By Fred M’membe
The Brenthurst Foundation is a Johannesburg-based organisation established by the Oppenheimer family, the founders of Anglo American Plc, in 2004. Anglo-American was a central pillar of apartheid. The company grew rich buying the holdings of foreign multinationals that were reducing their exposure in apartheid South Africa.
According to Anglo’s chairman, Gavin W. H. Relly, the company was playing a “stabilizing” role in the wake of multinational corporate disinvestment. Anglo-American’s character is a reflection of the designs of South Africa’s Oppenheimer family. Sir Ernest Oppenheimer took over the mining enterprise from late 19th century English mining magnate Cecil John Rhodes. He built a diversified company out of initial investments in diamonds and other gems, which he passed on to his son, Harry Frederick Oppenheimer. When Anglo-American was set up in 1917, half of the initial capital supplied came from United States investors, with the condition that Oppenheimer’s first choice for the company’s moniker, “African-American,” be changed to Anglo-American, because “African-American would suggest on this side our dark-skinned fellow countrymen and possibly result in ridicule,” a cable from the U.S. investors stated. The company in 1929 bought De Beers from successors of Cecil Rhodes.
Through Anglo, the Oppenheimers came to own shares in most of South Africa’s mining houses. In fact, the houses had cross-holdings with each other, making the block of capital quite formidable. But the extent of Oppenheimer wealth and power did not stop there. They were owners of the nation’s largest steel works, travel agency, brick factory, discount house, auto dealership and computer software firm. The Oppenheimers were not afraid to employ their power to get what they wanted. On the issue of apartheid they had ostensibly taken a reformist position and had crafted an image for themselves as defenders of the rights of black workers by supporting abolition of the pass laws and the Group Areas Act, the cornerstones of the apartheid political structure.
But on questions of economic justice, such as the price of black labour, sharp contradictions emerged. Anglo-American had an anti-labour history that involved the use of the repressive services of the apartheid security apparatus, as well as its own security personnel, to control and exploit workers. Being the world’s largest private employer of black labour and the world’s largest producer of gold and diamonds meant Anglo was also one of the world’s biggest exploiters of cheap black mine labour.
Nonetheless, the company clearly had a very big financial stake in the economic realities of apartheid.
As one U.S. magazine noted, Anglo’s “entire structure rests on cheap labour and apartheid’s migrant labour system. Like the other South African mining concerns, it paid wages that were among the world’s lowest and its black employees earned a quarter of what whites were paid. And while white miners were given heavily subsidised modern homes, utilities and schools, blacks were crowded into stark compounds that resembled prison camps.”
Anglo-American was viewed as the “flip side of the same coin,” one of the many wheels that greased the apartheid machinery through tax payments and growing productive industrial, mining and financial power. “The firm’s long record of backing apartheid laws that suited its purposes but remaining silent about those that did not and repeatedly bludgeoning unionists into submission” as one news account put it, made Anglo-American’s reformist posture seem ever more specious.
While Anglo had not always rubbed apartheid officialdom the right way, both the company and the white-minority regime were aware that they were on common ground in preventing a change of state power to a black majority committed to reducing the gap between the few wealthy, and always white, property owners and the majority of workers who have nothing.
Briefly, these are the friends, sponsors of our rulers.