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The New York Times declares Elon Musk guilty of being a white South African

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Palesa Morudu is a writer.

There may be a lot that is unlikable about this particular billionaire, but being a white South African is surely not a credible starting point for a takedown.

The May 5 edition of The New York Times featured a story entitled “In Musk’s past, a South Africa rife with misinformation and white privilege”. The conclusion drawn from the piece is that Elon Musk, the Tesla billionaire who wants to buy Twitter, is guilty of being a white South African.

I hold no brief for Musk. He attended Pretoria Boys High School, an elite and overwhelmingly white school a few kilometres up the road from the township of Mamelodi, where I was born and raised. The boys and girls of my neighborhood could only dream of the resources Musk had access to, because apartheid privileged white people at the expense of everyone else.

Pretoria Boys was established in 1901 in the middle of the South African War (1899–1902), a bloody conflict between colonial Britain and the two Boer republics over who would ultimately control South Africa. The British won and in 1910 declared South Africa a self-governing union within its empire.

The union, of course, denied black people their rights to citizenship. If there was any doubt, the new government followed through with the Land Act of 1913, which legalised the theft of native land that had been going on since the arrival of the Dutch settlers in 1652 – and at an accelerated pace with the arrival of the first settlers from the British Isles in 1820. This history frames both South Africa’s historic conflict and its post-apartheid development.

From the very beginning, Pretoria Boys was a school that provided a platform for “our boys to be the best that they can be”. Indeed. And for decades, this platform was for white boys only. Musk, as we know, went on to become the richest man on the planet.

There are, however, other notable individuals who attended Pretoria Boys. They include Justice Edwin Cameron, who served on the South Africa’s Constitutional Court and was hailed as one of South Africa’s heroes, by Nelson Mandela for being a champion of gay rights. Peter Hain, the anti-apartheid activist and British Member of Parliament for Labour, is also an alumnus, as is Michael Levitt, a professor of structural biology at Stanford University. They, too, have white skins.

Back in 1951, The New York Times was ecstatic when another former Pretoria Boys student, Dr Max Theiler, won the Nobel Prize in physiology for developing a yellow fever vaccine. The American paper of record greeted the news with the front-page headline, “Nobel Prize won by New Yorker”, noting that he “was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and is still a South African citizen, although has lived in the US since 1923”.

Dr Theiler received the Nobel three years after apartheid, the all-encompassing system of racial segregation, became official government policy in South Africa. Curiously, the Times didn’t see this as news fit to print. This begs the question: why is Elon Musk a product of white privilege today in The New York Times, and Dr Theiler 70 years ago was not?

There may be a lot that is unlikable about this particular billionaire, but being a white South African is surely not a credible starting point for a takedown.

The central problem with the Musk piece is that The New York Times has imposed its latter-day American racialist lens on what is a supposedly South African story. This approach, which infects more and more of the paper’s reporting and commentary, is effectively a new form of tribalism – the opposite of the nonracial worldview championed by Mandela.

What, for example, are we to make of the authors’ contorted implication that Musk’s views on free speech and his pending purchase of Twitter should be suspect purely on the basis that he was born white in a country that denied free speech to its citizens who were black? “It is unclear what role his childhood – coming up in a time and place in which there was hardly a free exchange of ideas and where government misinformation was used to demonise black South Africans – may have played in that decision,” the writers postulate. Should this logic extend to all white South Africans or is this only reserved for Musk?

Some of the other assertions look like special pleading, or are downright risible. “Elon’s electric car company, Tesla, has faced serious accusations of racism.” Oh, really? Have Ford and General Motors never faced such accusations? Is Tesla therefore “more racist” because it’s owned by someone born in South Africa, which held its first democratic elections 28 years ago?

In the Times’s blinkered world view, skin colour is destiny, and the reader is left poorer for it. DM

Palesa Morudu is a South African writer based in Washington, DC, and a director at Clarity Global Strategic Communications.

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All Comments 35

    • Martin Luther said, here I stand, so help me God, I can no otherwise.

      Elon went to PBH and was born in South Africa. Can’t change that, and no, that’s not a crime.

  • Brilliant piece and begs the right questions. I’m sure Musks origins have strongly influenced his desire to defend and protect freedom of speech it was the very thing removed from black coloured and white South Africans against apartheid. Yes, freedom of speech— shouldn’t NYT journalists be in support of that?Clearly they skew the meaning of his origins to support their dislike.

  • Great article, thanks. Non-racism means everybody, including the media must be non-racist, and the NYT has just broken that rule.

    The media is South Africa must be careful not to fall into the same racist hole. There was an article in a South African publication where a bunch of white cyclists was accused of being racist because they were not wearing face masks and a black man walking along was wearing a mask. Duh!

  • The need to find fault in success is appalling , elevate people, don’t diminish their abilities. Wokeism invalidates the very people they supposedly champion by belittling others.

  • Tribalism and polarization seem to be the fuel that drive so much of today’s media. It’s literally maddening.

    Good piece Palesa.

  • Pure gutter journalism NYT.
    Musk may have been born and experienced his early life in SA, but his family emigrated when he was just 17. Perhaps they couldn’t stomach the NP regime of the time and left for an environment where the melanin level in ones skin was not an issue.

    • Your speculation that Musk’s family emigrated because they opposed the NP is perfectly plausible. Musk’s father, Errol Musk, stood for the Progressive Party (or one of its successors) in Pretoria. I do not recall it if it was for national or municipal elections. It might have been for both. But I clearly recall “Vote for Errol Musk” posters around Pretoria.
      (And, yes, the father/son problems have been well documented elsewhere.)

    • Now more than ever … we should be reminded of the aphorism by MLK : “judge people not by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character” …. to which I would add their ‘caste or status/wealth’ ! Your observation about ‘context’ should be worth remembering – we all have prejudices or preferences of one or another … and few of us are able to unshackle ourselves from those limitations without the kind of introspection and meditation that the likes of Gandhi and Tutu engaged in on a daily basis . The discipline for that is too onerous for most of us.

  • It makes me wonder how they got to the point of establishing the school. When they arrived in 1652 they were basically savages with a boat. Imported the ideas as they went along?

  • Envy of the ability of some to provide services to others that they pay for of their own volition in a free market is a sickness that the unproductive need to find their own medicine for, after all it’s a sickness that they have created from within their culture and have deflected or transferred responsibility and ownership for their inability to be productive to the productive ones in society. The only way to address the issue is for the lazy ones to not spend time worrying about why productive people are seem to always have more money than them, but to realize that they have money because they are not lazy and don’t concern themselves with others wealth but concentrate on being productive and providing services or products that are superior at a more competitive price. Unproductive people don’t seem to have made the connection between productivity and value creation. Why is it that contribution towards the social contract is heavily biased towards the productive ones. Surely in a just society EVERYONE should contribute equally. A injustice that is perpetuated against the productive in society and needs to change. EVERYONE should contribute and benefit equally and in equal measure that is fair and just. The architecture of the social contract needs to create the mechanisms for this fair and just reality to exist. Why do only some contribute it’s a unjust crime against the productive. The lazy must also contribute in some way shape or form and not just unjustly benefit.

  • Boo hoo – although I’m not an EM fan, I’m sure he is not in the least bothered. Reparations for slavery and investigating where ‘old money’ in the USA comes from would be more useful. My guess – sugar, cotton, tobacco worked by slaves.

  • Great rebuttal, thank you. The NYT nonsense was a poor attempt at sensationalism which failed miserably, being poorly researched and borderline incoherent. It reaffirmed to me that cancelling my paid subscription was a good idea.

  • I’m near the end of Stephen Hawking’s book “Brief Answers To The Big Questions” and one point that he and Musk have in common is their understanding of the urgent need to enable mankind to elevate itself into a multi-planet species, and eventually to an interstellar species. This is where they both chose to focus their (considerable) intellect, not some microscopically petty squabble involving melanin. The rest of us would do well to keep that in mind that.

  • This is written in the proper journalistic tradition…great article.
    The New York Times has just shown its true colours and should henceforth be ignored. This is not about the truth or human interest…. It is 100% dictated to their agenda and completely immoral. Get this article out there.

  • The focus on race by NYT is a woke tactic to divert attention from the real reason that Musk bought Twitter – to promote free speech by opening up its algorithms to public scrutiny and by cancelling the power of a handful of individuals to cancel whomsoever they wanted. How this is used to challenge his character beats me.

  • I think my coming of age with the NYT when I was in uni and I tried to do a paper on the Sabra & Shitala massacre in Lebanon in 1982. The NYT published one article mentioning that it had happened and then went into complete radio silence. In the pre-internet era, these media giants ruled all flow of information into society.

    That they’re trying to take down the new kid on the block is hardly surprising. Not that I’m terribly fond of Elon Musk but, yeah, feels like a cheap shot.

  • The need to criticize unwarranted financial rewards for minor successes resulting from the collaboration of many is always necessary. Why is it these oligarchs emerge when the conditions of the working classes are regressing? Maybe we should think more on what B. F. Skinner meant when he accurately said ” the environment should get the credit.”

  • You get the bigoted writers and periodicals, like the NYT, who publish this nonsense.

    Are all Germans Nazis? No.

    What we do know in SA, which has always known race based policies, even now with BEE, is that the only way to overcome racist pasts is to drop all references to race, which means sunsetting BEE.

    • I agree, but political expediency (and profitability) will make sure sunsetting BEE never happens. There’s simply too much money to be made by corruption that hides behind race-based “moral imperatives”.

  • Nice commentary! True, Elon may be a dickhead, but he’s not necessarily ours – he does not identify as South African, and he effectively does nothing for us or with us, but using his apparently fraught background in SA to bash him with is simply stupid.

  • I wonder if the NYT has done a count of the amount of South Africans who work in the US who have chosen not to give up South African citizenship, because they want to be part of a free and non-racial society – South Africa.
    It is astounding that an article like this could be written in a country so culturally and racially divided, so broken and so morally inept can be so arrogant as to refer to the wrongs of the past in any other country.
    At least we have moved on from fighting for the right to abortion, we know that black lives matter, racism is unacceptable and we are humble enough not to interfere in the politics of other countries.
    I too will end my subscription to this, now tabloid, today.

  • Excellent article highlighting poor attitude of NY to minimise successful, smart leadership of innovators like Elon Musk

  • How much of the New York Times article is based on their analytical take on EM and how much of it is driven by the fact that Twitter is a major threat to print media?

  • Stopped reading the NYT long ago. In wokeness they shall report like this. What they do not seem to appreciate is that the very essence of their business is free speech and they can ask their counterparts in Russia about that.

  • I’m not convinced that the perpetual (re)weaponising race – each time by another ideology to achieve a “lofty goal” as motivation – result in bringing greater equality and fostering racial harmony.

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