The man who will take over the R200 billion Oppenheimer empire

 ·10 Jul 2024

Jonathan Oppenheimer is the heir to the Oppenheimer family’s R200 billion fortune. He recently shed light on growing up in one of the world’s richest and most influential families.

Jonathan was born on 18 November 1969. He is the son of former De Beers chairman Nicky Oppenheimer.

His lineage stretches back to Anglo American founder Ernest Oppenheimer, who was his great-grandfather.

Ernest was the first generation of the family to chair the De Beers diamond mining company in South Africa, founded by Cecil Rhodes in 1888.

Ernest handed the reins to Harry Oppenheimer, who became one of the world’s wealthiest people and for four decades considered South Africa’s foremost industrialist.

He was chairman of Anglo American for 25 years and De Beers Consolidated Mines for 27 years until he retired in the early eighties.

His son, Nicky Oppenheimer, became deputy chairman of Anglo American Corporation in 1983 and chairman of De Beers in 1998.

He retired as De Beers chairman in 2012 when the Oppenheimer family’s stake was sold to Anglo American.

Jonathan Oppenheimer is the new face of the Oppenheimer family and the executive chairman of Oppenheimer Generations.

He attended the Harrow School and Christ Church, Oxford and played first-class cricket for Oxford University Cricket Club.

He started his career at N M Rothschild & Sons, after which he moved to Anglo American, where he became senior vice president in 1999.

After leaving Anglo American in 2000, he filled numerous senior roles at De Beers diamond mining company in Southern Africa and London until 2012.

Jonathan was involved in the 2001 delisting of De Beers and the 2012 sale of the Oppenheimer family’s stake to Anglo American.

The deal with Anglo American ended the Oppenheimer family’s 85-year controlling position in the world’s diamond trade.

In 2003, Jonathan and his father published a policy paper on economic development in South Africa, which led to the launch of The Brenthurst Foundation in 2004.

He remains actively involved in all aspects of the Oppenheimer family’s private, commercial, and philanthropic endeavours.

The family is also a big political contributor. Between 2021 and 2023, it donated R89 million to South African political parties – the biggest donor in the country.

Jonathan is a staunch conservationist. He bought the Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, South Africa’s largest private game reserve, and immediately ended hunting.

In 2007, the World Wildlife Fund gave Jonathan an award for his conservation work at Tswalu Kalahari.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Jonathan and his father committed R1 billion to creating a financial lifeline for the employees of small, medium, and micro-sized enterprises.

Growing up as an Oppenheimer

Nelson Mandela with Harry and Nicky Oppenheimer

Jonathan Oppenheimer revealed what it was like to grow up in one of South Africa’s richest and most influential families in an interview with Bruce Whitfield.

His parents instilled a sense of humility in him from a young age despite growing up as part of the richest family in South Africa.

One example is pocket money. He often received less pocket money than most of his friends. His mother forced him to pay his own way and save what little money he had.

They also instilled a sense of value in him and ensured that his decisions were value-driven rather than him getting whatever he wanted.

“I can’t recall a single conversation which said you will do what an Oppenheimer does or be who an Oppenheimer should be,” he said.

“It was always you must follow what you want to do in your life and make your life a success. In doing that, you must contribute to the environment you’re in.”

Jonathan said he was almost hoodwinked into the family business from a young age as that was all he was exposed to and all he knew.

“My father used to collect me on the half days at school and at lunch, and instead of going home, I used to go to the office quite often,” he said.

From the age of 10, he was allowed to attend any meeting at Anglo’s famous headquarters in Johannesburg’s CBD.

This continued into his teenage years, when, despite schooling in the UK, Jonathan would return to South Africa in summer to observe the day-to-day running of Anglo American.

“When it came time for me to start getting involved, I had a leg up on everybody else because I already had 5 or 10 years of knowledge, which I hadn’t even realised,” he said.

He said it was a massive responsibility to be the descendant of illustrious figures such as Ernest, Harry, and Nicky Oppenheimer.

Although the family’s wealth brings many privileges, including attending the best schools and universities, it has downsides.

He said there is a perception that it is fantastic to be born into privilege. However, it comes with “massive shackles”.

“You’re not only responsible for the next five generations of Oppenheimer but also for a broader community,” he said.

Jonathan explained that this deep responsibility is bred into him, as an Oppenheimer, with the obligation to ensure the wider environment benefits from your business ventures.

“We’re here to make a profit because without making a profit, nothing is sustainable,” he explained.

“However, we’re here to make a profit in such a way as to benefit the people and communities with whom we operate.”

He credited his great-grandfather, Ernest Oppenheimer, for instilling that principle in how the family does business.

“That dictum is the essence of everything Nicky and I do. Hopefully, my children do as they come into their adult age and take on more and more responsibilities,” he said.

Read: Billionaire Johann Rupert’s incredible charity work in South Africa

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