Africa is a Country

When Cape Jazz found a perfect mix with R&B, fusion and pop

Pacific Express. Image courtesy Matsuli Music.

The band Pacific Express was Cape Town’s “answer to Earth Wind and Fire.” In 1976 they released the watershed album, Black Fire, the first successful confluence of Cape Jazz with R&B, fusion and pop. Reissued in 2017, Black Fire is clearly music for dancing, and even the more extended improvisations of trumpeter Robbie Jansen, saxophonist Basil Coetzee and pianist – and chief composer/arranger – Chris Schilder (Ebrahim Khalil Shihab) keep that in mind. The appealing voice of Zayn Adam, Issy Ariefdien’s guitar, Paul Abrahams’ bass and Jack Momple’s drums complete a musically skillful and innovative adventure.

Black Fire is also significant as it marks a specific point on the trajectory of jazz in the Western Cape: a moment that still influences the unique ways many Capetonians use the word today.

“The double beat that people dance to,” reflected the late reedman Robbie Jansen, “[here] they call that jazz: ‘I’m going to jazz tonight’ – that’s got nothing to do with real jazz!”

Jansen’s comment captures the complex meanings that jazz carries for Cape Town fans. On the one hand, the city has a rich heritage of the improvised music which genre fundis call jazz. It was, after all, the home of jazz pioneers such as reedman Christopher Columbus Ngcukana and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. On the other hand, there’s a vibrant club dance tradition, particularly among the communities apartheid classified as “coloured,” which its enthusiasts also refer to as “jazz.” That jazzing tradition has, among multiple influences, some ancestry in the city’s ballroom dancing style (“langarm”) some in the hop-step choreography of Khoisan tradition, and some in tickey draai (“spin on a sixpence”: the whirling popular dances of the mine camps). It solidified into a unique style distinct from all of these in the mid-1970s. “Jazz is a culture here, almost like the Kaapse Klopse – it’s part of our history … it’s in our blood,” a research interviewee told dance scholar Jade Gibson.

And one band, better than any other, represents the historic nexus between jazz and jazzing; between instrumental improvisation and dancing and between musical lives of club gigs at night and challenging jazz studio recordings in the morning. That band is Pacific Express.

Black Fire by Pacific Express

By the time the band laid down this album in 1976, they’d been around for a while, having been brought together by bass player Paul Abrahams and guitarist Issy Ariefdien in the early 1970s (initially as The Pacifics) to work as a pop and cover band. The band built a strong reputation among clubgoers, so that when a new club, the Sherwood Lounge, was planned for the suburb of Manenberg in 1975, Pacific Express was invited to open it.

“And then they came to me,” remembers pianist Shihab, “and asked if I would join them. At the time, I was leading another band, but because they had this big gig coming up, they wanted somebody who could bring a bit more musically. They persuaded me – they said nobody else would be appropriate.”

Shihab comes from the musically prolific Schilder family. He was previously known as Chris, his mother was a church composer and pianist, and his late brothers, bassist Phillip and pianist Tony, also went on to achieve national, jazz recognition. He describes his musical education as initially “stealing with my eyes” from family members and schoolmates and then trying to replicate what he saw and heard. By the age of 14, he was working at the Normandy nightclub in Rondebosch, scoring what he calls “a huge tip” when he demonstrated the complex changes of All the Things You Are in response to a patron’s challenge, purely from memory.

As he entered his twenties, his reputation built demand for his skills as sideman, composer and leader. His voracious musical appetite took him into classical music and American jazz, as well as the popular sounds that (barely) put bread on the table. Like others among his peers who wanted to take even popular music in a more adventurous direction, he was already experimenting with free sounds in the late 1960s and by the mid-70s he’d started listening to the jazz-rock of Santana, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Chicago and Earth, Wind and Fire.

At that early point in his career, Jansen would not have called himself a jazz musician. By contrast, Shihab was already active and admired on the bop, post-bop and free Cape Town jazz scenes, as is shown by his many recordings in the Ian Bruce Huntley archive. But both of them were equally compelled to listen to what Jansen called “more complicated sounds, more sophisticated compared to the easy, bubblegum pop… We had to tune into LM Radio and catch a little snatch of a song and learn it. Tomorrow, maybe, we would hear the other half and by the weekend we could play the stuff before it was on the {South African} hit parade.” Before 1975, when it was nationalized by Frelimo, LM (Lourenco Marques) Radio based in Mozambique had been one of only a few accessible stations catering to those seeking contemporary pop sounds not showcased by South Africa’s segregated, censored state broadcaster, the SABC.

The coloured township of Manenberg – about 20km away from Cape Town city center, and cut off from the black settlements of Gugulethu and Nyanga by a railway track – had been officially established in 1966, based on the apartheid regime’s belief that what they defined as different “racial groups” could not live harmoniously together. (Mixed communities in Cape Town – such as District Six – and elsewhere had flourished before the advent of advent of apartheid, and often struggled to stay together despite harsh new laws.) Manenberg began life as a very basic settlement, dusty and bare of almost all amenities. Its first houses and flats had no finished ceilings, inside water or internal doors. Residents had been uprooted and trucked in from the suburbs of Constantia, District Six, Cape Town, the Bo-Kaap, Wynberg, Crawford, Sea Point, and Lansdowne and now had to learn to live together under these disadvantages.

As a consequence it was, Shihab reflects “quite a rough place.  But the Sherwood Lounge was located close to the highway, so people could come in without getting mixed up in whatever was a happening on the streets. And once we opened – people flocked.”

The Sherwood Lounge joined a constellation of busy Cape Town music venues in every kind of district. There was the Naaz, in Woodstock, the Ambassador in District Six, the Goldfinger Lounge in Athlone, the Vortex Coffee Bar in the City’s Long Street and the Mermaid seafood and jazz restaurant in Sea Point. By 1978, they had been joined by the long-lived Club Galaxy in Rylands, still flourishing well into the 2000s.

As Shihab began developing more sophisticated music for Pacific Express, the band’s routines also became more sophisticated. There was less grabbing sounds from the radio, and more intensive workshopping. “We didn’t mix much with non-musicians,” Shihab remembers. “We’d go to somebody’s parlour and jam… (guitarist) Issy Ariefdien, (vocalist) Zayn Adam, (drummer) Jack Momple and (bassist) Paul Abrahams were the nucleus of the band, and they were all so talented we could just feed off one another’s ideas.”

“Our music was jazz-rock,” Shihab explains. “At the start, I was the only jazz improviser. I listened a lot to Chicago. The other guys were more into pop music. For me, the appeal of jazz-rock was it allowed me to explore in those directions, and I introduced the guys to those improvisations. Meanwhile, I was also learning in that process; the collaboration was beautiful. So before we even introduced my compositions, we were already jamming on the pop tunes we were playing and learning how our different ideas complemented one another.

“The kids who came to the Sherwood were all interested in dancing – they were very good dancers, and they had a kind of style – dancing, dressing – to go with the music. So, the kids were hip, the club was new, and we all agreed that, as well as being interesting, the music has to suit dancing. At that time Robbie [Jansen] had other gigs, but as we became very popular we invited him, and he and Basil (reedman ‘Manenberg’ Coetzee) came in and out when they could, Basil more often.”

The reputation of the band and the Sherwood Lounge soared. “There was just a lot happening there,” remembers Cape Town pianist Gary Hendrickse. One of Gibson’s respondents recalls: “‘I was at this place, and they put a Santana record on, and suddenly all these people were dancing in couples, swaying from side to side … I’d never seen it before … I thought, “What is this?”

But despite audience support, steady jobs like the Sherwood gig were scarce, as racial zoning made venues increasingly hard to sustain and unrest and tough policing impeded movement. Shihab lived and composed in a single room, crammed with piano, cot, baby and spouse. Jansen remembered that sometimes he played “for five rand a gig… I got R25 a week when I played with Pacific Express when I got married, and that was playing every night, seven nights a week… a hundred rand a month: that was good money.”

The intensive workshopping paid off when the opportunity to record Black Fire at Volker Miros’s UCA Studios arrived. A year earlier, in June 1974, those studios had been the setting for the Abdullah Ibrahim (then Dollar Brand) recording “Mannenberg Is Where it’s Happening.” Executive producer Patrick Lee-Thorp was responsible for organizing and managing all of Pacific Express’s recording sessions and the post production. “Oh, we were all very excited,” Shihab remembers. “And not just the band. Our fans – all the people who were into our band – also got excited.”

The session itself, he says, was not quite so exciting. “It was the usual thing of budget constraints on recording time. It’s a good job we were so well-rehearsed, because when we got to the studio, we had to sit down and just get through the tunes quickly. And we were able to do that.”

Shihab still listens to those tracks with affection. Black Fire, the title track, is one of the few explicitly political allusions in the music of Pacific Express. “All our lives were affected by [apartheid],” says Shihab. “It was there all the time, even when you didn’t talk or sing about it; you couldn’t escape it.” Pacific Express lived resistance by frequently operating as a racially mixed outfit with black and white as well as coloured players. This led, for example, to police warning them they could not perform on the segregated stage during Australian singer John Paul Young’s 1977 South African tour. “What I was seeing at the time was that because of those circumstances,” says Shihab, “black musicians had more of a certain kind of fire in us. Black Fire gave me scope to express that energy.”

His other favorite track is “Sky Ride 2,” and the reasons there are musical, not societal. Although Jansen at that time felt he was still an apprentice in jazz, for Shihab it’s Jansen’s flute solo that stays in his memory. “It’s not a simple melody, even though it has a relaxed, easy feel to it,” says Shihab. “But when I listened to Robbie’s solo that comes at the end, it knocked me off my feet. The way he interpreted that melody, against the rhythm section behind us, it was everything I wanted to say with that song.”

Pacific Express recorded two more albums, Expressions and On Time. Shihab eventually took on hotel work on a circuit in the Middle East to provide a steadier income. But he never stopped exploring and composing and has released a solo piano outing of his own music, as well as leading a Cape Town International Festival concert, and a Pacific Express revival performance. Robbie Jansen continued straddling the divide between jazz and jazzing until his death in 2010, releasing multiple albums as leader that combined vibrant dance rhythms and challenging improvisation.

But perhaps most emblematic of that jazz/jazzing relationship is what happened to the Sherwood Lounge. It later became Club Montreal, Cape Town’s most famous dance venue, memorialized in the song At Montreal, composed by Shihab’s brother Tony, and sung by another world-famous musician who passed through the ranks of Pacific Express: Jonathan Butler.

* This slightly edited version of the sleeve notes for Black Fire is reprinted here with the kind permission of Matsuli Music and Gwen Ansell. The album can be purchased on most streaming services and the vinyl here.

New ways of being Nigerian

Nigerian singer Flavour performing at the FOMO party. Image via Wikicommons.

There is a worrisome, undue accent on ethnic and sub-ethnic affiliations deserving scrutiny in Nigeria. Until the day when an Igbo ceases to be a visitor or stranger in Lagos and the growing number of northerners in Igboland become more than outsiders, secessionist agitations and their associated conflicts will remain components of the Nigerian ensemble. I repeat, no Nigerian should be an outsider anywhere within the territorial bounds of the country.

Below the politics of ethnic affiliation exists other micro-identities that equally complicate discourses of belonging in Nigeria. Take the case of the ongoing crisis in the Catholic Diocese of Ahiara, where a collective of priests and the laity have rejected the appointment of a bishop from neighboring Anambra state. This is an Igbo bishop being rejected because he is not from Ahiara. Imagine the response if the Pope appointed a Yoruba man to this vacant position. As I write, not even the Pope’s decree that the priests apologize to the Vatican and accept their bishop has done much to quell the crisis. So while economic restructuring need to be taken seriously as Omolade Adunbi argued on this site recently, Nigeria’s identarian politics, in all its layers of complexity, deserves recalibration. Until then, Biafra and similar agitations will remain constant presences in our national discourse.

For clues to actualizing this recalibration, we can turn to Nigerian popular culture, where there are instances of Nigerians transcending ethnicity. We see this transcendence in the glorious days of Nigeria’s soccer teams especially in the 1990s. The soccer players that donned Nigeria’s jersey at the World Cup in 1994 and the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 were Nigerians first. With the successes of these teams, it didn’t matter where the players came from or whether the team was comprised of players from the same geographical region. The same indifference to locality of origin applied to the fans especially in multiethnic cities like Lagos. When they hugged as they celebrated the victory of the soccer teams, it didn’t matter where they came from. Nigeria became the common denominator, the thing that binds.

In contemporary Nigeria, with a successful music industry, musicians such as Davido and Flavour draw their fan base from across the country. Flavour’s “Ada Ada,” for instance, can headline a Yoruba wedding just as much as an Igbo one. Flavour’s melodious tune and his powerful (often Igbo) lyrics appeal to people of all stripes. You can make a similar claim for the works of Yoruba artists such as Davido and Wizkid, who are as popular in Owerri as they are in Ondo. My point is we can extend such celebration of excellence to other spheres of our national life so that it matters less where the candidate for an elective position, political appointment or a job comes from.

Rather than function as instruments of ethnic violence for politicians and ethnic chauvinists, young Nigerians as primary producers and consumers of popular culture can be at the forefront of this national re-orientation. As 21st century citizens of a global world, youth in Nigeria can channel their energy, education and digital literacies to bring about this change. This pan-Nigerian sensibility was on display during the brief Occupy Nigeria protests concerning the removal of subsidy and increase in the price of petroleum products by the Goodluck Jonathan administration in January 2012. Young Nigerians were at the forefront of this struggle and utilized social media platforms to coordinate the various protests. In protesting against the government’s New Year gift, aggrieved citizens shut down roads and businesses, paralyzing economic activities. Occupy Nigeria has both critics and admirers, but the social movement is striking for demonstrating the possibility of a Nigerian collective against tyranny and exploitation. It was clear that the hardship introduced by the new fuel price would affect Nigerians across ethnic and religious lines, and thus the mobilization transcended those parochial cleavages as evident in the protests across the country and abroad too.

As I write, a new social movement, Our Mumu Don Do (roughly translates as “our stupidity is enough” – championed by the controversial musician, Charles Oputa (Charley Boy – is staging protests in Abuja over the long absence of President Muhammadu Buhari from office. In articulating its demand that President Buhari return to Nigeria or resign his position, the group is putting the wellbeing of Nigeria at the forefront. I am particularly struck by the resort to pidgin, arguably the quintessential Nigerian language, in the group’s naming as well as the multi-ethnic composition of its leadership and sympathizers.

Social movements such as Occupy Nigeria and Our Mumu Don Do provide an antidote to the sectarian agitations across Nigeria even as they remain the condition of possibility for the Nigeria of our dreams. In the Nigeria we should all work to bring about, ethnicity will be consequential for its cultural heritage and values, but it will have to give way as the determiner of our social and political relationships. In its place, our Nigerianness and humanness will be sufficient grounds for constituting new modes of belonging, premised on ethical consideration of the other.

How the Nigerian Left imploded

Image credit Goya Bauwens via Flickr.

In the history of democratic transitions in Africa – whether from military, one-party, civilian or multi-party rule – Nigeria’s experience presents an interesting dimension. First, the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida handpicked the parties that would contest the first democratic elections on June 12th, 1993 after many years of dictatorship. Second, with the exception of Algeria (where the election of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was annulled by the military in 1991), Nigeria was the only other African country at that time to have her democratic election annulled by the military almost two weeks after elections. Finally, while it took blood and sweat to put down the FIS in Algeria, the parties in Nigeria simply folded their mats and went home, offering no challenge to the military dictatorship.

The political crisis triggered by this resulted in the formation of the Campaign for Democracy (CD), probably the most viable umbrella pro-democracy group in Nigeria at that time. The CD stepped into the political void left by the two elite parties, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and National Republican Convention (NRC). It was the CD that publicly challenged the annulment of the June 12th election. The CD was also the key actor in the campaign of Chief M.K.O. Abiola, the winner of that election.

This period brought my generation of the Nigerian Left into active contestation for political spaces in Nigeria’s democratic project.

I revisit those fateful events in a new book, June 12 Election: Campaign for Democracy & the Implosion of the Nigerian Left, published here in Nigeria.

One of the key conclusions of the book is that while the CD’s eventual fate was dependent on external factors, internal contradictions hastened its decline. These contradictions include issues of perspective, and the political tendencies of the collaborating groups (particularly the left groups). On the politics of tendencies, two left groups that participated in the CD were the Socialist Congress of Nigeria (SC) and Socialist Revolutionary Vanguard (SRV) and in the course of their work, the SRV sided with the right wing within the CD. For instance, on the issue of whether Dr. Beko Ransome Kuti (one of Fela’s brothers) would remain the president of the CD, the SRV sided with the rightwing group of Ransome Kuti.

Also at issue was the Expanded Secretariat. Though a loose structure, the secretariat was like a war council which because of the nature of the CD became an organ that allowed a large percentage of cadres to be part of the CD. Some of the cadres did not belong to the main left groups that functioned in the background of the CD. Although originally not an established structure within the CD, the secretariat attracted cadres such Chima Ubani and Abiodun Aremu. who impacted the work of the CD during this period. But the secretariat became a problem as it could not be pigeon-holed into the bureaucratic structure of the CD. A good example of this was the sanctioning of neighborhood rallies in September 1993. The CD leadership did not approve of these rallies, believing they would jeopardize the rapprochement between the military leadership and Chief M.K.O. Abiola towards a negotiated restoration of his mandate.

Quite decisive in the decline of the Left, was the emergent human rights philosophy of the late 1980s, the advent of which affected the traditional mode of most left groups fronting as NGO’s. Groups like the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO) and Committee for Defense of Human Rights (CDHR tended to accommodate persons from the left and the right within their structures. Cadres working in these organizations took on board right wing thoughts and practices. They were expected to or assumed they had to tow the lines of donor organizations. Also, crucially, during this period, the CD leadership extended little favors to some cadres – such as foreign trips to western countries for training – which blurred their interpretation of the interplay of forces at work within the Nigerian political spectrum.

The collapse of the CD had long-term effects on the prospects of the Nigerian left and impaired its capacity to be active in political transition initiated by the General Abdulsalam Abubakar in 1998-1999. Here again, Nigerian politics achieved a first, as it became the only time a pro-democratic group that championed and struggled for the end to military rule found itself unable to be part of the power process at the restoration of democratic rule.

In summary, the book examined the impact of the pro-democracy movement on the Nigerian Left, particularly between 1990 and 1999. This period had a profound effect on the fate of left groupings in contemporary Nigeria. As a result of the acrimonies of the period in question, there is a deepened mutual suspicion among the members of the left groups in Nigeria. It is such that as we write, it is difficult to find a credible left political party or tendency within or outside the existing mainstream political structure in Nigeria.

What about human rights for ‘non-humans’

Human rights is an anthropocentric discourse that centers the “human” in its articulation of various rights claims. Human rights is therefore often described as rights that all humans possess inherently because they are human, or as rights that can be claimed by humans through various legal mechanisms that give effect to these rights.

But what about the non-human; an entity, often a black body, that takes on human characteristics but is not recognized as human? Can human rights comprehend the non-human?

The non-human, which sometimes exists in the form of the “savage” and is referred to in various ways including “kaffir,” “sand nigger.” “faggot,” “cunt,” and “retard” is a creation of the human. Humanness therefore coexists with the dehumanized non-human.

Does invoking the idea of the non-human, perpetuate dehumanization? Perhaps. But the awfulness and reality of the term “non-human” is nothing compared to the miserable existence of non-humans. The capture and killing of black bodies in the United States for instance, through the extermination of indigenous peoples, slavery, racism, mass incarceration, and more recently, legally sanctioned killings by police officers, exemplifies this existence. The term’s ugliness and awkwardness is therefore deliberate. 

The “non” and the “human,” held together by the fragility of a hyphen, is always defined in relation to the human. Humanness is therefore relative to the subjugation of the non-human. This violent suppression is not only existential, it is also epistemological; it repudiates non-human knowledge and ideas.

Furthermore, the non-human is not quite the same as property despite connections between slavery and non-humanness. Slave owners – historically white European and American men – took particular care of their property, such as ships, houses, land, cattle and horses. Since property has value, it is usually looked after. Slaves on the other hand were beaten, raped and murdered, and were therefore treated differently to property, including animals.

The non-human savage is therefore not only less than human, but also less than property and animals.

If the non-human entity therefore exists, to what extent can human rights facilitate the humanization of the non-human? Genealogically, human rights emerged from the ashes of war and violence, particularly in the aftermath of the Second World War. Its origins are therefore intrinsically connected to the violence of the holocaust and attempts by Euro-American liberals to humanize the survivors of the genocide and to put in place a framework to prevent this dehumanization from recurring.

Consequently, the universal human rights framework is largely formulated by white Euro-Americans for white Euro-Americans. Its foundational philosophy is centered on liberalism, individualism and rights claims aimed at humanizing particular survivors of the holocaust. The universal human rights project has been largely successful in Euro-America because European values are vernacularized as universal human rights values. In some ways, the continued marginalization, after the introduction of universal human rights, of holocaust survivors who were Roma, queer people and people with disabilities supports this argument. 

As a result, human rights cannot offer a framework for humanizing the non-human savage. It is incapable of engaging the non-human black body because it is not designed to do so. In order for human rights to engage the non-human, the clergy who worship at the altar of universal human rights, have to excommunicate the “human” from “human rights.” Is this even possible? And if so, how will the process of excommunication change the nature, language and symbolism associated with human rights discourse?

It seems unlikely that human rights discourse is innovative or creative enough to engage the non-human. And so consequently, the non-human often has to exist and operate outside of human rights and its legal, declarationist framework, employing disruption as an alternative mechanism of engagement. The non-human’s struggle for liberation can be seen as a continuation of the interminable decolonial struggle. But it is also a struggle that is often contradictory, taking on eclectic forms and meanings in different spaces. It is an emergent struggle.

Human rights therefore appears ill-suited to deal with the contradictory, emergent, radical non-human. It cannot comprehend the messiness, the ugliness, the complete and utter brokenness of non-human existence. Recognizing the inadequacy of human rights, is it time for a new emancipatory framework?

#SundayRead: Next time you see the Mediterranean

Image by unicellular. Via Flickr.

Next time you see the Mediterranean think of all these bodies brown and black, declared dead or missing in its waters.

So far this year, 2,405 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean. Last year, the number of migrants declared dead or missing reached 5,143. In 2015, 3,771 deaths were documented. Between 1993 and 2012, according to the UNITED for Intercultural Action (UNITED), a total of 14,600 “border deaths” (a death which occurred during the sea passage) were recorded. The number of African migrants who have lost their lives in the Mediterranean is a tragedy, shamefully under-discussed and analyzed over the past 20 years. The number of those missing or unaccounted for is unknown.

Next time you see the Mediterranean, think of the trauma and the abuse that African migrants endure in their search for a better life.

Marie Rajablat’s “Les naufragés de l’enfer” (The Shipwrecked of Hell), is a collection of testimonies she gathered from rescued migrants during eight weeks on board of the Aquarius, an SOS MEDITERRANEE vessel. These stories of journeying to death register how the Mediterranean has always been a Black Mediterranean. On a perilous journey through Niger and to Libya, African migrants are abused physically and psychologically, kidnapped, raped, and enslaved by numerous militias and armed groups that infest the Sahara. A recent report by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) outlines terrible conditions of “summary executions and other unlawful killings; arbitrary deprivations of liberty; and torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” By the time they are embarked on their dinghies, these migrants have already sacrificed the most.

Next time you see the Mediterranean, think of Abi and Enzo.

Abi, 18, recalls that she feared for her life when she refused to prostitute herself, “As I refused to sleep with him, he [one of the smugglers] pushed me to the ground, beat me with his belt and then kicked me everywhere … He took out a knife and he slashed my breasts … Later, he raped me … I stayed there for several days but I do not know exactly for how long … But, I know when he leaves and when he comes back … I could hear the door … I know he came in me but I did not feel anything anymore … He returned with other men … I think I fainted … I do not know how long it lasted … when I woke up, and for a few seconds, I did not know if I was dead or alive … I realized I was in hell … I cried … I wished to go home, to see my Mother … But at the same time, I knew at that time that there was no return possible. I also understood what had happened to my sister and why she did not give me a number to join her.”

Enzo remembers, “In Ghadames, we were locked in a warehouse for four days. We could only get out to go to work escorted by armed guards and with nothing to eat and just a little salty water to drink. People were beaten, sometimes to death. Sometimes, you hear the people-smugglers say, “There is a new important arrival of “merchandise”, in reference to a new group of migrants. Only then, we were able to leave.”

During the sea crossings, when their dinghies are not capsized off the promised land of Lampedusa, these migrants are voluntarily thrown to their deaths into the sea by the people-smugglers in charge of the vessels. The decision about who gets thrown first is based on the migrant’s skin color. Black migrants, seen as inferior because of their blackness, are always chosen first.

Next time you see the Mediterranean, think of it as the Black Mediterranean.

The Mediterranean migrant crisis cannot only be understood and negotiated within a rhetoric of humanitarian intervention and institutional crisis management. The Black Mediterranean shows how mobility, instead of work, becomes a distinct concept and experience around which Europe’s capitalism and Africa’s neocolonialism can be understood. Strikingly, the same absolutist conversations on race, nationalism and modernity that Paul Gilroy’s “The Black Atlantic” criticized as “fatal mistakes” continue to mediate the debates and analyses on the Mediterranean crisis.

The Black Mediterranean is not this empty liquid space that separates a neocolonial and impoverished south from a post-empire and fractured north. It is a hybrid and discursive space through which both Europeans and Africans have defined themselves and their project of modernity. As a result of a long history of violence and war, that far exceeds that of the Black Atlantic, this space can only be mediated, for now, through the negative.

Next time you see the Mediterranean, think of how Europe’s institutional and political responses have turned the migrant crisis into an enduring tragedy.

Three moments are important here to understand how, in times of crisis, Europe does not know what to do with itself and lets loose its repressed, violent self. Ode to Joy turns into The Robbers.

First, there is European Union-Turkey Refugee Agreement signed in March 2016 with the declared objective of finding “a way to prevent unchecked arrivals into the European Union”. It involves Greece returning newly arrived refugees migrants to Turkey, and in return, the EU guarantees that asylum seekers in Turkey will be resettled in Europe. This deal ensures that “the problem has once again been squeezed elsewhere rather than resolved.” Eventually, the only loser is the refugee. Despite a strong backlash from such organizations as the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Amnesty International, the agreement is still in effect and refugees and migrants are indirectly forced to find new routes to escape violence and abuse. After Spain’s bilateral agreements with Morocco, Senegal, and Mauritania, the only route for “unchecked” migrants is through the Central Mediterranean, linking Libya and Tunisia to Italy. A deadly sea route.

Second, The Schengen Agreement, which came into effect in 1995, ensures that the EU provides few directives on issues of migration, refugees and asylum seekers. The Dublin regulation adds another layer of control on mobility by dictating that the country of arrival is responsible for the registration and processing of migrants and refugees alike. With the surge of the number of new arrivals, things spiral out of control. And Europe’s colonial self resurfaces.

In response to the crisis, persistent calls to close borders and reinstate checkpoints reflect a rhetoric of the empire’s anxiety of “never again.” The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, a liberal, offers an interesting comparison with the decline and fall of the Roman empire: “Big empires go down if the external borders are not well-protected.” The toxic metaphors of “swarms, floods and marauders” used by British and European politicians reinforce this trope of invasion. It is within this understanding that the French President Emmanuel Macron put forth his delusional suggestions to “clear migrants off streets by the end of the year” and to “create “hot spots” in Libya this summer.” “Disturbing” was the epithet used Human Rights Watch (HRW) and a number of NGOs to qualify his proposal.

Third, in response to the surge in the number of migrants and asylum seekers coming from Libya and Tunisia, Europe came up with a new Marshall plan for these unruly countries. Italy’s Prime Minister, Paolo Gentiloni, a center-leftist, formulated “a plan to send Italian warships into Libyan territorial waters to combat smugglers.” In Tunisia, President Béji Caid Essebsi was forced into a “bilateral agreement” during his recent visit to Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel with that would. The agreement ensures the repatriation of 1,500 Tunisian asylum seekers through a process local organizations in Tunisia deemed coercive.

These far-right policies have driven stronger populist and xenophobic reactions from Europeans. After Petra László, the Hungarian journalist who kicked refugees felling police, after onlookers verbally abused  Pateh Sabally, a 22-year-old Gambian, as he drowned in Venice’s Grand Canal, and after Italian Coast Guard ignored a call from a sinking vessel and let 250 migrants drown, the European far-right has moved from isolated individual actions to a more organized and technology-based movement. Crowdfunding and 4chan threads are the latest trends among far-right activists.

The C-Star, a ship chartered by the far-right and anti-immigration French-based group Génération identitaire (GI – The Identitarian Generation), tracks SOS Mediterranée’s Aquarius in order to hinder its search and rescue efforts. The GI’s mission, titled “Defend Europe”, is to force “the closing of the Mediterranean route as the only way to Defend Europe and save lives.”

At the same time, left-wing activism is problematic. An excellent argument on the Black Mediterranean by Ida Danewid challenges a rhetoric of solidarity, endemic to both left-wing activism and academic debate, that reproduce “the foundational assumptions of the far right” and removes “from view the many afterlives of historical and ongoing colonialism.”

Next time you see the Mediterranean, think of how these migrants’ decision to migrate to Europe through the help and guidance of people-smugglers is never a choice.

The motives for African migrants to flee their home countries are various and complex. They are not necessarily motivated by the fleeing from political and sexual violence in South Sudan or driven by economic interests, such as a better life than in Senegal or Ivory Coast.

Extreme vetting conditions in Europe and the U.S. make it difficult for a large number of African migrants to apply for a work visa and force many to opt for illegal immigration. As the Canadian journalist Geoffrey York clarifies, “New restrictions within Africa and opaque deals between European countries and African regimes [have produced] a much more dramatic effect.”  For instance, the largest numbers of African migrants in the flow to Italy are not from Eritrea or Somalia, but Nigeria, Africa’s second biggest economy.

Next time you see the Mediterranean, think of Chemseddine Marzoug.

Marzoug, a retired Tunisian fisherman and a Red Crescent volunteer, spends most of his days burying the drowned bodies he finds on the littoral area of Zarzis, in the south east of Tunisia and close to the Libyan coast. For Marzoug, a death toll of 23 announces another ordinary week of burial of the drowned. And there are all the others who will never reach the coast.

“They lived through hell in Libya. We showed them little respect when they were alive. The least we can do is to show them respect in death… It’s too much.”

With little help, he routinely buries the corpses in an ad-hoc cemetery hastily laid out on a municipal dump. There is no coffin or tombstone, just cones of sand that indicate a mortuary presence.

Kenya after the elections: will amnesia and impunity continue?

As Kenya processes the re-election of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2017 election, competing narratives of resistance vs peace, and protest vs compliance are still dominating popular political discourse. Raila Odinga now seems set to lose the presidential election for the fourth time by a margin of roughly 1.4 million votes with a turnout of 79%. The opposition disputes this tally, compiled alternative totals and boycotted the official declaration. How their supporters and perhaps the Kenyan judiciary will respond to their controversial claims, is still in question. Challenges and protests of the results at the county and national levels are likely as leading opposition spokesperson James Orengo vowed to “take legitimate constitutional action to remedy what has happened.”

Kenyan are now attempting to resume normal life after a tense campaign and election season. The relative peace and calm in Kenya throughout the process is certainly something to praise. Tensions remain, but international election observers have released preliminary claims backing the election as relatively free and fair. And election narratives warrant praise over Kenyan willingness to vote out powerful incumbents and elect women and relative newcomers to local and national positions.

Concerns over potential unrest are real. The last three incumbent presidential races (1992, 1997 and 2007) have all seen high levels of political violence. 2017 appears on the road to breaking this violent cycle, but the memory of these traumatic episodes have politicized public calls for peace and unity moving forward.

During this moment of cautious celebration it is important not to forget the past and reflect on the variety of issues that motivated millions of Kenyans to vote. Peace narratives were a prominent part of political and public campaigns, and helped subvert hate speech and the rapid proliferation of fake news. But just as citizens and the media widely preached Kenya ni sisi (Kenya is us), there was less acknowledgement that this discourse is also linked to a long history of wielding “peace” as a tool of both unity and repression in Kenya.

A Campaign Season Reminder

On May 9th 2016, while walking home from a day of research at the Kenya National Archives in Nairobi, my eyes started to well up with tears. Unfortunately I was not overcome with emotion at some wonderful scholarly breakthrough that day. Instead, I was struck like many pedestrians crossing University Way, with the fallout of the latest political protest.

In response to an opposition rally staged earlier that day to protest alleged corruption within Kenya’s electoral commission, the police descended on a crowd of protestors donning placards, chants and speeches, with Chinese imported water-cannons, tear gas, shields and batons. From video and social media, this state sponsored violence was wielded with disproportionately brutal force and fulfilled a promise made by the Nairobi police commander Japheth Koome. In an interview with the Kenya press the day before the planned protest Koome almost goaded the political opposition claiming in the name of ensuring safety that “We have the strength and capacity to stop any protests and ensure law and order is maintained. If they attempt to demonstrate tomorrow, they shall regret it.”

Since my brief encounter with police tear gas in the name of maintaining “law and order,” I have been struck by the notion that public calls for “peace” have long been used a strategic political weapon in Kenya and across many other autocratic regimes. From the days of Jomo Kenyatta’s regime to the Presidency of his son Uhuru, Kenya’s five decades of independence have been marked by wide ranging uses of “peace” to silence more messy notions of reconciliation and political change.

Silencing Memory and Dissent with “Law and Order”

When Kenya emerged from colonial rule it was a divided nation. In the 1950s, Mau Mau pitted radical freedom fighters against white and black colonial loyalists bent on maintaining their privileged positions within racial and class based colonial hierarchies. As a culmination of decades of colonial protest, Mau Mau was a war of liberation from within Kenyan society with 10,000s of casualties. Emerging from colonial rule with fresh memories of long term racial and class tensions, Kenyan needs of reconciliation went far beyond the removal of the Union Jack.

Kenya’s first president Jomo Kenyatta set an early example of how peace and the hope of future prosperity, was used as a weapon to silence the skeletons of the past. The Kenyatta regime made distinctive efforts to remake the narrative of Mau Mau from a divisive class struggle to a simple, unified independence movement. Even before independence, peace narratives were used to silence the lingering domestic critics of decolonization. Responding to rural claims of renewing the Mau Mau struggle for land after independence, in September of 1962 Jomo Kenyatta dismissed his critics and declared “we are determined to have independence in peace, and we shall not allow hooligans to rule Kenya.”

After independence, Kenyatta’s reign is often characterized as one guided by the policy to “forgive and forget,” with the messy internal tensions of decolonization deemed inconsequential to notions of progress. As Kenyatta claimed simply at the 1964 national holiday celebrating the independence struggle, “it is the future, my friends, that is living, the past is dead.”  

By 1966 though, historical cracks and infighting within the Kenyatta administration led to the formation of a new opposition party, the Kenya People’s Union (KPU). Led by Oginga Odinga, father of presidential candidate Raila Odinga, much of KPU’s public rhetoric pointed to the need to reconcile with and continue the struggles of the past. Land reform and Kenya’s growing inequality were just two of the topics debated within the global context of the disappointments of decolonization and rising Cold War tensions. These issues have remained a consistent critique from the political opposition ever since.

Instead of letting these debates play out on the floor of parliament, the policy of historical amnesia employed “peace” as a weapon to silence the opposition. From 1966-1969, opposition KPU members were publically harassed by the ruling KANU regime as agents of disunity and disorder. This led to a violent crackdown of KPU supporters following the high profile political assassination of Tom Mboya and subsequent protests of the Kenyatta regime in the KPU stronghold of Kisumu. KPU was officially banned in 1969 using a repackaged colonial law called the Preservation of Public Security Act which gave the President wide ranging powers to detain political dissents without trial.

From 1969-1991 Kenya was a one-party state with political detentions and even assassination used to silence dissent. “Peace and Order” narratives were often employed to justify crackdowns, with Kenyatta’s successor Daniel Arap Moi using many of the same tactics. Popular memory of this era is often one of fear, corruption and impunity for all state crimes committed in the name of political control.

By the early 1990s, internal protests, economic downturn and international pressure forced Moi to concede to multiparty elections. However even after the end of KANU’s one-party state, the ruling regime justified its marginalization of political protests using the old language of peace and security. During the initial widespread protests for multiparty rule in 1990, a former editor at the Daily Nation received a call from the Office of the President with a clear and threatening message, “cover the protests and it will contribute to the violence, you need to promote peace.”

With state sponsored violence, voter and press intimidation widely cited in Moi’s controversial re-elections in 1992 and 1997, the long term autocrat often responded to public calls for political change with silencing decrees. When violence first hit the Rift Valley during the campaign season for the 1992 elections, the state used their own complicity in the political unrest as a pretext to shut down peaceful calls for change with Presidential statements such as, “there will be no politics and no public meetings until law and order is restored.”

Why History Matters

(Historical comparisons of Uhuru Kenyatta to his father Jomo and initial political patron Daniel Arap Moi by political cartoonists Alphonce Omondi (Ozone) and Patrick Gathara—via Twitter)

As the sons of Kenya’s first President and Vice President squared off again in a tight race for the presidency it is important to acknowledge the impact of the past. The landscape of Kenyan politics has certainly changed dramatically since the 1960s. Kenyans fought hard to win their “second liberation” from one party rule in the 1990s. The opposition won a widely celebrated election in 2002, ending KANU’s 40 year political supremacy and delivered a new and progressive constitution in 2010 aimed particularly at checking the historic power of the presidency.  

However, the cast of characters in Kenya’s current election cycle are born out of the unresolved ideological struggles of decolonization and KANU’s 40 year grip on power. On both sides of the political divide, all the major players in the NASA and Jubilee coalition were members of KANU at one point in their career and benefited from the patronage of Daniel Arap Moi. Some were also victims of KANU’s repressive crackdown on dissent. In fact, the divide between Raila and Uhuru points directly to Moi’s choice to pick Uhuru and not Raila succeed him as the KANU presidential candidate in 2002.

Then relatively unknown outside of his presidential heritage, Uhuru positioned himself as the candidate representing the next generation of political leadership as opposed to the more senior Mwai Kibaki. However, Uhuru’s failed 2002 campaign vision offers a window into the influence of his father’s legacy as well as contemporary critiques of his government’s failure to deal with the crimes of the past. Unveiling his KANU vision of the future in October 2002, he spoke in a way that calmed fears of retribution among political elites and worried those advocating for change in the post Moi era.

We have to forget the past, however bitter we may be, and forge a common front to be able to overcome our emotions. We must therefore seek unity of purpose, learn to forgive and forget and march forward as a single battalion with one common goal of reconstructing our country for the betterment of all. (Uhuru Kenyatta 2002)

Peace without Justice

In 2013, when then ICC indicted politicians Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto won the popular vote, public calls for peace helped quell tensions and direct protests from the streets to the judiciary at a time when thousands of Kenyans were still displaced by the violence of 2008. Similar public calls are being made today. However, as Kenya’s controversial former anti-corruption czar John Githongo lamented after the 2013 elections “the tyranny of peace messaging has led many to feel Kenya slaughtered justice at the altar of a temporary and deeply uneasy apparent calm.”

Since 2013, the ICC cases against Uhuru and Ruto have been dropped as evidence was nearly impossible to gather with limited cooperation from a government some deemed the “alliance of the accused.” While the Jubilee government has improved access to basic civil services and completed large scale infrastructure projects, the forward looking agenda of economic development at all costs is often critiqued as ignoring the crimes of the past.

For much of Kenya’s postcolonial history, state response to political violence and historical injustice has been to form commissions of inquiry and produce reports of little consequence or action. After 2008, the state pledged a different approach and formed the most ambitious of these committees with the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC).Charged with the investigation of human rights abuses and other crimes of historical injustice committed from 1963 to 2008, many saw this as a bold step towards ending the culture of impunity. Delivering their final report in 2013, the TJRC’s wide ranging recommendations were quickly tabled in parliament, and as recently as July 2017, Deputy President Ruto claimed implementing the TJRC would simply divide Kenyans and re-open old wounds.

Kenya’s authoritarian past is an important reminder of the historical burden everyday wananchi (citizens) carried with them to the polls. For many Kenyans I speak with, an election devoid of violence is not a universal marker of success or progress. Civil society groups, activists and those most vocal about the need for change in Kenya have rallied around the increasingly loud cry that “peace without justice” is just a way for the status quo of historical amnesia and political impunity to continue.  

Kenya has the tools to deal with the crimes of the past. The bigger question is, can Kenya’s political institutions and civil society check the lack of political and public will to implement change at the top. Raila campaigned in part on a platform to address historical injustices and implement the TJRC. On August 8th however, the majority of Kenyans rejected this vision and chose to bet on incumbency to deliver economic development and combat regional security on a policy to forgive and forget.

Peace at all costs” won the day on August 8th and the international press will likely move onto the next “hotspot” if peace prevails. Having framed most of their pre-election narratives with the fears of “tribal” violence, Kenya’s more contested past and future is in danger of fading from global view. With the opposition still disputing the election, it is important to remember that peace narratives also cover up complex needs to address historical injustice and end a culture of impunity dating back to the days of Kenya’s first President Jomo Kenyatta, and have yet to be fully resolved by the re-election of his son Uhuru Kenyatta.

The winner takes all

Kagame in crowd. Image via Wikicommons.

Paul Kagame won last Friday’s presidential election in a landslide with 99 percent of the vote. The outcome is unsurprising. Before Rwandans cast their ballots, analysts were calling the vote a coronation.

The president campaigned on his record of delivering economic growth and national security. Since the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) took office in 1994, Rwandans now live in harmony and prosperity. Ethnic labels of being Hutu, Tutsi or Twa are a thing of the past, a relic of previous regimes who manipulated ethnicity for their own selfish political goals. Discipline and focus define contemporary Rwanda, where good citizens work tirelessly to promote national development, an impressive accomplishment given the intimacy, scale, and sheer brutality of the 1994 genocide.

In just 100 days, Hutu militias led the murder of at least 500,000 ethnic Tutsi. The genocide was a deliberate policy of a power-hungry Hutu elite who feared, after nearly four years of civil war, that power-sharing with the then Rwandan Patriotic Front rebels would diminish their ability to enrich themselves at the expense of the general population. The murders started in Kigali on the evening of April 6, 1994, spreading throughout much of Rwanda within the week. By the time the RPF stopped the civil war and genocide in July 1994, the country had experienced the most concentrated episode of mass political violence since the Holocaust.

With the moral and financial support of countries including the United States and Britain, Kagame has ruled since the genocide ended, first as vice president, defense minister, and de facto ruler until 2000, and since then as president with some 90 percent of the vote in three successive presidential elections (2003, 2010 and 2017).

The president is the head and heart of the Rwandan body politic, where thinking and dreaming big is rewarded.

Thinking big is, according to Kagame, the sole path to undoing Rwanda’s legacy of violence, while producing impressive economic growth, private investment, poverty reduction, and gender equality. Critics who seek to diminish these accomplishments by alluding to Kagame’s blood-soaked path to power are told to mind their own business. On this point, the President’s response to his detractors is unequivocal, “We suffered genocide, you did not.”  Outsiders who question Kagame are quickly labeled as racists, unwilling to recognize an African success story when they see one. Those who question or challenge RPF policy directives soon find themselves in trouble, either as agitators or people who are not committed to ethnic unity.

The RPF’s oft-repeated narrative of success is one of development, financed by economic growth averaging eight percent per annum since 1994, funded in large part by foreign donors. The benefits are unfairly distributed, accruing to a relatively wealthy, educated and English-speaking urban elite who came to live in Rwanda only since 1994. The majority of Rwandans, both today and before 1994, live in rural areas, eking out a living as subsistence farmers. Most are poor, living on less than two dollars per day, surviving on what they can produce. Poverty makes them risk adverse, putting how they live at odds with RPF policies to quickly upgrade their lives in the name of ethnic unity and development. The capital, Kigali, gives the appearance of prosperity, while the average rural household of nine people struggles with food insecurity and malnutrition rooted in land disputes.

The rural majority has always been subject to the self-serving decisions of political elites, whether Tutsi or Hutu. Throughout Rwandan history, winner-take-all politics has been culturally rooted in a system of dominance of the ruling group over the rest of society. The RPF leadership is no different from its postcolonial predecessors in this regard. The party has long used the institutional and administrative capacities of the state to organize Rwandan social and political life. The RPF’s Rwanda lacks strong public institutions to check or balance the power of President Kagame and his cronies. There is no reliable mechanism to allow for the peaceful transition of power to another leader, let alone a different political model. All powerful elements of the Rwandan state are under the president’s command — the police, the armed forces, the judiciary and government officials go along with his designs. If Rwandans feel uninspired by Kagame’s visionary leadership, they stand aside in the name of self-preservation rather than obedience.

Others, namely rural Rwandans, struggling to make ends meet under the economic and national unity policies of the RPF, know that powerful people make choices rooted in self-preservation without due regard for the rural majority. They also know that political and military elites use the machinery of the state to their own ends. They shellac their endorsement of their president with a paste of resignation and fear.

Kagame is not one to shy away from hard work, kowtow to critics at home or abroad, or worry about the harsh realities of rural Rwandans. His third mandate is premised on average annual growth rate of 10 percent. His RPF will continue to grow the economy, promising to make Rwanda an upper middle-income country by 2035 (which happens to be one year after his right to run for president runs out) and a high income one by 2050.

Reaching this near-unattainable goal will fall on the backs of rural farmers, as local officials do all they can to get as much as they can out of an already exhausted population. Doing more with less is a public virtue in contemporary Rwanda, even as the government stands accused of manipulating poverty-reduction data to rationalize its hard line on economic growth. For the time being, the government seems more interested in producing impressive statistics over investing in a diversified pro-poor economy.

Grandiose planning may prove the downfall of Rwanda’s charismatic president. The idea that tiny, land-locked, resource-poor Rwanda can harness a largely agrarian economy to propel the country to high-income status in three decades seems unlikely, given the vicissitudes of history and the country’s socio-political legacy. Rwanda’s past points to waves of mass violence, occurring every 40 years or so, when the ruling class fractures and ordinary people become the targets of physical, ethnically motivated violence. The ambitious, talented, and heavy-handed RPF shows few signs of bucking this trend.

Encountering the promised land: Rastafari in Ethiopia and Shashamane

Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie would have been 125 this year. Perhaps coincidentally — and indeed meaningfully for Rastafari repatriates in Ethiopia — the government just announced a decision to issue identification cards to foreigners who have contributed to the country’s development, Israelis of Ethiopian descent and Rastafari.

According to news agency AFP, a foreign ministry spokesperson discussed how this card would allow residence and many legal rights—such as the ability to come and go without a visa. “There were questions for them to recognise their presence in the country, so that is what the government did.”. In a separate report, the AP reported that though the cards allow for residency, this does not mean that Rastafari repatriates are yet considered Ethiopian citizens: “Thousands of people who will be issued the new identity cards still cannot take part in elections or engage in the country’s security and defense sectors.”

The new documentary film, “Shashamane: On the Trail of the Promised Land,” by director Giulia Amati documentary (screening on Afridocs, online or on BET on satellite TV), takes on a particular importance given these recent events. The film tells the story of the Rastafari repatriate community who have moved to their promised land of Ethiopia, specifically land that was granted by Haile Selassie in the late 1950s as thanks to the pan-African community for support during the Italian occupation. Amati’s documentary demonstrates the connections that Shashemene has to other places and other periods of history. Here’s the trailer:

 

The film is  a nuanced portrait of a community, but also a range of individuals who are connected to Shashemene. As someone who researched the Ethiopian perception of the Rastafari movement [and wrote a book about it–Ed], and has spent time in Shashemene, I was interested in speaking to her about the film and the way that she portrays and represents repatriation.

Can you talk a bit about this film? How did you get to Shashemene? 

The idea of starting to work on the story of Shashemene started from my previous project, a documentary entitled This is my land…Hebron. And it’s a movie that took me three years to make and was quite successful. What really attracted me to the story of Hebron was the underlying fight or search for identity through a piece of land. That was very interesting for me and I wanted to work on that topic. When I came to Hebron I was literally shocked. How come nobody is getting this information out–at least the way I’ve seen it? For Shashemene it was very different. I just started by going on the internet to find a new project: searching “identity,” “promised land” and other keywords. I came across Shashemene. But there wasn’t very much information. Then the book written by Giulia Bonacci, Exodus. Her approach is historical, which gave me a chance to tell the story of Shashemene as one that covers 400 years on at least three different continents. At the time Giulia was in Ethiopia doing research and  about to organize a Reggae Festival in Addis Ababa to which she invited elders and community members from Shashemene. She invited me along to get the chance to meet some of the elders and then eventually ask them to go down to Shashememe together. That was the beginning of this journey.

My research was about the Ethiopian perception of the repatriate community and the way that it has developed over time. But while doing that research I also fell upon Derek Bishton’s photographs and in your film his work sort of acts as a bridge. It demonstrates the history of the people and makes that connection to the past. 

At the time when I met Giulia we started doing some brainstorming and asked her about archival material that was out there. The first pioneers were very poor people they didn’t have cameras. So there is very little that documents this incredible story. But when she was about to publish her book she heard about [Derek] who had come in the 80s to document the story of the journey of some of the first pioneers. She gave me his email. When I met him, he told me, listen, I have just retired, and you came into my life in a moment when I am recollecting some of the key events on my life and trying to write a book. So what I am doing is also going through the pictures that I took during my journey in Shashemene and my project is to develop some of the pictures in a big format and eventually go back and see who of those pioneers have survived and what happened to their children.

I said wow, our timing really is good. About six months later I went to Shashemene to really start the filming, and I spent four months. At the end Derek came to Shashemene so we were able to coordinate. I knew when he was coming, but I didn’t tell the community because we wanted to preserve the genuineness of the significance of him bringing back a piece of history and giving the community the opportunity to see, through a small exposition, their history. It’s not just a family album, but a history that they have made through their journey and their life choices. It was quite moving to see how people from the community reacted because I felt that they were perceiving the bigger meaning that was behind those pictures. 

The film is obviously in three parts, three spaces: Ethiopia, the UK and Jamaica. Within those three you speak to a number of people, but the central person in Ethiopia is Ras Mweya, in the UK, Derek and in Jamaica, Ivan Coore. Obviously from what you have described, there is a reason for Derek, in that his experience in Shashemene thirty years previous made him an obvious choice, but can you talk about the other figures in the film? 

First, I think it was important to film in three continents for two different reasons. One is the functioning of the slave trade which links all three. The other reason was also to understand the journey and the hardship. This is where the key figures came in: one, a person who settled in Shashemene who was determined and stayed; and one who repatriated but had to leave. Derek is in England, but also in terms of imagery, that helped to created a contrast with the kind of society a lot of the people in Shashemene had escaped from.

And when I came to Shashemene it wasn’t easy, as it often is when you enter a community: to find your space, to create trust and to be truly welcomed by people. I needed to understand the community. It is quite complex. I try not to be naive, so I tried to give myself time to understand the inner dynamic. I didn’t want a narrow perspective. So I spent time understanding the people who allowed me to describe and have access to the community in a broader perspective. I wanted to give everybody’s point of view; it is why I made a choral portrait of the community.

With Ras Mweya — it was personal. We recognized in each other that there was a personal journey that we could do together. At the same time I also felt that his spiritual journey was deep and honest, and I think that really linked us. I grew up a lot by spending time with him, trying to understand the community through his eyes. At the end what happened is that one day he told me, listen, now it is time for you to decide the house where you want to stay. That was really the beginning of our interaction and it is really the beginning of the film. Because once I went to his house, I felt that I was safe, that I could start to put my energy into the filming process. Ras Mweya passed away just a month before I was able to bring the movie back to Shashemene. That was one of the most sad events that happened because he really wanted to see the final result of our work and it was very important for me to bring it back to him. I understood that Ras Mweya had the vision to know that through the movie, in a way, his legacy survived.

When I saw Ivan Coore speak in the film, it was very moving. Having interviewed him previously, I know how much he has wanted to tell his story. Could you talk about him a little?

Jamaica was the most difficult part to organize in terms of filming and production because in Ethiopia I spent a lot of time–six months in the community over three trips. England was easy. But in Jamaica I had very few contacts. I didn’t know what to do. And then, two weeks before I was about to leave, I finally received an email from Ivan Coore saying “I’m sorry, I rarely check my emails, and I saw yours and it is fantastic, I would love to meet you. Let’s talk.”

He was the man the wanted! A man who could tell a personal experience about Shashemene–not really a historical perspective, but personal. You could tell he was a man who really wanted to tell his story. At one point in your life you start to see your personal story as an element of a bigger history, and I think I was lucky enough to meet Ivan in this moment of his life. I think the story of Shashemene is what attracted me the most. This is the story of an incredible dream. Few people have the strength to try to turn their dreams into reality. When each of us dares to do that, each of us has to face how challenging it is to do this and how many compromises have to happen. So, as human beings, we often find ourselves in that place where we try to deny some the things that really didn’t work out. Because it is hard for us to accept that turning things into a reality can be hard and don’t work all the time the way we had envisioned and then there is a moment where you are able to see things in perspective: to see the good, the bad and to really analyse what happened and what you did. Ivan told the truth about his journey. 

I don’t know if you read Emily Roboteau’s book Searching for Zion, but it also looks at repatriation, and one of the powerful elements of the book, and I think your film also captures this, is this sense that repatriation is not an A to B process. Repatriation is not a journey that erases or exits the history of colonialism, the history of slavery, of what continues and impacts people to this day. Everything exists at the same time. It is about moving from one space to another, but it also is a journey that is more than that. It forces us to see the way in which history functions in the present. 

Repatriation is complex. I was fascinated by the search for identity of Black people who have decided to move back to Shashemene. It is linked to a physically journey, and the story of the place goes beyond that. It is not just a physical journey. I think at the end of the movie what I came to realize is that Shashemene represents a kind of a metaphor. The people have physically moved there and they find themselves in a sort of limbo: not at home in the west, going back to Africa and reconnect to roots, but even there not really being at home, welcome. In a way, it is a metaphor of how this process of emancipation is still going on. People in Shashemene are still fighting for the right to have citizenship. Considering the repatriation movement and the reparation movement, the pioneers went there without any help and they stayed there and they are a symbol of a demand that is bigger than Shashemene. They stand as a metaphor of a bigger process that is still going on. 

It is a very beautiful film. From a visual perspective, in terms of representing space, it looks like Shashemene. You focus very much on the community so you get a sense of how it looks and feels to be in that space. The same with Jamaica and the UK. Earlier, you talked about this concept of a “choral portrait” of the community. In many documentaries you have people named as they appear. Your film provides the names at the end of the film. Can you talk a little bit about this decision? How do you think it affects the representation of the space of Shashemene?

It was a conscious decision–I thought about it a lot. Because I knew how important names are for Rastafari and many people. Ras Mweya Masimba changed his name–renounced his birth name, the name that he inherited from a slave master to have an African name. I was aware of how important this was. At the same time, I wanted to be faithful to the experience and what I wanted to do is have the audience enter into Shashemene the way that I did. 

I didn’t meet or interview people because I had a list of people; I was knocking, door by door and listening to people’s stories. Little by little, by doing a sort of patchwork of different people’s testimony, I was able to create my own relationship and to trust people and I wanted people to get this experience about Shashemene. Not to make assumptions and decide on importance based on names and roles. I wanted people to share that sense of listening, and trust just by faces, expressions and stories. It was a bit of challenge to do that because audiences get nervous when you don’t give them a map of how to read things. So I the end I thought it was more valuable for the community to give that representation of history in this way. The editing is very slow–if you want to listen to the story, you have to sit down and wait. There are no short cuts. Of course, the names are in the credits. 

I figured that there was a reason. It functions as a documentary, but also as a portrait. It shows a community. Given the Rastafari theology of “I and I”, community is always a part of Rastafari. It’s a significant choice. The reality is that no figures in the movie are named: all are treated the same way. From Dr. Clinton Hutton at the University of the West Indies, to Ras Mweya in Shashemene, to Derek Bishton in the UK. What has been the reaction of people to the film? 

I’ve done screenings in Italy, Greece, England, South Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia and America. The audience reaction is very different, because of course this is a story that depends on who you are and the history you can grasp. For example, in England the premiere was at the Brixton and the audience was prepared. That was their history. And then in other places people connect more with the human story. Each of us is fighting to find who we are, what is home, and can identify with struggle, with people who have been abused and are fighting to restore pride and identity.

I went to Shashemene in November 2016 and the political situation was quite tense. I tried to get some support from the Italian Cultural Institute, but they said forget about it, we are not going to take any responsibility, we are not going to drive you down there. Then I thought, ok, I will need to organize myself on my own and again, Giulia Bonacci came on the scene and she was so supportive in terms of getting in contact with people in Shashemene, and had people helping out to get a room ready with a projector and so on. 50 people from the community showed up–which is a lot. Imagine, Raw Mweya has just passed away a month before so there was a feeling in the room. People were shouting with joy during the screening. After the screening there were a couple of people with whom I got closer during the making of the movie, very close friends of Ras Mweya. They hugged me and said, “hen you came here, you were a person we mostly trusted, I don’t think there had ever been someone we trusted so much, but that trust was 98 percen . There was still that two percent. We were wondering what is she going to do with us, with our history. But now after the movie, that trust is one thousand percent.” I feel like there was this recognition that we had done a piece of the journey together. And that is one of the most powerful feelings you can have as a filmmaker and as a human being–to see that you have done a journey with other people.

What about those Kenyans who can’t vote today?

Refugee camp in Kenya. Image credit Zoriah via Flickr.

Today Kenyans go to the polls to elect a new President. The campaign has focused on corruptionmajor infrastructure projects, and spiraling costs of living, while international media interest has focused squarely on the prospect of electoral violence.

The issue of the hundreds of thousands of refugees in Kenya has received limited attention, yet much has changed since the last election in March 2013. Refugees have become a red-button issue and the results on Tuesday will have important consequence for those seeking refuge in Kenya. 

The most immediate issue faced by refugees, in common with others, is the risk of violence. The violence following the December 2007 election has cast a long shadow. With over 1,000 dead and over 600,000 displaced, 2007-2008 marked the worst electoral violence in recent Kenyan history, although it was far from unique

Tensions remain high as voting approaches. The torture and murder of Chris Msando, a senior employee of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), has shaken the country, and follows the break-in by a gunman to Deputy President William Ruto home last week. Preparing for the worst, the National Police Service has marshaled 180,000 personnel from other agencies in advance of Tuesday’s vote.

On Friday, the office of the opposition, the National Super Alliance (NASA), was raided. With polls indicating a close contest between President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Vice President Raila Odinga, a narrow defeat for either candidate could lead to accusations of voter fraud and a “stolen” election.

Odinga, who lost the 2007 election by a narrow margin, has recently given assurances there will be no violence if the elections are conducted in a free and fair manner. Recent events raise concerns over whether the campaign or election can be characterised as either free or fair.

Kenyan politics have become increasingly security-focused since the last election, with refugees amongst those targeted. The attacks by al Shabaab on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in September 2013 saw 67 people die, while the Garissa University attack in April 2015 was the country’s deadliest since the 1998 bombing of the United States’ embassy.

Operation Usalama Watch, a 2014 counterterrorism operation, scapegoated refugees living in Nairobi. In the years since, 65,000 refugees have been repatriated to Somalia, with many returned involuntarily to unsafe parts of the country.

Refugees, particularly in Kenya’s cities, remain vulnerable to violence. Recent attacks in South Africa have shown how anti-migrant protests can quickly descend into xenophobic violence, while in Germany there are around 10 attacks on refugees every day.

If violence erupts in the wake of Kenya’s elections, refugees could be at the receiving end of similar attacks. In Nairobi’s informal settlements, where refugees from nearby African countries live alongside Kenyans, police protection can be scarce, while in neighborhoods such as Eastleigh, well known for its high density of Somalis, refugees have been targeted previously.

The election will have longer-term implications for refugees in Kenya. President Kenyatta, currently leading in polls, has been clear in stating he wants the number of refugees in the country drastically reduced. Earlier this year he reiterated publicly his plans to close Dadaab, one of the largest refugee camps in the world, despite opposition from Kenya’s High Court.

Kenyatta’s running mate, William Ruto, has previously called Dadaab a “centre of radicalisation” and “terrorist training” ground. Kenyatta’s victory could be seen as further support for the closure of the camp and the repatriation of refugees to Somalia.

Odinga has spoken of Kenya’s obligation to assist refugees. Last year he criticized the government’s plans to close Dadaab and return large numbers of refugees.

If elected, however, Odinga is unlikely to halt repatriation efforts. He may eschew some of the scapegoating that has become commonplace and step back from promises to swiftly close Dadaab, but he has previously proposed establishing camps within Somalia to stem the movement of would-be refugees. 

Kenya’s role as a major refugee-hosting country is unlikely to abate in the near future. Though efforts might intensify to repatriate refugees to Somalia, continued conflict will likely result in new arrivals in the country. The 73,242 South Sudanese who have arrived in Kenya since December 2013 are likely to be joined by others, as conflict continues, and strain on resources in Uganda sees yet more move on.

Whoever wins the election, a focus must be placed on upholding Kenya’s obligations to protect refugees, with such protection needed from both forced repatriation by the state and spontaneous attacks under the cover of electoral violence.

The crisis of the party-state in South Africa

Image by Paul Saad. Via Flickr.com

Left critics often cast South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) as an organization under the thrall of a homogenous elite, wedded to neoliberalism and the old economic structure.  Recent events have blown this interpretation open. The ANC elite is in fact sharply divided, and one faction seems largely impervious to corporate South Africa’s immense economic power.

A better understanding of the ANC’s incumbency can be gleaned from political scientist Roger Southall’s notion of a “party-state” which pinpoints how the ANC’s tenure in government has transformed it into a sort of machine through which different class forces and interest groups attempt to secure access to public sector jobs, contracts and other resources.

The party-state has empowered a ‘state elite’ who occupy cabinet positions and directorships in SOEs (State-Owned Enterprises, like ESKOM, Transnet, Denel and PetroSA), but it also been the vehicle for a much wider process of class formation, argues South in his book, “Liberation Movements in Power” (now also available in paperback).  Equity stipulations adopted by the public sector and the ANC’s fulsome embrace of political rather than merit-based appointment have turned it into the primary site for the creation of a new black middle class.

Two other groups have gained most from the ANC’s time in government. The first Southall terms the “corporate black bourgeoisie”–black businesspeople who succeeded in penetrating the boardrooms and share structures of corporate South Africa, many rising up in the initial waves of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) in which white business energetically sought to recruit political allies.

The second are a more diffuse class of capitalists who don’t enjoy such strong connections with the corporate economy. They are reliant instead on the ever burgeoning procurement spend of the state, which now comprises 42% of the total public budget ($372,9 billion) according to one report.

The current conflict is defined by the principal opposition of these two groups, with the rest of the party-state aligning according to different interests, ideologies and contingencies. The faction formed around current President Jacob Zuma is stronger in the provinces, where former Bantustan administrations that were sequestered into the new state have continued uninterrupted traditions of clientelism and cronyism.

But Zuma also draws wide support from individuals defending little fiefs of patronage throughout the party-state as well as middle class elements that are most alienated from the white dominated corporate sector and receptive to radical transformation.

The biggest drawcard for the camp of Zuma’s main rival, his deputy Cyril Ramaphosa, meanwhile is a generalized fear of electoral defeat which would jeopardize the viability of the party-state altogether. This is most felt in areas where patronage politics is less ingrained, although even the Zuma faction is not immune – witness the recent vacillation and possible defection of David Mabuza, premier of Mpumalanga province and formerly a key backer of the president.

Ramaphosa’s main support is rooted in regions of the party-state that have preserved credible institutions and elements of the Alliance where at least a measure of grassroots pressure is still felt, but he is also joined by individuals motivated by principle and wanting to arrest the decline of a once-proud organization.

Debating Anti-Corruption Politics 

Two positions on how civil society and the left should engage these developments, and the wider crisis of state capture, have dominated. One argues that working people simply have no dog in inter-elite conflicts: we lose with whichever faction is in power, so we’re better off not getting involved at all.

A second sees the fight against corruption as preeminent, and urges us to forge as broad a coalition as possible by suppressing our separate demands: making the fight solely about corruption and nothing else.

The veteran activist Zackie Achmat, on behalf of the #UniteBehind campaign, has defined a different, and I think more sensible approach. He acknowledges that different elites stand to win whichever way the conflict pans out, but doesn’t view the result as neutral for workers. Among other things, the Zuma faction is the far greater threat to democracy, and its perseverance promises a renewed slide towards the securitization of politics and abuse of the judicial independence.

Achmat is right – if the Zuma and the Guptas are unimpeded, the political environment will become much more hostile to efforts to build countervailing power against whichever faction of the elite happens to hold sway.

However, I think #UniteBehind was mistaken to have given the main platform to former Deputy Finance Minister, Mcebisi Jonas, at its march Monday ahead of the no-confidence vote in Parliament today.  The left should work with all who oppose state capture, but we urgently need to imprint our own politics on the movement – we can’t afford to allow corporate South Africa and its allies to continue to pose as the main enemies of corruption.

The policies pursued by the National Treasury and strongly supported by large-scale capital haven’t just been bad for working people because they destroy jobs and lower wages. They also produce the conditions in which patronage has taken root.

Patronage and Transformation

The party-state thesis encourages us to see the ANC and its 1,2 million members not as a narrow organization welded to one or another ideology, but as a larger social field shaped by the cleavages of a post-colonial society.

We need to emphasize this: cronyism and parasitism haven’t beset the ANC simply as a corollary of its own arrogance or through the influence of one or many nefarious individuals. They are intimately a product of the social landscape in which the party is embedded, and have festered most where the wounds of colonialism and its successors are deepest.

When the formal economy has most failed to create avenues for social mobility, the demands on the party-state—and the returns to patronage—have been greatest. This is so in areas left largely untouched by the corporate sector: destitute rural communities and townships where an incredible scarcity of employment intensifies the pressure on public functionaries to distribute jobs and resources to personal networks, greatly enriching those willing to do so.

It’s so in areas where the corporate economy is very much present, yet closed to new entrants. When black professionals experience an inability to advance because of a hostile corporate culture, because of old-boy networks, or simply because of a lack of new openings, they harden their attachment to the party-state. They become more sympathetic to any project that widens the domain of the state or directs its resources more forcefully to enrichment.

More widely, when new entrepreneurs experience an inability to grow because of entrenched monopolies or a poor economic outlook, they are more likely to pursue expansion through tenders and to invest in political relationships rather than innovation. They are more likely to excuse corruption as “transformation” and less likely to share large-scale capital’s concern with delimiting the authority of the state and guarding the independence of its institutions.

Patronage, in other words, flourishes where transformation flounders.

Conversely of course, new middle and upper classes are more likely to espouse capitalism’s supposed affinity for Weberian bureaucracy and state neutrality when they have a greater stake in the formal economy. When the corporate sector is not a world closed to them, when they share in its wealth and gain from its growth, they will root for a state that husbands enterprise and defends itself from takeover by sectional interests.

White capitalists understood this on some level – that’s why they worked so quickly to inculcate a network of political allies through share transfers as democracy was dawning. Ultimately this was an elitist strategy designed to forestall real transformation rather than further it.

It was transformation on the cheap. New black capitalists grew fabulously wealthy but remained few in number. Many slipped the leash somewhat by pushing for a slightly more assertive BEE policy, but ultimately they acted faithfully to defend big businesses’ core concern of keeping capital mobile and state regulation and spending confined.

The Treasury provided the greatest service to capital’s ability to resist transformation by exposing South Africa to the full discipline of financial markets. So whenever the transformation agenda threatened to escape the bounds of a gradualist and market driven framework, capital responded vociferously – like in 2002 when R2 billion was wiped off mining shares following the leak of a draft charter on mining transformation.

The Rise of the Patronage Faction

As Southall’s extensive scholarship shows, for all its various amendments, BEE has been tethered to the pace of the market. It spurts when asset markets and growth go up and reverses when they come down.

Thus the stock market boom of the late 1990s created the first tranche of black millionaires, then subsequently wiped many of them out when the East Asian crisis triggered a collapse. Most indexes of transformation floundered for several years after, but then lit up as SA experienced its only brief phase of high growth on the back of the global headwinds that ultimately ended in the 2008 crash.

The data on transformation since then is scandalous and under remarked in public debates. The one figure which has received wide circulation is share ownership, which the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) puts around 17% and Zuma puts around 3%, with the difference largely made up of indirect share ownership through pension funds.

Data from a black empowerment consultancy shows that black directorships on the JSE grew by 48% between 2006 and 2008 from 485 to 714 during BEE’s short bull phase. Between 2009 and 2012 they grew by less than 10%. In the four following years, according to the consultancy Who Owns Whom, there was virtually zero net growth in number of black directorships on the JSE – which numbered only 1043 in 2016 (the number of actual individuals who hold directorships is smaller since many hold more than one). Only around 15% of these directors have held executive positions in any given year.

The Commission for Employment Equity’s 2008 report found that non-white South Africans comprised only 23,3% of top management positions in the private sector (blacks made up 12,5%). In 2016 non-whites comprised 24,4% (with the black share shrinking to 10,7%).

There has been, in other words, virtually no diversification at the highest level of the private sector over the last eight years, and the trend in other managerial occupational grades is more or less the same.

Static proportions can always conceal changing absolutes, but in this case they mostly don’t. The reason that transformation has stagnated is that South African conglomerates have largely directed their attention abroad since the 2008 crash ended our debt and housing-driven growth spurt.

The meager growth that was sustained came only because the state was willing to pick up some of the slack, running constant deficits of around 3,4% of GDP and continuing to create jobs where the private sector has retreated. At a macroeconomic level the consequence has been a looming public debt crisis, a grave threat to the party-state machine which the new finance minister Malusi Gigaba is desperately trying to head off with (radically transformative) firesales of public assets.

At a political level the consequence has been a revanchist patrimonialism, aggrandizing those in the party-state who have no truck with the private sector, who support any project to use state power to crack open white dominance of the economy, no matter how dubious its protagonists. Lobbyists of black professionals and tenderpreneurs made their split with white business early when the Black Management Forum left the Business Unity South Africa in 2011 – since then they have become important backers of Zuma and Gupterization.

Other sections of the alliance that brought Zuma to power on the other hand, those with a popular base, have been weathered by the effects of the economic crisis and the contradictions of fighting for working class gains within a party beholden to middle- and upper-class interests. The famous slogan of Zwelinzima Vavi, former general secretary of the country’s largest trade union (in an alliance with the ANC), of a “Lula Moment” demanded that Zuma ditch his business backers and pivot to the workers and communists that brought him to power. Instead, he’s done the opposite.

The Treasury’s macroeconomic policies shaped the context in which these shifts occurred. That’s why we can’t afford to stave our critiques of them and other groups even as we march in the same demonstrations.

Fighting corruption is a precondition for improving socio-economic conditions, as Achmat points out. But improving socio-economic conditions may also be a precondition for fighting corruption. We need a movement that builds power for both struggles at the same time. The #UniteBehind initiative seems as good a place to start as any.

The world of photographer Osaretin Ugiagbe

Since he was ten years old back in Lagos, Osaretin Ugiagbe had been casually taking pictures. Using the family camera he would capture scenes from day-to-day life in the house, the neighborhood and thought nothing much of it. But from 2011 as a painter, and now living in the Bronx, he began feeling a yearning to make photographs. He started taking photos of friends; strangers on the streets and to document life around him. It was a 2012 trip to the Gordon Parks exhibition at the Schomburg that would serve as a catalyst into deliberate a photography practice.

“I remember seeing that exhibition and it all clicked” he said “the kids playing by the fire hydrant or by a fountain, and the natural composition had a very vivid, and very life-like effect. I found it to be very profound and moving. That is when it all started to click and I thought this is possible; this is what I can do.”

A collection of his photography and painted works are part of a show “Unbelonging,” at the Bronx Documentary Center on view until August 13th. “It is a diaspora feeling,” Ugiagbe explains about the show’s title, “it is a befitting title with the way things are going politically. Yet it also transcends race, gender, religion and politics.”

There tends to be a motion about the figures in his photos, even though they are static. “There is something I am looking for, something that I want to invoke or that I want to portray in these images even though I like them to be documentary. So while I am not controlling what is happening, the photographs I get the most fun out of are the ones where it is almost like I am using my mind to tell people what to do or painting with my imagination.”

They are also in black and white, something he attributes to the influence of old masters like Gordon Parks, Vivienne Maier and Malick Sidibe, and the timelessness and simplicity of the format.

“It cuts through the noise and takes you straight to the point without any distractions you can get from color. So with black and white I find it is much easier for one to convey using space, light and shadows.”

Ugiagbe spoke to Africa Is A Country about some of his own favorite photos.

This park is nearby my house in the Bronx, in Soundview. That was my first time meeting that kid and he was called Country. All the other kids kept calling him Country because apparently he just came from the South. So here is a country kid in South Bronx, New York. I would be around the basketball court trying to make a photograph with him and he would just give me these insane, very strong defiant poses. I asked why do they call you Country? And another kid answered “because he is from the country fool.” With images like this, I often find myself in my subject. That power, here is a young man who among his peers is the shortest – and we can see him flexing that little muscle – yet there is still this larger than life personality to him. And something very defiant about his gaze. He wants to portray that he is more than just a young man. That is something most people can relate to, and something I certainly feel I can relate to also. I didn’t have to ask him to pose for me or anything. It was just me with a camera and him just pretty much making images.

This is Jenesis Scott. It is a photo I feel says so much about her. For the fact that her name is Genesis, I would always joke with her, call her Exodus. She used to come around the Bronx Documentary Center (BDC). She is a good friend of mine, the neighborhood and the BDC. When I made this photograph  I had no idea what it would turn out to be, but she was caught in the moment and what I really liked was just the way it is composed: the deli at the back; her expression, I like the fact that her chest is there but you are not really seeing it. Because I feel like at times photographing women can be quite difficult. Because usually photographers tend to want to show something sexual. And for me I am okay with the idea of portraying women as just themselves, and or without inciting any kind of sexual innuendos. Just looking at a picture of a young lady and just looking at it for the sake of just the image itself. Which is why I personally like this image. There is a bit of a timelessness to it too, with the necklace and the scarf. But if you ask her I bet she will say, “Oh I didn’t have any makeup and didn’t put myself together” but to me it is pure, almost like a state of mind. The little knot on the shoulder I like as well. It could be a wrapper, it could be an African cloth. I think about West Africa, just seeing that little knot there, because I did that a lot. As kids we would put money in the African wax fabric and tie it. So these recognitions even if you don’t know how they seem to appear, do find a way of coming into the images of one’s practice.

This was taken from inside a bus. It is a great example of what really goes into making an image with regards to composition. I also picked this because I can connect it to the next image which gives a sense of being in Lagos in a car. But here we are in New York city in a bus and the image tells so much about life in the Bronx. I had just gotten onto the bus and here a few people were waiting to get on as well. I had no idea this is what I would make, until later when I got back onto my seat and looked back into the camera and saw it with the tilt and it was perfect. But I knew it was the time to use the camera. I felt like this was a great moment because I am on a bus and can see outside, and usually I like to photograph that particular wall with the life-line. Because it is by a bus stop, there are tons of people that usually stand around. The pose of the lady with the glasses for instance, I mean both of them and their gestures says so much. There is a gesture of wanting to survive I feel like, or insistence that we are here.

Apart from just the aesthetics of it, the reflections also in the image itself and that sense of unbelonging, or being somewhere and being the other are present. First of all you are wondering where the photographer is: it could be a train, it could be a bus, it could be a lot of things and this feeling of looking out, looking through.  

I didn’t do any post-production so far as tilting. And even the little detail at the very top; you can still see the little grey stains from water on the glass itself, the little white space on the very top corner and the black line also make it for me. It addresses a lot about being in a place, having to look through a lot and gazing at the other.

The previous photo was taken on a bus in the Bronx, and in this one I am back in Nigeria almost doing the same thing. You could see my traveling bag as well in the frame which says “hey I just arrived.” We are in a taxi in Lagos, just after having arrived. There were a bunch of okada guys driving through and it had this magic look, like a movie, with everyone frozen in time. Here the car and the rider are close, but it was great to see the wider scene of motorcycles on the street. There are tons of images I made, just from the back seat and you can see life happening, outside from the taxi window. But with this specifically the composition again is important. It contains the anxiety I felt about everyday life and being back home. Before this, at the airport it was quite interesting seeing folks want to help with your bag. I did document all those things. They are carrying your bag and you think to yourself “oh who are these faces”? They asked why I was taking photos of them and I said I was documenting life. They said “yes, yes take this back to America.” Even without knowingly doing so, this photo and the previous one are speaking to each other. In the Bronx and Lagos.

They call themselves the Johnsons. I was at the bus stop when I saw this group of kids with a guardian. The kid with the mask and the Bronx shirt caught my attention and they were all just full of energy. So I asked the guardian for permission if I could photograph them and she said yeah sure why not. When I faced the kids, they were so intelligent and full of life, they said, “Sir, Sir, is that a camera?” and I said yes it is a camera. “Are you going to take our pictures?” and I said yeah I am going to take your pictures. “Sir, Sir, can you make us famous?” and I said “I don’t know if I can do that but I will try.” They said, “yeah we are the Johnsons, we want to be famous so that way we can show our friends how famous we are.” And they just kept talking about fame. They are Bam Bam (mask), Sincere (arms folded), Najahpier (hat) and Jahray. Since I was like them once, black boys and African boys growing up in the Bronx, I’m drawn to making images of them knowing that they have their own unique stories and there is so much to learn from them. To keep hearing them talk about how they want to be famous and exuding so much life with all this great wisdom and personality was great. I mean look at them. They are a pack of personalities. A few days after this was made I saw them on the bus, and they kept screaming to their mom “Mom, mom, mom that’s the guy, that’s the photographer.” They came up to me and said “Hey mister, hey mister did you make us famous?” I had to speak to their mom and explain that I am a photographer. Because it was very awkward. When I had met them previously they were with a different guardian. So I ended up showing the photograph to mom and she smiled. I saw them a few times during that summer but haven’t seen the Johnsons since.

This is back in Lagos, my neighborhood around Arufa Street before you get to the major highway. This is something I had no idea I made; I was shooting from the hip obviously and this was in the evening while the sun was down. Almost feels out of place. I just wanted to shoot my neighborhood and there was a lady with a veil — I’m not sure exactly what kind – but something magical. There is some dose of mystery to it. It almost feels like she was cut and placed there. Almost feels like she emerged from somewhere. There is something very spirit-like in that image, very angelic in itself. It’s something that when I look at I can’t even put my finger to. It could be an Angel, it could be a spirit, I don’t even know. And obviously the wires, the electrical wires are such a reminder of life in Lagos. This photo is a gift: even though I made it, I feel like it was given to me in a sense.

Sunday read: A place to call home

Table Mountain panorama. Image credit Damien du Toit via Flickr.

I recently traveled to Cape Town, where I was born. On this trip, I spent most of my time hunting for a place of my own when I eventually retire. I will most likely end up living one of those neighborhoods that were declared “white group areas” during apartheid.

On this trip, I decided to stay in three different Airbnbs in the city center. My last Airbnb was an apartment in Sea Point, a seaside neighborhood on the edge of downtown. My host was a “friendly” white woman who exchanged carefully probing pleasantries with me in an attempt to assess my brief tenancy in her apartment. She asked where I worked and whether I knew Sea Point. When I responded that I spend my childhood in Sea Point, with my mother in the back room of an apartment block like hers, she looked at me with a hint of alarm as if I had just told her “No, I don’t want chicken, I want land!” But I had a good stay, and after three Airbnb experiences I will certainly book through them again.

How many times, growing up, had I looked with intense longing and yearning to live in one of those big homes that were reserved for white people? One of my earliest memories is playing quietly on the back stairs of the flat where my mother and I were staying as live-in help. It was in the then whites-only, mostly Jewish, Sea Point. My mother worked for, what seemed to me, an ancient white Jewish woman, who would endlessly call her name in a whining voice for yet another errand of fetching, or carrying or complaining. “Katy! Why do you leave me alone? Can’t that brat of yours see that I need you?” By that time I had learned to be quiet, play quiet, act quiet, become a little shadow, because that live-in job was the only thing that stood between us and being homeless and destitute.

We called my mother’s employer ou merrem (old madam), and to me she seemed like the oldest, loneliest women in the world. No one visited. But, she still got fully dressed every day as if she was expecting company. She would line her tired, wrinkly eyes with eyeliner and mascara, her lips a brilliant slash of red lipstick that bled into the many wrinkles around her mouth. Her thinning hair was coaxed into a little grey helmet by a hairdresser once a week, and her face was caked with a powder that made her look like the movie version of Ms. Havisham. She insisted on having toast with marmalade every morning, and long after my mother left her employ, my mother would still ask me to buy her marmalade for her own toast. My guess is that she probably sneaked marmalade for her own bread during that time, and acquired a taste for it. I tried marmalade myself much later, but its sweet bitterness made me gag. I equated it with a constant ssshhh from my mother, who wanted me to swallow my laughter and my tears in case it disturbed ou merrem. It tasted like mouth-without-tongue. I still cannot stand marmalade.

One thing I did learn from watching and living silently as a shadow close to ou merrem, was compassion for a lonely old women. She was abandoned by her own family, and spent her last days with a women who served her loyally, but with a reluctance borne out of living on the racial margins of an apartheid South Africa.

Many years later, I chaired a panel of gender activists from South Africa at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts where I had a visiting research fellowship. One of the panel members, a white women, recalled her own childhood relationship with her black nanny by remarking that she was raised “on the back of a black women’s pain.” She sensed the resentful duty of her nanny who had to leave her own children in the blacks-only homelands to raise a white women’s child. That unexpected disclosure in that polite gathering of American academia caused a zebra reaction in the room: the white academics self-conscious with embarrassed memory, and the black women conflicted about this disclosure in a space where they were used to keeping the personal at a dispassionate academic distance.

That brings me back to the last two weeks in Cape Town and my house hunting. Like other black South Africans with post-apartheid gains, armed with options, I decided to cast my net wide in search for a house. This meant considering previously whites-only areas. Of course, my search was happening in circumstances other than I had imagined as an activist in apartheid South Africa. Our “revolution” was televised, but it happened around a negotiating table, and so, our present is quite different to how I had imagined the future then.

Back then, my dream house was picked out in the previously whites only area, perched against the slopes of Cape Town’s Table Mountain with the ocean lapping at its feet. I imagined I would live out my days in a space that I chose freely, in a non-racial South Africa where race and class were not a determinant of where and how you could live.

Today however, history, work, activism and study have provided me with experiences and competencies that privileges me in a context of inequality. This context remains our biggest challenge as a nation.

How strange it has become to go into the homes of white folks and find, behind all of that history and its evidence of the gains of exclusion, that they were, so… well, ordinary. Yes, there were kitchens and living and eating spaces on a different scale than I had known growing up. However, instead of candles, they had light switches with dimmers. Instead of Primus stoves, a Smeg oven. Instead of a pot to boil water for coffee, a Nespresso machine. They had all of the mundane, sometimes banal items we use in our homes — the same function, different form. I don’t know what I had expected, when all I could catch during the apartheid years was glimpses of white lives. The contours of our homes were the same, and shaped by the same basic needs: shelter, security, rest, sustenance. And yet.

One of the towns the estate agent took me to was in beautiful Hout Bay, on the southern edge of the city. Do towns have a personality? If so, Hout Bay always seemed to me as if it was enveloped in a little bubble of smug complacency. Of white privilege existing alongside the black margins of exclusion. I recall some years ago, most of Hout Bay’s inhabitants drove around with stickers that proudly proclaimed, “Republic of Houtbay.” Those of us, who lived in the impoverished townships of the Cape Flats and the poor black communities of Imizamo Yethu (Hout Bay’s resident squatter camp), were not amused. There was talk that they would eventually introduce visas for outsiders who wanted to visit. The stark inequality between rich and poor remains cleaved around race. Months after a devastating fire destroyed homes in Imizamo Yethu, families are still living in a sprawling refugee camp-like community of flimsy zinc structures. Many of the houses that I was taken to looked out over this camp where families have to contend with the cold Cape Town winter and its many storms. It is our very own Tale of Two Cities.

What astonished me was that so many of the homeowners that I met spoke with great disparagement and angry resentment about the service delivery protests raging against the City of Cape Town. At the same time these same people have the largest collections of art depicting quaint scenes of “township life” on their walls: women carrying water on their heads white chatting and smiling, children (piccaninnies?) playing with each other, African masks, framed posters of Tin Tin in Africa in boys’ bedrooms and Mandela busts. Is this what is meant by bringing the outside inside? All that was still needed was a rendition of “The Lion Sleeps tonight.” I just couldn’t understand the disjuncture between Africa as aesthetic and an expressed sensibility that was distinctly, well — let’s just say unsympathetic. I can’t whitewash this attitude, one quite frankly dismissive of the destitute plight of their black neighbors. I felt as if I had entered a parallel universe.

If change truly fixes the past, while transformation creates the future, then how do we reduce the lived reality of black lives only into art on a wall? What happens when change becomes symbolism “framed” through art and objects, instead of a frame breaking through transformation? I love Hout Bay, and some of the homes were truly spectacular, but I couldn’t stand Hout Bay’s ingrained culture of white privilege and white entitlement; its smug air of complacency. And I love, love that area. If and when art and life collides, what is a girl to do who is looking for a quiet scenic place to retire to and write for the remainder of her days? We all want ‘n plekkie in die son (a place in the sun), for all of us, not just for some of us.

And yes, these are ice cream problems. Middle class problems, but I think I’m going to keep searching. I want to find my village and my tribe, and I want them to be non-racial, non-sexist and non-discriminatory. I need to find my own plekkie, but not in a way or a space that creates shadows for others. So I guess I won’t be packing up just yet.

As for Cape Town, it stills feels as if it’s a place where race remains far more important than class. So best to stop trying to reach an invisible, unattainable benchmark that shifts from the right brand of clothes or car to area to live, and just do you. Live in a democracy, not a self-declared republic. And if you do live there, do your bit. Break the frame.

Joseph Kabila’s special relationship with South Africa

Jacob Zuma and Joseph Kabila. Image via Government of South Africa Flickr.

On June 25 this year, president Joseph Kabila travelled to Pretoria for the annual bi-national council between the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa (basically a regular cabinet-level meeting between two countries). Kabila is known for rarely leaving the country (aka his presidential residence). Some argue that it is due to fears surrounding his unpopularity for overstaying his presidential mandate, which officially ended last December. As a result, his eloquent foreign minister She Okitundu, one of the co-founders of the ruling PPRD, tours capitals for crisis-and donor-diplomacy on his behalf. But when it comes to South Africa, things are a bit different.

South Africa may be Kabila’s closest bilateral ally and represents a key lifeline for his continued grip on power. A key to preserving this lifeline has been Kabila’s close personal relationship with South African counterpart Jacob Zuma, and his “business partners.”

South Africa-DRC relations not only highlight the emerging moral bankruptcy of the African National Congress (ANC), but also serve as an embodiment of the malaise facing South African political life as a whole. In a recent podcast, Jason Stearns of the Congo Research Institute (he has published on this site too), and Stephanie Wolters of the Institute for Security Studies in the UK, emphasized that South African policy towards the DRC is increasingly monopolized in the South African presidency, while the South African Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its embassies are largely sidelined. This leads to a peculiar dynamic in which instead of pursuing South Africa’s national interests in the DRC, Zuma legitimizes the DRC’s government’s poor explanations for delaying elections, and tolerates increasing instability in the DRC.

Following the end of Apartheid, South Africa had somewhat successfully cultivated a moral high ground in intra-African affairs, which made it a preferred mediator in intra-African peace accords. This especially applies to the Great Lakes Region. Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki were heavily involved in the negotiation and signature of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement in 2000, and in the signature of the Global Ceasefire Agreement between Burundi and the CNDD-FDD in 2003. A useful footnote is that at that time Jacob Zuma was South Africa’s Deputy President, and chief facilitator of the ceasefire negotiations. South Africa also played a key role in the facilitation of the Inter Congolese Dialogue (ICD), which cumulated in the signature of the Sun City Agreement (named after the infamous South African luxury casino resort), and paved the way for the DRC’s historic 2006 elections. Additionally, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has more than 1000 troops stationed in the eastern DRC as part of the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), which operates as part of MONUSCO. Given its legacy as mediator and contributor of peacekeeping troops, one would assume that South Africa has an immediate interest in promoting peaceful democratic transitions, and the rule of law. Yet, South Africa’s foreign policy in the region has increasingly facilitated the opposite. 

Following the discovery of mass graves and the displacement of 1.3 million people in the DRC’s Kasai region, South Africa watered down a strong call by the United Nations Human Rights Commission for an “international investigation”, and in effect legitimized the Congolese government’s opposition to such an investigation. Similarly, South Africa has allowed the South African Development Community (SADC) to take a hands-off approach on the Congolese electoral delay, but given the SADC’s poor track record in enforcing democratic accountability among member states, this should not come as a surprise.

With regards to the delay of elections in the DRC (that, according to the constitution were supposed to be held before December 2016), South Africa has given legitimacy to Kabila’s instrumentalization of political dialogues to fracture political opposition and buy time. This coincides with other major partners, such as the US and the EU implementing targeted sanctions against Kabila’s entourage, and key bilateral allies such as Angola openly criticizing the Kabila administration. Which may partly explain why Sindika Dokolo, the son-in-law of Angolan President Jose Dos Santos, was recently sentenced in absentia in a property dispute, a ruling which is widely seen as politically motivated following his vocal criticism of Kabila’s continued grip on power.

Along with its political involvement in the DRC, South Africa also has substantial economic interest and leverage in the country. Take the Grand Inga III project, whose timeline was recently pushed back further by the DRC government: South Africa is earmarked for 2,500MW of the project’s total expected production capacity of 4,800MW. South African mining firms also have a substantial presence in the mining of copper, cobalt and gold ore. In terms of economic leverage, South Africa is the largest exporter in goods and services to the DRC, providing 30% of total imports according to the Johannesburg-based South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA). The SAIIA also points out that South Africa’s government is the third-largest donor to the DRC in absolute terms, and leads donors in terms of development assistance as a percentage of GNI.

But similar to South Africa’s domestic economic policy making, national economic welfare can take a backseat to cronyism. Six months after a bilateral summit between Kabila and Zuma in 2010, Kabila awarded Zuma’s nephew Khulubuse Zuma two oilfield licenses in Lake Albert via a presidential decree. Though the extent to which Zuma personally benefitted from the arrangement is disputed, a City Press investigation has suggested that Zuma played a crucial role in bringing about the presidential decree. The licenses are linked to two firms in the British Virgin Islands, and are associated with the controversial Israeli Dan Gertler, as recently revealed in the Panama Papers, and a subsequent US investigation. Ironically, a presidential decree in 2008 initially awarded one of the oil licences to Divine Inspiration Group, a venture  linked to business partners of Thabo Mbeki. This confirms the view that the rot in the ANC goes beyond “Zuptazation”, and is rather rooted in a long-term dynamic of institutionalizing cronyism in the party. 

South Africa’s foreign policy towards the continent, or more specifically the DRC, was never benign, but always a mixture of sometimes contradicting economic, political, and moral commitments and interests. However, those hoping that the ANC would at least be partly inspired by its revolutionary legacy should be more disappointed than ever.

While South Africa’s recent policy towards the DRC shines a light on the political economy of cronyism in South Africa as a whole, the real victims of South Africa’s emerging moral bankruptcy are those brave women and men struggling for the first peaceful democratic transfer of power in the DRC. The number of displaced people in the DRC is the highest of any country on the continent and at a record high of 3.7 million, while elections continue to be out of sight.

It is disheartening that South Africa legitimizes its foreign policy through the rhetoric of “sovereign political development” vis-à-vis “Western interventionism” when it was intra-African solidarity for democracy and majority representation that helped bring about the end of Apartheid.

Hey VICE! Put some respeck on Nollywood’s name!

Still from promo for Vice on HBO.

Though VICE has, in some ways, improved its Africa coverage — see, for instance, its reporting on the political crises in the Central African Republic —it continues to offer some familiar, adventurist, Tarzanist tricks. Think of the infamous “cannibals”-in-Liberia episode, which prompted the late New York Times reporter David Carr to pillory VICE executives for their exoticizing methods. Those affiliated with VICE appear to have learned little from Carr’s blistering critique. 

Among the worst offenders is its correspondent Thomas Morton.

Take VICE’s recent television segment on Nollywood — the second half of an episode that HBO first broadcast in April, and that remains available through HBO’s streaming services. Having presented filmmaking in Uganda as a wild jaunt reflective merely of a devil-may-care masculinism (not the first time VICE employed this approach in its coverage of the country), the company has now, through Morton, turned to Nigeria as a further source of wonder for white correspondents and, it is strongly and repeatedly implied, for white audiences (whom the segment’s white host addresses with a conspiratorial “you”). Thus if “you” don’t recognize the names Genevieve Nnaji and Ramsey Nouah, then “you” must not be African. (For the uninitiated: They are Nollywood stars — Ed.)

Introducing the segment, VICE CEO Shane Smith (incidentally, he reported the Liberia cannibal episode) offers a strikingly dubious assertion: “For nearly 100 years, Hollywood has essentially had a monopoly on the movie business.” This is not an auspicious beginning, relying as it does upon a number of galling generalizations — the stuff of a film historian’s nightmares. But it also portends the episode’s presentation of a broadly defined, hegemonic Hollywood as the center of global media production — the “norm” against which all filmmakers are necessarily judged.

No mention is made of cinematic traditions — including nontheatrical distribution — that have long flourished irrespective of Hollywood’s efforts, or that have actively contested the industry’s export power through quota systems and other regulatory mechanisms. Nor is any mention made of the multiple film industries that operate in Nigeria alone. Thus we have, once again, the erroneous assertion that Nollywood is the Nigerian national film industry, rather than a geographically and even ethnically specific enterprise that is, in fundamental ways, unrelated to its counterparts in the north — including the Hausa-language film industry dubbed “Kannywood.” Rooted in the Islamicate cultures of Kano and Kaduna, Kannywood is, as usual, entirely effaced through VICE’s emphasis on Nollywood. (A casual nod to the diversity of filmmaking practices in Nigeria, at the very least, would have been nice.)

A familiar fallacy — that, because Nollywood equals Nigeria, there are no alternatives in this allegedly totalized and totalizing country — leads to the misplaced assertion that Nollywood is “the second biggest ‘-ollywood’ in the world, after Bollywood.” That VICE is still peddling a 2009 UNESCO report that has long since been discredited by scholars — not to mention complicated beyond recognition by industrial practices in the intervening years — is hardly surprising. And yet Morton, the segment’s host, repeatedly mispronounces “Lagos” as only an American can, initially reporting from the Lagos Civic Center premiere of Pascal Atuma’s Bloodlines (2014).

Proceeding to identify Nollywood’s emergence with the 1992 production of Living in Bondage, Morton makes at least two rookie mistakes that speak to the broader problems with VICE’s take on Nollywood: not only does he fail to mention either the film’s producer, Kenneth Nnebue, or its director, Chris Obi Rapu — a courtesy that would surely have been extended to any Hollywood filmmaker — but he also further obscures the men’s influential achievement by suggesting that one can only discern the conditions of the film’s production through recourse to “legend”: Living in Bondage was “made, according to legend, by an electronics merchant.” Simply put, that is like saying that Citizen Kane was made, according to legend, by a former theater director. Suggesting that “legend” — that national-cultural hearsay — is required to explicate the origins of Nollywood is patently offensive. It ignores the growing number of carefully researched scholarly accounts of Nollywood while perpetuating the racist myth of Africa as a “dark continent” where basic facts prove stubbornly elusive and altogether impossible to “prove.”

That Nollywood is extensively consumed in the diaspora is implicitly denied in the episode, which claims that the industry’s reach is merely “Africa-wide.” Things get considerably worse, however, as Morton decides to try his hand at acting. “With dreams of making it as a genuine Nollywood movie star, I set out for Alaba,” he declares with colonialist panache. Since “there are auditions for numerous Nollywood films every day,” he expects to book a job, even though he is careful to avoid those who “charge a dubious audition fee.”

“You’d think that there’d basically be roles for just about everybody,” Morton proclaims. What he doesn’t mention is that open-call auditions, though numerous, are typically only for small roles and are further conditioned by Nollywood’s sophisticated star system as well as by the Actors Guild of Nigeria (formerly operating out of the National Theatre and now dispersed in offices throughout the country). In her valuable book Nollywood Central, Jade L. Miller details the various guilds and trade organizations that structure Nollywood, offering an important counterpoint to the sort of portrayal that VICE provides.

There is a telling moment when Morton, ensconced in his spacious hotel room, puts up Nollywood posters and announces, in voice-over, “I’ve never given much thought to acting. I think that getting into Hollywood just always seemed off-limits. But maybe I’ll have a shot [in Nollywood]. I can be, if not the Elijah Wood of Nigeria, maybe it’s Pat Morita.”

Morton’s monologue thus perpetuates a condescending perception of Nollywood as Hollywood’s “lesser,” more “accessible” African counterpart — a lowly industry that even someone with no experience can breezily “infiltrate.” If Morton thinks that it’s easy to “break into” Nollywood as an actor, he would do well to read any number of biographical accounts of the industry’s top stars, the vast majority of whom toiled for years, in a dizzying number of capacities, before becoming household names. What’s more, in her remarkable 2012 memoir Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria, the writer Noo Saro-Wiwa debunks the fanciful, tempting notion that Nollywood is somehow able to accommodate anyone who makes it to Lagos. But it is Morton’s reference to Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, the Oscar-nominated star of John G. Avildsen’s The Karate Kid (1984), that is perhaps most instructive. For if Morton believes, however ironically, that he can “be” Pat Morita, he also, apparently, believes that he can “be” Nigerian — at least in an audition in which, wearing fur and wielding a cow’s skull, he rants and raves, spouting “African” gibberish in a manner that would make even Rachel Dolezal’s jaw drop. 

Morton seems eager to emphasize the “excessive” style of Nollywood acting (perhaps in an effort to excuse his own histrionics). Comparing it to Kabuki theater (!), he complains that he’s accustomed to the more “natural” acting that, in his inescapably ethnocentric view, is characteristic of American movies. It falls to the accomplished Nigerian actor Gregory Ojefua to calmly explain to Morton that, quite simply, what appears “abnormal” to him may appear “normal” to someone else — and that Hollywood acting is as stylized, in its own ways, as Nollywood acting (which, in any case, can seem hyperrealist from a Nigerian perspective). Like Ojefua, the Nigerian filmmakers Cyril Jackson and Victor Okpala manage to put Morton in his place — Jackson by briskly rejecting his pathetic audition, and Okpala by asking him to try out for the role of “terrorist” (a request that forces Morton to scrunch his face in comic disbelief — a cute, bespectacled, boat-shoed white boy as a deadly terrorist!). Portraying a man who comes to confront the terrorist, one Nigerian actor delivers a line that could well apply to Morton himself, and to the entire VICE enterprise: “You think you can come to this country and destabilize everything?!”

Morton’s next stop is an audition for the legendary filmmaker Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen, who reluctantly hires the American hipster to portray a Catholic priest in his film Love Upon the Hills, which shoots on location in Benin City. One gets the impression that Imasuen was compelled to include Morton, and by extension VICE, in the production of this film. That is not to suggest that Imasuen lacks agency — that he could not have said no. It is simply to indicate that the entreaties of a heavily capitalized, wide-reaching media producer like VICE would be difficult for anyone to resist. Imasuen may well have recognized the importance of publicizing his work, and that of the broader Nollywood industry of which he has long been a celebrated part, for HBO’s massive global audience. 

While Morton continues to characterize Nollywood in offensive terms, claiming that it “came to ape the West” in terms of “quality of [film] production” — and describing iROKOtv (which he mispronounces) as “your basic African Netflix” — the eloquent Imasuen has an opportunity to describe the industry in his own words, with an insight born of experience, passion and, above all, respect.

What’s bad for America’s children deemed good for others: Riposte to Nick Kristoff

Liberian school children. Image via UN Photo Flickr.

Writing in The New York Times about the growth of privately run for-profit schools in Liberia, the paper’s columnist Nicholas Kristof praises the turnover of a significant number of public schools in Liberia to Bridge International Academies, a US-based for-profit education company. That same company that has been ordered to close its schools in Uganda and Kenya for its neglect and disregard of national educational standards.

Kristof claims that those who oppose the commercialization of education in Liberia and elsewhere, including Education International, are driven by ideological motives rather than the interests of children. This is incorrect. Around the world, the teaching profession is the most outspoken advocate of children’s right to quality schooling. That right is to be realized by governments. And where public authorities fail to make their public schools work, they need to be held accountable and pressured to do better rather than permitted to wheel in the marketeers to do the job they were elected to do in the first place.

Kristof believes that Americans are grown up enough to handle their own education system, but without a shred of evidence he offers that the “solution” for Liberia is to turn their schools over to a foreign, US based corporation.

Liberia experienced two civil wars, the first from 1989 to 1997 and the second from 1999 to 2003, followed by a transition to democracy and elections in 2005. The destruction of those wars left the population vulnerable to the Ebola virus in 2014 and 2015. That catastrophe inflicted serious damage on the economy and education.

Education is a public service that enables people to listen, sows the seeds of tolerance, heals wounds and develops critical thinking. It is a building process that contributes to development, good governance and decent societies.

On the other hand, education that limits such progress, restricts discussion, and focuses exclusively on a few narrow skills fails children and society. Bringing in private education operators, particularly in relative obscurity, is not an example of good governance. Handing over Liberia’s primary and pre-primary education system to a foreign for-profit company like Bridge is as bad for Liberian education as it is for the country’s democracy.

It is of deep concern that deals between the government of Liberia and the education privateers have been so opaque and that independent research and evaluation have been dismissed. Despite the promise that any significant expansion of the privatization project would depend on some rigorous evaluation six months into the trial, the Ministry of Education decided to double the number of schools in the project’s second year.

This earned the Minister a public rebuke from the government appointed evaluation team and the criticism  of the international academic community. Suppressing independent research and evaluation and precipitous action are linked. Both have the effect of limiting governance by chilling or blocking informed, public discussion.

The current situation in Liberia is best summed up by Mary Mulbah, the President of the National Teachers’ Association of Liberia (NTAL), who wrote on Africa is a Country last week:

Ultimately the key question is this: why is our own government so incapable of managing this critical public service that it must give the keys to our children’s future over to foreign companies and charities who often seem to have little to no understanding of our country and culture?

As teachers, we have a profound interest in seeing a well-financed, responsibly managed, modern school system that grants all of our students the best chance to succeed in difficult circumstances. But we believe this is best achieved through robust public investment, better administrative management, and stronger accountability for teachers as well as the ministry officials that supervise them.

Noting “successive studies,” Kristof himself acknowledges that for-profit schools “hurt children” in the US. Yet, without missing a beat, he proclaims that they are good for Liberian children.

In the US, as in Liberia, support for the privatization of education systems is not based on objective information, evidence or informed debate. It is, rather, driven by ideology; by the dogma that private must be better than public. It is only recently that much of the American public has realized that they have been victims of exaggeration, empty promises and deception.

Liberians should not be guinea pigs in an experiment to transform the noble mission of public education into a market opportunity for foreign capital.

So, a plea to Nicholas Kristoff: let’s not wish upon other people’s children that which we would not accept for our own.

* This text was first submitted to the New York Times as an oped response to Kristof. The paper informed us that it does not “run response pieces as op-eds.”

The popping sound of rubber bullets

Still from film Metalepsis in Black

The first, unsettling moment in director Aryan Kaganof’s “Metalepsis in Black” comes early as the film depicts academics and student activists strolling into an anonymous conference room to prepare for a meeting while the familiar noise of a student protest, chanting, screaming and rubber bullets, is overlain like a soundtrack.

The camera, in black and white, fixes on a dreary patch carpet.

“She shot me, for no fucking reason!” cries a woman in the audio.

The camera cuts to a man sitting, waiting for the meeting to start, breathes in and exhales. 

“You do not understand our pain! Our black pain!” a faceless man shouts.

An older woman opens a newspaper while a younger one scans her phone.

“Are you going to shoot us now!” and an answer in the popping sound of rubber bullets. 

After more than two years of media coverage these sounds are now familiar to anyone following closely the South African student movement known as Fees Must Fall. 

For the uninitiated, Fees Must Fall, also known by the hashtag #FessMustFall, arguably began in March 2015 at the University of Cape Town as Rhodes Must Fall, a campaign to decolonize the university that was centered around a statue of Southern Africa’s apex colonialist, Cecil John Rhodes, erected in a place of honor at the top of UCT’s campus.

Still from film Metalepsis in Black

Later the same year, in October, protests against fee increases broke out at the University of Witwatersrand and other universities, culminating in a march to the Union Buildings. While fires burned and students faced off with policy outside, South Africa’s government capitulated, with President Jacob Zuma promising no fee increases for the next academic year with funding from the state to make up the universities’ budget shortfall.

(As an aside, student protest has been going on in post-Apartheid South Africa since there was a “post” to the “Apartheid”, much, though not all, of this student protest has been confined in the country’s poorer, black universities. Why Fees Must Fall was different in the attention it received and its success is probably in no small part due to it’s association with historically white universities such as the UCT and Wits or “proximity to whiteness,” as the students might themselves say.)

Metalepsis in Black is a discordant film, attempting to incorporate a multiplicity of thoughts and views around one unifying idea, the decolonization of universities in particular and of South Africa in general. Like Fees Must Fall itself, it also describes itself as “intersectional” a term used, mostly in academe and progressive social movements since the late 1980s, but resurrected by Black Lives Matter to describing how different marginalized identities can intersect within one person or a group and how that can create a particular kind of discrimination.

Intersectionality has been key to Fees Must Fall from the beginning with many of the activists at Rhodes Must Fall not just identifying themselves as black students, but as black female or black queer students. Later, at Wits, female leaders began to self-identify as such by wearing doeks around their heads.

These political statements were not made without challenges from fellow activists, usually with accusations of factionalism, often from men. The result can be cacophonous, with contrary, marginalized identities butting into each other. Yet, it is difficult to imagine both Fees Must Fall, or this film, without it and hard to justify why one more marginalized identity should be sidelined for unity with another. 

There have been few protests in South Africa’s post-Apartheid history that are as documented, with videos, with articles and on social media, two books and one documentary as Fees Must Fall. In that context, it’s hard to think of how these images and ideas can bring the same visceral shock, having already played again and again.

Still from film Metalepsis in Black

However Kaganof does manage the feat in “Metalepsis in Black”, by taking the familiar and rearranging it. Those same images of police rubber bullets, nyalas, students throwing rocks, and the explosion of shock grenades are juxtaposed with another well-known setting: a meeting, utilitarian furniture, the passionate yet respectful tones of the academy and those small, cylindrical tea cups that are so ubiquitous in conference rooms. 

The film is not easy to access. Talking heads appear on screen without textual introductions or necessarily clear context. Early on, black consciousness theologian and Fees Must Fall critic Barney Pityana appears upside down, the video of him inverted. The film gives the viewer the impression of happening into a conversation half way through. The film could be accused of being insular, with the terminology used likely alienating to viewers not already versed in the language of the academy, intersectionality and activism.

The purpose of the documentary is ostensibly to discuss the role of the intellectuals in Fees Must Fall or, rather, their relative absence. This is framed in part as the charge that South Africa’s intellectuals, many linked to the country’s prominent foundations or universities, have largely either abstained from supporting Fees Must Fall or have limited their role to critique, tut-tutting about the student movement’s lack of underpinning theory.

This reminds me of an old joke about a pair of philosophers, one a British empiricist and the other a French rationalist, I think. Arguing over some point, the exasperated Frenchman half-concedes the point but asks: “Yes, yes, I agree it works in practice but what about theory?”

It was hard not to think of joke when hearing the accusation that FMF lacks theoretical underpinnings. Fees Must Fall was probably the widest-scale protest in the past 20 years, it was probably the most disruptive, especially in the context of the “white spaces” of South Africa’s historically white universities and it was on the surface the most immediately successful. It’s also changed the country’s nomenclature, the relatively anodyne calls for “transformation” in public discourse have been replaced by the headier demands for “decolonialization.”

Still from film Metalepsis in Black

But two young people in the film attempt to answer the question, “Where is your theory?”, with not a little frustration. In a sort of interlude on a minibus, student journalist Julia Fish in a discussion with other students references regular meetings to create a framework about what Fees Must Fall should be about.

As part of the meeting which opens the film, writer Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh notes that the lessons learned during Fees Must Fall are now spreading to protest in Europe and the United States and students themselves are creating the theory as they go along. Fish has a related thought, arguing “in that chaos of the momentum of moving this forward is where I think the answers are. But instead of embracing that chaos we’re constantly trying to shut it down.”

Likewise, positionality plays a role in understanding why black students at elite, formerly white universities found themselves in a relatively privileged space when compared to their compatriots at formerly black universities. And it is an early way of framing the role of the intellectual and academic at universities early in the film. 

Through a recording, a speaker accuses the academy of being characterized by whites studying and “exploiting black pain” in townships for their own career advancement. There is some truth here. Whites are still heavily represented in the academy and social sciences, while the poor in South Africa and political movements studied are almost exclusively black. Angelo Fick, one of the more recognizable public intellectuals in the documentary (he is a resident political analyst on South Africa’s most popular 24-hour news channel), uses an anecdote about a multi-racial group of nurses using three languages, including African ones, to communicate, a scene that would be difficult to imagine replicated in a university department meeting where discussions are likely to be conducted in English or possibly Afrikaans.

So part of the challenge of Metalepsis in Black is whether intellectuals and academics can move beyond this and contribute something positive towards the decolonialization of not only higher education, but also South Africa as a whole. The answer appears to be mixed. In the film, individuals are treated as complicit in their privilege. This includes the filmmaker himself, who with text in the film suggests the possibility of his own potential as a perpetrator of sexual violence. Positionality itself can also suggest that intellectual’s role is flawed to begin with.

Still from film Metalepsis in Black

These issues are usually framed as students vs. intellectuals. Though some students might be surprised to learn how many of their lecturers are themselves still completing their postgraduate degrees or are poorly paid. Positionality can be useful but when as essentialist scripture, it can place persons, in this case academics and intellectuals, in a difficult position.

Do academics treat #FeesMustFall as just another a subject to be scrutinized and critiqued while whistling past the tear-gas scented graveyard? Or should they become involved in a movement where their motives will be unflaggingly, and possibly unfairly, interrogated by their own students? It’s a question much bigger than the academy itself, where some South Africans in some position of privilege are asking themselves, “How do I be good in this moment?” when the moment on some level requires them to take a back seat. 

Regardless of the answer, the note Kaganof ends on is a fitting one, with a young woman admonishing the academy and calling it to action. “It’s no longer good enough to write in the name of Fees Must Fall. It’s time to start taking bolder actions to start using our power to start using our privilege for this noble cause,” says the woman.

“Your silence has been painful. Your silence has been painful.”

Sunday read: Cultural appropriation and sugar drinks

Que Bajo?! performing at Red Bull Music Academy Culture Clash during the Red Bull Music Academy in New York, April 28 to May 30, 2013. Image credit Christelle de Castro via Red Bull

It’s the year of Bieberton. Drakeobeats. Sheerenhall. It’s also been five years since Okayplayer/Okayafrica had me sit down with Diplo, the DJ and producer, to talk about the ethics of appropriation in the global music industry. A lot has changed since then, and excuse the cliché, but unfortunately a lot has stayed the same.

In my personal life, I reached a milestone — a goal that grew in the back of my mind that day we sat in an exclusive corner room in Manhattan’s Ace Hotel, while Diplo did a swift job of acquitting himself of any blame in the formation of the problematic industry we now inhabit. I realized in the midst of that 6-hour conversation (only a snippet of which made it to publication), that perhaps instead of trying to dialogue about these issues (I felt we weren’t doing anything other than displaying Diplo’s impeccable media training), I would perhaps get further illustrating my point by making content that was exemplary of it. I have since come to that point, and am only now realizing the implications of what that meant for myself and for the projects I have decided to take on.

One of the things that I didn’t know then, and suspect now, is that perhaps the reason why Diplo agreed to do that joint interview, was because at that moment he was at the precipice of being untouchable in the music industry — one of the go to producers that gets called on to magically engineer global hits. However, at that time, something in my analysis of his practice had struck at the core of what was wrong with it. Maybe he felt that because of the position he was precariously coming in to, he needed to address that critique. But at the end of the day, I’m sure its because he didn’t want that fucking with his money.

Lo and behold, the following year, Diplo would be named as one of Forbes Magazine’s top 10 most paid DJs and earn upwards of $13 million as a DJ/producer/brand ambassador. As it turns out, during our conversation the elephant in the room was exactly that.

So, while he talked about throwing $40,000 a year down the money pit that was Mad Decent, a platform for promoting global musicians — often from marginalized communities, the reality was that less than one percent of his annual earnings were going to that venture. What would ultimately be a tiny bit of startup capital that would reap him huge dividends in the future (as a Hollywood super producer for projects with million dollar budgets), was not even a splash in his bucket.

What’s perhaps more frustrating for me, is that today many people focused only on the cultural appropriation aspect of my critique of Diplo (particularly those engaged in a certain kind of identity politics) and didn’t quite grasp that I wasn’t actually mad at Diplo for working with others or promoting other people’s cultures (which if we were all on even starting ground materially wouldn’t be as much a problem I believe). What I was mad at was that he turned cultural appropriation into a form of capitalism, the core critique of which is that wealth isn’t fairly distributed in proportion to the various parts’ input (labor).

As far as that personal goal that came up in the back of my mind that afternoon, that has manifest itself in a full length album called Salone. Salone is the name in the local language, Krio, for my father’s home country Sierra Leone. It is a collaboration with a blind street musician named Sorie Koroma, artist name Sorie Kondi. We are from different worlds, but for some reason our collaboration makes sense. Music writers and interviewers have been trying to wrestle with why. I don’t have a very clear answer for them. They often know me as the one who railed against cultural appropriation, for my pointing out neocolonialism in the African vinyl trade industry. How can I participate in another Western meets African musical collaboration without stinking of hypocrisy? But I fear that concentrating on those aspects of my critique is to miss out on the original point I was trying to put forward.

The current music industry landscape is one in which an artist needs capital in order to get heard. This capital often comes from corporate brands selling a variety of non-music related material, such as Red Bull, Heineken, Ray Ban, Levis, and an assortment of others. Essentially this has turned musicians, DJs, producers in to default advertising agents, just without the job security and benefits (healthcare, retirement savings, paychecks!) of their colleagues with full time jobs at the corporation. The freedom that freelancing allows you to create, set your own schedule, travel is seen as a fair trade off.

It is not.

As I write this, I’m sitting in London in one of my music partner’s dad’s flat (nice digs, but not a fancy Ace Hotel corner room by any means). I’m here because I’m on a promotional tour for the Kondi Band. Our label is based in London, and I know that Europe is a better place for us to tour this kind of music. They have tons of festivals, often funded by their national governments, that allow up and coming, experimental, underground, classic and lesser known acts to get their foot in the door or sustain a career. There’s one big problem: Sorie Kondi is not here since his travel has been put in limbo by the UK’s immigration agency. We have had several shows cancelled, even though we’ve offered an alternative set up that resembles more of a Jamaican Soundsystem-style show. So, we are losing money, and I’m stuck here waiting for my scheduled flight home (we don’t have enough money to change the flight.) I don’t know the future of the project because Sorie’s passport is also in limbo somewhere called Sheffield, and we don’t know if future tours will be put in jeopardy because of this situation. Add this to the fact that we are currently on a race against time to get enough attention to be able to justify the financing of the recording of a second album to our label and distributor. An international project like this needs infrastructure and capital to survive. The project as a whole is currently in several thousands of Euros debt, and after five years of hard work, it is in danger of falling apart.

Which explains my tweet tangent this morning:

This music industry is aboslutely infuriating.

— International Black (@intlblk) July 20, 2017

Musicians are stuck between the market and the state and neither are very kind to us.

— International Black (@intlblk) July 20, 2017

Even more so if you are poor or are from a poor country.

— International Black (@intlblk) July 20, 2017

I wonder if music fans understood how that really effects what even gets made, that the music industry itself would start to change.

— International Black (@intlblk) July 20, 2017

I know, I’m a touring DJ. However, I’m not the only one who will tell you that the glamorous life of a touring DJ is not all it seems on the outside. People have little patience for complaining over-worked DJs however, as evidenced by the popular Twitter account @djscomplaining. However, I am now in my mid 30s, have a new son, and have to deal with the life realities of adulthood that my 20-year old self (the age when I set off on this journey) hadn’t even considered. And this industry was not built for longevity for most people.

I chose to stick around. I don’t know why beyond a kind of lingering idealism. I originally saw this platform and my talents as one of the few ways I could affect some kind of change in the world.

However, the more I stick around the more disillusioned I become.

Perhaps another moment of truth for me was my participation in the Red Bull music academy in New York in May of 2013. I wasn’t an official participant, but because I was a Brooklyn resident involved in the local scene, the folks at the Red Bull Music Academy (some of whom I know from the underground scenes we came up in) got me involved. I got paid $2,000 to write an expose on African immigrant clubbing in New York. I remember sitting on the train the day it was published, gleaming with pride as I looked around at my fellow riders reading my cover story. While knowing at the time deep down that Red Bull Music Academy was problematic, I felt in many ways validated for that moment as a writer, DJ and cultural observer.

Friends of mine went even further with their engagement with Red Bull. The now defunct party Que Bajo participated in the Culture Sound Clash in Manhattan that year, and received $50,000 to put on a large show incorporating many members of our local community, and even flew in folks in that influenced the formation of it. It was a fun moment. However, it was very flash in the pan.

That Que Bajo is now defunct, is fairly indicative of the problems we are dealing with in the contemporary independent electronic music scene. Money troubles eventually led to in fighting and we realized that the temporary influx of capital only served to draw a wedge between members of our community rather than uplift it. It’s also a cliché that money causes more problems, but seeing it in action doesn’t make it any less painful. What I would chalk that up to ultimately, is that our expectations were temporarily raised, our potential temporarily realized, and when we could no longer live up to those moments our own self-worth was put into question.

I joke to friends that after leaving New York for Rio de Janeiro, I realized that everyone in New York City has the 2-steps-from-Kanye disease. Meaning you are suffering through paying the rent and trying to survive in this creatively stifling advertising industry and Wall Street driven city, but you’re only two steps away from Kanye so you won’t quit it. What that really means is that you’re in the center of capital. You can see it all around you, but like a mirage of an oasis in the desert you can’t actually touch any of it.

Five years after Diplo and I talked about appropriating underground New York queer culture (fyi, he currently has his sights set on Afropop). Queer electronic musicians are now central to the mainstream independent music media and New York scene. Some DJ friends (usually straight males) will joke: if you’re not a queer woman of color DJ in Brooklyn, you’re not getting booked in 2017. As I laid out in 2012, the industry like to focus on certain scenes as the flavor of the day. But, I also know many of the queer women of color DJs in Brooklyn and they’re just as frustrated. I imagine that is because even politically progressive identity politics can become fodder for corporate advertising agencies profit margins, eventually sewing the kind of internal community discord that I saw happen with Que Bajo. So, even with more representation for marginalized identities, something is still broken in the deeper system.

My Twitter rant continued:

In creative industries, investment capital is measured in likes and follows. Passively clicking is actually a form of market participation

— International Black (@intlblk) July 20, 2017

I even don't know a better forum for this info than Twitter, a corporate entity that deals in real estate speculation and gentrification

— International Black (@intlblk) July 20, 2017

So if you're a real human being, trying to live in the real world, you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't participate.

— International Black (@intlblk) July 20, 2017

Belgian producer collaborating with West African artists, Max LeDaron chimed in:

As I reach the final stages of my own record, some thoughts of selling out to the far right energy drink company crossed my mind

— Max le Daron (@maxledaron) July 20, 2017

and then I thought "nah let's struggle"

— Max le Daron (@maxledaron) July 20, 2017

@intlblk but seriously, funding on your own a proper mix and master + a few videos is nearly impossible, and I don't believe in crowdfunding

— Max le Daron (@maxledaron) July 20, 2017

Me:

The beauty of pre soundcloud touring big club internet celebrity naija oil money was that the shit didnt have to be perfect to get heard

— International Black (@intlblk) July 20, 2017

Kuduro was all over compressed and distorted

— International Black (@intlblk) July 20, 2017

Max:

yeah, I feel like today you NEED to have videos, you NEED to sound crisp, you NEED to hire a PR dude…

— Max le Daron (@maxledaron) July 20, 2017

Me:

We fucking drank the sugary juice and cut off our legs in the process

— International Black (@intlblk) July 20, 2017

Diabetes!!!

— International Black (@intlblk) July 20, 2017

And what Max is pointing to is an unfortunate reality of the contemporary creative world. We are dependent on the rightwing owned sugary drinks and jeans and sunglass companies to allow us to create. Our value as creatives in the USA at least, the largest national music industry in the world, is completely based on their patronage. Which is perhaps fine if you’re at the top of the food chain (capitalism is designed to have only a few people at the top). But, in reality, unless you own your own platform like Jay-Z, you really have no leverage, bargaining power or even really true creative autonomy (just ask Kanye).

Contrary to the utopian dreams of the early Internet, the idea of a more democratic communications space has given way to a system of capitalist exploitation. Anything that challenges the core of the system we create in is forced to eek out an existence on the margins, that is until it gains a million likes on youtube and Drake remixes it. And even if an entire community gets “put on,” ultimately all they want is the polished, likable, followable, palatable (sugary drink), exclusive-able content that will get these companies their virtual social capital, which only they can convert into cold hard cash.

And the truth is, even Jay-Z isn’t immune, since he has made deals with even bigger corporations like Samsung and Sprint to ensure his ability to create. Think about that. Even the richest creatives in the room are not completely free to create whatever they want. And it doesn’t matter what kind of politics you profess in the music, identity or otherwise, those corporations still get paid. (And I think Jay-Z and Beyonce’s actual politics of pseudo black nationalism and feminism as a cover for corporate capitalism is vapid and disgusting.)

I know this isn’t going to sink in with everyone who reads this. I feel like much of the point on cultural appropriation I was trying to make was lost in the flash and splendor of the social media driven media environment.

What I want however is for all individuals to really try and understand what’s happening in the current Internet-driven creative economy, to look at the kind of world we want to create, and invest in the positive humanistic aspects that make us feel more like humans in a healthy supportive community, and society as a whole.

There are many alternatives as my friend Nati Conrazon like to point out (follow her, and everyone she follows for some great music and culture related initiatives trying to bring the power back to all the people!).

As for me?

I'm gonna keep making records whether I have the capital or not.

— International Black (@intlblk) July 20, 2017

 

The bad immigrants

Abraham Paulos.

The last time Abraham Paulos was arrested by the NYPD was in the early morning hours of October 23, 2010. He was walking home around 2:30 a.m. from his late shift at Franklin Park Bar in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. On New York Ave. and Dean St., two blocks away from a robbery that had occurred on Nostrand and Pacific, he was stopped and interrogated by patrol officers. Paulos, now Director of Communications for the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), was a graduate student at The New School, and recalls being preoccupied by his upcoming midterms at the time of the stop.

“What was really funny is that I could have been on that corner. So I’m like, well I’m really happy that I didn’t get robbed. But on the other end, now I’m being arrested for a robbery. I was confused,” he said. The victim identified him as possibly one of three assailants that had assaulted and robbed him.

Despite mentioning that he had proof of his clock-out time back at his workplace, and possible CCTV footage from a bodega up the street, he was handcuffed and informed he would have to go through the system. After almost a day at the New York Police Department’s 77th Precinct where he was fingerprinted, questioned by a detective, and informed of his charges — four felonies and two misdemeanors — he was taken some blocks away to Central Booking, a holding facility attached to the court where his arraignment took place.

At the time, immigration activists in the city and state were pushing then-Attorney General and Governor-elect, Andrew Cuomo not to implement Secure Communities — an Obama-era program that allowed the fingerprints taken from all bookings, regardless if you were charged or not, to be forwarded to the FBI and shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE could then request local law enforcement to detain an arrested individual if there was any suspicion of an immigration violation.

“Had it been implemented, it is really a wonder if I would be here or not,” Paulos said, “because my fingerprints would have made it to immigration, my previous contacts from more than a decade ago would have come up and there would have been questions.” But it was in Central Booking that the question of where he was born first came up.

Like Paulos, few immigrants at the time made the connection between their immigration status and the potential for deportation if they came into contact with the criminal justice system. Although Paulos’ family came to the US legally as refugees from Eritrea, he was still just a permanent resident. Therefore, contact with the criminal justice system could have put him on ICE’s database and flagged for deportation.

At his hearing, Paulos’ public defender was confident he would be released on his own recognizance. But the judge ordered that he post bail after noting previous convictions on his record, including jumping a turnstile and stealing books from a public library in his teens. Unable to pay the bond, Paulos found himself on a bus to Rikers Island prison, which, like the precinct and Central Booking, was mostly full of black and brown people, or as Paulos describes it, “the immigrant makeup of New York.”

A fellow prisoner at Rikers, realizing Paulos was not a US citizen began to impress upon him the urgent need to get out of Rikers. “He’s like yeah you need to get out of here,” Paulos said, “And I responded, ‘clearly I need to get out of here for a myriad of reasons.’ But he insisted I needed to find a way to leave immediately because ICE is going to try and deport you.” “ICE? You mean INS?,” Paulos inquired, recalling many years of dealing with bureaucrats from the Immigration and Naturalization Services as a refugee. “No ICE. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”

As an immigrant with a record who escaped the clutches of ICE at Rikers, Paulos is constantly reminded by immigration advocates of how lucky he is, and how unique; like an “albino rhino in the jungle,” he said. His roommates eventually raised $2,500 for his bond. As he was leaving Rikers he walked past two ICE officers coming into the building. After his release, he began to volunteer with Families for Freedom helping to inform and assist immigrants like himself who were caught up in the criminal justice system.

Paulos and his colleagues are dedicated to eradicating police practices such as racial profiling and broken windows — a policing philosophy that emphasizes prevention of low level violations in order to reduce overall crime rates. Critics of broken windows policing, which was embraced by the NYPD in the 1990s, have long-argued that it disproportionately impacts communities of color. Black and brown New Yorkers also still find themselves overwhelmingly the targets of stop and frisk policing, even though its use has been reduced in recent years.

As a result of these policies undocumented people of color in New York City have a higher chance of having contact with the criminal justice system and thus possible deportation. A 2016 report from BAJI and New York University Law School’s Immigrant Rights clinic showed that while Black immigrants comprise 5.4 per cent of the unauthorized population, between 2003 and 2015 they made up 10.6 percent of all immigrants in removal proceedings. In 2013 three quarters of the immigrants removed on criminal charges were black, compared to less than half of all immigrants overall.

Since Paulos was arrested some local and national reforms have been implemented in an attempt to limit the connection between the criminal justice and immigration systems. In November 2014 the Obama Administration introduced the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), to replace Secure Communities. That same year, the New York City Council, as part of its sanctuary city policies, passed legislation removing ICE from Rikers Island, as well as legislation to not honor detainer requests from ICE. A detainer means that a person is held in jail after completing their sentence so that ICE has time to transfer them to another facility and begin deportation proceedings. The exception to this is that NYC honors detainer requests in cases where the charged individual has committed a violent and serious crime in the previous five years, and there is a warrant from a judge. According to the NYC Council, not honoring detainers has protected over 3,000 New Yorkers per year from deportation.

And yet the problem of information sharing with ICE still haunts sanctuary cities like New York. An arrest can put an immigrant who doesn’t hold citizenship on ICE’s radar because they are fingerprinted upon entering a police station — whether they are eventually charged or not. According to Connor Gleason from the Bronx Defenders, even without programs like Secure Communities these fingerprints that are sent to a FBI database can be accessed and scanned by ICE.

In 2015, when the legislation to remove ICE from Rikers Island was enacted, home raids went up in New York City since ICE no longer had a presence at Rikers from which to conduct operations. In general, about 950 out of 1250 ICE pick ups in a typical week in 2016 were from arrests by local police and sheriff departments through information sharing according to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. “So just to let people know exactly what New York City is really about,” Paulos said, “the NYPD and the police policies that are here have actually been the greatest incubator feeder into the deportation system.”

Law enforcement and city officials maintain it is more complicated than that. An NYPD-wide email from Police Commissioner James O’Neill emphasized the Department’s commitment to “maintaining a welcoming environment for immigrant communities while also maintaining public safety for all.”

The NYPD, attributes New York City’s historically low crime rates, in part to the success of practices such as broken windows policing. But critics of broken windows maintain that the increased potential for contact with the immigration enforcement system is one of the consequences of aggressive policing of low level infractions. Yet there is a hesitation to move away from a system that Mayor Bill de Blasio, a former public advocate, has embraced saying that it is “still the right approach.”

“The bottom line is do the New York police want to do the job of federal immigration officials or city police?” said Dennis Kenney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “If the latter, then how they relate to all communities is important — do the citizens in those communities trust the police and are they willing to engage with them?”

It’s an important question in a city where over half of the population is either immigrants or the children of immigrants and more than 500,000 undocumented immigrants live in the city.

The NYPD points out that it doesn’t inquire about the immigration status of people its officers interact with. “But from a city police effectiveness perspective, the police shouldn’t care where those citizens come from; only that they trust police enough to work with them and embrace a lawful culture,” Professor Kenney, asserts.

For Council Member Carlos Menchaca reforming the NYPD’s policies is one of several changes that are needed if New York is to achieve its stated goal of being a sanctuary for vulnerable immigrants.

“Just as broken windows isn’t one specific law or practice, sanctuary and criminal justice reform must be accomplished by several means,” said Menchaca who chairs the Council’s Committee on Immigration and represents Brooklyn’s 38th District. “Engineering sustainable change in New York City is a challenge that must be met with a combination of advocacy, protest, legislation, budget priorities and policy reform.”

For Abraham Paulos, New York is a sanctuary city for those who don’t have contact with the criminal justice system. “The thing about criminalization in New York City, and nationwide is that it is a process,” Paulos said, “You might not have a conviction today, but what about tomorrow? We are talking about a conviction machine that is on 24/7 and a lot of those who were “good immigrants” before, are now “bad immigrants” because they have had contact with the criminal system.”

Connor Gleason, from the Bronx Defenders, cautions against making assumptions about NYC’s sanctuary city status. “It is not as if when you cross the border into our city you are safe,” he said.

To create a more robust sanctuary city, members of the New York City Council have taken two related approaches aimed at reducing the number New Yorkers who are deported. One is to reduce the number of people who have contact with the criminal justice system, the other is to support people who have already had contact with police.

The first strategy, announced on June 13th 2017 as part of the Criminal Justice Reform Act is to make infractions such as public drinking, public urination, excessive noise, violations of park rules and carrying open containers of alcohol, civil tickets rather than criminal summonses. The City’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings anticipates this change will divert 100,000 people from criminal court each year. Likewise, the Manhattan District Attorney has announced his office will direct fare evasion cases — like Abraham Paulos’ original crime — into community service. The Brooklyn and Queens District Attorneys will monitor the Manhattan example, with an eye to implement similar programs. Last year the police arrested around 24-thousand people for fare evasion and issued over 67-thousand civil summons, sending the civil offenders to the Transit Adjudication Bureau to pay a $100 fine.

For the second strategy NYC has set up a publicly funded immigrant defense fund. The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP), started in 2013 with $500,000 to provide immigrants with removal orders a public defender to enhance their fighting chance. According to Peter L. Markowitz, the director of the Immigrant Justice Center at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and one of the leaders of the initiative, the program has helped 2,348 detained immigrants.

This year, Mayor De Blasio  proposed $16.4 million to support the program, but with the catch that people convicted in the past five years of any of 170 serious crimes (including murder, rioting, rape, patronizing a prostitute, manslaughter, and possession of a controlled substance) would not be eligible. Numerous members of the City Council, including the Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, opposed the carve-out. The Mayor’s office and the City Council are still negotiating the details of the program.

Of the 325 clients served by the NYIFUP from December 2016 to May 10, 2017, 63, or 19 percent, had convictions on the list of 170 crimes. The NYC Council is also working with the state, according to Council Member Vanessa Gibson, to address the presence of ICE agents outside courthouses — an issue outside the control of the Council since the courts fall under state jurisdiction.

Connor Gleason, among the first lawyers involved with the NYIFUP, believes it is an indispensable program, but maintains that the Council could do more to help people with convictions. “A lot of these convictions, many of them nonviolent, stem from many years ago and are a consequence of broken windows policing,” he said, “and the criminalization of low income members of our communities.”

The tools at the city’s disposal are the ability to, “work with the court system, fund programs for immigrants, and inform immigrants about their rights,” Council Member Gibson says. She argues that comprehensive immigration reform is what is ultimately necessary, but she doesn’t expect, “that is going to happen with this President.”

For Abraham Paulos, “it is about the preexisting pattern of criminalizing black and brown communities in general.”

“My biggest fear,” he adds, “is that we will not learn from (the last election). My fear is that we are just going to continue to do the same thing. And if we continue to do the same thing it is going to be a situation where I won’t be the only one with unnecessary fear in the community.”

* This story was originally published by Feet in 2 Worlds, an award-winning news site and journalism training organization based at The New School in New York. For the past 13 years, Feet in 2 Worlds has brought the work of journalists from a broad range of immigrant communities to public radio and the web.

Sudan–the second time as farce

For six years rebel forces in Sudan’s South Kordofan and Blue Nile states (the Two Areas) have been battling the Sudanese government. Round after round of negotiations mediated by the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa have failed to bring an end to what is a continuation of the second Sudanese civil war (1983-2005) fought by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement against the Sudanese government army. The 2005 peace agreement between the two sides culminated in an independent South Sudan, now consumed by its own civil war, but left behind the northern sector of the SPLA/M drawn predominantly from peoples of the Two Areas. Militarily in no position to pose a serious threat to Khartoum and politically susceptible to the chaining winds of regional politics the largest Sudanese rebel movement is now in the throes of a leadership dispute that is proving more pernicious than Khartoum’s counter-insurgency strategies.

Abd al-Aziz Adam al-Hilu, the undisputed leader of the Nuba insurgency in Sudan’s South Kordofan State, arrived on June  29 2017 in the mountainous terrain under the control of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement in North Sudan (SPLA/M-N). Abd al-Aziz is a sturdy man inclined to silence but with an admirable will and perseverance. It is likely these qualities in addition to his quasi-Sufi rejection of worldly joys that has earned him the respect of the battle-hardened Nuba fighters still committed to the cause of liberation by the gun. Abd al-Aziz was received by senior commanders of the SPLA/M-N, including the rebel army’s current chief of staff, Jagod Mukwar and his deputy Izat Koko. Until 2015 it was Abd al-Aziz who occupied the position of chief of staff and he remained effectively top commander of the SPLA/M-N in absentia during his long withdrawal to Nairobi. With the decision of the two men to side with their patron the dispute over leadership in the SPLA/M-N was for all practical purposes settled. Al-Hilu’s supporters, organised in the Nuba Mountains Liberation Council (NMLC), and dismissed Malik Agar and Yasir Arman from their posts as chairman and secretary general of the SPLA/M-N respectively. The now army-less generals were left to vegetate on whatever international relations they still enjoyed. A loyal spokesman accompanied the two men to South Africa where they held meetings with acquaintances in the South African labor federation, COSATU, in mid-July and made news from an event of no consequence at all. The meeting with COSATU discussed the sacrifices of the Sudanese youth in the September 2013 riots and the civil disobedience campaigns  of last year, the spokesman said.

The leadership dispute within the SPLA/M-N erupted in the open last March when Abd al-Aziz made public a long-in-the-making letter of resignation. With this step, Abd al-Aziz was far from resigning, he was asking Nuba SPLA/M-N soldiers and cadres to make a choice between his leadership and the status quo, the triangular leadership structure that joined him and Malik Agar and Yasir Arman. This was a shrewd political move, particularly in a situation of absentee leadership. Agar and Arman were more at ease in East African and European capitals than in the rebel capital, Kauda, or the caves that shielded civilians in rebel-controlled areas from the Sudanese army’s aerial bombardment.

Since the resurgence of conflict between SPLA/M-N and the Sudanese government army in South Kordofan in June 2011, al-Hilu has been the hands-on leader of the rebellion. Although in Nairobi for a while for health related reasons as is alleged, al-Hilu cultivated a reputation as a tough commander who preferred the battlefield over the comfort of Addis Ababa hotels, where round after round of failed negotiations between the government and the SPLA/M-N have taken place. The politics of rebellion were the preferred terrain of Arman and Agar. They doubled as leaders of the short-lived alliance between the SPLA/M-N and the Darfur armed movements – the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) – and were the main interlocutors of international envoys and African Union officials involved in the abortive efforts to achieve a peaceful settlement to the conflict. What the two men obviously did not account for are the growing ambitions of the pensive commander in the Mountains.

In contrast with al-Hilu who relies on an army, Arman and Agar rely on a divided constituency  and long-wasted base of support respectively. Agar can claim followers in the conflict areas of the Blue Nile State. He clinched the governorship of the state in Sudan’s April 2010 elections prior to the referendum that led to the independence of South Sudan,  hence his reluctance to take up arms again when the fighting resumed in South Kordofan. His ambiguous position towards armed struggle, as the way forward for the northern sector when the comrades in South Sudan opted for secession, hangs over him feeding the narrative that he is the more inclined to strike a deal with Khartoum. Arman, once John Garang’s spokesman, managed the SPLM’s affairs in northern Sudan during the interim period of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the war between the Garang’s SPLA/M and the government of Sudan in 2005. He was the speaker of the SPLM caucus in the national parliament and its presidential candidate in the April 2010 elections.

John Garang died in a helicopter crash on 30 July 2005, months after his inauguration as Sudan’s First Vice President. The deal he made he did not live to implement and with his death the main in-house obstacle to the primary ambition of the overwhelming majority of fighters under his command as well as his most senior commanders, namely an independent state of their own in southern Sudan, was removed. His second in command, Salva Kiir Mayardit, took over the reigns of the SPLA/M and assumed the position carved for the big man in the Sudanese presidency, steering southern Sudan clearly towards independence in 2011 and its fate beyond. The northern sector of the SPLA/M-N was the orphan on the table as it were. The ruling National Congress Party (NCP) of President Omar al-Bashir and Salva Kiir’s SPLA/M agreed on a trade-off whereby the NCP would allow southern Sudan to gain independence and the SPLA/M would refrain from competing with the NCP in northern Sudan. Arman allowed himself to be the exchange currency. After launching a high profile bid for the presidency under SPLM banners he withdrew his candidacy last minute and with it the grand idea of a ‘New Sudan’ for all the Sudanese, north and south. Committed supporters sobbed in anguish and even the most talented propagandists failed to deliver an argument that would redeem Arman in his moment of sacrifice. Arman explained his position by remaining silent on the issue and never really recovered his political credibility. Today, the situation is such that Arman and Agar are banned by order of the NMLC from entering areas under SPLA/M-N control in the Nuba Mountains. 

In his letter of resignation and in a subsequent explanation, Abd al-Aziz hinted at these shortcomings but did not name them. Instead he capitalised on the very failure of the rebellion he effectively led from the mountains, laying the blame squarely on Arman and Agar. Abd al-Aziz ridiculed Arman’s efforts to craft an alliance with northern Sudanese political forces to further the SPLA/M-N’s objective of reworking Garang’s bombastic ‘New Sudan’ ideology in the service of the rump northern Sudan. He even dropped the joint struggle with the insurgents of the Blue Nile under Agar to declare self-determination for the Nuba Mountains as the only worthwhile goal of the Nuba insurgency. These ideas did not hatch in Al-Hilu’s head overnight, it must be said. Why he chose this particular moment to declare them ripe to act upon is an open question. In their chaotic response to his torrent of accusations and leap to the leadership, Agar and Arman suggested a foreign hand in the game, in their words “parties that want to employ the SPLA/M-N as a subnational and not a national force in their predetermined projects.” 

An honest response Al-Hilu’s challenge would have required a critical confrontation with the legacy of the mother SPLA/M under Garang, probably too much to ask from men who matured into Garang’s politics and whose own careers are a function of his oversized persona. Paradoxically, while Arman and Agar claim fidelity to the lofty slogans of the ‘New Sudan’ it is Al-Hilu after all who is closest to its practice. Not unlike Garang, Al-Hilu seeks to win through the capture and intensive militarisation of the people ‘to be liberated.’ The valorisation of the gun he preaches extends to mythologisation of firearms as essential elements of Nuba being.

“The people of Nuba are the only people in the world who use rifles as dowry in marriage to appreciate their role and value in their continued existence,” he tells the readers of his resignation letter. Tied with the valorisation of the gun is the notion of the supremacy of military power and hence the carrier of that power, the army. Abd al-Aziz gave this belief expression in his demand to maintain the autonomy of his rebel army for at least 20 years in any future deal with Khartoum, in his mind until the implementation of any prospective agreement is achieved and ‘democratic transition’ is completed or kingdom come. The Nuba army that Al-Hilu commands is today very much a popular army with few of the predatory features that characterise the SPLA in southern and later South Sudan, possibly thanks to the intensive politicisation of the Nuba by generations of agitators and activists among them Abd al-Aziz himself. Contrary to this tradition, Abd al-Aziz is now inviting the Nuba army to embody a nativist notion of Nuba nationalism and very much like the SPLA in southern Sudan deliver the Nuba to a state under its authority. This could be an effective battle cry, and indeed copies the martial ideology of the mother SPLA’s soldiers, but its outcome is the evolution of the Nuba commanders of today into anything between paternalistic administrators of a coercive bend following colonial example to outright predators.

Malik Agar and Yasir Arman are today in a position to think through these dilemmas of armed rebellion in Sudan’s fractured hinterlands. They might not be able to strike political capital out of self-effacing reckoning with their own histories and the histories of their comrades, but they are well placed to draw conclusions from these histories about race and class in an African periphery and the about the requirements and limitations of armed struggle as a means to address the deep inequalities of the Sudans. As habits dictate or I suppose livelihoods, the two men will more likely spend their time calling on friends in COSATU and dictating irrelevant statements to complying spokesmen.

The debate over reparations in Namibia

Image credit Eric Montfort via Flickr.

Just over a century ago, German colonial troops engaged in genocide against the Herero and Nama people in what is today Namibia. The debate over the form of reparations and who specifically should benefit rages not just between Germany and Namibia as we would expect, but also within Namibia.

The historical facts are clearly documented by a wide range of historians. (herehere and here) Key pieces of evidence include the infamous extermination order issued by the German Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha, details of the pursuit and killing of men, women and children, the poisoning of wells, and the use of concentration camps with extraordinary rates of death. An estimated 80% of the Herero people and up to 50% of the Nama living at the time were killed. As a result of the work of activists and researchers, today both the Namibian and the German governments agree: German forces engaged in genocide. Getting to such agreement has not been an easy process. The German and Namibian governments have been engaged in negotiations for Berlin to offer a formal apology, as well as some form of payment. But, negotiations have stalled.

First there are those who continue to dispute the facts of the genocide. One prominent denialist is Hinrich Schneider-Waterberg, a German-Namibian farm owner and amateur historian who has written a short book challenging the argument for genocide. Schneider-Waterberg has a clear stake in the debate, as he owns land in the Waterberg where many Herero were killed. It is hard to estimate how significant his support is among German-Namibians, but his book has been prominently displayed in central bookstores in both Swakopmund and Windhoek, areas where there are concentrations of German descendants. But, even among the older generation of German-Namibians, in such colonial towns as Swakopmund, there are a few who work to draw attention to the crimes of the past. Erika Rusch is a key example. She participated in the creation of a unified Cemetery Park to protect the unmarked graves of black African Namibians and to acknowledge German crimes against the Herero.

It is not surprising that some, perhaps most, German-descended Namibians would feel threatened by the acknowledgement of genocide. Colonial era crimes include not just the pursuit and killing of civilians but also the seizure of cattle and land. The vast farms that some, such as Schneider-Waterberg, own formerly comprised Herero and Nama land. Land reform has been minimal since independence, relying on the largely ineffective willing-buyer willing-seller model. Increasingly, activists in Namibia, as in neighboring countries, are demanding that the state seize and redistribute land.

Discussion of crimes of the past is therefore quickly linked to questions of who has the rights to land today. When activists organized a reparations march in Swakopmund in 2007, the local German language newspaper printed unsubstantiated claims that a group fashioning itself along the lines of Kenya’s Mau Mau would be seizing land from whites.

Beyond the white, German-speaking community in Namibia, whose political influence is waning, there are others in the seat of power who resist fully addressing the genocide. Some German Namibians argue that so many crimes were committed during and prior to colonial rule that it makes no sense to focus on one. Interestingly, prominent members of SWAPO, the popular liberation movement and the governing party since Namibian independence, make similar arguments about charges of crimes committed during their struggle for independence from South Africa. Representatives of SWAPO warn of the dangers of delving into past injustices and turned down an offer by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission to host a hearing in Namibia. SWAPO so effectively blocked investigations into disappearances at their camps that one former SWAPO activist sought to file a case against the government with the International Criminal Court. These attempts to stifle discussion about the legacies of the past stem from a fear of tipping the balance of power.

Power relations clearly play a role in SWAPO’s reticence to support demands for reparations. Its support base is concentrated in the north, among various communities collectively referred to as Owambo. The Owambo were not the target of German colonial-era crimes because they lived outside the established police zone. The descendants of the Herero and Nama, in contrast, have supported a range of parties including prominent opposition parties. Herero and Nama activists demand that reparations payments be paid directly to affected communities rather than the government negotiating on their behalf.  This has undermined the Namibian government’s talks with Berlin regarding a special aid package, payable to the government. SWAPO has tried to keep negotiations and disputes behind closed doors, but recently some of these boiled over into the public domain.

In support of their demands, Herero and Nama activists have filed a class action suit in the Southern District Court in New York. While this suit is likely to fail as the US Supreme Court has restricted the application of the Alien Tort Statue, the attention it receives in the press helps to pressure the two governments. Conflicting reports have also surfaced of the Namibian government contemplating a suit against Germany.

The German government hoped to issue a formal apology, announce an expanded aid package and move on before German elections upcoming in September. This is now highly unlikely. Berlin has also refused to respond to the charges laid in the US District Court, leading to delay in proceedings that were set for July.

For activists seeking both a formal apology from the German government and reparations, the struggle continues and the road ahead is a long one.

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