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Julian Ogilvie-Thompson, pictured in 1998. Picture: ROBERT BOTHA
Julian Ogilvie-Thompson, pictured in 1998. Picture: ROBERT BOTHA

In the 34 years I worked at Anglo American (and AngloGold) the companies operated with a collective leadership. This was a group of quite diverse individuals who accepted collective responsibility for the direction and destiny of the company. 

It is not therefore possible to do justice to one member of that team without also saying something about the activities of the team’s other members. Julian Ogilvie-Thompson’s death last week marks a further departure from the team that led Anglo, De Beers and Minorco through the three decades from the 1960s to the 1980s.

The group included, among others, Harry Oppenheimer (always at the centre of things), Nicky Oppenheimer, Gavin Relly, Ogilvie-Thompson, Graham Boustred, Peter Gush, Zach de Beer and Leslie Boyd. 

During these decades this team oversaw the consolidation of the Free State gold mines, including the construction of a brand new town, Welkom. Highveld Steel was also built, the first private sector producer of steel and vanadium alloys. Here Boyd played a key role.

Scaw metals grew from a modest base to a major foundry producing locomotives, wheels and tracks for underground mining and many other steel products. Here Boustred was central.    

During these 30 years Anglo played an essential role in innovating, supporting and sustaining key parts of SA’s financial services sector. When Barclays pulled out of the country it warehoused the SA operations so the bank could continue with new owners as First National Bank. 

Boustred led an expansion in coal mining, and championed the building by the state of a new heavy-duty railway line from the coal mines to Richards Bay (done by the state), a new harbour (also developed by the state) and a private sector financed and operating rapid loading coal terminal, which enabled SA to become a major global exporter of steam and metallurgical coal. 

Ogilvie-Thompson played  crucial roles in all of these activities, with strategic decisions jointly made by the team which stayed together for most of the 30 years. His role was particularly  important in both De Beers and Minorco, and he became chair of both companies in the 1980s. 

Given the size of Anglo and De Beers’ economic footprint it always needed a leadership that could both understand and engage with politics. Ogilvie-Thompson was central to building partnerships with the governments of Botswana and Namibia with regard to diamonds. 

In Zambia, where Anglo had essentially established the Copper Belt, making the country a major copper producer, an expropriation of Anglo’s ownership took place in  the context of a negotiation that both ensured fair value and maintained relations between Anglo and Zambia. Zach de Beer played  a central role in these negotiations, as always in the context of the Anglo team. 

In SA the relationship between Anglo and the Afrikaner nationalists was characterised by mistrust and ambivalence. This is well illustrated by the absence of any in-person meeting between John Vorster and Oppenheimer in the 13 years Vorster was prime minister. 

After 1976 Anglo played an active role in seeking the end of the migrant labour system through the policy work of the Urban Foundation. Anglo had a representative on the 1979 Wiehahn commission, Chris du Toit, and supported the recommendation of this commission to extend full trade union rights to all. 

In 1974 Oppenheimer called for union rights for all and committed his companies to deal with the resurgent black unions operating after the 1973 Durban strikes. Unionism for black workers came late to mining. Oppenheimer’s commitment was first tested in Anglo’s industrial businesses such as Highveld Steel and Scaw. 

When the Council of Unions of SA started a union for black workers in late 1982 Anglo and De Beers were the only mining houses to open their hostels for union recruitment purposes. The consequence of this was that a large part of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) membership was concentrated in mines managed by Anglo and De Beers. 

Relations between owners and workers will always involve strong elements of conflicting and converging interests. The conflicting interests led to a three-week gold and coal mines strike in 1987, and to Anglo’s dismissal of 50,000 striking workers. 

Anglo then realised it needed to re-recruit most of these fired employees as the particular skills and experience they had was needed to restore the mines to effective production. The interest for the NUM in re-employment was self-evident. This convergence led to a negotiated settlement, and a code of conduct governing union activity, including during strike action. Boustred played an important role in this. 

From my earliest experiences at Anglo this management team worked hard to recruit bright people and create an environment  in which they could assume leadership and responsibility at a young age. This is evident in the careers of Gary Ralfe in De Beers, Hank Slack in Minorco, and Tony Trahar in Mondi. 

From at least the mid-1970s Anglo ran a well-structured management trainee programme, designed and led first by John Drysdale and then by Rob Lloyd. Here a younger generation gained experience and opportunity, including Don Ncube, Charles Carter, the late Peter Matlare, Thero Setiloane, Stephan Malherbe and Noma Canca. 

Of course, not all of the ventures of this team, in which Ogilvie-Thompson was always central, succeeded. It was a team that was prepared to take risks but also ensured that the failures were of ventures, and not of the company itself. 

It is true that Anglo and De Beers could have played a bigger and better part in preparing SA for a nonracial democracy. The merger of Minorco and Anglo, and its consequent redomicile to London, has reduced the role it has been able to play in the critical decades after 1994.

Yet any sober account of the activities of this team, and in particular of Ogilvie-Thompson, must be reflected in a larger and far more sophisticated SA economy that was able to make the workplaces of SA an experiment in both nonracialism and democracy. 

• Godsell, now retired, was an executive director of Anglo American, CEO of AngloGold Ashanti, and president of the World Gold Council.

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