Open Secrets: Unaccountable

Dame Margaret Hodge MP – a very British apartheid profiteer

By Open Secrets 20 November 2019

Margaret Hodge has clothed herself in the claim that she has dedicated her life to fighting racism – that her very ‘being’ was anti-racist, as she said in March 2019. The facts suggest otherwise.

Open Secrets is a non-profit organisation which exposes and builds accountability for private-sector economic crimes through investigative research, advocacy, and the law. See their previous project, Apartheid Guns and Money: A Tale of Profit.

It is amazing how many friends and admirers Nelson Mandela had. Particularly after his release. The people and institutions that supported apartheid, while claiming to do the opposite, are foremost among those who deserve, at the very least, a public accounting of their behaviour.

In June 1994, only two months after South Africa’s first post-apartheid election, Margaret Hodge gave an interview to the New Statesman. Hodge had just been elected as the Member of the British Parliament for the safe Labour seat of Barking. Asked what had had the greatest impact on her political beliefs, Hodge replied “the ending of apartheid and the holding of democratic elections in South Africa have restored a sense of optimism and hope that I was in danger of losing”. Asked “which political figure –living or dead – do you most admire?” well, you can guess who she answered. (See: ‘Margaret Hodge’, New Statesman, 17 June 1994, p. 13)

We can now reveal that her family’s very successful company ran a highly profitable joint-venture partnership in South Africa for the majority of the 1970s and 1980s: precisely the period in which the anti-apartheid movement had called for extensive economic sanctions and disinvestment. For the life of this joint venture, she saw fit to hold shares in the special purpose vehicle that held her family’s slice of the pie.

Open Secrets spoke with Alex Conneely Hughes, who works in the office of Margaret Hodge, following repeated attempts via email, WhatsApp and phone to elicit a written response from Hodge to our questions. Hodge conceded that she was aware of her family’s business in apartheid South Africa. According to her spokesperson, Hodge and her sisters protested this in a letter to their father in 1973. We were not provided with a copy of the letter following a request to do so. According to Hodge their father took no heed of this call. She further claimed that all profits she derived from the South African business between 1973-1994 were given to a charity. However, somewhat curiously, Hodge claims through her spokesperson not to have any recollection of the charities to which she donated her apartheid profits for a period of over 20 years. The spokesperson also couldn’t say how Hodge was able to determine what part of her dividends were made up of profits from South Africa and profits from other jurisdictions.

And while Hodge may have paid dividends to charities she can’t recall, she chose not to sell shares held in her own name. These shares would have increased in value as her family’s company thrived, including in apartheid South Africa.

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Apartheid’s depredations were obvious, many, and utterly vile. This ensured that the international community was in no doubt as to what apartheid was, who was responsible for it, and how soon it needed to be ended. The call for sanctions and disinvestment was loud and clear, and the anti-apartheid movement was diligent in ensuring that lists of international companies with South African subsidiaries were widely distributed. The UN arms embargo against the country, passed in November 1977, was an unambiguous call for all good men and women to cease their support of the racists in Pretoria.

Yet apartheid continued – flourished, even – for the 1970s and into 1980s. It did so largely because it was profitable, both for local and international business. The opportunity for making a buck in South Africa on the back of black labour was enticing enough to ensure that the opprobrium shown towards the country on the international stage notwithstanding, the apartheid government never ran short of businesses and governments willing to look the other way.

This interplay between public condemnation and private negotiation runs like a stomach-turning thread through all of the relationships we outlined in Apartheid, Guns and Money. Our research showed that during the height of apartheid, Pretoria was able to procure weapons and other materiel in violation of the UN arms embargo from pretty much every country in the world.

Apartheid South Africa, due to the pressures placed on it by the anti-apartheid movement, was in constant search for the means to survive in the face of sanctions and other embargoes. Pretoria needed access to foreign currency reserves, oil, raw materials, and new technologies, for which it relied on unscrupulous businesses and professional sanctions-busters. It also needed access to other international markets where they could sell South Africa’s mineral and industrial output. International businesses that could plug South Africa back into the global marketplace, giving it access to foreign currency and the halls of power, were not just gold dust: they were the oil that kept the apartheid machine running.

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One of the companies that would make hay under apartheid’s glaring sun was Coutinho, Caro & Co (London) (CCC). CCC had been formed in 1951 by Hans Oppenheimer (no relation to the South African mining family of the same name), a German immigrant who had settled in London following a stint in Egypt, and was a subsidiary of a German steel trader of the same name.

Hans Oppenheimer – Margaret Hodge’s father – was joined in managing the company by his son, Ralph (Hodge’s brother), in the late 1960s. Ralph helped to oversee the rapid expansion of the company, which was renamed Stemcor, a contraction of Steel Marketing Corporation, when the family took 100% control in 1987. By 2000 Stemcor had a turnover of £1bn and a decade later was ranked as the third-largest privately owned company by turnover in the whole of the UK.

From at least 1973 onwards, the Oppenheimer family held their share of CCC through a special purpose vehicle called Irene Securities. Margaret Watson, as Hodge was then known, held over 6% of the shares in Irene Securities for the remainder of the 1970s and 1980s. (See: 1974 annual report of Coutinho, Caro & Co Limited and annual reports of Irene Securities from 1974 onwards)

In 1973, CCC formed a joint venture in South Africa with the multi-sector conglomerate Protea Holdings. The joint venture was called, creatively, Protea International. Company records for Protea International show that in July 1973, the company issued 10,000 shares. CCC held 4,999 “B” shares and Protea Holdings held 4,999 “A” shares – cementing the 50/50 split in ownership between the two companies in Protea International. In addition, CCC was represented on the board of Protea International by Herbert Edmonds, a top CCC company man for close to three decades. (See: Protea International: Return of Allotment of Shares from 28/4/1973 to 30/10/1973 and every Stemcor annual report from 1973 onwards).

CCC’s shareholding in Protea International would not go unnoticed by the activist community. The information was not hard to find – Protea International was listed as a subsidiary in every CCC annual report from the year it was formed, as was its location in South Africa. By 1988, the UK-based Anti-Apartheid Movement included CCC and Protea International in a call for the “complete withdrawal of all foreign firms from South Africa and Namibia”, motivated, by “the particular role which foreign investment plays in supporting the apartheid system”. (See: ‘UK Companies and Their Subsidiary or Related Companies in South Africa and Namibia’, Anti-Apartheid Movement, 1988, AAM Archives.)

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It is difficult, based on the available documents, to quantify exactly how well Protea International did. The remaining records of Protea International are patchily held in archives in South Africa, and none of the surviving records indicate how much money flowed through the company. The records of CCC, available from Companies House in the UK and considerably more fulsome, provide a limited window. Between 1982 and 1987, CCC’s company statements record turnover by segment and geographical area, including for the whole of Africa. They show that, between 1982 and 1987, CCC recorded a hefty turnover in Africa worth £73,399,554 – equal to £231m in 2019 pounds, or about R4.2bn in 2019 rand. (See: CCC Annual Reports from year-end 1983 to 1987)

During this period, CCC also had a subsidiary and office in Kenya, meaning that we cannot calculate the exact proportion of African turnover earned by Protea International. We do know, however, that it would have been very substantial. Indeed, in 1987, in Stemcor’s first annual statement, Ralph Oppenheimer wrote a Chairman’s Statement that provided an overview of the company’s prospects.

Protea International (Pty) Limited had another highly satisfactory year in 1987,” Oppenheimer wrote. “Protea has been one of our most successful investments since we first established the company in 1973 as an equal partnership with Protea Holdings.” (See: “Chairman’s Statement” in Stemcor Annual Report 1988)

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Protea International’s success was predicated, at least in part, on its ability to integrate itself into the apartheid economic machine at the highest and most influential levels. In January 1980, South Africa’s Sunday Times newspaper ran a rare and detailed profile of Protea International, giving a unique insight into where and how the company made its money. The profile was written following a South African government-backed trade delegation to South America, which was led by John Kopiski, Protea International’s managing director. (See “Protea Sells R45m to South America”, Sunday Times, 20 January 1980)

Initially, Protea International worked primarily as an importer, bringing steel into the South African market. But, from 1976 onwards, this situation was reversed, and the company became a net exporter of South African steel.

Like CCC and Stemcor, Protea International produced none of its own steel, rather acting as an international agent for existing steel producers. Protea sourced its steel in South Africa from a number of sources, of which Iscor appears to be most prominent. Iscor was the South African state-owned steel giant and one of the major economic pillars of South Africa’s resource-heavy economy.

Protea International’s rapid growth was attributed to its particular acuity in expanding into Central and South America, where, by 1980, it was selling R100m worth of South African steel and other products, serviced by a network of facilities across the continent. For example, Protea International opened marketing offices in Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo – both then under the rule of military dictatorships.

The company also maintained permanent representatives in both Peru and apartheid’s ally Chile, run by Augusto Pinochet, a violent dictator. (Ibid) Protea International – and CCC – was thus turning healthy profits selling apartheid steel to Pinochet’s Chile.

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For a company formed in 1973, Protea International had, by the late 1970s and early 1980s, reached impressive heights. And while the company may well have been uniquely staffed with excellent salespeople, it must surely also have benefited from the close connections between the apartheid regime and its other parent company, with whom CCC had got into bed in 1973: Protea Holdings.

From its very earliest days, Protea Holdings, a sizeable industrial conglomerate, could count on the support of Richard Lurie, who would become a major investor and director. Lurie, who died in 2007, was the archetypal self-made man. Starting as a lowly “tea boy” at the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), he eventually worked his way up the ladder and was appointed president of the JSE on four occasions between the 1960s and 1980s.

Archival documents show that Lurie’s prominence extended into the heart of the apartheid political and military machine. In April 1980, Lurie was invited to join the so-called Defence Advisory Council for two years by PW Botha, at the time the prime minister of South Africa. It was under Botha’s watch, first as minister of defence and then prime minister, that apartheid’s military machine expanded to eventually swallow a substantial portion of South Africa’s economic output – and in which the military would wreak havoc in Angola and Mozambique and be mobilised to put down the protests in the townships.

In the letter, Botha justified the appointment of the council by citing the “escalating military situation in southern Africa and the possible consequences for the RSA in combating this threat, especially with regard to the effect this may have on the economy and manpower situation”. (See: Open Secrets collection: South African History Archive)

Incidentally, the man listed below Lurie in the invitation letter was none other than Basil Hersov. Hersov, a darling of the apartheid business world and a military man himself, was one of the agents paid millions in commissions by BAE Systems in the infamous 1999 Arms Deal – itself a live and active cautionary tale of how apartheid corruption continues to infect the present.

Unsurprisingly for a company that turned a profit under apartheid, Protea Holdings was linked to serious gross human rights violations in the 1970s. In 1971, for example, the South African Institute of Race Relations conducted a survey which found that Protea Holdings was found to be paying poverty wages to its black staff. (See: Ruth First, Jonathan Steele and Christabel Gurney, 1972, The South African Connection: Western Investment in Apartheid, Maurice Temple Smith: London)

But a far more grisly – and public – story would come to prominence in 1975. The roots of the story stretched back to 1963, when the South African government agreed to allow private companies to set up psychiatric camps on its behalf. By 1975, 11,000 mentally ill patients were housed in these private camps, of which 9,000 were black. Public leaks, parliamentary questions in the UK and a detailed investigation in the UK’s Observer, revealed the horror of the prevailing conditions. Black patients were made to sleep 30 to a room on flimsy mats. They were treated by part-time physicians with ghoulish attitudes to African psychiatry. The death rates were terrifying: in 1973 at one facility called Randwest, 207 of the 3,200 black inmates died.

The source of the influx of black patients was equally disturbing. By and large the populations of the camps were made up of the detritus of apartheid’s devastation, “those who are found wandering, drunk, or collapsed in the streets”. A brief review by a white psychiatrist and a rubber stamp from a magistrate was all that was required to declare the thousands of black Africans insane, rather than simply indigent. After being admitted, they were put to work, making leg irons and coat-hangers, or sent out as a private labouring army.

Contemporaneous investigators dug deep to find the primary corporate power behind the camps — a company called Intrinsic Investments, of which Lurie was a director. According to an investigation in the US, led by the Congressional Black Caucus, Intrinsic “was linked to Protea Holdings, specialising in chemicals, drugs, hospitals and medical supplies”.

The story reared its head again in 1979, following a series of site visits by the American Psychiatric Association, the results of which were again reported on in the UK’s Observer. Their investigation concluded that “these findings substantiate allegations of social and political abuse of psychiatry in South Africa”. (See: Scandal of the Money-Making Mental Homes’, Observer, 3 Jun 1979)

Giving an interview to the journal Science News, the association’s President Alan Stone, who led the visits, commented further that “the most shocking finding of our investigation was the high number of needless deaths among black patients. There was evidence of patients being allowed to die who had treatable illnesses”. (See: “South African Snake Pits: For Blacks Only”, Science News, Vol 115, No. 21, 26 May 1979)

So, at the very time that CCC was working with the apartheid government and Protea Holdings to grow their business, their partner, Intrinsic Investments, was being publicly linked to serious human rights violations in both the South African and British press.

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Why Margaret Hodge?”, you may be asking. Aren’t there other examples of equally, if not more, egregious profiteering and double-speak? Hodge symbolises the historical relation between South Africa and Britain which was built on extraction and the creation of wealth in the United Kingdom. From the extraction of minerals built on the brutal migrant labour system to the British government and elite attitudes towards apartheid – there was always a great sympathy for oppression in this country from far away. Some mealy-mouthed objections aside, Britain was the largest foreign direct investor in the apartheid period, and, when it really mattered, Pretoria could rely on Thatcher and the Tories to back the regime.

There is much to put at the door of the British in the post-apartheid period, too. It was BAE Systems, receiving the full diplomatic support of the British government, which was the biggest beneficiary of the Arms Deal. It was also the biggest payer of bribes. Documentary evidence shows that the company was ruthless in finding officials and politically connected comrades to bribe as apartheid ended.

It was Bell Pottinger, a British company set up by Thatcher’s spin doctor, which tried to stoke racial discord in defence of the Guptas’ outright looting of the South African purse. In a remarkable turn of events, it was Fana Hlongwane, the most well-known agent paid by BAE Systems in the Arms Deal, who introduced the Guptas to Bell Pottinger on the recommendation of a former BAE executive.

This culture of unaccountability in the relations between South Africa and Britain must come to an end. It is time that the British Labour party, its leader Jeremy Corbyn and her electorate hold Hodge accountable for knowingly profiteering at such great human cost. Hodge has clothed herself in the claim that she has dedicated her life to fighting racism – that her very “being” was anti-racist, as she said in March 2019. The facts suggest otherwise. DM

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