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19 Apr

WILLIAM SHOKI – Why Thabo Bester’s Grift Worked

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South Africa has been enraptured by the story of Thabo Bester, a person who, in 2012, was sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of rape and murder. Bester murdered his girlfriend and lured his female victims on Facebook by posing as a world model scout. Until May 2022, he resided in a cell in Mangaung Prison, a privately-run maximum security prison within the Free State province that’s the second largest of its kind on this planet, when he apparently perished in a fireplace. That’s, until earlier this yr when news site GroundUp broke the story that Bester was in actual fact alive, and had orchestrated an intricate escape.

That wasn’t all. Two highlights of the story include how Bester, along with his lover and accomplice, celebrity doctor Nandipha Magudumana, ran a sham construction company. Magudumana, whose claim to fame was founding a skincare clinic, rose to popularity by disbursing beauty advice on social media and along the best way, receiving a variety of “rising star” accolades, similar to being named one among the South African Mail and Guardian’s “Top 200 Young South Africans” in 2018. The corporate—Aurum Properties—even held a “Woman In Property” brunch in a rented mansion attended by quite a few Johannesburg businesswomen.

But probably the most confounding snippet of this saga is how Bester, from prison, ran a media company called “twenty first Century Media” (making a misleading association to the American company twenty first Century Fox), which held a glitzy launch well-attended by Johannesburg high-society. The event even included Bester appearing via video link as “Tom Motsepe,” the corporate’s founder who was supposedly away in Latest York City. Apparently, it was also his birthday, and, within the surreal recap of the event, attendees could be seen singing joyful birthday to him.

The corporate eventually went down after flying too near the sun and falsely promoting a “Woman In Media” conference featuring American actresses Halle Berry and Taraji P. Henson. Last week, Bester and Magudumana (known locally as just “Doctor Nandipha”) were arrested in Tanzania and extradited to South Africa. Lurid details of how they faked his death and fled the country have since emerged within the local and foreign press. Many local personalities, from politics to the media, are actually embarrassed for praising or associating with Doctor Nandipha up to now or being duped by Bester.

The entire, Hollywood-esque fiasco has an eerie unreality to it. Not the parts that could be chalked as much as state incompetence enabling private corruption. It’s price reiterating that Bester was in a personal prison, a sore point for market boosterism that claims key social functions like energy provision and security be wrested from the state. G4S—the British security multinational which runs Mangaung and has ties to Israeli apartheidis notorious for malpractice wherever it runs prisons. In any case, South Africans are actually used to incompetence and corruption, whether from the state or private business. Most scandalous in the general public imagination is how so many seemingly well-to-do people fell victim to their swindles, clamoring to be on the inside whatever elite circles Bester and Magudumana projected themselves as operating in.

Implicit in such talk, though, is that grand scams are the preserve of the poor and desperate in evangelical churches, not the comfortable and sensible in suburbia. What the Bester story reveals is the precarious foundation that underwrites all life under capitalism, where it’s transformed right into a miserable performance of hustles and standing hacks. By subjecting all life to the competitive logic of the market, capitalism reduces survival, each social and economic, right into a game of appearances. Within the mid-twentieth century already, the German socialist thinker Erich Fromm witnessed the extension of economic concepts to human relations. As he wrote in The Sane Society, “The entire strategy of living is experienced analogously to the profitable investment of capital, my life and my person being the capital which is invested.”

Figures like Bester and Magudumana represent the entrepreneurial spirit taken to the intense. Notice that the general public’s response to the Bonnie and Clyde duo is a combination of each disgust and fascination, a lot in order that South African Twitter is asking for Netflix to develop a movie or documentary. This isn’t irrational, and lots of detect within the pair those traits—like cunning and persuasion—widely accepted as mandatory to get ahead in life. The American cultural critic Jia Tolentino suggests that “popular identification often begins to slip toward the scammer, who, once identified, could be reconfigured as a folk hero—a logical endpoint of our fixation on reinvention and spectacular ascent.”

Bester and Magudamana framed their confidence tricks within the alluring rhetoric of uplift. The 2 industries by which they advanced their exploits, media and real estate, are traditionally white and perceived as especially immune to transformation. Moreover, mainstream media in South Africa is commonly maligned for depicting black South Africans as unscrupulous and incompetent. The top of black advancement can be represented in popular culture by preeminence within the media landscape. The country’s most-watched soap opera within the post-apartheid era, Generations, centers on a black-led media empire. The last time a media sham made waves within the country was following the demise of a newspaper and 24-hour news channel established by the Gupta family to advertise positive narratives about President Jacob Zuma and the project of “Radical Economic Transformation.” Mzwaneli Manyi, a staunch supporter of the previous president and one-time owner of the collapsed news channel, Afro Worldview, attended Bester’s event.

Because the Jay-Z line goes: “Black excellence, opulence, decadence.” These are the watchwords of black middle-class aspiration, and little question the sensibilities to which Bester and Magudamana appealed. Although, it might be too easy to only solid black tastes within the familiar terms of Veblenian conspicuous consumption. For South Africa’s white middle-class, the tokens of success and achievement are only as conspicuous, but signal something different. Here, its markers of historical wealth that connect them to something akin to an aristocratic class during apartheid (legitimated not through kinship but racial entitlement). On this construction, it’s leisure that’s conspicuous—domestic servants, international travel, and native holiday homes. Granted, there’s now significant overlap, and these goods are equally sought by the black middle class. However the pressure on any nouveau riche is to justify its wealth through badges signifying “labor” and rising above adversity. Indeed, intra-class resentments today are partly motivated by the grievance that white people merely inherited their privileges, whereas black South Africans “earned them” (and naturally, disgruntled white South Africans feel the precise opposite, that black South Africans are unfairly helped by affirmative motion and redress policies).

After all, the extent to which anyone earns their wealth and privilege is dubious. Capitalism, as a system and type of life, is predicated on a formative fiction—that we’re all free to decide on our living and improve our lot. But this isn’t a matter of alternative, it’s a matter of compulsion. We’re forced to because now we have no other way of accessing resources that ought to be common to all, but which as an alternative, are privately appropriated for the aim of accumulation and profit (by exploiting our common labor effort). Capitalism didn’t come about because its inceptors were risk-takers, but because we were all excluded from using shared productive resources—like land—through violent processes of coercion. The purpose being that the system is premised on cheating all of us. The muse of all great fortunes is against the law, and capitalism’s original sin is dispossession, transformed into an underlying drive.

Today, the false ideal of meritocracy—the parable that everybody has an equal likelihood to get to the highest—is buckling under the load of utmost economic inequality where wealth is sharply concentrated within the hands of a tiny elite (in South Africa, the wealthiest 1% own 67% of the country’s wealth, and the highest 10% own 93% of the country’s wealth). With fewer opportunities for sophistication mobility and a shrinking economic pie, it’s unsurprising that the grift becomes a model for contemporary success, rooted in a by-any-means-necessary imperative to “secure the bag” that is suitable to the scarcity of our times. In need of access to hard capital, all of us make ourselves objects of human capital and monetizable brands, jostling for income at every corner.

And the sites for this hustler individualism encompass every arena of life—no likelihood to skim a fast buck could be wasted. As Ruth Hopkins has extensively written about, Mangaung prison is a fiefdom run by gangs and prison bosses. No wonder Bester exploited these mafia-like conditions to develop into a robust figure on the within himself. The widespread expectation was that a personal prison must have been exempt from corruption and that the profit-motive creates a natural incentive for transparency and accountability. Yet this assumes perfect market competition that punishes misbehaving players, somewhat than—as is the case, especially in South African capitalism—a system where dominance is entrenched via state backing.

Moderately than mediated by the impersonal forces of the market, South African capitalism is in actual fact an example of what the German sociologist Max Horkheimer calls “a racket society.” If it’s an article of religion that capitalism is predicated on fairness, the rule of law, and universal principles, Horkheimer’s theory lays this bare, arguing that it in actual fact relies on explicit political intervention, if not direct coercion. The state propped up and guarded G4S, because it has Steinhof, because it has countless other corporations which have gotten away with daylight robbery.

But Horkheimer’s theory isn’t only geared toward the elite but discerns a racket pattern that pervades all features of life. Horkheimer maintained that “each racket conspires against the spirit and all are for themselves. The reconciliation of the overall and the special is immanent within the spirit; the racket is its irreconcilable contrast and its obfuscation within the ideas of unity and community.” Put one other way, rackets offer a nihilistic and instrumentalist vision of group life: exploitation in exchange for insurance against harsh reality. The rise of organized crime in South Africa which extorts businesses and communities in exchange for cover is the inevitable results of neoliberal policies which undercut state capability, sustain market dependence, and force individuals to solely bear the responsibility of their social reproduction.

A society with none basis for social solidarity produces figures like Bester and Magudumana. Its ethos: every one for themselves. Sure, the pair are perhaps uniquely depraved. But human nature isn’t fixed or predetermined. Human nature is malleable, and any given social order—which is the end result of human agency and design—accentuates different behavioral tendencies. In Fromm’s evaluation, to speak of capitalism as natural is barely to defend one particular variation of human nature. It’s one which predisposes us towards avarice, selfishness, and deceit. If we would like higher ways of referring to one another, ones not based on treating one another as disposable, means to an end—now we have to start out imagining something higher.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We might be publishing a series of posts from their site once per week.

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