Africa is a Country

What next for Zimbabwe?

This Flag in Cape Town. Image via Wikipedia.This Flag in Cape Town. Image via Wikipedia.

Zimbabwe is going through an evolution, not a revolution. Over the past few weeks, pundits and analysts alike have debated about the future of the country’s nascent citizen movement. In a widely circulated post, the academic Blessings Miles Tendi cautioned against premature optimism, and listed the lack of a united opposition movement, the limited activist base of young middle class urbanites, and underestimating the role of the country’s military (still loyal to President Robert Mugabe) as key factors determining the movement’s fate in future. Meanwhile, Pastor Evan Mawarire (he made the viral #ThisFlag video that kickstarted the protests in Zimbabwe and its diaspora), is possibly in exile in the United States. Nevertheless, #ThisFlag managed to mobilize thousands of Zimbabweans for a national stayaway in June 2016 and tap into people’s simmering disappointment with the ruling Zanu-PF.

#ThisFlag is obviously not the first time that Zimbabweans have raised their voices. On and off over the past two decades, the people have repeatedly expressed their displeasure with the status quo. For much of the early 2000s they rallied behind the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), a coalition of trade unionists and civil society movements. Although the MDC and its allies were subjected to various forms of political repression, its electoral successes forced ZANU-PF into a Government of National Unity (GNU) in 2009. The GNU was, however, disbanded in 2013 when President Mugabe’s ZANU-PF won the elections with results questioned by many observers. But the election also exposed organizational weaknesses within the opposition movement and the MDC. Similarly, there are questions about the strategic direction and ideological coherence of #ThisFlag. Whether the movement can sustain itself is an open question and we know that the hashtags will change, but the demands of Zimbabweans for change will only grow.

So, what is different this time around?

For one, the economic crisis brought about by the GNU between 2009–2013 deeply effected the middle class in Zimbabwe. The majority of people are underemployed or unemployed. Zimbabwe has a staggering unemployment rate of about 80%. Those with jobs are underpaid or have not received their salaries in months or, in some cases, years. Second, is the decline of the industrial sector. There are fewer factories and the majority of large companies that once employed thousands have shut down or drastically reduced production. This summer, I went looking for the famous Kingstons bookstore in Harare, only to learn from an older book vendor at one of the flea markets that Kingston’s closed its doors a few years ago. He had worked there as a manager, but since the shut down has been unable to secure a job and was left with no option but to vend books on the street. The former Longman Publishing House, was functioning at less than 50% of its earlier capacity. In July, the once vibrant tobacco floors were deathly quiet. Locals joked that even city robbers are avoiding the tobacco farmers. Third, it is clear that rural Zimbabweans, who constitute the majority, bear the brunt of the economic crisis. Rural voters also happen to be the largest voting block and support base for the ruling party.

I interviewed an 85-year-old grandmother, living in a small village deep in the valley of Masvingo, in the southeastern part of the country. Unlike most of her friends she is fortunate to have watched all eight of her children grow up, get married and have children. Until recently she had no reason to vote against ZANU-PF or question the way in which it has run the country. She lived through the brutality of the colonial regime and so was willing to give the “boys” – the freedom fighters of Zimbabwe’s liberation war – a chance to right things. She is still a farmer. Her silos are packed with maize, groundnuts and round nuts. She is not in danger of starving. However, in 2016, she is heartbroken that her university educated 45-year-old son, his wife and their five children have relocated home to share her compound. She is still holding on to buckets of Zimbabwean dollars that are now worthless and mourning the loss of her livestock: she sold all her cattle one by one to educate her children who, in their late forties and early fifties, still do not own homes. She has watched her children spend their income on her grandchildren’s education, only to have those grandchildren return home empty handed and jobless. Today, she is frightened by the prospect that the US$500 she has saved under her mattress since 2009, can overnight be rendered useless.

In the early 2000s the option to leave the country and seek employment or political asylum abroad, despite the prohibitive costs, appeared the most logical strategy. Today, however, it is harder for Zimbabweans to migrate, in part because of the wide spread anti-immigration rhetoric in their favored destinations (South Africa, Botswana and the UK) and tougher immigration laws. Furthermore, in the last few months the government has introduced import bans that make cross-border trading unprofitable and undesirable. The majority of Zimbabweans supplement their incomes by engaging in cross border trading, importing goods from South Africa and other nearby countries to sell to the local market. The local use of the US dollar allowed more traders to make a decent living wage. However, the ban on importing certain commodities has robbed a significant portion of the population of their livelihood.

Then there is the collective fear of bond notes. The dollar has been the primary currency since the introduction of a multi currency system in 2009. In early May 2016, the government announced it would introduce a local version of the dollar. Central Bank Governor John Mangudya explained that the bond notes would be backed by a US$200 million loan from the Africa Export/Import Bank and that the local currency would have the same value as the US dollar. The announcement was not well received. Fearing a repeat of the period of hyperinflation witnessed between 2005 and 2008, anti-bond notes campaigns (hashtag: #notobondnotes) have become one of the key rallying points for citizen protests against the government. Zimbabweans are afraid of losing the little savings they have built up following the introduction of the multi currency system and do not trust the government not to over print money.

Finally, tensions within the ruling party have boiled over into the public sphere. Sections of the war veterans (the soldiers who fought in the 1970s liberation war against white Rhodesia) have turned against the ruling ZANU PF and President Mugabe and the vice president, Emerson Mnangagwa, who some see as a successor to the current head of state, was forced to publicly respond to allegations that he may be too ambitious. The challenge for Zimbabwe’s opposition, as Tendi argued earlier, is “… is a well-thought-out and pragmatic approach to the [upcoming] 2018 election [for which Mugabe, now 92 has declared his candidacy again] – one that will unite civil society, the opposition parties, online activists, and urban and rural youth. That is the key to finding a new path ahead.”

Budgets, bureaucracy and realpolitik trump human rights advocacy

Ayotzinapa protests via Montecruz Foto FlickrAyotzinapa protests via Montecruz Foto Flickr

The year 2015 was El Salvador’s deadliest since the end of that country’s civil war in 1992. According to police records, more than six thousand people were murdered. Elsewhere, in Honduras, Brazil and Columbia, dozens of environmental activists are under attack. And in the Dominican Republic, thousands of Dominicans of Haitian ancestry are on the verge of becoming stateless following the introduction of new legislation governing naturalization and citizenship.

When national legal systems in offending countries fail to address such attacks on human rights, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights can step in and advocate for people or organizations on the receiving end of these violations. Founded in 1959, the commission is the branch of the Organization of American States (OAS) tasked with monitoring and protecting human rights; the referral body for cases brought before the Inter-American Court. The commission and the court are together referred to as the Inter-American System.

The court has been at the forefront of rights’ development. For example, in 2001, the Awas Tingni, an indigenous community in Nicaragua, won a landmark case against the government. The court’s ruling recognized the community’s right to communal property and recognized indigenous law and custom as a source of enforceable rights and obligations. The commission, in exceptional cases, orders precautionary measures of protection for victims of oppression and human rights leaders, such as Honduran activist Berta Cáceres (who was the subject of such measures before she was murdered in March).

The commission’s work is now under threat. Despite its reach and mandate, its budget is low (only $9 million in 2015). Funding comes from the OAS budget and voluntary contributions – mainly from the US and European countries. The latter have recently decided to cut funds due to the Syrian refugee crisis, allocating more to programs aimed at assisting those displaced by the ongoing war.

In May of this year, the commission stated that it would lay off 40% of its personnel by the end of July, unless OAS members or international donors could guarantee additional funding. Three days before the deadline, the commission announced it had managed to secure funds from the US, Panamá, Chile, Antigua and Bermuda, to meet salary obligations until the fall. Voluntary contributions (ranging from $1,800 to $150,000) and commitment letters from other member states and the UN were also forthcoming.  On September 8, the commission announced new contributions from Mexico and Argentina.

The budget crisis is the latest symptom of the deeper fault line affecting the Inter-American System: the fact that its evolution has not been accompanied by regional political integration or any political consensus. Moreover, during the 2000s alternative regional blocs, such as Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), emerged as organizations in competition with the OAS. The case of UNASUR is telling, since it explicitly endorses the sovereignty of the state over other considerations. Regional governments discussed creating a forum on human rights within UNASUR, one that would prioritize state representation instead of a mechanism integrated by independent experts.

In the absence of regional polity, The American Convention (to which members of the OAS are signatories) is difficult to enforce and the subject of realpolitik. This might explain why compliance with the Inter-American System’s decisions is so poor, and why big players, such as Mexico, are excluded from the organization’s annual report ‘black list’ despite their alarming human rights records. As former commissioner Robert Goldman put it, “If the region’s human rights system is to be fully effective, then member states of the OAS must take seriously their role as the collective and ultimate guarantors of the system’s integrity.”

From Brazil to Ecuador, member states are less tolerant of the commission’s criticism. The case of Venezuela, a long-time supporter of the Inter-American System, is perhaps the most extreme. In 2012 it denounced the American Convention and announced its withdrawal from the jurisdiction of the court, after being subject to an extensive country report by the commission titled “Democracy and Human Rights in Venezuela.”

The increasing number of complaints and precautionary measures received annually by the commission – in particular from Mexico and the Northern Triangle – are signs of a declining and often perilous human rights environment. In the 1990s, a caseload of 600 per year was considered a record; in the early 2000s this was routine. In 2015, a record 2,164 petitions and 564 precautionary measures were received by the commission.

The commission’s financial crisis puts its work further at risk: less budget resulting in more delays in cases being processed and referred to the court, fewer country visits and fewer reports. Ultimately these challenges will deeply impact its overall legitimacy. Along with monetary commitments, a regional consensus on the role of the commission needs to be urgently reached – one that puts citizens, not sovereignty and geopolitics, at the center.

The policing of the roots of blackness

Angela Davis meets Zulaikha Patel, the student at the lead of the protests at Pretoria Girls High. Image credit Leila Dee DouganAngela Davis meets Zulaikha Patel, the student at the lead of the protests at Pretoria Girls High. Image credit Leila Dee Dougan.

The thickness and texture of my black hair was under constant scrutiny when I was a child. My aunt used to call me bossiekop (from the Afrikaans, meaning bushy head). The kids at school would use terms like Goema hare (candyfloss hair) and kroeskop  (fuzzy head). My cousin would joke: “You can’t even put a comb through your hair.”

Black women’s hair was big news in South Africa earlier this month as protests at South African schools across the country saw brave young women stand up against racist policies in the various ‘codes of conduct’ enforced in their places of learning. The demonstrations at middle class, Model C (former whites-only public) schools like Pretoria Girls High, Sans Souci in Cape Town and Lawson Girls High School in Nelson Mandela Bay – all schools where the students are mostly black and the teachers mostly white – were about much much more than hair, but these protests spoke to our roots as a site of struggle, and a route for resistance.

The policing of black hair often begins at a very young age, in the most subtle and intimate spaces, long before you get to school. I hated when my mother “did” my hair. From a young age I knew the hairdryer wasn’t hot enough and the rollers not tight enough to tame my curls. I knew the brush she was using would never leave me with hair straight enough to flick back, or cut a fringe.

My sister and I would sit between my mothers legs. Her on the couch, us taking turns on the pillow at her feet. Armed with a hairdryer and a brush she would pull and tug at our scalps, trying her best to get it “manageable.” My hair would turn out big. Just big. A huge soft afro that was long enough to tie back for school, but nowhere near “tame” enough to delicately shake off the shoulder.

When my mother was done with my hair I would stand in front of the mirror in the room I shared with my older sister, look at my reflection, and cry. I felt so ugly and so helpless with my afro. I knew that my mother could never make me look like the white women in the shampoo adverts. It was only the aunties at the hairdresser who had all the right tools to “fix” my locks.

I have more memories of the hairdresser down the road than I do of nursery school. I must have been as young as five when the women with the dye-stained apron, hair clips gripped to the bottom of her t-shirt, would stack white plastic chairs at the basin so that my head could reach the sink. My neck would ache in the basin dent, the water would always be either too hot, or too cold and the hairdressers’ vigorous shampoo scrubbing would make me dizzy. The rollers were always too tight, the hair pins would be jabbed into my tender, young scalp and the hour sitting under the hot dryer felt like a lifetime.

No one understands the phrase “pain is beauty” like a young black girl who has just been to the hairdresser. And after all that pain I would indeed feel beautiful. I had long, straight hair that I could leave loose, flick and comb through. But it was temporary. My hair would “last” for a mere two days, more specifically, my hair would “last” until school swimming lessons on a Wednesday.

Throughout primary and high school, the code of conduct stated that hair should be “neat,” and is just one example of the many way these institutions, which have their own roots firmly growing from our colonial history, govern not only children but also parents. The outdated and outright racist rules were something our parents tolerated during term time, but over school holidays our curls were left to grow.

Summer holidays would be spent at my cousins house in Atlantis, about an hour from downtown Cape Town. They had a caravan, a massive garden and a huge swimming pool (our favorite). We would swim until our feet and fingers turned rubbery. Our eyes would turn blood red from the chlorine, and we would lie belly-down on the hot bricks to warm our shaking bodies before jumping back in to the freezing cold water. Those were days of Kreol chips, fizzers and two-rand coins pushed into your palm by an adoring aunty or uncle for a Double O soft drink. Bompies (frozen juice) and sugary bunnylicks (ice lollies) would leave your tongue rainbow green, red or orange. But most importantly, they were days of afros, when parents rarely fought the tangles (there was really no point considering we spent most of our time in the pool) and left our hair to it’s natural state because there was no “code of conduct,” no threat of punishment.

The joy of swimming, and bunnylicks and afros was limited to school holidays. During term time swimming would more often than not be followed by tears. I recall my aunt sitting on the edge of the bath and pulling at my cousin’s long, mousy-brown hair as she sat in a tub of amateur alchemy. Everything from whiskey to egg was sworn by to nourish and soften. Half-used jars and tubs of the latest conditioners, oils and moisturizers would line the windowsill above the bath like ammo, a site of battle between mother, and daughter’s curls, all for the sake of looking “neat.”

My white friends hair always looked neat and they didn’t know the amount of time it took, or the pain I had to endure to get my hair looking like theirs. They would plait each others thin, blonde strands while I looked on with envy. After swimming their hair would dry “perfectly” whereas any form of humidity or moisture was my nemesis. Anything from shower steam to a light mist was enough to provide extreme levels of anxiety about whether my hair would “mince” or “go home.”

By that point my curls were long internalized as a mark of shame, and what I was expressing on the outside had much to do with how my hair was managed within the home and at school. A prime example was weekend family gatherings. You see, in my family, Sunday lunch would always be followed by “Sunday hair” in order to get ready for the week ahead.

As the aunties washed the dishes and the uncles read their newspapers waiting for tea at five (I shake my head thinking about the gender norms enforced through mundane family rituals, but that’s for another time), the cousins (all girls), had our own rituals. Relaxer would be followed by curlers, blow drying and a swirlkouse, which would leave the room hot, and smelling like product and burnt hair.

With the money I earned from my first job, for instance, I bought a large hairdryer, rollers and an assortment of round brushes and as a teenager I saw these tools as allies. It was only at university that I threw them all out.

Reuniting with my curls was less a conscious decision to rebel against the system of whiteness that taught me self-hate, and more about being free from the pain of curlers, the dizzying heat from the hairdryer and the hours spent fighting what naturally grew from my head (I would “blow out” my hair almost three times a week, it would take as long as three hours a time).

But of course you’re not free from the arrogance of whiteness once you’ve taken this route. Since going natural I’ve had numerous instances of my hair being touched, patted and pulled at by strangers (mostly white women), who’ve called it “exotic,” have compared it to a pineapple and referred to it as “surprisingly soft.” Hairdressers tell me that they don’t do “ethnic hair” and an Australian tourist once grabbed onto my curls and said “It’s like a sheep” before turning to her husband to say “go on, touch it, she won’t mind.”

To this very day, my grandfather will pass comments before the Rooibos tea has even been poured “Leila, what’s happening to your hair, why don’t you brush your hair?” Why is black hair such a threat?

Thinking back to those Sunday hair sessions, above the hum of the portable hairdryer, we laughed, we shared secrets, we gossiped, we spent time. Isn’t that the real beauty when it comes to black women’s hair? The ritual between sisters, mothers and daughters, spending time and passing down knowledge. Why were we not styling afros and dreads, why not twists and braids, cornrows and locs?

Every black woman has their own stories about their hair, their curls and societies endless need to tame, manage and straighten whether at school, in the home, or both. But the young black women who used their natural hair as a form of protest this month have clearly stated that they will no longer tolerate the racist frameworks, formal and informal, that teach them self-hate.

What’s a national anthem got to do with anything?

The singing of national anthems is an intrinsic part of international and professional sporting events around the world. Yet, the content and messages contained in the average anthem are rarely considered more than in passing. The recent decision by American Colin Kaepernick, a National Football League player, to remain seated or kneel during the singing of the “Star Spangled Banner” to protest police brutality, marks a significant shift, fueling strong debates about its violent and racist lyrics.

The U.S. is not alone. The average European anthem also traces its origins to conquest or colonialism. For example, the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise”, dreams that the “blood of the impure” will “irrigate our fields”. In South Africa, the national anthem is a confused mixture of two anthems, sung in four different languages, and includes portions of the Apartheid-era national anthem. Like in the U.S., it has also been called into question publicly.

After the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners in 1990 along with the unbanning of a range of political organizations, South Africa’s sports team were welcomed back into the international fold. One of the first high-profile sports events in the country was a rugby test match in August 1992 between South Africa and New Zealand at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium. The match was to take place under three conditions stipulated by the African National Congress (ANC), which could claim to represent the majority of South Africans: 1) that the Apartheid flag was not to be flown; 2) ‘Die Stem’, the Apartheid national anthem, was not be played; and 3) a minute’s silence was to be observed for victims of political violence in the country. Louis Luyt, the then president of South African rugby, ignored the agreement and the national anthem was played over the stadium’s public address system. Large sections of the mostly white crowd and all-white players joined in the singing. Moreover, the Apartheid flag was visible throughout the stadium and the minute’s silence was jeered.

After a period of difficult and protracted negotiations with increased levels of political violence across South Africa, the ANC was democratically elected in 1994. A new constitution was enacted in 1996, a new flag adopted and a range of Apartheid-era symbols was replaced. One of the more contentious compromises agreed to during the period of negotiations was the retention of parts of “Die Stem,” which was to be sung in conjunction with “Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrika,” the hymn first adopted by the ANC as its official song in 1925 and which subsequently became the de facto national anthem for most South Africans outside Apartheid’s supporters. By 1997, the two songs were combined to form one anthem. Furthermore, the Apartheid era sports logo – the Springbok – was replaced as the national symbol with the Protea (the national flower), with the exception of rugby which includes both symbols.

The compromise on the anthem and the Springbok symbol for rugby can be understood in the context of a period of reconciliation and nation building. This was optimized by Mandela wearing the Springbok jersey during the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, hosted by South Africa. His decision to wear the jersey was enthusiastically welcomed by the overwhelmingly white crowd at the final. As a result, during the game refrains of ‘Nelson, Nelson’ could be heard from the stands. But in the same crowd a number of Apartheid era flags were also visible. As a result, Mandela’s gesture towards white rugby fans was not universally accepted in South Africa.

More than 20 years have passed that rugby final (since immortalized in a movie, “Invictus”) and increasingly political actors are calling for the removal of “Die Stem” from the current national anthem. One is Julius Malema, the leader of the populist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which has steadily increased its share of the vote and is now the third largest party in parliament. Malema argues that “Die Stem” is a symbol of Apartheid and equates it to “asking the Jews to sing a song about Hitler.” During a session of parliament Malema sat down during the singing of the Apartheid era verses of the anthem. The veteran journalist, Max du Preez, similarly has called for its removal. Du Preez, a white Afrikaner, contends that singing the Apartheid-era anthem reminds South Africans of an “era of injustice” and is a “prime symbol of Afrikaner nationalism.”

Symbols are potent reminders and place holders of experience, identity and power, especially in countries with such contentious histories as South Africa and the United States. Colin Kaepernick is illustrating this as the NFL season kicks into gear and violent confrontations between police and protestors over police brutality continue across the U.S. In South Africa, while some symbols of Apartheid remain, resolutions have been adopted to remove Apartheid-era logos, anthems and names. These actions signal a step towards change, beyond the symbolic, and the opportunity to address structural inequalities more generally.

Africa: Why Western Economists Get It Wrong

Morten Jerven, image via WikimediaMorten Jerven, image via Wikimedia

Development economics as a field of study was formally launched in the 1950s by the Afro-Caribbean economist Arthur Lewis who, out of necessity, wanted to understand how his own country, Saint Lucia, could transform from an agro-based economy into a modern industrial state (later, in 1979, Lewis was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for this work, the only black person to have won the prize to date). For Lewis, the key to providing a satisfactory answer to the problem of underdevelopment lay in studying those societies as they were and not in comparing them to some mythical ideal. Saint Lucia, like all developing countries, had a lot of underemployed labor in its agricultural sector. The question was how best to marshal this valuable resource into driving industrialization.

Sadly, development economics has moved away from Lewis’ pioneering contribution of studying poor countries on their own terms. For example, today’s development economists explain Tanzania’s lack of development as stemming from its inability to be more like Sweden. This way of studying development, termed the “subtraction approach”, has led us down a dark alleyway where there is more confusion than elucidation. That, at least, is the charge leveled by economic historian Morten Jerven in his book Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong published in 2015, but still circulating and prompting debate in academia and amongst practitioners.

Aided by the revolution in computing power and by the supposed triumph of neoliberal thinking, a certain type of influential development economics arose in the 1980s whose dominant methodological approach was the compilation of cross-country datasets for the purposes of statistical analyses. These studies, termed the “first generation growth literature” by Jerven, set out to show that economic growth depended on a standard set of globally relevant factors. For instance, government involvement in the economy was hypothesized to be a key factor explaining why poor countries had grown slowly, betraying the extent to which the ideological currents of the time influenced economic research.

Jerven shows that much of this research was flawed at a conceptual level. First, the data for most African countries was collected at a time when their economies were in crisis. This data was therefore not a typical representation of how these economies functioned in normal times. If anything, the data were an outcome and not the cause of the crisis. Second, the data for industrialized countries was reverse-engineered into the models to fit the story. For example, industrialized countries would automatically be presumed to have zero government involvement in the economy even though this was not the case (subsidies to US and European farmers, anyone?). Lastly, the economists working in the 1980s and 1990s were trying to explain a “chronic failure of growth in Africa”, something that had not happened in reality. African economies grew healthily in the 1960s and 1970s and did not grow at all in the 1980s and 1990s.

As a way of rescuing this literature from its conceptual malaise, a new literature arose in the early 2000s. This literature claimed that the answers to Africa’s failure to implement good policies (read: failure to be more like Sweden) were to be found in history. The continent was “trapped in history”.

The most famous account of the “history matters” school was a 2001 scholarly article by economists Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson and James Robinson. The article argued that the reason why African countries relied on “extractive institutions” today, such as unsecure property rights, was related to patterns of colonization in history. Because Africa was not “conducive” for settlement, Europeans introduced institutions that would facilitate the extraction of natural resources. Elsewhere, such as Canada and Australia, they introduced “inclusive institutions” precisely because these places were conducive for their settlement.

Quite apart from the hubris contained in thinking that the universe of institutional types was only to be found in historical Europe, Jerven levels a series of conceptual criticisms at the “history matters” school. If Africa is “trapped in history” and, therefore, condemned to a perpetual lack of growth, how is it that the continent grew rather spectacularly in the 1960s, 1970s and more recently in the 2000s? Even more damning, Jerven shows that growth in Africa has been a recurring phenomenon over the last 400 years. So a theory that tells us that a single historical event explains Africa’s slow growth today doesn’t take us far. We want to know why Tanzania has grown, slowed down, grown and then slowed down again throughout its history.

Sadly, the “history matters” school is very influential. Ask any member of the thinking class to tell you why Africa is poor and they will likely refer you to Why Nations Fail, the 2013 book that summarized Acemoglu et al.’s work.

So what’s to be done? Jerven thinks development economics should engage more historians given their unique skills for interrogating historical data sources and narratives. This is welcome. Surprisingly, Jerven does not call for the active engagement of African economists given that most of what he critiques has been authored by North American and European economists (his book should really have been titled Africa: Why Western Economists Get It Wrong). This oversight is telling because his critique clearly builds on the often neglected contributions of the Malawian economist Thandika Mkandawire.

This last pickle aside, Morten Jerven’s book is a refreshing contribution to the debate about development scholarship on Africa and it deserves to be read by all.

Africa is a Radio: Episode #18

Shona and Boima

Today, is the last official day of summer in our Northern Hemisphere headquarters of New York. So, let’s mark the passing of the earthly seasons by revisiting our Africa is a Radio live broadcast from The Lot Radio in Brooklyn this past June.

Africa is a Country contributor, New York city resident, social media guru, and Zimbabwe specialist Shona Kambarami was our very special and enthusiastic guest. Listen back, and check the track list below.

  1. Rihanna – Work (DJ Bboy Afrobeats Remix)
  2. J Hus – Lean and Bop
  3. P2J Music – T.O.T.T  ft Moelogo
  4. Wizkid – Ojuelegba (Uproot Andy Remix)
  5. Booba – Validee feat. Benash
  6. Sali Sabibe – Wale Gnouma Don
  7. Jojo Abot – Stop the Violence
  8. Al Sarah – Soukura (Boddhi Satva Ancenstral Soul Remix)
  9. Indigenes – Da Hoti (Osunlade Yoruba Soul Mix)
  10. DRC Music – Lingala
  11. DJ X-Trio – Africa (Rancido Noite Angola Remix)
  12. Kondi Band – Belle Wahalla
  13. J Martins – Touchin Body feat. DJ Arafat
  14. MHD – Afro Trap pt. 3 (Champions League)
  15. Tchobari – Quem Mando me Nascer?
  16. Djeff – Piluka (DJ Satxibala Remix)
  17. Ziminino – Intermitência (Boima’s Capoeira Angola Remix)
  18. Baiana System – Playsom (Remix)
  19. Mauro Telefunksoul – AjeumbaSS (Tributo ao Cortejo Afro)
  20. – Interview and song selects with Shona Kamari –
  21. Nonku Phiri – Things we do on the Weekend
  22. Poe – Who You Epp? [T.A.P Remix]
  23. Oga’Silachi – Leona
  24. Burna Boy – Soke
  25. Sarkodie – Dumsor
  26. Jules Henry Malaki – Makiyaj


Paul Kagame. Image via Veni Markovski FlickrPaul Kagame. Image via Veni Markovski Flickr

I shook Paul Kagame’s hand yesterday. A colleague and I were discussing the difference between historical and anthropological approaches to politics, there was a bit of hush, and there he was – a person of world historical importance, hand outstretched.

I am historian of 20th century Africa; I teach and work at Yale University and I’m enormously privileged to do so. Yale, and in particular Yale’s Africa Initiative, has made Africa a priority on campus, which has resulted in rich events like Yale’s spring Africa Salon and in the increasing number of fiercely intelligent and tremendously talented African students in my classes. The latter have made our campus an immeasurably richer place and me a better teacher, and I have the Africa Initiative to thank. It was the African Initiative that invited Paul Kagame to campus, as part of Yale’s Coca Cola World Fund lecture series. So it was that I got to shake the hand of a man many observers and human rights activists the world over consider a dictator at best and a war criminal at worst.

The Internet has had a field day with Kagame’s visit to Yale, especially since it came under Coca Cola’s corporate brand. Rwandan dissidents, their allies and others have heaped scorn on our administration for laying out a carpet that might as well be soaked red with the blood of the millions of Congolese whose deaths the Rwandan government has at least abetted, if not instigated. The circumstances of his visit were extraordinary: the lecture was announced only six days before Kagame came to campus, seats had to be reserved by registered attendees in advance, no bags were allowed in and the only media in attendance were photographers and videographers working for the Rwandan government. Given these headwinds, I was impressed to learn that Yale human rights activists were organizing a teach-in to protest Kagame’s arrival on campus.

I do not want to rehearse Kagame’s human rights record, nor his crimes, nor rehash the debate about whether he should have been invited to campus.  Nor should we be surprised that he was invited or that he received a standing ovation upon entering the hall. I learned today what I had always suspected – Paul Kagame is an enormously talented politician. He’s confident, charming and disarming, and he is the perfect spokesman for the story his government wants to tell – about a country that has suffered and has, under his leadership, overcome the darkness of its past to become an economically vibrant, gender and environmentally conscious, technocratically proficient model of what an African state can be. I also know and must acknowledge what an absolute thrill it must have been for many of my African students – and especially the Rwandans – to see their president, an African head of state, feted on our campus – on their campus. Over the past year Yale’s struggles to be a home for its black students have been widely publicized; our struggles to be a home for African students in particular is too frequently overlooked. The Yale Africa Initiative is designed in part to combat this neglect and we should take the pride that many students felt seriously.

So I’m not going to rehearse the critiques. I’m only going to report what I heard. Kagame spoke for a bit more than thirty minutes and took questions for a little less than that. His message was simple, and summed up in a hashtag I found in a tweet defending Kagame’s visit: #MindYourOwnBusiness.

Kagame noted that he had come to have a frank exchange, so he addressed the critiques he knew were coming. The weight of evidence suggests that he has crushed political dissent and dramatically curtailed the media. No matter, Rwanda’s results – measured in ending poverty and delivering services – matter more than what he called “processes.” Where we are going is more important than how we get there, in other words. Rwanda’s critics condemn human rights abuses in the name of development and state consolidation; no matter, they are racists, unable to see clearly when an African success story is right in front of them. Rwanda has fomented war in neighboring countries – no matter, the international community sat on its hands when we died and suffered so they have no standing to critique us now – and on this point, actually, yes it matters.

In Kagame’s narrative, the only history that matters is the history that began 22 years ago this past April. The suffering of the genocide and the RPF’s role in ending it is where Kagame’s government draws its legitimacy to condemn foreign hypocrisy (which exists in spades, to be sure) and to shut down its critics. We suffered and you did nothing – so how dare you say something now. Kagame delivered this message in confident, uncompromising tones before the first person had a chance to ask him a question. The questioners asked the right ones – about democracy, about human rights, about his pending decision to ‘run’ for yet another term, about Congo. But they needn’t have bothered. He had preempted their questions. #MindYourOwnBusiness.

Like I said, I’m not interested in disproving these points. I’m only interested in relating what I heard when Mr. Kagame came to Yale. But as a historian, I do have to note that Mr. Kagame’s message sounded awfully familiar. Were Mr. Netanyahu to come to campus, I imagine that he would said something quite similar. We have suffered, we have been wronged. #MindYourOwnBusiness. And here’s the thing: that’s the same message Mr. Verwoerd would have brought to Yale, had we invited him. We have suffered, you have not, you have no standing, #MindYourOwnBusiness. I note this not to say that these men are one and the same. That would be ridiculous. But Verwoerd drew from the well of past suffering to foreshorten history to shut down critiques of reprehensible policies. Benjamin Netanyahu has made an art form of doing the same. And today I heard Paul Kagame charmingly remind an audience of privileged Ivy Leaguers and Americans that their ivory towers are glass houses, and thus that we cannot know the truth, and that we should mind our own business.

Paul Kagame came to my campus today. I did not condemn my university for inviting him and I did not boycott him. Instead I shook his hand and I smiled at him and I thanked him for sharing his thoughts with us. Because I needed to hear him to confirm what, as a historian, I have long suspected – we’ve seen his kind before. And, apologies Mr. Kagame, but you know that – because you correctly condemn my country for minding its own business in April, May and June 1994. People like you are our business precisely because people who tell others to mind their own business tend to be the sorts of people who leave bodies in their wake. And bodies and human suffering are the cursed currency of history, as Paul Kagame’s Rwanda has taught and regrettably continues to teach.

‘Til death do us part

Ali Bongo image via WikimediaAli Bongo image via Wikimedia

The Bongo family has ruled the central African country of Gabon uninterrupted for 49 years. This past August, President Ali Bongo – whose father, Omar, was in power from 1967 to 2009 when Ali took over – secured a second seven-year term in presidential elections. Since the announcement of official election results, violent clashes have erupted between Gabonese opposition supporters and police forces.

Gabon is the third richest country in Africa and one of the most stable countries in the central Africa region. It is strategically important to France, a former colonizer, as an oil producer and the site of a permanent military base since 1960.

In this year’s election, according the official results published by the Interior Ministry, President Bongo won with 49.8 percent of the vote, while his main challenger Jean Ping received 48.2 percent. Bongo defeated Jean Ping by a meager 5,594 voters. The victory included a bizarre 99.93 percent voter turnout in the President’s family stronghold in Haut Ogooué in the south of Gabon, while the national average was 59 percent.

Following the results, Ping said that the vote was “stolen” by Bongo. Separately, Ping wrote in the New York Times: “We have seen “results” like these before, but only from sham elections, most often in dictatorships.”

Normally, Bongo would get away with it (he still has some enthusiastic supporters in the West), but this time France and the European Union both echoed Ping’s doubts over the integrity of the results in Bongo’s hometown. They recommended a recount of the vote. Bongo refused, so Ping filed a voter fraud complaint with the constitutional court, hoping for a recount.

With the exception of seven years immediately following independence, Gabon has been governed by the Bongo family. During this time, government has been characterized by corruption, kleptocracy and widespread patronage.

Ali Bongo’s path to power was smoothed by a constitutional amendment in 1997 by Omar Bongo that removed the country’s run-off system, replacing it with a single round of voting in presidential, legislative and senatorial elections. Omar Bongo won that 1998 election before he was elected in 2005 to a sixth term. All these elections were marred by irregularities and violence, which allowed Omar Bongo to stay in office even while he was losing ground to the opposition.

One-round electoral systems are seemingly less challenging for incumbent presidents and their designated successors. A divided opposition spreads out votes, while an incumbent president’s patronage system can guarantee an immediate victory in a one-round voting system. One-round electoral systems also make unity among opposition political parties an ultimate requisite for a potential victory. For the 2016 Gabonese presidential election, the three main opposition parties decided to pool resources and support Jean Ping.

Such electoral systems are exceptional on the continent. Out of 54 African countries, only seven hold presidential elections using it. But, the results are clear: Togo has been ruled by the same family for more than 40 years, Cameroon has been ruled by Paul Biya since 1982 and the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo has been entrenched since he came to power in 2001.

However, while one-round presidential elections can sometimes explain long presidential rules on the African continent, more than half of current presidents have been elected in first rounds of despite the existence of two-round systems. As such, it is not so much that one-round systems are favoring one candidate, but that electoral systems may be biased from the get-go, and may make it virtually impossible to defeat the incumbent.

Gabonese don’t trust the electoral system. Two days before the publication of official results for the 2016 presidential elections, Ali Bongo tweeted that he was awaiting his victory “with serenity and confidence.” Meanwhile, the president of the supreme court, who makes the final decision on the election, is Bongo’s stepmother.

By many measures, Jean Ping is a surprising choice as a democratic reformer in Gabon. He is very much part of Gabon’s political establishment and served in Omar Bongo’s cabinet for more than a decade, including as foreign minister. He was also related by marriage to the Bongo family – he has two children with Pascaline Bongo, also a government minister. Ping’s popularity, however, reflects frustration with the Bongos, and reflects a political landscape that is changing. For the first time in the country’s history, a united opposition has had a realistic chance of unseating an incumbent president and to end a family dynasty. This was achieved because of the opposition’s unity around a consensual candidate.

Change is what Gabonese seem to be looking for. They have little interest in a president ‘til death do us part.

Good luck checking on the health of an African president

Image via Center for American Progress Action Fund FlickrImage via Center for American Progress Action Fund Flickr

For those with more than a passing interest in African politics, the incessant 24 hour news and social media chatter about the health of U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and that of her rival Donald Trump, may appear quaint. Because, when it comes to electoral politics or the health of a head of state in Africa, the physical condition of the dear leader is basically off limits and subject to much obfuscation and mystery, in some cases even after they’ve long left us.

Earlier this month, Robert Mugabe — who has served as either Prime Minister or President of Zimbabwe uninterrupted since independence in 1980 — arrived back from a trip to East Asia. Rumors quickly spread that he had gone for medical treatment. He had made secretive trips to East Asia before to be treated for prostate cancer or cataracts. A 2008 American diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks confirmed most of this. Mugabe made a similar trip in 2012. During his most recent trip, rumors swirled in local media that he had died. On arrival back in Harare after a few days, Mugabe tried to make light of the situation: “Yes, I was dead, it’s true I was dead. I resurrected as I always do.”

Speculation over Mugabe’s health is an all-consuming topic for Zimbabweans, as The New York Times reported earlier this month. The main reasons are because the government doesn’t choose to release any of his medical information, Mugabe doesn’t seem to trust local doctors (an odd position for someone who is such an ardent Pan-Africanist) and there is no annual check-up for the President. So, there’s nothing else to do but speculate. When the 92 year old Mugabe was caught on video stumbling or literally falling asleep while giving a speech at a meeting with Japan’s Prime Minister, the media frenzy began afresh. More recently, enterprising Zimbabweans with access to the internet, have come up with a novel way to measure his health: They follow the flight plans of Mugabe’s plane, using information that is freely available online.

In March this year, Mugabe was scheduled to travel to India on official business. After the host government confirmed it knew of no such trip, a group of Zimbabweans followed the direction of Mugabe’s plane to Singapore. (The internet, by the way, is lately becoming a big factor in Zimbabwean politics.) During his most recent trip, Zimbabweans figured out where he was by doing the same thing again. The government usually denies the President’s whereabouts, then later makes up some bogus reason for his absence. The favorite one is that he is visiting with one of his children on family business – as if it is common for a head of state to just up and leave the country to attend to personal business without telling anyone. Zimbabweans aren’t impressed.

But Mugabe is stubborn and he has not expressed any desire to step down from office. He has already announced that he will run again in elections scheduled for 2018. His wife, Grace, once told supporters Mugabe would rule until he was 100 years old, even from a “special” wheelchair if need be. Where senior leaders in Mugabe’s party, ZANU-PF, have dared raise the question of succession (ZANU-PF assumes it will win elections in perpetuity), they are immediately accused of plotting a coup (that was the fate of one of his vice-presidents, who left the party) or declared factionalists (the label attached to current VP, Emmerson Mnangagwa).

Cameroon’s Paul Biya has been less inconspicuous about his failing health. Biya has been Cameroonian president since 1982 when he replaced President Ahmadou Ahidjo, due to the latter’s failing health. Biya has a habit of leaving Cameroon for long periods – last year, for example, he was out of the country for at least one month without any explanation provided. In October 2008, two days short of being absent for the 45-day limit that would have required him, constitutionally, to be replaced, Biya returned, thus ruining parties celebrating his death.

Two weeks ago, Biya left for “a private visit to Europe.” Some Cameroonians joke that Biya visits Cameroon from Europe. Cameroonians abroad have called, multiple times, for the Inter-Continental Hotel in Geneva, Switzerland to evict their leader who travels there with delegations of top level ministers and their families, spending nearly $40,000 per night while the average Cameroonian subsists on less than a dollar a day. The rumor recently doing the rounds was that Biya has prostate cancer, but good luck investigating that. In 2004, journalist Pius Njawe was sentenced to 10 months in prison for revealing that the president had an undisclosed illness. The most surprising departure was in March 2015, when in the middle of a war against Boko Haram (which had spilled over into Cameroon), Biya left for Switzerland. Pressed about last summer’s month-long “private” visit to Germany, presidential spokespeople said Biya went to personally interview investors.

Had I known former president of Ghana Atta Mills was sick in 2012, I would have laughed less at ecomini (economy) and his other gaffes. The problem is that no one in Ghana knew he was ill and his administration did everything they could to cover it up. In 2012, after returning from the United States for medical checks, Atta Mills jogged around the airport to show how healthy he was. A month later he was dead. Until then, rumors of his failing health and rumors that he had gone blind were met with derision. In interviews, his communications team and government staffers would actually insult anyone who suggested Atta Mills was not at his best. After his death, the Committee for Social Advocacy in Ghana submitted detailed questions surrounding his death. To date, there is no clarity on how Atta Mills died.

Then there is the case of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria. Bouteflika came to power in 1999 and is credited with ending Algeria’s bloody civil war of the 1990s. In 2013 Bouteflika suffered a stroke and was hospitalized in France. At the time there were rumors that he had died. Claims of his ill health were not new.  Since his 2013 stroke, Bouteflika has been confined to a wheelchair and is rarely seen in public. Nevertheless, his party announced in 2014 that he would again be its presidential candidate. Bouteflika barely campaigned or said a word (when he did, he spoke in a whisper through a microphone attached to his wheelchair), but still won a disputed election. Since then, Algerian journalists report any appearance by the president  as an exclusive. Earlier this month Bouteflika made a public appearance outside his presidential residence for the first time in two years. He was in a wheelchair and didn’t say a word. There is an argument that Algerians tolerate rule by a leader who can’t speak over what they perceive as the chaos of the Arab Spring (“the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know”). It is unclear who or what kind of political system comes after Bouteflika, which is probably the way Algerian elites want it.

Mwai Kibaki, President of Kenya between 2002 and 2013, was believed to have had a number of strokes and suffered one during his first year in office. For the rest of tenure, he ruled essentially by proxy. Pundits who covered Kibaki’s 2002 election campaign (when he defeated longtime autocrat Daniel arap Moi), characterized that time as that of the “two Kibakis: the early Kibaki, engaged, focused, acute; and the later Kibaki, vague, distracted, struggling to maintain a coherent chain of thought.” John Githongo, the Kenyan whistleblower who recounted his story in Michela Wrong’s It’s Our Turn to Eat corroborated this. Githongo had to flee the country when halfway through setting up the transparency unit Kibaki had recruited him to lead, he was pursued by members of the executive who knew he would expose their corrupt dealings. As Wrong wrote in her book, Githongo became alarmed about the president’s mental state when upon confronting Kibaki with the fact that the corruption cases being investigated stemmed from people close to the president’s office, the evidently incoherent president congratulated him and suggested he keep up the good work. By the end of his term, Kibaki made great fodder for Kenyan satirists and comedians, falling asleep at the podium and losing his train of thought midstream while giving speeches. This was cold comfort for Kenyans worried about the health of their country.

But none of above compares to Nigeria’s President Umaru Yar’Adua. Before he died in 2010, he had not been seen in Nigeria for more than three months, leaving Africa’s most populous country without a leader and deep in constitutional crisis. He was being treated for an undisclosed illness in Saudi Arabia (his trips were classed as “medical checkups,” though there was rumor that he had a heart condition or kidney illness). Like Atta Mills, Yar’Adua tried to show in public that he was well: In 2007, as the Guardian reported, dismissed rumors of continued ill health by challenging his critics to a game of squash. By early March 2010, a cousin of Yar’Adua would confirm to Al Jazeera English that the president had returned to Nigeria. Although he wasn’t seen in public, he was “recovering and drinking tea” in the villa. Four days later, he was dead.

Zambia, Malawi and Ethiopia are some other African countries where speculation and obstruction accompanied the deaths of their heads of state. Regularly vetting a candidate’s  health and capacity to meet the physical and mental demands of the job would seem an obvious requirement. But, in the case of the average African president, it would seem, evidently, too straightforward, making for less intrigue, and discriminating against the cadre of power-hungry men who consistently put themselves before the interests of their people. Indeed, if the tradition of the last few decades is the rubric, it would be too unAfrican.

Anti-racism without race

Emmanuel Chidi Nnamdi and his wife Chinyery.Emmanuel Chidi Nnamdi and his wife Chinyery.

Earlier this summer in Fermo, Italy, 36-year old Nigerian asylum seeker Emmanuel Chidi Nnamdi was beaten to death by Italian Amedeo Mancini, a known soccer ultra, who was also associated with the local chapter of the neofascist CasaPound political movement. Emmanuel and his wife Chinyere had fled the violence of Boko Haram (they lost their parents and a daughter in a bombing) and had undertaken a harrowing journey through Libya and across the Mediterranean, finally arriving in Palermo. They had been hosted by the bishop’s seminary of Fermo since last September.

On the afternoon of July 5, Emmanuel and Chinyere were walking down a street when two men began to shout insults at them, at one point calling his wife a scimmia africana (African monkey). When Emmanuel reacted in an attempt to defend his wife from this abuse, Mancini proceeded to attack him with a street sign ripped out of the ground. He fell into a coma, and died the following day. Chinyere generously donated her husband’s organs for transplant, in a gesture showing a great sense of humanity and ability to go beyond a more-than-justified resentment for what had befallen her husband. (There is also a campaign to name a room at the medical school of the University of Bologna after Nnamdi.)

In Italy, anti-racist work is compatible with a broader trend in post-World War Two anti-racist work in Europe: because race does not exist at the biological level, and is thus unscientific, it is best to avoid its harmful effects by looking for the cause of violence elsewhere, namely in the realm of sentiments such as fear. In the quest to do away with the term “race,” many in the antiracism movements in Italy have preferred to use terms such as “xenophobia,” focusing on fear of “foreigners,” or have sought solace in the concepts of “difference” and “alterity”,  disregarding that both posit a normative state of being against which the “other” or the “different” stand out.

Italy also lacks a fully developed movement against racism led by people of color. Anti-racist mobilizations remain primarily in the hands of white Italian “allies” and, at least in the past, were subject to the powerful influence of political parties and labor unions. Furthermore, the last decades have seen a conflation of questions of racism with migration. Although a growing number of scholars working in Italy are now engaging with the concept of razza via race-critical and whiteness studies (for instance, the InteRGRace research collective and the edited collection Il colore della nazione), this crucial work is only just beginning to be put in conversation with both mainstream anti-racism and emerging forms of autonomous black organizing in Italy.

Some have argued that the casting of antiracism in Italy as a “solidarity movement” (with both Catholic and Marxist undercurrents) is necessary given the small size of the country’s black population, but this argument is insufficient. While the Italian government does not collect official statistics on race, there are more than one million Africans living in Italy, about one-third of whom hail from sub-Saharan Africa countries (this figure does not include undocumented residents or people who have acquired Italian citizenship).

Clarity on these issues is of the utmost importance in a country that still refuses to reckon with – or perhaps, as Italian historian Alessandro Triulzi writes – selectively and nostalgically reconfigures its own colonial past and forecloses any discussion of race and white privilege in the public sphere.

For example: In Affile, Italy, the authorities have allowed the construction of a mausoleum dedicated to General Rodolfo Graziani, known as “the butcher of Fezzan.” In a 30-year span of colonial wars in Libya and the Horn of Africa, Fezzan used mustard gas on the Ethiopian population and bombed Red Cross hospitals; he was thus listed by the United Nations as a war criminal.

Still, some self-professed leftists continue to suggest that it is intellectually lazy to describe incidents such as the murder of Emmanuel Chidi Namdi as racism, because doing so only reifies the scientifically delegitimized category of “race.” But the problem here isn’t with the term “racism.” After all, race was never solely about blood or skin color; this ever-shifting concept emerged to legitimate the violent world-making projects of colonialism, imperialism, and enslavement. Just because race is a biological fiction does not mean that it doesn’t continue to shape people’s lives in profound ways as a social reality and axis of domination.

Even the project of Italian national unification involved serious contestations over the racial character of the nascent Italian nation, and birthed its own homegrown school of Italian racial theorists, including Cesare Lombroso (commonly referred to as the father of modern criminology) and statistician, sociologist, and criminologist Alfredo Niceforo. At the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th, Italy was defining itself in racial terms in relation to both its internal North/South divide and its growing overseas empire in Africa.

After World War Two, race was disavowed in mainstream European anti-racism because of its ties to the horrors of fascist eugenics and racial laws. This “racial evaporation,” as David Theo Goldberg describes it (and as elaborated further in the Italian case by Gaia Giuliani and Cristina Lombardi-Diop), however, functions by conveniently relegating the idea of race to the past in an attempt to metaphorically seal the books on fascism and colonialism. But of course, the past is never dead. “Anti-racism without race,” scholars such as Dace Dzenovska, Alana Lentin, and Kamala Viswewaran have argued, makes the goal of anti-racism projects the elimination of the term “race,” rather than the destruction the historically-sedimented structures of power underlying the creation of racial categories through which groups are differentially subjected.

In other words, Emmanuel Chidi Nnamdi was murdered by a racist system that legitimates the vile actions of individual fascists. He was a casualty not of one person’s aberrant phobia of difference, or of the word race, but rather of a racist global system that relies on the social construction of race to render Black lives killable. Hence, banishing the word “race” does not make racism go away. It only weakens anti-racist activism by denying the legitimacy of Black people’s lived experiences of racism. Turning to alternative categories, such as ethnicity or culture only causes those terms to harden as they come to effectively fill the echoing void leftover by race.

For that reason, we simply cannot start from the perspective that “we are all human” if some groups have never been recognized as fully human in the first place. This is why Amedeo Mancini felt justified in calling Emmanuel Chidi Nnamdi’s wife Chinyere an “African monkey” before he beat Emmanuel to death on the street in Fermo. Tragically, we are not all in the same boat – some of our boats are leaking, while others of us are cruising leisurely on mega yachts.

*A version of this essay was first published in Italian for the web magazine Frontiere News

King Ronaldo of Portugal

The Portuguese star, Cristiano Ronaldo, is, as anyone who follows football knows, a polarizing figure. His detractors and critics point to his allegedly selfish play on the pitch, propensity to dive, prioritization of individual – rather than team – goals, and his constant preening, which somehow, it’s implied, undermines his footballing efficacy. Although the Portuguese are, in general, more forgiving towards Cristiano Ronaldo – someone who regularly “puts them on the map,” – than are many other football fans around the world, there is no shortage of domestic detractors.

This past summer, while in Lisbon (which coincided with Euro 2016, which Portugal won), I spoke to many Portuguese who were, rather remarkably, “rooting for the national team (or selecção, as it’s known in Portugal), but not necessarily Ronaldo.”  Some of this antipathy was rooted in Ronaldo’s inconsistency as a long-time member of the selecção and, ultimately, his inability (prior, of course, to this past summer) to have ever led the squad to a major tournament trophy.

Anyone in Portugal who watched Euro 2016 endured a barrage of advertisements featuring Ronaldo, the country’s most famous, and arguably most controversial, soccer player. “CR7,” as he is known by his initials and jersey number, was the pitchman for seemingly every product sold: from banking to high-speed internet services; some associated with multinational corporations, but many others offered by local companies exclusively for the domestic market.

With the passing of the legendary Mozambican-born Eusébio in 2014, Ronaldo is now the undisputed face of Portuguese soccer (Luís Figo would be the only other candidate worth mentioning – and he, too, serves as the pitchman for a number of Portuguese companies). Yet, despite Ronaldo’s commercial prominence and his virtually incomparable footballing skills, he is not universally embraced by the Portuguese population.

Long before he became “CR7,” Ronaldo was an exciting, promising player, who first drew significant international attention as a 19-year-old on Portugal’s Euro 2004 squad (which ended in tears for Ronaldo, when Portugal lost 1-0 to Greece in the final) and, again, two years later at the 2006 World Cup (Portugal made it to the semi-finals to Zinedine Zidane’s France). But, Portugal’s successes in these two tournaments were essentially the high-water marks for the squad. Unmet expectations prevailed in the decade, or so, that followed (a semi-final loss to Spain in 2012 being the exception). As Ronaldo was raising trophy after trophy with Manchester United (where he played from 2003-2009), and then Real Madrid, many domestic fans felt some disappointment, perhaps even a tinge of bitterness.

Of course, Portugal’s national team lost a number of supremely-talented players – teammates of Ronaldo – during the decade that followed the 2006 World Cup. And, even this year’s Euro-winning squad was conspicuously devoid of the type of talent that featured in past squads. Moreover, during these challenging years, Ronaldo was often asked to play out of position – most often as a lone striker – which limited his effectiveness and, thus, his contributions. Consequently, Ronaldo rarely made the type of impact while playing for Portugal that he did as a member of his club teams – understandably so, one might argue, given that his teammates at United and Madrid were and are all world-class players who starred or star for their own national teams.

Beyond criticism for his perceived shortcomings as a footballer for the selecção, however, are the blatant attacks on Ronaldo as a person. Leading these defamation efforts has been Correio de Manhã, a Portuguese tabloid newspaper, which enjoys the highest circulation in the country. This antagonism came to a head in June when Ronaldo grabbed the microphone of a reporter from television station, CMTV, whose operator also owns Correio de Manhã, and threw it in a nearby pond as the reporter was aggressively posing a question to the Portuguese footballer. Some five years earlier, Ronaldo won a court case against the newspaper for publishing personal material about him that the judge ruled “failed to serve the public interest.” Hardly chastened, the tabloid continues to aggressively seek to dig up stories of Ronaldo’s personal life and has persistently suggested that he is gay in attempts to question his masculinity.

If Ronaldo is scrutinized both domestically and internationally, he seems to have avoided these same levels of criticism in Madeira, his birthplace, (population less than 300,000). Born in 1985, in Funchal, the capital city of the archipelago, which enjoys “autonomous region” status within Portugal, Ronaldo grew up poor, in a household with an alcoholic father, who passed away some eleven years ago. Despite these hardscrabble beginnings, which generate some empathy for the player, Ronaldo has become, by far, the most famous Madeiran. With a museum highlighting his career, the recently-opened Pestana CR7 hotel, and an impressive – if rather odd – bronze statue of Ronaldo, Funchal was already a mecca for supporters of the superstar footballer. However, the decision this summer to rename the international airport in Funchal to the Madeira Cristiano Ronaldo Airport suggests that CR7 is approaching something resembling immortality in the land of his birth.

If only mainland Portugal was as uniformly, and uncritically, supportive.

Corporate tax is a feminist matter

EU Tax haven protest via GUE/NGL FlickrEU Tax haven protest via GUE/NGL Flickr

CitiGroup, Coca Cola, ExxonMobil, General Motors, Goldman Sachs, Verizon, Wal-Mart, Pfizer, JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America and Microsoft; of all the things these multinational corporations (MNCs) agree on, two things stand out: a proclaimed devotion to the feminist agenda and a penchant for tax dodging.

On the former, all MNC’s claim to dedicate some part of their corporate responsibility and philanthropy duties to the “economic empowerment” of women and girls in poor countries, and to that end, promote business skills, good saving practices and access to loans as a panacea for women’s empowerment and their countries’ development. The steps these corporations take “to advance and empower women” make them role models for gender justice among MNC’s, according to the United Nations Global Compact.

But then there’s the tax issue. A few months ago, the NGO Oxfam calculated that between 2008 and 2014 alone, the 50 largest public companies in the US accumulated some $337 billion in tax breaks, while holding a whopping $1.4 trillion in offshore cash reserves. All the companies mentioned above are on the list.

Tax dodging by MNCs represents “integral components of [their] profit-making strategies,” and a huge force of socio-economic devastation in particular for the Global South, where such taxes represent a larger share of overall government revenue (16%, according to the IMF, versus 8 % for their high-income counterparts), and where the technical capacity to deal with complex tax offshore investment hubs and other loopholes is weaker. Here, Oxfam argues, unpaid corporate taxes can make the “difference between life and death, poverty and opportunity.” The practice costs poor countries around US$ 100 billion dollars a year.

The result, predictably, is that across Africa, the working poor, (over 38% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa) often end up carrying the burden of raising tax revenue while the multinationals go scot-free. In Malawi, for example, where tax incentives for the mining sector allegedly suck out eight times the amount the government collects in revenues every year, some say that “it is the order of the day for small businesses to pay more tax than multinational companies.”

Meanwhile, as a new investigation reveals, South African companies make extensive use of tax haven benefits in the Netherlands, where, apparently, “an office with a house plant is enough to satisfy tax inspectors that a company really has operations in [Amsterdam],” rather than just a letterbox company. (By routing money through the Netherlands, companies reportedly push down their tax rate from to as low as 0,6 %. Of the 20 largest companies listed on the Johannesburg stock exchange, 14 have one or more subsidiaries in the Netherlands).

Within progressive feminist groups and anti-poverty NGOs, tax justice is now treated as a key development and human rights concern, with many feminists pointing out that it’s women and children who suffer the most, when social services are not provided.

Chiara Capraro worked for Christian Aid, whose Death And Taxes report estimated, as early as 2008, that developing countries lost more to false invoicing and trade mis-pricing by corporations (more on that later) than what comes in as development aid. Later, in partnership with Tax Justice Network Africa (who tweet here), they published “Africa Rising” which (amongst other things) outlines steps on how to stop corporations and other elites from abusing tax loopholes. To Chiara, who is now Policy and Advocacy Manager for Women’s Economic Rights at Womankind in London, corporate tax is a feminist matter and a huge potential source of empowerment for women, if given the chance to learn about, and organize around it.

Given that this type of gender-responsive tax literacy typically doesn’t make it into conventional financial literacy curriculums or economic empowerment classes, we asked Chiara to give us an idea of what such lessons may look like.

We read that the “tax system is rigged” and that it allows western corporations to dodge their tax contributions in Africa. But what IS this international tax system? How does it work? Who controls it? Can you make it easy for us?

It’s important to clarify from the outset that most of the practices that fall under the umbrella of “tax dodging” are currently not illegal. This is due to the fact that the rules governing how companies are taxed have not kept pace with the changing nature of global business. These rules were designed in the 1920s when big global conglomerates did not exist as we know them now. As a result, the various subsidiaries that are part of a single transnational corporation are now taxed as separate companies. This enables them to shift profits to low or zero tax jurisdictions (tax havens) and minimize tax payments. Not only profits can be shifted to wherever it’s most convenient, but also they can be inflated or deflated – this is called “trade mis-pricing.” Since currently 80% of global trade takes place within transnational corporations this practice has huge consequences.

So, to make it simple, if I inflate the profit I make from selling a product or a service between two subsidiaries of my company and I book that profit into a low tax jurisdiction I make sure I minimize my tax payments. This is currently legal to do. Still confused? At Christian Aid we tried to explain it with a banana, and in this video we explain where all the money has gone. In addition to the ability of minimizing their tax bills with their own strategies, corporations have also enjoyed falling tax rates over the past decades:  according to KPMG the average corporate tax rate worldwide went down from 38% in 1993 to 24.9% in 2010. And the boon doesn’t end here:  in their competition to attract foreign direct investments, many developing countries are using further tax incentives for corporations, which has created a “race to the bottom.” To illustrate this, the IMF found that in 1980 no low-income country in sub-Saharan Africa had tax free zones but 50% did so in 2005. Whereas 40% of sub-Saharan African countries were offering tax holidays in 1980s, 80% did so by 2005. Tax incentives are most often offered on an ad-hoc basis, without adequate cost benefit analysis. The special economic zones that are created for these companies often have poor labour conditions, bans on trade unions and environmental pollution.

The question of “who makes the rules” is a good one, because this is at the heart of why the tax system is seen as broken. Largely it’s the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a group of northern and large middle-income countries that governs the global tax system. Developing countries are currently excluded from decision making processes on global tax rules and the OECD itself has acknowledged that its reform efforts do not respond to the particular concerns of poorer countries. Tax justice campaigners feel that decision making needs to be democratized and brought under UN auspices to truly represent the concerns and needs of all countries. Discussions on establishing a Global Tax Body dominated the 3rd Financing for Development Conference, which took place in Addis in July 2015. It revealed the deep fault lines between northern powers and southern countries on this issue. 

Recently, the Zambian tax activist Cecilia Mulenga said that her friend, who was eight months pregnant when she died of complications, would still be alive “if these corporations were paying their fair dues.” And a nurse from Malawi blames the long waiting hours for patients and her own feeling of failing as a nurse on corporate tax breaks. Is the issue that simple? It’s not as though corporate tax revenue would actually go straight into health or education budgets, right? What’s your view on this? 

This is a fair concern – would additional revenue be spent where it needs to be spent? For example, to fund programs to prevent violence against women or maternal health nurses? Unfortunately, we cannot draw an automatic causal link. We know that neoliberal economic doctrine predicates both tax cuts for the rich and cutting back on public expenditure so both sides of the coin need to be challenged. Often the lack of a precise causal link between revenue raising and expenditure is used to dismiss claims for tax justice. Corruption is often used as well as a reason for why we shouldn’t bother too much about raising more revenue, as it will all be squandered. However, research by Global Financial Integrity has found that bribery and theft by public officials represent only 3% of cross-border illicit financial flows. In contrast, the proceeds of commercial tax avoidance represent 60%-65%. So although corrupt public officials are an issue, this can’t be used as an excuse to skirting around the issue of tax. Publicly funded, universal essential services led to huge progress in human development in Europe after the Second World War. And tax revenue is the most accountable source of funding, which should be raised and spent to realize the rights of all.

You’ve said that tax justice is a feminist issue. How does that apply to Africa?

Yes, I believe tax justice is a feminist issue for at least three reasons. Firstly, because the immediate consequence of tax dodging is a loss of resources needed to realize women’s rights. Over the last 30 years we have seen many good laws for women’s rights.  However, resources have not followed so such plans have very often remained on paper.  Secondly, women’s economic activities are disproportionately impacted by the current unfair tax system. Over 70% of women in sub-Saharan Africa work in the informal economy, mostly without access to contracts, maternity and sick leave and social protection. However, they still pay tax in the form of Value-added Tax (VAT) and an array of local taxes. Christian Aid’s research in Ghana found that 96% of women traders who worked in markets in Accra paid up to 37% of their income in taxes, with no access to social protection. If we don’t tackle the big players it is these women who keep shouldering an unfair tax burden. Very often discussions on women’s small businesses focus on access to credit, financial literacy and skills but it’s critical to also look at tax issues.

There is also a third and more radical feminist issue. Corporations are currently reaping the benefits of women’s unpaid care work, which subsidizes the productive economy and reproduces the workforce of today and tomorrow. Since this work is generally invisible in economic policy there is no assessment of the resources needed to support it and where they should come from.

Given that Western corporations seem particularly harmful, do you believe there is a special responsibility for the Western women’s movement? Is it on their agenda yet? 

Tax is a global issue, so I believe it is critical to build solidarity across borders between feminists on these issues. While it is true that transnational corporations are able to avoid paying their fair share of tax in both northern and southern countries, the effects are felt much more in southern countries, which have greater need to collect resources to provide health and education services and build social and physical infrastructure. In the UK, where I live, there has been an increased concern from feminists around the impact of austerity measures on women’s rights, but I think we still need more awareness on the issue of tax. Feminists can take up this cause first of all by educating themselves on why this issue is critical, learning the impact of tax dodging around the world, holding corporations and governments to account on their practices and pushing for political reform. There is a huge need to demystify issues of tax. It’s not something that only experts can talk about, it matters for us all, so we have to understand and engage with it.

From what you’re telling us, tax justice seems connected to literally every social justice issue – from gender justice and development to health and education. This suggests that whenever we talk about women’s empowerment, health and education in Africa, we cannot leave tax out of the equation. Is that right?

That’s exactly right. I feel very strongly that as feminists we need to interrogate much more whether economic policy is working for women’s rights and broader human rights. Tax policy really is a crucial piece of the puzzle. It has to do with who has power and who doesn’t. With who gains and who loses. There is strong scholarship and activism on these themes from feminist economists, but there is a need to demystify the issues them and make sure we feel confident in talking about them. Gender justice ultimately is not going to come for free, the same can be said for health, education, preventing violence and redistributing responsibility for unpaid care – all necessary steps along the way.

The turn to burning in South Africa

 Dasen Thathiah (eNCA)Image Credit: Dasen Thathiah (eNCA)

In October last year thousands of South African students marched on key sites of power – Parliament in Cape Town, the seat of government in Tshwane and the headquarters of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in Johannesburg – under the banner of #FeesMustFall. The scale of this mobilization, which included students from elite and working class universities, was impressive. There was also impressive intellectual work undertaken in struggle.

The systemic under-funding of universities by the ANC government was directly confronted, as had been, in previous months, the racism that continues to fester in universities, along with the colonial logic that still characterizes much teaching and research. Moreover, the students quickly won considerable moral authority and support from trade unions, popular organizations, churches and some of the media. It was an extraordinary moment. There was a real possibility for students to constitute themselves as a significant political force and to forge mutually enabling solidarities with struggles in wider society.

This cycle of student politics has been a highly dynamic phenomenon. From the beginning there were significant differences within and between campuses in terms of the ideas and forms of organization that came to the fore. Nonetheless there are some general features that can be noted. Students at historically black universities have been waging struggles, often isolated and bitter, against exclusions since the end of Apartheid. But this was the moment at which these struggles arrived in elite and formerly white universities and, simultaneously, won their first sympathetic hearing in the elite public sphere.

Another general, if not universal, feature of the moment is that women and queer people have often been at the forefront of these struggles. Furthermore, engagement on social media became a significant dimension of student politics and there was a wholesale embrace of a certain kind of American political culture (safe spaces, discourse around ideas like privilege, intersectionality and micro-aggressions, etcetera). At the same time there was an often sharp generational break with the politics of the ANC and a turn to ideas and symbols gleaned from, in particular, Black Consciousness politics in South Africa in the 1970s and the contemporary global moment inaugurated by Black Lives Matter in the United States. Some of the features of the politics that emerged were, like the centrality of personal trauma, very similar to those described by Robin R.D.G. Kelly in the US.

A tremendous amount was achieved very quickly. But in most cases mass politics in terms of organization and mobilization – quickly collapsed. The reasons for this are complex. They certainly include repression, and the various interests and machinations that swiftly surround all effective popular organization. But they cannot be reduced to external factors. For one thing, acute conflicts emerged within the movement, with perhaps the most public being around questions of gender and gendered abuse.

It has been argued that the failure to elect leaders allowed for a version of the tyranny of structurelessness – perhaps exacerbated by an intersection between the students’ use of social media and the official media’s predilection for making sense of politics in terms of personal celebrity. It has also been argued that a certain kind of moralism was sometimes substituted for politics – politics in the sense of what, in the struggles of the 1970s and 1980s, was called praxis.

In some circles a political culture, often facilitated by social media, emerged that many people experienced as authoritarian and bullying. A set of stock phrases were sometimes used to curtail discussion and to cast approbation on the character of people with independent or not yet fully formed ideas. A good number of people committed to the goals of the movement found that they did not feel comfortable in its spaces and, often feeling wounded, they retreated from active engagement. One of the new ideas that won some support in certain circles was a particular reading of American Afropessimist theory. In some interpretations, often articulated to a reading of Fanon largely based on a few statements in the opening chapter of The Wretched of the Earth, it was taken to mean that the new world could only arise on the ashes of the old.

There was a degree of absolutism at play. In some expressions it took a distinctly millenarian form. For some people talk about a conception of redemptive violence, or burning – rather than organization, mobilization and strategic action – came to be seen as the authentic radical posture. What was for some time only a form of discourse has now become a scattered practice in the sense that fires have been set – covertly rather than in riots – on some campuses.

Today, the remaining actively militant students are generally a small and divided minority on their respective campuses, often politically alienated from wider society and vulnerable to repression. There is frequently an attraction to forms of disruption that can be effected by small groups of people – some of which have extraordinarily effective public interventions and some of which have been largely alienating – rather than the labor of building organization, sustaining mobilization, forging alliances and engaging in strategic action over the long haul.

 Dasen Thathiah (eNCA)Image Credit: Dasen Thathiah (eNCA)

On Monday this week, students protested fees at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) on its campuses in Durban and Pietermaritzburg. There is a serious problem with political violence in this part of the country and the police are notoriously brutal. As has frequently been the case with regard to student protest over the last 20 years, as well other forms of popular protest organized autonomously from the ruling party, the police response was violent and sadistic. A student in Pietermaritzburg reported that the police had raped her.

On Tuesday night, a law library was set ablaze on the Durban campus. Though firefighters brought the fire under control there was significant destruction. Many students have been strongly and publicly critical of this action. But a few of the well-known figures to have emerged from the struggles last year condemned criticism of the library burning. It was suggested that one can’t simultaneously be in solidarity with oppressed people and opposed to the burning of the library. This is not a credible position. Burning a library is neither the only nor the most effective way to oppose repression and advance the student struggle.

In some cases the burning was celebrated on the grounds that the library contained colonial material. There is a reckless, and perhaps desperate, anti-intellectualism at work in this position. Where, after all, would C.L.R. James, Edward Said, V.Y. Mudimbe, Sylvia Wynter or the Subaltern Studies school have been without a colonial archive from and against which to develop their critique?

There is also a real risk that the turn to burning will set the stage for further repression, worsen divisions among students and further isolate students from possibilities for political support in wider society. At the University of KwaZulu-Natal, which is R2 billion in debt and in systemic crisis, it is far more likely to compound rather than resolve a set of already acute problems.

The turn to burning is not a sign of a productive new militancy. On the contrary it is symptomatic of the current weakness of the movement. If it is to recover its strength the movement will need to recover and sustain its capacity to organize and mobilize on a mass basis, to win as much of wider society as it can to its side, and to take effective strategic action.

In a national and global context in which the left is weak and right wing forces, of various kinds, are often the main beneficiaries of economic crisis the scale, tenacity and strategic innovation of the political work required to win real gains needs to be taken seriously.

The simplification of the meme or tweet that embraces the substitution of the fire or act of symbolic disruption, for politics qua politics for the sustained construction of popular and democratic counter-power will not serve us well.

Getting beyond the usual South African reporting on “Africa”

 U.S. Army FlickrBeijing Olympics opening ceremony 2008. Image Credit: U.S. Army Flickr

It is still not uncommon to hear South Africans say that they’re going on a business trip or holiday “in Africa” – as if their own country lies on another continent. We could blame this attitude on our history. During Apartheid, South Africa was politically and socially isolated from the rest of the continent (South African Airways flights weren’t even allowed to land in any other African countries). But a certain mindset also developed as a result of the Apartheid ideology of exceptionalism – the notion that because  South Africa was “different” from other African countries, the same human rights of equality do not apply here. South Africans became good at navelgazing, and bad at seeing much further beyond than their northern borders. This means that South Africans can often more easily point out Barcelona than Bamako on a map.

The inverse of this knowledge gap can often be seen when traveling on the rest of the continent. Just look at the signs with Afrikaans surnames in the arrivals hall in Nairobi, or chat to your fellow tourists at breakfast in Zanzibar about the Super 14 rugby game, which you’d probably be able to watch in the hotel bar that afternoon on DStv, the satellite channel that stomped its footprint over large parts of Africa. The chances are good that your host knows more about South African history and politics than you know about theirs.

The media doesn’t exactly help. Compared to news beamed to us from Washington D.C. or London, we see very little coverage of other African countries in our newspapers, news sites and broadcast channels. The global impact of the political and economic power of the Untied States and Europe means that the minute details of Brexit or the Trump-vs-Clinton spectacle is beamed to our screens, but that you have to look hard to find nuanced information behind the headlines about, say, the Zambian election, political conflict in Burundi or renewed violence in South Sudan. This, while analyses show that the image of Africa has greatly improved in the past few years in international media. The Economist, that portrayed Africa as the “The Hopeless Continent” on that dreadful cover page of theirs in 2000, changed its tune to “Africa Rising” in 2011, a slogan that was consumed by Time Magazine a year later. However, critics point to the fact that this new-found optimism also sometimes reveals paternalistic stereotypes, or is based on a specific neoliberal ideal of Africa as an untapped market. But one simply has to follow sites like this one to see that fashion, music and sport in Africa gives journalists much more to report on than money and guns.

It is against this backdrop that two recent books about Africa, written by South African journalists, are welcome. Kevin Bloom and Richard Poplak’s Continental Shift: A Journey into Africa’s Changing Fortunes, and  Liesl Louw-Vaudran’s South Africa: Superpower or Neocolonialist illustrate a fast-changing political and economic landscape on the continent. Bloom and Poplak’s reference point is the increasing influence of China in Africa, and the xenophobic reactions meted out against Chinese immigrants. A particular incident from 2011 in the settlement of Ganyesa, in the North West province of South Africa, is used as a leitmotiv to illustrate the violence that immigrants regularly meet with in this country. Four Chinese immigrants were burned to death in their shop – and the book insinuates that this was not an accident, that the shop-owners were murdered by local citizens. The case remains unresolved, thus Bloom and Poplak travelled to Ganyesa to speak to locals in an attempt to learn more about the situation. The truth remains out of reach, and as they broaden their discussion of how bigger geopolitical shifts are mirrored in the everyday details in African cities and towns, they return time and again to the fire in Ganyesa.  As they travel through Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Central African Republic, their discoveries of new developments on political, economic and social terrain are punctuated by the threat of violence – old conflicts, prejudices and tensions mix with new ones and the result is not only intoxicating, but also often unhealthy.

Continental Shift is an entertaining and stimulating recounting of the authors’ experience of traveling thousands of kilometers and wading through academic books, historical documents, policy documents and news articles. It covers a broad range of topics – construction in Namibia, the building of a dam in Botswana, mining in Zimbabwe, Nollywood in Nigeria, food security in Ethiopia, realpolitik in South Sudan and conflict in Central African Republic. Continental Shift’s biggest achievement is its lively, and sometimes even humorous tone. It’s a heady mix of memoir, ethnography, analysis, travel writing and at times comes close to a type of political poetry. The accessibility and lucidity of this ambitious project is largely thanks to the distinctive style of writing – fans of Poplak’s political journalism in the Daily Maverick will be familiar with his destructive sense of irony. But this is also a gripping tale because of its reliance on first-hand experiences and field work, several conversations and interviews, and sharp observations on the ground.

The presentation and style is one of the big differences between Bloom and Poplak’s book, and that of Louw-Vaudran. Despite the fact that Louw-Vaudran is also an experienced journalist – she is  a former Africa editor at Media24 – her script follows a more conventional style of reporting. Her material is partly drawn from her own interviews with political leaders, but she also relies quite heavily on second-hand sources. She is less likely to communicate her own point of view or observations than summarize those of her interviewees. As a result the book is an easy read, but one that lacks a distinctive voice. The transition from reporting to long form journalism is not as easy as it might seem.

Louw-Vaudran’s point of reference is the role that South Africa plays on the continent. She questions whether South Africa, as the largest economy on the continent and a country that set the political tone, especially under the leadership of Mandela and Mbeki, can also be seen as a neocolonial power on the African continent. Is South Africa a leader or a bully? Louw-Vaudran uses several significant news events across the past 20-odd years to investigate this question. The South African liberation struggle and the ANC’s years of exile in Lusaka provides the historical starting point, while the moral bankruptcy of the Zuma’s government ends the book on a pessimistic tone about the future of South Africa, and whether it can be trusted again as leader and example for other African nations. Between these historical extremes, Louw-Vaudran aims to highlight among other things Mbeki’s attempts to revitalize the Pan-African ideal, South Africa’s role in the African Union, as well as the country’s sometimes disastrous military interventions – for example the 13 South African soldiers that died in 2013 in Bangui in a conflict with Seleka rebels in the Central African Republic. Louw-Vaudran creates quite a negative image of lost opportunities by the South African government to collaborate more strongly with South African businesses across the continent, and remarks on the damage that xenophobic attacks in South Africa have done to the country’s image on the continent.

Journalism on and about the continent tends to veer between the extremes of neglect or stereotype on the one end, and touristic exoticism on the other. These two books manage, each in their own way, to steer a path between these extremes. The Africa they show us isn’t always “rising,” nor is it always pretty, but it is fascinating.  And much more difficult to sum up than brief headlines can ever hope to do.

*A previous version of this review appeared in the Afrikaans Media24 publication Rapport.

Recession No Kill Celebration

Image from Glenna Gordon's "Nigeria Ever After" Series.Image from Glenna Gordon’s “Nigeria Ever After” Series.

An inescapable part of Nigerian social life is our lavish celebrations of important occasions, such as weddings, birthdays, housewarmings and funerals. Costly and ostentatious, these flamboyant events usually take place inside large banquet halls and hotel ballrooms crammed with guests. Party revelers spray handfuls of cash on people, while dancing to heady tunes about money and success. Family members are decked out in matching traditional outfits, and guests leave with customized gifts that range from plastic soap cases and mugs, to iPads. In 2013, the Lagos state government found that 36 billion Naira, (roughly $100 million), was spent on parties in the state, Nigeria’s most populous. What is remarkable is that celebrations take place against the backdrop of deepening political and economic crises, including a rapid decline in world oil prices, instability in the Niger Delta and Northern Nigeria and myriad economic problems.

I recently attended a funeral party for a deceased relative in Ikenne, my hometown in Ogun state, an hour from Lagos. In the middle of playing a Fuji song, the band teased attendees about having a grand party while their fellow Nigerians were facing tough times. The costs of staple foods had almost doubled and for the middle classes the severely-weakened value of the Naira to the dollar had made it harder to send children abroad to study.  It should have dampened everyone’s spirits, but the guests laughed loudly and the cluster of people in front of the band only danced harder. That night, a second cousin told me he had been laid off from the oil servicing company he had worked for in Warri, because it was not getting contracts from multinationals whose pipelines have been targeted by militant groups. He is a young father with a two-year-old son and a wife in university.

Growing up in the 1990s, events like weddings were smaller affairs held under canopies in one’s compound or in open fields at public schools. Extended family came from around the country to help with preparations. Roles were divided based on gender; the men set up canopies and plastic chairs and were responsible for slaughtering goats, while women cooked Jollof rice in huge tin pots placed over firewood. Extravagant weddings belonged only in the pages of glossy magazines like Ovation and City People. I remember flipping through these magazines with their photos of well-dressed Nigerians seated proudly in halls in London and Lagos; brides arriving in stretch limousines; reams of flowers and ribbons adorning tables and walls. Back then, this display of abundance and wealth was the reserve of elites. But, sometime in the early 2000s, things began to change. Middle-class families began hosting events that were bigger and more expensive. Simplicity gave way to excess. More people began renting showy event centers, hiring caterers and security personnel armed with guns. Popular musicians were invited to perform.

The size of Nigeria’s middle class has grown in the past two decades. A 2013 consultancy report estimated that households with annual incomes of more than $5,000 a year would increase from 20 to 27 percent of the population by 2020. According to the IMF, Nigeria’s GDP rose from $46 billion in 2000 to $247 billion in 2011. In recent years, Nigeria has witnessed a boom in entertainment, fashion, real estate and, of course, event planning. There has been an expansion in the retail industry, with local online stores that were absent ten years ago enjoying huge successes. In 2014, Nigeria was declared Africa’s largest economy. Arguably, there are more ways for people to earn a living now than in the past. This increased prosperity is reflected in the ways that we mark special moments in our lives. There has been a shift from the traditional and more communal to trendier and commercialized forms of celebration.

It is uncertain what direction the country’s economy will go in the coming months. No one is sure of when oil prices will increase and by how much. There is no guarantee that the government’s efforts at diversifying the country’s economy will make Nigeria less oil-dependent. Yet, people seem undaunted by these uncertainties. Though, they are angry and disillusioned about the present government’s inability to tackle economic problems, they are hopeful for change. We are, after all, a glass half-full kind of people. On weekends, event halls remain packed. Guests turn up neatly-dressed and ebullient.

Whether things remain the same because of our resilience in the face of hard times or due to pure denial is a long, subjective argument. However, recession or no recession, the blare of music from events continues to spill out onto the street.

#ThisFlag, social media & agency in Zimbabwe.

 Babak Fakhamzadeh via FlickrRobert Mugabe on a Zanu PF poster during the 2008 election period. Image Credit: Babak Fakhamzadeh via Flickr.

Late last week, President Robert Mugabe mocked the protest movement that has risen against his governance over the past few months. “Enough is enough,” the President declared, ordering the judiciary to fall in line with government policy, a move widely thought to be authoritarian and a threat to the separation of powers. The phrase “enough is enough” was not accidental. In using it, the President co-opted the slogan-cum-hashtag used by protestors, referencing the movement without naming it.

Earlier this summer, news from Zimbabwe was dominated by seemingly non-partisan protests against Mugabe’s government and the ruling ZANU-PF. The figurehead of these protests was a Baptist pastor, Evan Mawarire, who took to YouTube to express a deep affection for his country and an even deeper frustration with the governance of Zimbabwe. Mawarire’s video, entitled ‘This Flag’, which has been posted on multiple apps, remixed, debated and reported on, has somehow spurred a movement across social media channels that has resulted in the largest sustained protests against bad governance in the country since 2008.

Perhaps when history is eventually written as a series of tweets, a la BuzzFeed, we will come to truly recognize the revolutionary nature and power of the smart phone. But until then, traditional journalism and analysis demands that every time a population uses the tools available to them to voice their frustrations and concerns as a collective, we have to answer the question: “Can social media activism change a country?”

In Zimbabwe, the leap from online conversation to citizen protest has followed the same path as other protest movements around the world. The protests have always come first, the hashtag has followed, and in this case the protests have grown.

Among different, floundering attempts to discredit the protest movement, the most curious tactic employed by the Zimbabwean government has been the state-organized, pro-government protests designed to counter the narrative that the popular uprising is popular at all. Many of these protests have involved recruiting Zanu-PF’s youth wing, a ruling party organization, as well as bussing in rural Zimbabweans to enhance the numbers attending.

The question then, has been asked: are rural Zimbabwean’s pro-Mugabe? Consensus amongst the commentary class seems to be “yes”, the implication being that social media-led protest movements are urban phenomena and are not representative of the rural majority of the country. The narrative suggests that rural Zimbabweans are generally pro-Mugabe, and that urbanites erroneously elevate their current grievances above the ultimate crime against the country that was colonialism.

This analysis is frustrating, if only because it is not nuanced. It assumes a lack of intellectual sophistication and agency in the rural population without evidence to support such claims. It is difficult to say how genuine rural support for the ruling party is. Perhaps the tradition of rural support of the current government is ongoing, however predating the 2009 election, evidence revealed that blind loyalty to the government is no longer the status quo. For as much as the rural population has been the majority of Zanu PF support, the base has had to be coaxed, nurtured, and often times beaten, into alignment.

It is possible that the distinction between voluntary and involuntary political support is insignificant in electoral terms, but it is worth highlighting when the discussion turns to social media and the current protest moment. If rural presence in pro-government “counter protests” is rallied as a form of self preservation against physical violence and economic retribution for non-participation, social media channels, like the almost ubiquitous Facebook instant-messaging entity WhatsApp, provide an outlet to say what you really think.

In the “mobile economy” narrative in which mobile technology is “sweeping across Africa” and revolutionizing communication and banking all over the continent, it seems an improbable argument that social media movements are not penetrating the rural population. It is cognitive dissonance to simultaneously claim that “mobile phones have begun providing a means of communication, connecting Zimbabwe’s rural population with urban dwellers” and that a movement that is being kept alive through social media is somehow a solely urban phenomenon.

In a country with a mobile penetration of 97 percent, perhaps the anonymity of social media profiles and the protection of end-end encrypted instant messaging allows for the first public glimpse of the real leanings of all Zimbabweans, including the rural majority.

The African Summer Olympics

 GCIS via FlickrGold medal winner Caster Semenya and Minister of Sports Fikile Mbalula during their welcome ceremony at OR Tambo International Airport. Image Credit: GCIS via Flickr

This was the summer of the Olympics. But if you were on safari, like we were, you may have missed it altogether. Fear not, we have some highlights for you, including those of you who are nostalgic for the games already.

First, let’s ignore the clumsiness – we are trying to be nice – of the commentators on US TV network NBC during the opening ceremony. No need to talk about how during the parade of the nations, Matt Lauer and his colleagues could not think of anything to say besides “Togo is an African nation; they love soccer in Togo.”  When The Gambia came up, they told us that the name appears in the first chapter of Alex Haley’s Roots and that’s where Kunta Kinte hailed from. And they definitely couldn’t let the Democratic Republic of the Congo walk by without a reference to “rumble in the jungle.”  We will also resist unpacking what Meredith Vieira could possibly mean by calling Brazilians “cultural cannibals.” Still, why did Matt Lauer say that top model Gisele Bündchen is Brazil’s most famous export? Let’s leave Pelé out of this. But, seriously, have not the folks at NBC ever heard of Ronaldinho?

Speaking of exports, Kenya has so many athletes that they are exporting them by the truckload – or shall we say, by the matatu? About 20 Kenya-born athletes competed for their adopted countries, which include the US, Bahrain, Qatar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Azerbaijan and Turkey. Kenyan-born Ruth Jebet won for Bahrain its first ever Olympic gold medal.

But, did you wonder why Kenyan athletes were not wearing matching outfits at the opening ceremony? Apparently, a few of the Kenyan officials saved some of the sports apparel for themselves and their friends, instead of handing it out to the athletes. In a probe on corruption allegations, Kenyan police raided the headquarters of the Kenyan Olympic committee and arrested its secretary general, his deputy and the head of the Kenyan delegation as soon as they landed back from Rio.

When the javelin thrower Julius Yego showed up at the Nairobi airport to travel to Rio, he found out that he did not have a ticket. His fellow athletes refused to board the plane, and the Kenyan government eventually purchased a ticket for Yego, who went on to win a silver medal. One of the Kenyan coaches was sent home from Rio for reportedly submitting to a drug test on behalf of an athlete. At the conclusion of the games, with the Olympic Village closed, some Kenyan athletes had to stay in a Rio favela because the Kenyan Olympic committee was trying to score cheaper air tickets.

Kenya still won 13 medals, including six gold, the most at this Olympics; South Africa was second. So there is something to celebrate.

One athlete whose celebration landed him in trouble is the Ethiopian Feyisa Lilesa. He won the marathon’s silver medal (the gold went to Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya) but will not be going home, after he crossed his arms over his head at the finish line as a sign of protest about political repression in his country.

South Africa’s Wayde van Nierkek demolished the world record for 400m. Caster Semenya won the gold and those who say that she has an unfair advantage should probably check their privilege.

Niger won a silver medal in Taekwondo, thanks to Abdoulrazak Issoufou Alfaga. The last time Niger had won a medal was in Munich in 1972.

The Ivoirian Cheick Sallah Cisse also won gold in Taekwondo, while his compatriot Ruth Gbagbi took the bronze in the women’s middleweight category.

Algeria’s Makhloufi took home two silver medals in 800m and 1500m.

But the Olympics would not be the Olympics without some Nigerian delegation troubles. Their soccer team was stranded in Atlanta for days because apparently someone in Abuja had failed to pay for the chartered plane. They arrived in Brazil only four hours before the kickoff of their match against Japan. Then there was the small matter of the team’s outfits at the opening ceremony. And still, the stadium played Niger’s national anthem instead. Did, by any chance, Rio2016 hire the CNN intern responsible for this?

Anyways, Nigeria’s soccer team won the bronze medal and revealed to the world Umar Sadiq, a young and very talented player, who reminds us so much of Nwankwo Kanu two decades ago.

Still Doing the Right Thing

Still from Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing" (1989)Still from Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” (1989)

For a black film and media student at the University of Cape Town, Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” was a revelation. I watched it first on a DVD one afternoon with my friend Frank in one of the damp tutorial rooms in the Arts Block on Upper Campus, only a few steps away from where the statue of Cecil John Rhodes stood.

Our film history curriculum at that point comprised mostly European and American cinema. Although clearly American, this film offered something completely different. It had been nearly 20 years since the film’s inception and it took place on a different continent, and yet it was so relatable. Moreover, it was a visceral film experience, a wake-up call, and an affirmation. Watching it again in 2016, it’s eerie (and tragic) how relevant its central theme of racial tension and structural violence still is, both in America and South Africa.

“Do The Right Thing” takes place over the course of the hottest day on a block in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Spike Lee plays Mookie, a 25-year-old who seems to be meandering through life, but is on a mission to get paid. He works at the local Italian pizzeria, Sal’s, where most of the neighborhood eats and hangs out.

The simmering heat of the day (visualized by deep reds and yellows on screen) reflects the tensions between the Italian pizzeria owner, Sal (Danny Aiello) and Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), the self-appointed neighborhood spokesperson. Buggin’ Out questions the lack of representation of black people on the walls of the pizzeria, which services a mostly black clientele: “Sal, how come you ain’t got no brothers on the wall?” Sal’s hostile response to Buggin’ Out’s provocation leads to a protest that ends in police brutality and the loss of black life, and marks the demise of the pizzeria.

Despite its explosive dénouement, one of the main strengths of the film is the complexity of its characters and the representations of blackness on screen. Lee moved beyond stereotypes of African Americans in cinema and created characters reflected in the everyday. In “Do The Right Thing”, black people are not presented in the traditional binary of subservient and smiling, or violent and dangerous, but rather as more rounded expressions of themselves.

While Buggin’ Out is concerned with black nationalist politics and representation, he also bugs out when a white gentrifier on the block accidentally scuffs his brand new US$100 Jordan sneakers. Even though this infliction is frivolous, it leads to a cathartic (prophetic?) outburst: “Man motherfuck gentrification!”

No one in “Do The Right Thing” is necessarily “heroic”. Even Radio Raheem – the likeable, stylish giant who blasts the film’s opening theme and leitmotif (Public Enemy’s Fight The Power) from a large boombox – imposes his music on others. He is mostly an irritant in the neighborhood. Radio Raheem is unnecessarily confrontational with the Korean shopkeepers, who have recently moved onto the block. It’s reflected in the scene where he goes to them to buy batteries, “I said 20 ‘D’ batteries, motherfucker! Learn how to speak English first, alright?”  But, in the same scene he smiles and tells shopkeeper Sonny (Steve Park), “You’re alright, man”, diffusing any threat of real conflict.

Mookie isn’t necessarily noble or likeable, however his actions towards the end of the film disrupt this reading of him and show significant character development. Ironically, there is not that much black and white in this film; the characters live in a world of greys.

Although the film has no typical heroes, it is clearer about its villains, particularly the police. Also there is pizzeria owner Sal’s son Pino (John Turturro), who is openly racist and tells Sal, “I’m sick of niggers.” Sal is more complicated.  He sees himself as a good guy who takes pride in feeding the neighborhood. Sal later tells Mookie he sees him as “son”. Despite this, during the film’s climax and in the verbal screaming match between him and Buggin’ Out, he flips and uses racial epithets, telling Radio Raheem to turn off that “jungle music” and hurls profanities like “nigger motherfucker”.

In his book, “BFI Modern Classics: Do The Right Thing”, Ed Guerrero points out that it is Sal who destroys Raheem’s boombox with a bat: “A line is crossed here, from words to physical action.” When that violence escalates and turns fatal, the victim doesn’t need to be an angel for us to have tears in our eyes. He was real, we knew him.

“Do The Right Thing” was partly inspired by the 1986 Howard Beach incident in which a black man, Michael Griffiths, was killed while escaping an angry white mob with baseball bats after exiting the New Park pizzeria. The mob had earlier tried to chase him and his black friends out of the neighborhood. Unsurprisingly, this was only one of the stories that Lee drew from to write “Do The Right Thing”. This story is sadly familiar nearly 30 years later.

In 2016, amidst the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and a never-ending list of unarmed African Americans being killed by police, the film is even more relevant. In 2015, young black men were nine times more likely to be killed at the hands of police than other Americans, and 2016 looks to be on par. In a South Africa where the police killed 34 miners in Marikana for striking for a better life, and where the politics of representation and ownership are still unresolved, the tragic trajectory of “Do The Right Thing” sends chills down your spine.

When the film was released, journalists feared it would spark race riots and hate crimes. There were even warnings issued to white people to avoid seeing the film. Instead, it caused a nation to reflect, and affirmed the black experience around the world. Despite critical and fan acclaim, the film was mostly snubbed by the Academy Awards in 1990, receiving two nominations for Best Writing and Best Supporting Actor (Danny Aiello).

Tellingly, Best Picture went to “Driving Miss Daisy”, which Ed Guerrero calls

the paternalist problem picture with its long-suffering black servant … The contrasts between Morgan Freeman’s rendering of an elderly, humble and enduring Negro servant in “Driving Miss Daisy” and Spike Lee’s portrayal of the feckless, urban youth Mookie could not have been greater in the 1989 Oscar year.

Last year Lee finally won his Oscar at the Academy’s annual Governor’s Awards, an honorary nod for his contribution to cinema.

Filmically, there is so much more to be said of “Do The Right Thing”: its beautiful cinematography, it’s on-point casting (Rosie Perez’s debut as Tina, and Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee as an elderly couple) and its belligerent dialogue (“I’m just a struggling black man trying to keep his dick hard in a cruel and harsh world!”).

The film often breaks the “fourth wall” – the imaginary “wall” that exists between actors and the audience – making us aware of its construction, like in Raheem’s dreamlike love/hate soliloquy and the racial hatred montage. Watching it all these years later, perhaps what’s most impressive is how fresh the film still feels, even down to the classic hip-hop and “Afro-centric” clothes and haircuts (there are many Buggin’ Outs walking the streets of my home city of Johannesburg as we speak).

“Do The Right Thing” was a challenge to Hollywood’s cultural hegemony. Lee fought to get the story told on his terms, exchanging larger financial support for his artistic vision. Most importantly, the film doesn’t offer neat answers, but rather important questions, which haven’t lost any of their urgency today. As a filmmaker, one can only hope to create work with such long-lasting effect.

*This post first appeared on The Conversation Africa. It is republished here with their kind permission.

On Safari

Image by limeabeans via Flickr.comImage by limeabeans via

While we would like to go full steam year round, the fact that we have day jobs (for example, I work as a professor), mean we take a break from the site every summer. Officially we went on break Friday, July 16th (we set up you up with a Sierra Leone-connected mix). However, in honor of one of our patron saints, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (not the Hollywood version, but the more radical, contradictory Mandela) whose birthday it is today (he would have been 98 years old), we’re making the break official. Don’t worry, we’ll cook up some stuff for the fall and we’ll be back on September 1. In the meantime, you can go potter around the website and catch up on our archive. If you have really bad withdrawal symptoms, check in occasionally at our social media media (Facebook here, here and here, Instagram and Twitter here, here and here). See you in the Fall.

Music Break No.98 – The Freetown Sound Edition

This, the final music break before Africa is a Country takes a month-long break itself, is inspired by the rise of two artists on the international pop scene. Blood Orange and Sampha are two London-raised artists with Sierra Leonean roots, currently making waves on both sides of the Atlantic. When checking out NY-based music and culture magazine The Fader recently, I noticed that it featured Sampha on the cover of the latest issue, and touted Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound as “Xanax for these jittery days.” These news items appeared alongside a feature on my own ocean-spanning Sierra Leonean project the Kondi Band. So in celebration of this serendipitous occasion, I present to you a playlist (hit play below, sit back and enjoy!) of up and coming international artists that you may or may not have realized have roots in the tiny West African country of Sierra Leone.

Music Break No.98 – The Freetown Sound Edition

1) Berlin-based (former NYC roommate of mine) Lamin Fofana opens us up with a blessing from his Sci-fi and Fantasy released First Symphony EP. 2) Up next is Blood Orange’s 80s flavored, New York featuring video for “Augustine” 3) Talented, singer, songwriter, and pianist Sampha performs live in the BBC Radio One studio. 4) German reggae superstar Patrice has Sierra Leonean roots, and draws a direct cultural line connecting Sierra Leone and Jamaica. 5) Forget de diamond, today Sierra Leone’s proudest export (one we share with Ghana) has to be the one Idris Elba. Here he is teaming up with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis for “Dance Off.” 6) A couple years back when I got connected to Young Fathers’ Alloysious Massaquoi via email, I couldn’t help but notice his familiar and common Sierra Leonean last name. It turns out that while his official bio states that he moved from Liberia to Scotland as a child, in fact, his father moved to Liberia from Sierra Leone (and our fathers were classmates in school). So, welcome home to Sierra Leone Ally! 7) Detroit-based blues rock singer Mayaeni recently signed to Roc Nation management, and in celebration released the above video for “Million n’1.” 8) David Moinina Sengeh has been featured in the Music Break before, but I couldn’t leave this Boston-based multi-talented Sierra Leonean artist out of this special edition! 9) World Music artist Seydu spent many years living in Spain, where I came across his music at a local record store years ago. I believe he has since relocated back to Freetown, and his recent musical output has been a celebration of that homecoming. 10) And lastly, Fela! the musical was a huge success across the world, but maybe not everyone knows about the Sierra Leonean roots of the person portraying the musical’s chief protagonist, Mr. Sahr Ngaujah!

And one last HBO-style cliffhanger bonus clip to leave you this August break. Check out this intense trailer for “Flowers”, a new short film partnership between Sierra Leonean-American filmmaker Nikyatu Jusu and Yvonne Shirley!

See you all in September!