A Man of Africa: The Political Thought of Harry Oppenheimer provides a window into the paternalism and white superiority embedded in the thinking of the mining magnate, and attempts to reinforce the idea that his opposition to apartheid was a strongly held conviction and not just driven by commercial self-interest.
In an essay commemorating the achievements of Helen Suzman in 1990, Oppenheimer admits that he is concerned about the implications of majority rule in South Africa, arguing that a constitution modelled on Westminster could lead to a tyrannical majority. “I agree with Bertrand Russell, that if faced with making a choice between democracy and civilisation … one should always take civilisation,” he wrote.
The decision to use Russell’s quote in the context of discussing black South Africans’ right to vote makes the prejudice embedded in Oppenheimer’s thinking clear. In his mind, black democracy somehow equates with a choice against civilisation.
Five years earlier, in 1985, Oppenheimer addressed the South African Club in London, stating that time for South Africa was running out.
“We must pray — with Alan Paton — that by the time the whites have learnt to love, the blacks will not have come only to hate,” he said.
Quotes like this are scattered throughout A Man of Africa, which is edited by Kalim Rajab, former personal assistant to Nicky Oppenheimer.
Part one, titled Harry Oppenheimer: A Historical Assessment, consists of a selection of Oppenheimer’s political speeches between 1950 and 1990, which have been edited and grouped according to themes, on various topics such as liberalism, leadership, sanctions, trade unions and education. There are also essays written in response to each theme.
This is another way in which the book falls flat. It is packed full with Oppenheimer’s friends, colleagues and beneficiaries, who don’t spare readers their sycophancy. Former Anglo man Tony Bloom writes that he was in “awe” of Oppenheimer’s “exercise of power” and his “modesty, self-effacement and his exquisite courtesy”.
Dennis Beckett writes that Rajab stated that he was looking for “unbiased and critical perspectives”. Beckett’s response was: “that leaves me out, I was biased before I met him”. Once, when the two did meet, Beckett describes himself as “hopelessly biased”, and that by the time Oppenheimer had contributed money to Beckett’s magazine Frontline, Beckett describes himself as a “goner”.
There are more critical essays from the likes of Albie Sachs, Kgalema Motlanthe and Xolela Mangcu, but even these feel too measured.
Mangcu argues that “Oppenheimer reflected the anxieties of South African liberalism, which extols liberty and equality but cannot quite break from age-old notions of white cultural superiority and paternalism”.
It is Oppenheimer’s white paternalism, which is so evident in A Man of Africa and the fact that he benefited from and supported an oppressive apartheid economy that make Rajab’s attempts to characterise the mining magnate as a “philosopher trapped in a capitalist world” feel disingenuous.
Rajab does offer the disclaimer that the book’s aim is to consider Oppenheimer’s “political thought” and thus “whole swathes of his business life and work have not been considered”. But can you truly separate the man from how he made his money?
One wonders whether Oppenheimer’s famed Brenthurst Library, to which Rajab was given access to research the book, has a copy of 1987’s South Africa Inc: The Oppenheimer Empire, by David Pallister, Sarah Stewart and Ian Lepper.
It was the first in-depth investigation into the “Oppenheimer Empire” and revealed fascinating information, such as the fact that, in 1975, while Oppenheimer was sitting on the board of Barclays National Bank (he was its largest shareholder), it emerged that the bank had invested more than £6-million in government defence bonds. Or that United States customs documents show that a company 50% owned by Anglo, Aero Marine Freight Services, was involved in bringing key equipment into South Africa in February 1977 for a weapons development project. Or that the teargas used to suppress the Soweto uprising in 1976 was manufactured by African Explosives and Chemical Industries (AECI), an Anglo subsidiary.
Surely information about the less celebrated deeds of the sprawling business network of Harry Oppenheimer are essential to a reappraisal of Oppenheimer as a liberal? South Africa Inc also presented a close study of Anglo’s relationship with its black workers. In 1973 at Anglo American’s Carletonville mine, a protest was sparked by a pay increase given only to a small group of workers who operated machinery.
“Faced with 7 000 angry miners in the hostel compound, the mine management called in the police, who opened fire after a baton charge had failed to disperse the crowd,” the book reads. “Within 12 seconds, 11 miners were dead and 26 were seriously injured.” South Africa Inc makes the point that Anglo American routinely worked with police to suppress dissent on the mines.
Kader Asmal, Louise Asmal and Ronald Suresh Roberts once made the point that, during apartheid, 68 political prisoners were killed in police detention but the mines killed one thousand times that number.
Sachs writes in his essay in A Man of Africa, “we were fighting to overthrow the system by destroying it completely. Harry Oppenheimer was struggling to enable the system to survive. He was a formidable part of ‘the enemy’…
“He was after all, getting the best of both worlds. On the one hand, he was right at the centre of the system that enabled him to derive huge benefits from the super-exploitation of black workers. On the other hand, he was presenting himself to the world as a voice of reason and change … Mr Nice Guy, in the cruel African firmament.”
Sachs’s criticism echoes the words of Steve Biko, which Mangcu quotes in his essay. “Instead of involving themselves in an all-out attempt to stamp out racism from their white society, liberals waste a lot of time trying to prove to as many blacks as they can find that they are liberal.”
Oppenheimer stated in 1984 that, in the South African context, he may seem to be “liberal” but at heart he was just an “old-fashioned conservative”. Rajab suggests this quote shows self-reflection on Oppenheimer’s part, the ability to see the dichotomy between his conservative and liberal sides.
In the same interview, Oppenheimer is reported to have suggested giving votes only to those citizens who had attained a “certain level of education” and restricting the vote to people who “owned their own homes”.
“It would be a fascinating experiment,” he added. “It would be a good idea to pick out capable young blacks while they are still at university and systematically groom them for greater things — deliberately turn them into an elite.”
In a 1971 speech Oppenheimer delivered in Kitwe, Zambia, he said: “What the Congo does show is that primitive, uncivilised people cannot be trusted with the running of a modern state, and that independent democracy is only possible if the electorate has reasonable standards of education and civilisation.”
In Anthony Hocking’s 1973 book Oppenheimer and Son, Oppenheimer is quoted as being in favour of residential segregation and stating that it was “most undesirable to put political power in the hands of uncivilised, uneducated people”.
It is these views that make the positioning of Oppenheimer as a liberal so hard to stomach and A Man of Africa a very problematic book. I will give the last word to Sachs: “Although Harry Oppenheimer was a Man of Africa, I never thought of him as an African man.”