The world is changing fast and to keep up you need local knowledge with global context.
In his upcoming book, biographer Walter Isaacson delves into Elon Musk’s tumultuous upbringing in South Africa, highlighting how his experiences with violence and bullying shaped his risk-seeking personality. Musk endured severe bullying during his school years, including a particularly brutal attack at Bryanston High School that left him hospitalised. Isaacson’s narrative also touches upon Musk’s attendance at a wilderness survival camp known as “veldskool,” where bullying was encouraged. These early life challenges and emotional hardships, compounded by his father’s allegedly abusive behaviour, played a significant role in moulding Musk’s resilience and willingness to embrace crisis and adversity throughout his career.
Sign up for your early morning brew of the BizNews Insider to keep you up to speed with the content that matters. The newsletter will land in your inbox at 5:30am weekdays. Register here.
Elon Musk’s violent South African childhood
Elon Musk’s violent upbringing in South Africa and his allegedly emotionally abusive father shaped him into a risk-seeker who courts crisis and drama when given the opportunity.
So writes biographer Walter Isaacson in his new book, set to be released tomorrow (12 September 2023).
In an excerpt released before the book’s launch, Isaacson wrote that Elon Musk learned how to survive pain as a child growing up in South Africa.
Much has been written about Musk’s hospitalisation after being beaten by bullies at Bryanston High School.
In his book, Isaacson reveals more details about that incident, as well as Musk and his brother Kimbal’s experiences attending “veldskool” (literally: veld/bush school).
Isaacson calls it a wilderness survival camp. He quotes Musk as calling it “a paramilitary Lord of the Flies”.
Kimbal said bullying was considered a virtue during these camps.
They recounted that kids were given food and water rations, then allowed, even encouraged, to fight over them.
During his first veldskool, Musk was twelve, small, and emotionally awkward. He was beaten up twice and lost over four kilograms.
Isaacson wrote that towards the end of the first week, boys were divided into two groups and told to attack each other.
Years later, Musk would attend another veldskool. However, this time he was about to turn sixteen, had gone through a growth spurt, and had learned some judo.
“I realised by then that if someone bullied me, I could punch them very hard in the nose, and then they wouldn’t bully me again,” Musk said.
“They might beat the s**t out of me, but if I had punched them hard in the nose, they wouldn’t come after me again.”
Isaacson also recounts a story Elon and Kimbal told about attending an anti-apartheid concert in the 1980s.
“South Africa in the 1980s was a violent place, with machine-gun attacks and knife killings common,” Isaacson states.
When the brothers got off the train on their way to the concert, they saw a dead man with a knife sticking out of his head.
They had to walk through his blood and said that for the rest of the night, the soles of their sneakers made a sticky sound against the pavement.
Musk also told a story of how they kept German Shepherd dogs trained to attack people running by their house.
When he was six, he was running down the driveway, and his favourite dog bit him in his back. The attack was severe enough to require a trip to the emergency room.
He refused to get stitches until he was promised the dog wouldn’t be punished.
Isaacson wrote that Musk paused and stared vacantly for a long time before saying, “Then they damn well shot the dog dead.”
Musk and brother Kimbal also provided more context for the Bryanston High attack that would have an outsized impact on young Elon’s life.
Details of the attack first became widespread following the 2015 release of Ashlee Vance’s biography of Elon Musk, where he told the story of how Musk was beaten and pushed down a flight of stairs at school.
Musk’s father, Errol, would later reveal that the attack happened at Bryanston High and resulted in them moving Elon to Pretoria Boys High.
As Musk tells it, the fight began with an exchange of words that escalated to grievous assault when the bullies hunted him down later.
He said that a group of boys were horsing around in assembly one morning when one of them bumped into him. Elon pushed back, and “words were exchanged,” Isaacson wrote.
As a man who came through the South African public school system in the 1990s (roughly 20 years after Musk), nothing about the story is unusual up to this point.
Boys getting rowdy and agreeing to meet behind the bike shed for a barney was bog-standard behaviour. However, what happened next was definitely not normal.
They found him enjoying a sandwich at break time (recess, for the Americans) and allegedly attacked him from behind, kicked him in the head, and pushed him down concrete steps.
Younger brother Kimbal, who had been sitting with Musk, said the attackers kept beating Elon even after he went down, including several kicks to the head.
“When they got finished, I couldn’t even recognise his face. It was such a swollen ball of flesh that you could barely see his eyes,” Kimbal Musk said.
Elon was taken to hospital and was out of school for a week. He was reportedly still getting corrective surgery to fix the tissues inside his nose decades later.
According to Elon and Kimbal, when he got home from hospital their father screamed at him for an hour, taking the attacker’s side.
“I had to stand for an hour as he yelled at me and called me an idiot and told me that I was just worthless,” Musk said.
Kimbal told Isaacson this outburst from Errol was the worst memory of his life.
According to Errol, Musk’s attacker had just lost his father to suicide, and Elon had called him stupid.
“Elon had this tendency to call people stupid. How could I possibly blame that child?” Errol told Isaacson.
Isaacson wrote that neither Elon nor Kimbal speak to their father anymore, and they say his claim that Musk provoked the attack is “unhinged” as the attacker ended up being sent to juvenile prison for it.
Kimbal and Elon also said their father is an unreliable narrator who spins fantasies and delusions into his stories. Isaacson uses the phrase “volatile fabulist”.
The brothers described their father as having a Jekyll-and-Hyde nature who would be friendly one minute and explode into an hour-long tirade the next — always ending by telling Musk how pathetic he was.
“It was mental torture,” Musk told Isaacson. “He sure knew how to make anything terrible.”
Isaacson said that during his extensive interview with Errol, Musk’s father admitted that he encouraged physical and emotional toughness.
“Their experiences with me would have made veldskool quite tame,” he said.
He also said that violence was simply part of the learning experience in South Africa.
“Two held you down while another pummeled your face with a log, and so on. New boys were forced to fight the school thug on their first day at a new school.”
As a result, Errol told Isaacson he exercised “an extremely stern streetwise autocracy” with his sons.
For his part, Elon said that the adversity shaped him.
“My pain threshold became very high,” he said.
The full excerpt is published on CBS News.
- Magnus Heystek: South Africa’s looming economic catastrophe – Debt crisis threatens stability
- Premium from the FT – Isaacson and Musk: World’s best biographer on world’s best entrepreneur
- Winnie Mandela’s last wish: “Mama” feared corruption would destroy the ANC….
This article was first published on MyBroadband and was republished with permission
Cyril Ramaphosa: The Audio Biography
Listen to the story of Cyril Ramaphosa's rise to presidential power, narrated by our very own Alec Hogg.