Africa is a Country

Barack Obama–The ‘HalfAfrican’ President

Obama with family in Kenya. Image via Wikimedia.Obama with family in Kenya. Image via Wikipedia.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gained an unexpected endorsement from Kenya in the summer of 2016. Malik Obama, President Obama’s Kenyan half-brother, declared his support for the Republican nominee. Trump, the proud vanguard of the Birther movement, praised the endorsement, while Malik, who had been the best man at Obama’s wedding, complained to the Kenyan press that his brother, “has neglected his African heritage and wants nothing to do with it despite campaigning on a platform that he will help transform Africa.”

Malik’s comments reflect many Africans’ discontent with Obama’s foreign policy and the disappointment that an anticipated “special relationship” between Kenya and the US did not come to pass. But Malik’s views and their eager acceptance by Trump are also relevant to American politics, playing to the substantial segment of the American Right that has made politicized gossip and racial and religious innuendo about the president’s roots – gone viral in the internet age – central to its platform of identity politics and obstructionism.

Studying the Obama and Kenya saga for more than a decade, we have observed that stories about Obama’s Kenyan heritage consistently provide clickbait for a range of parties, from liberal partisans in the US and supporters across Africa who have celebrated the Obama-Kenya connection, to the lurking conspiracy theorists who have decried Obama’s Kenyan heritage. While trying to make sense of the competing streams of Birtherist condemnation and pan-Africanist celebration will undoubtedly challenge scholars and politicos for the foreseeable future, certain trajectories and their significance to Kenyan, American, and global politics are clear.

Obama's inauguration day in Kogelo, Kenya (2009). Image credit Zoriah via Flickr.Obama’s inauguration day in Kogelo, Kenya (2009). Image credit Zoriah via Flickr.

Obama’s Luo heritage made him a celebrated figure in Kenya well before he achieved fame at home. Early in 2004, as we were conducting research in Western Kenya not far from Kogelo, where the Obama family’s dala, or ancestral homestead, is situated, we kept fielding questions and hearing stories about that “Luo” running for the U.S. Senate. By the time Obama gave his life-changing address at the Democratic convention and then sailed to victory in the Illinois Senate race, it was evident that Kenyans were reading Obama’s ascendancy through the lens of Kenya’s patrimonial politics.

By 2006, when Senator Obama made his first official visit to Kenya, his “homecoming” was celebrated by thousands of Kenyans who lined the streets from Nairobi to his grandmother’s modest home in Nyanza. Kenyans expressed their enthusiasm for Obama, sporting commemorative t-shirts and kanga (wraps), and toasting him with the newly renamed “Senator” beer. But at the same time, Kenyans, and Luo in particular, made their patronage expectations of Obama increasingly overt. As one resident of Luoland confidently asserted, “We will get support from America, as Africans, as Kenyans and particularly as Luo.”

kangaImage by Matt Carotenuto

Viewing Obama’s ascendancy through Western Kenya’s long histories of political marginalization and developmental disparities and through an ethnic identity constituted in migration, Luo people reached eagerly into the global, Luo diaspora to claim Obama as their “son” and patron. They were, however, quickly disappointed. In his remarks and speeches during the 2006 visit, Obama turned patrimonial politics on its head, arguing forcefully before a gathering of Kenya’s political and intellectual elite that (ethnic) patronage was a barrier to growth and both an incentive to and symptom of corruption.

Two years later, Obamamania swept the globe as Obama was elected president. For Obama’s supporters at home and abroad, his biracial background and cosmopolitan upbringing were cause for celebration, markers of a new, more tolerant and inclusive global age. Yet, the 2008 campaign had been hard-fought, with Obama’s political opponents consistently drawing on the new president’s Kenyan descent as evidence of his dangerous Otherness and lack of “belonging.” Indeed, while Trump pushed for Obama to produce his birth certificate, a proliferation of books, blogs and bluster asserted that Obama was truly a “son of the soil” of Western Kenya and thus legally ineligible to be president; Obama (and his administration) were not merely un-American, but illegitimate.

Throughout his administration and again after his 2012 victory, Obama’s relationship to Kenya has been profoundly constrained by the American Right’s consistent use of his Kenyan heritage to indict him as “foreign” and “untrustworthy.” These attacks characterized Kenya’s past inaccurately through western idioms of crisis, reading Kenya’s infamous anti-colonial rebellion (Mau Mau) as “anti-white” and contemporary politics through the ethnocentric prisms of “tribalism” and “radical Islam.” Although scholars and left-leaning pundits often casually dismissed these revisionist attacks as the overwrought ramblings of the Far Right, this discourse demonstrates the power of using corrupted versions Kenya’s past as political tools, fueling the rise of Donald Trump (whose grassroots campaign was propelled by claims over Obama’s supposed Kenyan-ness)  and stoking the colonial nostalgia of Boris Johnson, Britain’s post-Brexit Foreign Secretary.

Obama refrained from visiting Kenya until summer 2015. Even then he faced criticism from the Right – ignorant of Kenya’s status both as the United States’ chief counter-terrorism partner in Africa and as an emerging economic powerhouse on the continent –accused of squandering Americans’ tax dollars on a pointless visit “home.”

obama-matatuObama Matatu. Image credit Cordelia Persen via Flickr

In the 2016 presidential race, the question of the sitting president’s “American-ness” remains a critical topic. A simple Google search of the phrase “Obama and Kenya” provides a jarring lens into the profoundly racist character of the Alt-Right’s conspiracy theories about Obama’s “Kenyan-ness,” amplified in the current electoral cycle by Trump’s tacit support. More generally, polls consistently indicate that more than 50% of Trump supporters believe Obama was born abroad. (According to an NBC News poll released in August, 72% of Republicans doubt that Obama was born in the United States.)

While Trump has recently – and rather disingenuously – endeavored to consign Birtherism to the dustbin of history, the significance of the president’s Kenyan heritage has operated as an important engine to propel the Trump campaign’s anti-immigration (and anti-Muslim) message and a space for the Clinton campaign to challenge Trumps racial bona fides.

As Obama’s presidency draws to a close, conjecture has already begun about what his connection to Kenya will ultimately yield and how his tenure as the first American president of African descent will shape U.S. politics, particularly in the arenas of foreign policy and race relations. During his 2015 visit Obama told Kenyans, “the next time I’m back here I may not be wearing a suit,” giving rise to speculation the Obama Foundation would make Kenya a priority. If the last 12 years offer any insight into the future, Obama’s legacy will be shaped by contested histories and the politics of belonging.

The paradoxes of a soft dictatorship

 Amanda Lucidon via The White House.The Obamas and Bongos in August 2014. Image Credit: US Department of State.

For the second time in seven years, violent unrest has followed the presidential election in the small country of Gabon in West Equatorial Africa. The crisis started on August 28, when the candidate of the united opposition, Jean Ping (age 73), declared himself the winner of the presidential election. In the country’s capital, Libreville, people retreated into an anxious pause. Three days later, on August 31, the incumbent president, Ali Bongo (age 57), endorsed the official result announced by the National Electoral Commission (Commission électorale nationale autonome et permanente, or Cénap). Bongo had made a small advance: 49.8% of the votes against 48.2% for Jean Ping, equivalent to 5,594 votes out of a registered total of 627,805.

At the announcement of Bongo’s victory, the streets of Gabon went up in flames. Protesters erected roadblocks and set fire to the National Assembly. The police and the army were dispatched. While the international community multiplied calls for peace and for a recounting of the votes, the UN and the EU encouraged Ping to agree to an official intervention of Gabon’s constitutional court, an institution staffed by judges devoted to Ali Bongo. A delegation headed by the President of Chad, Idriss Déby (himself implicated in electoral corruption) arrived in Libreville on September 21 to help the court’s vote-checking.

On September 24, the constitutional court completed the recount and confirmed Bongo’s victory (with a slightly larger majority: 50.6 % for Bongo to 47.2 % for Ping). Despite the protest of Federica Mogherini, the High Representative for the External Affairs of the European Union, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon soberly “noted” the decision of the court and the election of Ali Bongo.

Gabon is a small country located in the equatorial rainforest, with a population of 1.6 million. Endowed with rich natural resources (oil, manganese, uranium, and lumber), it has proved a bastion of stability in a region undermined by war, violence and social upheaval. Since independence (1960), the country has nurtured strong economic and diplomatic links with France, the former colonial ruler.

In 2009, French president Nicolas Sarkozy made it known that he supported Ali Bongo’s candidacy. Recent scandals, from revelations about the real-estate properties of Gabonese politicians in France to the “ritual crimes” allegedly performed to sustain the influence of selfsame politicians, seem to have strengthened rather than weakened this historical association between the two ruling classes. But, many other Western democracies have also continued, year in and year out, to support the regime in place. Gabon has indeed remained a “soft” dictatorship based on popular politics of regional equilibrium and a fairly successful system of redistribution of national wealth. Both have spared the country from the bloody ethnic conflicts of its neighbours, and tempered the rapacity of the local political class.

Under Omar Bongo (1967-2009), Ali’s late father, the relationship between Gabonese politics and the electorate was built on a flexible system of co-optation called “Union nationale” [national unity], inaugurated in the 1960s by the first president of Gabon, Léon Mba.  Mba surrounded himself with cabinet ministers composed of representatives of all ethnic groups and provinces in the country.  In 1967, Omar Bongo, who succeeded Mba, embraced “Union nationale.” A native of a minority ethnic group (Téké) located in the eastern corner of the country, Bongo’s system of proportional government reassured the public that the only group with a relative demographic advantage, the Fang (approximately 35% of the population), would not monopolize power. To this, he added new forms of political patronage for opponents to his regime, cajoling them into lucrative positions in the government or the administration.

The longevity of the Gabonese political system also lies in the many channels of redistribution that connect politicians (known colloquially as “les Grands”) to ordinary citizens. Even if they siphon off most of the national income, les Grands feed a pyramid of allies, dependents and voters with money, protection and gifts of basic necessities, such as food, clothes, small appliances and medicine. These “donations” tether the Gabonese to the whims of an ostentatious political class that remains firmly in control of the national revenue.

Since the 1950s, the state has maintained tight control on electoral process. The ruling party, the Parti démocratique gabonais (PDG) functions like a well-oiled machine.  In 2016, for example, the Cénap announced the date of the election only eight weeks before the vote. It then restricted the official opening of the election campaign until August 13, fourteen days before the vote. The central government also conducts the census of voters and prints all the voting cards. This year, it took a mere three weeks, from August 8 to August 25, to manufacture and distribute 628,124 cards. One can only imagine the opportunities to discard less compliant voters. Last, but not least, close allies of the president staff appeal courts and arbitration institutions.  For instance, Marie-Madeleine Mborantsuo – a former lover of Omar Bongo – has been at the helm of the constitutional court for many years.

Ali Bongo suffers a poor reputation among ordinary Gabonese: many refer to him as “le Diable” (the Devil), and see him as an intruder.  Rumors among the population suggest that he was born of unknown parents in Nigeria, then adopted and raised by Omar Bongo and his wife. The public shuns Ali’s obscure origins, his long military training in Morocco and his friendship with foreign experts, referring to his connections to the “Foreign Legion,” – a term specifically applied to leaders and implying they are controlled by powerful and evil outsiders. Covertly, the public gossips that Ali is a closeted homosexual, a status linked in this part of Africa to sinful behavior and witchcraft.

More importantly, Ali Bongo’s coming to power in 2009 imposed a dynastic logic that broke away from traditional political patronage and ethnic equilibrium. Ali set aside the ethnic patronage of his predecessors to rely on a circle of right-hand men, whose loyalty he has tested during his long years of relative anonymity.  By contrast, Jean Ping’s slogan C’est dosé (“A Right Dosage”) nods to the political tradition of ethnic and national balance. The son of a Chinese businessman and a woman from Ombooué (south Gabon), Ping is of an ethnic minority, and thus well placed to restore the balance of power between the regions of Gabon. Active during the 1990s, a decade of economic prosperity in Gabon, Ping embodies a return to a more prosperous economic era. The fact that he belongs to Ali Bongo’s close family (in the 1990s, he was the companion of Pascaline, Ali Bongo’s sister, with whom he has two children) does not seem to discourage his supporters.  On the contrary, it guarantees that he has a deep knowledge of the local state, and that he will be able to govern.

The lukewarm reactions to the constitutional court’s declaration of Bongo’s victory on September 24 suggest that international actors have accepted the outcome of the elections. In Gabon itself, it is not clear whether the elite slighted by Bongo has enough popular backing to confront the heavily armed, well-organized president and ordinary Gabonese face ruthless retaliation. The opposition in Gabon is thus historically weak, poorly organized and ready to collude with those in power. Since 1960, no movement in Gabon has been able to propose a political alternative. Any attempts to shift the status quo meet with strong repression. In 1964, a coup attempt against Léon Mba was put down with the support of the French army. In 1990-1991, when pressures for the liberalization of politics ended single-party rule, the stamina of the opposition proved short-lived: with the help of France, then-president Omar Bongo quickly contained and crushed its leaders, before coopting some into government positions.

Gabonese like to mock that theirs is a country “where nothing ever happens.” However, at the time of writing, foreign observers were reporting that roadblocks obstructed the main roads in Libreville, while fighter jets flew low over the city. In times of soft dictatorship, there can always be surprises.

Colonial Sahara

Image courtesy of filmmakersImage courtesy of Life is Waiting filmmakers

Western Sahara serves as a powerful and timely reminder to the world that colonialism has not ended in Africa. It continues in the form of what the Sahrawi (the indigenous people of Western Sahara) activist Maty Mohamed-Fadel referred to as “the global shame” that is the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara.

The majority of Western Sahara has been under occupation by Morocco for decades, following incomplete decolonization by Spain in 1975 when the territory was split between Morocco and Mauritania. A bitter war between the Polisario (the Sahrawi resistance movement) and Moroccan and Mauritanian forces ended in a ceasefire in 1991, and left Morocco in control of most of the territory. Polisario controls a small liberated zone, while hundreds of thousands of Sahrawi refugees live in camps in neighboring Algeria. Life for the Sahrawi people has effectively been on hold since then, as they continue waiting for their right to self-determination through a referendum on independence that was meant to take place in 1992.

Despite the ongoing, and often brutal Moroccan occupation, and the lack of international attention paid to the situation, the Sahrawi are not idly waiting for things to change. A new documentary film, Life is Waiting, directed by Iara Lee, is a celebration of Sahrawi strength and resistance, which is clearly alive and well amongst those living in Western Sahara and those in the refugee camps or in exile in other parts of the world.

The film opens with vibrant scenes of exiled Sahrawi engaging in an annual nonviolent demonstration in Madrid, Spain intercut with an overview of the history of the territory. It then goes on to vividly portray the constant struggle of the Sahrawi to assert their identity in the face of the everyday violence of the occupation.

We see Sahrawi poets, musicians, dancers, singers, media activists, athletes, and filmmakers all engaging in non-violent acts of resistance from graffiti, raising the Western Sahara flag (which is illegal), and watch as Lee covertly films police brutality in the occupied territory. Refugees also host an international marathon, international art festival, and an international film festival in the camps. Popular Sahrawi singer, Mariem Hassan (to whom the film is dedicated), describes the importance of using art to show the strength of the Sahrawi people. Even the structure of the refugee camps in Algeria is a symbolic act of resistance, with different areas deliberately named after parts of the occupied territory in order to reproduce and sustain the connection to it.

Lee largely eschews the use of narration and the opportunity to interview officials from the United Nations, Morocco, or even the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which controls the liberated territory. Instead she simply lets the Sahrawi people tell their story in their own voices (although some international activists are also interviewed). This gives a platform to the ordinary, perhaps the extraordinary people who are directly affected by the occupation, and the highlights variety of ways in which they continue to resist it.

The chance to be at the center of the narrative is one that the Sahrawi rarely get. Despite the fact that no state recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara and more than 80 states have at various times recognized SADR’s claims to the territory, the world continues to remain largely indifferent to the situation. As Mohamed Laabied, director of RASD-TV, the Sahrawi TV station headquartered in the refugee camps laments: the lack of attention paid to the occupation by international media and Moroccan censorship efforts “hurts, it really hurts … without the media there is nothing.”

The dangers of international indifference and the perpetuation of the status quo, which one Sahrawi describes as a “situation of neither war nor peace,” are evident in the film when a number of young Sahrawi, who have grown up knowing only occupation or exile, raise the possibility of a return to war, saying that it cannot be worse than a life of exile or living in a refugee camp. But the overwhelming majority of Sahrawi in the film, young and old, are in favor of using non-violent resistance and talk of their songs or films as the new weapons in the struggle.

Recently, the Polisario has warned that tensions with Morocco are coming close to devolving into a military confrontation. This highlights how unsustainable the current situation is. Watching this film serves as a timely reminder that it should not take a return to war to bring attention to the issue. The ongoing failure to advance a political solution and the warning from the Polisario makes the Sahrawi commitment to non-violent resistance even more remarkable. Towards the end of the film, the British human rights activist, Keith Lomax, emphasizes the need to find peaceful ways to give visibility to the conflict. The Sahrawi people are clearly doing this already and it is up to the rest of the world to do its part.

Watching and sharing Life is Waiting is an excellent start. Another step, as Lomax points out, is to support the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign against companies complicit in the Moroccan occupation (for instance through the exploitation of Western Sahara’s natural resources) like the one that targeted apartheid South Africa or the one targeting Israel for its violation of international law and Palestinian rights.

Uptown Griots

All Images by Gili LevinsonAll images credit Gili Levinson

Last month Mali celebrated 56 years of political independence from France. A few weeks later, on October 9, thousands of miles to the West in New York City’s “Black Mecca,” Harlem, the city’s Malian community marked the occasion with the 9th Mali Music Festival.

The first mass migration of Malians to New York City started in the late 1980s, as part of a third wave of African immigrants. They settled mostly in Harlem and the Bronx. Today the Malian community in New York City numbers approximately 8,000.


The importance of musicians in Malian culture can not be underestimated. One category of Malian goes by “griots.” “Griot” is a West African title held by storytellers, poets, praise-singers and musicians, and it passes from one generation to the next. Griots are recognized as the community’s heart, the  living  archive of its traditions. They are also known for their great ability to give advice and to mediate disputes to those who need it, including leaders. Historically Griots served as advisors to royalty.

Community participation is integral to these types of gatherings. If an audience member’s family is mentioned in the Griot’s song it is customary for the former to give the latter a token of appreciation, usually money.

2A common instrument played by Griots is the Kora, a 21-string “double-bridge-harp-lute”, made from a large calabash and cow skin. Its origins date back to the 16th century.

The annual festival in Harlem–produced by Modoussou Productions and the United Malian Women Association–features musicians from Mali and the U.S. diaspora. On stage this year were, among others, Astou Niamé, Néné DiabatéDiamy Sako, and Dabara.

Alex Boil, the festival’s music producer, says that in recent years, American rap music has influenced some Malian musicians to develop a new Malian rap style. Today all these Griots are traveling around the world and through singing, and music, they are the caretakers of Mali’s cultural history.








Enter the Bulldozer

 GCISMilitary parade at the inauguration of President John Magufuli of Tanzania. Credit: GCIS

As with any foundational figure, Julius Nyerere’s memory bears all the contradictory passions of Tanzania’s modern history, and his name becomes a talisman for all sorts of politically charged commentaries on history and its relevance for the present. This entire symbolic infrastructure is a means by which we explore the influence of the past upon the present. In Tanzania the past includes Nyerere’s one-party state, but also the paternalist colonial state, and the undisciplined state of Tanzania’s present. Actual political change seems to happen very slowly in today’s Tanzania, and as a result the youthful society and growing economy seem to be hurtling into the future faster than institutions can adjust. Nyerere was famously quoted by the journalist William Edgett Smith a saying “we must run while they walk.” The people are running, but until last year, the government seemed to be walking very leisurely indeed.

Enter the Bulldozer. It is the nickname – perhaps more popular among foreign reporters than the Tanzanian masses – of the current president, John Pombe Magufuli. Formerly a hyperkinetic and hardnosed minister of works, Magufuli was elected last October with a 58% majority, which is the lowest margin of victory for a Tanzanian president in history, and even that total is disputed by the opposition parties. The Bulldozer nickname is apt in its reference to his eagle-eyed oversight of thousands of miles of new paved roads across the country during the last administration. Under his new administration the nickname refers to his attitude toward the big businessmen and “big potatoes” of government bureaucracy, flattening big and small alike in his quest to get people on the job, to eliminate waste and corruption in government, and (seemingly) to silence voices of protest.

Magufuli’s arrival in the State House – and immediate visits to ports, factories and government offices in search unpaid taxes and ghost workers – was a refreshing bit of political theater showing he was ready to take on all special interests in an effort discipline a widely resented culture of official inefficiency and graft. Magufuli’s energetic insistence on official integrity recalled the last president still seen as incorruptible, Julius Nyerere himself. As he then sacrificed $500,000,000 in American aid and soft loans on a point of political pride, and seemed to lean toward more regulation, labor protections and trade restrictions on top of his tax collection efforts, businesspeople began to see not a little of Nyerere’s short-sightedness. Anti-corruption efforts measures by themselves were not a strategy for economic growth. In fact, without clearing the deadwood of socialist-era regulation, anti-corruption efforts could well cut out the (illegal) shortcuts that had long allowed businesspeople to navigate the immobilizing forest of regulation.

Thirty years after Nyerere’s retirement, and three subsequent administrations widely perceived as increasingly corrupt, economic growth has been clipping along at 6%-7% annually during a period of stagnation in Europe and Latin America. More than just sour grapes from businesspeople coughing up something closer to their lawful share of taxes, their frustration stemmed from the looming shadow of the failed state-controlled economy under Nyerere’s socialist government. Contradictory incentives and political demands for state-owned enterprises in the 1970s created fertile ground for the ubiquitous habits of embezzlement and bribery that came to define bureaucratic management at all levels of Tanzanian society. Trade restrictions and an overvalued currency created shortages of everything but the most basic products of the agrarian economy by the 1980s. Nyerere blamed these problems on an unjust global economic structure and an epidemic of dishonest bureaucrats, whose arrest and dismissal would return the system to a level of productivity that had never existed.

As Magufuli proposed this year to ban the import of used clothing and refuse a long-in-the-works Economic Partnership Agreement with the European Union, many hear echoes of Nyerere’s truculent temperment. Magufuli’s efforts, like Nyerere’s, to identify and prosecute corrupt officials easily expanded into a more general restriction on any criticism or opposition to his efforts. Magufuli refused to revisit the short-circuited election in Zanzibar (the reason for the refusal of the US $500 million), banned political rallies during non-election years (i.e. the next four years), and has used cyber-security laws to impose fines and jail terms on online critics and to shut down media outlets. Nyerere justified his one-party state and restrictions on free speech in service to the rapid development of an impoverished postcolony and the need to foster national unity in a post-colonial world full of ethnic conflict and civil war. Worthy goals, but in the case of the economy, haste led to its proverbial waste.

The legacy of Nyerere’s state and state-run economy is a government (and ruling party) that values decree over debate, and control over entrepreneurship. Magufuli is a model student of this system in its ideal form. He represents a return to Nyerere’s integrity and energetic efforts at good governance, but also a return to Nyerere’s presumption that opposition is mere obstruction. The tragedy of Nyerere’s time was that the lack of real debate over his policies created outcomes that undermined his goals of good governance and economic growth. Magufuli’s well-intentioned emulation of Nyerere’s purposeful leadership may lead to similar disappointment if he cannot find a way to adapt to a mature political field of serious opposition parties offering debate, criticism and considered policy alternatives.


 GCISMilitary parade at the inauguration of President John Magufuli in November 2015. Image Credit: GCIS

Seventeen years ago today, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Father of the Nation, passed away. For Tanzanians this amounts to a “where were you when…?” moment.  I was in school that fateful Thursday when the bell unexpectedly rang and we learnt that Mwalimu (teacher in Swahili) had passed away in London, where he was being treated for Leukemia.

Domestically, Mwalimu played a key role in freeing the country from British colonialism. His leadership was also credited in uniting more than 125 tribes into a unified nation. When he finally stepped down in 1985 (he had been the only leader Tanzanians had known since independence) , the literacy rate was at 91% and the inequality gap was one of the lowest in Africa.

But his legacy went far beyond Tanzania. Continentally, Mwalimu made Dar-es-Salaam the capital of Southern Africa liberation movements. Freedom fighters from Mozambique, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana and Angola had offices and training camps in Tanzania, including Mozambique’s Frelimo and South Africa’s African National Congress. Globally, he made the University of Dar-es-Salaam the magnet for anti-colonial activists and thinkers. Che Guevara, Malcolm X, Mohammed Ali and Walter Rodney, passed through, stayed and strategized from Dar-es-Salaam.

Even in retirement and posthumously, Mwalimu remained our reference point for counsel, wisdom and direction. Consequently, past and current leaders in Tanzania like to be compared to him. Take current president, John Magufuli. He has been working hard to claim Nyerere’s mantle. Barely 100 days into his presidency, Magufuli became the focus of a hashtag on social media for his anti-graft and anti-waste measures. #WhatWouldMagufuliDo was trending across the continent. But Magufuli also displayed autocratic tendencies, spawning another hashtag: #WhatIsMagufuliDoing. His government became associated with shrinking the civic space, restrictions on media freedom, newspapers suspensions, social media arrests, and bans on live parliament broadcasts as well as citizens participation in political activities.

Some see parallels to aspects of Magufuli’s autocratic tendencies and Nyerere’s years in government. The difference is Mwalimu had incredible foresight and effectively made a U-turn in early 1990s. He foresaw the inevitable democratic changes that were happening across the continent (following the fall of the Soviet Union) and understood that if the government did not peacefully initiate the shift to a multiparty system, sooner or later the citizens would chaotically demand it.

The post-1990 Nyerere would probably say to the current government what he said to his own party that was unwilling to end its monopoly of political activities in 1991. Despite being the architect of one-party rule in Tanzania (1965-1990), Nyerere said: “the people of the majority view have to accept the rights of minority to express their opinions without intimidation. Indeed, must accommodate those views as far as possible.” Likewise, regarding those offering a false choice between democracy and development, Mwalimu would probably repeat what he said in 1973: “If real development is to take place, the people have to be involved.”

Finally, some wonder what Mwalimu would make of the intolerance of the current government to alternative viewpoints, and its penchant for making impromptu decisions and visits that lack legal basis and are devoid of concrete plans. In a farewell address to parliament in 1985, Nyerere said: “We never pretended to have any special wisdom about the means of developing our country. We made false starts and mistakes, but we had the courage and the wisdom to correct our mistakes.”

What would Mwalimu do if he was to return to his beloved country today? He would weep over the tragedy of missed opportunities; that we have failed to discern the signs of the times and the government has gone back, politically, to the pre-1990 era. In typical Nyerere fashion he would then berate us about the huge divide between the rich and the poor. He would chastise the current and previous governments for immortalizing him in buildings, airports and bridges, but not in his principles. He would also rebuke them for ingratiating themselves to neighbors with dubious human rights and democratic records. Finally, he would warn us to leave him alone and stop comparing him to anyone else, ever again. He wouldn’t linger any longer, because the pain would be too much to bear.

Congo needs fewer metanarratives from the West and more of this

A still from the film.A still from the “Kolwezi on Air.”

Following the Democratic Republic of Congo’s highly politicized implementation of its decentralization policy–also known as découpagea new province, Lulaba, was created. It’s capital is Kolwezi which is also one of the major mining towns in what used to be Katanga, located in the southern DRC. In Fiston Mujila’s new novel, “Tram 83,” Kolwezi, like many other cities in Katanga, is described as a melting pot. Migrant workers from neighboring provinces such as Kasai, but also southern Africans, especially from Zambia, encounter there mining multinational corporations from China, Australia, Canada, and Belgium.

Kolwezi also happens to be the site of a unique media experiment: Radio Tele Manika, the largest local radio-and television station in the city, more popularly known by its acronym RTMA.

Radio Tele Manika is now the subject of a documentary film. The radio host Carlo Ngombe usually greets his listeners with this poem: “Kolwezi, be the land where vagrant breeze will sing me a symphony of justice. But above all Kolwezi be the inexhaustible source, from which I will draw a persisting zeal, and most importantly an oblivion of bitter memories.”

Reporters in Kolwezi, have to prove very adaptive by transforming different constraints into opportunities. Gaston Mushid Mutund, director of production at RTMA, drives through a miner’s town at the outskirts of the city, and explains that the ordinary residents do not have access to political authorities, but if the media covers an issue it can spark political reactions. Since “newspapers are only published in Kinshasa, 2,000 kilometers from here,” video and audio outlets have to highlight recurrent issues in mining towns such as the lack of proper sanitation, or the need to trust a doctor, not a magician with the treatment of HIV/Aids.  

RTMA reporters, hosting segments in French and Kiswahili, have differing talents. Patrick Busasa alias “Top One,” is a very confident man as his nickname might indicate. He sees himself as a role model of the Katangese media scene, a perfectionist, who often is a sound technician, cameraman, and moderator at the same time. He interviews popular artists such as Sando Marteau , or D’laranta, whose song “Au Nom du Seigneur” openly challenges the corruption, which characterizes one of Katanga’s thriving new business models: the church and its self-made preachers.

Fidelie Muyongo is another RTMA talent, not fazed by what she describes as societal prejudice against female journalists. One of her segments covers the dining characteristics of Chinese residents of Kolwezi, and their fondness of Skol, one of many excellent Congolese beers. The exchanges portrayed in the segment were a very different perspective from the usual metanarrative of “China-in-Africa”, which is too often mediated by Western intermediaries with their own agendas.

By showing RTMA intimately engaging with issues in Kolwezi, the film indirectly manages to portray the distance, and bias from which international-, or even national media outlets would engage with local complexities. This is especially salient in the context of the DRC, a country that knows recurrent metanarratives and objectification all too well.

“Kolwezi on Air” also shows that RTMA’s crew is not afraid to take on local politicians. Whether it’s scrutinizing the salary gap between employees of the state-owned railway company SNCC and Members of Parliament (monthly wages $80 and $8000 respectively), the expulsion of tradeswomen from the market, or questioning a ruling party politician over his claim that the constitution merely exist in order to obtain foreign aid, RTMA is on it. Ironically, the politicians often demand from journalists to justify the failures of the Congolese political class, and criticize them for what they call “deceiving the masses.”

Being a reporter in Kolwezi is far from easy. “There are realities of power that we face.” Especially when questioning the activities of “the powerful,” journalists in the DRC are frequently intimidated, and private stations shut down. Other forms of power also pose challenges. Congo’s notoriously inefficient power company SNEL, is a frequent source of blackouts and technical failures, causing delays in segments, which anger RTMA’s advertisers.

On the radio, Carlo Ngombe’s voice constantly accompanies Kolwezi’s citizens in their day-to-day lives:  “We are no victims and there’s no culprit. We have a capacity to adapt that many people on earth do not have. So our precariousness, but especially our self-preservation, our ability to get by should command respect, not compassion, but respect.”

These words not only characterize the psyche of Kolwezi’s 500,000 residents, but also very well describe the objective of the film. Some might argue that the film engages in the “glorification of the local”, and it could do more to highlight the broader realities of political, economic, and historical dynamics of Kolwezi, Katanga, and the DRC (colonial history, multinational mining, etcetera). But director Idriss Gabel and his team have recognized that the international perception of the DRC has already been shaped sufficiently by controversial metanarratives about why Congolese people are constantly victimized. If one considers the coverage of RTMA carefully, the discourse of its reporters, and their encounters with mining sites, state employees, politicians, magicians, Chinese residents, and musicians all embody this assemblage, which defines Kolwezi’s broader reality.

More importantly, “Kolwezi on Air” achieves to demonstrate what makes RTMA’s perspective so important. The station embodies the struggles of Kolwezi’s residents, whether they are coping with power outages, making ends meet, or having to pursue multiple obligations simultaneously. The DRC needs less objectifying metanarratives from the West, and needs more RTMA’s.

Ousmane Sembene invented a new cinema for Africa

Sembene on the set of Moolaade in 2003. Image Credit the Sembene EstateSembene on the set of Moolaade in 2003. Image Credit: the Sembene Estate

The legendary Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene (he passed away in 2007) is back in the spotlight thanks to a new documentary film, Sembene! (2015), that addresses his decades-long career as a writer, director, and charismatic exponent of African cinema.

Co-directed by Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman, Sembene! is currently playing in cinemas throughout the United Kingdom, alongside revivals of three of Sembene’s masterpieces: La Noire de… (1966), Sembene’s first feature film, which turns fifty this year; Xala (1975), Sembene’s mordant take on male chauvinism and postcolonial corruption (the two are hardly mutually exclusive in Sembene’s work); and Moolaadé (2005), Sembene’s swan song, which powerfully dramatizes resistance to the tradition of female genital mutilation.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Gadjigo, Sembene’s longtime friend and official biographer (author of Ousmane Sembène: The Making of a Militant Artist), about his film and the recent resurgence of interest in Sembene’s remarkable body of work.

As Sembene’s friend and biographer, how did you approach the challenge of making a film about the director?

Ousmane Sembene’s work had a huge influence on me as a young man, and we recognized that the influence he had was part of his project as an artist. Therefore, we decided to weave my own story — of a young man who rediscovers his African-ness through Sembene’s stories — into the structure of the film. As we later worked so closely together, right until his passing, those two stories intersected in ways that were both practical and, for me and hopefully the audience, very emotional.

Sembene! is at once biographical and autobiographical, as it features some of your own reflections on growing up in Senegal and encountering Sembene’s novels as a teenager. Can you say more about it what was like to discover Sembene’s work at a young age?

Before I went to school, the stories I heard were from my grandmother and elders, stories about the world that I knew, the beautiful world of the small village that I grew up in. Once I was sent away to school, hundreds of miles from the village, I began to lose those stories, and my connection to the land and to my family. They were replaced by stories from places completely foreign to my existence — stories from Europe, from Africa. I was forbidden to speak my native language in my high school. And after a few years, I found myself aspiring to be something I never could: a European. But then I discovered the novel God’s Bits of Wood (1960), by Sembene. It was set in places that I knew, with references to the cultures I had experienced. It even had a character named Samba. Reading that book was a moment that forever altered my life, a moment that a switch was thrown. I realized that, as an African man, I had stories — beautiful, powerful, inspiring stories — that were mine, that were familiar, that celebrated my people. I didn’t need to look to Europe to find meaningful stories. Here they were.

A number of African languages, from Wolof to Diola, can be heard in Sembene’s films. How important was it for Sembene to feature these languages in addition to French and Arabic?

Sembene was deeply committed to the use of African languages in his work. In his first films, due to funding constraints, using Wolof was impossible. But he fought to use them in his later works. For Mandabi (1968), he convinced the French funders to make a Wolof-language version of the film. Thereafter, his films included indigenous languages. He also started the first Wolof-language literary magazine. For Sembene, the loss of African languages meant the loss of African cultures. You can’t have one without the other.

La Noire de… (1966) is perhaps Sembene’s most enduringly popular film, a reasonably accessible introduction to his thematic obsessions and stylistic proclivities. Why does this film continue to speak so powerfully to audiences all around the world?

It is a film that, though steeped in the specificity of a Senegalese woman, touches upon the marginalization that the majority of those on the planet experience. It is a story of a woman who is unseen and unheard, who, due to the color of her skin and her gender, is automatically assumed to be some sort of lesser being. But, of course, Diouana, like all of us, has her own gifts, her own voice, her own power. And the French couple that exploit her in fact also miss an opportunity to grow, to learn, to connect, due to their implicit biases. The film’s themes are entirely relevant today, as we deal, in the U.S., with police brutality, with the invisibility of people of color in the media, and with other less sensational but equally destructive forms of institutional racism.

Sembene was increasingly critical of French funding after the experience of making Mandabi in the late 1960s, suggesting that foreign financing was “tainted with paternalism and neocolonialism.” What are some of the most important lessons to take from Sembene’s experience of cultural and economic imperialism?

A few notes about Sembene: he believed in the Marxist ideology, but ceased to be a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. That’s because he didn’t fully respect the institutions. He came to his Marxism through manual labor and through the unions, rather than through learning about it at university. He came to know exploitation by living in a fully exploitative system, and his lifelong desire was to liberate other workers, and, especially women, from the systems of exploitation. And while Sembene liked to rage against the imperialist machine, he also was savvy enough to use whatever tools he could to get his work done. In fact, all of his films were funded with money from abroad, and he had steadfast and essentially allies around the world. One thing I admire about Sembene is that, despite what he would say in his interviews, he was as much pragmatist as ideologue. He wanted to get his stories told, and understood the importance of those stories. And thus he adopted an “any means necessary” approach to making work. To be honest, he could be equally tough, if not tougher, on the Africans he worked with. The goal was to tell stories that empowered workers and women and the marginalized, and he did it with unprecedented energy and consistency for 50 years.

 Lisa CarpenterSamba Gadjigo and Sembene. Image Credit: Lisa Carpenter

Far from a hagiographic account of the filmmaker, Sembene! addresses some of the controversies in which Sembene was embroiled, including those related to the production of Camp de Thiaroye (1988), a project that Sembene was accused of having “stolen” from a protégé. Did Sembene see himself as being in competition with other African filmmakers?

I don’t think it was competition. One of the complexities of Sembene is that the work he did necessitated having a very large ego, and that ego at times kept him from giving full support to other artists. He grew quickly impatient with those who did not have the willpower and single-mindedness to get the work of storytelling done. To him, African storytelling was a job one did, just like farmer or leatherworker. And those who did not do the job with what he judged to be full integrity and passion lost his respect. I think he made a mistake in this realm; there were many, many young artists who could have greatly benefited from his tutelage, whom he dispensed with too quickly.

Sembene faced considerable opposition in the late 1970s following the completion of Ceddo (1976), a film that explores the arrival of Islam in West Africa and critiques the religion as a tool of social control—a source of oppression whose proponents were complicit in the spread of imperialism. How do audiences receive this controversial film today, particularly in light of the success of the similarly themed Timbuktu (2011), by Abderrahmane Sissako?

It is a fantastic comparison, and a great question. Unfortunately, Ceddo has not been widely seen in years, and so its message, which is not actually anti-Islam, but anti-oppression, has not been critiqued in this new era of heightened attention to Islam. We are working to have the film restored, and when it is, we hope it will reach audiences throughout the world, and continue the conversation that Sissako’s incredible film re-kindled.

Recently, scholars have drawn attention to contributions to African cinema that predate Sembene’s Borom Sarret (1963), calling into question Sembene’s status as the so-called “father of African cinema.” The Senegalese filmmaker Momar Thiam, for instance, adapted a Birago Diop story as Karim (1963), a film that was completed before Borom Sarret. Surely the designation “father of African cinema” has to do with more than just chronology, however. What does it mean to continue to think of Sembene in this way? Or does his legacy transcend such honorific distinctions?

People love those phrases. And in addition to its potential inaccuracies (we also have Egyptian cinema dating back to the 1920s and before), there is an element of paternalism that some have noted. We also like to consider Sembene in the context of Third Cinema — a global cinema of resistance that is more associated with Latin America than Africa. But I will also defend the concept of Sembene as the defining figure African cinema to date. His example of a cinema that was not only African in theme and subject matter, but which is told with a fierce social conscience, and with a deep sense of African storytelling traditions, remains the standard. You can’t make a film in sub-Saharan Africa without having Sembene as a reference in some way.

What are some of your favorite Sembene films, and why?

I am deeply moved by them all. Xala (1975) has a special place in my soul, because, as a young man who did not understand the have/have-not elements of African society, it opened me up to a new reality of exploitation. And so does Moolaadé (2005), as I was on set with Sembene, seeing him on set, as an 80-year-old man, going blind, but still outworking all of the young ones … It was an example of focus, determination, passion and heroism that has kept me inspired every single day for the past 13 years.

Finally, what should audiences new to Sembene know before approaching his films?

What is amazing about Sembene is that you really don’t need much context. Watch the films, and you will feel them in your heart and soul. They were made out of a true sense of urgency, and that sense of urgency never goes out of style.

 Kino LorberImage Credit: Kino Lorber

Apparently, I love Africa. I’ve been told this by people who hardly know me.

Construction worker in Luanda. Image via Stephen Martin FlickrConstruction worker in Luanda. Image via Stephen Martin Flickr

In 2003, I was among the hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, who marched through London to demonstrate against the war in Iraq. I thought a lot about Angola that day. I felt very sad that there had never been a big march against the war there – even though, by then, it had already ended. In the public eye, some wars matter more than others. In Trafalgar Square, I tried really hard to squeeze back my tears when Adrian Mitchell read a twenty-first-century remix of his poem, To Whom It May Concern (Tell Me Lies About Vietnam).

On a Saturday or a Sunday afternoon, my mother would do the ironing and my sister would fold up in an armchair in the front room and they’d watch romantic black-and-white films together and they’d cry. I was wholly perplexed by their response.

I tear up easily these days. Outside Blackhorse Road tube station, three Romanian men were sitting on the pavement playing the accordion, the violin and the clarinet. Their music reminded me of the Cape Verdeans on Luanda’s ilha. Was this a Romanian morna obeying the cycle of fifths? I gave them a pound and something within me juddered. Inside the station, the acoustics were perfect, like a cathedral, and as I descended on the escalator, I felt myself being swallowed by the sounds from the street.

When I started out as a journalist, I thought I understood the meaning of objectivity. But within a few months of reporting from Angola, I lost that faith and ceased to believe in objectivity even as a possibility. Yes, you can give a voice to as many sides as possible – but that’s not objectivity. Today I don’t even believe that objectivity is a useful goal. It’s false and it’s a lie and it doesn’t help people to mentally engage in events taking place around the world.

I was astounded when I realized how television reporting actually worked. A BBC team was visiting Angola. They’d gone to a hospital to do a story about landmine injuries. Their piece showed the British reporter conversing earnestly with a patient lying in bed. In fact, the reporter was nodding and pretending to talk: the real conversation took place between the patient and an Angolan freelance interpreter, who was never shown on camera. The idea of the foreign reporter as an omniscient multilingual hero is a trick. I hate the way the news plasters over the rough edges of truth.

I was in my forties when a woman from Malaysia called Su taught me how to put on eyeliner. But at your age, she said, all you really need is a bit of mascara. Not long before I met Su, my mother had told me that I’d reached the age when I could no longer get away without makeup. Whenever I tell people this they laugh.

Apparently, I love Africa. I’ve been told this by people who hardly know me. I’ve been introduced in pubs, on demonstrations, in emails and on public transport as someone who really knows Africa and who is dying to go back to Africa. But I’m not sure I know what Africa means any more. I went through a phase of thinking that the word itself should be banned. Perhaps then people might be forced into thinking more carefully about what they’re saying.

Not so long ago, an Angolan woman got quite cross with me. What is it with you? she asked. What is it that you’ve got with our country? With my country? Why are you so interested in us? We’d spent the afternoon at an art gallery in London, walking and talking and looking at huge pieces of work, and just as we were about to part, her distrust of me came tumbling out. It felt like a loathing. If she’d had a little more courage, I think she would have spat on me.

The trouble is, I couldn’t answer her question. I tried. But nothing I said was quite what I meant. So I’ve carried on asking myself: What is it I’ve got with their country, with that country?

The only answer I’ve been able to come up with is that I was there during a war. It was an incredibly intense experience, one that influenced me radically. For a long time, I tried to work out how I could retrieve it. I wanted a repeat, like that absurd sensation you get when you first take certain class-A drugs. I was sitting in Shoreditch Town Hall. Duncan was holding my hand. I was thinking that my head was going to shoot off like a rocket launching from my neck. Get up! Dance! he said. You’ll be OK if you dance.

Angola was a bit like that, but it went on for weeks and weeks and months and months – and I miss it.

Despite being forty-eight, I still haven’t fully come to terms with being British and being white. A lot of people think I’m posh too. It’s in my voice, my face, my whole manner. Even with my mouth shut, you can see the privilege. It’s etched into me.

There’s a primary school at the bottom of my street. In summer, when my windows are open, I can hear the children playing games outside. I imagine them standing in circles, clapping hands and taking turns to skip and jump.

One afternoon I was walking past the school gates with a friend. In the middle of a conversation about his new dog, he hesitated. Then he looked at me with an expression that reminded me of the first time we’d met. Have you ever noticed those gates? he asked. I stepped forward: I wanted to show him I was giving them my full attention. Then I said that yes, I had, perfectly, yes, noticed. But it was only in that moment, my Jewish friend at my side, that I understood what he meant. Standing at about three meters high, they form an arch at the side of the school. Each gate consists of a row of vertical iron rods, set just far enough apart to push a man’s fist through. To either side of the lock that holds the gates together is a circle of metal the size of a small satellite dish. Inside each circle, a letter: M on the left, G on the right. At dusk, all you can make out is the top of the gates and the bare concrete wall running behind the back of the school.

When we lived in Bamako, J used to allow us extra time to walk anywhere because, he used to say, You can’t go down the street without talking to every single person we pass even though you don’t speak Bambara. We did try to learn Bambara, both of us. We took classes. J was a much better student than I. But in the end, we left Mali after just a few months because I was pregnant and had begun to bleed. I remember sitting in the doctor’s office, half-listening to him advising me to go home and half-reading the notice on his desk discouraging female genital mutilation. He said he couldn’t guarantee a clean blood transfusion should I need one. So I flew home, bleeding all the way, but having to pretend I was fine because you aren’t allowed on a plane if you’re bleeding – especially as much as I was. And perhaps I didn’t really like Bamako very much anyway. I spent a lot of the time wishing I was still in Luanda. I still do. Moments when I get desperate pangs for the place.

*This is an excerpt from Lara Pawson’s new book This is The Place to Be, which can be purchased here.

Shutdown–On the death of compromise in South Africa

 @LionelAdendorf on TwitterPolice firing teargas at protesting students on the South African parliament grounds in 2015. Image Credit: @LionelAdendorf on Twitter

“War will bring the revolution; revolution will stop the war”–-Jhumpa Lahiri

For some time now people who write about South Africa have been suggesting that the country is in the process of changing.  It is now time to accept that the country has changed.  We are in a new phase, one that is characterised by a rejection of compromise as a tactic for managing democratic intercourse. There has been a tendency to suggest in recent weeks that student leaders within some Fallist groupings are highly intolerant, and that they are engaged in a dangerous form of brinksmanship.  It is clear that it is incorrect to suggest that it is only some in the student movement who are like this.  The rejection of compromise politics does not come from one quarter alone.

We see brinksmanship across the political spectrum, from the smoldering campuses in KwaZulu and Fort Hare, to the burnt schools in Vuwani, to the charred remains of the African National Congress.  We see brinksmanship in the serious battle lines that are drawn between business and labour; the sort of impasses that result in protracted disputes every year.  Who can argue that Marikana was not the result of brinksmanship.  We see brinksmanship in the failure to reign in rogue elements within the National Prosecuting Authority and security services.  Similarly the slash and burn tactics that have placed the CEO of the public broadcaster, Hlaudi Motsoeng, and the head of the national airline, Dudu Myeni, in positions of leadership indicate a willingness to exact maximum damage in service of broader objectives that are sometimes opaque.

These sorts of divisions are indicative of a new phase in our politics; one in which intransigence and radicalism take centre stage.  Unlike others who worry about radicalism and intransigence, I am not convinced about whether the digging in of heels we are witnessing will take the country forward or backwards in the long run.  It is too early to hazard a guess.  While there is much that is worrisome about stubbornness, it is also important not to dismiss obstinacy as a mechanism for resolving long-standing impasses that have not been dealt with because not enough pressure has been applied.

In the conventional model of democratic politics, you put forward an idea, debate it and then work to build support for your view.  Democratic societies reward those leaders who work out solutions, bridge divides and calm tensions.  These rewards exist not simply in the electoral set up, but also through other sorts of incentives.  Prizes and awards are given to bridge-builders; buildings are named in their honor and they are rewarded with public accolades, academic honorifics and so on.

While bridge builders continue to be seen as ‘leaders,’ their credibility is diminishing.  As the very notion of democracy goes on trial, radicalism and intransigence are increasingly replacing compromise as the go-to instincts of the body politic.

This is of course because the strategy of compromise has had mixed results in the last two decades. On the one hand, the compromise brokered in 1994 has resulted in a relatively ‘stable’ society and the growth of a significantly larger black middle class than existed at the end of apartheid.  Educational opportunities have expanded for all black children, and many more South Africans have access to services like water and sanitation than did under apartheid – both in real terms and as a proportion of the population.

At the same time, compromise has suffered a bad rap because of the ways in which it has been linked to other negative phenomena within the ruling party. It is widely accepted that careerism, political thuggery and an obsession with big-man politics have ascended in the ruling party.  Unfortunately what has blossomed at the same time is the cynical notion that t mediation and negotiation were mere strategies for self enrichment.  In other words, because the ANC has both championed compromise as a tool for managing conflict, and has also become more and more corrupt in its dealings with big business, it is easy to conclude that compromise politics is in fact corrupt politics.  Compromise has also suffered from the fall of Rainbowism. In many ways then, through its association with a compromised ANC and a compromised racial politics of Rainbowism, compromise as a political tactic, has come to be associated with selling out.

This is a pity.

For the purposes of clarity it is important to separate the ideological underpinnings of a politics that embraces compromise (what I refer to here as compromise politics) as a necessary and important aspect of moving forward a social agenda, from the other tendencies that have deepened and solidified in the post-apartheid ANC.  For example, it would be easy to suggest the ANC’s cosiness with big business is a function of a politics that embraces compromise. Certainly, compromise brought the ANC and big business into closer proximity to one another, but it is careless to argue that at its heart the ANC’s neoliberalism is only or even largely the result of its reliance on negotiation and compromise with external actors as a political strategy for securing and then sustaining democratic practice.   One can accept political compromise as a tactic, without accepting that concessions must be made on each and every issue confronting a society. One can hold firmly to principles, whilst accepting that at a macro level compromise is a critical tactic in a democratic society.

So, we are now in a new era.  We are no longer wondering where we are going, it seems we have arrived in a new place in which we are witnessing radicalism and intransigence as a modus operandi across our society.

We see it in the ruling party, where administrative matters like appointments and parastatal deployments take up inordinate amounts of time and leave blood on the floor time and again.  We see this radicalism and intransigence amongst university administrators who took far too long to comprehend the tactics of the student movement and so made strategic blunders early on, that have lost them trust and vital time.  We see it in the radicalism and intransigence of some of the leaders of the Fallist movement who are prepared to inflict maximum damage now in order for long-term goals to be achieved.  We see it amongst many white South Africans who continue to bury their heads in the sand by continuing to organize, protect and enrich themselves on the basis of race.

We see this radicalism and intransigence also in the actions of protesters who burn schools because of municipal demarcation issues or to highlight lack of water and sanitation.

I say this without assigning moral equivalence: I do not of course believe the intransigence of AfriForum is the same as the intransigence of the Fallists; nor do I think the intransigence of ANC factions intent on evading accountability is the same as the intransigence of Vice Chancellors whose role is primarily to run universities not to find the money to deliver free higher education.

My observation is merely that where the country stands today is a consequence of many separate sections of society saying that they have had enough of compromise.  This is especially interesting because we are a very young nation but we were founded on the very notion of compromise.  We were celebrated the world over for our ability to bring together disparate views.  During the 1990s, South Africans elevated the middle ground to the high ground.  Yet here we are today, gripped by radicalism and intransigence and an outright rejection of the compromise tactics that carried us to this point.

This is both startling, and completely unsurprising.   It is also not as frightening as some might think.

Those of us who were already adults during the heady transition days prided ourselves in being a nation of negotiators who pulled ourselves from the brink. The brink was a bad place and we were happy to no longer be on it.  I certainly believed, as the new millennium dawned, that South Africa might face some tough times ahead, but that the country would be defined by its ability to talk its way from the ledge.  Today many in our society are not as frightened of the brink as I was.  They see the brink as an important space to occupy.

Compromise politics was part of the national bloodstream – it would save us.  So of course it is startling to observe the way in which across many fronts, we are failing to resolve impasses today. Given the widespread embrace of compromise politics across South African society until recently, it is now disconcerting to note that  the rejection of compromise as a tool for social progress.

At the same time of course I am completely unsurprised by the starkness of this development and the ways in which it is manifested.  Make no mistake: There are valid and ethical reasons to reject compromise, even if one is not a political purist. There are some issues and some moments in history in which compromise makes no sense; moments in which moral and economic victories are within reach and ought to be fought for unequivocally without compromise.

The rejection of the compromise politics  by many protesters on the left is the logical conclusion of almost two decades of insipid and terrifying compromises on the running of the economy, institutional racism, the functioning of our education systems and the layout and structure of our urban and rural spaces.  One can in fact, embrace Rainbowism, and also recognize that compromise has not taken the poorest South Africans very far.


I have less patience of course for those who reject compromise because they are reactionaries – those like Afrikaans singer Steve Hofmeyr and his slightly more urbane ilk in Afriforum.  Still, it is worth nothing that the absence of a political narrative explaining why compromise continues to be necessary has allowed these elements to strengthen their voices and mobilize broader support than they should have.   In other words, regardless of what you think of Mandela’s latter-day politics and irrespective of your thoughts on the ANC leaders who negotiated the settlement that lead to the historic 1994 elections, there is no denying the amount of effort that went into building and sustaining the narrative of the Rainbow Nation.  It was potent because it was carried forward consistently and eloquently, even in the face of its obvious weaknesses.


There has been no commensurate energy invested in revising and recalibrating that narrative to take account of growing social strife today.  The limits of the 1994 political compromise have inevitably begun to give at the seams and yet I cant think of a single leader inside or outside the ANC who has managed to coherently and productively steer the conversation about politics and inequality towards calmer waters.

The present crisis on campuses illustrates this point.  The university crisis is above all, a failure of those who championed compromise politics to adapt to a dramatically different political context.  The old words no longer fit and the old guard are now too old to restrategize.  The problem isn’t so much that they don’t understand the radicalism of the youth, or even that they don’t know how to communicate with a strident new generation.  The problem seems to be that those who sit in positions of power within the state and universities simply do not see their politics and their positions as being as radical as those of the students they so oppose.

When the militant protest for free education meets the militant defence of the rights of those currently enrolled in schools (which implies a defence of the status quo, albeit for pragmatic reasons to which I am deeply sympathetic because I am of a certain generation and so I do not reject pragmatism), we have a stalemate.

Leadership matters most in times like this and thankfully there have already been some creative attempts to broker peace.  Still, South Africa seems to be tainted by its past embrace of compromise.  The last two decades have turned compromise into a swear word.

The transition in 1994 saw both a revolution and a war averted and many of us were pleased with this.  It seems however that we had only reached a temporary and insufficient peace.  We are now howling at the past:  all of us barking with regret at the time we have lost to superficial agreement.

The whites and the blacks and the young and the old; the government and the activists; the progressives and the conservatives: We are all regretting what we gave up because twenty years ago.  The party is over and in the cold light of dawn we see that compromise became both a means and an end and perhaps this was our mistake.  We did not yet know that sitting down does not mean giving in.

Perhaps the cacophony of noise; the howling and the barking and the sound and the fury this time will signify that we are wiser now, and more prepared to accept that compromise is a tool; that facing one another in discourse, eye-to-eye is the only mechanism we have at our disposal to save us.  We have to stand close enough to breathe one another’s breath. It is the only thing that will save us from having to burn ourselves anew each time we rage.

My people them dey stay for poor surroundings*

Makoko, Nigeria. Image via WikipediaMakoko, Nigeria. Image via Wikipedia

In 2012, the star architect Kunlé Adeyemi unveiled his “floating school” in Makoko, one of more than 100 slums in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital. Most of Makoko’s residents, who are estimated between 40,000 and 300,000, live in makeshift structures built on stilts on lagoon water. The floating school, built by local residents, used wooden offcuts from a nearby sawmill and locally grown bamboo. It sat on 256 plastic drums and was powered by rooftop solar panels. The construction of the floating school gave new hope to residents hoping for more durable, permanent housing structures in the face of regular flooding. It was also viewed as a prototype for housing crises elsewhere on the continent.

One thing the floating school did not do was encourage government intervention to improve the lives of Makoko’s residents. Instead, residents were regularly subject to threats of eviction because Makoko is located on prime land. At best, the international attention (the school won a number of design prizes) slowed attempts by the Nigerian government to finally “clear” Lagos of the slum. It didn’t help when three years after the floating school was first constructed, it collapsed in June 2016, after heavy rainfall.

The global assessment of slums by UN-Habitat shows that 828 million people, or an estimated 33% of the urban population of developing countries, reside in slums. In sub-Saharan Africa, 62% of the urban population resides in such settlements. For Nigeria, the World Bank reported that as of 2015, 48% of the total population (estimated at more than 180 million) reside in urban centers.

Nigeria’s biggest cities – Lagos, Ibadan, Port Harcourt, Aba and Enugu – present a number of urgent problems for urban planners: urban decay, slums, overcrowding and lawlessness, which lead to the loss of land and natural resources. Lagos faces the most acute housing crisis. It began to expand at a breakneck pace with the oil boom of the 1970s. Lagos is now Africa’s largest city with a population that exceeds 10 million. The result has been over-urbanization, meaning that populations are growing much faster than local economies, leading to major social and economic challenges of slum proliferation.

In an effort to alleviate the housing crisis, the Lagos State Government (LSG) and its different agencies contributed a mere 27,000 housing units between 1950 and 2010. Considering that the population of Lagos tripled over this period of time, these efforts have done little to alleviate the acute lack of affordable housing for the poor or lower-class Lagosian. It is estimated that about 500,000 units of housing per annum over the next 10 years would be needed to keep up with the housing demand.

The deterioration of urban centers are the result of, but not limited to, the lack of enforcement of urban development and management regulations by city authorities, and the non-compliance to building laws by developers. Most city authorities in Nigeria are so overwhelmed by the rapid development and spread of informal settlements that their regulatory interventions make little impact. Secondly, the absence of a ‘maintenance culture’ for already existing housing infrastructure is missing from the Nigerian public housing market. The issues of repairs and maintenance are foreign to Nigerians causing rapid decay and deterioration of buildings which affects the sustainability of the urban environment and consequently leads to the development of informal settlements.

Though it is still unclear what the new government’s agenda is with regards to housing delivery regulatory reforms in the past 10 years are helping to create an enabling environment for housing delivery. The LSG plan formulated in 2012 provides a framework for housing, but it is not ambitious to resolve the housing and slum proliferation in the city. The plan focuses on promoting private housing estates or gated communities. Yet, this solely services the upper and middle-classes. A move in the direction of exclusively gated communities/private housing estates hampers societal development, promotes crime and classism.

The majority in Lagos lives in rented accommodation, and is at the mercy of landlords and estate agents who dictate a market that is poorly regulated and monitored. Despite 2011 tenancy legislation that imposes restrictions on advance rental payments, the law is not being enforced and landlords regularly request upfront payments of two or more years. Agency fees are another expense the law has been unable to govern. In Nigeria, agency fees top out at 10%, the highest on the continent. Thus, the urban poor are displaced and deprived access to decent and affordable housing, thereby rendering most of them “homeless.”

In 2014, the LSG launched the Lagos Home Ownership Mortgage Scheme, aimed at financing housing delivery. Under the scheme, the government provides the housing and funds the mortgage facility to be granted by a participating bank. First home buyers are expected to make a down payment of 30% and the balance of 70% spread over the next 10 years at 9.5% interest rate. Sadly, access to financing is still a major barrier for most people. Currently, the LSG is in collaboration with several organizations and initiatives that are increasing awareness on the issues, as well as developing sustainable housing solutions using local materials that are easily accessible, with implementation to commence in 2017.

*Fela Kuti – Coffin For Head of State (1981)

Black African immigrants, race and police brutality in America

//" target="_blank">Glenna Gordon's images of Liberian immigrants a href="" target="_blank">in Staten IslandImage: From Glenna Gordon’s series on Liberian immigrants in Staten Island

Perhaps the most famous example of “African passing” is the infamous anecdote of former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan. A student in 1960s U.S., Annan had traveled to the Jim Crow South. He needed a haircut, but was told by a racist white barber: “I do not cut nigger hair.” Annan, who is Ghanaian, responded: “I am not a nigger, I am an African.” In doing this, Annan did not challenge the degradation pre-assigned to him by virtue of his skin color, and accepted the premise that there is something inherently pathological about American blackness to which black people from Africa are impervious.

This line of thought is not uncommon. As Chimamanda Adichie, herself a Nigerian immigrant to the U.S., has stated: “When you’re an immigrant and you come to this country, it’s very easy to internalize the mainstream ideas. It’s easy, for example, to think, ‘Oh, the ghettos are full of black people because they’re just lazy and they like to live in the ghettos.’”

The evidence put forth by the characters that showed up from America on our living room TV in Tema, in Ghana where I spent my early life, seemed bent on conveying that black people were a problematic sect in the United States. Whether from CNN’s discussion of crime and violence, or in the rap videos buoyed by the twin manifesto of brute force and wealth, this perennial drip feeding meant that even before our plane had taken of from Accra and headed to JFK, I’d be admonished by extended family, pastors, market women and an air hostess – none of whom had lived in America – to not become like “those black people,” the Akata people.

The problem of such marching orders is that in America the definition of blackness – with its complex history – often lies in the eye of the beholder. It is as the truth for many Africans, as the novelist Yaa Gyasi wrote, that “when my little brother had the police called on him by our new neighbors while riding his bike on a nearby lot, he couldn’t say to those officers, ‘It’s O.K., I’m Ghanaian-American’.”

Unlike in Kofi Annan’s (problematic) case, most Africans – particularly poorer immigrants – don’t get a “get out of black free” card in instances of race prejudice. It wasn’t the case when four plainclothes officers shot Amadou Diallo (an immigrant from Guinea in West Africa) 41 times, as he pulled out his wallet in 1999. Seventeen years later we are again suffering with the tasering, shooting and summary killing of Ugandan immigrant, Alfred Olango, in San Diego. What these acts of police violence show is that the desire to self segregate in matters of race prejudice is indulging in a fantasy.

The fantasy may derive from a superiority complex. As Pew research shows, there are more African immigrants with college degrees relative to the overall U.S. population. But respectability or the lack thereof is no reason for someone to die, no matter their race. What matters is that the black immigrant population has grown by 137 percent in the last decade, and forms a relatively larger percentage of the overall U.S. black population. In America these days, Africans are the new blacks. Studies show that by the second generation many black immigrants lose the cadences and other linguistic signs that their parents still maintain. Children leave the tightknit community to go to college, and families in general disperse around the country in search of education and better opportunities, melting into the general black experience in America. Whatever challenges stand in the way of black individuals and families in the U.S.are our prerogatives.


Consider, for instance, the revelation from the National Academy of Sciences’ report on the integration of immigrants into American society. The finding show that black immigrants are “more likely to be poor than the native-born, even though their labor force participation rates are higher and they work longer hours on average.” Although the poverty rate for foreign-born persons in general declined over generations to match the native born, poverty levels among black immigrants rose to match that of the native black population.

Since black immigrants make up a double-digit share of the overall black population in some of the largest metro areas for instance, we have to accept the fact that African immigrants will be victims of the larger epidemic of gun violence that has disproportionately targeted people of color in America. Another tragic aspect of Olango’s case is the fact that he was a refugee. But that is hardly unique; about one-third of immigrants from Africa enter the U.S. as refugees. In Olango’s case, he had had fled his hometown Koch Goma, living briefly in Gulu before traveling to the United States in 1991.

So, you can imagine the extra pain of toiling, through persecution, surviving through camps, making the journey here and putting up with all of the challenges of adapting to a new society and culture in order to construct a home for your family only to have all of that sacrifice and work annulled by the lack of self control or training of an American policeman. As Agnes Hassan, a Sudanese refugee who had been in a camp with Olango asked “We suffer too much with the war in Africa, we come here also to suffer again?”

I remember very vividly, the late afternoon of December 13th 2014 at the Justice for All March in D.C. when Amadou Diallo’s mother, Kadiatou Diallo, said from the stage: “This sorority of sisters, we the moms, we don’t want to belong to this group. We’ve paid a heavy price to be here.” The sombre statement struck my heart, but it was her accent, reminding me of my mother, which was dispiriting and discomforting. It really could have been my mother up there at that moment.

We minimize the power and stake that African immigrants have in the conversation about racism when we forget it was the case of Amadou Diallo, an African, that was one of the first to mobilize protesters and demonstrations against police brutality on a large scale; and in a city like New York nonetheless. Since then we have protested the killings of Sudanese Jonathan Deng, Cameroonian Charley Keunang or Deng Manyoun in Kentucky among myriad cases that we don’t know about because they didn’t trend as  popular hashtags post mortem, or they were struggling refugees with no extended family to advocate for them in life.

It can be tempting to want to compare police brutality here to violence back home, as the Nigerian author Adaobi Nwaubani did, when she told PRI after the first presidential debate “I don’t want black people, or white people or whomever to be shot and killed in interactions with the police [in the US], but I can’t pretend that I’m horrified by the fact that the police stopped and searched someone.” This, however, overlooks centuries of targeting and persecution of black people in the country’s history. (Nwaubani, incidentally, also told PR “stop and frisk” does not strike many Nigerians as remarkable.)

As the report from the UN expert group on People of African Descent puts it, “contemporary police killings and the trauma it creates are reminiscent of the racial terror lynching of the past. Impunity for state violence has resulted in the current human rights crisis and must be addressed as a matter of urgency.” Note US Supreme Court Justice, Justice Sotomayor’s suggestion that the “way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.”

How would Alfred Olango have known before he texted his friend Steven Ojok back in Kampala on Sunday “you know what, man, I am taking my daughter for dinner”, that there was a coffin with his name on it.

Congo Blues

 MONUSCO PhotosJoseph Kabila, President of the DRC, addresses the UN General Assembly in 2014. Credit: MONUSCO Photos

Last month, on September 19, protestors descended on the streets of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), barricaded roads and burned tyres. At issue was forcing President Laurent Kabila to agree to a calendar for the 2016 presidential elections. (In February 2012, the country’s electoral commission scheduled the next presidential elections for November 27 this year, but Kabila has been stalling.)

The following night, some offices of President Kabila’s political party were set on fire, presumably by protestors. The next day, soldiers allegedly set fire to offices belonging to opposition political parties. The government reported 17 deaths as a result of altercations. Opposition political parties estimated that more than 37 people were killed.

The most obvious reading of the ongoing pre-electoral unrest suggest that the DRC is at the brink of another collapse. Pessimism is driven by the fact that in the past 20 years the DRC has been characterized by widespread armed-conflicts and social turmoil. In order to make sense of the current political stalemate we need to consider two important moments in the recent history of DRC: First, the 2005 constitution, and, second, the January 2015 popular outcry over a proposed electoral law that based the 2016 presidential elections on a general census.

In 2005, following years of political uncertainty, Congolese voted for a new constitution. Two provisions dealt specifically with presidential elections. A key provision in the new constitution is Article 70. It limits presidential terms to two, five years each. In addition, Article 64 of the constitution states that “ [a]ll Congolese have the duty to oppose any individual or group of individuals who seize power by force or who exercise it in violation of the provisions of this constitution.”

Kabila is the second longest ruling Congolese president after Mobutu Sese Seko. In Mobutu’s 32 years of dictatorship, political dissent was heavily repressed until Laurent Kabila, aided by Rwanda and Uganda, took power in 1997. In 2001 Laurent Kabila was mysteriously assassinated by one of his bodyguards and his son, Joseph Kabila, through bizarre political machination, became the fourth Congolese president. Throughout his 15 years in the presidency, Joseph Kabila’s legitimacy has been contested. Since 2005, the DRC has had two presidential elections; in 2006 and 2011.  Both presidential elections tested the Congolese democracy. Though both elections were heavily disputed, Kabila emerged victorious.  The main losers of the two elections, Jean Pierre Bemba and Étienne Tshisekedi, did not pick up guns,  instead choosing instead to wait for the end of Kabila’s presidential term to compete again.

Most Congolese assumed Kabila respected the constitution and wouldn’t run for a third term. Emboldened by Article 64, opposition Congolese political parties and their sympathizers were determined to oppose any attempt to extend Kabila’s presidential bid. Everything would come to a head when, in February 2012, the Congolese Independent National Electoral Commission scheduled the next presidential elections for November 2016.

In January 2015, Kabila’s supporters suddenly argued that a new general census was needed in order to establish more accurate voters’ lists. Many in the political opposition interpreted this as a delaying tactic: it would postpone presidential elections by about four years, thus extending Kabila’s presidency. Congolese opposition parties and their followers descended into the streets of Kinshasa and other parts of the country in protest. More than 40 protesters were killed. But the popular uprising forced the government to back down from the proposed electoral law. The only available option left for Kabila to extend his presidency was to delay the elections through political stalemate or other mechanisms, known as glisment électorale or electoral sliding. (In the DRC electoral sliding is an instance in which claims of administrative inadequacies and or political calculations are used to delay the electoral calendar for few months or years.)

However, the sense this time around is that political dialogue will prevail over the language of weapons. Even more significant, is the demand from the ground up for political accountability. This signals two important facts: One, that the people are demanding that institutions, at least the electoral process in this case, function as they ought to, and, two, that the people are basing their political resistance on the law of the nation, as opposed to mere political partisanship.

Undoubtedly the political fate of DRC depends on whether Kabila leaves power peacefully or not. Kabila alone knows where he stands; however, so long as he does not publicly recuse himself from running for a third term many Congolese, including myself, will be suspicious of any dialogue proposed by the government.

Transnational Eugenics

Eugen Fischer, a notorious German eugenicist and Nazi whose theories inspired Hitler, who inspired researchers at South Africa's Stellenbosch University.Eugen Fischer, an infamous German eugenicist who studied “racial mixing” in colonial Namibia, and whose theories inspired Adolf Hitler, and later eugenics researchers at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University.

In mid-September, writer Adam Cohen’s Imbeciles:  The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck (published by Penguin this year) made the long list for this year’s National Book Award. (The awards will be announced today.) The book explores a deplorable moment in early 20th-century American history when much of the American establishment – from John D. Rockefeller Jr. to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes – were ardent supporters of “eugenics,” the pseudo-scientific classification of humans according to supposed “superior” and “inferior” traits.

The crackpot racial science that underpinned the eugenics movement provided the justification for the sterilization of those who were declared feeble-minded, and the well known Supreme Court decision in Buck v. Bell, which is the focus of Cohen’s book, legitimated such a practice in 1927.  But, as readers of AIAC no doubt know, the eugenics movement also perpetuated the racism and anti-Semitism that constituted much of mainstream politics in the US, Europe, and colonial Africa for a good part of the 20th century.

Yet, few works, including Cohen’s, sufficiently recognize the truly transnational character of the eugenics movement, and the ways in which experiments conducted in colonial Africa served as the launching pad for the propagation of ideas and practices that were central to the movement elsewhere in the world.  To unpack some of these elements, I interviewed Steve Robins – an anthropologist at the University of Stellenbosch – about his book, Letters of StoneFrom Nazi Germany to South Africa, which was also published by Penguin this year (and only available on Amazon if you do not happen to be in South Africa).

Robins’ book tells the story of a Jewish family that is torn apart by events in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. It follows the lives of his father and uncle who settle in South Africa during the 1930s, and pieces together the gradual dehumanization and eventual extermination of those relatives who remained behind in Germany.

The story begins with a mysterious photograph. What is the significance of that photograph? 

When I was growing up in Port Elizabeth I was aware of a photograph of three women in the dining room, but I didn’t know who they were. I had a sense that they were my father’s family and that they died in Germany during World War II, but no one spoke about them. I didn’t even know their names. It was only much later in life that I discovered that they were my father’s mother and his sisters, i.e. my grandmother and aunts. Those are very close relatives, and yet they weren’t talked about. I was particularly haunted by one of my father’s sisters, Edith.

The book is multi-layered and multi-genred. It is part memoir, part social history, part ethnography. Let’s turn first to the book as memoir, as a personal history of your family in South Africa and of your German relatives. Much has been written about the Holocaust, the death camps, why is this book different?

What makes it different is the time period and the way it crosses continents.  The part of the book that deals with my family history really focuses on the 1930s whereas many films, books, exhibitions focus on the early 1940s and particularly on the extermination of Jews. I was incredibly fortunate to have access to family letters to tell a different story. The letters begin in 1936 after my father has emigrated to South Africa and continue until the family who remained in Germany (except for my father’s brother who also comes to southern Africa) was deported and exterminated.

This is a period when the family members don’t know what will happen to them.  They are subjected to a raft of about 100 racial laws introduced in 1933 that strip them down to bare life. Throughout this period my father’s family is desperately trying to leave, but the dehumanization of Jews – the stripping of their citizenship, their dignity, their belongings, the process of making them invisible – is relentless.

I wanted to capture the incremental paring down of their lives and I also wanted to show the quotidian or everyday aspects of life that are conveyed by the letters. They are a portal into what this family did with their lives on an everyday basis: the card games they played, the food they ate, their conversations with friends while at the same time my grandmother – who wrote most of the letters – is desperately trying to hold this transcontinental family together and worrying about the health of her sons in Africa. I wanted to do justice to those letters while recognizing that these are not my memories. They belong to others.

For your father and his younger brother, the escape to South Africa in the 1930s saves their lives and allows them to start over again. Your father spends the rest of his life in Port Elizabeth, but South Africa in the 1930s was hardly welcoming to Jews. Can you tell us what was going on and what the effects were on Jewish emigration to South Africa?

During the 1930s and 1940s a number of rightwing Afrikaner nationalist movements, such as the Grey Shirts and Ossewabrandwag, emerged with the aim of mobilizing poor white Afrikaners who had been displaced from the land in the 1920s. These rightwingers, as well as the more mainstream Afrikaner nationalists, portrayed Jews as a particular threat to poor whites because of their purported uncanny commercial acumen, secret brotherhoods and dominance in commerce and the professions. This mobilization culminated in campaigns to prevent German Jews, like my father’s family in Berlin, from finding refuge in South Africa at a time when the clouds of fascism were sweeping across Europe. In 1937, Afrikaner nationalists, such as D.F. Malan and H.F. Verwoerd, successfully lobbied the Hertzog-Smuts government to introduce the Aliens Act, which shut the door on German Jews attempting to flee Europe.

In fact, throughout the book, you draw several linkages between the discrimination against, and the destruction of, Jews in Germany and the exploitation of Africans during the colonial and apartheid periods. Can you talk about what those linkages were and why you thought it was important to connect the two?

Typically accounts of the Holocaust present this catastrophe as a unique event that cannot be compared to any other genocide. This also implies a hierarchy of suffering. In 1996, while visiting the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., I stumbled across an account of Eugen Fischer, a German anatomist and physical anthropologist who, in 1908, studied the consequences of “racial mixing” amongst the Rehoboth Basters in German South West Africa. Fischer’s study was internationally acclaimed, and helped launch his career as a leader in the field of eugenics. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Fischer’s career took off further and he soon became the leading Nazi racial scientist. Together with the Herero and Nama genocide, Fischer’s scientific career hints at the role of the colonies as laboratories for the incubation of racial hygiene ideas that later boomeranged back to Europe. This calls for us to recognize the entanglement of colonial and European histories of scientific racism and genocide.

To continue the line of thought above, can you talk about the challenge of balancing a personal, emotional story with a more social science approach, as you do when you discuss racial eugenics and the embrace of it not only in South Africa, but also Europe and the US?

I did not want this book to simply be a Holocaust family memoir. Quite early on, I began to realize that the personal story of my family needed to be situated within the wider canvas of world historical events of the 20th century – colonialism, the Shoah and Apartheid. I felt the intertwined histories of the 20th century that my father’s family bumped up against in Europe and South Africa needed to be told in a way that transgressed the straightjacket of histories that stop at the borders of nation-states. This was made very apparent by the transnational scientific trajectory of Eugen Fischer, whose scientific ideas influenced global eugenics as well as immigration restriction policies in Europe, the US and South Africa.

One of the strengths of the book is that it draws attention to the participation and the contribution of many countries, not just Nazi Germany, to the rise of global eugenics

Yes, I wanted to decenter the conventional account of the racial science that underpinned the extermination of Jews, which is typically confined to what happened in Europe; but the United States was one of the leaders in the study of racial eugenics in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Already by 1924, the US had adopted an Immigration Restriction Act establishing quotas for so called “inferior races” who were coming into the United States from Eastern and Southern Europe and these included Jews, Slavs and Italians. Great Britain too had its share of scholars who were involved in the eugenics movement.  As Keith Breckenridge has shown, Sir Francis Galton drew on observations of indigenous peoples in the 1850s in what is now Namibia to inform his views on Britain’s urban poor and the “lower classes.”

So the Germans were relative latecomers in this respect. In fact, Fischer’s institute, the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, was partially funded by both Carnegie Institute and the Rockefeller Foundation.

In some ways, the book clearly implicates also the social sciences in the growth of “racial science”

Anthropology, as I mention in the book, was implicated in the science of racial classification, taking measurements, using anthropometric photographs, collecting artifacts and devising intelligence tests.  But, for a long time, anthropology has been doing a lot of critical reflection on race, and on the connections between anthropology and colonialism. Starting with Franz Boas at Columbia in the 1920s, there’s been this effort to unpack the association. Boas refuted the ideas of popular eugenicists, such as Madison Grant, HH Goddard and Charles Davenport. On the other hand, other disciplines, such as sociology and political science, haven’t done this kind of soul searching.

I was surprised to learn in the book that Karl Pearson, famous for Pearson’s correlation coefficient, was a committed eugenicist, who relied on statistics to “prove” the superiority of the professional classes and even advocated removing indigenous people in Uganda for the benefit of Britain. Anyone who uses stats – from simple correlations to big data – knows of Pearson.

The book tries to address some of that. It is part memoir, but also an engagement with the social sciences and even my own place of work, the University of Stellenbosch.  When it was founded in 1926, the Volkekunde Department at Stellenbosch (the precursor to the anthropology department) was heavily influenced by racial science. In fact, in 2012, the curator of the museum at Stellenbosch found a skull and several eugenics measuring devices that belonged to the old department.  They included a hair color table in a silver case engraved with Eugen Fischer’s name.

Finding Fischer’s “scientific footprint” at Stellenbosch University reveals the transnational character of scientific ideas such as eugenics. This is also part of a film I am making with Mark Kaplan that links together Fischer’s study of the Rehoboth Basters with the racial science policies propagated by the Nazis.  In 2015 we also ran a Mellon Foundation-funded project called Indexing the Human that included a series of lectures focused on questions of racial classification and histories of the social science disciplines at Stellenbosch University.

One very important thread in those entangled histories is the parallel you draw with Apartheid.

In fact, that is how I got interested in this. Attending the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996 and hearing all these stories from South Africans whose family members had died in detention or disappeared triggered my interest in wanting to know more about my family.  Many of those who spoke in front of the TRC, they knew their family members were gone but they just wanted to know how they had died and where their bodies were. And that got me started on the journey.

You spoke earlier about the anti-Semitism that your father confronted when he first arrived in South Africa.  Why did the treatment of Jewish South Africans change after WWII?  Would you say some were co-opted into supporting Apartheid?  Having experienced so much discrimination in Germany, Lithuania etc. why do you think some Jewish people overlooked the treatment of Africans during Apartheid while others clearly challenged it?

During the 1930s, South African Jews were fearful of the consequences of rising anti-Semitism and increasing support for Nazi Germany. Afrikaner hostility towards Jewish immigration intensified in the build-up to the war, and later nationalists and future prime ministers B.J. Vorster and Verwoerd openly supported the German war effort. In fact, Vorster was interned at Koffiefontein detention center for his pro-Nazi stance. After the war, Prime Minister Malan’s ruling National Party did a complete about turn. Malan visited Israel in the early 1950s and returned very positive about future relations with the Jewish state. This created the conditions for a long-term rapprochement between Afrikaners and Jews. Whereas the whiteness of Jews had been questioned by both the English and Afrikaners during the early part of the 20th century, the post-war era ushered in a period when the National Party invited Jews into the white fold. It was their concern for their place in the white social order that pushed mainstream Jewry into a Faustian bargain, whereby they became bystanders as Apartheid laws were enforced. It was left to radical Jews in the Communist Party to forcefully resist Apartheid. They become the torch bearers of the historical memory of anti-Semitism and anti-fascism in Europe and South Africa.

Another sub-theme in the book is the complicated relationship that Jewish South Africans have with Israel and Palestine. Can you elaborate on this?

Attending Theordor Herzl Primary School in Port Elizabeth in the early 1960s, I was exposed to an understanding of the Shoah that was tightly tethered to Israeli nationalist accounts of the making of the Jewish state. In this account, the Shoah was spliced onto an ethno-nationalist narrative of collective suffering and redemption. But over the years I began to question this account and I now endorse the late Edward Said’s comment that the Palestinians have become “the victims of the victims”. This has made me increasingly suspicious of all ethno-nationalist projects that appropriate historical accounts of collective suffering for instrumental political ends.

It’s hard to know how to categorize this story – is it personal memoir? At one point, on page 41, you seem to admit it is not your story, that you are “intruding upon… cannibalizing my father’s memories.” On the other hand, in an email to me you called it “experimental ethnography.”  Can you explain? What are the challenges in this kind of writing?

While I was writing this book I was not particularly concerned with questions of what genre I was writing in. I was conscious of crossing genre boundaries but it is only now, after the book’s publication, that I have begun to think about this book as an experimental ethnography-cum-family memoir-cum-social history.

To conclude, tell us the significance of stumbling stones or the Stolpersteine, which the title references?

In 2000, the German artist Gunter Demnig laid these small bronze commemorative plaques into the stone pavement outside the Berlin buildings that my father’s family members were deported from. These material objects of memory – with victims’ names and dates and destinations of deportation – reside in everyday, public spaces.  Their small size and subtle presence appeals to me precisely because these plaques do not impose themselves on the urban landscape. You hardly notice them until one day the tip of your shoe may bump up against one of them. In fact, the name Stolperstein, which translates into “stumbling stone”, resonates with the ways in which I stumbled across the traces of my family’s past in Germany and South Africa.

The Upright Man, Thomas Sankara


Burkina Faso is finally beginning to do right by the memory of Thomas Sankara: Yesterday, a foundation in Sankara’s name, unveiled plans for a public memorial. This happens nearly 29 years ago this month after he was murdered and two years since Blaise Compaoré–considered one of the key people responsible for Sankara’s murder– fled the country.

Throughout this time, Sankara remained an inspiration to young Africans and people committed to a radical pan-Africanist future. His supporters and admirers argue that his short four-year reign as President of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987 – for all its faults – pointed briefly to the potential of different political futures for Africans, beyond dependency, neocolonialism and false dawns of “Africa Rising.”

Plans for the memorial and a museum were announced at a symposium in Ouagadougou held in Sankara’s honor and attended by nearly 3,000 people. As the BBC reports: “The proposed memorial is estimated to cost around $8m (£6.2m) and will be funded by small contributions from supporters of the former Burkinabe president.”

On October 15, 1987,  armed men burst into the office of Sankara, murdered him and twelve of his aides in a violent coup d’état. In events that eerily paralleled those in the Congo 27 years earlier (when a conspiracy of European intelligence agencies and their Congolese surrogates murdered Patrice Lumumba), the attackers cut up Sankara’s body and buried his remains in a hastily prepared grave.  The next day Compaoré, who was Sankara’s deputy, declared himself president. Compaoré then went on to rule the country until 2014, when he was forced to flee the country amidst a popular uprising. Between 1987 and 2014, Compaoré both attempted to co-opt and distort Sankara’s memory and making promises to bring his murderers to justice. Nothing ever came of that.

Burkina Faso (known as Upper Volta until 1984) didn’t attract much attention outside West Africa until Sankara overthrew the country’s corrupt and nondescript military leadership in 1983. (It bears repeating that Burkina Faso had been ruled by military dictatorships for at least 44 years of its independence from France. The military before Sankara basically acted as surrogates for French interests in the region. One year after Compaore fled, there was a brief one week coup, but the country has been ruled by democrats and figuring out a new constitution since then.)

Like Lumumba – an earlier principled political leader who was a violent casualty of the Cold War – Sankara proved to be a creative and unconventional politician. He wanted to a chart a “third way,” separate from the interests of the major powers (in his case, France, the Soviet Union and the United States). This, however, resulted in a complex legacy where those who praise his social and economic reforms — discussed below — have a hard time squaring it with his often-undemocratic politics.

In 1985, Sankara said of his political philosophy: “You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future. It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen. We must dare to invent the future.”

The documentary film, Thomas Sankara: the Upright Man by the British filmmaker Robin Shuffield, is probably the best filmic account of Sankara’s rise, governing style, reforms and his eventual murder. It also gives some sense as to why–unlike say Lumumba among Third World nationals or Nelson Mandela among Western elites–people beyond West Africa (and now with students in South Africa) don’t mention Sankara much these days (except for those with more than a passing knowledge of postcolonial African politics).

Sankara openly challenged both French hegemony in West Africa as well as his fellow military leaders (Sankara labelled them “criminals in power”). He called for the scrapping of Africa’s debt to international banks, as well as to their former colonial masters. Check the many clips of him doing just that at public events in Harlem, New York or Addis Ababa.

His reforms were widespread, both at a symbolic level and in terms of political and economic reforms. For one, in 1984 he changed the country’s name from Upper Volta, the name it kept from colonialism, to Burkina Faso. The country’s new name translates as “the land of the upright people.”

Sankara preached economic self-reliance. He shunned World Bank loans and promoted local food and textile production. (There’s a classic scene in Shuffield’s documentary where he had the whole Burkina delegation to an Organization of African Unity meeting decked out in local textiles and designs.)

Sankara outlawed tribute payments and obligatory labour to village chiefs, abolished rural poll taxes, instituted a massive immunization program, built railways and kick-started public housing construction. His administration aggressively pushed literacy programs, tackled river blindness and embarked on an anti-corruption drive in the civil service.

Women, the poor and the country’s peasantry benefited mostly from these reforms. His administration promoted gender equality in a very male-dominated society (including outlawing female circumcision and polygamy). As Sankara told a local audience in 1984: “Socially, [women] are relegated to third place, after the man and the child — just like the Third World, arbitrarily held back, the better to be dominated and exploited.”

He discouraged the luxuries that came with government office and encouraged others to do the same. He earned a small salary ($450 a month), refused to have his picture displayed in public buildings, and forbade the uses of chauffeur-driven Mercedes and first class airline tickets by his ministers and senior civil servants.

But Sankara’s regime was not immune to undemocratic practices.

He banned trade unions and political parties, and put down protests (most significantly one by teachers in 1986). Many people were the victims of summary judgments by people’s revolutionary tribunals, which sentenced “lazy workers,” “counter-revolutionaries” and corrupt officials. Sankara himself would later admit on camera that the tribunals were often used as occasions to settle private scores.

By 1987, he was politically isolated. His enemies – a mix of the French political establishment (he had humiliated President François Mitterand in public on a few occasions) and regional leaders (like Ivorian President Félix Houphouët-Boigny) – began to tire of him.

Compaoré is widely suspected to have ordered Sankara’s murder in order to do the French and regional dictators a favor. Though Compaoré pretended to publicly grieve for Sankara and promised to preserve his legacy, he quickly set about purging the government of Sankara supporters.

In contrast to the cool reception given Sankara earlier, Compaoré was welcomed by Western governments and funding agencies. Within three years, Compaoré had accepted a massive IMF loan and instituted a structural adjustment program (largely seen as one of the major causes for the ongoing economic crises in Africa). Compaoré also reversed most of Sankara’s reforms. Not surprisingly this included the insistence that his portrait hang in all public places as well as buying himself a presidential jet.

While he was in power, Compaoré proved reluctant to investigate Sankara’s death fully. His government wanted to “move on.”  Compaoré – whose regime had been implicated in the civil wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia – even tried a makeover as a “democrat” (he won a series of elections in the 1990s and 2000s), and was a key ally of the US.

After Compaoré fled the country in 2014, he, along with fourteen senior army officers, were indicted for their role in Sankara’s murder. However, the case has stalled.

As Mathilde Monpetit wrote on AIAC in July 2015, Sankara was a key inspiration of anti-Compaore protesters, some even identifying as “Génération Sankara.” But Monpetit wondered aloud about the renewed interest in the liberation politics that Sankara represented; “Is this renewed interest indicative of a revived interest in socialism, or simply the grasping of a people looking for a leader after the end of a political era? Sankara may simply stay the Che Guevara of Burkina Faso, in death representing an image of Burkinabè anti-colonial discontent that need not be compatible with the actions or ideology of the people who put his image on their shirts and walls.”

This weekend’s symposium, however, suggested that Sankara remains a real presence for social movements (and some governments) in Africa. Present were, for example,  were activists of Balai citoyen, the citizen movement which played a role in the 2014 uprising in Burkina Faso, as well as Fidel Barro, one of the leaders of Senegal’s Y’en a Marre. Burkina Faso’s cultural minister told the audience: “Those who killed Thomas Sankara simply cut the tree, forgetting the roots. Now, we all know, the strength of the Baobab is based in its roots. Whatever they did, Thomas Sankara remains alive forever.” The foundation building the memorial and the museum insists, however, that it be build by the people and not the state.

The last word goes to Barre told an AFP reporter: “There is a Sankara for economics, a cultural Sankara, an avant-garde Sankara, a Sankara for the democratization of [political] power, a Sankara for the freedom of expression and speech. It is all these Sankara that these youth have come to admire because they want that Africa moves forward. They need that Africa becomes independent. Sankara goes beyond Burkina Faso, he is an African and World treasure.”

* This post draws on a piece I wrote for The Guardian in October 2008 as well as reference a number of posts written on Burkina Faso on this site.

Weekend Music Break No.99

After a bit of a vacation, our end of the week round up of 10 videos from or attached to the continent of Africa are back! Enjoy this catch up edition of the Weekend Music Break, curated by your resident praise DJ on our Youtube Channel.

Weekend Music Break No.99

1) First up we have a major global music event with the release of the video for the sonic collaboration between North American First Nations deejay group A Tribe Called Red, Iraqi-Canadian rapper The Narcicyst, and the entire world’s favorite local rapper Yasiin Bey. 2) Next, Al Sarah and the Nubatones release “Ya Watan” off of their latest album out on Wonderwheel Recordings. 3) I’m in awe of the choreography in the video for “Soudani” by Afrotronix from Chad, who is another Montreal-based artist showing the vibrancy of the independent and global music scene in Canada. 4) I’m really happy that Donae’o keeps pushing the UK Funky sound he helped popularize globally in Afropop directions. His “Party Hard” remains as one of if not the foundational song for the global Afrobeats craze. 5) And to illustrate that connection, Nigerians Naomi Achu and Skales come with “Gbagbe” an Afropop song tailored to the day. 6) Africa is a Country contributor Young Cardamom and his collaborator HAB provide the lead single from the Soundtrack to Disney’s Uganda flick Queen of Katwe. 7) Since this writer is Rio de Janeiro based, I have to represent with the biggest Funk tune of the season here, “Malandramente”. Will it’s ubiquity remain through our summer into Carnival? 8) Brazil also has elections this weekend, and while we made a hesitant endorsement for the fraught presidential race in the US, we can give a much more enthusiastic thumbs up to the campaign of Marcelo Freixo who is running for mayor of Rio de Janeiro. And as this campaign jingle shows, we’re not the only ones! 9) Élage Diouf is another Canada-based African artist, and shoots his video for “Mandela” an a return trip home, showcasing the beauty and vibrancy of his homeland. 10) Foresta, Royal Blu & Lila Ike show a different side of Jamaica than we’re used to seeing, a nice change of pace, from the regular image pushed to outsiders by foreign media. And that laid back R&B tune is a perfect way to close out this weekend’s music break, until next time!

Mr. Zuckerberg goes to Africa

Image via Techpoint NigeriaImage via Techpoint Nigeria

In late August and early September, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg visited Nigeria’s Silicon Lagoon and Kenya’s Silicon Savannah. Both visits were “surprises” for the locals and were also Zuckerberg’s first official trips to any African country.

As noted in a recent survey, Kenya and Nigeria are two of the five countries that host 50 percent of Africa’s tech hubs. Tech hubs and start-ups are increasingly seen as key to promoting innovation and wider economic growth on the continent, as highlighted also in the World Bank’s most recent World Development Report 2016, “Digital Dividends.”

Casually dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, Zuckerberg presented himself as a rapidly acclimatizing businessman, fearlessly jogging over the Ikoyi bridge in Lagos and eagerly sampling Nigeria’s jollof rice and Kenya’s ugali and fish. For self-mocking Nigerians, Zuckerberg’s humble disposition stood in stark contrast to that of the country’s local economic and political elites, who insist on their status displays through an impressive and imposing dress sense and numerous prefixes to their names – aptly summed up in this Twitter meme. Or as novelist Okey Ndibe suggested: if Zuckerberg were Nigerian, he would have more likely introduced himself as “Honorable Triple High Chief Sir (Dr.) Alhaji Mark Zuckerberg.”

Zuckerberg’s visit provoked a lot of enthusiasm and was considered proof that Nigeria and Kenya have now firmly established themselves on the global tech map. More generally, it offered a much-needed alternative to dominant global media narratives of Africa as the diseased, poverty-stricken and war-torn continent.

Zuckerberg’s personal story as a self-made business man also serves as an inspiration to many budding African entrepreneurs. It is not unrelated to the continent’s broader fascination with motivational literature, which now dominates many bookshop shelves, or with the neoliberal prosperity gospel of the numerous, flourishing Pentecostal churches. Like self-help books and charismatic pastors, St. Mark of Menlo Park’s visit provided some sense of hope. However, whether Africa will gain from Zuckerberg, or Zuckerberg from Africa, appears the more important question that needs to be addressed.

Zuckerberg is now the world’s sixth richest person, with Forbes estimating his wealth at $51.7 billion. In June 2016, the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation – which Zuckerberg and his partner Priscilla Chan established in December 2015 after the birth their first child – announced its first investment of $24 million in Nigeria’s tech start-up Andela, an amount equivalent to less than 0.5%  of Zuckerberg’s estimated fortune. More crucial than the foundation’s investment in Africa’s tech community, however, are Facebook’s explicit strategies in recent years to expand its reach on the continent.

Despite a recent major PR mishap involving the explosion of the when the SpaceX rocket  (which was going to launch the Amos-6 satellite and expand broadband internet on the continent), Facebook’s ‘charitable’ mission is to connect the next five billion. Furthermore, Facebook’s Free Basics app now enables African mobile phone users in 21 African countries to access a text-based version of Facebook free of charge while Facebook Lite allows users to run the application with less consumption of mobile data.

Clearly, Facebook is fast gaining ground on the continent: At the end of 2015, the number of Facebook users in Africa was estimated at 124.6 million and numbers continue to grow, particularly in – surprise, surprise – Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. The growth potential offers Facebook plenty more opportunities in future to collect and trade personal data, or to sell ads aimed at Africa’s seemingly growing middle class (Facebook opened its first ad sales office in Johannesburg in June 2015).

The introduction of Free Basics in India provoked a heated debate as it was seen to violate the principle of net neutrality. Eventually, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) ruled that mobile operators cannot charge differential tariffs for data services, which prevented Facebook from introducing its free app. In the African context, Free Basics has solicited some debate but much less controversy and, so far, regulators on the African continent have not acted against the company.

However, during my recent fieldwork with mobile internet users (which is how most Africans access the internet) in Zambia, Free Basics was not frequently cited as a platform that many were enthusiastically embracing. As I reported in another post, what seems to be more crucial to Facebook’s penetration in Zambia is the sponsoring of social media by mobile phone operators through attractively priced prepaid data bundles. For example, Zambia’s largest mobile operator, Airtel, offers a social bundle that allows users to access social media for an unlimited time over a certain period (a day, week or month) for a low fee. Daily packages are popular and enable users to adjust their data spending according to their income that particular week. With a large proportion of Zambians in informal employment, earnings and incomes are often irregular and daily bundles offer a level of flexibility.

As a result of this, the nature of Zambia’s internet is largely determined by social media. SMS and email are increasingly replaced with Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. Many small to medium-size businesses do not have websites but market their services on easily managed Facebook pages. Given the subsidized nature of Facebook through data bundles, mobile phone users receive a warning that they will incur data charges as soon as they leave Facebook. For this reason, most Zambian online news sites post full content of articles on their Facebook pages rather than hyperlinks to website content which will be more expensive for users to visit.

Ultimately, this creates an internet experience that largely takes place within the walls of Facebook, raising obvious questions about net neutrality. Zambia’s internet is increasingly a social media internet. So far, this has not as yet provoked a major debate in the country but in neighboring Zimbabwe, the Minister of Information, Communication and Technology and Courier Services recently ordered the Postal Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe to request mobile operators to suspend data bundle promotions amidst protests against government as part of the #ThisFlag movement.

Social media bundles, therefore, are a key instrument that both enable and disable mobile internet access. While so far, much critical debate has focused on Free Basics, data bundles may be the bigger key to Facebook’s growing empire on the African continent.

It remains to be seen who will be able to consume more jollof rice or ugali and fish as a result of this expansion: Africans or Zuckerberg? Facebook certainly enables African mobile internet users to cheaply communicate with friends, to resist state power occasionally and to do business. But the growing concentration of power in one platform raises many questions around net neutrality, datafication and privacy that may require a more critical debate – certainly beyond Zuckerberg’s modest dress sense.

*This is a compendium version of a series of three articles on digital technology and social media in Zambia’s recent elections published on the LSE Blog.

What next for Zimbabwe?

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

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

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

So, what is different this time around?

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

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

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

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

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

Budgets, bureaucracy and realpolitik trump human rights advocacy

Ayotzinapa protests via Montecruz Foto FlickrAyotzinapa protests via Montecruz Foto Flickr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The policing of the roots of blackness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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