/ 27 May 2023

‘Diamonds, Gold and Dynasty’ — An excerpt from Harry Oppenheimer biography

South African Businessman Harry Oppenheimer At Home
South African Businessman Harry Oppenheimer at Home (Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Sygma via Getty Images)

In June 1986, Anton Harber, the editor of the Weekly Mail — an anti-apartheid newspaper started as an “alternative” to the mainstream press after the closure of the Rand Daily Mail – wanted to do something out of the ordinary to celebrate his publication’s one-year anniversary. So he decided to invite two very different men, “in the middle of the toughest political battles of the time”, to share a stage in appreciation of the media’s role in society. 

One was Harry Oppenheimer [HFO], the elderly epitome of English mining capital and an early promoter of black trade union rights (he had, incidentally, made a modest contribution of R5 000 to the Weekly Mail’s start-up costs); the other was Cyril Ramaphosa, a young, fiery, rabble-rousing revolutionary riding to prominence in the NUM [National Union of Mineworkers].  

The meeting would be fraught with significance. It took some time for Bobby Godsell and Oppenheimer’s personal assistant Patrick Esnouf to convince HFO (against his better judgement) that he should appear on a joint platform with a unionist he had never met. Eventually, they won Oppenheimer over. 

On a brisk winter’s evening, Oppenheimer and Ramaphosa made their way to the Market Theatre. Oppenheimer had expected a genteel audience. There would probably be a fair turnout of bohemian, corduroy-jacketed UDF [United Democratic Front] types, he envisaged, but the mining town’s grey-haired bien pensants — the chattering classes — could be relied upon to fill the theatre’s seats. 

What confronted HFO on arrival was a raucous crowd of black mineworkers and union officials cheering on their leader. They danced and ululated and sang anti-capitalist anthems. 

After the introductions, Ramaphosa was the first to speak. He had little to say about the media and went straight on the attack. The mining industry, he goaded his followers, provided “the furnace in which race discrimination was baked”. 

“Today it relies absolutely on the exploitative migrant labour system and on police oppression to operate.”

Oppenheimer, ever so slightly discombobulated, managed to project an air of imperturbable good cheer. Taking to the stage, a sparkle in his eye, he responded with barbed grace: “The fact that Mr Cyril Ramaphosa is here to talk as he did talk tonight — a most touching and moving speech, made all the more touching by the neglect of the facts — the fact that we were both here to talk together is something which gives me very great pleasure.”

Afterwards, Esnouf imagined his job was on the line. 

Anton Harber, Emeritus Professor of Wits Journalism giving
Provocative: In 1986, Anton Harber, editor of the Weekly Mail, now the Mail & Guardian, invited business magnate Harry Oppenheimer, who presided over Anglo American and De Beers, and Cyril Ramaphosa, secretary general of the National Union of Mineworkers, to share a stage on the first anniversary of the anti-apartheid newspaper. (Photo by Sharon Tshipa/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“It was a total ambush … I felt that I ought to resign,” he reflected over 30 years later. But Oppenheimer assuaged his underling’s unease. He was quite used to a spot of bother, HFO assured his PA; after all, he had spent 10 years in Parliament being heckled by the Nats. 

Oppenheimer’s meeting with Ramaphosa displayed a capacity for shrewd pragmatism on both their parts. In a small but symbolically powerful way, it demonstrated that discordant voices could be heard without a collapse into chaos or violence. For a racially divided society, that was surely going to be the operative principle of democracy once apartheid had been dismantled. 

Ongoing political violence drove home the urgency of a negotiated transition but reduced the likelihood of one. The problem was that PW Botha stubbornly refused to accept the logical conclusion of his reforms. He moved no closer towards negotiating the shift to a new democratic order. 

It did not take a Gramscian scholar to observe that the old was dying, the new could not be born, and in the interregnum a variety of morbid symptoms plagued South Africa. 

In 1989 the fog of confusion lifted; it would turn out to be the most fateful year in the history of South African politics. On 18 January PW Botha suffered a serious stroke, though its seriousness — and the political repercussions thereof —would only become clearer later. On 31 January Oppenheimer addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos. He chose, for the title of his speech, “Four steps to democracy”. 

Having asked the question on everyone’s lips — “how … are we to move forward?” — HFO offered a four-pronged prescription. 

Firstly, the government should repeal the Group Areas Act, the Population Registration Act and other racially discriminatory legislation. Secondly, it would have to prioritise equal educational opportunities for all. Thirdly, there had to be a more equitable spread of private property — of home ownership in the first instance, “but of the ownership of shares in public companies also”. Fourthly, it was necessary to remove all the hurdles that hindered the development of black-owned small businesses; finance had to be made more readily available to expand the informal sector. 

Secretary General of National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), Cyril Ramaphosa, gives a press conference, on August 12, 1987, in Johannesburg. (Photo by WALTER DHLADHLA / AFP)

Even for a “Davos man” avant la lettre, the recipe seemed to lean heavily on the ingredients of capital. But in giving primacy to economic considerations, Oppenheimer was making a critical point: whites would only mobilise behind political change if — on top of guaranteed  civil rights — they could be assured of economic security. 

He put it plainly to his audience: the ruling white minority would never accept peaceful change unless they were convinced that the post- apartheid state would be one in which “minority as well as majority rights are assured”, with “a free and dynamic economy based on the system of private enterprise”. 

In short, whites would not accept the exchange of one tyranny for another. “Group rights must be guaranteed,” Oppenheimer cautioned, but then group membership must be determined by “free individual choice” and not “the accidents of race and colour”. 

In August 1989 Botha’s steadily declining health led to his resignation and replacement as state president by an unlikely reformer, FW de Klerk. A blue-blooded Nationalist and ideological conservative educated at the Afrikaner citadel of Christian National Higher Education, Potchefstroom University, De Klerk surprised both his own cabinet and the parliamentary opposition with his openness to the concept of a negotiated transition. 

De Klerk began to claw back power from the securocrats who had surrounded Botha. The determining event in De Klerk’s unfolding glasnost and perestroika, however, was the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989. It gave him the impetus to act. 

With the break-up of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the communist bloc in Eastern Europe, the ANC lost its major sponsor. Umkhonto we Sizwe was deprived of military aid. The red peril was neutered, the prospect of “total onslaught’ was obliterated, and the National Party — it seemed — would be able to negotiate from a position of relative strength. 

President Gorbachev’s bold political positioning served as an exemplar; it encouraged De Klerk to seize the initiative. Even so, when De Klerk took to the parliamentary podium on 2 February 1990 and announced a series of sweeping changes, his speech astonished the nation. It was a pronunciamento packed with thermonuclear intensity. 

Everything Oppenheimer and the Progressives had been arguing for looked like it might come to pass. Indeed, the political space which they occupied was colonised: as two rival groups of nationalists limbered up to talk to each other, it appeared the liberals might be squeezed off stage. In fact, De Klerk’s speech heralded the “ironic victory” of liberalism, for liberal ideas furnished the building blocks of the new democratic order. 

In his later years, Oppenheimer liked to repeat a self-deprecating conceit: his career had been a commercial success and a political failure. Now, in the last decade of his life, there was a chance that truism might be turned on its head.

Diamonds, Gold and Dynasty by Michael Cardo is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers and costs R360