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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.


Changes in Suicide Reporting Welcome, but Slow

Without a deeper understanding of the harm insensitive reporting on suicide causes, attempts to change may be wrongly deemed as political correctness.



Changes in Suicide Reporting Welcome, but Slow
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Earlier this year, the Baraza Media Lab and the Centre on Suicide Research and Intervention published a report that looked at how broadcasting stations report on suicide on social media. Its contents were sobering. Many leading media houses were found to report suicide as a criminal act. Reports also contained harmful elements such as descriptions of suicide methods and imagery of suicide and did not provide helpful information for readers who may be thinking of suicide.

So how have journalists been reporting on suicide since the data was collected? A very cursory survey of news outlets on social media shows reasons for both optimism and worry. Over the course of 2023, media outlets have published more stories about mental health, indicating an increasing awareness of it. This year has also seen an increased number of responsibly written social media posts that take into account the need for sensitivity on suicide.

Now, the negatives. Knowledge on responsible reporting of suicide, while improved, remains inconsistent across news operations. Real progress will require further integrating social media into editorial processes, subjecting its copy to as much rigour as the stories themselves to ensure errors are not introduced once stories are completed. Also, many insensitive references to suicide on social media were accurately reproduced from news stories.

The term “committed suicide” continues to appear on news websites, even in stories where responsible reporting would be expected, such as those that explore the risk factors of suicide. Stories use the insensitive word “suicidal” in phrases like “treating suicidal people as criminals” and “people who are suicidal”. The same insensitivity is also observed in the phrase “mentally ill” – ironically in stories that call for acts of suicide to be decriminalised.

It’s not clear that all journalists understand why respectful reporting on suicide is necessary. It was interesting – and revealing – to see a media outlet’s official X account, formerly known as Twitter, include both the terms “died by suicide” and “committed suicide” in the same tweet.

News websites continue to narrate morbid details about the manner of death by suicide. You are still likely to find phrases like “the body was found hanging in his room”, a man “who set himself ablaze” and “doused himself in a flammable substance before setting himself ablaze while carrying the Kenyan flag”. The imagery of suicide, with the noose particularly prominent, continues to be used in stories, inadvertently advertising hanging as a suitable method.

It’s not clear that all journalists understand why respectful reporting on suicide is necessary.

Media outlets aired insensitive footage. One camera focused on a woman overcome with emotion, who understood she was being filmed. One story goes as far as to narrate that instead of dissuading the deceased from taking his own life, a bystander handed him a lighted match and taunted him over unsuccessful attempts to light himself on fire, displaying the contempt people have for people thinking of suicide and inviting viewers to agree with those ideas.

The approach to reporting suicide varies depending on whether the person who died by suicide had committed a violent crime just prior, usually another killing. Reports are more likely to use “died by suicide” where the only death reported is by suicide. On the other hand, when person who died by suicide had killed another person, the phrase “committed suicide” is used freely.

The approach to reporting suicide varies depending on whether the person who died by suicide had committed a violent crime just prior, usually another killing.

Yet the same responsibility to reduce the prominence of suicide applies even in the context of crime reporting, and steps that broadcasters take to make footage of murders acceptable, such as using trigger warnings and black and white for bloodstains, may still be unacceptable in the context of suicide prevention. According to a 2021 brief by the University College Cork, Ireland, no graphic footage should be used in reporting murder-suicides, and care should be taken to discourage copycats, or position murder-suicide as a solution to anything.

Without a deeper understanding of the harm insensitive reporting on suicide causes, attempts to change may be wrongly deemed as political correctness, resulting in disrespectful coverage that tries to “say it as it is” and neglects to include sources of help for people who may be thinking of suicide.

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Why President Kagame Should Not Run for a Fourth Term

The 2024 elections in Rwanda are an opportunity for the country to move away from strongman leadership to enable the emergence of strong institutions and a governance that is more tolerant of critics.



Why President Kagame Should Not Run for a Fourth Term
Photo: Вени Марковски | Veni Markovski, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
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The constitution of Rwanda was amended in 2015 to allow President Paul Kagame to stand for a third term of seven years. Kagame was re-elected in 2017 and his term ends in 2024. The change in the constitution also allows him to stand for a fourth and a fifth five-year term. In my view, President Kagame should not run for a fourth presidential term in the 2024 elections.

President Paul Kagame was appointed Vice President and Minister for Defence on 19 July 1994, immediately after the end of the war and the Rwanda genocide. When President Pasteur Bizimungu resigned in 2000, Kagame was elected by the Transitional National Assembly to replace him. Three years later, in 2003, Kagame was elected president and has been president of Rwanda for over two decades. He has, therefore, risen to higher levels of decision-making over three decades, a sufficient period of time during which to oversee the implementation of policies he thought would advance the betterment of Rwandans. Kagame should, therefore, consider letting another willing and capable Rwandan build upon his achievements and continue to advance Rwanda’s interests. Indeed, under Kagame’s leadership, Rwanda has made some achievements but there are also shortcomings.

First, from a war-torn country, Rwanda has emerged to become a state with well-defined and functioning structures and institutions supported by fairly clear legislations. In my opinion, this has been achieved thanks to Kagame’s administration’s commitment to bring about change in Rwanda manifested immediately after the end of the war and the genocide against the Tutsi.

Second, Rwanda has also made some economic gains even though these can be challenged in many aspects. In 2000, Kagame made a pledge to transform Rwanda from a low- to a middle-income country driven by a knowledge economy by 2020. Since then, the Rwandan economy has grown significantly and its GDP per capita has increased from USD304 in 1995 to USD940 in 2022. The country’s human development index has soared and Rwanda has been recognised by the World Health Organization as one of the countries that are performing well on the goal of achieving universal health coverage. The country’s life expectancy has increased significantly, from 47 years in 2000 to 67 years in 2020. Moreover, according to UNICEF, the government has made some improvements in expanding education for all across Rwanda.

 Lastly, through a meticulously executed campaign of communication, compelling narratives have been disseminated across the world that speak well of Rwanda. This along with the country’s commitment to deploy its soldiers to multinational peacekeeping missions across the world (Rwanda ranks fourth on the list of countries that contribute in peacekeeping in the world) has enabled Rwanda to strengthen its foreign relations with other countries and project its image as a development success story.

There are certainly more achievements that President Kagame has made during his 30 years in leadership that his replacement can learn from and retain to move Rwanda forward. However there are shortcomings. Kagame managed to put the country back on the world map but failed to create an environment for the country’s citizens to exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms.

Upon taking power following a military victory, his political party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), pledged a consensual democracy to Rwandans. But over time this democracy has transformed into a political system that suppresses political dissent, restricts pluralism and curtails liberty in Rwanda. Most affected are those who dare or are perceived to challenge his government’s narrative in Rwanda and abroad. In many instances, Kagame’s government has abused its power, colluding with the judicial system to criminalise his critics. As a result, Rwanda has repeatedly been categorised as not a free country by Freedom House.

This has led to independent and inter-governmental human rights organisations and representatives of developed countries that financially support Rwanda to publicly criticise his leadership for lack of political inclusion, human rights violations and the overall democracy deficit in Rwanda. This situation continues to tarnish Rwanda’s reputation that Kagame’s leadership has been working hard to restore.

Furthermore, independent reports on the development of democracy and governance throughout the world – and in Africa in particular – all point out that citizen participation in Rwanda remains limited, as do local NGOs.

Political participation in Rwanda is limited only to those who adhere or are willing to be affiliated to his political party, the RPF. This has prevented the emergence of a genuine opposition that could have provided checks and balances across institutions in Rwanda. The repercussions are that lack of accountability within public institutions is rampant and Kagame has many times publicly criticised officials in his administration for not delivering as they should. In fact, the pledge he made in 2000 to transform Rwanda into a middle-income country driven by a knowledge economy has not materialised and Rwanda remains a low-income country to date.

Failure to effectively engage citizens in decision-making has also resulted in the implementation of development policies that do not meet the immediate needs of the population. Hence, the economic gains made by Kagame’s administration can be challenged in many aspects as previously pointed out. For instance, substantial public funds have been invested in the development of the Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Exhibitions (MICE) sector while less has been allocated to education, agriculture, and rural infrastructure development. Thus, despite remarkable economic growth and a significant improvement in the human development index registered by Rwanda since 1994, these achievements are tarnished by high inequalities in income, health and education. Furthermore, they are characterised by economic injustices such as unfair land expropriation and the uprooting of farmers’ crops. Rwanda’s human capital development remains below the average for African countries due to a lack of quality education and high levels of malnutrition among children below five years. Only 41 per cent of households in Rwanda are considered to be substantially food secure. The private sector’s contribution to growth has remained small and growth is predominantly led by state-owned enterprises and those belonging to the ruling party. Overall, Rwandans have been consecutively ranked among the bottom five least happy populations on the global happiness index.

Failure to effectively engage citizens in decision-making has also resulted in the implementation of development policies that do not meet the immediate needs of the population.

Over the past three decades, curtailed civil liberties and mounting social inequalities have seen Rwandans seek refuge abroad and prevented from returning to their homeland those who had fled Rwanda after the RPF took power in 1994. This situation has exacerbated the issue of Rwandan refugees that has persisted since Rwanda’s independence.

In particular, under President Kagame, the unresolved issue of Rwandan refugees settled in Rwanda’s neighbouring countries has been a source of political tensions between Rwanda and its neighbours. The Rwandan government has maintained that there are negative forces resident in eastern DRC that are out to destabilise Rwanda, a reference to the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). The FDLR is an armed group formed by Rwandan refugees in DRC who, following their forcible eviction from Rwanda during the genocide, resorted to armed struggle as a means of retaking power in Rwanda. Despite Rwanda’s armed forces launching military operations against the FDLR on numerous occasions on Congolese soil in collaboration with the Congolese army, the Rwandan government continues to insist that the FDLR is a threat to Rwanda’s security.

The United Nations has twice – in 2012 and 2022 – accused Rwanda of supporting the M23, an armed group that is fighting in the eastern DRC. This conflict has displaced populations and led to the death of millions of African civilian lives. In 2016, the UN Security Council accused Rwanda of recruiting and training Burundian refugees with the aim of ousting the then Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza. Western countries have suspended or withheld aid to Rwanda over allegations that it supported the M23 in 2012 and some of Rwanda’s donors have recently publicly called on the Rwandan government to stop supporting the M23 and remove its troops from eastern DRC. The European Union and United States of America have sanctioned Rwandan military officials for backing the M23. The US has placed Rwanda on the Child Soldiers Prevention Act List and suspended its military aid to the country due to Rwanda’s support of the M23, which the US says recruits and uses child soldiers. Not only do these allegations of Rwanda’s involvement in the regional conflict further tarnish the country’s image that Kagame’s administration has worked hard to restore, but the tensions with neighbouring states have also prevented Rwanda from maximising the benefits of regional integration and trade for its development.

President Kagame should not run for a fourth term as the governance of Rwanda needs to be reformed so that it becomes more tolerant of critics, democratic and inclusive. To successfully implement such reforms in governance requires a new leadership with fresh perspectives and approaches that will be able to build on Kagame’s achievements in order to address unresolved historical grievances of Rwandans and at the same time enable Rwanda to maximise its potential in the region and experience genuine development.

President Kagame should not run for a fourth term as the governance  of Rwanda needs to be reformed so that it becomes more tolerant of critics, democratic and inclusive.

Considering Rwanda’s history of long-serving strongmen who have taken power, retained it and lost it through violence, the 2024 presidential election is an opportunity for Rwandans to experience the transfer of power in a peaceful and transparent manner as has been the case in neighbouring countries including Burundi, DRC and Tanzania. It is an opportunity for Rwanda to move away from strongman leadership to enable the emergence of strong institutions to take the lead instead. This can be achieved by building on the legislations that have been reviewed and implemented under Kagame’s leadership. Therefore, while recognising with gratitude the achievements that he has made over the past three decades, Kagame’s greatest achievement yet would be to step away from power at the end of his term in 2024. In so doing, Kagame will have paved the way for better leadership in Rwanda and opened the door to future generations of Rwandans aspiring to become leaders in Rwanda.

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Why Kenyans Demanded an Apology from King Charles

The traumatic legacy of British colonialism lingers in Kenya to this day, and this is why Kenyans were demanding an apology from King Charles.



God Tax the King
Photo: Simon Dawson for No. 10 Downing Street via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Many British people are surprised that King Charles’s visit to Kenya was not welcomed by many Kenyans and human rights organisations. People whose families had suffered at the hands of British colonialists during his mother’s reign demanded an apology for crimes committed. Although the British monarch expressed “deepest regret” for the atrocities committed by the British in Kenya, he fell short of making a public apology.

However, many Brits believe that there is nothing the king needed to apologise for. One presenter on Sky News even wondered why Kenyans were calling for an apology from the king given that Britain had done much “good” in the country. After all, he said, without any hint of irony, the British Empire had brought democracy to Kenya (how he equated imperialism with democracy beats me) and given Kenyans “the gift of the English language”.

It was obvious that the presenter had been taught British imperial history that has whitewashed the atrocities that the British Empire committed in its colonies around the world. British children are to this day taught that British colonialism was a “civilising mission” that brought modern education and infrastructure, in addition to Christianity, to regions that were steeped in ignorance and backwardness. Apologists for the British Empire, such as the historian Niall Ferguson, author of Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, argue that Britain should be congratulated for conquering the world because British civilisation brought science and technology to people who held superstitious beliefs, and injected a “work ethic” in populations that were lazy and lacking in imagination. This is sort of like saying that slave owners did slaves a favour by shipping them to the Americas and forcing them to work for free because these slaves are now US citizens and enjoy all that America has to offer (even though it took them four centuries to gain rights as equal citizens).

A few months ago, the editor of a German magazine contacted me to ask whether I could submit an article on the atrocities the British had committed in Kenya during colonialism. He told me that while his magazine had documented human rights violations by German and Belgian colonialists in places like Namibia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it had largely ignored the violations committed by Britain in places like Kenya because the majority of Germans believe that British colonialism was not as brutal as that of other European powers, and that its net impact on its colonies in Africa had been positive. It dawned on me that perhaps Europeans are not being told the true story about colonialism and its horrific impact on Africans. So, here’s primer.

Erasure of memory

Kenya officially became a British colony in 1920, but prior to that, from 1895, it was deemed a “protectorate” – a term suggesting that the colonisers who grabbed the land were there to protect the interests of the “natives” who would benefit from being colonised. A widely held belief is that because Britain spearheaded the abolition of slavery, the British were “benevolent” colonisers, unlike the French and the Belgians who plundered and looted their African colonies. (In addition to extracting raw materials and exporting items such as ivory and rubber, the French and the Belgians also stole invaluable artefacts from their colonies in West and Central Africa, which today are displayed in museums across Europe, including in Britain, despite efforts by African governments to have these artefacts returned to where they were stolen from.)

Yet, those who care to join the dots between the anti-slavery movement and the colonisation of Africa are acutely aware of the fact that the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 (dubbed the “Scramble for Africa”) that carved up Africa among European nations, including Britain, took place just a few years after slavery ended. Because slavery was no longer legal and was costly to maintain, the only other way Europeans could extract cheap labour and highly profitable resources from Africa was by colonising the continent.

In order to justify colonisation in settler colonies like Kenya and Zimbabwe (formerly known as Rhodesia), it was necessary to erase evidence of atrocities committed by the Europeans. Many of these atrocities remained unacknowledged and unreported for decades because archival documents were either destroyed or deliberately concealed. British historian David M. Anderson, author of Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya, discovered that thousands of documents belonging to the British colonial administration were flown to London in 1963 on the eve of Kenya’s independence and remained hidden from the public for decades, despite attempts by successive post-independence Kenyan governments to have these “stolen papers” returned to Kenya.

The magnitude of these atrocities was finally revealed in 2005 when the Harvard historian Caroline Elkins’ book, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, was published. The book documents the many crimes that British colonial officers committed in Kenya in their relentless pursuit of wealth, land and power for themselves and in the name of the British Empire. Mau Mau fighters and their supporters were subjected to extreme forms of torture, including castration, whipping, waterboarding and electric shocks.

The areas where these Mau Mau revolutionaries were arrested, detained, tortured or killed in the 1950s were in and around the Aberdares mountain range in Central Kenya where Queen Elizabeth, during an official visit to Kenya, ascended to the throne after the death of her father, King George VI, in February 1952. Eight months after she became Queen of England and head of the British Empire, a state of emergency was declared in Kenya that allowed the British Colonial Office to detain people without trial. Many freedom fighters languished in camps or jails where they were subjected to torture.

Mau Mau fighters and their supporters were subjected to extreme forms of torture, including castration, whipping, waterboarding and electric shocks.

The Mau Mau rebellion was a reaction to the expropriation of some 7 million acres of the most fertile land in Central Kenya and the Rift Valley – dubbed the White Highlands – in the early part of the 20th century after the building of the Uganda Railway, which opened up the interior of East Africa for British colonisation and settlement. The indigenous population was pushed into so-called reserves while others became squatters on land that was once theirs, working for white farmers for very little wages.

Elkins estimates that between 160,000 and 320,000 detainees, mostly from the Kikuyu, Meru and Embu ethnic groups, were tortured or maimed by the British at the height of the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s, although official figures state that the number of detainees was no more than 80,000. It is estimated that more than 20,000 Mau Mau militants were killed. Further, more than a million people, mainly in central Kenya, were detained in camps or confined in villages known as “reserves” (which have been described as “concentration camps”) surrounded by barbed wire. Tens of thousands of people held in these dense and unsanitary guarded camps and villages died from hunger or disease.

To justify these atrocities, British officials painted the Mau Mau as savage “terrorists” because of the violent and brutal methods they used to hunt down and kill white settlers and local informers. Official figures show that Mau Mau fighters killed 32 British settlers and 1,819 indigenous people whom they believed to be spies for the British.

Today what the British Empire did in Kenya might be perceived as a form of ethnic cleansing, but because colonisation was not unfashionable then, the atrocities were not condemned, nor was anyone tried. It was only in 2011, during a landmark court case brought against the British by a group of Mau Mau veterans, that the British government, under legal pressure, admitted that the documents were in a high-security facility that also contained files from 36 other former British colonies. (In 2013, 5,228 Mau Mau veterans were awarded £20 million in compensation by a UK court, which amounts to roughly £3,000 per victim, a paltry sum given the suffering they endured.) One of these documents contained details of eight colonial officers stationed in Kenya “roasting detainees alive”. All of the accused officers were granted amnesty.

Official amnesia 

Official amnesia and disinformation were not just part of a deliberate campaign by the British Empire to whitewash the crimes it committed in its colonies in Africa and elsewhere, but also a strategy employed by post-colonial governments in Kenya to cloak their own complicity in ensuring that British interests in the country were preserved.

Post-independence Kenyan elites benefitted from colonial policies that alienated Africans from their own land and became the biggest beneficiaries of post-independence land grabs disguised as land redistribution or adjudication. After independence, the so-called home guards or loyalists became the biggest beneficiaries of land and political power. According to Kenya’s 2013 Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission report, “Rich businessmen and businesswomen, rich and powerful politicians who were loyal to the colonial administration, managed to acquire thousands of acres at the expense of the poor and the landless.” Hence, “instead of redressing land-related injustices perpetrated by the colonialists on Africans, the resettlement process created a privileged class of African elites, leaving those who had suffered land alienation either on tiny unproductive pieces of land or landless.” Even today in Kenya, members of freedom fighting movements like the Mau Mau remain landless and poverty-stricken while those who sided with the colonialists are among the richest people in the land.

After independence, the so-called home guards or loyalists became the biggest beneficiaries of land and political power.

The Mau Mau remained a proscribed organisation for four decades after independence. It was only in 2003, when Mwai Kibaki became president, that the Mau Mau were recognised for the role they had played in Kenya’s struggle for independence. Kenyatta Day on 20 October was renamed Mashujaa Day (Heroes Day) to commemorate all those who died while fighting for freedom. In 2007, a statue of Dedan Kimathi was erected in Nairobi’s central business district, and in 2015, following the 2013 UK court decision to compensate Mau Mau veterans, the British government put up a Mau Mau memorial sculpture in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park “as a symbol of reconciliation between the British government, the Mau Mau and all those who suffered”.

Despite these symbols of reconciliation and healing, the traumatic legacy of British colonialism lingers in Kenya to this day. This is why Kenyans were demanding an apology from the King – because the wounds have not yet healed. While a public apology might not have been enough to completely heal the wounds and traumas of the past, it would have been an important first step.

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