons, he was also realistic in unbundling much of Anglo’s assets and moving his companies away from South Africa to safer havens. Cardo points out that of the nouveau riche who benefited from HFO’s generosity, only Patrice Motsepe was a true entrepreneur, turning around failing Free State mines (with the help of a smart Anglo engineer).

There is much in Cardo’s book that will enlighten and even entertain; some of the gossip is delicious. Sadly, there is a new generation who will dismiss it, just as it is beginning to dismiss Nelson Mandela as a sell-out. That is a failure for a political party that could have learnt from HFO’s example. He built on what he inherited; the ANC wasted its inheritance, something that was far more precious – the trust and faith of a new nation.


One thought on “Dismissed by a new generation, Oppenheimer played major role in 20th century SA

  1. David Bristow

    It’s always hard for we in the swamps to love – or even admire – a billionaire. So much good to be done, so little actually done.


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