Harry Oppenheimer’s biography – Michael Cardo’s world class book on a globally relevant South African

In this interview we meet Michael Cardo, an MP for the Democratic Alliance, and a quite superb biographer. His first book was about the far-sighted politician Peter Brown, whose Liberal Party called for a universal franchise in Apartheid South Africa in the 1960s – and was banned for its trouble. This one, on Harry Oppenheimer, focuses on another inspirational South African whose in addition to being a global mogul also spent a decade on the green benches of the country’s Parliament. Born into a mining dynasty, Harry Oppenheimer lived a full life – massively expanding the family business, breaking break with the world’s rich and powerful, and for decades serving as the most effective counter to the Apartheid regime. Cardo’s superb writing skills, access to Oppenheimer’s private documents (including an unfinished memoir) and the six years he invested into the project combine to make this into a world-class production.

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 01:51 – Michael Cardo on the lengthy process of writing Harry Oppenheimer’s biography
  • 04:17 – Cardo on working with the Oppenheimer family to research his book
  • 07:41 – On why he decided to write the book
  • 10:45 – On how writing and researching the biography changed his view on Harry Oppenheimer
  • 14:28 – On his book changing the perception of Oppenheimer’s attitude to Apartheid
  • 18:24 – On how Oppenheimer would feel about BEE and the general state of SA government if he were alive today
  • 24:42 – On if there is a modern day Harry Oppenheimer
  • 27:16 – On the parallels between Oppenheimer and Johann Rupert

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Excerpts from the interview

Michael Cardo on the cooperation of the Oppenheimer family when researching the biography

I did have the full cooperation of the Oppenheimer family. So in that sense, the book is authorised. I met various members of the family on a couple of occasions before I started writing. But as I reflect on the book, there was never any move on the family’s part to have me burnish the patriarch’s image at the beginning of the project. In fact, Jonathan Oppenheimer’s exact words to me were, “We don’t expect a hagiography.” And of course, because I’m a trained historian, it was certainly never my intention to produce a book of that nature. I wanted to look at Harry Oppenheimer in all his complexity, in all his nuance as a human being. And that means weighing the good up against the bad, for want of a better formulation. So at the end of the day, the Oppenheimer family didn’t seek to censor me in any way. They didn’t seek to impose any changes. But it was certainly helpful to me that I had their cooperation and authorisation, because I never would have been able to get access to that fantastic repository of material in the Brenthurst library. 

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On why he wrote the book

I’ve always been interested in Harry Oppenheimer, but the germ of the idea came from my friend, the late great Jonathan Ball, who approached me one day over one of our regular breakfasts. Jonathan had tried to extract a memoir, an autobiography out of HFO (Harry Frederick Oppenheimer) right back in the 1970s. Jonathan started Jonathan Ball Publishers in 1976, and I came across a letter in the archives from Jonathan to Harry Oppenheimer dated around about 1979 seeking his memoirs, and Oppenheimer said, “Well, I’ll think about it.” And for one reason or another, the project never came to fruition. So Jonathan had always been keen on an autobiography by Oppenheimer, failing that a biography of the magnet. And the project really appealed to me, given my historical interests. And Oppenheimer straddled the whole of South Africa’s 20th century history, and he was intimately involved in so many of its aspects.

[And] he also lived a long life. He died at the age of 91, and that meant that he lived long enough to actually witness the reincarnation of the nation. When The Rainbow Nation was born in 1994, Oppenheimer was there to witness it. So in a sense this is not simply a biography, it’s also a history of the country in some way. And it’s allowed me the opportunity to revisit those aspects of history in which I’ve always been interested, and also to learn a lot that is new to me about South Africa’s corporate history. So it really just was the most wonderful opportunity.

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On Harry Oppenheimer’s influence during Apartheid

I certainly learnt a lot about the role that business played in exerting pressure on PW Botha to initiate a program of reform in the 1980s, and in fact, it started a little bit earlier than that. You talked at the beginning of the interview about Anglo’s leading role in recognising black trade unions, which really comes around about the time of all that industrial unrest in 1973, 1974, the Durban strikes. But then of course, you have this huge event that takes place in South Africa in 1976, it’s the landmark that really alter[ed] the course of South African history and that is the Soweto uprising in 1976. And quite soon after that, HFO, in partnership with the doyen of Afrikaner capital, Anton Rupert, formed something called the Urban Foundation. They realised that there needs to be a significant investment in the socio-economic upliftment of black township dwellers, there needs to be economic reform and economic improvement in order to exert pressure on the government. So they get together and form the Urban Foundation, which also presents pragmatic policy alternatives to the National Party government and really reveals in very stark terms to the NATs that apartheid is a dead end, it’s unworkable, this thing is failing, it’s on its way out. [So] we’ve got to think of an alternative. And through this pressure exerted by the business community, slowly things start[ed] to change. Alas it’s not PW Botha who ends up driving the change, that falls to his successor, FW de Klerk. But the key point I’m making is that business played an extraordinarily important role in the 1980s in making that change come about.

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