Business Maverick


A penetrating take on Harry Oppenheimer and Anglo’s role in SA history

A penetrating take on Harry Oppenheimer and Anglo’s role in SA history

Over the course of the 20th century, Anglo American was a key force — for better or worse — in the shaping of South Africa’s society and economy. In ‘Harry Oppenheimer: Diamonds, Gold and Dynasty’, Michael Cardo has produced an absorbing and objective account of the magnate’s life and legacy.

Harry Oppenheimer was a liberal business tycoon who spoke out against apartheid and was in turn a target of National Party wrath that was sometimes coloured by anti-semitism.

Simultaneously, the migrant labour system that Oppenheimer raised cautious concerns about underpinned the profits that made Anglo American a South African and global corporate colossus. Exploitative and downright predatory, Anglo’s reliance on cheap migrant labour is a stain on its history.

Regardless of one’s views about Oppenheimer and Anglo, there is no question that they played outsized roles on the stage of South African history.

Michael Cardo, an opposition MP (a role his subject also assumed from 1948 to 1957 with the liberal United Party) has done a service to history with this absorbing and objective account of the magnate’s life and legacy.

It is a fine example of biographical writing, treating the subject with sympathy but not sycophancy. Oppenheimer, in Cardo’s rendering, is no saint, but a fascinating figure of his times.

Born in 1908 in the rough-and-tumble diamond mining town of Kimberley, Oppenheimer’s roots were German and Jewish. But the Oxford-educated patrician would eventually convert to the Anglican faith, and he was an Anglophile to his core, a course that had been charted by his father, Ernest, and his own journey from his father’s modest tobacco shop north of Frankfurt.

It was a journey that would take him to a job sorting diamonds in London as a teenager, and then to the motherlode of the gemstones in Kimberley.

Ernest had a thing for diamonds and it would set the family on a glittering, dynastic path, though it was not without unexpected detours. 

Fleeing the mob

In 1915, the family would flee its Kimberley home at 7 Lodge Road when a mob, inflamed by soaring unemployment and the early embers of World War 1, targeted diamond merchants with German surnames. The home Harry Oppenheimer was born in was earmarked for burning, and Ernest himself was physically attacked at one point.

In hindsight, the family – which initially struck out for Cape Town – had a first-hand brush with a version of the ethnic cleavages and class conflict that would define South Africa in the 20th century.

Oppenheimer’s life and career would in many ways mirror this seething cauldron, although, of course, his prism would always be from a gilded vantage point.

Diamonds would in many ways define the dynasty, including the brilliant De Beers marketing slogan, “A diamond is forever”. It was a campaign that would seek new markets such as Japan, where Cardo reports that, at the time of Oppenheimer’s first visit to the country in 1968, “only five percent of betrothed Japanese women received a diamond engagement ring”. By 1981, more than 60% had diamonds on their fingers. 

This blazed a path that Anglo still follows in some ways in its attempts to present platinum as a coveted adornment in Far East markets. The family exited De Beers in 2011, finally cutting the umbilical cord to what had long been a family business. But Anglo still follows some of the tried and tested routes that Harry pioneered.

As a businessman, he certainly knew what he was doing. Historical statistics underscore the point. Cardo notes that in 1957, there were already 100 companies in the Anglo stable.

In 1982, Anglo was the world’s top producer of gold, platinum and vanadium. At one point in the late 1980s, the company accounted for an astonishing 60% of the JSE’s market cap.

As disinvestment and exchange control pressures mounted during apartheid’s dying decade – effectively locking mountains of capital inside South Africa that was looking for a return – Anglo was hoovering up domestic businesses all over the show.


But did such economic influence translate into political power? The Anglophile Oppenheimer was certainly often at odds with the National Party government and its Afrikaner and Calvinist overlords, who at times branded him with anti-semitic smears such as “Hoggenheime”, a barbed slur for Jewish mining capital.

But Anglo businesses flourished under apartheid – the Nats were certainly accommodating when it came to capital, especially as Afrikaner businesses increasingly made their mark. And Anglo was a major taxpayer and source of crucial export revenue that also provided many an Afrikaner from the platteland with a leg up the corporate ladder.

To his credit, Cardo pulls no punches in his assessment of Oppenheimer’s liberalism and its evolution, informed in part by briefly seeing action in North Africa against the Nazi military during World War 2.

“In the 1940s, and for a long time thereafter, Oppenheimer’s liberalism did not extend to affording equal civil rights to blacks, let alone any scheme for multi-racial power-sharing… He believed in political, not economic, segregation. This was a conservative and paternalistic kind of liberalism, to be sure,” Cardo writes.

Oppenheimer, in his crusty older years, would often tell foreign correspondents that while in South Africa he may have come across as liberal, “at heart I’m just an old-fashioned conservative”, according to Cardo. But if so, it was a nuanced conservatism – or perhaps a “paternalistic kind of liberalism” – and yet his image was broadly that of a liberal, though one moulded in South Africa’s complex historical context.

Oppenheimer viewed apartheid often through an economic lens and believed, on that front, that it was “illogical and immoral”. But he thought the UP’s eventual adoption of a universal franchise as party policy “unwise”. Yet, as early as 1959, he was in favour of abolishing pass laws and influx control.

“Oppenheimer was always careful to frame his objections to apartheid in terms of realpolitik. Apartheid – or ‘separate development’, as it came to be styled – was unworkable. It made no economic sense. The whole thrust of economic development in South Africa tended towards racial co-operation and integration… 

“As Oppenheimer reflected towards the end of his spell in Parliament, the UP’s difference of opinion with the Nationalists was ‘not that the idea of separate development is immoral, but that it is a policy that cannot be carried out’,” Cardo writes.

Such contradictions were a reflection of South African liberalism at the time.

Migrant labour

As early as 1948, Oppenheimer was “arguing that the migrant labour system was economically unsound (although cheap migrant labour had served the mines well enough up to that point). There was a strong case, he contended, especially on the new mines opening in the Orange Free State, for housing to be provided to the wives and children of up to 10% of the black labour force.”

That may have seemed relatively progressive at the time, but Anglo continued to rely on labour drawn from poor rural areas such as neighbouring Mozambique and the former homelands – a workforce that perished by the thousands in South Africa’s deep and dangerous mines, and that saw its real wages decline for decades until the 1970s.

Oppenheimer, and Anglo because of their mining interests and reliance on brutally exploited migrant labour, were long viewed as key pillars that propped up apartheid.

“Ruth First, the South African Communist Party activist banned by the government after the events at Sharpeville (in 1960), summed up this view: ‘A regular critic of apartheid, he (Oppenheimer) has probably done more than anyone else to fuel the economic machine on which the strength of white supremacy depends’,” Cardo notes.

First, who would be assassinated by a letter bomb in Maputo sent by apartheid agents in 1982, articulated a view that in many ways has endured, and it is hardly one that is restricted to the Marxist left or radical political parties like the EFF.

The migrant labour system did indeed help to swell Anglo’s coffers, and South Africa is still grappling with its pernicious legacies. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: How the twilight of South Africa’s migrant labour system spawned a social apocalypse

Mandela ‘deal’ myth

Yet Cardo is bang on in shooting down the perception that Oppenheimer, as one of the alleged forces of “white monopoly capital”, struck a behind-the-scenes deal with the revered Mandela to maintain white economic supremacy.

“The notion that Mandela and Oppenheimer covertly brokered an economic pact is fantasy, a self-serving fiction invented by the left to explain why the Rainbow Nation’s glory faded, and why ‘the revolution’ was derailed,” Cardo writes.

“The only accord reached between South Africa’s black and white elites was the Constitution; there was no comparable economic covenant.”

The Oppenheimer’s Brenthurst Group – named for the family’s sprawling Johannesburg estate – was indeed involved in wide-ranging discussions with Mandela and the ANC as they prepared to assume – and after they gained – power. But the ANC was in the driver’s seat. Cardo notes that the labour and exchange control regimes which emerged in the mid-1990s were strikingly at odds with Oppenheimer’s hopes for a “fully liberalised economy”.

Indeed, Mandela’s conversion from the full-scale nationalisation advocated today by the EFF was prompted by the communist bosses of Vietnam and China in the ultra-elite setting of Davos.

“… neither Anglo nor Oppenheimer induced Mandela to turn his back on nationalisation, which he famously did in February 1992 in the rarified atmosphere of Davos, spurred on by the socialist leaders of China and Vietnam,” Cardo pointedly writes.

Mandela, he continues, said: “We either keep nationalisation and get no investment, or we modify our attitude and get investment.”

So if there is a “smoking gun” here that shot nationalisation down, its barrel was directed from Asia, and not some shadowy WMC hand.

This is an area where Oppenheimer and Mandela, who had a relationship that dated back to the 1950s, certainly did find some common ground.

The wooing of foreign capital has long been a theme in South African economic history, and attracting outside investment remains a key plank of the current administration, even as it oversees a failing state that is the biggest obstacle to that goal.

“The pursuit of foreign capital forms a distinctive thread in Oppenheimer’s chairmanship of Anglo and De Beers. He understood it to be an iron law of South African economic history that, since the discovery of deep-level gold, the country depended on a steady inflow of foreign capital,” Cardo writes.

One example was a speech Oppenheimer gave in 1959 to the London Institute of Directors entitled, “Is South Africa a Good Risk?” The term “risk” – be it political, economic, social or environmental – has taken centre stage in current corporate discourse. But it has long played a role in investment decisions and the deployment of capital, and Oppenheimer had his nose attuned to such winds.

Cardo points out that purely from the perspective of an investor seeking returns, South Africa was indeed a risk well worth taking at the time, as the national income over the preceding two decades had soared to two billion pounds, from 375 million pounds in 1937, while the economy had diversified into manufacturing.

The withering contrast with the current state of affairs on this front could hardly be more stark.

Colourful cast

On a lighter note, this work is also peppered with telling and delightful anecdotes. There is a colourful cast of characters who share the stage with Oppenheimer, and they are by no means as saintly as Madiba.

Take Charles Engelhard Jr, an American tycoon who became a friend and business associate of Oppenheimer. His father had built up a prosperous US-based business processing and refining precious metals and bequeathed his hard-living son a fortune. Junior first visited South Africa in the late 1940s and added to his nest egg by manufacturing solid gold artefacts and ashtrays for Far East markets.

“At their point of departure,” Cardo writes, “they were melted down into gold bars. In this way, Engelhard circumvented South Africa’s bullion regulations and earned himself a spot in the pantheon of fictional villains. Reputedly, Engelhard was the inspiration for the character of Auric Goldfinger, James Bond’s larger-than-life adversary in the 1959 novel Goldfinger.”

Today, Zamas Zamas, whose treacherous work is a legacy of the migrant labour system, are fingered for their role in a similar criminal enterprise. Those at the top of these illicit and enriching value chains are following a trail first trod by one of Oppenheimer’s pals.

Of course, another Bond film based on an Ian Fleming novel of the same name would be entitled, “Diamonds Are Forever”.

Oppenheimer’s legacy may or may not be forever, but his life and work have been well documented in this fine book, which is also in many ways a reflection on South Africa’s tumultuous 20th century.

Harry Oppenheimer died in 2000, but contestation over his memory will live on. DM


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