Elon Musk’s impending takeover of Twitter has many people probing his public statements and his past for clues about how he will shape one of the world’s most public platforms.
But Musk, best known for owning the companies Tesla and SpaceX, has not talked much in public about a significant swath of his past: how growing up as a white person under the racist apartheid system in South Africa may have shaped him.
“It’s telling; white kids were insulated from the harsh reality of it,” said Terence Beney, who is white and graduated with Musk from Pretoria Boys High School in 1988.
Interviews with relatives and former classmates revealed an upbringing in elite, segregated white communities that were littered with anti-Black government propaganda and detached from the atrocities that white political leaders inflicted on the majority Black.
Musk, 50, grew up in the economic hub of Johannesburg, the executive capital of Pretoria and the coastal city of Durban. His suburban communities were largely shrouded in misinformation. Newspapers sometimes arrived on doorssteps with whole sections blacked out, and nightly news bulletins ended with the national anthem and an image of the national flag flapping as the names of white young men who were killed fighting for the government scrolled on the screen.
“We were really clueless as white South African teenagers. Really clueless,” said Melanie Cheary, a classmate of Musk’s during the two years he spent at Bryanston High School in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, where Black people were rarely seen other than in service of white families living in palatial homes.
Musk left South Africa shortly after graduation at 17 to go to college in Canada, barely ever looking back. He did not respond to emails requesting comment about his childhood.
Musk has heralded his purchase of Twitter as a victory for free speech, having criticized the platform for removing posts and banning users. It is unclear what his childhood role — coming up in a time and place in which there was hardly a free exchange of ideas and where government misinformation was used to demonize Black South Africans — may have played in that decision.
Classmates at two high schools he attended described him as a loner with no close friends. None offered recollections of things he said or did that revealed his views on the politics of the time. But Black schoolmates recall that he spent time with Black friends.
Musk’s father, Errol Musk, said in an interview with The New York Times that Elon, his brother and sister were aware from a young age that there was something wrong with the apartheid system. Errol Musk, who was elected to the Pretoria City Council in 1972, said they would ask him about the laws prohibiting Black people from patronizing restaurants, movie theaters and beaches. They had to make calculations when they were going out with nonwhite friends about what they could safely do, he said.
“As far as being sheltered from it, that’s nonsense. They were confronted by it every day,” recalled Errol Musk, who said he belonged to the anti-apartheid Progressive Party. “They didn’t like it.”
Still, Errol Musk offered a description of their lives that underscored how they were removed from the country’s violent reality. They got along well with Black people, he said, pointing to his children’s good relationship with their domestic staff, and he described life in South Africa during apartheid as being mostly better and safer than it is now.
According to a biography of Elon Musk, written by Ashlee Vance, Musk said he did not want to partake in South Africa’s mandatory military service because it would have forced him to participate in the apartheid regime — and that may have contributed to his decision to leave South Africa shortly after high school graduation.
The apartheid system created a distinction among white people, specifically between those who spoke Afrikaans and those who spoke English, like Musk’s family. While political power lay with the Afrikaners — the perfecters of apartheid who descended from Dutch, German and French settlers — English-speaking white South Africans enjoyed wealth that felt to some like a birthright, Cheary said.
“We were the white, English-speaking elite of the world,” she said. “It was literally our kingdom.”
Pretoria Boys had a socially progressive undercurrent. The school’s headmaster had participated in freedom struggle activities; some students would travel to anti-apartheid gatherings.
“I’m pretty confident in saying that a place like Pretoria Boys High, you were exposed to progressive ideas, even if you didn’t adopt them,” said Beney, 51, who does policy work for public health and social welfare organizations.
Yet none of them experienced the beatings and gunshots of state security forces like the Black children who were fighting for basic rights in township schools. And many students bought into government propaganda, Beney said.
He recalled a debate in one of his classes at Pretoria Boys in the mid-1980s over the government’s requirement that they serve in the military, squashing efforts by Black South Africans to defeat an oppressive regime.
A slight few said they would refuse to kill on behalf of an unjust political system. But others said that while apartheid had its wrongs, the country was in an all-out war. Some insisted that the fight was to protect against communists. Others justified the battle by arguing that Black people were susceptible to evil ideas.
Another common trope among students back then, Beney said, was that Black people could not be trusted with the right to vote because they had no tradition of democracy.
The apartheid system had forced the Black majority to live in certain areas. The way that was taught in school was that the country was made up of many tribes, with some opting for independence in their own homelands, according to Stanley Netshituka, who became the first Black student at Pretoria Boys in 1981.
Netshituka said he had some friends from liberal families who understood how bad things were for Black South Africans. But they were the exception, he said.
“I would say the majority were blissfully ignorant and happy to be blissfully ignorant,” said Netshituka, 54, who was allowed to attend the school because his father was a diplomat for Venda, one of the ethnic homelands in South Africa that was considered a semi-independent nation at the time.
In the same breath, classmates would call Black freedom fighters terrorists but tell him that “not all Black people are necessarily bad because I can see you’re not so bad,” he recalled.
Musk became friends with a cousin of Netshituka’s, Asher Mashudu, according to Mashudu’s brother, Nyadzani Ranwashe. One time at lunch, a white student used an anti-Black slur, and Musk chided the student but then got bullied for doing so, Ranwashe said.
Mashudu was killed in a car accident in 1987, and Ranwashe said he remembered Musk being one of only a handful of white people who attended the funeral in the family’s rural village.
“It was unheard of during that time,” he said.