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Why Thabo Bester’s Grift Worked

7 min read.

South African con-artists Thabo Bester and Nandipha Magudumana are not good people. They’re also an outcome of a system that predisposes individuals to avarice, selfishness and deceit.



Why Thabo Bester’s Grift Worked
Photo: Image via GroundUp.
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South Africa has been enraptured by the story of Thabo Bester, a man 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 an international model scout. Until May 2022, he resided in a cell in Mangaung Prison, a privately-run maximum security prison in the Free State province that is the second largest of its kind in the world, when he apparently perished in a fire. That is, until earlier this year when news site GroundUp broke the story that Bester was in fact alive, and had orchestrated an intricate escape.

That wasn’t all. Two highlights of the story include how Bester, 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 way, receiving a number of “rising star” accolades, such as being named one of the South African Mail and Guardian’s “Top 200 Young South Africans” in 2018. The company—Aurum Properties—even held a “Woman In Property” brunch in a rented mansion attended by numerous Johannesburg businesswomen.

But the most confounding snippet of this saga is how Bester, from prison, ran a media company called “21st Century Media” (creating a misleading association to the American company 21st 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 company’s founder who was supposedly away in New York City. Apparently, it was also his birthday, and, in the surreal recap of the event, attendees can be seen singing happy birthday to him.

The company eventually went down after flying too close to the sun and falsely advertising 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 in the local and foreign press. Many local personalities, from politics to the media, are now embarrassed for praising or associating with Doctor Nandipha in the past or being duped by Bester.

The whole, Hollywood-esque fiasco has an eerie unreality to it. Not the parts that can be chalked up to state incompetence enabling private corruption. It is worth reiterating that Bester was in a private 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 now used to incompetence and corruption, whether from the state or private business. Most scandalous in the public imagination is how so many seemingly well-to-do people fell victim to their swindles, clamoring to be on the inside of 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 is transformed into a miserable performance of hustles and status hacks. By subjecting all life to the competitive logic of the market, capitalism reduces survival, both social and economic, into a game of appearances. In the mid-twentieth century already, the German socialist thinker Erich Fromm witnessed the extension of commercial concepts to human relations. As he wrote in The Sane Society, “The whole process 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 extreme. Notice that the public’s reaction to the Bonnie and Clyde duo is a mixture of both disgust and fascination, so much so that South African Twitter is calling for Netflix to develop a film or documentary. This is not irrational, and many detect in the pair those traits—like cunning and persuasion—widely accepted as necessary to get ahead in life. The American cultural critic Jia Tolentino suggests that “popular identification often begins to slide toward the scammer, who, once identified, can be reconfigured as a folk hero—a logical endpoint of our fixation on reinvention and spectacular ascent.”

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

As the Jay-Z line goes: “Black excellence, opulence, decadence.” These are the watchwords of black middle-class aspiration, and no doubt the sensibilities to which Bester and Magudamana appealed. Although, it would be too simple to only cast black tastes in the familiar terms of Veblenian conspicuous consumption. For South Africa’s white middle-class, the tokens of success and achievement are just 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). In this construction, it’s leisure that’s conspicuous—domestic servants, international travel, and local holiday homes. Granted, there is now significant overlap, and these goods are equally sought by the black middle class. But the pressure on any nouveau riche is to justify its wealth through badges signifying “hard work” 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 exact opposite, that black South Africans are unfairly helped by affirmative action and redress policies).

Of course, the extent to which anyone earns their wealth and privilege is dubious. Capitalism, as a system and form of life, is based on a formative fiction—that we are all free to choose our living and improve our lot. But this is not a matter of choice, it’s a matter of compulsion. We are forced to because we have no other way of accessing resources that should be common to all, but which instead, are privately appropriated for the purpose 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 the use of shared productive resources—like land—through violent processes of coercion. The point being that the system is premised on cheating all of us. The foundation of all great fortunes is a crime, and capitalism’s original sin is dispossession, transformed into an underlying drive.

Today, the false ideal of meritocracy—the myth that everyone has an equal chance to get to the top—is buckling under the weight of extreme economic inequality where wealth is sharply concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite (in South Africa, the wealthiest 1% own 67% of the country’s wealth, and the top 10% own 93% of the country’s wealth). With fewer opportunities for class 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 appropriate to the scarcity of our times. Short of access to hard capital, we all 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 chance to skim a quick buck can 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 become a powerful figure on the inside himself. The widespread expectation was that a private prison should 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, rather than—as is the case, especially in South African capitalism—a system where dominance is entrenched via state backing.

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

But Horkheimer’s theory isn’t only aimed at the elite but discerns a racket pattern that pervades all aspects of life. Horkheimer maintained that “each racket conspires against the spirit and all are for themselves. The reconciliation of the general and the special is immanent in the spirit; the racket is its irreconcilable contrast and its obfuscation in the ideas of unity and community.” Put another 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 protection is the inevitable result of neoliberal policies which undercut state capacity, sustain market dependence, and force individuals to solely bear the responsibility of their social reproduction.

A society without any basis for social solidarity produces figures like Bester and Magudumana. Its ethos: every person for themselves. Sure, the pair are perhaps uniquely depraved. But human nature is not fixed or predetermined. Human nature is malleable, and any given social order—which is the outcome of human agency and design—accentuates different behavioral tendencies. In Fromm’s analysis, to talk of capitalism as natural is only to defend one particular variation of human nature. It’s one that predisposes us towards avarice, selfishness, and deceit. If we want better ways of relating to each other, ones not based on treating each other as disposable, means to an end—we have to start imagining something better.

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

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William Shoki is Staff Writer of Africa Is A Country. He is based in Johannesburg.


How Bureaucracy Is Locking Kenya Out of Transshipment Business

But for the bureaucracy bedevilling Kenya’s shipping sector, Indian Ocean Island nations could look to Lamu for transhipment while Mombasa has the capacity to attract major shipping lines in order to tap into this emerging business.



How Bureaucracy Is Locking Kenya Out of Transhipment Business
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The transshipment business, which involves the handling of cargo for other ports, is now an area of keen focus for many ports the world over. However, administrative bottlenecks created by the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) have stymied Kenya’s transshipment business even as the Mombasa and Lamu ports face increasing competition from the other regional ports that are modernizing their operations even as new ones emerge.

But the tide is set to change if the new Managing Director of Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) Captain William Ruto makes real his promise to confront the issues that have made it difficult for the port to tap into an emerging business line that has led to the growth of other successful ports.

Ruto has indicated that he will impress upon the KRA to simplify their procedures by adopting industry standards practiced elsewhere—such as at the Tangier Med port in Morocco, where 85 per cent of the cargo handled is for other ports, translating to 7.17 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEUs).

In an ideal situation, according to the new MD, the KRA is only supposed to approve the ship manifests once the shipping lines lodges them online, which in not the case in Kenya where the KPA is required to physically handle the transshipment containers that are landed at the ports. According to global standards, however, shipping lines, are only required to give notification of the ships that will carry the transshipment containers from the ports to the final destination. Simplified procedures have seen ports such as Singapore and Salalah in Oman handle over 90 per cent of their cargo as transshipment.

The port of Mombasa handled 1.43 million TEUs in 2021 compared with 1.35 million TEUs handled in the same period in 2020, representing an increase of 75,986 TEUs or 5.6 per cent. However, the KPA’s transshipment traffic was at an abysmal level, recording only 220,489 TEUs in 2021, a slight increase compared to the 175,827 TEUs recorded in 2020.

Lamu Port has the potential to become the biggest competitor to Salalah Port in Oman and the Port of Durban in South Africa in the transshipment business. Mombasa is also better placed than Durban to handle transshipments from Europe, China, and Singapore, all major world exporting countries; smaller vessels can be used to move cargo from the port of Mombasa to others on the Southern African coast.

Lamu Port could attract transshipment cargo for Tanzania, Mombasa, Somalia, and the Indian Oceans Islands of Comoros, Madagascar, Seychelles, and South Africa.

Although the KPA has striven to market Mombasa as a transshipment hub, reforms to tap into the business have been painstakingly slow even though the increased infrastructure at the port of Mombasa—dredging of the channel, rehabilitation of the berths, and the construction of the second container terminal—has increased the potential of the Mombasa port to handle more transshipment cargo.

Over seven years ago, a joint task force of the KPA and the KRA created a working template to increase the transshipment volume after collecting views from all the stakeholders involved in this trade and recommended a major transformation that, once fully implemented, would have seen more shipping lines find Mombasa port attractive for transshipment cargo.

In 2015, the joint task force visited three ports in Europe, Asia, and Africa that were close to Mombasa in size—and which have recorded significant growth in transshipment—to gather guiding lessons for the Mombasa port transshipment initiative. The selected ports were Tangier Med in MorrocoMorocco, Colombo in Sri Lanka, and Malta’s Freeport.

According to the team’s report, one of the major factors for the success of these ports is the manner in which they have simplified the processing of transshipment cargo, a vital lesson that Kenya, which has been associated with lengthy processes, could embrace. When the team visited the three ports iIn 2015, the transshipment process in Malta took less than 24 hours to approve, Colombo and Tangier Med both took less than 12 hours, whereas at the port of Mombasa it took 8 to 10 days.

“The shipping business is a complex affair that rides on predictable trends,” said Captain Ruto, a member of the delegation.

In all the ports visited, the transshipment business has been simplified through the use of Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) for faster clearance and approvals. Shipping lines in the three ports are only required to lodge manifests with customs for approval whereas in Kenya nine steps are involved, causing delays, with the ships earmarked to deliver cargo departing without loading the containers.

“The shipping business is a complex affair that rides on predictable trends.”

Delaying a ship is very costly and the daily average additional vessel operating costs incurred by shipping lines can range between US$20,000 and US$35,000 depending on vessel size, a demonstration of how crucial it is for lines to save time in the shipping industry.

Kenya has made significant strides following the fact-finding mission to the three ports. Vessel processing at Mombasa port went paperless when the Single Maritime Window System went live in June 2021, allowing shipping lines to lodge documents online and thus significantly improving clearing and turnaround times.

KenTrade, which runs the online cargo clearing system, worked with the Kenya Maritime Authority (KMA) to implement the system that facilitates ship clearance procedures by providing a single online portal for the sharing of information on the arrival, stay and departure of ships between the shipping lines/agents and the approving government agencies involved.

Since 8 April 2019, it is a mandatory requirement for national governments to introduce electronic information exchange between ships and ports. The objective is to make cross-border trade simpler and the logistics chain more efficient for the over 10 billion tons of goods that are traded by sea annually across the globe.

The requirement is part of a package of amendments in the revised Annex to the International Maritime Organization’s Convention on Facilitation of International Maritime Traffic (FAL Convention) adopted in 2016. It is intended to reduce or eliminate the manual, decentralized, duplicated, and unnecessarily lengthy processes in the maritime sector, which are affecting ships’ turnaround times and increasing costs at the port of Mombasa.

The FAL Convention recommends the use of the “single window” concept whereby the agencies and authorities involved exchange data via a single point of contact.

Another advantage of Mombasa as a transshipment hub is its capacity to attract major shipping lines. There are over 20 shipping lines currently using the port at Mombasa, the majority of which handle containers.

But what should concern Kenya most is the growing competition that is coming with the development of other regional ports and the emergencemergencee of new ones. Tanzania is inching closer to realizing several plans and strategies that have been initiated over the years to enhance its potential as a maritime country.

There are over 20 shipping lines currently using the port at Mombasa, the majority of which handle containers.

The country has direct access to the Indian Ocean, with a long coastline of about 1,424km at the centre of the east coast of Africa. It has the potential to become the least-cost trade and logistics facilitation hub of the Great Lakes region.

There is the planned expansion and modernization of Dar es Salaam port under the Dar es Salaam Maritime Gateway Project (DMGP). The DMGP will increase Dar es Salaam port’s capacity from the current 15 million metric tonnes annually to 28 million tonnes.

The improvement of maritime hard infrastructure has gone hand in hand with the overhauling of the soft infrastructure. The Tanzanian government has already introduced electronic systems that have made cargo processing and clearing easier. These systems include the electronic single window, which has reduced paperwork and has also removed the need to physically visit multiple government agencies and regulatory bodies to lodge documents as all this can be done digitally through the Tanzania Customs Integrated System (Tancis).

In May 2016, global port mega-operator DP World agreed to develop Berbera Port in Somaliland and manage the facility for 30 years, a move that is set to make it the most modern port in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia has acquired a 19 per cent stake in the project, the other partners being DP World, with a 51 per cent share, and Somaliland with a 30 per cent share. The total investment of the two-phased project will reach US$442 million. DP World will also create an economic free zone in the surrounding area, targeting a range of companies in sectors from logistics to manufacturing, and a road-based economic corridor connecting Berbera with Ethiopia.

Port Berbera is now the closest sea route to landlocked Ethiopia, a journey of 11 hours by road. It has opened the route needed for growth in the import and export of livestock and agricultural produce.

Djibouti has undertaken significant developments in all its ports. The Djibouti International Free Trade Zone (DIFTZ) was officially inaugurated in July 2018. The initial phase, a 240-hectare zone, is the result of a US$370 million investment and consists of three functional blocks located close to all of Djibouti’s major ports.

The project has also created major business opportunities for Djibouti and East Africa as the region’s export manufacturing and processing capacity is expanded in key sectors such as food, automotive parts, textiles and packaging.

The Djibouti ports of Doraleh Multipurpose, Ghoubet and Tadjourah have all been completed in recent years. Doraleh Port is particularly strategically located, connecting Asia, Africa, and Europe. It can handle two and six million tonnes of cargo a year at its bulk terminal and breakbulk terminal, respectively.

Port Berbera is now the closest sea route to landlocked Ethiopia, a journey of 11 hours by road.

Another key milestone for the Djibouti ports is the standard gauge railway (SGR). A 750-kilometer SGR line connecting Addis Ababa with the ports in Djibouti has been constructed, cutting a three-day journey down to 12 hours.

Djibouti has also received global attention due to its strategic location. Virtually, all of the sea trade between Asia and Europe passes through the Red Sea on its way to or from the Suez Canal. As a result, Gulf and Middle Eastern powers, China, the United States, and France have developed great interest in this route and the country today hosts 5 military bases.

Having made significant gains in automating cargo clearing procedures and also expanded the port of Mombasa by constructing a second container terminal and a new port in Lamu, there is great need for the KRA to work with the other industry players to simplify transhipment cargo procedures. The capacity of Lamu Port—which is ideal for transhipment cargo owing to its deeper channel that can receive bigger vessels—has been under-utilised. In spite of its strategic location as a transshipment hub, the port has received less than 20 vessels since the three berths were commissioned in May 2021.

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The Perfect Tax: Land Value Taxation and the Housing Crisis in Kenya

The Kenyan government has proposed a compulsory housing levy from workers salaries to support contractors to build affordable homes for the working class. As incomes are squeezed and living standards collapse, Ambreena Manji and Jill Cottrell Ghai argue that the case for asking workers to bear the cost of housing development has not been made.



The Perfect Tax: Land Value Taxation and the Housing Crisis in Kenya
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The proposal in section 76 of Kenya’s Finance Bill 2023 to amend the Employment Act 2007 so that employers will compulsorily deduct 3% from workers’ salaries and send that, plus a further 3% contributed by the employer, to the National Housing Development Fund has met with widespread consternation.

The levy is expected to raise around £460 million a year for the National Housing Corporation that administers the fund. Following legal action, earlier proposals for a housing levy under the previous regime had been made voluntary and set at a lower rate of 1.5%. Now, the 3% levy will begin with civil servants before being extended to other parts of the formal and non-formal sectors.

The money will be used both to support developers and building contractors to build 200,000 affordable units and to subsidise mortgages for low- and middle-income households who would be offered an interest rate of 7%, half the market rate. By some calculations, affected employees’ net monthly salaries will be cut by about 52% when all statutory deductions including tax, the National Health Insurance Fund and the National Social Security Fund, as well as this new deduction, are taken into account.

Trade unions have spoken out against the levy, arguing that a variation in employment law cannot be imposed without consultations. The Kenya Constitution of 2010, Article 118, says that Parliament must facilitate public participation in its legislative work.

According to the 2022 Kenya Economic Survey, there were 2,907,300 employed in the formal sector and an annual rate of affordable home construction by the national government of around 500 units a year. It is not clear under the Constitution that the national government has this responsibility, as opposed to the devolved government at county level.

Kenya’s skewed land ownership

Whilst there is manifestly a need to address Kenya’s dire shortage of affordable homes, it is important to diagnose fully the reasons for this. Land shortages and the high costs of building materials are important causes as Steve Biko Wafula has argued. Kenya’s skewed land ownership is attributable to long-term land grabbing, going back to the colonial period. Importantly, one constitutional provision designed to address this – which calls for the development of  minimum and maximum land ceiling laws – has been studiously ignored, especially the setting of a maximum holding. The housing levy will not address this problem: it cannot increase the supply of land for housing.

The levy is designed to encourage developers to enter the affordable housing market by offering them lower land and construction costs and providing tax exemptions, as well as guaranteeing contracts with the government. However, Wafula has also pointed out that the administration of the housing fund is not clear because it relies ‘on a complex system of collection, allocation, and disbursement of funds that could be prone to errors, delays, and fraud’.

Moreover, Kenyans have seen funds such as the National Housing Development Fund used as a revenue kitty. The 2005 Ndung’u report on Illegal and Irregular Allocation of Public Land detailed how state corporations were in effect forced into buying grabbed land, as ‘captive buyers of land from politically connected allottees’. The primary state corporation targeted to purchase land was the Kenyan workers’ pension scheme, the National Social Security Fund (NSSF). It spent Ksh30 billion (£175 million) between 1990 and 1995 on the purchase of illegally acquired property.

At a time when the government is desperate to increase its resources through raising taxes, Kenyans are also understandably suspicious that some of this money, at least, will end up in general government coffers rather than in the fund for which it is statutorily earmarked – other than that which ends up in party or private pockets, of course.

Household incomes

Whilst some prospective home-owners may be lured by the offer of lower interest rates and longer repayment plans, the proposed fund is also being seen as an unwelcome compulsory saving scheme. Funding can be drawn down after seven years or at retirement whichever is the sooner. But with standards of living being severely squeezed by inflation and with longstanding constraints on wages, as well as existing deductions which yield little benefit, many households will struggle to take a further cut to their take home pay.

Indeed, government workers were not paid their salaries earlier this year due to cash flow problems caused by the country’s mounting debt. It is ironic then that the proposal is in effect asking Kenyans formally to agree to defer a portion of their wages. Furthermore, because contributions are payable from income that has already been taxed and are taxed again when the funds are drawn down, workers are exposed to double taxation.

Workers are being asked to stake their long-term security on the success of a housing fund about which many have unanswered questions. If the promised housing materialises, how can we be sure that it will not be developers and landlords who benefit rather than the intended beneficiaries? There are real prospects that the housing units will be taken up by landlords and that Kenyan workers – having already accepted lower wages because of the housing levy deduction – could still find they have to pay high rents to access housing. What guarantees will there be that the housing will not be financialised in such a way as to put the notion of housing – as shelter and personal security – at grave risk?

Building on Serap Saritas Oran’s work on the financialisation of pensions in Turkey which theorises pensions from a political economy perspective and argues that pensions are fundamental to working class standards of living, we can see how the housing levy proposal similarly financialises a right to housing. Housing is a critical factor in social reproduction, that is, in how life is maintained and labour power reproduced. Turning housing from what Oran calls ‘a social right’ into an individualised personal investment, the levy creates opportunities for speculation and extraction. In this schema, there is a real risk that some who should be the beneficiaries of affordable housing will find that because of interest rates or the accrual of high rent arrears, they in fact become debtors.

Progressive taxes

We recognise that providing affordable housing is an important goal but we believe other, much fairer ways of raising much needed revenue for housing should be considered.

Might the time have come to have a well-informed national conversation about Land Value Taxation? Given Kenya’s worsening gini coefficient which demonstrates how skewed the country’s wealth is, why should workers bear the brunt of the government’s house building programme?

Land Value Taxation is a progressive tax which ensures that the tax burden is instead borne by landowners who can well afford it. Because land ownership generally correlates with wealth and income, it is much fairer to require those already advantaged to fund the needs of those who do not yet have homes.

Land Value Capture should also be considered. This taxation can be used for example if a road is built or other infrastructure such as a park is improved, causing a rise in the value of neighbouring properties. The principle is that these property owners should share some of their unearned gain with the public.

Elsewhere in the world, funds raised in this way have been used to build lower-cost housing. In addition, the money raised could also be used to fund ongoing operational costs such as maintenance of local roads, schools, and parks. Wouldn’t that be a fair and – given the infrastructure boom of recent years which has bestowed windfall gains on many property owners – very effective way to tackle the shortfall in affordable housing?

A raid on wages

Speaking on Kenya’s NTV news channel  Mercy Nabwire, Kenya Medical Pharmacy and Dentistry Practitioners Union National Treasurer, recently described the proposed housing levy as ‘a raid on workers’ wages.’ The economy is in bad shape and public services are threadbare, but the case for asking workers to bear the cost of righting this – especially when their incomes are squeezed and their standard of living plummeting – has not been made. Still less the case for compelling them to surrender their already precarious wages for some nebulous future promise.

This article was first published by ROAPE.

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America’s Failure in Africa

It is evident that only an investment of this type – in capital, in human resources and in qualified training – can allow the United States to leave a real mark of progress in Africa, following a counterpoint strategy to that of China.



America’s Failure in Africa
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Gone are the days when Melania Trump traveled to Africa in tropical colonial clothes, showing the complete lack of interest of the United States, led by her husband, in the continent. Since then, official American policy has changed significantly.

Africa is, once again, a continent disputed by the great powers. This dispute results from the new race for raw materials and markets, the search for influence in the world chess, namely African votes in the United Nations, and also the presentation of a social laboratory to show the world which recipe for prosperity works best. : the developmental authoritarian Asian or the liberal western.

All of this, in the context of the new competitive dispute with China, led the United States to once again focus its attention on Africa and place it at the forefront of its foreign policy priorities.

In recent months, American initiatives related to Africa and the trips of high dignitaries have been constant. Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen, First Lady Jill Biden, to mention just the most important recent trips (Harris, March 2023; Yellen, January 2023; Biden , February 2023). Only Joe Biden’s tour is missing to culminate this high-level political-diplomatic offensive.

However, the impression that remains from these trips is that, apart from beautiful speeches, splendid photographic opportunities and some circumstantial financial support, they add nothing to the resolution of African problems and, above all, they do not diminish the supposed Chinese influence, nor do they oppose it.

The problem is in the model adopted by the Americans. It is a model that is not very interactive and does not address African structural problems. Essentially, US leaders distribute smiles and marketing, warn of the Chinese danger, announce small foreign aid and refer the big questions to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), talking with greater or lesser intensity about good governance. Janet Yellen’s visit to Zambia was emblematic of this failure. When Hichilema was elected, he became a sort of poster boy for American good intentions.

However, what is certain is that Zambia has a serious foreign debt problem and has defaulted, finding itself in an endless labyrinth between China and the IMF, which ends up greatly harming the population. It is not enough to say that China is to blame and order the IMF to move forward, which in turn makes everything depend on agreements with China, which is waiting for the country to agree with the other creditors, getting into a tailspin – prolonged pong.

This kind of attitude will only lead to the US being criticized for talking but doing nothing.

The truth is that China’s entry into Africa from the 2000s onwards was not due to any historical relationship, practically irrelevant, but to a void, a void left by the West. Now, it is this void that persists, despite the new rhetoric and the countless initiatives, trips and forums held in the American capital or in Europe.

Africa does not need economists with their Harvard and MIT textbooks, which apply recipes from developed market economies unable to serve African populations and leading to their impoverishment. The manual to be applied must be the previous one, that of the very creation and structuring of economies and markets. Bringing consultants, economists, managers and people of intentions ashore doesn’t help – it only complicates things.

Obviously, to be successful, the North American perspective has to be different, resembling what was done in Europe after the Second World War (1939-1945). In other words, launching their money helicopters over Africa, while creating domestic markets on the continent.

Very simply put, the US will only compete with the Chinese in Africa if it replaces them, if it spends money. Arriving in Africa empty-handed or with promises of future private investment, which may or may not materialize, is no use.

Strictly speaking, if they really want to help Africa, the Americans should start by swapping the Chinese debt, that is, lending financial funds to African governments at lower interest rates and higher maturities, so that governments pay China. In this way it would certainly be possible to introduce competition into the African debt market and remove the monopoly from China.

In the same vein is the financial support for structural projects on the continent, from the massification of electricity and basic sanitation to digitization.

It is clear that the American people may disagree with this option and politicians may not want to embrace it, but the only realistic path is this and not another — this is how the US has gained influence in the past.

Furthermore, in addition to real capital, Africa needs specialists: not economists or consultants, which are in abundance, but professionals in essential areas, such as doctors, nurses, engineers, IT professionals, teachers, etc.

It is necessary to recover the initial spirit of the Peace Corps, idealized by President Kennedy, and massively send to Africa “men and women from the United States qualified for service abroad and available to serve, if necessary under difficult conditions, to help people in areas that help countries meet their needs” (Peace Corps Goals).

Finally, good governance should not focus on the constitutional apparatus, but on something simpler and more fundamental: public administration.

What is essential is to prepare public administrations in African countries to function efficiently and effectively, even if governments do not meet their objectives. Shifting the focus of good governance from the executive to the administration is a structuring element of any functioning society, overcoming disagreements and fears of political interference.

It is evident that only an investment of this type – in capital, in human resources and in qualified training – can allow the United States to leave a real mark of progress in Africa, following a counterpoint strategy to that of China. Otherwise, good intentions will be just that: good intentions without results.

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