Africa is a Country

How France will eat itself

Still from Matheiu Kassovitz’ La Haine (1995).

The film La Haine became an instant classic on its release in 1995 for its livid account of police abuse as a structural form of violence in France. The film remains a poignant depiction of the lingering problem of police brutality in the banlieues (suburbs) of Paris, where most of the city’s poorer African- and Arab-descended populations live. The film’s 24-hour narrative follows the daily lives of three young Parisians, Vinz, Said, and Hubert, after one of their friends, Abdel Ichaha, is brutalized by the police and rendered comatose. Mathieu Kassovitz, the director, was inspired by the true events of the death in police custody of a young French-Zairian, Makome M’Bowole, in 1993. M’Bowole was handcuffed to a radiator and shot at point blank range.

Twenty-two years later, on Feb. 2, 2017, at 5 pm, in Aulnay-sous-Bois, a mutli-ethnic suburb in north-west of Paris, Théodore L, alias Théo, a 22-year-old French-Congolese community worker, feared for his life when a group of four policemen brutally sodomized him. He recalls that he was on his way to see one of his friends when he found himself face to face with the officers from la brigade spécialisée de terrain (BST – a special unit dedicated to field policing in impoverished urban zones) who were routinely checking identity papers during a stop-and-frisk. While Paris police say alleged rape was an “accident,” Theo suffered severe anal injuries and was diagnosed with a 10cm deep anal tear.

Theo’s rape joins a long list of similar cases of police brutality directed at the French youth of African descent. On October 18, 1980, Lahouari Ben Mohamed, a 17-year-old boy, was shot in the head by a policeman during a stop-and-search operation in Marseille. On December 6, 1986, Malik Oussekine died a day after he was physically brutalized by two plainclothes policemen in Paris. Between November 5-29, 1991, Ahmed Selmouni was physically and sexually abused during his arrest in Seine-Saint-Denis, a suburb in the northeast of Paris. On October 27, 2005, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, 17 and 15 years respectively, were electrocuted in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois after police chased them as they were their way home from a football match. Their death led to the outbreak of the urban riots of 2005.

Eleven year after those riots, which marked a turning point in French modern history, police brutality continues to mediate the relationship between French citizens of African descent and public and political institutions. Their conditions continue to worsen.

On July 19, 2016, Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old French-Malian, was found dead in police custody in Beaumont-sur-Oise, a small town north of Paris. The unexplained circumstances of his death have been linked to serious allegations of a state cover-up and show how the problematic dimension of police brutality in France underscores issues of race and violence that have always shaped French politics. Not only did the local prosecutor falsely declare Traoré’s  death to be as a result of a heart attack and a serious blood infection, but also his mother and brother were gassed by the police and the mayor of Beaumont threatened to sue his older sister. Later the same year, two of Adama’s brothers were sentenced to eight- and three-month prison terms in prison, respectively, for threats and violence toward officers.

The ensuing public and media attention following the wide reporting of Theo’s case showed the extent to which the issue of police brutality is a systemic problem.

In an interview on a French talk show, Luc Poignant, a veteran police officer and a spokesperson of a police union, deemed the use of the racial slur “Bamboula” as acceptable when addressing African men. The term is highly-pejorative translating “player of drums” or “dancing N-word.” It was used to described African soldiers in colonial French wars  and refers to their perceived naivety, cannibalism, and brutal primitivism.

The attention to the complex relations between French media, the political caste and French people of African descent in Kassovitz’s film still resonates in today. In 1995, the prime minister Alain Juppe set up a compulsory screening for his cabinet. After the 2005 urban riots, the now famous Kassovitz-Sarkozy exchange captured public attention and generated heated debate over police brutality, the role of the politicians and the alienation of minority populations. Kassovitz went further to call Sarkozy, the interior minister at that time, an “irresponsible” politician, comparing him to “a starlet from American Idol” who acted “like a warmonger.”

As Marine Le Pen is likely, I think, to be France’s next president, the looming threat of  more violent bloodier urban riots in the wake of other events of police brutality is a reality. She is unapologetically racist, xenophobic, intolerant politician who feeds on problems of unemployment and fragmented multiculturalism to make neofascism mainstream again. The far-right leader ended her campaign by vowing to suspend all legal immigration to France which would save her country from “savage globalization” by putting “native French first.” When asked her opinion about Théo’s incident, she insisted on backing the police unconditionally. She called protesters against police violence “scum.”

La Haine ends with the tragical scene of shocking violence where Hubert, the rational figure in the movie, uses Vinz’s .44 magnum revolver to avenge the death of the latter by a policeman. As the closing credits roll, we hear Hubert’s voice retells the old story of a person that, while falling from a fifty-story building, keeps reassuring himself by repeating “So far so good … so far so good … so far so good.” The election of France’s next president will not only risk shuttering the dreams of social cohesion but it will widen the already explosive political and social gap.

Flood the soundscape African

Image via Simon Berry Flickr.

Most of the Digital Archive features that have been posted so far offer some kind of option for users to contribute their own materials. For example, last week’s feature on HipHopAfrican included directions for submitting music to Msia Kibona Clark’s class. Nigerian Nostalgia and the Nsibidi Institute are other projects that have participatory options. If you have materials that fit within the aims of these sites, you can submit and become part of the experience. Though  not an intentional focus when this series began, over time I began to search out sites that would allow users to become part of the conversation. And why shouldn’t they? If the internet is the democratizing force that it is advertised to be, why shouldn’t you be able to contribute? This week takes that idea to the next level, with two projects that allow you to produce virtually unmediated content.

A few months ago, I saw an article on Wired about a project called Localingual. Built by David Ding, a former Microsoft software engineer, Localingual is an interactive map featuring recordings of voices from throughout the world. Launched in January this year, the site had logged 500,000 visits by the time the Wired piece was published online. Ding’s inspiration for Localingual came from his travels. When he was in Ukraine, he was struck by the possibilities of recording all of the different languages and dialects he was hearing and putting them online. Of course, he couldn’t possibly do all of this work on his own. Instead, the map does a lot of the work for him, allowing users to record their own voices in the language of their choices. There are obviously some short-comings with a process like this, such as users recording profanity or using fake accents, so Ding came up with a thumbs-up/thumbs-down system to help weed out the fakes. To add your own voice, open the map and click the country of your choice. (Just a heads up: the software only works on Android devices or desktops. The Apple iOS APIs prevent it from working on Apple devices.) A list of the languages recorded for that country thus far will load to the right of the map. Click through the thought bubbles to listen to all of the recordings that have been made thus far. If you want to add your own recording, click the microphone button, select the language the recording will be in and the gender of the speaker and choose whether the recording is of the name of a country, its capital or a phrase. Then write the phrase in the language you are speaking and its English equivalent and press record. It’s as simple as that.

Similar to Localingual, Soundcities is another interactive map presenting recordings of ambient sounds from cities around the globe. Originally, the map was home to sounds recorded by the artist Stanza, who would record sounds he encountered in cities he visited in his travels. Now it is a completely open platform, which means that anyone can submit sounds from their own cities. Unfortunately, there are only three African cities included in the project so far: Bamako, Cairo, and Dakar. But, like Localingual, you can change that! Below the list of sounds, click “add a new sound.” From there, you can create a username and add your city to the list of cities with sounds registered. A marker will be dropped onto the map that you drag to the location of your city. Click continue and then you can add your mp3 for the city of your choice, select the best mood/category for your sound click and submit.

So, post your content! Take your phones and record people’s voices, record the sounds you here. We have the ability to flood these sites with African content. Take the time and make the most of these resources. It’s your right and responsibility to do so.

‘Temple Run’ or stay?

Freetown, June 14, 2005. Inside the fence of Lamin’s garage. When you become an apprentice you will work without any real pay for years. Your bossman is responsible for feeding you and maybe pocket money once in a while. Often you will sleep in a car or somewhere on the premises to keep the area safe. Image credit Mats Utas (@matsutas on Instagram).

“Back then, when the boats came, people used to run. Now we’d get on gladly, at least it would mean work.” Junior’s bleak jokes are not making anyone laugh. He takes another sip of his Sprite and kicks up the dust on the street where we are sitting in Freetown, Sierra Leone. “That’s why everyone wants to go on a Temple Run”, he adds – this time everyone nods knowingly. In the addictive mega-hit mobile phone game, Temple Run, “you have to run for your life to escape the Evil Demon Monkeys nipping at your heels.” This involves jumping walls of fire, swimming through treacherous waters and flying across collapsing bridges. For young people in Freetown, Temple Run has become code for the perilous journey that an increasing number of young Sierra Leoneans are making to Europe via Libya.

It wasn’t always like this. The collective memory of the Atlantic slave trade off the shores of the Upper Guinea Coast to which Junior alluded when talking about boats, was once used to talk about rights. “We are Sierra Leoneans, not slaves!” young Freetonians shouted in 2013, when an urban beautification project threatened to shut down the informal livelihoods, such as commercial motorbike riding, that allow most young people to survive in the city. Through these slogans, and affirmations of citizenship, young people expressed their hopes and expectations of the government’s ability to deliver development after a 10-year civil war. The struggle was real, but hopes were high then. And then Ebola broke out in 2014. Junior and his friends kept hustling in Freetown, in the streets near Connaught Hospital, where at the height of the epidemic bodies were being dumped in the streets because there was no capacity to admit patients. Some volunteered to join the response as contact tracers and burial team members. Junior himself got sick. He collapsed in the streets and everyone ran away from him scared of contracting Ebola, leaving him alone to drag himself to the hospital and be put in isolation before his tests showed positive only for malaria. The economy crashed during the epidemic, and the post-war gains in economic growth all but disappeared.

So now the boats have a different meaning, they are not distant memories used to claim the rights of free citizens, but they are expressions of a loss of faith, for some, that things can change in Sierra Leone. They still serve as metaphors for how young men like Junior think about citizenship, but rather than asserting expectations, they speak of failures and disappointment. Many have begun to embark on the Temple Run, passing through Agadez in Niger headed towards Libya to board new boats towards Europe. In the busy streets where informal traders get together, daily discussions are dominated by stories of those who have called from refugee camps in Italy, those whose boats capsized, those who have never been heard from again. But Temple Run, for those who stay, is also a way to talk about their own country, to reflect on the feeling that nothing is moving and the loss of energy since the protests in 2013. It signals the possibility for adventure and change and new ways to imagine a future.

During the Ebola epidemic, the media and policy-makers focused on community resistance to public health measures, on grappling with why people escaped quarantined homes and seemingly did not believe that Ebola was real. They talked about a lack of trust in a ‘fragile’ state, and of reticent communities retreating, isolating themselves from the rest of the world. But that was too simple. It failed to consider how young people want to see themselves as Sierra Leoneans, and have expectations attached to these claims; how many of them volunteered during the outbreak and bought into the narrative of national struggle. It also hides from view the ways in which collective disillusionment in the aftermath of the epidemic is balanced by daily attempts to make life after crisis work.

Junior, for example, is working hard to change himself. He stopped drinking after alcohol got him into too many fights and, last time we spoke, he thought he might have been able to secure an apprenticeship through a local politician. It wouldn’t pay much, or last long, but it was something. It’s this imagination and ability to envisage possibilities that those working to rebuild Sierra Leone ought to capture in order to reframe a social contract after the devastation of the epidemic.

The danger of a single author

You might expect unbridled enthusiasm from literature professors for the “One Book, One New York” campaign, a project that claims to be “the largest community reading program in the country.” It champions literature, seeing it as uniquely positioned to bring people together; capable of building connections across difference in a world in which the arts hold an increasingly tenuous foothold. Given U.S. PresidentDonald Trump’s recent proposal to scrap both the National Endowments for the Humanities and the Arts, this is a particularly timely moment for such a project. And the election of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel, Americanah, by those New Yorkers who took time to vote for it, suggests a desire for books that reflect the city’s pro-immigrant, cosmopolitan tendencies, as do most of the other works in competition with Americanah. Yet a closer look at the winning choice points to some less than savory truths about the place of African fiction and African writers in the United States and the “Global North.”

The four other books nominated indicate a preference for books concerned with themes of racial, ethnic, and class diversity. Apart from the anomalous choice of the 1943 A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, the three others (Junot Diaz’s 2007 The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Ta Nahesi-Coates’ more recent Between the World and Me, and 2016’s Booker Prize winner The Sellout by Paul Beatty) suggest a preference for works with clear and current political and racial thematic emphases. This is New York, the subway ads seem to indicate, even while Trump’s photo-ops at the White House depict a more homogeneous United States.

The multiculturalism celebrated by New York City depends, regrettably, on well-worn forms of dispossession, re-entrenching global inequality even as its marketing campaign claims to resist it. Julie Menin, the Commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, purportedly promoted the “One Book, One New York” program in order to enhance the stature and financial clout of NYC-based publishing houses. This is all very well for Penguin Random House, Americanah’s publisher, and “the world’s largest English-language general trade book publisher,” but what Menin and others ignore as they help fill corporate coffers, is how such behemoths destroy non-Western publishing houses, much as Amazon has destroyed small booksellers, making it impossible for them to compete either for the best African writers’ books, or for the wealth that works like Americanah produce.

In an important 2008 article in “The Chronic,” the cultural supplement to South African-based Chimurenga magazine, Jeremy Weate observes that African literature is often treated as yet another extractable source for the enrichment of Euro-American publishing. All of the wealth that novels such as Americanah produce is recouped in the West, echoing earlier imperial patterns of wealth accumulation, which, to use Ian Baucom’s pithy phrase, ensure that “expansion contracts.” Like oil, or “black gold,” extracted in Nigeria, but refined off-shore for re-import and resale to Nigerian consumers, African fiction, for Weate, “is simply another form of capital whose value is formed and transacted in London or New York (for the English-speaking world),” where the judges of literary prizes, and critics, and academics (like myself) confer value (or refuse it) on literary works.

That such processes of African literary canonization occur not on the continent itself, but via circuits through the West that mimic the flow of capital, is of course inextricably related. But there are certain African works and certain African writers that critics and academics in the Global North admire more than others. Adichie has been a darling of the West for some time now, since her oft-cited 2009 “TED talk” on “The Danger of a Single Story,” and more recently, since her collaboration with Beyoncé, the publication of her tepid defense of feminism, and her role as intellectual muse for a 2016 fashion show organized by Christian Dior. The infamous “Page Six” column in The New York Post reports, furthermore, that Americanah is being primed by Lupita Nyong’o for the screen. By picking an African author who has come to represent all African writers for U.S. audiences, the “One Book, One New York” project inadvertently defangs and corporatizes all the difference out of the program that seemed to want, admirably, to place works focused on people and places outside of the white mainstream at the center of a set of new literary canons.

Don’t get me wrong. I also love certain of Adichie’s works, particularly her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, a coming-of-age story about a timid young woman in Nigeria, growing up under the thumb of a tyrannical and abusive father. The short stories in That Thing Around Your Neck, too, include some stellar examples of how much a good writer can do with a short, tight, light touch, and when I teach these or her first novel, students are riveted. But Americanah is not nearly as good a book, so it’s a curious choice. Of course, its title, and its engagement with Americans means readers don’t have to work very hard, so any sense of unfamiliarity they might have with the narrator’s life in Nigeria before she moves to the East Coast of the U.S. is quickly replaced by recognizable characters and settings.

The choice of Americanah ultimately seems more symbolic than anything else. Much as that other famous Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe, was repeatedly called upon, against his own wishes, to represent all African writers in the West, Adichie has had the misfortune of becoming the latest iteration of the West’s simplistic tokenistic relation to the African continent, a reductionism that obliterates the possibility of richer, more varied engagements with African writing and publishers. For of course there are myriad examples of new and interesting African writing that is largely ignored by Western audiences, especially when it is not an example of what Siyanda Mohutsiwa deems “immigrant literature” – those stories and novels that end with the main character leaving the African continent for places in North America or Europe – or when the work jettisons the documentary realism often expected from African fiction in favor of other formal and thematic emphases.

So while it seems admirable to get more people to read works that address cross-cultural experience all the while shoring up a dwindling book-publishing industry, as is so often the case with literary celebrity, the choice of Americanah may have less to do with aesthetic merit, in the end, than with the narrow geopolitical space allotted to African fiction in the West. This then swiftly undermines Adichie’s celebrated caveat about “The Danger of a Single Story.”

The podcast for African Hip Hop

Edem. Image via Hip Hop African.

Msia Kibona Clark is assistant professor of African Studies at Howard University. Her research focuses on in hip hop in Africa. Clark recently served as editor and contributor to Hip Hop and Social Change in Africa: Ni Wakati and has authored numerous articles on hip hop in Tanzania. At Howard, Clark teaches a course entitled “Hip Hop and Popular Culture in Africa,” in which students explore hip hop culture throughout Africa. For their research projects, students are charged with creating either an original art project or a podcast. Podcasts from past and current iterations of this course are now collected on the site, HipHopAfrican.

I reached out to Clark on Twitter to learn more about decision to integrate podcasting into her pedagogical style.

Where did you get the idea for HipHop African?

The idea for the website came from a need to have a platform for students doing research to post (archive) their findings. I listen to podcasts daily, and found that there were other faculty who had used them. They seemed to fit great with the theme of the course.

What are the pros/cons of using digital media as a pedagogical tool?

There are more pros than cons. Students get to engage with the music of artists they find and that inserts them into the online dialogues around those artists. That’s huge! The material we discuss in class suddenly has real world implications. Many of the students take their podcasts and blog posts very seriously, knowing that their professor isn’t the only person who will read it. The cons are getting students used to presenting their research in a different way. There are a lot of in-class demonstrations! But when they get the hang of it, it’s great!

What software do you use for the podcasts? Were your students already familiar with the technology or did you have to teach them those skills?

For the podcasts I record, I use the Yeti mic, and I record and edit on Adobe Audition. I use Audio Hijack to record Skype calls, and then import them into Audition. The students typically use their laptop microphones to record and Garage Band or Audacity to edit. I provide links to online tutorials, and we have applied for funding to purchase better recording equipment.

What are your favorite parts of the project?

The best part of the project is having a different method of assessment. Listening to their creativity is really exciting, and each semester I discover new artists through their projects.

In addition to finding new artists on the site (like Gigi Lamayne who I am currently obsessed with thanks to this project), these students’ podcast dig into important issues in African hip hop. A recurring theme in the episodes is feminism in African hip hop, with podcasts on women in African and American hip hop; female emcees in South Africa; and an episode on feminism in South Africa focused on Gigi Lamayne.

There are also a number of episodes comparing and contrasting American and African hip hop. You can check out the episode on black activism in the U.S. and South Africa, based on a panel on the same subject held at Howard in November 2016. Also, a comparison between American and South African hip hop, and an episode questioning the similarities of the two styles.

There are also some phenomenal episodes on hip hop culture in Senegal; hip hop and Pan-Africanism in Tanzania; and some really great episodes on hip hop scholarship.

You can follow Clark on Twitter @kibona for the latest on Hip Hop African. The podcasts are available on iTunes, as well as the website. If you have music that you would like to see featured on Hip Hop African, the site welcomes submissions of MP3s via email at feedback@hiphopafrican.com. More information available here.

Peter Kimani reflects on the work of historical fiction

Historical fiction has been having a bit of moment recently, especially among authors from the African continent and its diaspora. Authors imagine new possibilities out of old configurations; the past often proves as fecund as the futures that writers of speculative or science fiction might imagine. Recently novelists such Yaa Gyasi, Yvonne Owuor, Colson Whitehead, Chimamanda Adichie (in Half of a Yellow Sun) and others have availed themselves of the multiple opportunities that the past – whether well known or not – presents for creative narratives explorations. Earlier this year, the Kenyan journalist, poet and professor Peter Kimani joined their ranks. His Dance of the Jakaranda is an epic account of 20th century Kenya, narrating the East African colony’s history from the building of the Uganda Railway at the century’s open (and cosmopolitan world of its construction) to the politics and tensions of belonging that marked independent Kenya’s early days.

Dance of the Jakaranda is published by Akashic Books, an independent publishing house based in Brooklyn, devoted to publishing overlooked and/or politically defiant works of fiction. We are grateful to Akashic for bringing Kimani’s book to press, and to Peter Kimani for making the time to speak to AIAC.

Dance of the Jakaranda is a work of historical fiction, moving backwards and forwards in time between the turn of the 20th century and Kenya’s independence-era. What is the work of historical fiction? How does it differ from straight-forward history? What are the limits and possibilities of the genre? 

Historical fiction, first and foremost, serves to re-imagine what’s already documented. In the case of Africa and other colonized societies, historical fiction serves to reclaim a people’s history, or at least inject fresh perspectives to counter the dominant colonial views. In most instances, colonial histories are fraught with inaccuracies, distortions and simple falsifications. Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jablow’s book, The Africa That Never Was, is a valuable text chronicling Western myths about Africa. To paraphrase Chinua Achebe, one of the fathers of African fiction, his motivation for writing Things Fall Apart was to show the world that Africa’s traditional past was not “one long night of savagery.”

That’s the point of departure of Dance of the Jakaranda. It reassesses the establishment of the British colony in Kenya at the turn of the last century to illuminate on the so-called British enlightenment of the “Dark Continent.” It challenges the reader to reassess what history books say colonial Kenya. The metaphor of fact as fiction appears rather appropriate at this this point and time in America.

If I were to write a straightforward history, I wouldn’t enjoy similar latitude. Fiction has enormous power as it allows people to see their lives in terms different from those conferred on them by others. The colonizers understood this. As Ngugi wa Thiong’o often narrates, his foundational play, The Black Hermit, written during his student days at Uganda’s Makerere University, was initially frowned upon by the British colonial authorities because it had a scene showing a British man raping a local woman. British men were considered “civilized” and so were not expected to perform such base crimes, even in imagined narratives.

At the heart of the novel is the construction of the so-called Lunatic Express, the railway line that enabled white settlement and facilitated the interior’s economic exploitation. Yet you seem to think it’s more complicated than that. Why and how did the railway matter? 

Your assessment of the railway is accurate. It was the avenue through which the British accessed the Kenyan hinterland for its economic exploitation. But it is also a powerful force, disrupting local cultures and way of life, damaging the environment, etcetera. But it is also a transformational force, creating new townships where it courses through. Above all, the railway is a petri dish of sorts: its compartments are assigned according to racial hierarchy– with whites in First Class and Africans in Third Class –and becomes a metaphor of the segregated society that the colonialists build in Kenya.

In a certain sense, the railroad presages racial segregation as official policy in the colony. Different races lived separately, whether in urban or rural settlements. But the railroad also serves another important function. It starts by the ocean and ends at the headwaters of Lake Victoria, coursing through fertile territories. The Iron Snake, as locals call it, swallows all that the land can produce for shipping away to Europe. This finds traction with Walter Rodney’s seminal treatise, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa — the colonial architecture ensured Africa would continually feed European industries with raw materials to harness good that were resold to Africa at far steeper prices than original value. That way, Europe created its wealth while impeding African industrialization.

The novel is also the story of two Englishmen, one Punjabi, and their literal and figurative “seeds.” They and their descendants are the protagonists and narrators for most of the novel. Although there is a disembodied, recognizably “African” narrative voice that considers practices of storytelling, etcetera, there is no “African” main character, as predominates, for example the work of other Kenyan writers, most notably Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Why did you, a Kenyan writer, choose write Kenya’s history this way, in these voices?

Ngugi wa Thiong’o made a similar observation when he read an earlier draft of the novel. I should mention Ngugi has been very important in my development as a writer. He also sat on my doctoral committee. Ngugi said he found it “intriguing” that a novel by an African writer lacked a major character who is African. My response then, as now, is that this absence is deliberate and symbolic. Whether you are dealing with colonial history or even in contemporary writings about Africa, Africans are passive witnesses to their own history. Think about major novels on Africa by European authors: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or Out of Africa by Karen Blixen. They do not have major African characters. Same with Ernest Hemingway. All African characters are peripheral. There is similar parallels in the way Western news networks report on the continent.  In humanitarian reports, it is always a white aid worker, so-called consultant and what have you, who narrate Africa to the world.

The inter-textual reference to Heart of Darkness, for instance, situates Dance of the Jakaranda as a response to the whitewashed elements of African history through Western fiction. I hope I won’t give away too much by revealing the novel’s controlling motifs are darkness and light. I am inviting the reader to consider what so-called European enlightenment brings to the Dark continent. My story of Africa without Africans is a way of highlighting that absurdity.

The only African character with a substantial role in the novel is Nyundo, the drummer. He serves as a folk historian. Through him, the novel questions the privileging of the written, over the spoken word. The written being the colonial and “official” version of our history, the spoken being the people’s memory of their past. Nyundo’s actions in the novel are both subversive and restorative. His life in the novel symbolizes burial and resurrection of African memory.

[Spoiler alert] This is obviously an apposite moment to consider questions of statelessness, forced and volitional migration and national identity, in Kenya, the United States and beyond. To my mind, the novel’s “hero” is the Punjabi technician, Babu Salim, whose only seed is sisal and whose grandson becomes a political sensation towards the novel’s end. By that time, with the Empire having fallen, Kenya having become independent and India and Pakistan partitioned, Babu and his descendants are effectively stateless. What is your response to the “Indian question?” How/do questions of race and belonging complicate our understanding of nationalism, in Africa and elsewhere? 

My novel teases out Benedict Anderson’s theory of imagined communities and the limits of nationalism. A running theme in the novel is the question of identity and belonging. I seek to answer the question: what did it mean to be Kenyan in that moment of our history? To find an answer, I go back to the founding of the Kenya colony, then leap forward to the onset of independence, when Africans take charge. The characters in the novel review what’s lost, and gained, in the new dispensation.

The Indians of East Africa have a complex heritage. They were colonized in their homelands, but some were complicit in the establishment of the Kenya colony, and enjoyed more privileges in colonial Kenya. Yet others fought to end British colonization of Kenya. It is the latter group that my book seeks to acknowledge. The question of identity becomes a larger contemplation of what it means to be human in a prejudiced world. Just look at contemporary US, UK, Germany, France, etc. There seems to be a competition to prove who is a more authentic American, British, German and French than others.

For a novel that stretches across the Indian Ocean and beyond, Dance of the Jakaranda also has a distinct sense of place. Why Nakuru? 

I struggled with the question of the novel’s locale for a while. Initially, I was tempted to set the novel in some unnamed place on the continent. I personally have problems reading such novels because I feel unmoored. In any case, such a device is useful in times of political repression. The Malawian poet, Jack Mapanje, for instance, had to device codes to describe his homeland without invoking its name. The departed Kenyan playwright, Wahome Mutahi, used a similar device in his political plays at a time of political repression. The trick was for the place to remain some “imaginary” country somewhere in Africa.

But I was writing in a different time when we have a fair amount of freedom, so it was unnecessary to disguise my locale. I thought about the place that reflected the spirit of a multiracial and multicultural community, and I found Nakuru came closest to that. I researched on its history to recreate an authentic atmosphere of the time.

Challenging the patriarchy, one hip hop cypher at a time

Images via author.

“Women, for long you’ve been preached over; preserved for one purpose of giving birth,” is a line from Sistah Anela’s song “Zivume” on the compilation, Words of a Rebel Sistah. It supports her stance on the oppression of women: if something isn’t accommodating, it needs to be challenged.

Words of a Rebel Sistahwas an initiative by South African anti-capitalist hip hop collective Soundz of the South (SOS) to record a CD focusing on women’s struggles and a prelude to The Rebel Sistah Cypha; a monthly, females-only platform for conscious spoken word, hip hop and live music. It started off at Moholo Live House in Khayelitsha, but now takes place at the Community House in Salt River, a suburb close to Cape Town’s city centre. The goal is to create a counter-culture; one that exemplifies a society in which women are liberated and all forms of oppression are eradicated.

Given the current political climate, this is a challenging task. In South Africa current President Jacob Zuma’s rape trial, the murder of Reeva Steenkamp (by her boyfriend Olympian Oscar Pistorius), the conviction of celebrated artist Zwelethu Mthethwa for kicking a sex worker to death or uKhozi FM radio presenter Khathide Ngobe’s recent comments insinuating that scantily-clad women are asking to be raped, are just a few incidents that speak to the state of women’s rights. Globally, US President Donald Trump’s confident misogyny doesn’t help either.

When I talked to Sounds of the South members Anela, Tsidi and Millz, who are resident MCs at the cypher, I asked if one could say they’re a feminist collective.

Anela.

“We wouldn’t box ourselves,” says Anela, “but we are a pro-feminist organization. Even our SOS brothers call themselves feminists because they believe in the liberation of women.” As opposed to organizations who think that feminism is the ultimate tool for the liberation of the people, they believe that there’s more to it. “Doing away with capitalism and all forms of oppression is what will lead us forward.”

Unfortunately, one of the challenges they face in South Africa is that women often don’t realize they’re oppressed. Anela believes harmful ideals are so entrenched in everyday life, that some men think authority is a natural entitlement. The culprit? The capitalist state and its helpers: media and tradition. Because black South Africans are better off now than during Apartheid, some accuse the Rebel Sistahs of causing unnecessary trouble. With fairy-tale stories, such as Trevor Noah making it big in America, the media helps to spread the message that South Africa is doing fine; anything is possible, if only one works hard enough. Tsidi mentions the banning of protest footage on public television news as an example. “Nothing thought-provoking can be shown because there’s bound to be an outbreak.”

Entertainment channels are, however, not shy to give airtime to American agents of “bling-bling-and-bitches”, like Lil Wayne or Jay-Z. South African MCs such as AKA and Casper Nyovest are proudly following their counterparts’ lead. The Rebel Sistahs witness their impact first-hand at open mic sessions they organize in Makhaza Wetlands Park in Khayelitsha, about 30 minutes outside the city center. Tsidi remembers how they had to turn off the music because a five-year-old child was cursing and often children just head to another open mic session to avoid being censored. Anela says there was a time of hope, when kids in their community actually understood their work. “They were engaging in the topics, and you could see their style of writing was changing. It was starting to speak to the struggles they face. But two, three years later with the introduction of Nyovests and AKAs every kid wants to be like them.”

African grassroots hip hop has been hijacked, and Millz attributes this to an active decision to defuse the threat. “In our communities, your parents think you’re a gangster if you’re doing hip hop. But when hip hop originated, it had a strong purpose, to free the black child. Now the system realised it’s actually working and the only way to discredit it, is to groom those weapons and make sure they mean nothing. Because the kids are going to look up to Lil Wayne and Jay-Z.”

Millz.

The Sistahs agree that idolizing mainstream hip hop culture and its normalization of misogyny is highly toxic, because it strengthens patriarchal traditions, which according to Tsidi, are internalized from a young age. Boys are given toy guns to play with and girls are taught to cook. “Therefore boys grow up with that mentality, thinking they’re superior because they can handle a big machine.” Anela adds that her mother, for instance, can’t get an inheritance. “She built our houses in the Eastern Cape with her bare hands, and the guys didn’t even know how the house came about. But because she’s a woman and can marry into another family, she can’t have the house. But what does it actually mean to get married? What if I don’t want to get married?”

Trying to challenge this internalized authority, explains Anela, becomes very hard because men say their “culture” is insulted. “Let us understand that as much as we are oppressed, men are oppressed into thinking their authority is something they are born with. How do we differentiate from what is natural and unnatural? If it was nature that men are above us, why are we challenging it? Why are our inner selves telling us that we need to challenge this? It’s not accommodating to us, so we need to challenge it.”

Tsidi.

And that’s what the cypher is about; showing that patriarchy isn’t as unequivocally normal as society makes it out to be. By respecting each other and discussing problems in words and song, the Rebel Sistahs express the vision of the future they’d like their children to embody. Although the culture they’re surrounded by is tough to counteract, Anela remains positive about providing an alternative.

“It’s still a long way before they implement changes that would be so tight-screwed that even a screw driver can’t move them. But we have a lot of work to do. Because change is something that comes in bits and bits and bits and pieces. Ultimately there will be total change.”

All your faves are problematic: A brief history of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, stanning and the trap of #blackgirlmagic

Adiche. Image via Howard County Library Flickr.

In my late twenties, I fell in love with Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s words. In part it was because I understood the world she was describing. I had not yet been to Nigeria, and knew nothing of Nsukka – the university town that features so prominently in so many of her books and stories. Still, that didn’t matter. I knew the striving and the drive; the piety and the pride that drove her characters because I had seen them in the household in which I grew up. I recognized my people and their ambitions and so Purple Hibiscus became mine.

I love books for different reasons. I loved Alice in Wonderland because it mapped out an imaginary world I would never have ventured into on my own. I loved Oliver Twist because I understood the longing Dickens so painstakingly described.

There are some books that you love because reading them is a struggle: Albert Camus’ L’etranger has a special place in my heart because I read it in French when I was in high school. It was hard work grappling with existentialism in a language I had only heard in school. Yet Camus was preoccupied with making sense of a society built on the same sorts of inequalities and corruptions I knew so well.  The complications and difficulties of that book are etched in my heart. In other words, most books matter because of who you are at the time you are reading them. This is precisely why Adichie meant so much to me.

I was not alone. Adichie’s arrival on the literary scene was heralded with much excitement because she was precisely the sort of writer many women of my generation needed, and ours was a powerful and unique generation. Born after colonialism had ended we were free and the continent in which we grew up was still gleaming with possibilities. Although by the time I was thirty, Africa was seen as a “basket-case,” the Africa of my childhood was not yet a failure. Adichie found a way to articulate that. She was writing the kind of books many of us had been wanting to read. She represented the future so many of us had known as children.

I had not yet thought I might pursue writing in any serious way, but I saw myself as the sort of confident young woman whose ideas might matter and be taken seriously. Before her, I had devoured the books of Miriama Ba and Tsitsi Dangaremba and Sindiwe Magona and a host of African women whose writing had been crucial to my intellectual formation. Yet none of them were my contemporaries. None had come of age alongside me in the way Adichie was doing. I saw myself in the worlds she created, but I also saw myself as a fellow traveller, as someone who was striking out a new path in her field. I was doing what she was doing in a sense, just in my own small professional patch.

In many ways then Adichie occupied a unique place in contemporary black women’s thought and literature for at least a decade before the phrase black girl magic was coined as a hashtag, and as the motto for a new generation’s struggle for recognition and self-love.

Adichie is African of course, but because she began writing in a world that was more global than it had ever been, because she traveled so frequently between Nigeria and America, she was easily claimed as a member of a much larger global African diaspora. She may technically belong to two countries, but she is collectively seen as a daughter or a sister to black people in a broader sense.

In other words, Adichie has become a signifier for something larger than herself. In some ways, she has marked the rise of what Taiye Selassie calls, “the Afropolitan.” The phrase is problematic, and I use it fully aware of its complications. Still, part of the Adichie phenomenon has been the sense for many Africans who are similarly located as citizens of Africa as a concept, that if success was possible for her in the world of arts and letters, then surely, we might all succeed in the various new terrains we sought to master – from engineering to cosmetic surgery to venture capital.

And it was when we began to project our dreams onto her that loving Adichie the symbol – rather than her books – became murky. This is not unique to Adichie, but it provides a stark example of the limits of black girl magic. It plays in the dangerous terrain in which we accept that, “there is some sort of inherent connection between all brown-skinned persons. We know something. We necessarily connect…[A]ll group identities are constructed. However, some group identities run away with us. Some become harmful, or even work against the purpose they were created to defeat…[T]he “Afropolitan” is just such a group identity. It is exclusive, elitist and self-aggrandizing.”

By the time Adichie’s “Danger of a single story” TED talk was released, she was already flirting with fame. The talk has been viewed millions of times and it helped her to take the first serious steps towards genuine fame. It became a manifesto, a sort of treatise for a new generation of feminists of all races but of a very particular class background, who were looking for more complicated ways of understanding the world than their mothers had been able to provide.

Both in its substance and in its form, the talk laid the foundation for the sort of hero Adichie would be. She was at once acceptable – pretty and made up but not too much – and rebellious. She broke the rules by not memorizing the talk. She read her talk because she was not the sort who would be pushed to adhere to silly rules about how to give good TED talks. She stood in jeans and a head-wrap and read her comments. The ease of her words, and the commonsense style of her delivery were at once charming and intimidating. Adichie was haughty and no nonsense and infinitely poised in a way that was instantly recognizable to me as a middle class African woman who had met many women raised in Adichie’s mold. She was not a new phenomenon to me, she was simply a newly celebrated phenom, and I allowed myself the indulgence of enjoying the moment as though it were my own.

The talk cemented her status as the sort of intellectual rock star, the kind of literary and cultural maven many of us had been looking for. Even in her form, she was supremely of the moment. Giving a record-breaking TED Talk was a supremely contemporary way to get famous, and it mapped onto the ways in which a new generation of diligent and prodigious middle class Africans hoped to make their mark. As the “Africa rising” narrative swept across the pages of The Economist and The Financial Times, Adichie’s star rose higher and higher.

While her book sales were significant and her name was on the lips of more people than ever, it was her next talk titled “Why we should all be feminists,” that sealed her place in the firmament of literary and popular culture. She had tapped into an important conversation – albeit one that had been happening around her with far more complexity and rigor, for many generations.

She was both able to speak to a mainstream audience, and signal to a core constituency of imagined and imaginary black women who were as Selassie might say, “nodding with recognition” at her words. She explained feminism so well that Beyonce – a pop icon who is similarly able to signify to an imagined audience of black folks while speaking in a language the master understands and can commodify – included the talk in her song “Flawless.”

Since the release of “Flawless,” Adichie has increasingly been used as an expert on non-fiction matters relating to race, gender and African politics. Beyond her books, she has come to be recognized as a spokesperson in the West.

There are traps of course for any literary celebrity, and certainly for one who hails from Africa. As Professor Simon Gikandi points out, “… globalization creates all of these opportunities for novelists and writers; but at the same time, of course, again the more complex issue revolves around the terms of that globalization. Some people could argue… that in order for these fictions to become global, they have had to be involved in a fascinating and sometimes disturbing act of cultural translation because their audiences are no longer located in their sites of referent. Let me put it this way: there is a split between the object of representation, and the people who read it… [W]orks are set in East Africa but… readers are North American, and in that sense it would be interesting to ask what kinds of transactions have taken place so that these African fictions can succeed in a global scene. So the global scene, and globalization in general, are transforming the terms of cultural contact, but also transforming the forms of fiction.”

Adichie has no control over this of course. These are forces far larger than she. At the same time, because she has walked so confidently into the realm of non-fiction, and has agreed on multiple occasions, to take up the mantle of “spokesperson,” there is an increasing expectation that she is up to the task; that she can in fact authentically speak on behalf of the fans who adore her. Over time those fans have included young women enthralled by her popularization of existing mainstream feminist ideas and LGBTI communities across the diaspora and in urban European, American and African contexts.

Recently, Adichie made comments about trans-women that indicated that she was more conservative in her feminism and her understanding of matters of sexuality and gender than many of her fans had assumed. And finally, it seems the sparkle has worn off Adichie.

Both her comments and her clarifications were offensive. Yet “celebrities” wander into territory they aren’t equipped to navigate all the time, and in so doing they grossly oversimplify and flatten and demean the experiences of the people on whose behalf they claim to speak. So, in a sense, one might suggest her misstep was not such a big deal.

The difference is of course that Adichie is not Angelina Jolie. She has staked her reputation on substance and heft and thoughtfulness. Yet the disappointment amongst members of LGBTI and feminist communities I spoke with after Adichie’s comments were published, went deeper than that and it is important to examine that disappointment and what it speaks to.

In part, Adichie’s over-reach is again bigger than her. It is a consequence of a growing culture of stanning. Adichie has been steeped in a celebrity culture that has created the Beyhive – which functions as an emotional bodyguard for the singer; and she has been embraced and championed by the black girl magic movement. Stanning is not merely being a fan, it often involves taking on an active and confrontational stance in relation to defending one’s celebrity. The celebrity becomes an extension of the fan – a persona who stands in for the identities of those who love him or her. I understand the power of this feeling, and it is clear why Adichie has become as much of a celebrity as an African literary author can be, in the midst of this climate.

There is a politics to the adoration of course. Beyonce’s fans are not unthinking robots. As Fezokuhle Mthonti notes, in an essay in The Con, those who stan for Beyonce are “a complex set of people who traverse space and place in multiple and complicated ways.” Mthonti decries “the assumption that we are a homogenous set of automatons who have no agency, no capacity for critical thought.” Similarly, there is a politics that propels those who continue to admire Adichie even in the face of her transphobia. It is a politics similar to that which keeps her fans publicly quiet, even as they wonder about her decision to agree to promote Boots No. 7 by suggesting in a glamorous and expensive-looking ad, “the truth is, make up doesn’t actually mean anything, its simply make up.” Make up is a choice of course, and the conversation about its role and place in the lives of women and men is an important one. To have that discussion in service of selling make up is at best disingenuous, and at worst, patently self-serving. Still, the very fact of Adichie being chosen to represent a major fashion brand at all is seen as an affirmation – something not to be criticized but to be praised. The disquiet is quelled by the sense of being under siege, of being always scrutinized by the forces of racism and sexism. In this environment, raising questions – especially publicly –  is seen as an attack.

It is clear then that the relative silence in relation to the commodification of Adichie’s messages — particularly her feminism — is a testament to the fact that black girl magic has reached the limits of its usefulness.

***

When CeShawn Thompson created the hashtag #BlackGirlMagic in 2013, she was giving contemporary voice to a long-practiced strategy for coping amongst marginalized and excluded. The hashtag sought to push back against mainstream narratives about black women. The idea was simple. As a piece in the Huffington Post noted: “Black Girl Magic was used to illustrate the universal awesomeness of black women. It’s about celebrating anything we deem particularly dope, inspiring, or mind-blowing about ourselves.”

It caught on. It has provided a quick and easy retort to those who have felt it necessary to deride Venus and Serena Williams. It helped to push back against those who suggested Viola Davis was not “classically beautiful.” It shone a spotlight on the achievements of Misty Copeland, Simone Biles, Michelle Obama, and a host of other African-American women who were in the public eye, but risked backlash. #BlackGirlMagic enveloped them in a protective blanket. As they soared, they were kept on course by a brigade of young black women wearing capes making the air around them shimmer with beautiful arrogance.

As is almost always the case with pop culture, what began as a subaltern articulation with particular resonance amongst an internally cohesive group, managed to spread. The phrase was a push-back, a statement about the virtual impossibility of continuing to exist in the face of daily threats to life and limb – especially in Europe and Australia, where black women were visible minorities, or in places like Brazil and South Africa where blacks are the demographic majority but come up hard against the reality that the architecture of racism has resisted dismantling. The phrase acknowledges – in a subtext that is easy for black women to understand – the idea that black women pulled rabbits out of hats, made food appear where there was no money, provided us with educations. The phrase captures the sense when black women are able to succeed in systems that were never meant to accommodate them, it takes supernatural strength.

While the genesis of the phrase was political in ways that matter, it was also always teetering on the ledge of the sort of feel-good feminism that can be essentialist and counter-productive. Over time, black girl magic has run into tricky terrain. It has been gobbled up by the mainstream and has begun to privilege mainstream black women. In addition, inevitably, the advertising industry has been only to happy to capitalize on the trendiness of certain kinds of black women in ways that operate to depoliticize and deracinate what is worth saving in the idea of black girl magic.

And so we find ourselves in a moment in which the sort of black girl magic that is visible in popular culture is no longer subversive. Instead, the catch phrase too often celebrates only certain kinds of black women, and in so doing essentializes what it means to be a black girl, and what magic ought to look like. Rather than the emancipatory arrogance that has helped oppressed people survive exploitation, black girl magic offers a smug and increasingly narrow celebration of black womanhood.

And so, for many who remain on the fringes of even black womanhood itself – fat black women, trans women, disabled black women, dark skinned black women, poor black women, queer black women, sex workers who are black women – the notion of magic simply doesn’t apply.

It is virtually impossible to be magical while navigating systems of power that are genuinely hostile to those who seek to resist them. So for example, it is not evident in the hashtag movement, whether or not the struggles of black women who survive welfare and criminal justice systems — and do not tweet about their troubles — qualify as black girl magic. Do those who survive physical abuse and continue to go to school but are not straight A students make it onto the list of woman crushes?

Indeed, even for those who are included, those who are toasted for their magic, those – like Adichie and Beyonce and actress Taraji B. Henson – who have legions of fans who sprinkle them with fairy dust, the idea of being magical has its burdens.

Many of the women who occupy the black girl magic spotlight have support systems. Women like Michelle Obama, Serena Williams and Henson – the faves of the black girl magic movement – are wealthy. They are public figures for whom having fans is a part of life. Still, because the rise of black girl magic has coincided with an explosion in celebrity culture, and an intensification of the stan, these women find themselves in untenable positions – having to make choices and speak on behalf of people whose desires and dreams they will never know. This is at once the privilege and the quandary of being high profile. In addition, when the stumble – as Adichie has in a number of ways of late – the condemnation is harsh and swift. The fury aimed at black women is almost always disproportionate to the offense. Ironically, this paradox is precisely why stanning has become such an important – albeit double-edged – act of solidarity.

In “Why we should all be feminists,” Adichie argues: “Masculinity is a hard, small cage, and we put boys inside this cage.” She is right of course. It is also evident that black girl magic has come to function, if not as a cage, then certainly as a cave. Like cages, caves have their merits. They provide shelter from the elements and can offer privacy and spaces from which to recuperate. Still, caves can be dark dank places because they seldom let in enough light.

We are living through a difficult global moment. There are many forces arrayed against the very people black girl magic was conjured to protect and defend. Perhaps then, it is time to accept that creating new possibilities doesn’t happen magically. The work of imaging new futures and shaping alternate trajectories does not belong to a few glammed up spokespersons. Maybe we need to accept that it is the stans who will change their own world – through their solidarity and organizing and their critical intellect. This – much more than magic – will push our faves to be better.

Fearless in Nigeria

For this weekend’s music interlude, we return with our Liner Notes series, which is simply, musicians writing about making music. This time around we have VILLY from VILLY & The Xtreme Volumes talking a bit about the politics behind their Humanimals EP.

The term Humanimals refers to the general inhuman thoughts and actions of human beings towards the planet, nature and fellow humans. Corruption falls under this umbrella and is a global problem, not just on the African continent.

From where we stand in West Africa we share our views on these issues and how it affects us directly and indirectly, how policies and laws, democracy and military rule have jeopardized hope, and also the role this plays in the lives of the people of this continent. People like myself, my band, neighbors, friends, colleagues, people that have no idea where their next meal is coming from.

I’m lucky enough to have management and indie label Blank Creation Entertainment, which has made it possible for me to not worry about being commercial. I have the space to fully express myself the way I see fit. The struggles in the music industry that artists confront take their toll on the creative aspect. This is one reason why it is difficult to find fearless musicians in Nigeria – they are all trying to make money. Our label partnership takes away the burden from me and I can just focus on being a musician.

The journey from 2012 to today began in Lagos, Nigeria just after the fuel subsidy crisis that paralyzed the country for weeks. We did our best to support the struggle but there was one big vacuum, the people wanted songs that could inspire them but the music industry failed. Every platform had to go back to Fela or Femi Kuti for songs.

We realized that the masses will always need a fearless mouthpiece and from then our journey was officially birthed. We were focused on creating music to further expose the decay in the African system. Our music is made to confront leaders and show the people that leaders can be criticized for their actions and be held accountable. We hope to inspire the people to fearlessly protest against bad leadership. The goal is to achieve bigger and stronger platforms to tell the stories freely.

Since 2012 we have seen that dream grow larger locally and receive more attention internationally. We’ve also worked hard on creating a sound that will serve as a unique and strong vessel to carry our messages. That’s how we got into experimenting, fusing sounds till we were comfortable to produce this EP. But we are not stopping with the experiment – it is a life-time experience. Over the years our lifestyle and music became one. I, VILLY, cannot be detached from this music. My actions match my words; this is beyond my control, the idea behind this unplanned connection is using the creators of this music as a whole as an example to the world, offered to those that this sound and these stories will inspire.

It has not been an easy journey, we knew from day one it was never going to be easy. We’ve had so many challenges, financially and otherwise, challenges like: leaving our home Nigeria and moving to Ghana to be able to shutdown the distractions of Lagos and create for three years in Accra; settling and finding our feet; constant studio rehearsals; building the group with exceptional musicians, always in search of quality. Even if we can afford it or not, Omonblanks finds a way to make things happen. The music has shaped our minds, making quality sounds with professionals who buy in to the general idea of VILLY and the Xtreme Volumes.

The songs on Humanimals were sparked mostly by my experience, the people around me and the policies, laws, boundaries, corruption and so on. They were carefully selected,  and the goal was to keep everything simple, from sound to lyrics so everyone can grasp the message. This is just the beginning, we are still working on the album and another EP.

As expensive as the process of making these projects is, we have decided to give out our music completely free, so the music will travel as far as it can. Free music means more listeners and more listeners means that very soon we shall have a mental revolution of the people.

How the Congo crisis has reshaped international relations

Image via Wikimedia.

In July 1960, within a week of achieving independence from Belgium, the Congo (later renamed Zaire and now known as the DRC) was plunged into a civil conflict that soon turned into a political and constitutional crisis that besieged the country for almost five years. The Congo crisis challenged how the superpowers and the United Nations managed the process of decolonization and fundamentally impacted the relationship between the West and the post-colonial world.

The introduction of a UN peace-keeping force to safeguard the sovereignty of the Congo following the intervention of Belgian troops to protect European lives and interests, immediately had the effect of internationalizing the crisis. Never before had the UN intervened to protect the sovereignty of a country, and certainly not from incursion by a Western power. This action set the stage for a contentious debate about the relationship of Belgium, Britain and the United States with the newly-independent Congo and raised questions about the role of the UN in managing the process of decolonization.

The events also had wider and deeper implications as newly independent countries positioned the Congo crisis as a means to challenge the manifestations of all forms of imperialism and imperialist internationalism across Africa. Policymakers in London and Washington DC were quickly confronted with a conflict that combined the problems of decolonization with mounting Cold War tensions, but also the realization that the UN was increasingly susceptible to African and Asian influence.

When UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld invoked his power under Article 99 of the UN Charter and elected to bring “the Congo question” (as the crisis became known) before the Security Council immediately in July 1960, he established a precedent. The subsequent Security Council and General Assembly resolutions that mandated the UN peacekeeping mission, known as Opération des Nations Unies au Congo (ONUC) served to create the largest and most complex UN mission ever undertaken up to that point. In many cases, these resolutions were negotiated and tabled by members of the Afro-Asian bloc in the General Assembly.

From the beginning therefore, the UN intervention was innovative in many respects. ONUC was manned primarily by troops from neutral countries, such as Ireland and Sweden, but also relied heavily on contributions from non-aligned, anti-colonial African and Asian states, such as Ghana and India. This meant that as the crisis progressed, African and Asian representatives came to the fore in formulating and executing UN policy and enjoyed a close relationship with Hammarskjöld and his deputies. As the crisis progressed, Britain and the US gradually discovered that the nature of the UN had changed both in terms of the tenor of the environment in New York and through this more activist role of the organization in Africa. Over time, Britain in particular experienced a diminishing influence over the direction of UN Congo policy, as initiatives were spearheaded by the anti-colonial voices of the General Assembly.

The situation in the Congo deteriorated rapidly on July 7 1960 when separatist leader Moise Tshombe declared the secession of the south-eastern province of Katanga. In 1960, almost 70% of the world’s industrial diamond supply and almost 50% of global cobalt was mined in Katanga. The secession threw the central government in the capital Leopoldville (Kinshasa) into chaos, eventually resulting in a constitutional breakdown and the assassination of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in January 1961. In view of the escalating conflict, the US increasingly regarded the Congo as a precarious Cold War “hot spot.” While the State Department was simultaneously engaged in the war in Vietnam, policy-makers sought to balance relations with European former colonial powers, especially Britain and Belgium, against the objective of stemming the perceived spread of Soviet influence throughout the country. This was in fact substantially over-estimated by the State Department and research has shown that Soviet influence among Congolese people and politicians was actually quite limited. Violent attacks on Hammarskjöld and the mission in the Congo by the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev served to magnify, in American eyes, the Cold War dimensions of what was viewed by European and African states as a decolonization conflict.

In the British view, the unstable Congo posed a threat to neighboring British colonies in Northern and Southern Rhodesia, Tanzania and Uganda. In a similar vein to Belgium, the British approach towards the Congo had at its core, the preservation of European networks of influence, especially private companies such as the Union Minière du Haut Katanga (UMHK). Financed by an umbrella group called Tanganyika Concessions, the UMHK processed the vast resources of Katanga, creating large profits for British shareholders. The central point of contention, which quickly emerged between Britain and the US, was whether or not the UN should use force to end the secession and thereby restore territorial sovereignty to the Congo. Crucially, doing so involved redirecting the revenue of UMHK and other firms from financial groups in Brussels and London to the central government in Leopoldville.

In February 1961, in keeping with the precedent-setting nature of the mission, UN troops were authorized for the first time to use force in self-defense. Peacekeepers had been engaged in a standoff against Katangan mercenaries and had also been involved in skirmishes with the Congolese army, which sought to re-establish the authority of the central government through its own military campaign against the province. The Security Council extended the mandate of the force in 1961 in order to enable the peacekeepers to gradually and peacefully dismantle Tshombe’s regime. However, his well-armed mercenary forces retained the upper hand through the use of aircraft and by destroying key infrastructure, thereby hindering the movements of the peacekeeping force. In response, the US sought to enable the UN to enforce its mandate more effectively and supported a series of military campaigns against Katanga in September 1961, aimed at ending the secession. Britain however, remained resolutely opposed to the use of force and even supplied tacit and indirect assistance to Tshombe. By 1962, the situation was becoming untenable. Clashes between Tshombe’s forces and UN peacekeepers alongside widespread civil unrest led to calls from African and Asian countries to accelerate the military campaign to definitively quash the Katangan regime. Britain continued to play a problematic role by refusing to sanction the use of force against Tshombe in negotiations at the UN while the US, frustrated with British intransigence, granted political and financial support for the operation.

On December 24 1962, Operation UNOKAT was launched and UN troops seized control of the provincial capital Elisabethville (Lubumbashi). Tshombe fled to Northern Rhodesia and the “independent” state of Katanga ceased to exist. For Britain, the UN action was a humiliating revelation of the lack of British influence in restraining the organization, and also directly threatened the maintenance of British economic and political influence in Central Africa. Moreover, the ending of the secession in this way represented a defeat of one of the central features of British imperial internationalism; the quest to maintain a world role, even as a declining imperial power.

For the US, different views of how the Congo operation should proceed pointed to deeper disagreements with Britain about the preservation of colonial networks and interests in post-colonial African states. The quick dissolution of Western unity on the Congo had highlighted to American officials the difficulty of balancing Cold War objectives with support for European policies that were perceived as neocolonial by African and Asian states. The Congo question had also forced the US to confront the challenges of implementing an anti-colonial position at the UN, as for the first time during the crisis the State Department abandoned the policy of automatically abstaining on colonial questions, leading to a public split with Britain and Belgium at several key moments.

At the centre of this divergence of views were also different visions of the UN and its potential and utility in managing the process of decolonization. The ending of the secession by UN forces in 1962 reflected that African and Asian countries could implement anti-colonial policies through the UN, even when this was contrary to the interests of European colonial powers. By destroying Western consensus, highlighting the agency of anti-colonial actors and demolishing the last vestiges of Belgian colonial rule in the Congo, the UN action thereby represented the first important defeat of imperialist internationalism in Central Africa.

South Africa needs a new public debate

Economic and political crises typically encourage new avenues for conceptualizing a reordering of society. This is because they open up spaces in the realm of discourse due to the discrediting of traditional narratives and systems of thought. If that is generally the case, it is interesting to note that one could hear a pin drop in the mainstream forums for discussing South Africa’s political and economic system, in spite of the heightened sense of crisis that pervades since President Jacob Zuma appointed his fourth minister of finance in two years, and ratings agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded the country’s credit rating to “junk” status. (Basically, “…the financial downgrading is likely to make it more expensive for South Africa to borrow on the international markets, as lending to the country would be seen as riskier.”)

Elsewhere in the world (particularly in advanced countries – the United States, Britain, Greece, France) we see significant reconfiguration of the political landscape with left and right populists leading wave after wave of attack on the political center, given the latter’s complicity in failing to resolve a series of social crises. Some of the most pertinent dimensions of these crises are economic. The crisis has been particularly pronounced for parties to the left of center that have over the course of much of the last three decades fallen prey to the hegemony of neoliberal ideology.

What is interesting about South Africa, in terms of these dynamics, is that unlike the center-left in the aforementioned advanced countries, much of the current noise about neoliberalism is coming from the dominant faction of the center-left party that is trying to hold onto power. In spite of the fact that the Zuma faction has been comfortable with a neoliberal orthodoxy for almost two terms, it now realizes the political value of populist left rhetoric. This might not be such an issue were it not the case that the Zuma faction is basically the only contributor to a discursive critique of neoliberalism at the moment.

It is true that there have been one or two other spaces where such critique has cropped up in recent times. For example, Joel Netshitenzhe, who served as advisor to Zuma’s predecessor Thabo Mbeki, wrote a piece in the country’s leading business daily on the need for a non-financialized black capitalist class. Another was former Deputy Finance Mcebisi Jonas’ recent piece, in Sunday paper City Press, showcasing his awareness of the radical analysis of the “secular stagnation” debate, via reference to financialization (the increasing role of financial motives, financial markets, financial actors and financial institutions in the operation of the domestic and international economies) and underconsumption (the idea of inadequate consumer demand, arising for reasons including high inequality and systematic depressing of wage income, can constrain growth).

Until Zuma fired him last week (along with his Minister Pravin Gordhan), Jonas was the second most senior politician in the Treasury, and yet we have no indication that his analysis fed into Treasury action in a way that is distinct from the decades of orthodoxy that have left South Africa mired precisely in stagnation and decay. (Netshitenzhe also fails to relate his criticism to his time in government). It may or may not be unfair to provide a critical line on Treasury orthodoxy amidst the hostile political situation (from an intellectually and morally bankrupt Zuma regime) and potentially binding global constraints, but at the very least given the state of crisis more could be done to bring about a more vibrant public discourse about the restructuring that is clearly needed.

Moreover, as a point of significance to those who seek to mobilize against the Zuma faction at present (those associated with the Save South Africa campaign, for example), and who seemingly do not have a critique of neoliberalism, the extent to which a technocratic and constitutionalist discourse around preserving state institutions serves as a useful basis for organizing opposition to the Zuma faction seems limited. So far, it seems to have been most successful in mobilizing a smattering of, particularly white, middle and upper class South Africans to public protests. This is clearly a problem that must be seriously engaged with.

Some questions that would be worthwhile engaging on in mainstream publications for progressives aiming to break with the current political moment: Around what program should opposition to the Zuma faction cohere around? Will a program centered around “good governance” and anti-corruption be sufficient to successfully rival the Zuma faction and achieve mass support? What role has the post-apartheid economic program and structure played in leading the country to this current conjuncture? Do we want to center our opposition to the Zuma faction in terms of a defense of a fiscally conservative Treasury? What would a genuine program of “radical economic transformation” (the slogan used by Zuma and his acolytes) currently look like and how can we push for it? In a global and country context where the capitalist class shows diminished interest in investing, what role should they play in our society? What role should a predatory, collusive and parasitic financial sector, that restricts industrial development, play in our society?

I think these are all highly relevant questions for the current moment and it is clear to me that the narrow and cynical harping on about the admittedly bad state of government corruption does little to answer them. All it does is undermine the potential for a vibrant public debate and function as rhetorical cover for efforts at erosion of state intervention as a means of correcting the depravities of the market. Responding to this, it is easy for those in the Zuma faction to make cynical bastardized critiques of the current economic order through shallow reference to “radical economic transformation” and “white monopoly capital.” In other words our public debate around political economy is not a meaningful one – it currently only functions to wage factional battles. If we are to move beyond this, and counter the Zuma faction’s kleptocratic politics, the country desperately needs an open and honest exchange of ideas between a new generation of discussants versed in radical political economy and its older generation. Without this, opponents of Zuma and his cronies give all the rhetorical space to the Zuma faction to make cynical and successful use of radical discourse to maintain power.

“We Are All Many Things” – An Interview with Nadia Davids

“In Cape Town there’s 800,000 plus / A large population we’re starting a nation / … half of the Cape is Arabian,” raps Youngsta CPT (government name: Riyadh Roberts) on his new single, “Arabian Gang$ter.” The rapper is one of a new generation of South African creatives of Muslim background who interact matter-of-factly with their social identity. They don’t foreground or explain what it is like to Muslim in South Africa; it is part of the background of their lives. Like the poet and literary scholar Gabeba Baderoon (who happened to have written a book about Islam’s history in South Africa from the advent of colonialism, through slavery), the poet and writer Rustum Kozain, or the writer Nadia Davids.

For the latter it started with the play “At her feet” (2002), in which one actress portrays multiple roles (mother, teenager, daughter) to make visible the complex lives of Muslim women in Cape Town. As Davids wrote at the time: “When I first began to think about writing a play about Muslim women, the world was reeling from the aftermath of September 11… I began to think very deeply about my place in the world, about the religion that I had been born into, about the country that I called home, and about the major and minor moments that had shaped me as a woman… about growing up in Cape Town, what it means to share one’s stories, and what happens when someone else’s life moves you to rethink your own.” Since that play, Davids completed a PhD. (on memory and forced removals in which her family were victims), moved to New York and then London to teach drama at Queen Mary University of London and has just returned to Cape Town. She also wrote a play about Cissie Gool, a mid-century Cape Town political activist. Now she has written her first novel, “An Imperfect Blessing,” which plot spans the late 1980s through the early 1990s and tells the story of a Cape Town family at the intersection of late Apartheid and South Africa’s political transition. It continues some of the same themes of her earlier work. This interview was conducted over email.

The novel takes place during late Apartheid and in the final period of constitutional negotiations, a period of intense politicization. Why write a novel about this period?

1986 to 1993 felt like a lifetime when I was a child but it was really only a handful of years and during that time we moved from being one kind of country into another. 1986 was a particularly bad year; Apartheid reached the apogee of its ruthlessness: government crackdowns, rolling states of emergency, killing with impunity, and an aggressive insistent denial from officials that any of it was happening. I wanted to write about that time and twin it with the run-up to our first democratic election. Those initial months in 1993 were intense, disorientating, exhilarating and that early nineties combination of hard-earned optimism and fraught compromise is difficult to describe today: people can be quite cynical about it (rightly so, I suppose) but it wasn’t a simple transition at all – it was bloody and dangerous and full of arguments about the right course of action. At the same time there were these moments of euphoria and fierce relief that things were changing. I come from a sort of “in-between” generation in South Africa: young enough when Apartheid ended to have not experienced the full force of its cruelty, but old enough to remember it, to have had intimate contact with it, to have witnessed what it did to the adults in my world, to understand the distortive generational damage it effected on people and communities. I came of age feeling this simultaneous fury at injustice, jubilation that is was “over”, and intense gratitude to everyone who’d gone before. The novel was a way of thinking about that time, holding it in my view, but also about telling a small family story that looked at art and activism and difficult choices, about the flow between those things, a way of asking how ordinary people were affected by that system.

I think of the book as sitting somewhere between memory and imagination, where writing is an act of remembrance, a process of turning over particular memories and then re-crafting those memories through fiction. Most of it was written when I lived away from Cape Town and I think I was trying to understand the city of my birth, its brokenness, its survival, its cruelty, its beauty, its impossible strangeness… Cape Town is an uncanny place, the past and the present are always entangled, the landscape seems to move constantly between the invitation to remember and the demand to forget and that remembering and forgetting has always been racially coded. When I write history, I always find it interesting to ask who is doing the remembering, how they are going about remembering and who would rather forget.

At the time of writing the novel there just wasn’t much fiction about that period set in the Cape Muslim community; sometimes you have to write your own history into being. It’s one way to push back against invisibility.

At another level, the novel is about how communities or families existed under Apartheid. At its heart its most vivid descriptions are of the everyday; and probably the most layered scene is that of the wedding. What does looking at regular, everyday life reveal about the dynamics of this time period?

I remember asking an aunt of mine who was in high-school during the 1976 uprising and who lived on the Cape Flats throughout the 1980s about how she coped with the constant army presence, with the incessant state violence, and her response was to shrug and say, “It was terrible, but life went on.” She wasn’t being at all dismissive; it was a very real answer about how people often live in and through conflict, how they negotiate the steady hum of a low-grade civil war, how their understanding of “normal” changes.

It’s a question that goes to the novel’s core: what was the everyday? What was ordinary? What was normal? How was it possible that the everyday functioned within the confines of an abnormal system? Yet it did. Somehow. It was normal to have everyday life infused by state violence, by racism. (For a large number of South Africans, it still is). It was ordinary to go to school and sometimes have that school shut down by the army, to have private relationships take place under the auspices of racially codified unions. But there was also resistance and so much of that resistance was precisely about refusing to normalize that immoral system.

I’m interested in the every-day, in sketching the ordinary against the backdrop of the abnormal: what it was like to ride an Apartheid bus as a child, to walk past your demolished home, to love someone who fell under a different racial classification, to go the beach not only to unwind but as an act of defiance…

You mention the wedding; it takes place when Apartheid’s laws have been dismantled and the atmosphere is celebratory, light-hearted, the focus in on food, fashion, gossip, but Apartheid and its aftermath is imprinted on everything: from the choice of venue, to the conversations people have. That chapter tries to thread together a few ideas; the everyday, the characters’ first brush with feminism, small victories, teenage alliances and rebellions, community pressures, the first conversations about the TRC. But it also tries to find the funny because I’ve always been intrigued by how humor functions under these kinds of circumstance: laughter in a politically untenable situation is a subversive refusal to be cowed, a gloriously self-affirming act.

This novel could not have taken place anywhere other than in Cape Town. Can you talk about the place of Cape Town in South African literature and in South Africa in general?

Cape Town is equal parts fascinating and infuriating: it’s at once incredibly beautiful, historically dense and famously segregated. It’s a city of dark beginnings founded through a combination of the systemized slaughter of indigenous people, a mercantile slave trade and long-term colonialism that eventually morphed into Apartheid. It was also, as a result of all these crimes, one of the most culturally and racially heterogamous places on earth by the 1800s.

It’s the sort of place that invites multiple tellings precisely because its inhabitants experience the city so differently. Capetonians do not have a shared set of fictions about the city; our imaginations reproduce our lived segregations. A rather banal example: a few days ago friend and I were reminiscing about how when we were growing up we would jokingly describe black or coloured neighborhoods through the prism of a white name: back then, Fairways was the “The Coloured Constantia,” Walmer Estate was the “Black Bishopscourt,” so was Malunga Park in Gugs, but if we then named those neighborhoods by their actual names to white South Africans, most wouldn’t know what we were talking about… I don’t know if the same things would happen today, but there is something in that, I think, about the way in which people of color knew this city. There was a deeper knowledge, a stronger sense of its difference, a more acute read of its geography. We knew more of it. We had to.

A more literary example would be this: I remember reading South African writer Stephen Watson’s lament that Cape Town had somehow resisted literary narration or that those who had attempted to narrate it had failed to capture it, to language it, and I was struck at how profoundly differently I had grown up experiencing the city. Because for me, Cape Town had always been a deeply storied place. My family ensured that the city full of inscription and dense with narrative. And those stories were always populated by people and in that telling, a web of community and place and time would be spun. Some of that storytelling-particularly around forced removal was, I think, a kind of gentle pushback at enforced discontinuity and loss, some of it was about establishing a sense of ownership in a hostile environment and some of it was just joyous. Maybe Watson was drawing a line between orality and literature; I suppose that’s possible, but I’m also a theatre person so I don’t really understand those distinctions. I wonder sometimes if theatre is actually in a fundamental way better positioned to tell South African stories… but that’s another discussion altogether.

There were certainly books set in Cape Town that I thought about when I was writing the novel, like Zoe Wicomb’s You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town, Alex la Guma’s In the Fog of a Season’s End, and, (albeit very obliquely) J.M.Coetzee’s Disgrace. But the literary work that really forms the bedrock of the novel is Rustum Kozain’s poem The Blessing, a poem of and for Cape Town. It’s an incredibly strong evocation of the cityscape, its discontents, its difficulties, its startling beauty and breathtaking cruelty, its betrayals and promises and the novel is an attempt to respond to that poem.

So you’re right: mine is a hyper-local, tight study of Cape Town, focused on a sub-section of the city; the ruins of District Six, Obs house parties, buying gatbys, going to club matinees, cars as social space, mosques and churches, collecting money on Eid.

But it’s only one of many, many versions of Cape Town. I’m incredibly excited about the new spate of novels about the city that have been coming out for the last few years: CA Davids’ The Blacks of Cape Town, Masande Ntshanga’s The Reactive, Henrietta Rose Innes’ Green Lion.

All these works build a new literary imaginary of and around the city. Writing different versions of Cape Town, connecting neighborhoods, suburbs, communities deliberately disconnected by Apartheid, sharing stories that disrupt, comfort, confirm, engage, disorientate would go a little way to re-building what was broken. I’m optimistic that way; I’ve never not believed Michele de Certau’s perfect little aphorism, “What the map cuts up, the story cuts across.”

In a recent interview in the South African Mail & Guardian, Ebrahim Rasool, outgoing South African ambassador to the United States, said: “South Africa has been this wonderful laboratory for Islam, which has found a high point under democracy and freedom – for Muslims to perfect the art of integration without assimilation and isolation; for Muslims to live with the wonderment of many identities and not a single religious identity. I mean, which other country would have Hashim Amla as the captain of their cricket team or Nizaam Carr coming off the reserves bench for the rugby team? These are symbols that are so taken for granted in South Africa… but do you know how it rocks the world of eight million American Muslims and 15 million French Muslims?”  Your novel explores aspects of that history. What do you make of Rasool’s comments?

I think Rasool is right to be optimistic. There are few other countries as alert to Islamophobia or as instinctively and inclusively protective of its Muslim citizens as South Africa. There’s a confidence that Cape Muslim communities have about being simultaneously Muslim and South African, an ease in those identities that comes from a deep sense of belonging and historical entanglement. Which is to say that the historical matrix that allowed for “integration without assimilation and isolation” (Islam, colonialism, slavery and the struggle against Apartheid and in more shameful instances, complicity with oppression, with racism and racist practice) are all intertwined. Gabeba Baderoon’s wonderful book, Regarding Muslims explores exactly this. The novel does speak to some of those histories, but not entirely by design: that’s a by-product of a narrative in which the central characters are Muslim. If anything, I wanted to normalize Islam, normalize Muslim family life, to show that people within one family can have radically different views on love, faith, politics, to suggest that any identity is formed at a nexus of a number of different forces. Perhaps this is what Rassool means by a “laboratory.” We are all many things. How could we not be?

Irregular boundaries

The sahara (cricket) stadium in durban. Image credit Zahir Mirza via Flickr.

Now in Maytime to the wicket
Out I march with bat and pad:
See the son of grief at cricket
Trying to be glad.

– A.E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad

In the early 1970s, almost every summer weekend, I made the journey from the centre of Durban to the Springfield grounds. Springfield is now home to massive business complexes and highways hemming it into the city sprawl, but in the early 1970s, it was very much on the outskirts. Six or seven games of cricket were played, simultaneously, on ancient matting wickets, according to rules first written in the eighteenth century. There were no sightscreens. Irregular boundaries were marked by misshapen whitewashed stones. Clumps of grass and mole-hills hid crevices that tested the most flexible of ankles. In a script that veered between comedy and tragedy, I could not wait to get the call to don my whites and be drawn into the drama of a Springfield middle.

On a Saturday afternoon, you would arrive and drag the mat from a wood and iron shed. The mats were crusty and mouldy and came in all sorts of grotesque shapes. We would lay the mat on the pitch. The holes were huge. If you tried for a quick single, more often than not you would get stuck, so you had to run alongside the pitch. This meant running in the direction of cover and then veering back to the pitch. We were playing cricket but running like baseball players.

It was impossible to play cover drives that stuck to the turf. The ground was too spotted with holes and mounds. To score, one had to loft the ball.

This created its own problems. Once a big-hitter was in, the fielders in the adjacent ground needed eyes in the back of their heads. The fields were on top of each other with no sightscreens, so as the sun descended, one sometimes saw two bowlers coming at you.

What did a fifty mean under these conditions? What did five wickets mean when you managed to hit the hole in the mat and turn the ball sharper than Shane Warne?

Occasionally, my father and I would go to Old Kingsmead, the cathedral of white cricket. Here was a completely different world of wonder; turf wickets, picket fences, sight-screens, a scoreboard that flashed lights while invisible hands moved the score. Everything was so beautifully white, pristine and ordered. My father carved out a space under the clock for us to sit. A small blanket, two paper cups and a bottle of Coo-ee forming our own boundary within the tiny non-white section.

I watched the Springboks (as the national team was then still called) crush the Australians here in 1970. It was my joy also to witness many a provincial innings by the majestic Barry Richards.

During one provincial game against the Transvaal, my father, who was light of hue, snuck into the White area in search of a cup of tea. On his way back, he was man-handled and unceremoniously pushed over the fence, all the while trying to hold onto the cup of tea. People on both sides of the divide clapped and laughed. He took his place on the blanket, this most gentle of men, and without saying a word, picked up the binoculars to follow Mike Proctor’s run-up that started near the sight-screen. In one of my father’s greatest gifts to me, C.L.R. James’ Beyond a Boundary, I marked these words: ‘The British tradition soaked deep into me was that when you entered the sporting arena you left behind the sordid compromises of everyday life. Yet for us to do that we would have to divest ourselves of our skins.’

We never went back. The incident sparked a sense that, in order to understand the game, one required more than a pair of binoculars. Yet it never killed my passion for the game. How could it, given that its first seeds were planted in a son’s fond memories of trips to the ground with his father and nourished by a whole boyhood’s excitement and play?

In 1990, as Nelson Mandela strode out of prison, Springfield and Kingsmead edged closer. In 1991, the two worlds of cricket united, at the top at least. After years of sports boycotts against South Africa, international recognition beckoned.

When India toured in 1992/93, we went to Old Kingsmead, my father and I. He was like a child; taking in everything, as we perched high up on the Umgeni end. As was his way, avoiding trouble, he insisted on bringing his own flask of tea.

These stories, small as an individual spectator, played themselves out everywhere in South Africa, lost against the dramatic backdrop of apartheid coming to an end, Mandela meeting de Klerk and cricket supremo Ali Bacher meeting the ANC’s sports commissar, Steve Tshwete.

The game ended. My dad spied other men on the stands with whom he had batted through the 1960s and 1970s. They clasped hands. They spent a long time looking down at the empty pitch and then said goodbye. Men who played the game with such dignity, under conditions that mocked them. As I helped him into the car, little did we know that he would never see Kingsmead again, as Parkinson’s enveloped his body and eventually ended his life.

In post-apartheid South Africa, I avidly followed the Proteas as they made their way to the World Cup in Australia and wherever else in the world pitches were laid, boundaries marked out and willow swung. Expectations at home were high that the deep creases of inequality in the game would be steadily ironed out by the rollers of development and transformation, buzzwords that were all the rage at cricket headquarters in Johannesburg.

This book is an account of cricket in post-apartheid South Africa; from the tumultuous Gatting tour in which, ironically, the seeds of cricket unity were sown, to the Hansie Cronje saga and the change of leadership from Ali Bacher to Gerald Majola, and more recently to Haroon Lorgat.

It is a story of a new pitch; a quick start full of hope, followed by a steady erosion of the commitments needed to fulfil the promise of a level playing field. Economic and political compromises contributed to holding back the piercing of the covers of race and class privilege. Alongside this, the hurried hollowing out of the “politics of cricket”, aided by Black administrators assuming the accoutrements of office, saw very little internal challenge to the lack of transformation.

Meanwhile, global realignments in cricket initially gave South Africa some respite. But soon, the big three of Australia, England and India were collaborating to claim the lion’s share of global funding, thus limiting even further the resources necessary for development in the domestic game.

In a sense, we are back to the Springfield-Kingsmead divide. But there will be no posthumous honours, however grudgingly given, to lovers of the game who are keeping it alive in townships or side streets. Those whose innings are defined by lumpy mats and broken gear garner far less sympathy or note. For is cricket not now open to all, just like the Ritz Hotel; a game of money, dazzle, dancing girls and quick results?

* This is an extract from Reverse Sweep (Jacana, 2017).

Weekend Music Break No.104

Weekend Music Break is back to our regularly scheduled programming. Just a playlist of ten great songs and visuals from across Africa and its diaspora!

1) This week we start out with Malian legend Oumou Sangaré’s first release in seven years — and to top it off, she appears with Tony Allen in tow!

2) Then we head to Kenya where Muthoni channels a bit of (UK singer) MIA to call out corrupt politicians in her home country.

3) Up next, MHD and crew head from Paris to Manchester, rocking a Paul Pogba jersey, and showing the Brits the French-African flavor their gonna miss out on as they start the EU exit process this week.

4) But London-based Mazi Chukz shows that the British-Africans can hold their own when it comes to stews.

5) Back to the continent across from London, French rapper of Ivorian origin briefly drops the US-inspired trap beats to join the Coupe Decale resurgence going on in Paris (led by MHD).

6) Let’s head back to our continent now, alongside Wizkid who takes on a journey as he plays stadium shows across the continent.

7) Back home in Nigeria Lil’ Kesh makes an appeal for no fake love!

8) Cassper Nyovest does his best I’m from Atlanta impression with Tito Mboweni.

9) Let’s calm down from that a bit and head to Tidiane Thiam’s and Amadou Binta Konte in Senegal, and enjoy a more stripped down sound: one guitar, a hoddu and a microphone.

10) And let’s close out this week’s playlist with my current home of Brazil, and a who’s who of Afro-Brazilian rappers of many different stripes. Here they’re making an appeal for better and more and equal representation in their own country.

Ghanaians put their arms around New York

Kwame Nkrumah

“New Yorkers Put Arms Around Dr. K. Nkrumah” read the June 1951 New York Amsterdam News report about the future president of Ghana’s stop in the city. Nkrumah’s itinerary took him to his Alma Mater, Lincoln University, where he gave the commencement speech and was conferred an honorary degree. Unlike on his maiden journey to America where his stop in the city was to find shelter on the way to college in Pennsylvania, Nkrumah held audience with Mayor Vincent R. Impellitteri in his private quarters at City Hall.

On a recent Thursday evening, 66 years later and commemorating the 60th anniversary of Ghana’s independence, Nkrumah’s spirit was on display at the City Hall Chambers where the city’s council members meet. Interior decorations of the city’s insignia, a golden frieze as well as figures from the ceiling’s murals looked unto an audience of about 150 people lead by Bronx Council Member Vanessa L. Gibson, Bronx District Attorney Darcel D. Clark, a contingence from the Ghanaian Permanent Mission to the United Nations as well as community leaders from all the boroughs.

At a podium in front of the New York City, New York State and American flags as well a towering statue of Thomas Jefferson, Mohammed Lamin Ali in a white Kufi and stripped black and white batakari channeled the revolutionary Ghanaian leader. He dramatized and recited his speech at the dawn of independence (“we must realize from now on we are no longer a colonial but free and independent people”) that incited the crowd to cheers.

While at Lincoln University, Nkrumah would often travel down to Harlem. Here, the theology student would most often preach in local churches as he did back in Philadelphia, but perhaps just as importantly, he met thinkers like CLR James and Arturo Schomburg, encountered a thought of Marcus Garvey and was inspired by a pride for Africa that stood in sharp contrast with the colonial situation back in the Gold Coast.

Today, according to the Bronx Council Member Vanessa L Gibson, 30,000 of the 235,000 Ghanaian immigrants to the US call New York City home. “We are all Africans through our culture and it is not about the birth certificate” said the councilwoman overseeing the 16th District, which has one of the highest concentration of Ghanaians in the city. She cited Nkrumah’s famous declaration that “I am not African because I was born in Africa, but because Africa was born in me” to drive the point home.

The Councilwoman issued Proclamations from the City recognizing Professor Yaw Nyarko of NYU and H.E Martha Ama Akyaa Pobee for their “incredible contributions to the city.” Dr Nyarko a professor of Economics at NYU is Co-Director of the Development Research Institute as well as the founding director of NYU’s Africa House. H.E Martha Pobee, a 30 year veteran of Ghana’s foreign service and currently Ghana’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN, dedicated her recognition to “Ghanaian women everywhere.”

“My presence here” she added, “is a testament to what women can do if they apply themselves and if they are given the support by their country and people.” Emphasizing her amazement to be “honored by a people with whom we were linked centuries ago” she mentioned the spiritual connection she feels to African Americans today and joked about confusing Black Americans on the street often for old friends from Kumasi.

Also citing Nkrumah’s 6th of March speech that “the independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of Africa” Mr. Victor Essien, a law professor from Fordham University who was also honored on the night instructed the audience in his keynote to keep in mind “as we Ghanaians accept this honor, to think that this recognition is meaningless unless it it is linked with the recognition of all immigrants, be they Muslim, Christian or Jew;  Africans, Europeans or Asians.” He cited the examples of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Victor Lawrence, Thomas Mensah and other Ghanaian immigrants to the US who had achieved global acclaim to convey that the “success of Ghanaian immigrant population is a part of long story of immigrants in America.” The 30,000 Ghanaians might not be of Nkrumah’s star power, but like other immigrants crucial to the economy of this city and the country as a whole, they are the ones putting their arms around New Yorkers.

Brave new world

Image via End Deportations website.

In Pakistani writer Moshin Hamid’s prescient new novel, Exit West, two young lovers confront a world being torn apart by conflict and inequality and re-made through migration. Part of the book is set in a future London very much like today’s London, where people who’ve arrived from other countries wait to see if the violence of “the nativists” will force them out. Standing between them and possible physical confrontation, as well as the iron gates of detention centers, are the activists.

In the pre-Brexit and Trump world, activists from a variety of  movements (environmental, migration, and so on) across the West were often much maligned, dismissed in liberal and even Leftist circles as impractical and too idealistic, their movements rarely covered in the mainstream press. But in this new world we find ourselves in — where cruelty towards people on the move is now US and UK government policy  — direct action emerges as the necessary response.

On Tuesday night, 17 activists in Essex outside London evaded airport security and ran onto a runway at Stansted Airport, throwing their bodies on the tarmac and chaining themselves to a plane to prevent a government charter flight of approximately 50 Nigerian and Ghanaians — along with an estimated 100 guards, two per person — from departing. The UK government’s detention of people it deems irregular migrants or failed asylum-seekers is unique in Europe — with a sprawling system where people can be detained for indefinite periods of time. People in detention centers are often given no warning before receiving an order to report that same day for a flight out of the country. They don’t have time to say goodbye to family members or contact a lawyer. People on Tuesday’s flight included a man who had lived in the UK for 18 years, a lesbian woman who says her abusive ex-husband is waiting to kill her, and Lovelyn Edobor, a 49-year old woman who uses a wheelchair. The Guardian reported that when Lovelyn asked to use the airport bathroom, she was forced into a waist restraint belt and dragged along on a chain “like a goat.”

According to Emily Hall, a spokesperson for End Deportations, one of the group’s involved in Tuesday’s protest, temporarily halting a forced return may buy someone enough time to find the legal aid needed to challenge the deportation order. “It’s a last resort tactic,” said Hall. “But buying someone even 24 hours can help.” The activists could only purchase this time through putting their bodies on the line; they were subsequently all arrested.

Although elements of the UK’s program are unique, the UK is not alone in Europe in trying to get rid of people it deems unworthy of residence. Germany has signed numerous agreements with other countries to facilitate deportations of failed asylum seekers and migrants, and in early 2017 has sent asylum-seekers back to Afghanistan. A draft law presented last week to the German parliament would enforce even stricter deportation rules. Meanwhile, Austria wants to stop providing food and water to people whose asylum claims are rejected, and is debating requiring unemployed refugees to work unpaid at jobs the government deems “of public utility.” Otherwise known as slave labor.

When the state fails to treat people humanely, only individuals and civil society can step in. Will we witness the swelling and expansion of the anti-border movements in Europe and elsewhere as alternatives to governments ordering the stricter policing of non-native bodies?

In Germany, churches have increasingly begun protecting failed asylum-seekers with sanctuary, and the state has so far declined to physically remove people in the church’s care. As of January 2017, German churches were providing this protection for 547 people. Tuesday’s UK airport protest is another promising sign that people are willing to risk arrest to fight policies that tear families apart and endanger lives. “When you have insecure immigration status, you don’t have life,” said one of the men who was being deported on Tuesday’s blocked flight. “Your life is not considered important. It should not be like this. Human life is more important than immigration status.”

Is South African trade unionism at a turning point?

A strike is a “social phenomenon of enormous complexity which, in its totality, is never susceptible to complete description, let alone complete explanation.” The complexity of the meaning and implications of strikes often comes to the fore when offensive strikes – strikes where workers demand more than what they have in terms of wages and working conditions – force the attention of the state, capitalists and civil society. They lead to a varied interpretation not only of how events unfolded but also the impact they have made.

Strikes are a key manifestation of the class struggle over the distribution of national income and reform of the labor relations system. Offensive strikes can generate an extraordinary amount of pressure on the social system, which often leads to structural changes such as the reconfiguring of the industrial relations system, the economy or the political system. Such events are referred to here as a turning point.

In the immediate post-Apartheid period, the trend was for strikes to increase in frequency, with the highest number of strikes in South African history – 1,324 – taking place in 1998. From 2000 and 2009, however, strikes averaged 71 per annum, which was even lower than the 1960s, and these strikes were largely defensive in character.

Despite the low frequency of strike action, the year 2007 marked the beginning of a new militancy in pursuit of higher wages and benefits. The level of 2007 strikes was largely owing to the huge support for the offensive public service strike involving some 700,000 workers, which was closely followed by a more successful wave of 26 offensive strikes, mainly led by workers’ committees at FIFA 2010 World Cup construction sites.

While centralized bargaining and sectoral minimum-wage determinations continued to act as counterweights against strikes, the numbers of days lost due to industrial action accelerated from then. The 9.5 million days lost in 2007 more than doubled to 20.6 million by 2010. Most of the days lost in 2010 were, again, in the public sector, where some 1.3 million came out on another militant strike. What was significant about this strike was that the ANC (African National Congress), for the first time, could not control the affiliates of its major labor alliance partner, COSATU (the Congress of South African Trade Unions). Further, there was an unprecedented increase in the proportion of unprotected, mainly wildcat strikes from 44% in 2012 to 52% in 2013, 48% in 2014 and 55% in 2015. The increase in the number of days lost and the increase in the share of unprotected strikes are important indicators of a change in the mood of the working class.

The offensive wildcat strikes of December 2011 to April 2012 were heralded by post office workers’ committees against labor broking, which at the same time exposed the union’s lack of will to take up the struggle of non-standard workers. These workers ended the system of labor broking in the post office, ensured permanent employment of 5,000 workers and doubled the salaries of workers to R4,000 (about USD300). The post office strikers became the first group of workers in South African history to reverse labor broking in full and win a 100% wage increase.

Both the Lonmin strike and the Western Cape farmworkers’ strike started in August 2012. Rock drillers initiated a wildcat strike at Lonmin platinum mine in pursuit of wages of R12,500 a month. The strike was led by an independent strike committee and the recognized union, the NUM (National Union of Mineworkers), actively opposed the strike, siding with Lonmin management. On August 16, a peaceful assembly of workers was forcefully broken up by a special paramilitary task team who killed 34 mineworkers in what became known as the Marikana Massacre. This strike secured only a partial victory, with a 14% increase in wages.

The Western Cape farmworkers’ strike lasted from August 27, 2012 to January 22, 2013. The strike and the associated community uprising spread to 25 rural towns and was led largely by seasonal workers, coordinated by locally based vanguard groups. The farm workers’ strike was historic because it was the first strike-wave in the post-Apartheid period to deliberately unite workers and communities, and this forced the hand of government which announced a 52% increase in the daily minimum wage in the sector. In general, figures about the agricultural sector indicate a trend to stabilize employment along with a significant shift from casual and seasonal to permanent employment, marking the beginning of changes in the labor process brought about through the agency of farmworkers against capital.

A year after the farmworkers’ strike, on January 22, the longest and most expensive strike in South African history broke out in the platinum industry. The 70,000 strong, five-month long platinum strike hit 40% of global production. The stoppage dragged the economy into contraction in the first quarter of 2014 and cost the three companies affected almost R24 billion in lost revenue. The final agreement between AMCU (the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union) and the three platinum producers included a R1,000 per month wage increase, or 20% increase for lower earners.

On July 1, just more than a week after the platinum strike, 220,000 metal workers from NUMSA (the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa) downed tools, demanding a salary increase of 12%. The protected strike lasted for one month without pay and concluded with a 4% real wage increase. While labor brokers will not be banned as NUMSA had demanded, it was agreed that a number of regulatory instruments would be introduced, including the appointment of compliance officers to act on complaints of alleged abuse and noncompliance.

The Marikana strike-wave changed the political landscape and gave impetus to the nationwide 2015 Fees Must Fall protests at higher education institutions, later expanded by the Outsourcing Must Fall campaign. In the absence of leadership from NEHAWU (the National Health Education Allied Workers’ Union), workers were mainly led by workers committees calling for for insourcing at higher education institutions nationally. The combined actions by students, workers and academics ensured that almost all universities across South Africa agreed to end outsourcing on campuses and to employ workers with the same conditions as full-time workers, resulting in wage increases between 66% and 163%. This event was an expression of a new level of consciousness and unity, with significant implications for the power relations at tertiary institutions. It constitutes the third instance of a reversal of labor process restructuring in the current period.

Does the gradual increase in the number of strikes – starting in 2007, followed by the Marikana Massacre and the farmworkers’ revolt of 2012, the five-month platinum strike and the one-month metalworkers’ strike in 2014 – indicate that a new wave of offensive strikes has begun? Or is it just a short-lived revival among a depressing long wave of defensive strikes? Has South Africa reached a turning point?

Several structural dimensions are affected. On the economic side, we have seen direct challenges and changes to the labor process, and huge costs to the economy associated with strikes. At the industrial relations level, there is pressure from business and the formal opposition party, the DA (Democratic Alliance), to change the law to undermine the right to strike. On the other hand, in January 2015, the Labour Relations Amendment Act (No.6 of 2014) took effect to ensure that vulnerable groups of employees, especially those employed through labor brokers, get adequate protection. On the political level, a new opposition to the ANC, the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters), was formed in 2013, and the militant NUMSA was expelled from COSATU in 2015, setting the stage for the launch of an alternative, politically independent federation. Finally, in the 2016 municipal elections, the support for the ANC as the manager of neoliberalism in South Africa fell, indicating a decline of hegemony.

While some have argued that the Marikana strike wave was not a turning point, they have limited their analysis to a formalistic view of the events as a specific labor dispute gone wrong, and cite the fact that the labor relations system remains intact. Other mainstream economists instead focus on the irrationality of the actions in terms of losses of incomes to workers. Does the fact that Marikana workers lost 12% of their annual wages, that R10 billion in wages were lost in the 2014 platinum strike, or that NUMSA workers only gained 4% in their one-month strike, relegate the strike waves to defensive incidents?

By focusing on the formalism of industrial relations and on economistic views, these perspectives fail to comprehend the complexity of strike dynamics and the historical process of class struggle that is being unleashed. As Karl Marx said in 1853 regarding the dynamic of strikes: “In order to rightly appreciate the value of strikes and combinations, we must not allow ourselves to be blinded by the apparent insignificance of their economical results, but hold, above all things, in view their moral and political consequences.”

* This is an edited version of a post that first appeared on the website of Global Labour University. It is republished here with the permission of the editors.

 

“Too deep for mere outrage” – on corruption in Nigeria

On May 27, 2015, on the eve of the inauguration of the current presidency of Muhammadu Buhari, Transparency International published a press statement meant to keep the incoming president engaged with the fight against corruption. Of the several figures published in that statement, perhaps the most staggering was that “more than US $157 billion in the past decade left [Nigeria] illicitly.” Persons or companies allied to the former president Goodluck Jonathan or his wife are currently under investigation or on trial for corruption enrichment. Earlier in March, the acting chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, was denied confirmation by the Senate, whose president, Bukola Saraki, is on trial before the Code of Conduct Bureau for alleged false declaration of assets. The following is an edited version of emailed questions and answers between Chuma Nwokolo, and myself reflecting on the pervasive nature of official corruption in Nigeria. The author of several books, most recently How To Spell Naija in 100 Letters, and the forthcoming The Extinction of Menai, Nwokolo is the founder of the anti-corruption initiative, Bribecode. He lives in Asaba, Delta State, Nigeria, the same state to which the convicted former governor James Ibori recently returned after serving time in a British jail on charges of money laundering.

Akin Adesokan (AA): Even before I saw your Facebook post “A Cashew Dies” on Friday, February 10, 2017, I had had this feeling, of a cruel, debilitating irony, that James Ibori should return to Asaba, the city where you live. An irony because of the particular sense of the comic absurdity in your fiction as I know it. So, this convicted felon returns to your city, which is also his city, as if fate wants to try your poetic patience, or gift you with an irresistible but also confounding tale. And it should happen that youre connected to BribeCode, the anti-corruption activist initiative. Tell me that the short post has no connection in the way I’m thinking.

Chuma Nwokolo (CN): My ancestral town is Ahaba, renamed Asaba by colonists. I like to think that the real Ahaba is dead and the new city represents part of a strange alien country still coming into being. James Ibori is indeed back home to Delta State. Although the rapturous reception reported in the news took place in his own hometown in Oghara, I have no doubt that he has popular support in the Delta State capital, Asaba, as well.

AA: So, you werent thinking of this strange, alien turn of things when you wrote the blog post? Im trying hard not to put you on the spot, but Im more taken with the challenge that the news of rapturous return and celebration ought to pose to anyone who is concerned about the scale of corruption in Nigeria, and is dedicated to addressing it, as you are. In short, do you wish to comment on Bribecodes outlook in relation to the confounding level of corruption? Not only Ibori, but others as well?

CN: I certainly do. In discussing corruption in Nigeria, we must appreciate that we have do not merely have endemic corruption, we have a pandemic on our hands. This is why a corruption conviction triggers no opprobrium from church pulpit to street corner. In tackling corruption, indignation serves us poorly. Like 17th century Euro-America embracing and defending the abomination of slavery, our public has embraced an anomaly which they perceive as essential to their survival.

The public has “normalized” corruption because government and the apparatus of state is still largely perceived as a colonial institution. We can process the legal fact of independence, but our heart ownership of state and country is still an emotional fiction. So state brigandage and the bilking of billions from a national budget does not hit the streets with the emotional punch of the theft of a loaf of bread from a trader. So we lynch the bread thief, and hail the budget brigand, “chief,” especially if he throws loaves at us as he cruises past in a stolen limousine.

This is to say that the most successful politicians operate a Robin Hood model with two defining characteristics: First, they never steal alone – they recruit a merry band to whom they bequeath power, such that, in or out of office, they control the treasury and operate a charismatic godfather network whose loyalty is cultic in intensity. In this way, the so-called developmental process of institutionalization is checkmated by the reactionary process of institution-capture. Second, they never “chop” alone, either – they are famously generous with loot and the sundry spoils of office, such that citizens who feel no sense of loss at the theft of a billion Naira (the Nigerian currency) from their public treasury feel doubly grateful at the “gift” of a thousand Naira.

Bribecode’s outlook is to take a systemic approach to this problem of a “post autocratic stress syndrome” that makes citizens to deify their politicians and public servants despite the constitutional sovereignty of the citizen state. Recognizing that our most egregious corruption offenders actually occupy statehouses across the land, the Bribecode introduces mechanisms that allow ruinous penalties to be enforced against them and their partners-in-crime. Without successfully instituting this mechanism, the anti-corruption campaigner is the would-be rescuer of a drowning man who is also drowned by the public he is trying to help.

AA: I get the analogy about saving a drowning man, but would you consider the proposition that the anti-corruption campaigner isnt necessarily helping the public, but is trying to fulfill his or her personal duty? One chooses not to be a thief or a robber because its not in ones nature. I wonder if this level of abstraction might be a counter to the extreme cynicism which fuels corruption in our country.

CN: Not really. In a society with endemic or pandemic corruption, an anti-corruption campaigner must act systemically or accept that his interventions are merely a lifestyle choice. An honest second class lower degree has little countervailing value in an employment marketplace awash with hundreds of first class degrees traded for sex. To stop sex for grades, you don’t merely offer your personal example of an honest degree, you act systemically in concert with others to change the system.

Another analogy is cannibalism: imagine that one were stranded on a desert island with no hope of rescue. If the only food available were human flesh, whether on day five or day fifty, most people will eventually become cannibals. Again, the solution is not the personal example of suicide before cannibalism. It is providing an alternative source of food.

Now, imagine a principled father with a daughter at death’s door, required to pay a bribe to secure a critical blood transfusion. It is the rare father that will stand on principle. Corruption is normalized at this existential crux when the request for a bribe crosses over into extortion. Imagine further, that the principled anti-corruption crusader of your example works in what is essentially a den of civil service thieves and he refuses to take his share of the bribes that are regularly divided. Clearly he constitutes a security risk to his corrupt colleagues and has inadvertently put his life on the line. The quiet, honest path is not always the safest.

Corrupt politicians and senior civil servants do not rely on their official salaries to meet their living expenses. They therefore have no incentive to ensure that national wages are living wages. Lower down the employment ladder, millions are forced to rely on their wages, which are sometimes unpaid for 12 months at a stretch. They are thus compelled into a lifestyle of petty corruption, or “executive begging.” You might find millions of Nigerians in this category, people who are certainly not corrupt by nature, corrupted by an immoral system.

We therefore take the view that the anti-corruption crusader who is merely doing his duty in an epidemically corrupt society is doomed to failure, if his goal is to achieve any kind of change. He would be similar to “ethical” companies who pay no bribes, but are happy to hire customs clearing agents who build bribes into their professional fees. We must act systemically to change the climate that fosters corruption, or concede that we are part of the superstructure of corruption, the valve that sustains the system.

AA: Maybe I phrased it too elegantly to give it the force I thought it required. It’s not merely just doing one’s duty, staying away from excreta but feeding on the maggots, like Chichidodo, the metaphoric bird in Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. The idea is that striving for transparency in all matters is an objectivity requirement that cannot be imagined outside of the force of example, personal or cultural. To cite an example that you might recall, of the men jostling for nomination for the presidential ticket in the People’s Democratic Party in 2006/07, the late president Umaru Yar’Adua was preferred because he was not corrupt. The system is corrupt, but there are individuals whose example might provide the basis for the kind of systemic confrontation you envision?

CN: I am afraid that “honest” leaders of corrupt systems are in fact chichidodos: they may wear their honesty as an electoral asset, but their blindness to the corruption of their staff, political party and political system is also a self-serving enablement of partisan slush funds to purchase elections, perpetuate their regimes and aggrandize corrupt friends and relatives whose loyalty can be monetized in the future when our “honest” leader has need for it.

Perhaps there are such individuals whose personal example can provide the basis for the systemic confrontation I envision but unless they act in concert to bring about that systemic change, all their honest, personal, examples will have zero impact on an endemically corrupt system. And I cannot phrase this more strongly. The personal example of a honest man that retires to a life of relative penury is not as persuasive to the young as that of a thieving retiree with billions of dollars of loot. It will be different, of course, if the thief were guaranteed jail time and ruin – as would likely be the case, when the Bribecode becomes law. Even if we conceded the personal probity of a Yar’Adua, what impact did that have on systemic corruption, even during his reign? The chief rationale of the Bribecode project is that all the money saved by an honest president in eight years of conscientious rule can be stolen in eight weeks of a dishonest president. In our context of course, we do not even have to wait for an honest president to retire. The corrupt superstructure of ministers, SAs, SSGs and DGs can steal whatever a president fails to steal. Our goal must therefore be to focus on creating good systems rather than merely throwing up the occasional good leader.

AA: What do you regard as the main strength of Bribecode? In other words, how do you envision it to operate as an activist initiative?

CN: Our current anti-corruption system is paternalistic. All the reins of anti-corruption enforcement and good governance are in the hands of the government. Victim-citizens sit back and wait on the current occupants of statehouse to enforce the law, even when they and their partners-in-crime are the principal offenders. The main strength of the Bribecode is that it changes the system by giving the citizen a strong role, while leveraging the engines of privatization, competition and self-regulation in the service of anti-corruption enforcement. The Bribecode has three main pillars:

First, it changes the penalty of serious corruption. After it comes into effect, serious corruption involving a million Naira and above will attract a penalty of liquidation for the companies involved (this penalty is modified for public companies). Convicted individuals who collaborate with companies will suffer Total Assets Forfeiture. This ruinous penalty regime will introduce self-regulation into anti-corruption enforcement.

Secondly, the Bribecode not only protects, but rewards whistleblowers who bring information leading to the conviction and recovery of assets with a percentage of the recoveries from their information. This puts the vigilant citizen in the driving seat of anti-corruption enforcement, and by allowing companies to earn this recovery commission, introduces the energy of privatization into the mix and assures every corruptocrat that ruin lies at the end of the road.

Thirdly, the Bribecode permits any of Nigeria’s 37 attorneys general to prosecute serious corruption and liquidate companies under the act. This means that – contrary to what has obtained from the inception of Nigeria till date – no single godfather, clique or senior politician or political party can protect any company in Nigeria. The fact that the recoveries from such litigations will form part of the prosecuting state’s internally generated revenue creates the incentive of competition in Nigeria’s anti-corruption enforcement.

Working together, these three principal strategies of the Bribecode will ensure the transformation of Nigerian society as we know it.

AA: Have you had any support from any level of government? 

CN: Our current focus is on advocacy to secure public awareness and signatures to our petition here. Yet, to become law, the Bribecode must be passed by the National Assembly and assented to by the President. Early in the life of this government, we submitted the Bribecode to their attention and while they are yet to embrace it fully, they have recently submitted a whistleblowers law to the National Assembly, which incorporates the second pillar of the Bribecode relating to the compensation of whistleblowers. There are critical differences between the Bribecode’s recommendation and the provisions of the government’s proposed whistleblowers system, but beyond those differences, it is important to note that unless the entire Bribecode is enacted as a system, piecemeal laws that shadow it will simply join the rest of the otherwise excellent laws in our statute books, which are only enforced against scapegoats, dissidents and members of the opposition. That is why there is always a floodgate-level migration to the successful parties after an election: they operate like mafia protection systems. However draconian the anti-corruption laws, a party membership and generous campaign donations will not only insulate the most rampant thief from prosecution, it might actually bag him a cabinet position or an appointment as a principal legislative officer.

For instance, the prosecution of the Haliburton cases under the American Foreign Corrupt Practices Act yielded a treasure trove of probative information against Nigerian officials and politicians. This is the sort of probative information that a Whistleblowers Act that paid rewards to informants could be expected to yield. Yet, years after the Haliburton information entered the public sphere and the American government earned some US$579 million in record-breaking fines, not a single prosecution against individuals has been triggered in Nigeria. It is confirmation that the government’s proposed whistleblower’s law will be useless against the politically connected. The beauty of the Bribecode is that once in force, political connections would be irrelevant.

AA: I still want us dwell further on the Ibori case. You don’t seem to feel any kind of personal affront about any of this?  Or do you think it’s too huge for metaphor? We had Tafa Balogun, Alamiyeseigha, Bode George all of whom were convicted and did time. There were several others whose cases have been stalled. This pandemic, as you rightly characterize it, this can’t just be because no one wants to feel responsible for Nigeria?

CN: There is a sense in which our funk is too deep for mere outrage, and an emotional response to our crises has to yield to a clinical and systemic response. Our airports and public buildings are named for war criminals. We have the faces of genocide perpetrators on the Naira. Our highest national awards are granted to men who have bilked our treasury of trillions, all this in a society that jails and lynches petty thieves. Add to this, a climate of sycophancy that converts our most brilliant degree holders into mere holders of meal tickets, who rise to the defense of the odious status quo for the mere aroma of a wage.

In this climate, personal outrage is actually counter-productive. Like an ejaculation, it yields only temporary relief, while the siren continues to shrill relentlessly. The effective activist is a foot soldier slugging though the killing fields of a genocide, who cannot afford the luxury of burying individual victims, not when there is a stuttering machine gun to overwhelm. The police and anti-corruption agencies must do their work, but the work of the Bribecode is to envision a future. Every convicted Ibori is a place holder for a thousand who are burrowing their way through a treasury right now, and who will never get their day in court. Those must be the focus of those who feel any responsibility for Nigeria. We are not called to the post-mortem of a dead nation, but as architects of a renascent one.

AA: To approach this problem from another angle of abstraction, how do we account for the claim that all of this indicates the slow birth of a strange society? 

CN: The birth has been a long time coming, and it is a global phenomenon, certainly not merely a Nigerian thing. Another way of viewing our world today is to plot all countries on the spectrum between commodified countries and countries where the interests of citizens cannot be bought at any price. I wrote about this at some length in my article for the Massachusetts Review, “The Extended Family & the Trojan Horse.”

In 1600, the East India Company ran India’s statehouse for about a century. Some North American state houses were run by governments of the company by the company for the company long before president Lincoln’s Gettysburg address in 1863 where he spoke of a government of the people by the people and for the people. Before the creation of Canada, the Hudson Bay Company “owned” 12% of the Earth’s land mass. Similarly, to the south, the staff of companies like the Massachusetts Bay Company and the Virginia Company predated politicians in America’s state houses and some modern American states started their voyage into the American federation as mere real estate assets on a corporate balance sheet. In Africa, charter companies like the Imperial British East Africa Company, German East Africa Company and the British South Africa Company traded in countries. From their “capital” in Ahaba, my village (as she then was), Taubman Goldie’s Royal Niger Company politically governed – and commercially exploited – the northern and southern protectorates of Nigeria until the turn of the century.

Today, the position is different – at least on paper. Constitutions up and down the world confirm that countries belong to citizens, not to corporations. Electoral laws establish that citizens have the vote, not corporations. But brush aside the paper tigers of our constitutions and what emerges is the fact that the interests of the corporations still drive the history of the world. Nowhere is this more apparent than with corruption. President Thabo Mbeki’s High Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows in Africa established that political corruption accounted for less than 10% of the illicit US$50 billion that leaves Africa every year, while at least 60% (US$30 billion) of those illicit outflows were traceable to large commercial companies. In the US the funding phenomena of SuperPACS gives corporations the right to invest unlimited sums to secure the election of candidates who align with their agenda. It is instructive that one of the first actions of the Trump regime was the revocation of the anti-corruption Resolution H.J. 41, which compelled oil companies to publish their payments to foreign companies.

Lord Lugard, the first governor-general of a united Nigeria was an ex-employee of the Royal Niger Company, which “owned” Nigeria. There is a parallel with the business team in the Trump White House that leads America into her brave new world. We watch with interest, while trying to establish our bulwark of the Corporate Corruption Act (a.k.a. Bribecode).

Weekend Special, 26 March 2017

(1) Identity politics is neoliberalism, as Adolph Reed once said. And it delivers like clockwork. The hip hop producer Sean Diddy Combs (he produced Biggie Smalls) opened a for profit charter school in Harlem where he was born. Because–as he said–he would rather do “something about” education than just complain about it. (And he chose to “do it” with a for-profit school that has “Capital” in its name. BTW, Diddy isn’t the only celebrity that’s in on the charter school movement. Even people like John Legend. Once you stopped chuckling, this sort of thing is further along in African countries (and elsewhere) than you think. In Liberia (they convinced the government; rapper Akon is kneedeep in this project), Uganda (where they’ve had some pushback), Kenya, and on a smaller scale in South Africa (the Spark Schools; most of the funding is private, but these initiatives are getting open support from the Democratic Alliance governed Western Cape province). Behind it are groups like Teach for All. The African outpost of the charter school movement get a lot of soft pedal coverage in publications like (obviously) The Economist. For a broad overview, we’d suggest revisiting Maria Hengeveld‘s interview with activists.

(3)  Staying with identity politics in #othercountries: “Hillary is Queen, Bae, Beyoncé—you get it. Chelsea is the prodigy—2.0, if you will.” I can’t anymore.

(4) In South Africa, a Nigerian migrant is suing the South African immigrant authorities and the police (South Africans, on balance, are notoriously xenophobic to other Africans). He was shot in the leg after they accused him of having weed on him. He was only charged 18 months later. The victim, Justin Ejimkonye, claimed he was shot because he did not want to pay a bribe.  It is well past time someone did. But as Alison Tilley, a rights activist reminded me, this is not the first time someone sued the South Africans.

(5) By now everyone knows about Helen Zille’s defense of colonialism. Whites in South Africans say racist things on social media on the daily. Zille matters because she is the Premier (the equivalent of a governor of a state) of the Western Cape, one of South Africa’s nine provinces. You can read Vito Laterza’s analysis of Zille’s remarks, including how she is emblematic of a global trend by rightwingers to say feel emboldened to say aloud what they’ve been feeling all along.  Some of have come to Zille’s defense, including the usual “explanation” and “on the other hand”-ery of liberals. The most prominent, though, was Ferial Haffajee, one of the first black editors of a major South African newspaper (and now at Huffington Post South Africa), who defended Zille’s “right” to be racist and offensive. The best response to Haffajee has been UCT law professor Pierre De Vos‘s response. It is important as it challenges “liberals” and their free speech absolutism. It may come across as a bit lawyerly and long. That’s necessary. Read it.

(6) More consequential than Zille’s odious tweets about colonialism, has been how she and her party governs the Western Cape and Cape Town. Last week, the provincial government nixed a plan to build affordable housing on the edge of the city center for mostly domestic workers and gardeners serving their mostly white employers and for people being displaced by gentrification. The Cape Town City Council, run by Zille’s party (the mayor blocked me on Twitter; surprise) is no better. On Human Rights Day, March 21, it sent in “the Red Ants” (an infamous council unit) to demolish shacks rebuilt after a fire in a squatter settlement outside Hout Bay, that place recently described by Omar of the Wire (Michael K Williams when doubles as a reporter for VICE) as what happens when “Malibu and the Hamptons had a baby.” All this–I am from Cape Town–made me wonder whether this could be impetus for new solidarities in Western Cape between Africans and coloured working classes / lumpens as counter to divide-and-rule of the Democratic Alliance and the rank incompetence of the ANC as opposition? Nothing wrong with dreaming.

(7) Near Johannesburg, South Africa, a white man bullied, threatened and abused a black woman over the actions of their children in a playpen at a popular restaurant chain.  By now, you’re mumbling “next” as this sort of thing is widespread in South Africa. In any case, this all happened at the Spur, a South African restaurant chain pretending to draw on Native American motifs.  Not everyone was surprised it happened there, given what that restaurant chain represents. As Busisiwe Deyi pointed out on this site in 2015: “Nothing about SPUR is Native North American except for its use of a Native American chief-like figure on its logo and Native American-esque names and themes. In truth, rather than Native American experience or culture, the imagery used by SPUR is that of the frontier US West and Southwest.” It is worth rereading that post.

(8) (This (in the London Review of Books) by Adam Shatz on the “debate” around  Dana Schultz’s painting “Open Casket” painting. On whether acts of “radical sympathy, and imaginative identification, are possible across racial lines.” Also see Kara Walker’s statement on Instagram. But it seems like we’ve been here before. Finally, it is worth remembering what Walter Benn Michaels argued a while back: “the point of the critique of capitalism is to get rid of poor people, not to make sure that they’re properly represented among the elite.”

(9) More #othercountries. This is an excellent take on the recent history of trade unions in the United States through the transformation of the Service Employees Industrial Union. I’d love to see an analysis like this on say unions in South Africa, Nigeria or Egypt.

(10) Yes, this happened: “An annual African trade summit in California [in the United States; President: Donald Trump] had no African attendees this year after at least 60 people were denied visas.”

(11) VICE went and investigated extrajudicial killing in Kenya that are part and parcel of wildlife conservation. It is particularly good on knocking off Richard Leakey’s halo (from how he is perceived/covered by elites/media in the west). Worth a read.

(12) Then there are these clips of Paul Robeson and Eslanda Robeson from the film “Borderline” (1930), filmed in Switzerland. Just going to leave this here. (How did I get here?

(12) Finally, since I am a shameless self-promoter: Go and get this new book about boycott politics that I contributed to.

What’s in an apology?

In a recent interview on a private Algerian TV news station, French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron called France’s colonial history an act of barbarism and a crime against humanity; if elected head of state, he would issue an official apology to all victims of colonialism. With this condemnation and promise, coming already more than half a century after the independence movements that marked the end of the old colonial project, Macron, the leader and founder of the progressive En Marche! party and current front-runner in what has proven a turbulent race, has rekindled a divisive debate in France ahead of the first round of voting on April 23.

Polling suggests that the country is almost evenly split in its opinion of colonialism (those who agree with Macron have a very slight edge over those who disagree). From across the political spectrum his comments have elicited strong reactions, although, predictably, the sharpest criticism has come from the right.

Marine Le Pen — Macron’s main competitor and candidate for the right-wing Front National and for whom colonialism rather perversely represents the positive sharing of French values — responded by accusing him of disloyalty to France. Le Pen’s response is in keeping with the nationalist rhetoric that she has used to great effect throughout her political career and especially during this presidential race, which has come in the wake of a series of extremist attacks in the country. Indeed, her reaction reveals a disturbing tendency in France: because of the history of atrocities committed by the French government and its citizens, the strong tradition of French Republican pride, which rests on equality and universal human rights, requires a second, twin tradition of amnesia and revisionism in order for it to appear unsullied. One might recall that former president François Mitterrand maintained that he would “not apologize in the name of France” for Vichy’s complicity with the Nazi government. It was Jacques Chirac who issued a full apology in 1995, half a century after the Holocaust.

In Algeria, Macron’s condemnation of colonial violence was met with approval by several public figures and political leaders. Algerian politicians, for whom such a statement is long overdue, are largely bitter about the issue of an apology for colonialism: for the French government to choose not to recognize the torture, rape, killing, seizure of property, and assault on dignity suffered by Algerians at its hands amounts to arrogance and callousness. Admitting that these atrocities were committed under colonialism and during the Algerian struggle for independence, would bring necessary closure.

Despite the two clear, opposed stances on colonialism that Macron’s comments appear to have dusted off and presented anew, the relationship between Algeria and France is both antagonistic and intimate, the site of quite a few knots and gray areas. For instance, although France began its nuclear tests at the time of the Algerian War of Independence in the colony’s desert south, it was the Algerian independence movement and current ruling party, the Front de Libération Nationale, that later allowed the bulk of French nuclear testing to continue after independence by granting the French government access to the Sahara during the annexes secrètes of the Evian Accords — hence the FLN government’s silence regarding the thousands that suffer from the released radiation to this day.

A history of cooperation between the governments of both countries makes the potential consequences of Macron’s would-be apology difficult to disentangle. Already, without an apology, the two countries have a strong symbiotic trade relationship — though China has come to surpass France as Algeria’s primary trading partner. And as Macron mentions in the interview, as it is, both countries cooperate heavily on counterterrorism efforts.

Of course, this is not to discount the symbolism of an apology. To be sure, France is not the only country to glaze over its brutal colonial past; if Macron were to be elected and issue an official apology to France’s former colonies, it could set a precedent for other European states and pave the way for reparations. Such an apology might also serve to humble those who are quick to promote the French self-image of liberté, égalité, fraternité, doubtless a noble credo, but one that is often mobilized along the fault lines of the old colonial imagination to distinguish a just France from its corrupt and unstable former colonies. However, in an already divisive political climate exacerbated by Islamophobia, in light of the recent attacks in France, such an apology could also lead to further entrenchment into progressive and nationalist camps. Nevertheless, for French citizens of Algerian or other African descent, an admission of the destructive nature of colonialism would amount to an initial recognition by the French state of the phenomenon that underpins the structural racism they encounter in their daily lives.

However, Macron’s comments also invite former French colonies to consider their own national memories. In Algeria especially, there is a certain paradox in the fact that national identity has been so strongly constructed in opposition to the colonial power that delineated it as a coherent territory. In some sense, Algeria, the “country of a million martyrs,” has depended on the image of a colonial France in order to create a unified national memory across its vast geographic and cultural expanse; this is especially true of the FLN, whose legitimacy is bound up in the struggle for independence against the French. Of course, an apology would be welcomed by the Algerian government, but an unresolved debate with France on the effects of French colonialism has been able to serve as an end in itself.

 

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