Africa is a Country

What is the matter with … TB Joshua

Last week a building that was part of the complex that is the Synagogue Church of All Nations in Lagos, Nigeria (‘pastor’: TB Joshua) collapsed. When the story was first reported on Friday, the death toll stood at 3 people.  Then yesterday, the South African President Jacob Zuma announced that “at least 67 South Africans were killed.” Nigerian rescue workers, according to the BBC, have now upped the total number of bodies pulled from the rubble at 70 people.  Some may wonder why it took so long (five days) for that information about 67 more victims to emerge.  The short answer is that the South African government had little control over that process: TB Joshua’s church has a reputation for acting outside the law (his church is usually off limits to Nigerian security forces and local authorities who struggled to get access to the site since the building collapse and the church most probably flouted building regulations. Apart from some tepid press statements, Joshua’s bizarre explanations for the building collapse was to blame the devil, a plane that sprayed a mysterious substance over the building and Boko Haram. But even more than that, some may wonder what so many South Africans were doing at Joshua’s church (at the time of the collapse, South African media reported that 5 South African church groups were visiting Joshua’s church).  There’s been some good coverage and comments about Nigerian preachers on Nigerian Twitter (see Elnathan John)  and on sites with a Nigerian focus, like Sahara Reporters (like this, here,

But back to TB Joshua, who represents a wider trend on the continent. Back in December 2011, Sean Jacobs wrote a post about TB Joshua (known for his outlandish claims about the future and who has Julius Malema among his fans) and his appeal, including, especially to South Africans. We’ve reproduced that post below:

Nigeria’s Pastor

By now you’ve probably watched the (British) Channel 4 TV documentary film about Nigeria’s millionaire preachers–the fake healings, buckets full of money collected by church leaders (“tithes”), police escorts, mall openings as well as all that flash. This all against a background of grinding poverty. I watched it last night. Most Nigerian blogs not surprisingly (many of them are believers of some sort), have focused on theological debates thrown up by the documentary. One of the preachers, Dr Fireman, when quizzed about his ostentatious show of wealth, responds to Channel 4′s journalist: “Jesus was rich and had an accountant who followed him around.” No one’s surprised that with low confidence in political parties and the state, people gravitate toward fast-money preachers promising eternal salvation, financial and physical health. However, it appears the filmmakers could only get to the B-List preachers since we didn’t see any of the really rich preachers. Those preachers, compiled in a list by a Forbes blogger earlier this Fall, include David Oyedepo (estimated net worth of $150m), Chris Oyakhilome ($30-50m) and TB Joshua ($10-15m).  Of all these men, it is perhaps Joshua is the most interesting (there’s even a TB Joshua Watch online).

TB Joshua claims to heal HIV/AIDS, cancer and paralysis at his Synagogue Church of All Nations in Lagos. More significantly, he has also found a willing audience among African elites, especially its political class and leading sporting personalities.

But first to his claims as a healer.

Joshua serves as an advisor to many of Nigerian leading sports people. They  thank him profusely for their good health. But it is not just his country’s sports people who have put their trust in Joshua’s healing powers. In one celebrated case, Jaco van der Westhuyzen, a top rugby player from South Africa traveled to Lagos with a knee injury and claimed to have been healed by TB Joshua. Two fellow Springbok team members, who had cancer, also traveled to Lagos to see Joshua and promptly stopped their treatments.  Two of Van der Westhyzen’s teammates, Ruben Kruger andWuim Basson, also went to see TB Joshua. He claimed to heal them too, but they died of their cancers. Consistent with evangelical Christianity’s teachings, Kruger and Basson’s failure to get well were rationalized as their lack of faith. (In Basson’s case, Joshua even claimed to communicate with him beyond the grave.)

South African television has reported stories of especially white South Africans traveling in large groups to Joshua’s church for healing.

As for the politically connected who travel to see and hear Joshua in Nigeria, they include Ghanaian president John Atta Mills, of whom it is claimed that “… Joshua had prophesied his victory in the Ghanaian polls, specifying there would be three elections and the results would be released in January.” Atta Mills has described Joshua as a mentor.

Separately, a Zimbabwean newspaper reported that prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai visited Joshua’s church in September. So have other leaders of Tsvangirai’s MDC movement as well as Mugabe’s ZANU-PF. Some were hoping it would give them an edge in party political contests.

The same newspaper mentioned a few other high profile guests: former presidents Frederick Chiluba (Zambia), Pascal Lissouba (Congo-Brazzaville), André Kolimba (Central African Republic), Omar Bongo (Gabon) and Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini (who came to testify about his “daughter’s healing from epilepsy”). The president of Zimbabwe’s football association Cuthbert Dube also claimed to be healed by Joshua.

Not all governing elites are as welcoming of TB Joshua and his healings (and predictions–he claims to foresee plane crashes, natural disasters, though critics point out that the videos where he apparently makes such predictions are cleverly edited). In fact, Cameroon has banned Joshua.

But the most curious recent guest at Joshua’s church has been Winnie Mandela, seen in this recent video, below, with Joshua’s Emmanuel TV, referring to herself as “the grandmother of Africa,” blamed everything that’s wrong on the continent on modernity (except Christianity of course) and who suggested Africa needs “democracy of a special type”:

BTW, we keep wondering why do South Africans travel to Nigeria, when they have their ownmiracle-making farmer at home?

New film, “Beats of the Antonov,” unlike anything I have ever seen

Every now and then, its seems as if there is nothing new out there. Everything seems derivative, repetitive or just plain bland. As a filmmaker, I sometimes go through moments of extreme lack of inspiration; and even question my choice of career. And then an unexpected spark happens to light the way. Beats of the Antonov, a new documentary from Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka, is such a spark. The film premiered last week at Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and is by Kuka’s account possibly the first film by a Sudanese filmmaker to screen there. I wasn’t surprised when last night the film won the People’s Choice Documentary Award at the TIFF.

Kuka paints a beautiful picture of music, war and identity in the Blue Nile and Nuba regions, and the film is unlike anything I have ever seen.

Here’s the trailer:

The Antonov of the title comes from the Russian planes that are used by Omar Al-Bashir’s regime to bomb villages in Sudan. Instead of a dry journalistic account of the ongoing Sudanese conflict however, the film is a deep exploration of a nation in an identity crisis, with its ruling elite pushing an Arab nationalist identity onto a diverse African citizenry. The title of the film makes a correlation between the bombs of oppression and the resilience of culture, the music of a people and the suffering they endure.

The film uses a non-linear narrative style, not following any particular series of events, but rather is a collection of vignettes, many of which spring from spontaneous jam sessions in refugee camps. Kuka, who has also been a war reporter, caught the inspiration for the film while spending time in one of the refugee camps in the Blue Nile region. “The music sounded different than any other Sudanese music I had ever heard before, because they were made from found objects in the refugee camp,” Kuka told me over a coffee in Cape Town, where he finished post-production on the film, working with Big World Cinema producer Steven Markovitz and editor Khalid Shamis. “They created this contraption where they connected home made instruments to an old radio. They had created a new sound. It was amazing, and this is why I made the film; I fell in love with the music. It’s Sudanese music, but it’s a unique mixture of Sudanese traditional music that was born in a refugee camp. I was afraid that they didn’t realize how amazing this music was.”

In addition to head bopping jam sessions with instruments made of pipes, plates and old tires, some of the most compelling music in the film is the genre of “girl’s music” sung by the young women in the region. They are both oral history and snapshots of modern life. One of the songs deals with young men who are really just teenagers being sent to fight in the Sudanese Liberation Army, with haunting lyrics like “those boots are too big for you.”

The film also takes a long hard look at what it means to be Sudanese today, and confronts the Arabization of Sudanese identity, an ideological displacement running as an undercurrent to the physical displacement of the refugees in Sudan. “Bashir himself is not that identity he wants to be,” Kuka says, and explains that with his long dreads and afro-centric mindset, he gets flack for not fitting the prescribed national identity. “Very few people fit this image of what is Sudanese. You have this fake image and 5% of the population fit it, and then you have 95% of people who are trying to fit it.”

One of the characters in the film is a young musician and ethnomusicologist named Alsara, named by Addis Rumble as “the princess of Nubian pop and Sudanese retro.” Alsarah, now based in Brooklyn, New York , has returned to Sudan to do field recordings and research in the Nuba region. In a traditional narrative documentary, it would have been an obvious choice to follow her on her journey to record the music and bring it to the West, however Kuka avoided making her or any single interviewee the subject of the film. “It’s normal for us to meet a lot of people in real life, so you meet a lot of people in this film. You don’t need one-character-driven stories. It’s not my style and I don’t think it’s needed… talking to a lot of people and talking to them in a way that’s less definitive will give you the experience of living this.”


The film succeeds in this endeavor, instead of telling you what to think about the Sudanese conflict, it gives you a sense of the realities on the ground, a feeling for the place, and the kinds of issues which people are thinking through. A person I know who saw the film said you had to experience the film with your heart, and not your head. Beats of the Antonov and its infectious music stayed with me for days after viewing it. Rather than giving any answers in this film, Hajooj Kuka asks a lot of important questions. “At the end what I want people to leave with is this complex idea of Sudan, rather than the simplified notion that the media gives you.” Kuka plans to expand into features in the future, and is excited about developing a unique voice and style. With more films like this coming from African directors, we could be witnessing the start of a new canon of African film.

What Binyavanga Wainaina thinks of the Caine Prize

This is Africa is prone to tabloid headlines (they’ve been running tons of sex related posts lately), but Nigerian journalist Chiagozie Nwonwu‘s interview with Binyavanga Wainaina (writer, commentator, rights defender “a public figure, not D’Banj, but with enough people”) is worth all the sensationalism. In the interview, Binyavanga covers a lot of ground: Nigerians moving to Nairobi, the reaction in both Nigeria and Kenya to his coming out last year (“my gay drama”), that he has “three per cent Nigerianness in my body,” the impact of Chocolate City, P-Square, Victoria Kimani, Wazobia, and, most explosively, the Caine Prize for African Short Story Writing. We’ve tweeted from the piece earlier today, but felt it would be better to just embed Binyavanga’s answer to a question about Kenyan and Nigerian rivalries about who has won more Caine Prizes:

I am going to take this first to another road because I think all you Nigerian literati are way too addicted to the Caine Prize. I give the Caine Prize its due credit, but it just isn’t our institution. All these young people who are ending up in that place were built up by many people’s work.  If there was no Saraba, if there was no Farafina workshop, if there was no Cassava Republic, if there was no Tolu Ogunlesi meeting Nick in South Africa and then workshoping stories, if there was no Ivor Hartmann, if there were no thirty thousand Facebook groups that I know off or don’t know, there will be no Okwiri, there will be no Elnathan, etc. What is  happening is you people are allowing the Caine Prize to receive funding and build itself as a brand and make money and people’s career there in London while the vast majority of these institutions are vastly underfunded and vastly ungrown, and they are the ones who create the ground that is building these new writers. Why do I have to  sit in interviews with Nigerian journalists who want to help Caine Prize get more money in the sixth richest country in the world?

I want people to say, Okwiri, who won the Caine Prize, is the founder of Jalada, an online magazine that has won five prizes in the last year and published, I think, the most exciting fiction I’ve seen in ten years. Just that magazine, has more excitement than many known ones, but they are invisible. Seven years ago, I came here (Nigeria) and I felt nothing is going on in the online community in Kenya. Then Dami Ajayi and Emmanuel Iduma went and started Saraba. People there in Kenya smelled Saraba, made their own and that was it. Now, writers in America and approaching writers published in Saraba and these online magazines to give them fellowships abroad. Okwiri made her name long before the Caine prize. I picked her for a long list of under-20 writers. I didn’t even know her then. Because the ecosystem is so big that you don’t even know each other anymore. Up until now, I’ve not met her and if I have, we bumped into each other. I know she wrote a review of my book launch, but I don’t remember meeting her. The idea that she won the Caine Prize and journalists now want to feed the fact that she was made by the Caine Prize is unmaking her. You ask any smart Kenyan writer who is in the game, they tell you Okwiri is the new be. And we are talking two years ago. We must lose this s**t. Give due credit but don’t go giving free money and free legitimacy. Because the Caine Prize right now needs your legitimacy to get money. They take press clipping from all Nigerian media and use that to source for funding. We need to focus on how we can grow our own ecosystem.


Scotland’s referendum is significant for people that want to secede. Like Zanzibaris

“Should Scotland be an independent country?” That is the question Scots will be asked when they go to the polls on September 18th. The outcome of the vote will have a significant impact on the future of Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. More interestingly, this referendum is being closely watched in a seemingly unlikely corner of the world: the Zanzibar archipelagos in East Africa.

Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania. The islands are famous as a tourist destination, boasting beautiful white sandy beaches and narrow streets of Stone Town.  Scottish explorer, David Livingstone, began and ended many of his journeys in Zanzibar. For hundreds of years, the islands have served as the center of Kiswahili culture and remain proud of their past glory as the epicenter of trade and wealth in East and Central Africa, with links to the Middle East and Asia that go as far back as 7th century.

More recently, the islands have been a hotbed of political tension with roots emerging from 1950s rivalries between nationalist movements, mainly Africans and Arabs, during the struggle for independence from Britain. The rivalry led to a violent revolution in January 1964 carried out by Africans against Arabs, killing many and forcing others to flee the islands. Few months later in April 1964, the islands formed a union with the then Republic of Tanganyika to form one sovereign United Republic of Tanzania. Under the arrangement, Zanzibar was allowed to retain a small degree of autonomy under its own island government dealing with local affairs, while major issues such as foreign affairs, defense, immigration and currency were placed under the Union government. This “two tier” union structure was conceived in order to ensure that Zanzibar won’t get “swallowed” by its much larger partner, and so Tanganyika (nowadays referred to as Mainland Tanzania) won’t bare the substantial burden of running both the Tanganyika government and the Union government.

Historical specificities aside, the structure of the Union of Tanzania is quite similar to that of the United Kingdom. England’s government ceased to exist in 1707 when it merged with Scotland to form the UK; much the same way Tanganyika ceased to exist after the Union with Zanzibar to form Tanzania. England does not have its own government, with her affairs being managed within the UK’s central government; much the same way Mainland Tanzania’s local affairs are managed within the Union government. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland enjoy devolved powers from the central government the same way Zanzibar does. Whether or not Julius Nyerere, co-founder of the Union of Tanzania (who incidentally studied British History and Constitutional Law at University of Edinburgh), was inspired by the structure of union he saw in Scotland and decided to adopt it back home, is debatable.

While the UK was born out of conquests and suppression of Scottish language, religion and culture for many years, Tanzania was born out of Pan-African ideas and the African independence movement. The calculated need for self-preservation within the unstable new regime in Zanzibar after the revolution also played a role in bringing about, and later on, preserving the Union. Global geopolitical concerns which were heightened by the Cold War simultaneously accelerated the formation of the Union. There is also strong suggestions of the CIA nudging the formation of the Union to prevent Zanzibar from becoming a communist heaven.

Despite tensions and discontents from both sides, the Union has survived for 50 years, with the Mainland providing much needed stability to the islands. Constant demands for larger autonomy for Zanzibar, and periodic calls for full secession from the Union, have come up throughout the life of the union. Today, many political observers admit to a resurgent and united “Zanzibari Nationalism” that has united elements of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi  (CCM) in Zanzibar with the opposition Civic Union Front party.

In the same way there is an undercurrent of resentment by the Scottish towards the English and vice versa, there is similar degree of resentment, although not deep seated, between Zanzibaris and Mainlanders. For the most part, people from both sides of Tanzania do intermarry, do resettle and trade among each other as they have done for generations without any problems.

Zanzibari nationalists lament the gradual increase by the union government of the so-called “Union Matters” from the initial 11 to the current 22 issues, which further erodes the little sovereignty they had. They want the Union government to remove the “Tanganyika jacket” by creating a separate entity to run Mainland affairs. On the other hand, there have been persistent demands by some mainlanders for the restoration of Tanganyika government because they feel they have been carrying most of the weight in servicing the Union compared to Zanzibaris.

The referendum in Scotland is a significant event for states that want to secede.  There is a sense that an independent Scotland could indeed set a precedent or provide inspiration for entities like Zanzibar. According to a Tanzanian diplomat in London, “both sides of the divide in Zanzibar are following the debate in Scotland and are awaiting the outcome of the referendum with apprehension.” Each side will be able to use the arguments and outcome to advance or vindicate their position. While there are no known formal links between the two “separatist” movements, Rachel Hamada, a non-partisan journalist who has spent the last decade between Scotland and Zanzibar, says she is aware of many Zanzibaris who support secession “who have been observing events in Scotland with great interest. If Scotland does go its own way, undoubtedly pro-separation campaigners from Zanzibar will want to investigate the path to such a vote.”

Tanzania’s ruling CCM have resisted calls for a special referendum on the structure of the union. There’s also the question of who deserves to be asked to vote in such a referendum: Zanzibaris only (population of 1.3 million), mainlanders only (population of 43 million) or both? 3 years ago they agreed to rewrite the entire Union Constitution that will be followed by a referendum to adopt it. The commission that drafted the new constitution presented a “three-tier” structure, which CCM as a majority block in the Constituent Assembly objected to. This led to a walkout this past April by the opposition. Last week, the constitutional process officially stalled, and efforts are currently underway to find ways to resume it after next year’s general elections. The plan was hinted earlier in July by Mr. January Makamba, a pro-Union and reformist politician from CCM, when he said, “If there is a need to postpone the current constitutional process, let us do it so that we get a better constitution which has the consensus from all sides. Since the structure of the union is a highly contentious issue, it should be sent back to the people to decide via a referendum before the constitutional process resumes after the 2015 general election.”

Supporters of three-tier government structure in Tanzania argue the ruling party CCM is using fear-mongering to claim that the three-tier structure as proposed in the draft constitution will lead to the break-up of the Union. CCM believes the proposed structure would leave the Union government weak and dependent because it will be stripped-off its economic power base. They are in favor of more devolution of powers within the current two-tier structure, but they are yet to present specific proposals. Similar accusations of fear-mongering has been leveled towards the “No” campaign in Scotland (known as “Better Together”), with observation that their public messaging on behalf of the UK has been poor, lacking best content creativity and social media savviness needed to convince the public. The same can be said with pro-union Tanzanians, who for many years have been slow to react to the arguments presented by Zanzibaris, to the extent the latter have been able to create a dominant narrative.

Generally, pro-union factions in both Scotland and Zanzibar have been portrayed by their local opponents as “stubborn conservatives” who are unwilling to change and insist on unworkable structures that won’t preserve the unions for long-term. There is a strong feeling in Zanzibar that pro-union supporters are mostly political elites in the current Union government and ruling party CCM. According to Evarist Chahali, a Tanzanian journalist and columnist living in Glasgow, a similar perception has frequently been heard among the pro-Scotland independence supporters that, “the whole ‘Better Together’ thing is about preserving the status quo for some Scottish politicians at Westminster.” The feeling in both “separatist” movements is that despite a good degree of political devolution and autonomy, they are each subjected to a union ruling class which doesn’t understand or care about their local issues. This partly explains why the rest of UK is run by parties that have been rejected in Scotland. Conversely, the opposition CUF is stronger in Zanzibar compared to mainland Tanzania where its support declined in the last elections.

Interestingly, Scotland is said to be home to a substantial number of Zanzibaris who went there to seek asylum after the 2001 post-election violence at home. These foreign born asylum seekers and refugees from Commonwealth countries like Tanzania are eligible to vote in the referendum, and will form one of the strongest polling block for the “Yes Scotland” independence camp. These exiled Zanzibaris are known to be opposition supporters and generally are against the Union. However, it remains to be seen whether their role in helping Scotland secure its independence could translate into encouraging the same to happen in their homeland.

Despite the recent drop in numbers of undecided voters, it’s still hard to predict the outcome of the Scottish referendum. For a while, most polls suggested that the “Better Together” camp would prevail, but recent the polls have been tightening, meaning the outcome could go either way. If the results are for “Yes Scotland”, there will be a long period of negotiation on the terms of separation, involving issues such as the division of the national debt, the division of oil revenue, Scotland’s membership of the EU, her retention of the Queen as head of state and continual usage of the Pound Sterling, as well as terms of any future bailouts from UK. All will be hard fought, as journalist Rachel Hamada adds: “Even with devolution in the late nineties, which had widespread political support, the negotiations were fierce, so we can expect they would be ferocious this time round”. The divorce will be long and bitter, and Tanzanians should expect the same should a similar situation happen to them. Analysts agree that if “No” vote wins, it will be because the “Yes” vote for independence did not make a compelling and reassuring case to provide a knockout punch to convince the Scottish that they will be better off independent. Either way, most observers agree that the result will be close and thus there will be consequence. UK will have to consider measures to give Scotland greater powers. The Union could prevail due to the simple fact that it is the devil the Scottish people know.

The whole of UK is an island with Scotland as part of it, while Zanzibar is an island disconnected from her partner in the mainland. Yet, an important common denominator between Scotland and Zanzibar is oil resources. Although Scotland has a finite supply of oil in the North Sea, the “Yes Scotland” campaign has based much of their argument on the ability of this resource to sustain and propel an independent Scotland. Zanzibar is yet to discover oil near its Indian Ocean waters, but has campaigned hard to remove oil and gas from Union Matters so that they can manage the resource locally. The Union government quietly agreed, and last year Zanzibar signed an agreement with Shell to do exploration in their waters. “There is a perception that potential for oil in the islands boosted the desire for the Zanzibaris to go solo,” observes Chahali. Many opposition supporters in Zanzibar believe that oil will transform the islands to their past glory, and they add this argument alongside the restoration of national pride and the need for greater links with the Islamic world as key arguments for full autonomy.

Perhaps the main lesson to Tanzania has been how ‘civilized’ the Scottish referendum process has been so far. While emotions on both sides have been running high, there have been very few incidences of violence or threats to derail the process. Once UK government approved the referendum, it made it clear that they would honor whatever outcome from the vote. Party politics have been kept at bay, with “Better Together” campaign being led by Alistair Darling, a Labour politician who is campaigning on behalf of the UK government led by the Conservative Party. On the other hand, the “Yes Scotland” camp led by First Minister Alex Salmond has tried to make the issue of independence that of the Scottish people rather than his Scottish Nationalist Party.

Many agree that the way forward for Tanzania is for more devolution or greater identity and autonomy for Zanzibar, with Union retaining big issues such as defense and economy. The Union President Jakaya Kikwete admits to long-running political “fault lines” in Zanzibar which necessitated a power sharing agreement in 2010 between the two major parties in the isles. But Kikwete recently played down any notion of a strong “separatist movement” in Zanzibar, saying it wasn’t a big issue that needed to be blown out of proportion. He believes it can be contained: “We will always be able to manage them and I don’t think they will be able to wreck the country,” he assured. However, many observers believe it was partly due to such fears of secession that compelled the President to see the wisdom of initiating a rewrite of the Union Constitution in order to preempt violent demands for more autonomy in Zanzibar and to guarantee survival of the Union “for the next 50 years”. Tanzania and the Cameroon, remain the two longest surviving and most successful unions in modern day Africa after the collapse of Ghana-Guinea Union, the Senegambia and United Arab Republic (UAR). No other examples remain of independent Africa countries that decided on own volition to unite.

The Resurrection of Nat Nakasa

“This is Simply a Personal Statement from Me to You”

On August 18th I attended the memorial service for Nat Nakasa at the Broadway Presbyterian Church in Harlem.  What began as a somber event quickly turned joyous as we celebrated the South African writer and editor’s long overdue trip home. With isiZulu songs echoing off the church walls, it was truly a moving experience.  The only trouble was, had it not been for the life-sized photographs of Nakasa flanking the altar, I might not have recognized who we were there celebrating.  Words like “stalwart” were used to recall South Africa’s long struggle against white supremacy and Nakasa was described as ‘the voice’ of his long suffering community. The keynote address by Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa related him to Pixley ka Isaka Seme, the ANC founding father who had attended nearby Columbia University at the turn of the 20th century.

I am a historian, who researches and writes on South African literary history.  I first came to know Nakasa through his literary journal, The Classic.  I was writing a MA thesis about four South African journals/magazines; Drum, The Classic, New Classic, and Staffrider. I was introduced to Nakasa in a thoroughly historicized fashion.  Which is to say: I came to know him as the product of his social context, a writer embedded in a set of institutions and personal relationships that conditioned his voice.  I completed my MA thesis in 2010 and turned my attention to other aspects of South African writing and reading (you can read it here).  Over the past few years, I have read with fascination as biographers, journalists, and politicians reanimated the writer I had met in the archive.  In the last few months, however, the Nakasa I knew has become almost unrecognizable.  My growing sense of unease reached a crescendo in Harlem, for to memorialize or commemorate a person generally means ripping them from their historical context and cramming them into whatever present space is vacant and useful.  This is what it means to do violence to memory, forgetting the past while forcing it to do work.

What happens to the writings of a man when he is dead and gone?” Nakasa once asked Essop Patel, who later published a collection of Nakasa’s work.  This poignant depiction of a young man grasping for validation of his time on Earth was recalled at the memorial service as a way to remind us all that Nakasa lives on in his written legacy.  Yet if one were to peruse the numerous articles written since MinisterMthethwa’s announcement that Nakasa was coming home (and often enough before that too) it would be difficult to make the claim that this legacy has been honored.

Nakasa was a writer, and his writing offers us the best historical evidence available.  Nakasa’s archive primarily consists of his published writings, various collections of correspondence (mostly at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, a bit in Austin, TX, USA), official documents (U.S.A. and R.S.A government files), and personal anecdotes and recollections.  All of this material has been available to be considered by anyone interested, yet for decades Nakasa’s legacy remained largely a matter of academic interest, if that.  That began to change in the late 1990s, however, when a prestigious South African journalism award was named after him.  By the time I was researching my thesis in 2008 – 2009, his was a bigger name, due in no small part to the Office of the President awarding him the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver in the late 2000s. In the wake of this celebrity revival, people began to take a greater interest in Nakasa. Ryan Brown, an American freelance journalist won a Fulbright Fellowship in 2011 to research his life (she wrote about her project on AIAC in 2012).Interest in Nakasa has since abounded – resulting in, among other coverage, the American journalist Danny Massey’s expansive New York Times piece on Nakasa’s American exile, which drew liberally from published and unpublished academic research.

One thing all of these accounts share is a general feeling of unease with the ambiguity that Nakasa proposes as subject. His was not a life that fit many of the preconceived narratives through which we grasp black South African existence. I and other students of Nakasa acknowledge the liminal nature of his experiences through well-worn references to “fringe country” or the space between two worlds, but too many of us inevitably gravitate toward rigid categorical evaluations of who he was, what he did, and why it mattered. The temptation to make him ‘count’ in the way that South Africans are supposed to ‘count’ is too great. We want him to be a hero in the most recognizable sense of the word.

Why else would it be suggested at this man’s memorial service that he was a people’s champion of the struggle?  A cursory review of his portfolio should make it abundantly clear how inappropriate this is.  In the first issue of The Classic, his own magazine, he chose to reprint one of his speeches in which he opened with a disclaimer rejecting the responsibility to represent Africans or “anybody at all” (The Classic 1, no. 1 (1963): 56). “This is simply a personal statement from me to you,” he explained.  Obviously this has been a difficult concept to take seriously.

Conflicts over representation are nothing new when it comes to Nakasa though.  It is quite clear from his published works that he was having a difficult time figuring himself out and finding his place in the world.  Those who followed him have an an equally difficult time fixing a definition on this writer.  In her 2008 thesis, Heather Margaret Acott provides perhaps the best accounting of how Nakasa’s fortune rose and fell in the press during the 1990s according to the need for “’rainbow nation’ icons.”

I would suggest, however, that what has been happening in the press recently reflects something slightly different.  In the early 2000s, South African art and culture critic, Sandile Memela wrote two articles castigating the liberal white media establishment and Nakasa as their “darling” (see “The Man who was at Odds with his Identity” City Press, 9 September 2001). “Because he was a major hit in white liberal circles,” Memela explained, “he has been exhumed from the grave and made an icon of black journalism.” Memela has surely revised his opinion because he made the trip to New York to act as host of the memorial service for Nakasa’s actual exhumation.

Let me be clear: the problem is not that Memela changed his mind. There is nothing pernicious about people’s interpretation of evidence changing with time.  What troubles me is that Memela’s change of heart illustrates the fickle ways in which he and others continue to police the past, to pick and choose what lives and perspectives are worthy of remembrance and celebration. At one time Nakasa was out of bounds because he had the temerity to write to white audiences, which disqualified him from serious consideration as a representative of the people. Now, before my eyes, he was and is repositioned, first as a misunderstood prophet of the ‘rainbow nation,’ and now as the anti-apartheid voice of black communities.

It is astonishing to watch Nakasa himself being shaped to fit today’s needs.  He is being unmoored from his own life, the issues that concerned him, the evidence that is his writing, and the context that motivated that work.

Why was Nakasa’s body met at King Shaka by an MK honor guard?  I understand the need for spectacle and ceremony, but neither MK – nor, to be clear, the broad-based struggle against apartheid – was his life.  Are the trappings of the struggle the best way to remember this writer –  or are they simply the only way?  Howard University Law Professor Harold McDougall, who knew Nakasa at Harvard, spoke at the ceremony in New York; he described a mentoring program he had developed and urged South African officials to consider establishing such a program for young journalists in Nakasa’s memory. At Wits you can read a letter Nakasa wrote to Lewis Nkosi expressing his hope that The Classic might inspire four new township writers per year. This is how we should celebrate Nakasa.This fits.

In the discipline of history, as well as contemporary politics, the struggle has exerted an enormous gravitational pull for years.  Rightly so: the dismantling of apartheid was an incredible victory worthy of study and celebration.  The greatness of this victory is matched only by the terribleness of the system; indeed, it is theawfulness that makes the victory great.  Yet what Nakasa’s recent treatment reveals is that the awfulness and greatness have become disconnected somehow.  This week’s celebration demands that Nakasa fit into an easily recognizable role in that victory; writing through that awfulness is no longer enough.

The Johannesburg journalist Neo Maditla recently wrote that Nakasa was “unremarkable.” Nakasa was not unlike most South Africans who survived apartheid oppression just “trying to make it to the next day.”  This feat (occasionally known as life) only appears unremarkable within the framework of an oppression-resistance binary, which has the effect of flattening the amazing texture of so many lives, including Nakasa’s.  The insistence that only struggle lives are worth remembering and celebrating is the policing of the past.  It leaves the vast majority of South Africans, those who did their best to get by and to leave something behind for future generations, on the outside looking in, marginalized for their failure adequately to ‘struggle.’  In 1986, South African writer Njabulo Ndebele cautioned South Africa’s writers against allowing spectacle to dominate their collective literary imagination and extolled attention to the mundane, the ordinary.  Perhaps Nakasa should inspire us to rediscover the unremarkable?  For if the struggle against white supremacy is the only story worth acknowledging, than that oppressive system has truly retained its grip on authority in mockery of all that was sacrificed in the name of the future.

While Nakasa was quite remarkable in a number of ways, to enumerate these would take us down another path over which his failure to ‘struggle’ would loom.  So I conclude with this notion that he was unremarkable.  On Saturday President Zuma will preside over Nakasa’s reburial.  Will he allow Nat to speak through his own words?  Who will be returning to Chesterville, a prodigal son or a triumphant hero?  Is it even possible to celebrate a black South African who lived in the second half of the twentieth-century without making reference to the struggle?  Do we have the vocabulary for such a celebration?

After the memorial service I briefly spoke with a South African reporter for her radio program.  She asked how I, as someone who has done some scholarly work on the subject, think about and remember Nakasa?  I replied that as I’ve lived with Nakasa my thoughts on him have changed, running the gamut from struggle writer to CIA stooge, but recently I’ve decided that I like thinking of him best as a young man just trying to find his way in the world by writing.  She was not impressed and quickly went off, presumably to find someone willing to say something about fringe life or rainbows.

I like my image of Nakasa as a young man writing and living. I think we’re just out of practice understanding that as something worth celebrating.

The Economist magazine has had a “Slavery Problem” since 1843

The Economist has a slavery problem, as Greg Grandin has recently called it. Grandin’s wonderful article is a response to a series of lamentable book reviews published by The Economist that deal with the topic of slavery: Grandin’s own The Empire of Necessity, and more recently Edward Baptist’s The Half Has NeverBeen Told. The list goes on, as Grandin reports. But, as he continues, this slavery problem is old, well pedigreed even. During the U.S. Civil War, he notes, The Economist “stood nearly alone in supporting the Confederacy against the Union.” If cheap cotton was blood cotton, so be it. Summarizing this long running slavery problem, Grandin concludes: “The Economist seems committed to making sure that white people aren’t taken for total villains and darker-skinned folks held accountable for their share of world’s inequities. It also seems dedicated to make sure the economic system created by slavery [i.e., capitalism] is denied its parentage, and on insisting that the miseries that continue to be produced by neoliberal capitalism can only be cured by more neoliberal capitalism.”

Indeed. The Economist’s “slavery problem” is even older than Grandin suggests, though. It dates back to the very first issue of the paper itself.

It’s almost certainly a coincidence, to be sure, but a suggestive one, that The Economist’s first issue was published on 1 August 1843. That is, on the ninth (or fifth, to account for the end of Apprenticeship in 1838) anniversary of Emancipation Day. The anniversary was celebrated throughout the Atlantic world. Emerson and Douglass gave speeches on it; US abolitionists held picnics—and of course gave speeches too—to mark it. In the British West Indies, shops shut down, holidays were granted. Newly freed folk prayed in church and celebrated with whatever means were available to them; the better off feasted and drank (with plenty of toasts to Victoria and the Empire). Creole newspapers would go all prolix on the event, taking the anniversary as a chance to reflect on the beneficence of empire as well as the work still to be done to secure a meaningful (or, for the plantocracy, sustainable and profitable) freedom. And so, given the liberal bent of The Economist, given its belief in the glorious mission of Britain in this our fallen world, one would imagine that it too would participate in the convention of mouthing a “Glory be to Empire!” or toasting Wilberforce on the anniversary of emancipation. It was simply what Britons did.

Nope. Not a word. It’s not that the West Indies don’t make an appearance, though, in the august prospectus heralding the emancipation of the market. They do. But as refuse to be jettisoned.

It all has to do with The Economist’s guiding principles. Simply put, The Economist was founded as a pressure rag for free-trade agitators. Its first issue offers a lengthy essay that details both the economic problems derived from Britain’s “restrictive system” of mercantilist tariffs and the glories that awaited a free-trade Britain. Sound familiar? Like something you might have read in it yesterday? The Economist is literally the most ideologically consistent publication to have ever existed.

For The Economist, two commodities in particular figured the irrationality of the “restrictive system” of mercantilism: corn (i.e., cereal grains, in particular wheat) and “the greatest foreign article of consumption, and therefore of exchangeable ability, SUGAR.” Together, corn and sugar accounted for most of the caloric intake of your average Briton. For this reason, the price of corn and sugar was understood as having a strong determining effect on wages, and so the costs of production, and so the costs of goods, and so the costs of production, and so on and on. The cheaper these primary goods, the lower the cost of production, the greater would be the abundance of Britain. The problem, though, was that tariff walls favoring British farmers on one hand and West Indian sugar planters on the other kept the prices of these goods high.

Quite high. Sugar production in the British West Indies didn’t totally collapse after emancipation—it’s a debated topic, anyhow—but it dropped. It had been dropping for years, as an effect of the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, soil exhaustion, bad cultivation technique, the collapse of estates due to impossible debts, the quotidian resistance of the enslaved, and so on. With the end of slavery, many more plantations went bust, free people worked out multiple arrangements with plantations that invariably entailed a diminished production of sugar, and no British capitalists were really willing to sink much into most of the islands. Free trade agitation, too, affected the capitalization of the islands; it was widely understood that it was only the restrictive tariffs that kept the West Indies afloat, and few capitalists were willing to risk the investment when the tariff walls were starting to come down. And so the situation: More Britons were consuming sugar, but the supply was inadequate, and so expensive.

The West Indies and their protected markets were thus a primary target of The Economist, the best example that one could find to describe the idiocy of anything but liberalized markets. (It’s always a shame to me, when reading The Great Transformation, that Polanyi so absorbed the Little Englandish imaginary of free-trade liberals that he can’t think sugar with corn, his primary example.) And so the solution: liberalize sugar markets. “We must be willing to take,” The Economist’s first issue declares,  “the sugar and coffee of Brazil, Cuba, and Java,” “to avail ourselves of the vast and rich productiveness of Brazil, Cuba, Java, &c.”

Of course, the “rich productiveness” of Brazil and Cuba owed everything to slavery. The Economist didn’t agitate for the resumption of slavery in the British Empire, no; it simply demanded what amounted to its externalization. On a day when about a million emancipated humans celebrated their freedom, The Economist agitated for a position that would intensify slavery elsewhere. When news reached Cuba that an act to liberalize sugar markets was passed in 1846, the slaveholding elite reportedly partied well into the night: they now had access to the biggest sugar market in the world. British capital poured into Cuba and Brazil—it had been for some time—and so too did enslaved humans captured in Africa. (Following Engels on the late re-constitution of serfdom in Eastern Europe, Dale Tomich with good reason calls the period following liberalization the “second slavery.”)

In one of the weirdest about-face alliances in British political history, some antislavery activists joined with the West Indian plantocracy to protest liberalization—but not many. By the 1840s, free-trade activism absorbed much of the utopian impulses of antislavery organization; free-traders cribbed antislavery organizational practices to boot. Friendships were shattered, groups dissolved, and all because there was a simple choice: free trade in “slave sugar” or moral trade in “free sugar.” Free trade activists with prior antislavery connections such as Richard Cobden insisted that slavery could only be abolished through free trade, when rational, liberalized markets would reward the best, most rational form of production, which was always taken by liberals (with good evidence to the contrary) to be free-labor production. Freedom meant cheapness; cheapness meant freedom. Or, as The Economist put it in its first issue, “we seriously believe that FREE TRADE, free intercourse, will do more than any other visible agent to extend civilization and morality throughout the world—yes, to extinguish slavery itself.”

By opening British markets to “slave sugar,” Britain effectively guaranteed the hyper-underdevelopment of the islands. Indeed, if just a decade earlier, abolitionists insisted that enslaved humans were just like any other British subject, entitled to the same rights and protections, liberalization cut into this flickering moral geography, decisively constituting at the politico-economic level an inner Britain and an outer one. The postemancipation world was rendered institutionally foreign and so not as deserving of British care regarding its level of economic development—or, really, much care at all. In practice, then, liberalization entailed the economic and political abandonment of the islands. As Disraeli later asserted, the “wretched” colonies had been a “millstone” about Britain’s collective neck; he tore the millstone away. (He didn’t, and it’s weird that he, an arch-protectionist, should say he did, but free trade had become so ideologically hegemonic that down was up.) It became common to compare creoles’ resistance to emendations of tariff protections with Luddites’ destruction of machinery—with the implication, of course, that machines won out in the end. Nature following its course, Providence providencing. (Marx would absorb this figuring of the West Indies in his remarks on free trade, but only to insist that flows of capital and distributions of commodity production are not natural.) Still, plenty of liberals fantasized that the islands would simply sink into the sea. “[I]f we could,” Anthony Trollope writes in his West Indies and the Spanish Main, “we would fain forget Jamaica altogether. But there it is,” he lamented. Indeed. Brontë’s Rochester responded to the inconvenient presence of the West Indies in manorial Britain by locking his mad creole wife Bertha in the attic. Just think about how some Yanks think of Detroit.

The result of liberalization, then, was not simply to intensify slavery throughout the Americas or to more fully saturate British markets with slave produce. Nor was the result simply to decimate an already decimated West Indian economy, although it did that too. Most importantly, the result of liberalization was to reduce Britain’s relationship to the West Indies, and to West Indians, to a market rationality, and one wherein the market directed Britain’s attention from subjects who just a decade earlier had been the focus of Britons’ intense political and moral concern. (As Eric Williams half-melancholically, half-sarcastically put it, echoing Burke, “The age of empire was dead; that of free traders, economists, and calculators had succeeded, and the glory of the West Indies was extinguished forever.”) That is, of course, not how the emancipated understood their relationship, not normatively. Not when they offered letters of thanks to Victoria for their emancipation, not when they wrote petitions to Victoria soliciting economic assistance for the islands, not when they declared themselves British subjects and so entitled to all the rights and privileges attaching to that quality. It’s hard for us to read such documents now, with our postcolonial eyes, and see anything but imperial hegemony. But in such supplications we gain quotidian access to what emancipation, at least in part, meant for creoles: freedom to transact with Britain, to be included in an expansive polity, and to possess a legibility there that differed from the logic of the market.

The Economist has a slavery problem then, to be sure. But it has another one, too, and a bigger one. Call it a freedom problem. It’s partly, as Grandin suggests, that The Economist offers the same (neo)liberal solution to every (neo)liberal problem: more freedom (for capital). And yet, were The Economist to recognize the complicity of its ideology in the production and persistence of slavery, I’m not sure much would change. After all, the publication was quite conscious that cheaper sugar purchased on liberalized markets entailed, in the short run, intensified slavery abroad. One lesson here, one I wish people effusing over new studies of capitalism and slavery or the new capitalism studies stuff, is that we need to stop thinking that somehow naming capitalism’s imbrication in slavery in any way constitutes a radical act, an emancipatory gesture. Capitalism already knows how shitty it is. It doesn’t care.

The Economist’s freedom problem runs deeper than its willingness to capitalize on a form of production premised on freedom’s negation. It is rather that its monochromatic definition of freedom as market freedom rendered it incapable of hearing the other kind of freedom articulated both as a demand and as a gift in each black creole missive of gratitude or supplicatory petition to the queen. In composing freedom in the economy, as the economy, The Economist rendered itself, and its liberal readers, and a liberalized Britain, incapable of hearing the aneconomy that inheres in every demand for black freedom. To be a person, not a thing; to be described in print as a British West Indian, not metonymized as sugar; to be a subject one hangs around with, celebrates emancipation with, and even after the cane juice isn’t worth the squeeze. Indeed, sticking around when there’s no good reason to do so is probably the basis of any politics worth sticking with; such a practice entails a collective fracture of social necessity that originates (as) anything I’d call freedom. The rebels of Morant Bay didn’t get going because their economic prospects were bleak; they were always like that. They got going because the queen told them to fuck off.

And so let’s say this: If The Economist’s slavery problem consists in its abandoning ideological responsibility for capitalism’s deep ties to slavery, its freedom problem consists in its redefinition of freedom as the capacity to abandon. Ex-slaves were the first, and foundational, victims of this freedom.

This article first appeared on Of CLR James, Chris Taylor’s excellent blog (well worth reading through the rest of his posts). Chris Taylor tweets @ChrisJudeTaylor

What’s the matter with … R.W. Johnson

The South African RW Johnson has undergone a transformation of youthful radical to smug “anti-apartheid” liberal anti-communist and scholar of the French Left (think Tony Judt-lite), resulting in the final incarnation of a  pompous red-faced “liberal” colonial academic flinging reductionist tribal stereotypes into the public sphere. His intellectual credibility was forfeited a few years ago in liberal-left circles when he wrote a racist piece for the London Review of Books‘s (LRB’s) blog in which he compared  the horrific xenophobic attacks in South Africa to baboons fighting rottweilers.

We are being besieged by baboons again. This happens quite often here on the Constantiaberg mountains (an extension of the Table Mountain range). Baboons are common in the Cape and they are a great deal larger than the vervet monkeys I was used to dealing with in KwaZulu-Natal. They jump onto roofs, overturn dustbins and generally make a nuisance of themselves; since their teeth are very dirty, their bite can be poisonous. They seem to have lots of baby baboons – it’s been a very mild winter and so spring is coming early – and they’re looking for food. The local dogs don’t like them but appear to have learned their lesson from the last baboon visit: then, a large rottweiler attacked the apes, who calmly tore it limb from limb.

Meanwhile in the squatter camps, there is rising tension as the threat mounts of murderous violence against foreign migrants once the World Cup finishes on 11 July. These migrants – Zimbabweans, Malawians, Congolese, Angolans, Somalis and others – are often refugees and they too are here essentially searching for food. The Somalis are the most enterprising and have set up successful little shops in the townships and squatter camps, but several dozen Somali shopkeepers have already been murdered, clearly at the instigation of local black shopkeepers who don’t appreciate the competition. The ANC is embarrassed by it all and has roundly declared that there will be no such violence. The truth is that no one knows. The place worst hit by violence in the last xenophobic riots here was De Doorns and the army moved into that settlement last week, clearly anticipating trouble. The tension is ominous and makes for a rather schizoid atmosphere as the Cup itself mounts towards its climax.

This piece of crude racist stereotypes provoked widespread outrage among intellectuals and academics all over the world, eventually culminating in an open letter condemning the LRB for continuing to grant old Bill Johnson with a platform. The letter was signed by the likes of Africa is a Country founder Sean Jacobs, political scientist Achille Mbembe and literature professor Paul Gilroy, as well as writers China Miéville and Teju Cole. Johnson was subsequently forced to find other platforms for his rants and raves, such as the South African website Politicsweb – which will publish anything – and reactionary publications  such as the Spectator every now and again.

The LRB is known to not condone racism. But in 2010, instead of condemning or editing the obvious racism in his blog post, the publication chose instead to reduce it to a matter of “interpretation”.

Why then is the LRB–which I must confess is my favourite literary publication and is usually on the left–giving Johnson a platform in 2014? Granted, his piece in their latest edition is a review of Michael Jago’s biography on Clement Attlee – but a quick search on the LRB’s website (these includes blog posts) reveals Johnson has authored no less than five pieces since 2010; including a few on South Africa. Perhaps his reputation among the editors of the LRB still rests on the laurels of being their designated left-liberal anti-apartheid critic in the 1980s, when Johnson was still an Oxford don. Or perhaps they haven’t bothered to take the criticism they received in 2010 to heart.

Politicsweb, Johnson’s main platform, shares his politics, and until recently published fellow angophile  racist and now rape apologist David Bullard.  Politicsweb editor James Myburgh – who was an ex-Democratic Alliance (DA) insider and confidant of its former leader Tony Leon – is the sort of South African who feels the need to publish  a  10,000-word defence of George Zimmerman’s  murder of Trayvon Martin and to term affirmative action Verwoerdian.

As the years passed since the aforementioned incident in 2010, Johnson has moved even further to the right – to the point of actively promoting reds-under-the-beds conspiracy theories about the apparently malignant role South African communists played in every  political choice made by the ANC since the 1950s. His  allies in this paranoid quest are the likes Stephen Ellis, Paul Trewhela  and Rian Malan, all of whom seem to share a collective belief in black inferiority and the inability of the likes of Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu to lead the ANC without being manipulated by white communists. For them, black intellectuals psychologically associate whiteness with excellence and are thus obsessed with whites, something clear in Johnson’s crude writings on Thabo Mbeki.

Part of this mission, which he shares with the South African Institute of Race Relations’ Anthea Jeffery, is to redeem the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and its leader for life Gatsha Buthelezi as the true liberation movement, presenting  a moderate or even social democratic alternative to the “Stalinist ANC.” This is despite the IFP’s involvement in political violence against the ANC, United Democratic Front and unions throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, in which IFP militants killed thousands of people in what effectively was a unofficial civil war, where the IFP was armed, trained and covertly supported by the apartheid state, the police and military.

His other hobby is to denounce current Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille for breaking up the Kelvin Grove old boys club  type of liberalism of Leon’s  DA, while accusing her of betraying the supposed grand legacy of South African (or rather, Cape Colony) liberalism by attempting to seduce ANC voters.

Johnson’s most recent book, South Africa’s Brave New World, published in 2009, was described by the Guardian  as “a record of pretty well every piece of unsubstantiated gossip to have circulated South Africa’s rumour mills.” Examples include the idea that Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe had advance warning of the 9/11 attacks, the ANC had Chris Hani murdered, and that Thabo Mbeki is the antichrist (no, really. Johnson blames almost everything wrong in South Africa on Mbeki).The LRB’s own reviewer, Wits University sociologist Roger Southhall, noted that “Johnson has little regard for competing scholarship, particularly in the fields of contemporary history and social science.” The novelist Andre Brink, writing in the Daily Telegraph, added that “he [Johnson] relies mainly on newspapers, including lightweight magazines, and often quotes himself, or hides behind cop-out phrases such as ‘It was generally assumed …’, ‘There was suspicion…’, ‘Causing some to believe…’ or, scattered throughout the notes, unsubstantiated references to private information or private sources”.

To illustrate Johnson’s conspiratorial paranoia, take a look at this quote:

Not only was [Robert] Mugabe one of the few people given a fore-warning of the events of 9/11, but he had actually allowed al-Qaeda militants to fly into Zimbabwe in the week following 9/11 to get fitted out with false Zimbabwean passports.

The source for this stupendous claim is, of course, a footnote citing the great authority himself, author RW Johnson. Johnson was invited a few months ago on to Eusebius Mckaiser’s Power FM radio show to discuss a recent article in which he claimed that blacks would vote for white leaders of the DA due to the fact they associate whiteness with excellence on competence. When challenged by Mckaiser to produce evidence for this claim, Johnson mumbled about a number of conversations he has had with black people, making it clear that it was merely anecdotal. When this was pointed out to Johnson, he promptly hung up the phone.

It is not enough for Johnson to criticise the likes of Mugabe and Mbeki, but he has to turn them into world-historic evil characters on par with the great monsters of history.

At a recent event in Cape Town, hosted by South African online publication Daily Maverick, Johnson was spotted pontificating during a question and answer session about how the ANC was some sort of Nguni racket designed to keep out other tribal groupings from the presidency, thus resulting in some sort of tribal pact between the Xhosa and Zulu to keep everybody else out. Johnson increasingly sounds like the old racist uncle ranting at the dinner table about the essential righteousness of the British empire in teaching the Bantu about Jesus and modernity, through the musket and sword if need be.

While it’s not my place to speak of the merits of Johnson’s reading of the Attlee years, it is fair to ask the question: why is Johnson, despite the mountains of evidence testifying to his transformation to an A-grade crank, still being given space in the world’s foremost literary publication? Johnson should be rightly relegated to the fringes of the internet, where his fellow McCarthyite cranks and colonial nostalgics can engage in back-slapping while on the gin in the comment section. I sincerely hope the LRB doesn’t still think Johnson is one of us (the intellectual liberal-left) and can look past Johnson’s punchy prose style to see the rotten core that has come to characterise his writing.

This is not censorship – Johnson already has other platforms – only a refusal to grant Johnson and his malevolent politics the intellectual credibility attached to being publishing on such an esteemed platform such as the LRB that he feels entitled to as an ex-Oxford don. Also be sure to check out the otherwise outstanding edition of the LRB, with a superb array of reflections on Scottish independence and Jenny Diski’s account of being with diagnosed cancer.

* This is the first instalment in a new series: “What’s the matter with …” We also plan to revive the “Take me to your leader” series, which previously lasted one instalment.

Sepp Blatter says sports boycotts don’t work. ‘Would Mandela agree?’

Earlier this week Sepp Blatter, defending FIFA’s decision to not rescind its decision to award Russia the World Cup in 2022, said “Boycotts in sport never has had any benefit.” Watch it here for yourself. As, a site not usually know for its progressive politics (they usually line up behind the worst aspects of US foreign policy) wondered: “Would Mandela agree?” In fact some Belgian fans thought the same over the summer when they pressured the Belgian FA to cancel last Sunday’s European qualifier against Israel in Jerusalem. In the end, the game was moved to Cyprus, but we don’t think that will be the end of calls for boycott of Israel’s football team. Meanwhile, it just so happens that on September 18th, Hlonipha Mokoena (Columbia University), Dan Magaziner (Yale University) and myself will revisit the legacy of the 1980s cultural boycott against white South Africa during a panel at The New School in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

Apart from the successful sports boycott white South Africa was subjected to, our discussion will include the events and complicated legacies of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album, for which Simon defied the UN boycott, traveled to South Africa and recorded with local musicians. The larger context for September 18th’s public event is “… labor issues in the United Arab Emirates, funding structures of the Sydney Biennale or the current São Paulo Bienal, participation in this year’s Manifesta in Saint Petersburg, and calls to renew a cultural boycott of Israel.” In fact, other seminars in the series will look at some of these. Back to September 18th: Joe Berlinger’s documentary marking the 25th anniversary of “Graceland” album, will also be screened separately that day as part of the event. Here’s the trailer:

BTW, we may, or may not bring up, Stevie van Zandt’s view of Paul Simon (if the video doesn’t cue, fast forward to 19 minutes, 15 seconds:

All the details to the event at the link below. See you there.

Prayer in the time of Ebola

News of Ebola in West Africa immediately sent me back to the spring of 1974, when another highly contagious and deadly hemorrhagic virus known as Lassa fever swept through my hometown of Jos, Nigeria. All through that hot and dry season, people drove straight through my city with their car windows closed, even though they had no air conditioning, so as not to catch what they feared to be blowing in the wind. I was a young child at the time and as the daughter of a pastor, I prayed fervently for those suffering. I prayed that the afflicted would be cured, but in spite of my prayers, many people died. I was shaken by these deaths but nevertheless continued to pray for I took hope in the seemingly miraculous recovery of an American missionary nurse.

Nurse Lily Pinneo was the first Lassa fever patient dramatically airlifted out of West Africa to the United States, just like today’s first American Ebola patients, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol. Nurse Pinneo not only recovered from Lassa fever; she returned to Nigeria with her antibodies, which were then successfully used in the form of a serum to cure others. In light of the recent anxieties surrounding the arrival of Ebola patients in the U.S., it is hard to imagine that Nurse Pinneo was not transported in a specially outfitted medical evacuation plane. Instead she traveled in the first class section of a commercial flight with little more than a curtain separating her from the other passengers. It was a Pan American Airways Boeing 707 that stopped in Accra, Monrovia, and Dakar picking up new passengers at each point.

Now, some forty years later after the Lassa fever outbreak, I worry about Ebola and in particular about my friends and family who live in West Africa. “Please be careful,” I urged my brother in a recent email sent from where I live in San Francisco to where he works in Lagos. I was hoping he might reassure me by saying he was taking extra care, but instead he replied: “There’s nothing much one can do to be ‘careful’. Like everybody else in Nigeria, I will just have to rely on prayer.” I groaned when I read this for I’m not sure my brother believes in prayer and even if he does, his email reads like a vast over-reliance on prayer at a time when there are many more practical things that can and should be done. Except perhaps in a densely populated megacity with close to 21 million people living in the context of widespread poverty and a lack of awareness about disease. Here, the arrival of a pandemic such as Ebola could be catastrophic, even apocalyptic. What my brother’s response made me realize was that in places like Lagos where the healthcare system is inadequate and health workers are constantly on strike, this leaves people with little option but to rely on prayer.

While I no longer have the same unwavering belief in prayer that I had as a child, I continue to pray. At the start of the Ebola outbreak, Ling, my local dry cleaner, pointed to a photograph of her beloved Pope Francis and told me she was praying for those suffering from Ebola. I told her I was praying too. Several days later, in a conversation with my Palestinian neighbor, Mohammed, as we bemoaned the atrocities taking place in the Middle East, we both spoke of how we could do little but pray. So like my brother and many others in Nigeria, as well as those in the areas most affected by Ebola in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia and now Senegal, I find myself, almost in spite of myself, relying on prayer. And yet prayer is undoubtedly a powerful way of fostering bonds between neighbours and friends. Prayer might even be powerful enough to bring about miracles, but it can never be a substitute for the alleviation of problems that require coordinated international efforts on matters of governance, regional security, healthcare and public services. Ultimately, what I pray for most urgently these days is for greater, concerted human effort to solve today’s most terrifying problems. Some things are simply beyond human control, but Ebola is not one of these.

Image Credit: Victor Ehikhamenor

On Safari

Telling “the African story”

We often hear political and business leaders and Africanists talk about the need to “tell the African story.” For us, “tell the African story” means nothing. In other words, it is a cliché of no value. We don’t know what it is supposed to mean. It may be that the idea of a definitive “African story” gains traction as a response to bigoted representations of the continent that have been influential in Western journalism and thinking. But like the idea of the need for “positive stories about Africa”, it’s facile and unhelpful. Our suspicion is that political and business leaders say that when they feel uncomfortable with airing real problems that ordinary Africans experience. The phrase also assumes–as our blog title mockingly suggests–that Africa is a Country.

African journalists rarely think or talk about their vocation in these terms. In most cases, they lack the continental consciousness to think or write in this way. The national trumps any continental solidarity or focus. So does the local. Their focus is very different from their counterparts in the West who report on “Africa.”

Journalists are also under stress and lack resources to travel between or report from elsewhere in Africa. News organizations mostly republish wire stories or cut and paste reports from Western media. In South Africa, for example, it is not unusual for prominent newspapers to take their “international” and continental coverage straight from Western publications, often ones that stereotype Africans. For example, the Independent Group’s newspapers republish copy from Britain’s rightwing “Daily Telegraph” and the tabloid “Daily Mirror.” The worst is the Sunday Independent, where copy from the New York Times and Washington Post make up whole sections and the Mail and Guardian which reposts UK Guardian copy in bulk on its world news pages with very little edits. There’s a few homegrown networks (e.g. SABC Africa, which may not be operating anymore) or subsidiaries of “global” or US networks-like CNBC Africa, ABN News-which attempt a continental bias, but can’t help themselves in parroting cookie-cutter Western storylines, tone or foci.

That said, most African journalists, like their counterparts in the West, are connected to social media which means there is now no limitation to their stories being read by Western mass audiences and elites alike. One thing to do, especially online, might be to talk back to Western media about these stereotypes. We see that space opening up more and more. We are reminded of a piece written a while back by a former New York Times correspondent in India writing at the end of his tenure about how he had to get used to the idea that the subjects of his reporting read what he wrote and could now write back in real time.

At the same time, it should be noted that most of the time a Western foreign correspondent’s articles are of almost no interest at all to people in the country he or she is reporting from. The domestic news agenda is completely different — so that domestic media scandals are completely ignored by foreign correspondents.

Western media organizations tend to assume that their foreign reporting is taken much more seriously overseas than it really is. Ask someone in an African country what they think about Nicholas Kristof’s reporting, and invariably the answer will be: “Who?”

So what should be the role or contribution of the African press in Africa’s transformation?

Report stories. Investigate malfeasance. Get out of the newsroom. Produce compelling media. Give readers proper historical context. No PR stories. Using the vernacular can be helpful for meaningful reporting.

Lots of the journalism in Africa is not properly edited or thought through.

Without being prescriptive, if a continental consciousness has to develop, it should be akin to a non-essentialist pan-Africanism that is suited to this time that challenges and broadens received wisdom about the African continent and its people in Western media, countering ahistorical and decontextualized images of the continent and its people. With the web that is now not that hard to do. Without doing “development” journalism, journalists need to reinvent the narrative and visual economy of their African locales.

Global media, with few exceptions, have shown themselves time and again to be utterly unable to cover the continent in the depth and detail it demands, still less with any appreciation for Africa as a site of astonishing cultural and artistic productiveness. The imperative of journalists in Africa should not be to produce patronizing ‘positive’ news stories or PR-style neoliberal boosterism, but sustained daily work of presenting and engaging critically with the cultural and political life of Africa and Africans wherever they are and, crucially with its diaspora, now only a click away.

People need to stop taking this “potential investors” mumbo jumbo seriously. Governments are accountable to citizens, not investors. The idea that “potential investors” will be scared off by accountability journalism exposing corrupt practices is ludicrous. Look at Angola and the work of Rafael Marques de Morais through his site Maka Angola.

Marques has exposed scandal after scandal, but big oil companies still seem to want that Angolan oil. Some of the world’s most notoriously corrupt countries are also the most attractive to investors — not that their investment is of much good to ordinary people. A major challenge for all journalists is to think independently of the very pervasive neoliberal ideology of institutions like the IMF and World Bank, and media like The Economist magazine, according to whom all government policy must be dictated by the needs of “potential investors”. As the Malawian researcher and writer Jimmy Kainja quipped to us presidents like to do this supposedly very important thing called “talking to investors,” but nobody’s ever quite sure what the result is.

The Naked Woman on Nelson Mandela Square

On Monday, a woman walked towards the giant Mandela statue at Nelson Mandela square in Sandton, Johannesburg and stripped naked until security guard came to remove her as demonstrated in the cellphone images that were captured and distributed on social media by bystanders. It is not clear who this woman is or why she did it but somebody on Twitter called her Braveheart and I must agree, there is something beautifully valiant in her statement.  Some dim witted people on News 24 complained about the type of body she has, some have called it ”yuck” and that it would have been better to have a younger ”firmer” body instead. This type of thinking, not unlike some news reports that have insinuated that she is mentally unstable, is perhaps the type of thinking that Mystery Braveheart seeks to challenge about who we have become as a society.

A black African female body — something usually under duress in South Africa, constantly cleaning, carrying and wiping; the perpetual provider – caring, mothering, fathering, paying, praying; and always the recipient of various brands of a frightening South African masculinity – pursued, abused, sexualized and caressed in varying degrees of love and hate. This black African female body willfully walks to the towering figure of Nelson Mandela and disrobes. As visible as he is, presiding over an erect symbol of capital, she becomes visible.

In my eyes, the statement transcends her beautiful physical attributes, and becomes an embodiment of how many of us feel. In a world where nudity has become the smut that sells product and personality, hers is a pure human body, one that allows more people to see themselves in her shapely hips and breasts that look back at you. That we are unsure of the context of this act is in and of itself, pure.

As she leans in to place her head on the bronze knee of Mandela’s statue, I see a vulnerable woman in plain pain. She could have gone to any of the many places that are named after Mandela but she chose this one, a physical embodiment of South Africa’s neo-liberal agenda, one that prioritizes capital and not people, it is a building that represents all the wrong turns we’ve made to end up in a situation where 25% of South Africans are unemployed, where the majority are still poor and the poor are still black. It’s a building that represents our nation’s status as the dumping ground for Western Imperialism. An inference of the commodification of Mandela’s image, commoditized by the power that oppressed him, used to conciliate the South Africans into believing that nothing happened to them. She may be mentally unstable, would that be surprising? The real miracle in South Africa’s popular tale of reconciliation is how many of us have not reached a state of undress in pronouncement, no matter which side of the divide one falls. That she chose the powerful and now in his absence, changing image of Mandela is telling. The Mandela who placed the responsibility of morality into the hands of black South Africans, when immorality had ruled over them for 46 years, the Mandela who forgave the people but did not put on trial, the system that put him on trial, the Mandela who promised to not dislocate public life so that places like Sandton could continue being Sandton, unfortunately maintaining Alexandria as its unchanged appendage – that Mandela may be the one she is begging to, asking from and questioning.

She claims this space in response to the noise that pervades all available public space, especially in Sandton, all the noise that has facilitated the idea that nothing happened. What’s there to be angry about? What’s there to be sad about? Shop. Everything is okay. Whether it is art or not, her statement has allowed us to interrogate the state of unconsciousness that the country’s powerful are in when it comes to the needs of those whose power is exerted through their bodies, limited to their bodies or limited by their bodies. Her nudity wakes us up, either in protest or solidarity to the fact that everything is not okay.

Thank you Mystery Braveheart, if that’s what you were going for.

Let’s talk about racism in Colombia

Last week, a classified ad appeared in a Colombian newspaper. It read, in the broken language of pay-per-word ads:

A female surgeon doctor with college degree Internship in Clinic Inscription. 25-30 years old, of white skin. Needed, a personal interview Dr. Guarín, next July, 22nd, 10 A.m.

Soon every news outlet in the country, as well as social media (including the newspaper which originally published it, El País) got wind of it, writing stories. It was universally, and rightfully, condemned.

The day of its publishing, a small crowd gathered outside of Dr. Guarín’s office to protest the racism of the ad and at least one organization, the Fundación Chao Racismo, announced it would sue the physician for breaking the country’s anti-discrimination laws. The media backlash prompted the managers of the Farallones Clinic, where Dr. Guarín has his private practice, to distance themselves. They did so first by making it clear that the doctor merely rents a space there and is not affiliated with them, and then by asking him to stop renting it.

The whole ordeal was forgotten quickly, though, with Colombia’s relentless news cycle bringing a different scandal each day. Still, it was mildly refreshing that at least this small outburst could have happened in a country where racism is rampant, yet it rarely hits mainstream conversations, where it is easily disregarded and treated as a foreign ailment.

As with everything else in Colombia, our racism is also a problem of elitism. Black and native voices are often dismissed because they tend to come from the periphery. Freed black slaves in the middle of the 19th Century settled in their own neighborhoods or their own towns, away from their previous oppressors, while the native groups that preserved their cultures managed to do so, mainly, by staying away from the European settlers. People who belong to any of these two groups, then, tend to come from remote and depressed areas, forgotten by the government, where basic needs are unmet, public services are lacking and education is of low quality.

Therefore, from the “center”, from the main cities of the country where things are sometimes better, these people are seen as “inferiors.” For example, it is a common assumption among some Colombians that dark skinned people are poor, while fair skinned people are rich, or at least well off.

Of course, there is also the purely racial aspect of it. I have only mentioned “black” and “native” people in the last paragraphs, because those are the only “races” we can think about in Colombia. They are the ones that steer away from what is more common. Most of us (including myself) are mixed-race. We have a word in Spanish for it: “mestizo”. Even people whose skin is very pale declare themselves as “mestizos”. This is what we are taught in school: we are a “mixed” country; this is what the 1991 Constitution declares: we are a “multiethnic, pluricultural nation.”

The Spaniards originally used the word “mestizo” to describe a “half-white, half-indigenous person,” but it is likely that most of us have also black ancestry at some point, though it is hard to know, as often this fact would be hidden from family histories out of shame. Many have changed their names and obscured their lineage in hopes of looking more “European.” So for the majority of us it is hard to tell exactly where we come from and we simply decide to be part of the “raceless” bunch.

The most recent national census, done in 2005, asked about ethnicity, rather than about race. In it, 3.43% of the country’s population identified as “indigenous,” 10.62% as “afro-Colombian” and 85.94% as “without ethnicity” (and 0.01% as “Rom”, which is a whole other story). It is hard to speak about racism in such a place where “race” and “ethnicity” are, largely, not a concept. Modern Colombia lacks the vocabulary for it. “Race,” “ethnicity” and “racism” are things that only apply to others, to that periphery I mentioned before, to those who are not part of that “mixed country.”

It is telling that this ad was published in Cali, the third most populated city in the country and, among the top three (which includes Bogotá and Medellín), by far the one with the biggest black population. As it sits on the Western edge of the Colombian Andes, Cali is just a few hours drive from the country’s Pacific Coast, where most freed slaves decided to settle, and where most of Colombia’s black population is concentrated. It is the first choice for many young black people who want to get a college education, or a chance of a better job. This is somewhere in Colombia where the “mixed country” interacts daily with those people who have an “ethnicity”, where the phrase “white skin” makes some sense, where it means “not black”.

Also telling are the arguments used by Dr. Guarín for his defense. “I am not a racist”, he said, “I asked for those requirements because that is what my partners from Bogotá asked me to do”. We are supposed to disregard the fact that this doctor published a racist ad because people in Bogotá–where there is very little presence of both black and native people–told him to do it, and they don’t understand these things, you see?

He went on to say: “I even have friends who are ‘morenos’.”  Not “black”, but “morenos.” It literally means “dark-skinned.” It is not a race or an ethnicity, but just a state of being. When you get tanned, for instance, you become a bit more “moreno.” Sure, you can call black people “morenos,” as they have dark skin, but calling them such devoids them of their racial identity, it places them in the “mixed country,” where racism is meaningless.

That the newsmedia of the country acknowledged that there was something wrong with this ad was a step forward into truly dealing with our discrimination. Nonetheless, El País didn’t hesitate to publish such a thing, nor did it acknowledged any wrongdoing while reporting the story. For now, it seems that the mainstream media (and therefore, the majority of the population) believes that racism is just a problem of a “few bad apples”.

Yet, as more and more black and native artists, musicians, actors, athletes and writers start to become part of the general consciousness, hopefully, we can find a way to truly talk about in the mainstream media about Colombia’s discrimination.

The Redemption Trope in South African Cinema

Come Back Africa (dir. Lionel Rogosin), Mapantsula (dir. Oliver Schmitz) and Tsotsi (dir. Gavin Hood) mark three distinct eras in South African cinema. The oldest of the three, Come Back Africa, shot secretly in the late 1950s, shows the routine violence of the apartheid state. The viewer experiences the monotony of social exclusion through the life of Zachariah, a man displaced by rural economic hardship and forced to find work in Johannesburg. The director, through his clandestine approach, captures the apartheid city functioning as intended. Surplus black labor swirls amidst menial jobs in mines, restaurants and luxurious homes. The white faces are appropriately villainous, spitting racial epithets and enjoying the social and economic privileges of apartheid rule. By the 1980s, the unmooring had begun. The Johannesburg of Mapantsula is more chaotic and uncertain. Viewers are introduced to Panic, a petty criminal, turned possible police informant. Apartheid is presented as untenable, as protests erupt in the townships and jails swell with political prisoners. If the fall of apartheid is anticipated in Mapantsula, the uncertainties of the post-apartheid state are captured in Tsotsi’s ambivalence about the new trajectory of the “rainbow nation.” In Tsotsi, black urban wealth exists alongside the poverty of black townships, and the gatekeepers of privilege are no longer exclusively white. While differences among these films abound, they are unified by tropes of redemption enacted through the figure of a black, male anti-hero. I conceive of redemption as a move toward personal salvation, attempting to right perceived wrongs or failings. In what follows, I demonstrate how concepts of redemption found in these films are implicated in the wider national history of South Africa.

Come Back Africa opens with a series of movements, bodies moving here and there, in and out of shadows. This opening is apt for the narrative arc of the film. The protagonist, Zachariah, embodies the perils of movement under apartheid. At the start of the film, Zachariah is forced by drought from his home in the countryside. He leaves his wife and children to find work in Johannesburg. This forced migration leads Zachariah to various jobs, including as a mine worker, a housekeeper and a waiter. Through a series of mishaps instigated by racial antagonism, Zachariah is forced to move from job to job. But the work is low paying and often hard to come by. Zachariah also lives in constant fear of being arrested for having insufficient working papers. Despite these events, Zachariah continues to see work as his path to salvation. Here, work is not merely about material survival—though that is important. Work emerges as a way to rationalize one’s position, and it is linked to ideas about redemption. Zachariah aims to redeem himself as the provider for his family through work, and he continues to promise his wife that life will be better once he finds a steady job. Indeed, Zachariah’s aversion to his wife taking a job reveals the way work acts as a means for him to redeem his masculinity. However, the mechanisms of apartheid have stacked the odds against him, and Zachariah’s attempts to find long-term employment are continually thwarted. Zachariah’s unrelenting faith in the redemptive power of work demonstrates how the processes of apartheid were rendered livable. In this environment, the daily grind of attempting to secure work routinizes life. Here, visions of salvation are contracted, as concerns about the next pay check transform into attachments to fleeting moments of stability. The black apartheid subject is redeemed by (making apartheid) work.


Historian and philosopher David Theo Goldberg describes aspects of this lived experience of apartheid in “A Political Theology of Race (On Racial Southafricanization).” Goldberg describes the period following the 1948 codification of apartheid laws as one of perceived triumph (“triomf”) for the Afrikaner regime (300).

The apartheid government succeeded in compartmentalizing nearly every aspect of black life and it rendered social exclusion commonsensical and livable. For Zachariah, the consummate 1950s black apartheid subject, redemption is ultimately elusive. Two scenes in the film underscore this point. The first moment occurs when Zachariah encounters a group of South African intellectuals and activists in a bar. Their conversation begins to broaden his understanding of the intricacies of life under apartheid. This scene is supposed to be a moment of politicization, where Zachariah discovers the merits of the struggle. However, the director does not take the obvious trajectory here. Zachariah does not join the would-be revolutionaries, and he does not dive headlong into the anti-apartheid movement. His response is more subtle and representative of the 1950s time period. Zachariah speaks of an innate feeling that activists’ words have resonance for his life. He says, “I don’t understand, but I like it.” The concluding scene of the film is where the trope of work as redemption is irrevocably severed. Zachariah’s wife is murdered after a violent altercation with a fellow township resident. When Zachariah returns home, he is distraught. His final cries of anguish, which conclude the film, reveal the pervasive cycles of violence birthed by apartheid—all are affected, even those who attempt to find avenues to make apartheid livable. Ultimately, Zachariah’s efforts to make apartheid work, to essentially play by the rules of the system, do little to protect his family. His vulnerabilities as an “everyman” are exposed as the film closes.

Mapantsula also shatters the image of apartheid as a workable system. Set in the late 1980s, the film follows Panic, an anti-hero engaged in a life of petty crime, while the city of Johannesburg and the surrounding townships convulse around him. Panic spends his days robbing white South Africans and his nights drinking in the local bars. His life is essentially adrift, with little purpose or direction. Yet, the residents of his township are growing increasingly militant, engaging in violent standoffs with police forces. Goldberg describes this period of apartheid’s denouement as one of widespread political action with growing support for the outlawed African National Congress. Mapantsula illustrates this moment in South African history. Temporally, the film is disjointed and it is told through flashbacks of Panic’s life. Eventually, the viewer learns that Panic has been arrested following a protest in the township. State police attempt to obtain information about the unrest from Panic because of his previous involvement as a police informant. Throughout the film, police officers alternate between cajoling and threatening Panic. Like Come Back Africa, the momentum of Mapantsula builds to its final scene. After unending torment, Panic refuses to cooperate with the police. This scene is by extension a refusal to honor the legitimacy of the apartheid state. Panic’s form of redemption is very different from Zachariah’s. Mapantsula’s anti-hero is redeemed through a commitment to the struggling collective. Unlike the wailing Zachariah, the Panic of Mapantsula’s final scene is stoic and resolved. He has left the petty-mindedness of temporary gain and has allied himself with a quest for liberation.

The reorientation of Panic is indicative of Goldberg’s assessment of how the changing political tide of the 1980s brought together groups of unlikely allies. The trope of redemption found in Mapantsula maps onto popular narratives about the nature of South Africa’s revolutionary struggle. The morality of the movement is positioned as so strong that it had the power to transform even the “amoral” characters in South African society. There is something faintly biblical about how the story of Panic is told, where the film’s protagonist emerges as the wayward son who eventually comes home to the nation. This narrative mirrors larger discourse about the ANC itself. In its decades long struggle to end apartheid, the ANC assumed a mythic character. It was positioned as the literal and figurative savior of South Africa. Similarities between the figure of Panic and ideas about the ANC are also linked to the subjective position of the criminal in South African historical memory. Prominent members of the ANC were jailed and declared criminals by the state, yet they were eventually absolved by the righteousness of their cause. Similarly, Panic’s previous sins are figuratively forgiven at the moment he decides to defy the state and support the cause of liberation. Thus, if Come Back Africa ends on a note of despair, then Mapantsula ends on a note of hopefulness. The path forward is presented as clear, and in Panic, the promise of the nation is represented by a black subject redeemed through political consciousness.


The political overtures of Tsotsi are more subdued than in the other two films. This is perhaps appropriate for a film that considers what Goldberg calls “apartheid’s afterlife.” The title character is a criminal, like Panic, however, unlike the latter, Tsotsi’s targets are primarily black. Set in the mid-2000s, the film highlights an era of black access following the disassembling of formal apartheid structures. But, as Goldberg’s characterization suggests, exclusion and social stratification live on. In the film, Tsotsi steals a car from a wealthy black couple and finds himself in possession of their infant son. Tsotsi soon grows attached to the child, which reminds him of his own tormented childhood. Tsotsi is eventually redeemed through his affection for the child, and he attempts to make amends with those he has wronged in life. Though the state is largely absent from this film, the narrative of the nation is once again told through the story of a black, male figure. The baby in Tsotsi’s care becomes a symbol for the promise of what the nation could be, and that discovery is what ultimately saves Tsotsi from his life of crime.

However, the onus for change in Tsotsi seems misplaced. If, as Goldberg argues, the structures of apartheid persist through institutions like healthcare, housing and employment, personal redemption is insufficient to stem the tide of dispossession. (Goldberg refers to this as the “spiraling apartheid of class.”) Tsotsi is somewhat successful in its representation of class fissures in contemporary South Africa. The world of the couple whose baby is taken is far removed from that of Tsotsi, his family and friends. Scenes of their large house replete with expensive wares and topnotch security are juxtaposed with imagery of Tsotsi’s small township shack. Yet, it is the latter, not the former, who must seek redemption and better himself. The narrative of the film suggests that waywardness of Tsotsi’s life is the product of mere circumstance and a structural critique is noticeably absent.

A type of liberal, self-help ethos is present throughout the film, and this is reflective of the current era in South Africa. In her article, “Liberal or Liberation Framework? The Contradictions of ANC Rule in South Africa,” political scientist Krista Johnson describes the post-apartheid environment as one dominated by forces of Western capital and hegemonic neoliberalism (200). The push toward privatization in many aspects of life also facilitates a climate of personal responsibility. Despite its strengths as a film, Tsotsi falls prey to this type of thinking. Thus, in the film’s climatic closing scene, Tsotsi returns to give the stolen baby back to the couple. He is scared and frightened, as police cars surround him. Yet, the sacrifice is portrayed as worth it. Tsotsi has seen the errors of his ways and he stands ready to accept whatever punishment is meted out by the state. For their part, the wealthy couple is largely silent. Again, their status and privilege is unquestioned in the film. Tsotsi is the one who must redeem his life. This disavowal of imbedded structures of power and privilege and the film’s unwillingness to engage questions of political circumstance weaken its overall effectiveness. However, both these weaknesses do much to locate the film within a very specific moment in South Africa, full of uncertainty about how to address the lingering apparitions of apartheid.

All three films contribute to a better understanding of South African history and politics. Viewing these films attuned to tropes of redemption further demonstrates how the nation has been conceptualized at different moments. During the 1950s of Come Back Africa, the state has consolidated power, marking the boundaries of social and political belonging, while also restricting the freedom of movement for certain populations. This moment of triumph for the apartheid regime is represented by the life of Zachariah, a displaced laborer. For Zachariah, work becomes the mechanism through which he can craft of life under the constraints of racial terror. For most of the film, his attachments do not extend beyond this limited scope of finding a job. Yet, the film’s conclusion demonstrates the folly of this thinking. The murder of Zachariah’s wife highlights the prevalence of violence, the unworkability of a system that demonizes people, robs them of their humanity and redirects animosity toward their fellow sufferers. For 1950s South Africa, redemption remains elusive. The world of Mapantsula in the 1980s is more hopeful, if also more chaotic. Apartheid is no longer able to function and the path toward liberation is increasingly clear. In this moment, even criminals are swept up in the fervor. Panic’s refusal to cooperate with state forces speaks to a local and global refusal of apartheid’s continuation. Thus, Panic emerges as a redeemed figure. He leaves a self-centered life of personal gain and becomes part of a collective uprising. The hopefulness was not meant to last, though. By the dawn of the 21st century, formal apartheid was gone, but vestiges remained. In Tsotsi, issues of class are brought to the forefront, with black comfort existing alongside black misery. However, the film falls into a cynical trap of liberal self-help. Tsotsi does not have a movement or a cause through which to discover a path toward redemption; all he has is a baby. The baby, as a representation of what the nation could be, leads Tsotsi to personal salvation but not liberation. South Africa is left as a nation of possibility with no clear path forward.

James Matthews being James Matthews

The film, Diaries of a Dissident Poet, follows poet James Matthews around Cape Town, tracking him during a year, from his 83rd to 84th birthday. It opens with a small celebration of his 83rd at the District Six Homecoming Centre in (downtown Cape Town) and moves on to scenes of him in conversation or banter with various people – among others, the journalist Roger Friedman at Oryx Multimedia, photographer George Hallett, and singer Melanie Scholtz, who has set some of Matthews’s poetry to music (Freedom’s Child, 2013). There are also scenes of him talking to camera and to the (off-screen) director at various locations–outside his house in Silvertown, Athlone or outside the house where he was born in the Bo-Kaap. We also see Matthews read poetry to pensioners at a church or walk down his street with a small bag of groceries.

In line with its title, the film is loosely structured and we follow the subject in his day-to-day activities: weight lifting in the mornings (Matthews, true to form, shows off that he can flex his pectoral muscles with the best of them), getting ready to attend a graduation ceremony at the University of the Western Cape where he will receive an honorary doctorate, listening along with Scholtz to pre-masters of their musical collaboration.

The film satisfies the observational demands of its diarist format in that it is generally set in intimate spaces. Not only are there shots tracking Matthews through his house or shots of him sunning himself bare-chested in his garden, but the banter between Matthews and Friedman, and between Matthews and Hallett, shows the poet at ease in familiar surroundings and what appears to be intimate social relationships (Hallett and Matthews know each other from at least the early 1960s).

James Matthews is a worthy subject for documentary film. His biography as an early Black Consciousness poet, with the distinction of authoring the first collection of poetry to be banned by apartheid censors (Cry Rage! co-authored with Gladys Thomas; published 1972, banned 1973); several following books banned, months-long detention in 1976; his endeavors, along Black Consciousness lines of self-reliance, to publish his and others’ writing himself with his founding of BLAC publishers; and opening an art gallery, etcetera, all this make him a subject worth exploring. And, in the popular imagination of those with an interest in South African culture, Matthews is a legend of sorts. A documentary film about him is thus welcome. But perhaps the film is overawed by that very legend and the diary or observational form leaves the viewer feeling that there is something missing.

The interest inherent in the diary form typically comes from the promise of revelation it holds for the viewer who may already be familiar with the subject. We hope that seeing the subject going about normal, day-to-day activities will reveal something about the subject not to be found in potted biographies or word-of-mouth legend. We hope, in short, to see the subject in a new light.

For anyone familiar with even just the touchstones of Matthews’s biography, Diaries unfortunately holds back. While Hallett and Friedman rag Matthews as a “sell-out” for accepting, respectively, an honorary doctorate and a government honor (the Order of Ikhamanga, Silver, 2004), this is only an intimacy of sorts – a familiarity – between friends. For those familiar with the Matthews legend, the kind of bantering between him and friends reveals nothing new about the character. We see James Matthews being James Matthews.

Where there is an opportunity to be properly diarist, the film holds back. Early on, Matthews is in a three-way conversation with the (off-screen) filmmaker and another man (rough cut, no subtitles) over the photograph of a woman, Elizabeth Bruce, a photograph presumably from a funeral program because it includes birth and death dates (1931-2004). The opening question is badly cut: “[Is jy nog] steeds lief vir haar?” ([Do you] still love her?). One presumes that Bruce was his wife or partner. Matthews clearly doesn’t want to talk about it in any specific detail. “Nee,” he says, “I tell you, what was done, is done. It took a lot of pain, but it’s done.” He repeats this disavowal seconds later when the third person contradicts him. And here I feel the film misses an opportunity, as diary, to go beyond popular legend and official literary biography. Was Elizabeth Bruce his wife? Did they have children? How long were they married? Was there a painful separation?

My sense is that, for those familiar with Matthews’s biography – whether intimately or only in broad strokes – the film works only in that we see what we already know. It doesn’t probe the subject, but remains at a respectful distance. When, for instance, Matthews insists that the honorary doctorate or the Order of Ikhamanga was awarded not “for the poetry as such… [but] for what I had done in the struggle”, he is not asked to elaborate. If it’s not for his poetry – and other cultural activities – what does he mean it’s for what he had done during the struggle. It’s an accepted literary commonplace that anti-apartheid cultural activity – writing a poem, designing a poster – contributed to “the struggle”. Anyone familiar with any of the poets of the 1970s and 1980s writing anti-apartheid poetry accepts that these writers fulfilled social and psychological roles. But it would be good to have a more specific sense of how one of these writers saw that contribution.

The overall effect is that the legend that is James Matthews does not appear in sharper relief, nor is it bolstered. Sometimes the legend is in fact undercut. When Matthews reflects on his younger days, during which, apparently, he was a hell-raiser, there is a sense of deflation: he and his friends go to a party, steal bread, cheese and wine, and leave. Another example is when he falls into a drunken sleep while appearing in a panel discussion at a literary event (Matthews has long ago stopped drinking). It may be true that at the time this behavior may have been considered “disastrous”, to use Matthews’s description, but it doesn’t appear particularly scandalous.

Roger Friedman refers to an occasion where Matthews was escorted from a venue for standing up and heckling or swearing at Abdullah Ibrahim at the latter legend’s homecoming concert. Here again I would have liked to find out more. Why was one Cape Town legend, for all intents and purposes on the same side of the anti-apartheid struggle as his target, heckling another? Was there personal animus behind the heckling? Or was it one motivated by a tension between exiles and those artists and activists who stayed in South Africa?

In addition to leaving the viewer curious, an unintended side effect is that Matthews fades from focus rather than being brought into more focus. A shot of him reading with cello accompaniment captures this when the camera pans from Matthews to the cellist while he is reading – we hear his voice, but he slides off the screen.

The diarist format of Diaries of a Dissident Poet is thus not exploited in the manner one expects and it becomes a film for insiders, who may be happy with seeing or recognizing the legend on the screen. (Matthews is a very photogenic subject.) For such viewers, vital moments in the film – heckling Abdullah Ibrahim, the place of Elizabeth Bruce – may need no explaining. For viewers with only a broad familiarity of Matthews through publications and word-of-mouth legend, the film falls short. No new knowledge or insights into the biography or character of the subject is on offer. And for viewers unfamiliar with Matthews or his work, the film does not explain its own interest: it does not provide a reason, say, as to why the film exists.

Barry intends the film as some form of archival work – that is, as archive creation. In I Am Woman (available on Youtube) she refers to her film on Matthews, in production at the time:

I’m more interested in being with my camera in an intimate space, telling the stories of artists. That’s what I’m interested in because it’s archive and it’s archive that we need to have; we need to remember our artists, they’re important, they’re our historians who see things through a different lens … I’m making … a film on the poet James Matthews …

Traditionally, archival material is a by-product of other activities – bureaucracy, a writer’s drafts, the rushes and rough cuts of a filmmaker. “Archive” is a label we apply retrospectively to documentation that we (might) find useful for other reasons long after the primary intentions for such documentation have disappeared. Material that has served its primary purpose may find a different use that is both secondary (to its original purpose) and primary (for a new purpose).

How does one intend something to be archival? In what way might this film be archival? Is it a primary or secondary document? How might a researcher, 50 years hence, look on it as primary archival source? How might this film, as archival source, serve to help us to remember our artists? What kind of memory might that be?

It may be that by setting her vision on some future, indefinable use of the film – by prospectively intending it as archive – the filmmaker has allowed a possible present and primary reason for its existence shift from view. That is, why should we remember and pay homage to Matthews. Why is it important to remember him?

While the answer to this question may be self-evident to insiders, it is not argued in the film. There is the commendation read at the graduation ceremony, but this too is short-hand and not an exposition by the film. The interest in Matthews is thus left unexplained; our reason for having to remember him is thus unavailable to that future researcher digging around our literary archive.

Photo Credit: Victor Dlamini.

What is happening to Mombasa, Kenya?

Historically known for a relaxed pace of life, Mombasa on Kenya’s coast has also been a regional hub for business, trade and tourism. Its population is diverse; recent figures indicate the city is divided between Christians and Muslims (59% and 41%, respectively), with one-third of inhabitants also originating from outside of the region. Along with its diversity, Mombasa has also been associated with experiences of everyday tolerance.

In the past year, this seems to be changing. Mombasa has come under particular scrutiny with reports of a police raid on a mosque and the incarceration of more than 100 youth, targeted killings of prominent Muslims leaders, shooting in a local church, heightened international travel advisories, and the evacuation of tourists by UK-based tour operators.

Serious attempts to understand recent events require attention to local differences and how they shape unrest. I suggest there are three broad differences that must be considered.

First, religion. Kenya is predominantly Christian, but Mombasa is situated in a region where the dominant way of life appears intimately bound to Islam.

Second, place of origin. Place and identity are closely linked in Kenya. Mombasa is part of the ‘home’ areas of coastal ethnic groups, controversial due to land ownership by those originating from outside the region. However, the city challenges discourses of autochthony, with a growing number of inhabitants from ‘upcountry’ Kenya, but whose birthplace, occupation and children belong to Mombasa.

Third, ethnicity. While arguably dynamic and negotiable, ethnicity remains an organising principle for political contest in Kenya, as people perceive that the benefits of political office follow ethnic lines.

Through recent events, these differences have not provided for the emergence of clearly defined victims and perpetrators. Muslims identify disadvantage within a national context dominated by Christians, reinforced by targeted anti-terrorism efforts. Christians in Mombasa perceive disadvantage in a region dominated by Muslim politicians. Coastal ethnic groups see themselves as continually marginal in national political and economic structures, while ethnic groups constituting the national ruling coalition find they are a minority in the region.

There is a sobering potential for different explanations of insecurity to resonate in ways that enable multiple groups to identify as victims. This is particularly concerning as identities converge into broader fault lines, for example, Christian and upcountry versus Muslim and coastal, producing captivating, simplistic narratives of persecution.

While stability does require addressing direct causes and conditions of violence, both internal and external, it also hinges on the popular narratives that define disadvantage, and shape people’s willingness to speak and act. Competing views of disadvantage point to a pressing need for action by those in positions of power: action that acknowledges multiple differences that resonate locally; action that presents a transparent and just response to insecurity across these differences; and action that values and upholds the right to life and security of all denizens of Mombasa.

The winners and losers of the platinum strike in South Africa

On January 23 this year the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), a firebrand breakaway of the COSATU-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), took an estimated 50,000 mineworkers to the plateaus of Rustenburg to demand a R12,500 (about US$1,250) basic salary.

For months – without pay, their families going hungry and their spirits waning – the workers were assiduous. While the mining companies were spurting money, they too were not budging.

Five months later, the workers are estimated to have lost between R42,501 and R52,000 in pay. The business journalist Alec Hogg argues that it will take workers over a decade to recover this amount. The mining firms, on the other hand, are estimated to have lost between R11 billion and north of R24 billion, depending on who you ask.

On Monday 23 June, the workers and firms announced that they had reached agreement and clinched a 3 year deal. The two lowest bands of categories will receive a R1 000 increase for the first three years. Other categories will receive between 7.5% and 8%; benefits and allowances will be fixed or rise with inflation.

A question many are asking is who won the five-month and 26-day battle?

Critics of Amcu (and labour in general) have weighed, calling the deal a “hallow victory” for Amcu (hint: a loss). Mr Hogg, for example, points out that: on January 29, six days into the strike, “the mining companies offered increases of between 7.5% and 9% with the higher figure tagged for the lowest paid workers. This offer, incidentally, was increased on April 17 to between 7.5% and 10%. If [Amcu] had accepted the offer received six days into the strike, the lowest paid worker’s monthly earnings would have increased by that 9%, or R644, to R7 798.”

According to Mr Hogg, the difference between the offer made by mining firms in January and the offer accepted five months later is a meagre R356.

In my view, any analysis of the gains and losses made by workers on purely financial terms will be insufficient, if not utterly flawed.

While one could properly quantify the losses and the meagre, almost negligible, economic benefits of Amcu’s exercise, the extra-financial gains are weightier and more significant. The answer to the question ‘who won’ requires some digression.

In 1912 the South African Native National Congress – now African National Congress – was founded to “address the just grievances of the black people” with the Union Government. Shortly, in 1913, the Native Land Act was promulgated, further aggravating situation. Natives were rendered landless pariahs in their country of birth. More policies were written and laws passed which further alienated natives. In 1948 the voting minority gave green light to a more brutal regime, entrenching race-based discrimination, repression and economic exclusion.

In 1955 the Congress of the People agreed to draft a Freedom Charter. That too did not help. Instead of making concessions, the regime tightened its noose. It offered black South Africans a deal: to leave South Africa and gain independence in homelands. Liberation fighters rejected this deal and opted, instead, to intensify the struggle. They were either killed or thrown into jail, where many spent between 10 and 27 years.

In 1990, after scores of the movement’s members had been thrown in jail, tortured or slaughtered by the regime, the movement agreed to a deal. To any observer, the deal was a loss for the movement. The demands for land, for nationalisation or common ownership of strategic sectors, which had been at the centre struggle, were stacked off. For a short while the newly-formed democratic government even went to bed with the apartheid regime in a “Government of National Unity”.

With the economy in the hands of apartheid beneficiaries (white and some black), the apartheid status quo of economic, social and cultural exclusion persists. Black South Africans remain wanting in rural areas, outside the economic epicentre. Basic services – like education, clean water and health infrastructure – remain concentrated in former “white areas”. Blacks must thus assimilate themselves into social, political and economic cultures. Except, this time, they do it for carrots and not to avoid sticks. Twenty years after democracy, many still ask who won the 82-year battle.

The answer is, in my view, more complex than demand versus gain. While (black) South Africans attained very of little their social, cultural and economic demands, their bargaining position has improved considerably. As equal citizens in a democratic republic – even if as poor as church mice – we wield significant political power and socio-cultural potential. The constitutional settlement negotiated between 1990 and 1996 is a springboard on which we can launch ourselves to a better deal –– that is if we try hard enough.

Comparably, mineworkers are in a terrible bargaining position. For centuries mines have been the driving force behind the South African economy, with cheap (migrant) labour as the engine. The system of race-based oppression was constructed, partly, to keep black mineworkers outside the economic epicentre.

Further, economic laws of supply and demand dictate that mineworkers (who are in oversupply) are disposable.

The bargaining position of mineworkers is further weakened by the alliance between labour and the government. Leaders of COSATU often capitulate under government pressure and give in to “market demands”. The government and the market are synonymous, which makes labour subservient. This is where the Amcu strike comes in.

Having persisted for 5 months, and made it out alive, workers have made their biggest show of strength since 1949. They have also reduced the platinum stockpiles which serve as a cushion for mining firms. This is a benefit of the strike which is not measurable through economic models.

The strike serves an even greater purpose for Amcu (and labour in general). It has solidified support and showcased Amcu’s tenacity under pressure. Because Amcu is apolitical (and thus does not have the support of the tripartite alliance or the government), the strike was driven purely by workers for workers’ interest. This should increase Amcu’s support base.

The strike is the start of a new era in South African labour politics. COSATU has been plagued by infighting. The interests of labour appear to be taking the backseat as the rank and file of the alliance scrambles for political power and government positions.

Amcu, on the other hand, is an outlier. By rejecting politics, it found a niche in workers who are less bothered by who is the president of the day. These workers are concerned with their own interests –– the politics of bread.

This makes Amcu a wildcard, which is why market-minded academics, pundits and other political players were against the strike. “The market” takes comfort in knowing that the ANC-led government has control over the labour movement. Very often, the government will intervene and labour backs off. This was impossible with Amcu because it does not have a stake in government. If Amcu had succeeded, it would have further eroded ANC support by uniting workers outside the alliance’s reach.

The fact is Amcu came out stronger, with the trust and support of workers. The union showed potential members and supporters that it was single-minded and capable of withstanding national and international pressure. The government, which is usually in the deep pockets of tax-forking mine bosses, has also awoken to the potential power of a united worker front.

Amcu is the clear winner! While it may be true that workers made an economic loss that may take years to recoup, they have also made significant political gains. These gains are a springboard for future shows of strength and they improve the bargaining position of organised labour in the country.

Whether the Amcu will grab the opportunity to consolidate its gains by unifying and rallying worker outside of the alliance is the first question we should ask. The second is whether it will resist the urge of politics, and thus remain independent and incorruptible, at least politically.

* Photo Credit: Siphiwe Sibeko.

White Schools in postapartheid South Africa

It’s a little over two decades ago that South Africa’s Whites Only schools began to ‘welcome’ Black students (African, Coloured and Indian) students into their classrooms. Guided by the official principles of multiculturalism and equality, many a White teacher witnessed his or her classroom diversify. In response, many of them adopted the rhetoric of ‘color blindness.’

Ever since, the media has exposed various incidents that showed that (surprise) color-blindness was neither real, nor desirable. Race, it turned out, was quite a real thing in the average Rainbow classroom. Examples of violent incidents abound.

In 1999, the country’s Human Rights Commission, for example, raised alarm bells about widespread physical violence and death threats faced by black newcomers in formerly white public schools. Later, a bunch of white Limpopo parents literally barricaded their school gates. More recently, one teacher in Bloemfontein was suspended for using the racist “Kaffir” slur (the South African equivalent for “Nigger”). Another white teacher compared black people to demons. Late last month the Human Rights Commission announced that it was wrapping up its investigation of another school in Bloemfontein, where teachers not only called pupils baboons and monkeys, but also told them to go back to their township schools instead.

Pupils at the school in Bloemfontein said teachers told them to go back to the black schools in the townships because their parents could not afford to pay school fees, and that they would never succeed in life and would end up like their parents who work in chain stores.

The ways in which white parents (through governing bodies) and schools’ leadership structures resist racial integration and uphold white superiority in former white schools is one of those things that everybody knows about and only a few will deny or talk about. A 2010 study on South Africans’ attitudes to social integration in schools observed: “It is widely believed that not many white parents feel comfortable letting their children share the same school with children of other races, especially African children.”

In most former white schools, however, racial hierarchies are not so much maintained and reproduced by the extreme physical, vile and verbal kinds of violence that we encounter as ‘incidents’ in the media. Instead, white superiority is more commonly inscribed on students’ identities in more subtle, implicit and ‘every day’ ways, through race, class, language, hair, style, culture, sports as well as by the refusal to hire more Black teachers. It’s the type of assimilative push towards whiteness, a symbolic kind of violence, which may be more difficult to recognize as a human rights issue, but one that’s institutional and that affects thousands of Black South African children every day. Yet compared to the ‘baboon’ and ‘barricade’ type of racism, you got to dig much deeper to read about the experiences and effects of symbolic violence.  What it feels like when your mother-tongue is forbidden, your culture fetishized or when your hair style and accent deemed too Black. Or what it’s like when you know your teacher considers you less smart than you are, just because maths (in your second or third language) takes you a tad longer to digest.

When white middle class superiority is woven into the fabric of the institutions, you can hardly blame white students for adopting similar attitudes. In this 2004 study by Battersby, one Black student lamented that:

there are certain, few black kids that are accepted by the white kids in this school. You know what I’m saying? And the rest are just another black kid that you walk past in the passage, that you don’t give a damn about. And no one says it, but it’s just there. And no one will say it.

And in this 2010 study, Ndlangamandla quotes a student as saying

the fact that eh, only one Indian person is doing Zulu in the … is really bugging me because you know, eh, a lot of black people are doing Afrikaans. We are trying to adapt to eh, white people’s ways, but they don’t wanna learn something new or learn our language and that makes me feel bad, because I am proud to be African, you know.

As the sociologist Crain Soudien argued in his 2012 book, without other forms of support, students are likely to leave such assimilationist environments “with feelings of alienation and discomfort.”

More books and studies on the topic can be found here, here and here.

* Photo Credit: Hasan Wazan.

The World War One in Africa Project: What happened in Africa should not stay in Africa

For the next four years, the world is celebrating the Centenary of World War I,  and once again Africa is not invited to the party.

The story of Africans’ involvement in the Great War is unheard of outside of academia, and thus remains to be told: the tens of thousands of African lives lost at home and abroad, defending the interests of foreign powers and the lives of complete strangers; the forced recruitment of African soldiers to fight Europe’s war, and of African workers to replace the labour force gone to the front; the battles between colonies pitting Africans against each other on their own soil; the reshaping of Africa’s borders and inner workings after the war under new rulers.

It was supposed to be the “war to end war” and yet, by the proxy of colonial empires, it created war where no one cared for it, dragging an estimated two million Africans into the conflict, originating from Algeria to South Africa. Such bitter irony is lost on today’s France, Britain, Germany, Belgium and Portugal, all colonial powers who sat at the Berlin conference in 1885 to finalise the scramble for Africa.

Not only are the commemorations of the First World War becoming resolutely local, but the colour of memory remains essentially white. Even the small steps taken to remember the role of former colonies, like this year’s invitation to African troops to take part in the Bastille Day celebrations, amount to mere pats on the back for spilling their blood obediently.


The reality of World War I in Africa is messier. As early as September 1914, Britain faced a rebellion from some 12,000 of its own South African troops, Afrikaners for whom the Second Boer War remained an open wound, who went on to proclaim a free South African republic, some of them even joining forces with the Germans. And though France praised itself for being able to count on its “Black Force“, it faced significant resistance throughout the recruitment campaigns, which culminated in the Volta-Bani revolt where things escalated into an all-out anti-colonial war in 1915-16.

Yet when looking into Africa’s involvement in World War I, the draft of African soldiers constitute the smaller end of the telescope. Throughout the East Africa campaign, the longest and deadliest part of the war on the continent by far, both Britain and Germany relied heavily on porters, to the tune of four per one soldier. This translated into one million Africans under British command carrying, cooking, cleaning, and dying of exhaustion, malnutrition and disease, in a guerrilla war of short raids and long treks from present-day Kenya to Zambia over the course of four years.

Europe’s 20th century started in 1914, and the yoke of colonialism steered Africa along for the ride. Migration trends were set, economies transformed, borders redefined. The task we’ve given ourselves is to dig this heritage out: not to commemorate its passing, but to restore its meaning. We claim no expertise as we aim to educate ourselves as much as we hope to teach others. In light of current zeitgeists — a morbid obsession with the past in Europe and an unfeigned disdain for anything but the future in Africa — we believe the Centenary to be a fertile common ground for investigating the present. The next four years represent a window of opportunity to connect the dots and discuss the knots, to challenge the boilerplate narrative and change the usual narrators. Let’s unpack what the world thinks it knows, and put what it should not ignore right under its nose.

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* Photo Credit:  Sar Amadou, Wolof class of 1900, Seventh regiment of Senegalese Tirailleurs, June 1917 (by Paul Castelnou)

It may be time to drop the ‘world music’ label (and The Brother Moves On has something to say about it)

Last week the second Cape Town World Music Festival (CTWMF) took place, and warmed up a very cold and wet “Mother City” weekend. The notoriously lax Cape Town audience (myself included) got out from under our duvets to check out some of the best bands in South Africa, as well as some international acts, such as Malian guitar maestro Vieux Farka Toure and US singer/ songwriter The Mynabirds.

The festival has had a few ideological bumps in the road to its success. In 2011 the Israeli embassy provided airfare for Israeli artist Boom Pam to fly to the festival, which resulted in much criticism and a call from Palestinian solidarity group BDS South Africa to boycott. Luckily CTWMF seems to have cut ties with the Israeli embassy, which is good. The festival itself, held at Cape Town’s beautiful city hall, was well received by all who attended. However, on another note, we need to ask, why use the dated term “world music” for such a progressive and inclusive lineup?

Acclaimed Johannesburg-based band/performing arts collective The Brother Moves On performed a much- anticipated and moving set on the first night of CTWMF.  Near the end of their show they commented on the term world music. Lead vocalist Siyabonga Mthembu addressed the audience, questioning the legitimacy of the term. Guitarist Zelizwe Mthembu, Siya’s cousin, expressed his disdain in our video interview: “The term world music has taken a whole lot of genres and placed them under one category… you can’t do that!” He was quick to add however, that the festival organizers had put together an amazing lineup, and because of that they could call the festival whatever they want.

The term itself originated in Western academia. Ethnomusicologist Steven Feld writes in his essay “A Sweet Lullaby for World Music” that the term was first circulated in the 60s by academics as a friendlier, less cumbersome alternative to ethnomusicology, which referred to the study of non-Western music and the “musics of ethnic minorities.” Although its mission was liberal and inclusive, Feld writes that this reinscribed a binary which separated musicology from ethnolomusicology, the West from the rest: “The relationship of the colonizing and the colonized thus remained generally intact in distinguishing music from world music.

The 1980s and 1990s saw a proliferation of Western artists collaborating with and drawing samples from artists from the third world, such as Paul Simon and Peter Byrne. This often perpetuated the global power structures that colour the relationships of the West from the rest. In “Sweet Lullaby for World Music,” Feld writes about how The Grammy Award winning Deep Forest sampled a UNESCO Solomon Islands recording in which a woman named Afunakwa sang a lullaby called “Rorogwela.”  The recordist, Hugo Zemp never gave his consent, let alone the singer Afunakwa, and the song became highly lucrative, even appearing in commercials for Coca Cola and Porsche. Because of legal loopholes and the recording being labeled as “oral tradition,” Deep Forest and their record label legally owed nothing to the original sources of their hit. The lullaby eventually became sampled again by Kenny G-esque Norwegian artist Jan Garbarek, who misidentified the song as Central African and named his smooth jazz version “Pygmy Lullaby.


We have to conclude that the term world music is at best dated, and at worst problematic. So, CTWMF, perhaps its time to drop the word world from your title? Cape Town Music Festival has a nicer ring to it. Why clump together the maskandi of Madala Kunene, the experimental afro-rock of the Brother Moves On and the electronic kwaito of Okmalumkoolkat under this contentious label and continue Western classifications of ethnic others on our own soil? In all fairness, the festival audience didn’t seem to be bothered, but perhaps that speaks to a general Eurocentric attitude which pervades in the administrative passageways and cultural hubs of the Mother City.

Photo Credit: Kent Lingeveldt.