Harry Frederick Oppenheimer was more than the director of one of the largest industrial conglomerates whose interests extended far beyond the borders of South Africa. He was also a philanthropist, politician, university chancellor, visionary, liberal thinker, free market proponent and Christian.
He, like his father, Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, always saw himself as an African. He is quoted as saying, “If this country sinks, I shall have to go down with it”. And yet his legacy was, and remains always, a contested one.
In this book, the editor has done remarkably well in portraying his subject within the context of his times. This assessment is fair and objective and is critical (but never derogatory) of some of the views and actions of his subject. Oppenheimer’s liberal thinking and his support of the Progressive Party and others of similar mind is clearly set out.
His views on the need to be inclusive to all people regardless of race in the political and economic mainstream and his determination to improve their status are emphasised, as are his contributions to education in the broadest sense The great use of his wealth through the Anglo American Chairman’s Fund for the benefit of black education will come as a surprise to many.
The editor then invited a wide array of individuals such as Heribert Adam, Albie Sachs, Andrew Young, Ann Bernstein, Bobby Godsell, Kgalema Motlanthe, Jonathan Jansen and several others to contribute what he described as “unbiased and critical perspectives on what Harry was about”. These perspectives form an important part of the book and illustrate the differing views held by the contributors.
Many have argued that Oppenheimer did not use his massive economic power to compel the government of the day to change its policies. It is a contentious issue with good arguments on both sides of the line.
The third element in the book consists of extensive extracts from Oppenheimer’s speeches and statements made over the years. These give a clear picture of his thinking on the matters he regarded as most important in the development of the country. Of particular interest is the full text of the speech to Rhodes University in 1970 titled “The case against Rhodes”.
The editor, Kalim Rajab, must be congratulated on producing a readable and thought-provoking study of Harry Oppenheimer. Whether it will change the minds of his detractors remains to be seen.