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Detroit's gift to Namibia

Published by Forbes on 1998-10-19

DON H. BARDEN gave a lavish party in June at the swank Roostertail club in Detroit to mark his tenth wedding anniversary. Hundreds of guests -- some of them local pols -- clapped loudly as the 54-year-old car dealer and casino owner slipped a 13-carat diamond ring on the finger of his wife, Bella Marshall-Barden. The well-fed guests chuckled appreciatively when Barden announced he had bought himself a gift, too: a raspberry Bentley.

To soften the image of extravagance, Barden solemnly declared that the party had a deeper significance. It was a demonstration of how a black entrepreneur, a college dropout -- one of 13 children born to working-class parents Milton and Hortense Barden in Detroit -- could overcome the odds in America. And so it seemed. A few weeks after the anniversary bash Barden escorted performer Michael Jackson around Detroit and then announced that they would partner to build a billion-dollar entertainment complex to attract visitors and their money to Barden's home town. To be called Majestic Kingdom, it would include a casino, an 800-room hotel, botanical gardens, nightclubs, restaurants and the Michael Jackson Thriller Theme Park. The park would have a roller coaster with bubble-enclosed cars for wintertime rides. Majestic Kingdom would employ about 6,000 people. Don Barden cuts an expansive figure around Detroit these days.

But halfway around the world from Detroit, in the barren southern African nation of Namibia, opinions on Barden are considerably less favorable. A vast (328,100 square miles) and sparsely populated (1.7 million) land, Namibia is ruled by Sam Nujoma, a onetime socialist revolutionary who became president in 1990. Barden has cultivated Nujoma extensively and escorted him around Detroit in 1995 amid much fanfare. In 1997 Barden landed a $ 30 million contract with the Namibian government. A General Motors dealer, Barden promised to deliver 824 Chevrolet pickup trucks for police and other government use. There were no bids for the project, just Nujoma's command. The first trucks started trickling in this past January, but most sit, unusable, in open lots under the hot sun. They were standard American left-hand drive in a country where traffic travels on the left. Namibia would have to spend an additional $ 15 million to convert the pickups to right-hand drive.

The local cops are unhappy. In a poor country where gasoline costs are high ($ 8.30 per gallon in Namibian dollars, or $ 1.40 in U.S. dollars), the Chevys are not very fuel-efficient, and are sprung for paved highways rather than for the dirt tracks that serve for roads in this country. "These vehicles are big fuel-guzzlers, totally unsuitable for our roads," complains Remy Moens, president of the Namibia Motor Industries Federation. His contention is supported privately by police and government officials, though, understandably, they decline to criticize Nujoma on the record.

No problem, said Barden, who proceeded to win a contract to convert the trucks to right-hand drive. When the conversions are completed, the pickups will have cost this poor country $ 54,000 each.

Meanwhile, Barden International, the company the Detroit entrepreneur has set up in a modern industrial park in Namibia's capital, Windhoek, has been slow to work on the conversions, and the hundreds of promised jobs have yet to materialize. About 31 Namibians have been brought by Barden to the U.S. for training, and that's about it. When a reporter in Windhoek asked Nujoma why Namibia was buying left-handed Chevies from Barden instead of cheaper right-handed ones from GM plants in neighboring South Africa, Nujoma replied, testily: "We want American products, not ones from those whites in South Africa. We don't want to give our money back to white colonials." A curious statement, considering that South Africa has for the last four years had a predominately black government, led by one of the world's great statesmen, Nelson Mandela.

Interviewed in his well-appointed river-view office in Detroit's Renaissance Center, Barden brushed aside questions about this and other deals with the comment that his critics were "hostile to black people controlling their own destiny." It is a phrase that Barden has used frequently whenever his deals have come under fire. He used it when he served as a city councilman in Lorain, Ohio; when he published a weekly newspaper; when he hosted a TV talk show; and when he had interests in radio and cable stations in Illinois, Michigan and Ohio. "You know," he went on, "some people, including a lot of my own people, cannot comprehend that a black man could be successful. It's the age-old mentality growing out of oppression of black people. [They've] got to say that you're dirty, that you're connected to some unsavory this or that."

What about businesspeople in Namibia who openly complain about his pickup truck deal? Barden responded by singling out Harold Pupkewitz, a white Toyota dealer who is the dean of Windhoek's multiracial business community. Barden is bitter about Pupkewitz, whom he accuses of scheming to keep out competition. "We were kicking his butt. The people who are displeased are those who are for the first time facing competition from the Americans."

Pupkewitz responds that the objection of the Motor Industries Federation was "purely on the grounds of the circumvention of the tender board and its procedures." Yes, of course he wanted the deal for Toyota, Pupkewitz says, and claims he would have won it had the bidding been open. "Our objection was purely on the grounds of the unconventional manner in which the business was done. Our government went into [the deal with Barden] without knowing all the intricacies of the motor trade."

Don Barden's business has often benefited from his political connections. An early business coup was in his native Michigan where he won a contract for cable TV in the small community of Inkster. He developed real estate in the depressed Rust Belt town of Lorain, Ohio. Today he owns Gary, Ind.'s Majestic Star riverboat-casino complex, a $ 150 million investment. Right now Barden is trying to get a license for a casino in Detroit. Mayor Dennis Archer turned him down. Barden demanded a referendum, insisting that Archer had treated him unfairly. This prompted the business editor of the Detroit News to write: "It's simply difficult to believe that his [Barden's] personal enrichment would lift an entire race of people any more than Bill Gates' fortune lifts whites."

That didn't stop Barden. In his campaign to win the Detroit casino, he played the race card again by bringing in Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. New York's rabble-rousing politician Al Sharpton also campaigned for him.

Black or white, Detroit's voters didn't buy it. On Aug. 4 they voted 55% to 45% against granting him the license. Too bad they don't have referendums like that in Namibia.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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