Writing Harry Oppenheimer

Dominique Herman interviews biographer Michael Cardo over lunch in Cape Town

‘I do think he had a touch of the greatness about him’

Over a smorgasbord of Greek and Cypriot small plates, Member of Parliament and Harry Oppenheimer biographer, Michael Cardo, talks about the difficult task of writing a ‘big life’

Mike Cardo and I have eaten a lot of Greek food together. Before Marika Coulentianos and Frank Resnik sold their beloved Cape Town eatery Marika’s and rather inconsiderately moved to the United Kingdom, we used to go there a couple of times a month for their jumbo grilled-to-perfection calamari. In 2017, we travelled to Santorini and Naxos and ate our fair share of calamari over there. 

“Partly the reason why I chose this destination is that I still very much love Greek food,” says Cardo as we sit at our window table in Ouzeri, a new-ish whitewashed eatery in the Cape Town city centre. 

It’s been 17 days since the release of his much-anticipated biography of Harry Frederick Oppenheimer (HFO), and the book is number one on the South African bestseller list for the second week running.

The restaurant begins to fill up quickly and the rapidly rising volume level is not interview-recording friendly. “It will be very difficult for you to retain any information from this interview,” he says slowly and deliberately into the voice recorder. 

One of the interviews Cardo did for the book in a restaurant in Jermyn Street in London was inaudible. “The acoustics were appalling. I couldn’t hear a bloody thing afterwards.” Fortunately the specifics of that interview weren’t material to the book. 

In addition to London and Oxford, where HFO studied, Cardo had planned a research trip to the United States where he hoped to meet with HFO’s friend, Henry Kissinger. But Covid intervened and the trip didn’t happen. In the UK, however, Cardo interviewed a number of people including a cousin of HFO’s and diamond mining heir, a former chief executive of Anglo American and an old Oxford don.

“That was one of the benefits of the book having been okayed by the family. Everyone I interviewed knew that it carried the blessing of HFO’s two children – Nicky Oppenheimer and Mary Slack – and therefore they were happy to speak, which was great because I managed to uncover a lot of information both through my archival research and through oral interviews, and I don’t think the book would have been as full or as complete or as comprehensive without the family’s cooperation.”

The main source of his archival research and the place he spent the most time during the six years it took to complete the book was at the Brenthurst Library in Johannesburg on the family’s residential estate. All the Oppenheimer papers are kept there and a lot of HFO’s artwork hangs in the passages. 

“It’s beautiful. It’s a private library built by HFO in 1984. He had his own study in the library itself and he’d often amble down from the main house followed by one of his whippets to go and sit in his study which is lined with first editions of Byron and Shelley and Keats and Wordsworth. He was a great fan of the 19th century Romantic poets.”

Does he miss spending time at Brenthurst, I wonder? “I do; I absolutely do. It really was a sanctuary – a sanctuary from the cacophony and madness and mayhem and bedlam of parliament. It’s a wonderful place to work.”

On the wall in the library is where Cardo spotted the portrait that wound up making the cover of the book. He looked at it one day and thought, “That’s a really nice portrait of him. How about that for the cover?” The English photographer, Godfrey Argent, was known for taking photographs of the royal family, politicians, aristocrats and celebrities.

The portrait was quite badly faded from age, though, so the publisher sent it to be scanned and touched up. And although the colour was beautifully enhanced, the final image on the cover was rendered in back and white so as to contrast with the gold lettering of the title.

Among the other images in the book documenting HFO’s business and political career is a family photograph that includes his wife, Bridget, his two children and five grandchildren. “Quite a few of the grandchildren said to me, ‘Why on earth did you choose that picture? We all look awful in it’.” Cardo replied that it was on display in HFO’s study: “He liked it so I’m sure he would have been pleased to see it in the book.”

The grandchildren were very helpful, he recounts, particularly the youngest granddaughter, Rachel Slack. “She was fantastic. She took a real interest in the project. She opened up doors for me, told people that the project carried the blessing of the family and helped me to secure interviews.”

I ask him how he found the grandchildren in terms of their distinctly rare set of financial circumstances. By and large, he says, they seem “completely unaffected” by their inherited wealth. “I found them candid and approachable and easy to speak to, and thoughtful and reflective about their grandfather. So the interviews with them flowed quite easily, I think.”

Their parents, HFO’s children Nicky and Mary, had initial meetings with Cardo to get a feel for how he would approach the biography of their father. After all, Cardo is the first historian ever to be granted entrée to the family papers – an experience made doubly enjoyable by the family’s non-interventionist approach to the final product. “Nicky and Mary did see the manuscript ahead of publication but they didn’t interfere in any way or seek to impose any changes. For me that sort of free rein really was incredible.”

As we survey the first lot of empty plates containing the remnants of tirokafteri with fat chickpea “fries”, anari and spinach dumplings, and a crusty olive loaf topped with confit garlic and anchovies called eliopita, Cardo says, “That was lovely. Is that all that we ordered?”

It’s not all and the second round of dishes that arrives shortly afterwards proves just as delectable. I tell him that I am surprised to see him eating the bread with such gusto – and, much to my astonishment, later ordering more of it – because as far as I was aware he said he couldn’t remember when last he had had bread.

“Generally I still refrain from bread. I do eat sourdough with breakfast. I mean, breakfast is my favourite meal.” After the owners of his former local, Will’s Cafe & Deli, had their lease terminated by the owner of the building and were forced to close, Cardo decamped to Manna Epicure for a long period. But now the potato rosti at Ou Meul – where Will’s used to be – has him breakfasting there regularly. 

“They’ve been pardoned, partly because Will and his wife Tess have also pardoned them.”

Did you wait until they had pardoned them before you went back? I ask.

“I believe that that is the correct timeline of events, yes.”

And with that our two portions of halloumi arrive, coated in sesame seeds and glazed with honey. “This looks great,” he says.

Cardo was surprised that his manuscript remained largely intact. Of the 200 000 words he submitted, the editor “lightly pruned” about 8000. Among the cuts were a couple of colourful anecdotes. “One which is family folklore is that one of the whippets, that I mentioned earlier, was called Sally. Meanwhile HFO and Bridget were friendly with a couple called Mike and Sally Reunert. They went to Brenthurst for dinner one night and dined on prawns. 

“Bridget sat at one end of the table and HFO sat at the other end, and Bridget instructed him, in a very regal manner, ‘Pass Sally the prawns’. To cut a long story short, HFO misinterpreted which Sally was intended and he ended up giving Sally the whippet the prawns. Bridget barked from the other end of the table: ‘I meant Sally Reunert, you fool, not Sally the dog!’”

Considering HFO was a Member of Parliament for the main opposition party then and Cardo is a Member of Parliament for the main opposition party now, I suspect that must have been a particularly appealing aspect of HFO’s life for him. “That was one of the first chapters I wrote because I was so interested in the material.”

Cardo says that in some ways their experiences as MPs were similar in the sense that “HFO became an MP for the United Party which was relegated to the opposition benches in 1948 when the Nats won the apartheid election. I’m an opposition MP, so I surmise that there are various echoes and resemblances between being an opposition party faced by a big behemoth of a ruling party which sets out to control the institution of parliament. There would be parallels between the 1950s under the National Party and now under the ANC, although the ANC’s hegemony is declining whereas the Nats’ was only increasing in the 1950s.

“What struck me, really, from reading a lot of the Hansards from that period was just how different and comparatively elevated the calibre of the parliamentary debates were. I mean, these were people who were able to think on their feet, who could engage in quite sophisticated repartee if the occasion called for it and who were often experts in their portfolio.

“Contrast that now to certainly the kind of MP who gets trotted out by the ruling party to deliver speeches: often they’ll read speeches that have been prepared by staff members, and which they are encountering for the first time when they get up to the podium. They’re not particularly invested in the subject matter. They sound like robots repeating everything by rote.

“I think the institution of parliament has really been defanged by the ANC,” he adds, talking about how a vast majority of ANC MPs in the various portfolio committees aren’t in the main particularly keen to exercise stringent oversight over the executive and, when they do question executive members of government, often pose sweetheart questions to them.

“The ANC is the dominant party in a dominant-party system and it has sought to dominate the institution of parliament. It’s often said of parliament that it’s run as a satellite office of Luthuli House, and I think there’s some truth in that. You often get the feeling that you’re going through the motions in parliament.”

Working on the book allowed him to revisit the whole span of 20th century South African history. In his biographies, the one on HFO being his second, Cardo likes to marry the life history of somebody he finds fascinating with a broader historical backdrop. With this book, he started writing the war chapter first, from letters HFO wrote to his father during World War Two. Then he tackled the chapter on parliament. Then he started at the beginning and worked chronologically.

“There was an overwhelming amount of source material available from the archive at the Brenthurst Library. And the fact that there was no pre-existing biography of HFO meant that I couldn’t work off another secondary source. There is a book that was written about him and his father in 1973, which contains some useful information but which is obviously quite dated, and it also doesn’t cover the full extent of HFO’s life.”

Often the availability of secondary sources can speed things up, but his preferred modus operandi is very much working from the archives. “That’s what I’m trained to do as a historian – that’s what my PhD in history equipped me to do – is to write and tell history on the basis of original primary archival sources. 

“You gain insight into your subject by reading their letters, their diaries. You have access to their interior life, to what’s going on in their mind, to their thoughts, to their fears, to their hopes – so I think that’s absolutely key. It gives you deep insights into the person that you’re writing about.

“You always have the potential when you’re doing that to come across source material that nobody else has seen before and that was pretty much the case with Oppenheimer because those papers are embargoed. Nobody else had been given permission to work through the family papers before. Everything that I was seeing hadn’t been seen by other researchers before. So there’s something wonderfully gratifying about constructing a historical narrative off of primary sources. But I do think it’s a much more difficult enterprise.”

There are many people who put HFO in the same exclusive group with Nelson Mandela and Jan Smuts as the three greatest South Africans, and I ask Cardo whether he thinks that too.

“He was unusual for a corporate titan of his day and indeed for a corporate titan of today in a sense that he was highly intellectual and erudite,” he answers. “He had wide-ranging interests which were not common for the head of a mining house in Johannesburg which, as you know, is a city that has a reputation for producing rough and ready businessmen with jagged edges. And I liked the fact that he was bookish. I liked the fact that he was perceptive about people. HFO was a business statesman. I do think he had a touch of the greatness about him.”

Upon his death, HFO left a set of instructions to his family in a letter, “and he had this lovely line, very pithily expressed, to the effect that his offspring should always have regard as family members for one another’s strengths and susceptibilities. There’s nothing more repugnant than a rich family fighting about money, he said. HFO realised that with power and wealth comes responsibility in a way that I think perhaps not so many very rich people today do.”

The waiter comes to tell us that they’ll be closing the kitchen soon, so we order one more eliopita to lap up the juices from the fasolakia, a stew of potatoes, goats feta and dill. “It was all delicious,” Cardo remarks. “I do love chickpeas and hummus. I loved that halloumi. It was good to look at; it was delightful to eat.”

What I find interesting about HFO is that despite being a very big man on campus himself, he remained enthusiastically interested in other people and pursued meeting individuals that he found to have a touch of the greatness. One of them was Charles de Gaulle, whom he consulted in the 1960s at the Élysée Palace when De Gaulle was president of France. HFO also engaged with David Ben-Gurion, broke bread with JFK and hung out with his successor, Lyndon Johnson, in his bathroom at the White House while he was having his hair cut. 

“Part of the difficulty in writing the ‘big life’ is that he was multifaceted – there were so many dimensions to him and his involvements. He was an MP for 10 years; he retained throughout his life an interest in SA’s political landscape – that’s where his involvement with the Progressive Party comes in – but at the same time he was involved in all manner of complex corporate transactions as chairman of Anglo and De Beers. HFO was also a philanthropist and he had all these recreational interests, so to integrate all these aspects of this multifaceted human being into a coherent narrative on the basis of a cornucopia of primary documentation was a challenge.

“I really had to grapple with how I was going to write this book and I really had to struggle hard with how it was going to be broken up into chapters and parts.” Working on it part-time, juggling the research with his full-time parliamentary job, meant he couldn’t easily pick up momentum and would reread materials in the archives that he’d forgotten he’d read.

“I think in order to do justice to a biographical subject, you need to lose yourself in them. You need to become completely immersed. They do need to dominate your thoughts. I felt like I really knew HFO after many, many hours and many, many months and many, many years and from that point of view, I’m very glad that I took six years to write the book. Initially the publisher had wanted it in half that time, and I really don’t think that I would have been able to produce as hopefully as vivid and fully rounded a portrait in a shorter time span.”

The structure of the book came to him fairly late in the day “and I think there’s a moment when you’ve spent so much time with your subject in terms of sheer hours, that progressively over time you gain mastery over your subject.

“And then, of course, writing any book is a challenge in and of itself because you’ve got to think how you structure it. It became complicated later on in HFO’s life because I couldn’t simply write chronologically: there was too much going on that was cross-cutting. You have to begin thinking thematically, and about how you integrate the chronology and the themes. So just trying to conceive of the book architecturally was a difficult task. And then I hit upon this idea of heir, apprentice, magnate, monarch, which is the formula I use to divide the book into four parts. Partly I did it because the alliteration appealed to me, but somehow once I’d done that, things started falling more easily into place.”

We’re the only occupied table left in the restaurant and our waiter, while continuing to be charming, does seem to be becoming less enamoured of us the later it gets. Eventually he tells us our time is up.  

“Are you closing, though?” says Cardo.

“We’re closing soon”, he says. “We close down for the end of lunch, then we break down and set up for dinner and start again at 6.”

“So one actually has to leave?” I ask.

“Kind of,” the waiter says.


Part of the difficulty of eating a big lunch is heaving oneself off the chair. Since we can’t revivify ourselves by blowing air on our faces, like Lyndon Johnson did in HFO’s company before his evening engagement, we finish what has turned out to be certainly one of the greatest meals I’ve ever had in Cape Town by ordering Greek coffee, the only type of coffee they serve. 

The waiter compares it to Turkish coffee and adds that we can get it in one of three ways: without sugar, with a little bit of sugar or a lot of sugar. When it arrives, it’s not quite as strong or sludgy as the Turkish coffee Cardo and I drank together in Istanbul on another trip.

Cardo developed a kidney stone in the middle of working on the book “which I really do not recommend you ever get. It was the most painful thing I’ve ever had in my life”. He was hiking up and down Table Mountain’s Platteklip Gorge once a week “as my form of outlet from HFO” and reckons it might have developed as a result of dehydration.

“Walking was my opportunity to reflect on what I’d written that week, to process my thoughts. But, anyway, clearly I wasn’t taking in enough liquids.”

After the month-long intensive burst of publicity for the book is complete – from appearances on national television to podcasts, radio, readings, multiple launches in Cape Town and Johannesburg, excerpts and interviews in every major publication in the country (and one minor newsletter), capping it off with sessions at the Franschhoek Literary Festival and Kingsmead Book Fair – he reckons HFO will soon no longer dominate his “waking and sleeping thoughts”, as he’s put it in other interviews.

“It is a very weird phenomenon to have spent six years of your life producing this and then it’s finished. I did find myself looking at the book, staring at it and thinking, wow, this is it. This is six years all condensed into this 526-page book.”

58 Wale Street, Cape Town city centre

Large bottle sparkling water R38
375ml carafe barrel white wine (Western Cape) 145
Eliopita (Cyprus) x 2 R160
Anari dumplings (Cyprus) R90 
Halloumi (Cyprus) x 2 R230
Fasolakia (Greece) R100
Tirokafteri and chickpea fries and potato pita (Florina) R60
Yoghurt cake (Greece) R95
Sketo x 2 – no sugar (Greece) R60

Total including tip: R1100

This article first appeared on the Decidedly Hot Substack.