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Stuck between worker demands for a decent living wage and insistence for broader ownership rights (or even nationalisation) and the market’s implacable demands for profits, Anglo American may have to give up its place as an iconic South African institution and be content as one more middling mining company among many.
At one of those archetypal South African dinner parties the other night, the news that Anglo American CEO Cynthia Carroll had just resigned got more than a mention. One guest recalled that for decades, the hard men ensconced on the top floors of Anglo American’s 44 Main Street headquarters – the one with those magnificent friezes of African animals on the walls – controlled nearly 40% of Africa’s total GDP and that, in turn, meant something like 60% of the share value of the entire the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.
It was an empire almost without parallel – as if General Motors, Ford, DuPont, RCA and a half dozen other Fortune 500 stalwarts from America’s industrial Golden Age were one interlocking conglomerate. At its peak, Anglo’s organizational chart looked more like a complete depiction of the chemical relationships of the body’s Krebs metabolic cycle than a tightly structured industrial behemoth.
The late Harry Oppenheimer had guided the company to its premier place on the continent’s corporate and economic landscape, building on the heavy lifting that had been initiated by his father, Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, the company’s founder. The founder father had come from a cigar-making family, then demonstrated a preternatural talent with diamond trading before coming to South Africa and engaging in diamond mining leases in the former German colony of Southwest Africa after South Africa took over the mandate following World War I.
The launch of Anglo had been initially supported by American banking giant JP Morgan. The story goes that the original name of the company was to have been the African-American Corporation, until someone advised such a moniker would make the new company sound like something organized by Black Americans, thereby waving away potential investors. The new company’s name apparently was quickly changed to Anglo-American instead, despite the absence of a major “Anglo” component in the mix.
Regardless, over the next half-century, Anglo expanded into coal, copper, iron, gold, platinum and almost every other product and service imaginable that is part of a modern economy. Anglo’s reach extended deeply into the Zambian copper belt and, through complex ties via De Beers, into the secretive international diamond trade, around the world.
By the time Sir Ernest’s son, Harry, took over the store, Apartheid’s hold on South Africa was deeply entrenched. Increasingly, with fewer and fewer places for Anglo to invest beyond the immediate Southern African region because of South Africa’s obdurate racial policies, Anglo took to buying into or developing ownership interests across the length and breadth of the region’s economy – and well beyond its original focus as a primary minerals mining house. As Apartheid began to give way, however, Anglo was back on the move.
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