The Oppenheimers… and the making of modern South Africa

For more than a century the family has played a central role in SA’s economy.
Bobby Godsell takes a look at the influence of the Oppenheimers on SA.


When, at the age of 22, Ernest Oppenheimer set foot on the Cape Town dock in 1902, he was opening a new chapter in the history of his family, and of their newly adopted homeland. Oppenheimer headed to Kimberley, his mission to learn the art and skills of valuing and trading diamonds. But for Oppenheimer, this journey was more than a stepping-stone towards a place in English aristocracy. He came seeking more than a career. He came seeking a country.

The Oppenheimers across three generations have played at least three significant roles in the history of SA.

They contributed to the making of a modern economy. In 1917, Oppenheimer founded Anglo American, whose purpose was to fund deep-level gold mining (800ft deep!) on the East Rand.

In the 1920s, he fought a protracted and robust board battle to gain control of De Beers. In the 1930s, his son, Harry, played a leading role in helping De Beers and diamonds survive the Great Depression proving, through a marketing campaign rivalled only in scale and duration by Coca-Cola, that diamonds are indeed forever.

In the 1950s, Ernest and Harry pursued their vision of deep-level gold mining with the establishment of Western Deep Levels on the far West Rand.

In the 1960s the Oppenheimers bet the future of Anglo on the establishment of seven new gold mines in the central Free State.

In the 1970s, Anglo expanded into coal with the dramatic expansion of coal production for Eskom and the export market, with a new port (Richards Bay) and a heavy-duty rail line from the coalfields to this port.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Oppenheimers and Anglo diversified into many other sectors of the economy. In property, Anglo built the Carlton Centre, then the largest concrete structure in the world. Through the Discount House it deepened and refined our country’s financial services sector. Through Highveld Steel, it innovated new technologies for steel and vanadium production. Through Scaw Metals, it broadened the SA economy’s iron and steel fabrication capacities. Through the creation of Mondi, it established a world-class pulp & paper products business.

The legacy of these investments will be with SA for decades to come, even though the ownership of many of these businesses has changed and is more diverse.

The radical modernisation of De Beers under the leadership of Nicky Oppenheimer has allowed this company to continue its role as the world’s leading producer and marketer of diamonds.

The second dimension of this Oppenheimer African journey is that of active citizenship. Ernest Oppenheimer waited only a few years after his arrival on SA shores before exercising his civic duties, being elected to the Beaconsfield, and then Kimberley, town council in 1908. He spent 14 years in municipal government, rising to be mayor of Kimberley (no mean achievement for someone with German origins) before entering SA’s parliament in 1924 for a similar period. In his national politics Oppenheimer joined the SA Party, the party of Botha and Smuts – the party that sought to unite English- and Afrikaans-speaking South Africans. A more conventional choice would have been the Unionist or Dominion parties, the parties of English capitalists.

Towards the end of his life Ernest became a strong supporter of the Federation of Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. This federation sought a cautious but, at least for the settler politics of the day, progressive political enfranchisement for the populations of these three countries (now Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi). The federation failed due to, among other reasons, the upwelling of white racism in then Southern Rhodesia which brought Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front to power, and led to that country’s unilateral declaration of independence .

Perhaps Ernest Oppenheimer’s dream of a large, prosperous and just African country embodied by this federation was naive. It certainly seems so seen through the prism of contemporary history. Yet if the British empire had led all of its colonies down the road of progressive enfranchisement of all adult citizens over time – Nigeria and India advancing towards inclusive democracy at the same pace as Canada and Australia – how different the world would be.

Harry Oppenheimer entered parliament in 1948, echoing his father’s poor sense of timing (1924), each witnessing the installation of governments led by Afrikaner nationalists. He remained in parliament for a decade until Ernest’s death. Harry was as intensely interested in politics as his father. Though out of parliament by the late 1950s, Harry’s support for the 13 members of the United Party who broke away to form the timidly nonracial Progressive Party, was vital to that party’s survival through the long period from 1961 to 1974, when it had a single parliamentary representative, Helen Suzman.

Oppenheimer was also an important backer of the Torch Commando, an organisation mainly of white ex-servicemen, campaigning to defend the common roll voting rights of coloured South Africans.

Beyond his direct involvement in white party politics Oppenheimer, and the businesses he led, often provided support to South Africans who fell foul of the apartheid state. The list is a long one, from some of the accused in the Treason Trial of 1956 to Cosmas Desmond and David Adler in the 1980s .

In the 1980s, Anglo adopted a formal policy that where its employees disappeared without being charged (which usually meant political incarceration) they would remain on the payroll, with material support for their families and legal support to seek their release.

In a crucial area of this broader political contest Harry Oppenheimer argued for the recognition by both government and business of trade-union rights for black workers. When this call was put to the test in Anglo’s back yard, it argued for union rights for all black mineworkers, irrespective of the influx control status and including workers from Lesotho and Mozambique.

Organising rights were given to the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), and collective bargaining with this union commenced when it had organised a small minority of both Anglo and the industry’s black workforce. In 1987 this unionisation process resulted in the largest strike in SA (mining) history – a brutal battle for control, from which neither union nor management emerged as winner. The code of conduct agreement that resulted from this strike set out to shape and limit the behaviour of management and its security forces on the one hand, and union leaders and union members on the other, on Anglo mining properties. This agreement was an important precursor to the National Peace Accord and the Convention for a Democratic SA (Codesa).

The creation of The Urban Foundation, under the leadership of Harry Oppenheimer and Anton Rupert, in the late 1970s, which sought to make “decent” urbanisation possible for black South Africans, is a further example of this active citizenship.

In more recent times Anglo, with leadership from Nicky Oppenheimer, has been involved in other instances of active citizenship. The decision by Anglo and De Beers companies to extend antiretroviral drug treatment to HIV/Aids- stricken employees occurred in the face of government’s refusal to do so.

The third and final dimension is that of philanthropy. This is an old-fashioned word that describes the obligation of those who possess great wealth to use their wealth to benefit others.

On the occasion of the death of Ernest Oppenheimer, Harry created a trust whose purpose was to do just that. Over the past 50 years or so this trust has supported educational institutions, and enabled hundreds of gifted South Africans to advance their studies.

In addition to the family trust, each of the businesses the Oppenheimers established has a tradition of philanthropy, or corporate social investment, that compares with the best across the world .

Harry’s wife, Bridget, with a handful of women from across our diverse communities, created Women for Peace. Among other things, this organisation offered poor women throughout southern Africa the energy- and environment- friendly “wonder pot” in which a meal can be prepared first thing in the morning, cook slowly during the day and be ready to be eaten when the family returns from work.

Harry’s daughter, Mary, has championed many institutions in the arts, including the Market Theatre and the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

Could the Oppenheimers have done more? Could they have been more effective opponents of racist oppression? Could they have been more progressive employers? Could they have been more effective in their philanthropy? The answer in each case must be yes. But that applies not just to the Oppenheimer family, but all white South Africans, especially those who wielded great social and economic power.

There is another question that is as important. Would our country be a poorer place to live in if Ernest Oppenheimer had (like so many of his colonial colleagues) returned to a fine house in Park Lane, London, after a few years in this country and lived a prosperous and quiet life there? Or perhaps continued his voyage on the ship that brought him to Cape Town and settled in Australia? I think it would .

Nicky Oppenheimer’s departure from the Anglo board, and the family’s sale of its interests in De Beers closes one chapter on one part of the Oppenheimer influence. It also opens a new one. The family will continue to be a SA and Africa-centric investor in economic activity and growth. The family will continue to be a SA sovereign wealth fund, helping new businesses start and existing ones grow.

Nicky and his son, Jonathan, will continue their deep engagement in the politics of our continent, through the activities of the Brenthurst Foundation and through the quiet but influential conversations that take place at Tswalu in the Karoo.

Mary will continue to host dinners with South Africans of note at her dinner table at Brenthurst, a tradition her mother and father established over decades. She will continue to drive and grow the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust.

As for the next generation, Jonathan, Victoria, Rebecca, Jessica and Rachel, SA and the continent will continue to be a vital part of their lives.

The Oppenheimer tradition will continue in both old and new ways through Nicky and Mary and the next generation.

Given the challenges and opportunities that face SA, we need more than the impact of this family alone. So the question is: who will truly shape the future of our beloved country, who will join this tradition of wealth creator, nation builder and anchor of social solidarity? Who will continue, extend, and perfect this tradition of economic and political risk-taking? Who will be standing with the Oppenheimers in the 21st century?

As published on fm.co.za