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Many would walk past him without a second glance. But this unassuming man, in a brown jacket and faded jeans, is the man who brought up a billionaire in Africa. This is Errol Musk, father to Elon. The $13.3-billion United States entrepreneur who founded PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX and who wants to go to Mars. Errol’s son, Kimbal, is a millionaire and his daughter, Tosca, is a film producer.
“They’ve been doing well all their lives. It’s not like one suddenly jumps into it right now. It’s been like that as far as I can remember. [Elon’s] sister Tosca would say you can ask Elon to do a lot of things on his computer but don’t ask him to catch a bus. We traveled a lot in those days, their mother and I split up when they were quite young and the kids stayed with me. I took them all over the world. Elon was generally in the backseat, Kimbal, my other son who is just as energetic as Elon, would do all the guiding and navigating,” says Errol.
“Elon has always been an introvert thinker, so where a lot of people would go to a great party and have a great time and drink and talk about all sorts of things like rugby or sport, you would find Elon had found the person’s library and was going through their books. He’d find fun in that, not to say he wasn’t a person who would party every now and then.”
“The kind of things he would come up with as a youngster was always surprising. When he was very small, he would ask me ‘where is the whole world?’ when he was three or four. It was these sorts of questions that made me realise that he was a little different,” says Errol in an interview on radio station 702, in Johannesburg.
The Musk family is full of adventurers. Errol’s grandmother was Canada’s first chiropractor. His father and mother were the first to fly from South Africa to Australia in a single-engine plane. Errol, a pilot, sailor and engineer, raised Elon and Kimbal in the quiet suburbs of Pretoria.
Elon’s siblings also share the limelight. Tosca is a producer and director. Kimbal owns a number of restaurant chains and spearheads a non-profit school education based programme, The Kitchen Community, which grows vegetables in the United States.
“Kimbal is much more of a party animal. He is one of the two original directors of SpaceX and he’s a director of Tesla … But he’s in his own world [and has] gone into restaurants and catering. He has a number of very large restaurants. He is also part of one of the fastest growing fast foods spaces called Chipotle Mexican Grill.”
“Kimbal started a thing where he put fiberglass tubes in a snakelike shape to make a garden and taught children to grow vegetables… an article on FORBES said he was the Musk who is going to change how we eat.”
It’s a story that dates back to the 1980s in Pretoria. Errol made money by consulting and developing properties while the boys scribbled away at their desks at Pretoria Boys High School (PBHS).
“My impression is that Elon kept to himself and was relatively quiet and reserved. I believe he was involved with the computer club at school, but otherwise was not really visible in mainstream activities,” says Gavin Ehlers who was headboy at PBHS in 1988, the same year Musk finished school.
Not surprisingly, Elon graduated with distinctions in physical science and computer science, recalls Bill Schroder, the headmaster of the school from 1990 to 2009. Elon and Kimbal then emigrated to Canada with their mother, Maye, in part to avoid conscription in the South African army, before taking the plunge as entrepreneurs in the United States.
“In the mid-eighties I remember him showing me a box with a red light on it and he would say this is a modem. With this, computers can talk to one another. If that computer is on the line then I can talk to a computer in England and ask it questions. He was always switched on,” says Errol.
So what lies ahead for the billionaire Elon who wants to go to Mars?
On the cards is a possible return to Africa to install thousands of Tesla Powerwalls, a 15-centimeter sized battery box that can store up to 10kWh of free, cheap renewable energy for your house.. This is enough energy to keep your fridge cold for 600 hours, according to Eskom, South Africa’s national power utility, and could solve the country’s energy problems.
“As far as Elon is concerned, I worry, what now? What is there? I start to worry of boredom. I get worried that he is getting bored of sending stuff to NASA every week or two weeks. I mean this is becoming passé… He is one of those people, and certainly was as a boy, if he suddenly decides it’s not interesting anymore he just kind of drops it. I doubt he will though,” says Errol.
From Pretoria to stars, Elon could even go to Mars.