Elon Musk insists the emerald mines he once boasted about never existed.
But his father, Errol Musk, was only too happy to tell The Daily Beast tales of covert arrivals, killer crocodiles and a litany of exotic diseases from when he struck it big in the gemfields of Zambia 40 years ago.
He says he survived his stints in the bush on a diet of bullrush maize meal and dried kapenta, a freshwater sardine found in Lake Tanganyika.
“Elon came with once and refused to eat anything for five solid days!” Errol said.
Such anecdotes only fuel intrigue about this chapter in the billionaire’s upbringing.
Rumors surrounding the Musk family wealth have been around since a 2009 interview with Elon in The New Yorker made passing reference to an emerald mine—a factoid rehashed and increasingly embellished in several subsequent interviews.
The story spread like wildfire. By 2019 one rumor even claimed, falsely, that the Musks owned an “apartheid diamond mine.”
Later that year, Elon began to distance himself from the emerald mine story, arguing that there was no proof it ever existed.
“I will pay a million Dogecoin for proof of this mine’s existence!” he tweeted in April of this year.
Walter Isaacson’s new biography of the world’s richest man shed more light on the mines. The book says that in 1986, Errol landed at an airstrip in Zambia where a Panamanian-Italian businessman offered to buy his small plane, a Cessna Golden Eagle.
Isaacson wrote that “instead of taking a payment in cash, Errol was given a portion of the emeralds produced at three small mines that the entrepreneur owned in Zambia.”
Errol elaborated on this experience speaking to The Daily Beast.
He said the emerald mines were located in the bush near Kasaba Bay, an elite safari lodge that was once favored by Zambia’s top brass.
President Kenneth Kaunda was known to make cabinet decisions there, and he even hosted leaders like Zaire strongman Mobutu Sese Seko and Mozambique’s President Samora Machel.
The safari lodge at Kasaba Bay lies abandoned today but its dirt runway on the shore of Lake Tanganyika is still visible on satellite imagery.
“All my movements there were by air in small twin-engine aircraft,” Errol said.
“Airfields were a cleared grassy plain with two car’s headlights at the threshold and two car’s headlights at the far end. Landing was at night.”
Asked whether he had any kind of concrete evidence like photos or old documents lying around that attest to the Zambian emerald mines, he replied: “To try and compare this to business in Europe or the USA is so laughable that I would not try to attempt it.”
“Think of the early Wild West, except add jungle, wild animals (and wild humans), and many many things that can kill you,” he added.
Five of Elon’s companies—Tesla, SpaceX, Neuralink, the Boring Company and X, formerly known as Twitter—did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the emerald mines.
From Rhodes to Musk
The controversy over the emerald mines stems from perceived parallels with the long history of rich white men exploiting Africa’s mineral resources.
Cecil Rhodes—the British mining magnate whose name has become a byword for the horrors of colonialism—began plundering his way through the interior of southern Africa in the late 1800s.
By 1888, his British South Africa Company claimed to have obtained mineral rights from the paramount chief of the Lozi people, the first such deal in the territory that would become Zambia.
The colonialists found emeralds as early as 1928. However, they were preoccupied with copper mining at the time.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that prospectors paid closer attention to the gemfields and realized Zambia was home to a fifth of the world’s emeralds. Artisanal miners quickly got to work.
Finding anyone from northern Zambia who could attest to Errol’s tales is tricky. Mineralogical maps and satellite imagery could not locate the mine, and long-shot attempts to track down any living officials from the mining ministry in the 1980s were unsuccessful, but Errol’s anecdotes are consistent with the situation on the ground at the time, according to an expert.
Economist Twivwe Siwale told The Daily Beast she had interviewed Zambian artisanal emerald miners who were active in the 1980s as part of her academic research.
“They did say it was a pick and shovel, try your luck type of thing where all sorts of characters were trying to get rich quickly, before the government came in and created a restricted area,” she said.
“Anybody could have come in and profited from it.”
Not that it was easy work.
Errol said: “Half of my colleagues were killed, all of my colleagues got malaria, yellow fever, blackwater fever, and more…One was eaten by a crocodile on the banks of Lake Tanganyika.”
“Are the silly little Western wimps of today able to understand all this? I doubt it.”
Isaacson’s biography states that the emerald riches dried up later in the 1980s when “the Russians created an artificial emerald in the lab.”
However, a more likely explanation may be that Zambian authorities began playing a more active role in the sector. Kaunda’s socialist-leaning government was keen to abolish private mining and gem cutting and create a state monopoly.
Siwale’s research into the formalization of Zambian emerald mining concluded that the government introduced regulations in the 1980s to gain control and push private operators onto less lucrative land, which forced many miners out of business.
Answering a follow-up question months after our last chat, Errol said wasn’t impressed by Isaacson’s book. “I don’t want to comment on this wobbly book. The things I know about are wrongly reported. This makes the whole book suspect.”
Like father, like son?
Government intervention may have dashed the senior Musk’s chances at making a fortune, but state funds are what helped kickstart companies like Tesla and SpaceX decades later—more so than any alleged pocketful of emeralds could have, according to Isaacson’s biography.
Meanwhile, Elon and his father dispute how much Errol invested in his son’s first start-up, Zip2, in 1995. Isaacson claims the emerald earnings had vanished even by then.
The book also delves into Errol’s South African brand of tough love and his tense relationship with his son. Errol the father and Errol the gem runner are very much the same man.
Some nuggets of info were already public knowledge, like the time Elon was pushed down the stairs and bashed in middle school, only for his father to berate him and side with the perpetrator when he got home. This incident stayed with Elon years later.
Errol’s tales of aviating through the “Wild West” gemfields of northern Zambia likely don’t have much to do with how his son funded his companies in the United States, but they may well have a lot to do with how the world’s richest person became the man he is today.
Source: The Daily Beast
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