For many, the accumulation of significant wealth is seen as unethical and one of the unfair by-products of rampant capitalism. There are continual calls for increased taxes and the closure of all the loopholes that the wealthy use to hide their fortunes. There is also a popular critique of how the wealthy use their philanthropy to cleanse their reputations, but also to control political and developmental agendas to strengthen their own positions. Generally, however, most of the individuals and families concerned have not done anything illegal. The overall system is basically stacked in their favour.
There are also well-known examples of wealthy criminals using philanthropy as a way to build legitimacy. In recent times these have included people like Jeffrey Epstein, a convicted New York paedophile and sex offender, who gave significant gifts from his Jeffrey Epstein VI Foundation (based in the Virgin Islands) to Harvard’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics and to the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The founder of the lab resigned after this and there were also calls for the president of MIT to stand down.
Another case was that of Bill Cosby, movie star and another sex offender, who had given millions of dollars to black colleges in the US, including a $20-million donation to Spelman College for women. Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, who was found guilty of rape and sexual assault, gave significant donations to the Democratic Party in the US as well as an ironic $5-million for bursaries for female directors at a film school at the University of Southern California (the school returned the money).
The reputation of the Lance Armstrong Foundation that had managed to raise more than $500-million for cancer survivors was damaged after he was stripped of the seven titles he won in the Tour de France when he admitted to cheating by having used performance-enhancing drugs.
Al Capone, a famous Chicago-based gangster who was involved in bootlegging beer and liquor during the alcohol prohibition in the US, opened a soup kitchen in the city for poor and homeless people who had lost their jobs in the Great Depression of the early 1930s and fed about 2,200 people a day. He also initiated a programme providing milk to school children as a way to prevent rickets.
Pablo Escobar, who controlled the Medellin cocaine drug cartel in Colombia, contributed massively to his community by building hospitals and housing for the underprivileged, paving roads, providing clean water, contributing to reforestation programmes while also funding churches and soccer clubs. He became a beloved figure for many in the country.
Closer to home, in 2013 Bizcommunity reported a donation of R250,000 worth of school trousers by Mark Lifman, an alleged major underworld figure, to Ilitha Labantu, an NPO that at that time was “working with Lifman to address the issues encountered by children in the Western Cape”. The previous year he had made a donation of shoes.
Back home in the Western Cape, our media has lauded negotiations between gang leaders in the most crime-infested areas for arranging a ceasefire during the Covid-19 crisis and for assisting in the distribution of food parcels to needy families in their communities.
This kind of community criminal philanthropy is seen all over the world as a way drug lords and other criminals grow their social capital so that they are protected by their communities. The Patron is the big man, often ruling communities with an iron fist while providing people’s basic needs, including income, through the criminal economy by providing jobs such as drug dealers, gun runners, smugglers, traffickers and extortionists.
According to a document produced in 2020 by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime, there are reports that “in some instances, food parcels are used to conceal and smuggle guns and drugs” while in other cases “the parcels become currency to buy favour from the communities in which the gangs are active, or serve as a reward to loyal gang members and drug dealers”.
It will be of interest to see how the providers of these favours expect some quid pro quo from the non-profit and religious organisations with whom they are partnering currently. According to the same report, the gangs are using this opportunity to recruit new members by building loyalty.
In a 2002 document produced by the Development Action Group, details of how gangs recruit in poor communities through patronage are outlined, including where they “control housing allocation, pay rent, chase the Sheriff of the Court away, post bail and provide money for living expenses”. This has not changed.
Further, in a paper produced by Andre Standing of the Institute for Security Studies, he indicates that gangs “control the distribution and sale of alcohol and drugs in their areas. In addition, some control a local sex industry, export stolen cars, sell stolen firearms and also arrange the theft of goods from factories and warehouses to be resold in their domains”.
The same report mentions philanthropy as one of the “most conspicuous – and contentious – basis for community support enjoyed by the criminal elite”. He reminds us of a range of assistance gangs provide the community and “there have been times when crime bosses have distributed cash to orderly queues and even thrown handfuls of notes from car windows”.
This display was undertaken, for example, by Rashied Staggie, who “would first drive his car up and down the street and tell children that he would be throwing money out when he returned”.
Crowds would congregate in anticipation and he “would sometimes throw up to R20,000 out of his car window for the community”.
The report includes details of funding by gangs of football teams, sports fields and minstrel groups, including bus hire, feeding and outfits. This criminal philanthropy takes place in a context where levels of state governance are low and community control, including informal systems of governance that create both benefits and obligations, are taken over by criminal entities. DM