South Africa

The life of a South African billionaire

Jonathan Oppenheimer is the latest in a long line of business leaders from the Oppenheimer family, which created mining giant Anglo American and dominated the diamond industry for decades. 

Son of Nicky Oppenheimer, Jonathan is heir to a family fortune worth $10.9 billion (R200.1 billion) and founder of Oppenheimer Partners. 

The Oppenheimers’ story began with Ernest, who arrived in South Africa at the beginning of the 20th century as a diamond trader and began a successful mining career. 

He eventually founded Anglo American and controlled De Beers, which dominated the global diamond industry throughout the 20th century. 

Harry Oppenheimer then took over and drove Anglo’s diversification strategy into new commodities, creating the mining behemoth listed in London and on the JSE today. 

By the 1980s, the company had accounted for 25% of South Africa’s GDP and owned an estimated 60% of the JSE. its dominance resulted from an international embargo that forced local companies to reinvest profits locally. 

Jonathan’s father, Nicky, then took the reigns at Anglo and sold the family’s stake in De Beers to the company, giving it immense wealth to fund its philanthropic ventures. 

Jonathan is left to carry on this legacy. In 2016, he started his own investment firm, Oppenheimer Partners. 

In an interview with 702’s Bruce Whitfield, Jonathan said this is a massive responsibility and being the descendant of such illustrious figures comes with its own downsides. 

“There is a perception. I suppose when one looks at the lives of people who are born into privilege and say, ‘Well, wouldn’t that be nice?’. It comes with massive shackles,” he said. 

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

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. But we’re here to make a profit in such a way as to benefit the people and communities with whom we operate,” he said, quoting Ernest.  

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

Harry Oppenheimer in the Brenthurst Library

Growing up an Oppenheimer

Born in 1968, Jonathan spent large parts of his childhood outside of Apartheid South Africa, being educated at Harrow School in England. 

Apart from displaying strong academic talent, the youngest Oppenheimer was also a talented cricketer, playing first-class cricket for Oxford University Cricket Club. 

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

They often gave him less pocket money than most of his friends, and his mother, in particular, forced him to pay his own way and save what little money he had. 

Apart from humility, this also instilled a sense of value in Jonathan and ensured that all his decisions were value-driven rather than him getting whatever he wanted handed to him on a silver platter. 

“I can’t recall a single conversation with my parents or grandparents on either side, which said you will do what an Oppenheimer does or be who an Oppenheimer should be.”

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

Through this, 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, and I had the freedom of 44 Main Street.”

Jonathan said from the age of 10 years old, he was allowed to sit in on 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 in summer to South Africa and observe the day-to-day running of Anglo American. 

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

As such, it was never Jonathan’s duty to carry on the Oppenheimer legacy, but he had little else to do, being born into Anglo American at the height of his family’s influence. 

He began his work career at NM Rothchild & Sons before swiftly moving back 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 founded Oppenheimer Partners in 2016 to invest in ‘frontier’ markets around the world. He said these markets hold immense opportunities for investors and are where their investments can have the widest impact on people. 

Another focus area for his investing firm is agriculture throughout Southern Africa and, in particular, in his home country of South Africa. 

“South Africa is the land of my birth. I’m incredibly passionate about the space. I think this is an amazing country with a huge opportunity,” he said.

“There are very few countries in the world where you can build and create the kind of opportunities we have here.”

Anglo American’s historic offices on 44 Main Street

Philanthropic ventures

Jonathan’s philanthropy began in 2003 when he and his father published The Brenthurst Initiative, a policy paper focusing on economic development in South Africa. 

This led to the creation of the Brenthurst Foundation in 2004, which remains a policy think tank focused on improving economic outcomes for African countries. 

Nicky and Jonathan later founded Oppenheimer Generations, which holds interests in various non-profits around the world. 

This firm invests in early-stage companies that create inclusive, sustainable growth across Africa. It focuses on underinvested areas with a high potential for impact on both people and the natural environment.

It also invests heavily in researching new conservation methods for agriculture, which aim to prevent the disturbance of natural landscapes while enabling agricultural production to grow across the continent.

After this, Jonathan struck out on his own regarding philanthropy, buying Tswalu Kalahari Reserve – South Africa’s largest private game reserve. 

He immediately ended hunting on the reserve and improved conditions for wild animals located in the Northern Cape. 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 create a financial lifeline for employees of small, medium, and micro-sized enterprises (SMMEs). 

This led to the formation of the South African Future Trust, which pooled donations from individuals, companies, and charities to support SMMEs in the country. 


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