Africa is a Country

Toward a sympathetic critique of Thomas Sankara  

Over the past few years, several, partly scathing critiques of African political heroes have been published in larger works of history and ethnography. Thus the Patrice Lumumba of David Van Reybrouck’s Congo is a young, inspiring man whose fiery rhetoric outstrips his coalition-building  and governance capacity; the Kwame Nkrumah of Jemima Pierre’s Predicament of Blackness is simultaneously the exponent of a pan-Africanism that was merely “nominally powerful,” and a political leader “dependent” on colonial and industrial apparatus.

Although other, longer-lived revolutionaries from decolonization and the Cold War saw their stars fade as their time in office extended, the reputation as a worthy presidential martyr enjoyed by Thomas Sankara, who led a short-lived revolution in Burkina Faso, has only grown. Since his death in 1987, he has been hailed as Africa’s Ché Guevara, and seen as a beacon of good and selfless governance. As with Ché, he’s turned into a beret-clad icon with an aura of cool that transcends the tedium of policy.

What shape might a sympathetic critique of Thomas Sankara take?

The life and times of the late Joseph Ki-Zerbo, a leader of regional independence movements originating from Haute (Upper) Volta (how Burkina Faso was known before Sankara took power), and the lifelong face of its leftist opposition, offers a clue. Prior to the 1980s, Ki-Zerbo, as a leader of the Voltaic left before, during, and after independence, was widely respected for his historical and analytic perspectives as well as his political participation, and his unwillingness to compromise his socialist principles for an opportunity of increased power. Haute Volta was rocked almost from the start by a series of coups, and Ki-Zerbo never found a government that he could join with a clear conscience.

At the time when a number of West African states gained their independence. Ki Zerbo had given up a career track in academia (he studied in Mali as well as at the Sorbonne and Sciences Po in Paris) to go to work in government and serve as a public representative: first as a civil servant for Sekou Touré in Guinea-Conakry, the first French colony to gain its independence. Ki Zerbo returned to Haute Volta before Touré’s regime in Conakry turned autarkic and self-consuming. Then, in Haute Volta, Ki Zerbo took up a seat on the opposition benches of parliament, working on things like education policy while the country was being rocked by a series of coups.

Sitting in his country’s parliament, and influenced by his experience studying with the Senegalese historian Chiekh Anta Diop, and by the ideas of the Malian ethnographer Amadou Hampâté Bâ, Ki Zerbo spent years leading the development of a primary school curriculum that tried to reconcile traditional Sahelian ways of knowing with Western-style, classroom-based pedagogy. Before he could do much with his curriculum, Sankara, a young army captain who had been given ever-more powerful portfolios in a series of putschist regimes in Ouagadougou, came to power in a coup in 1983 with the help of his colleague Blaise Compaoré. He quickly renamed the country Burkina Faso, or the Land of Honest Men, and ushered in a remarkable slate of policies: among other things, he broke the country of its decades-long dependence on imported foodstuffs, and put in place unprecedented policies promoting gender equality.

Sankara wore camouflage into office, but his policies harkened back to the heady and hopeful early days of Touré in Guinea, making it all the more surprising when Ki-Zerbo, fearing for his life at the hands of Sankara’s military administration, joined a stream of politicians and professionals who went into voluntary exile from the country.

The Sankara years were marked both by forthright policies and the political repression that led to the most talented members of the political and bureaucratic classes joining reactionaries and incompetents in flight abroad.

Four years into his revolution, Sankara was murdered in another coup; this one installed Blaise Compaoré, minister of defense and a one-time close Sankara ally, as head of state. Ki-Zerbo stayed away for as long as Sankara ruled, returning only after he was executed. The self-sufficiency, anti-corruption, and general moral rectitude of the Sankara years slipped rapidly into the past. Ki-Zerbo, no stranger to being outside of government, found little to like in Compaoré’s platform and regime, and resumed his status as leader of the principled opposition upon his return. In 2008, late in a book-length interview with René Holenstein, Ki Zerbo outlined the difficulties he had with Sankara.

Ki-Zerbo argued that by coming to power in another coup, and thus being required to be suspicious of everyone in the political establishment, including his ideological and partisan allies, Sankara ensured his own immediate failure, setting the ground for a continuation of the countercoups and crack-downs that had already become commonplace. In his view, what was needed was not a better coup-leader, but a turn toward realistic governance.

But Ki Zerbo also held up another figure as a hero he could get behind: the  Burkinabé journalist, Norbert Zongo, murdered in 1998 by Compaoré’s army. Ki-Zerbo, no stranger to academic discourse, talks about Zongo as a member of the Gramscian civil society, noting that at the time, civil society declined to align itself forthrightly with the political opposition, preferring a stance of neutrality. That didn’t prevent Zongo, who got his start in the government-sanctioned press, from aggressively covering the excesses of the Compaoré regime, something he continued to do from within the country even after his own life was threatened. From his perch as founder and editor of the newspaper, L’Independant, he investigated the government. When in 1998, this meant looking into the torture and death of the chauffeur of Compaoré’s brother, Zongo and three others were assassinated by agents of the state.

Zongo’s death electrified the opposition, civil society, and progressives in Ouagadougou and other major cities; Ki-Zerbo said that it helped persuade civil society to drop its non-coordination stance in opposition to Compaoré’s government, culminating in more than a decade later in youth protests and coordinated action from the political opposition, civil society, and dissident factions of the military forced Compaoré from power.

It’s easy enough to see why Ki-Zerbo, who repeatedly declined opportunities to exercise political power when he thought he’d be joining administrations that didn’t operate in the long-term interest of the country, might prefer an outsider like Zongo to a cunning political actor like Sankara. And while Ki-Zerbo doesn’t say it himself, it’s possible to imagine that Zongo’s bravery in continuing his work from Ouagadougou even when he knew his life was in danger made the journalist someone he could look up to, having faced a similar challenge in his own career.

Over the last decade, repressive governments around the world have come to recognize the oppositional power of civil society, heavily regulating organizations, raiding offices, and arresting leaders, while painting civil society as a pathway for foreign influence. But in the 1990s, a journalist could still surprise the government and the opposition alike by doggedly pursuing his leads about government malfeasance, and publishing his findings far and wide.

The extent to which a person may agree or disagree with Ki-Zerbo’s critique of Sankara is likely dependent on context. Ki-Zerbo clearly thought that Burkina Faso was, in the mid-1980s, poised for a government that could include a variety of committed voices; furthermore that the rise of Sankara and Compaoré in 1983 set the stage for Compaoré’s nearly three decades of reaction and repression. But if an observer sees the entire last quarter of the 20th century as an insurmountable political dark night of the soul, then the shining example of Sankara, however quixotic it may have been in the moment, would show itself to be just the sort of light in the darkness that could demonstrate to later politicians and citizens what it means to be a leader of principle. The judgment that Sankara was a hero, then, rests in part on a deeper judgment as to what was possible in Burkina Faso in the early 1980s.

The crisis around Lake Chad

Image Credit Utenriksdepartementet Flickr.

The world’s most extensive humanitarian crises is currently playing out in northeastern Nigeria and around Lake Chad. About three million people have been displaced, seven million are dependent on food aid, half a million children are malnourished and 14 million children without schooling.

Tomorrow in Oslo, Norway, jointly with Germany, Nigeria and the United Nations, OCHA, is hosting a donor conference for the crisis. The aim of the conference is increased awareness and political commitment, as well as to secure funding for humanitarian needs. But good solutions require a thorough understanding of complex causal factors in the environment, economy, politics and religion, ranging from local to international affairs.

The conference is a response to growing international concern about the massive humanitarian needs in the region and the possible consequences crisis may have on global security and migration.

The crisis is usually associated with jihadism and the violent Islamist group Boko Haram, which made themselves known internationally in 2014 when they were responsible for the kidnapping of 276 girls in Chibok. Boko Haram has taken inspiration and tactics from both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS), but their religious references are also linked to pre-colonial caliphate in the area – Borno and Sokoto. Although religion is an important component in understanding the conflicts in the area, there are several actors and causes other than the religious that must be considered in order to understand the crisis around Lake Chad: Boko Haram power base is also based on criticism of the Nigerian government’s failure ability to take care of the population. The local context is characterized by extreme poverty, inequality, corruption, government, neglect and political abuse of power. Many people fight for access to limited resources in an area that stretch across several borders.

The borders between the countries in that area have always been porous with high mobility of people, goods and ideas. The flow of people and resources have increased in scope in recent years. More violent and criminal groups involved in drug trafficking, weapons, cattle and people operate in the area. In the chaos after Gaddafi’s fall, we saw a movement of people and weapons from Libya south to Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Chad. Originally, many came as traders but absorbed into radical Islamist groups in the region, which has contributed to the escalation of ongoing conflicts.

In addition, pressure on natural resources increase threats. Lake Chad, which is the main source of water for both agriculture and people, has decreased from 25,000 square kilometers in 1960 to 4,800 in 2014. Between 2005 and 2016, the population has more than doubled from 17 million to 38 million. The soil dries out, and food production drops drastically. Four out of five people struggle to get adequate food and the UN warns of famine.

The relevant states have failed to provide its citizens security or basic social goods such as health, water, food and education. In spite of the economic growth in Nigeria between 2000 and 2014, poverty has increased and people see little of the increased government revenues. This is absolutely key to the narrative of an overall economic growth which is currently dominating about West Africa. North-East Nigeria is the poorest area in Nigeria, with 40 percent official unemployment, only 20 percent can read and write, and 70 percent live in poverty.

The effects of insurgency groups’ activities and government counter-insurgencies, have aggravated the situation further. Basic infrastructure such as roads, school buildings, health centers and hospitals, and the ability to deliver social services are deteriorating in communities of northeastern Nigeria and across the border to Niger, Chad and Cameroon. In addition, the Nigerian military and police are according to Amnesty International responsible for human rights violations and excessive use of force. The states lack basic popular trust, which strengthens the cultural and religious identities and fosters terror and livelihoods outside the law.

This is why the humanitarian aid on basic needs such as security, food and water, health and education, can build a basis for peace around Lake Chad. The spiraling humanitarian crisis coupled with violence in northeastern Nigeria and the Lake Chad area is a threat to our global security. It is crucial that we do not relate to the crisis within the framework of “anti-terrorist” and “anti-radicalization”, isolated from other actors and dimensions. More generally, the humanitarian efforts must be seen in conjunction with long-term development of the area and of confidence in the state. Even in the short term, there must be investments in infrastructure and strong government institutions. The basis for long-term peace is in governance and economic development and must take into consideration the reconciliation between religious and ethnic groups, and between government and people. This requires enormous resources and internationals effort – that must be transparent and accountable.

Art in dark times

The Art of Life in South Africa is about an art school, Ndaleni, in what is now South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. The school, on the property of a former mission station, was established in 1952 and closed in 1981. If you’re looking at a map, Ndaleni is less than 100km from Durban, the biggest city in the northeastern coastal province of South Africa. The closest town to Ndaleni is Richmond, which became infamous in the late 1980s and 1990s for political violence, first between the ANC and Apartheid proxies and later for internecine ANC conflict. Ndaleni was established to train art teachers for the Department of Bantu Education (responsible for developing education for the black majority after 1953). The adult students came to study for one year at a time. Importantly, the art school coincided with a very violent political period in South Africa’s history, of authoritarianism and bold-faced racism against black South Africa through South Africa’s own form of colonialism,  Apartheid.

At the heart of the book, as author Dan Magaziner writes, is the conundrum: This community of the students and their mostly white teachers came together to “nurture its own ideals and practices and promoted nothing less than a new way of being in the world,” but did so within the compromised institution of Bantu Education. They mostly enjoyed the experience and wanted “find of beauty, solace, and community within the ugliness of their times.” How does one write about this part of Apartheid, which is not the familiar story of resistance and martyrdom? As Magaziner asks: “What else was life in twentieth century South Africa, beyond the well worn keys” of the struggle? Magaziner suggests that “… the work of self making was ongoing under Apartheid, in ways that were beholden neither to the state nor to its opposition yet were nonetheless deeply implicated in the structures of their time and place.”

The following is an interview I, Sean Jacobs, conducted with Dan Magaziner to get a little more background on this extensive work.

What do you mean by “the work of art”?

The “work of art” is a concept I glean from the writings of interwar arts theorists, mostly progressive American and British theorists like John Dewey and Herbert Read. Both were anxious that mass education include aesthetic education; Dewey in particular argued that art did critical social work by ‘harmonizing society.’ His theory was essentially psychoanalytic: individuals proceed through tension to resolution and harmony. Art was how individuals managed their tensions and achieved critical resolution; by learning how to express themselves, whether in writing, visual arts, music, individuals combatted society’s stifling tendencies. The more people were granted the opportunity for self-expression, the more harmonious (and democratic) society would become. My book explores some of the ways in which these progressive concepts found their way to South Africa.

Yet, even while Dewey and others were generating these ideas, interwar thinkers associated with Functionalist Anthropology and Volkekunde (how anthropology was practiced by racist academics in the years leading up to South African Apartheid) – and even Négritude – were developing a parallel notion of the work of art , which also took root in South Africa. For thinkers like Bronislav Malinowski, the arts were where a community expressed its cultural integrity. Malinowski was one among a number of theorists who were appalled by the process of cultural erasure and homogeneity that attended some forms of imperialism. Instead, early cultural relativists insisted that the imperative to govern with humanity demanded that imperial powers do whatever they could to ensure the survival of cultural distinction – and that the arts were a vital sphere for the preservation of difference. So for these thinkers, the work of art was to enshrine the essential differences between communities. Not surprisingly, this concept of the work of art found an eager audience in South African raciologists, who saw the obvious utility of these ideas in the project of separate development.

As the book shows, these two concepts of the work of art flowed together in interwar South Africa and were institutionalized shortly thereafter. One, the conviction that every person benefits from the opportunity to do things with their hands and that this is critical to the fashioning of selfhood; the other, the faith that if different racial groups did art, the art that resulted would reflect their authentic racial selves, thus continuing the work of constructing racial difference.

Was the idea to do a book on Apartheid without making Apartheid the main character?

I wouldn’t say it was my idea to do so, but I do think it ended up that way. I did not initially set out to do such a project; indeed, the Art of Life in South Africa began as an inquiry into the ways in which politics had infiltrated and helped to produce particular artistic forms over the course of black people’s long struggle with white supremacy. Yet, exploring the Ndaleni school archive forced me to consider the extent to which my own heuristic – politics, Apartheid, struggle, etc. – were so powerfully overdetermined. This archive revealed decades worth of stories of black people living under Apartheid, while also living with Apartheid, which is to say that they were not always living against, not always (or even frequently) grappling with it, but always doing their best to lives the lives they imagined, while rubbing up against the limits that the system imposed. What that convoluted sentence is trying to say is this: in the archive I learned about the tremendous violence history does by reducing lives to the circumstances we insist matter about experience – but also that once we unlearn our heuristics, we can more clearly see what it actually meant to live with systems like Apartheid. One of my favorite examples from the book is the annual assignment students were given to make art with something they found in their home area over the winter holiday. The Ndaleni school was desperately poor; those in which Ndaleni graduates would teach were frequently more so. But institutionalized poverty was no excuse; you still had to make art. One student was from the rural Eastern Cape and there were very few materials available. She wanted green, so she mixed some sheep feces – which is green – with egg to create a paste, which she then applied to her surface. It turned brown after a time, but for a moment, there it was – a bright, beautiful green. There’s a metaphor there.

You argue that most intellectual histories in South Africa, including your previous work, that is your book on Black Consciousness, focused only on important figures, ideologies and organizations (Steve Biko, Pan-Africanism, the Black Consciousness Movement) that wanted to invent theories of the future. But you wanted to write against that tradition. Can you say a little more about that critique and how you think this book undermines that work?

I’m not sure I wanted to write against that tradition, but that might be what I ended up doing. I think this critique is bigger than South African intellectual history, actually. If you survey the continent, most intellectual history is a) about political leaders b) about men and c) about their ideas about things that did not happen – theories of racial unity, post-imperial constructs, etc. – that failed to materialize. South Africa is exemplary here; there’s a huge literature on different intellectual constructs associated with different political parties, movements, etc., most of which were concepts that didn’t really have a chance. My own work is guilty of this as well. My The Law and the Prophets excavated the forward thrusting concepts that became known as Black Consciousness, but it was less successful at narrating the quotidian intellectual work that, I think, ought to comprise a less leader driven, less male, intellectual history. I use the term “work” quite consciously; I have been thinking a lot of about the idea of “work” in history and intellectual history is no different. With the exception of historians like Paul Landau, most of those focusing on the work of intellectual life are ethnographers (Harry West, AdbouMaliq Simone, etc.) I hope The Art of Life in South Africa captures the regular, expansive and limited labor that went into thinking and creating under Apartheid.

A dominant figure at Ndaleni was Lorna Peirson, a white lecturer who taught there for 30 years and whom you describe as more than anyone else, [she] determined what is knowable about Ndaleni.” Can you talk about her impact?

Pierson is a complicated character, who I got to know fairly well before she passed away in 2015. She was what she describes as “a light pink liberal” in 1950s South Africa, teaching art at a mission school when it was taken over by the Department of Bantu Education. Many of her colleagues left teaching rather than collude with the state, but she was dedicated to the craft – and, more apposite, she believed in particular in the importance of art education for young people. She could continue to do this work under Bantu Education, so she did so. In 1963 Ndaleni’s instructor left abruptly after running afoul of the ministry for his politics; she was offered the position and gladly accepted it. In our conversations she made it very clear that was aware of the deal that she had struck – she became a Bantu Education administrator and was subject to department inspectors and policies, and in return she got 20 years of introducing African students to the idea of the “work of art” with which we began this conversation.

On a professional level, she was also critical in changing Ndaleni from being an art school (as previous instructors had tended to imagine it) to one that worked on the terrain of the possible and realistic – the best case scenario for most of her students was that they would get to teach art in a Bantu Education school, which meant that they would deal with questions of bureaucracy, a pervasive lack of appreciation and comprehension and, above all, material want. So she accommodated the Ndaleni syllabus to this reality by mixing classical art training (art history, painting, etc.) with the imperative to “make something out of nothing,” as with the sheep poop example above. She was a consummate professional and she wanted her students to be as well. She only very rarely and obliquely commented on politics; she believed that art education was essential to human development and Bantu Education happened to be how masses of black students would be exposed to this. So she worked the system as best as she could. This wasn’t heroic – in the book I detail her own paternalistic and occasionally racialistic traits – but it was admirable in its way and most students evidently felt tremendous affection for her, as a handful of children christened with the name, Lorna, indicates.

That said, this book is mostly about the students. Black students. What did Ndaleni represent for them?

There were three sorts of teachers who came to be students at Ndaleni. It was a specialist teachers’ course, which meant that you got a slight pay raise for completing the course. So some teachers who came to study for a year came because it promised a slightly better life; others came because even though the mission station was old and dilapidated, it was also beautiful and calm and you got to spend time outside and away from teaching. So one group came for that reason. Another subset were teachers who knew themselves to be artistically inclined; people who attested to the fact that they had always felt the urge to “touch something,” as one put it, to work with their hands. My favorite examples of this latter category were people who had been teaching for decades, literally, and who were not satisfied as they neared the end of their career. For many of them the opportunity to leave family and professional responsibilities and to create was a wonder. This relates to the third, much smaller category, which were black South Africans who wanted to be artists and who saw in Ndaleni to the opportunity to pursue art, even if it came at the cost of needing to go to work as a teacher for a period of time after finishing the certificate. There were more aspirant artists during the early days, before Peirson made it clear that hers was a teacher training course, not an art school, but the idea that one could become an artist died hard.

But to answer your specific question: Ndaleni represented an opportunity. For some it was an escape from daily life, for others a chance to explore mediums and modes of expression. It was a chance to be surrounded by other who wanted to hack at wood and sketch and think about what they had to say and for many it was a transformative experience.

There are some tragic characters? One whose story stand out is Samson Mahlobo?

Mahlobo was one of the small subset who just wanted desperately to be an artist. He grew up in Nigel, near Johannesburg, and was a talented draftsman. Like so many other talented black South Africans his career prospects topped out at “teacher,” and he leapt at the opportunity actually to study art as part of his teaching practice. But he wasn’t really interested in teaching – Mahlobo pops up in all sorts of archives trying to drum up interest in his art. I found him writing to people in the U.S, writing to South African intellectuals like Nat Nakasa, in local newspapers. He was forever trying to relocate to Johannesburg to be closer to the art scene and to put on a solo show. But like so many others, his aspirations crashed against the hard reality that he had no materials with which to work. He frequently wrote to Peirson requesting stone or paint or wood. In the mid-1960s he finally arranged to have a solo show, staged at a gallery in Joburg, but he couldn’t get the necessary materials and the show was canceled. Shortly thereafter, he killed himself.

I was also particularly taken by two figures, Selby Mvusi and Eric Ngcobo. I know Mvusi is the subject of your current research, but can you say more about how they represented two archetypes of black intellectual experiences under Apartheid.

Ngcobo and Mvusi were classmates during Ndaleni’s very first years of operation in the early 1950s. They were both talented artists and highly intelligent and learned individuals and together they represent both the limits and possibilities of the world I’m trying to describe. Ngcobo was perhaps the ultimate example of someone who did what he could with the system as it presented itself to him. He taught, he created, he excelled and eventually became the organizer of arts and crafts in the KwaZulu bantustan. He extolled the ideas and values of the work of art and he insisted that it was possible for black students and possible through the institutions of separate development. My evidence suggests, however, that he knew it wasn’t so and that his students political and economic circumstances were a barrier that even art could not surmount. He died in a car crash near Ulundi in the early 1980s.

Mvusi and Ngcobo had a lot in common; they even taught in the same school in Durban for a while. But Mvusi saw the shape of things in a way that Ngcobo did not and he got out. He knew that under Apartheid all the talk about how art promoted self-expression and humanity was functionally worthless and he strived to make it first as an artist and eventually as an educator beyond the geographical and intellectual limits South Africa imposed. He left the country in 1957 and spent the next decade in the U.S., Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Ghana and, ultimately, Kenya, where he helped to found the continent’s first program in industrial design at the University of Nairobi. Along the way, Mvusi turned from creating – he was a tremendously accomplished painter and sculptor – to think about how African humanity and identity needed to rescued from both conservative ideas about African tradition and regressive ideas about racial identification and limitation. He reflected on technological modernity and cities and was intrigued by computers’ potential to help produce totally new cultural forms that reflected only the here and now. He did not accept limits and refused to work within them. The great tragedy was that he too died young, also in a car crash outside of Nairobi almost exactly a decade after he left South Africa.

Here’s something that I found interesting. You are 204 pages in when you introduce the spectacular violence of Apartheid. It is not that Apartheid isn’t there already in the book. After all it’s how the school was conceived, it was a space of Bantu Education. You also earlier mention everyday humiliations, how when the students go on excursions they couldn’t stop to go to a bathroom because as Peirson joked it was as if South Africa wasn’t prepared for black people to have bladders. Or if students went on shopping excursions to Richmond, they had to be back at the college campus by nightfall because of laws about black mobility. When you introduce the spectacular violence of Apartheid, you do so very dramatically. You start Chapter 5: “On Monday, September 15, 1980, Silverman Jara was stoned to death. He was killed by his own students as he attempted to prevent them from burning their school

In a sense, the potential for such a dramatic moment of spectacular violence was what Mvusi had intuited in the 1950s and which had led him to get out. Ndaleni teachers who became students, who became art teachers, wanted to believe that Bantu Education schools could be studios – which is to say they wanted to believe that through the medium of art education in the Bantu Education school other young black people would be given the means to create, to know themselves differently, to see the world differently, to be transformed by the practice of making oneself visible in the world – which is what art is all about. This is the crux of my argument. These people believed that their lives could be like works of art – evidence of the mastery of material, the mastery of possibility. But just like works of art are transformed once they are loosed from their creators’ control and cast into the world of markets and galleries, so too were Ndaleni teachers’ lives transformed once they left the school and had to engage with the realities of teaching, administration and politics in wider South African society.

In the book I show how each of these factors inhibited the possibility that schools could be studios as teachers hoped. Jara was the most extreme example of this, but especially during the second half of the 1970s, after the Soweto uprising, his experience was not uncommon. Ndaleni teachers were, after all, teachers in Bantu Education schools, which meant that they were on the wrong side when lines were drawn. Moreover, many of them, if not most, truly believed in the work that was being done in the schools. Which meant that some experienced Soweto and its aftermath not as a moment of revolutionary possibility, but of tragedy. Students boycotted and the work of art was made impossible. The grand narrative of South African history tells this story in one way, but many of the teachers associated with Ndaleni experienced it quite differently. The system quickly declined thereafter, as Bantu Education was plunged into recurring crises. By the early 1980s it was determined to bring all the specialist courses to Pretoria, so plans were made to move the program. Peirson and her colleagues also thought that the quality of their students declined over its last years, even as increasing numbers came to campus. To some extent this probably reflected the more strident politics of the era, which white teachers experienced in part as a decline in discipline in the hostels and on campus. By 1981 the program was closed.

I have suggested elsewhere that the fact that the choices for black people under colonialism and Apartheid boiled down to either martyrdom or compromise was part of the injustice of the system. Why it is that black South Africans always have to be so much better than everybody else, especially white South Africans?

This I think is an ironic byproduct of the success of the global struggle against Apartheid. Over the course of the 20th century South Africa was transformed from one among a number of profoundly iniquitous and racial societies into a morality tale – a fable – and fables cannot deal in shades of grey and complexity. That’s why they’re for children and development organizations. Complexity doesn’t reproduce well on placards. I sometimes think that as a discipline history’s task is to stand astride time and just shake its head regretfully and say “it was all terribly complicated.”

What for you is the takeaway of the book?

It’s hard to suggest just one takeaway. As a story-teller, to some extent I’d be thrilled if people just find themselves caught up in the lives that these people lived. Like fiction, I think one of history’s greatest tools – too frequently underutilized – is empathy and I’ve tried to unpack these lives and stories with as much empathy as I can muster. They’re profoundly human lives in their unremarkableness – people getting married, divorcing, having children, trying, failing, trying again, struggling. They are lives made remarkable because of where, when and with what means they took place. I’m struck again and again by their humanity in an Apartheid society so frequently understood – correctly – as inhumane. So to me another takeaway is how these lives cast the Apartheid experience into different relief, while also, I hope, allowing us to consider similar such experiences in times and places removed from 20th century South Africa. As I get older I’m increasingly aware of the ways in which I struggle within systems that aren’t of my creation; I only rarely can conceive of alternatives. I’m not Mvusi and I don’t think most people are Mvusi – most people just muddle through, doing what they can to live good, meaningful, ethical lives. Artists enter into a dialogue between selves and material reality when they create; so, I think, do people in general. We work our circumstances and try to make something beautiful of them and we fail more than we succeed.

Finally, what happened to the school after apartheid?

The school closed in 1982 and the teachers dispersed to other positions. Ndaleni was housed in one of KZN’s oldest mission stations. After the training college shut down, some of the site was abandoned; over time, the old art studios and some other buildings were incorporated into a provincial school for the deaf. The region saw tremendous violence during the last half of the 1980s and 1990s. It was one of main venues for the Inkatha/ANC rivalries that dominated the end of Apartheid and the advent of democracy. Tens of thousands of people moved out of the former bantustan to inhabit the open valley between the Indaleni Mission and Richmond town. Their new township took the mission’s name and its residents turned to the abandoned mission station for building materials. One of the most interesting aspects of the study for me has been returning to the site year after year to witness its deconstruction. Buildings have come down, roofs come off, murals art students painted in the 1950s and 1960s are destroyed by the elements, etc. Yet there is still much art preserved in the fence of the Indaleni School for the Deaf – statues, murals, mosaics, a stucco frieze that still belts the main hall. There’s a great deal that’s sad about this project; perhaps the saddest moment for me personally was when (via a sign language translator) I asked students what they thought about these objects. One volunteered that they had been created by “white people.” This devastated me. But the objects are still there, evidence of this now forgotten community, marking their time in this space. I’m comforted by that.

Repackaging Third Way liberalism 

Last week US President Donald Trump told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the US would no longer insist on the creation of a Palestinian state as part of a peace deal between Israel and Palestinians. By doing so, Trump broke with long standing US policy and effectively endorsed a Jewish-only state with Palestinians as second class citizens. He also told Netanyahu to “hold back a bit” on settlement expansion. Because information about how the Israeli occupation works is sparse in American media, explainer sites usually fill the gap. Which is how the liberal news and opinion website, Vox came to re-up its “Israeli settlements explained in 8 minutes” video on social media. The video was quickly shared widely on Facebook and Twitter. But few who watched the video, shared it, or “liked” it is an impartial explainer, paused to parse its or Vox’s politics on Israel.

Here’s the video:

To drive Vox’s points home, the video was also accompanied by some text.

Vox, founded in 2014, presents itself as “pioneer of explanatory journalism,” but its glossy presentations crisp design and slick animations serve to repackage a rapidly disintegrating Third Way liberalism in a way that is easily digestible to younger people and conducive to social media shares.

During the Democratic primary, Vox published pieces attempting to rally progressives behind Hillary Clinton, by critiquing Bernie Sanders’ policy proposals using the logic of neoliberalism, defusing the various scandals that plagued Clinton’s campaign and humanizing her with softball interviews. Trump’s upset victory has hopefully prompted some introspection from liberal Democrats, especially after  all the self-celebration and gloating that took place over the course of the campaign.

In September, Vox expanded its international coverage and delved deeply into the Arab-Israeli conflict. The results were, unfortunately, anything but pioneering or explanatory. That’s when it first introduced the “Israeli settlements explained in 8 minutes” video. It is especially egregious.

The video presents a history of the settlements which is notable only for its glaring omissions and distortions. Even granting some license for the inherent brevity of the medium, the omissions and distortion of the narrator, Johnny Harris, should not stand unchallenged, particularly at time when the nature of settlements has reentered the public debate and prompted some debate within the Democratic Party on its positions vis-à-vis Israel.

The video opens with the narrator driving from Israel to the occupied West Bank, a place he describes as “bizarre.” His explanation of Israeli settlements begins in 1948:

…when the map looked a lot different. Back then all this land was controlled by Great Britain and due to growing tensions between Jews and Arabs, the UN worked with Great Britain to split the land into two states… the Jews in the region accepted this plan and declared independence as the state of Israel, but the Arab states in the region saw this plan as just more European colonialism. They didn’t accept this plan, and instead declared war on Israel.

Of course, without the context of the first half century of Zionist emigration to Palestine, and the Zionist movement’s position relative to the European conquest of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire, viewers might be left wondering how so many Europeans ended up in Mandatory Palestine or how the British ended up in control of the territory in the first place. The origins of the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, despite often being framed in the West as an ancient religious feud, are actually thoroughly modern, and, like many contemporary political conflicts in the Third World, they are easily traced to the late 19th century. For Harris’s story, naturally, this context does not warrant mentioning.

Zionism developed in Europe during the late 19th century as one political response to rising anti-Semitism and the crystallization of national identities that excluded Jews. But Zionism was not then and is not now a political solution to European anti-Semitism. As Sherene Seikaly argues, “Zionism continued the Enlightenment’s idealization of the nation-state and its hierarchical understanding of humanity. It promised Jews that they could finally become European but only by leaving Europe.” As the public call by Netanyahu for Jews in Europe to emigrate to Israel demonstrate, the one premise that Zionists and anti-Semites agree on is that Europe’s Jews do not belong.

World War I created a convergence of interests between Imperial Great Britain and the Zionist movement in Europe, leading to the former to declare its support for the creation of Jewish homeland in Palestine. By the end of World War II, the nascent United Nations proposed partitioning Mandatory Palestine into two states, one for the Zionist settlers and one for the Arabs. The proposed borders of Israel would have constituted more than half of Mandatory Palestine, while Zionist settlers were only one-third of the population, at most. With this context, perhaps Harris would not be able to dismiss Arab rejection of the partition plan as flippantly as he does.

According to prominent Israeli historian Illan Pappe, during the ensuing war of 1948, Zionist military forces undertook an ethnic cleansing campaign to create a demographically unassailable Jewish majority in the area that was set to be granted to them under the terms of the partition plan. The argument that the displacement of 750,000 Palestinians in 1948 was the result of this concerted campaign, a position maintained by Palestinians from the outset, has become more widely accepted in Israel and the West.

These Palestinians and their descendants, now numbering in the millions, remain stateless in neighboring Arab countries. The fact that their right to return to their homes, though upheld by international law and recognized by the United States, is largely viewed within Israel as an existential “demographic threat,” demonstrates that Zionism in Palestine cannot coexist with the full-realization of the rights of non-Jews living under Israeli control. This is acknowledged in Israeli decision-making circles, and is understood as a major contradiction between Zionism in Palestine and democracy, even by centrist Israeli politicians.

Once Harris gets to 1967, the omission of context becomes more and more glaring. He claims simply that “Israel fought a war with its Arab neighbors” in that year, and wasn’t looking to “take over land.” To say that Israel, “fought a war” in 1967 is technically true. It is also an interesting way to avoid mentioning the fact that the 1967 war began with a surprise attack initiated by Israel on the Arab states. The Six Day War, as it came to be known in the West, is held up by liberal luminaries like Michael Walzer, as the prototypical example of a just, preemptive, war of defense. Walzer argues as much without taking into consideration the fact that Israel’s military superiority allowed it to decimate the Arab armies in just six days.

Perhaps the ostensible justification for the preemptive strike, the threat posed by the Arab regimes, was a bit overblown.

Such arguments about the 1967 war are also difficult to sustain for the glaringly obvious reason that Israeli still, in fact, occupies much of the land it conquered that year, despite UN Security Council Resolutions calling for Israel to withdraw from the territory. How can anyone actually claim that Israeli government was not looking to “take over land in this war,” when it still controls this territory after 49 years, and began constructing settlements and displacing the people that lived there immediately? 

Harris moves on to the post-1967 scenario. “Suddenly Israel had a decision to make, do they make the West Bank a part of Israel and give the 1.1 million Arabs living there Israeli citizenship and voting rights?” Harris’s matter-of-fact assertion that the rights of those living under military occupation are subject to the strategic considerations of Israeli decision-makers is only sustainable through the dehumanization of the former, a dehumanization that is a necessary component of Zionism in Palestine, not just a distortion by the movement’s fringes.

Harris portrays the initial wave of post-1967 settlers in the West Bank and Gaza as civilians “establishing a Jewish presence,” a strange euphemism for settler colonialism. Of course, the fate of the settler now becomes a major consideration for the Israeli government in a way the fate of the Palestinian never was or will be.

“Palestinians did not like this encroachment and began protesting sometimes with extreme violence.” The fact that extreme violence of occupation itself is necessary to make settlement activities possible, an obvious point, is lost on our narrator. As are the facts that these settlements are Jewish only, use 85 percent of water in the West Bank, are connected by Jewish-only roads, and are increasingly making a sovereign Palestinian state impossible while generating massive profits. After boasting that “Palestinians can drive on almost all of the roads in the West Bank,” Harris lists the structures of the occupation as though they are mild annoyances – “they have to stop at check points and get their car inspected sometimes, sometimes it makes for some really long lines” – rather than a system of Apartheid. The piece ends with a preview of the second installment in which a settler explains that “I don’t consider myself a settler but I know other people do.”

No one would argue that an investigation into the motivations and personal beliefs of settlers is a useless exercise, if done properly. But Johnny Harris does not claim that this is an investigation of that sort, the piece is described as an “explainer” for Israeli settlements. As such, it is poorly executed at best and irredeemably biased at worst. The narrative of Johnny Harris is symptomatic of a problem that plagues discussion of this issue, even at a level above the zero-context cable news; that the perspectives of colonizers and oppressed should somehow be given the same consideration as those of the colonized and the displaced.

In the beginning of this academic year, a class at the University of California Berkeley that “studied Palestine through the lens of settler colonialism” was cancelled at the behest of the AMCHA Initiative, a non-profit “dedicated to investigating, documenting, educating about, and combating anti-Semitism at institutions of higher education in America” because, according to the AMCHA, the course objectives promotes “the false and defamatory idea that Israel is an illegitimate settler colonial state.”

But is Israel’s status as a settler state subject to debate? Does it matter if the settler at the end of the video does not consider herself to be a settler?

In an intellectual environment in which discourse is the lens through which politics is understood, everything is up for debate. “Post-truth politics” is not just a pathology of the American political scene that allows white men or Christian conservatives to claim that they are an oppressed group. It is a pathology that allows Israeli commentators to claim Palestinian refugees as Israelis that “immigrated” or “moved” from Israel, that allowed Netanyahu to claim on national television that dismantling settlements would constitute ethnic cleansing. This environment accelerates the unmooring of politics and history from any objective understanding of power, not only by the calculated obfuscation of the right, but by liberalism’s inherit tendency to revise history in order to obscure power relations.

Thanks to outlets like Vox, the drift away from the shore continues in eight-minute intervals.

Africa’s First Lady

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at her 80th birthday celebrations held at Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town. Image via Government of South Africa Flickr.

Barack and Michelle Obama have barely left the stage — it’s been a month — and already the U.S. press are gripped by nostalgia. In an era of ubiquitous images, no matter where you live in the world, the scenes of their kisses and hugs, their loving gazes and their fist bumps, are inescapable.

Even if you disagree with their politics – if you saw them as having been too focused on being “magical negroes” and not invested enough in challenging the structural underpinnings of American poverty, inequality and imperial violence -– there is no denying the elegance, intellect and fierceness of their bond. And in a world in which images of healthy loving black families are still too rare – their example has been important and powerful not simply to a generation of Americans of all races, but to Brazilians, South Africans and people in countries that are still too starkly defined by the color bar.

Michelle Obama, in particular, has been widely embraced. For white women in Middle America, she represents the black best friend they lost when Oprah went off air. She is now white America’s most relatable black person in much the same way that Ellen has become the totem for straight people who aren’t sure where to find queer allies.

I don’t write this to discredit Michelle Obama. Like other celebrities, she has little control over how her likeness and her persona are used by people she doesn’t know. Obama can’t help it that she is the new imaginary BFF of white American women who don’t know how to reach out across racial divides in their own lives. There is no doubt however that she is aware of the role she plays in the racial imaginary. The mantle of being the-first-black-anything is heavy, but the burden of being the first black First Lady, in a country that anachronistically values a spousal office in spite of reputation of being a democracy built on the notion of modernity, must be heavy indeed.

Obama has handled her position with grace. She has learned to blunt her edges; to smile for the camera, and to package her blackness in ways that are both authentic to her and her family, but palatable to mainstream America. As the real signifier of American blackness in the couple (the one who comes from a long and storied line of African-Americans), at a cultural level, Michelle was always going to be the key to her husband’s success in the White House. While Barrack was – and remains – a skillful orator and a powerful intellect – Michelle has brought the racial social capital to the table.

In this way, Michelle Obama is not unlike Winnie Mandela; who some might argue was the de facto first lady for people in African countries that were seeking liberation in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Barack Obama is no Nelson Mandela either so forgive the tenuous analogy, but there are some parallels about unapologetic black women that are worth pursuing if only at a superficial level.

Unlike Winnie Mandela, Michelle Obama has not been tarnished with scandal, and operates in a dramatically different context from apartheid-era South Africa. Still, like Winnie Mandela, she married a man who was her intellectual equal and she has found a way to occupy a particular place in the firmament amongst her female peers and in the mind of the general public. Like Winnie, Michelle has managed to inspire both adoration and vitriol. And while the Obamas have only had contemporary racists as their enemies and the Mandelas were classified as terrorists and had an entire racist minority regime as their enemy, both women are emblematic of the difficulty women – and women of African descent in particular – have had when in the limelight.

So as the US media extol the virtues of the Obamas, Africans may wish to cast back further than the Obamas; may wish to look beyond America. For South Africans in particular, who are facing the beginning of a long hard leadership race in which a woman may very well emerge as President of the country at the next polls, it is worth remembering that long before the Obamas, there were the Mandelas.

For a younger generation that has grown up in post-apartheid South Africa, Winnie Mandela is an iconic figure, yet one with whom they are little acquainted. Some will know that her marriage to Nelson’s ended in a nasty divorce shortly after his release from jail in 1992. Others will be aware that in the 1980s she was known for her firebrand politics. They will know she spent three decades fighting for her husband’s release, and that she is known as the Mother of the Nation, but they may be unfamiliar with all but the outlines of her battles against the apartheid state.

Many will not know that she was a qualified social worker in a time when few African women were educated. They will not know that rumors circulated in the early years that is was she who had betrayed her husband to the police – even from within the ANC. They may not know that she was accused of cheating on him; that in the first decade of his incarceration when she was prohibited from seeing him all but once, they suggested that she was unfaithful. These allegations of course would never have been made against a man.

They may not know that these difficult years with two small children were followed by the nine lean years when she was banished to Brandfort in the Free State province (away from her home in Johannesburg) – a time during which she was separated from her youngest child, Zenani. They may never have been taught that the authorities targeted those children immensely– not only to punish Nelson but also to torture Winnie. They will have seen pictures of Mam’ Winnie in black and white, and they may have caught their breath because she was such a beauty, but they probably will not know that her picture on the cover of Drum magazine in those days had ten times the power of Michelle’s photo on the cover of Vogue today.

From 1956 when they met when Nelson was already facing charges for treason (let that sink in) to 1958 when in her words, she “married the struggle and not the man,” to the mid 1980s when the Mandela Football Club that became her ruin took over her life, Winnie Mandela’s intellectual strength, her powers of articulation and her disarming beauty were both legendary and fearsome. Her looks and her intellect were also mutually reinforcing. In part this was because the subject of beauty and desirability in African women has always been about more than lines and proportions and whatever is in the eye of the beholder – it has been about whether or not Africans are fully human.

In societies in which the white gaze is normative, the very notion of African beauty has been oxymoronic. In spite of overwhelming evidence indicating white male sexual desire for African women (and men for that matter), the orthodoxy of apartheid insisted that blacks were no better than animals they were not capable of complex thought and therefore any physical attraction between whites and blacks was immoral and unnatural – it was an attraction between varying species. The manufacture of these myths — the simplicity of the African mind and the brutishness of the African physique – served as important justifications for apartheid. Winnie Mandela embodied in a very public manner – the shattering of these ideas.

Winnie was everything Africans — and African women in particular — were not supposed to be. She was unafraid and independent-minded, going to considerable lengths to indicate that she was not a product of Nelson Mandela — she was forged by the needs of African women. In interviews she has always been forthright and unrepentant in her articulation of the “sickness” of racism in South Africa and she is simultaneously – from the perspective of the white gaze (ridiculous as it is) stunningly beautiful.

Winnie Mandela became the thorn in the side of the white minority regime in a manner that cannot be over-stated. She was not simply the wife of Nelson Mandela – a terrorist who in his own right was intelligent, defiant and articulate. She was a beautiful, compelling, clever woman who refused to apologize or bow down. She was always on message – always prepared to raise a clenched fist. Always prepared to say the unsayable. Always impeccably stylish in a manner that in the mind of the enforcers of apartheid – was appealing to the women of Ladies Home Journal and to their cleaners.

It was no wonder then that the regime subjected her to such profound mental and physical anguish. They forced her children out of the country and so Zindzi and Zenani had to study in Swaziland. Whenever it was school holidays, the authorities would conveniently raid her home and detain her so that she would be deprived of the opportunity to see them. In addition to banning her for seven years to Brandfordt, they also harassed her on a daily basis when she returned. Mandela may have been in jail, but Winnie was in an exile of sorts.

She took to traveling with bodyguards. Her home was a fortress – with high walls and large gates and a phalanx of security. In a tragically shallow and misogynistic account of meeting her, British journalist John Carlin elected to depict these as the trappings of a woman who was living a life of luxury while her black compatriots suffered excruciating poverty. He missed the mark: over time Winnie certainly lost touch and became paranoid. She almost certainly enjoyed too many of the finer things in life. Yet no one who knows the history of Winnie and Nelson Mandela could suggest that there was not some basis for the trajectory Winnie’s life took in the 1980s.

Ironically, as Winnie took on a more thuggish persona, the less dangerous she became to the white minority regime. She was no longer the long-suffering mother with two beautiful daughters; clad in chic attire and so her appeal to women in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs declined. By the mid-1980s when she declared, “with our matchboxes and our necklaces we will liberate this country,” to white South Africans she appeared deranged; no longer an ambassador. And on some level she was deranged: out of order and disarrayed, after years of bearing the brunt of the vitriol of the regime and the sexism of the comrades and the pains of motherhood. Yet, she was no more off-kilter than thousands of her male comrades who made similar declarations and who involved themselves in directing and undertaking violence as ugly and brutal as the murder of Stompie Moeketsi, the young man whose 1989 murder Winnie allegedly oversaw.

There can be no excuse for any of the violence that took place during those terrible years; nor can there ever be an excuse for those sorts of crimes enacted against children. It is unhelpful however, to ignore the context in which Winnie and thousands of others were operating. It is also disingenuous to deny the double standards that governed how the media and the liberation struggle itself elected to depict Winnie in relation to those they shielded. She was a woman and so it was her reputation that suffered the most.

Amongst black people on the streets – not those in the leadership but those who lived hand-to-mouth and were looking for charismatic and rooted inspiration – Winnie was always a hero. Tired of the platitudes of the ANC in exile, and fired up by the promise of the United Democratic Front, which organized mass rallies and insisted on making liberation more urgent, people who lived in South Africa’s townships came to see her as the Mother of the Nation. For who had suffered more than Winnie Mandela? Like countless black women she knew the pain of being separated from the man she loved, by authorities that had no regard for African love and family ties. Like thousands of black people who had endured the indignities of gaol for infringing on one of the thousands of petty laws that kept apartheid in place, she too was familiar with the inside of a jail cell. Like hundreds and thousands of African women who found themselves living far away from their children, through no fault of their own, Winnie too understood how that felt.

And unlike the ordinary black masses, Winnie had a platform.  There were microphones in her face. And at every opportunity, when given the chance to repent, she stood defiant and unrepentant. Again and again and again, she spat in the face of the apartheid regime.

Many have argued Julius Malema is her political heir. As footage from her eightieth birthday party at the end of 2016 indicates, the two are fond of one another and they indeed have much in common. The quick wit and sharp intellect; the common touch.  The propensity to deviate from the script to delight and surprise and yes, dismay.

Interestingly, there are few women in contemporary party politics who operate in her mould. Winnie was never one for feminist rhetoric, but she was a powerful proponent for women’s rights. She was authentically able to articulate the relationship between racism and sexism, without using academic language that alienated the people on whose behalf she fought.

Today Winnie’s sins seem startlingly modern. Subjected to harassment then isolation then violence, she became violent herself. She was too high profile. She was too angry. She refused to be a pawn of Mandela and so long before he was released from jail she disentangled herself from any perception that she might have been made from his rib. She insisted that she owed her political education to the ANC – not Mandela. She had the audacity to take younger men as lovers. She got caught. She refused to be sorry and then of course, when Mandela was released, she couldn’t forgive him for all the things that had been done to her in his name.

It is fitting then that in her waning years Mam’ Winnie seems to have found a new following amongst this angry rebellious generation. The young women who led the marches in the #FeesMustFall movement; the ones who continue to fill newspaper columns and raise hell in schools across the country. In their language, Winnie’s slay is undeniable. With her uncompromising brand of politics, her Instagram-ready good looks, her Twitter-style barbs and her take-no-prisoners brand of feminism, Mrs Mandela is far more au courant today than any of the women who currently occupy the South African political stage – even those decades younger.

I want to imagine there any many women in this generation who can step out of the shadows and emulate Winnie Mandela’s courage. I want to hope that they can leave behind Winnie’s recklessness whilst channelling her connection to the country’s most vulnerable denizens. If my hopes have any basis in reality, 2019 – when the country goes to the polls to elect a replacement for Jacob Zuma – will throw up a range of exciting possibilities. Whether or not a woman takes up the mantle there is no question that as she hits her 80s, Winnie Mandela need not fear being forgotten. Her fearless is needed now – more than ever.

Cape Town’s art fair

Art players and enthusiasts from around the world and down the street will coalesce at the Cape International Convention Centre 17-19 February for the latest staging of the Cape Town Art Fair. Now in its 5th iteration, the fair’s gallery participation and audiences have grown as the global interest in African art has blossomed. This year’s fair, led by the celebrated curator Tumelo Mosaka, features an impressive lineup of contemporary art galleries from across the continent and beyond as well as art talks, creative publications, limited edition prints, large scale sculptures and new works from rising artists specially selected by Mosaka. To dive into the dynamics at play with the Cape Town Art Fair as a critical reorientation of the art world, Neelika Jayawardane and Zachary Rosen spoke to Mosaka about place, access, and the balance between the market and creativity.

Art Fairs have become a mainstay of the global art market, connecting the creative world with the commercial in one geographical and physical location, condensing that interaction and exchange into an intense few days. Art fairs were usually located in the geopolitical West; but in the past ten years, a few pioneering art professionals have created the space for fairs in the Global South. Gallery owners and collectors need to choose where to put their time and resources carefully, given that the art fair calendar spoils them for choice. How would you position Cape Town Art Fair (CTAF) within the larger scene of global art market events? 

The CTAF is well positioned. We’ve seen contemporary African artists becoming a lot more visible abroad and some fetching high prices. This has provided momentum and interest in what is happening in Africa. So CTAF in this regard is well placed to be the platform to showcase art from this part of the world and beyond.

Most art fairs have a reputation of being elite, exclusive spaces and Cape Town in particular has legacy of discrimination and displacement that continues to this day. How has Cape Town Art Fair responded to the challenge of accessibility for different audiences?

This continues to be a struggle as the legacy of exclusion is something that over time will be eradicated. However, we have to remain vigilant and address it as we go along. In this regard, we have planned several Walkabouts for visitors to walk through the fair with experts. As well as a Talks program, which presents scholars, critics, curators, collectors and gallerists to discuss issues related to the art market and cultural production. And finally we are working with community groups such as Lalela who will be running workshops for young people at the V & A Waterfront. These workshops are open to all ages and are free to the public. Also there will be a family guide available at the information desk to help navigate your way through the fair.

When curating an art fair experience how do you balance the pleasure of encountering creative work with the sales-driven reality of the art market?

This is one of the challenges you have to embrace, sometimes the most provocative work, is not easily marketable. So yes, between thinking creatively and understanding the context of where the work will be presented, you then have to make the decision whether this will work. There is no formula except to speculate on impact and value both culturally and economically.

How did you interest galleries from around the world, as well as African and South African galleries to take part in the Cape Town Art Fair?

On its 5th edition, the fair has already established a certain reputation locally, and now given the broadening interest by overseas collectors, international galleries are beginning to sign on. I think working on this scale is about opening up and engaging the world and this means that we have to see ourselves as participating in global conversation.

International art fairs featuring works by artists of African heritage have become increasingly popular and the market for such works is expanding. Are audiences meaningfully engaging with the aesthetic qualities of the artwork…or do you see more collectors who are after a representative piece or two of “African Art” that elevate them socially, or as “investment pieces”?

I don’t think you can reduce it to one or two modes consuming the art from Africa. I think today we are seeing a lot of new collectors who want to learn more about art but are too intimidated as contemporary art is still seen as foreign element. I think for some institutional validation gives them security to buy but I’m also noticing that people want to live with the works and are responding to what interests them. This is very healthy because it means that public option doesn’t always determine which works are collected.

In what ways can we ensure that collecting art produced by African artists is not a passing trend? How can we rather build relationships for successive generations of collectors, curators and artists for fruitful, meaningful connections?

I think it’s through education not only through formal structures but also through access and exposure.

The new Museum of Contemporary Art Africa under construction right now is on people’s minds as it begins to cast its shadow on the Cape Town Waterfront. How do you think this new space will impact the art scene in Cape Town and beyond?

It is already doing that. People are already talking about it and waiting to see what it will bring. Internationally I hope it will be a space to see exciting works from abroad as well as facilitate cultural exchanges between here and elsewhere. The scale and focus on contemporary art has a great potential to affect not only Cape Town, but the continent as nothing like this exists anywhere on the continent.

As Curator, what is your larger curatorial vision for this fair?  What mark would you like to leave on the Cape Town Art Fair?

What I would like to see happening is Cape Town becoming the focal point for viewing contemporary African art. This does not happen over night but has to be a long-term goal that involves developing and nurturing relationships here and around the world.

For more information on CTAF please visit 

Opening Hours:

Friday 17 February 2017: 11h00 – 19h00
Saturday 18 February 2017: 11h00 – 19h00
Sunday 19 February 2017: 11h00 – 19h00

Israel’s Scramble for Africa

Israel has eleven embassies in Africa. Last week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met the ambassadors in Jerusalem. He had a clear message for them: “The automatic majority against Israel at the UN is composed – first and foremost – of African countries. There are 54 countries. If you change the voting pattern of a majority of them you at once bring them from one side to the other. You have changed the balance of votes against us at the UN and the day is not far off when we will have a majority there.”

Netanyahu was, of course, talking about UN resolutions against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory. Israeli officials, followed by Israeli media, have made it a habit in the last few years to declare time after time on the flourishing relationship between Israel and Sub-Saharan African nations.

In the latest instance, in September 2016, Netanyahu met with President Macky Sall of Senegal in New York and announced: “Of course we have great relations between Senegal and Israel, and we’ll make them greater.” (At the meeting Netanyahu reminded Sall that Leopold Senghor, Senegal’s first post-independence president, had once visited Israel. What he forgot to mention to Sall was that in the end Senghor felt Israel wasn’t serious about peace with the Palestinians.)


Israel’s recent rapprochement to African states is part of a coordinated effort by the government to get close to African countries. On the sidelines of that United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York in September, Netanyahu also met with the President of Togo, and Israel’s UN ambassador organized event with 15 African leaders for Netanyahu. A few months earlier, Netanyahu traveled to four countries in Africa and met with seven African presidents, including Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda.

Netanyahu’s trip to East Africa came after a 30-year hiatus in which no Israeli Prime Minister visited Africa.

During the 1950s and even well into the 1960s, Israel established relationships with at least 35 African countries. The strong ties included help with founding Nahal-like settlements, bringing about 7,0000 students for training courses in Israel, sending nearly 2,000 physicians, agricultural and economic advisors, and a large diplomatic presence to these countries. The 1967 and 1973 wars brought an end to those relationships (with the exception of Apartheid South Africa) – and they never returned to what they were.

But in the last few years, there was a feeling of optimism among Israeli officials. When a reporter from the newspaper Israel Hayom, in effect Netanyahu’s mouthpiece, praised the Prime Minister’s trip to Africa back in July, he explained the diplomatic importance of the visit by saying: “Africa has 54 countries; that’s 54 votes in the UN.”

Given the early meeting between Netanyahu and Sall in September, it came as a shock to Israel that one of the sponsors of the UN Security Council resolution passed in December last year criticizing Israeli settlements, was Senegal. Another African state, Angola, voted in favor of the resolution. Israeli officials claimed it had assurances from Angolan diplomats they would oppose the resolution.

Netanyahu retaliated by canceling a visit by the Senegalese foreign minister to Israel, banned visits of the non-resident Senegalese ambassador to Israel and ordered all planned aid to the country (though it’s unclear whether such aid even exists) voided. He also ordered the Israeli ambassador in Dakar back to Jerusalem. (That ambassador has not returned since.)

The Angolan ambassador was called for a meeting at the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry to reprimand him for his country’s behavior. (When he left the Prime Minister’s office, the ambassador found he had been issued a parking ticket. Jerusalem municipality said his car was simply disrupting traffic flow).

Then the Israeli government announced that the activities of Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation with Angola would be halted. But once again, that seems to be more of a symbolic act then one with significant practical meanings. But there’s a major Israeli presence in Angola, and it is important to distinguish between what official Israel does (guided by a foreign policy), and what private contractors (or mercenaries) do, even if they very often overlap.

The 1990s were characterized in Israel as the (neo) liberalizing decade its relations with Africa. Post-independence African countries were eager to do business and in the absence regulatory relationships between Israel and these countries many private Israeli companies and investors flocked to the continent. The result was unregulated, unsupervised business relationships, which often entailed direct involvement in military and governmental affairs.

Angola for example, has a significant Israeli business presence. But the Israel government doesn’t apply much of its strategy towards African countries to get involved in business affairs. If it did, it might have to admit to interfering with arms deals between Israeli firms and South Sudan, (which perhaps ironically in this case included a Senegalese middleman) or agree to expose the Israeli arms shipments to the Rwanda militias in 1994, a fight that was still taking place in an Israeli court just last year. The court eventually ruled against the exposure.

In recent years a significant accumulation of both political and economic interests resulted in an overlap between official relationships and business relationships with countries like Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan.

The German Namibian Genocide–What is to be done?

At the beginning of the 20th century, German colonial forces in Namibia, then called South-West Africa, committed what is considered the first genocide of the 20th century. Between 1904 and 1907, the Germans tried to exterminate two local nations, the Herero (Ovaherero) and the Nama. As the New York Times reported in December last year, about 80 percent of all Herero, who numbered as many as 100,000, are believed to have eventually died. “They were shot, hanged from trees or died in the desert, where the Germans sealed off watering holes and also prevented survivors from returning.”

This genocide – while fairly well known in Namibia, in Southern Africa and generally among historians – has been hidden from the wider public.

It was not in the interest of successive German governments to acknowledge this heinous crime. The German government and German elites have instead been in a state of denial. This is due in part to the embarrassment of seeing a modern-day European society being associated with such atrocities. Germans have accepted guilt for two World Wars, but seem inept at dealing with their colonial baggage – Germany had colonies in Africa (Germany had colonies in Namibia, Cameroon and Tanzania) – considering that most historians have acknowledged that the genocide in Namibia laid the groundwork for the Holocaust.

Acknowledging the genocide has implications beyond Germany. For other former colonial powers (UK, France, Portugal, the United States, for example), German admission of responsibility for colonial genocide could mean that all colonial governments could be accused of similar atrocities and be compelled to pay reparations. This is partly why bilateral negotiations between Germany and Namibia have been slow. German authorities would prefer to circumnavigate the genocide classification and call the compensation something other than reparations.

The declarations by then-German military governor in Namibia, General Von Trotha, clearly state that he intended to exterminate both the Ovaherero and Nama communities. The order came from the highest levels of German government. However, there is still great reluctance by some German-speaking Namibians to acknowledge this genocide. It is a reminder of the limitations the Namibian government’s policy of reconciliation. However, a policy centered on forgiveness and absolution must be built on the acceptance of guilt and responsibility. In his book, Namibia and Germany: Negotiating the Past, political scientist Reinhard Kössler, notes: “Even though present-day Germans are not personally guilty of crimes such as the genocide in Namibia that were committed in the lifetime of their grandparents, great grandparents (…) temporal distance and personal innocence cannot absolve people from responsibility as citizens.” It could be for some of these reasons that this dark chapter in German colonial history is never taught in schools in Germany.

Although the similarities between the Ovaerero and Nama genocide and the Holocaust are noted, the way that Germany has dealt with taking responsibility for them differs remarkably. The most prominent case in this regard is the Special Reconciliation Initiative (NGSIP), through which the German government provided €20 million development aid targeting geographic areas in Namibia where the communities affected by the genocide now live. This has been criticized consistently by Namibian civil society, precisely for its unilateral and non-participatory approach. In contrast, after World War II,West Germany negotiated with the Jewish Claims Conference. The needs and wishes of the victims were given precedence, even in parliamentary law-making. It’s hard not to see this as anything other than discrimination founded on a colonialist attitude.

The struggle for freedom and the subsequent independence of Namibia in 1990 presented all parties with the opportunity to deal with the genocide. It was an opportunity missed. The Namibian government was more concerned about the unity of a newly independent country that had just ended South African Apartheid rule (after the end of World War I, South Africa invaded and then proceeded to occupy Namibia until independence). Cognizant of the terrible consequences of the divisive Apartheid homeland policy, the case was made that any specific ethnic groups benefitting from any form of reparations could destabilize the country. Instead, the official stance has been one of a largely homogenous national history centered on a SWAPO-led liberation war (which emphasized the contributions and sufferings of the larger Owambo) with little room for deviation.

Nonetheless, the notion that the present-day Namibian government is oblivious to the question of genocide is misplaced. When the late Ovaherero Paramount Chief Chief Kuaima Riruako introduced a motion in parliament in 2006 calling for reparations for victims of the German genocide in Namibia, he sought the support of the SWAPO government. This led to the unanimous adoption of the motion. Today, the current negotiations between Namibia and Germany are a direct result of that motion. They are aimed at forcing the government in Berlin to acknowledge publicly the genocide, give an appropriate apology, and follow this up with a comprehensive development program, which will address the socio-economic needs of the affected communities within the areas where these atrocities were committed. Such a program would also include people from other communities who were affected by the genocide, and allow individuals from other communities who migrated from elsewhere into these areas, to be beneficiaries of the program. If the German government is going to pay actual monies in reparations, they should take into account the multi-generational impact of genocide. The reparations should cover each generation over the 100 or so years since the genocide.

It is important to note that this is not the first time that the Ovaherero have sued the German government. The Chief Hosea Kutako Foundation, headed by Riruako, filed a lawsuit in the US courts in September 2001 demanding $2 billion from the German government for atrocities committed under colonial rule. The lawsuit named several companies, including Deutsche Bank, mining company Terex Corporation (formerly Orenstein-Koppel Co) and the shipping company Deutsche Africa Linie (formerly Woermann Linie), all of whom profited from the use of Ovaherero slave labor between 1904 and 1907. This case was dropped because of legal technicalities. Since then a new case has been filed by Ovaherero Chief Vicki Rukoro and Nama Chief Fredericks. The case has been lodged with the US district court in Manhattan under the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 law often invoked in human rights cases. Some sections of the Ovahereo and Nama communities are seeking direct talks with the German government. However, the government of Namibia is engaging these sections to join forces with the government team.

Even if the case filed by Chief Rukoro and Chief Fredericks doesn’t eventually lead to any money changing hands, it is clear that both cases, as well as the ongoing government to government negotiations, have attracted a great deal of publicity to the Ovaherero and Nama cause. The involvement of the Namibian government has now made this a national cause (including renewed struggles over the return of ancestral land), and with the current negotiations underway, the German government will have to make a substantial move towards accommodating the demands of the Namibian people.

International Criminal Court Politricks

South Africa’s announcement, in October last year, that it was taking steps to withdraw from the Rome Statute, the founding treaty of the International Criminal Court (ICC), baffled many observers. The country is generally seen as a champion of human rights given its liberal constitution, the existence of strong civil society advocacy for the advancement of a variety of rights, and its history of struggle against Apartheid; the latter founded on the very violation of fundamental rights.

Things came to a head when in June 2015, South Africa faced criticism for not arresting Sudanese President, Omar al-Bashir, accused of genocide and war crimes by the ICC. Bashir was attending an African Union conference in the country.

At the time, Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane invoked a legal conflict between international customary law that guarantees diplomatic immunity to sitting heads of state on one hand, and South Africa’s legal obligations under the Rome Statute (to arrest al-Bashir) on the other. According to Justice Minister Michael Masutha, these obligations undermine South Africa’s ability to promote “peace, stability and dialogue [on the continent].”

The immediate cause of withdrawal may well have had to do with al-Bashir, but the problem is arguably more complex. The legal argument barely conceals a political protest against the ICC’s discriminate focus on African perpetrators of international crimes.

The ICC operates in the context of a global governance structure characterized by a problematic multilateralism, the prevalence of northern (i.e. Western European and North American) hegemony, and an implicit hierarchical moral and racial order that makes it acceptable for African leaders to be prosecuted but makes the indictment of Anglo-American leaders inconceivable.

It’s not that Africans aren’t interested in justice. For example, the African Union has been exploring ways to implement the 2014 Malabo Protocol in order to enable the African Court of Justice and Human Rights to prosecute crimes under international law and other transnational crimes including corruption, money laundering and the exploitation of natural resources. If a court based on the continent is liable to suffer from the very imbalances that fuel African resentment towards the ICC, it still constitutes a step towards a framework of self-governance that can mitigate the effects of externalities on African political processes.

In fact, the recent prosecution of Chad’s former dictator, Hissène Habré, at the Extraordinary African Chambers in Dakar, Senegal, for crimes of war is evidence that where there is political will and the adequate resources, the cause of justice can be advanced on the continent. The current conjecture is therefore far from being straightforward; it is not to oppose immunity to impunity, but rather to denounce moral hypocrisy, double-standard and racialized determinations.

African and other developing states’ initial enthusiastic support for the ICC was motivated by a desire to have a collective instrument, unhindered by a veto-system and capable of reining in even the most powerful states, to subject everybody to the same universal rules, to deliver global justice and to advance universality. Instead, the court has turned to the continent as a place of prosecutorial experimentation and this is partly what is being objected to.

The prospects are enormous, for the ICC’s capacity to help bring justice to millions of victims in Palestine, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and other parts of the world, but until the issue of fairness, competency, and procedural deficit are addressed, this will remain an unfulfilled possibility. Beyond the threat of an African exodus, the larger issue is that the implementation of the Rome Statute in its current form suffers from many technical deficiencies including shortcomings in the operations of the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP). There are also disagreements over Article 27 of the Rome Statute on the exclusion of immunity for heads of states. Nonetheless, until big powers such as the United States, China and Russia come on board to support the ICC mitigate these shortcomings, the court will continue to lose moral legitimacy, therefore relevance.

African states have a legitimate ground in denouncing the ICC’s disproportionate focus on African perpetrators of crimes – seen as easy targets. Of the ten countries currently being investigated by the ICC, nine are African. The fact that some of these cases were referred to the court by African states themselves does not justify current prosecutorial configurations. What this tendency also does is to perpetuate an image of African leaders as corrupt villains who prey over their populations even when the most egregious crimes have been, are being committed in Colombia, Yemen, Chechnya, Syria, and Iraq, to name a few. Most of these involve dominant powers, such as the United States, Russia, and France.

While the court cannot adjudicate on crimes perpetrated by non-member states, the fact that cases can also be referred by the UN Security Council opens up space for third-party interference. This is in fact the situation that has led to the referral of al-Bashir to the ICC by the UNSC for charges of genocide and crimes against humanity in Darfur.

There are a couple of things at issue here. Firstly, South Africa’s withdrawal has to be seen as a significant protest gesture against ICC bias against African leaders. While UNSC members are happy to make referrals to the ICC, they do not trust the same court to render justice where their state and military officials have been involved.

More crucially, South Africa’s withdrawal from the ICC constitutes a commentary on the nature of the legal global order. The absence of a moral equivalence in the implementation of legal principles across all countries, regardless of size and political and economic endowment, has an immediate effect on the internalization of the global legal regime as inherently biased. The global order is constrained by an absence of parallelism as a principle of international relations. Parallelism requires that the same jurisprudential rules and system of values, the same equivalent norms be applied fairly and evenly in relation to all states.

Legal scholars often take for granted the normativity of the law and treat politics as an inferior domain that merely interferes with the pursuit of justice. However, in fighting “the most serious crimes of concern to the international community” as the founding charter has tasked the Court, it has to be recognized that extrajudicial demands have come to compromise the status, and now the future, of a needed judicial institution.

Since South Africa’s withdrawal, a number of notable developments can be seen as an attempt by the ICC to address African concerns over bias and the judicialization of African internal politics, and beyond the threat of an African exodus. In addition to Georgia and the preliminary examination in Ukraine, the ICC has recently opened an investigation into Afghanistan over possible war crimes committed by US soldiers there. This renewed interest in a case that had been on a preliminary examination for almost a decade now becomes an argument against ICC critics of an African bias. In November 2016, during the Fifteenth Session of the ICC Assembly of States Parties a special meeting was held to discuss the ICC and African states. It was recognized during the meeting that the ICC needed to pay more heed to African grievances.

At any rate, if some observers were quick to dismiss the South African withdrawal initiative as futile, it has had the benefit of reigniting an important debate on the entanglements between the production of justice and the fragilization of continental legal mechanisms, the provision of peace and order and the exercise of global governance power on African internal processes, and the requirement for a rule of law, globally, that is impartial, consistent and universal.

Pan-Africanism was Peter Abrahams’ Country

On January 18, the world lost an icon. Only much of the world did not know it. South African-Jamaican writer Peter Abrahams died at 97 in Jamaica, where he has been living for more than 60 years. Abrahams was prolific, insightful, and poignant. Unfortunately, he is also largely overlooked and often forgotten, especially in the country of his birth.

The son of a miner (who died when Abrahams was a child) and a domestic worker, Abrahams’ life could have easily been confined to poverty, his hometown of Johannesburg, and his coloured neighborhood, Vrededorp.  However, his mother along with his “skokiaan” (illegal liquor) brewing aunt (whom Abrahams described as the family’s “cornerstone”) worked and sacrificed to insure that Abrahams could attend school. There he thrived and dreamt of a world away from Vrededorp.

Ezekiel Mphahlele, Abraham’s friend and another notable South African author, met Abrahams in 1935 when the two attended St. Peter’s School, an elite black school located in a white Johannesburg suburb. At the onset, Abrahams was set on intertwining both literature and pan-Africanism:

I remember him vividly talking about Marcus Garvey, taking it for granted we must know about him. And dreamily he said what a wonderful thing it would be if all the negroes in the world came back to Africa…  I admired [his writings] because here was a boy writing something like the collection of English poetry we were learning as a set book in school.  I remember now how morose the verse was: straining to justify and glorify the dark complexion with the I’m-black-and-proud-of-it theme.

Even then, Abrahams “was always yearning for far-away places” with a desire “to show the white man that he was equal to him.” By age 19, he had not only published a collection of poetry, A Black Man Speaks of Freedom, but also relocated to England. Abrahams was a complex character: He found inspiration from Garvey but relocated to the heart of the British Empire, rejected Garvey’s disdain for Communism, married a white woman, and befriended George Padmore, a Trinidadian pan-Africanist who was one of Garvey’s fiercest critics.

In London, Abrahams linked up with the burgeoning pan-Africanist circles. Alongside the likes of Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Ras Makonnen, he helped organize the 1945 Manchester pan-Africanist Congress. As director of publicity for the event, Abrahams helped insure that the energies inspired by Garvey could embolden black liberation movements across the globe. Informally, at home, he hosted countless numbers of Caribbean and African students and exiles “in of a few hours of congenial warmth in an otherwise cold and lonely place.” In Britain, Abrahams put pan-Africanism into action.

During this period, Abrahams also published the novels Song of the City (1943), Mine Boy (1946), which became a classic, The Path of Thunder (1948) and Wild Conquest (1951) all while reporting for the BBC and other media outlets. His writing was unapologetically black, railed against notions of racial inferiority, and promoted racial uplift through education, work ethic and pan-African solidarity. Despite being away from South Africa for 14 years, he used his personal experiences, memories and family history to flesh out compelling stories of what it meant to be black in South Africa. These books made him a recognized author both at home and abroad. Writing in Phylon in 1949, the preeminent African American scholar Alain Locke noted that Path of Thunder possessed “epochal significance” and was “the strongest and most objective portrayal we have yet had of love transcending the color line.”

His writing inspired the writers of the Drum generation in 1950s Sophiatown, as well as the blooming talent from Cape Town’s District Six. When Abrahams briefly returned to South Africa in 1952, Drum magazine’s staff gave him a hero’s welcome. However, this return was bittersweet. On this trip, Abrahams witnessed the conditions of black South Africa with new eyes. He saw firsthand how damaging Apartheid was, but he also grew disenchanted with black South Africa’s apparent acceptance of the system. According to Drum editor Anthony Sampson, at a 200-person banquet thrown in Abraham’s honor by the Coloured Garment Workers’ Union, the writer laid into the crowd:

Why do you waste money on a banquet for me, when you could give a scholarship to make another writer? And why haven’t you brought your wives? What’s the good of talking about liberation if you haven’t even liberated your own women?

Abrahams left South Africa further alienated from his birthplace. This distance prevented him, as well as work, from receiving the recognition and adulation he enjoyed elsewhere.

In some ways, Abrahams’s story is a “what if.”  Path of Thunder was released to critical acclaim, making it on the New York Times bestseller list only to be overshadowed by Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country.  “There had not been a novel out of Africa for a very long time and my US publishers thought they were on to a winner,” Abrahams wrote later in his 2000 memoir, The Coyaba Chronicles: Reflections on the Black Experience in the 20th Century. “But though I did reasonably well, Paton was the winner.”

The white liberal Paton went onto international fame as a vocal critic of Apartheid. For Abrahams, the experience denied him the limelight that he deserved and he soured on “the commercial, money-making aspect” of publishing overseas. His Tell Freedom (1954), a memoir recounting his childhood in Johannesburg during the 1920s and 1930s, stands as one of the best South African autobiographies ever, yet it hardly commands the attention of those who study South Africa.

Throughout the 1950s, Abrahams bounced between Britain, France and the African continent. In France, Abrahams and his second wife started a family. Here he also befriended American authors such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin as well as fellow South African, painter Gerard Sekoto, whose friendship grew as the two shared memories of “the same Johannesburg.” In France, Abrahams also encountered overt racism and began to sense xenophobia sweeping across Europe. In reporting on Africa, Abrahams’ understanding of African independence and the ability of African leaders to implement pan-African ideals was challenged. He grew critical of his friends Nkrumah, Kenyatta and Hastings Banda, who he saw as losing touch with their constituents or corrupted by global capitalism in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi. His novel, Wreath for Udomo (1956), offers a scathing critique of this generation of African leaders to which Nkrumah sent, according to Abrahams, “his disturbed appreciation.”

He offered even more critiques in later years, which further alienated him from many pan-Africanists. When he visited a newly independent Kenya in 1965, Abrahams did not come away bounding with optimism:

The President had ceased to be my friend, Jomo, the man of the people who had shared their struggles and suffering with them. Now, every business house, every store, every office I visited had the obligatory picture of the President hanging on the wall…  The new Bwana Kubwa was the former freedom fighter…  Somewhere along the road to freedom, the leaders of our freedom struggle had become like those they had fought against. We had become like our enemies, cloaked in the trapping of our enemies – only, more glaringly so.

In 1956, Abrahams relocated with his family to Jamaica, where he had been offered work. There, he found liberation:

In the South Africa of my childhood and youth, I had to be against the system as an affirmation of my humanity. In Europe I had to be anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist.  =In the Jamaica of my adoption I affirmed my humanity by becoming part of the process of the building of a nation.”

While South African exiles typically waxed nostalgic for home, Abrahams did not share that longing. Much of his impact came outside of South Africa, and physically but also emotionally he drifted away. In Jamaica, he published Jamaica: An Island Mosaic (1957), A Night of Their Own (1965), This Island Now (1966), The View from Coyaba (1985), and The Coyaba Chronicles (2000).  Only one, A Night of Their Own, was specifically about South Africa.  Discussing South Africa with a fellow exile, Abrahams remembered:

“I had been in Jamaica a long time, I spoke daily to Jamaicans on radio. I had become part of the Jamaican landscape. Because he was still the South African in exile, he expected me to also be a South African still in exile. He found it hard to accept that I had long ceased to be in exile. I had sunk new roots; I was accepted as Jamaican; became only ‘that damn South African’ when my enemies wanted to curse me.”

In adopting Jamaica, Abrahams’ place in South African popular memory faded. He did not pour his energies exclusively into the anti-Apartheid struggle. He was not one of the many, many exiles enticed back to South Africa after the fall of Apartheid. He never became a famous celebrity lauded for returning to the land of his birth (though he received the Order of Ikhamanga from the South African government in 2008).  Abrahams not only championed pan-Africanism, he lived it, but also remained brave enough to challenge those within it.

Weekend Music Break No.105 – Songs from banned countries: Somalia edition

Chino’o from Malitia MaliMob

For this weekend’s music break, we’ll have a second edition of “Songs from banned countries.” This time we go to Somalia via Seattle — which is a fitting connection because the judge who ordered Trump’s country ban illegal is based in Seattle. So, in the spirit of The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s opposition to Trump’s xenophobic policy, we are proud to present Malitia MaliMob and their selection for “Songs from banned countries: Somalia edition.”

On this edition of “Songs from banned countries,” we decided to give you the ins & outs of Somali music, culture and lifestyle. We, Malitia MaliMob, are Somali-Americans who fled a civil war, and came to Seattle where we became a product of our environment. The selection of songs we have chosen intertwine both cultures — something that might be seen as taboo by some in our community — however, even though we are now Americans, it is important for us to maintain the culture of the land where we were born.

This past month, the administration of President Donald Trump decided that Somali people should not be allowed to enter the United States. In contrast to this regression, back home in Somalia our people have answered with progress. That is because this past Wednesday, February 8th, we elected our new President Mohamed Farmaajo. For the first time in nearly 30 years, Somali people have realized that we need each other more than ever, and that we have to work together for a better future for Somalia.

In our selection of songs and videos, we included clips that show traditional music, as well as the rebuilding of infrastructure in Somalia. We want to show the beauty in our culture & what we have to offer the world. We want to show that contrary to what many people outside of Somalia perceive, our country is full of life.

Somali National Anthem (somali museum)

Malitia Malimob – “Perception”

Somali infrastructure

Malitia Malimob – “Physical World”


Malitia Malimob – “Wake up call”

illkacase- “Isqabooji”

K’naan – “Soobax”

Malitia Malimob – “Mayflower”

Malitia Malimob – “I am James Foley”

Unusable Nigerians

Workers subcontracted by Shell Oil clean up an oil spill in Oloibiri, Niger Delta. Image Credit: Ed Kashi/VII

Oloibiri is a town located a few kilometers away from the city of Port Harcourt in Rivers State, Nigeria. It is known for sharing the same local government, of Ogbia, as the town of Otuoke where Nigeria’s former president Goodluck Jonathan was born. Perhaps more noteworthy is that the small Niger Delta town of Oloibiri is also widely cited as the birthplace of the country’s oil story. The significance of Oloibiri to the development of Nigeria’s modern economy cannot be overemphasized.

Between 1907 and 1956, colonial Nigeria was engulfed in a frantic search for Black Gold. First, these efforts were led by the Nigerian Bitumen Corporation, a subsidiary of a German company. Soon, the industry was dominated by Shell D’Arcy — a precursor to what is now the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria.

It wasn’t until 1956, however, that oil was discovered in commercial quantities in Oloibiri. In 1958, Nigeria made its first shipment of oil to international markets. What began with a production of 5,000 barrels of crude oil a day was transformed to a two million barrel-a-day oil industry within just two short decades. The growth of that industry is one on which the Nigerian economy remains precariously and detrimentally dependent.

That oil and the people of the Niger Delta have contributed immensely to the development of modern Nigeria is not a contestable question. Yet, if the now used-up and discarded town of Oloibiri is any example — Oloibiri only lasted from 1958 to 1978 when its oil wells dried up and ended the town’s importance to Nigeria’s ruling elite — the Nigerian people are merely resources to be used up and eventually discarded.

Today, Oloibiri has become a metaphor for what is wrong with Nigeria. As James Ferguson once noted, there is a “usable Africa” and an “unusable Africa.” Usable Africa constitutes those territories with immense natural resource deposits such as oil, limestone, diamond, gold, coltan, and the like. Unusable Africa constitutes the rest of the continent and its people.

The very recent history of Oloibiri suggests that the Nigerian situation is not far removed from Ferguson’s examination. Once a “usable” part of Nigeria, Oloibiri has today become an unusable space. This has been the sad, but unsurprising, result of economic and environmental plunder by Nigeria’s ruling elite and its multinational collaborators, including Shell, Chevron, ExxonMobil and TotalFinaElf.

During Oloibiri’s 20-year life span (1958-1978), the town’s oil wells produced approximately 20 million barrels of oil that generated millions of dollars for the Nigerian government. Today, Oloibiri is a desolate town with nothing to show for the fortune it generated for the Nigerian state. Water pollution, soil erosion, and abandoned oil infrastructure are all that remain from the town’s era of oil production.

The poverty levels in Oloibiri today are comparable to the levels found throughout Nigeria as a whole, in which over 50% of the population was living on less than $2 per day in 2012. The people of Oloibiri, however, did not used to be poor. The farming and fishing industries once thrived, leading to a relatively prosperous community of people with a wide variety of occupations and diverse economic opportunities. The unpleasant irony, of course, is that the prosperity brought to Nigeria’s ruling elite by Oloibiri’s oil led to the degradation of the natural land and marine resources that had once allowed this town to flourish.

While Oloibiri has since been abandoned by the Nigerian government and its allies among the various international oil companies, ordinary people have had to bear the brunt of environmental degradation, high poverty levels, impassable roads, and lack of access to education and quality health services. Life expectancy in the Niger Delta averages just 40 years, compared to 53-55 within Nigeria as a whole.

In response to the persistent neglect and pillaging of resources throughout the Niger Delta, several militant youth movements have arisen to claim control of the region’s resources, often through violent means. Since 2005, multiple organizations, including the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND) and the newer Niger Delta Avengers (NDA), have enacted an insurgency against the state and multinational corporations operating in the region. These groups make various claims about fighting for the rights of the people of the Niger Delta.

While the Nigerian state and the multinational corporations operating in the Niger Delta have largely dismissed these youths as criminals, they have ignored the fundamental issues underlying the insurgency. They have refused to address the historical process that led from a “usable” Niger Delta of the 1950s, to a current population of unemployed, “unusable” youths castigated to the margins of Nigerian society.

The absence of critical infrastructure such as schools, healthcare facilities, roads, electricity, clean air and water, and the availability of economic opportunities for these youths and their families are rarely at the forefront of official state and oil corporation discussions concerning the Niger Delta.

Even when the federal government does dare to focus on such urgent issues of infrastructure development across the Niger Delta, more attention is given to large corporate and government projects than to the actual grievances of local communities. For example, much attention is given to the Niger Delta Development Corporation (NDDC), a partnership of Shell, Chevron, and other corporations with the Nigerian state, that seeks to “facilitate the rapid, even, and sustainable development of the Niger Delta.” Unfortunately, such agencies have become a conduit for cronies of the ruling elite to continue the cycles of corruption and exploitation within the region. Top personnel within NDCC, for instance, were recently accused of misusing public funds in what the Nigerian newspaper Vanguard News called a “cesspool of corruption.”

Today, when the “unusable” youths see their “usable” environment benefitting others without providing any assistance to their own communities, they resort to violent advocacy. The bleak landscape of Oloibiri epitomizes their worst fears for the Niger Delta. On one hand, the Niger Delta is rendered usable through the extraction of millions of barrels of black gold that account for 80 percent of Nigeria’s government revenue and 40 percent of gross domestic product. On the other hand, the landscape of the Niger Delta is devastated, and the inhabitants must wake up every day in abject poverty to see the oil industry operating all around them, never helping their communities.

The boom and bust of Oloibiri reveals the extent to which the Nigerian government views most Nigerians as nothing more than one out of many useable resources to be exploited and discarded. The Niger Delta embodies the contrived neglect of the majority of Nigerians by a state that continues to fail in its responsibilities towards its citizens.

This is a failure of responsibility that is apparent towards the people and communities of the Niger Delta in particular, and towards all Nigerians in general. It is a failure of responsibility that has reduced the bulk of the Nigerian citizenry to a disposable commodity of usable and unusable objects.

* This is an edited version of an essay that first appeared in Political Matter and is reprinted here with kind permission from the editors.

Regarding Marxism and Islam in Africa

This excerpt below is from an interview with Souleymane Bachir Diagne, a Senegalese philosopher who is currently Professor in the Department’s of Philosophy, French and Romance Languages at Columbia University in New York. The interview forms part of a larger project to “both archive and to think the present in relation to the lineages and genealogies of critical thought in and about Africa.” The immediate context is debates about the decolonization of knowledge in the South African academy where Pillay is based at the University of the Western Cape and where Fernandes was on a postdoctoral fellowship at the same university. The idea is to make connections to earlier, similar debates in the colonized world. Diagne was an ideal candidate to kick off the series, according to Pillay and Fernandes. Diagne has taught in his native country (at the famed Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar) and the United States and did his higher education in France. Diagne’s field of research includes history of logic, history of philosophy, Islamic philosophy, African philosophy and literature.  His book Bergson postcolonial. L’élan vital dans la pensée de Senghor et de Mohamed Iqbal (2011 Paris: Editions du CNRS) was awarded the Dagnan-Bouveret prize by the French Academy of Moral and Political Sciences for 2011.  In that same year he received the Edouard Glissant Prize. In the full interview, Diagne talks about his family history, his studies in France, debates amongst African philosophers over Marx and Marxism, Leopold Senghor and the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), where Diagne had a front row seat to academic disputes in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the excerpt below, Diagne revisits debates among African, including Muslim, philosophers over Karl Marx’s ideas about religion. The excerpt starts with Pillay asking Daigne about how he came to start the first Islamic philosophy course at Cheikh Anta Diop University. The full interview appears in the latest issue of Social Dynamics, which you can access here (for some, unfortunately, the full article will be behind a paywall)—Editor.

Suren Pillay (SP)You were saying in the conversation the other day that the decision to offer the course that you designed on Islamic philosophy came out of a response to a particular situation?

Souleymane Bachir Diagne (SBD): I was hired in 1982 by University Cheikh Anta Diop; this was three years after the Iranian revolution, after which we started seeing women on campus wearing the hijab, or religious scarf and even one wearing the black, Iranian type chador. So Islam came onto the campus as some form of political statement about being Muslim. We thought it was our responsibility, as a department of philosophy in a predominantly Muslim country, to teach also the tradition of philosophy in Islam; to teach the history of philosophy in Islam; to teach this tradition of rationalism, skepticism, free thinking that was characteristic of Islamic philosophers. So that is how the decision was made, as a response.

SP: The existing canon would be more in the French tradition of philosophical thought?

SBD: Yes. You know, the history of philosophy has been Greek philosophy, medieval philosophy, mainly Christian, Latin Christian philosophy; not even the Greek parts, the Orthodox part, let alone the Islamic aspect of medieval philosophy or the Jewish tradition of medieval philosophy. Now, in France you have many historians of philosophy who are increasingly saying you cannot truly understand medieval philosophy if you do not re-constitute what the intellectual conversation was; the fact that these philosophers were in conversation with Muslim philosophers, Jewish philosophers and also if you do not take into account the other side of Christianity, which is Orthodox Christianity. Take the philosopher Thomas Aquinas, for example. Before he became St. Thomas, Aquinas was accused of heresy, and in the particular of being an Averroelist. Averroes was a Muslim philosopher whom Aquinas read and he read Aristotle through the commentaries of Averroes; so one should not be reading Thomas Aquinas without reading Averroes. This is a particular case in which you see how truncated our understanding of medieval philosophy is. But that reconstitution of the history of philosophy as a[n] exclusively European affair was really a fabrication of 19th century philosophy. Hegel, for example, considered that the history of philosophy and the history of the absolute spirit was an exclusively European affair starting with the Greek miracle; and it is convenient to call it a miracle because a miracle has no prior origin. It’s a miracle and then it went through Europe and it ended there, so it is really the destination of a particular continent and particular European humanity. We thought that we needed to go against that reconstitution of the history of philosophy, and as a philosophy department in a Muslim country make it more relevant. So in the same way that we had a teacher in African philosophy we decided to have a teacher in the history of Islam.

I was a product of the French system at its highest level. I followed the path that I had followed and, re-invented myself also as a specialist of Islamic philosophy and a philosopher of Islam. Given the circumstances, one has to take care of the religion, in Islam; the geopolitics today of Islam is such that if you are a Muslim intellectual, you have to say something about Islam. I had that aspect of my training, I still do. I’ve continued to write in the field of logic and the field of history of philosophy and so on, but I have more and more written in the field of Islamic philosophy and African philosophy, because those were the debates on the ground; those were the African debates; the African philosophy side. Islamic philosophy is still not really present, but that is something I think is important. I would like to see CODESRIA take religion more seriously, as a topic of study, because circumstances are such that religion has become important in Africa and elsewhere.

SP: And at the same time you’ve spoken about having a relationship or coming out of a certain kind of left tradition in Senegal, so I’m curious about what that relationship was to that political tradition?

SBD:  As a student I constituted myself as Maoist, although I never actually belonged to a political party. I was just a member of a union while I was in France and that union had that kind of political correlation and this is why Althusser was also very important for me. Althusser was a member of the French Communist party, although he was a dissident member obviously, but he influenced many generations of normalér.  I mean the École Normale Supérieure was known at one point as a location for extreme left thought; so my intellectual trajectory met that political trajectory as well. I was really part of that thinking, that Maoist approach.

SP: Was that a movement of any sort of scale in Senegal? I know East Africa had a Maoist movement of some scale, at least among university intellectuals.

SBD: There was quite a significant tradition of Maoists in Senegal. The events of 1968 were very important in Senegal, so my generation came after that. We were not veterans of 1968, we were too young to participate; but we sort of lived the consequences of 1968. So my heroes were the students who led the strikes, the movement, and it was easier for me because one of those heroes was my cousin, Alioune Sall Paloma. He actually lives in South Africa, where he is the head of the African Futures Institute, which was highly supported by Thabo Mbeki.

Paloma was a good friend of another Senegalese who was a normalér of École Normale, Omar Blondin Diop, and they were also good friends of the French leader of that 1968 movement. Their trajectory is interesting because both of them were well known in the Senegalese left in general were arrested in the early 1970s and put in jail. Omar Blondin Diop died in prison. So that was one of the tragedies of the extreme left and something that Senghor was very much blamed for; he was even accused, at one point, of having planned that, but that’s crazy. Senghor is known for having really wept when he heard that Omar had died. By the way, he was kicked out of France after 1968 by the French authorities, he was not French. Senghor used his friendship with Georges Pompidou to have the ban lifted so that Omar Blondin Diop could go back. He admired the fact that Omar Blondin Diop was a normalér at Saint-Cloud and so on, and a philosopher and so on, but that tragedy happened afterwards. Omar Blondin, by the way, is the young Senegalese student who appears in Jean Luc Godard’s movie, La Chinoise.

SP: That’s interesting.

SBD: Yeah, he is in that movie, he is the one who comes and explains a book on Marxism.

SP: Which is where I was going; the debate on Marxism that happens in that context, in that context of relevance as you put it. Whether teaching Islamic philosophy or African philosophy I’m curious how that debate unfolds in that moment for yourself and others.

SBD: Well, it is true that the Marxist left was not very keen on even African philosophy. The critique of ethno-philosophy was coming from the left and their idea was that this was not true philosophy, looking at African conceptions, religious conception, and so on; because the idea of philosophy was really about philosophy being class struggle in theory. Paulin Hountondji, who is a main philosopher against ethno-philosophy, says as much: “ok, what Tempels did and followers of Tempels wrote was not truly philosophy.” He was very Althusserian saying that. So, my interest in Senghor’s thought was already a break from that that position coming from orthodox Marxism about what philosophy is and what philosophy should be. The weapons of criticism would be what philosophy is about, and not this exploration of African philosophy let alone Islamic philosophy because that was idealism, was religion, spirituality and not philosophy at all. You can find that kind of very strong position in Cameroonian philosopher Marcien Towa, who is the ultimate orthodox Marxist; who thinks that anything having to do with religion cannot be philosophy. You had this very narrow understanding of philosophy as following Marx’s Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach. Philosophers have until now interpreted the world, the point is to transform it. So everything in philosophy that leads to that transformation is real, “true philosophy.” So, we all had that conception at one point and I, having started working in the field in which I was working, had departed from that. And when it comes to religion, even when I considered myself a Maoist, a Marxist, I have never actually been materialist in the sense of being atheist. Islam has always been somehow my interiority, coming from the background that I did. I’ve never departed from religion at all.

SP:  I know you place some importance now on the distinction between the young Marx and later Marx, and how that enables thinking the two together without a rigid line?

SBD: Exactly! Exactly!

SP: Was that present there, did you have that conception at that time?

SBD: At that time I did not have that conception, I was not trying to reconcile actually my spiritual traditions, the spiritual traditions I really felt that I had, and my political commitment; but I could understand how this were the case for someone like Senghor, for example, and it has become the case for me as well. Senghor thought that the early Marx was really a Marx that spoke to a Catholic like him, being a Socialist; and alienation having this precise meaning, about estrangement – where human feeling is estranged from his own humanity, from his fellow humans and from his own work. “Work” is sucking his blood instead of being the fullest expression of his humanity. That way of thinking in Marx was something that spoke to a spiritual man such as Senghor and it explains, why in the French tradition – and, I believe, in the European tradition in general of Christians, for leftist Christians – that Marx also was important. It is interesting to see how many priests on the left in France had written on Marxist humanism, following the rediscovery of those early writings of Marx that spoke to them more than Capital would speak to them. Senghor belonged to that tradition. He wrote a very important essay entitled “Marxism and Humanism” in 1948 after World War Two. In it he looks at that Marx and feels “ok, this is the true Marx, the Marx who is more positivist, more scientific so to say, has been betrayed, this true Marx,” and he believed that whatever Marx had said about religion actually could be considered a religious reaction or a spiritual reaction to what religion had become. So, he considered that this was a criticism that should be made against a kind of petrified religion that had forgotten the social message of religion. So that Marx could be used by people who felt that they were fighting for social justice, and at the same time were deeply religious. Something akin to Liberation Theology; Senghor might not have really used the expression, but he was very much in that movement of Liberation Theology.

Souleymane Bachir Diagne is currently Professor in the Departments of Philosophy, French and Romance Languages at Columbia University in New York.

African Cup of Nations’ failures mirror Gabon’s sorry state

Gabriel Bouys (AFP/Getty Images).

Sometimes, a photo from a football match can reflect a lot more than just the game itself. Sometimes, a photo (above) from a football match can reflect huge and complicated processes of a country.

This year’s African Cup of Nations is now over, with Cameroon taking the title after a victory over Egypt in the final. The lasting moment of this tournament, however, took place on Sunday, 22 January, when, after another draw (their third in a row), the hosts Gabon were eliminated. They became the fourth team ever to host the tournament and not qualify from the group stage, and the first to do so since Tunisia in 1994.

Local fans abandoned the team minutes before the final whistle, when the score from the other group match showed that Burkina Faso lead Guinea-Bissau 2-0, and it was clear that Gabon would not continue in the competition. Some of the players were crying, some were laying silent, and only Pierre-Emeric Aubameyang (Gabon’s best player contracted to German club Borussia Dortmund) walked alone, quietly and without talking to anyone, straight to dressing room.

There are professional explanations for the failure of Gabon. Some say that Aubameyang did not take on enough beyond scoring. Others say that the squad of Gabon (ranked 134 in the world) is just not good enough. Some blame the new coach. But the story of Gabon in this championship is actually a lot bigger. It is film material. To understand it, one needs to keep track of the characteristics of the state of Gabon, and the political and social role and context of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations.

Gabon is home to only 1.5 million people. It is one of Africa’s largest oil exporters. Yet, about one-third of the population lives in extreme poverty. Since independence from France in 1960, three presidents ruled Gabon, two of them from the same family: the Bongos. When the first president, Leon M’Ba, died in 1967, he was succeeded by his deputy, Omar Bongo. The latter ruled for more than four decades, and maintained close bonds with France, under a very simple formula, Francafrique. Francafrique is a well-known concept in post-colonial African politics. The local ruler receives military and political support, and in return he spoils the colonial master with good business opportunities in the host country. Crude oil and minerals like candy. France maintains this kind of relationship with various leaders in the continent.

Relations between France and Gabon changed in 2009 when Omar Bongo died in a hospital in Barcelona, Spain, and his son, Ali Bongo, won an election to succeed him. Ali did not automatically give the French all the treats they wanted, and actually cooled relations with them. Ali had new partners: the Chinese. Chinese and Gabonese relations have grown from the millennium, but a series of transactions and agreements with Ali Bongo gained the Asian country a stronger foothold in the oil empire. France, in return, decided that it would demand an international investigation by the United Nations, the IMF and the World Bank, regarding corruption in the country.

One year ago, Aubameyang won the African Player of the Year award. He was the first Gabonese player to do so. Aubameyang, Dortmund’s biggest star and an idol in Gabon, dedicated his award to his family and friends, the Gabonese people, and, crucially, the President, Ali Bongo. This statement was not for nothing. In August 2016, the country held presidential elections, and the first time in years, Bongo faced a very strong opposition candidate, Jean Ping.

Ping, a Gabonese diplomat who had served in both Omar and Ali Bongo’s cabinet, lost the elections by a small margin according to the official count. He claimed that he won the election and that the election was rigged and corrupt. Ping’s supporters took to the streets. Riots and clashes between opposition supporters and the police lit the capital, where 1,000 people were arrested and another five were killed. Things got out of hand and the authorities shut down the internet in the capital, Libreville. Eventually the police took control, and Ali Bongo remained as President.

Despite Ping’s appeals and the resignation of ministers and MPs, Ali has not vacated the chair. Instead, he launched massive infrastructure projects, including four giant football stadiums ahead of this year’s African Cup of Nations. The stadiums, built by the Chinese, are very impressive from the outside, but do not make sense for a modest football nation like Gabon. It won’t be able to fill them once the tournament is over. One of these stadiums, in Port Gentil, is next to an abandoned residential project planned for those left homeless by its construction. ESPN FC described it as “resembling the haunted, concrete shells of a ghost village.” In general, the investment in this AFCON has been astounding – around USD4 billion. Meanwhile, many Gabonese lack the basics, such as electricity, water and shelter.

As AFCON began, opposition activists launched a major campaign against the tournament. Black and red posters of the players were hung around Libreville and Franceville, with the tagline, “You are not the team of the Gabonese people but the team of the dictator.” A hashtag was launched for the protest, #CAN17WeCANnot. In many games along the tournament, the stadiums were half empty, as many of the locals refused to attend the matches. The atmosphere at majority of the matches was silent and depressing.

If that was not enough, in December last year, the Spaniard Antonio Camacho was signed as a coach of the national team. The announcement came from Ali Bongo’s office. At first, it was said Camacho’s contract was worth USD2 million per year, but after protests it was claimed to be about USD800,000 per year for the entire team staff. The arrival of the Spaniard raised more criticism when it was discovered that his last job was as coach of the Chinese national team.

Gavin Barker (EPA).

The conditions for Gabon’s tournament were set: Under the eyes of a nervous ruler, with the pressure of the new coach and a staff, a lone mega star with everything on his shoulders, and a lot of political tension inside the dressing room.

It was clear from the first game that Gabon is not at the level of the other teams who qualified for AFCON. The draws with Guinea-Bissau, and later with Burkina Faso raised the level of stress in the host country to new heights. “It is clear that the political situation has affected our preparations for this championship,” said goalkeeper Didier Ovono in a press conference before the last group game with Cameroon. “We started badly. Something is happening here, and it’s not a simple situation,” he concluded.

And there lies the failure of Gabon’s AFCON campaign. The political situation in the country had a large influence on what happened to the team during the tournament, especially in terms of the relationships between the players. Unlike Aubameyang, not all players support the president. According to reports, clashes between supporters of Ali Bongo (led by Aubameyang) and opposition supporters (reportedly goalkeeper Didier Ovono and Mario Lamina) tore the dressing room apart. Moreover, the Panthers, as the national team is known, did not enjoy the support of the home crowd. The fans were as divided as the players.

The image of Aubameyang, descending alone from the field, tells the whole story.

By the light of the arrivals gate

Still from Black Out.

For more than a decade, night-time arrivals at Gbessia International Airport in Conakry, Guinea, were greeted by dozens and sometimes hundreds of secondary school students studying in the parking lot. A foreign visitor’s bemusement would quickly evaporate, however, as they noticed that beyond the bright lights of the partially French-owned and operated airport, block after block of the city of two million people was completely dark. Without electricity at home and needing to study page upon page of handwritten lecture notes, many young Guineans made nightly pilgrimages to public spaces, such as the airport or hotel parking lots and gas stations where costly diesel generators kept the lights on.

Witnessing this phenomenon inspired film-maker Eva Weber’s documentary Black Out, shot in mid-2011 and released in November 2012 to international acclaim. The film is concise and artfully composed. As a former Conakry resident, I appreciated Weber’s beautiful portrait of this complex city, and that the entire story is told by Guineans, with the sole foreign voices coming from occasional audio clips of news broadcasts.

Beyond simply a “look at this sad situation” documentary, the story of students driven to succeed in the face of adversity is the starting point from which Weber subtly explores political and economic dynamics in Guinea.

It is certainly refreshing in a documentary on the challenges of an African country to not have the a westerner presenting the narrative. Black Out opens with clips of English-language news broadcasts contextualizing the state of Guinea in early 2011 – having just experienced its first democratic presidential election and struggling to manage competing foreign claims for its vast mineral wealth.

Moving forward, an unobtrusive and serious musical score weaves together interviews and accounts of Guinean secondary students, a teacher, and a worker at Conakry’s main power plant, Tombo, as they discuss their hopes and frustrations about their country’s development. Footage of everyday life in the roundabouts, neighborhoods, and markets of Conakry conveys the city’s bustling commercial atmosphere, which persists despite the challenges of weak infrastructure. This is neither war-torn hellscape nor poverty-stricken desperation, but rather capable, intelligent and ambitious people who feel they are being held back by forces out of their control.

“How does one prepare lessons without light?” the teacher asks, and I feel his pain, having spent many a night in Conakry straining my eyes as I graded papers or planned lessons by the light of a battery-powered lantern. Students read from their notes on topics from microbiology to Carthaginian history, information that must be memorized to pass their French-style school exams, but the terrible inconvenience and danger of staying out until 3am to study is only the beginning. The chronic lack of electricity in Guinea is a symptom of a much larger issue – an economy that struggles to produce formal employment and offers few career opportunities for high-school or university-educated Guineans.

Weber’s critiques the neocolonial economic situation. Train-loads of Guinea’s rust-colored bauxite is shown rolling through the city to the coastal port, where it will be shipped off and turned into aluminum for the profit of foreign-owned companies. “All Guineans understand that Guinea is rich,” the power-plant worker explains, and he is right. The students in Conakry lament that their country’s bauxite, iron-ore, diamond, gold and uranium resources are all being exploited by foreigners, and that poorly negotiated terms by unstable governments have thus far left the Guinean people with nothing to show for it. It is infuriating to hear young men and women proclaim that their best chances for success would be to leave Guinea. Or to hear the school teacher say that he didn’t have a chance to be a respected intellectual because he stayed in Guinea. The unfulfilled promises of politicians are lamented and highlight how domestic and international policy failures reverberate into every aspect of a citizen’s life.

Still from Black Out.

This commentary is what gives Black Out staying power. Conakry’s airport parking lot hasn’t been much of a study hall lately, as a new hydroelectric dam about two hours north of the city has tripled Guinea’s electricity output since 2015. The Kaléta dam cost USD446 million, 75 percent of which was paid for by China International Water and Electric Corporation (CWE), with the state covering the remaining 25 percent. While it has not been a panacea for Guinea’s power problems, there is now electricity in most of Conakry, most of the time, and CWE is now in negotiations with the Guinean government to build another, bigger hydroelectric dam.

The Chinese were not moved by the plight of Conakry’s students to help light-up Guinea, which faced a major economic downturn in 2014 due to the Ebola epidemic and is still struggling to achieve political stability. Chinese banks and corporations have been drastically increasing their investment in Guinea’s bauxite and iron-ore mining operations, including a take-over of Rio Tinto’s massive Simandou project last year..

Black Out aired for the first time on American public television recently. Although and the premise of the film no longer exists, the themes continue to be valid. Most students in Conakry can now study at home, but unless growth in the mining sectors fosters more diverse economic development, or the government of newly appointed African Union chair President Alpha Condé can implement policies that create much-needed jobs, Guineans will remain frustrated.

* The film screens tonight at 8pm EST in the US

Weekend Music Break No.104 – Songs from banned countries: Sinkane’s Sudan edition

We’re returning to the older format of Weekend Music Break (a series of embeds rather than a playlist) for this very special guest selection from proud Sudanese-American Ahmed “Sinkane” Gallab. We reached out to Ahmed to give us a selection of tunes from his parents’ homeland, one of the seven countries on US President Donald Trump’s visa ban list.


It’s been a trying couple weeks for our global community, particularly for those of us who understand (and enjoy the benefits of) an interconnected world. We understand that the current form of globalization’s ills stem from the twinned trends of freedom for money and limits for people.

We thought an attempt to humanize Sudan and Sudanese people, by experiencing their folk, youth and online culture (freedom for information), would allow some folks to understand a bit of what’s at stake when borders are hardened for people. We don’t imagine Africa Is a Country readers are amongst the population who don’t understand this, but remember 49% of American support the ban, so share this post widely on social media!

We also want to do our part to assuage some of the panic going on via the mainstream media, so for those of us who don’t need such perspective as above, this perhaps can be just a bit of an escape from the deluge of negative news and tweets.

Check out Ahmed’s selection of classic and new Sudanese sounds below and preview his new album “Life & Livin’ It” which he is currently on the road supporting.

1 ) Sammany – “Dyarom”

2 ) Salah Mohamed Al-bashir

3) JVLS – “Enemies”

4) Qurashi & Salah Mohamed Al-Bashir

5) MaMan – “Brain Wars”

6) Ibrahim Awad

7) Rainy Day feat. Rotation – “All Night, All Summer”

8) Salah Bin Al-Badia

9) Rotation – “Rota$ion”

10) Sufyn – “Moon Dance”

11) Bonez, Skripter, SP a.k.a Sporadic – “All I Can”

Crime in South Africa

Gang Town cover

The cover and title of the journalist Don Pinnock’s Gang Town seem to promise a sensational tour of meth dens and children caught in the crossfire.  Instead, the book patiently explains something far more grim: what happens when the legacy of South Africa’s 1950 Group Areas Act, and decades of impoverishing and alienating policies, meet an unprecedented increase in youth population.

Pinnock, who is also a criminologist, draws on 30 years of research and journalism to conduct a survey of the many roots causes and contributing factors that come together in Cape Town’s gang phenomenon. He traces the history of the city’s gangs, from their origins as vigilante groups in District Six – a mixed, mostly coloured, neighborhood that was razed to the ground when its desirable inner city land was proclaimed to be for whites only – to their evolution into more violent and more organized entities in the far-flung, anonymous Cape Flats suburbs that the city’s black and coloured populations were relocated to.

The array of issues this tackles along the way – including 80 years of history, reflections on rites of passage and masculinity, and academic studies dealing with the link between early childhood development and aggression, to the structures and tactics of transnational organized crime – seem daunting. But what Pinnock does especially well is tell this story without losing the reader, or the complexity.

Gang Town’s focus on Cape Town’s longue durée corruption of the social fabric of working class communities is a sobering complement to high-pitched debates about the criminal acts of those in power. The book sketches a city that has repeatedly deformed and destroyed social institutions that would otherwise channel the natural rebellions of young people away from gangs, drug abuse and violence. In a particularly insightful passage Pinnocks describes how forced removals under the Group Areas Act ripped up “networks of streets, houses, corner shops and shebeens, but also social webs of kin, friendship, neighborhood and work. They were a mix of rights and obligations, intimacies and distances, providing a sense of solidarity, local loyalties and traditions.” Gang Town gets down to the nuts and bolts of how such policies turned neighborhoods toxic and families violent.

Pinnock is not gloomy. The final chapters suggest solutions and provide resources for parents, teachers and community workers.

The Street: Exposing a World of Cops, Bribes and Drug Dealers is written by Paul McNally, a radio journalist and the Director of the Citizen’s Justice Network, a community radio project. The Street is an investigation of the drug trade on one street on the west side of Johannesburg, the three degenerating police stations in its vicinity, and the symbiosis between them. We follow this story through several characters on Ontdekkers Road, each waging a different battle against police corruption. Raymond, a sound-system dealer documents the bribes he sees policemen take from dealers outside his store and implores police management to act against them. Khaba, a painfully honest lieutenant colonial at the local police station, tries to reform the police force from within and is despised by his colleagues for it. And Wendy, a police reservist, attempts to gather evidence on her own colleague’s crimes. A complex but fascinating narrative emerges from minute observation of characters in their environments, interwoven with interviews and anecdotes from local gangsters, Community Policy Forum volunteers, and expert opinion.

Over the course of two years, we watch these people be frustrated and painfully disappointed, with sporadic, tenuous, moments of success. But The Street is not, ultimately, a story of vindication. This is a story of South Africans in humble settings who try to change the systems around them, mostly fail, and are forced, instead, to recalibrate their own morality in order to stay sane and safe and solvent in a world in which graft and impunity have become more powerful organizing logics than rule of law.

For McNally, meaning is found in his character’s capacity for adaptation and survival. But the question of what these adaptations cost society remains an uncomfortable one. Considering what it means that Raymond has found a way to be at ease with the drug trade around his business, McNally comments: “The atmosphere on this patch is calmer too, although I can’t decide if this leaves a deadness on Ontdekkers or whether I am hearing a machine, finally functioning, giving a satisfied hum.” Following Raymond’s journey from crusader to capitulator, one can’t help but consider the multiplier effect of such transformations, on thousands of unobserved street corners.

In a year dominated, more than usual, with tales of big men and their corrupt politics, these books tell complex and illuminating stories of how crime and corruption play out at the street level. Neither of these books is fatalistic, but each offers insights and conclusions that often make the reader wince. Both are suggested reading for understanding the challenges that remain, no matter who gets hired or fired.

Power against Power

Jesus is coming. Jesus is here. Jesus is killed by local preachers worried about the drastic downturn in business. His arrival portends for their collection of tithes and offerings. The music video from 2012 for the eponymous Ghanaian band, Fokn Bois, unlike much of their other work unwinds at a slow tempo.

Multiple narratives – the dialogue in the music, the dialogue of the character in the videos, a refrain of a woman praying and an overlay of biblical quotes – hold up the question of supernatural intervention and its opposing existential: how much are we humans down here responsible for? Such an inquiry is not alien in one of the world’s most religious countries. In 2017, the questioning of all modes of power through artistic work, is almost commonplace in Ghana. It coincides with a flourishing of unorthodox art and artists.

In her documentary, Accra Power, Austrian director Sandra Krampelhuber chooses the poet Poetra Asantewa, fashion DJ Steloo, gospel scientist Edward Ohemeng Oware, dancer Hadassah Asare, musician Wanlov (one half of Fokn Bois), visual and performance artist Serge Attukwei Clottey, storyteller Mary Yaa Konadu and boxer Abigail Quartey to be our guides around the greater Accra area. Performances on front porches, in boxing gyms, art studios, and on live stages are interspersed with one-on-one interviews with the artists, in which power is examined: Spiritual power, electric power, physical power, mental power and Vim.

Wanlov The Kubolor, musician, activist, filmmaker. Still from Accra Power.

What, then, is power? “Power is a rhetorical question, a thick deep line with no meaning,” the poet Poetra Asantewaa proffers, her yellow jumper declaring “prose before hoes.” Poetra’s meditations on power, in poetic verse, pokes in and out throughout like a soundtrack to the documentary. The word power itself she tells us “is a paradox because it can represent something very good and it can represent something very bad at the same time.”

Art too – especially music – occupies a double-edged place in Ghanaian history in its relation to power. In the 1930s the blending together of the colonial waltzes and polka sounds played by the military brass bands, the Caribbean take on this (introduced to Ghana by West Indian colonial troops) and indigenous sounds would birth Ghanaian Highlife. At that moment, however, the music was played in concert halls and ballrooms, to English lyrics, catering to the upper echelon of colonial society. As the struggle for self-rule gained momentum in the 1950s, musicians caught the national fever. Musician E.K. Nyame transformed his set by merging a guitar band to what was previously a vaudeville act, creating the Akan Trio that sang in Twi. Many would follow the lead. Out with the English; in with the local, promoting Gold Coast nationalism.

Steloo, Fashion DJ, Accra House Music. Still from Accra Power.

Bands like ET Mensah and the Tempos, and the Axim Trio performed at Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party (CPP) rallies, performing songs like “Nkrumah Will Never Die” and “Nkrumah Is a Mighty Man.” In turn, Nkrumah would fund arts and culture on a massive scale, as a show of national pride. The Arts Council of Ghana, whose mandate was to “protect, simulate and improve the nation’s cultural expression and limit foreign influence on music,” was put in place. This investment included sending artists abroad to widen their breadth of musical theory. Ebo Taylor, the recipient of a government scholarship, recounted finding himself in the company of Teddy Osei and the other members of what would become Osibisa (Ghana’s most internationally renowned musical act) upon arrival at the Eric Gilder School of Music in London.

The honeymoon period between musicians and those in power would end in the late 1960s as musicians found themselves in opposition to the government and expressing frustration at the political situation in fables and parables. As an essay in AccraDotAlt records of the time, EK Nyame’s “Nsuo Bɛto a, Frama Dzi Kan” (before it rains, the wind blows) was interpreted as an end-time omen for the Nkrumah regime. In the next government, Nana Kwame Ampadu’s “Ebi Te Yie” (Some Are Sitting Comfortably), ostensibly a song about the animal kingdom, was banned from the radio and the musician hauled in front of a military tribunal.

Poetra Asantewa poet, writer, fashion designer. Still from Accra Power

Now, as then, government action and inaction is the target of the music and the art. But the protagonists in “Accra Power,” press the sharp edge of their respective artistic mediums against the accepted sequence of quotidian life, as if to cut it open and move around its contents. The sharpening of these very artistic talents have come, unlike in the Nkrumah era, in the absence of state support. They have had to survive, much like the average Ghanaian, without consistent electrical power.

Even if art hasn’t affected power, power has affected art making. Steloo the fashion DJ, explains that uncertainty about the availability of power has made him more efficient in his music production in the few hours the lights are on; Wanlov says it is cheaper to travel to Europe and work for stretches of time, rather than try to fuel a generator for 24 hours a day.

Abigail Quartey, boxer. Still from Accra Power.

On the surface of things, Serge Attukwei Clottey’s public performances escape the constraints of unreliable electrical power. His choice to espouse traditional images in an actively Christian country is bold. Being powerful, he says, means “understanding your inner power… and how you try to shine your power for people to see who you are.”

A more surgical observer will notice that the challenge of these artists, unlike their independence-era colleagues, is to produce where the raw materials are precisely a lack of power and empowerment. It is reflective of the miracle that most Ghanaians are able to keep up our famous liveliness and hospitality despite the economic hardship of the last decade.

White masks in Tunisia

Image via Al Jazeera.

Tunisia has a problem with its African roots. Racial discrimination and xenophobia is outrageously commonplace for black Tunisians and African immigrants and completely unrecognized and unaccounted for among public institutions and governmental parties. Despite the emphasis on the Islamic coda that prohibits discrimination against fellow black Muslims and Act 21 of the national constitution which emphasizes that all Tunisians are “equal before the law without any discrimination,” racism against its black citizens permeates the social, institutional, and political strata of Tunisia.

Black Tunisians represent roughly around 15% of the population; however, their exact number, as well their demographic backgrounds remain indeterminate. References to the slave trade between North Africa and Sub-Saharan countries such as Chad and Niger are often suggested to explain the presence of blacks in general. As for Sub-Saharan immigrants, they are often Francophone West African students who pursue their university diplomas in such disciplines as medicine or law and Sub-Sahara nationals who usually overstay their three-month entry visa to Tunisia working in odd jobs in order to fund their trip to Europe. In sum, and as Hamid Bahri observes, “the level of interaction between Sub-Saharan in general and the Tunisian population is negligible.”

The banalization of a racial problem in Tunisia is occurring in the shadow of an unfortunate far-reaching misconception among Tunisians that blacks are of an inferior race. Black Tunisians and sub-Saharan immigrants alike are often socially stigmatized and called such derogatory names as wossif (slave) or kahlouch (similar to the n-word). Even worse, Maha Abdelahmid, co-founder of l’Association de défense des droits des Noirs (ADAM or the Tunisian League for the Defence of the Rights of Blacks) states that birth certificates delivered to black Tunisians who are born in Djerba (in the south east of Tunisia, known for its large black community) still carry the title “freed slaves.” Scenes of blatant anti-black racism include teachers’ bullying against black students, street abuse against sub-Saharan immigrants, and police discrimination against the black minority.

An excellent film by Nada Issa, “Tunisia’s Dirty Secret,” captures this prevailing sense of ordinary negrophobia. In her interview with Najiba Hamrouni, a black Tunisian journalist, unionist, and former president of the Syndicat national des journalistes tunisiens (SNJT, National Union of Tunisian Journalists), she revealed being targeted by a racist defamation campaign undertaken by supporters of the Ennahda party – the leading Islamic political party in Tunisia – who created numerous Facebook pages filled with negrophobic insults to perpetuate politically-motivated personal attacks.

How did Tunisians establish this racist and xenophobic majority? How did other Tunisians turn into closet racists? There are undoubtedly a variety of reasons for this enduring negrophobia in Tunisia. The racial issue is complex and requires a genuine social debate and even a meaningful cultural revolution.

Tunisians see themselves as whites. Whether in literature, in media, in movies, or on television, the image of the white Tunisian who communicates in eloquent French is the ideal standard against which the stereotype of the Tunisian subject is defined and performed. Affet Mosbah, a black Tunisian, poignantly asked in her influential testimony on “Being Black in Tunisia”: “Aren’t we ourselves Africans? What is the meaning of this self-exclusion by this verb?” The lack of visibility of black Tunisians in the media is the most obvious as there is no black actors or black TV hosts. The few times there were references made in national newspapers about black Tunisians or sub-Saharan immigrants, they were focused on clandestine migration.

As Frantz Fanon carefully asserted in Black Skin, White Masks, whiteness has become the desired ideal, the epitome of self-realization. The enduring internalization of the inferiority complex has turned the Arab against the black and rationalized his or her subjugation through negrophobic and xenophobic crimes. The anti-black racism in Tunisia is pervasive because it is not a social phenomenon, but also a political and cultural issue. The absence of statistics on the population of black Tunisians reveals how deep racism runs in the governmental and public institutions.

The caption in this photo reads in French “Je ne veux pas mourir en Tunisie parce que je suis un étranger noir”, which can be translated to “I don’t want to die in Tunisia because I am a black foreigner.” It refers to the anti-racism campaign launched by members of L’Association des étudiants et des stagiaires Africans en Tunisie (AESAT or Society of African Students and Interns in Tunisia) in late December 2016 to call for better security conditions and institutional support for sub-Saharan African students. AESAT’s campaign came into being in the wake of the most recent and obnoxious example of the growing intolerance of large number of Tunisians against its sub-Saharan African residents. The brutal attack against three Congolese students in the capital, Tunis, left two of them in critical conditions and the other wounded.

Chris, one of the victims, describes a scene where the assailant attacked him from behind while he was waiting for the metro. After assaulting Chris, the attacker continued his rampage targeting two female students. One, Jemima, is still in a coma due to serious injuries, and another, Sarah, is in traumatic shock after the attacker tried to slit her throat. These students were targeted by the attacker purely based on the color of their skin.

The image selected for the campaign refers to the figure of Trayvon Martin, the African American teen whose death in February 2012 launched the Black Lives Matter movement. The reference to the first iconic figure of Black Lives Matter is more than fitting here. The AESAT shares with Black Lives Matter an urgent call for political intervention, public empathy, and communal involvement in securing justice and security to all black people regardless of their origin, gender, or sexual orientation.

While linkages between BLM and the Arab Spring are often made, those who participated in the Arab Spring did not tackle racism in their own countries. In its wake, the degrading reality for black Tunisians and sub-Saharan immigrants remains unchanged. While the exact number of racially aggravated offenses remains impossible to identify due to institutional denial of these crimes, strong evidence from increasingly vocal civil rights organizations reveal that these attacks have been on the rise in Tunisia since the 2011 revolution.

Today, there is little hope for anti-black racism in Tunisia to disappear. In the absence of a true decolonization of the mind of the Tunisian subject and a true cultural revolution, the efforts of civil society do little to challenge the complex issues of negrophobia and xenophobia among Tunisians. There remains an urgent need for a new language of national belonging which mediates the way Tunisians see themselves and their fellow blacks.

If they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night

Heirlooms and Accessories (2002). Kerry James Marshall.

I spent inauguration day not in front of the television but with my wife touring the Metropolitan Museum’s extraordinary exhibition by the artist Kerry James Marshall. The retrospective ranged from Marshall’s diverse depictions of black interior life to his sometimes playful and often searing considerations of various aspects of American history. For me, it was a powerful and necessary alternative to the shameful spectacle unfolding in Washington that morning.

Yet try as I might to take my mind off of the installation of the new president, and all that his ascension represented, it was impossible to fully escape from the looming dread of our new collective reality. As I neared the end of the exhibition, two sets of images in particular spoke to me about the need for vigilance and sustained, principled resistance under the new regime.

In the first, a triptych entitled Heirlooms and Accessories (2002), Marshall takes a well-known photograph of the 1930 lynching of two African-American men in Marion, Indiana, digitally “whitewashes” the gruesome scene, and isolates individual white bystanders captured looking directly towards the photographer’s lens. Marshall frames each of the women’s faces within a locket-like necklace. Though I teach about lynching in my courses and invite my students to dwell on questions of both individual and group complicity in the horrors of systemic racial terror, there was something about the guile with which Marshall highlights these “accessories” to the crime that stopped me in my tracks.

Beyond the artist’s statement regarding a specific historical moment or any simple condemnation of distant actors long ago, I was compelled by what I took to be Marshall’s challenge to the viewer: To what crimes against our common humanity are we all accessories?

Just around the corner from these images another of Marshall’s works delivered a message seemingly tailor-made for this fateful moment. The large scale abstract painting Red (if they come in the morning) (2011) dates from just a few years ago, yet it conveys the weight of decades of black struggle. The phrase that appears in large block letters filling the sweeping red canvas bookended by narrow black and green borders was immediately recognizable to me as an adaptation of the words of that signal American prophet, James Baldwin. In November 1970 Baldwin penned an open letter to activist intellectual Angela Davis, then incarcerated and charged with capital crimes for which she would later be exonerated following an international grassroots support campaign. Baldwin ends his letter with a potent statement about the need for people of conscience to act.

It is not enough, Baldwin insists, simply to be aware of a moral crisis. “If we know, and do nothing, we are worse than the murderers hired in our name,” he writes. Baldwin then concludes:

If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own—which it is—and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.

I have read that letter often, shared it with friends and students. Encountering Baldwin’s caution, via the work of Kerry James Marshall, on the day an unrepentant xenophobic, misogynist, white nationalist took the oath to assume the nation’s highest office was auspicious.

Exactly one week later, the illegitimate president signed yet another immoral and unconstitutional executive order – the latest in a series of cruel, punitive, and profoundly short-sighted measures meant to consolidate his power, punish the vulnerable, and isolate the United States from the rest of the world. As promised, they had come for the refugees, the immigrants, the Muslims.

“We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated,” the human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson reminds us. If I were to heed the lessons my mother had taught me, if I were to honor those freedom fighters who had made possible the considerable privileges I enjoy, if I were to be true to the history I write and teach about, then there was only one choice. I boarded the subway for the hour and a half journey underground through Manhattan, Brooklyn, and eventually out to Queens: John F. Kennedy International Airport, Terminal 4.

I joined the protests in solidarity with the vulnerable populations targeted by this capricious decree; with the immigrant workers whose labor allows this city and this country to function; with the activists, organizers, and lawyers struggling on the front lines; and with my fellow New Yorkers wishing to embody and make manifest genuine compassion, democracy, community, and resistance. I joined the protests for my students – past, present, and future – who dare to speak up and speak out. I joined the protests for the migrant diaspora that is my father’s family, originating in eastern Nigeria and now residing in three countries and at least seven states. I joined the protests for my children who are (thankfully) too young to understand the viciousness and hatred of the current moment but to whom I will one day have to answer.

I have been to scores of demonstrations in my life in support of a wide range of causes. I have felt the euphoria of standing tall and “doing something” and the nagging despair that says that clever chants and razor-sharp slogans are meaningless in the face of entrenched power. I know well that protests and marches are not the only valid forms of resistance and that, for many people, participation in a mass demonstration is not an option. Letters and petitions, phone calls to elected officials and business leaders, strategic voting, investigative reporting, lawsuits, boycotts, strikes, slow downs, walk outs, sit ins, the full range of art and human creativity. We need it all.

But on this cold Saturday in January I knew I needed to be shoulder to shoulder with thousands of people of like mind, signs, fists, and camera phones in the air, voices raised in unison — facing down the agents of the state, demanding justice, and refusing to accept the unacceptable.

“Resist, fight back, this is our New York…”