News

What We Know About Elon Musk and the Emerald Mine Rumor

A story about Musk's father once owning an emerald mine evolved into a larger rumor that had no evidence to support its central claim.

Published Nov 17, 2022

SpaceX founder Elon Musk addresses members of the media during a press conference announcing new developments of the Crew Dragon reusable spacecraft, at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California on Oct. 10, 2019. (Photo by Philip Pacheco / AFP) (Photo by PHILIP PACHECO/AFP via Getty Images) (PHILIP PACHECO/AFP via Getty Images)
Image Via PHILIP PACHECO/AFP via Getty Images

Since at least 2018, a rumor has been shared online about Tesla CEO and Twitter owner Elon Musk in regard to his father's purported past ownership of an "apartheid emerald mine" or "slave emerald mine." The gist of the claim was that Elon's father, Errol Musk, who reports say has been estranged from his son for some time, owned an emerald mine during apartheid in South Africa, and that it was seed money from his father's wealth from the mine that made it possible for him to become the American billionaire he is today.

Here's a summary of our findings: We located reporting from as far back as 2009 and 2014 that said when Elon Musk ("Elon" herefafter) was a child in South Africa in the 1980s, his father ("Errol" hereafter) at some point owned "a stake in an emerald mine" near Lake Tanganyika in Zambia, not South Africa. Beyond that, we were unable to find any evidence that showed money generated from his father's involvement in the mine helped Elon build his wealth in North America. 

Before We Begin

Below, we have laid out all of the data that we found, including examples of the rumor, as well as stories from newspaper archives and blogs.

First, we have republished past statements from both Errol and Elon. We also reached out to both men for additional comment and to ask if they could potentially provide any evidence that would support their statements, even though they didn't start the rumor. We sought evidence in the case that they still had any documentation from past decades about the mine, the around $100,000 in student debt that Elon has repeatedly said he had accumulated during college, or anything else related to Elon's early finances that they have mentioned in past interviews.

We contacted Elon publicly on Twitter. We also reached out to media relations personnel at SpaceX, where he is the founder and CEO, as well as Tesla and Twitter. In Errol's case, we sent a message to his Facebook profile. We sent these messages on Nov. 16, but did not receive responses before publishing this story on the following day.

In Elon's Own Words

In the past, the Tesla CEO has responded several times on Twitter about the emerald mine rumors. For example, on Dec. 28, 2019, he tweeted that his father "didn't own an emerald mine" and that he (Elon) had worked his way through college, ending up with around $100,000 in student debt. He also called the whole rumor "BS."

Note: The reference to Zip2 concerned Elon's "first enterprise" in 1995. Zip2's purpose was to provide "a searchable business directory that could be described as an internet version of the yellow pages telephone directory with maps included," according to Britannica.com.

He added, also on Dec. 28, "We started Zip2 with ~$2k from me plus my overclocked home-built PC, ~$5k from my bro & ~$8k from Greg Kouri (such a good guy — he is greatly missed). My Dad provided 10% of a ~$200k angel funding round much later, but by then risk was reduced & round would've happened anyway."

These tweets from December 2019 appeared to have stemmed, at least in part, from a since-deleted tweet from a user with the handle @1aprildaniels. The tweet was shared as a screenshot on Imgur.com, which showed the image had been viewed more than 300,000 times. It was also shared on Reddit.com. The Twitter account no longer exists.

On July 3, 2020, Elon tweeted about the subject again, responding to a since-deleted tweet with, "I don't have an 'emerald mine,' nor was I given free money from anyone, inheritance or otherwise. Ashlee Vance interviewed hundreds of people. Ask him." (We'll have more on Vance's Bloomberg.com interview later in this story.)

On March 25, 2021, Elon Musk tweeted that the emerald mine inheritance rumor was false, and that he had arrived by himself in Canada in 1989 "with ~CA$2,500." Once again, he said that he paid his own way through college, ending with around $100,000 in student debt, and added that he started his first company with no funding and one computer he built himself. "There's no evidence whatsoever of an 'emerald mine,'" the last part of the tweet read.

He also claimed, "My father & his extended family have been dependent on financial support from my brother & me for over 20 years."

Later, on Sept. 20, 2022, he called Robert Reich "an idiot and a liar" for tweeting a video that pushed the emerald mine wealth rumor as fact. Reich, the former secretary of labor under U.S. President Bill Clinton and a professor of public policy at University of California, Berkeley, had tweeted, "Elon Musk came from a family that owned an emerald mine in apartheid South Africa." He also added, "'Self-made billionaires' are a myth." We reached out to Reich to ask if he could provide evidence of his assertion, but did not receive a response before this story was published.

Errol's Statement

According to a Facebook post from Errol, the Zambian emerald mine he held a stake in "collapsed in 1989."

In the post, he claimed that his family stood in opposition to apartheid, saying he went so far as to be elected as a Pretoria city councillor to aid that opposition. "I was active in opposing the National Party and their apartheid," he said in the post." He added that Elon left the country as "a clear indication of his willingness to not support the political suppression in the country."

His post ended with this: "Finally, it is necessary to acknowledge the wrong and oppressive nature of apartheid and we do need to recognise the pain and suffering it caused for many South Africans, but I do not feel it is fair to associate any of that with what Elon has achieved through hard work since he left South African shores as a teenager of 17."

The Rumor

The rumor of the "apartheid emerald mine" received a spike in shares around the time that Elon Musk completed his takeover of Twitter in late 2022. Below we have provided a small sampling of the many different ways the rumor has been framed in past years.

Note: Some of the tweets that promoted the rumor said that Elon did not found Tesla, which was true.

'Plugged In'

On Aug. 17, 2009, The New Yorker printed one of the earliest known searchable records of an emerald mine being tied to the Musk name. According to the story, "When [Elon] was eleven—about the time that he sold his first piece of software, a video game called Blastar — Musk told his mother that he was going to move back to Pretoria to live with his father, Errol, an electrical engineer who would later own an auto-parts store and a share in an emerald mine."

The story made no further mention of the mine.

'The Otherworldly Ambitions of Elon Musk'

In April 2014, Dana Hull and Patrick May penned an article for San Jose's The Mercury News with the headline, "The otherworldly ambitions of Elon Musk." The article was republished in several other newspapers around the U.S. It spoke of the divorce of Elon's parents, Errol and Maye Musk, and also contained a quick mention of an emerald mine.

Errol was born in South Africa to a British mother and a South African father. An avid pilot and sailor, as well as an electrical and mechanical engineer, he made his money consulting and developing properties and retired early.

After Maye and Errol divorced in 1980, Elon mostly lived with his father, who says he owned thoroughbred horses, a yacht, several houses and a Cessna. One of their homes was in Waterkloof, a leafy suburb of Pretoria that was popular with foreign diplomats.

Wanderlust ran on both sides of the family. On holidays, Errol and his kids would travel, he said: to Europe, Hong Kong, throughout the United States. Or they'd take the plane to Lake Tanganyika [in Zambia], where Errol had a stake in an emerald mine. Elon would later get his own pilot's license but no longer has time to fly.

While the story did mention the family once lived in a popular suburb, the article said nothing of the emerald mine providing wealth to the son when he moved to Canada in 1988, or to the U.S. in 1992.

Note: Reporting from Esquire.com said that Elon moved from South Africa to Canada in 1988. He once tweeted he arrived in 1989, not 1988, however.

Forbes Interview with Jim Clash

On July 28, 2014, Forbes.com published an interview with Elon Musk, which was conducted by Jim Clash. The headline of the story read, "Elon Musk Tells Me His Secret Of Success (Hint: It Ain't About The Money)."

In the interview, the Tesla owner briefly mentioned that his father had a share in an emerald mine in Zambia.

JC: How do you handle fear?

EM: Company death – not succeeding with the company – causes me a lot more stress than physical danger. But I've been in physical danger before. The funny thing is I've not actually been that nervous. In South Africa, my father had a private plane we'd fly in incredibly dangerous weather and barely make it back. This is going to sound slightly crazy, but my father also had a share in an Emerald mine in Zambia. I was 15 and really wanted to go with him but didn't realize how dangerous it was. I couldn't find my passport so I ended up grabbing my brother's – which turned out to be six months overdue! So we had this planeload of contraband and an overdue passport from another person. There were AK-47s all over the place and I'm thinking, "Man, this could really go bad."

The interview is no longer available on the Forbes website. According to the Internet Archive, the article was still available months after it was published, on Sept. 1, 2014, but was gone by Sept. 18.

We reached out to Clash and Forbes PR to ask why the interview was no longer available. By email, Clash told us he had no idea why it was no longer hosted by Forbes. He also sent a link to another interview he did with Elon in 2016. The emerald mine was not mentioned in that interview. We did not receive a response from Forbes PR.

Clash's same 2014 interview was also republished by AskMen.com on Jan. 2, 2015. However, again, the story was at least partially unavailable on that website, too. Still, it was archived by the Internet Archive. We reached out to AskMen.com to ask if the fact that some of the pages were gone was a glitch, or if it was a purposeful partial removal. We did not receive a response before this story was published.

A post on Reddit mentioned a theory that said Elon "convinced these publications to remove the articles," but there's no evidence to support that.

Ashlee Vance's Interview with Elon

On May 22, 2020, Bloomberg.com published an interview with Elon, which was penned by Ashlee Vance. Earlier in this story, we referenced a July 3, 2020, tweet from Elon that mentioned Vance's interview.

The story included reporting of Elon's denials that the emerald mine had provided any seed money for the wealth he would later accumulate. Vance wrote, "For what it's worth, my reporting, based on conversations with hundreds of people, confirms Musk's story. Regardless of your opinion of him, he is a self-made billionaire." The story also included the same information from Elon's tweets where he said again that he had "ended up with $100,000 of student debt."

He grew up in South Africa and had the good fortune of doing so in an upper-middle-class home. But that's more or less where the good fortune ended. His parents divorced. He was bullied at school. And he had a disastrous relationship with his father. At 17, Musk decided to leave home, heading first to Canada and then the U.S. for university. "

Some of his most vocal detractors have promoted the idea that Musk, like Trump, began his career backed by the deep pockets of dear old dad. Errol Musk, an engineer, owned a small percentage of an emerald mine and had a couple of good years before the mine went bust and wiped out his investment. Musk readily jumps onto Twitter to refute the charges that his empire was forged with the aid of family wealth, and part of the reason he wanted to talk to me—rather comically given the rocket launch and, well, trolls—was because the jabs bug him, and he hopes to set the record straight. For what it's worth, my reporting, based on conversations with hundreds of people, confirms Musk's story. Regardless of your opinion of him, he is a self-made billionaire.

"I paid my own way through college—through student loans, scholarships, working jobs—and ended up with $100,000 of student debt," Musk says. "I started my first company with $2,500, and I had one computer and a car that I bought for $1,400, and all that debt. It would have been great if someone was paying for my college, but my dad had neither the ability nor the inclination to do so."

Jeremy Arnold's Extensive Piece

In one of the tweets from Elon in which he refuted the emerald mine rumor, he linked to an article that had been published on March 9, 2021. It was authored by Jeremy Arnold with The Save Journalism Committee. Elon called the story "actually accurate." The article was titled, "I Talked to Elon Musk about Journalism and the Blood Emeralds Story."

To summarize Arnold's story would be difficult, as it contained a considerable amount of data and analysis. Instead, we will concentrate on the two Business Insider South Africa articles mentioned by Arnold that appeared to provide the roots of the "apartheid emerald mine" rumor.

On Feb. 23, 2018, Business Insider SA published a story with the headline, "'We had so much money we couldn't even close our safe': Elon Musk's Dad tells BI about the family's insanely casual attitude to wealth." The same story appeared to have also been published the day before with the headline, "A teenage Elon Musk once casually sold his father's emeralds to Tiffany & Co. while his dad was sleeping."

According to the story, Errol said that Elon "once walked the streets of New York with emeralds in his pocket." His brother Kimbal was with him when the two brothers sold two of the gems to Tiffany & Co. for $2,000, according to their father. After the end of the article, a note was added that read, "BI SA reached out to Elon for confirmation of the tale, but he did not respond. Father and son have a complicated history."

Five days later on Feb. 28, Business Insider SA published a second article with the headline, "Elon Musk's family owns an emerald mine in Zambia — here's the fascinating story of how they came to own it."

According to the story, in the mid-1980s, Errol and a copilot landed their plane near Lake Tanganyika in Zambia, where "a group of Italians" offered them 80,000 pounds in British currency in order to buy the plane.

Standing with the cash in his hand, Errol was made another offer he couldn't refuse: Would he like to buy half an emerald mine for half of his new riches?

"I said, 'Oh, all right'. So I became a half owner of the mine, and we got emeralds for the next six years."

It was a lucrative decision. Errol employed a cutter in Johannesburg and sold the stones wherever his travels as an engineer or family holidays took him.

As Arnold noted, the headline for this story was later corrected more than two years after it was published, sometime around late July or early August 2020, according to page captures from the Internet Archive. "Elon Musk's family owns an emerald mine" was corrected to "Elon Musk's family once owned an emerald mine." According to reporting we reviewed, the stake his father had in the emerald mine appeared to have both started and ended in the 1980s.

The article's headline was changed in late July or early August 2020, which appeared to be after Errol made his Facebook post on July 27, which called the dated article's claims into question.

Arnold's story included answers from Errol about the mine, who said he had "very limited involvement" in it. Arnold paraphrased his answers, publishing that he said "it was a handshake deal with a Panamanian man that resulted in something like 110 emeralds up front and then a semi-regular trickle of rough stones over a few years following," and that "there was never formal ownership."

The wealth earned from the investment in the mine was quantified to be about $400,000 USD, taking into account inflation when Arnold's piece was written in 2021, according to Errol. "Errol also quoted a lower number to me over the phone," Arnold wrote. "He also claims he was getting emeralds from other sources, with only 60-70% coming from this venture." More answers and details are available in Arnold's article.

This story will be updated if any further details come to light.

Note: Less than two weeks after Arnold's piece was published in 2021, the satirical website The Onion printed a story with the headline, "The Richest Person In Every State And How They Made Their Money." For the state of Texas, The Onion printed, "Elon Musk: Apartheid."

Sources:

Arnold, Jeremy. "I Talked to Elon Musk about Journalism and the Blood Emeralds Story." The Save Journalism Committee, 9 Mar. 2021, https://savingjournalism.substack.com/p/i-talked-to-elon-musk-about-journalism.

Clash, Jim. "Can Elon Musk Really Get Us To Mars Within 10 Years?" Forbes, 1 Oct. 2016, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jimclash/2016/10/01/can-elon-musk-really-get-us-to-mars-within-10-years/.

---. "Elon Musk Tells Me His Secret Of Success (Hint: It Ain't About The Money)." Forbes, 28 July 2014, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jimclash/2014/07/28/elon-musk-tells-me-his-secret-of-success-hint-it-aint-about-the-money/.

---. "The Man Who's Revolutionizing The Future Of Driving -- And The Universe." AskMen, 2 Jan. 2015, https://www.askmen.com/entertainment/right-stuff/elon-musk-interview.html.

de Wet, Phillip. "A Teenage Elon Musk Once Casually Sold His Father's Emeralds to Tiffany & Co. While His Dad Was Sleeping." Business Insider South Africa, 22 Feb. 2018, https://www.businessinsider.co.za/elon-musk-sells-the-family-emeralds-in-new-york-2018-2.

---. "Elon Musk's Family Once Owned an Emerald Mine in Zambia — Here's the Fascinating Story of How They Came to Own It." Business Insider South Africa, 28 Feb. 2018, https://www.businessinsider.co.za/how-elon-musks-family-came-to-own-an-emerald-mine-2018-2.

---. "'We Had so Much Money We Couldn't Even Close Our Safe': Elon Musk's Dad Tells BI about the Family's Insanely Casual Attitude to Wealth." Business Insider South Africa, 23 Feb. 2018, https://www.businessinsider.com/elon-musks-dad-tells-bi-about-the-familys-casual-attitude-to-wealth-2018-2.

D'Innocenzio, Anne. "Bezos' Comments on Workers after Spaceflight Draws Rebuke." The Associated Press, 20 July 2021, https://apnews.com/article/business-science-3546262d41f4c84763aa15339f642a5a.

Eligon, John, and Lynsey Chutel. "Elon Musk Left a South Africa That Was Rife With Misinformation and White Privilege." The New York Times, 5 May 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/05/world/africa/elon-musk-south-africa.html.

"Elon Musk Is the Hero America Deserves." Bloomberg.com, 22 May 2020. www.bloomberg.com, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2020-05-22/elon-musk-speaks-frankly-on-coronavirus-spacex-and-rage-tweets.

Fortier, Alexander. "Is It True That Elon Musk's Family Got Their Wealth from Apartheid Emerald Mining?" Quora, 9 Mar. 2021, https://www.quora.com/Is-it-true-that-Elon-Musks-family-got-their-wealth-from-apartheid-emerald-mining.

Friend, Tad. "Elon Musk's Vision of an Electric-Car Future." The New Yorker, 17 Aug. 2009, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/08/24/plugged-in.

"'His Family Stole an Emerald Mine.'" Imgur, 5 Dec. 2019, https://imgur.com/SHGhIY2.

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Vance, Ashlee. "Elon Musk Is the Hero America Deserves." Bloomberg.com, 22 May 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2020-05-22/elon-musk-speaks-frankly-on-coronavirus-spacex-and-rage-tweets.

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Jordan Liles is a Snopes reporter with expertise in investigating misinformation, inauthentic social media activity, and scams.

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