The banality of 'White Privilege' discourse

Michael Cardo writes on Elon Musk, Harry Oppenheimer and the New York Times

When I read the New York Times article entitled ‘Elon Musk Left a South Africa That Was Rife With Misinformation and White Privilege’, I immediately thought of one of Musk’s late South African compatriots.

Harry Frederick Oppenheimer, the gold and diamond magnate, was, like Musk, the pre-eminent SA-born capitalist of his time. And, like Musk, Oppenheimer garnered his fair share of attention from the American newspaper of record.

Heir to both the global De Beers diamond cartel and the Anglo American Corporation, the world’s largest gold producer, founded by his father Sir Ernest Oppenheimer in 1917, the second-generation Oppenheimer was a crusading entrepreneur.

‘HFO’ – Oppenheimer’s sobriquet in the upper echelons of Anglo – was constantly pursuing the next frontier, though his ambitions were terrestrial rather than celestial. Fortune ranked him as one of the world’s ten richest men in the 1960s, and later he would be a regular fixture on the magazine’s list of billionaires. HFO’s politics generated as much controversy as Musk’s, and they were of keen speculative interest to the commentariat.

From the 1960s until his death in 2000, Oppenheimer’s companies completely dominated every sector of the South African economy. HFO was also an international financier. By the early 1980s Anglo American had become, through an affiliate mining finance house, Minorco, the largest single foreign investor in the United States.

A South African empire has reached the US, Thomas Lippman wrote in the Washington Post in 1982, by which point Minorco was the biggest shareholder in Phibro Corporation, the world’s leading commodities trader. Phibro, in turn, had recently bought Salomon Brothers, the New York-based investment bank and number-one bond-trading firm globally.

For a company headquartered in the nondescript mining town of Johannesburg, thousands of kilometers from the bustle of New York, this was an astonishing conquest. It was also a neat inversion of the familiar order: in a sense, the periphery had colonised the metropole.

Oppenheimer was an object of fascination for the plethora of foreign correspondents that descended on South Africa in the 1980s. At the time, the country was a crucible of violence. The economy was tanking. Black rebellion was mounting. Apartheid was in its final throes. The State President, PW Botha – an irascible, belligerent bully – cycled between repression and reform; he realised his government was riding a tiger, but the maintenance of white domination was the ruling party’s ultimate goal, and Botha’s Nationalists had no idea how to dismount it.

Against this backdrop, journalists on the New York Times and other international flagships sought out Oppenheimer for profiles and interviews. Here was a man possessed of great economic power and some (albeit constrained) political influence. Oppenheimer had spent ten years on the opposition benches in Parliament, between 1948 and 1958, when apartheid was introduced. He had regarded Botha, on the opposite side of the debating chamber, as a brute, and when the mining tycoon spoke at the podium he was regularly taunted by Nationalist parliamentarians with the antisemitic slur of ‘Hoggenheimer’. Sections of the Afrikaner press popularised this crude caricature whose origins lay in London’s West End; it personified British imperialism and Jewish monopoly capital.

Oppenheimer bankrolled the National Party’s fiercest parliamentary rival, the Progressive Party, and he was a vocal critic of apartheid on the international stage. But in the 1980s he quietly extended the hand of support to Botha – an approach facilitated by Henry Kissinger – and tried to jolly along the authoritarian Afrikaner’s tepid programme of social and economic reforms.

Oppenheimer tended to couch his arguments against apartheid in the language of Homo economicus rather than of social justice or moral entreaties. Apartheid made no economic sense, he insisted. Capitalist-induced development would eventually break down the barriers that separated blacks from whites. At the same time, many of Oppenheimer’s critics observed, Anglo had flourished on the back of an evil trinity: the migrant labour system, which provided the mines with a replenishable pool of cheap, exploited black workers; the ‘pass laws’, which regulated the movement of blacks to the cities; and the compound system, which corralled black mineworkers into single-sex living quarters where their living conditions were usually squalid and inhumane. Anglo profited from this terrible triumvirate, its detractors maintained, and if the company really wanted to smash the institutional apparatus of white supremacy, it could muster the requisite might.

Oppenheimer was simultaneously South Africa’s wealthiest man and a prominent critic of the racial order from which he benefited. The duality intrigued journalists. Two of his shrewdest observers were writers for the New York Times, Joseph Lelyveld and Peter Schmeisser. In profiling Oppenheimer, ‘the country’s most privileged white’, Lelyveld managed to master the complexity and nuance of South African history without reducing his subject to a one-dimensional, cardboard cut-out of ‘white privilege’. But then in the 1980s that vacuous, catch-all phrase – a sociological nullity – had yet to become ubiquitous.

I thought about the rich texture and depth of Lelyveld’s piece when I read the shallow hatchet-job on Musk, written some forty years later, by John Eligon and Lynsey Chuttel. It is a study in contrasts: their tendentious representation of Musk juxtaposed with Lelyveld’s sharply drawn portrait. For Eligon and Chuttel, Musk’s greatest crime, apart from his whiteness, seems to be the geographical accident of his birthplace. Musk is indelibly stained by his boyhood as a white South African. That fact, they imply, structures all of his thoughts and his actions – including, bizarrely, his decision to buy Twitter. To reach this flattened conclusion, the authors must engage in all manner of contortions, including the laughable notion that Musk grew up in a country characterised by the dangers of unchecked speech. In reality, apartheid South Africa was a hotbed of censorship.

On one level this kind of reporting is just lazy armchair psychology. But the problem goes deeper than that, for the piece is a product of the racial dogma that has infested the New York Times in recent years. In this moral universe, white people are little more than vessels of privilege and vectors of oppression. Individual choice and agency, and all the idiosyncratic attributes that make people human, are subordinated to the big idea of ‘white privilege’. It’s boring and banal. It’s also a terrifically unenlightening approach to Musk’s life story (or anyone’s, for that matter), this attempt to turn him into a sort of racial archetype, his every move explained by some totalising concept and the fortune, or misfortune, of his national origins. As a means to understanding motive and character, let alone the calculus of commerce, it is wholly unrevealing.

In journalism often the outside observer gets closest to the truth. But what struck me after reading the New York Times articles, past and present, was just how much the newspaper’s insights had been denuded of their value in the interregnum.

Michael Cardo is writing the authorised biography of Harry Oppenheimer