Conspicuous Consumption in Africa
Author: Deborah Posel Ilana van Wyk
Publisher: Wits University Press, South Africa
Finally, there is an analytical book about the striking consumption in today’s Africa. We hear about the very flashy consumption of presidents and business people and the middle class’s obsession with the material to affirm their own identity and show off to others. One of the more striking examples in the book is the former Angolan President’s daughter, Isabel dos Santos, whose fictitious company received funds from Statoil (now Equinor).
All 13 chapters in Conspicuous Consumption in Africa are based on Thorstein Veblen’s book The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), where he analyses flashy consumption, conspicuous waste, gluttony, and extravagance. There was probably not much of this in Veblen’s own life; his parents were emigrated farmers from Valdres. Second-generation immigrant Thorstein was the fourth child in a sibling group of twelve.
Large-scale corruption and Norwegian money
Former Angolan President’s daughter Isabel dos Santos is Africa’s richest woman with a fortune of around 20 billion kroner. In January of this year, after eight months of intense investigative journalism and review of over 700,000 pages of documentation, the same network of investigative journalists who published the Panama Papers in 2016 published the Luanda Leaks.
We haven’t heard much about Luanda Leaks in Norway. Perhaps because it is embarrassing that we have contributed to Dos Santos’s wealth by Statoil paying 420 million kroner to a non-existing research centre owned by the state-owned oil company Sonangol in Angola, where Isabel dos Santos was director from June 2016 until she was fired in November 2017?
Or perhaps it is because it does not fit our self-image that Statoil/Equinor has extracted a larger annual profit from oil operations in Angola than we have collectively given in aid to the entire African continent?
Regardless, the chapter on Isabel dos Santos and the Angolan elite’s clothing purchases in New York, festivities in Cannes, and investments in diamonds, as well as their use of Instagram and Twitter to communicate their flashy consumption to the outside world, is fun reading.
The analysis of how this flashy consumption can be seen as a radical political protest against the Western Afropessimism that always portrays Africans as underprivileged without self-worth is thought-provoking.
In the Luanda Leaks, transactions and agreements in several of Isabel dos Santos’ 400 companies are thoroughly scrutinised. Not surprisingly, she is accused of large-scale corruption. But, while the new government freezes her bank accounts, she claims, from her exile in London, that she has earned the money through hard work and good judgement: «All allegations of corruption are simply a form of a witch-hunt by the new regime in Angola», she recently told the BBC.
Consumption as a Celebration of the Sacred
In the chapter on Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president from 2009 to 2018, Ilana van Wyk writes so well that I forget I am reading a textbook, not a novel. Zuma spent millions of rand on women, cars, foreign trips, helicopter rides, and upgrades to his homes. We hear about the necessity of a swimming pool and a helicopter deck in the president’s home. This is fascinating in itself, but it becomes truly interesting when van Wyk analyses the spending and puts the extravagance in context with the new charismatic religions in South Africa.
Zuma was a priest in a charismatic neo-Pentecostal movement and used religion to legitimise ostentatious consumption. God’s kingdom is «a place of boundless wealth, health, and happiness», and the closer Zuma was able to live in this kingdom, the closer he came to God.
Ostentatious consumption is viewed in this charismatic movement as a celebration of the sacred and evidence of divine devotion. Toward the end of his presidency, Zuma even compared himself to Jesus and claimed, when he was accused of corruption and rape, that his political opponents would crucify him. It is difficult to be further away from Thorstein Veblen’s own strictly pietistic-Protestant upbringing.
However, Zuma’s use of women—he had four wives and numerous mistresses to display his conspicuous wealth—is entirely in line with Veblen’s theories (and reportedly his private life as a womaniser).
Flashy consumption is seen as a celebration of the sacred and a proof of divine devotion.
Wedding attire for 200,000 dollars
Also, Claudia Gastrow’s chapter on Angola’s elite is fascinating reading. When the daughter of Minister Bornito de Sousa travels to New York and buys a wedding dress and other accessories for 200,000 dollars at the exclusive bridal shop Kleinfeld, she becomes a star in the American TV show Say Yes to the Dress. She surpasses what the pietist Thorstein Veblen described in the chapter «Clothing as an Expression of Money Culture» as possible. The criticism this triggered in Angola, a country where more than half of the population lives on less than three dollars a day, was not understood by the minister: Angolans should be proud that one of their own could spend so much on something so beautiful.
Fascinating is also the chapter written by Danish anthropologist Karen Tranberg Hansen, who worked at the same university in Chicago as Veblen before she retired. She examines Zambia’s President Frederick Chiluba’s (1991-2002) extravagant clothing consumption, including his 100 pairs of handmade Italian shoes and his numerous diamond-studded watches, with a mix of «body politics»: ostentatious consumption and political corruption as an analytical background.
Other chapters cover the burial of a «tycoon» in Cameroon (Roger Orock), remarkable consumption in the LGBT community in Cape Town (Bradley Rink), changes in the ways of displaying dignity, wealth, and extravagance when the first department store opened in Cape Town in 1875 and led to a «democratisation of luxury» (Deborah Posel).
All the chapters were so good that when I was finished with the book, I only wanted to start over again.