In 1997 Professor Charles van Onselen’s appointment brought other new perspectives. As much of a maverick by reputation as the Trust itself, he looks back on his tenure with pleasure. “The Oppenheimer Memorial Trust (OMT) is a group of very cerebral people looking at contemporary South Africa from a social, educational and environmental perspective, very consciously trying to identify where the gaps are, areas periodically either neglected by the state or simply off the radar of other companies in respect of corporate social investment, or of foundations abroad. All Trusts work with a vision and then get tied up and become bureaucratically arthritic.
The OMT was something of an anti- inflammatory.” Conscious of the Trust’s freedom, because it is a family Trust, to do what is right without having to account to shareholders, he says: “It was eccentric, non partisan and non prescriptive – never middle of the road. Amazing people have benefited over time, very little of the good it does is known in the public arena.” Reiterating the value of focusing on individuals rather than bricks and mortar, where the value is often seen to be in the public hand-over of a cheque, he remarks that there is something uplifting about being able to reach a person in a way that makes a difference, and very often all that is needed is encouragement and some money. Consistent with this was his work with Godsell on developing the Harry Oppenheimer Fellowships, where the underlying rationale was to support senior academics properly.
“These awards stand out for their generosity. There are no strings attached and an academic is free to travel with his or her family. The OMT does not fiddle about with the ‘B’ team, this targets people characterised by drive and a thirst for excellence. The mindset is ‘once you’ve identified talent and potential, it’s not about money and rules’.”
Leaving the Trust in 2004 to write his second book, ‘The Fox and the Flies’. His overriding memory is of stimulating debate, exciting exchanges of opinion and all ideas welcomed.