Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, son of a German cigar merchant, moved from London to South Africa in 1902 at the age of 22. Hard-working and entrepreneurial, he and partners formed the Anglo American Corporation of South Africa Limited in 1917. The business grew rapidly as did his involvement in civil society and philanthropy. He represented the Kimberley constituency as a member of the United South African Party led by General Jan Smuts from 1924 to 1938 and impressed upon the shareholders of Anglo American “The policies and enterprises of our Corporation are directed with a high sense of the public interest and with the aim of performing useful services to the community and the country; we should earn profits but in such a way as to make a real and permanent contribution to the well-being of the people and to the development of South Africa.”
Following Sir Ernest’s death in 1957, Harry Oppenheimer honoured his father’s memory as a man committed to the common good, when he established The Ernest Oppenheimer Memorial Trust “…. in consideration of the love and affection which he bore him.” With a generous donation of £1,000,000 (matching the issued share capital of the Anglo American Corporation 40 years before) the Trust set out to use its income and, if necessary, portions of the capital, “for the benefit of any institution for the advancement of science or art or of an educational, charitable or ecclesiastical nature, …. and otherwise wholly for purposes which are in the public interest….”. The Trust Deed guides rather than restricts the Trustees, stating that “… such assistance and aid shall be primarily for the benefit of the people of the Union of South Africa, South West Africa and the Federation of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland irrespective of race, colour or creed….”.
Ahead of its time? Undoubtedly within the South African context. The 1950s were a period of enormous upheaval for the majority of South Africans. Increasingly repressive apartheid laws impacted on every aspect of the lives of back South Africans through a process of unprecedented social engineering. Inequality was embedded. It was against this socio-political backdrop that the Ernest Oppenheimer Memorial Trust – now known as the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust (or OMT) – framed its founding documents, committing to the progress of South Africa and its citizens.
Like his father, Harry Oppenheimer was known both for his business acumen and enlightened approach to the role of business in society. From the outset, these characteristics informed the intent of the Trust and its activities, consistently responsive to the prevailing environment to ensure that resources were targeted effectively. A sound and conservative investment policy guaranteed the sustainability of the Trust and the inclusion of non-family members as Trustees, drawing on individuals with different life experiences, offered a broad and invaluable perspective to support its philanthropic giving.
Support for education was – and remains – of paramount importance, and the Trust acted in 1958 to fulfil its mandate by introducing generous bursary programmes alongside capital grants. In 1962 the Trust initiated the Sir Ernest Oppenheimer Fellowships and in later years, introduced University Travelling Fellowships, the WD Wilson Visiting Fellowships and the GR Bozzoli Senior and Junior Technikon Fellowships, alongside other programmes. The year 2000 saw the introduction of the Trust’s most prestigious award, the Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship.
The history of the OMT has been varied and invariably full.