Elon Musk is a native of South Africa, although he left that country at age 17. The New York Times obviously saw some potential in Musk’s heritage. Hence this tweet:
Elon Musk grew up in elite white communities in South Africa, detached from apartheid’s atrocities and surrounded by anti-Black propaganda.
He sees his takeover of Twitter as a free speech win but in his youth did not suffer the effects of misinformation. https://t.co/bciCJDWGGP
— The New York Times (@nytimes) May 5, 2022
That last sentence tries to make a point: “He sees his takeover of Twitter as a free speech win but in his youth did not suffer the effects of misinformation.” But I can’t quite figure out what it is.
In any event, the actual Times story linked in the tweet is anything but an indictment of Musk, whatever the reporters and editors may have intended:
Mr. 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.
Why would he?
Mr. 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 role his childhood — 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.
I dunno, it’s just a wild guess, but maybe growing up in a place where, as the Times reports, “Newspapers sometimes arrived on doorsteps with whole sections blacked out,” impressed upon him the importance of free speech.
But enough about South Africa. What about Elon Musk?
Black schoolmates recall that he spent time with Black friends.
Mr. 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, 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, who said he belonged to the anti-apartheid Progressive Party. He added, “They didn’t like it.”
According to a biography of Mr. Musk, written by Ashlee Vance, Mr. 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.
Mr. Musk became friends with a cousin of Mr. Netshituka’s, Asher Mashudu, according to Mr. Mashudu’s brother, Nyadzani Ranwashe. One time at lunch, a white student used an anti-Black slur, and Mr. Musk chided the student, but then got bullied for doing so, Mr. Ranwashe said.
Mr. Mashudu was killed in a car accident in 1987, and Mr. Ranwashe said he remembered Mr. 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.
The Times evidently didn’t find what it was looking for in researching Elon Musk’s childhood–no gems like, say, Mitt Romney helping to cut a fellow student’s hair. But they couldn’t let it go without this quote:
Mr. Musk’s current views on free speech seem to reflect the philosophies students were exposed to at Pretoria Boys, said Mr. Beney, the classmate — like that of the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, a champion of unchecked expression.
“I think his ideas about free speech are very classic liberal and not nuanced,” Mr. Beney said of Mr. Musk.
“Not nuanced” means he doesn’t favor censorship by the government and its minions. The Times will never forgive him for that.