Africa is a Country

Fed up and not afraid!

Following weeks of public demonstrations against corruption, bad governance and a rapidly deteriorating economy, people all across Zimbabwe heeded a call last week for a nationwide stay-away, in an act of defiance against the government.

In recent weeks, protests both within and outside the country have increased in both number and intensity. On Friday July 1, the Zimbabwe-South Africa border post, Beitbridge, was shut down and a Zimbabwe Revenue Authority warehouse set on fire, after citizens took to the streets to protest a government ban on the importation of basic goods.

On Monday July 4, public transportation drivers in Harare clashed violently with police during riots over police harassment and extortion on the roads, while in London, UK activists besieged Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa. The following day, teachers, doctors and nurses in Zimbabwe began nationwide strikes over the government’s failure to pay their salaries on time.

President Robert Mugabe’s order for Zimbabweans to “go about their normal business” on Wednesday went unheeded. Rather, the national stay-away day, galvanized by the social media movement #ThisFlag (to contest ownership of national symbols by the ruling party), marked one of the biggest and most peaceful stay-away actions since 2007.

In South Africa, a wing of demonstrators from the #tajamuka movement, called for Zimbabwean residents there to protest outside the Zimbabwean consulate. The Zimbabwean government responded by shutting down the social media networks, particularly Whatsapp, in an effort to thwart the stay-away. The Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) further warned members of the public against sharing information or images pertaining to the stay-away, citing such materials as threatening, subversive and offensive, and stating that anyone generating or sharing such materials would be arrested. Hackers from the group Anonymous Africa retaliated by shutting down government websites and the state controlled broadcaster, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC). In the aftermath of the stay-away, leaders of the #tajamuka movement are calling on citizens to march on the State House this coming Saturday and demand Mugabe’s resignation.

While stay-aways have been held several times since 2000, this one is markedly different on account of its non-partisanship, and its use of social media as a mechanism through which to foment and coordinate dissent: Citizens, through direct public mobilization, have deliberately articulated the need for an alternative social order; they have done so without a formal opposition political party to galvanize them; they have done so using the technological avenues available to them. Zimbabwean Twitter feeds, Whatsapp threads and Facebook walls have become spaces of electronic civil disobedience.

This digital activism is not restricted to the online environment. It has manifested in the form of collective public action. The use of social media platforms allows for the co-construction of a new type of social movement and the possibility for alternative forms of social, political and economic organization. Concrete demands have been made. Calls have gone out for the government to remove roadblocks that police officers use to demand bribes, pay civil servants on time (by the end of last week, the government had paid some of the salary arrears), take action against corrupt ministers, remove import controls (which have since been somewhat relaxed), and rescind plans to introduce “bond notes” as a means of easing the liquidity crisis in the country.

Mugabe’s government is facing serious popular resistance. Could this resistance be the basis of a national movement with real political potential? Yes, absolutely. Zimbabwe is in a new phase of politics. The public demonstrations – both organic in the form of riots and protests and organized in the form of the strike and national stay-away – point to an increasingly active and performative citizenry. Through the interface of global digital platforms and local activism, Zimbabweans are reconfiguring visibility and voice, understanding them locally, nationally and transnationally, and thereby illuminating new possibilities for alternative subjectivities and social formations.

But, there are concerns. As things stand, three separate resistance blocs are most visible; #ThisFlag, #tajamuka and Acie Lumumba’s fledgling political party, Viva Zimbabwe. A key challenge moving forward is to foster a continued coalescence of ideas, visions and plans beyond anti-Mugabe rhetoric and politics. The recent and ongoing actions in Zimbabwe point to very real forces at work, with the potential to transmute political and social arrangements within the country. Looking ahead, Zimbabweans will need to harness those actions, ideals and agendas cohesively so as not to lose momentum or face the risk of falling into obscurity – the unfortunate and all too common destination of many such movements.

Poetry as design

 Benjamin Michel (KQED Arts)Image Credit: Benjamin Michel (KQED Arts)

The last time that Saul Williams and Black Spirituals shared a stage, the global ride-hailing corporation Uber had just announced it would expand its headquarters to Oakland—San Francisco’s relatively down-market, but doggedly resilient and resistant neighbor across the water. Decades of uneven development had made Oakland a site of both economic suffering and social refuge for many people of color, migrants, and other marginalized groups. Now, the announcement seemed to script the city’s next chapter as a leading location for the growth of the region’s high-technology (and high-inequality) economy and workforce. This narrative of rebirth had been penned years ago. But the news about Uber arrived like a cold breeze off the water from the west. The city—like any city, never of one mind—groaned and cheered all at once.

For many, the news sent anxieties about accelerating displacement into overdrive, calling forth the specter of “uber-gentrification.” After all, the developer behind the deal wasted no time snapping up three “underutilized” parcels in the area (read: beauty supply store, burger stand), promising to make them proper with market-rate housing (which would cost the typical household 70 percent of its income). Furthermore, the tech sector had been excoriated of late for under-hiring Blacks and Latinos relative to their rates of education in computer science and participation in the national workforce (let alone their residence in Oakland). This controversy came to signal a skirmish within a broader war, unfolding across the region, over the social and spatial positionality of precisely who is entitled to design, engineer, manufacture, hustle, pray, conjure, code, write urban futurity.

Williams and Black Spirituals reconvened on June 2nd—this time with local poet, actress, and playwright Chinaka Hodge—for the opening night of the Bay Area Book Festival in neighboring Berkeley. Titled “Poetry as Design,” the performance promised to collapse the binaries seemingly hard-wired into the logic and narrative of “uber-gentrification” as the progressive conquest of science over art, technology over soul and innovation over old.

 Benjamin Michel (KQED Arts)Image Credit: Benjamin Michel (KQED Arts)

Each of these artists, noted Zoé Samudzi—a curator with the Matatu Festival of Stories, which organized the event—was united by a common drive to undermine and manipulate dominant languages in order to unleash meaningful difference. It is this formative quality of language—the fact that, whether textual, musical or corporeal, it underlies and directs everything from ride-hailing apps to poetry to the raced, classed and gendered notions of the “good city” that drive inequitable development in Oakland—that gives art a politics, that makes poetry, potentially, an act of design. If language informs actions, enabling some, disabling others, then we must always ask: Which languages, whose languages, script the sensible?

Over the course of a 40-minute sonic ceremony, Black Spirituals, composed of percussionist Marshall Trammell and electronic multi-instrumentalist Zachary Watkins, gave new meaning to the notion of technological “wizardry.” Methodically gathering fields of noise from Trammell’s precise but evolving drum patterns and Watkins’s space-clearing synthetic drones, the duo conjured what amounted to an awe-inspiring electrical storm (creative destruction, Samudzi called it). Their elements—one hard and punctual, the other open and spacious—met and complemented each other like the earth and the heavens. When after 15 minutes the drums fell silent, dissolving the musical container, the distant reverb of the synthesizers, ceaselessly recirculating, rushed into the void like wind through a cavern; as if by synesthesia, Black Spirituals crafted an ethereal landscape of sound.

 Benjamin Michel (KQED Arts)Image Credit: Benjamin Michel (KQED Arts)

Next, Hodge piloted the audience back to earth with poems contoured by the pleasures and pains of places she and her family have made home: West Oakland (before and after gentrification), Brooklyn (after Biggie), Kankakee, Illinois (known for its three K’s…).  Her work is ever attentive to urban geography as both place and narratives about place, each heavily contested, each informing the other. “I’m from West Oakland,” she stated. “We get a bad rap…And as we get a bad rap, we’re being replaced, as if our bodies never mattered, as if our stories never mattered.”

In response, she read two pieces from Dated Emcees (2016), her first published book of poems that narrate the neighborhood through its long-term residents. In “crude portraits of the Lower Bottoms,” she told of a beauty store where women decorate and deaden themselves “like pressed flowers,” rendering them pretty, but “easy to move.”  “what about the live rose with thorns / what about the dangerous beauties / americans never picked?,” she pondered. How might such bodies resist being contained or culled?

Finally, Williams took to the stage accompanied by Black Spirituals. In their second ever collaboration, he surfed through pages of poetry, serving up whole pieces without reading their names, or spitting choice lines, before going off-script in an improvisatory dialogue with Trammell and Watkins—truly a free style. For Williams, who regularly remixes the vocabulary of our digital age, this kind of poetic praxis is a powerful means to “override your history.”

 Jessica Jones (KQED Arts)Image Credit: Jessica Jones (KQED Arts)

“Dismantle definition dogma and duty,” he urged in “Coltan as Cotton.” “Hack into masculinity/femininity sexuality. What is taught? What is felt? What is learned? What is shared? Hack into God. Stories of creation: serpents and eggs.”

Throughout the performance, Williams posed a paradox, one familiar to the poet and the freedom fighter alike: How can one make anything new—make the “past die,” as he put it—while operating within codes inscribed before our time? And with this he issued a warning: The techno-utopianism typical of the Bay Area runs the risk of importing the systemic viruses of the past into the future social order. “It may have already,” he noted. “What does Uber pay its drivers?”

For that reason, Williams re-centered the audience on the importance of poetry as design, on divining ways of coordinating collective action that don’t depend on corporate-owned mobile apps or even things as basic as the Christian calendar (“I think the Church was the first start-up,” he mused). So what might a liberatory technology look like, a futurism of freedom?

“Got me thinking that maybe the past tense of ‘dream’ is ‘drum,’” he flowed during his freestyle. Or maybe “future conditional,” he corrected, after a beat.

Africa’s austerity apocalypse

For the IMF to publicly wonder whether neoliberalism may have been oversold is like the egg-industry admitting that it may not have always been perfectly clear whether their practices of caging hens in batteries placed the well-being of animals first. As we all know by now, last month the IMF admitted that it may have overestimated the virtue of structural adjustment measures in promoting economic development. Africa is a Country’s own Grieve Chelwa remarked that while the IMF’s essay, titled “Neoliberalism Oversold?” gives one hope that the IMF is finally coming around to the position that its policies caused a lot of damage across the world, and that “perhaps the Fund will be more cautious this time around as it intervenes in resolving the nascent debt crisis in Africa,” what appeared as an apology was a bit weak and awfully late.

And then, we stumbled upon “The Decade of Adjustment: A Review of Austerity Trends 2010-2020,” a 2015 study that made us wonder whether the IMF is sorry at all. (The study was carried out by the International Labour Organization, Columbia University’s Initiative for Policy Dialogue and the South Centre, who looked into over 600 IMF country reports and government spending projections of a total of 187 countries.)

What “The Decade of Adjustment” suggests is that unless the Fund has dramatically changed its approach the past couple of months (something their Chief Economist has subsequently questioned), far from backpedalling on austerity, the Fund keeps pushing low-income countries towards policies that prioritize fiscal adjustment, spending cuts and privatization. Their growing acceptance of what critics of structural adjustment programs have been arguing for decades, (that it depresses growth, well-being and employment, particularly in low-income countries) seems to have had minimal impact on their actions.

The authors predict what may best be described as an “Austerity Apocalypse” the next few years, with South-East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa likely to be the worst affected. If things play out as the authors predict (but urge against), the wage cuts, lay-offs, subsidy reforms and other austerity measures that have hit us the past five years, were only the prelude to what’s coming. “Overall,” the report notes, “austerity is expected to impact more than two-thirds of all countries during 2016-2020, affecting more than 6 billion persons or 80 per cent of the global population by 2020.” They continue: “In total, we project that fiscal adjustment will cause the loss of 7 per cent of global GDP and of approximately 12 million jobs over the 2015-2020 period,” with 4,7 million jobs lost in high-income countries alone and 2,4 million in low-income countries.

Across Sub-Saharan Africa, the main adjustment measures that are implemented and considered for the next few years are subsidy reform and wage bill cuts and caps, followed by increases in consumption taxes and other social welfare cuts. Ghana and Mauritania are examples of countries that, as the report notes, have already raised their Value Added Tax (VAT) by 2.5 and 2 per cent respectively.

Rather than just reflecting what governments told the IMF about their policy plans, the hundreds of documents that were reviewed in the report reinforce wide-spread concerns about how the IMF actively pushes low income countries (not just debtors) to spend less and privatize more through the annual surveillance consultations that governments subject themselves to as members of the Fund. Connecting their own findings to other recent analyses, they write that the “IMF’s role in influencing policy through surveillance” appears as the main incentive for low-income governments to walk (or run, rather) down the austerity road, noting that despite “the large incidence of poverty” in Sub-Saharan Africa, many countries “are advised to narrow-target their existing social protection programs.” For instance Burundi, Botswana, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Togo are among countries that have been advised to further squeeze their safety nets.

The Fund’s operations, they conclude, “have not yet reflected [the] findings” of the “numerous studies [that] highlight the fallacious basis of austerity programs,” including the IMF’s own recent research that “acknowledges that fiscal consolidation has adverse effects on both short and long-term unemployment, private demand and GDP growth, with wage-earners hurt disproportionately more than profit- and rent-earners.”

Quite obviously, these measures fly right in the face of the new development goals of the UN (the 2030 Agenda) and the AU (the 2063 Agenda), which are supposed to end poverty, ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all. They will most certainly not make it easier for Sub-Saharan Africa’s working poor (around 38 %) to lift themselves out of poverty or bring down its excessively high vulnerable employment rate, estimated at 76.6% (see page 54). With low wages reported as the number one reason for public protests in 2014 , with working conditions and public service delivery a close 2nd and 3rd, the prospect of ever more austerity spells disaster for the poor.

The authors argue that the IMF’s recommendations and their rationale around fiscal balances not only deviate “public attention from the unsolved root cause of the crisis, which is excessive deregulation of financial markets, as well as from logical global solutions, like a sovereign debt workout mechanism that deals fairly with both lenders and borrowers,” they will also interfere with the employment-generating growth, something that African countries particularly need.

The notion that there is no money for safety nets, decent jobs, quality education and health care simply is a myth. Just by tackling the illicit financial activities of transnational corporations and rich individuals alone, Africa could win (back) about $50 billion a year. That’s why, in addition to debt restructuring, the authors see progressive tax reforms as a far more effective and just approach than austerity, a position that’s shared by many tax justice advocates and African governments alike. There’s some hope to be gleaned from the fact that their insistence is at least pressuring the IMF, the World Bank and the OECD (who basically controls global tax rules) to take some steps. But if we are to avoid the apocalyptic predictions of “A Decade of Adjustment,” a whole lot of tax justice surveillance will be needed.

The last Journalists in a dictatorship


Anjan Sundaram’s new book, Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, takes aim at the vaunted position Rwanda enjoys in the western imagination. Far from being a success story of post-conflict peacebuilding since the 1994 genocide, Sundaram’s Rwanda exists in an authoritarian bubble characterized by fear and repression. Over the course of nearly five years living in the country, Sundaram witnessed the steady dismantling of Rwanda’s press corps and the stifling of free speech more broadly. In order to survive, some of Sundaram’s students, colleagues and friends reinvented themselves as regime propagandists, while others went into hiding or fled the country entirely. By silencing and co-opting the press, Sundaram argues, the government has largely succeeded in destroying the possibilities for independent journalism in Rwanda. I recently spoke with Sundaram about Bad News, the nature of political repression in Rwanda, and his experience working with journalists in a place where even mild criticism of the government can cost one their life.

What brought you to Rwanda? Did you know what you were getting yourself into when you decided to relocate there?

I went to Rwanda in 2009. At the time, I was looking for a quiet place to write my first book, Stringer about the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rwanda seemed like a quiet, calm country; peaceful, maybe even a little bit boring. Rwanda also happens to share a border with Congo, and so I thought that in the event that I needed some inspiration while writing Stringer I could jump across the border. What I knew about Rwanda was what you’ll continue to find in the press today – that it is a harmonious country that is recovering from the genocide and making great progress.

But I was also offered a job teaching and working with Rwandan journalists in a program funded by the European Union and the United Kingdom. I thought that this would be a great way to engage with society, working alongside my journalist colleagues in the country. What I quickly realized was that they were operating in an incredibly repressive environment. One journalist told me about how he had been beaten into a coma after he brought up the issue of press harassment in front of President Paul Kagame at a press conference. Another student, who was sick with HIV, told me about how during imprisonment she was dragged from room to room, not allowed to sleep, driven to exhaustion, and how her child was effectively orphaned during this time. These journalists were special. They were some of the last independent journalists left in the country.

The Rwanda you describe is almost totalitarian in nature.

I didn’t write this book from the perch of free speech evangelism. I focused on journalism in the book because I wanted to explore the consequences of a collapse of the free press. What happens to society? As I write in the book, “a society that cannot speak is like a body that cannot feel pain.” A crucial feedback mechanism is lost, and the government becomes capable – whether voluntary or involuntary – of incredible harm.

What is troubling about Rwanda is that the entire country is controlled at a very minute level. The country is divided into villages, each village has between one hundred and 150 families, each with a chief and an informer. Orders passed from the central government down to the villages travel very efficiently. It was this same structure that was used to execute the genocide in 1994, and was one of the reasons for the genocide’s speed and efficiency. As soon as the order was issued in Kigali, the killing commenced nearly simultaneously across the country. People went out to kill after orders were made by the local cells. That structure is still in place today, and President Kagame uses it to pursue a variety of ends.

He decides, for example, that plastic bags are bad for the environment. And so almost overnight, plastic bags basically disappeared from the country. Rubber slippers should be worn by everyone, he decides. Again, rubber slippers appear on people’s feet almost overnight. And during elections, Kagame orders that everyone get out and vote, leading to participation rates in Rwanda of 95 percent, whereas in other countries you’d get closer to 30 percent. The power of this system is extraordinary. Because it was used during the genocide, many Rwandans I know are incredibly worried about how it might be used in a country increasingly totalitarian, in which there are no alternatives to Kagame’s power, and in which society hears only one voice – that of the government.

There’s a moment in the book where one of the Rwandan journalists cautions you not to think so much about what you see, but instead to look for the things you don’t. And it seems to me that this idea echoes in the way in which journalists look to get around the government in their reporting on the country. Can you talk about how some journalists have gone about doing this, to the extent they’re able to?

That’s a great question. The thing about dictatorships in general – and Rwanda is an example of a modern-day dictatorship – is that the world has moved well beyond Cold War stereotypes, with a few exceptions like North Korea. In a modern dictatorship, spies in trench coats don’t follow you on the streets, the phone lines don’t crackle. What you have instead is something much more sophisticated. Politicians wear Western suits and announce that their country is open for business. You have multi-party elections. It’s a very different facade. In order to understand modern tyranny, then, you have to learn to listen and see quite differently. The example you referred to came from one of my students, Gibson, who taught me how to look, to see not what the government shows you, but what it hides.

To your question about how the media work around the government, there are several examples of this, but they occurred more frequently in the past than they do now. Gibson, for instance, wrote a story about malnutrition. The government narrative boasted that hunger had been banished from Rwanda, and that food production was at an all-time high. But malnutrition is a significant problem. Unfortunately, journalists could not write about this topic without official sanction. So Gibson tried to perform his role as a journalist by publishing information that would help parents feed their children better without stating overtly that there was a malnutrition problem. There are other examples, as well.

There was a paper called The Chronicles which has since been shut down. It was published in English – the language of the elites – and so most Rwandans couldn’t read it. The conversation was therefore limited almost exclusively to Rwanda’s elites. Because the paper had no widespread readership, it posed almost no threat to the government. One of The Chronicles’ front-page headlines asked “What is Paul Kagame’s salary?” The story actually had no news content. It turns out Kagame’s salary, officially, is in the median of most heads of state. But the fact that the paper’s editor was willing to ask the question was news. It was a benign question on its face, but in Rwanda it was understood as breaking a taboo.

But then the editor went in even further. In 2010, Paul Kagame said he would not run for a third term in power, and promised to respect the constitution that limits presidents to two terms. This editor suggested that Rwandans should take Kagame at his word, and argued that society should spend time thinking carefully about what sort of leader the country needed, what sort of leader should follow after Kagame. He actually went around interviewing the leading lights of Rwanda – politicians, intellectuals, and the like – about where the country was headed, where it should head. Very soon after, the paper was shut down. It was harbinger of what was to come. Just recently, Kagame announced that he would break his previous promise to respect the two-term constitution and will run for a third term as president. The constitution has been changed to allow him to remain in the presidency until 2034, potentially.

More generally, there are other ways in which people try to get around the government. I met one man in a village who appeared to be insane, but later pulled me aside and told me he had things to tell me in private about what was happening in the village. In public his persona was one of madness, and so people dismissed him, which gave him a kind of permission to say things that ordinary people might not.

There’s a kind of sad irony in that, in the sense that those who speak truth to power in Rwanda are sometimes, as you describe in the book, driven to insanity by government repression. But you also discuss the ways in which living in Rwanda disoriented your own sense of reality, and took a psychological toll on you while you were there. Can you talk about this a bit more?

Rwanda is a very easy place to live in on the surface. It’s clean, it’s orderly. Officials obey orders. But once you get beneath the surface – and I did through my work with Rwandan journalists – it became a difficult, almost impossible place to live in. For example, one night I heard an explosion. I raced out to the site, but was told that nothing had happened by officials. Some of my colleagues confirmed that they too had gone to the site and had attempted to take photographs. But the officials denied that anything of the sort had happened. And over time, if you cannot get confirmation from the outside world of the things you hear, in this case, you begin to doubt that you had heard what you thought you had heard. This is extremely disconcerting.

I related in the book an instance where a colleague took me out to the countryside where many people were homeless. We weren’t sure why the people were homeless or that they were homeless at all—it wasn’t reported by the press. I was shocked to see thousands of people living out in the open, in some cases quite sick. It was rainy season, so some were suffering with pneumonia or malaria, the elderly and children were dying. Some people lived in the few cement homes in the villages, stuffed into tiny rooms with goats and pigs for want of space. All of the huts that had previously housed these people were disassembled. Thatch lay on the ground. It could have been put back on roofs, and yet the people didn’t do it. There was no sign of aggression, no signs of violence.

I was stunned by what I saw. When I asked one of the villages who had done this to them, who made them homeless, he said, “We did.” As it turned out, President Kagame had decided that grass roof huts were primitive, and local officials – desperate to please him – had gone out to the villages to get them to tear them all down. Remember, civil society was broken, no journalists were going to report this. The villagers tore down their own huts, and then asked: now what? And the officials told them that they had to wait for further instructions. I saw in front of my own eyes the harm a society can inflect on itself when it can’t speak. There had been these moments before – most famously the genocide – when society did itself harm under direct government orders.  And large numbers of people complied. To live in a society where such massive betrayal of the self was happening so often became increasingly disturbing and distressing for me.

It isn’t just people that get broken down, including those reporters that are coerced into following the government line. As you describe in the book, foreign governments and humanitarian agencies – who know better – are also going along with the program. Why?

Any foreign correspondent worth his or her salt will tell you that their reporting in a country is only as good as the local journalists they’re partnering with. This is especially true today as foreign correspondents often parachute in, spend – if they are lucky – about a week in that place and have to produce a seemingly authoritative report. What’s happened in Rwanda is, with local press destroyed, the link between society and foreign correspondents is broken. Some journalists who come in might genuinely believe that what they are seeing and what they are hearing is the truth. They might not be aware or sensitive to the incredible fear and tyranny in Rwanda. It’s one reason for the positive press about Rwanda – essentially repeating the government narrative – that celebrates a country rising from the ashes after the horrors of genocide.

But for those familiar with dictatorship, the facade is quite obvious. I remember meeting a Russian UN worker whom I asked, just a few days after his arrival, what he thought about Rwanda. He laughed, and said, “It’s just like the Soviet Union: I opened the newspaper this morning and there’s only good news!” An untrained eye might see a prosperous, happy country in those positive reports. But to someone like him who knows, who is familiar with these contexts, well, the whole thing rings alarm bells. Another woman I met, who had grown up in the former Yugoslavia under Tito, reported similar things. There was something about the tone adopted by the government; she knew she had to be very careful about what she said in Rwanda.

To your question about foreign governments and international aid organizations: they are aware of everything that is happening in Rwanda, aware of the repression. They are aware of every single military official, journalist, activist, who has been killed, forced into exile or disappeared. They know about it. And yet they continue in a hypocritical relationship with the Kagame government. Western aid programs are “successful” largely because of the same efficient, repressive system the Rwandan government uses to maintain power. These aid agencies come into the country with all sorts of plans written up and, as soon as they have been approved by the Rwandan government, 95 percent of people follow the plan.

This is in stark contrast to most of the rest of the developing world, where you might be lucky to get 30 or 40 percent compliance and participation in aid programs. And so, for many Western governments and aid agencies, Rwanda is a paradise. I have seen so many foreign officials, and foreign aid officials, receive promotions for their effectiveness and the efficiency with which their operations are conducted in Rwanda. The incentives are all in the wrong place. There is no incentive for them to speak up about the repression. In fact, they have come to a point where they can use it for their own ends, their own benefit.

It has led to a perverse relationship between Rwanda’s repressive system and international aid organizations. This is nothing new, it should be said. Dictatorships have long been convenient for Western governments. In a dictatorship, they often only have to deal with one person. There’s no need to deal with the parliament, for example. And so foreign interests are served quite easily: there is no parliament to observe or ratify your treaty. Western governments have long had these relationships, whether with Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, or the regime in Saudi Arabia, or Bashar al Assad in Syria. It’s the same thing with Rwanda – there’s very little difference, in fact.

What’s been the fallout from the book since it’s been published.

I knew from the beginning that writing a book like this would mean severing all my ties with Rwanda. I lived there from 2009 through 2013 – almost five years in total. It’s the longest I’ve lived in any one place in all my adult life, the closest I’ve come to knowing a sense of home. And so I had many close ties, close friendships, with people in Rwanda, and I knew that I would have to forsake those in order to say what I thought needed to be said. But it was a price that I decided was necessary and worth it, because of the frequency with which the government was abusing its power in Rwanda.

It was important to write this book, as well, because as a foreigner I can afford to lose those ties. A Rwandan who says the things I say in the book could face death, and will certainly face harassment. The stakes are much higher. The journalists I was working with were incredibly brave – they knew the stakes, they knew the risks in confronting the government. They knew they could lose their lives, and some of them did. But they were hoping for a country that is freer, a country that was less likely to witness more violence in the future, a country where their children could enjoy a sense of freedom. The stakes were higher, but also were the rewards. It’s a completely different situation for them.

It was a traumatic experience to come out with the book. It has changed my life. I wouldn’t try to go back to Rwanda. Journalists who have criticized the government have been barred from the country, deported in some instances; some of their children have been threatened, even in the United States and Canada. I don’t expect to be let back in any time soon. The Rwanda government, interestingly, sent one of their officials to a talk I was giving at Chatham House in London. That official asked me very personal questions – who I was living with in Rwanda, what my visa status was at the time, and so on. The minutiae of the questions were clear signals that they had been looking into my file. Otherwise, the government continues to put forward the narrative that it always has: that there is no repression of the press in Rwanda, or if there has been, it is now free.

The end of the book includes an appendix listing more than sixty journalists – and the list is hardly exhaustive – who have been killed, arrested, disappeared, tortured, or forced to flee the government in fear for their own lives after criticizing the government. There has been no comment from the Rwandan government on this.

The book concludes on a downbeat note. Is it your sense that nothing has changed since you left, that the free press is dead and destroyed in Rwanda?

At the end of 2013, there was a government effort to “improve” the condition of the press, on the surface at least. An oversight body was set up so that journalists could regulate each other, but last year, I believe, the head of that body had to flee Rwanda in fear of his life. He had opposed the government’s banning of the BBC, arguing that an important information source for the people that had been banned. This amounted to an implicit criticism of the government. He received death threats, and ultimately fled to Germany. So no, I don’t believe there has been much change; things may be worse now. That said, there are still some very good journalists in the country. But they are largely silent. They have seen what has happened to their colleagues who attempted to do the work of journalism, who attempted to hold the government accountable. And so they do not carry out their profession as they should, for very understandable reasons.

Africa In The New Century


Writing about Africa in 1830-1831, this is what Georg Hegel, the great German philosopher, had to say: “The peculiarly African character is difficult to comprehend, for the very reason that in reference to it, we must quite give up the principle which naturally accompanies all our ideas—the category of Universality. In Negro life, the characteristic point is the fact that consciousness has not yet attained to the realization of any substantial objective existence—as for example, God, or Law—in which the interest of man’s volition is involved and in which he realizes his own being.”

Originally presented in a lecture series and later compiled in The Philosophy of History (Germany, 1837), Hegel adds: “The Negro … exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality—all that we call feeling—if we would rightly comprehend him. There is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character.” Hegel then promises himself not to ever mention Africa again, for “it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit.” What we properly understand by Africa, he concludes, “is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature.”

More than a century after Hegel’s ruminations, Robert D. Kaplan, a US journalist and policy pundit, published “The Coming Anarchy,” a devastating portrayal of West Africa in the February 1994 issue of the US-monthly magazine, The Atlantic. The Cold War had just ended and most of the western world was triumphantly riding on the crest of a wave of optimism. Celebrating this triumph—of the west and of what he called the western idea—Francis Fukuyama, writing in a 1989 issue ofThe National Interest, an American bi-monthly international affairs magazine, suggested, “what we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such.” By “the end of history as such,” Fukuyama did not simply mean the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution. More fundamentally, he meant the reconciliation of the market principle and the idea of freedom, and “the universalization of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

But, projecting himself to the day and times after history had ended, Fukuyama could only see melancholia and sadness, a profound nostalgia for the Hegelian world: “The end of history will be a very sad time.

The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual care-taking of the museum of human history.”

As Fukuyama wrote his epitaph to history, Africa was in the midst of a spectacular collision. Apartheid and white minority rule were coming to a formal end in South Africa while a genocide of cataclysmic proportions was unfolding in Rwanda. Liberation and apotheosis of long years of struggle on the one hand, self-destruction on the other. Declining per capita incomes and production, low levels of savings and investment, slow growth in agricultural production, failing export earnings, strangled imports and unserviceable foreign debt burdens—all plagued most of sub-Saharan Africa.

In his scenario for the 21st century, Kaplan argued that West Africa in particular was becoming: “the symbol of worldwide demographic, environmental and societal stress, in which criminal anarchy emerges as the real ‘strategic’ danger. Disease, overpopulation, unprovoked crime, scarcity of resources, refugee migrations, the increasing erosion of nation-states and international borders, and the empowerment of private armies, security firms, and international drug cartels are now most tellingly demonstrated through a West African prism.” In Kaplan’s geography—just as in Hegel’s a century earlier—West Africa became the epitome of those regions of the world where central governments were withering away, tribal and regional fiefdoms were on the rise, and war had turned pervasive.

West Africa, Kaplan argued, was reverting “to the Africa of the Victorian atlas.” He added: “It consists now of a series of coastal trading posts, such as Freetown and Conakry, and an interior that, owing to violence, volatility, and disease, is again becoming, as Graham Greene once observed, ‘blank’ and ‘unexplored’.” Kaplan invoked the English political economist Thomas Malthus, describing him as “the philosopher of demographic doomsday” and a “prophet” of West Africa’s future. “And West Africa’s future, eventually, will also be that of most of the rest of the world … in an age of cultural and racial clash.”

This apocalyptic view of Africa’s future was echoed in 2000 when, building upon Hegelian tropes once again, the influential UK financial weekly The Economist declared that Africa was “hopeless.” In a famous editorial, titled “Hopeless Continent,” it conjured up images of destitution, failure and despair, floods and famine, poverty and pestilence, brutality, despotism and corruption, dreadful wars and plunder, rape, cannibalism, amputation, and even the weather, to suggest that Africa’s future was definitely doomed. Foreign aid workers, peacekeeping missions, humanitarian agencies and the world at large could well give up, so deeply “buried in their cultures” were the reasons for so much human misery, it concluded.

As I write, poverty and unemployment are still widespread on the continent, in some instances more so than in other emerging markets. In many quarters of the rich world, Africa, with its apparently never-ending tales of disease and disorder still inspires pity and disbelief, when it does not elicit deeply held humanitarian and philanthropic impulses—and the contempt that usually comes with them. People still struggle to make ends meet—but these days, where don’t they? They still demand products that could be both cheap and reliable. Needs are still obvious. Scarcity is still a fact. They don’t always have enough to eat. They may lack education. They may despair at daily injustices and some want to emigrate. Many still fear a violent or premature end.

But that’s not all.

Secondary-school enrollment has grown by 48% between 2000 and 2008. Over the past decade, malaria deaths in some of the worst-affected countries have declined by 30% and HIV infections up to 74%. Life expectancy across Africa has increased by about 10% and child mortality rates in most countries have been falling steeply. Over the past ten years, real income per person has increased by more than 30% whereas in the previous 20 years it shrank by nearly 10%. Only 20% of the continent’s one billion people are online, but that share is rising rapidly as mobile networks are rolled out and the cost of internet-capable devices continues to fall. As a matter of fact, more than 720 million Africans have mobile phones and 100 million were on Facebook by 2014.

Mobile telephony in particular has revolutionized the ways Africans interact and the way small and medium enterprises, farmers and informal traders operate. As a result, mobile revenue is today equivalent to 3.7% of African GDP—more than triple its share in developed economies where it was an incremental innovation. Were the internet to eventually match or exceed the level of impact mobile telephony has already achieved, it could contribute some $300 billion to Africa’s GDP by 2025, according to a 2011 report by consultancy McKinsey. It is calculated that, in this leapfrog scenario, increased Internet penetration and use could propel private consumption almost 13 times higher than current levels of $12 billion, reaching some $154 billion by 2025.

Let me take another example: the transformations that are affecting urban forms. These have been caused partly by the emergence, in the continent, of megacities and mega-regions whose density, massive spatial expansion, sheer scale of population, high levels of risks and great wealth disparities have been accompanied by dynamic and unexpected modes of urban growth. Major cities such as Lagos, Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Nairobi, Luanda, Dakar and Abidjan have continued to expand in a relatively uncontrolled, decentralized if not random way since the 1980s. Today, these cities are better understood as largely de-territorialized mega-regions with multiple urban enclaves.

Their myriad public spaces are increasingly privatized. Novel patterns of trans-regional migrations, settlement and high consumption are transforming their economic and cultural fabric, paving the way for highly stylized and hybrid or creolized forms. Visible and invisible networks of social and economic exchange participate in, but are also separate from the mainstream flows of global capital, real and fictitious. One of their defining features is not only their disjunctive social geography, but also the way in which humans and non-humans are linked together in heterogeneous and often unrecognized assemblages that contribute to the making of a unique urban civilization. More than at any other time in their recent history, these mega-regions are the direct outcome of new socio-economic forms as well as a different politics of human/non-human/techno-ecological relations.

Let’s consider, furthermore, what is going on in contemporary African art. In the Hegelian paradigm, there is obviously no such thing as “African contemporary art.” Were it to exist, it would have neither authors nor concepts, only ethnicities and their fetishes. It is enough to place completely trivial domestic objects or ceremonial objects in a museum or a gallery for them to be transformed into objects of art. In any case, the fact is that since French artist Marcel Duchamp, who nominated consumer objects as art, there are no longer works [oeuvre] as such in the west. Duchamp signed the death of the work of art in the classical sense of the term. There is no longer any image to isolate or to capture. Or at least there is no longer anything to interpret. There are only selections to be made and collections of objects to be assembled, curated and exhibited.

Since Duchamp, one might say that the act of giving form, of animation, has moved to the background. When the west “discovers” l’art nègre (Negro art) at the beginning of the 20th century, it is before all else fascinated by what it forgot—that image and form did not need to be separated; in fact they could be reconciled in the object; and their reconciliation in the object is what endowed them both with a singular animating power. Thus the vital construction of African objects at the beginning of the 20th century.

The magic of the arts of Africa and its diaspora has always derived from its power of dematerialization, its capacity to inhabit the commonplace and sensible, precisely with the aim of transforming it into an idea and an event. Historically it has come from an unambiguous recognition of the fact that the infinite cannot be captured in a form. The infinite exceeds every form—even if, from time to time, it passes through form, that is, through the finite. But what fundamentally characterizes form is its own finitude. Form can only be ephemeral, evanescent and fugitive. “To form” is to inhabit a space of essential fragility and vulnerability. This is the reason why caring and nurturing life are the main functions of the arts.

The idea of art as an attempt to capture the forces of the infinite; an attempt to put the infinite in sensible form, but a forming that consists in constantly doing, undoing, and redoing; assembling, dis-assembling and reassembling—this idea is typically ‘African’. It fully resonates with the digital spirit of our times. This is why there is a good chance that the art of the 21st century will be Afropolitan.

Whatever the case, today, another cultural geography of the world is in the making. Whether one likes it or not, Africa is firmly writing itself within a new, de-centered but global, history of the arts. It is breaking with the ethnological paradigms that will have corseted it into primitivism or neo-primitivism. More and more, the term “Africa” itself tends to refer to a geo-aesthetic category. Africa being above all the body of a vast diaspora, it is by definition a body in motion, a de-territorialized body constituted in the crucible of various forms of migrancy. Its arts objects too, are above all objects in motion, coming straight out of a fluctuating imaginary. Such too, is African modernity—a migrant form of modernity, born out of overlapping genealogies, at the intersections of multiple encounters with multiple elsewheres.

Indeed if modern art is a response to the crisis of the image, it is possible that this crisis is at the point of being resolved by contemporary afro-diasporic creation. Afro-diasporic creation is the vehicle that will allow us to escape from the crisis of the idea of the image opened up by modern art.

As we enter the 21st century, the Hegelian mythology—and its multiple actualizations—manifestly no longer holds. This mythology is now firmly unravelling. Something else is going on. It is being picked up both by Africans themselves and, curiously enough, by the world of high finance. A tacit consensus is emerging around the idea that after China, what is going on in Africa will have a huge impact not only on Africa as such, but on our planet. The emerging tacit consensus is that the destiny of our planet will be played out, to a large extent, in Africa. If there is one single idea I wish you to take from this intervention, this is it. This planetary turn of the African predicament will constitute the main cultural and philosophical event of the 21st century. It will take us far away from the Hegelian myths I cited at the start of this lecture.

This planetary turn is the result of an on-going—not yet entirely manifest—conceptual shift about which I would like to make three comments. Firstly, that Africa is gradually perceived as the place where our planetary future is at stake—or is being played out—is due to the fact that, all around the world and especially in Africa itself, older senses of time and space based on linear notions of development and progress are being replaced by newer senses of time and of futures founded on open narrative models. Secondly, within the continent itself, Africa’s future is more and more thought of as full of un-actualized possibilities, of would-be-worlds, of potentiality. Many increasingly believe that through self-organization and small ruptures, we can actually create myriad “tipping points” that may lead to deep alterations of the direction the continent is taking. Thirdly, in fact, it has of late been a matter of tacit consensus, especially among international financial institutions and experts, that Africa represents the last frontier of capitalism. While this last claim is contested in various quarters, there is nevertheless ample evidence to support it. Two examples will suffice.

The first relates to an obvious fact: Africa’s economic pulse has been quickening during the first decade of the 21st century. Real GDP rose by 4.9% a year from 2000 through 2008, more than twice its pace in the 1980s and 1990s. Telecommunications, banking, retailing and construction are flourishing, even booming. Private investment flows are surging. From $9 billion in 2000, foreign direct investment increased to $62 billion in 2008—relative to GDP, this is almost as large as the flows into China. Africa’s collective GDP, at $1.6 trillion dollars in 2008, is now roughly equal to Brazil’s or Russia’s. The continent is among the world’s most rapidly growing economic regions.

Even more crucial to the on-going transformations is the rise of middle-class consumer. Today, 40% of the continent’s one billion people live in cities, a proportion roughly comparable to China’s and larger than India’s. It is estimated that by 2035, that share will rise to 50% and Africa’s top 18 cities will have a combined spending power of $1.3 trillion. In 2000, roughly 59 million households on the continent had $5 000 or more in income above which they start spending roughly half of it on non-food items. By 2014, the number of such households had reached 106 million. According to 2010 McKinsey Global Institute report, Africa already has more middle-class households (defined as those with incomes of $20 000 or above) than India. Private consumption rose by $568 billion from 2000 to 2010. From 2012 to 2020, consumer-facing industries are expected to grow a further $410 billion.

But Africa represents the last frontier of capitalism in another, second sense. It is, against all odds, a region of our world where some of the most far-reaching formal and informal experiments in neo-liberal deregulation have been taking place. Suffice it to mention, in this regard, the structural adjustment programmes of the mid-1980s and their cohort of austerity measures countries such as Greece are now saddled with. During those years, Africa was a laboratory where some of the ideas and practices that would later be brought back to and implemented in parts of Europe were originally tested. Such was the case of the idea that the duty of governments is to install, impose and enforce market relations wherever possible; or that political intervention in the economy must refrain from redistribution, except from the bottom to the top, to create incentives for growth, the assumption being that people at the top work more if they pay lower taxes on higher incomes, whereas people at the bottom work more if their social security is taken away and their wages lowered.

These were also the years when, under the guidance of the IMF and World Bank, Africa experimented with the idea that public provision should be replaced with private purchases and growth is the result of income flowing to the already rich. Both the satisfaction of needs and the servicing of wants were subjected to the movement of markets, sociation by consumption and naked cash became the dominant mode of social integration. From then on, citizenship was bound to look structurally similar to customership, and political relations like market relations.

Even more decisively, this is the region of the world where the relationship between transnational extractive projects—which underpin most of Africa’s economic growth during the late-20th and early-21st century—and the transformations of contemporary global financial capitalism (especially under the sign of clandestine economies, enclave economies and offshoring) have been the most perversely tested.  During the last decade, Africa made its greatest ever contribution of “illicit” financial outflows and net income payments to the rest of the world. A 2013 African Development Bank report estimated that between 1980 and 2009, the economies of Africa lost between US$597 billion and US$1.4 trillion in net resource transfers away from the continent. In comparative terms, sub-Saharan Africa’s net income payments are almost three times those of the Eurozone and five times greater than those of China or India, writes Senegalese development economist Ndongo Samba Sylla.

One important implication of these transformations has been the extent to which they have influenced almost everything from household economics to environmental disruptions, scientific expertise to state governance. Another possibly even more important implication has been the extent to which these kinds of transnational operations disentangle the production of profit from the place in which the industry happens to find itself, while structuring liability and responsibility in such a way that the firms involved can remove themselves from local social, legal, political and environmental entanglements.

As sites of experimentation, Africa’s extractive economies have been deeply involved in—and will keep contributing to—the shaping of key aspects of contemporary financial capitalism. For instance, they have contributed to the remaking of the corporate form at the global scale—the structures and conditions of corporate activity and what it means to incorporate in the first years of the 21st century. The monetisation of risk—a key structural feature of contemporary futures markets—has been shaped to a large extent by experiments with new forms on the African continent. So have been offshoring (including of the means of violence), private contracting (including of security services), gambling, other economically stigmatised activities and various innovations in the field of tax avoidance. Whatever the case, the current African moment can therefore be characterised as a moment of acceleration. Africa is now perceived not as the empty cipher of Hegelian mythology, but as likely to become a significant source of rising global consumption.

If indeed the current African moment can be characterised as a moment of acceleration, the question is acceleration towards what. What are the forces behind it? Is such a historical trajectory  sustainable? At what cost and who is likely to pay for it or to benefit from it? Acceleration, I would say, towards a kind of capitalism that is mostly disjointed, almost galactic in the sense that consists of a seemingly random collection of disconnected enclaves. These enclaves are incongruously linked together in a contrived form that cannot be easily grasped within the conventional analytical paradigms. It is a capitalism of multiple nodal points, of scattered patterns, of spatial growth combined with neglect and decline. This form of capitalism is mostly extractive.

It is a frontier-type of capitalism organised around enclaves (especially mining enclaves), islands and bubbles. It will continue to profit from long-term rising global demand for oil, natural gas, minerals, food, and arable land. In any case, over the next decade, the world’s liquid-fuel consumption will increase by 25%—twice the pace of the 1990s. Projections of demand for many hard minerals show similar growth. Meanwhile, Africa boasts an abundance of riches: 10% of the world’s reserves of oil, 40% of its gold, 80 to 90% of the chromium and the platinum metal group. Those are just the known reserves. More lies undiscovered.

The development of this form of capitalism in Africa is a key aspect of the world-historical shift in the fortunes of humanity that is now underway by dint of the rise of China (and India). What characterises the unfolding of capitalism in China is its “compressed” nature. It is the fact that a fundamental shift of national economic structures occurred in the 1970s mainly through: firstly, a large industrial sector rapidly absorbing low-wage migrant labour into manufacturing for a large-scale export market; and, secondly, through state investment in critical sectors. The later shift deepened the industrial sector, and consequently raised wages, leading to increased inequalities and social polarisation.

Furthermore, a steady stream of migrant labour has been freed from the countryside as a result of land appropriation—legal or illegal, violent or peaceful. The flow of rural residents to urban areas is officially regulated through the hukou registration system that requires would-be migrants to seek approval from local authorities to move to a new area.

Advanced forms of accumulation such as high-value manufacturing, high-value services and innovation-led economic expansion in a global setting coexist with primitive forms of accumulation and a vast agrarian sector. The increasing technological complexity in the structure of its economy, in addition to contributing to growth and rising incomes, is fast adding to the pool of precarious employment due to displacement of labour, hiring of contract labour and the increasing structural power of capital, argues Indian studies scholar Anthony P. D’Costa in his 2014 essay ‘Compressed Capitalism and Development’.

Whatever the case, China has, for now, become a far more prominent actor than others in the future-making of Africa, to the point where Africa is now not only a planetary question, as I was intimating earlier on, but also and more specifically a Chinese question.

But what aspects of Chinese capitalism are being externalised in Africa? We cannot stress enough the multiplicity of transformational outcomes arising from China’s involvement in Africa. Those transformations will run in multiple directions and in complex combinations. China has become the workshop of the world with labour-absorbing, export-oriented manufacturing sectors aiming to upgrade to high-value, capital-intensive manufacturing.

The African trajectory is far from being based on export-oriented industrialisation. In some regions of the continent, land transfers are on the rise, the result of wholesale expropriation of land by real estate speculators, large corporations in the natural resource business, and by state-led infrastructure development. But the process of primitive accumulation is far from having acquired the intensity it reached in China.

Africa, like China, comprises an urban labour market with informal, casual work and self-employment, along with precarious, short-term, poorly paid and insecure jobs. This market offers a plethora of low-cost commodities and services. If in China petty commodity producers act as a reserve army that big global and national capital may deploy and exclude when needed to support their worldwide accumulation, such is not the case in Africa.

China’s entry into Africa—or Chinese externalisation, as I prefer to describe it—is largely driven by state-run enterprises. For now the globally active Chinese companies, particularly in terms of investment, are the predominantly state-owned ones in energy, mining and construction. Chinese externalisation is accompanied by many of the harsh labour conditions associated with European industrialisation and expansion. The benefits of Chinese investment for local employment are equivocal. Chinese managers prefer to use imported (and effectively indentured and contractually tied) workers from China.

The latter often live in separate compounds and have almost no relationship with local communities. And yet China’s presence in Africa links to the dynamism of small-scale indigenous capital in many ways. Capital goods and business systems emerging from China are particularly appropriate for small-scale African entrepreneurs. This includes low-cost motorcycles and solar chargers, cheap and easily repairable tractors and other types of mechanised farming equipment, machinery for packaging, metalworking and woodworking, and capital goods used in a wide variety of industries.

People across the continent have been living with and adapting to a high degree of climate variability and its associated risks for centuries. Yet the accelerated changes in the climate and increasing incidence of climatic disasters during the 20th century have brought risks into sharper focus. They threaten to erode Africa’s natural assets (land productivity, livestock, water and energy resources) and capabilities (health, nutrition, education) while keeping the region in a low human development trap.

This scenario is exacerbated by the continent’s natural fragility. Two-thirds of its surface area is desert or dry land. Its terrestrial and coastal ecosystems are highly exposed to natural disasters. The region’s livelihoods and economic activities are very dependent on natural resources and rain-fed agriculture. The spread of malaria to higher elevations because of rising temperatures compounds the effects of climate change with an increasing disease burden. Its forest coverage has shrunk by 10% between 1990 and 2005. Reduced rainfall, soil degradation and the depletion of precious natural resources is happening in a context in which two-thirds of Sub-Saharan Africans make a living from the environment. The economic, social, migratory and security impacts of this vulnerability on the rest of the world cannot be ignored—the continent will be home to over two billion inhabitants in 2050.

The continent is central to the global environmental crisis and holds some of the most potent solutions to the global ecological trap overshadowing the 21st century. Although its forest coverage has shrunk, Africa is home to the second largest mass of tropical forest in the world. The carbon storage capacity of African biotopes is considerable. At a time when global emissions are rapidly rising, this gigantic carbon capture machine is—like agricultural land—one of the essential elements of climate control. There is however a cost to preserving these natural resources, and to exploiting the vast potential of the continent’s renewable energies.

Let me end where I started: with Hegel, that is, with race and racism, and the future of the human species in this post-Hegelian age and the planetary turn of the African predicament. Race has once again re-entered the domain of biological truth, viewed now through a molecular gaze. A new molecular deployment of race has emerged out of genomic thinking.

Worldwide, we witness a renewed interest in terms of the identification of biological differences. In these times of global migrations, many are entertaining the dream of “nations without strangers.” Genomics has injected new complexity into the figure of the human. And yet the core racial typology of the 19th century still provides the dominant lens through which this new genetic knowledge of human difference is understood—and , indeed, is taking shape and entering medical and lay conceptions of human variation.

Fundamental to on-going rearticulations of race and recoding of racism are developments in the life sciences. I already mentioned  genomics. I should add our renewed understanding of the cell, neuroscience and synthetic biology. The last quarter of the 20th century has seen the rise of a molecular and neuro-molecular style of thought that analyses all living processes in body and brain in terms of the material properties of cellular components such as DNA bases, ion channels, membrane potentials and the like. This process started during the first half of the 20th century and reached its momentum during its last quarter—and continues to wield influence in the 21st century.

It is a process that has been rendered even more powerful by its convergence with two parallel developments. The first is the emergence of the digital technologies of the information age, and the second is the financialisation of the economy. These developments have in turn shaped two sets of consequences. On the one hand, there is a renewed preoccupation with the future of life itself, and on the other, capital is doing new work under contemporary conditions. Thanks to the work of capital, we are no longer fundamentally different from things. We turn them into persons. We fall in love with them. We are no longer only persons, or we have never been only persons.

We now realise that there is probably more to the idea of race than even Hegel imagined. New configurations of racism are emerging worldwide. Because race-thinking increasingly entails profound questions about the nature of the human species in general, the need to rethink the politics of racialisation and the terms under which the struggle for racial justice unfolds—here and elsewhere in the world—today has become ever more urgent. Racism is still acting as a constitutive supplement to nationalism. How do we create a world beyond nationalism? Behind the veil of neutrality and impartiality, racial power still structurally depends on various legal regimes for its reproduction. How do we radically transform the law?

Even more ominously, race politics is taking a genomic turn. In order to invigorate anti-racist thought and praxis, and in order to reanimate the project of non-racialism, we particularly need to explore the emerging nexus between biology, genes, technologies and their articulations with new forms of human destitution. At stake in the contemporary reconfigurations and mutations of race and racism is the splitting of humanity itself into separate species and sub-species as a result of market libertarianism and genetic technology.

Also at stake, once again, are the old questions of who is whom; who can make what kinds of claims on whom, and on what grounds; and who is to own whom, and what. In a contemporary neoliberal order that claims to have gone beyond the racial, the struggle for racial justice must take new forms.

But simply looking to past and present, local and global re-articulations of race will not suffice. To tease out alternative possibilities for thinking life and human futures in this age of neoliberal individualism, we need to connect in entirely new ways the project of non-racialism to that of human mutuality. In the last instance, non-racialism is truly about radical sharing and universal inclusion. It is about humankind ruling in common on behalf of a larger commons, which includes non-humans—this is the proper name for democracy. In this sense, non-racialism is the antithesis of the rule of the market. The domination of politics by capital has resulted in the waste of countless human lives and the production in every corner of the globe of vast stretches of dead water and dead land.

To reopen the future of our planet to all who inhabit it, we will have to learn how to share it again, amongst but also between its humans and non-humans inhabitants, between the multiple species that populate our planet. It is only under these conditions that, aware of our precariousness as a species in the face of ecological threats, we will be able to overcome the outright possibility of human extinction opened up by this new epoch, the age of the Anthropocene.

*This article originally appeared in City Scapes, the publication of the African Center for Cities.

What does Brexit mean for Africa?

The biggest news item of the past week was Britain voting to cancel its membership to the European Union. (The EU has many hoops that you need to jump through to join. Contrast this with African Union membership, for example). The results of the #Brexit (how the referendum is known popularly) vote came as a big surprise, particularly to the self-appointed thinking classes, the kind of people whose opinions about globalization, neoliberalism, financialization and so forth don’t, in any way, threaten their daily existence. “Take that, experts!”

The short-term fallout from the referendum has been somewhat monumental. British Prime Minister David Cameron, he of “fantastically corrupt” fame, immediately announced he’d step down as prime minister by October this year. The British pound dropped to a level not seen in almost 30 years. Stocks on the London Stock Exchange, and on exchanges across the globe, weren’t spared too. But most of this appears to be a knee-jerk reaction to an outcome that was not at all expected – especially by the experts that folks in the financial industry clamor to listen to. Some degree of normalcy should return in the coming days or weeks as some of the uncertainty is resolved.

Since we can’t resist the urge to pontificate on this or that “African” issue, we thought we should share our 2 cents (or is it 1 pence at today’s exchange rate) on the likely economic impact of Brexit on Africa.

The one obvious channel through which Brexit could affect economies in Africa is if it triggers a recession in the UK. A recession might affect trade and investment between the two regions. The Bank of England thinks a recession might very well be on the cards. A study reviewing all studies that have estimated the likely economic impact of Brexit found: “GDP losses for the UK in the range of 10% or more [could not] be ruled out in the long run.”

How much trade takes place between the UK and Africa? Not much, it turns out. Combining data from the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) for 2014, the latest year for which we have comparable data, we calculated that exports from Africa to the UK represent about 5% of Africa’s total exports. Africa is more worried about a slowdown in China, it’s biggest trading partner by far.

To be sure, some individual companies that export to the UK might suffer. For instance, the Kenya Flowers Association is rightly worried. Although here it appears that most of the worrying has got to do with uncertainty around whether Kenya and the UK will have to negotiate new trade deals that might be different from the ones already negotiated with the EU. More about this later.

What about foreign direct investment (FDI)? How important are UK investments to the continent? Again, not as important as one might think. For 2014, total FDI flows from the UK to African economies were only about 16% of total flows to the continent. In terms of the stock of FDI, a measure of the total value of investments in Africa, the UK’s portion was only 8% in 2014 (both estimates obtained from combining ONS and UNCTAD data). And the UK mostly invests in mining, quarrying and financial services, and mostly in South Africa. These sectors are hardly the type to drive self-sustaining and job-creating growth on the continent. If anything, they tend to be exploitative.

What about the pound’s “collapse”? Will it affect Africa’s trade competitiveness? Again the answer is highly unlikely. Fortunately, this is not 1901. International trade is hardly conducted in pound sterling these days. (Yes, we think it’s time they dropped the bit about it being “sterling”). So a weakening pound (which implies strengthening African currencies vis-à-vis the pound) is almost irrelevant for Africa’s trade competitiveness.

One of the ways the UK’s decision to leave might really affect Africa is if it jeopardizes the continent’s trade agreements with the EU. For instance, the East African Community (EAC) is due to sign an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the EU in October. The Kenya Flowers Association is worried that the EPA might not extend easier access to the UK, an important market for Kenyan flowers. Many other regional bodies that have already signed EPAs, such as SADC and ECOWAS, will be wondering the same. It will be months, and perhaps even years, before we know what the actual implications for the UK are in terms of trade agreements with Africa. Although given the relative unimportance of UK-Africa trade, it’s highly unlikely that a post-Brexit architecture will look drastically different to what it is today. (By the way, EPAs are a terrible deal for Africa).

The UK doesn’t have the same influence on the continent that it did decades ago. And Brexit will be further proof of that. If the UK sneezes Africa will … well Africa will say “bless you” and move on.

Africa is a Radio: Episode #17

In the shadow of the Brexit vote, on this episode of Africa is a Radio, we celebrate the UK Afrobeats scene – another homegrown, immigrant enriched culture out of London and its surrounding environs. Along with that, we do the usual visit to the African continent and its diaspora to see what’s going on around the various towns.

Also, be sure to tune into this Sunday at 6pm New York time, where Africa is a Radio will be broadcast live!



1 DJ Juls – Teef Teef feat. Mr Eazi, Eugy & Sarkodie
2 Kano – My Sound
3 Los Rakas – Me Enamoró
4 Geko – Baba
5 Belly Squad – Banana
6 MHD – Afro Trap pt. 4 (Fais le mouv)
7 Cobhams Asuquo – Boosit feat. Falz
8 Rihanna – Bitch Better Have My Raba (DJ Triplet & DJ Shabsy Remix)
9 Reniss – La Sauce (prod. by Le Monstre)
10 H Name – We Live Together (Nga Yan) feat. Stanley Enow
11 DJ X-Trio – Africa
12 Luke Howard – Lo Life
13 Novalima – San Antonio (Aero Manyelo Remix)
14 John Sofakole – Sofakole


The Rumble in the Jungle

ali and mobutu

Some of the most indelible images of Muhammad Ali come from his 1974 trip to the Congo. He was the feted guest of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko  — who renamed the country Zaire in 1971 — for the spectacular “Rumble in the Jungle” title bout with heavyweight champion George Foreman.

The fight exemplified Ali’s boxing smarts. It was there that he debuted his “rope-a-dope” strategy to defeat Foreman in eight rounds. More significantly, however, Ali framed it as a demonstration of black pride: an African government hosted the fight; black pilots flew him there, and his trip amounted to a kind of homecoming for a descendant of African slaves.

Some of America’s and Africa’s top black musical talent — James Brown, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba, Manu Dibangu, and others — headlined a massive concert to accompany the fight. All the while, Ali reveled in the love and support of ordinary people wherever he went.

But the “Rumble in the Jungle” was far from the harmonious picture of black advancement Ali and his media acolytes painted. Instead, the fight highlighted the contradictions of postcolonial politics and racial nationalism.

These tensions defined Ali’s lifelong political engagements — at times principled and progressive, at other times opportunistic and or conservative.

ali zaire

His host for the “Rumble in the Jungle” was far from a progressive third-world leader. For one thing, he was accused of working with Western powers to murder Patrice Lumumba — the first prime minister of the newly independent Congo — in 1961.

The United States, Britain, and erstwhile colonizer Belgium, together with their local allies, opposed Lumumba’s agenda for genuine independence, which included nationalizing the country’s natural resources.

Mobutu, who had been Lumumba’s right-hand man, eventually seized power in 1965. By the time Ali arrived nearly a decade later, he had turned the state treasury and the country’s natural resources into his private property and imprisoned or killed off most dissent.

That Ali said nothing about Mobutu’s despotism may have surprised many, but it was consistent with racial and Cold War politics at the time.

African-American support for movements that espoused Africanist-centered politics was very high during the late 1960s and into the 1970s. Mobutu mastered this rhetoric.

His government promoted what he called an authenticité policy: it banned Western aesthetics and culture, instead promoting African music, dress, names, and hairstyles. This was echoed in some African-American cultural practices, especially those associated with the Nation of Islam and Afrocentric movements.

But activists working with African revolutionaries found these developments frustrating. A case in point is the civil war that broke out just months after the Ali-Foreman fight in Angola.

Angola had recently attained its independence from revolutionary Portugal, and Western powers and their surrogates in the region — like apartheid South Africa and Mobutu’s Zaire — were not happy when the left-wing People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) came to power.

The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) — a movement funded by the United States and South Africa — presented itself as more Africanist than MPLA, which had some white and creole leaders.

Many African Americans supported UNITA over MPLA. This is why historian and activist Walter Rodney, in a 1976 speech at Howard University, reminded his audience that “we must of course admit that to declare blackness is a very easy thing to do.”

In Zaire, Ali seems to have made a similar move, unwilling or unable to look beyond the pageantry of racial nationalism.

*These are excerpts from a longer piece on Muhammad Ali’s complicated legacy as a boxer and political figure. Read the rest here.

Pornography and Photography


The Italian photojournalist Michele Siblioni documents nightlife in Kampala, Uganda mostly in the neighborhoods of Kansanga and Bunga: Strip clubs, bars and sex workers are his main subjects.

Siblioni’s website features a video in which one of the women he photographed shows him a tattoo with the words “fuck it sexy” written across her thigh alongside a penis and testicles. When Siblioni asks why she got the tattoo, she says she likes penises and sex. It is this type of back and forth between Siblioni and his models, that draws your attention to his exoticizing of black female sexuality.

The project is now a book, Fuck It. The centerpiece of the book is a cigarette-smoking black women. The effect: the real subject becomes the lens of the photographer himself.

There’s the image of a black woman with an ornamented ring as well as earrings. She is facing Siblioni’s camera at an angle, taking in a long drag of her cigarette. The photograph shows her fake nails, and we do not see her eyes or forehead, which is covered by a blurry finger. The image of women smoking cigarettes is one of the older tropes of sexually provocative imagery. The cigarette is a phallic symbol, and the smoke colors the image with an aura of lust and intoxication.

In another image a black woman is caught midway through her walk on the stage wearing a sequined bra and sequined underwear. Her pose is strong, and her walk is resolute, even as her eyes face the floor. The photograph shows a glimpse of the casual strip shows in Kampala. And there’s the photograph of the nude black woman wrapped in an animal print blanket. Her chest is bare and her vagina shows. She is posing quite assuredly for the camera.


The photographer’s interest lies in the black woman’s physique, and always in her on-display sexuality, reminding one of tropes observable in other African photography surveys where the images have been taken through outside lenses. How the women respond to Siblioni’s camera is key. The camera functions as an erotic tool in the exchange between Siblioni and his black women. The camera attracts and provokes sexually-charged poses. There is yet another black woman sitting on a straight-backed chair in reverse. She looks into the camera, with intoxicated eyes. And, guess what? She is smoking a cigarette.

Other photographs in Fuck It show an environment of rudimentary housing, ghettos, and homeless people. A photograph of a pile of broken egg shells; another of the jacketed security guard with a bow and arrow shows us the surprising dynamics that shape this environment. Siblioni’s vision resolves into a montage of urban decadence and provocative black female sexuality.

The chaotic merges with the pornographic, black women are given the same amount of attention as homeless people, night watchmen and seedy bar scenes. The quixotic way in which Siblioni moves from party to street to egg shells to night taxi conductor to charcoal sacks to swimming pool to boda bike riders, and to heaps of rubbish is both cinematic in its ambition, and recalls the Whitmanesque imperative described by Susan Sontag, “Treat all moments as of equal consequence.” We end up seeing Fuck It as part of the vertigo of a wild party; a half-consciousness of scenes we barely recall afterwards. And yet there is no real subject outside of the photographer himself. The place of the photographer, beside the black females, and security guards and the heaps of rubbish, is that of a benefactor. Siblioni’s naivety in his photographing black female sex workers in Kampala is the obfuscation of being a white male primarily interested in photographing black female bodies.


Danish photographer Jacob Holdt arrived in the US in the 1960s and spent five years hitchhiking across the country. Looking at American Pictures, the photobook Holdt produced, one can draw a few parallels with Siblioni’s book Fuck it. Both are foreign white male photographers spending a few years in another country, where they focus primarily on black people. Both are drawn to depictions of black sexuality, and to the aesthetic of handheld flash photography and grainy film. Both can be viewed in the context of porno miseria – depicting an underclass in a degrading environment.

There’s one Holdt photograph of a black woman in a bathtub staring straight at the camera. Her eyes have a particular kind of sadness. She is completely naked. She’s wearing a choker around her neck. I’m drawn to this image because of Holdt’s depiction of black female sexuality. The photograph is beautiful, and the subject is the woman herself, and her thoughts, her sense of vulnerability.

Holdt’s technique in which black women shared their open nudity with him, and for his camera, has more to do with his political mission in the US. Holdt was interested in the lives of the underclass, and sought – though facetiously – to integrate fully into a life of limited or non-existent wealth. He made this photographic series in order to demonstrate for his native Denmark the devastating effects of those living in a country without welfare, and the country’s industrial capitalism.


Holdt’s images of pornography are defined by his political and moral ambitions. I find the photograph of the nude girl in the tub facing the camera really fascinating because of the allusion again to purity and innocence, but similarly to the presence of the photographer and his moral position. Holdt’s pornography is not made for his own sexual gratification, but rather to expose the intimate lives of black people. His photographic journey is an experiment of living with the underclass. His photography is based on a misguided faith that he could become integrated in the underclass. Holdt also assumes a position of power in his storytelling.

Michele Siblioni, on the other hand, experiences a bar club scene that is tailored to serve an expatriate clientele. The explosion of foreign aid to Africa countries in recent decades has seen the rise of an expatriate population, and of course, of bars, clubs, and sex workers. The idea of Siblioni entering the bar scene in Kampala is also about the economic position of aid workers and the white male expatriates. Not only is Siblioni using his photography to document his own adventures, but the environment he does this within has been constructed to satisfy the white male desire for black women. In contrast, Holdt’s work becomes very intimate, and shows a genuine interest in getting to know his subjects. Holdt is interested in the intensely personal.

I go back to the relationship between Holdt’s pornography and Siblioni’s pornography; Holdt’s pornography is rooted in glimpsing the intimacy of black people as further evidence of exposing the life the underclass. Siblioni’s pornographic imagery is rooted in the specific desire of the photographer to see and to experience exotic sexuality, while prying on the privacy of black women.

In both instances, the photographer is exploiting his subject, though in Siblioni’s case the purpose of shooting the subject is for his own pleasure, and hence the work can be interpreted as characterizing the white male gaze. It seems that the ultimate goal of Fuck It is to achieve the satisfaction of the white male ego, via the camera lens, and through exotic depictions of black women.

African economies and the lack of a targeted industrial policy

Uitenhage vehicle factory, Eastern Cape province. Image via Volkswagen South Africa.Uitenhage vehicle factory, Eastern Cape province. Image via Volkswagen South Africa.

In terms of economic development, most African countries are operating below the least developed country income threshold of $1,035 per person. While developing countries in East Asia, most importantly China, have been lifting millions of people out of poverty at break-neck speed, Africa’s poverty rate has barely budged. In 2011, 69.5% of people in sub-Saharan Africa were living on less than $2 a day, only three percentage points lower than in 1981. As a result, Africa’s share of world poverty is 40% higher today than it was at the turn of the millennium.

The key to China’s rapid growth, and most other countries that have experienced the transition from low to high income, has been industrial policy – targeted interventions by the state to push economies towards the global technological frontier, especially in the manufacturing sector, while relinquishing dependence on agriculture and natural resources.

There are virtually no internationally competitive manufacturing firms in Africa, so the continent desperately needs industrial policy. The report summarized in this post is the result of work I did with Dr Ha-Joon Chang and Dr Muhammad Irfan, for the UN Economic Commission for Africa. Titled Transformative Industrial Policy for Africa. It aims to serve as a guiding tool for using industrial policy in Africa.

Industrial policy as a development theory is nothing new. One of its seminal advocates was Alexander Hamilton, the first treasury secretary of the United States. The core of Hamilton’s argument was that backward economies – which the US was in the late 18th century – needed to protect and nurture their industries in infancy through various policy measures until they could attain international competitiveness. Heeding the advice of Hamilton, successive US politicians made the country a bastion of protectionism: it had the world’s highest average tariff rates on imported manufacturers throughout the 19th century. It is ironic, then, that financial institutions much influenced by the United States – the World Bank and the IMF – thwarted any attempts by African countries to use industrial policy in the 1980s and 1990s. During those decades, neoliberalism swept the world – an ideology that saw the state fit for little more than adhering to the free market. In most of Africa, the state was consequently scaled down. But this also ended up diminishing any hope for industry to flourish.

States can surely fail, but industrialization has never happened without an active state, with its slew of tools and incentives aimed at making firms competitive in advanced sectors of the economy. The report re-emphasizes the significance of state intervention for the purpose of industrialization. In doing so we make two key policy points:

One is the importance of history. Successful catch-up economies have rarely (if ever) formulated successful industrial policy plans out of thin air. Although every country has its own political, economic and social nuances, learning from history is important. That’s why the report dedicates a large chapter to successful cases of industrial policy, from 19th century United States to 21st century Vietnam. The report deliberately provides a wide variety of cases, so that policy makers can pick and choose from this “treasure box” of tools.

Recurring tools include: tariffs and subsidies to nurture industries in their early stages, often handed out to firms on the condition of meeting performance requirements; the provision of long-term subsidized credit to industry through state-owned development banks; and the establishment of state-owned enterprises to take on risk that the private sector is hesitant to underwrite.

Take the example of South Korea between 1960 and 1990. The country’s risky entry into steel was made by the state setting up POSCO, which today is one of the world’s largest steel companies. Steel and other industries received long-term financing from the Korea Development Bank, which in 1957 accounted for 45% of total bank lending to all industries in the country. But this type of financing and other forms of subsidies usually came on the condition of meeting performance standards, like reaching a certain amount of exports in a five-year time frame.

Second, policymakers should take the changing global economic environment into consideration, but should do so with caution. Since the mid-1990s, production networks have become increasingly global and fragmented. A popular argument, especially advocated by international organizations, is that developing countries shouldn’t build entire industries to develop, but rather join a segment of a global value chain, often controlled by big transnational corporations. For example, instead of trying to build their own brand of phones, they should just assemble iPhones for Apple.

However, the report shows that since the 1990s, many countries have become trapped in a low-growth path through this type of segmented specialization. Examples in Central America, such as the Dominican Republic and Mexico, show how countries can be stuck with low-value tasks, be it assembly of electronics products or the sewing of jeans, without creating any linkages to the domestic economy. On this point, the history of economic development is clear: in order to prosper, developing countries need to take ownership of their own industries, not simply be production puppets of transnational corporations based in the West.

Ultimately, industrial policy should be context specific, so the report doesn’t provide a golden formula for success. Ethnically and culturally, the 54 countries in Africa are arguably more distinct from each other than countries in Europe.

But economically, they’re strikingly similar. No African country has structurally transformed its economy, making the move from dependence on agriculture and natural resources to manufacturing. That’s why industrial policy needs to be put on the forefront of the development agenda on the continent.

The Edge of Wrong

Edge of Wrong - Niklas ZimmerEdge of Wrong Festival via Facebook. Image Credit: Niklas Zimmer

“The closer to the edge you are, the more you see of the beautiful valley.” These words, roughly, were attributed to South African composer, Carlos Mombelli, and they inspired the name for The Edge of Wrong music festival (EoW), a South African-Norwegian collaboration for uncompromising, improvised noisemaking.

The 10th edition of this festival took place from the 21-24 April in and around Cape Town, and included a film screening, microphone-building workshop, music hacker lab and two concert nights at the Atlantic House in Maitland, and Moholo Live House in Khayelitsha.

“Experimental music” is, as the term suggest, not so easily categorized, and the event’s line-up mirrored this. From melodious violin improvisation to room-shaking, ear-drum-testing electronic noise and strange pitches, EoW’s ethos was curated, but not elitist. There was a pay-what-you-can cover charge, a make-shift bar and intimate setting, so it was not set up to be a money-maker. What’s more, the accompanying workshops, aimed at making the technology accessible, created a strong community spirit. Using materials that cost less than R20 each, for instance, Norwegian musician and sound artist Arnfinn Killingtveit showed attendees in Khayelitsha how to build a microphone.

There was also a focus on unconventional electronic sounds that, if you weren’t used to hearing them, might sound like random tinkering or unpleasant noise – an excuse to make music badly under the guise of experimenting, some might say. I was interested in understanding these sounds.

I sat down with founders, Morten Minothi Kristiansen (Norway) and Righard Kapp (SA), to find out. Morten had spent some years studying jazz at the University of Cape Town and, although there was a more established scene for experimental music in Norway, he happened upon like-minded musicians here. Righard was one. Together they put on the first, “quite badly organized” festival at the Labia Cinema in 2006. They went on to build a community of experimental musicians in South Africa.

Righard explains that you don’t listen to experimental music the same way you would listen to a catchy song; if this is your expectation, then you might be quite turned off. He believes it is music that not only accepts failure but invites them. It’s “a different kind of theatre,” stripped of embellishment, rooted in performance and very self-aware.

It’s a visceral, immediate thing… that let’s one feel quite empowered… removed from these machinations that keep our lives in bubbles. The best things I have facilitated, I didn’t feel, ‘Wow I did that.’ It was like, ‘Wow it happened.’

Just like a relationship counsellor would tell you to “embrace your mistakes,” Morten believes that mistakes can lead to great music.

We have scientists who get paid a shit load of money to cure cancer… They do experiments… because they’re on their way to something. It’s a bit like that with this music. Of course it’s not about playing badly either.  There are ways to define quality in experimental music, and there can be a lot of structure too. A good improviser is somebody who knows his shit, who knows his instrument.

Edge of Wrong

Arnfinn Killingtveit’s performance at the Atlantic House exemplified this expertise and use of structure. He performed, solo, a generative algorithmic composition that would have required about 20 hands if he had to play it conventionally. Through tapping on a table and connecting the motion to timers, calculations were generated according to the interval between each tap. Every time he hit the table, some numbers would stay the same and some would change to create a complex score of physical sounds computed through synth models. By removing human intervention, at least to a certain extent, the composer himself couldn’t be sure of the outcome, producing an otherworldly arrangement.

Exploratory, DIY approaches like the Edge of Wrong festival add value; especially in places where radio airtime has until very recently been monopolized by the American pop genre. Droning noise crescendos are not for everyone, but a free, open space that allows for play and experimentation is. In the same way that we acquire a taste for whiskey or become accustomed to the burn of chili, perhaps we can discover something amazing by sitting and listening to the noise.

A Ugandan Spring

On a lunch break with a group of friends last month, our conversation was suddenly interrupted by the roar of a group of fighter jets flying over the hills of Kampala. The seemingly new Russia-made Sukhoi Su 30-MK2 war jets twisted and turned in the air, leaving the residents of Kampala musing at this unusual sight. That very afternoon, the Minister of Information, Jim Muhwezi, addressed a rushed press conference, announcing a government ban on any further media coverage of the newly-announced opposition-led “defiance” campaign. The police chief nodded. The message was clear.

The jets have since become a common sight. Meanwhile, since February, columns of between eight to 10 soldiers can often be seen strolling the streets of Kampala any time of the day. The now all-too-common police vehicles are strategically positioned around the city, well equipped with teargas, policemen and sometimes plain-clothed operatives. At the headquarters of the key opposition party, Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), garrisons of armed men daily stand still, their mean-looking faces sending a warning message to any potential protestor. Homes of key opposition politicians have routinely been placed under siege, and social media has been frequently switched off in recent weeks.

This has been the regime’s grim response to the defiance campaign, which calls for civil disobedience until the government cedes to an independent audit of the election results released in February, which gave the 72 year-old president Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) party – in power since 1986 – a controversial victory, with 60% of the vote, and a fifth term in office.

So far, the regime’s response to the planned protests has revealed its deep-seated fears of a possible “Ugandan spring.” When, in 2011, demonstrations broke out in nearby Egypt, the media – especially social media – proved an indispensable tool to the thousands of youthful protestors in Tahrir Square. The protests spread like a wildfire. Mubarak fell. Soon after, inspired by the Tahrir protests, Kampala witnessed the first serious protest against NRM rule, constituted in the Walk-to-Work protests. They were eventually crushed, largely because the protestors framed their demands purely in economic terms, focusing merely on the escalating prices of oil and foodstuffs. Nevertheless, the protests left an indelible mark on Ugandans’ political psyche.

The recent defiance campaign in Kampala, coming five years later, is a reincarnation of the Walk-to-Work protests, albeit bolder in its objectives. Unlike its predecessor, the defiance campaign is unapologetically political in its demands, challenging the very legitimacy of the Museveni regime, and thus approaching the Egyptian revolution, at least in purpose. That the regime has in no way missed the real message behind the demand for a special audit of election results is evident in the harsher response the campaign has so far received. This, however, has made the future of the planned protests very uncertain, and many Ugandans have been hesitant to identify with them for fear of retribution.

The regime’s message has been clear: the government will take no chances. Any protest movement will be nipped in the bud before it crystallizes. The strategy has paid off – at least for now. The streets have been largely clear. Yet, the recent narrowing of political space, far from containing popular dissent, has made it even more likely that any popular demands in future will have to find expression outside the formal mechanisms of the political system. With faith in the electoral system significantly eroded, popular protests outlawed and the media banned from covering opposition activities, it might only be a matter of time before popular energy erupts in a new movement, one perhaps even more dramatic than that in Tahrir. After all, the North African protests were driven not by the media per se, as NRM logic has it, but by the politics of repression.

The future of the current defiance campaign might be bleak, but the radical nature of its demands, compared to its predecessor, calls for deeper reflection on an important contemporary lesson: the more political space shrinks, the more likely it is that popular discontent will seek for alternative channels through which to articulate itself, sometimes even at the risk of violence.

Weekend Music Break No.97

Here’s another Music Break to soundtrack your weekend! This round up is the “other countries” edition with a selection of tunes starting out in Latin America from Cuba to Brazil, and ending up around the rest of the African diaspora. Check it all out via the Youtube playlist below!

Music Break No.97

1) We kick it off with what I’ve been told is Cuba’s biggest tune of 2016, “Hasta que seque el Malecón.” 2) Then we go to Puerto Rico with Ifé and their Orisha-tronica sound (h/t Pablo Medina Uribe). 3) Next up, inspired by the movie “Manos Sucias,” and one of the most heartwarming scenes about music I’ve ever seen recorded on film, Grupo Niche and their classic salsa tune “Buenaventura y Camey.” 4) Then we move from Colombia’s Buenaventura, to the Chocó and rap group ChocQuibTown’s “Nuqui (Te Quiero Para Mi).” 5) I love the idea from a recent article in Globo that Funk is more Baiano then ever — MC Menor da VG runs with that idea and visits Salvador da Bahia during carnival, at the same time showing how o cavaquinho ta conquistando o Funk. 6) UKs Afrobeats don, Fuse ODG, turns in a new video for his tune “Only.” 7) Brussels residents Badi and Boddhi Satva team up on an Afro-Hip-House anthem on “Integration.” 8) South Africans scattered about the world Mo Laudi, Gazelle, and DJ InviZAble unite in the Pantzula dancer featuring “Speak Up.” 9) South African originated Norweigian Nosizwe teams up with Georgia Anne Muldrow on “The Beat.” 10) And finally, Nigerian-American Tunji Ige takes it from Philly to LA with both a West Coast visual and sonic vibe on “War.”

Have a happy weekend, and sports fans, enjoy the many tournaments going on around the world!

The Uber driver and Muhammad Ali


The Uber driver has never heard of Muhammad Ali. I am flabbergasted.

I always sit in the front, even when I am alone in an Uber. It makes me feel more egalitarian. Also in Johannesburg there is the taxi drama and it would nice not to be entangled in violent fights between a dying industry and one that is just being born. Anyway, when I am up front I feel obliged to talk and so a few minutes into our ride, as I am scrolling through my phone looking at Facebook, I say to him, “It’s so sad, Muhammad Ali has passed on,” in a conversational tone.

But he seems confused and asks me who that is. I am equally confused and so I say, “Muhammad Ali. You don’t know him?”

The Uber driver is older than most. He might be around sixty and I wonder why is he driving and where he comes from but his name is Owen and that tells me nothing. He is not from Zimbabwe. This man’s Zulu is not Ndebele. But then I think to myself that if he were from Zimbabwe he would have heard of Muhammad Ali.

Surely – no matter where he is from, he should know who Muhammad Ali is. What kind of person doesn’t know Ali?

I persist. This issue is now becoming more important to me than it ought to. I show him a picture on my phone.

“Him.”  I say.

He shakes his great head and there is not a hint of recognition. I tell myself that it’s because he is only half-looking. He is trying to keep his eyes on the road instead of looking at a picture of a man he’s never heard of.

“No, I don’t know that guy.”

I flick through my phone looking for a younger picture of Ali. I find one of the boxer in his prime. Ali is standing over an opponent looking triumphant. I am distracted for a moment because I have just seen from the caption underneath the picture that the Rumble in the Jungle was in October, 1974. I am surprised. I remember everything about that night. I remember my dad and his friends drinking whiskey in the living room. I remember the cloud of smoke curling under the lamplight. I remember the flicker of the TV screen playing on their faces. I even remember his skin was caramel, even through the black and white of the TV. I remember the crowds screaming and screaming. Ali Bomaye! Ali Bomaye!

But these are not real memories. They are just pieces of nostalgia and other people’s recollections woven into my heart. They have been inserted by the cultural milieu in which I grew up – a product of the privilege of growing up with a television in the house and a father who was mad about boxing. I was barely born when that fight took place. I can’t believe that all of these years I have been carrying around this idea that on the night of that match I was a child curled on father’s lap when in reality, I was only a few months old, asleep in a crib next to my mother, blissfully unaware.

Anyway, this is all a distraction. The matter at hand is the driver.

He doesn’t recognize the younger version of Ali either.

“Anim’azi,” he says. “Is he from South Africa?”

“No, from America.” I tell him, still incredulous but trying not to seem so.

Suddenly I want to cry. I cant ask, “Like where have you been dude?” because I know the answer. He has been here. Or perhaps, put differently, he has never been anywhere and this is not his fault. He has no idea that Ali was the greatest and he doesn’t know anything about Zaire (now Congo again) or Mobutu Sese Seko and I am beginning to understand the full import of this. He may have never heard of the Vietcong and maybe he doesn’t know about the Black Panthers either.

None of this is his fault of course. Still it is remarkable and it troubles me. He is driving a Toyota Corolla Uber and using GPS and he has never heard of Muhammad Ali.

Everyone on my Facebook timeline knows who Muhammad Ali is, but then again everyone on my timeline has been somewhere. Many of them have been pretty much everywhere. Everywhere that counts at least and it is obvious that this Uber driver is from nowhere; at least nowhere that counts. Although he has the app, he is not a citizen of Online.  That country, it seems, is a faraway place.

Maybe, all of these years while the Uber driver was alive but walking around this Earth not knowing who Ali was, he has had other things to worry about. Maybe his eyes were fixed too firmly on keeping one foot in front of the other for him to be looking for Muhammad Ali on the horizon.

I – on the other hand – have been to America and back. I read the New York Times. I am part of the New World and I travel to Online frequently. I am plugged in and I am beginning to understand that even though I thought Uber was a signifier of citizenship, I was wrong and so I say to him, quietly and without a hint of the incredulity that I am feeling, “Oh, okay. Well, he’s famous. Anyway, ushonile izolo.”

“Awu, shame.”  He says.


You assume – because you are both plugged in and you both have smartphones – that you and the Uber driver are the same. You think that somehow you are participating equally in the technological revolution and so you erase your class position and his and in your mind you are sort of like a single being. You turn him into your friend because he has your cell number and you have his and this is a slippery place to be and it is dangerous too because to him your chumminess is also accompanied by your willingness to pay R6 a kilometer and that must feel like a knife in the chest.

Every time you sit in an Uber and ask, “How’s business?” you want him to say, ‘It’s busy, my sister!” and when he doesn’t disappoint you; when he tells you a story about the peak times and how long he has been driving, then you are relieved and soon you begin to believe that Uber is democracy because his car is clean and he is chatty and ‘smartly’ dressed and you can call him by his first name and he can do the same, because…um, the app.

You begin to think that you are just the same and that Uber is justice and economic freedom because he does not smell like mahewu and firewood and there is not even a whiff of his sweat when you get in even though he sits in this car all day long.

You rate him and he rates you and so you begin to believe you are both the same. You forget that you are in the car because you have a credit card and he is driving the car because he probably does not have a credit card. You even forget that he is talking to you and being nice because he needs the money and at the end of the ride you will have to rate him.

You forget that Uber is a brand and using it does not transport you both to Silicon Valley because somehow somewhere along the way Uber came to mean Google and Twitter and all of these things that are very cool and very modern and you forgot in all your coolness and Uber-ing that you are paying a laborer for a service.

It is easy to forget the transactional real-world issues that are at stake when you never have to fumble and touch someone’s hands over rands and cents at the end of a cab ride. You can act as though there was never a transaction at all – as if you just had a momentary casual friendship.

Uber is a fantasy that lets you pretend that your fingertip is not more powerful than your driver’s entire body. You can pretend that he isn’t steering you through the city and across its highways; driving so that you can have your hands free so that you can keep writing and stay connected and get ahead while he drives the same routes over and over again – in a loop that may never take him forward. It is easy to pretend that you aren’t engaging in digital exploitation when it’s all on your phone and on your card and in the ether.

But when your driver has never heard of Muhammad Ali suddenly you realize that you are not his friend and you and he occupy different worlds and you wonder whether you should count yourself lucky that he does not yet see you as his enemy.   

The G.O.A.T.


The emotions run high when I think about Muhammad Ali and what he meant to me, to us, as children, growing up during apartheid in South Africa. There were days when it felt like the violence and oppression would never end, that we would not win, that the system was too big, too strong.

We were kids. White supremacy was all around us, on the streets, in Casspirs and Buffels, dressed in army and police uniforms spraying teargas and rubber bullets at us as we walked to school. Nelson Mandela was in prison and his image was banned. We were black and we were being beaten and the system was against us – as it was against millions of others around the world.

During those years, Muhammad Ali was part of what gave us hope, part of what shaped and inspired a psyche of defiance and resistance. As a child schooled in black consciousness and from a Muslim home, here was this black man, a Muslim, with whom I shared a first name, Muhammad, standing up to Empire. Years earlier he had told the most powerful racist establishment on the planet that he would not go and fight their war. And he did that in a way and at a time when it was unimaginable:

Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years. 

There can perhaps be no modern equivalent of that statement, given what the world was like then.  Ali’s audacity, courage, defiance and strength became part of our collective consciousness. I was too young to have witnessed his feats in the ring but to me his iconic status was about the fight outside the ring. From the witty verbal jabs to the powerful political statements, Ali used his status to challenge, to provoke, to speak truth to power. And he did that with a mix of charm and humor as well as anger and strength. When I think back to those days growing up, he was a superhero. He inspired, gave us courage, made us laugh, gave us permission to dream and provided hope during some very dark times. In that sense, Ali was indeed the greatest. A champion of the world and a champion of the streets.

The Nsibidi Institute Memory Project

In the previous installment of the Digital Archive, we spotlighted Liberian Journeys, a digital nationalist archiving project, collecting key artifacts from the country’s complicated history and combining those with reflections from contemporary Liberians to convey the importance of preserving the nation’s history. Other projects featured here on the Digital Archive, like Nigerian Nostalgia, show the potential for more contemporary histories to be preserved digitally. This week’s featured project, the Nsibidi Institute Memory Project, is yet another endeavor attempting to use digital forums to preserve memories of Nigeria, in addition to promoting the importance of capturing these histories before they disappear.

The Nsibidi Institute, based in Lagos, Nigeria, is dedicated to preserving Nigerian heritage through “homegrown knowledge creation.” These innovative materials are intended to be used to “foster a better understanding of Nigeria — its history, people, knowledge systems and possible futures.” In pursuit of these goals, the Institute works in numerous capacities, using their organization as a platform for rethinking space (as they did with their Open Lagos project and Makoko-Iwaya Waterfront Economic Opportunities initiative), Afro-futurism (read more about Lagos 2060 here), and the communication of culture through various mediums (for instance, check out the Nsibidi Film Hub). The Institute also focuses on the preservation of memory. Initially, their work on memory was funneled through the Between Memory & Modernity project, but has expanded into the Nsibidi Institute Memory Project, launched in 2015.

The Nsibidi Memory Project

The Nsibidi Institute Memory Project’s main goal is to “archive Nigerian history through the people’s voices.” Focused on creating dynamic interactions through audiovisual memory preservation, the project hopes to contribute to broader understandings of “the dynamic between our relative histories, as well as forms of memory and identity within Nigerian society.” The results of this initiative have produced multiple YouTube videos, including montages of responses to evocative questions to one-on-one interviews. In the interviews that have been made available on the Institute’s YouTube channel thus far, the topics of conversation have ranged from the personal (favorite television shows, first jobs, choice of hairstyles, bride price) to the political/historical (the effects of the civil war on their families). Check out a montage of the first year of the project below.

The Memory Project Nigeria: The Journey so Far

Follow the Nsibidi Institute on Facebook and Twitter. Users can find more information about submitting their own videos here. As always, feel free to send me suggestions via Twitter (or use the hashtag #DigitalArchive) of sites you might like to see covered in future editions of The Digital Archive!

*This post is No. 25 in our Digital Archive series covering African archives on the web.

In Africa, there should be djembe drums

For the last three months, we have been working on the sound design of my first feature-length documentary, Taking Stock, a film about my father and our third-generation family business in Benoni, a city to the east of Johannesburg. I brought a crew of close friends I had met at film school in the USA to spend a month talking with my father about work, legacy, generational divide and South Africa. This included Jan, our sound man from the Czech Republic.

It’s often only when a sound designer has done a bad job that a casual viewer notices the design; a “clunk” or “buzz” that sounds fake or misplaced or too loud. When done well, few in the audience will think about how the sound contributed to the experience, and fewer understand the process: during the shoot, Jan focused on getting “clean” audio from the people filmed. But, at the same time, he carefully noted the unique flavor of the different spaces we visited, from the busy streets of the Jo’burg central business district, to the outskirts of the Drakensberg, Limpopo’s villages, the walled suburbs of Houghton, and the buzzing Sunday afternoons of Daveyton township. Each of these places sounds different, and each needs to be reflected as such, or it might read false to a viewer who knows the place, if only on a subconscious level.

After the cameras have stopped rolling, it falls to the sound designer to create a world through sound that is both engaging and natural. They will reengineer spaces by adding backgrounds, effects and music, while saving auditory “room” for dialogue, always in service of emotion and story. Someone who has been to Durban, on South Africa’s east coast, knows that it sounds unique, even if they can’t put their finger on the balance of voices, atmosphere and the things that makes it so. When you’re recording on the day, you can’t capture all that, so Jan and a team “build” it, sometimes long after the shoot, in post-production.

After 18 months of picture editing, we began the sound work, with a team of three designers. We met for a review session. Watching a scene outside the family store, I noticed a weird, faint beat. In the background, one of the designers had layered a subtle track of djembe drums. She told me that she had wanted to add something with an African flavor. I laughed and told her that the drums are African, but they don’t make much sense being in the background of a scene downtown. We put in some house music from a passing taxi’s radio instead and moved on to the next scene.

When making a documentary, you live between trying to tell a real story and trying to entertain. But there is sometimes a gulf between these two because entertainment relies to some extent on fulfilling the expectations of a pre-existing genre, regardless of reality. The conventions of these genres are often simplistic: for romantic comedies, the guy and the girl should live happily ever after; likewise, in Africa, there should be djembe drums.

A South African film is operating within a broader international narrative that already has expectations about the concept of “Africa.” These can manifest as expectations about certain kinds of music or voices, certain visual cues, certain people, and more generally, certain kinds of stories. The international success of a documentary can sometimes seem reliant on the extent that it lives up these expectations: stories about poverty in Africa, war in the Middle East, drugs and gangs in Central and South America. If you want to make a film about the Far East, and you want to put butts in seats, you better make it about some kind of human rights violation.

Obvious evidence for this comes from looking at the bodies that provide institutional support. Today there are very few places to apply for documentary production grants if you are not making work about a social justice issue. It can feel like a film taking place in Africa is looked on skeptically by funders if it doesn’t address race or poverty directly. Take a look also at the Oscar nominees for documentary over the last 10 years. The majority of them are about social justice issues, and those which take place in developing countries are far more likely to be so. This holds true for selections at many major film festivals too.

Social justice is an important part of documentary filmmaking, but these stories are not enough on their own to create a realistic sense of a place, person or culture. The documentary filmmaker Jon Ronson notes how journalists tend to look for the “gems” – the facets of a person or event that are most sensational – and then put these all together to make a gripping story. In films, there is a focus on the extreme elements of a society, like genocide, collapse or revolution. This is dangerous, because it doesn’t paint complete pictures of issues or people. A topic is not exclusively described by its extremes.

This incomplete description is more acute in developing parts of the world because there are simply fewer opportunities for stories to be told – with less funding and fewer people in a position to independently spread a unique story. So, a film about a mother and daughter’s eccentricities (Grey Gardens), or about pet cemeteries (Gates of Heaven), or a strange but brilliant artist (Crumb), might struggle to find funding and an audience even more if it comes from a developing part of the world, because it’s not the familiar (read: marketable) international narrative… “If this is a movie about Africa, why am I watching a story about a shoe salesman… we have those here.”  Ultimately I think this is a tremendous loss, because these less “extreme” stories challenge preconceptions of elitist difference, while still providing a window onto the unique social fabric of a place.

On a personal level also, the preconceived narrative of “Africa” is tricky for me to navigate because I am not the ideal person to make a story about that Africa. I’m white, Jewish, a descendant of European immigrants to South Africa. I identify completely as South African, but I don’t speak a black language, and I don’t listen to the same music as most South Africans. That’s embarrassing for me to admit, but worse to fake. During the design, I started asking if maybe I should have djembe drums in a scene, and then I had to Wiki-check if djembe drums really even come from South Africa, because I grew up hearing Neil Young at my house, and when I Googled “current music in South Africa,” I found hip hop, not African percussion.

What options exist then while reporting on life from somewhere with a preconceived narrative? Maybe you go after your truthful narrative above all, at the expense of potential marketability – telling your story, say, of a town in India with a love of Superman (Supermen of Malegaon), without unnecessarily mentioning the war with Pakistan, or poverty or Mahatma Gandhi. Or, maybe you look for a middle ground – framing a story in a digestible way for an audience that will never totally grasp the complexity of a whole other life anyway, but at least will be able, here, to interact with some new part of the world (as in celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s series on CNN, Parts Unknown). Or should you cynically, accept that “narratives of truth” are decided by individuals anyway, and just give funders whichever narrative they want? I admit I feel tempted to do that sometimes.

Ultimately, it’s the representation of the complexity of truth that I respect most in documentary, and it just feels wrong when that plays second fiddle to entertainment. Sometimes it is frustrating when broad narratives don’t line up with reality, however this seems all the more reason to keep pushing for those stories that correct, improve and enrich the narratives we have from all over the world. And when it’s entertaining on top of that, all the better.

Olu’s Omniverse from the African Future(s)

It was 1991 the last time I was in Nairobi. The Athletics World Championships were happening in Tokyo. We stayed up late at my uncle and aunt’s house watching Mike Powell and Carl Lewis duke it out for the gold medal in long jump. It’s funny, the stuff you remember. It was my first time in Kenya, and I’d had a whole bunch of new experiences. I’d eaten ugali and chapati. I’d taken a sleeper train from Nairobi to Mombasa, and had woken up to giraffes outside the window – still the only ones I’ve seen in real life. I was eight years old, and not used to staying up past midnight. So, even with all those other experiences, my enduring memory of the trip is of watching sports. That, and my three-year-old brother accidentally suffocating a little baby chick on our grandfather’s farm. A tale for another time, perhaps.

My 2016 trip to Nairobi also involved staying up late, this time for very different reasons: African Futures. I was drawn to the name as soon as I saw the Facebook message from the Goethe Institut in Nairobi. I liked it even more when they told me it was an interdisciplinary festival happening in Nairobi, Lagos, Johannesburg and Berlin. It appealed to the Pan-African in me as well as the diasporan. Is diasporan a word? It is now! You cannot understand what it is to be Nigerian, or Kenyan or South African in 2016 without factoring in the diaspora. Perhaps as a Nigerian who has lived England for 18 years, of course I would say that. But, I really believe it to be true. There are just so many of us moving back and forth between our home countries and the furthest flung corners of the globe. I also thought the internationalism would suit my DJ sets. For example the mix below, edited from my full live set on the closing night of the festival’s Nairobi edition, features tracks not only from Kenya, Ghana, South Africa but also from the US, UK and Europe.

Besides my international predilections, that night an interdisciplinary curiosity was also satisfied. There were academics, film directors and fashionistas in attendance. During my set, I got a kick out of thinking there would be a professor in the audience getting down to “Mentasm” – a reissued rave classic from the early 90s. I also met clothing designers 2manysiblings (and then returned to Brighton to find one of them staring out at me from a poster).

However, it wasn’t until the morning after I suppose, that things came full circle for me in Nairobi. I met my Uncle Bob in the center of town as football supporters danced and played drums around us. We boarded a matatu headed for his post-retirement home on the outskirts of Nairobi, and there he explained what was happening in town. We had been in the midst of the Green Army – supporters of Gor Mahia Football Club. So once again my memories of Nairobi are of late nights and sports.


Stuffa – “Oustide of You” / Justin Timberlake – “Suit and Tie (Four Tet Remix)”
Aero Manyelo – “DNA Test”
Baba Stiltz – “Cherry”
Itz Tiffany – “Dance (Neke Neke)”
Menchess – “Mitsubishi Song”
Gorgon City – “Saving My Life (Warehouse Dub)”
Stella Mwangi – “Koolio”
Bicep – “Rays”
The Deejay Fast Eddie – “Clap Your Hands”
Joey Beltram – “Mentasm”
Bleaker – “Hype Funk”
Redlight ft. Melisa Whiskey – “Threshold (Redlight’s Fast Flamingo Remix)”
Fake Blood – “I Think I Like It”
Skepta ft. JME – “That’s Not Me (James Hype Remix)”
dJJ – “Just A Lil’ (Suda Remix)”
DJ Mujava – “Mugwanti / Sgwejegweje (Schlachthofbronx Remix)”
Janet Jackson – “If (Kaytranda Version)”

*This post is part of our Liner Notes series, where musicians talk about making music.

“Are you an African artist? …”

Spoek Mathambo (2011)Spoek Mathambo (2011)

There’s a strong (European) mainstream that is still secretly seduced by the idea that poor black people, especially those in African slums, can’t or won’t make great art or if they do, it’s the exception. They (that’s some English media producers and western audiences) need to believe that great art happens with harps. So opera singers emerging from Khayelitsha in Cape Town are a much bigger “story” than opera singers in Hampstead Garden or Norwood Suburb.

Last year, I was tasked with writing about “Wonder Welders,” a group of people in Tanzania with varying degrees of disability, i.e. mental and physical, who make commercial sculptures to support themselves. A well-meaning British publication, which commissioned the piece, then panned it. Why? Because the interesting bit – the incredible levels of jealousy and sexual affairs that prevailed in the workplace – was too complicated for their audience. The story of African disabled people who make a living welding sculptures should be one of triumph, the virtues of NGO charity and victory.

Like imported mangos, African art for European audiences loses its juiciness and is hijacked by a mix of not enough honesty, a desire to put bums on seats, and global narratives that favor tales of exotic lives and resilience. Instead of asking the much more interesting questions they go for the “cheap shot”: colonialism, slavery or exoticism. The bottom line is that the exotic/victim binary of colonial yore is very much alive and kicking in representation of African arts and music. But people living and working in Africa have moved on from this.

Take the case of Fredy Massamba, a pop singer from Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo. In 2012 I happened to be at the Busara Music Festival in Zanzibar where Freddy was performing at an 18th century British fort.

Fredy is the Congo’s equivalent of Robbie Williams- he is hugely popular, something of a legend, but unlike Robbie, he has no concerns about involving himself in contentious, and potentially reputation-damaging conversations. Standing on a stage enthusing thousands to think about who they vote for, Fredy uses his magnetism and cultural leverage to galvanise discussion and change. It’s the kind of the Central African equivalent of One Direction asking us to challenge austerity politics and poverty porn.

Later, sitting on the floor with the rest of the band chipping in—in French and English—our conversation drifts onto post-colonialism. In the background the Nigerian singer Nneka urges us to challenge the big men in power: “Vagabonds in power, VIP!” The audience is delirious with recognition. That’s when Freddy and I discuss whether the French were less brutal in their empire grabbing than the English.

Hang on. We are sitting on the floor of a Zanzibar fort that was used by British Imperial forces to defend their slavery trade. Eating a chips and egg omelet (“Chipsi Mayai”),  Freddy is teasing me about him being richer than I will ever dream, and in which quarter of Paris he’ll buy an apartment. This is not a conversation I can imagine happening in England – not ever. There’s never a suggestion that I will trot out the standard BBC question: “Are you an African artist?” None at all. I promise to send Freddy a copy of the article. He giggles and says, “Yeah! Of course I wanna know how I am portrayed in Europe, of course I do! If  you help me do well in Europe I’ll buy that apartment in Paris.”

Fast forward several years later to the SouthBank Center, London for Africa Utopia Festival. Spoek Mathambo, the brilliant, left-field producer, MC and DJ, is asked whether European media has started to grapple with representation of Africa or about Africans and whether they’ve moved beyond exotic/victim binaries:

I think the question itself is as problematic as the dynamic it’s trying to tackle. To be frank, I don’t care. As an African we have our own battle of representation to fight. Our independence means we can fulfill our potential and live our lives without being worried about a myopic foreign gaze.

Part of me gets it: Why the hell should he be bothered how Europe views him? He’s got enough to think about.

Near London Bridge, in a dreary corporate hotel lounge of pastels and enlarged photos of vulva-esque tulips, South African film-maker Khalo Matabane is promoting his film, Nelson Mandela: the Myth and Me.

Matabane is friendly, relaxed and smiley, as he delivers his careful, thoughtful intellectual darts. He has little or no time for the parameters of the film industry, the global socio-economic elites that drive and determine how Africa is represented:

We have a limited palate of tropes. Ubuntu, the resilient forgiving African, or the political black, it’s all a construct. It serves an elite. It’s irrelevant what the national debate is, what the masses think. We are film makers, we don’t fit, we’re critical, bizarre, weird, we stand outside… we’re difficult… we get it wrong sometimes…..that’s why I do what I do. It requires absolute honesty with myself, if I think my critique is not driven by an outside agenda I can sleep at night! But there are probably dictators who sleep at night too. For me, it’s important I don’t betray my interviewees too. The question should be, am I happy with my films? Any film I’ve ever done?

Running through or behind all of these conversations with African intellectuals, creatives and artists, there is a constant profound recognition that the Global North plays far too big a part in defining what Africa is. The space for arts, music and film, has been defined and severely limited by existing stereotypes of victimhood, violence, chaos, corruption. All ably perpetrated by that unmanageable cypher “The Media”, its unwieldy bed mate the Academy, and of course the grand puppet master, global economic trade relations or information flows. In all spheres, the Global North is still  far too keen to gallop towards the equally simplistic notion of the happy resilient African in the face of ridiculous obstacles and natural hazards.

Resilience is such a problematic, vacuous, anythingy kind of word that even the New York Times had an essay about it, and TED Talks abound on the topic. From parenting to surviving teen bullying, “resilience” is what individuals have in the face of structural disasters. It obliterates systems, politics or intent. Resilience is an individual reaction to a one-off problem. And this determines what is culture worth reporting on coming out of the 52 different countries in Africa.

Why then, are we so averse to acknowledging complexity, difference, subtlety and agency when it comes to music, film, poetry and dance that emerges from different regions in Africa?

Of course there are exceptions:  British-Nigerian artist Chris Ofili’s work is complicated and interesting: he intelligently examines beauty and goddess culture and primitiveness. Zambian singer Namvula sings in Chichewa to global audiences, and brings together folk, oral cultures and contemporary pop. Equally, Phoebe Boswell, the multiple award winning conceptual artist – who is currently looking at what it means to be child of a fourth generation, White Kenyan father and Kikuyu mother and at the spaces in between – asks where home is, and does huge beautiful works that question the diaspora and what it means to be dislocated. She embraces frailty and privilege – personal and social – often, and she’s not afraid of banging witch doctors up against Hackney artists. She is aware that what she is doing is completely new, and quotes James Baldwin: “The place where I fit does not exist until I make it”.

This is more than a gripe, or a whinge, or a fancy-pants version of  “Oh shock! England ain’t that interested in intellectual complexity coming out of Africa.” Because actually, at some level it is: witness the recent British Library exhibition that lovingly explored the massive literary traditions of West Africa.  No, this then aims to ignite a debate that needs to be happening in bigger spaces, outside of just the academy or the bar late at night in a side street in Arusha (or in the carefully curated British Library exhibit). We need to ask who is shaping the debate about African arts in the Global North. Why is the power balance still so skewed, the worlds still so separate? Is it just about the cash dólar or Euros, (get the gig, the record deal, the film funded) or are there ways we can educate audiences (globally) to be significantly more demanding and interested in what is emerging out of Africa?

Why is the US defending the honor of the International Criminal Court?

Two weeks ago, Uganda’s President Museveni inaugurated his fourth decade in power. And as strange things happen at swearing-in ceremonies around the continent these days, this one was no exception. Officials from the US, Canada and Europe walked out of the ceremony when Museveni mocked the International Criminal Court (ICC), calling its officials “a bunch of useless people.”

To be sure, it must also have been quite uncomfortable for the western diplomats to share the stage with Sudan’s president Omar al Bashir, an ICC fugitive who is wanted for alleged crimes of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. (We have previously written on the drama that accompanies Bashir on his travels here.)

But, what if the US diplomats walked out just because their European cousins did? This is a serious question, because, frankly, it’s hard to entertain the idea that the US could be offended by someone criticizing the ICC. Successive US administrations fought tooth and nail for the ICC not to see the light of the day as we know it, although it is true that the Obama administration is a bit friendlier to the Court than previous ones. But the fact remains that there are still laws and policies in Washington that are specifically designed to make the ICC’s work impossible, if it ever decided to go after US interests.

David Scheffer, the first US Ambassador-at-large for War Crimes – or “Ambassador for Hell” as some people called him – wrote a fascinating memoir in which he recounts, among other things, the US delegation’s attempt to tailor the ICC during the drafting of the Rome Statute in 1998.  As head of the US delegation in Rome, Scheffer wrote,

I struggled to avoid the train wreck at Rome only to embrace certain defeat. I would have risked my own removal from the negotiations if I had pressed too openly or too hard on the Pentagon or on Senator Jesse Helms, so I had to maneuver in ways that steadily built broader circles of support for the policies that stood any chance of adoption at Rome… The stubbornness of various Washington agencies and officials in seeking full immunity from prosecution for American soldiers and other citizens, regardless of whether the United States joined the International Criminal Court, seemed at times to be forged in Alice’s Wonderlands (p. 413).

The bone of contention here is that the US administration was hell-bent on ensuring that no American citizen would face the ICC, ever. And when efforts to place the ICC prosecutor under the supervision of the UN Security Council failed, the Singapore Compromise provided for a middle ground, where the Security Council may refer cases to the ICC and also defer them for periods of 12 months. But even that was not good enough for the US.

Although this compromise gives the ICC a virtual universal jurisdiction (in the sense that even states that are not parties to the ICC may be referred to the Court by the UN Security Council – Sudan and Libya, for instance), it also places the Court at the center of political calculations that underpin the Security Council. After all, you can’t get any more political than the Security Council. It also shields any non-party state that has a P-5 guardian from a UNSC referral. There’s a reason why attempts to refer Syria to the ICC have failed, after of course the Libya ICC referral and its aftermath.

After the Rome Statute was drafted, President Clinton signed it, albeit very reluctantly, and with the full knowledge that the US Congress would never ratify it. The Bush administration later “unsigned” it – Secretary Colin Powell claiming that the Court undermines US judicial authority. The US also went around the world forcing the hands of countries into signing Bilateral Immunity Agreements, which means that those states would never surrender any US citizen to the Court, even if their ICC membership required them to do so. Heck, the US Congress went even as far as passing “the Hague Invasion Act”, which authorizes the use of force to liberate any American held by the ICC, in the Hague.

This  defiant stance against the ICC explained also why the US abstained to vote in the UN Resolution 1593 (2005) that referred the situation in Darfur to the ICC. These days the US government is friendlier towards the ICC when the Court’s agenda matches US strategic interests – for instance, voting yes to the UN Resolution 1970 (2011) that referred Gaddafi’s Libya to the ICC, and supporting a resolution that would have referred Assad’s Syria to the ICC.  Let’s also keep in mind that the Libya referral included a clause that bars the ICC from prosecuting any NATO personnel in relation to their intervention in Libya, even if they have committed crimes.

It is odd then that the US delegation at Museveni’s inauguration would walk out because of the latter’s verbal attacks against the ICC.  If actions speak louder than words, and if we are to judge the US by its actions, no country has gone to greater length to safeguard itself and its citizens from the reach of the first permanent international criminal court.

To be clear, there is no higher form of hypocrisy than Museveni’s current stance against the ICC. Museveni has used the Court to defeat the LRA both politically and militarily, and now uses any opportunity he has to insult the institution. But, we will get back to that in a future post.