Africa is a Country

Soweto Punk Revolution: The Cum in your Face

Someone told me that interviewing a punk band from Soweto–an urban settlement, the country’s largest, created in the 1930s to separate blacks from whites in Johannesburg, South Africa–is a stupid idea. “Black people playing punk? Is it mixed with kwaito or what?” I tried to explain that the ever-mutating punk mind-set is apt for anyone eager to stir things up, anti-establishment, equality and free thought, a revolt against the snobbish bourgeoisie. Hence, a dirty-riffed “fuck you” couldn’t be more fitting in a society, which lets its president get away with building a tax-funded “safety pool” when a quarter of the nation is unemployed.

Hell-bent to challenge this non-believer, I set out for Johannesburg to attend Soweto Rock Revolution–Punk Fuck III. Once arrived, local thrash punk band TCIYF (short for “The Cum in your Face”) made it clear that this has nothing to do with politics at all. It was about having a mad party, and – if one can speak about “the true spirit of punk” – this came pretty close to what one would imagine the DIY-embracing, eccentricity-accepting and obedience-ignoring CBGB’s of the ‘70s to have been like.

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There might have been more sun, smiles and jah at Punk Fuck III than at blood-dripping aggro mosh pits in the colder, northern hemisphere, but the spit-hurling anarchy was commonplace. Attracting skaters, stoners and spiked hair, the music at the event wasn’t always strictly Ramones and Sex Pistols, but the attitude certainly was. R15 (about $1,50) Black Label quarts flowed like they were for free; weed was sold through the speakers; fireworks went off under Dr. Martens; microphones were ripped from the stage; band members left before sets started; guitars were stolen and spray cans were brazenly used to propagate feel-good slogans. On top of that, “the fourth wall” – dividing stage from floor – was constantly broken down, creating a welcome unity of fans and performers.

The togetherness started with Matt Vend, who announced that he would play without the amplifier if we don’t mind, when – in true punk fashion – the sound encountered problems. Sing-walking in-between eager listeners, he played a muted acoustic version until a fellow musician figured out what was wrong and kindly plugged him in again. His set was followed by Amber Light Choices, who set up on the floor completely. When TCIYF played at last, there was no more distinction between crowd and band – neither in alcohol levels nor assigned space.

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Being members of the SSS (Skate Society Soweto), consisting of Thula (guitar), Pule (vocals), Tox (bass), Jazz (drums) and Sthe (special vocal guest) are influenced by rock’n’roll and half-pipes, but growing up there were few local outlets for their interests. They took matters into their own hands though, and organised low-key punk and skate jams in the township. The Soweto Rock Revolution, however, only really picked up after they left their home turf to play Punk Uprising and linked up with LeftOvers bassist and manager, Clint Hattingh. He had the right contacts and was able to convince Johannesburg bands to get their asses to Soweto. A small scene, possibly as diverse as South Africa’s people, was born. Our society seems obsessed with putting people in boxes like sorting socks from underpants or crayons from felt pens, yet Punk Fuck III –attended by South Africans of all backgrounds – proved that the exact opposite exists as well.

TCIYF’s show mirrored what the movement’s purveyors have in common: courage, a thirst for rebellion and a carefree nature. The Soweto punk fuckers are loud, ballsey and unabashed. But most importantly, fun as hell. “Who is drunk?” Pule screams before they rip through their songs, so boozed up that Thula slips off the stage and continues playing while leaning against it. In the meantime, a moshing mob jumps on and off the elevated concrete, surprisingly managing to keep cables and equipment intact. It was punk fuck alright, perhaps best epitomised in the drunken band’s words: “Fuck the answers. Fuck the explanations. Fuck the fear. Fuck everything. Just go ahead and just do it.”

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Similar to the statement above, our interview – which we managed to squeeze into ten minutes as all TCIYF members were extremely busy organising bands, beer and blunts – was accentuated, somewhat naively, by “fucked up”, “fuck this” and “fuck them” in regular rhythms. Short, but to the point, they made it very clear what they were about.

Unlike Johnny Rotten – who TCIYF dig – all band members agree that they simply don’t care about current affairs. Avoiding all media because it “brainwashes you”, they’re adamant not to vote (some band members don’t even have IDs). “It’s not to shock or to take away any meanings. It’s about what we think at that time. It’s about life experiences,” shouts Sthe, when I ask whether the use of Jesus symbolism in their video to “Church Wine” is just as unconcerned. Insisting that “it did happen,” Jazz adds, “We went to church, drank the wine and ate the food.” I wasn’t completely convinced and wondered if they weren’t kicked out. “No, they saw us with skate boards and said ‘Jesus loves you guys.’ None of our songs are lies, all of them are true. Like ‘Touched by a Boner’ is about touching this girl on the train.”

It shouldn’t be a big deal, but given my pre-party experience, why punk music? “We’re from Soweto but kwaito was way too slow for us, hip hop was way too monotonous… so boring! All they do is say nothing. So we just wanted to do something that was powerful,” says Thula after Sthe simply declares, “Because it’s the shit.” In fact, they see no contradiction in where they come from and the music they create. “Punk was London and New York. How fast are those cities? And how fast is Soweto as a township? It’s all according to the fucking lifestyle. If I lived in Kimberley I wouldn’t be in a band playing punk. There would be no need. I’d be farming or something.”

In punk’s early stages in the US and the UK, the raw, amateur sound was a slap in the face to the commercialisation of music. If the genre had a conscience, its liaison with a capitalising industry of dry-sucking big shots would be a sweat-drenched nightmare. So when I want to know what its future holds in South Africa, Sthe says, “Nobody cares about punk here, so I think it’s safe.” It has withstood some attacks though. According to Thula, they had a contract in front of them but sent profit-making packing when they realised the deal was just about numbers on a bank account. “We were like, ‘You don’t care about punk, you care about the money. That’s why My Chemical Romance is fucked. Even Lamb of God is fucked. Big bands are fucked. Metallica are fucked a long time ago. Everyone is just getting fucked because they are taking the money and forgetting what they are doing.”

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Their bling bling-condoning mind-sets fit “the requisites” of the initial movement, which – of course – isn’t new to the African continent. Late ‘70s SA bands like National Wake, Wild Youth and The Gay Marines probably had more balls than the roughest safety-pins-and-mohawk sporting squatters in Europe. And yet – although they deserved all the recognition possible – their bold, politically-charged tunes remained largely underground until Punk in Africa dug them up in 2012. In a sad way, this is somewhat positive. Like feminism bought into smoking, subcultures get scooped up by corporate brands, only to get trivialised, lose meaning and become dishonest. Maybe South African punk’s previously clandestine and currently marginalised nature is exactly what makes it so real.

What’s certain though is that while TCIYF whip out killer riffs, master crude, in-your-face lyrics and are probably the most humble act to see live, they really don’t give a fuck. Even their album, Buddha’s Cum, due December 2014, is recorded by phone. “No overdubs, pedals, mixing and mastering” and it will be given away for free. In a time of sell-outs like Green Day where hypocrisy is a trend and clubs like The Rat turn into “classy” hotels, the priggery-defying anarchy, fearless indulgence and shameless DIY are what make the Soweto Rock Revolution parties spectacular. But what’s more, while The Sex Pistols sacked Glen Matlock because he was into The Beatles, the Soweto scene is definitely less – Johnny don’t hate me! –“exclusive”. I came home with a variety of band stickers and a satisfaction that there are still musicians who hold on to no-profit principles to simply have a blast. And finally – in the cum-fuelled words of TCIYF –“part your lips” because township punk is alive and spitting.

* Image Credits: Christine Hogg.

Weekend Special

This was the week …

* We launched Latin America is a Country. (Had to get the PR out of the way first).

* It turns out African NGOs receive only 4% of the $3 billion of Gates Foundation money earmarked to end hunger–the rest is spent in rich countries.

* Kim Kardasian broke our Facebook account.

* We remembered the murder of Ken Saro Wiwa (sentenced to death on November 10, 1995 by Nigeria’s military junta for questioning oil profits and government corruption) and learned–surprise, surprise–from Royal Dutch Shell that a 2008 Oil spills in Bodo, Nigeria were larger than initially anticipated. Shell used to say the spill was about 4,144 barrels. They did not say how much bigger they think the spill is now. The people of Bodo, who is suing Shell in a case about to return to court, say its the equivalent of 60,000 barrels of oil. We were of course shocked by this news.

* Chinua Achebe, who passed away in March last year, would have been 84 today.

* Cape Town, South Africa is not just the capital of Mandela Ray Ban “sculptures” (and no, it’s not okay that the “artist” got permission from Mandela’s foundation) and anti-black racism. Like this. Sisonke Msimang provides some context here (on Daily Maverick) and here (on A.I.A.C.) and so did T.O. Molefe over on News24 here.

* A contestant in a Colombian beauty pageant was asked “Who is Nelson Mandela?” Her answer: “The founder of the beauty pageant.”

* While other entertainers make a mess about Ebola–Chris Brown (he is now a scientist) or Tori Spelling–rapper T.I. (who sadly also introduced the world to Iggy Azalea) shames CNN and Fox’s coverage of Ebola:

* Basketball player Serge Ibaka (whose Facebook page we love) posted this:

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Post by Serge Ibaka.

* There’s this for the South Africans:

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Post by Louise Støchkel Vagtborg Mathiasen.

* Oh, and here’s 5 reading recommendations:

Le Corbusier’s Visions for Fascist Addis Ababa (by Rixt Woudstra)

PROJECT DIASPORA: HISTORICAL SELF PORTRAITS BY OMAR DIOP (by African Digital Art)

Clickbait and stereotypes: Media coverage of the DR Congo (by Virgil Hawkins)

Nanook and Me (by Louis Menand)

Nigga? Please (by Talib Kweli)

* Who still watches Saturday Night Live, except the next day on the Internets? That’s where you see that delicious spoof of those fundraising videos and Kendrick Lamar’s live performance of this video:

* Finally, there were a lot a of music this week, but these two music videos by Somi and M.anifest definitely set a standard about what we expect from African artists. Step your game up, the rest of you:

** Weekend Special is basically highlights of the stuff we shared via social media, i.e. Twitter and Facebook. (We know some of you don’t use those media, so we’re being nice and useful at the same time.) We fell off but feel it’s the right time to bring it back. Look out for it on Sunday.

The Limits of Alternative Africas

Hard on the heels of an anti-climactic election season in the US punctuated by myopic views of the world and cataclysmic what-ifs, the resurgence of Nikolaj Cyon’s counterfactual map of Africa circulating on the web last week was a welcome relief from realpolitik run amok.

Cyon, a Swedish artist and self-proclaimed revolutionary, asks us to think back to the fourteenth century and imagine the ravages of the Black Death to have been worse than they were, a demographic catastrophe so severe that Europe’s recovery was insufficient to restore vibrant economic life, let alone generate the impetus for maritime adventures. To follow Cyon’s logic: a diminished Europe would not have produced colonial powers. How then might Africa’s history have unfolded?

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I’ll admit, my first reaction to the map was more puzzled than entranced. Some of the units Cyon depicts are familiar language communities, some are historical kingdoms, others represent economic or trading relationships, while a fourth category extrapolates wildly different outcomes from historical kernels (why the fanciful Al-Magrib instead of the imagined growth of an actual Moroccan kingdom such as the Almoravid or the Sa’dian, for example?) But seeing this only as miscued scholarship limits our perspective.

As art, the map is more inviting. I don’t worry that Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon don’t really look like women. If I don’t worry about a historian’s obsession with accuracy, what can I take away from Cyon’s evocation of a Europe-free African history? The greater presence of Arabic names and Muslim-influenced political structures makes sense, as does the diversity of political forms. But would the Swahili city-states have consolidated into a single polity? Would Merina or Dahomey have been large kingdoms without the slave trade? Questions, rather than criticisms, come through and I am reminded of issues I always want my students to grapple with: today’s geopolitics were not inevitable; contingency matters in the study of history.

But there are other, difficult realizations that Cyon’s upside down Mercator projection, colored with a palette surely intended as reminiscent of historical, colonial maps, cannot banish. Our reality conditions—and limits—the alternative worlds we imagine. Even the best science fiction has to connect to elements of lived experience (Frank Jacobs at Think Big explicitly connects Cyon’s project to Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt.) Eurocentric presumptions, and ideas deeply rooted in the production of western knowledge are part of the inescapable reality of both Cyon and his audience.

Debating whether or not Bujumbura would have been a capital without European intervention misses the mark. Eurocentrism runs much deeper. This project, although it depicts a markedly altered political landscape, sits comfortably within the norms of western geospatial understanding. Like Martin Lewis and Kären Wigen’s Myth of Continents, Cyon’s map productively disrupts conventional spatial representation. Cyon’s counterfactual vision reminds us that naming conventions—Africa, the Atlantic Ocean—are constructions and not inherent in the place. The map also shows that colonization and its aftermath were not inevitable, but it doesn’t imagine an alternative to bounded sovereign territories. Even without the Westphalian state system translocated through imperial adventure, we’re still looking at a map of contiguous states.

Given what we know about African state formation and territoriality, why presume a map that is completely filled in with claimed land? Both IMartin Lewis and Kären Wigen have painted pictures of African pasts with fluid boundaries and plenty of interstitial spaces. Granted, the Atlantic slave trade and colonization directly account for Africa’s “under-population” relative to terrain and compared to other regions, but imagining an alternative future free of those legacies might speculate about a political-economic order that did not allocate every square meter of space to an administrative unit.

Even more imaginatively, how might we visually represent polities constituted by people rather than territory? Since people, even farmers, are not permanently rooted in the ground, our mapping project begins to look very different. Both Tongchai Winichaikul and J.B. Harley reveal the pervasive cultural frameworks embedded in visual representations of space, politics, and human relationships—representations that we call maps. This visual register bounds the possibilities of communication as much as our linguistic limitations do. Cyon’s Alt-Africa map is arresting and provocative, but it can only go so far.

I can’t think or talk about Africa except through the veil of a specifically western epistemology. It’s not just that the languages in which I can converse are Indo-European. Improving my grasp of isiXhosa won’t get around the other stumbling blocks in my head, a set of assumptions about the way the world is ordered, and knowledge produced. I can’t just set that aside without unraveling the rest of the stuff in my brain.

Like everyone, I walk around with a set of cultural presumptions inherited from the community in which I was raised. A liberal arts education simultaneously helped me develop tools with which to perceive hidden transcripts and implicit power structures while also disciplining other presumptions firmly into place. I can suspend—at least for a little while—my reluctance to think about language groups, kingdoms, and trading networks as equivalent geographical spaces. I might disagree with some of Cyon’s presumptions about how a Europe-free history of Africa would have played out, but the fact that we can debate those presumptions, or together read the map he produced and come to different conclusions speaks directly to the western epistemology we share—and can’t shake. I want to push Cyon to check more of his Eurocentrism at the door, but as long as we’re both talking about Africa as a place he and I might reimagine, it’s clear that legacies of dominance rooted in histories of conquest persist.

5 Questions for a Filmmaker … Jihan El-Tahri

Legendary documentarian Jihan El-Tahri started her career as a journalist, working as a news agency correspondent and TV researcher covering Middle East politics before starting to direct and produce documentaries for French TV, the BBC, PBS and other international broadcasters. She has since directed more than a dozen films including the Emmy nominated The House of Saud, The Price of Aid, which won the European Media prize in 2004 and Cuba: An African Odyssey. Her most recent feature documentary Behind the Rainbow, which examines the transitional process in South Africa, has won various prizes since its release in 2009. She is currently finalizing a three-hour documentary provisionally titled Egypt’s Modern Pharaohs. As if this wasn’t enough, El-Tahri has also written two books, The 9 Lives of Yasser Arafat and Israel and the Arabs: the 50 Years War and is engaged in various associations and institutions working with African cinema.

What is your first film memory?

I actually remember watching Shadi Abdel Salam’s The Mummy at a hotel screening in London when my family moved there. I was around 5 and I knew I was Egyptian and the mummy terrified me but got me very curious. I remember the lighting of the film until today. It made these ancient stories so real and timeless.

Why did you decide to become a filmmaker?

I started off as a journalist because I truly believed that journalism is the first draft of history and if done properly it could actually change the world. Young and idealistic I thought I could change the world single handedly … Alas, the Gulf war of 1990 was a rough wakeup call. It is then that I realized that I needed to reassess many things, including my own identity and what stories were important for me to engage in. I finally realized that I could only tell one story at a time if I wanted to do it properly. Documentary was the obvious choice. I made numerous “observational” films but that still was not satisfying. Then one day I was hired to work with a company in the UK and they gave me their last film series to watch: Death of Yugoslavia. A 7-hour series that I stayed up all night watching. There and then I decided that that was the kind of documentary filmmaking I wanted to pursue.

Which film do you wish you had made and why?

Answer 1

In 1992 I wrote an extensive treatment for a film based on a topic I had been researching for a full year. The film was titled Allah’s Holy Warriors. It was about the brand new phenomenon of Islamic warriors returning from Afghanistan under the leadership of a then unknown commander called Osama Bin Laden. They had offices at Finsbry Park in London and I had spent weeks convincing them to allow me to film. They finally gave me the OK, I did go film a short sequence while they where in Sudan. They were due to leave and return to Afghanistan and I obtained the OK to actually film the move and spend time filming in their camps. I tried selling this idea to any TV channel but nobody was interested in an unknown Islamic fighter and his ragtag troops.

Without the backing of a channel it felt too complicated and decided to wait and do this story later …. Mistake!!

Why I think I should have done this film? It’s is not because of the high profile the story would have had later, My regret is mainly because it was a time when this totally inaccessible and incomprehensible group were willing to talk and explain their grievances, who they are and why their fervent beliefs are unshakable. I always feel that maybe if I had done that story, it would have allowed me – let alone others – to understand that whole Islamic “terrorism” phenomenon that has altered the face of my continent and the world actually.

Answer 2:

I hesitate between Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation – for the way she managed to isolate a very specific and unusual sentiment of alienation as well as using the city as her main character – and

Alex Gibney’s documentary Taxi to the Dark Side.  I am in total awe of how he managed to  – coherently and uninterruptedly – turn the murder investigation of a simple unknown taxi driver in Afghanistan into a worldwide interrogation of a political system.  The film is thorough, informative and scary. It is perfect proof that a film can uncover and contest a superpower efficiently and dramatically.

Name one of the films on your top-5 list and the reason why it is there.

Newton Aduaka’s film Rage

The film tackles multiple sensitive and personally touching issues with a force and a sensitivity that I find mind blowing. It is about being of mixed race, the case of my children and many of my friends. This space of not knowing where you belong… It is about negotiating this space as an outsider. Being a bit of a nomad I so understood and identified with the main characters’ clumsy attempts to fit in and his rage when realizing that he never will. Tackling this film through music and youth urban culture made the film universal, informative as well as extremely sensitive and compassionate.

Ask yourself any question you think I should have asked and answer it.

I guess I will add the question that I always ask myself: Is it worth it? Meaning is making a film with all the pain, the heartache and the minimal returns it entails worth it?

When I am frustrated about spending 3 to 4 years of my life chiselling away at what seems to be a mountain, my answer is usually: No! But once the film survives the first year and continues to make sense, I believe that there is nothing more precious than telling a story that can talk to others and allows your voice as a person to exist. Now old and much less idealistic, I still believe that this single drop in the ocean does make a difference, if only in a single other person’s life.

* The ‘5 Questions for a Filmmaker …’ series is archived here. Image Credit: Antoine Tempé

Mexico’s Deadly Virus

The United States lives in a state of constant fear. Currently, Ebola is to blame. The U.S. fears (but maybe also hopes) to be part of a world that is, to some American minds, every day likelier to live a pandemic outbreak like the one in The Walking Dead. But they are afraid to get infected without even realizing they have already caught something: indifference towards death.

It is an indifference that already “infected” the Mexican people and that has rapidly propagated throughout the world, even if few have mentioned it. Until last October 27th, around 13,000 cases of Ebola had been reported and 4,920 people had died of the virus worldwide, creating global outrage. Meanwhile, in Mexico, 57,899 homicide cases were reported ( (link Zeta) between December 1st,  2012, and July 31st, 2014. And there was barely any international news about them.

This doesn’t mean that some deaths should be more concerning than others. Ebola has highlighted again the dismal conditions that certain parts of Africa deal with, but also how the world is vulnerable to a distant pandemic. But, for years, those 60,000 deaths in Mexico did not highlight anything.

It seems these people died in the wrong place. Had they died, instead of Iguala, Ciudad Juárez, San Fernando, Ecatepec, Tetlaya, Aguas Blancas, Acteal, etc., in, München, Lyon, or Oslo, what would have happened?

These deaths seemed to not matter, to not make any kind of impact. Mexico has deteriorated to the point that, when a mass grave with 28 bodies was found, but they didn’t correspond to the missing people the authorities were looking for… it was reported as good news.

Nonetheless, the unfortunate disappearance of 43 students (I refuse to think they are dead) in Ayotzinapa and the murder of six of them by the municipal police of Iguala, in the state of Guerrero (acting, allegedly, under government’s orders), managed to shake the indifference of Mexico’s lethargic society. However, we Mexicans are still far from reaching our goals, basically because we are not sure what they really are. We are fighting different fronts and enemies as citizens.

I saw the press conference that Jesús Murillo Karam, Mexico’s General Attorney, gave last Friday and I could only think about all the victims. When I listened to the confessions from the Guerreros Unidos members, I thought the killers were also victims here.

They are also victims of the indifference; of the cynicism, arrogance, and ineptitude displayed by Murillo Karam during the press conference; of the sumptuousness of president Enrique Peña Nieto. “EPN”, as he is known, owns a seven million dollars house and his indolence showed when he took a trip to China and Australia amid the social and political crisis that Mexico is experiencing (he didn‘t even set a foot in Iguala, where it all happened).

All of them are victims of all the impunity that protects the whole political class in Mexico. The killers, just as the students, are also victims of a political system that has turned all of us into mere objects, devoid of our humanity. While describing how they tossed the bodies into a dump where they later burned them, one of the Guerreros Unidos members said: “One of us grabbed them by the hands and another one grabbed their hind legs. We swung them and then the bodies rolled into the bottom”.

Many Mexicans have organized massive protests, both in Mexico and abroad, trying to call the attention of international media and foreign countries, in order to pressure, politically and diplomatically, those in power in Mexico. Fortunately this is happening and they are turning their eyes towards what is going on in Mexico. They also have managed to pressure Mexican government to start finding real answers to questions that it hadn‘t answered until now. But it hasn‘t been enough. We have to spread a new disease, one that raises consciousness around the world about what happens in Mexico.

What the country needs in order to start seeing results is a complete transformation. That transformation begins with the spreading of information and the abandonment of an indifference state. We are seeing this happening and these are good news. Mexican people cannot get tired at this point. We must continue our struggle against this gigantic hydra that, “allegedly” is the one getting tired.

Mexico is looking for a helping hand. With the aid of non-violent arms we believe we deserve to get out if this huge mass grave that the country has become. Help and solace are wanted. This is why we have been taking the streets: to inform people of what is going on. We want to tell this story, and show the world that this indifference is scarier than a virus. If we manage to build awareness all over the world about what is happening in Mexico, somehow, I want to think, another step towards transformation will be taken. This is why we all must be Ayotzinapa. And in the end, we are all Ayotzinapa.

When Prince Charles went to Colombia

The official visit to Colombia by Britain’s Prince Charles, and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, left us with many picturesque moments, but two seemingly unrelated events stand out.

The first one took place on October 30th at the Centre for Peace, Memory, and Reconciliation in Bogotá, where the couple attended an event in honor of the victims of the armed conflict in Colombia. At the end of the ceremony, Prince Charles announced his religious, moral, and political support to the peace talks that the Government of President Juan Manuel Santos has been holding with the main guerrilla group in the country, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Havana, Cuba.

The Prince also supported the official meetings that several groups of victims have been having with Government and FARC’s representatives in Cuba, a crucial part of the peace talks’ agenda that has sparked controversy among the right wing and conservative circles in the country.

His Royal Highness invoked his own experience that day: he narrated how his uncle, Lord Mountbatten, was killed by the IRA thirty years ago in Northern Ireland. “So,” he remarked, “I feel I do understand something of the bewildering and soul-destroying anguish that so many of you have had to endure.” Prince Charles has stated elsewhere the importance of finding a different answer to these instances of violence and searching for a more positive way to react to them other than vengefulness. “As one who has himself experienced the intense despair caused by the consequences of violence,” he concluded in Bogotá “it is my fervent hope that Colombians might find the strength to continue cultivating a commitment to peace and reconciliation in their own hearts.”

The second event was much more publicized in national and international media: on November 2nd,  the last day of the visit, Prince Charles and Mayor Dionisio Vélez unveiled in Cartagena a plaque dedicated to the memory of “the courage and suffering of all those who died in battle trying to take the city and Fort San Felipe under the command of Admiral Edward Vernon at Cartagena de Indias in 1741.” Cartagena, which was under Spanish rule at the time, was besieged for two months by Vernon’s troops amounting to almost 30,000 men and a flotilla of 186 ships.

Vernon himself had defeated the Spaniards two years before at Portobello, modern Panamá, with only six ships, and his forces pillaged and destroyed the settlement. Against all odds, Spanish Admiral Blas de Lezo, with men numbering ten times less than the British forces, resisted the attack to Cartagena and was able to push back Vernon’s siege, in a battle that would become the Spanish Admiral’s last glorious victory.

The plaque was met with general outrage in the country. It was a memorial to these same invaders who, in the event of their victory, would have destroyed the city of Cartagena, and raped and killed its inhabitants, like they had done elsewhere before. Citizens and public figures condemned the ostensible contradiction of a city which honors those who wanted to assault, pillage and destroy it. It was yet another example of the colonized mind-set of the country’s authorities who would go as far as reverencing plunder just to please His and Her Royal Majesties.

It was indeed appalling to see the servile and submissive attitude with which Colombian officials treated the heir to the throne and his wife. And it was disturbing to witness the artificial displaying of Black and Indian traditions with no mention whatsoever of the fact that African and Indigenous descendants are the most neglected groups of people in Colombia.

But it was noteworthy that those angry at the plaque failed to denounce the same acts of pillage, plundering, rape and murder committed by those who founded and governed the city. Most of its critics seemed to have forgotten that Cartagena was a major slave port from where the treasures of the region were transported to Europe and where African people were brought and sold as merchandise.

And yet, it is not this servile, colonized attitude what I find the most problematic about Charles’ visit, but rather the point of intersection between the two events I have described: the attitude of a royal figure, the Heir to The British Throne, who in the same visit managed to honor the lives of British colonists and assailants, and identify himself with the victims of the armed conflict in Colombia.

Prince Charles used his own experience of forgiveness to defend processes of peace and reconciliation, and this is a praiseworthy initiative. It is also praiseworthy that he himself had defended the peace process with the IRA in spite (or perhaps precisely because) of his uncle’s death. What I find unacceptable is the comparison of his experience with that of those victims present at the meeting, not only because it is a completely different political scenario, but also because the Colombian conflict has some of its roots precisely in a vision of history of exclusion, segregation, and the silencing of the claims that the victims of the privilege class try to voice. It is a vision of history that the British Monarchy has embodied (and still does), and that is represented in a ridiculous way by Prince Charles’ gesture in Cartagena.

It is because Prince Charles is incapable of understanding the absurdity of traveling to a country that has been colonized by European invaders and commemorate those same actions of murdering and plundering that the very own British Monarchy carried out throughout the world, that he is unable to see why his comparison with the victims of Colombian internal conflict misses the mark so widely, and why his support to the process is flawed from the beginning.

Among those present at the Centre for Peace, Memory, and Reconciliation in Bogotá were Gloria Luz Gómez Cortés, the head of the Association of Relatives of Detainees-Disappeared Persons (ASFADDES), and Yanette Bautista, the sister of Nydia Erika Bautista, detained, raped, and disappeared by the militaries in 1987. These two women, who still suffer today directly from the persecution by the Colombian state and its armed forces and paramilitary allies, have for 30 years led the fight for the rights of relatives of disappeared persons to know the truth and seek justice against these same forces.

Prince Charles cannot say, as he said to the victims in Bogotá, that he understands the “bewildering and soul-destroying anguish that so many of you have had to endure.” In the same gesture of unveiling the controversial plaque in Cartagena (even if it probably was not his idea, but another of the servile displays of Colombian ruling class) Charles shows that his visit to Colombia is still framed by the colonialism that the Monarchy has meant for the world for centuries. The plaque (first destroyed by an angry citizen, and then officially removed) is no longer there, but the act and his words remain untouched.

Music Revue, No.4: Moni

I remember being awe-struck by a picture I saw in on the Sunday papers somewhere around 2005. The members looked militant in their shades and flowing locks. There was a sense of urgency in the female lead’s look which stuck with me: black shades, black beret, all-black everything! They reminded me of Peter Tosh and the Dashiki Poets at once, with a hint of the Black Panthers Party to smother the masses. They were Kwani Experience, a band which had been bubbling in Johannesburg’s underground music circuit for a hot minute before being picked upon by a record label, releasing two albums, and somewhat disbanding.

Somewhat, because Kwani’s gone through many phases.

While some members have gone on to pursue other interests, there’s still a core connection which bleeds through different their various musical pursuits, be it on vocalist/percussionst Bafana Nhlapho’s two-step cross-continental wails, or multi-instrumentalist Mahlatse Riba’s explorations into the deeper elements of roots sound as one half of the house music project Sai & Ribatone.

Kwelagobe Sekele, Kwani’s emcee who now performs as the P.O. Box Project, has recently released his Maru EP which he refers to as a “digital Kwani sound” in a Mail & Guardian feature tracing the trajectory of the black band over the past decade.

Maru is the culmination of over six years’ worth of stop-and-start recordings, all the while sharpening that very concept. The initial sessions were with Ribatone, but P.O.’s focus shifted onto other projects.

Work continued in 2012, the same year he shot this video for “Moni” which was c0-directed with Justin McGee. Maru is available to stream on bandcamp. I got in touch and asked him to explain the album title’s meaning. This is what he had to say:

“The silver lining. Because clouds are ALWAYS there, even when you don’t notice them, even when they come and go. That’s my presence in this industry, during this 3-year Kwani Experience hiatus. The title is also an indirect homage to Bessie Head who wrote a book by the same title. This is my little 7 chapter book.

*You can purchase Maru on iTunes

54 Kingdoms: Apparel ‘with a Pan-Africanist sensibility’

As it stands the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) may not take place as advertised next January in Morocco anymore (UPDATE: Equatorial Guinea’s ruling family and its long list of naturalized footballers has stepped in as hosts). One thing we know for sure is there will be cool gear. This summer, while watching the World Cup around the city (in 3 of the 5 boroughs), we kept running into Kwaku A. Awuah (co-owner and President) and Nana Poku (CEO) of 54 Kingdoms, an apparel and accessory company with, in their words, a pan-Africanist sensibility. They were on their hustle, selling their Score for Unity (SFU) range, a series of 3 shirts in the colors of the African countries participating in Brazil 2014. Since then, as their Facebook and Twitter pages show,their business keep growing, including the new University of Afrika (UoA) sweater and henley range.  Long after the World Cup was over, we sent them some questions. Below is the email conversation.

Can you say something about your backgrounds? How did you meet? You have a background in fashion?

We were both born in Ghana, West Africa. Nana is from the Ashanti region, and Kwaku has ties to the Ashanti and Central region. We relocated to the U.S in 1997 (Nana) and 2001 (Kwaku), respectively. We lived only a few miles from each other in Accra, Ghana, but it took us almost ten years to meet through a mutual friend, who made the introduction back in 2007.

54 Kingdoms’ roots can be traced back to 2006, when Nana developed the concept in the fall semester of his senior year at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU). “What if there was a clothing line that integrated designs and concepts from the African Diaspora to tell the Pan-African story?,” he wondered. This idea of using the Diaspora as a source of inspiration for designing Pan-African inspired fashion helped in developing the company’s name, 54 Kingdoms. The number ‘54’ symbolized the total number of countries in Africa, and the word ‘Kingdoms,’ signifies that each and every African country is a part of a larger kingdom spanning overseas to include the African Diaspora.

Although, we both didn’t go to a fashion school, it was the desire to create a conscious movement through fashion that led to the official registration and launching of 54 Kingdoms as a company in 2009. The rest as they say, is history.

Can you break down the company slogan, “It’s a Kulture, not a Brand”?

Our slogan signifies the embodiment of the 54 Kingdoms movement. While most companies or individuals focus on building a brand, we sincerely believe in cultivating a lifestyle movement. A lifestyle, that acknowledges the core Pan-African creativity in everything we do.

As we always say, “fashion shouldn’t be just about aesthetics; it should be the thread that interweaves our culture and identity, into the fabric of life that displays the pattern of our pride and self-expression.” We pride ourselves in creating pieces that have educational expressions and can create conversations.

Kwame Nkrumah spoke of a “United States of Africa.” You have decided on “54 Kingdoms”? I know it is symbolism, but monarchies don’t have the best reputation on the African continent.

As students and strong advocates for the Pan-African movement, we honor the ideologies and teachings of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah; one of the most celebrated torchbearers of Pan-Africanism and African liberation struggles.

Even Europe speaks of “continental unity,” although it has fought more wars than any other continent. For us, the question still remains, why can’t Africa speak of and pursue continental unity? The vision for a United States of Africa ignited by Nkrumah should not be mistaken for monarchical exploitation, and must be clearly understood. Nkrumah made Ghana the base for every movement that fought against colonialism, but he also knew that a strong Ghana didn’t necessarily mean a stronger Africa. Hence, at Ghana’s independence celebration on March 6, 1957, Nkrumah said, “Ghana’s independence is meaningless, unless it’s linked to the total liberation of Africa.” After all, what is the point of Ghana’s independence if the remaining African countries were still colonized? It was all about putting the continent first.

These are the same principles that govern our work here at 54 Kingdoms. We are both Ghanaians, and could have focused on telling Ghanaian stories through fashion. Instead, we are learning from diverse cultures and sharing different stories from the Diaspora. Not only is 54 Kingdoms providing education through fashion, but also connecting and bringing people together. We see this emotional and unified connection at our annual Storytellers in Fashion showcase; we always knew fashion could be much more than what people have been conditioned to accept it to be.

Talk about creative process for the Score For Unity (SFU) collection?

The creative process for our SFU collection was thought provoking and emotional, but overall, an amazing experience. It involved so many unique elements such as the designs on the apparel, the packaging, and official theme song Team Africa, recorded by Congolese-born singer, Rafiya.

We went into creative mode knowing this would be a challenging project, because it placed emphasis on African Unity – a not so popular topic for most Africans (believe it or not). We believed that creating the SFU collection would start a conversation about African Unity, and it proved us right; we ignited a #TeamAfrica movement through this collection.

Some may class you as Afropolitans. What do you think of the idea of the “Afropolitan” which has its own critics and supporters?

The idea of the “Afropolitan” is not new, but may be a more popular term used to describe today’s generation of Africans and people of African descent with a very global outlook.

As we often say, “you can’t see the picture when you are in the frame.” When Africans migrate to other places, we pick up new ideologies and different perspective on things (economics, politics, problem-solving, etc). It doesn’t make us less African, and it sure doesn’t make us better than our brothers and sisters on the continent. Through knowledge sharing, both Africans on the continent and “Afropolitans” can contribute effectively to Africa’s development.

You are Ghanaians of course. How did you make sense of the Ghanaian team’s meltdown during the World Cup? Who comes off the worse in this process? Who are the real culprits?

It is hard to defend the Black Stars’ meltdown in Brazil. There is no excuse; they let the entire continent down. Although, the embarrassment exposed the on-going corruption among top executives from the Ghana Football Association (GFA), the players looked worse in the process.

The top culprit is the GFA; they’re corruption principal, followed by poor leadership and coaching IQ exhibited by our then coach, Akwasi Appiah. We love the idea of African countries hiring African coaches, but each candidate should be examined carefully, and must go through essential trainings to acquire the necessary coaching skills needed to compete on the highest level and most importantly, win.

Finally, since I ran into you at a few places, especially Africa-specific restaurants in Brooklyn during the World Cup, from your experience where is the best place to watch either the African Nations Cup or, now, the World Cup, in the greater New York City area?

Madiba Restaurant (Brooklyn), Buka (Brooklyn), Suite 36 (Manhattan), Mataheko (Queens), Accra Restaurant (Bronx), Les Ambassades (Harlem) and Farafina (Harlem).

* More information: site, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Image Credits: 54 Kingdoms.

 

Bienvenidos a Latin America is a Country

Latin America is a Country is a website against the popular idea that everything south of Texas is a huge country called Mexico where everyone eats tacos. The title is ironic, clearly. Mexico is a country, as are Puerto Rico, Ecuador or Argentina. But Latin America is not.

This is an invitation to re-think what Latin America is all about. Is Cuba part of the Caribbean or part of Latin America? Is the Caribbean–from Jamaica to Haiti, to Grenada–part of Latin America? What about Guyana or Suriname? Are all Latinos in the U.S. or Europe part of Latin America? How should Latin America be defined? How has it been defined?

Latin America is a Country is the new member of the Africa is a Country family. This is a space for all of the people tired of the same tropes about Latin America, for those who are tired of being pictured as the continent of drug gangs (we prefer to talk about the U.S. war on drugs) or authoritarian caudillos (some of them, financed by colonial powers). It’s not about Shakira, not about tequila, not about Macchu Pichu as a cool touristy destination.

This is an invitation to open a dialogue from different cultural and political perspectives about that popular concept called “Latin America”.

Pablo Medina and Camila Osorio are two Colombian journalists editing this newborn project. They are both currently studying in New York, a city that was one described as part of the Caribbean by the former novelist Gabriel García Márquez. So if you want to pitch an opinion piece to the website, or a reported story, or just send some ideas for Latin America is a Country, you can email them at latinamericaisacountry@gmail.com.

* Also follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Digital Archive No. 3 – Nelson Mandela Digital Archive Project

This week’s Digital Archive is inspired by Duane Jethro’s recent post on the Mandela Ray Ban Statue in Cape Town, in which he refers to this new art installation as “vandalism of Nelson Mandela’s legacy.”  This is just the most recent in a string of excellent pieces which have forced a rethinking of the construction of Madiba’s legacy.  Take, for example, Benjamin Fogel’s 2013 piece for The Jacobin, in which he points to the existence of “two Mandelas”: one, “the revolutionary, the lawyer, the politician, flaws and all,” and the second, a “sanitized myth: the father of the nation, the global icon beloved by everyone from the purveyors of global humanitarian platitudes to even the erstwhile enemies of the African National Congress.”  The latter Mandela, Fogel argued, “is removed of his humanity and touted as an abstract signifier of moral righteousness.”

The challenge for scholars, then, comes in finding ways to deconstruct the legacy from reality (whatever that really means).  One institution which has endeavored to aid in deconstructing Madiba’s legacy is the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory.  Founded in 2004, in correlation with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, this organization aimed to “create a public facility to deliver to the world an integrated and dynamic information resource on his life and times, and promote the finding of sustainable solutions to critical social issues, through memory based dialogue interventions.”  These aims were furthered in 2011 when the Centre of Memory partnered with the Google Cultural Institute to launch a digital archive.

centre

Arranged along a series of chronological snippets of Madiba’s life, each virtual exhibits presents rich textual descriptions of certain episodes in Mandela’s life, enriched by primary sources, including textual and multimedia sources, that correlate with those chronological spans.  Though the site is, without a doubt, incomplete, with large gaps in content for Madiba’s early involvement with politics to his imprisonment, it is an easily navigable and digestable interface.  The design is coherent through each of the various sections, allowing the primary sources to be highlighted, providing relevant content while also leaving room for the audience to explore the site more fully through the somewhat hidden digital archive.

source

The striking thing about the Mandela Centre of Memory is the rich digital archive that it is built on, featuring many historical documents and media that have not yet been incorporated into the storytelling component of the site.  In particular, the never-before-published draft of Long Walk to Freedom is available through the archive, providing an inside look into how Mandela (and his co-writer Richard Stengel) viewed himself, especially during his presidential term which, as Fogel suggested, “is glossed over as some sort of miracle period in which he was able to unite black and white; his own political successes and failures in his one and only term go unexamined.”  Similarly, the inclusion of a number of Mandela’s journals from his time in prison, some of which have been previously published in Conversations with Myself or A Prisoner in the Garden, helps to get to the core of not only what life was like for Madiba in these trying times, but also, in a way, how he viewed himself.

Getting to the sources, without having to go to the physical site, allows for deeper engagement with the “real” Mandela (or Mandelas, as may be more appropriate); a much needed intervention, if we are to understand the true vandalism of public uses of Mandela like the Ray Ban sculpture.

**This post derives a longer post on my personal blog, published in January 2014, for a course at MSU entitled “South African History in a Digital Age,” taught by Peter Alegi.**

#MyDressMyChoice

On Monday, in Nairobi, a woman walking past a taxi rank was, first, catcalled and, then, attacked and stripped. A passerby videotaped the event, posted it to jambonewspot, and then it went, if not viral, spiral. The men called the woman “Jezebel” and accused her of “tempting” them. For the crime of temptation, she was beaten.

Kenyans have roundly condemned the action. Two twitter campaigns have emerged, the larger #MyDressMyChoice and its sister #StripMeNot. The Kilimani Mums leapt into action, and have organized a protest in Uhuru Park, next Monday, November 17. Here’s their message:

“On November 7th, 2014, a woman was stripped by touts at Embassava Bus terminal.

“This morning we as Kilimani Mums met and decided that we shall hold a peaceful procession to Accra Road on Monday 17th November at 10am. We shall go and deliver a message to the touts who stripped our sister that it is wrong and a woman has a right to dress the way she wants.

“We urge you and your daughters to join and support us. We will meet on Monday at 10am at Uhuru Park and march peacefully to Embassava. This is our chance to stand together as women and deliver a message to our country that sexual violence will not be tolerated.

“All our welcome to this walk- support your sisters, daughters, mothers and wives. join us Monday at 10am!”

From individual women and men to women’s organizations to matatu owners to Deputy Inspector General of Police Grace Kaindi, people have expressed outrage and a determination to do something.

At the beginning of this year, women in Uganda launched the #SavetheMiniSkirt, in response to threats by the national government to criminalize women’s attire. Last year, women of Namibia responded to a similar `national’ urge. The year before that, the spark was a video of an assault on teenage girls wearing miniskirts, at the Noord taxi rank in Johannesburg.

This is not an “African” phenomenon. In 2012, for example, India, Kyrgyzstan, Indonesia, South Korea, Mexico, Nepal, France, and the United States engaged in State policing of women’s fashion. For example, in New York, transgender women, and especially transgender women of color, were routinely stopped, in so-called stop-and-frisk operations. Their crime? Crossdressing.

In the Netherlands, it’s the blackface season. Everywhere else, it’s business as usual, which means, from State policy to mutatu bus stops and taxi ranks to university and grade schools campuses, a war on women’s bodies, autonomy, and integrity by criminalization of attire. #SavetheMiniskirt. #StripMeNot. #MyDressMyChoice.

* Image Credit: “Maggie, Nairobi” by Carlo Alberto Danna on Flickr.

Tis the blackface season in the Netherlands …

For all the Dutch claims about liberalism and multiculturalism, their love affair with a popular black-faced figure Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), associated with the annual tradition of Sinterklaas (a Santa Clause like figure), keeps exposing the racism that is a part of Dutch, culture, public opinion, institutions and national identity. If you forgot, ZwartePiete are the menacing blackfaced-helpers of Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas season starts in earnest again later this month and based on experience last year, it is all going to go pear-shaped.

Three years have now passed since Dutch police officers dragged artist Quinsy Gario to the ground and arrested him for wearing a ‘Zwarte Piet is Racism’ T-Shirt. Today, Zwarte Piet has turned into the epitome of how the Dutch majority silences and denies racist realities. He is found in courts (like arlier this week, when the Dutch Council of State ruled that the mayor of Amsterdam is not authorized to reject applications for permits because his office fears an event may be racist) and in regional governance institutions in the Province of Groningen, where right-wing PVV (Freedom Party) members have started to attend assembly meetings as Zwarte Piet (at least, last week they did).

In general, attacks on Zwarte Piet are widely interpreted as attacks on (white) Dutchness and threats to (white) children’s right to jovially celebrate their “cultural heritage.”

It’s old news now that the Council of Europe’s Anti Racism Commission and the United Nations Human Rights Group concluded that the tradition undermines the dignity of the country’s black minorities. There’s also growing activism and criticism by minority, particularly black, activists against Sinterklaas. In response, the city of Amsterdam has committed to reform Piet; make him “less black” over the next couple of years and “empower” him, whatever that’s supposed to mean.

For many Dutch citizens, however, such a change would set a dangerous precedent. Below we’ve catalogued some of the efforts Dutch citizens and organizations have gone through in the last month or so to retain Zwarte Piet:

* In mid-September, the right-wing leader of the PVV (Freedom Party), Geert Wilders proposed a Bill to legally protect Black Pete (as well as the Sinterklaas lyrics). Separately, the Dutch Center of Folk Culture, has applied for the current version of Sinterklaas complete with blackface to be placed on the national heritage list.

* The largest pro-Pete Facebookcommunity has 2,014,400 “Likes,” which –if all are indeed Dutch- equals 12% of the entire populace. (For anti-Black Pete groups, click here, here and here).

* Pro-Zwarte Piet activism is not merely limited to the internet. In Rotterdam, for example, pro-Piet activists have apparently started to hang Black Pete dolls withI wanna staysigns on lanterns across the city.

* And while some retail stores briefly considered banning the sale and display of Zwarte Piet, many of these went through great lengths to assure shoppers that, in their stores, Black Pete can be both displayed and consumed.

Albert Heijn, the country’s largest supermarket chain, makes for a good case study. Last month, it surprised everyone when it announced they no longer feel comfortable with Zwarte Piet. The associated candy would still be sold, but in the promotional materials a white boy would play the helper.
The announcement met with nationwide opposition. Jochem van Gelder (an actor and presenter of children’s TV) called for a boycott of the chain on twitter. To him, Albert Heijn’s move was childish and unfriendly to children. Albert Heijn’s main competitor Jumbo was quick to tweet that they still honored Piet’s blackface.
The public made it very clear that the failure to unconditionally protect Piet’s blackness is a costly affair. As soon as Albert Heijn realized that no principle could possibly be worth this kind of profit plunge, and that the restoration of the nation’s faith in their loyalty to Dutch values would demand a novel heartfelt reconciliation strategy, they chose to pen a Love Poem to Zwarte Piet and publish this in national newspapers. It goes like this:

Dear Pete,

You’re not even in the country yet

But you’re all over the news

They say you’re banned from our stores

But that, dear Pete, is a lie

You’re all over our shelves

Just like every year

To us, you’re amazing in Black and other colors

We will let the Netherlands pick

But that’s the reaction Zwarte Piet gets in the Netherlands. What if you dress up as Zwarte Piet and went to London and asked unsuspecting passers-by (including, somehow, Russell Brand), what they make of your venerated “tradition.” A white Dutch filmmaker did just that.* Watch and for your own health don’t read the Youtube comments by Dutch people below the video:

* The clip is from a new film, debuting on Dutch television next month.

Bob Geldof doesn’t need to do a #BandAid30 for Ebola. African musicians made a song already

Bob Geldof is going to put out another Band Aid single, another rehash of  the grotesque “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” with slightly altered lyrics. We’ve written about the problematic politics of such songs in detail before. Bim Adewunmi broke it down over at the Guardian today.

Disaster appeals are necessary but it also matters what picture they give of crises and their structural causes. People need to understand the long-term factors which have made the Ebola crisis possible. This crisis is part of a long colonial disengagement, and a consequence of the years of structural adjustment tearing up local healthcare infrastructure. Geldof, Bono et al are deeply complicit in glossing neoliberal policies towards the continent with a humanitarian/anti-poverty sheen of respectability. These policies will continue to fail ordinary people and actively prevent governments putting in place the quality public services people require. (Nick Dearden makes a similar point here.) Geldof is the one who always gets the international platform on crises in Africa (he says he’s responding to a request from the UN this time), but he never talks about these things. In his launch, he spoke about how “tragic” it was that “modernity” has arrived in Africa at last and it has brought Ebola with it. It’s the kind of nonsense you end up coming out with when you mean well but don’t really know what you’re talking about.

Gary Younge got to the crux of the issue weeks ago:

It is an issue of public health to which no individual or privatised response can make any substantial, meaningful contribution. To fight an epidemic like Ebola you need a well-resourced public sector, well-trained government employees, central planning and coordination and a respect for science [...] what really terrifies the right about Ebola is that it shows – albeit in a deadly, scary, tragic way – that we are all connected. It shows that no matter how strong the gates around your community, how high the wall on your border, how sophisticated the alarm on your house; no matter how much you avoid state schools, public transport and public libraries; no matter how much you pay the premium to retreat from the public sphere – you cannot escape both your own humanity and the humanity of others, and the fact that our fates are tied. If you want to feel secure in Texas, regardless of your race, income or religion, it’s in your interests that people have healthcare in Monrovia.

The desire to swoop in and be a savoiur is an archetypal desire. We understand the need, especially if one’s own life is full of tragedy that one does not want to resolve or face. However, that leads to one taking actions that actually do not help. Geldof may raise money, but who knows if it will be actually “useful” or used in ways that are necessary? Besides that, such aid efforts only erase the effectiveness of local efforts, making it appear as though “western” actions are what saved poor diseased hungry Africa once again.

Sisonke Msimang has written on the ways in which the Ebola crisis in Liberia has highlighted the failures of the Aid industry to make good on its purported function:

The Liberian Ebola situation can be summed up thusly: a virus that is deadly but can be effectively contained with good planning and logistics has managed to escape from a country that has one of the largest concentrations of ‘helpers’ in the world.

Perhaps the most telling fact is that there’s already a song for Ebola by high profile Francophone West African musicians. Why doesn’t Geldof simply promote that song? Or even acknowledge it at all?  “Africa Stop Ebola” features a number of major international stars: Tiken Jah Fakoly, Amadou & Mariam, Salif Keita, Oumou Sangare, Kandia Kora, Mory Kante, Sia Tolno, Barbara Kanam and rappers Didier Awadi, Marcus and Mokobé. You can share the video and like their Facebook page.

Here’s the DEC Ebola appeal and MSF.

How to use a sjambok and other lessons from the South African frontlines

Um, so another day in South Africa, another outrageous racist incident.

In Cape Town a few days ago twenty two year old Muhammed Makungwa reported that as he was on his way to work on Monday morning, he was attacked by a sjambok-wielding white man driving a white BMW X5. For those of you who don’t know what a sjambok is, there’s a definition here.

According to Makungwa, he was a bit late for work so he decided to run down the road, towards his place of employment. Well, that wasn’t such a great idea. Obviously a black man running at 7 am on a weekday must be running away from something.

Makungwa works as a gardener in the Claremont suburb of Cape Town. Little did he know that at the same time that he was headed to work, a civic-minded white guy was also on the road looking around to make sure that there were no lawbreakers on the run.

Suddenly, Makungwa notes, “Someone in a car started shouting at me, but I don’t understand English very well and could not understand what he was saying.

“I kept on running and he then tried to drive his car into me. I stopped and he got out and started whipping me with a sjambok. He just went crazy and didn’t give me a chance to explain myself,” he said.

“He was shouting at me and I could make out that he thought I had broken into his car. I tried to explain to him that I was on my way to work, but he just kept on hitting me. My lunch box fell as he was whipping me and that’s when he stopped. He then asked me where I worked and after I told him he took me to (my) employers,” he said.

The great thing about the attacker is that once he realized his mistake he stopped hitting Makungwa and actually gave him a ride to work. Which was like a really sweet gesture considering that he didn’t even know him.  When he is eventually caught he’ll have a strong chance of convincing a magistrate that he’s a good guy who was just trying to make sure that the neighborhood is safe.

This approach kind of worked for Tim Osrin, the guy who attacked a forty-four year old domestic worker a few weeks ago. Like Makungwa, Cynthia Joni was on her way to her job in Kenilworth in early October when she says a man jumped out of his car and started to slap her. She says after that he threw her to the ground and kicked her. She started crying and screaming because, um, it hurt. Soon, horrified strangers came to her assistance so he had to stop beating her. He hadn’t explained why he was attacking her but it later emerged that he thought she was a sex worker. Which made everyone kind of go, ‘Whew! He’s actually a really good guy after all.’

In fact, to prove how nice he actually is, Osrin told the Cape Argus, “I hate people thinking that I am a monster because of this … I am not sure why Cynthia has trumped up all sorts of injuries either. I can only think she is going for some sort of payment, where she can leverage some cash…

“She’s probably thinking, ‘this white guy slapped me, great … here comes my Christmas box’. People do these things, you know.”

Ah yes, the Christmas box. There has been an epidemic of domestic workers begging strangers to attack them by standing provocatively on the side of the road waiting for their transport, just so they can fill up their Christmas boxes.  These people literally stand there with impunity, trying to look guilty, hoping that a white man will drive past and punch them in the face. The worst thing is that you would be amazed by how many white guys fall for this trick.

It works like this: once the victim of this elaborate ruse has been baited into punching one of these so-called domestic workers in the face, the person starts screaming, acting like it really hurt or something. This is just a ploy to get to the next phase of the plan: getting the neighbors involved. Once these bleeding heart white liberal employers are in the mix, they start pulling out their cellphones and calling the police. Next thing you know you are in the middle of a media scrum and all you did was get in your car and drive down the street. It’s truly shocking what’s happening in this country.

In any case, the sjambok assailant might just be at the forefront of a revival of the apartheid era instrument. If you are looking for new ways to use yours, it turns out that there are some great online videos. This one – used to educate, entertain and to advertise the Cold Steel Sjambok – is really powerful. Who knew that the sjambok had so many uses? Its “great for moving stock, it’s a premier snake killer and in an emergency it makes an unbelievably effective self-defense tool.” As the video shows, you can also use it on eggs, tomatoes, road safety cones and um, multiple ping pong balls.

Watch and learn friends, watch and learn.

Note: In case you are confused, all of the quotations in this piece are real. See here and here for the media coverage of these and other stories related to similar incidents.

Image Credit: Flickr.

Has the giant fallen? The split within South Africa’s largest trade union federation, COSATU

Recent developments in the largest trade union movement in South Africa, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), have been nothing short of extraordinary and cataclysmic. It is now commonly accepted that the ‘giant’ whose arrival was so evocatively declared by (now South African Deputy President and then mineworkers’ union official) Cyril Ramaphosa in 1985 is on its knees. On top of that, all of its dirty linen is now on public display for all to see and scrutinize. The so-called expulsion of the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA), one of its largest affiliates, was supposed to be a show trial aimed at asserting the authority of leaders allied to what has been until now the hegemonic ANC/SACP political current within the federation. But the significance of these events is much greater than was intended by those who staged the show trial. This has left many in a state of shock and sadness, with analysts and journalists scrambling for ways to explain the implications of the ‘expulsion’ of the federation’s largest and best resourced affiliate.

I have observed developments in COSATU for the last 22 years since I left the employ of one of its affiliates and I am now convinced that what we have before us is not a mere expulsion of an errant affiliate. What we are witnessing is a split of the federation taking place in slow motion. The expulsion of Numsa was merely the spark that ignited an already highly combustible situation that had been building up since Cosatu’s last congress where nifty last minute negotiation averted a toe-to-toe contest for leadership positions. By ignoring calls for a special congress and instead expelling Numsa, COSATU leader Sidumo Dlamini and his allies succeeded in drawing the battle lines between the two factions and forcing the current split. We now know that seven other affiliates and COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi have openly revealed their game plan by supporting Numsa. In addition, significant sections of the unions on Dlamini’s side – Sadtu, Num, Ceppwawu, Satawu, etc – support Numsa and Vavi. The decision by the seven unions to boycott Cosatu structures, Vavi’s refusal to sign the Numsa expulsion letter, his public distancing from the CEC decision and his boycott of the press conference called by Dlamini to formally announce the expulsion have served to confirm the split once and for all.

What remains to be seen now is not whether the factions will split, they have split already! The question is, which will successfully wrestle and walk away with the mantle of the glorious giant we once called Cosatu. It would appear that some in the Vavi/Numsa faction are even prepared to forego the name because its reputation is in tatters.

None in the once hegemonic ANC/SACP faction bargained for a full-blast split. Their calculations seem to have been predicated on the scenario that once Numsa was expelled it would be consigned to the wilderness and, in time, some would trickle back, just like we saw with some splinters in the past, notably Cope. They never bargained for a split as we are now witnessing. The split has caught them off guard and they never imagined that there would be such groundswell of dismay at the decision and support for Numsa and Vavi.

In 1997 I wrote a paper (for the South African Labour Bulletin) on the tripartite alliance titled “Flogging a Dying Horse: Cosatu and the alliance.” I took a lot of flak for writing the paper and the book I subsequently published in 2010 (A Paradox of Victory). Some in COSATU never forgave me for the things I wrote. But union developments over the last two years have been extraordinarily sad and even tragic. This is not the time to spend settling scores or gloating about who was right. I hope that characterizing the events of the last few days as a split of Cosatu rather than a mere expulsion of Numsa will not earn me condemnation and insult.

Image Credit: Abayomi Azikiwe on Flickr.

Willy Sagnol’s Race Problem

If you tell a lie enough times then people will start believing it as gospel. You know, stuff like ‘He’s not that sort of player’ or ‘Actually it’s about ethics in games journalism.’

The football world is replete with this sort of thing. First there’s The Guardian‘s presentation of Luis Suárez’s interview with Simon Hattenstone. In this case the Uruguayan is said to respond to “accusations” that he racially abused Patrice Evra, despite Suárez having admitted to the offence (before apologising, and subsequently withdrawing said apology) and serving a ban after being found guilty of racially abusing the Manchester United player. When a publication like The Guardian, whose football (and news) coverage carries a certain weight with a not-insubstantial number of people, presents new ‘truths’ in this way, there is a real danger of the facts being whitewashed from ‘official’ accounts further down the line.

For an even more recent example of unreliable authors advancing new realities, we go to last week in France, and former French international, now Bordeaux coach, Willy Sagnol’s comments about African footballers. In the midst of an apparent frustration about losing squad members to the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations, Sagnol said:

The advantage of African players is that they are cheap, ready to fight, powerful on the pitch. But football is not only about that. It’s also about technique, intelligence, and discipline. You need to have it all.

Then, a couple of days later, Sagnol issued a ‘clarification,’ which, far from distancing him from the stereotyping of his earlier comments, merely exacerbated the situation:

Given that we were talking about football, the intelligence I mentioned was obviously tactical intelligence. In no way was I talking about intelligence in the literal sense of the word, concerning individuals.

Considering the decision to retain questions of intelligence – albeit tactical or ‘footballing’ intelligence – in his clarifications, Sagnol’s opinions can certainly be considered problematic, and it is difficult to argue that allegations of racial prejudice are without merit. And that leaves aside the idea that there is any reason for a player from Nigeria to share such broad characteristics as one from Morocco, or a Zimbabwean to be comparable to a Malian.

Sagnol’s words call to mind comments made by former Crystal Palace chairman Ron Noades in 1991:

The black players at this club lend the side a lot of skill and flair, but you also need white players in there to balance things up and give the team some brains and some common sense.

Admittedly the ‘skill and flair’ angle differs from Sagnol’s outlook, and indeed responses to the latter have frequently seen opponents bring up names such as Jay-Jay Okocha or George Weah, African players whose technique and intelligence are a far cry from the “…ready to fight, powerful on the pitch…” model. However the difference lies only in specifics, not the argument as a whole, and the insulting suggestion that African players can only do one thing at once – while those from elsewhere in the world have the potential to be multifaceted – is sadly not an opinion exclusive to Sagnol.

As an aside, for those who wish to argue one set of comments was about black players and the other specifically about Africans, the rhetoric employed by Sagnol has enough in common with racist tropes dating back to long before the globalisation of football that it is impossible to ignore one when discussing the other.

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One place in which this stereotyping is most evident is in the case of Manchester City midfielder Yaya Touré. Burdened by the ‘new Vieira’ tag which seems to afflict any black, Francophone midfielder who has the temerity to be linked with the Premier League (while remaining insulting to Vieira himself by diluting his ability to the physical), Touré’s arrival in the Premier League was greeted by the following missive from Daily Mirror journalist Brian Reade:

Touré is not actually that great. He’s not a creative genius who will get backsides off seats but a defensive midfielder who stops players who can.

Of course hindsight is 20/20, but while the extent of Touré’s impact in the attacking third for City might have exceeded expectations, Reade was wrong to dismiss the Ivorian as a mere stopper. Such an approach did a disservice to his impact at previous clubs, while also being wilfully ignorant of the fact that a holding midfielder at Rijkaard’s or Guardiola’s Barcelona was a far more technical role than at many other European clubs of the period.

Another African player to have been similarly pigeonholed within English football is Mikel John Obi. While the Nigerian has never been a prolific goalscorer at any level, it was in an advanced playmaker role that he made the breakthrough as a youth international, and for many years has continued to impress in the same position for the Super Eagles. All the while, at club level the 27-year-old has been used as a midfield anchor by numerous Chelsea managers in close to a decade with the club.

Both offer examples of African footballers demonstrating adaptability across more than one role, as well as an ability to ally physical power with technical skill, yet the more we hear comments like Sagnol’s, the more we run the risk of people ignoring the evidence, as with Suárez, and sticking to the received wisdom of someone who garners respect for their opinion across other fields to the extent that they have carte blanche to impart their own prejudices on others when it comes to areas where they have less experience.

As a Champions League winner with more than 50 caps for France, Sagnol is an individual whose outlook will hold sway with the same sort of crowd that criticises opposing opinions on the basis that the opinion-holder ‘has never played the game’. But to accept a statement on the basis of the credentials of the person saying it, rather than the words being said, is hugely dangerous.

To a point, it is refreshing to see the former Bayern defender feeling the need to issue a ‘clarification’ in the light of criticism of his original comments. However we need to look further to determine how widespread such stereotyping is, particularly when said clarification does nothing to give observers cause to dismiss suggestions of prejudice.

How many other coaches in Europe’s top divisions already shared Sagnol’s attitudes, and how many will have heard his comments and been moved to agree with him? Without proper accountability, even when coming with those who have a not-insignificant standing within the game, the problem is only likely to grow.

Africa is a Radio: Episode #7

Africa is a Radio Episode 7 touches down in Nigeria, and quickly heads over to Burkina Faso to soundtrack recent events happening in that country. From political events in Burkina Faso, we head over to a different kind of popular uprising — the Salsa Urbana sounds out of Colombia. From there we go electronic via New Jersey, the U.K. and Angola, eventually ending up on a collection of classic tunes out of East Africa.

I hope you enjoy this month’s selection of tunes on Africa is a Radio.

(photo via Reuters)

The Bullshit Files: The “Mandela” Ray Ban “Sculpture” in Cape Town

“Real art makes those with privilege feel uncomfortable”–Tokolos Stencils.

“Did you see this Madiba shit they’re putting up on Sea Point promenade?” read my girlfriend’s instant message. I had to wipe my eyes looking at the event invite. It was eye-wateringly crass. The City of Cape Town was unveiling an “artistic tribute” to Nelson Mandela entitled Perceiving Freedom, in the form of a pair of wayfarer Ray-Ban sunglasses on a green space in one of the wealthiest parts of the city. The invite featured a Mandela quote and a picture of him wearing a pair of similar styled sunnies. A coterie of ‘righteous’ officials and representatives, including F.W. de Klerk—there is also a proposal to rename an arterial after him—and from the World Design Capital and Ray-Ban were in audience.

Not merely a puerile gesture at public art, Perceiving Freedom is a pathetic appropriation of commemoration as cover for a commercial promotion. Really, it’s a stunning emetic trigger that suggests that Nelson Mandela is beckoning us from the afterlife to buy Ray-Ban sunglasses, to do our duty for reconciliation and nation-building by consuming this luxury product.

What an incredible opportunistic whitewashing of an iconic legacy. No wonder the unveiling is on the cusp of summer, and not a year before Mandela’s passing. And is it not ironic that the marketing spin does not mention that Madiba’s eyes were damaged while he was incarcerated on Robben Island, the result of dust and blinding light of years of working the lime-quarry.

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Luckily Perceiving Freedom has clear and not rose-tinted lenses. It’s oriented to face Robben Island. Michael Ellion, the artist, intended it to allude to Mandela’s ruminations about freedom, and the viewers’ lack of perception of ‘the invisible barriers and prejudices’ that still cloud their perspective. In other words, ‘misperceptions’ about race, class and gender can be overcome with a pair of Ray Ban sunglasses, rather than the hard work of interrogating one’s privilege.

But this is not surprising. In South Africa, there’s a growing idea that deep psycho-social problems that relate to the difficult past can be resolved through acts of consumption. And, often, sentiment overrides taste when it comes to the commodification of liberation history. The Robben Island Jewelry project shows that ‘reconciliation’ narrative can transmute the debris of even the most traumatic black histories into gold.

But maybe Perceiving Freedom is too ‘higher concept’ for me, ‘too cerebral’. It’s certainly far removed from Soft Walls, another work that engaged with belonging in the city. Michael Ellion had intended his piece to be “a testament to the power of the mind”. Go look at his website. Even so, you cannot but notice his sunglasses concept is not original, since it bears strong resemblance to another in Denmark (thanks @Telemigo).

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You may need sunglasses to approach this work. The promotional photos indicate that the majority of the dignitaries, beneficiaries and sponsors involved were white. Why such a significant lack of black participation? How did Michael Ellion land such a prime piece of exhibition real-estate, and how did he acquire sponsorship and or the endorsement of the city? Why do art publications like Art Times blindly endorse the project? This raises questions about the dominant tastemakers in the South African art world, and their interests in shaping what is considered appropriate public commemoration, especially in relation to the World Design Capital project.

You only have to look at Tokolos Stencils, a radical art collective, who have been mobilising the memory of Marikana through stencil art and by ‘disrupting’ colonial and apartheid statues. They have been branded vandals. But neither has the city made any effort to erect a Marikana Memorial of its own, let alone one on the holy ground that is Sea-Point Promenade. Who really are the vandals here? What is appropriate tribute? Because all I see when I look at those sunglasses is the vandalism of Nelson Mandela’s legacy and the spoiling of public space in Cape Town.

Images Credit: Via Art Times on Facebook.

The key figures in Colombia’s Picó sound system culture

The sound system, or Picó culture of the Caribbean coast of Colombia is very close to my heart. Not only is there a strong relationship between it and the popular music of 1970’s and 80’s West and Central Africa, but the propensity towards innovation via digital production (something that I’m near obsessed with as a DJ) is very strong in this part of the world as well. As I’ve highlighted in previous writing, Atlantic costeño audiences and producers will consume and reproduce everything from soca to zouk to mbaqanga to vallenato to salsa to dancehall to soukous to contemporary Nigerian Pop – incorporating their own indigenous African rhythms, language, and cultural understandings into the diverse musical stew. Throw in the Spanglish-patois influence of the Caribbean islands of San Andres and Providencia, and you have the makings for my Black Atlantic musical mecca.

I’ve now taken two pilgrimages to this part of Colombia (while neglecting other, equally fascinating, parts of the country) in order to see, interact, and learn in this environment. Each time I’ve been there I end up lamenting the lack of attention the scenes get outside of Colombia and a small circle of international DJs. Well, Native Instruments – the German music software and hardware company – has taken a step in the right direction by financing the below documentary. Directed by Luis Antonio Delgado, it follows Colombian music producer Mauricio Alvarez around the region as he encounters some of the key players in the Picó scenes of Cartagena and Barranquilla. Check it out below:

cross-posted at Dutty Artz

Digital Archive No. 2 – Africa Through a Lens

So last week, I wrote about Afrobarometer, a site featuring survey data from 35 African nations. Since the Afrobarometer is based among multiple continent-based partners, this week I wanted to feature a project that is based in the United Kingdom (in future weeks, expect projects based in the U.S., France, and a range of African nations).  By varying the perspectives of the projects that are featured in this series, this series can showcase a range of perspectives and approaches to African digital archives.

This week’s featured archive is Africa Through a Lens:

Put together by the National Archives in the United Kingdom, Africa Through a Lens is part of the wider World Through a Lens collection, featuring photos taken from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office photographic collection housed in the National Archives.  This collection covers nearly a century of history on the African continent, with content from 25 countries from the Scramble for Africa, the colonial era, and the era of independence.  Jenni Orme, Diverse Histories specialist for the National Archives, summarized the importance of this collection in an introductory podcast for the project, explaining that this collection allows for “glimpses into one of the most challenging times in the history of the British Empire and the political formation of the Africa that we recognize today.”  These glimpses are obviously glimpses through Western eyes, but through these photographs the viewer is granted “a chance to see and imagine the experiences of those who were being observed,” making this, according to Orme, “both a personal as well as a political collection.”

The photos have all been posted on the National Archive’s Flickr account, allowing for both easy access and commentary.  The project encourages users to contribute any insights they have on the photographs in the comments.  This is especially useful for the photos that there is limited data available on, cataloged under “Africa-Unknown”.  Users can comment on these photos, adding their own insights and ideas about their content and location.  This is an awesome feature for this site, because it allows users to participate in the cataloging of these materials, opening up knowledge production beyond the archive and into the general public.

Follow the National Archives UK on Twitter @UkNatArchives for updates and announcements about their collections.

* Feel free to send me suggestions in the comments or via Twitter of sites you want us to cover.

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