Noted philanthropist, promoter of peace, championship racehorse breeder
b. September 28 1921, Johannesburg; d. 23 October 2013, Johannesburg
Bridget Oppenheimer, widow of long-time Anglo American and De Beers chairman Harry Oppenheimer, was a leading figure in South African society who was noted for her valuable work in promoting peace and grassroots development projects. Harry Oppenheimer was a liberal political champion and an industrialist of global importance, one of the builders of modern South Africa. Despite being immersed in privilege, the Oppenheimers were driven by an abiding patriotism towards their country and to its development. As such, the couple became symbols not just of wealth and glamour, but also of responsible citizenry and principled opposition to the apartheid regime.
A woman of decidedly forthright views, she disliked fuss and was comfortable among all strata of society. The affectionate title of “Queen Mum of racing”, bestowed on her by generations of the horse racing community, speaks as much to her royal bearing as to her down-to-earth charm and approachability.
She was born in 1921 in Johannesburg, an only child. Her parents divorced when she was very young, and she was raised by her mother Marjorie, a keen amateur actress, singer and itinerant secretary who worked in many places including England, France, Cape Town and Johannesburg. As such, Bridget had a peripatetic early life, educated at several different places on the Continent. During the war, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Armed Forces and was posted to Robben Island as a signals lieutenant. She was subsequently promoted to the cipher office in Cape Town where she came into contact with several officers returning from the Desert War, including Harry Oppenheimer. Despite their age difference (Harry was thirteen years her senior) within a short space of time the two had fallen in love. In 1943 they married in Cape Town. As the war moved out of Africa the couple moved to Johannesburg, where Bridget threw herself into understanding the privileged new world which she was entering, and where the couple’s children, Mary and Nicholas (Nicky) were born.
The Brenthurst Gardens One of Bridget’s legacies remains her environmentalism. Following her father-in-law Sir Ernest Oppenheimer’s death in 1957, Bridget and Harry relocated to Brenthurst. They subsequently oversaw a major remodelling of the gardens, undertaken by the landscaper Joanne Pim who had previously worked on the landscaping of several of the Anglo American mining towns. The structural revisions which she added – the hard landscaping and the linking of the Brenthurst terrace to the lawns below – made the gardens accessible for the first time in the estate’s history. Working alongside Pim, Bridget oversaw the garden gradually acquiring a more elaborate structure and formality – encompassing classically formal, informal as well as wild gardens, each with a wealth of mature plantings of all kinds. On occasion she also added important elements independently. Following a visit to Japan in 1969, she brought back an ancient oak waterwheel which served as the inspiration for imbuing parts of the garden with a Japanese harmony. In time, the remarkable work of the pair led Brenthurst to become known as one of the great gardens of the world.
Bridget had a discerning eye for gardens. She would often insist that a plant be cut back or removed (sometimes to the dismay of her head gardeners); yet most often she was proved correct. In many ways, she was an old school gardener. Things had to conform and perform or out they would go, yet she always remained aware of the history of plants in her gardens.
Along with roses, she and Harry shared a passion for orchids and gained great pleasure in having these in their homes. Later, she allowed tours in the garden to raise funds for charities which she supported, and thousands of enthusiasts from all over the world visited.
Horse racing It was in horseracing, though, that she will be most fondly remembered. Her introduction to the glamorous world of horseracing, which began shortly after her marriage, was not entirely self-determined. She had had little exposure to it previously, but as Harry was fascinated with horseracing and with horse breeding, she initially entered this world more as a dutiful wife than anything else. It was soon, however, to become an obsession.
A Smuts supporter, in 1948 Harry followed in his father’s footsteps and ran for Parliament as the United Party candidate for Kimberley. The question arose, though, of how he could represent the city when he lived in Johannesburg, three hundred miles away. Harry settled the question by taking over Mauritzfontein – a remounting station during the Anglo-Boer war and latterly an old De Beers stud – and building a home there. In line with his passion, the couple developed the farm and experimented with breeding – a tradition which continues to this day, with most of the Oppenheimer champions being home-bred. Initially it was hard going, and even though the couple found early success with Wilwyn and Janus, this was tinged with the disappointments of Free Ride and Bodrum. It would take several decades of breeding experiments before their dedication paid off with a champion sire in Fort Wood, the only sire in South African history ever to sire three Horses of the Year – Dynasty, Hunting Tower and the incomparable Horse Chestnut. Horse Chestnut (a favourite of Bridget’s) won the Triple Crown as well as the J&B Met in 1999.
Bridget expressed her own and Harry’s affection for breeding and winning emphatically, saying “We were madly ambitious and we loved racing. We’d set our sights on being the best. We wanted to win every big race in South Africa and we wanted to breed the winners of every big race in the country.” But while the original love may have been Harry’s, over time it became her passion, arguably eclipsing even his. She would revel in the hurly-burly of the racing world, equally at home amongst jockeys, trainers and grooms as she would be among world leaders. She would also know each of her horses intimately, from their pedigree to their race records and – once they’d retired to Mauritzfontein – their sires. It was she who personally named all of the family horses. At the time of her death, the Oppenheimer racing colours of yellow and black were responsible for winning the Durban July a record six times and the Turfontein classic on a dozen occasions.
Women for Peace Despite the glamour which she brought to South African horseracing, perhaps her most meaningful contribution came in the field of grassroots development. In the aftermath of the pivotal 1976 Soweto uprisings which engulfed the country with strikes and violence, Bridget found herself deeply troubled by the seemingly intractable conflict between white and black, and the general direction towards which the country seemed to be hurtling. Born out of this crisis (and possibly stirred into action by her prodding) Harry had helped start The Urban Foundation which was dedicated to improving the social and educational environments of urban black people in the country. Equally determined to do something practical about the situation, she co-founded a non-political movement, Women for Peace, with Cecile Cilliers. This national movement, which was to last almost thirty years until its voluntary disbandment following the democratic elections in 1994, was a non-racial grouping of liberal women whose aim was to “help all South African women to get to know and understand one another better” by promoting communication and understanding between the races, and to utilise the power of women to explore avenues for seeking peaceful change and equal opportunities for all. In addition to being non-political, Bridget was clear that it should also be limited to women. “Women are not bound as men are by politics and convention,” she noted at the time.
Between Bridget and Cecile, they reached out to a diverse a group of women, drawn from all communities. The initial meeting was held on September 4th 1976 at Brenthurst, and a few months later more than a thousand women of all races answered a call to join Women for Peace at the Millpark Holiday Inn where Bridget and Deborah Mabiletsa, of the influential Black Women’s Federation of South Africa, spoke. While some of its initial ideals may seem quaint now, it is difficult to describe quite how far apart the different racial groups of the country were in the years following the 1976 uprisings; how deep the mistrust ran – and how little communication flowed. After decades of apartheid, Bridget had come to see that much more was needed than the carrying on of a political struggle within the white community, however high its ideals. “What was needed was not just to change the government, but [also] to soften and change the hearts of all the people,” she argued. While some critics, notably the Black Sash, felt it was not aggressive enough in demanding change, Women for Peace straddled a fine line between, on the one hand, winning over black women from the townships – many of whom were deeply suspicious of its motives – and on the other not alienating the increasing number of Afrikaners who were slowly realising that change was necessary for the survival of the country but who were cautious about embracing it.
In time and in line with Bridget’s sensible, practical focus, Women for Peace would come to embrace action and set up practical projects to further its aims. It established autonomous branches, concentrating their work on Centres of Concern – church halls, community meeting places, in fact anywhere where women could meet to learn practical skills such as literacy, sewing, typing or cooking. The Lenasia Centre of Concern focused on feeding and looking after pensioners; other centres in black townships focused on starting and stocking libraries with donated the books and shelves which poured in as a result of appeals to the South African public. A special committee set up to investigate the difficulties experienced by township dwellers who had to pay significantly more for their basic foodstuffs because of the lack of supermarkets, agitated the retail giants to open cheaper outlets near townships to service this need. The social surveys of 1982, which were conducted by Professor Tony Lamont of UNISA into the attitudes of whites in Hillbrow and Mayfair towards the Group Areas Act was used to indicate to the public that a growing number of white people were softening their views towards forced residential segregation. Beginning in 1983, a weekly piece, Did You Know?, was published in The Star highlighting social issues facing black people in the townships about which ordinary white South Africans knew little. But perhaps the organisation’s most enduring project was the one which Bridget had the most passion for – and which she is still linked with, in the minds of thousands of working South Africans – the Wonderbox.
The Wonderbox The Wonderbox is a slow-cooking, low-energy device which has helped transform the lives of thousands of low-income families throughout South Africa. Food brought to the boil in a pot is then placed between the cushions of the box. The cooking will then go on inside the Wonderbox for hours, so the box is a boon, especially in rural areas and urban tenements where fuel is in short supply. In South Africa, where the configuration of racial dwelling meant black people lived furthest from the city centres and thus had to spend substantial time travelling, the Wonderbox was especially useful for working mothers who could prepare the evening meal before they left for work in the early morning. The concept had originally come from Anna Pierce, who belonged to a Cape church group called Compassion. In 1978 she approached Women for Peace for help in finding a suitable way to insulate a fuel-efficient cooking box based on the old haybox principle pioneered by women during the First World War. At the time, Bridget had been very interested in seeing for herself how black people were coping in the aftermath of the 1976 riots. Aware that one of the legacies of apartheid was a destruction of the fabric of family lives, she was keen to assist in this area as well as helping families benefit from eating nutritiously. Despite the executive committee of Women for Peace being sceptical, Bridget saw the potential of the project to help her achieve her vision, and immediately set about it with vigour. It would soon become her pet project along with her chief lieutenant, Dailinah Khoza, a trained domestic science teacher.
Under Bridget’s stewardship, polystyrene chips placed within the cushions were discovered to be the most energy efficient and the design modified to accommodate this – a design feature which continues to this day. Bridget further added to the power of the Wonderbox by introducing simple ways of cooking the protein-rich soya bean and other nutritious but economic foodstuffs. From 1978 until she retired in 1991, Bridget and her team of volunteers traversed the most rural, often inhospitable, areas, introducing the benefits of soya and giving practical cooking demonstrations for as many women who wanted it. The preparation was tiring; every demonstration was prepared well in advance, in great quantities, and days would often begin in the kitchen at 4.15am. The team of volunteers travelled throughout the black townships; from the vast spaces of Botswana to the remotest tropical shores of KwaZulu Natal, up to Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique. A feature of their work was that they travelled inconspicuously, in a little Hi-Ace van, with no security and often unaware of the reception which would await them. But as long as there were women who were willing to listen and to provide them with an area to cook, they were prepared to come.
It also led to some comical incidents. In Brits, a welcoming committee of townswomen in their Sunday finest were somewhat subdued as they received Bridget in her walking shoes and apron. “But we expected a young thin woman called Mrs Oppenheimer,” they enquired. “Bad luck,” came her swift retort, “you have a tall grey-haired fat lady who is Mrs Oppenheimer!” In war-torn Zambia, where the exiled ANC was headquartered and where frequent S.A.D.F. incursions took place, the team successfully navigated the dusty roads until their van broke down. After having it towed to Chingola, the nearest town, it was discovered that a wrong part had been inserted when it had been fixed two days previously in Chifubul. On another occasion in Gelukspan during the depths of winter, Ray, Dailinah and Bridget found themselves having to share a rickety bunk-bed. With Ray in the bunk above her, and Dailinah in the bunk below, Bridget’s words of advice to Ray were, “If you fall, make sure you fall on the floor and not on us.”
Later years Following Harry’s retirement from Anglo American and De Beers in 1990, Bridget devoted more time to being by his side, and formally retired from Women for Peace – though she maintained a healthy interest in Wonderbox, which continued to be headquartered on the Brenthurst Estate.
The advent of democracy in 1994 was the source of much satisfaction for both Harry and Bridget – something Harry was able to enjoy until his death six years later, at the age of 90.
Bridget herself lived in good health until a few weeks before her death, at the age of 92. She passed away at her home Blue Skies, situated at the top of the family estate. She is survived by her children Mary and Nicky, five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Written by Kalim Rajab, November 2013