The great critic of bourgeois hypocrisy, Honoré de Balzac, reminded us in Father Goriot that behind every great fortune is a forgotten crime, forgotten because it was done neatly. But what exactly does it mean to do a crime neatly?

Balzac did not mean mere cat-burglar prowess at the drainpipe, nor the tricky finesse of the “perfect crime” as often given in television drama. He had in mind something far larger and more insidious: a privatised variant of the Big Lie that is famous in totalitarian propaganda.

What Balzac meant were crimes committed in plain view that then hide behind the bourgeois respectability that lies, like a well-manicured lawn, over the buried bodies.

As I point out in Fit to Govern, today’s Oppenheimer wealth was founded on the rape of Namibia, an act of successive German and South African states. These outlaw governments ultimately ceded the lion’s share of opportunities and profits to the Oppenheimers and De Beers. Between 1903 and 1908, about 10 000 indigenous Nama-speaking people were killed in an uprising against the German colonisers; within 10 years Ernest Oppenheimer had cornered these suddenly un-peopled Namibian diamonds.

It was these vast resources that then propelled his family into the pound seat among the fractious shareholders at De Beers. Wealth with such origins has all too often, as Balzac saw, promptly bought itself a new respectability by maintaining a tight and disciplining grip on the ownership and funding of those who might otherwise criticise it, whether in culture, academia and media.

But, in a strange phenomenon that I canvassed in a talk at the Michaelis School for Fine Art in Cape Town last week, some are more equal than others in the dash to buy respectability for wealth that has dubious origins. The colour of money matters, even here. While the Oppenheimers have managed very neatly for decades to give illegitimate colonial and apartheid gains a semblance of respectability, the Congolese businessman Sindika Dokolo is strangely battling in the same game.

The African and global art worlds have been buzzing for months over Dokolo’s increasingly high-profile art-patronage activities. On February 23, Ben Davis, associate editor of the website Artnet, wrote a story headlined “Art and corruption in Venice”.

Davis explained: “The 52nd Venice Biennale makes a historic gesture towards Africa by including a substantial exhibition drawn from the Sindika Dokolo African Collection of Contemporary Art in the impressive spaces of the Arsenale. But now, the unsavoury political and business activities of the people behind the collection are raising questions that could well prove an embarrassment to the venerable art fest.”

The Artnet piece looked beyond Dokolo to his wife, Isabel dos Santos, daughter of the Angolan President Eduardo dos Santos: “One of the richest people in Angola, Isabel dos Santos is identified as a prominent member of Futungo, a patronage network of about 200 well-placed individuals and families close to President Dos Santos, supposedly responsible for siphoning off some $2-billion in state revenues for personal gain (Angola became the second African member of Opec this year), in what the UK group Global Witness has described as ‘wholesale state robbery’ …

“Sindika Dokolo’s wife’s reported business interests include major stakes in the government’s diamond monopolies” which were allegedly responsible for “a staggering list of human rights violations” in Angola’s diamond-rich Lundas region.

These violations included “laws making it illegal to travel in the Lundas except in association with the diamond trade, ‘creating a situation tantamount to forced labour’ for the more than one million inhabitants of the province”.

Davis and Artnet, whose intentions in highlighting Dokolo were plainly progressive and non-racist, wrote that “vast segments of the African population have been subjected to several centuries of imperial intervention, foreign-backed civil wars, looting by international corporations and extortion by Western financial institutions. This has created the conditions for some pretty nasty stuff.”

Davis mentioned a range of past and present Western robber-barons-cum-art-patrons, from Rockefeller to Alice Walton of Walmart and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, as well as the Economist’s observation this year that the art collection in Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum “has invested a family name that might otherwise be stained by economic exploitation during the Second World War with a kind of fragrant immortality”.

What struck me most was that Davis somehow made no mention whatsoever of the Oppenheimers, who loom far longer and larger than does Dikolo upon the blood-drenched playing-fields of Africa philanthropy. This is sign of how neatly turned have been the historical crimes of this particular dynasty: its old crimes hide in plain view, as Balzac predicted.

Davis was not deliberately ignoring them; he just failed to notice them, which is Balzac’s whole point about the well-turned crime. When George Orwell said that saints should be presumed guilty until proven innocent, he was thinking not so much of Mahatma Gandhi (the subject of his essay) but more of those who promoted and invested in the cult of sainthood around Gandhi, hoping to dignify their own unsavouriness in the great man’s reflected virtue.

The same dynamic underlies what is probably the single most scathing headline that Nelson Mandela has ever incurred in the pages of a reasonably respectable publication. On December 18 2006, the New Republic’s Isaac Chotiner published a column startlingly headlined “Nelson Mandela: Diamond shill”. De Beers’s attempts to spin-doctor the Leonardo di Caprio film Blood Diamond had clumsily and unforgivably ensnared Mandela himself in a Washington, DC, mini-scandal that was little reported in the South African media.

Chotiner explained: “From 1991 to 2002, rebel soldiers from the brutal Revolutionary United Front kidnapped civilians, forced them to work in diamond mines, and smuggled the gems they unearthed to neighbouring countries. From there, the diamonds were shipped to Europe and sold by conglomerates, such as De Beers. The proceeds filtered back to Sierra Leone, where they paid for even more kidnapping and violence.

Blood Diamond is a withering critique of the diamond industry’s role in exacerbating a savage war and its callous disregard for human rights in Africa. Zwick had every reason to expect that Mandela — one of the world’s greatest living advocates for human rights — would be pleased.”

In fact, however, Zwick received a rather discouraging letter signed by Mandela himself: “It would be deeply regrettable if the making of the film inadvertently obscured the truth, and, as a result, led the world to believe that an appropriate response might be to cease buying mined diamonds from Africa … We hope that the desire to tell a gripping and important real-life historical story will not result in the destabilisation of African diamond-producing countries, and ultimately their peoples.”

Having quoted this, Chotiner commented rather harshly: “None of this makes much sense, unless you take into consideration something that isn’t widely known about Mandela: the man who ended apartheid and became the late 20th century’s most eloquent spokesman for human dignity is also a shill for the diamond industry.”

Mandela is, of course, nobody’s shill. Chotiner was grossly overplaying his point. And yet Mandela’s letter was indeed part of the broader one-sidedness to which I want to draw attention, within the discourse of African historical crime and benefaction. This one-sidedness, in which the attribution of the labels “good and “evil” seems to follow the colour of money more than the quality of its wrongdoing, tends to give Oppenheimer an easy ride while targeting Dikolo and his ilk.

This problem, in turn, leaves Dokolo’s detractors rather vulnerable to the kind of gambit with which the Congolese benefactor shrewdly ended his reply to Artnet: “I would like to conclude by questioning the ‘why’ of this article. Why not take any time for research or analysis? Why this taste for immediate caricature when it comes to African elites? Like my father before me, I have decided to fight preconceived ideas so that Africans would have a strong point of view on the world that would be their own. My weapon is this collection and the impact that it will have on the African public.”

Dokolo’s business activities certainly deserve rigorous scrutiny and criticism and ought to receive a lot more of both. But when I hear talk of diamonds and forced labour, when I hear of the kinds of objections raised by the activist NGO Global Witness in the Angola case, I also immediately think of South Africa’s De Beers, which is a philanthropic benefactor of Michaelis, of the University of Cape Town more broadly, and of all sorts of African studies work across the cultural and academic landscapes of South Africa and the world. Within the cosy civility of such high cultural adventures, the historic barbarism of the South African mining industry cross-dresses as civilisation.

From 1890 to 1904, the mining industry in Southern Africa was not even required to register the death of black workers. Up to 1922 the family of a deceased worker in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) received £5, which was the equivalent of two months’ wages. When this rose to £10 in 1922 (the grand equivalent of three or four months’ wages), WM Leggate, who was then in the colonial legislature and later became British colonial secretary, felt this £10 compensation should not be automatic, as “death would be considered a windfall in some instances, and he did not think the government should lend itself to that”. The industry was literally wringing profits, through blood, from stone.

Blacks on De Beers diamond mines were not “employees” in any recognisably modern sense. They were denied personal autonomy and basic human dignity. Their entire lives and intimacies, not excluding bowel movements, were subject to control by De Beers for its own purposes. When these “employees” ended the working day they were forced to jump naked over bars and were paraded with extended arms before guards who “scrutinised hair, nose, mouth, ears and rectum with meticulous care”, looking for concealed diamonds.

Before the “employees” left this rather uncongenial De Beers Native Club during the migrant labour cycle, they were kept semi-naked in detention rooms for several days and force-fed purgatives so that they would inevitably excrete any swallowed gem stones. We hear a lot about black diamonds, meaning new black middle-class consumers. But as I pointed out at the Black Management Forum (BMF) conference last month, these bowel-smeared diamonds were the original black diamonds in the most extreme and distasteful sense. After I had addressed the BMF, the De Beers representative, having sat silently in the audience, came up to me to remonstrate: I ought to have sent the speech to him first!

That is a small example of how large historical crimes have, since they occurred, been managed ever so neatly within the South African knowledge economy. The main library at UCT, for instance, is now called the Oppenheimer library, the naming rights having been unceremoniously wrested away from the late JW Jagger, who previously enjoyed the privilege.

“The new central complex of the University Libraries was renamed the Chancellor Oppenheimer Library, honouring its most generous benefactor, at an opening ceremony in October 2001,” according to the UCT website. The Centre for African Studies is likewise a great beneficiary of Oppenheimer money.

Mbeki critic William Gumede is currently an “Oppenheimer Fellow” at Oxford. Oxford PhD candidate James Myburgh, who formerly served as a research assistant and “special projects” operative for Tony Leon in Parliament, was handsomely funded by the Ernest Oppenheimer memorial trust.

Why have the Oppenheimers not asked for their money back? Perhaps it is affirmative action. In a piece published under the auspices of the illiberal Institute of Race Relations not long before he got the Oppenheimer money, Myburgh identified a “curious transmogrification” in what he imagined was the old status of South African blacks as the proverbial uncivilised Yahoos. He lamented the passing of that status. “Overseas, it was whites who started being regarded as [barbaric] Yahoos, and black South Africans who were regarded as [civilised] Houynhnnms.”

Whether South African blacks abroad were ever regarded as Yahoos (“rude, noisy or violent persons”) is a matter really for Mr Myburgh to canvass with his therapist.

These are mere casual fragments in what could be a systematic and useful study of the invasion of Africa studies by vested interests, countrywide as well as internationally. The same critics who go after Dikolo’s are silent on the rapidly expanding American benefactions of the Oppenheimers.

The difference is not, incidentally, between ancient crimes (Oppenheimer) and recent ones (Dikolo). The allegations against each side are equally recent, with the Oppenheimer misdeeds stretching back, of course, far longer than Dikolo’s. Just weeks before I took the plane from New York to Johannesburg in March 1994, for instance, Jennifer Ward told me in the Dean & Deluca on University Place in Manhattan that she was about to marry Jonathan Oppenheimer, but in London rather than New York, because Harry and Nicky (among other guests linked to the De Beers Central Selling Organisation) feared being arrested upon arrival at John F Kennedy airport in respect of alleged antitrust offences.

A few years earlier, Isabel dos Santos had strolled into my Oxford College as a prospective student, with no arrest warrants on her head. And there are still none to my knowledge. This does not necessarily mean that there are no alleged crimes (there are); just that they are certainly more recent and less far-reaching than the dark and century-long Oppenheimer legacy.

In 2004, De Beers finally resolved its alleged crimes by paying a $10-million fine to the US Department of Justice in settlement of a charge that the company had conspired with General Electric to fix the price of industrial diamonds. Over the next two years, De Beers paid more than $295-million to settle class-action suits in both the United States and worldwide. No liability was admitted.

Promptly thereafter, Jennifer Ward-Oppenheimer popped up on the Advisory Council of Harvard’s WEB Du Bois Institute of African and African-American Studies and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s De Beers African Health Scholars. No Dokolo-style protests have greeted any of this.

According to the Harvard University website, the Committee on African Studies “offers summer travel grants to assist Harvard juniors with senior honours thesis research and Harvard graduate students doing doctoral dissertation research on Africa. These grants are for research in the social sciences or humanities and are only for travel in sub-Saharan Africa. The graduate student grants are funded through the generosity of the Jennifer Oppenheimer Africa Research Fund and the Provost’s Office.” Such “scholars” certainly ain’t attacking Oppenheimer or De Beers.

The involvement of De Beers in Kalahari diamond prospecting caused international political and activist controversy, but not so strangely failed to set off any benefactor-related controversy locally. Quite the reverse. The De Beers corporate website boasts, under the heading “Sponsoring African cultural heritage”, about the company’s great deeds in the direction of the Bushmen: “De Beers has long supported the work of the Bleek and Lloyd Archive and is the sole funder of Professor [Pippa] Skotnes’s endeavour to study this collection and make it available to fellow scholars.”

The University of Cape Town’s Monday Paper for March 31 2003 reported that “funding of more than R1-million from De Beers, the Mellon Foundation and the Scan Shop (who are subsidising scanning costs) will underpin the huge task of digitising one of the world’s largest and richest folklore collections, the Bleek Lloyd Collection, one that captures the lost language, customs and mythology of the indigenous but now destroyed /Xam people”.

Without the slightest irony, the paper quoted Professor Skotnes, who said that the collection was “one of the jewels in the UCT crown”.


  • Ronald Suresh Roberts is the author of Clarence Thomas and the Tough Love Crowd: Counterfeit Heroes and Unhappy Truths (New York University Press, 1995), Reconciliation Through Truth: A Reckoning of Apartheid's Criminal Governance (with Kader and Louise Asmal; preface by Nelson Mandela, 1996); No Cold Kitchen: A Biography of Nadine Gordimer (2005) and Fit to Govern: The Native Intelligence of Thabo Mbeki (2007). He is a graduate of Balliol College, Oxford, and of Harvard Law School.


Ronald Suresh Roberts

Ronald Suresh Roberts is the author of Clarence Thomas and the Tough Love Crowd: Counterfeit Heroes and Unhappy Truths (New York University Press, 1995), Reconciliation Through Truth: A Reckoning...

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