OPINION

The banality of ‘White Privilege’ discourse

Michael Cardo |

11 May 2022

Michael Cardo writes on Elon Musk, Harry Oppenheimer and the New York Times

When I read the New York Times article entitled ‘Elon Musk Left a South Africa That Was Rife With Misinformation and White Privilege’, I immediately thought of one of Musk’s late South African compatriots.

Harry Frederick Oppenheimer, the gold and diamond magnate, was, like Musk, the pre-eminent SA-born capitalist of his time. And, like Musk, Oppenheimer garnered his fair share of attention from the American newspaper of record.

Heir to both the global De Beers diamond cartel and the Anglo American Corporation, the world’s largest gold producer, founded by his father Sir Ernest Oppenheimer in 1917, the second-generation Oppenheimer was a crusading entrepreneur.

‘HFO’ – Oppenheimer’s sobriquet in the upper echelons of Anglo – was constantly pursuing the next frontier, though his ambitions were terrestrial rather than celestial. Fortune ranked him as one of the world’s ten richest men in the 1960s, and later he would be a regular fixture on the magazine’s list of billionaires. HFO’s politics generated as much controversy as Musk’s, and they were of keen speculative interest to the commentariat.

From the 1960s until his death in 2000, Oppenheimer’s companies completely dominated every sector of the South African economy. HFO was also an international financier. By the early 1980s Anglo American had become, through an affiliate mining finance house, Minorco, the largest single foreign investor in the United States.

A South African empire has reached the US, Thomas Lippman wrote in the Washington Post in 1982, by which point Minorco was the biggest shareholder in Phibro Corporation, the world’s leading commodities trader. Phibro, in turn, had recently bought Salomon Brothers, the New York-based investment bank and number-one bond-trading firm globally.

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For a company headquartered in the nondescript mining town of Johannesburg, thousands of kilometers from the bustle of New York, this was an astonishing conquest. It was also a neat inversion of the familiar order: in a sense, the periphery had colonised the metropole.

Oppenheimer was an object of fascination for the plethora of foreign correspondents that descended on South Africa in the 1980s. At the time, the country was a crucible of violence. The economy was tanking. Black rebellion was mounting. Apartheid was in its final throes. The State President, PW Botha – an irascible, belligerent bully – cycled between repression and reform; he realised his government was riding a tiger, but the maintenance of white domination was the ruling party’s ultimate goal, and Botha’s Nationalists had no idea how to dismount it.

Against this backdrop, journalists on the New York Times and other international flagships sought out Oppenheimer for profiles and interviews. Here was a man possessed of great economic power and some (albeit constrained) political influence. Oppenheimer had spent ten years on the opposition benches in Parliament, between 1948 and 1958, when apartheid was introduced. He had regarded Botha, on the opposite side of the debating chamber, as a brute, and when the mining tycoon spoke at the podium he was regularly taunted by Nationalist parliamentarians with the antisemitic slur of ‘Hoggenheimer’. Sections of the Afrikaner press popularised this crude caricature whose origins lay in London’s West End; it personified British imperialism and Jewish monopoly capital.

Oppenheimer bankrolled the National Party’s fiercest parliamentary rival, the Progressive Party, and he was a vocal critic of apartheid on the international stage. But in the 1980s he quietly extended the hand of support to Botha – an approach facilitated by Henry Kissinger – and tried to jolly along the authoritarian Afrikaner’s tepid programme of social and economic reforms.