Telling empowering stories, South Africans want to hear

Wednesday, 08 November 2023 21:24

Walter Isaacson's biography of Elon Musk review.

By Jacob Mawela.

Elon Musk is an alien, thus claims the rumour mill populated by those close to the Pretoria, South Africa-born-and-raised Canadian-American SpaceX pioneer – hence his more-than-a-decade-long concerted determination to colonize Planet Mars with humans! He seeks to head back home – only this time, co-opting Earthlings along!

When you peruse through the newly released thrill-a-sentence 670-pages hardback tome by seasoned erstwhile CNN CEO, Walter Isaacson – you'll be compelled to agree about the Tesla Motors entrepreneur’s nativity as being otherworldly!

Imagine this scene described in the unputdownable read which spilled out on a motorway somewhere in the vicinity of the Silicon Valley city of Palo Alto, California, between Musk and PayPal co-founder, Peter Thiel, whilst driving to a meeting in the former’s McLaren: "So, what can this car do?" enquired the latter. As of a scene out of a Hollywood flick, the risk-proclived Pretoria Boys High alum hauled the turbo-charged marquee into the fast lane and floored its accelerator, causing it to spin around and send it airborne upon contacting an embankment – with the duo on board miraculously emerging from the ordeal unscathed!

Said incident was just one of repeated others which marks Musk's natural risk-taking as the one trait which has propelled him to becoming Planet Earth’s current wealthiest individual! His life isn’t ordinary. South Africans who, either out of political correctness or the tendency to grab onto the coattails of others, like claiming Musk for their own, will be astounded by his (and his dad’s) views regarding his country of birth. Upon surviving a near-death bout of a dangerous form of Malaria pending a vacation in the country, he ruled: "Vacations will kill you. Also South Africa. That place is still trying to destroy me." And in a Father’s Day 2022 e-mail his dad, Errol, sent him, the elder Musk vented that Black leaders in South Africa were engaged in anti-white racism, declaring: "With no Whites here, the Blacks will go back to the trees."

Yet Musk's misgiving about his native land was not so much its ill-treating of him but rather the childhood memories growing under his father’s abuse of himself, siblings and mother – which ultimately prompted him to leave South Africa for Canada at the age of seventeen, in 1989. Then – just as he is estranged from Errol now in 2023 after he impregnated a step-daughter Musk regarded as a sibling – he could no longer tolerate what he describes as his father's dark side! A character defect – described as a Jekyll-and-Hyde nature – which ironically Musk himself has inherited!

Written in informatively compressed brief chapters, Isaacson's comprehensive read itineraries on a pre-teen boy a bullies’ victim (with one violent incident involving a group of schoolboys resulting in him being hospitalized) during his Pretoria upbringing; the boy who suffered from PTSD (post-traumatic-stress-disorder) from experiences such as veldskool (wilderness survival camp); a bookworm fixated on Science Fiction; a videogames buff; a man who deems those not on his level as "stupid"; a bipolar taskmaster who takes "it can't be done" for an answer; a hands-on executive who walks factory floor assembly lines with his employees and personally sees to it that a product is delivered to specifications, et cetera.

Fascinatingly, Elon Musk, the book also delves into behind-the-scenes wheeling-and-dealing regarding how Musk got to facilitate mergers (as with the PayPal deal), takeovers (as with Twitter) and crucially establishing his legacy amongst the Jobs-Gates-Buffet-Bezos league of visionaries by
founding SpaceX and Tesla Motors – the two business concerns which pivot his groundbreaking portfolio of acquisitions.

There was the boardroom coup in 2000 precipitated by a difference of views between Musk's and executives of PayPal with regard to anti-fraud measures. When Musk became intransigent regarding counteractions to be implemented – the board duly deposed him as CEO. Surprisingly accepting his fate, he utilized his departure as an opportunity to go in pursuit of another major venture on his restless radar. Eight years later when Musk was in need of finance for the launch of Falcon 1, the PayPal group came to his rescue!

Under his industriousness (it is typical of Musk to sleep under a desk at the factory floor in order to see to the meeting of a deadline on products) and sheer determination Falcon 1 successfully launched on its fourth attempt and SpaceX ended up garnering a $1.6 billion contract from NASA to undertake round trips to the International Space Station after the agency had discontinued its space shuttle program.

The founding of Tesla Motors to move the automobile industry into the era of electricity-powered vehicles was another feather upon Musk's cap – a venture on a hitherto unprecedented scale which has now propelled the brand into a trillion-dollar commodity! But it wasn't easy riding for him and his team to realize the position the investment occupies – commencing as he did flirting with bankruptcy and having to cajole the likes of established brands such as Toyota (from who Tesla acquired a mothballed assembly factory at a cut price), Daimler and Panasonic (the Japanese battery manufacturers whom his entity partnered with to build a mammoth factory) to enter into partnerships towards the realization of a future where the reduction of carbon footprints become the norm.

Yet Musk, an Asperger's Syndrome sufferer, tips the scales in terms of the work-family equilibrium. A father of 11 children – now numbering 10 following the demise of his first born child, Nevada, from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, in May 2002 – his progeny was conceived invariably through the natural way, in vitro fertilization and surrogacy. With eclectic names such as X, Y, Techno Mechanicus, et.Cetera.

Married and divorced twice to English actress, Talulah Riley, Musk had met his first wife, Justine Wilson at Queen's University, and upon the pair's separation, went on to have other relationships with artist Claire Boucher (the mother to his three children), Shivon Zilis (an operations manager at his Neuralink company, and a mother of his twins) and the actress, Amanda Amber.

Elon Musk is published by Simon & Schuster and distributed nationwide by Jonathan Ball Publishers. Available at reputable bookstores, it retails for R590.