Elon Musk's father, Errol Musk, remains a mysterious figure, and there is still no common consensus how his work or his wealth during Elon's childhood. A common story about Musk on social media is that his father owned part of an emerald mine, providing a bedrock of wealth that buoyed Elon up to his current level of success. It is still hard to discern whether this story is true and what conclusions can be drawn.
In 2018, Errol Musk interviewed Business Insider South Africa, where he told a story about bartering his way into partial ownership of an emerald mine in Zambia. Musk's critics often paraphrase the story on social media, who accuse him not only of benefitting from wealth rather than genius but of indirectly profiting from Apartheid. Meanwhile, Musk's defenders often say that the mogul has denied this story, though that is not precisely true either. Instead, Musk has sought to dispel the general belief that he comes from wealth.
Errol told BI that he was flying from his home in South Africa to the U.K. to sell the plane he was on, with a young Elon in tow. He said that they stopped in Djibouti to avoid pricey airport fees, and there happened to meet some Italian merchants who offered to buy the plane from him then and there. In addition, they offered Errol a chance to buy partial ownership of a Zambian emerald mine.
"So I became a half-owner of the mine, and we got emeralds for the next six years," Errol said. He said that he sold and traded these emeralds himself and that at one point, Elon himself even went out to sell some of the stones. This story was picked up by other news outlets and peddled as a sign of the Musk family's "lavish lifestyle."
Musk tackled it on Twitter as the story circulated, but his denials do not explicitly contradict his father's tale of the bizarre airplane-emerald mine trade. Instead, they focus on describing how hard he worked in his teenage years and early adulthood, how much debt he accrued by attending college and his disdain for his father. The most direct address was a tweet that said his father "didn't own an emerald mind [and] I worked my way through college, ending up ~$100k in student debt."
He didn’t own an emerald mine & I worked my way through college, ending up ~$100k in student debt. I couldn’t even afford a 2nd PC at Zip2, so programmed at night & website only worked during day. Where is this bs coming from?— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 28, 2019
Still, Elon's tweets leave just enough room for Errol's story to be accurate, even if the inferences about his family's wealth are not. Musk left his father behind at the age of 17 to pursue his dreams in North America and escape conscription into the South African military. In a 2017 interview with Rolling Stone, he described his father as "a terrible human being... Almost every evil thing you could possibly think of, he has done."0comments
Musk's defenders have also pointed out that Errol's alleged trade took place in the mid-1980s, at which point Zambia was independent. They also emphasize anecdotes from Elon and his mother about the hard work and squalor they endured in Canada in those years.
Curiously, Errol has said nothing more about the controversial emerald mine story in the years since, even in recent interviews like his discussion with Forbes last year. In the meantime, Musk continues to make waves on multiple technological fronts, all while raising concerns about workers' rights and income inequality.