A corporate culture skilled at dominating apartheid nation was outmatched by global capital markets
It is a short walk from the imposing former headquarters of Anglo American at 44 Main Street, Johannesburg, to the small office in which Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo defied the authorities to set up a law partnership in 1952.
The moral is that the magnificence of a building is not a reliable guide to the enduring influence of those inside. Ernest Oppenheimer founded Anglo American in 1917 and laid the cornerstone of 44 Main Street in 1938. By the 1980s, his son Harry pulled the strings of several mining and financial conglomerates controlling 30 per cent of the country’s stock exchange.
Mandela and Tambo went on to lead the African National Congress and to transform the country. After Mandela became president, Anglo shifted its primary listing and head office to London in 1999. Julian Ogilvie Thompson, then executive chairman, celebrated “the end of the financial structures that were imposed on us by apartheid”.
The outcome has not been pretty. When Anglo moved, it hoped to close the 25 per cent discount at which its shares traded to their net asset value by becoming simpler. Its market capitalisation has fallen to only £5.5bn, about a 60 per cent discount. It is a lot more transparent than it used to be, and is clearly in a mess.
Anglo was not apartheid’s victim but its beneficiary, not only allowed to exploit black workers but shielded from competition. That encouraged it to behave like the old nickname for the Oppenheimer family empire, “the octopus”. It spread tentacles throughout the South African economy, extending into Botswana through De Beers, the Oppenheimer diamond group.
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