Margaret Hodge has long enjoyed signalling her virtue in matters of racism and race relations, being one of the prime movers in the anti-Jeremy Corbyn smear campaign that attempted to portray one of Britain’s leading anti-racist campaigners of the last 40 years as an antisemite for the crime of being a socialist. The campaign of disinformation and fake news, of which Hodge could be called the most vocal proponent, resulted in the suspension or resignation of hundreds of innocent human rights activists and Palestinian rights campaigners from the Labour Party under vexatious claims of antisemitism including the likes of Chris Williamson, Jackie Walker, Marc Wadsworth and Asa Winstanley.
However, a report from Open Secrets, a non-profit organisation that promotes private sector accountability for economic crime and related human rights violations in Southern Africa, reveals that Margaret Hodge isn’t quite as holy as she proclaims and that while Jeremy Corbyn was being arrested for protesting the evils of apartheid, her family was openly profiting from the racist South African regime.
Coutinho, Caro & Co (CCC) was founded in 1951 by Margaret Hodge’s father Hans Oppenheimer and Herbert Coutinho, being acquired fully by the Oppenheimer family in 1987 and renamed the Steel Marketing Corporation or Stemcor for short. The business is a steel trading and distribution company who acts as an intermediary between buyers and sellers of steel alongside providing such services as logistics, price risk management and inventory management.
As of 2012, the turnover of business exceeded £5 billion and is one of the world’s largest independent steel traders, operating in 45 separate countries. After years of expansion built on debt, Stemcor split its holding company and its core trading business into two separate entities as part of a $2 billion debt restructuring in 2018.
Margaret Hodge’s brother, Ralph Oppenheimer, served as Chairman of Executive Chairman of the company between 1982 and 2013 and Hodge herself is/was a shareholder. The Oppenheimer family no longer controls the company.
The relationship between Margaret Hodge and Stemcor has long been a point of controversy in the UK given her public profile of being a tax avoidance campaigner, the press highlighting the small amount of tax that has been paid by the Jersey-based company in comparison to its hefty turnover. In 2012, Helia Ebrahimi of The Daily Telegraph questioned whether Hodge was suitable as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, stating that her family’s company “pays just 0.01pc tax on £2.1bn of business generated in the UK”
However, it is to the past where the true controversies of Coutinho, Caro & Co/Stemcor lay, not in modern-day matters of debt and finance.
The Open Secrets report reveals that during the 1970s and 1980s CCC ran a highly profitable joint-venture partnership in apartheid South Africa at the height of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement, ignoring international calls for a boycott of the racist state.
“Anything an Oppenheimer wants to do, an Oppenheimer can do.”Hans Oppenheimer
It was in 1973 that CCC formed the 50/50 joint venture in South Africa alongside Protea Holdings under the name Protea International. While there is no exact data on how profitable the venture was for the company information from Companies House reveals that between 1982 and 1987 CCC had a turnover of £73,399,554 (worth £231m in 2020) throughout the whole of Africa which also included a subsidiary and office in Kenya.
Protea Holdings was particularly close to the apartheid regime and was linked to serious breaches of human rights throughout the 1970s. The company also maintained business in Chile under the brutal regime of Augusto Pinochet, with both Protea and CCC making a strong profit from selling apartheid steel to the Latin American dictator.
During this period the Oppenheimer family held their share of CCC in a vehicle known as Irene Securities. Margaret Hodge, then Margaret Watson, held over 6% of the shares throughout the period that CCC was working in apartheid South Africa.
“This culture of unaccountability in the relations between South Africa and Britain must come to an end. It is time that the British Labour party, its leader Jeremy Corbyn and her electorate hold Hodge accountable for knowingly profiteering at such great human cost. Hodge has clothed herself in the claim that she has dedicated her life to fighting racism – that her very “being” was anti-racist, as she said in March 2019. The facts suggest otherwise.”Open Secrets
There can be little to no claim of ignorance on the part of those involved with CCC, the Anti-Apartheid Movement being in full swing throughout the 1970s and 1980s and the brutality and racism of the South African state being international public knowledge.
The British Boycott Movement had been founded as far back as 1959 following a meeting of South African exiles and their supporters in London and quickly attracted widespread support amongst students, trade unionists, liberals, communists and the Labour Party. After the Sharpeville massacre, the movement was renamed the “Anti-Apartheid Movement” and moved its focus beyond an economic boycott into campaigning for the international isolation of the apartheid state and keeping the actions of South Africa at the forefront of the international political debate.
In November of 1962, the United Nations passed Resolution 1761 which called for the imposition of economic sanctions on South Africa and in 1965 the Anti-Apartheid Movement played a key role in initiating the academic boycott of South Africa. In 1977 the UN strengthened their condemnation of the country by initiating an arms embargo.
The calls from international bodies, students, unions and Labour activists was quite clear in the message that trade with South Africa was completely unacceptable as were the policies of apartheid.
Despite the success and prominence of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the programme of boycotts, the South African regime remained strong, thanks in part to the continued dealings of big business who were able to withstand the negative press from their involvement with the country for want of making easy money. As such, Coutinho, Caro & Co had not gone unnoticed over their involvement with the country, being quite open and public about their dealings. In 1988, the Anti-Apartheid Movement particularly included CCC in their call for the complete withdrawal of all foreign firms from South Africa and Namibia, highlighting “the particular role which foreign investment plays in supporting the apartheid system”.
When contacted for comment by Open Secrets, Hodge admitted that she was aware of the family deals with the apartheid state, her spokesperson Alex Conneely Hughes claiming that the former cabinet minister had protested the fact to her father in 1973 in the form of a letter. Hodge further claimed that all profits she received from the South African business were donated to charity for a period between 1973 and 1994.
Hodge failed to provide a copy of the letter when requested to do so and claims to “not to have any recollection” of which actual charities benefited from her donations for 21 years. Her spokesperson further stated that they couldn’t say how exactly Hodge would have calculated what portion of her dividends were profits from CCC’s dealings with apartheid South Africa.
Main image: Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP speaking on “Accountability in today’s public services” | Policy Exchange