COVID-19: How an African billionaire dialled up R40 million over the weekend

By Chris Bishop.

Billionaire Jonathan Oppenheimer told CNBC Africa how he and his father Nicky dialled up R40 million over Easter to help small businesses survive the COVID-19 nightmare.

The Oppenheimer family gave a billion Rand to the South African Future Trust on the cusp of the country’s COVID-19 lockdown. A string of banks has laborious task of sifting thousands of applications from Small and Medium Sized Enterprises who fear going to the wall in the lockdown. The family says R330 million in interest free loans will go to small businesses to pay 30,000 workers R740-a-week and keep doors open and food on the table in these uncertain days. Oppenheimer – whose family made a multi-billion dollar fortune in South Africa from mining – believed it was not enough and picked the telephone to phone contacts as far afield as San Francisco.

“My father and I along with my colleagues started to reach out to people that we know that have South Africa’s best interests at heart. Over the Easter weekend we spent a lot of time on the phone and we contacted many people and so far some R40 million in additional donations – that will support another 4,000 people – has been promised to the South Africa Future Trust on the same basis as our gift. That is, money into the trust never to come back,” he told CNBC Africa.

Oppenheimer admitted that his family’s money – which has been followed by donations by many other wealthy South Africans and businesses – is far from enough.  

“You are entirely right, it is not enough. We are simply able to support; on the basis of R750- a-week, we can support 90,000 people. The reality is the SMME sector has at least a million to a million and-a-half employees and the majority of those will need some sort of support, so any additional funding is absolutely necessary.”

Oppenheimer dismissed criticism in the press by politicians who slated the loans, accusing them of locking struggling companies into debt that they can’t repay. One opposition politicians likened it to loan sharking. 

“Interest free doesn’t sound like loan sharking to me,” says Oppenheimer.   

Yet scion of the Oppenheimer family, which has been doing business in Africa for more than a century, does fear for the South African economy in these tough times.

“I think it is a very difficult situation right now. Clearly the lockdown is the right decision and clearly, and everyone accepts this, it is doing exceptional harm to the economy. The challenge is how you navigate that very careful balance .On the one hand limiting the rate at which the virus spreads and thereby giving our health system the ability to cope, and finding a way to get the South African economy, which is idling at the side of the road right now, driving away,” says Oppenheimer.

“I think President Cyril Ramaphosa has done a very good job to date, but it is far from over and he will have many, many, difficult conversations to have and many, many, difficult decisions to make.”

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