How to Spread It: Mary Slack

Gayle Edmunds, City Press 28 July 2013

Mary Slack, the granddaughter of Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, has had a long association with the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust, which was created by her father Harry in memory of her grandfather. Both Sir Ernest and Harry had high ideals and were intensely conscious of their public responsibilities. Those values inform the work of the Trust and, through it, the attitude of Slack and the Oppenheimer family.

Apart from her position with the Trust, Mary has been engaged in fund-raising for innumerable projects, the first of which was Dorkay House, where the African Music and Drama Association met in the 1960s. She was also Managing Trustee of the Market Theatre from 1989 to 1992 and founded Business and Arts South Africa in 1997. Mary is currently the chair of the Brenthurst Library and Press as well as being a patron of the South African Mzansi Ballet and an active participant in the work of the Racing Trust.

Q. As a granddaughter of Sir Ernest and the daughter of Harry and Bridget Oppenheimer, you grew up in an affluent household but also in a family that gives back. The Oppenheimer Memorial Trust was formed back in 1958 the year after your grandfather died, and you were made a Trustee in 1971. How did giving back manifest itself at home while you were growing up?

A. The aims of the businesses they established were to earn profits but to do it in such a way as to make a real and permanent contribution to the wellbeing of the people of South Africa and to the development of the country. The Trust was founded by my father in memory of my grandfather so I grew up with the idea that you had to become involved, that it was part of the responsibility of being an affluent family. In those days there was very much the idea that business and personal giving were linked. One rule that Sir Ernest applied was never to lend money. He would give absolutely and without strings, or not at all.

Q. How have you passed on the culture of giving to your children?

A. My daughters grew up with the culture of giving and they have a fund of their own. What is great about all four of them is that they participate in causes they support. They are very responsible givers in that they follow-up, visit and try and play a meaningful role.

Q. What does philanthropy mean to you personally?

A. For people with money it is easy enough to give and much is expected but it is much harder to give wisely and engage with society, to ensure that funds are put to the uses intended and make a difference.

Q. In June, the 13th recipient of the Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award, launched in 2001, was announced as Professor Robin Crewe of the University of Pretoria. This award is given out to scholars “engaged in cutting-edge, internationally significant work that has a particular application to the advancement of knowledge, teaching, research and development in South Africa”. Professor Crewe will use the fellowship to produce a monograph on the life history of the honeybee. Some might say this is an odd project to select. How would you respond to that?

A. We look at the calibre and credentials of the applicants as well as the projects. It’s not that I select, there’s a very high-powered selection committee and in this case it was a unanimous decision. It is interesting because his research is so counter to our slightly sentimental thoughts about honeybees working together in complete harmony, and actually it turns out they are much more like us. It may appear that there is a bias, by chance not design, towards the natural sciences, but prominent philosophers, a historian as well as social scientists have also won the award. All in all, interesting selections but we don’t set out to say we want something particular in any year. The committee short-lists and interviews candidates and it is a tough process as extraordinary people apply.

Q. The Trust is about developing “human capital” and some of the previous recipients of grants attest to that. The likes of Christiaan Barnard, Frank Chikane, Jonathan Jansen, Ingrid Jonker, Wally Serote, Andrew Tracey and Mamphela Ramphele. Would it be fair to say that a mechanism such as the Trust gives you a unique opportunity to help in shaping South Africa’s contribution to the world?

A. Absolutely, the Trust has always looked to individuals. At the time it was founded, Harry was chairman of Anglo American and De Beers and they had the Chairman’s Fund which was bigger so that Fund tended to do bricks and mortar work, but the Trust was always about individuals. When I first worked for the Trust when I was much, much younger, we awarded undergraduate bursaries so there were countless applications as you can imagine. These created opportunities for many underprivileged people to pursue higher education. But the difficulty of dealing with thousands of applications on an individual basis became too much and now we put money into organisations specifically set up to administer bursaries and scholarships for undergraduate students, many of whom are first generation at higher education institutions. At this level we look at academic merit and some degree of financial need, but for the big one, The Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award, we go on excellence.

One of my highlights every year is the interviews with the matriculants who are entering tertiary education; it is an amazing and emotional experience. Some of them have walked or bussed for hours to get to school – and done well with no teachers and no books.

Q. In November 2012 your family announced an additional endowment of R1 billion to the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust. You have been quoted as saying ‘Although we have more money to spend we do not want to lose our sense of helping the individual.’ How have the additional funds for the Trust be allocated?

A. The Trust has always focused on the development of the capabilities of people, enabling individuals to further their education and fulfil their potential. This is wonderful because it only takes a couple of people to change the direction of a country. Look at Nelson Mandela, it only took one man there. There are many extraordinary young South Africans and we have the means to contribute to developing the country’s skills pool. With the additional endowment, we are able to look at other areas as well.

We must think about how we educate boys and young men, find role models given the growing phenomenon of “absent fathers”, so schooling for boys is becoming quite an issue. Another could be to work with government to improve the standard of the public service.

This endowment offers the Trust a chance to do additional things, not just more of the same. We can think about playing a more meaningful role in the whole schooling system, addressing the many social issues facing South Africa’s youth, violence in schools or some other real concerns.

Q. The Brenthurst Library, with your grandfather Sir Ernest Oppenheimer’s personal collection of Africana as its foundation, has as its mission to build and preserve the collection, while also making it accessible to researchers to disseminate knowledge. The Library and the Press, with you as its chair, function as philanthropic institutions, would this be a fair statement?

A. The library was begun with the hopes that it would be used by researchers and the press started out as a philanthropic venture to publish some of the manuscripts and illustrations that are in the library and make them available to a wider public. We haven’t produced a book in a while, but that is truly philanthropic because no matter how many you sell, you don’t make any money.

Q. You must have some wonderful stories about knowledge unearthed in the library. Can you share your favourite anecdote?

A. The librarian Sally MacRoberts would be able to tell you more stories , but one of the wonderful things is that Alan Paton donated his manuscripts for Cry the Beloved Country so they are there with all his handwritten annotations and crossings out.

Q. One of your passions is your horses and breeding horses to compete on the world’s race tracks. Your involvement in projects such as the Work Riders’ Training Programme and the Highveld Horse Care Unit, are other examples of giving back. How did you get involved in these two organisations?

A. The Racing Trust is there for the betterment of racing and the people in racing and the first thing we started was the programme for work riders. We have been dramatically successful in improving their skills and earning power, organising a series of work riders’ races and some of them have become jockeys. The Highveld Horse Care Unit began by looking after thoroughbred horses, but that has broadened. It now takes care of abused donkeys or mules and teaches people how to take care of their animals. It does a lot of work in Lesotho where conditions are shocking, and around Brits where they have donkeys that pull loads of water barrels. I love horses, and if you love a horse you don’t want to see any animal starving or abused.

Q. You are a co-patron of the South African Mzansi Ballet. What does a patron do?

A. Not a huge amount, that’s why I was talked into it by Dirk Badenhorst. I am not an expert on ballet at all, but I enjoy it very much. I was impressed by Badenhorst – and Iain McDonald’s – attempts to merge the two ballet companies, Mzansi Productions and the South African Ballet Theatre. They needed lots of support and it made good economic sense. There are many other organisations that should go the same route, orchestras for example. Previously in the ballet there’d be two sets of costumes for, say, Swan Lake which is madness.

The recent announcement that the City of Johannesburg has pledged R8 million to the company this year probably has a lot to do with the fact that it is one company, Joburg based with a Joburg voice. This means it has a chance to do long-term planning because of a meaningful commitment from government. It is lovely that we can develop a South African dance look and ethic.
We were considering a grant once for an orchestra or for the ballet, I can’t remember which, and Dr Mamphela Ramphele was there and I said perhaps we shouldn’t be supporting this kind of Western classical tradition. She said “Nonsense we must, where do you think soccer came from?”

Q. In 1997 you were the founding chairperson of Business and Arts South Africa, an organisation that marries specific business and arts organisations for mutual gain. This is an example of giving being about much more than money. Do you agree that philanthropy is changing from giving for giving’s sake to something much more sustainable?

A. I was the founder of Business and Arts South Africa and the idea was to teach artists to work with business, but also to teach business that there are advantages to working with the arts, which I think they have come round to a bit.

Q. Are South Africans philanthropic?

A. I think in the main South Africans have always been philanthropic, they are amazing. Unlike Americans, South Africans have no tax advantages from giving generally. To education, yes, but to an art gallery or library there is little advantage.
South Africans have always been givers. There are many unsung heroes, ordinary people making a difference. Take, for example, the story on the radio recently about the blind busker in Cape Town, Lunga Goodman Nono, who had his guitar busted and in minutes 50 people had offered to replace it.

Q. What stands out for you as one of your favourite “giving” moments?

A. I think I was very proud of the Trust when there was that terrible outbreak of Xenophobia in early 2008 and we were able to move very quickly and give R1.5million to relief organisations working in the affected areas. That was a very good moment. Our Trust is remarkable in that we aren’t rigid in applying our guidelines, so if an emergency arises we can respond immediately. It was important because first of all my grandfather was an immigrant and immigrants – as has been seen in the US, here and elsewhere in the world – bring vigour and hard work to play in their adopted country.

Also the interviews we do every year with school-leavers who have overcome appalling difficulties to get seven distinctions in matric, they are utterly wonderful and their achievements are incredible.