Swapping gems for cash
What next for South Africa's foremost mining family?
MOST people would be overjoyed to pocket $5.1 billion. But Nicky Oppenheimer, the chairman of De Beers, said that it was with a heavy heart that his family had decided to sell its remaining 40% stake in the world's biggest diamond miner to Anglo American, a mining behemoth. The deal marks the end of an era for South Africa's foremost mining dynasty.
The Oppenheimers have been in the diamond business for more than a century, including over 80 years with De Beers. Nicky's grandfather Ernest settled in South Africa in 1902, having been posted to the diamond-boom town of Kimberley at the age of 22 as an agent for a London-based firm of gem traders. By 1917 he had set up his own mining company, Anglo American. A few years later he won control of De Beers, a diamond miner that had been founded in 1880 by Cecil Rhodes, a British-born colonialist. By the time Rhodes died in 1902, De Beers controlled 90% of the world's diamond production. Rhodes's immense fortune still pays for people like Bill Clinton to study at Oxford.
Since 1929, when Sir Ernest (knighted for war services in 1921) took over as chairman, the Oppenheimers have led De Beers almost without interruption, massaging the price of diamonds by hoarding them and occasionally selling part of the firm's stockpile. The family has wielded political influence, too, mostly bankrolling liberal causes. Both Ernest and his son Harry served in South Africa’s parliament: Ernest for 14 years in the run-up to the second world war, and Harry for nine years as a member of the anti-apartheid opposition.
Of late, however, the family's influence has waned. Some wonder whether Nicky and his son Jonathan have the same drive and acumen as their swashbuckling forebears. And Anglo American, the firm their family founded (and in which it now has a stake of 2%), moved its headquarters to London in 1999. Nicky Oppenheimer insists that the family will stay connected with South Africa: they are still based in Johannesburg.
What will the Oppenheimers do with their new pile of cash? The deal will take months to complete, so they have time to ponder. Under its terms, they are barred from dabbling in diamonds for two years. But other possibilities abound.
The family has two investment arms. One, called Stockdale Street Capital, invests largely in medium-sized firms in South Africa. The other, Tana Africa Capital, is a joint venture with Singapore's sovereign-wealth fund, Temasek, and invests in the rest of Africa. Among other things, it holds a stake in a Nigerian firm that sells powdered milk, and it plans to build up five to ten substantial firms over the next decade.
At the moment, Tana is focused on fast-moving consumer goods and agriculture, and to a lesser extent on building materials, health and education. The new money could go into any or all of these areas, says James Teeger, a family spokesman. And the Oppenheimers may also look at infrastructure and energy, two of the hottest businesses south of the Sahara. Nicky Oppenheimer is said to be furiously jetting around looking for shrewd places to inject his cash.