When entrepreneurship self-help isn’t enough

By presenting poverty as a choice out of which it is possible to claw your way through sheer willpower, self-help books fail to address social inequality.

On 13 October 2005, at the annual conference of the Black Management Forum (BMF), Chika A Onyeani, author of the controversial book Capitalist N****r: The Road to Success – A Spider Web Doctrine, delivered a keynote address. As an organisation committed to increasing the number of black managers in companies to promote “socio-economic transformation in South Africa”, the BMF had asked Onyeani to advise the black middle class on how they could contribute to the country’s economy and improve the fortunes of all South Africans. 

But Onyeani had other ideas. The writer, who titled his address “The Failure and Parasitic Nature of the Black Middle/Intellectual Class”, unleashed his fury at the emerging African middle classes, accusing them of being “more tyrannical than their white predecessors”. He criticised their alleged excesses, lambasting them for not taking notes from “the Asian intellectual class”, which he credited for merging “intellectualism with entrepreneurship” and held up as a model for African people looking to build wealth within their communities.

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Onyeani ruffled a few feathers at the BMF event at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, where participants seemed bewildered by the direction the speaker took. With the exception of the crass racial and gender stereotypes littered throughout his speech, Onyeani seemed to highlight, albeit in a crude way, the dangers of viewing the emergence of an African petty bourgeoisie as a solution to structural poverty. 

Based on his language alone, one could mistake Onyeani’s contempt for the African middle classes with some form of solidarity with the poor and working classes of the continent. But when his observations are examined further, it becomes clear that his aversion to the better-off is more of an ill-tempered antagonism than any pro-poor or pan Africanist politic. 

Self-hate as self-help 

Originally published in 2000, Capitalist N****r captured the attention of black South Africans attempting to carve a place for themselves in an economy from which they had been excluded, and for which they had been a source of cheap labour. 

Onyeani, who was once an official for the Republic of Biafra, harboured much of the disappointment and sorrow of a generation who were certain their annexed state would become “a dynamic African nation”. When Nigeria defeated Biafra, along with the hopes it would remain a sovereign nation state, Onyeani spent the next 32 years in America, interacting with people of different races and cultures, and drawing his own conclusions as to why he felt the “black race absolutely [had] nothing to offer the world”. 

Though the book reads more like Richard J Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life than the Freedom Charter, Capitalist N****r was billed as a rallying cry and wake-up call for black people on the continent and in the diaspora. 

Onyeani’s writing infuses bastardised versions of Marcus Garveyesque preachings about political and economic self-reliance with clinical corporate speak, right-wing rhetoric and antiquated racial stereotypes, to name but a few influences. Nowhere does he provide empirical evidence for the stunningly offensive and historically inaccurate statements he likes to portray as hard-hitting truths. He appears to salivate at the idea of upsetting people with his brazen use of the n-word, and his suggestion that black intelligence pales in comparison to that of Asian and Jewish people.

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Much like other black writers who have etched out a living by wagging their fingers at their own communities in front of enthusiastic white liberal and conservative audiences, Onyeani says he is fighting the good fight, calling himself an “economic warrior”, among other things. He proposes the doctrine of “capitalist n***erism” as a way for people to “make money and create wealth”, yet this ideology seems to be more of a pose than a set of principles outlining a tangible path towards financial prosperity. 

In addition, despite turning against the black South African middle class, whom he called second-rate versions of their former white masters, he attributes black people’s misfortune to their alleged lack of “killer instincts” and “devil-may-care attitude”, which he identifies as qualities native to the “caucausian race”.

In 2015, it was reported that Capitalist N****r had sold more than 100 000 copies in South Africa. Years ago, I recall my own father purchasing a copy when he experienced major setbacks of his own. 

The success of Capitalist N****r lies in its ability to appropriate the tone and feel of black liberation politics, but replace the compassion and empathy it has towards the black poor and working class with a cartoonish individualism. Instead of advocating for collective action, personal responsibility is touted as the solution to surviving under racial capitalism. This approach distracts people from holding the state, institutions and corporations accountable for the deprivation and suffering taking place right in front of them, especially in a country like South Africa where the inequality between the rich and the poor ranks the highest in the world. 

Rich individual, poor nation

Capitalist N****r isn’t the only entrepreneurial self-help book that has leveraged identity politics and class to advance the idea that poverty is a state of mind that can be overcome with willpower and determination. Rich Dad, Poor Dad, written by Hawaiian businessman Robert Kiyosaki and first published in 1997, adopts a similar approach to Capitalist N****r without deploying its overtly insensitive language and gauche racial stereotypes. 

Here, Kiyosaki uses a series of parables to contrast two fathers and their understanding of financial literacy and money. Kiyosaki’s father happens to be the poor dad, who teaches him the conventional way to get by in the world: “Go to school, get good grades and find a secure job.” 

While this advice might appear sensible and pragmatic to most, Kiyosaki says it falls flat in comparison with the advice given by his rich dad, the father of Kiyosaki’s friend. His advice, along with his maverick-like approach to life, is more specific and financially savvy: “The key to becoming wealthy is the ability to convert earned income into passive income and/or portfolio income as quickly as possible.”

Whether these were the exact words of either the rich or poor dad is besides the point. Contrasting the two fathers is meant to encourage readers to view the rich dad’s approach as ideal and attractive while looking down on the seemingly clueless and provincial manner of the poor dad. Kiyosaki’s frustration at his dad’s alleged financial illiteracy has more to do with the fact that he is not wealthy like his friend’s dad, who consistently projects a cool and measured delivery of all the tricks of the trade. These are qualities poor fathers like Kiyosaki’s couldn’t emulate even if they tried their best. 

For people who come from households in which they’ve been given traditional pointers on how to survive in the world, Rich Dad, Poor Dad seems to encourage a rejection of both their class status and their perceived lack of advantages. Kiyosaki doesn’t just want people to follow the teachings of rich dad, he also wants them to become rich dad, who is a symbol of financial ease, freedom and sophistication.

Both Capitalist N****r and Rich Dad, Poor Dad may have recently become the subject of mockery online, but their popularity shouldn’t be dismissed or underestimated. As a friend once told me, these books exploit and manipulate the desperation of marginalised communities by telling them that they can think their way out of poverty. 

Despite presenting their world views as insightful and groundbreaking, Onyeani and Kiyosaki try to present old biases, stereotypes and ideas as useful information for financial literacy and advancement. But individual willpower isn’t going to eradicate inequality.

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