Policing black wealth

February 10, 2015, 11:48am

Policing black wealth

Johannesburg - I am so glad I have no wealth. Well, not really. It would be nice, I guess, to have a house somewhere along that stunning bit of coastline from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town; almost anywhere along that route would be cool. Oh wait, Port Alfred is spectacular too. Yikes, how about the Wild Coast, untouched (as yet) by old money investing in its natural, rugged beauty. And to get me there with my bae, I still dream of having a yellow Hummer. Don’t ask; we sometimes want dream cars, decide what these are, and then stick to the dream regardless of whether it makes sense. And to think I do not even have a driver’s licence.

Some car experts told me that spare parts are tough to get for Hummers, because these gorgeous beasts are not manufactured anymore. So I guess I would have to find some other gigantic petrol guzzler to be an extension of my homothug ego. Ah, to flaunt wealth. Must be nice, hey Johann Rupert? Alas, I am confined to irregular income, flaunting only my credit-worthy status, and pretending with romantic dishonesty that a writer, a decent public speaker, is just as much of a babe magnet as arriving in your R2 million Maserati.

Speaking of a Maserati, let me count my poor native blessings. The upside of not being wealthy is that the Business Times, or some other publication, is not going to ask me how on earth I afford an expensive car or house on a writer’s non-salary, or with patchy broadcasting freebies. Because black wealth gets policed. And it gets policed, not by jealous white folk only, but also by diligent black folk.

Black wealth jars. Black wealth irritates. Black wealth puzzles. Black wealth is presumed fraudulent until proven otherwise. Black wealth is immoral. Black wealth upsets a narrative that defines black poverty as the normal state of affairs, and any apparent black wealth as a corrupt exception. Black wealth must be lifestyle-audited, morally critiqued (preferably by a black elder of course), and it must be chased away from our hurting eyes, and before your olfactory nerve cracks under the stench of black wealth.

The danger with such stinky black wealth, of course, is that it may damage the reputation of white wealth, unfairly. It’s a bit like what happens when blacks move into white suburbs and, for goodness sake, slaughter animals and don’t do DIY on a Saturday and hardly ever water their lawns with mineral water, unfairly reducing the value of white assets. This really is unfair if you think about where white wealth comes from. White wealth is the result of hard work, genetic good luck on the part of white businesspeople, slaving away to recover from early failures, learning lessons from failure, and then rising to the corporate top, with virtuous characters intact, surviving that journey to tell a humble story of effort, luck-that-was-created, and inspiration to give to any aspiring young business leader.

Black folk who are wealthy cannot have such narratives. Where on earth would a black woman get good genes from? HUH?! Where on earth would a black man get networks from to tap into for advice, for mentoring, for assistance when in need of a rescue package for an ailing project that still has potential? Nah, blacks are too genetically feeble, socially useless, lacking in business networks, and most obviously of all, as we know from how they like lying on the grass after a heavy meal of pap and chakalaka, they are way too keen to choose sleeping over hustling, too keen to complain than to work hard, to learn lessons from failure, and to build wealth, legitimately. Thus spoke the Business Times yesterday.

But many of you, black and white, think exactly as the Business Times did yesterday. (You just whisper it so that no one hears you; otherwise they will pull that bloody race card thingy on you! But, go on, admit it, between us girls!)

Yes, yes, there might be exceptions, like good old Herman Mashaba. And business reporters will point out examples of a celebrated black businessman, free of controversy, as proof that they celebrate excellence as much as they probe potentially dodgy black wealth. What a load of tik. Patterns of reporting, not rare instances, tell you what media narratives consist in. The same people who will sincerely applaud a Herman Mashaba will assume that those black cats in fancy sports cars and Harley Davidson bikes on Vilakazi Street on Sundays are crooks who just have not been exposed. Their assets should be investigated. So, in that vein, why not ask how it is that a ‘civil servant’, the Public Investment Corporation’s Dr Daniel Matjila, can afford a R2-million rand Maserati? Black wealth is illogical, so the story is an acceptable one to pursue, yes?

Here’s what is wrong with the story that appeared in the Business Times yesterday. The story tells us that the guy is a brilliant mathematician, who had a career in various parts of the financial sector that my liberal arts background makes me too anxious to even try and understand, and that he worked at Stanlib and Anglo American doing quantitative research analysis, and other private companies, before he recently took up his current post at the PIC. So bear in mind, then, that he has only, by the lights of this report itself, been a ‘civil servant’ for a young minute.

He reportedly has an annual salary now of some R9 million rand, and this is besides wealth already accumulated before this post. In other words, the man can bloody afford the Maserati! Nothing in the report suggested fraud, or some other wrongdoing in law, or a breach of ethical codes that apply to someone in the state in his position. It tells me why I should not be suspicious, yet still includes the fact of his car. I do not know the man, nor the truths about the PIC. But if there is not even an iota of evidence of wrongdoing in the report about the car that the CEO owns, then why is that fact even in the story? Oh wait, black wealth is unnatural, and aesthetically jarring, like brown stains on a sheet. So it gives the story ‘colour’ to drop it in there. Innocently, yeah?

I asked the reporter, Thekiso Lefifi, who is, in my subjective opinion, an excellent journalist, and one I am proud to call a former colleague of mine, someone I can call up and chat to. I did just chat. He described the piece as one that emanated from discontent among some employees, discontent that had been leaked to him, and which he investigated, discontent that centres around Matjila. But I then went to read the piece several times over, again, and could not understand why the piece framed the car that the guy owns as the central fact of such discontent. When I asked Lefifi about this, he said that he had to mention what he was being told. He could not exclude that fact.

I probed further. If, indeed, Matjila is not a great leader, and many black businesspeople are not, so that is a perfectly acceptable story to chase up, why not detail the organisational duties he has that he is not executing well, and document evidence related to his key performance areas, rather than facts that are not salient to that question? I then put this question to him, ‘In retrospect, could and should you have written the story without mentioning a car that he owns, which he can afford, and for which there is no evidence of any wrongdoing in how it was acquired?’

For the first time in our telephone conversation there was a long silence. I gave him the option of not answering or giving an off-the-record answer. He settled, in the end, for, ‘I’m not sure.’ But someone who was sure was Songezo Zibi, the editor of Business Day. They get content from Business Times which a nifty little program automatically shifts onto their social media account. But once Zibi became aware of the framing of this story, he pulled it from their platform. Because he could see it for what it was: policing of black wealth.

Lefifi is not compelled to put everything that sources say, in a report. We don’t have the space to do so in hardcopies of newspapers, besides the fact that obviously not the entire content of conversations with sources is newsworthy. So he has to recognise that he chooses what to leave out and what to put in. Why include a fact of a car that is very expensive if it is not salient to controversy about how Matjila runs the place, even if sources keep telling you the sight of the car irritates? Oh wait, black wealth, square circles, ugly beauties and other contradictions are newsworthy….I forget.

I chatted a bit more to Lefifi about his piece. I suggested to him that we do not police white wealth, but always approach black wealth with suspicion, both in the media, and if we are honest, also around the braai. He retorted that we do, in fact, write reports about the assets of white business people, art that they buy, farms that they own, and other things they do with their money.

He added that most white wealth is privately accumulated anyway, and that this PIC top dog is in the state sector. This was echoed, off-the-record, by a senior colleague of Lefifi’s, who referred me to a profile on a house by Discovery’s Adrian Gore that cost many more millions than I can wrap my head around. I Googled stories about the property of white businesspeople after that. It is straightforward profiling, of course, bland facts about their assets, rather than stories that carry facts about their assets in the context of a controversy unrelated to those assets. That is because Gore’s wealth is, of course, immune to the kind of probing about its origins, and its effects on society, as someone like Matjila.

Lefifi, the reporter, also misses a critical point: the tone and textures of these stories about white wealth generally celebrate the owners and entrepreneurs for excellence. To appear on the Sunday Times rich list is like appearing on Top Billing. It is really really cool, and awesome, and, like, every businessperson’s dream. Why? Because these profiles are morally neutral, not stories that characterise the owners as presumed criminals until proven otherwise. Black wealth is not profiled neutrally or with a celebratory tone, in general. Black wealth is audited to confirm suspicion of wrongdoing. The Matjila story is not isolated. It is just one example of a general pattern of reporting on black wealth.

But of course it does not help that black journalists, media owners - print and broadcast - and black people in society-at-large often pull each other down, rather than pushing back against this narrative, and ditching our hatred of black excellence, and sometimes not hatred, but crippling embarrassment about black wealth, and our timidity about flaunting it. And, yes, of course this is compatible with vigorously exposing corrupt and unethical black players in the state and the private sector. It’s just that we are addicted to the latter motif, and wholly disinterested in the profiling of excellence.

That is why this intervention is not a critique of Business Times but of all of us. The Business Times report on Matjila is just one example of a dominant narrative that is skeptical of black excellence, skepticism lurking in the pages across all the print media, and on airwaves across broadcast media in South Africa. Don’t be afraid of black wealth and black excellence. It’s a beautiful thing, an aesthetic defeat of white supremacy. Flaunt it.

Eusebius McKaiser for iol.co.za

* Eusebius McKaiser was bullied to disrupt his book writing to pen this mini-essay on why black wealth is aesthetically jarring even though he does not own a Maserati…yet. His column will return in April.


** The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Independent Media.