Defend Truth


There is more at stake in the Anglo American-BHP debate than meets the eye


Dr Taddy Blecher is CEO of the Maharishi Invincibility Institute and the Imvula Education Empowerment Trust. He is a pioneer of the free tertiary education movement in South Africa, and winner of the Skoll Prize, World Economic Forum Awards, and more than 30 other awards for education innovation and social entrepreneurship.

This is a company that has always, for better or worse, been attuned to the idea that a company is not a plaything of a limited group of people; it exists to generate and deliver value for shareholders.

My training as an actuary has been invaluable over the past three decades. In the actuarial profession, one quickly learns that quantifying what is truly at stake in any problem needs to be comprehensive and holistic. It’s akin to searching for lost keys under a streetlamp simply because you think that’s where the light is brightest. 

The real issues, however, often lie beyond the immediate illumination – beyond what you can see. 

In the context of the Anglo American-BHP takeover debate, there is much more at stake than what is immediately visible. What is at stake relates to the very soul and purpose of these individual companies and their starkly contrasting approaches to how they do business.

The pages of this newspaper, and others, have been filled with many views addressing a range of issues related to BHP’s proposed takeover of Anglo American. Many of these have reflected on commercial considerations and the views of shareholders and government. But what has been missing from the debate is a reflection on what else is at stake – what Anglo American actually represents to South African society.

Many people of my generation have straddled two eras of South African society – pre- and post-democracy. A common feature in both is the role of Anglo American in South African society. 

Throughout the course of history in South Africa, and even today, numerous books, documentaries and plays have been written about Anglo American – underscoring its permanence as a feature in transforming South Africa for the better for over a century.

Its multifaceted history and legacy are, of course, contested: no one could ever argue for the merits of the hostel system, or the migrant-labour system and its harms – but in the same vein, its role in industrialising southern Africa, while contributing immensely to South Africa’s social development, has uplifted the lives of multiple millions of South Africans, and can hardly be ignored.

There are several things that you can find about Anglo American’s role as a South African corporate citizen – that its leadership have consistently and in an unbroken fashion always committed to doing what is right, particularly when it was unfashionable to do so. For example, the company’s mines rapidly became the most unionised in South Africa, at a time when this was not popular in the mining industry.

The true role of a company in society 

Milton Friedman’s idea that the aim of a company is to only make a profit has been debunked countless times in the age of stakeholder capitalism. 

For a company like Anglo American, the idea of “stakeholder capitalism”, as we now know, was always commonplace. Those who are keen followers of the history of the company, and indeed the mining industry, will be familiar with a quote from its founder, Ernest Oppenheimer, who said in the 1950s:

“The aims of the Group have been – and still remain – to earn profits, but to earn them in such a way as to make a real and permanent contribution to the well-being of the people and to the development of southern Africa.”

Our organisation alone, which has directly educated and placed into jobs formerly unemployed individuals, earning them and their families in excess of R59-billion combined, is but a small part of the millions of lives that Anglo American has improved.

Herein lies the proverbial secret sauce: this is a company that has always, for better or worse, been attuned to the idea that a company is not a plaything of a limited group of people – it exists to generate and deliver value for shareholders, but this is not the antithesis of making “a real and permanent” contribution to society.

This is why every great nation needs what is typically termed “a national champion”. While many of these grow beyond their country of origin, and at times evolve to much smaller scales, companies as diverse as General Electric, Airbus, Michelin, Hyundai and Samsung are known in their country of origin as “national champions”. Their role is not only to continue the quest for enterprise but to uphold a sense of national pride and contribution. 

The point that has been missing in the Anglo American-BHP debate is not what the mining company ought to do, but who it is – its DNA. 

Ignoring this means that we lose sight of what is actually right for South Africa. 

A business that evolved over its 107-year journey is an essential link between the past and the future of our country. 

Over the 45 years in this journey that we have had support from Anglo American, we have repeatedly and on multiple occasions witnessed the beating heart and soul of Anglo American, when it comes to the wellbeing of our communities.  

Anglo’s long life has owed as much to a constant awareness of what it was and what it stood for as to its ability – right from the beginning of its long history – to change, expand and refocus its activities to meet the demands of the time.  

Surely it can continue to do this as the new Anglo? 

What does South Africa stand to lose? 

I have committed my life to ensuring access to quality education for all. Beyond the cliches, it is truly only quality education that can help South Africa build its path ahead, while also levelling the unequal playing field that millions of South Africans are confronted with because of our difficult past. 

South Africa is fortunate that, despite the continuing inequity in access to education, a handful of companies have committed themselves to opening the doors of learning for many – and Anglo American is a standout leader amongst these.

In the 1970s, South Africa had few schools, let alone places of tertiary education for young black people. Anglo American stepped in – essentially filling a gap for the government of the day. 

Before the 1976 riots, Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi began discussing the idea of a dedicated tertiary educational institution specialising in technical subjects for black students, to meet the urgent and growing demand for expertise in these subjects. Anglo American helped build the institution, which exists today. 

Then there’s the Soweto College of Education – the first of its kind for black teachers in South Africa – the All Saints College at Bisho which pioneered multiracial education; nonracial residences at South African universities; technical high schools, largely for black students; and funding for academic support and teacher upgrade programmes for students from disadvantaged communities. 

Our organisation also pioneered one of the first truly multiracial schools funded by Anglo. The list is endless. 

More recently, the company has committed R1-billion to education over a 10-year programme (2018-2028), making it the largest private sector-funded education programme in South Africa, that I am aware of. 

When we started one of our first bold attempts at making tertiary education inclusive and free, decades before the “fees must fall” movement, we quickly realised we would need a location that would address the scale required for a venture to educate tens of thousands of youth, which was once again generously donated by the company. 

Through the success and evolution of the Maharishi Invincibility Institute, Anglo came to the party once more in 2023, handing over one of the crown jewels in its history to serve the youth of the city of Johannesburg – the 45 Main Street building.

For the Maharishi Invincibility Institute, our relationship with Anglo American – which started originally in 1979, through our mother nonprofit association – has grown from strength to strength over many decades. 

We can only be profoundly, deeply grateful and even in awe of their long-term vision to help South Africans get into quality, sustainable jobs.

In a world where global markets are fiercely competitive and resources are increasingly scarce (take copper, for example), it is only natural to expect that companies will often merge, dissolve and re-emerge. But what we cannot accept is the erasure of the DNA of a company like Anglo, which is at the very fabric of much that is good in our society. 

This ethos made Anglo not just a company, but a distinctive and essential part of South Africa’s communities – essential, creative and sustaining. 

As decisions are made in boardrooms by others in far-flung places, those involved must consider Anglo’s unique role in South African society and reflect on preserving the values that have long set it apart. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Interested Observer says:

    Agree. So how the government has chosen to engage with Anglo in the recent past will play a role in how its shareholders chose to act now.

  • Rae Earl says:

    It would be to voters’ advantage to take this excellent exposè of the great contributions of Anglo American to the black black community over many decades. These commitments of altruism were undertaken by the Oppenheimer and Rupert families as a matter of course and in defiance of the Nationalist apartheid government. Julius Malema spews a never ending stream of hate against both families without ever taking into account the good they have returned to the blacks of SA in return for the work they received. Ramaphosa and before him Jacob Zuma have done absolutely nothing to improve the lives of their own communities and have, in effect, stolen them blind and will continue to do so while in power.

  • Craig Gordon Nain says:

    This is one of the most erudite articles I have never been priveleged to read.
    Mr Belcher’s assessment of the situation is thoughtful and heartfelt, characteristics which are sadly lacking in many of South Africa’s leading personalities.
    People like him and Thuli Madonsela would serve our Rainbow Nation well if they heeded the call for leaders of integrity.

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