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"It is certainly not our task to build up the future in advance and to settle all problems for all time, but it is just as certainly our task to criticise the existing world ruthlessly. I mean ruthlessly in the sense that we must not be afraid of our own conclusions and equally unafraid of coming into conflict with the prevailing powers."
Karl Marx, 1844


Published: 2 September 2000

JB Marks is a hero and icon of the National Union of Mineworkers. One wonders how he would respond if he were to hear the praise that Harry O received from the leaders of black mineworkers. After all, JB Marks’ memory of the empire Harry O helped to build was that it drove 100 000 black miners down the shafts at point of bayonet. That was a long time ago, in 1946, and since then South Africa has become a strange place indeed.

The leaders of black mineworkers are however not alone in this strange land. At least one radical theorist of old has also belatedly discovered that Harry O was a leader to “whom opposition to apartheid was not mere rhetoric”. Among many cultures, and in particular among Africans, it is customary that one does not speak badly of the dead. And maybe this custom explains to some extent why parties and individuals from what used to be called liberation politics are now suffering from a strong bout of amnesia. It might explain why one now asks South Africans to praise “the work he [Harry O] bequeathed to South Africa”. As always happens, custom gets abused, and the practice of speaking good on the event of an individual’s death has by default been extended to speaking good of his inheritance. Harry O has not been praised only for his love of Africana and (the revolutionary poet!) Byron. In fact, the leadership of the liberation movement has praised him for precisely those of his activities that still cast a dark shadow over our new democracy: his business activities. For the work that Harry O has ‘bequeathed to South Africa’ is the Anglo American Corporation plc. Should we be proud of this legacy?

An inextricable link with Apartheid

The AAC was formed in 1917, seven years after the formation of the Union of South Africa, and four years after the 1913 Land Act. These two events, the Act of Union, and the Land Act, became synonymous with the rise of the AAC to economic and political dominance in South Africa.

The AAC was formed with the blessing of the new whites only Government of the Union of South Africa. One of the important directors of the new company was one FC Hull, the Finance Minister of the first Union government. The founder of the company, Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, was himself an MP in the Union parliament. Later on, the son Harry O also became an MP. Both Hull and Sir Oppenheimer used their connections with the South African state to good effect in building up the AAC empire in diamonds. Backroom deals with the state and legal interventions in parliament ensured the early domination of the diamond industry by the AAC.

The AAC – and De Beers’ – close relationship with the apartheid state, established in these early years, was to continue for the entire century. Today this continuing closeness can be seen in the tears shed by the new ruling elite on the occasion of Harry O’s death. There is now a new legend that portrays Harry O as being an anti-apartheid campaigner. Nothing could be further from the truth. Besides the fact that Oppenheimer companies grew by leaps and bounds under apartheid, Harry O and his father were active in collaborators with the apartheid state. They were instrumental in setting up the state-owned National Finance Corporation in 1949 and they propped up the South African economy when it was faced with capital flight after the Sharpville massacre in 1960. As a trustee of the South African Foundation during the Verwoed government, Harry O had the task of promoting and polishing the image of apartheid. If there is still any doubt about Harry O’s attitude to apartheid, then the AAC statement settles it: according to the statement Harry O “would never have acted unconstitutionally”. And apartheid was after all the “constitution”. It all sounds very familiar, doesn’t it?

This, however, could not be otherwise. The Union of South Africa itself owed its birth to the interest of gold mining. As South Africans celebrated, or mourned, the Anglo-Boer war, few seemed to remember that behind the “Boer” and “Brit” struggle, and the Africans caught in the crossfire, there was the fundamental struggle for the control of the gold mines of the Witwatersrand. Thus, the formation of the Union in 1910 was nothing but the victory of mine owners over the old Boer republics. It was therefore fitting that FC Hull, the future mining capitalist, should preside over the finances on the morrow of victory.

And what about the land question?
The dispossession of the Africans of their lands, long predates the discovery of gold and diamonds. With the discovery of gold and diamonds, however, the process of dispossession loses its piecemeal and, so to speak, accidental character. From then on land dispossession becomes an integral part of the formation of a working class for the mines. It is therefore no accident that one of the first important legal initiatives of the new Union government was the Land Act in 1913. This act created the economic pressure necessary to force Africans to go and work on the mines as slave labourers.

Slave labour
The entire mining industry in South Africa, of which the AAC was the leading company, is unthinkable without cheap, migrant, black labour. This was true yesterday as it is true today. In order to maintain and ensure the continuing supply of cheap black labour the mining industry also needed an instrument of coercion. The apartheid state was such an instrument. Key moments in the evolution of the AAC’s dominance of the mining – and manufacturing – industry coincide with major defeats of the South African working class, both black and white. These landmark dates are the 1920 black miners strike and the 1922 Rand Revolt, the 1946 (black) mineworkers’ strike, and the banning of the liberation movements in 1960. One illustration will suffice here. Speaking in 1925 after the defeat of the Rand Revolt, Sir Ernest Oppenheimer remarked that the profitability of the mining industry could not have been restored “without the reorganisation of underground work dating from the 1992 strike…”. The Oppenheimer dynasty were not ‘unfortunate’ victims and unwilling beneficiaries of apartheid. On the contrary, with sometimes striking foresight they understood the long-term gains of being loyal to apartheid, of not acting “unconstitutionally”. After all, apartheid did not produce the mining industry and its institutions of repression: the mining industry and its institutions produced apartheid. All the trappings of apartheid – pass laws, migrant labour, compound housing, the colour bar, the reserves, violent repression, low wages – were pioneered in the mining industry. After more than a 100 years of the gold mining industry, it has become impossible to distinguish the colour of gold from the colour of blood. For every ton of gold mined by Harry O and his friends over these 100 years there is an unmarked tomb for the unknown worker in the bowels of the earth.

A ‘South African’ company?
Much is made of Harry O, and by extension of AAC, as South African patriots. The AAC was after all the first of the mining Houses to be registered as a South African company. We do now know, of course, that Harry O (through the foreign listing of De Beer) was also a leader in the corporate chicken run from South Africa. The recent foreign listing of AAC in London does not, contrary to appearances, represent a dramatic change in the AAC’s attitude to South Africa. Throughout its history, AAC’s primary listing was always determined by which location will yield most profits and security. As Sir Ernest Oppenheimer indicated, the main reason for floating the company in South Africa was the anticipated tax gains that this entailed. Patriotism did not feature much, and in any event most the capital that launched the AAC was foreign.

Imperialism and Monopoly
Harry O and his companies are portrayed as champions of free market economy. As part of the strategy of preserving capitalism and winning the new ruling group to capitalism, Harry O became active in black empowerment. Commitment to small business is thrown in for good measure. This of course is not new. Faced with similar threats from the Afrikaner ruling group, Harry O became involved in Afrikaner empowerment, and was instrumental in the formation of the Afrikaner mining house, Glencore.

All of this was not about free markets, but about the protection of the AAC’s monopoly position in the economy. In the not too distant past the ANC correctly pointed out that genuine economic empowerment could not take place while the commanding heights were still dominated by monopolies. Anglo’s monopoly position was also a part of its role as an imperialist power in the Southern African region.

Today we see a growing tendency for American capital to dominate the South African economy. This tendency is being facilitated by the Gear policies of the new government. Unlike the Johnny-come-latelies in the new government, the AAC has represented this tendency throughout its existence. When it was formed in 1917, one of the key shareholders in AAC was JP Morgan, the American bankers. In the 1950s AAC raised significant amounts of its capital overseas to finance the operations of the important Free State gold fields. On the other hand, a key strategy in Anglo’s rise to economic dominance involved spreading its tentacles over the entire Southern African region. The cornering of diamond production in Namibia, Angola, the Congo and West Africa in the early parts of the last century formed an important part of the AAC’s drive to dominate the diamond market.

Later on, Anglo came to dominate mining and industry in the entire South African region. This dominance was of course also expressed in the control over the labour power of the entire Southern African region.

Anglo and the ANC in power

In one of the many obituaries for Harry O Chris Barron remarked that Harry O “lived most of his life surrounded by sycophancy”. Most to the new ruling elite were for a long time denied the opportunity to share in this sycophancy. One has to admit, however, that the new ruling elite has made up the lost time. The outpouring of grief and a sense of loss for Harry O shows how far this group has travelled from its stance of nationalising the commanding heights of the economy. More than 150 years ago Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote that “the Executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”.

The collapse of Stalinist socialism notwithstanding, one has to admit that those two old subversives have again got it right: the ANC in power has become but a committee to manage the common affairs of the whole capitalist class.

Should we then be proud of the legacy of Anglo and Harry O? Well, it depends on which side one’s bread is buttered these days. For the millions of working people in South and Southern Africa, there is very little to be proud of.

"Ideas that enter the mind under fire remain there securely and forever." -Leon Trotsky

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