Oppenheimer, Sir Ernest

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OPPENHEIMER, SIR ERNEST (1880–1957), South African financier. Born in Friedberg, Germany, he went to London at the age of 16 to work for a firm of diamond merchants, which in 1902 sent him to represent them in Kimberley. He was very successful in the diamond business and in 1917 founded the Anglo-American Corporation. He gained control of several other companies, and in 1929 became chairman of the great diamond firm of De Beers and thus the acknowledged head of the industry. During the 1930s Oppenheimer steered the diamond trade through the difficulties of the great depression, ultimately establishing control of world marketing through the Diamond Corporation. His foresight also contributed to the discoveries which extended the Rand goldfields after World War ii. Mayor of Kimberley from 1912 to 1915, he helped to raise the 2nd Battalion, the Kimberley Regiment, in World War i and was knighted in 1921. He represented Kimberley in Parliament as a supporter of Smuts from 1924 to 1938. He and his first wife, Mary Lina née Pollak, were liberal supporters of Jewish charities and interested themselves in Jewish communal affairs. After her death in 1934, he married a Catholic and converted to Christianity. In the development of the Orange Free State goldfields, Ernest Oppenheimer set high standards of town-planning and did much to promote better hospital and recreation services and housing for the Africans there and on the Witwatersrand. He was a gracious patron of the arts and sciences.

His son harry frederick oppenheimer (1908–2000), widely known as "H.F.O.," was educated at Charterhouse school in England and at Oxford. He succeeded his father as head of the diamond industry and of more than 150 mining, manufacturing, and investment companies. His birth in Kimberley was recorded in the Jewish communal records, but later he became a member of the Anglican Church. He entered the Anglo-American Corporation, eventually succeeding his uncle, Leslie Pollak, as manager. During World War ii, he saw service as an intelligence officer in the Western Desert. After the war he helped his father develop the new Orange Free State goldfields. "H.F.O." was chairman of the Anglo-American Corporation (1957–82) and of DeBeers Consolidated, the great diamond and minerals mining giant, from 1957 to 1984. In 1948 he entered Parliament, winning his father's former Kimberley constituency for the United Party. Oppenheim was a consistent opponent of Apartheid. At the end of 1957 he retired from politics to devote himself entirely to his business interests. Harry Oppenheimer assisted materially in the development of the diamond industry in Israel. He was one of the richest men in South Africa, reputedly worth $2.5 billion at his death.


T.E. Gregory, Ernest Oppenheimer and the Economic Development of South Africa (1962); A.P. Cartwright, Golden Age (1968); Oppenheimer, in: Optima (Sept. 1967); J.M. White, The Land God Made in Anger (1969). add. bibliography: G. Wheatcroft, The Randlords (1985), 240–59.

[Lewis Sowden]