Africa is a Country

‘Blue Dress’ – a Father’s Day story

The night before she was due to fly to Lusaka, a southern hemisphere winter gale was blowing in. She wondered whether the gale would prevent her flight from taking off the next morning. She was about to fly to Zambia, to see her father, who had had a second – maybe it was his third – stroke. They had not spoken with ease for many years. She thought it was probably her last chance to see him before he died.

She had spent weeks fretting over what she should take with her. Gifts are an important part of negotiating a return for an Asian in Africa – the traditions of both Africans and South Asians dictate that one return laden with gifts that show gratitude, and provide for one’s family from the wealth gained from one’s travels. What could a prodigal like her take that says not over-affluence, or, worse, guilt? Too much would communicate a message about an arrogance she didn’t have – years of eking it out on her own before finding steady employment had left her with a humility so deeply etched that even her sisters, ever attuned for a hint of boastfulness, wondered at her lack of pride. Too little? That wasn’t even an option.

What could she get in South Africa, in Cape Town, that they could not in Zambia? What does one take from the cities of gold and beach-beauties, where she was situated now, to the sleepy town built on copper, in which she grew up? South African goods flooded Zambia’s shops. People up north thought of South Africa as a pulsing metropolis full of money-making opportunities, material goods, fashionable clothing, good times, and possibility.

In the end, she bought chocolates – pounds of sugar-free chocolates for her diabetic father from a man who sold “fair-trade” artisanal chocolates at the posh weekend market that white Capetonians frequented, wearing their casual-Saturday best – and cheeses from little farm stands in the Cape countryside. And a jar of Cape gooseberry jam, which she knew her sisters would like. A sweater for whoever wanted it. A face cream for her mother, who, despite her years, retained her fine skin and vanity.

She packed her carry-on, one that was large enough to take all the gifts she’d bought, but small enough that it would be allowed on the plane. It had a retractable handle and wheels so she could wheel it easily, and red accents sewn around the piping that made it easy to identify on the luggage carousel. Then she took everything out of her bags and repacked several times over – so that all the chocolate fit in just that much more tidily. The cheeses waited in sealed plastic bags in the fridge, waiting to be packed in the morning.

*

A couple of weeks earlier, she sat in Stefan Blom’s blue couch on a rare sunny afternoon, looking at the small painting of a Buddhist monk he’d recently purchased from an artist. Japanese ink and watercolour outlined the shape of a beatific face, which frowned a little in concentration. Those closed eyes, shaded under those furrowed eyebrows, saw beyond the immediacy of present suffering. It takes discipline and practice to reach serenity, she thought.
“I don’t know whether to go,” she said. “My sister sent me an email in May, saying that he’d had a stroke again. She said, ‘I thought you should know.’ I hadn’t spoken to my father in seven years.”
“What did you do?”

“I rang him. I only rang to speak to him out of duty.”

“What was that like?”
“Silences. He said, ‘I am sick.’”

“How did you respond?”

“I just said, ‘I know.’”
“Would you have liked to say anything else?”
“I wanted to tell him, ‘You are sick because of your own actions.’”

The room was chilly, but she felt herself beginning to sweat through her long sleeved t-shirt. Houses in Southern Africa are not heated, and it means that one remains bundled up in layers of woollens even when indoors, unless one was lucky enough to have a fireplace in the room. Stefan’s office was cool even in the summers; it faced the mountain and sits in the shadow of granite in the late afternoon. Yet there were wet beads on her forearms, large, moist patches seeping through her clothes, under her arms and knees. She took off her outer layer of woollens and scarf, and laid them next to her on the couch.

She kept sitting there – in this gentle man’s room in which so many confessed their fears – thinking that if Stefan hadn’t been a gay man who wore stylishly cut shirts, patterned socks that peaked under perfectly hemmed trousers, the monk’s face in the painting and his would look alike.

“I want to find an excuse to not go. For something to happen so that I do not have to see them.”

“What do you think creates this barrier between you, and whatever is there, where you call home? What does your father mean to you, and what is family?”

“I am a relief valve. They are looking to me to provide a way out – magically make the latest crisis disappear. With an infusion of cash.”

Her sweat had begun to evaporate off her thin shirt, and she could feel the heat leaving her body as each drop gathered the energy on the top layers of her skin and dissipated into the air. She began shivering.

“My mother says to me, ‘Ah, oya panala giya, netha?’ The literal translation of those words is, ‘You escaped, isn’t that so?’ But the words ‘panala giya’ have connotations that bring up images of an animal that escapes its pen – somehow unlocks a latch meant to keep it in – and gets away.”
She was now so cold that her whole torso was trembling. She held her arms together to try to stop herself from shaking, but it wasn’t possible. She put her sweater on again, but her teeth were chattering and she could not speak any longer. She slipped to the floor beside the couch, brought her knees to her chin, made herself into a curl.

Stefan got up from his seat, and wrapped her shawl around her.

*

From her flat in Vredehoek, she could see down the mountain to the sea. Waves were rolling in, spattering into the rocks. She could feel the enormity of the water’s roaring approach even though she was half way up the mountain. She was pacing in the flat, looking out into the sea, and contemplating whether she should have purchased more presents. What Sri Lankan daughter went home without bulging, thirty-kilo bags that barely passed the airline’s permitted luggage limit?

She decided to get out of the flat – better than standing there, pacing, packing and repacking. She’d received a text, reminding her that Albie Sachs was going to read from his new memoir, The Strange Alchemy of Life and the Law at the local bookstore that night. By the time she wrapped herself up against the cold and left the flat, the Cape of Storms was dressed in fog from Table Mountain to the seashore. As she navigated her Citi Golf down the mountain, rain began to blow down. The dips in the road were filled with torrents. She parked her car on Barrack Street, wrapped her wool shawl around her head, ran through sheets of falling water to the corner of Roeland and Buitenkant, and stepped into the bookstore. It was already full of people, munching on goat cheese and fig preserve crudités made by the bookstore’s staff, here to glory in the days when the struggle against apartheid made delineating between good and evil an easier task than it was now.

She’d read about Albie Sachs, the firebrand lawyer who’d defended those charged under apartheid era’s security laws, and eventually had to go into exile in Mozambique. Mozambique, the coastal nation to the right of South Africa, was one of the central locations from which the anti-apartheid struggle took place. But South African security forces found him; an instrument of the state rigged a bomb in his car, which went off as Sachs opened the door to the car. He lost his eyesight in the left eye, and his right arm. After the end of apartheid, Mandela appointed Sachs to the Constitutional Court, and the one-armed judge made it his mission to ensure that the Court set aside funds for public art, so that people would remember that a curtailed body could still be expressive.

Everyone there at the bookshop, except the man who introduced Sachs, was white. She found a seat at the back, shook out the rain from her shawl, and listened. She stayed through all the questions people asked Sachs, and bought his book, waiting at the very end of the line for him to sign it. On the cover of the book was an image of a blue dress, painted against a primrose-yellow background. The dress’ flowing fabric filled out, making it look as though there was an invisible person wearing it. The way it was shaped made her think of a confident woman, striding forward in a breeze. When she got to Sachs, his tired left hand – still unused to the task of writing – scrawled her name and a thank you note on the first page. On his right side, the sleeve of his grey sweater was pinned up neatly. She saw that it was empty from above the elbow.

*

The next morning, her anxiety about making it to the airport on time was at such a pitch that she woke up at 3:30. She had more than enough time: the flight was scheduled to leave the gate at 6AM, and the drive from her flat to the airport would only take thirty minutes. But she took too much time getting ready. She could have jumped out of her pyjamas and into jeans, but she prepared herself elaborately for the journey. The result: she was almost late to check in to her flight. The check-in attendant wanted to take her bag, which she’d hoped not to send unaccompanied. The plane was too full already, he said. There was no time to argue. There went her little bag, full of chocolate and aged sheep’s cheese, the last to go down the conveyor. She sprinted down the long hallway of Cape Town International with her satchel flying behind her, and plunked into her seat just as the door to the plane was sealed shut. Her carefully styled hair and makeup were in disarray.

In her satchel was Albie Sachs’ book. That, her laptop, her identity documents, and a small pencil case.

*

She arrived in the Copperbelt – in the familiar, one-room Ndola airport 30 miles from where Dag Hammarskjold’s small plane was brought down – to find that her large checked-in bag was sent to Luanda, Angola: Luanda’s airport code is LAD; Lusaka’s is LUN; for some baggage handler, the letters must have blurred together in the early morning, in the roar of the Cape wind and black waves. Doubtless, he had travelled farther than she in order to get to his place of work, and had a more arduous journey every morning from the slums surrounding Cape Town.

But at that moment, she had little sympathy for the historical conditions that separated her privileges from her errant baggage-handler’s daily struggle. She stepped into the business of engaging with the Zambian airport bureaucracy, going from pleading to threatening to lying (“I brought medication for my father’s diabetes in that bag!” she exclaimed haughtily, when in actuality, her precious cargo contained five pounds each of chocolates and cheeses).

She turned around to speak to another official, and there was her father. Instantly recognisable, but diminished – the old black pompadour of curls that made him dapper in the ’60s, candy to the European women amongst whom he mingled, now thin enough that she could see his scalp, eyes rheumy with cataracts that Zambian healthcare in the post-Kenneth Kaunda years couldn’t be trusted to remove.

She had Albie Sach’s memoir, and not much else. Even her toothbrush was in the bag that went to Luanda. She’d arrived without the ceremonial gifts – meant to appease the unease created by a long absence, to cover up what should not be said. She stood there, without the armour with which she’d hoped to shield herself.

She resorted to the ceremonial: she knelt down to touch his feet. The room full of airport officials gawped. Zambians are not afraid of taking a good look. Her father did what the gracious South Asian patriarch must: he made the companion ceremonial gesture to stop her from kneeling fully. But his was more than gesture; he summoned up enough strength to clutch her shoulders, so that she was forced to abandon ceremony, and embrace him. He sealed his cheek, mouth, nose to her face, drew a deep breath – she could hear it – and inhaled her.

*

The next morning at her parents’ home, she did her usual practice: that of the daughter who does not know what to do with intimacy. She sat in the sun, coffee in hand, and read. The Strange Alchemy of the Life and Law – another man’s life-story – was going to be her escape in these weeks with her family. Her father’s cats were curled around her on the verandah, eating the winter sun. She’d passed him in the kitchen, surreptitiously feeding them choice pieces of yesterday’s chicken (he winked conspiratorially at her while turning on the kitchen tap to rinse the heat of the sauce from chunks of meat, which he’d carefully separated from the bones). Here was a still life that hadn’t, on the surface, changed much in twenty years.

She was sitting there, reading, when her father came to the verandah with his arm outstretched. He extended his palm towards her, and wrinkled his face in pain. He had a splinter in his hand. She went to her carry-on bag, and dug around in the pencil case: she’d lost all the gifts she bought, but she had just the right tool for this job. There they were, eyebrow tweezers. Her father sat next to her, and she positioned his hand in the sunlight. She squeezed the flesh around the small brown tell-tale of the splinter, so that its end peeked out.

“Oh!” he cried out, jerking his hand a little.

She clamped the eyebrow tweezers around the visible tip, and pulled out a long hair of wood lodged deep in his palm. She laid it on the desk next to the bed.
She didn’t have anything much to say, so she showed him Sachs’ book, and told him the story of the blue dress, and about the artist, Judith Mason, who stitched the dress out of blue plastic shopping bags. Then she read artist’s introduction to Sach’s memoir. Her father was holding her hand.

“This is the story of a goon who sang in order to be absolved, and a woman who kept silent.”

“During the Truth Commission Hearings, the artist heard, on the radio, a security goon speaking about a woman that he and his men tortured, a woman who covered her tortured nakedness with a discarded blue plastic bag that was in a corner of the cell, and endured the final gunshot to her head bravely. As he told the story to the commission, the goon sniggered, remembering Phila Ndwandwe’s bravery, and how she would not speak nor inform on her comrades, no matter how they tortured her. In the end, they still killed her. When her body was finally disinterred during the Truth Commission hearings, the blue plastic bag was still clinging to her pelvis, her sole companion in death.”

Her father was grasping her hand tighter, and his eyes were wide open.

“When the artist heard this story on the radio during the hearings, she said to herself, “Sissy, I wish I could sew you a dress.” She left her home to collect discarded plastic bags, and using them, she stitched a blue dress. It was sleeveless and simple, but she added a ruffled border to it. It was beautiful, even though it was made from what people had thrown away.”

Hearing a radio report about the tortured woman who kept silent, but fashioned a pair of panties with a blue plastic shopping bag – an act that spoke of her dignity – drove Judith Mason, the artist, out of the safe enclave of home, and the protections that her whiteness granted her, and into that risky place of shame and sorrow. Outside the hallowed halls of South Africa’s Constitutional Court, memorials to the courage it took for Phila Ndwandwe not to speak are everywhere, in the places that ordinary people go to buy their daily groceries, and around their homes, where throwaway blue bags caught in chain-link fencing tell tales we do not want to remember. The artist saw that these memorials to Phila Ndwandwe’s bravery are easily discarded. But they were also reliquaries at which her courage could be remembered. “Memorials to your courage are everywhere; they blow about in the streets and drift in the tide and cling to thorn-bushes,” wrote the artist, and painted these words in white on the border of the blue dress, in neat, cursive letters. Justice Sachs saw the dress that the artist made, and asked if it could be placed in the South African Constitutional Court in Johannesburg.

She read the words of the artist out loud to her father, and wrote them into her heart.

She told her father about how some people thought others were like refuse – something to be discarded. But she learned that some people’s dignity was stubborn.

It stayed around, like plastic.

Her father was weeping. Since his stroke, she was told, he weeps when he feels great emotion, or cannot express the depth of what he feels.

She said, “Papa, do you know you taught me freedom? And every day, I am changed by that gift.”

He put his face in his hands. She put her palms against the back of his hands. They were both weeping, she and her father.

She could not quite say why, but that it had something to do with them both wanting, in their very different trajectories, something similar. Her father’s life decisions meant that his hopes and goals went unmet, and she rejected him for the foolishness of his decisions, and for the burden he placed on her to make them come to fruition. On his part, her father wanted her to simply return – which, she supposed, is an indication of understanding, of the hopes he had for her, and acceptance of what she chose instead. She was still walking towards forgiving him for the enormity of his failures.

That woman, Phila Ndwandwe, though security goons silenced her, keeps speaking. She helped a white artist speak about her abiding shame. Then she helped Albie Sachs, a one-armed judge who himself lost his arm in a bomb meant to end his life, to speak to a generation of South Africans disillusioned with the grand stories of struggle activists. And then, that man with one arm, and a woman with one plastic bag, and an artist who felt shame for her people’s brutality gave her some words that helped a prodigal daughter speak to her father.

But she knew that Phila – love – died because a nation of goons tortured and killed her. Phila didn’t die because there was a moral to be gleaned from her death, a lesson, or a reason. And she knew that no pretty story was going to release the horror of those days in which Phila lay down on a concrete torture chamber floor covered in urine, shit, and blood.

This isn’t a story of redemption.

As a young college student, she wrote her first creative essay: blaming her father, screaming her pain at him, and asking for understanding and forgiveness. She never sent it. She is still writing versions of that first essay. In South Africa, she learnt that some believe that since “truth” was spoken, forgiveness should be “given” and all should walk into a future free of the past. Her own act of repetition tells her that the granting of forgiveness, and requesting it are repetitive acts, never to be completed in a lifetime.

They – she and her father– are still asking and giving.

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The Stranger Among You.

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

-Matthew: 25:35

One wonders what the Scripture reading was for the Bible study group at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, SC on Wednesday evening. One day later, however, it seems that regardless of what Scriptures the Reverend Clementa Pinckney and his fellow African-American Bible study parishioners were contemplating, the figure of the stranger is inescapable. Both the Old and the New Testaments (or, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, according to your terminology) are clear: the stranger must be welcomed, the stranger must be treated with kindness, the stranger must be offered hospitality. Leviticus, Deuteronomy (“for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt;” 10:19), Luke and John all speak to the Christian’s responsibility to the stranger; Romans and Matthew’s Gospel (“But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you;” 5:43-44) mention it at least three times each.

After all, as all Christian doctrine on this matter instructs, hospitality to the stranger is imperative not only for its own sake (to be Christ-like), but also because in the figure of the stranger inheres the possibility of the stranger as Jesus-the-Christ. All Christians are called upon to act like the Samaritan who took it upon himself to attend to the traveler, a stranger to him, robbed and injured by robbers and left destitute by the side of the roads; all Christians are called upon to emulate the Samaritan and eschew the Pharisee and the priest who crossed the road when they passed the injured man, abandoned the victim to his own fate. One must only welcome the stranger, but care for him or her too – as the Samaritan did.

Dylann Storm Roof, a 21 year old white man, entered the Emanuel AME Bible study group on June 17th, 2015, and for an hour he sat amongst the African-American faithful. Roof, the stranger, different in the most important way that counts in America (he is white, they are black), from those gathered there in Christian contemplation, welcomed into the most historic black church in South Carolina. It was at “Mother Emanuel,” as the church is known, that Denmark Vesey, freed slave, prayed; Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King (on different occasions), spoke here. Mother Emanuel has long been perceived by white South Carolinians as a hotbed of activism, as the venue for resistance to the strictures of Southern life. But nothing in Mother Emanuel’s history could have prepared it for Roof.

After all, is the only way for the black church to protect its own to forswear Scriptural instruction? In order for the black church to keep its congregation alive must it turn away the white stranger? Can the black Christian church turn away the white stranger and still aspire to Christianity? Is there to be a new calculus, the fear of death at the stranger’s hand, for determining the cost of welcoming the stranger? What of Luke’s Gospel (10:27), then, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself?” What kind of Christianity withholds love? What kind of Christianity forgets the racial alliances forged before, during and after the Civil Rights struggle? Does the black church, then, do what it has always done: continue to love and welcome the stranger and figure Roof as the exception?

All this perturbation caused by death, by a new form of black vulnerability, coming hard on the heels of the campaign against police brutality. Is there no end to the struggle to make black lives matter? Vulnerable on the street, vulnerable in the church basement, in which space is black life safe? In the midst of the larger issues, most pressing is the reality that for the Emanuel AME Bible study group, the cost of welcoming Roof the stranger into their space (a sacred space), for offering him a place amongst them, for accepting his presence in good faith, was fatal. African-American vulnerability to white violence while at prayer is, of course, nothing new.

We know this from the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in September, 1963. This is the church where Martin Luther King, Jr. and Civil Rights activists such as Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth met to plan their campaign against segregation. The four girls killed, Addie Mae Collins (14), Carol Denise McNair (11), Carole Robertson (14), and Cynthia Wesley (14), were changing into their choir robes in the church basement when they were killed. Again, the basement: in the bowels of the church, that is where white violence has struck, not once, but twice in historic churches in the South. Again, the target is the historic black church.

Roof’s violence, however, is of an entirely new order. The Alabama white supremacists, led by well-known Klan member Robert Chambliss (who was charged with the crime and cleared of it, initially, and only sentenced to life imprisonment in 1977) and assisted by Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Cash and Thomas E. Blanton, Jr, who bombed the 16th Street church did not seek to look their victims in the face. Like their political progeny Roof, they were committed to violence against black Southerners, but unlike Roof Chambliss and his crew preferred to act against anonymous black bodies. The Klansmen chose not face their victims before they detonated those sticks of dynamite. All this serves to do is provoke heinous, gruesome questions about the difference between anonymous white violence and cold blooded execution. What kind of society makes you explore these kinds of thoughts?

It is his determination (cynicism?) to avail himself of black Christian hospitality, to sit among them and survey his future victims, that makes Roof’s such a singular act, giving rise to an entirely new prospect. Is Roof the sign of white vigilante violence to come? Is Roof symptomatic of the random white figure (not the “lone wolf,” which would suggest exceptionality not symptomaticity), armed, dangerous, dispersed across the American landscape, the bearer of a historic white anger: there is no telling when any perceived threat to white domination will explode into violence against African-American, Latino, Asian . . . bodies; the body of the other will be stalked. With Roof, all blacks have, once again, been put on notice: a new white threat is possible. But, then again, it has always been possible.

Roof’s singularity can be gleaned from just the one comment – thus far – attributed to him, the one explanation – if that is the correct term – he offered for his actions: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” Dylann Roof’s hatred for blacks blends two historic political modes, producing out of it an entirely new phenomenon: first, there is an old-style white male Southern (that is neither exclusively Southern nor male, of course) sexual anxiety which turns on a fear of black male sexual desire (rampant, in the white Southern imagination, rendered by Roof as “You rape our women”), xenotropia (fear that white women might desire black men) and, of course, miscegenation, which is grounded in the “sanctity” of white Southern womanhood. We know this in a variety of ways, but most traumatically as the lynching black men and black male adolescents – Emmett Till’s brutal murder for supposedly whistling at a white woman in 1950s Mississippi comes quickly to mind. Second, and this should perhaps preoccupy us more, is a new form of white ressentiment that is part of a volatile racist cocktail.

The ressentiment coheres, as expected, in the Obama presidency. There is no way to read Roof’s statement, “You’re taking over our country,” as anything other than the voice of white anger at the reversal of the American political order: a black president. There are, as we well know, several articulations of this – from the Birthers to Tea Party loyalists; from Republicans of several stripes (a few months ago the New York Times ran an editorial explicating the racial nature of Republican opposition to Obama)  to white supremacists, be they gun rights proponents or “Constitutionalists”. No less culpable is liberal, bien pensant America, a North which is quick to absolve itself of any complicity in the ogre-like behavior of its Southern cousins. Brutal policing in Baltimore, New York City, however egregious, is rendered distinct from the likes of Roof. That both forms of violence make lives, as a matter of routine, of daily life, utterly vulnerable, is not made a part of the conversation. How often do black people have to repeat the phrase “culture of violence” in order to make immanent, imminent, opaque, the vulnerability of black life in this country? When will the work of spearheading the campaign against racism become, in the first instance, the work of those commit the violence? To be black is to be (born and to die) vulnerable; to be black is to be historically expected to lead the struggle against racism. Heads, you lose; tails, you lose (again).

Perhaps the most virulent articulation of this culture of violence and hatred is, as anyone who has ever tuned into right-wing talk radio knows, the almost lunatic anti-Obama hosts. Listening to the likes of Limbaugh (ego-maniacal pomposity), Hannity (sanctimonious dross), Beck (truly an abject man in desperate search of salvation) and Savage (he takes to the airwaves hoarse with hatred) is not for the faint-hearted. No, it is only for “true white patriots.” In fact, its ideology, in as pure, simple and belligerent a version as you’d ever hope to hear – or, not hear, as the case might be. Their critique of the president can barely disguise their racial antipathy; they are truly evangelists (they are always pontificating, they always seem to be frothing at the mouth) for a return to white male presidency (Hillary Clinton, however skeptically one may view her candidacy, is hardly spared either) and they fuel their listeners (who are already predisposed to this politics) with a kind of moral indignation and righteous anger at this unnatural order of things.

However, while Roof’s ressentiment is in many ways garden variety American, it is supplemented by a singular nostalgia. In one photograph of Roof that has been shown by networks and cable news, he is wearing a dark jacket with two distinct flags: the top one belongs to the apartheid South African. Let me digress for a moment. I watched the event unfold horrified, but I was dumbfounded when I saw the flags on Roof’s jacket. It was a violent flashback; suddenly all the realities of growing up in apartheid South Africa came flooding back. What apartheid fanatic would have dreamed that the “Vierkleur” would have migrated all the way to South Carolina? Found a deadly afterlife there? Who would have imagined that the ghosts of apartheid’s grand architects, Hendrik Verwoerd, and staunchest proponents, BJ Vorster and PW Botha, would be resurrected, with deadly force, continent away?). The bottom flag on Roof’s jacket is more dated. It is the flag of the old Rhodesia, long since dead but now resurrected for the world to see in the Carolinas. (Who would have thought that Ian Smith would find his white separatist spirit rekindled in South Carolina?) Roof’s is a historic nostalgia because while he speaks the language of native racism, he has cast his symbolic net far and wide. What kind of racism is afoot in America today that allows for the concatenation of hatred for black life, anger at a democratic political process that allows for a black president, all of which is internationalized through the display of symbols of vanquished white supremacist states in Africa. (Apparently the old South African and Rhodesian flags are now coded as “subtle” insignias of an always extant white American supremacist imaginary. Racist hatred, it would appear, is always in the business of rebranding itself; this time through giving new life to a geographically removed past that resonates ideologically. An international hatred for black people.)

Chambliss, Bull Connor, George Wallace, arch anti-Civil Rights white knights, along with other Confederate heroes, no doubt, may very well be Roof’s antecedents, but he has added a nostalgic colonialist range to his racist repertoire.

What a strange face this new racism presents to us. How new is this form of violence against black bodies. How brazen, how invasive, that it thinks nothing of spending an hour with its victims. To do what? To get to know them? How desirous of memoralization is this new violence that it will spare an Emanuel AME Bible study victim or two in order to make sure that its message is heard: “And you have to go.” How does one ask the black church to offer hospitality after the stranger has made the historic inner sanctum of the black community utterly vulnerable? Has made the space of black life the space of death?

Liner Notes No.9: Azu Yeché recounts a painful story of migration in “Lagos”

I had just returned from school one evening I was relaxing in the living room with my mum in Port Harcourt, Nigeria aged 10. Suddenly, a car drove in and we weren’t sure who it was till my brother stepped out of the car with lots of rags tied round his head. He was accompanied by his head teacher.

I immediately started laughing because I thought he was just fooling around as usual or maybe he had offended the head teacher. Within seconds, it became clear that it was a serious situation as my mother ran towards him screaming because she had seen blood dripping from his head.

The headmaster told us that he had been attacked by a gang of people and was stabbed several times on his head, neck and hands. I went into a state of shock and everything changed immediately after he was rushed to the hospital.

I couldn’t really comprehend it and I didn’t have time to do so as I was suddenly going to write an exam to join a new school in a different city (Lagos) and subsequently London. After he recovered from the brutal incident we both moved city and left home.

So much happened in such a short period, I only very recently came out of the initial shock of seeing my brother in that state. We never really spoke about it till this day. Perhaps, writing this song helped me deal with the situation.

I initially wrote it on my guitar and then took it to Tony White who is a great producer and has produced some great music. We’ve been working together for a while now so there is trust between us. I told him this story as an artist and friend and explained how I wanted it to be produced in a sparse way. Because of the sensitive subject matter of the song, he instantly understood that this was not a song that required bells and whistles. He added some electronic pads along with acoustic guitar and piano to accentuate key points of the story and the results were exactly what I had imagined for the song. The final result has a hymnal quality to it.

It was very emotional to record the song, and I think that comes out in the final version. The vocal on the finished track is the first take I recorded. Perhaps, I could have aimed for a more technically perfect and pristine vocal but this was raw and honest — that’s what the song needed.

Buika is the best

Earlier this week I was at the launch of a friend’s excellent book about music piracy. The book goes into the nitty-gritty of how the MP3 file was first developed, through a painstaking process of figuring out how to compress recorded sound without the smaller file sounding any different. (This, of course, permanently changed the music industry.) Sounds made by instruments like violins, guitars and drums were straightforward to shrink down, but the human voice proved extremely difficult, because its sound is very complex and because our ears expect to hear that complexity.

This was many years ago, and they figured out how to compress the human voice by working on a few bars sung by the backing singers on Arlo Guthrie’s song “Alice’s Restaurant.” It’s a good thing they didn’t have to work on a track by Maria Concepción Balboa “Concha” Buika, because the scientists would probably have given up and nobody would have gotten all of that great pirated music.

Buika’s voice comes to us laden with centuries of feeling: pain, joy, loss and hope. Everyone should hear her music.

She’s the most famous Equatoguinean performer in the world, though she is Spanish-born and is invariably listed as Spanish. Her late father, Juan Balboa Boneke, was an intellectual and a minister in the government of Teodoro Obiang before his dissent eventually pushed the family into exile, for a second time, in Spain. He published numerous books of prose and poetry, reflecting on the situation in Equatorial Guinea as well as his experience of exile.

Performing at The Town Hall in mid-town Manhattan on Thursday night, in the Blue Note Jazz Festival, Buika had more presence than anyone I’ve ever seen on stage. I often wonder what it must have been like to go see Nina Simone or Ella Fitzgerald sing live. Maybe it was a bit like this. She inspired undiluted adoration from a packed house, with several heckled offers of marriage (she was wary of these, though gratified, wagging her finger playfully) and a bearded man in the middle of the front row who spent the whole night blowing kisses at her with both hands.

She wore sweeping waist-length braids and a dramatic pink dress. She spoke all the way through the show between songs, mainly about her experience of “living in her contradictions.”

“New York City belongs to the people who love it,” she said. “Like me.”

And later, in a more ribald moment: “I have to tell you, I’m not perfect. I’m not. For example, just now I smoked a lot of marijuana in my dressing room. And it’s strictly forbidden. It is. I know that. It’s not allowed.”

Many people first heard Buika sing in Pedro Almodovar’s film, The Skin I Live In (she was the best thing about the film, her voice saturating and at times overwhelming Almodovar’s shots):

Here’s a performance she did for NPR:

The connection between terrorist Dylann Roof and white-supremacist regimes in Africa runs through the heart of US conservatism

White supremacist terrorists are always constructed as isolated individuals who are not part of a general culture that encourages terrorist acts towards the “other” – be they immigrants, African-Americans, women. Their actions are largely explained as the result of mental-illness, and never carried out as part of a group or collective action. We do not wish to take responsibility for collective actions, and the general culture of white supremacy encouraged by the likes of Sean Hannity on television, Rush Limbaugh on the radio, and countless pastors on their church podiums.

A commonplace explanation why the likes of Dylann Roof shouldn’t be termed “terrorists” is that their violence isn’t political since it isn’t tied to a broader ideological agenda. This is wrong. In Roof’s case, the photograph of him sporting a jacket embroidered with the flags of Apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia shows this is especially implausible. Like the Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik, Roof clearly understood himself to be fighting for a political cause — white supremacism.

But Roof is by no means the first white American to find common cause with racist colonial regimes in Africa. That connection goes back a long way, and runs right from the top of the federal government to key figures in South Carolina politics.

Much is being made in the media of Roof’s interest in white supremacists in Africa. The danger is that this draws our attention away from all the good ol’ white supremacy in his very own state.

The white supremacist emblems on the terrorist’s shirt match the white supremacist emblem flying above the state capital of South Carolina, today as every day. Many people root the rise of the white, republican South Africa to the invention of the Dixiecrat party by South Carolina’s own Strom Thurmond, an arch-segregationist (with the typical secret mixed-race offspring) who ardently defended the apartheid South Africa government from the attacks of godless integrationists through the 1980s.

The Rhodesian and Apartheid South Africa solidarity from the US goes back to the rise of the new right in the late 70s and in particular the rise of Reagan and the onset of the ‘second’ or new Cold War in the 1980s. Apartheid South Africa was portrayed as an outpost of Western values and civilisation against  a sea of communist blacks in Angola, Zimbabwe and Mozambique in particular.

Much money was channelled through libertarian and right-wing thinktanks and groups, by both the American government and the apartheid government, to fund a PR campaign aimed at creating sympathy for whites under siege in South Africa and those left in Rhodesia (soon, it was imagined, to become a communist dictatorship). In particular there was a focus on elevating Jonas Savimbi and Unita into anti-communist freedom fighters, and later the IFP as a moderate pro-capitalist alternative to the communist ANC.

This type of thinking was typical of Jeane Kirkpatrick, a key neo-conservative ‘intellectual’ and America’s UN ambassador from 1981-1985. Kirkpatrick’s infamous distinction was between ‘authoritarian’ and ‘totalitarian’ regimes. ‘Authoritarian’ regimes were anti-communist and pro-capitalist and thus considered an outpost of liberty. This includes the regimes in central america, Pinochet-era Chile and, of course, apartheid South Africa. So-called ‘Totalitarian’ regimes were understood as the tools of the Soviets and had to be crushed at all costs, such as the MPLA in Angola, post-revolutionary Mozambique and of course South Africa’s own ANC.

The coalition behind this policy framework included people on the evangelical right, such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, who also are implicated in pro-apartheid preaching.

Money was channelled in particular to the Young Republicans and many future big names like Jack Abramoff made their political bones by doing propaganda work for the apartheid state. Many future republican bigwigs like Dick Cheney were very vocal in their support of apartheid as were southern politicians like Jessie Helms.  If one trawls through the archives of such publications as Reason and National Review one does not have to look far for examples of pro-apartheid propaganda. Thomas Frank chronicles a lot of this stuff quite well.

Zimbabwe was viewed as a symptom of post-Vietnam weakness — abandoned to the Communists, because the West didn’t have the balls to take on Communism after Vietnam. The siege mentality in many respects parallels that of the Southern plantation class post-Civil War, which eventually gave rise to the KKK, i.e. our way of life and our womenfolk are under siege by a sea of blacks trying to take our ill-gotten gains.

The Republicans later pretended not to have taken such reactionary stances on apartheid, but the influence of all this propaganda remained, later enhanced by a wave of reactionary expatriates leaving South Africa and Zimbabwe and makes homes in the South. They set up their own websites and genocide-watch bullshit, spreading myths about the Boer genocide, later enhanced by Zanu-PF’s land reform policies. In this they made links to the militia movement, websites like Stormfront and the fringes of the American right, many so-called libertarians and paleo-conservatives as well as Zionist trolls like Pamela Geller.

Trawling the fringes of the internet, you find a lot of stuff connecting South Africa and Zimbabwe to the American experience, seen as examples of what happens when the government betrays whites to blacks who are then said to inflict savage violence on whites and destroy civilization. This stuff is found increasingly on the mainstream right these days, particularly with the rise of the Tea Party — but really they’re only tapping into a long tradition within white American conservatism.

Meditation on Haiti (and Charleston) as a Certain Kind of Black

Yesterday morning I received a text from my uncle that reduced me to tears. It read:

“Hi! Gina I want you to focus on the Dominican Republic and Haiti today. The 17th.”

In case your attention has been elsewhere and you have not heard, on Wednesday, June 17, 2015, the Dominican Republic government began to legally process the looming mass deportation of thousands of migrant workers and their families whose citizenship status have not yet been regularized. This is the result of a 2013 Constitutional Tribunal ruling that stripped Dominican born children with Haitian immigrant parentage of their citizenship.

This move to rid the DR of some of its Haitian population has been rightfully called an ethnic purging. It should be noted that there have always been Haitian elites well integrated in the socio-economy of the DR who remain unscathed by the persecution of their poorer compatriots. As Boston College professor Leigh Patel recently wrote, this is an attack on humanness from which we should not divert our attention. This cleansing, I would add, is a rejection of a certain kind of Black. Blackness that is too African.

Despite our somatic plurality and the color gradations we encompass, Haiti and Haitians have always been portrayed and understood as that kind of Black. A Blackness of a particular kind that, truth be re-told, radically changed the world. It was an avant-garde Blackness that not only pulled off a successful slave revolution, which caused the disorder of all things colonial, but also brought the sanctity of whiteness into question. The Haitian Revolution disrupted the notion that Freedom (with a capital F) was the sole domain of whites or those close to whiteness. Indeed, the value ascribed to those Black Lives continue to deteriorate. Moreover, those among us who are visibly marked with that Blackness have had to continually dissuade folks that we are not genetically coded to be their property or the help. This is not limited to Haiti and is symptomatic of a greater Black Diaspora struggle as continuous state sanctioned and market driven violence on black bodies attest here and elsewhere.

Being Black, these days, means living in constant state of siege.  As Policy Director for @MillionHoodies, Pete Haviland-Eduah @TheNotoriousPHE noted on Twitter hours ago  “We can’t swim, we can’t buy skittles, we can’t listen to loud music, we can’t shop, we can’t play, we can’t breathe, we can’t pray.” There are no safe spaces for that Black. Nine people were killed in their place of worship. An act of terrorism that must be named. Their killer sat in a pew for an hour before extinguishing their Black Lives. 

These stateside brutalities are not unrelated to what is happening in the Dominican Republic. We also know that Haiti’s present is full of international snafus, from the Red Cross’ epic fail to the UN’s refusal of accountability for the cholera epidemic, and underreported sexual exploitation of women and girls by UN peacekeepers. One need only look to the past for historical evidence that helps to explain the incessant exploitation and dehumanization, which is unfolding now. There are many, let me point to one.

To be sure, anxieties about this tragedy in the Dominican Republic foster fears precisely given the complex history of these two nations that share an island. In the aftermath of the Trujillo ordered 1937 massacre (that killed well over 20,000 Haitians) reparations were sought by the Haitian President Stenio Vincent and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Eventually, money exchanged hands. The initial value ascribed to the collective lives of the dead — $750,000, would later be reduced to $525,000 (U.S. $8,612,673.61 in 2015 dollars). As Eric Paul Roorda revealed in The Dictator Next Door (1998), in actuality the payment received by the Haitian government was a personal draft for $250,000 and $25,000 in palm oil. At the most, that would be under $15 per dead not including the palm oil. As the story goes, due to Haitian corruption, survivors received less than 2 cents. Now we know for certain Haitians do not hold a monopoly on corruption.

Fortunately, not all Dominicans are on board with this legal deportation. Indeed, we also know and share a history of solidarity. In addition to a call to boycott the DR, efforts there and here are mobilizing to increase and keep awareness of the issue. 

Never in my professional life have I had a family member direct me to write. That’s why I cried. This is the same uncle who made me to do my homework everyday after school when I was growing up in Haiti. I would not be who I am today without his active presence in my life. He wanted me to use my voice and say something about what is happening. His nudge reminded me that this moment concerns us all. It is yet another brutal example of the devaluation of Black Lives to be added to a growing landfill of hashtags that spans the globe. We charge genocide again and again and again anywhere that Blackness is denied the right to peacefully live!!!!  Just being should not be the full measure of our lived testimony. Those of us on this side of the water need to contemplate our distances and be particularly weary of geographies of empire that impede our potential unity. 

Come as you are, ain’t no fronting necessary.  We need freedom fighters. There’s a Haitian Kreyòl word that you might want to add to your vocabulary. Rasanblaj. It means to assemble, to regroup, to gather. 

#StayWoke #StopKillingUs 

Is Africa really rising? History and facts suggest it isn’t

In the year 2000, the Economist ran a cover story with the title “Hopeless Africa”. Four years later, Robert Guest, who served as the newspaper’s Africa Editor, published “The Shackled Continent”, a book that pretty much concluded that, absent any miracles, Africa’s future was bleak. The book was widely praised, not least of all by all-round Africa expert Bob Geldof who said “[it] was written with a passion for Africa and Africans”.  Then in 2011, the current era of Afro-euphoria signalled its triumphant entrance with the Economist’s Africa Rising cover story. In contrast to their cover story of just a couple of years back, this one declared that there was hope for the hopeless continent (TIME did exactly the same thing in 2012).

We’ve written about the Africa Rising meme on this site, from culture to politics to music to fashion, again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again. Now for the economics.

To be sure, African economies have begun growing again after contracting for most of the 1980s and 1990s. According to the World Bank, real GDP per capita shrank at a rate of 1% per year over the period 1980 to 2000 for sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. Since 2000, real GDP per capita has grown at the more respectable rate of 2% per year. And it appears that the incidence of poverty, at least as measured by the World Bank, also declined, although marginally, during the last decade.

Many so-called Africa watchers seem to have caught the “Africa rising” bug. There is now wide expectation, undergirded of course by the likes of the Economist, that growth will continue unabated going forward. Africa’s time is now! So declared a piece in the trendy Harvard Business Review.

The “Africa rising” narrative suggests the continent is now well on its way to self-sustaining growth. The kind of growth that the East Asian “tigers” and the countries known as the West experienced during the times they were rising. The kind of growth that has led to a massive reduction in poverty in China within a generation. Unfortunately here is where reality stands at odds with the euphoria.

Africa’s current growth revival (the continent did grow, and healthily so, from the 1960s to the 1970s) seems to be largely driven by external factors: China’s spectacular growth and along with it an increase in the price of commodities, whose exports Africa relies on to a great extent. So any slowdown in China’s growth, as is likely to happen as its economy matures, is likely to impact greatly on Africa’s performance.

To be sure, there have also been some internal drivers of growth: price distortions have been reduced in agriculture, macroeconomic stability has been restored (inflation rates are low and stable across most of the continent) and political institutions have improved (democracy and elections are now more common on the continent than before). But the prospects of these internal policies to sustain long-run growth are dismal. The Harvard economist Dani Rodrik, in a highly insightful essay titled “An African Growth Miracle?”, points out that the relationship between standard measures of good policies (macroeconomic stability, reduced price distortions, etc…) and economic growth tends to be weak. At best, good policies make economic crises less prevalent but cannot sustain and drive growth on their own. The same is also true of institutions, which following the much publicized work of Daron Acemoglu and friends, has become the be all and end all of development thinking. Rodrik points out that Latin America has experienced positive institutional changes within the last 20 years with a small payoff in growth. On the other hand, impressive growth in South Korea (until the 1990s) and China (today) has occurred alongside rampant cronyism and corruption.     

According to Rodrik, self-sustaining growth begins to occur when an economy undergoes a structural transformation from relying less on agriculture to relying more on industry. That is, self-sustaining growth is underpinned by large-scale industrialization. This is the historical lesson of the East Asian tigers, of China, and of even the West. Unfortunately the facts for Africa point in the opposite direction. Yes, African labour has moved out of agriculture in large numbers, but the beneficiary has not been manufacturing but services. The service sector tends not to be as “productive” as the manufacturing sector. And productivity, which is the ability to produce ever more output from the same amount of inputs, is what drives and sustains growth. The share of manufacturing in the economies of most African countries has declined from about 15% in the 1970s to around 10% today. That is Africa has in fact deindustrialized! And even the 10% of GDP that is manufacturing is mostly made up of small informal firms that are not particularly productive and are unlikely to evolve into big formal firms. Rodrik sums up his prospects for Africa thus:

“To sum up, the African pattern of structural change is very different from the classic pattern that has produced high growth in Asia, and before that, the European industrializers. Labour is moving out of agriculture and rural areas. But formal manufacturing industries are not the main beneficiary. Urban migrants are being absorbed largely into services that are not particularly productive and into informal activities. The pace of industrialization is much too slow to [spurn self-sustaining growth].”   

So what can be done? Rodrik suggests that industrialization can be helped along by improving the “business climate” in Africa. But the problem with the business climate argument, apart from being vague, is that it does not confront the fact that Africa was more industrialized in the 1970s, at a time when the business climate was likely no different from what it is today. In my opinion, the Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs) that were administered beginning in the early 1980s are largely responsible for halting the pace of industrialization on the continent. With SAPs, Africans were told by their betters to stop supporting industry because doing so was “wasteful”. Subsidies to industry were reduced. Protective trade barriers were removed. Planning for industry was done away with. All this advice was dispensed in spite of the fact that today’s developed countries industrialized behind a veil of considerable state support. For instance, the historian Sven Beckert points out that Britain’s cloth manufacturing industry, which was largely responsible for the Industrial Revolution, was shielded from competition from India for most of the 18th Century. The Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang has called this phenomenon of rich countries forcing policies on poor countries that they themselves did not implement during their time of take-off as “kicking away the ladder”.   

Africa needs to industrialize for it to really rise. Unfortunately the rhetoric around “Africa rising” is giving us a false sense of comfort and distracting us from the real work that needs to happen.

Remembered Futures

Yesterday South Africa celebrated Youth Day in commemoration of the 1976 Soweto Uprising, a massive student protest against the apartheid government which ended in the killing of hundreds and after the Sharpeville massacre, globally cemented apartheid South Africa as a morally indefensible pariah state.

In the spirit of youth and resistance, writers Tseliso Monaheng, Andrew Miller and Kagiso Mnisi have put together a documentary project called Remembered Futures, which explores ideas around freedom, youth and remembrance in contemporary South Africa. It uses Freedom Day, the commemoration of South Africa’s first democratic elections, as a starting reference.

The film kicks off with the story of the defiant Chief Langalibalele of the amaHlubi. Via the country’s premier hip hop gathering, Back To The City Festival, the film looks at what freedom means to South African youth today. It ends off by exploring the current socio-political climate, using the recent xenophobic attacks and the student-led Rhodes Must Fall movement at the University of Cape Town as vantage points.

Featured are historians Prof. Jon Wright and Dr. Nomalanga Mkhize; Back To The City festival’s co-founder Osmic Menoe; and artist Quaz Roodt. The documentary aired on Soweto TV on 27th April, Freedom Day in South Africa.

How history has been distorted to justify the Dominican deportations

Over the past two years, a legal nightmare has grown in the Dominican Republic. Taking aim at Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent, the Dominican Constitutional Tribunal issued a ruling in September 2013, made retroactive more than eighty years, stripping citizenship from anyone who cannot prove “regular” residency for at least one parent. Legislation passed in May 2014 allows for a limited and incomplete path to naturalization for some; it amounts to “citizenship by fiat.” The rulings mark a drastic setback for as many as several hundred thousand residents of the Dominican Republic, threatening them with expulsion, statelessness, detention, and abuse. Individuals have already suffered the impact of the new laws. With the rulings, larger-scale detentions might begin tomorrow, overseen by the Dominican armed forces and the U.N., among other groups.

In analyses of the crisis over the past two years, English-language press and Dominican right-wing nationalists have often been in simplistic consensus: they argue that the two countries have been in constant conflict. Scholars, activists, and other voices have made repeated admonitions to amplify and complicate this “fatal-conflict model,” as well as to eschew sensationalism in favor of concrete language. Nevertheless, one so-called truism emerges again and again in the U.S. press: that Dominican “animosity and racial hatred of Haitians dates back to at least 1822,” when Haitian rule extended over the whole island. Dominican supporters of the 2013 ruling, also, invoke the nineteenth century freely in a very similar manner. Commentators often talk of a supposed “pacific invasion” of Dominican soil at present, repeating the one that allegedly took place in January 1822. Images of Juan Pablo Duarte, one of the authors of separation of the two countries two decades later, populate demonstrations in support of the current rulings.

The nineteenth-century narrative is an abject falsehood, repeated often. Unification between the two countries came at the invitation of numerous Dominican towns. It brought the end of slavery. All of the citizens of the island enjoyed and defended their independence for decades and decades, long after the countries formally split, as their nearby neighbors remained colonized (and hundreds of thousands, still enslaved). They did so, precisely, together. These facts were as immediately obvious to elite commentators seeking separation as they were to the great majority of the island’s residents, who manifested profound and dynamic interconnection. Decades after unification ended, Dominican-Haitian collaborators helped to win Dominican independence, for a second time, in 1865. The Dominican constitution changed that same year to jus soli citizenship; a handful of reformers called for dual citizenship across the island. Without much documentation, however, the popular foundation of these struggles was muted even as it unfolded. The island’s residents continued to defend their independence, but xenophobic, racist, and hostile voices on and off the island continued to marginalize them. With the U.S. occupations, outside hostility became even more concrete.

Even more casual outside observers tend to know about the massive anti-Haitian intellectual production of the Trujillo dictatorship (1930-1961). Perhaps the ten concurring Tribunal members were purposely trying to sidestep its shadow when they chose, against all precedent, to extend their ruling to the year before he took power. Fewer outsiders know of Dominican resistance to these narratives during Trujillo’s regime, or of later efforts to reimagine the history of the nineteenth century completely. Haiti and the Dominican Republic were siblings in a struggle for freedom in these new accounts. Colonial powers, old and new, were the common enemy. Juan Bosch was one such politician-historian. He managed seven months in office before a coup overthrew him. Trujillo’s one-time aide, also a prolific history writer, replaced him. The contest for nineteenth-century narratives began all over again.

Thousands and thousands of the so-called “repatriations” or “deportations” that loom are really expulsions. The state language of law and order, more generally, is a violent and capricious fiction. Organizations like MUDHA, Solidaridad Fronteriza, reconoci.do, and others recognize this essential and obvious fact. The current crisis is not, however, the product of timeless, essential, or isolated conflicts. Haiti and the Dominican Republic face a common international economic and political context (and policies). Nor is the Dominican state’s aspiration for marginalization and control of a whole population by creating a legal breach is particularly unique. As statelessness, deportation, and violence threatens, those organizing in opposition to the Sentencia have an expansive view of the task at hand. As MUDHA describes their mission, they are organizing against sexism, racism, and anti-Haitianism and in support of civil, political, economic, social, cultural, and human rights simultaneously. Relentlessly facile and misleading narratives about the past are not useful as they and their allies hope, with great urgency, to reinvent the immediate future.

Hey, Donald Trump, Here Are Some Things You Might Not Know About the U.S. and Latin America

Good news for comedians everywhere: Donald Trump—the guy famous for his tacky reality TV shows, his opulent towers and his obscene fortune—just announced today that he will be joining the small set of 1,045-odd hopeful conservative politicians as he will be the newest addition to the group of Republican candidates for the presidency of the United States. Bad news everyone: Donald Trump, again, wants to be president of the United States.

His chances are, thankfully, slim, and in a pool of 27 (!) Republican candidates it is very unlikely he gets his party nomination for the U.S. elections next year. Like his previous attempts at the presidency of the United States (in 1988, 2000, 2004 and 2012), this time he might also retire before the elections. And like those other attempts, this one might also not be more than a publicity stunt, something suitable for a man who has made great deal of his fortune by working the media attention to his divisive opinions in his favor.

But he is already using this supposedly political platform to spew hatred and misconceptions. He probably knows his audience very wells and knows what do they want to hear. In a speech he gave today outside of his Trump Tower in Midtown Manhattan, he appealed to the fear that many of his followers have of difference, of otherness (immigrants, Muslims, the usual targets), and he appealed to the sense that American exceptionalism is vanishing and needs to be restored.

In his speech he said:

When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say, China in a trade deal? They kill us. I beat China all the time. All the time. (…) When did we beat Japan at anything? They send their cars over by the millions, and what do we do? When was the last time you saw a Chevrolet in Tokyo? It doesn’t exist, folks. They beat us all the time.

When do we beat Mexico at the border? They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity. And now they are beating us economically. They are not our friend, believe me. But they’re killing us economically.

The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems.

(APPLAUSE)

Thank you. It’s true, and these are the best and the finest. When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

But I speak to border guards and they tell us what we’re getting. And it only makes common sense. It only makes common sense. They’re sending us not the right people. 

It’s coming from more than Mexico. It’s coming from all over South and Latin America, and it’s coming probably — probably — from the Middle East. But we don’t know. Because we have no protection and we have no competence, we don’t know what’s happening. And it’s got to stop and it’s got to stop fast.

After repeating how Mexico is “stealing” American business and describing the North American nation along with China and ISIS as the U.S.’s biggest enemies, he went on:

I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively, I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall.

Let’s not delve too deeply on his obviously xenophobic comments and ignorance in the history of human migration. Let’s not stay too much on how Trump’s ludicrous assertion that Mexicans and other Latin American immigrants to the United States are all rapists until proven innocent (or “good people,” I assume). Let’s not think what the world would like with a man like this as the head of the United States.

Instead, let’s focus on giving Trump some reading material on what the United States brings to Latin America. He could, for example, read about how the U.S.-funded war on drugs has devastated Colombia and Mexico, killing thousands, displacing millions and empowering drug cartels. He could find out more about how the United States government has fueled gang violence in El Salvador. He could also look at the U.S. bloody history of “political” intervention in Central America that has left many Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans with no better choice than to try to make the deadly way north. Or he could read about the “sketchiest” (to put it lightly) things the DEA has done in Latin America and beyond.

Maybe afterwards he’ll understand why so many Latin Americans are forced to flee their countries. But maybe he already knows about all of this, and he only cares about getting enough rating to keep making his millions. Who knows? I don’t. But in any case I would strongly advice him to use his building skills to build a wall around himself.

Hillbrow invasion with @YoungstaCPT

Cape Town-based wordsmith Youngsta’s been in Johannesburg for a few weeks, here on a mission to build bridges and shake a few industry players’ hands, all the while invading the city with his brand of Kaapse rap. It’s been roughly five years of steady hustle and grind for the emcee whose claim to fame is having released 24 mixtapes in a period of eighteen months. Youngsta’s gone on to perform music with DJ Ready D, release albums with well-renowned DJs such as Hamma (who used to rap in Braase Vannie Kaap way back when), and form Deurie Naai Alliance with Arsenic, one of the Cape’s most consistent producers.

He’s also built a movement called Y?Generation, an “army of street soldiers” by his definition. The idea to build a community-centered movement  was inspired by the sense of stillness and helplessness anyone who grew up in the hood has felt or experienced at different points in their life. Things didn’t pan out as envisioned. Instead of loosing momentum, Youngsta thought he’d stiek uit and reach out to people in different areas whose life outlook and focus were as sharp. “[Knowing] we all had common goals in music & social developments, we joined up,” says the affable and engaging rhyme-spitter when talking about Y? Generation via e-mail..

Youngsta invited me along on a mini-tour of the gully and gutter streets of Hillbrow the other day. The goal was to go from one end to walk the length of its streets while taking the odd picture. It turned out to be a session filled with interactions only possible in Jozi — a spaza shop owner who could recite Nas’ ’94 album Illmatic line-for-line; a walking 90s rap cliche (Fubu gear, Timbs, durag) who looked well into his forties and had a stall which resembled his personal wardrobe; and a homie who tried to charge us money in order to have a picture taken, while trying to sell us crusty weed at the same damn time!

All in all, it was an incredible day! More pictures are on Youngsta’s facebook page.

What’s the word? Sister/woman have you heard from Manenberg?

To honor the June 16, 1976 Soweto Uprising, aka Youth Day, the Rock Girls are on a five-day road trip, from Manenberg to Port Elizabeth. These girls embody all that is powerful and hopeful about Youth Day. They live the injunction of organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living!”

Based in Manenberg, Rock Girls was begun in 2010 by human rights lawyer and activist Michelle India Baird, who has worked for decades for women’s and children’s rights in the United States and in South Africa.

In 2010, Baird was volunteering at the Red River School in Manenberg, on the Cape Flats. Established in the mid 1960s as a Colored `enclave’, Manenberg has increasingly become identified with gang violence, which means among other things with intensifying gender-based violence. It’s a hard place for adolescent women to negotiate gender and personhood … but they do, every day, and that’s where Rock Girls comes in, making change in Manenberg.

In 2010, Baird saw, in her words, that “girls were not participating in the after-school running programme because they did not feel safe on the sports field. [We] began documenting the conditions around and at school, and created a plan to make their environment safer, starting with a safe place to sit at school when the older boys and gangsters harassed them.” So, Grade 6 girls designed a bench, painted murals, planted a garden, and organized like hell to make their school a safer place. They put the bench near the tuck shop on the school grounds, and declared the space a Safe Space. There are now eight benches around Cape Town, with another five pending.

The girls started meeting regularly, and organizing, at the Manenberg People’s Centre Library. Last year, when they heard about the abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls from Chibok, Nigeria, they said, “Let’s go find them.” That began a conversation about pan-African women’s and girls’ rights and situations, especially as regards everyday safety for women and girls. Meanwhile, the meetings became more difficult, due to increased gunfire nearby.

Undeterred, the girls decided to hit the road, to see South Africa, to meet girls in communities like their own, and to organize like hell. This week, it’s a five-day trip. The girls have studied reporting with the Children’s Radio Foundation and photography with Iliso Labantu photographers. According to Baird, this is a test drive. The next trip, they hope to drive north … to Rwanda. Stay tuned.

Soweto Youths of 1976 deserve better than Badvertising

South African ad agencies continue to prove intolerable. This time it’s Cape Town agency Black River FC, which decided it was a good idea ahead of the 39th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising on June 16 to re-imagine a Sam Nzima photograph taken on the day. The iconic photo is of a distraught 17-year-old Antoinette Pieterson running alongside 18-year-old Mbuyisa Makhubu, who was carrying the lifeless body of Antoinette’s 13-year-old brother Hector.

Hector was just a baby, but that did not stop the apartheid regime’s police force from shooting him and at least 175 others dead for having the temerity to reject an education system designed to teach them little else than to say “yes, baas” to the commands of white people.

So how did Black River FC on behalf of its client, 24-hour pay-TV music station Channel O, decide to reimagine this awe-inspiring history?

Easy. They replaced Hector’s body with a graduation gown and parchment, turned Antoinette’s frown upside-down, and transformed the look of terror on Mbuyisa’s face to one of jubilation. That’s how it works, right? South Africa is free and today’s youth should “live the dream of the youth of ‘76 died for” by going to school and graduating. Oh, and watching Channel O, of course.

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The ad is a dime-a-dozen stay-in-school public service announcement that, to conceal its vacuity, appropriates gratuitously and superficially iconography from the country’s revolutionary history. It is lazy. But it’s worst crime is that the message does not accord with the reality faced by the majority of young South Africans.

Because, 80% of the country’s public schools schools are dysfunctional. Only a third of high school graduates in any one year attain grades that will allow them to enter university, should they so wish, and far fewer of those admitted actually end up graduating. Further-education-and-training colleges are in a state of disarray and subject to both real and perceived quality problems – both by students and the market place. That’s without even considering the cost of higher education, which is prohibitively set for many young people.

And it’s also without considering what is taught at schools, universities and colleges – which #RhodesMustFall, #OpenStellenbosch and other student-led movements have shown still centres Western and phallocentric knowledge, histories and paradigms as the norm and any attempts to usher in plurality are met with resistance.

Is it unsurprising then that 41% of young women and 31.6% of young men are neither employed nor enrolled at an education institution – and black kids in particular have limited economic mobility.

That we have not had another June 16 – a time when young people were aware of the raw deal they were being dealt and stood up against it – is probably thanks to people like the bright sparks behind this ad. They perverted history to sell young people false dreams and avert their eyes from the real. They’re also probably part of the group of people behind the truly astonishing number of South African ads that suggest black folk will dance for anything.

Oh, and four decades later we still don’t know where Mbuyisa is. Papering over a person whose whereabouts are still unknown, whose family is still clinging to the hope he might still be alive, is an appalling way to remember the past and live the present ethically.

I wonder what Mbuyisa’s family will say to yet another abuse of his image.

Should South Africa have arrested President Bashir?

Twitter lit up on Sunday and #Bashir was trending worldwide.  As the African Union summit convened in South Africa, the fate of Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir seemed to hang on a pending decision from a South African judge and the question was: Will South Africa arrest President Bashir and hand him over to the International Criminal Court?

Six years ago, the ICC issued a warrant for the arrest of Bashir for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in Darfur. He has so far avoided arrest by carefully selecting the dozen countries that he has visited since he became an “ICC fugitive.” Human rights organizations have followed scrupulously Bashir’s travel schedule and each time, have campaigned vigorously for his arrest.

Credited with having one of the most independent judicial systems on the continent, South Africa was poised to be the stage for a dramatic – if not theatrical — legal showcase. As soon as Bashir landed, the Southern Africa Litigation Centre introduced before the Pretoria’s High Court a request to issue a warrant for the arrest of Bashir on Sunday. The court issued an interim order that Bashir must not be allowed to leave the country until a final decision be made on the application on Monday morning. After 24 hours of conflicting reports regarding Bashir’s whereabouts, it is now clear that he has left South Africa, pre-empting the Pretoria High Court ruling.

This in itself is a huge development and will have many political implications. But to be sure, even if the court had decided that the South African security forces must arrest Bashir, putting handcuffs on the Sudan’s president may have only been wishful thinking. For one, Bashir could take refuge in Sudan’s embassy in Pretoria, and South Africa would not be able to go in and arrest him. Such an instance would have resulted in the Assange scenario, and it is not sure whether the Zuma administration wants that.

Moreover, it may well be that South Africa’s domestic laws provide for the arrest of Bashir, but it is still not clear whether South Africa is obligated by international law to arrest Bashir. As crazy as it may sound, Bashir may still have head of state immunity. There are certainly opposing sides on this debate among international law scholars.

Because the ICC prosecutes “the most serious crimes of concern to the international community”, the Rome Statute, which is its founding treaty, doesn’t allow for immunity. It means that by ratifying the Satute and joining the Court, states signs away the immunity of their officials. But Sudan hasn’t done so. The ICC gained jurisdiction over the Darfur crisis through a UN Security Council resolution. The question becomes then whether a mere UNSC resolution can strip a head of state from his/her immunity? Those who argue that the UNSC resolution overrides Sudan’s non-party to the ICC status often invoke the case of Charles Taylor to make their point. But Dov Jacobs here and here argues that nothing under international law obligates South Africa to arrest Bashir.

To be sure, anything related to the ICC is as much about law as it is about politics, despite the denegation of the purists. Why else would the UNSC have the power to refer situations to the ICC, including in states that have opted not joined the Court? Is there any international body more political than the UNSC?

Why then should we fault South Africa for taking into consideration political calculations in deciding whether to arrest Bashir or let him sneak out of the country? Had South Africa arrested Bashir, that would have sent shockwaves throughout the African Union that may well have been fatal to the organization’s survival. As South Africa is one of the powerhouses of the organization (and keeping in mind the African Union’s official position is that its member states should not cooperate with the ICC to arrest Bashir,) one may also wonder what could South Africa gain from arresting Bashir?

This may well be Bashir’s last trip outside of Sudan, as it’s getting hot out there for an ICC fugitive. For the ICC, this dramatic showdown is certainly a positive outcome that points to its increased legitimacy and relevance. The question remains to be seen whether the African Union will still stand behind Bashir, or quietly withdraw its support.

Weekend Music Break No.77

Weekend Music Break, your weekly round up of hot tunes and music news from around the African Continent and its diaspora, is here!

This weekend we have Belgium based Congolese artists Badi and Fredy Massamba’s team up “Belgicain”; Show Dem Camp puts out an Afro-House song featuring Iye on the hook; still in the house zone, but in Angola, Maya Zuda and Bebucho Que Cuia present “Dois a Dois”; French-Senegalese rapper Booba heads to South America once again to shoot the video for his song “Tony Sosa”; Nigerian Davido sets his sights across the Atlantic by teaming up with Philadelphia gangsta rapper Meek Mill; Another cross-Atlantic collaboration sees a pair of Americans and a pair of Brits trading verses over a ominous R&B-trap beat; In preparation for the launch of his new album, Sarkodie also launches a trans-Atlantic gangsta-rap collabo this week, here he goes to dancehall territory with Stonebwoy and Jupiter; The Havana Cultura project recently shared “Madres” by Daymé Arocena, a live performance dedicated to the Orixa Yemaya (Yemoja, Iemanjá); Seattle-based Chimurenga Renaissance heads to the ruins of Great Zimbabwe for their track “Pop Killer”; and finally, F’Victeam, a Congolese dance squad, shoots a martial arts themed Ndomobolo/Decale video (embedding disabled so watch it here). Enjoy!

Refugees vow to ‘return home’ after meeting with ‘appalling’ British holidaymakers

This piece is a response to a recent article in the Daily Mail.

Among the Syrian and Afghan refugees landed on the Greek island of Kos there has been talk of returning to their home-countries after their stay has been disturbed by the ‘awkward’ behavior of British holidaymakers.

“It is truly appalling,” one grandmother of seven complains, “They are ruining our entire running-away-from-war-torn-states-in-search-of-a-better life experience. They have turned our whole desperate-flight-to-freedom into a nightmare, and we will certainly think twice about returning to Kos next year.”

With over 1,200 migrants arriving in Kos over a very short period of time, Kos has become a popular destination amongst those fleeing for their lives. But, with the nuisance of conceited discourses and rampaging prejudice, will it remain so?

“As we landed, we were accosted by a primitive tribe here who call themselves “holiday-makers”” says a young father, while ladling broth into his malnourished daughters mouth; “We were disgusted by their overfed, sweaty appearance! The men wear white tennis socks in sandals, and the women are crimson and sometimes hit us with rolled up copies of The Sun,”.

The migrants have labeled the holidaymakers ‘charter people’, referring to organized package charter trips being the holidaymakers main form of transportation. There have been reports of how the charter people cause unease by sitting around in restaurants being hobby-racists and blustering about their deluded and mall-placed outrage. Some have even described how holidaymakers sometimes watch as people do everyday things like hanging laundry, cooking on woodstoves, or crying over brutally murdered family members.

“We came to Europe in search of a better life for our children.” Says a widowed mother of four, “We have heard stories of Europe as a place where basic human decency and compassion are respected. So far, thanks to the holidaymakers, we have been disappointed. Perhaps living in a conflict-zone is better than living in a society where people are so utterly self-centered and disconnected.  ”

A group of refugees are already attempting to construct a return boat out of fish and chips wrappers and broken prossecco bottles. However, others profess a desire to befriend the charter people. One man even came to the aid of a young holidaymaker.

“She was badly injured, all we could ascertain was that she worked a journalist for the Daily Mail” says a former Syrian doctor, who rushed to the woman’s aid. “At first it seemed a simple case of rectal cranium immersion. However, by the time I got there it was too late. The woman had already lost all sense of perspective.”

For some more insight on the European migrant situation, check out what we’ve written about African migrants to Europe here and here. And, listen to our discussion on the wretched European immigration policies and the complex geo-politics behind passage across the Mediterranean on our podcast.

Hipsters Don’t Dance Top World Carnival Tunes for May 2015

Apologies for the late arrival. Hipsters Don’t Dance is back with their May chart of World Carnival tunes. Enjoy this roundup, and remember to visit the HDD blog for all their great up-to-the-time-ness out of London!

Burna Boy x Soke

After a few swings with some sub-par sounding singles, Burna is back with this contemplative effort. As well as signing to a major US label (Universal), Burna also teased a collaboration with the one and only Heavy K. We can’t wait for that one to drop.

Henry Knight Ft. Yemi Alade, Di’ja & Joe el x Olopa

Sometimes all you need for an upgrade is to add Yemi Alade to the remix and we are there. Olopa has been a staple in our DJ sets for a year now due its unrelenting pace. Sadly not all the MCs keep up with its speed but it’s a fun listen.

Coptic – Keep Shining ft M.anifest

As you can probably tell we are big fans of M.anifest and this collaboration with fellow Ghanian, Coptic, is a call to arms to other MCs. Coptic produced for the likes of P. Diddy and Snoop Dogg and now he can add M.anifest to that list.

Project Kamutupu x Kamutupu

Something a little smoother now, and it’s Lusophone house from Project Kumutupu, which is now our favourite thing to say. The video itself is beautiful as well.

Goon Club Allstars x Rudeboyz EP

We were privy to this release back in November when we first met Moleskin from GCA. He told us at the Future Sounds of Mzansi premiere in London about his plans for this EP. He wanted to release raw pure club music with no hype apart from the music itself. No exoticism, no promos, just the music. The club world is embracing this EP which is amazing to see and anything that highlights Africa in a positive manner we are happy to share.

Do our passports continue to be punished for being African?

Late last week, I was informed that I would not be able to travel to Dubai for an important meeting scheduled months ago. Like other countries across the globe, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) halted travel for those with Guinean, Liberian, and Sierra Leonean passports during the height of the Ebola outbreak. It has not lifted these restrictions.

The miniature red suitcase I had packed lay abandoned on my wooden floor. I caressed my dark green Liberian passport as if to reassure this inanimate marker of identity that my citizenship was not on trial here. The specter of Ebola had simply triumphed over reason.

Yet, the irony of this episode hasn’t escaped me. Dubai is a hub for cross continental travel. In 2013 alone, the UAE boasted the fifth largest international migrant pool in the world—hosting 7.8 million foreign residents out of a total population of 9.2 million. Furthermore, foreign labor migrants account for 90 percent of the country’s private workforce, mostly from Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.

Unlike the US and UK, where anti-immigrant sentiments have reached fever pitch, the UAE seems more pliant to international travelers. So, naturally, I thought it was odd when I attempted to complete the online visa form and Liberia was not listed as an option for ‘present nationality’. Nor were Guinea and Sierra Leone.

This was punishment for simply being born in Africa with a particular African passport. Even the organizers of the meeting were shocked, disbelief sprinkled in their conciliatory e-mails and phone calls. All diplomatic channels had proved futile. The verdict was irreversible. I would not be getting on that plush Emirates flight.

Never mind that Liberia was declared Ebola-free on May 9, exactly one month ago.

Never mind that I have not been to my homeland in over 10 months. Nor was I asked about recent travel there.

Never mind that my country and its people are slowly trying to recover from an invisible foe that killed nearly 5,000 and infected about 11,000.

In the past year, I’ve seen my passport scrutinized more intently than ever before, but the UAE blanket bias felt like adding salt to a fresh wound. At first, I experienced blinding rage with a touch of indignation. The kind that gurgles in the pit of your gut, and then explodes. Then I was amused by the absurdity of it all. If I were traveling directly from Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone and had a passport from a country on UAE’s list of exemptions, I would have gotten a visa on arrival with ease. No questions asked.

Mild acceptance slowly seeped in, reminding me that we maintain immigration hierarchies as a form of erasure and silencing. In our obsession with citizenship tiers, West is best. North trumps South. And white is inevitably right.

Never mind black/brown solidarity. Or does that even exist?

I have shied away from returning home fearing the kind of immobility that sees people not as complex beings but as nameless, faceless ‘threats’ to national security. A sedentarist kind of metaphysic that keeps certain people in their place. People like me.

Truth be told, the natural human compulsion for mobility is currently under threat because of irrational immigration bans such as the UAE’s. For all the rhetoric about globalization’s free flow of ideas, capital and technology, the world remains obsessed with restricting the movement of people who don’t fit into our neat boxes of what is tolerable or even desirable. The UAE saga is a microcosm of a larger debate about the need for immigration reforms worldwide.

The scapegoating of migrants across the globe deflects attention from the fact that most countries have failed to improve the quality of life of their domestic citizens. Afro-fobic attacks in South Africa, Australia’s Pacific Solution, and the plight of Rohingya Muslims off the coast of Indonesia are extreme examples. Immigration is framed as a zero sum game, with finite rights and resources available to a select few.

I watch migrants who look like me risk their lives on sardine-packed, rickety boats to cross the Mediterranean, and know intuitively that they wouldn’t flee if they had a choice. With each desperate attempt to cross over, what they are effectively saying is that Europe must make amends for waging unjustifiable wars and supporting authoritarian regimes in some of their countries of origin.

Centuries ago, Africans were so eager to escape lives of bondage, some dove to sudden death in the Atlantic. They were the first forced migrants I can recall. Now, many of us travel across these same waters for short-, medium- and long-term trips. Not because of some deep, abiding love for life abroad, but because it gives us a measure of flexibility. It keeps us physically connected to the rest of the world.

And for someone like me with chronic wanderlust, the ability to travel unencumbered is almost as necessary as oxygen itself. Although a self-professed transnational, I used to be suspicious of Liberians who changed their nationality out of convenience. But after interviewing more than 200 of us across five urban centers in West Africa, North America and Europe for my doctoral thesis on citizenship construction and practice, I have become more empathetic. Many of us make the switch because of the access so easily denied me by the UAE.

But we shouldn’t have to.

I can’t say I would ever consider exchanging my passport for another, especially since Liberia prohibits dual citizenship. Yet, the UAE debacle has shaken me to the core. It’s made me acutely aware that citizenship is both personal and political.

Peace deployed as a weapon in Angola

On April 16th, Angolan security forces, including a heavily armed rapid intervention police unit, raided a religious encampment under the leadership of self-proclaimed prophet José Julino Kalupeteka with the aim of arresting him. Kalupeteka’s controversial religious sect, dubbed “A Luz do Mundo” (Light of the World), was known to shun certain state-sponsored activities such as vaccination campaigns, the national census and public schooling. About 3,000 people were living peacefully in the hilly encampment when the police struck.

Much has been written about the Mount Sumi event both in English and Portuguese by several reputable sources: Aslak Orre writing for the CMI, Rede Angola’s Luísa Rogério and Maka Angola’s Rafael Marques. But almost two months after the tragic events in Huambo and even an official statement from the UN Human Rights Office (promptly slammed by the Angolan government), we’re nowhere closer to knowing what exactly happened in Mount Sumi, Huambo, why it happened, and how many people perished. The Angolan government speaks of “only 13 dead”, while others, including prominent civil society activists and opposition parties, speak of a massacre of more than a thousand civilians.

What is clearer, however, is the government and its security forces’ violent relationship with its citizenry. Ironically, it deploys the discourse of peace as a weapon.

The raid was a failure. Several policemen were killed by sect members armed with machetes, for reasons as of yet unclear, and an unknown number of civilians died. The first reports by state media here in Angola mentioned only the fallen policemen; it was only days later that we learned that civilians had been killed as well. It’s here that reports begin to significantly diverge. Immediately after the massacre, the government cordoned off the area to any and all civilians and declared it a military zone. It took a full two weeks for the first visitors, parliamentarians from UNITA, the main opposition party, to be granted access, closely followed by the leader of the country’s third largest party (CASA-CE) and then Rede Angola’s journalists. All three say that something macabre took place.

Ampe Rogerio. Rede Angola. Accampamento_Sume_Huambo_AR-233-580x361

That such an event can take place 13 years after the ruling MPLA signed its landmark peace accord with UNITA, effectively ending Angola’s 27-year civil war, is cause for great concern. It underscores the regime’s deep, systemic unease with sectors of the public that it doesn’t control, including certain religious groups, human rights activists, opposition parties, and protesting youth, and their willingness to use disproportionate violence against these groups.

While the state acts violently, it speaks of peace. The government goes to great pains to highlight the country’s thirteen years of peace as an act entirely of its own making and less that of the Angolan people. State media refer repeatedly to President José Eduardo dos Santos as the Architect of Peace, adding another brick in the wall of his cult of personality. Peace has allowed for our national reconstruction. Peace has allowed for our economic boom. Peace has allowed for the creation of our billionaires, our Marginal, our Miss Angola pageant, our takeover of Lisbon’s expensive Avenida da Liberdade and half their banks to boot. It’s a discourse that removes the Angolan people from the equation and casts them not as willing participants of peace and an essential part of its maintenance, but as beneficiaries who owe something to the state.

Thus, peace is brandished as a weapon. Speaking ill of the government or complaining about it means that you don’t want the peace it’s so generously given you. Protesting against the gross mismanagement of public funds means you are a nuisance and not invested in peace. Asking too many questions means you don’t like peace. Protesting about it in the streets means you actively want a return to war. The government’s official mouthpieces — the national newspaper and the national television channel (the only ones with national reach) — use this line of thinking to devastating effect.

For example, the regime has actively promoted violence against peaceful, law-abiding demonstrators as a way to “keep the peace.” One of the most notorious examples of this was when an unidentified man, using a pseudonym, was broadcast live during the nightly news program physically threatening demonstrators with violence if they did not stop their (tiny) public protests. He was doing so, he said, in order to maintain peace.

It’s important to note that this use of peace as a weapon to silence criticism and stifle civic conscience isn’t just limited to rhetoric. During the wave of (tiny) anti-government protests in Luanda (in 2011, 2012, and 2013), state-sponsored militias carried out brutal attacks against unarmed youth demonstrators both during and before the protests. But the sheer economic reality of this mindset is even more revealing. As Tom Burgis writes in his book, The Looting Machine,

Angola’s 2013 budget allocated 18 percent of public spending to defense and public order, 5 percent to health, and 8 percent to education. That means the government spent 1.4 times as much on defense as it did on health and schools combined. By comparison, the UK spent four times as much on health and education as on defense. Angola spends a greater share of its budget on the military than South Africa’s apartheid government did during the 1980s, when it was seeking to crushing mounting resistance at home and was fomenting conflict in its neighbors.

That a post-conflict nation is spending so much of its budget on defense when its population is woefully undereducated and its health system oversees one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world is frankly maddening. Angola has wasted a decade of double-digit economic growth and the highest oil prices in its history on guns. During peacetime.

As Kalupeteka’s sect can attest, the country’s heavily-armed security force doesn’t need much provocation to “enforce peace.” Even if it means combating its own population.

Swaziland’s Bushfire is Spreading: A music festival review

‘Yoh, Swaziland is hot’ says The Soil’s Buhle Mda as she melts onto the main stage at MTN Bushfire festival. And it was. 25,000 people were gathered in Swaziland last weekend for the kingdom’s international music festival – not too shabby for a nation of under 1.5 million people. This is a festival which carries the overarching aim of ‘igniting a collective response for social change’. Black African music, cultures and languages are foregrounded. The voices singing in Zulu to The Soil on that Sunday (‘it was a Sunday, ubuhle bakhe took my breath away’) far overpowered those joining in with The Parlotones and their default rock during the set before. A large portion of the line up consisted of Swazi musicians, and from the remainder, the appreciation shown for Swaziland and its people was overwhelming. Ntsika Ngxanga from The Soil echoed the sentiments of other South African artists when he stressed how important the refuge and solidarity from Swaziland was during Apartheid; comments which add weight when we consider the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa.   

It came as a great surprise, then, when the SA Times Live tossed out this piece on the exclusion of Swazi people from the festival. The writer appears to have confused Bushfire with some other festival, probably in Switzerland. According to them, ‘Swaziland’s citizens stood sadly outside of the festival they hosted’. (Swazis going about their business on the road to Malkerns are transformed into Ntsika’s refugees, exiled from their motherland). The police and musicians were the only locals to receive free tickets to the festival. And the amount of Swazis on the line up was pitiful.

Meanwhile, in Sw-azi-land, tickets sales within the kingdom far outnumbered those from other countries, and international ticket sales closed long before national ones in order to ensure that the bulk of tickets were sold locally. Educators, artists and entrepreneurs were amongst a multitude of locals who came to Bushfire free of charge. The kombis around Mbabane, eZulwini and Manzini have been abuzz with ‘Bushfyaah’ for weeks. Most importantly a third of the international line up is from the host-country, despite the fact that its music industry is extremely meager compared to the other countries that were represented. Bushfire is just as much about promoting Swaziland’s artists to an international audience as it is about showcasing international artists in Swaziland.

The fact is that we would have a hard time to find a festival that bridges the gap between the global and the local as well as Bushfire does. It is all too easy for major festivals to simply superimpose themselves onto their location, with hardly a glance to the people who occupy that space for the entire year. Yes, it’s impossible to avoid this completely –- even with the relatively low ticket prices, many Swazis cannot afford to dish out E600. But Bushfire does its best to compensate for this, with a series of outreach programmes that puts your average NGO to shame. There is the annual Arts Round Table discussion which sees 50 local artists and creative industry workers coming together to ‘increase knowledge sharing within the artistic community and equip individuals and organisations with skills to succeed as professionals within the creative sector’. This year there was a free performance at the nearby Mahlanya market by Tonik and Friends the day before the festival commenced. Since 2010, Bushfire Festival has been prefaced by the Schools Festival – an entire 3 days of creative workshops for 1000 Swazi high school students and their teachers by international facilitators such as Gcina Mhlope. The key goal of the Schools Festival is to expose Swazi students, who have no formal arts and culture curriculum in their public schools, to the arts. It is an invaluable event for Swaziland, one that recognizes art as a vital form of expression in the face of an education system which denies this. It ensures that there is a pool of educators and young people who are invested in the growth and spread of the arts in their kingdom. Ultimately, it wants to see a formal arts curriculum implemented in schools.

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Image via the author

Then there is the creation of the Firefest Route, the archipelago of allied festivals across Southern Africa, which allows musicians to receive exposure in multiple countries, and facilitates pan-African collaborations. For 2015, the offspring of this festival circuit include Swaziland’s Afro-soul singer Floewe’s performance at Azgo festival in Mozambique, and Bholoja’s collaboration with Bongeziwe Mabandla on Bushfire’s Main stage. Bushfire is first and foremost a platform for African musicians to gather from and share with each other. It comes as no coincidence that Swaziland, with the renowned warmth and peacefulness of its people, is the country to host this beacon of inclusivity and diversity.

Yebo, eSwatini kuya shisa. Yes, Swaziland is hot. And Bushfire spreads.

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