Golden Opportunity: The Amazing True Story of a Scheme to Enrich a Continent

"We are here today to reorder your thinking," said Robert Beatty, his careful pronunciation banishing doubt with every word. The meticulously dressed, gray-haired publisher of the South Florida Times, an African-American newspaper, stood behind the lectern of the Worldwide Christian Center Church in Pompano Beach.

Behind him sat an unlikely assortment of people: O'Neal Dozier, the church's ultraconservative pastor; two members of a small but extremely wealthy indigenous tribe in South Africa, wearing jackets and ties; a former consultant to the World Bank; and several business owners.

The Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa — the successor to Desmond Tutu — was scheduled to make an appearance by video.

High on the wall, a red, light-up cross hung above the gathering.

"God wants all his children to have abundance," said Beatty, who was serving as the MC of this event, the "Winds of Change Economic Leadership Conference," on the morning of February 18.

In the audience were a few middle-class, mostly black families and individuals, all potential investors. Dozier, the pastor, had been hinting in his services that a new opportunity was coming, that his parishioners could soon make a profit while also helping their brethren in Africa. They could skip one meal a month, perhaps, and use that money to invest in the future of a continent. Though he didn't get into specifics, he had suggested they would soon be able to purchase shares of a new, international project. The churchgoers were waiting for the archbishop to unveil the details.

The archbishop of Cape Town, the Most Rev. Thabo Makgoba, is a spiritual elder in the Anglican and Episcopal churches and an influential figure throughout Africa. Much of his power is left over from Tutu, the human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner who helped end apartheid in segregated South Africa. Now, Makgoba hopes to make his continent a dominant player on the global stage, replacing economic isolation with development and free trade.

The African men up by the altar — a public-affairs man and an investment manager, both short-statured in jackets and ties — didn't look like stereotypical tribesmen from the bush. They hailed from the Royal Bafokeng Nation, a tiny region in the South African countryside that is half the size of Broward County. Its population of 150,000 people speaks mostly Setswana, with English as a second language. The Bafokeng, an indigenous tribal group, are unlike many Africans in that they are financially thriving.

Many African nations have become dependent on foreign aid, which can serve as a set of golden handcuffs for poor countries. When donor countries expect to be paid back in their own, stronger currency, a fluctuation in exchange rates can mean ruinous debts for the poorer country. Tom Cochran, the former World Bank consultant, came prepared with a speech on this problem and on how banks were just starting to learn to lend in a country's local currency.

The Bafokeng, through careful management of funds and several protracted lawsuits, have managed to retain control of their natural resources, whereas other indigenous groups have seen theirs exploited by foreigners. From lucrative mining royalties, they have created a multibillion-dollar sovereign investment fund. The Bafokeng manage all this wealth with a secular, Western attention to the bottom line: Nowhere in their business literature is there a mention of God or divine mandate. They are simply looking after their own worldly fortune.

Their representatives were poker-faced as Beatty got religious.

"Through spiritual economics, we will deprive the locusts of the rich natural resources of Africa," he said, paraphrasing Exodus.

The crowd hushed as the archbishop appeared on two giant video screens on either side of the altar. Surrounded by foliage somewhere on a Cape Town hillside, the kind-faced figure beamed down at the audience, wearing his Anglican shirt and collar.

"In my opinion, Royal Bafokeng Holdings is the most successful group in the world," he said. He introduced "Winds of Change," a new investment plan, and explained that the Bafokeng would serve as a model. He hoped to round up capital not just from black-owned companies but from African-Americans around the world who are looking for a meaningful and lucrative connection to their ancestral home.

The pastor, O'Neal Dozier, had signed on as the project's North American president. Far away from the archibishop and the Bafokeng, he would be the public figurehead representing this bold and vague new initiative, using the power of his words and persuasion to do the archbishop's work. It was an appointment that showed great confidence. "We will launch the initiative on June 19, when I come to the United States," said the archbishop on the screen. "Until then, you are in the good hands of Dr. O'Neal Dozier."

It was, in some ways, an incongruous partnership: the archbishop — an activist and diplomat, who was known for his spirit of inclusion and had even pioneered discussions of welcoming gays into the church (a radical concept in Africa) — partnering with Dozier, who in 27 years of preaching has offended gays, Muslims, whites, and blacks. Although Dozier is disarmingly kind and attentive to his parishioners, his politics are somewhat to the right of the guy who burned the Qur'an.

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Stefan Kamph
Contact: Stefan Kamph