19 August 2000, Harry Oppenheimer dies.
Obituary written by David Pallister that appeared in The Guardian newspaper on Monday 21 August 2000:
“Harry Oppenheimer, who has died aged 91, was South Africa’s foremost industrialist for nearly 40 years, and the last of the latter-day ‘Randlords’.
Although by the mid-1980s he had relinquished formal control of the two great strands in his business empire, the Anglo American Corporation and De Beers Consolidated Mines, he continued to exercise a daily influence as the grand old man of South African mining, and remained a De Beers director until 1994.
Long feted in the west as a singular beacon of reform, his vast interests in gold, platinum, diamonds and coal nevertheless stoked the economic engine that maintained the ability of the regime to survive and prosper for the white minority. As he himself remarked in 1984, when beginning to disengage from the business: “In a South African context I may seem to be a liberal, but at heart I’m just an old-fashioned conservative.”
But as a canny and ruthless operator, Oppenheimer was also one of the first South African businessmen to realise in the early 1980s that dialogue with the African National Congress was not only prudent but inevitable. His prescience paid off, for it was those early contacts that contributed to the ANC’s long march away from any thought of nationalising the country’s mining industry.
On a personal level, Oppenheimer was a self-effacing, very private family man with a record of philanthropy that seemed out of place in the hard world of international mining and finance. Despite the miserable conditions and poor wages of the tens of thousands of migrant labourers who worked the mines, he portrayed himself as a gentleman Anglophile, and had an ability to beguile his critics with either dignified silence or pained politeness. This character, together with his enormous financial clout, enabled him to navigate the treacherous waters of apartheid South Africa.
Oppenheimer was born in the De Beers company town of Kimberley, the site of the famous diamond “big hole”, six years after the death of the De Beers founder and empire-builder Cecil Rhodes. He came from a family of prosperous German Jews who emigrated to London and South Africa in the 1890s to work in the diamond business. His father, Ernest, a naturalised Briton, Anglican convert, and future mayor of Kimberley, was in the process of capturing control of the De Beers diamond production and sales through the London syndicate which produced the world’s most enduring, secretive and sophisticated cartel.
Like many offspring of wealthy “English”, as opposed to Boer, families, Oppenheimer was sent to public school in England. After Charterhouse, he moved on to Christ Church, Oxford, and then joined the boards of both De Beers and the Anglo American Corporation, which Ernest had set up in 1917 to control the group’s gold, coal and industrial interests.
At the outbreak of the second world war, Oppenheimer joined the 4th South African armoured car regiment as a brigade intelligence officer, working with the British Army in North Africa. In 1940, having transferred to Coastal Command, he met Signals Lieutenant Bridget McCall, on a posting to Robben Island. They married in 1943, and the following year Oppenheimer resigned his commission and became managing director of Anglo-American.
Like his father, whose career and personality he mirrored in so many ways, Oppenheimer also launched himself into politics. In the 1948 elections that propelled the Nationalists into power, he stood for General Smuts’ United Party in Kimberley, becoming the second “Member for De Beers” and the leading opposition spokesman on economic affairs. In that same year the Oppenheimers’ New York advertising agency coined the immortal slogan: “A diamond is forever.”
In public, Oppenheimer’s wealth and power attracted the odium of the Afrikaner Nationalists – just as his father had to suffer the anti-Semitic nickname Hoggenheimer, portrayed as the silk-hatted and bloated Jewish capitalist. But far from being disloyal, Oppenheimer began co-operating with the government on its uranium development programme for the US and Britain.
On his father’s death in 1957, Oppenheimer left parliament to assume control of the family businesses. In 1959 he joined the new Progressive Party, which he financed personally. His politics during these years were cautiously reformist. He did not think that apartheid was morally wrong, and believed that separation of the races was necessary to maintain white civilisation. But he did recognise pragmatically that blacks had legitimate demands to participate in the economic growth of the country – and his companies – and he consistently urged more flexible labour laws. It was no coincidence that Harold Macmillan dined with the Oppenheimers on the eve of his “wind of change” speech.
In response to the black unrest of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Oppenheimer sought to reassure the international community that South Africa was still a good investment risk. He helped set up the South Africa Foundation after the Sharpeville massacre of 1961, and then, after the 1976 Soweto uprising, the Urban Foundation, which poured millions of rands into welfare and housing schemes for blacks.
But throughout his stewardships of South Africa’s largest conglomerate – worth more than 50% of the Johannesburg stock exchange – conditions in the mines for migrant black workers were overcrowded and brutal; wages hovered around the poverty line and racism among the white managers was the norm. But for all that he was still prepared to meet and treat with the miners’ militant leaders, even engaging in civilised public debate with the NUM’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, over white wine and canapes at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg in 1986.
In his private life Oppenheimer could retreat to his beautiful Dutch colonial-style mansion of Brenthurst on the outskirts of Johannesburg, where in 1984 he opened an opulent private library of Africana. His own study, with its collection of Romantic poets and first editions, overlooked a gentle lily pond.
Oppenheimer is survived by his wife, a daughter, Mary, and a son, Nicholas.”
19 August 1876, Kimberley Light Horse formed.
19 August 2000, Harry Oppenheimer dies.
DID YOU KNOW
Harry Frederick Oppenheimer was born in the family home “Friedberg” at 7 Lodge Road, Belgravia Kimberley on 28 October 1908. His father, later Sir Ernest, was a Town Councillor for Kimberley, and on that eventful day in his family life attended routine council meetings. The birth notice in the Diamond Fields Advertiser simply states that Harry was born that day, the “son of Ernest and May Oppenheimer”. The birth entry is recorded in the Griqualand West Jewish Congregation register, with his name recorded as Harry Friedrich, the naming ceremony being on 5 November 1908, the service being conducted by the Reverend H. Isaacs. (The family later converted to Christianity).
That same day, the Kimberley Sanatorium changed its name to the Hotel Belgrave (now the McGregor Museum); there was a cricket match on the Eclectic ground between a Ladies XI and the American Stores XI (and won by the latter by four runs); and the suffragettes chained themselves to the railings in the public gallery of the House of Commons in London. Councillor William Sagar was Mayor of Kimberley, and the railway line connecting Bloemfontein and Kimberley had just been opened in April that same year.
It was into a world that was changing that young Harry was born. He would live through two World Wars, the Spanish Flu epidemic, apartheid, Harold MacMillan’s “winds of change”, witness the birth of a new democratic South Africa, and as leader (and later mentor) of the gold and diamond industries of South Africa, survive. He would have the ear of great men and women throughout the 20th century. He was 24 years old when Sol Plaatje died, and 10 years old when Nelson Mandela was born.
With his death on Saturday 19 August 2000 in a Johannesburg clinic went the link between the past and the world of today.