SA industrialist and business leader 1908 - 2000
Former Anglo American and De Beers chairman, Harry Oppenheimer, will be best remembered as the kind and gentlemanly business leader, industrialist, philanthropist and major power behind liberal politics.
Much of the Oppenheimer fortune was built in the apartheid era when labour was cheap and production costs accordingly low. So the question often asked of him was whether or not his companies benefited under apartheid. His answer was that "we did do well, but we would have done even better if there hadn't been apartheid" It was ever thus for the Oppenheimers - the balancing of the creation of South Africa's mightiest companies with the moral issues that go with it.
According to Duncan Innes, Anglo American and De Beers watcher and chronicler: "It may or may not be true that his companies would have done better, but surely that is not the issue. The issue is whether there is not a contradiction in being lauded as an opponent of apartheid and at the same time being the head of companies that 'did well' under apartheid.
"When we talk about doing well," Innes points out, "let us realise the full extent of this term. We are talking about Anglo American, the market capitalisation of which grew from Rim in 1917 to R8.4bn last year - and that is only one of the Oppenheimer group's holding companies.
As a mining house, Anglo American undoubtedly benefited for 70 years from at least three key pillars, of apartheid: the migrant labour system, the pass laws and the compound system. These systems were in place well before Harry Oppenheimer took up Anglo's reins, so he can't be held accountable for their introduction, but the question nags: could he not have used Anglo's awesome financial and economic power to encourage the dismantling of those institutions, or at least to ensure that mines under his control made no more use of them?
Oppenheimer's manner was formal and quiet, but this hid an ability to be extremely tough. He was once asked how he fired executives who didn't pull their weight. "Well," he replied, "at Anglo American we don't actually fire people, we just don't give them any work."
His personal wealth was around R1.3bn. With his wife he became a major owner of race-horses and gained a thorough knowledge of bloodlines and training.
Harry Oppenheimer took his fight against the apartheid government to the political arena. He played a crucial role as a United Party MP until 1958 and as financial...