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The Life of Harry Oppenheimer

The Life of Harry Oppenheimer

In the diamond industry, Harry F. Oppenheimer is known as the former head of De Beers and the man who controlled the global diamond industry for decades. However that description does not do him justice. He also controlled great gold and platinum assets, and was a South African parliamentarian who fought the country’s apartheid rule.

Harry Frederick Oppenheimer was born on October 28, 1908, in Kimberley, South Africa, the site of the first African diamond rush, son of Sir Ernest Oppenheimer , who formed mining giant Anglo American and later took control of De Beers. His father primed him from childhood to take over the family's business empire.

Although his father, the son of a Jewish cigar maker from Friedberg, Germany, converted to Anglicanism in the 1930s, Harry had a formal Bar Mitzvah (the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony) at a synagogue. When he married, he entered the Anglican Church, yet remained a staunch supporter of Jewish causes as well as the Israeli diamond industry.

Upon completing his primary schooling in Johannesburg, he was sent to Charterhouse School, a public school in England, and the preferred choice of wealthy "English" South African families at the time. He then went on to study at Christ Church, Oxford University, where he was tutored by British economist Sir Roy Harrod, graduating in 1931 in Philosophy, Politics and Economics.

Oppenheimer volunteered for military service early in World War II, joining the 4th South African armored 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. They married in 1943, and the following year Oppenheimer resigned his commission and joined Anglo American.

In 1948, he was elected as a member of the minority white liberal opposition, becoming the second "Member for De Beers." He quickly became the leading opposition voice on economic affairs, expressing a liberal position on most matters. However, in his political career, it was his stand against apartheid for which he is best remembered. There are diverging opinions on Oppenheimer’s role in fighting the extreme racial discrimination policies.

In an interview quoted in The New York Times, Oppenheimer said that majority rule would have to come in stages, with guarantees for the rights of various groups in the country. ''I think if you try to insist on having no guarantees for group rights, the effect would be that you won't get any movement at all,'' he said. Although his opposition to apartheid was based on humanitarian grounds, he usually argued against it in economic terms. ''I've never thought that the policy of racial discrimination had been a great benefit to business,'' he said, ''because while it may have had the effect of keeping wages low, it also had the effect of keeping labor exceptionally inefficient. I believe that apartheid is something that works against the interest of economic development, not for it.''

He also opposed economic sanctions against South Africa as a way to pressure the country to relinquish apartheid, stating that an expanding economy was a better environment for political change than a contracting economy. ''I'm not one of the people who think that sanctions have no effect,'' he said in an interview in 1987. ''I think they have a very serious effect in South Africa, but I think the effect is bad in that it brings pressure to bear on people who are on your side anyhow. And it certainly doesn't force the government to change their policy.''

Oppenheimer supported the creation of trade unions for black workers, played an important role in ending a system that set aside certain jobs for whites only, and developed programs to educate blacks so they could take up positions of responsibility in his group of companies.

In 1957, following his father’s death, Oppenheimer left Parliament to take over the family business empire, lending his political and financial support to the Progressive Party and its sole member of Parliament, Helen Suzman.

As chairman of Anglo American and De Beers, he built a personal empire that extended beyond precious metals and diamonds that included holdings in banking, real estate, pulp and paper, bricks and pipe, coal and potash, locomotives and beer, becoming one of world’s richest people and the most powerful economic figure in South Africa. At one point, his public companies represented more than half of the value of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.

During his 27 year tenure at De Beers, he grew the diamond empire in what was at times a very challenging environment. He promoted diamonds in the consumer markets aggressively, championing a unique marketing approach of generic advertising that promoted diamonds in general, as opposed to the common approach of promoting a brand. By doing so, he not only generated greater sales of diamonds mined by De Beers, but also diamonds mined by other companies as well.

To maintain De Beers leading position, Oppenheimer sought to buy rough diamonds from other diamond miners, be they large producers or small scale alluvial diggers, arguing that if a single source sells most of the world’s supply of rough diamonds, all diamond producers will benefit. This allowed the company to continue its generic advertising, maintain a list of select clients known as Sightholders, and exert great influence on the entire diamond pipeline through careful control of supply and demand, primarily by holding on a large stock of rough diamonds and releasing goods to the market in a measured pace.

When Oppenheimer took control of Anglo American, the company was estimated to be worth 65 million rand. Thirty years later, the net value of the company his father had founded reached 24 billion rand. 

He stepped down from his position at Anglo American in 1984, though maintaining his large stake in the company, and kept visiting its headquarters in Johannesburg. Oppenheimer, famous for his dry wit, once said about those visits that he makes them “to talk to my friends, they even ask my views from time to time.”

Outside of politics and leading the two companies, Oppenheimer was an avid art collector, his house filled with paintings by Picasso, Goya, Degas, Chagall, Sisley, and Dufy. One of the paintings he owned was by Renoir, and he reportedly bought it in London for $40. He also collected African art and manuscripts of English poets, among them Lord Byron, whom he admired for a ''curious combination of the romantic and the practical.”

His philanthropic activities were extensive, but he did not brag about them. According to The New York Times, his charities included the ''usual thing'' as he put it: hospitals, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Guides, and seed money for education, especially for blacks. He helped set up the South Africa Foundation after the Sharpeville massacre of 1961. In response to the 1976 Soweto uprising, he helped establish the Urban Foundation, dedicated to improving the environment in which black South Africans live in the cities, providing millions of for welfare and housing schemes for blacks.

Harry Oppenheimer died on August 19, 2000 at the age of 91. He was survived by his wife, daughter Mary, and son Nicholas ‘Nicky’ Oppenheimer, who took over the helm of De Beers after his father, a position he held until he sold the family stake in the company to Anglo American.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity. No one should act upon any opinion or information in this website without consulting a professional qualified adviser. 


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