Why Thabo Bester’s grift worked
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.
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 apartheid—is 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.