The New Testament

Much of black youth culture in South Africa celebrates constant self-invention, and is built on the gospel of entrepreneurship.

Sandile Mantsoe in court. Image Credit Gallo Images / Sunday World / Veli Nhlapo.

Sandile Mantsoe is awaiting trial for the murder of his girlfriend Karabo Mokoena. Her family and friends tell harrowing tales of how he abused her over the course of their seven-month long relationship. He stands accused of escalating the abuse to its most gruesome conclusion, murdering her in his Sandton home and then burning and dumping her body in an obscure location.

In the mean-time, more than 120 individuals have come forward with allegations that Mantsoe defrauded them of thousands of rands through his currency trading company, Trillion Dollar Legacy.

Mantsoe’s pastor struggles to believe the allegations. He describes the twenty-seven year old as a young man poised to become “one of the stars this country (South Africa) has ever produced.” Mantsoe, as the pastor elaborates in a television interview, is “a great evangelist” who is warm hearted and humble.

On social media, South Africans take umbrage with the pastor’s soft description of the accused. They point out the pastor’s cognitive dissonance in the face of mounting evidence of Mantsoe’s darker side.

Not much information is publicly available about Mantsoe but the little that is shows him steeped in a culture we have come to venerate as young South Africans. It is a culture that celebrates constant self-invention. It is built on the gospel of entrepreneurship. It aspires to the casual intellectualism of the Ted Talk genius and the easy generosity of the mega philanthropist.

If you are brave enough to crawl down the Youtube rabbit hole, you soon realize that Mantsoe is part of a cohort of young men who achieve celebrity as guests on South African television programs and radio talk shows, where they are celebrated with titles that say much about our collective aspirations. The uncritical use of titles such as “Youngest Self-Made Millionaire” and “Most Celebrated Forex Trader” in media descriptions of these twenty-somethings belie a desperation for firsts and an even deeper yearning for those firsts to be in industries where black South Africans have historically been excluded.

Mantsoe plays right into these anxieties. He styles himself “The Moses of financial freedom,” leading his subscribers to liberation if only they believed in the power of the financial markets. For Mantsoe, financial markets are the next frontier and “black people are destined to be in this promised land.”

Sometimes he appears in the casual lecturing posture of the Ted Talk genius; his message a mixture of self-help and basic financial literacy. He titles one video  “Trade Psychology” which he explains as “a mind to success approach to investment.” He encourages viewers to become “students of success”, to reorient their lives for success by changing any part of their lifestyle that does not reflect their new alignment.

At other times Mantsoe is a philanthropist. He adopts a style of giving one could describe as Oprah-ish in its performance. Very aware of its potential as a branding opportunity, it relies on big gestures, on making those who participate feel they are part of a movement.

As crafty as the role-playing sounds, Mantsoe and his fellow South African Forex salesman are not its originators. Theirs is an iteration of a culture that emphasizes financial success as the ultimate evidence of self-actualization. Only financial success gives a man the power to invent himself and only the man who has made himself has the fluidity of identity to tame the volatility of the modern economy.

I find traces of this reasoning beyond South Africa.

In his lectures and seminars, self-proclaimed “people’s scholar” Dr. Boyce Watkins entreats his African American audiences to “leave the corporate plantation” and seek freedom in entrepreneurship and investment in the financial markets.

Watkins owns many platforms, including the Black Business School, an online venture that offers a dizzying array of content. From financial investing information to tailor made curricula for homeschooling African American kids. He encourages self-education over formal higher education.

Watkins is part of a cohort of black public figures who preach the gospel of black financial liberation in Youtube seminars, books, DVDs and lecture tours across the country. Some of these men, including Watkins have visited or given ‘lecture tours’ in South Africa.

They see themselves as the vanguard of a “black capitalism” that prioritizes economic participation over civil rights as the definitive mark of fulfilled citizenship. They articulate the possibilities for achieving this status in language that draws together an entire spectrum of African American and black nationalist ideologies; from Pan Africanism to Afrocentricity to Black Power.

This is an instrumentalist Ted Talk style of reading history to lend an ideational edge to a sales pitch. South Africa’s self-declared “rock star of public speaking” Vusi Thembekwayo has a similarly uncanny ability to condense history into useful lessons for financial success.

In a recent talk, Thembekwayo does what I can only describe as spectacular. He claims that the US attains the status of world’s largest economy because of a single historical event; the invention of the combustion engine. From there Thembekwayo makes this most mind-blowing statement which I must quote in full:

If you want to understand why Africa remains at the periphery of global economics you must ask yourself a single question; how many technologies has Africa produced and brought to the world that have shifted how the world and its global institutions work? Until that question is answered in the affirmative, we will continue to remain at the periphery of global economics.

It is not important to consider chattel slavery, that other shameful technology that fueled US success. Nor is it necessary to factor in generations of African exploitation. History is useful only as far as it lends legitimacy to a lesson that could be imparted in many other ways.

In another talk, Thembekwayo compares his own grandfather to Stellenbosch businessman Christo Weise and finds that the difference between the two men is a matter of mindset. Weiss “thinks big” enough to create Shoprite while Thembekwayo’s grandfather is a traditionalist whose “small business thinking” keeps him from growing his spaza shop beyond his zone of the township.

You could debunk his ahistorical account until you are blue in the face but you would still have to contend with the reality that Thembekwayo, with his huge following in business and among aspirant entrepreneurs, embodies what John Patrick Leary identifies as “the TED-talk-derived genius cult, in which wealthy audiences receive open-collared men pacing on bare stages as oracular sages telling hard and universal truths.”

Silicon Valley mogul Ben Horrowitz has been similarly criticized for misusing disciplines like anthropology and history to make claims about Silicon Valley’s innovative personality. Witness this Startup Grind Global lecture where Horrowitz extracts digestible nuggets, jam packed with lessons for success in the modern economy, from a loose and fast reading of the 1791 Haitian slave revolt:

If this guy [Touissant Louverture] could overcome being a slave for forty years and change the slave culture and defeat the French and the British and free the slaves of Haiti sixty-five years before the end of slavery in the United States, then you can change the culture in your company and make it great.

The lesson is that knowledge is malleable, it can say anything you want.

Some of Mantsoe’s peers have caught on and they have begun to make the slippery transition – mixing up God and the market to create their own brand of church where congregants believe in the transformative power of crypto-currency. Forex trader Louis Jr Tshoakene and Malawian evangelical pastor Shepherd Bushiri seem to have discovered a sweet spot. The prophet’s book Make Millions in Forex Trading: A simple guide to making millions through trading, likely ghost written by Tshoakene, is advertised on Tshakoane’s platforms, giving him access to the prophet’s multitudinous cross-continental congregants.

His own performance would straddle multiple roles but like all good evangelists, Mantsoe would have known that what matters most to believers is the manifestation of success. Not the rumors that he was in heavy debt nor reports that Trillion Dollar Legacy was a precariously tilted pyramid scheme. So long as he did not heave under the weight of his solo performance, Mantsoe could continue to manifest his destiny. This is the source of his pastor’s cognitive dissonance.

Beyond Mantsoe, the conventions, conferences and leadership seminars that proliferate in young professionals’ calendars suggest that the culture keeps finding corners to settle as South Africa’s young black professionals search for experts who will deliver the secret to self-reinvention for those who would brave the quest for self-mastery in an economy that was never built for their kind.

Remy Martin capture the spirit of the moment in their global campaign slogan: “You only get one life, live them.”

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.