On July 25 2000, the night the Concorde crashed shortly after taking off from Charles de Gaulle Airport  in Paris, I was a guest of Harry and Bridget Oppenheimer at their sumptuous beachside home outside Durban.

The purpose of the dinner was to explain to one of the most significant economic players in SA’s history, and certainly the most generous funder of the liberal opposition, the recently announced merger of the liberal Democratic Party with its historical nemesis, the New National Party (New NP).

A political take-off of a different sort to help unify the opposition, which also had an early crash, suggests the recent attempts by John Steenhuisen to do the same thing in different and more urgent circumstances are not without hazard.

I approached the evening with a mixture of anticipation and anxiety:  HFO (as he was ubiquitously known) always gave wise counsel and support, and Bridget combined warmth and grand hosting with a vivid view of the world not always voiced by her more circumspect husband.

My nervousness was occasioned by the deep antipathy Oppenheimer had for the Nats after his near decade in parliament in the 1950s and afterwards, and his long-voiced opposition to their policies. After all, Jan Smuts had proposed the toast at Oppenheimer’s 21st.

“Hoggenheimer”, the agent of British-Jewish capital (though its target was a converted and devout Anglican) was the NP’s cartoonish vilification of Oppenheimer and his father, Sir Ernest. Father founded and the son significantly expanded and vastly enriched a business dynasty that at its height controlled every nook and cranny of the local economy and 60% of the market capitalisation of the JSE. Its global tentacles reached from Wall Street, through the City of London to far-flung outposts from Brazil to Mauritania.

Oppenheimer listened carefully as I spluttered out the proposal for the new DA to tackle the hegemon of the mighty ANC. After I concluded, he cocked his ear to one side and said in his measured manner, “I might not understand this fully [in reality: he got the point immediately] but it seems to me what you are saying is that after this merger is completed, we will be much bigger than before … a jolly good thing too, I think.” He died just weeks later on August 19 2000.

A new life-in-full, Harry Oppenheimer — Diamonds, Gold and Dynasty by Michael Cardo has now been published. It’s well worth the read to understand the origins of the mightiest business conglomerate yet built here, which at its zenith mined more gold and diamonds than any other entity on earth. More relevantly, the book salts some clues on why it exists now as a vestigial shadow of its former self, utterly sheared of the founders’ ambitious purpose.

By any measure this is biography and history of the first rank. Six years in gestation has birthed a tome of deep insight at the deft and elegant hand of Cardo, a DA MP and historian. He paints a bold canvas of his subject and his time span, and the rugged national contours on which it is etched, from HFO’s birth in the diamond fields of Kimberley in 1908 to his death 91 years later. He provides an intimate portrait of arguably the ablest, and certainly the most subtle, “business statesman” this country has known.

He also captures many of the paradoxes, personal foibles and political ambivalences of Oppenheimer and the business empire he spawned. Not least, this book is a potent record of the power and purpose of private enterprise coupled with conspicuous public philanthropy.

Smash apparatus

Commissioned by Oppenheimer’s heirs, the danger of descending into hagiography is averted when Cardo takes full aim at some of the contradictions embedded in Oppenheimer’s life. He also provides, through unprecedented access to the correspondence of Harry and Bridget, racy detail on the private thoughts and prejudices on all matters, from family concerns to people’s dress sense (or their lack of it), lapses in sobriety by the SA high commissioner appointed by Nelson Mandela to London, and the vexed question of succession.

To the charge that the Oppenheimer empire and fortune were built on the back of a hideous system of pass laws, migrant labour and the compound system, Cardo renders this verdict: partly guilty with extenuating circumstances. He writes: “Anglo American profited from this terrible triumvirate, its detractors asserted, and if the company wanted to smash the institutional apparatus of white supremacy it could muster the requisite might.

“Oppenheimer was alert to insinuations of collaboration or complicity, and the potential they had to taint his legacy. He believed his business flourished in spite of, not because of, apartheid. It could be justly argued that his companies created millions of jobs, built valuable infrastructure, exerted crucial pressure on the National Party to initiate reforms, and provided a platform for growth for the democratic era … Nevertheless there were sins of commission and omission.”

A full cast of Anglo characters, a white Anglo-Saxon protestant (WASP) patriarchy, leaps from its pages: from the personally difficult but industrially essential Graham Boustred and the politically incorrect and prodigiously effective Julian Ogilvie Thomson to the extraordinary and self-destructive American tycoon Charles Engelhard, who apparently inspired Ian Fleming’s villain Goldfinger. There are telling details on adversaries who on occasion bested the mighty juggernaut of Anglo, such as Mandy Moross at the Schlesinger Organisation, and Consgold’s Rudolph Agnew. And a militant mining unionist, the young Cyril Ramaphosa.

The book explodes a lot of myths around BEE and its genesis; in one anecdote it proves that the current standoff and mutual disdain between the SA government and the business sector is a replica of more undemocratic but equally myopic times.

In 1962, having gifted US president John F Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, a $20,000 painting, the Oppenheimers were invited to dine with the presidential couple at the White House. Cardo writes: “[I]t was easier for Oppenheimer to walk through the gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as a dinner guest of the American president than it was for him to set foot in the SA prime minister’s official residence, Libertas in Pretoria.”

What Cardo labels “the parochialism of SA politics” in the 1960s was mitigated by the soaring 6%-8% GDP growth the country then enjoyed. But now in the dire straits of 0.1% projected growth in 2023 the parochialism endures, absent either Oppenheimer or the growth spurt he helped create.

• Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs a communications company.