Africa is a Country

Sunday Read: Friends in a Ship

Image Credit: Merseyside IT on Flickr.com

I.  Tesiro

All my mates are married with children. They have made human connections to last a lifetime. They have formed partnerships with people who have chosen to be with them.

They have begun their journeys into mid-life crisis, legacies and death. They know their friends who will lend them money and who may take care of their children in their absence. They have moved into the secondary worries of life while my soul wrestles with primary emotions like love and companionship.

Decades of camouflaging the nature of my heart and erections has robbed me of pleasant opportunities to honestly connect with other souls. Throughout my years of academic learning and societal upbringing, I never had a friend who knew my thoughts, the candid details of my escapades and how I felt about guys. I disguised the identity of my heartbeat and the footsteps of my spirit. Even my shadow was not my own.

It was a lifetime performance of lies and false living. I played the role of a homophobic straight guy while I craved to hold the hands of a guy. I worshipped at the temple of homophobes while I prayed for a man to call my own. I encouraged the affections of women but preferred the hugs of a man. I wasted decades of my life building connections with people who hated my kind, my heart and the things that made me whole. I discriminated against effeminate guys, badmouthed gay love in straight circles and avoided people with homosexual inclinations. I killed every honest emotion in my heart and disavowed everyone with the ability to fall in love with my soul. Because the Bible said so, I agreed to hate myself.

Everything changed when I lost an old friend in 2015. He discovered the duplicity of my character and chose to cut me off. That was when I realised that my friends were acquired based on false pretences. I didn’t give them the choice to evaluate my soul and decide if they liked me for who I was. A friendship based on a misconception is a fraudulent acquisition. Like fake jewelry, it will fail every examination and test of time.

In 2016, I renounced the acquisition of fake friends and fraudulent relationships. I began to build real ships based on truth, trust and total honesty. I began to entrust honest people with the truth about myself. And I have started accumulating friends who love me as I am, men who understand the nature of my affections and have connected with my soul in ways I thought was impossible.

II.   Prophet

I met him on the bench where wise-inhalers relaxed beside our neighbourhood canal. His fingers were beautifully crafted, his nails ripe for biting and his hand drawing a splendid sketch of a futuristic African man in a rural setting. His bad boy grin emanated from white teeth in burnt brown gums. I loved his lumps of Nazarene locks and would later enjoy digging my fingers into his bed of virgin-black dreads. I was stunned by his neo-liberal intelligence, non-conformist opinions and free-hearted disposition. I never expected to find someone like him at an impoverished bunk in an under-developed suburb of Lagos.

I was days away from completing my memoir, in need of a neighbourhood confidant who appreciated literature, and chilling by myself in a ship without friends. Our conversations were easy, laughter was plenty and our encounter seemed like a case of artistic serendipity. He was uncommonly generous with his smokes, respectfully considerate of my age and genuinely impressed by my literary hustle. His validation restored my waning confidence in my art and I began to see myself through his doting eyes at a time when my hopes were dependent on the success of some grants and residency applications.

I tested our friendship by reading portions of my memoir to him. That was how he learnt about my sexuality. He was flabbergasted but our friendship continued. I fell in love with his mind and the way he permitted the rights of my soul to co-exist with his heterosexual heart. He was confident in his masculinity and wasn’t threatened by my homosexuality. He listened to my past like a priest and wasn’t disgusted by the nature of my sexual expressions. He accorded me the rights of a fellow human being, the respect of a fellow man and he dignified our fellowship. I felt no shame or embarrassment discussing my same-sex affairs with him. He did not sneer at my sexuality or try to condescend to my emotions. Affairs of my heart were simply affairs of another heart. It was the strangest friendship in my homophobic world. His honesty was very strange.

I’m jealous of his girlfriend and make no attempt to hide my feelings. He doesn’t give a fuck about my jealousy and has probably told her about my existence in his life. Maybe that’s why she calls him every bloody second to speak for hours. At this stage of my life, a good friend is better than the best lover. I do find him sexually attractive and wouldn’t mind exploring his body.

But that’s because I’m a bloody motherfucker. And I think he knows this and that everyone has a friend who wants to fuck them. Hence the creation of the friend zone for safety purposes.

I feel safe with him, in spite of my sexual stirrings for him. He has made me believe that every gay man will find straight friends who understand them, heterosexual men who are not threatened by homosexual love, in a bold new ship where all men are free to express different shades of masculinity, and where everyone has acquired the grace to love gay men with no strings attached.

That is why I call him Prophet. He’s my gift from Ago, the Lagos suburb that robbed my soul.

Decolonizing philosophy

Wits University Campus. Image credit: Paul Saad via Flickr.

Many philosophers consider their field to be the mother of all disciplines. The popular picture is that philosophy, like a fertile womb, gives birth to other sciences and fields of inquiry which then move on with their own methodology and concerns (and they never call their parents!). Naturally, if there is any credence to this methodology, then decolonization of the curriculum or academia needs to start with philosophy.

On the global level, the discipline has been riven with controversy recently. In an open letter to the Journal of Political Philosophy, Yale philosopher Chris Lebron exposed the lack of concern for including issues surrounding Black Lives Matter within the remit of an otherwise all-encompassing publication. The issue was sparked when a (published) symposium was eventually conducted by the journal, with one significant omission, namely there were no black philosophers invited to participate despite relevant expertise.

Across the ocean, a similar occurrence caused ripples within the South African philosophical community when a panel was configured on the topic of “South African Identity” which notably neglected philosophers of color, even those actually working within related areas. Again the outcry, both global and local, was that Black Voices Matter philosophically speaking.

In the wake of the #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall movements, questions of curriculum change became pertinent and stentorian in South African academia. Whether we are questioning the colonial legacy of specific disciplines (see here for economics and here for mathematics, traditionally thought to be held to standards of exigency or abstract reality respectively) or the university as a whole (see here for discussion), the role of philosophy requires special treatment. I think this is the case even if we do not accept the birth-mother story since philosophy is still often associated with critical thinking and engagement with other disciplines.

In fact, transformation in philosophy has been slow and rocky. Most of the departments in South Africa are predominantly represented by a privileged minority (at both the graduate and faculty levels). In response to these concerns, philosophers such as Raphael Winkler, at the University of Johannesburg, argue that a more pressing issue is the phenomenon of “white guilt” and who in society has the right to be an authority on matters of race and/or national identity. There are no doubt interesting philosophical questions here, however, I think such debates are red-herrings to the curriculum issue. The issue of transformation and Africanization of the philosophical curriculum is an issue of structure, content and composition not only personnel.

There are a number of options available to any project aimed at reconstructing the philosophical curriculum in South Africa. As noted in one particularly poignant response to Winkler’s article, the history of South African philosophy is a battle between two western traditions. On the one hand, we have continental philosophy. These are the departments, mostly located at historically Afrikaans universities, often associated with existentialism, psychoanalysis and literary criticism. On the other hand, we have the analytic tradition. These are the departments that follow a tradition closely linked to the birth of mathematical logic and the philosophy of language in the early 20th century in Britain. There is not much communication between these schools of thought. But in either camp, much of the agenda, questions and methodology have already been set by the parent countries in the West.

One path to confronting this situation is the path of inertia. We can just keep on keeping on until acted upon by a rational force of nature. Perhaps alter the personnel with a more representative sample but leave the issues and methodology largely unchecked. There is nothing wrong with the possibility of African philosophy per se, but it needs to show its worth to be considered a serious contender for default status. I think there are two worries with this kind of position. One is that it could unduly deculturalize philosophy. Analytic philosophy, despite often using techniques of investigation such as deductive logic, is not an objective science (continental even less so). It has historical and cultural baggage (like many other disciplines).  Its topics are informed by many of these erstwhile positions (would Descartes or Rawls have put so much weight on weightless disembodied individual thinking if they had strong communal ties as expressed in the Southern African concept of Ubuntu?). Another issue with this sort of view is that it assumes African philosophy is a final product. But to me the excitement of the possibility of an African philosophy is precisely located in its inchoate nature.

Another strategy could be the formation of a comparative discipline, such as comparative politics, which examines western and non-western philosophical thought side-by-side. I think that this possibility is promising. But it suffers from feasibility issues, namely that if the philosophers who are teaching this new field are mostly trained in analytic philosophy, there is a strong likelihood that the resulting comparison will reduce African philosophy to a curiosity or an “exotic” side thought. This is a nontrivial worry (but also not insurmountable).

The last option is that we make a genuine attempt to Africanize the curriculum. By this I mean we question the content (kinds of questions we ask), the methodology (how we ask and answer those questions) and our sources (who is saying what and what their positionality is). This would be an exploratory project and might lead us to many points of contact with other traditions, both analytic and continental, and further abroad, Indian and Chinese or even lesser explored traditions. Of course, this path is beset with complexity. Is there any such unified object as “African” thought or philosophy? Need there be (the West may have done quite well without a similar unified object of “Western thought”, see Appiah’s account)?

Perhaps in following a dictum of Edouard Glissant (that “the West is not the West: it is a project not a place”) we can appreciate an African philosophical project not bound by geography or history but not ignorant of them either. These are surely the questions that would engage the brilliant minds of our future scholars and attract the collaboration of others further abroad. Continuing to exclusively exist within the same western intellectual atmosphere seems to me like a much less exciting prospect.

Museums–another “sight” for struggle

The exhibition Goede Hoop: South Africa and the Netherlands from 1600 at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (February 17 to  May 21) may be over, but it is sure to carry long-lasting effects. The curatorial statement described this exhibition as intending to explore “what took place between 1652, when Jan Van Riebeeck landed at the Cape and Mandela’s visit to Amsterdam in 1990.”

Framed by the museum as a critical showing of the “relationship” between South Africa and the Netherlands, the museum’s promo video made it seem that the curatorial team had set out to expose the colonial dirty laundry of the Netherlands and the crimes of their “distant cousins,” the Boers and Afrikaners, some of who are descendants of Dutch colonial settlers.

Goede Hoop preview trailer

My interest in this exhibition is two-fold. First, the Western Cape province,  where my family is from, was once a Dutch colony named Kaap De Goede Hoop (Cape of Good Hope), founded in 1652 until1806 when the British took control. The colony’s economic base was built on slavery. In the surnames that form part of my family tree and the language spoken by my parents, Afrikaans, there are traces of this history. Second, I am currently working on a Ph.D. proposal focused on how European museums and curators approach the subjects of colonialism, decolonization and coloniality. As a black South African woman, it is important to me that I also come to terms with the fact that part of this bloody, violent collective history is entangled with my personal history and parts of my identity.

Walking through the exhibition was like making my way through a hall of mirrors: what’s reflected feels familiar but the image has been distorted and obscured. At the entrance to the exhibition is a panel titled “Thanks and Acknowledgements.”  Under “Curators” I expected to see some collaboration with South African curators, artists, scholars or researchers, but there are none.  Surely an exhibition looking at contemporary South Africa would involve at least one South African curator. Who is telling the story is as important as what story is being told and the omission of South African voices at the onset is deeply problematic. From this point onwards I become conscious that in this exhibition my voice doesn’t matter and that perhaps this exhibition is not for me at all.

The first room is supposed to speak of the Indigenous people of the region of what is now the Western Cape. No mention is made of the hunter-gatherer San societies that were exterminated by the impact of the arrival of the Dutch East India Company founded in 1602 to coordinate the Dutch trade and colonial expeditions to the East Indies. I guess the panoramic landscape representing the land that was to become the Cape of Good Hope colony didn’t speak of Dutch pastoralists’ murderous land-grabbing and ecologically damaging farming practices that ensued.

Another area of focus is the “Genesis of the Afrikaaner or Afrikander,” which doesn’t explain the historic complexity of the terms Afrikander or Afrikaaner, but reinforces narrow understandings of who this group of people are and their history. What complicate this identity and the idea of the Afrikaner as “white” and “European” and troubles notions of racial purity which led to the Apartheid system is that the first people who identified as Afrikanders were African or of both African and European descent. Klaas Afrikaner and his son Jager Afrikaner were members of the Orlang community that formed part of the broader Khoi Khoi society. In the mid-19th century, emancipated slaves, and slaves born in the Cape Colony were known as Afrikaners, whereas the settlers of Dutch descent referred to themselves as “Boere,” “Christene” and “Nederlanders.”

The narrative jumps between periods and centuries and as a result I feel like I must have missed something. Who were the enslaved? How did they get to the Cape? Why are they portrayed as subjects without agency: voiceless, silent and other. This is another missed opportunity to explore how slavery and slave history shaped present-day South Africa and how the psyche of the Western Cape in particular is still deeply rooted in the relations between master and slave.

The “Influence of Islam” display reads as an unimpressive footnote, especially since it had such a massive impact on Cape society and connects Cape Town to the Indonesian Archipelago (another Dutch colony). The earliest Afrikaans text was a Qur’an written in Arabic Afrikaans script, and research into the work of the historian Achmat Davids and into his archive would have provided a great deal of material for the exhibition. (For more on this, see an article I co-wrote with Dylan Valley in 2009.)

A few days before I left, the Dutch activist, Marjan Boelsma (she had been involved in the Dutch anti-Apartheid movement) wrote an open letter to the Chair of the Rijksmuseum (posted on Facebook) which critiqued the exhibition as a “missed chance.” The letter was signed by numerous  activists, scholars, artists and curators. They charged that the exhibition plays down the Netherlands’ role in colonialism in South Africa, excluded black South African curators, and relied on Eurocentric archival documents, among others.

It didn’t help that a few weeks after the exhibition opened, a former leader of the second largest political party in South Africa, the Democratic Alliance, tweeted her appreciation for colonialism’s supposed positive legacy. Helen Zille, who is white, governs the Western Cape, which has a violent history of slavery and colonialism. Random, often fatal, violence against black South Africans, especially in small farming towns and communities outside of major urban centres, also proves that relatively little has shifted regarding the colonial power relationships amongst the white and black populations of the country.

Others critical of this exhibition have already commented on its problematic use of language, both in the Dutch text and its translation into English. What I found particularly bizarre was the use of the word “hotchpotch” (possibly as a stand-in for the less desirable miscegenation?) which trivializes experiences of violence, erasure and centuries of oppression. Terms like “savage warrior” are also not problematized and unpacked critically.

In another room there is a large display of what can only be described as ethnographic caricatures of South African people by Robert Jacob Gordon. This display is arranged from the perspective of the colonial gaze – colonialists living in Cape Town in the 18th and 19th centuries. This work also gives the impression of the Western Cape region as uninhabited empty land, up for grabs. The label accompanying these caricatures suggests that the Dutch treated slaves badly, but we see no visual evidence of this. And did I miss the significance of Jan Van Riebeeck as a symbolic figure used by the nationalist, Apartheid government? Surely this is important to show because it was fundamental in historicizing Afrikaner nationalism and its claim to a European identity.

The next display, “1806: British Empire Annexes the Cape” fast-forwards to the British Invasion of the Cape. Subsequently, we arrive at the Anglo Boer war. A label describes the Dutch calls to support their “distant cousins”, the Boer. The exhibition then briefly mentions Afrikaner support for Nazi’s during the Second World War and that Dutch Social Nationalists moved to South Africa after the war. At this point, I notice the landscape paintings on display by the artist Jacob Hendrik Pierneef, who was heavily influenced by Afrikaner nationalism and its desire to carve out a unique identity following the Anglo-Boer war, and critiqued for depicting empty landscapes void of indigenous South African homesteads or life outside of that of the Afrikaner.

We are catapulted into the anti-Apartheid movement and struggle, highlighting Dutch support for the end to Apartheid. In this room, Nelson Mandela is deified as the representative of both struggle and freedom and most-importantly, reconciliation. What’s unsaid, is how Apartheid rule (1948-1994) allowed the Netherlands a pass to ignore its colonial past. The exhibition flirts with the attempt to acknowledge that some of the deep-seated socio-economic political issues we are dealing with in South Africa in the present have something to do with the lingering effects of Dutch colonization. But the argument made is rather muddy and instead, the Rijksmuseum presents a simplistic and palatable exhibition for Dutch (and other western audiences).

Although these national European exhibitions on colonialism can be read as an attempt at symbolic reparations to educate their publics on colonialism, the exhibitions themselves often fail to do this by resorting to tropes of indigenous peoples. They reinforce skewed power relations through curatorial practices that erase or omit local voices. For example, no young black artists are included in the “contemporary art” display supposed to represent the future generation of South Africans. Instead here we see the works of photographer Pieter Hugo and painter Marlene Dumas.

This exhibition proves once again that as Africans, we need to take charge of how our history is represented and set the historical record straight.

This is a site of struggle in itself.

Africans want in on the Virtual Reality game

Still from ‘Let This Be A Warning’ by The Nest Collective

The human desire to experience another perspective, place or reality has a long history in the visual arts. Recent innovations mean 360° video is now frequently available on social media, with content from news outlets and humanitarian organizations. With the advent of this increasingly accessible technology, the storyteller’s toolkit is suddenly more powerful. The ability to create an immersive experience for the audience changes how narratives are constructed and received. Africans also want in on the game.

Virtual reality (VR) technology provides another a form of storytelling for filmmakers.

Four new VR films were recently showcased at the 19th annual Encounters South African International Documentary Festival. Let This Be A Warning by The Nest Collective, The Other Dakar by Selly Rabe Kane, Nairobi Berries by Ng’endo Mukii, and Spirit Robot by Jonathan Dotse. This was the second year that the festival included a Virtual Encounters Exhibition.

When I watched Let This Be A Warning, I recognized the common technique of using science-fiction to critique society from an alternative view point. The Nest Collective tells an African story through the often white-dominated genre of sci-fi because of its potential for commentary. The premise is around the arrival of a presumably white space traveler landing on a colonized black world and the reaction of that society to this visitor. The filmmakers wonder whether future black worlds will be as welcoming to “westerners” as they were before. The first person point of view, like a video game, makes the audience look through the unwelcome visitor’s eyes. I am curious how different audiences receive this social question. How does this film play to an audience of color versus a white audience? What kinds of conversations about the past and potential future are initiated?

The Other Dakar is a strange journey of magical realism, described as an homage to Senegalese mythology. The creator, Selly Rabe Kane, known worldwide for her fashion designs, uses her talents to build a stunningly beautiful and surreal experience. Otherworldly fashion driving the story reflects Kane’s sensibilities as a designer. This world of Dakar, as explored by a little girl in the film, is full of symbolism with striking colors, and patterns. Although I was somewhat disoriented in the fantastical 360° video, the central message was clear: artists are at the core of Dakar’s cultural soul. Watching this film triggers reflection on the role of artists in cities throughout Africa and beyond.

A poetic dreamscape in Nairobi Berries is a representation of filmmaker N’gendo Mukii’s feelings about living in the city of Nairobi. Two women and a man are seen passing through each lyrical scene. Themes of beauty and darkness, so common in urban life, struggle with each other at every step. N’gendo uses bold colors, animations of butterflies, water, and fire as visual metaphors of her emotions. She taps into the powerful nature of immersive media that cuts through a viewer’s intellectual analysis of an experience. The themes of the beauty and hardness of daily life in Nairobi can be universalized to the common urban reality.

The use of public spaces is a constant battle in every city. The Chale Wote Street Art Festival transforms the streets of Accra, Ghana, into open spaces of dance, music, painting and other art forms. Jonathan Dotse, from Afrocyberpunk, explores the 6th annual Festival in the film Spirit Robot, named after that year’s theme. The event, as explained in the film, was organized to address the lack of infrastructural support for art. The viewers are transported through the streets of Accra to experience several art pieces as they learn about the festival’s story. I was captivated by the art in each scene, particularly when hearing the mural painter mixing his colors and seeing an audience watching an elegant dancer. I enjoyed learning about the festival, but the narration was hard to follow in the VR environment and I wanted to invest more time to fully absorb what was happening around me.

Without the constraints of traditional video, narrative structures must be transformed to effectively communicate to the immersed viewer. New artistic possibilities are boundless for 360° film as the technology becomes more accessible.

Behind new Gulf crisis is same old order

Out of nowhere, it seems that a simmering rift between Qatar and the other Gulf States has boiled over into a full crisis. Earlier this month, that rift turned to open conflict for the first time since 2014, as “Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates as well as Egypt and a number of other Arab nations cut ties with Qatar.”

According to Al Jazeera, Saudi Arabia is using its considerable economic clout to pull African countries into the dispute with “huge offers of aid and loans.”

Senegal, Chad, Mauritania, Eritrea, and Niger have recalled their ambassadors to Qatar.

Somali President Mohammed Abdullah Farmajo, reportedly turned down an $80 million offer from the Saudis to join the diplomatic effort to isolate Qatar. The Saudis also “threatened to withdraw financial aid” to the embattled state.

Djibouti has joined the Saudi campaign as well, downgrading its diplomatic relations with Qatar, which has withdrawn its troops from an international peacekeeping mission on the Djibouti-Eritrea border in response.

Relations between Qatar and the other Gulf Cooperation Council countries soured during the early years of the Arab Spring, before the toppling of the first democratically elected President of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi. During this period, the Qatari government was at the apex of its regional power. The previous Emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, had developed a successful strategy for achieving outsized influence for the tiny, gas-rich state, which eschewed the positions of its neighbors to play the mediator for regionally divisive entities, from Iran and Hamas to Israel and the Taliban.

Alongside these diplomatic efforts, the Emir fostered Qatar’s soft power, through the once-mighty Al Jazeera satellite news network, which grew to be the bane of regional autocrats and colonizers. When the region caught fire in 2011, Al Jazeera’s coverage helped bring the revolutions to TV screens across the region. Though embattled despots always claimed that Al Jazeera was simply an instrument of Qatari foreign policy, this was not the case in those days. A more recent shakeup at AJ has many suspecting that the network is under closer supervision of the Emir.

Qatar backed Islamists that came to power in during the Arab Spring, particularly Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, looking to take advantage of the historical events to increase its regional influence. This led to a simmering unease with the other Gulf States, who benefited from the pre-Arab Spring order and backed the old regimes, with the exception of Syria.

Ostensibly, this diplomatic crisis started when a Qatari news outlet was hacked to circulate incendiary statements falsely attributed to Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who vehemently denied them. Despite the denial, state-owned media agencies in the other Gulf States continued to circulate the statements, leading many to believe that the hacks were part of a premeditated media campaign to justify a diplomatic and economic assault on Qatar.

The timing may seem odd, as Qatar has largely retreated from its more muscular regional policies following the Egyptian coup in 2013. Since then, a poisonous discourse has developed around the Arab Spring, perpetuated by reactionary forces – the UAE and KSA chief among them. These forces oppose any efforts to change the regional order, from which they benefit tremendously, at the expense of the mass of people. The KSA and UAE, like their right-wing allies in the West, maintain that the only way to keep religious extremism and terrorism at bay in the region is through authoritarianism and repression. They seek to portray the events in the wake of the Arab Spring as the investible result of any political opening in the region, any challenge to the stability they impose.

Qatar, which went against the grain and supported the opening, albeit opportunistically and for its own geopolitical gain, has been wrapped into that discourse. The same claims that are animating a full assault on the state were the ones that justified the 2014 diplomatic closures, and the same ones used by opponents of the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Libya. These opponents seek to portray the revolutions as foreign plots against their governments, whether Qatari, American, or Israeli.

President Trump’s tweets may indicate that his administration green lit the assault on Qatar, and signal his willingness to let the Saudis have their way in the region. It is telling that the accusations against Qatar that have been made by Saudi media outlets are similar to those being made by neoconservatives and the Israeli right; they oppose Qatar’s hosting of Hamas and other groups expelled by regional powers, its more open policy toward Iran, and its role in supporting the Arab Spring uprisings.

Qatar’s regional policy is undoubtedly as grounded in realpolitik as those of its adversaries in the region. It is after all, a small, authoritarian monarchy, not a revolutionary state. The actual goals that animate Qatari policy do not negate the fact that this latest crisis reveals the absurd hypocrisy of the other Gulf States, which couch their positions in the region in the language of “moderation,” whilst partnering with right-wing racists in Israel and the United States, reinforcing the latters’ most detestable beliefs about Muslims and Arabs in order to build support for an anti-Iranian project.

A recent leak of email correspondence between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ambassador to the US, Yousef al-Otaiba, and influential right-wing players in Washington, including a neoconservative think-tank, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), which takes up positions similar to the Israeli right, demonstrates most irrefutably that the Gulf States, Israel and the Trump administration are ultimately united in their opposition to any challenges to the Middle Eastern political order. This, despite evidence that this order is built upon repression and plunder, benefits US oligarchs, oil titans, weapons contractors and backward autocrats at great expense to the mass of people.

Writing to former Bush Administration officials Stephen Hadley and Joshua Bolten just after Morsi was toppled in Egypt, Al-Otaiba argues that the “Arab Spring has increased extremism at expense of moderation and tolerance,” and that “countries like Jordan and UAE are the ‘last men standing’ in the moderate camp. The arab spring [sic] has increased extremism at the expense of moderation and tolerance.”  He goes on to suggest that the US should “empower and protect those forces who preach moderation and tolerance, values that are common with those of the US.” Al-Otaiba argues that the US would be “abandoning the moderates” if it did not support the positions of the UAE and KSA in the region.

The language of “moderation” is similarly used by Zionists, neocons, and the Gulf States to extol the virtue of whichever geriatric despot they currently favor. It serves as a thin veneer of principle to justify support for despotism and theft. Moderation means nothing but favorable geopolitical alignment. The group of countries Al-Otaiba is referring to include the Gulf States, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Jordan.

A brief skimming of Human Rights Watch (HRW) country reports for these states reveals the true “values” that bind Al-Otaiba’s moderate camp. According to HRW, Jordanian law “criminalizes free speech,” the regime detains journalists and activists under the auspices of wide ranging counter-terrorism laws. It maintains a personal status code that is discriminatory against women, no to mention its unequal treatment of the kingdom’s nearly two million Palestinian residents.

Human Rights Watch reports that the UAE has a long history of banning human rights activists, jailing dissidents, “draconian” counterterrorism laws, legalised discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender. It has just declared that “showing sympathy for Qatar on social media” is a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

The KSA, meanwhile, is one of the most oppressive states on earth.

The Al-Otaiba leaks have also laid bare the extent to which the Gulf States are aligned with Israel in their attempts to crush the last vestiges of the Arab Spring and wage war on Iran. Although this unofficial alliance is far from a secret, the leaks reveal an interesting level of cooperation between the UAE and a neoconservative think tank, the FDD, which lobbies US officials to take on the policy preferences that align with the Israeli right.

The FDD claims to believe “that no one should be denied basic human rights including freedom of religion, speech and assembly; that no one should be discriminated against on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or national origin; that free and democratic nations have a right to defend themselves and an obligation to defend one another; and that terrorism – unlawful and premeditated violence against civilians to instill fear and coerce governments or societies – is always wrong and should never be condoned.”

I wonder if those ideals pertain to Palestinians. What about the Emiratis Al-Otaiba represents?

Benjamin Netanyahu takes a similar approach in his rhetoric, emphasizing the tacit alliance between Israel and the Gulf States in his efforts to market Israel’s belligerence as anything other than what it actually is. “Major Arab countries are changing their view of Israel … they don’t see Israel anymore as their enemy, but they see Israel as their ally, especially in the battle against militant Islam” he told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in February.

Of course, the Gulf States are not waging diplomatic and economic warfare on Qatar to combat extremism at all, they themselves are absolute monarchies claiming to rule through divine right, and using religious justifications to impose a draconian authoritarianism and stomp out challenges to their rule. They have worked diligently to turn the mass uprising of 2011 into a sectarian debacle because, above all, the Gulf States and Israel benefit tremendously from the authoritarian order that has kept the region underdeveloped and unfree for decades.

The latest crisis is surely nothing more than a defense of that order.

Weekend Special No.2034

Twitter a while back: ‘Robert Mugabe is old enough to be Muhammadu Buhari’s father.’ Robert Mugabe, 93, is campaigning to be reelected next year. He is “slurring his words and dozing off (just resting his eyes, a spokesman claimed).” He may still win. Wole Soyinka was right in 2011 when he described Mugabe as “still riding it out on his own wall, blotting out the horizon for others with his grossly inflated ego. As for Buhari, he has been in London for nearly 50 (take that in) uninterrupted days on the second of his “medical checkups” this year (the first was a month) and we’re only in June. Word is he suffered a speech impairment. He can’t speak. Meanwhile, Nigeria’s economy is currently mired in a recession. As we said last week, this is about the north wanting to have its turn in the presidency. Nigerians be damned.

Moving on. South Africa’s ruling party, the ANC, is dominating by the Jacob Zuma-faction. He is close to the Guptas. They’ve captured the state and lining their pockets. They also have a media operation: a British PR agency, a TV channel, a newspaper, “opposition” research (basically “fake” news) and “paid twitter.”  They are also cynically exploiting South Africa’s class and race inequalities. “White monopoly capital” and “radical economic transformation” are their manifestos. The truth is they want neither of these. Instead, they’ve presided over a period in which black South Africans, the majority, have been subjected to high levels of state violence, broken schools and overcrowded hospitals. In the process, the Zuma-Gupta faction (and their boosters) have discredited left ideas in the public sphere and emboldened liberals and the right. As one economist told me: “Chris Malikane [a New School economic Ph.D. hired as a policy advisor by the Finance Minister] probably did serious damage to left economists wishing to make public interventions in South Africa.” The same goes for the noises they’re making about reforming the central bank (known as the Reserve Bank), as the country’s public protector recently suggested. There are legitimate reasons to debate the role of central banks (see former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’s new memoir). Most South Africans can’t wait for 2019.

About time: South Africa’s “Competition Commission has laid a charge against Rooibos Limited for its alleged abuse of the tea market.”

Did ECOWAS (the 15 member West African economic organization of states) forget about the occupation of Palestine when they welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to their annual summit? We predicted this.

“Can Africa prosecute international crimes?” A better question would have been: “Have African countries prosecuted international crimes?” Yes, the 2016 prosecution of Hissène Habré. As Sarah Jane Koulen argues, “had the title been a research question, it would have been poorly formulated as it allows for a simply yes or no answer. In addition, it strikes me as indicative of a particular kind of evaluative paternalism that has come to operate within the discursive field of international criminal justice. An audience gathered in Europe to ask of Africa whether it can … Do what exactly? Measure up? Meet the standard? Contained within the question, lies an implicit presumption that the conclusion of the discussion could be ‘no’. This is not provocative. It is cynical and offensive.” Read the rest here.

Obligatory cultural reference: We don’t like to judge movies by their trailers, but why can’t I shake the feeling that the #BlackPanther teaser trailer reminds me of a mix of ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ and ‘Coming to America’? Basically, two sets of mutually reinforcing fantasies about Africa and Africans as backdrop for the morality tale of a comic. Not so fast, says one of my interlocutors:  “It has a “lost world” King Solomon’s Mines look except Alan Quartermain is the villain and the natives are the heroes and not impressed and they definitely won’t be mistaking any guys who played hobbits in other movies as gods which is to say it looks great.”

The new Tupac movie, “All Eyez on Me,” is not just bad history and bad facts, it is also just bad.

Speaking of excellent cultural criticism. Zadie Smith on the new film “Get Out,” Dana Schutz and the empty debate (in the phrase of Huffington Post editor of chief Lydia Polgreen) on who owns black pain.

And Michael Ebenazer Kwadjo Omari Owuo, Jr. does it again.

All bullshit claims aside about Lavar Ball turning capitalism on its head (he is basically a mix of a showman, carnival barker–an old American tradition–who gets how US media culture and promotion works), he sounds like a great father.

RIP Prodigy. “I’m only 19, but my mind is old

Eid Mubarak.

HT: Doron Isaacs, Lydia Polgreen, R.L. Stephens, Kenichi Serino, Sam Argyle, Ben Fogel.

Weekend Music Break No.110 — Abdullah Ibrahim’s ‘tawhid’

Abdullah Ibrahim Mukashi Trio, Gent Jazz Festival, Gent, BE, 11.07.2015. Image Credit Bruno Bollaert via Flickr.

Cecil McBee’s thumping bassline complimented by the sporadic drums of Roy Brooks creates a melancholic setting for Abdullah Ibrahim’s exultation titled “Ishmael” (recorded 1976), named after the son of the Biblical Hagar and Abraham. While listening, expectations fall irrelevant, mesmerizing the audience. The mind flows with the beat, following the wailing melodic drifts of Ibrahim alternating between saxophone, piano and voice.

In a review of Ibrahim’s recent concert at New York City’s Town Hall, held on South Africa’s Freedom Day, Giovanni Russonello wrote for the New York Times, “There was darkness and suspense, and a sense of broad expanse.”

A shadow underlies many artistic expressions, including human spirituality and religion. In 1962, with Nelson Mandela imprisoned, the Cape Town-born Ibrahim left South Africa for Europe – where he met his mentor, Duke Ellington – and then on to New York to attend Juilliard. After struggling with alcohol and marijuana misuse and “searching for spiritual harmony in an increasingly fractured life,” Ibrahim returned to Cape Town.

“Years of smoking and drinking had battered his body,” writes John Edwin Mason, a professor of African History at University of Virginia. “In New York, doctors and a Native American medicine woman both told him to ‘straighten up.’ And he did, entering a period of ‘cleaning’ and embarking on a spiritual quest that began in New York City and culminated with his conversion to Islam, in Cape Town.”

Speaking about this turning point in his life with the UK Guardian in 2001, Ibrahim said, “I went back to church; I didn’t find it there. I went into all religions – the [Bhagavad] Gita, I-Ching. Then I realized most of the friends I grew up with were Muslim. Cape Town has a rare harmony, intermarriage.” The musician converted to Islam in 1968.

During this period in the 1960s, harmony was sought after in America as well. Many American jazz musicians viewed Islam as part of a decolonization movement, as an escape from their country’s segregation laws.

Before his conversion, Ibrahim was exposed to many musicians involved in the Muslim movement in America. Figures like Sheikh Daoud Faisal, a fellow alumnus of Juilliard, inspired up-and-coming jazz musicians like Ibrahim. Faisal lead a mosque in Brooklyn Heights and was a representative of Morocco at the United Nations. Archie Shepp, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Pharoah Sanders, to name a few, were also influenced by Islam, specifically Sufism and the Gnawa music of Morocco.

“Ibrahim was riveted by these artists who were emphasizing links between Black America and Africa and writing anthems of solidarity,” Hisham Aidi, Columbia University lecturer and author of Rebel Music: Race, Empire and the New Muslim Youth Culture (2014) tells me via email. “Black and coloured South Africans living under white minority rule also saw Islam as a way out.”

In Cape Town in 1974 Ibrahim wrote his own anthem of solidarity titled “Mannenberg,” heralded as “the unofficial anthem of South Africa.” For many, Islam was “a way out,” an expansion of the mind, a collaborative fight against oppression. “Mannenberg” is a musical extension of this consciousness.

“[Ibrahim] found the Black Power movement liberating with its expansive definition of blackness that included ‘coloured’ individuals like him,” Aidi says. “The rhetoric and sound of unity appealed to him. Stokely Carmichael was not Muslim, but he had a strongly pro-Muslim discourse, and stressed the unity of Africa from Cairo to Cape Town. Interestingly, to this day, when Ibrahim talks about his Muslim faith he tends to stress the concept of tawhid – meaning the unity or oneness of God.”

While tawhid refers to the unity of God, it also maintains that the rest of the world is many. This paradox of oneness and multiplicity is central to Islam. It is also a major theme in Ibrahim’s music. Musicians perform in aggregate, forming an apparent whole. This dialectical relationship forming a captivating breathe of sound is only possible with someone as talented and devoted as Ibrahim guiding the movement.

“The most beautiful, potent aspect of Islam is the unity of things,” Ibrahim told the Guardian. “You can’t throw anything out of the universe. This realization has been a driving force for me.”

From Cairo to Cape Town to New York the fight against oppression lingers to this day. Ibrahim’s music continues to ring true for millions united as one.

Dakar’s African Renaissance

Image Credit: Jonathan E. Shaw via Flickr.

I have wanted to come to Dakar since I was a young man growing up in western Kenya reading Léopold Sédar Senghor’s poetry.

My mother, a schoolteacher, made me read Senghor’s poetry aloud before asking me to explain what Senghor was thinking when he wrote his poetry. In my late teenage years, I read Mariama Ba’s “So Long A Letter,” one of the most acclaimed literary books out of Senegal. The powerful images from the book forcefully introduced the world to the life of women in Senegal and the intersection of African traditional culture and Islam. In 2002, as I was becoming a man, at Kenyatta University, my mother and I watched Senegal beat its former colonizer, France, in the World Cup, though it looked more like a contest between Africans in the diaspora against Africans at home; most of the French players are of African descent. My mother was jumping all over the seats with joy. Senegal would later be eliminated in quarter finals.

Dakar airport is like those in any other developing country, with its remnants of colonial structures. The city is beautiful in a way. In an honest sort of way, in a “I am going to charm you and not rob you” kind of way. Nairobi is different. Kampala also. Detroit too. Those places twist people’s arms for the smallest of gifts.

Standing atop the 160 steps of Dakar’s African Renaissance monument, installed by former President Abdoulaye Wade, reminds me of the Gaza strip. Rows of short, square brown unpainted houses. No shine in them, just brown, the color of concrete and sand with the beautiful Atlantic as a backdrop. The people in them and their taxis on the streets are colorful. Like little butterflies on a brown background. Restaurants like the one where I am seated waiting for fresh fish, have been made very popular by Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” on CNN. My waiter is wearing Kanye West’s shoe line. The Yeezys. I cannot afford these shoes. The prices of the limited edition are steep in the United States. How can he? In a country that is over 90% Muslim and elected a Christian president, I guess possibilities abound.

Senegal has been a diplomatic and cultural bridge between the Islamic and black African worlds. Some devout non-hijab wearing Muslim women are still be bound by religion. Iif indeed there is equality, why is the woman in the African Renaissance Monument behind the man? Why is she not by his side as a strong family forging forward together? Why is the African woman always left behind yet she carries the burden of the entire family in most instances. In this era, one could argue that the monument is not adequately feminist. But then again there is a child pointing to a new dawn. Tomorrow, I need to find out if the child is indeed pointing to a dawn of a new era or to France as some people say.

Senegal maintains closer economic, political, and cultural ties to France than probably any other former French colony in Africa. West Africa also seems to be led by many children. Cunning African children of the French. Black-skinned Frenchman. Identity crises start at the highest levels of the government.

I want to ask my taxi driver questions but I only go as far as mentioning my hotel. I do not speak French. He only speaks Wolof and a little bit of French. The Sufism practiced here is tempered with the many years of exchange between Islamic and African traditional cultures.  It is quite different from the one portrayed as violent and perverse in western media.

As Ba writes: “In Senegal, you are free. You wear what you want. Eat what you want. Do what you want.”

Dakar is safe. I have been told this before. I am walking from Just4U, one of the local dancing spots. Tonight is hip-hop night and a band is made up of youth from Chiekh Anta Diop University. They are belting rap songs in a seamless mix of French and Wolof. The crowd is enjoying every bit of it. I decide to walk to my hotel. A man of my age with a long cylindrical loaf of bread joins me. We exchange pleasantries and I am pleasantly surprised that he speaks a bit of English. My excitement quickly turns to frustration because of our inability to understand each other and communicate freely as Africans. It is disturbing that the only pathway for Africans to understand each other within Africa is to master the language of former colonialists. Is there hope in the unifying power of language; the way Swahili operates in East Africa? Rwanda and Tanzania seem to be doing fine after replacing French and English respectively with Swahili as the main language of instruction in schools.

I am lucky my new friend Mohammed understands some English. His brother works in Dubai as a waiter and has a Kenyan girlfriend. We are immediately connected.  Mohammed says, “I walk you like this, me is gud polis.” We smile in the night breeze of the Atlantic. He nudges me on the side, lifts his shirt and shows me a pistol. He realizes my concern and quickly moves to assure me saying, “Here, polis no shoot people.” I am rather disturbed that I am very relaxed in the presence of a stranger with a gun. Normally I am suspicious of cops. In my home country Kenya, years of corruption have blurred the line between a common thief and a police officer. An armed police officer as well as an armed robber have robbed me in Kenya. In the United States where I work, the history of police killings of black people has made me very paranoid of the police. I have learned instinctively to change lanes in traffic whenever there is a police car behind me.

Mohammed pulls out his phone and shows me photos where he is in official paramilitary uniform.  I am thinking, how did I come to trust these people so easily? Then it hits me. It is something in the people of Senegal that is so endearing. You can feel it when you arrive at the Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport. It is their good nature. Dignified men and women come out in groups to work out at the gyms set up by the government right on the sandy shores of the Atlantic. People are obsessed with physical fitness and spirituality.

I later visit  Goree Island aboard a ferry named “Beer.” It coincides with visits by various school- going teenagers. At the slave house, one of the main attractions at the Island, our guide, Abdou says, “Twenty-five million slaves were sold through this Island.  Six million died.” He points at me saying, “Strong men like him, would fetch a lot of money. Thin men, would be fed blood beans to fatten up like cattle to fetch more money.” This is a lot to take in. “And young girls, like this one,” Abdou points out at one of the school girls, “fetched a lot of money because they were virgins. Older women were cheaper.” The schoolchildren are giggling. They are eager to get into the tiny cells that held trouble-making slaves.

When we finally step out of the slave house, we find Amina and a cohort of women waiting for us to go buy their merchandise. Amina’s child has traditional African beads straddling her waist. Amina says that the beads keeps evil spirits away. I tell her I was raised Christian and that my parents would always fight my grandmother when she tried putting similar beads on my nephew’s waist. I am wondering how these people have found a way to blend African spirituality with Islam.

Amina says, “African God, no fight with Islam.”

Biafra as the focal point for fresh perspectives of Nigeria

Image Credit: Goya Bauwens via Flickr.

In the past few months, there has a resurgence of Biafra in Nigeria by a group known as Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), led by Nnamdi Kanu. Interestingly, the new agitation began in the diaspora, in the United Kingdom where Kanu is a citizen, through Radio Biafra. Using easily accessible social media platforms and broadcast technology, IPOB was able to reach thousands of Igbos and non-Igbos across Nigeria and the world. IPOB has been variously described as a breakaway faction of another pro-Igbo group, the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra or MASSOB.

Kanu is now in Nigeria, where he was briefly imprisoned by the Nigerian state for a year and a half. The government charged him with treason; in some of his speeches he told supporters, “We need guns and we need bullets.” The trial is ongoing.

Since the truncation of the march to a democratic Nigeria in 1993 by the military junta of General Ibrahim Babangida, there continues to be a resurgence of ethnic agitations for self-determination and in the case of IPOB, secession from Nigeria. The reason for such resurgence is often dominated by cries of marginalization and in some cases domination of power. The aggrieved point to the fact that the presidency of Nigeria has been dominated by the Hausa/Fulanis, an ethnic group mainly in the north. The election in 2015 of Muhammad Buhari, considered a member of the northern elite, further heightened the agitation for self-determination or secession by various groups from the south, IPOB in the southeast and Niger Delta Avengers in the south-south. More importantly, control of Nigeria’s oil resources in the Niger Delta often get inserted into the agitation for self-determination or secession either by groups within the Niger Delta or those outside of the region.

Narratives of belonging most times dominate this form of insertion and who can claim membership in whatever country emerges from the rubbles of Nigeria. For example, in the map circulated on the Internet, the entire Niger Delta region is incorporated into Biafra by IPOB and the response of different groups in the Niger Delta had been to dissociate itself from such a map while also lending support to the IPOB agitation as a legitimate struggle against Nigeria. The insertion of Niger Delta by IPOB in the proposed Biafra Republic is understandable considering the fact that the Niger Delta produces the wealth that Nigeria relies on in running its mono-economy—an economy heavily dependent on oil extraction. The Niger Delta was also central to the prosecution of the civil war, also known as Nigeria-Biafra war, between 1967 and 1970, the period when oil extraction started taking a deep root in the socio-economic and political life of Nigeria.

However, what is missing in the conversation around the resurgence of Biafra currently is how the structure of the economy creates spaces of violence and oppression of the majority of the Nigerian population. It is the structure of the capitalist economy that puts the commonwealth of Nigerians in the hands of a few elite. The elite beneficiaries of the Nigerian commonwealth cut across all ethnic groups because capitalist exploitation defies ethnic colouration. Therefore, the many years of marginalization and disfranchisement of the greater majority of the Nigerian populace from the structure of the economy shapes today’s agitation for self-determination and secession. The elite class have been in power since independence and continue to recycle themselves while sometimes tokenistically co-opting a few into their fold. The dominance of a rampaging neoliberal economic and political practice, and the absence of a coherent and coordinated opposition in Nigeria further compounds the problem for the Nigerian populace. The absence of a sound and strategic opposition to a structurally deficient economic system that could shape the discourse of power and resources further creates a space where those economically and politically disenfranchised look for creative ways of survival. Thus, agitation for secession and self-determination is symptomatic of a system that remains ineffective in addressing the problems of the people of Nigeria.

In the two decades preceding the advent of the current pseudo-democratic system, particularly the 1980s and 1990s, the Nigerian left was the formidable intellectual and political opposition to elite greed and capitalist exploitation. The many organizations formed by the broad Nigerian left were able to generate a particular discourse that put social inequality and elite mismanagement of the nation’s human and material resources at the core of the problems within the Nigerian state. The rise of neoliberal economic and political practices and its resultant effect on left politics has seen the rise of NGOism, which represents a particular space that fails to account for why and how people are socially and politically disenfranchised.

The ascendancy of ethnic agitation cannot be disconnected from how neoliberal economic and political practices of the last three decades have continuously taken away the wealth of the people and concentrated it in the hands of the few. The rich are getting richer in Nigeria while the poor are left to fend for themselves. The irony of it all is that when a few elite lose power at the centre, the poor become the pawns that are used to whip up ethnic and religious sentiment.

Not surprising, then, that Atiku Abubakar, the former vice president, is clamoring for the restructuring of the federation. At the same time, it should worry us that Ohaneze Ndigbo, an elite Igbo organization,  whose members have always collaborated with other elites to decimate Nigeria’s commonwealth are today throwing their support behind IPOB. To those who are familiar with the different epochs of struggle in Nigeria, this is no surprise.

In the 1990s, various left organizations converged to form the Campaign for Democracy and the Democratic Alternative as platforms within which power could be wrestled from the elite. The latter responded by forming its own National Democratic Coalition, NADECO, and when democracy was finally won, NADECO members took credit for it and positioned themselves as the leaders of the new republic. The struggle for a truly democratic Nigeria was lost at that point and the outcome is what we are witnessing today.

To be clear, IPOB, NDA and other ethnic organizations have the right to self-determine whether they want to be part of Nigeria or form their own independent republic. However, it is important to ask questions that could help us engage in a healthy conversation as we mark the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Nigeria-Biafra war.

James Baldwin on film

Still from ‘I Am Not Your Negro’

Since 1949, James Baldwin has been singing a song. It’s an old tune, at times tender, chiding, insistent, blaring, but always loving. It is, at its core, a bluesy refrain to the country that formed him, tormented him, his contemporaries, and his kin, and ultimately drove him from its shores.

We should be careful, however, not to assign to the author, playwright, and poet, who detested categories so ferociously, the hollow moniker of expat. The long tension between the person, James Baldwin, and the appellation often applied to his famous personage, provides much of the drama in Terrence Dixon’s and Jack Hazan’s rare film document, Meeting the Man: James Baldwin’s in Paris (1971). Shot twenty-two years after Baldwin first left New York with forty dollars in his pocket for the cold, exacting streets of post-war Paris, Meeting the Man stages for the viewer the stunning misapprehension of the man and the “Negro” celebrity as we find an elegantly turned-out Baldwin in an early scene in front of the Place de la Bastille intensely dragging on a cigarette, his darting and ever-alert eyes scanning Dixon for the import of this cinematic encounter.

As they work out on celluloid the terms of this profile piece, Baldwin clarifies for Dixon his acute disinterest in presenting for a Western audience what he snarlingly refers to as “James Baldwin’s Paris,” reminding him that he could be Bobby Seale or Angela Davis. Dixon dismisses the life and death context of 1970s America to which Baldwin alludes and refuses the comparison given the author’s notoriety. He presses an increasingly agitated Baldwin who then pointedly declares that he is not “some exotic survivor.” Baldwin’s explicit identification with Davis and Seale (both of whom had been charged with crimes in the serious climate of the black power struggles of the time) is but one example of that dirge Baldwin had been singing all his writing life. In front of that monument to the revolutionary impulses of 18th-century French citizens determined to rend freedom and equality from the hands of the dominant and the ruling, James Baldwin’s voice slows down as he queries the hypocrisy between the criminalized struggle for liberation by black revolutionaries in the U.S., and the celebration of égalité and fraternité in Europe.

Ten years later and only a few years before his death, we discover the author at the very beginning of I Heard it through the Grapevine (1982), his cinematic collaboration with Dick Fontaine and Pat Hartley chronicling his return to cities of civil rights struggle in the American South, writing rather pensively at a desk as his boomingly weary voice provides the opening narration: “Medgar, Malcolm, Martin, dead…But what about those unknown, invisible people who did not die, but whose lives were smashed on Freedom Road. And what does this say about the morality of this country or the morality of this age?” The knowing flourish of Baldwin’s lament concerning the material and psychic state of “those unknown, invisible people” in the aftermath of one of the most organized and sustained movements for social transformation this nation has ever witnessed, challenges the viewer to consider the twenty-first century legacy of a struggle the author would later famously characterize as “America’s latest slave rebellion.”

In this film, Baldwin presages and enacts this necessary consideration as he recounts his return to Atlanta, Georgia, to his brother, David, who wonders “what Martin would have thought of his Atlanta now?” He is contemptuous of the highways, freeways, and buildings all bearing Dr. King’s name less than twenty years after his assassination and reads these inscriptions as part of the “extraordinary make-up job” on which the nation has embarked:

And there is the [Martin Luther King, Jr.] monument, which is, and this is a difficult thing to say, but I will say it, absolutely as irrelevant as the Lincoln Memorial. It is one of the ways the Western world has learned, or thinks it’s learned, to outwit history, to outwit time—to make a life and a death irrelevant, to make that passion irrelevant, to make it unusable for you and for our children. And we’re confronting that!

Baldwin engages in a kind of cinematic fieldwork as he returns to reconnect with the civil rights activists with whom he labored in Selma, Birmingham, New Orleans, Florida, Atlanta, Washington, D.C. and, with Amiri Baraka in Newark. Grapevine marks his return to the South after he interrupted his European sojourn to travel to Charlotte, North Carolina in 1957 after seeing an image of Dorothy Counts desegregating a school a year earlier.

This scene of Dorothy Counts facing vulgar, raging white mobs stands out for me in Raoul Peck’s new documentary, I Am Not Your Negro (2016). There is something ancient and haunting in Samuel Jackson’s intonation of Baldwin’s voice as taken from I Remember This House, the author’s thirty-page unfinished manuscript about the lives and assassinations of Medgar, Malcolm, and Martin. Relying on the manuscript, and carefully selected archival videos and images, Peck weaves together a chilling narrative of the history and present of black people in this country. From television interviews, clips from Hollywood’s still jarring racial history, to more recent scenes of the militarized responses to protests of police violence in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere, Peck makes chilling connections between America’s now and then.

I remain compelled by the treatment of Counts in Peck’s new documentary not only because of the grace and impossible courage required of a girl so young, but because of what it confirms about this young experiment called America. Those mobs of angry white citizens represented the country. We can dismiss the national obscenity of grown men and women jeering and spitting at a dignified, young black girl attempting to seek a quality education as the actions of ignorant southerners, but we would be mistaken. If the “story of the Negro in America is the story of America” as Baldwin maintained, what do we do with his statement which provides the charged, if historically understated title of the film? Well, James Baldwin’s devastating 1963 tour of San Francisco, filmed and released by KQED as “Take This Hammer,” which documents the struggle to shield black children in the city from the almost universal message of dispossession and despair that engulfed communities already under siege by the forces of gentrification and urban renewal, might provide an answer. Another important record of Baldwin on film, a particular scene in Hammer is singular in its emotional and metaphysical clarity: Baldwin, seated, dressed in white, a kerchief tied carefully around his neck, considers the existential roots “of something in this country called the nigger.” He continues that he had to know early in life that what was being described had nothing to do with him. He knew, he insists, despite all that had been done to him, that “what you were describing was not me.” If it is true, as Baldwin began, that “what you say about me reveals you,” and since “you” had invented this figure and felt the need to invest black people with all those sedimented associations then, Baldwin argues, you are in fact the nigger.

As the latest entry of the brilliance of James Baldwin on film, I Am Not Your Negro (along with Baldwin’s scathing account of American film-making, The Devil Finds Work) lays bare the rhetorical and imagistic sleight of hand that enables the fiction and terror of race in American life to persist with such a renewed and deadly power. As he suggests, the extent to which we truly wrestle with our psychic need for the myth of the “nigger,” will determine the future of the country. It is still the only song left to sing.

* This was first published on Brooklyn Rail. It is kindly reproduced here with the permission of the editors.

The right to ‘eat’

Politics in many parts of Africa is often understood through a metaphor of eating – a point to which Jean-François Bayart drew our attention in his seminal 1989 publication, The State in Africa. In contrast to the social scientific discourse of corruption, the idiom of eating is more neutral and bespeaks necessity. While eating to excess while others go hungry may be corrupt and immoral, everyone must eat to survive. This moral ambivalence is often lost on social scientific thinkers and journalists, who tend to portray “corruption” on the continent (even of the petty or distributive variety) in black-and-white, moralistic terms. Although corruption is a common source of public outrage and complaint, many Kenyans debate the issue in shades of gray, recognizing the sometimes-blurry line between graft and redistribution.

The relationship between politics and consumption is far from abstract. The run-up to the 2017 general elections in Kenya, which has coincided with the rising cost of staple foods, has literalized the “politics of the belly.” This year, inflation reached a four-year high as prices for basic commodities (including cabbage, milk, and sugar) rose precipitously. Kenyans have been particularly hard-hit by the mounting cost of maize flour, used to make Kenya’s most popular (and populist) dish: ugali. In response to spiraling prices, the government waived tariffs for imported maize and, in mid-May, introduced a subsidy on maize flour. These efforts, however, have barely eased consumer suffering.

Ugali politics has since dominated Kenya’s headlines. The opposition and ruling coalitions have blamed one another for the rising prices and flour shortages, trading accusations of negligence and malfeasance. Irregularities surrounding a recent maize import have become fodder for speculations circulating on Twitter and other social media. The Jubilee government has been accused of manufacturing the maize crisis to benefit politically connected commodity traders and using an aptly timed subsidy to win over the electorate. (In typical sardonic fashion, Gado captured these allegations in a series of recent political cartoons). Others charge NASA politicians with politicizing the issue, fueling protests (under the hashtag #ungaRevolution) and obscuring their own responsibility for the maize shortage. While the ruling coalition undoubtedly holds the greatest share of blame for the crisis, it is worth noting that both William Ruto, the sitting deputy president, and Raila Odinga, the opposition’s presidential candidate, have been accused in the past of profiting from the illegal manipulation of the maize market.

Some observers believe that the rising cost of food may fundamentally alter long-standing voting patterns. According to these forecasts, the food crisis will prompt Kenyans to vote on “economic issues,” rather than along “tribal lines,” in the upcoming election. Such arguments rest on a false assumption that material factors are distinct from “ethnic” politics. Economic considerations often drive people’s voting decisions, whether they cast a ballot for a politician of their ethnicity or for a member of another group. For many Kenyans, having one’s “own” in power ensures that a limited amount of wealth (whether through licit or illicit channels) will flow down to ordinary people through social relations of kinship and clientage. These lines of patronage can be essential to people’s survival and should not be readily dismissed as “holdovers” from the past or evidence of “stunted” development. Practically speaking, the reigning alternative (the neoliberal/good governance “consensus”) offers little guarantee of a greater share of the pie.

The food crisis also reveals the need to situate Kenyan politics within a broader understanding of the regional and world economy. The rising costs of food is the result of a confluence of internal and external factors: recent drought in the region, inflationary pressure caused by a strengthened US dollar and rebounding oil prices, dependence on rain-fed agriculture, and profiteering by millers, middlemen, and politicians. It reveals a citizenry prone to elite mismanagement and corruption, susceptible to shocks in the world economy, and increasingly vulnerable to the vagaries of climate change.

The right to “eat” (whether literal or metaphorical) is foundational to the moral economy of politics in Kenya. Certainly, the “politics of the belly” can (and often does) foster elite accumulation, a problem that has reached new heights in recent years. It can also breed divisive forms of nativism, especially during election seasons (a problem encapsulated in the Kenyan expression: “It’s our turn to eat.”*) But there is also subversive potential to the metaphor of “eating,” which can enable citizens to highlight inequality, make claims on the redistributive functions of the state, and publically shame gluttonous and corrupt politicians.

This expression serves as the title of Michela Wrong’s popular book on John Githongo, the former Kenyan journalist who exposed a particularly egregious case of government graft known as the Anglo-Leasing scandal.

Weekend Special, No.1976

Happy Father’s Day.

This was the week of June 16th–the commemoration of the 1976 Soweto Uprising, which gave impetus to the long last phase of the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa. (If you’re wondering about the contemporary incarnations of that revolt, look no further than #FeesMustFall, #RhodesMustFall, the Economic Freedom Fighters and groups like Equal Education and Reclaim the City.)

Speaking of youth politics: Friday was also the birthday of the late poet Tupac Shakur (1971-1996). He would have been quite middle aged had he been alive: 46 years old. As I wrote in 2011, “… his intensity did not just appeal to just young people here in the United States, but also on the continent.”

And this time last week in 1980, Walter Rodney (Google: “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa“) was assassinated by a pro-American black nationalist regime. As the poet Linton Kwesi Johnson said about Rodney’s crime: “… all that him did wan’ was fi set him people free.”

Speaking of pro-American regimes: We posted on Paul Kagame. That brought out the trolls on Twitter.

Meanwhile, “fewer African students are coming to universities in South Africa due to xenophobia fears and long visa delays – and it could be affecting the future rating of [the country’s] universities …”

From a friend in Britain about the Grenfell Tower fire in Central London that killed (by last count) 58 people; another 54 are presumed missing (and thus dead); mostly working class people, including a large number of African immigrants: “I have never seen such class anger on my TV since the Miners’ Strike in 1984.” As Linton Kwesi Johnson said (yes, him again): Inglun is a bitch. But as my friend continued: “The sympathy for the victims are cross class but its a class issue. Jeremy Corbyn’s sensational electoral result has given working class people confidence–it’s so obvious.”

On Corbyn’s victory, I wrote an article for a South African newspaper, The Mail & Guardian, on what it all means beyond Britain, especially for Africans starved of political alternatives (it’s behind a paywall). Here’s an excerpt:

In contrast to the excitement around Corbyn, politics on the continent is largely stale, dominated by national liberation movements or legacy political parties (including communist, socialist or labour parties) that are long discredited, either rigging elections, suppressing voters, using violent tactics to silence critics, and in cases, where there are free and fair elections, to organize politics via patronage and influence trading (Nigeria), presenting voters with political parties that are ideologically indistinct (Kenya, Ghana) or taking voters for granted by assuming past achievements make them immune to losing office (the South African ANC). In most cases, the alternatives are clean-cut, personality-driven politics combining austerity with market reform.

… Corbyn’s draw, as the left American writer Bhaskar Sunkara wrote in Jacobin Magazine, was that he stood up for socialist ideas beyond simplistic populism and argued for them in public, despite ridicule from media and political-economic elites: “Labour’s surge confirms what the Left has long argued: people like an honest defense of public goods.”

In South Africa, for example, the ANC’s empty rhetoric of “radical economic transformation” combined with a vacuous Afropolitanism is looking more and more like a cover for looting the state. But South Africa also points to the most exciting possibilities for a new kind of politics. Perhaps the most profound takeaway for Africans from Corbyn and Labour’s showing last week is that after years of lip service to left programs, we now have evidence that a real commitment to such programs can mobilize previously apathetic or excluded constituencies. This is something that a combination of South African movements such as #FeesMustFall, left populist movements like the EFF, trade unions (the ones who broke away from Cosatu), the planned Workers’ Party and social movements like Reclaim the City, could rally around together for 2019.

‪Remember this description of Mobutu Sese Seko? “The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.” It’s been updated.

BTW, this whole ‘debate’ about cultural appropriation is so much time wasting. Both ‘sides.’ Exhibit 1,000,0001.

This is a good policy: to put condoms in South African schools.

If you’re a South African football fan, this is big news: “Finally, South Africa has beaten Nigeria in an official competitive match.” But not everyone got the menu, like this South African football writer who can’t distinguish between the weight of that competitive fixture and a friendly match. I give up.

Is there anyone who actually believes South Africa’s ruling party, the ANC, is suddenly serious about renaming South Africa? The curator and arts activist Valmont Layne has seen this playbook before: “The pattern seems to be 1. take a legitimate and emotive issue in the body politic (eg. economic transformation). 2. Save for an opportune moment to seed a controversy around it (eg. to reduce the heat from #Guptaleaks). 3. Plunder while the debate rages. 4. Repeat.”

Since he won’t shamelessly self promote: Boima Tucker, our managing editor, made an album with his group, Kondi Band. Read it about here, here and here. It also comes with a music video of Boima wondering through Hong Kong:

What will we do without Snoop Dogg. We’ll even forgive him the “Coming to America” themed birthday parties:

Finally, NPR ran an article about the popularity of Latin American telenovelas in Africa; about how it reflects aspirational culture on the continent; “… the Latin American telenovelas work in Africa because they feel authentic.” Not so fast, according to a Brazilian friend of mine, the novelist Marilene Felinto (in an email): “Brazilian telenovelas are export products of Rede Globo Television, not only for Portuguese-speaking Africa, but also for Portugal, China, among other countries around the world. Rede Globo is the largest Latin American media conglomerate. Globo’s telenovelas are experts in creating propaganda mechanisms that perpetuate, in the unconscious of Brazilian poor and middle classes, compliance with social exclusion and class discrimination. The telenovelas, which have high technical quality, are, ironically, another reason for the embarrassment of being Brazilian–not to mention what constrains us today: an illegitimate government, a coup d’état, retreat in social policies … also promoted and supported by Rede Globo and other media conglomerates.”

HT’s and shoutouts: Valmont Layne, Anakwa Dwamena, Marilene Felinto, Peter Dwyer, Abraham Zere and Dylan Valley.

The perenial dictator 

Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame had promised to step down before this year’s election. “Those who seek a third term seek a fourth and then a fifth term,” Kagame said after winning Rwanda’s vote in 2010 against no real challengers. He had promised to find a successor.

Instead, with Rwanda’s next election fewer than two months away, Kagame’s new female presidential challenger, Diane Rwigara, has found herself the target of misogynist smears. Nude pictures of her are circulating in the country. An opposition politician was killed, nearly beheaded and his eyes gouged out after he criticized government agricultural policies. A Ugandan gay rights activist was arrested and deported after she called Kagame a dictator. And Kagame insists that this will be his last term as president.

Rwanda’s constitution was changed last year to allow Kagame to stay in power until 2034. Like many authoritarian leaders – in Iraq, Libya and Syria, as well as the Rwandan regime leading up to the 1994 genocide – Kagame justifies his rule with statistics about how many schools and hospitals his government has built and the pace of his country’s economic growth. Like many of those dictators, Kagame is praised for maintaining stability in Rwanda.

But each year that Kagame stays in power more Rwandan politicians are killed, jailed or forced into exile. Journalists are murdered and imprisoned. And institutions essential for long-term peace, such as an independent parliament and judiciary, are corrupted. His political party all but controls the economy, seizing businesses at will and monopolizing sectors. Kagame allows no rivals to his power. He has not even engineered a “Putin”, by installing a puppet president at this year’s election. And as he clings to power he raises the likelihood of violence in Rwanda.

Yet, Kagame pontificates on leadership, democracy and good governance at Davos, Yale [here’s Dan Magaziner’s write-up of that talk–Ed] and Harvard. World leaders and global corporations seem enamored by Kagame’s narrative of Rwanda’s rise from the ashes of genocide to become a democratic nation, a global leader in women’s rights, and an attractive destination for foreign investment.

It is Kagame’s near-total control of Rwanda, achieved through violence and repression, which allows him to extend his power to elite venues abroad. Foreign praise is vital to Kagame. He revels in citing such praise in his speeches in Rwanda. And his anger is palpable when he is criticized.

Rwanda’s government produces reams of statistics about the country’s progress for Kagame to cite. But researchers in Rwanda must obtain government approval before publishing any statistics that contradict the official figures. World Bank researchers in Rwanda were forced to destroy their data after it became clear that they were willing to contradict Kagame’s narrative of improving life and reducing poverty in Rwanda. Rwandans interviewed by these researchers were later interrogated by government officials to determine whether they had contradicted the government. A Rwandan journalist who alleged Kagame’s family was involved in corrupt deals was shot dead. A Transparency International researcher investigating Rwandan police corruption was murdered.

So the statistics about Rwanda’s economic growth published by the World Bank, and then by most media outlets, are based largely on a single source: the Rwandan government. Few Rwandan journalists, economists or analysts dare to question the government. This is how the government’s statistics become the truth, in Rwanda and abroad. Such statistics are supported by images of Chinese-made buildings in Kigali, and Transparency International surveys of Rwandans who say that their president and government are not corrupt.

This past year saw warnings of famine across East Africa, including in Rwanda, linked to El Niño. After an initial famine alert in Rwandan media reports, the Rwandan press has mostly been silent. It mirrors a famine outbreak declared a decade ago in Burundi, on its border with Rwanda. On the Rwandan side of the border, in the same climactic zone, to this day there was officially no famine. The official Rwandan line is that food shortage is not an issue in the country.

Meanwhile, Kagame exhorts visitors to Rwanda to ask the Rwandan people what they think of him and his government.

It means Kagame can only be criticized from abroad. And Kagame accuses such critics of racism against Africans. He stresses his “African solutions” for African development. And, as Kagame recently said to the Wall Street Journal’s chief editor Gerard Baker, after commenting on what other African countries could learn from Rwanda, “My satisfaction lies in the fact that we haven’t been involved in doing anything wrong against our people. We are developing our country.”

The West’s culpability in North Africa and the Middle East

President al Sisi and US Secretary of State Kerry. Image via Wikicommons.

There seems to be no limit to Europe’s and USA’s willingness to accept and even support autocrats in North Africa and the Middle East.

Consider the case of Egypt, Africa’s third most populous country. Since Egypt’s military seized power in a coup and thus ended a brief experiment with real democratization in July 2013, the Western media euphoria of the Arab Spring has been replaced by polite lack of interest in the country’s development.

Egypt’s ex-general and current president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has taken full advantage of this media fatigue. Since the summer of 2013 he has steadily tightened the noose on the media and the civil society sector. At one point, only China bested Egypt in terms of absolute figures of imprisoned journalists – before Turkey’s president Erdogan outdid them both by a wide margin after the coup attempt in 2016. Currently, Egypt holds on to a respectable third rank with 25 imprisoned journalists. The crowning achievements of this policy occurred very recently. On May 24, Egypt blocked most of the few remaining independent news outlets in the country, including the tiny, but high-quality electronic newspaper Mada Masr. A few days later, on May 29, Al-Sisi ratified a new NGO law that spells catastrophe for the country’s already hard-pressed civil society. From now on, NGOs may only engage in social and development work, and activists face up to five years in jail for not complying with the law. This, and a new, forbiddingly bureaucratic regime for receiving donations makes it almost impossible for any NGO to function effectively. One of Egypt’s respected human rights activists, Gamal Eid, stated simply that the law “eliminates civil society in Egypt, whether human rights or development organizations.”

What is the US and European response to the authoritarian strangulation of the Arab Spring spirit? President Trump made a point of not wanting to “lecture” his colleagues in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and proceeded to join Al-Sisi and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman for a happy group photo that almost defies description. But it is not only Trump that wants to stay friendly with the Arab autocrats. Under Obama, the policy of giving more than USD1.4 billion in annual aid to Egypt (of which $1.3 billion is military aid) continued unabated, even after the military coup in 2013 – and despite the fact that the Egyptian regime harasses American NGOs that work in the country. As for the EU, it too continues to support Egypt in such areas as “poverty alleviation” and “governance and transparency.” This, while the regime consistently pursues policies that increase inequality, co-opt or crush political institutions and decrease transparency. Seemingly oblivious to the irony, the EU issued only some concerned noises when news of the NGO law broke.

Al-Sisi’s authoritarian rule is not without historical precedent, of course. Gamal Abdel Nasser instituted complete corporatism in Egypt and ruthlessly crushed the opposition, particularly the Islamists in the Muslim Brotherhood. His repression of the Islamists contributed to the radicalization that spawned local and later global jihadism (it wasn’t the only factor, of course, but it contributed). Al-Sisi’s repression is comparable to Nasser’s, however Nasser at least had a political project beyond staying in power – and he was opposed by the West. Today, it is difficult for young Egyptians and other Arabs to avoid the conclusion that their oppressors are supported by Europe and the United States.

The implications are obvious, but as the Financial Times international affairs editor David Gardner concluded his book about the West’s Middle East policy, Last Chance:

[D]o not howl in incredulous outrage when forces incubated by [your choices] – however alien and evil – fly airliners into your buildings, bomb your resorts and hotels, your train systems and your embassies, your churches and your synagogues. Above all, do not when this happens keep insisting that ‘they hate us for our freedoms’ or that ‘the world has changed.’ It has not, precisely because you have chosen not to change it.

That was written in 2009. Western governments have since squandered their chances of making amends during the Arab Spring, and it seems that nothing can set them on a different course. For the West, short-term stability seems to take precedence over long-term security and human dignity.

The liberating power of transgressive film genres

In his latest feature, Naked Reality (2016), which unfolds 150 years into the future, Cameroonian filmmaker Jean-Pierre Bekolo uses sci-fi to reimagine African potential just like he did in his 2005 film, The Bleeders (Les Saignantes). Imagination, in this context is synonymous with the ability to envision a state (in both senses of the word), where humans have learned to ask the questions that will grant us access to the limitless answers waiting to be unearthed.

Like Bekolo, the American film director Jordan Peele – in his immensely popular debut feature Get Out – also uses a transcending genre to overcome oppression and limitation. Both filmmakers seem inspired by the kind of forward-looking patriotism that Guardian columnist Gary Younge wrote in 2012: “Just as Martin Luther King’s dream was ‘deeply rooted in the American dream,’ so the African-American challenge to the national polity has long been for it to live up to its promise, rather than to live down its past.”

Get Out is the sleeper hit of 2017. It has already made US$229 million since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January, encouraging countless memes and GIFs and being inserted into political debates.  And just like Key & Peele, the successful sketch comedy TV show of which Peele was part, the film tackles a nation of diversity, bigotry, contradiction and inequality.

Get Out’s protagonist Chris (played by British actor of Ugandan origin, Daniel Kaluuya, whose casting, was briefly controversial), is a young successful photographer. As the film begins, Chris is about to meet his white girlfriend’s family for the first time.  Arriving at the doorstep of Rose’s (Allison Williams) liberal wealthy parents’ secluded home, the pair does not even make it inside before things start to go as badly as Chris had feared and his TSA-agent friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery) predicted.

Rose’s father – a neurosurgeon – treats Chris with awkward familiarity and swears by Barack Obama. Her mother – a psychiatrist specializing in hypnosis – is inappropriately nosy and treats the family’s black housekeeper, Georgina (Betty Gabriel), with kind condescension. Both Georgina and the family’s black caretaker Walter (Marcus Henderson), distance themselves from the kind of blackness that Peele has Chris represent and instead seem insanely dedicated to Rose’s family and their version of whiteness.

As the weekend progresses, the family members’ lack of boundaries weighs increasingly heavily on Chris. The guests at an annual function, hosted by the parents during their stay, offer no relief either, as Chris is bombarded with awkward references to black celebrities and fantasies revolving around blackness, in addition to research questions aimed at pinning the entire black community down. Chris experiences one sole moment of meaningful exchange in a brief conversation with a blind art dealer, who is familiar with Chris’s artistic work and envies his gaze. When Chris decides that he has had enough, the movie takes a radical turn. Real inclinations and intentions are revealed, with dire consequences.

Get Out unfolds in a suspenseful twilight zone between Obama and Donald Trump’s Americas, whose major difference lies in which self-image to project. This zone is one of hypocrisy, lies and arrogance, but also of lucidity, solidarity and a heightened vision of community and justice. The potential for both great comedy and horror, needless to say, is colossal.

If Peele pulled a winning ticket in terms of the timing of his first film, he gives back in the form of a masterful and topical horror movie. With a remarkable cocktail of terror and delight, he also offers stress-release through a film peppered with old-school horror elements.

It is precisely the liberating potential of these transgressive genres – comedy and horror – which makes Get Out outstanding. Peele’s sharp contemporary analysis helps too.

Like a balloon bending clown at a children’s party, the director tweaks and plays around with everyday situations and concepts like assimilation, appropriation, wokeness and respectability. Get Out unfolds at a level where those who believe that they are down with contemporary culture, popular-sociology and psychology, still are likely to be caught off guard by the film’s nuances and sudden twists. What is more, in a time when self-righteousness is rife, it is liberating that none of the film’s characters are immune to inconsistency or self-deception.

The hero and sympathetic underdog Chris makes a good living from producing the kind of raw artistic documentary photography in urban settings, which tend to speak to the tastes and prejudices and fantasies of the wealthy. And Chris, who seems to have undertaken a class-journey, enjoys the perks of the same gentrification process, which forces others to leave their homes. Dating Rose seems part of Chris’s aspirational project, even if not consciously. Rod, in this context, is not just Chris’s ally or a mere horror film device. He is also a clear-sighted and frank guide for viewers witnessing Chris’s journey down the rabbit hole. There, at the Sunken Place as Peele calls it, the director invites us to explore Chris’ role as a passive observer and accomplice, and if we are up to it, our own too.

Rod is not immune to the lure of respectability either, as he keeps referring to the kinship between TSA agents and detectives, who in his view are both guardians of safety and security. Never mind the fact, which Get Out also alludes to, that one of the most dangerous situations a black person in the United States can be subjected to, is standing face-to-face with armed police.

Girlfriend Rose’s uber-confident approach to life is an unequivocal illustration of unconscious privilege, including the freedom from fear. Similarly, the rest of her family and the guests at the party serve as textbook-examples of the same bold claims to right of interpretation, freedom of movement and total control. There is also the possibility, however, that what comes across as supremacy instead are strategies to conceal and overcome fears, inadequacy and impotence, partly caused by unearned privilege and historically unsettled bills.

Get Out belongs to the same tradition, which has seen several versions of Stepford Wives and Frankenstein-depictions too. Both tales deal with the kind of social engineering and interventions aimed at enhancing society and humankind, such as free dental care and education, but also of sterilization and lobotomy programs. Each era has its own ideals and definitions of improvement. It is an essentialist and elitist view of human kind, which allows for both glorification and contempt, that sets the agenda in Get Out.

More broadly, the film can be seen in light of the Afrofuturism genre, to which many count the author Octavia Butler, which in short, offers physical and mental liberation through supernatural or non-realistic means. In John Sayle’s film, The Brother from Another Planet (1984), Joe Morton finds refuge from slavery at home on planet Earth. Although his life in New York is far from perfect, Harlem becomes the place where he can live up to his full potential. Afrofuturism thus offers an arena for emancipation, without the restrictions imposed by physical laws and human capacity. The disadvantage is that those seeking to enslave and repress based on race in the case of Sayle and both race and gender in the case of Butler, play by the same rules.

And where Peele focuses on the U.S., Bekolo’s sharp and unmitigated critique is not limited by national borders, but extends to leaders (and followers) whose words and actions hinder African development and self-realization.

The splatter scene in Get Out, in addition to fulfilling the requirements of the genre, serves the same purpose as Obama’s anger-translator in Key & Peele’s recurring sketch; to free up the physical and mental space needed to reimagine the world and our role in it, as well as enabling the entirely or partly subdued to reach our fullest potential.

Similarly, answers awaiting questions, dreams waiting to be released and potential to unleash are recurring themes in Bekolo’s oeuvre as a filmmaker, author, social commentator and provocateur. It is only natural then that Bekolo turns to sci-fi and the supernatural to bypass natural obstacles such as budgets, state repression and centuries of still ongoing Afrophobic bullying. And it makes sense that Peele, whether or not he has watched or read Octavia Butler and Jean-Pierre Bekolo, does the same in Hollywood.

* This is an edited version of an article that was first published online in Swedish by the Swedish film journal, FLM.

The great opus of “Small Bobby”

Miriam with Sonny’s family. Kally, 1959.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the South African magazine Drum gained an international reputation for innovatively revealing black urban life as told, in the main, by black writers and photographers. Ranjith Kally’s pictures and stories of the people of Durban, a city on South Africa’s east coast, were part of those circulated nationally, on the continent and beyond.

Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor wrote on the reach of Drum in his exhibition catalogue In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present:

Bailey expanded the parameters of Drum so that it became a quasi-continental organ. Added in succession were editions in Nigeria (1953), Ghana (1954), East Africa (1957), and Central Africa (1966)… At the height of its popularity, Drum enjoyed enormous readership. Even a North American and West Indian edition was distributed. The magazine’s circulation per issue stood at 450,000 copies, reaching far into many literate, cosmopolitan areas of Africa.

Ranjith Kally passed away on June 6. At the time of his death, Kally was based in Durban with his daughter Pavitra Pillay. He passed away while visiting his other daughter Jyoti Michael in Johannesburg. He was 91 years old. Born in Isipingo in 1925, Kally – whose family traced their history to indenture on the Natal sugarcane farms – left school at the age of fourteen to work at the R. Faulks & Company shoe factory in Durban’s Gale Street to supplement his family’s income. When he was 21, Kally discovered a small Kodak Postcard camera in a jumble sale, which he bought for sixpence. He soon became consumed by his newly found interest and spent almost all his free time photographing social events on weekends for The Leader newspaper Panorama reported in 1996. He told the journalist Nirode Bramdaw in that interview:

I remember doing my first enlargement in a makeshift darkroom in Plowright Lane, not far from The Leader offices in Pine Street, Durban. We got under way at 8pm and at 4am we were cursing as the sun began rising, jeopardising our print. In the early days we had to envisage a whole host of diverse criteria before pressing the shutter. But modern photography has taken the sting out of photography…

Papwa received at Curries. Kally, 1959.

Kally joined Golden City Post and Drum magazine, where he worked from 1956-1965 and again from 1968-1985, some 26 years at the famed sister publications. It was during these years that he produced some of his best pictures, working alongside the Drum bureau chief for Durban and fellow photographer, G.R. Naidoo. He recalled the atmosphere at the Durban office to me one day:

There was Bobby Haripersadh, Ismail ‘I.A.’ Khan, George Mahabeer, Duke Ngcobo and Dolly Hassim. The stories and pictures were often used for both Golden City Post and Drum. G.R. initially did all of the photographs for the stories. When I came in we shared the photographic work and I sometimes accompanied him on stories and took the pictures. It was a very cordial atmosphere.

Two of Kally’s photographs from that period were included in Enwezor’s 1996 landmark exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The images from 1957 challenge the racial stereotypes of the Apartheid era. One depicts two older white men drinking in a shebeen in Cato Manor – a predominantly lower working class African and Indian area at that time. The other captures former motorcycle rider Tommy Chetty and his stunt partner, Amaranee Naidoo, riding the “Wall of Death”. Described in the caption as “a shy and attractive young girl who was at one time too nervous to ride a bicycle, [Naidoo] has won fame throughout Natal, South Africa, by her daring escapades on the Wall of Death. And while other girls of her age are wondering who their next ‘date’ will be, she often wonders if she will be alive for another date.”

Amaranee Naidoo with bike. Kally, 1957.

Kally’s assignments saw him photograph political leaders like Monty Naicker, Yusuf Dadoo and Nelson Mandela at the Rivonia Treason Trial; Goonam Naidoo on resistance politics and women’s rights; Oliver Tambo at the funeral in Lesotho in 1982 when ANC members were massacred by the South African Defence Force; Alan Paton and Sushila Gandhi in a quiet moment together at Phoenix Settlement (built by Mahatma Gandhi); and ANC leader Chief Albert Luthuli under house arrest and receiving news on winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960. He photographed Durban’s rival gangs – the Crimson League and the Salots – and the court case surrounding local gangster Michael John’s brutal death at his home, which captured the imagination of a generation. He often told the story of how he smuggled a camera into court under his shirt – for that tricky mission – and illicitly took pictures by clicking a pen at the same time as he snapped the photos, without anyone being any the wiser. He pictured hundreds of football matches at Curries Fountain stadium and took like a fish to water to the pin-up girl assignments. His coverage of the jazz and music scene at the Goodwill Lounge jazz club in the 1950s and 1960s – owned by Pumpy Naidoo and his brother Nammy – added a lens of glamour during those difficult times and featured the likes of local singers Miriam Makeba and Sonny Pillay and international acts such as Tony Scott and Jazz West Coast.  In 2004, whilst preparing for his first solo exhibition entitled Ranjith Kally: 60 Years in Black and White at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, the 78-year-old Kally reflected to me:

Of all the people I’ve photographed, Chief Luthuli has been the highlight of my career. He was such a jovial, humble person and would pose in any way that you asked of him. While Luthuli was under house arrest, the special branch would watch the front of the house and we would sneak in through the back. At the time I worked with Bobby Haripersadh and Mrs Luthuli would refer to me as ‘Small Bobby’. We had a great relationship with him [Luthuli].

Goodwill Lounge. Kally, 1960.

Renowned South African photographer David Goldblatt was at the exhibition opening and said that he was ashamed that he hadn’t heard of Kally until then. “I thought I knew most photographers in the country working in that period… I found his work very warm and a breath of fresh air that, over this long period, has retained particular senses and values,” Goldblatt remarked to journalist Penny Sukhraj at the time. “The picture of Chief Luthuli is a very personal response. It is a very appealing picture of a great man,” added Goldblatt, who bought a print of Kally’s portrait of Albert Luthuli standing at the shop window in Groutville. Many museums and public collections such as the Johannesburg Art Gallery, the Durban Art Gallery, the South African National Gallery, the Durban Local History Museum, SABC, among others, added Kally’s opus to their collections from that exhibition.

Prior to that however, Kally was on the margins in Durban, “while others were making the front page,” reported Sukhraj, who likened Kally to the fifth Beatle. The tributes on Drum from the late 1980s – international exhibitions, catalogues, theatre plays, books and PhD research topics – focused on the Johannesburg office and the stories from Sophiatown.

Kally was taken aback by the flood of media attention he received in 2004 and pleasantly surprised by the prices bestowed on his work by the art world. He charmed all and sundry with his humble demeanor and lucid accounts of his experiences and finally graced a number of national front pages too.

Pataan. Kally, 1958.

In using the example of Malek Alloula’s Le Harem Colonial, a study of early 20th-century postcards and photographs of Algerian harem women, Edward Said explains that Alloula “sees his own fragmented history in the pictures” and in revisiting the images “we have the recovery of a history hitherto either misrepresented or rendered invisible. Stereotypes of the Other have always been connected to political actualities of one sort or another, just as the truth of lived communal (or personal) experience has often been totally sublimated in official narratives, institutions and ideologies.” Kally’s photos contribute to the “restoration of the lived historical memory” and the “unofficial” stories of “experiences of the Other” – they are as much about a collective memory of a community as they are about his exceptional ability.

I was working at the Durban Art Gallery in 1998 when I first met Kally, who approached me to assist in getting his photographs exhibited. It was a few years later that I curated Kally’s first solo exhibition which took place at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg (2004) and a retrospective exhibition at the Durban Art Gallery later that year, an edited version of which travelled to the Bamako Encounters photo biennale in Mali (2005), where Kally received a Liftetime Achievement Award. The exhibition also traveled to the Kunsthalle Wien in Austria (2006), the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona in Spain (2006), and Espace Jeumon (Cité des Arts) in Reunion Island, France (2007).

Kally’s work has been included in some local and international group exhibitions and related catalogues such as The Finest Photos in Old Drum (1987), Sof’town Blues (1994), Margins to Mainstream: Lost South African Photographers (1994) and more recently The Indian in DRUM magazine in the 1950s (2008), among other. Linda Givon – the founder of the Goodman Gallery, who took the decision to show Kally’s photos there – was quoted by the Sunday Times Lifestyle in 2004, “His work is historically extraordinary, because we think we know about the past but then realise we have never really been exposed to this community that has been living in Durban for so many decades…”

Rita Lazarus – Miss Durban. Kally, 1960.

His images are an invaluable archive of the social history of the South African Indian community from 1948-1994 and were used extensively in books such as Portrait of Indian South Africans (1969) by Fatima Meer – focusing on the market gardeners and the “Tin Town” community that lived in wood-and-iron shacks in Springfield Flats – and From Canefields to Freedom: A Documentary on Indian South African Life (2000) by Uma Duphelia-Mesthrie. He published The Struggle, 60 Years in Focus: Ranjith Kally (2004) and a recent survey of his work published by Quiver Tree Publications is entitled Memory Against Forgetting (2014).

In 1952 Kally came third out of 150,000 entries in an international photo competition held in Japan and in 1967 he was selected for membership to the Royal Photographic Society in London. Kally was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2013 and earned the Living Legends title awarded by the eThekwini Municipality (City of Durban) the same year.

Reflecting on his career in 2004, Kally said that he had “no regrets and no grudges. Apartheid was tough on me like most black people. As far as photography is concerned, there is no other profession in the world like it. I tried capturing emotion in my pictures and I have been successful some of the time. But I will take pictures all of the time.”

Nobel Luthuli & Family. Kally, 1960.

The values of David Goldblatt

David Goldblatt. Image via Goodman Gallery.

Inseparable from the photographic images of world-renowned South African photographer David Goldblatt, are values. Values, like waves of light, are in some ways absorbed as the social information of a photograph, and in others reflected back at the viewer. Goldblatt, whose imagework blurs the lines between documentary and fine art, frequently speaks of values in his public commentary. This mantra of values comes from the lifetime he has spent photographing the ways in which values are woven into the fabric of South African society. In contemplating his legacy, a new film, Goldblatt, turns the lens around to reveal and interrogate the values embodied by the photographer himself. Directed by Daniel Zimbler, a South African filmmaker who lives and works in New York City, Goldblatt presents the life and career of the legendary photographer through a decade of filming him at work and through interviews with art critics and fellow visual artists.

In the film, we see that Goldblatt is getting on in years – he is in his mid-80s – but still making images. Over the course of his career, Goldblatt has produced many significant bodies of work that depict uniquely South African social environments. Known for capturing the conditions that led to historic events rather than the events themselves, the film acts in part as a retrospective for Goldblatt’s major projects, showcasing his signature meditative approach to the documenting of declining mining towns, Apartheid-era Afrikaner communities, suburban Johannesburg architecture, township living and the dusty landscapes of the Karoo. Rich with resonant luminance, Goldblatt’s images have a way of highlighting the lines of contrast visible when highly racialized cultures envelop a society’s people, structures and landscapes. Through the photographing of mundane moments lasting fractions of a second, Goldblatt’s collections of images collectively carry the charge of haunting moments in history that seem both far away and very near at the same time.

In telling the story of Goldblatts’s photographic life, the film drives with him in camper van across South Africa in search of images, and explores his studio where he digs through old keepsakes including snapshots from his school days in the 1940s and a heavily scratched mining helmet. As Goldblatt reflects on his work, he offers insights into his personal philosophies of image-making; he doesn’t shoot for a particular audience, he aims to be uncaring as a photographer, and he’s not swayed by being considered an important photographer. Yet, the film does well to reveal that these attitudes are complicated within his psyche. We see that Goldblatt mistrusts the ability of non-South Africans to read the coded language of his images, he refers to himself as an “international artist” when he wants something done for him, and his dispassionate approach has led him to ultimately feel that his work has been “partial and superficial.”

It is Goldblatt’s approach to his photography work that informs his personal politics, and the film picks up its pace as Goldblatt’s relationship to politics comes under scrutiny, especially the Apartheid years. Concerned with compromising his photographic vision, Goldblatt never documented overtly political events and operated with a general rule of never allowing his images to be used for political purposes. He speaks of being sympathetic to the anti-Apartheid cause, though kept his distance. A range of art figures are asked in the film what this distance has meant for Goldblatt’s life and legacy. Mostly white, they include the artist William Kentridge, novelist Marlene van Niekerk, writer Sean O’Toole and curator Hans Ulrich-Obrist.  Marlene van Niekerk covers for Goldblatt: “I think involvement through the lens was what he protected by not becoming politically more involved.” Black photographers are inconspicuous in this debate. Zanele Muholi, who represents a younger generation, speaks kindly of Goldblatt at the start of the film, though her contribution is brief and seems tagged on.

The most directly critical voice is that of Omar Badsha, a photographer identified variously with black consciousness, trade unions and the mass democratic movement in his long career as a “social documentary photographer.” Badsha, with whom Goldblatt has collaborated on several projects over the years, is less flattering of Goldblatt’s political neutrality: “David’s work never challenged the state. David’s work doesn’t question the system of racism in [South Africa], because if you question it, there is no difference between the Afrikaner and English-speaking South Africans.” For Badsha, Goldblatt is a “white liberal;” a group derided for declaring opposition to Apartheid, but who often refused to take part in protest or boycott. The film notes that during the cultural boycott (when the liberation groups discouraged South African artists, especially whites, from exhibiting their work overseas), Goldblatt had a show in London in 1985, which was criticized by liberation groups. Goldblatt deemed it censorship. Badsha thinks the decision to hold the London exhibition was “naïve.”

The transition to a democratic South Africa, brought new freedoms, but it did not dismantle social and economic power disparities that have allowed white capitalist patriarchy to live on. This context is compounded in the practice of photography by the already fraught power relationship between photographer and those who appear in their images. A telling contemporary scene in the film lets us observe Goldblatt’s process for shooting in a township. The scene begins with him tracking down a woman he had photographed in the 1970s. With the help of a fixer and some community members, he locates the woman. Goldblatt greets her cordially in Afrikaans, shows her the old photograph he had taken and asks to take a new one. The woman politely inquires as to what he does with all the photographs he takes. Goldblatt grins and proudly mentions exhibiting them in Europe and South Africa. She responds, without missing a beat: “But you take our photos, you give us nothing – we’re lying hungry here man.” They eventually agree on compensation – it is unclear how much – and he suggests she sit in the kitchen for the portrait to mimic the image of her taken years earlier. She tries to object to the location because of a broken stove, but he insists on the kitchen and when it’s time to take the shot he tells her how to look. The interaction reveals the dominance of a polite, but layered power in Goldblatt’s method as well as the dubiousness of veracity in the documentary tradition.

Later on in the film, in a moment of reflective melancholy, the voice of the artist William Kentridge notes that a photograph is really about the person who makes it. This in an important reminder from the film’s producers that Goldblatt’s photographs, with their masterful composition of quiet social topography, have always responded to his own vision of life in South Africa. He has been fortunate that for many years his vision has carried a legibility that resonated with information power brokers in South Africa and beyond.

However, the landscape of information distribution and consumption is shifting and there are new voices bringing different dimensions to the story of the South Africa’s evolution. Many of those photographic voices, like that of Muholi, have been trained at the Market Photo Workshop, a project Goldblatt helped found in 1989. What began as a short-term training course has grown into a serious photography school and exhibition space that targets students from diverse lower income backgrounds. Market Photo has been a way for Goldblatt to share his passion for images through fellowship and is an important part of his legacy, though the institution is strangely not mentioned in the film.

By displaying Goldblatt’s controversial pursuit of a dispassionate photographic vision and the revelation that he has a collection of never-before exhibited nude images, the film highlights that he is often self-limiting in what it means to be Goldblatt, or what qualifies something as a Goldblatt image. In acknowledging these limitations, he speaks to the consequences of isolation and loneliness that he has experienced over the years, admitting that he wishes he could go deeper in his connections, but doesn’t know how. Hinted at in the film, though not fully explored, are the costs of his itinerant obsession felt by family. Goldblatt’s wife, Lily, expresses she would have preferred he had a more stable career (their are never heard from). In the aesthetic realm, Goldblatt laments that in South Africa he can never just photograph a landscape as a landscape, though he’s aware that the question of values in such contested space can never be escaped. The values he so often gestures at in the people and places in South Africa are projected from him as well.

Zimbler’s film is effective in traversing multiple dimensions of Goldblatt’s life and legacy. Goldblatt’s technical mastery of his tools and the insightfulness of his observant eye imbue his images with a historical importance that is difficult to deny. Still fevered by the pursuit of his vision, recognizing a shift in the tonality of the social landscape, Goldblatt even documented the recent removal of the colonial Cecil Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town campus that was a result of the student-driven #RhodesMustFall movement. In Goldblatt’s momentous image of the statue’s removal, he captures a wide angle of Rhodes being hoisted by a crane, surrounded by students with their arms raised, cell phone cameras in hand. In the film, Goldblatt jokes that the students were so busy raising their arms in this strange “ritual” that nobody was actually looking at the event. Yet, as the only one supposedly looking, he forgets that it was the students who brought Rhodes down.

*This review is part of our round up of the films screened at Encounters International Documentary Festival, which took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg from 1-11 June.

The legacy of Biafra and the idea of being Nigerian

Otodo Gbame demolition. Image via Justice and empowerment initiatives-Nigeria Flickr.

I’ve spent most of my life in Nigeria, but lately I’ve been wondering if holding a Nigerian passport and living a substantial number of years in a country are sufficient to stake a claim over it. I’ve also wondered what it means to be Nigerian.

I grew up in the Rivers State capital of Port Harcourt, the oil rich city nestled in the southernmost region of the country, but the de facto indigene-settler mentality promoted by politicians and accepted by Nigerians has meant Rivers State can’t adopt me in the way Chicago adopted Hawaiian native Barack Obama, who served as a senator for Illinois. I can’t access state scholarships, can’t head any state schools and definitely can’t hold political office because my forebears hailed from towns beyond the state’s border. And yet, the Rivers State had no scruples taxing my salary as a resident of Port Harcourt.

In Nigeria, your father’s origin dictates yours. In my case, with both parents from Oguta, a small clannish town in Southeast Nigeria, I’m Oguta even though my connection to the place is limited to the few weeks I visited during Christmas and Easters holidays as a kid and teenager.

Following the Nigeria-Biafra war, the federal government built public secondary schools known as unity schools in an attempt to foster peace and feelings of patriotism among students from different tribes and socioeconomic backgrounds.

As an alumna of a unity school, I can attest the idea is a noble one and could have worked if Nigerians weren’t perpetually being reminded that the demonym Nigerian is an airy ideal subservient to the flawed reality of tribal affiliations, be it in application forms for government jobs, wherein you’re forced to declare your state and local government area, or by landlords who only rent to people of their own tribe.

Nigeria as a country remains a mirage, which is why every Christmas cities and towns across Nigeria empty out as Igbos, whose calls for secession fifty years ago resulted in the Nigeria-Biafra civil war, travel home to their ancestral lands in southeastern Nigeria. Jokes abound of the yearly mass migration, but beneath these jests is a less humorous motive. For the Igbos, traveling home means establishing roots and reconnecting with their ancestral homes, an insurance against Nigeria’s uncertain future as a united country.

When Nigeria gained its independence from the British in 1960, Igbos dispersed across the country like dust in the wind, with some venturing as far as northern Nigeria to pitch their tents. Language was only a temporary barrier for the Igbos as they quickly learned foreign tongues for the purpose of conducting business and getting on with life.

But then came the 1966 coup, led mostly by Igbo officers, which saw the deaths of many northerners, including then prime minister Tafawa Balewa and the premier Ahmadu Bello. In the counter-coup that followed, Igbos were targeted and killed by civilians and military officers in an anti-Igbo pogrom the North, and those lucky to be alive fled home to Igbo enclaves in the Southeast. It was this event that precipitated the declaration of the independent nation of Biafra and underscored a bitter truth: The name “Nigerian” is a mythical invention and “home” can only be your ancestral land.

Arguably, Nigeria’s crude oil wealth has been the motivating factor behind the ruling elite’s fight to preserve Nigeria in its current disposition. Year after year, the nation’s coffers are looted by government officials who are more interested in securing their profligate lifestyle than getting different factions to work together to build Nigeria into a real country. The ruling elite’s insatiable appetite, its desire to gorge off the fat of the land are to blame for the Boko Haram insurgency in the Northeast and militancy in the Niger Delta, symptoms of abuse, neglect and underinvestment.

If the name Nigeria meant anything, then a long-term resident of Rivers State from northern Nigeria should be able to represent the state at the National Assembly. If being Nigerian meant anything, the presidency wouldn’t be rotated every eight years between the North and South or along tribal lines. If we as Nigerians were serious about keeping Nigeria whole, then we would set tribal allegiances aside and select the best candidates to run the country. If Nigeria meant anything, that would be our first and only priority.

Weekend Special, Sunday June 11, 2017

Image by Lucie Diondet, via Flickr.

First Things First (excuse the pun): Put on “Gang Signs & Prayer,” the debut studio album of Stormzy (Government Name: Michael Ebenazer Kwadjo Omari Owuo, Jr.), as this is  going to be a long Weekend Special. 20 items deep.

(1) Respect. Namibian freedom fighter Andimba Toivo ya Toivo passed away last week. So did the famed South African photographer Ranjit Kally.  They were both 92 years old.  (We’ll have a longer tribute to Kelly later this week.)

(2) This is what Zambian political debate has become? I finally watched the AJ Stream (Al Jazeera) “debate” on “Is Zambia’s democracy in danger?” In summary: It is a shitstorm of people shouting over each other. By the end, or no one else, was none the wiser on what is going on in Zambia. It was exhausting just listening to these. Even Jeffrey Smith and his consultancy made an appearance. Laura Miti was an exception, but even she could not compete with the spin. And these people were just party operatives and “social commentators.” I can’t even imagine what it would be like if the actual political leaders went on air. As someone said on Twitter: “Zambians don’t deserve their self serving politicians.”

(3) The US outsourced some parts of its occupation in Iraq to private security companies … who in turn hired former child soldiers. Yes.

Because they’re cheap; it keep overloads low: US$250 per soldier. That’s after Peruvians, Colombians and Ugandans–seemingly the usual ‘soldiers for hire’–were deemed too expensive:

(4) The band Radiohead is embarking on a “World Tour.” They’ll start in Israel. Thom Yorke, the band’s leader, has resisted requests he cancel the trip to apartheid Israel and that he join the cultural boycott. He said, among others, he knows about Palestinian suffering because the wife of one his band members is Israeli. SMH. Nevertheless, Yorke’s prevarications reminds me of Paul Simon’s explanations for breaking the cultural boycott against apartheid South Africa to make his ‘Graceland’ album.

(5) Who is behind the slick Mawazo Institute, and why are they secretive about who funds this? Meanwhile, I am also anticipating the “this is decolonizing education in Africa” tweets and op-eds, something like the free advertising The Conversation Africa gave the private African Leadership University.

(6) There is a new film out about Winnie Mandela, “Winnie.” Reviewing the film, Sisonke Msimang wrote what is probably the best thing you going read about Winnie Mandela in a long while. Not to be outdone, Huffington Post South Africa went an interviewed the Mother of the Nation. Their  salacious headline about Nelson Mandela’s many extra-marital children (by now anyone who still thinks the old man was some sort of saint–Fallists deem him a sellout–must have been living under a rock) takes away attention from what else Winnie Mandela has to say on more substantive politics (though, why Winnie Mandela repeats unsubstantiated and slanderous claims that it was ANC people who killed Chris Hani, I don’t know).

(7) The best reaction on Twitter to Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party’s gains in British elections (despite the media and the pollsters), came from Kitila Mkumbo, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Water and Irrigation of Tanzania: “Long live Socialism and leftism!

(8) What passes for some parts of the Left in the US (mimicked elsewhere) suffer from ‘vague autoimmune disease’:

Just as Trump remade politics as television, we’ve allowed political action to mimic the spiteful, futile patterns of online bickering: our fellow anti-capitalists betray us all by enjoying or creating the wrong art, reading the wrong articles, championing the wrong theories, or even laughing at the wrong jokes. The left is at once flailing and sclerotic. Afflicted by a vague autoimmune disorder, we cannot even retain what little power we have, nor do we have any institutions capable of doing so; thus, we are able to smack only those within arm’s reach of us—ourselves. Meanwhile, the bigger and stronger the right gets, the more insular we become, single-mindedly obsessed with purifying our own ranks and weeding out the problematic among us.

This is a spot-on diagnosis.

(9) Apart from a Youtube channel, which Vice.com sporadically updates, why is Vice News’s daily television news bulletin only on premier cable HBO? That’s a shame, because it is really good.

(10) Contributor Omolade Adunbi ‘s book ‘Oil Wealth and Insurgency in Nigeria’ (published by Indiana University Press) wins The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland’s Amaury Talbot Prize for African Anthropology.

(11) I finally got to see “The Fall,” Daniel Gordon’s documentary film about the 1984 Olympics 3000 meters final between between Zola Budd and the world’s best runner at the time, the American Mary Decker. Budd, then 18, went from running in all white races in South Africa before she was taken by the Daily Mail (as a publicity stunt to up its circulation) to the UK to compete for Great Britain. (South Africa was banned by the IOC because of Apartheid.) The result of the race is known–Decker fell; at the time she blamed Budd; the crowd and the media took that line too–but I’ve never seen Budd talk about it at length on camera.   One thing I was dying to hear/see Budd talk about is apartheid. The film, which is self-indulgent at length, includes some great footage of the antiapartheid protests in Western Europe against Budd. At the time, Budd couldn’t get herself to say Apartheid was wrong, because “sports and politics don’t mix “What the film reveals, however, is that 30 odd years later, she still defends that position and that she was the victim; not an unusual one for many white South Africans of her generation.  (BTW, Budd also comments on her father  being bisexual/gay: “He was different” SMH.)

(12) “Sembene!,” the documentary film about the great Senegalese Marxist filmmaker and former dockworker, Ousmane Sembene, (“the father of African cinema) can be viewed for free till tonight. Watch it here.

(13) South Africa’s new Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo and the man who helped him get there, Solly Bux, are both working class heroes. (Click on the hyperlinks for the full story.)

(14) Nigeria’s elites are in a class of their own. The President is in London on “medical leave” again. Since January, he has spent more than SEVENTY DAYS there (on two trips).  An investment consultant told the Wall Street Journal: “Will he survive this year? I doubt it. You look at him, you know he’s terminally ill.”   Vice President Oluyemi Osinbajo basically runs the country, but everyone has to keep up appearances. Osinbajo is a southerner and since the advent of democracy, northern and southern elites have passed their presidency between them. It is now the north’s turn, though, like with President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, the north feels it may shortchanged if Buhari too dies in office. So, “there are those who are prepared to work hard to make [Mr. Buhari] stay on as president, even if he is a vegetable.”

Meanwhile, it emerged last week that between them 55 top businesspeople and government officials stole US$4.4 billion from the Nigerian state since the advent of democratic rule.  And remember that story of US$43 million and another UK£27,800 cash lying around an apartment in In Lagos, Nigeria. The apartment happened to be owned by the wife of the Director-General of the National Intelligence Agency, who is being investigated for corruption. Now the government claims “no one has come forward to claim” the money so wants to keep it. Should we even trust them?

(15) In South Africa, where the government continues its murderous assault against black people, a two-week-old baby dies during housing protests in Durban, South Africa; she inhaled tear gas fired by police.

(16) The Gupta family, the corrupt benefactors of South Africa’s President, turns out to be racist against black people too. Here’s from workers at a wedding the family threw: “… Workers at Sun City reported that Gupta security personnel ordered black waiters to wash themselves before they could serve the wedding guests. ‘This blatantly means that black people smell and the Gupta guests would not be served by smelly black people,’ a resort employee was quoted as saying by City Press. The paper said bodyguards and butlers hired for the wedding were white.’ The Guptas identify the problem in South Africa as one of “white monopoly capital.”

(17) I’m just going to leave this here: A Ghanaian church in Accra held a Thanksgiving service for Chelsea FC supporters (the club won the English Premier League). Everyone came decked out in new replica shirts. The pastor is an Arsenal fan. Not to be outdone, a Nigerian state government used public money to celebrate Real Madrid’s UEFA Champions League title win (that’s that game after which Juventus manager said  about Cristiano Ronaldo: “What are you going to do? He looks like he is napping all game and then he pops up and scores two goals.”).

(18) Here’s quick quiz: “Just compare the number of pictures of fallen trees in driveways with SUVs with the number of pictures of flooded shacks. See if there are more stories of foam on the Sea Point promenade than interviews with those injured and left homeless, and see if you can find any hard questions posed to the [Western Cape provincial government or the City of Cape Town] about what has been done since previous winters, and you’ll have your answer.” That’s my friend (and AIAC contributor) Herman Wasserman responding to my question whether media coverage of the damage caused by rainstorms in Cape Town (especially on the Cape Flats where most of its black residents live) have gotten any better since Ron Krabill and I did this mid-2000s study.

(19) BTW, long before people got woke to “ghetto tourism,” we told you about “township tourism.

(20) Finally, the Ivorian footballer Cheikh Tiote collapsed on his Chinese club’s training field and died. Tiote won an African Cup of Nations with Cote d’Ivoire, but played his best football for Newcastle in England’s Premier League, where he scored this goal to tie the score against Arsenal in 2011.

The leader whose time has come

Image by Andy Miah. Via Flickr.

In today’s British election, the Labour Party increased its vote by 3 million votes and by 10% of the vote (from 30 to 40% overall). No political party in Britain has seen its vote rise this sharply in any other election since 1945.

To say that the result confounds expectations is to understate the shock that people here are feeling here. When Prime Minister Theresa May announced the election, just seven weeks ago, she was ahead by 26% in the polls. By election day, that lead had been reduced to just two percent.

Attention focuses on Jeremy Corbyn, who has led his party since 2015. There is no one else in British politics remotely like Corbyn. Modest, unambitious and principled, he is a long-term Labour backbench MP who has made his reputation through decades of taking up campaigns which previous leaders of his party ignored. Observing elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2006, speaking in New York on behalf of Guatanamo detainee Shaker Aamer, attending countless events for a free Palestine.

During the long hegemony that the Blairites had over the Labour Party, Corbyn was seen as an inconvenience and an irritant. The old, right-wing Labour Party was notorious for the extent to which it disciplined its members, requiring them to possess pagers (this was before mobile phones were commonplace) so that their contacts with the media could be centrally controlled. Fifteen years ago, I recall Corbyn telling a meeting of local activists. “I don’t understand what the fuss is about. No-one tells me what to say.” Previous Labour leaders didn’t because the leadership had given up on Corbyn as uncorruptable and uninterested in the normal promises of ministerial promotion.

Journalists here seem to have some difficulty explaining why Labour has done so well, but the answer is simple. It wasn’t the unpopularity of Theresa May, nor even the stupidity of the Tory manifesto, although the proposals in the latter included a so-called “dementia tax” requiring middle class families to give up the value in their homes to pay for the social care of the elderly – a duff move for a political right which usually treats homeownership as sacrosanct.

If it had just been these factors then the vote could easily have gone to the Liberal Democrats who most pollsters expected to surge and didn’t. It was because Labour was so left-wing. Its manifesto offered voters, especially young and non-voters, the policies they wanted. Free higher education, increased taxes on the rich. The manifesto broke through the neoliberal idea that all any of us can do is wait and suffer.

But there was a second side to this. In the big cities with large remain majorities, people projected onto Corbyn a position that actually there in his manifesto – one of active opposition to Brexit, especially hard Brexit. So Labour did very much better than expected in Newcastle (a large city which had voted against Brexit), and only a little better than feared in Sunderland (the neighbouring city, pro-exit in last year’s referendum).

Through the last year, politics internationally has been shaped by the knock-on effects of the Brexit vote, with its message of economic nationalism giving impetus to the campaigns of Donald Trump in America and then Marine Le Pen in France.

It seemed as if the energy was all with the racist right.

But the closer Brexit comes to reality, the more that centrist voters have rebelled against the idea that last year’s 52-48 majority for exit justifies a complete break from Europe and its model of social liberalism.

Brexit is *not* the principal reason for Corbyn’s success. He has done well because of a manifesto which promised redistribution and renationalisation, and because of a turnout by young voters engaged by Corbyn’s record and his relaxed, personal style.

But it has helped to neutralise the attacks against him. Brexit’s irrationality, its unpopularity with young voters, and its premise that what the country needs is to restrict the migration of foreigners: these have helped Corbyn – in contrast to the autocratic-seeming Theresa May – to look like the leader whose time has come.

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