Africa is a Country

South African Hip Hop Series: Thoughts On The Late Rapper Mizchif

I was home alone one Friday night around 2001 watching, as was tradition, one of the music shows which came on at SABC 1 during that period. It could’ve been Studio Mix during its dying years, or Basiq with Azania, or Castle Loud with Unathi and Stoan.

The first video played after a Telkom ad. It featured a tall-ish man in an afro with what looked like a (mobile) telephone; I assumed it was a continuation of the advert. Roughly ten seconds in, I realised that this was an actual music video and began to pay attention.

I immediately pressed record and managed to capture Mizchif’s “Fashionable” video premiere in its entirety. It was my introduction to an emcee who went on to release one of my first South African hip-hop CD purchases in the form of his 9-track EP Life From All Angles.

He’d be on YFM during the Sprite Rap Activity jam providing a crucial dose of hip-hop news, or on Channel O presenting some video programme or another. He even had a breakout hit with kwaito artist Mavusana called “Summertime” which was big on national radio.

Then, silence!

Forward to 2008. I ran into Mizchif in Cape Town; introduced myself and let him know how much of a fan of his work I was. A year later while hosting a hip-hop show on the campus radio station, listeners would regularly request Mizchif songs to be played.

My copy of Life From All Angles had since been misappropriated, but we managed to find a copy of “Fashionable” on the campus’ local area network and would play it. And thus began my brief re-introduction to Mizchif’s music.

It’s easy to fall into wistful nostalgia and wax philosophical about how ‘great’ and ‘legendary’ he was. Indeed he was a dope emcee. But much like Robo, King Daniel, and to some extent Mr. Fat, Devious, etc., Mizchif has joined a growing line of fallen soldiers who were/are all but forgotten by the movement they helped build.

Instead of reinforcing the ‘poor, starving artist’ trope so commonplace in the music industry, perhaps it’d be best if South African hip-hop came up with ways not only to chronicle its present, but to ensure that the contributions of its purveyors don’t fade into obscurity. If anything, we should do it for posterity, because it’s paramount to ensure that the culture isn’t muddled in the fleeting romance of celebrity. We can start by acknowledging that there are people whose stories need to be told and re-told, because they too matter.

The first (and last) time I saw Mizchif perform was at the South African Hip Hop Awards in 2013. I cannot say I was moved. Not only was he in bad shape, he could barely remember the lyrics, choosing instead to rap over certain parts – as a fan rapping along would. It wasn’t a good sight.

The music lives on!

*Opening image: Mizchif performing at the South African Hip Hop Awards, 2014

*This article is part of Africasacountry’s series on South African Hip-Hop in 2014. You can follow the rest of the series here.

Film Review: 100% Dakar – More than Art

Dakar has long been hailed as a center of African visual arts since President Leopold Senghor hosted the World Festival of Negro Arts in 1966. More recently African Artists and art enthusiasts descend onto the city for the Dakar Biennale, a major exhibit of contemporary African art that happens every two years. In the lead up to the 2012 presidential elections, the world came to learn that Senegalese hip hop was a force to be reckoned with as rappers and journalists formed Y’en a Marre, a popular protest movement to denounce injustice and inequality and then against the controversial bid by Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade for a third term in office. A year later, rappers Keyti and Xuman emerged onto the scene with their Journal Rappé, a weekly 4-minute long news broadcast delivered in rhymes in both French and Wolof. Dakar-based fashion designers have also figured quite prominently in African fashion in recent years.

It is no surprise, then, that director/producer Sandra Krampelhuber’s recent documentary, “100% DAKAR – more than art” focuses on the creative arts scene in Dakar, Senegal. In this film portrait we meet artists from a range of disciples including fashion, music, graffiti, photography, dance, and other cultural entrepreneurs including an art blogger:

The film opens with Amadou Fall Ba of the hip hop arts organization, Africulturban, walking through a busy Dakar suburb with a steady beat pumping in background. In the next scene several artists are working on a large brightly colored graffiti mural. The two scenes come together to highlight that the arts and the city figure prominently into the lives of a new generation of Dakar-based creative artists.

We learn from the artists featured that the urban environment of Dakar provides the opportunity for cultural blending, mixing, exploring and collaborating for individuals who come from all over the country and who have traveled all over the world. We get a sense of an excitement running through the arts scene where people feel that anything is possible.

The artists featured also clearly see their role as change-makers in their society with the goal of leaving the world a little better for the next generation. Veteran rapper Didier Awadi notes, “The city offers artists the freedom to create, critique, and comment on anything,” thereby allowing artists to become cultural activists with more of an impact than politicians. Another rapper, PPS The Writah, drives this point home when he says, “I’m a cultural soldier who wants to change things.”

The film allows the audience to hear from the various artists themselves through a series of interviews. Yet, the viewer is brought directly into the center of Dakar’s contemporary art world as photography, painting, fashion, graffiti, musical and dance performances, fashion shows, and art exhibits are featured throughout.

At one point, dancer Ben-J claims, “There is a special vibe here. Dakar booms with life.” Krampelhuber’s film portrait highlights the fact that there is a special collaborative energy that has come together in the city to form Dakar’s contemporary art scene. Her documentary offers a behind the scenes peek into the makings of this exciting creativity and does what photographer Omar Victor Diop hopes his art can do; it shows another image of contemporary Africa.

Zambia turns 50

Zambia, the country its young people fondly call “Zed,” is the next in a number of African countries to turn 50–they are the firstborns of the first wave of African countries to gain independence in the 1960s.

Zambia’s turn came on 24 October 1964, a day chosen because it was United Nations Day. That kind of symbolism is indicative of a very Kaundasque decision. Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s first president, always had his eye far on the horizon–Zambia being but a small part of first the continental and then the global stage on which he would perform what he believed was his vocation: being called to greatness. It was at that level that he sought a place in history – sometimes messianic in its dimensions, as would be seen in the huge role Zambia was to play in freeing the rest of the region from colonialism, white supremacy, and apartheid. In retrospect, we can see that he would make a statement, even with the choice of date for our Independence Day.

Children born soon after Independence like myself grew up in a wonderful Zambia. Service delivery was at its finest, funded by flowing copper resources. We had free schooling – good schooling too – from birth to whatever level your grey matter allowed. At primary school, we had free milk and biscuits at break (well, it was chocolate milk for the fancy “formerly whites only” schools, and regular old milk and buns for the others). Kaunda had even promised an egg every day for each citizen. And boy did he try hard to deliver on this one. It was one of his many intentions to make Zambia paradise.

But sometime in the ‘80s, when it was clear heaven was getting further and further away from Zambia (the copper prices having crashed and oil prices shot through the roof) he tried to cajole the copper price up and oil prices down via a Transcendental Meditation project named – yes you guessed it, “Heaven on Earth.” Suffice to say, this trick was whacky to the extreme, second only to his attempt to turn grass into oil with the aid of some international conman.

I guess all we can say is that he loved his Zambia, Kaunda! Loved it so much that at some point he even killed democracy, because his children could not live in tribal harmony (he said). So out went tribalism engendering multi-party politics, and in came that other special invention Zambia is known for, “One Party Participatory Democracy”, in which all Zambians only voted for one candiadte of one party. It allowed Kauda to maintain the pretence of a democracy, and to rule for 27 years.

The late 70 and 80s were all about Zambia freeing the nations within the region of Southern Africa. Kaunda managed to convince Zambians it was their duty to do so. He let us know the sacrifice we were making – empty shop shelves due to trade embargos, and the bombing crusades by the Rhodesian Selous Scouts – were territorial hazards. In every speech, he repeated that we could not really be free unless our brothers (it was before the politically correct era of including sisters in that statement) in Mozambique, Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe and then South Africa were free too. KK was long winded; it wasn’t unusual for him to stand on a podium and scold the nation for up to 8hrs without break if someone had done something silly like attempt to overthrow his government in a coup.

A telling fact about Zambians was how they voted during these years. It was in that period of real hardship that, every 5 years, Zambians went to the polls to retain Kaunda as president. His opponent on the ballot paper- symbolised by the frog – was never a match! He regularly received 99.99% of the vote – a well publcised matter on the nationally-run newspaper, The Times of Zambia.

But all this idyllic stuff came to an end. Eastern Europe, our biggest allies besides Cuba, toppled walls and dictators. The perestroika bug hit everyone – even in distant lands like Zambia – and the poor man, incredulous until the last moment, was replaced.

In came Chiluba! He quickly found out and declared that “power is sweet.” So sweet he could not fathom exiting after a paltry 10 years in office. So he tried to change the constitution to allow him a third term. Zambians said NO like only Zambians can. They got into their cars and hooted him out of office – literally.

You see, Zambians are known largely for being some of the most laid back people on earth. Passive is the word usually employed. They really put both “nice” and “easy going” into the dictionary. As a rule, they will take nonsense-on-steroids from their leaders and from each other. But then one magic day comes, and they are over all of their patience. Kenneth Kaunda, Fredrick Chiluba and Rupiah Banda found out just how resolute a people Zambians can be when, well, they have just had enough.

And so Zambia, the country known for having cultivated a benign dictator for 27 long years, have now made a name for themselves in Africa: we are now known for the regularity and relative ease with which we change presidents.

Now it’s 2014, 50 years down, and Zambia has to be one of the most frustrating places on the continent. We are annoyed by our country because its people are needlessly poor due to terrible management of resources by administration after administration. But then our country is equally wonderful to be in – a happy, heady place that’s so easy on the soul.

So this October, the country will be awash with green, red, orange and black. Everywhere you look, someone will have on their lovely attire made of the colours of the flag.  Little ones will go to school in their own little pieces. Most people will momentarily forget about a president who is not too well, the endless succession battles, runaway corruption in the corridors of power, and mines that make Europeans rich. The collective jaws that dropped at the nerve of investors, sometimes aptly termed infesters by the former Michael Sata, who celebrate our jubilee by banning the use of Zambian languages on mine premises will be picked of the floor, for the time being.

You know what’s great? It’s that the pride and love for the mother land will not have been engineered by the politicians. Nope, her people love Zed-warts and all! Happy 50th Zambia!

Laura Miti was born, bred and buttered in Zambia  @lauramiti

Belonging–why South Africans refuse to let Africa in

Any African who has ever tried to visit South Africa will know that the country is not an easy entry destination. South African embassies across the continent are almost as difficult to access as those of the UK and the United States. They are characterised by long queues, inordinate amounts of paperwork, and officials who manage to be simultaneously rude and lethargic. It should come as no surprise then that South Africa’s new Minister of Home Affairs has announced the proposed establishment of a Border Management Agency for the country. In his words the new agency “will be central to securing all land, air and maritime ports of entry and support the efforts of the South African National Defence force to address the threats posed to, and the porousness of, our borderline.”

Political observers of South Africa will understand that this is bureaucratic speak to dress up the fact that insularity will continue to be the country’s guiding ethos in its social, cultural and political dealings with the rest of the continent.

Perhaps I am particularly attuned to this because of my upbringing. I am South African but grew up in exile. That is to say I was raised in the Africa that is not South Africa; that place of fantasy and nightmare that exists beyond the Limpopo. When I first came home in the mid 1990s, in those early months as I was learning to adjust to life in South Africa, I was often struck by the odd way in which the term ‘Africa,’ was deployed by both white and black South Africans.

Because I speak in the fancy curly tones of someone who has been educated overseas, I was often asked where I was from. I would explain that I was born to South African parents outside the country and that I had lived in Zambia and Kenya and Canada and that my family also lived in Ethiopia. Invariably, the listener would nod sympathetically until the meaning of what I was saying sank in. ‘Oh.’ Then there would be a sharp intake of breath and a sort of horrified fascination would take hold. “So you grew up in Africa.” The Africa was enunciated carefully, the last syllable drawn out and slightly raised as though the statement were actually a question. Then the inevitable, softly sighed, “Shame.”

In the early years after I got ‘home,’ it took me some time to figure out how to respond to the idea that Africa was a place that began beyond South Africa’s borders. I was surprised to learn that the countries where I had lived – the ones that had nurtured my soul in the long years of exile – were actually no places at all in the minds of some of my compatriots. They weren’t geographies with their own histories and cultures and complexities. They were dark landscapes, Condradian and densely forested. Zambia and Kenya and Ethiopia might as well have been Venus and Mars and Jupiter. They were undefined and undefined-able. They were snake-filled thickets; impenetrable brush and war and famine and ever-present tribal danger.

Though they thought themselves to be very different, it seemed to me that whites and blacks in South Africa were disappointingly similar when it came to their views on ‘Africa.’ At first I blamed the most obvious culprit: apartheid. The ideology of the National Party was profoundly insular, based on inspiring everyone in the country to be fearful of the other. With the naiveté and arrogance of the young, I thought that a few lessons in African history might help to disabuse the Rainbow Nation of the notion that our country was apart from Africa. I made it my mission to inform everyone I came across that culturally, politically and historically we could call ourselves nothing if not Africans.

What I did not fully understand at that stage was that it would take more than a few lectures by an earnest ‘returnee,’ to deal with this issue. This warped idea of Africa was at the heart of the idea of South Africa itself. Just as whiteness means nothing until it is contrasted with blackness as savagery, South African-ness relies heavily on the construction of Africa as a place of dysfunction, chaos and violence in order to define itself as functional, orderly, efficient and civilised.

As such, the apartheid state was at pains to keep its borders closed. The savages at the country’s doorstep were a convenient bogeyman. Whites were told that if the country’s black neighbours were let in, they would surely unite with the indigenous population and slit the throats of whites.  By the same token, black people were told that the Africans beyond South Africa’s borders lived like animals; they were ruled by despots and governed by black magic.

When apartheid ended, the fear of African voodoo throat slitting should have ended with it. Indeed on the face of things, the fear of ‘Africa,’ has abated and has been replaced by the language of investment. South African capital has ‘opened up’ to the rest of the continent and so fear has been taken over by self-interest and new forms of extraction.

In the parlance of South Africans, our businesses have ‘gone into Africa.’ Like the frontiersmen who conquered the bush before them they have been quick to talk about ‘investment and opportunity’ to define our country’s relationship with the continent. The pre-1994 hostility towards ‘Africa’ has been replaced by a paternalism that is equally disconcerting. Africa needs economic saviours and white South African ‘technical skills’ are just the prescription.

Amongst many black South Africans, the script is frightfully similar. The recent collapse of TB Joshua’s church in Nigeria, in which scores of South Africans lost their lives has highlighted how little the narrative has changed in the minds of many South Africans. Many have called in to radio shows and social media asking, what the pilgrims were doing looking for God in such a God forsaken place?

In the democratic era we have converted the hatred of Africa into a crude sort of exceptionalist chauvinism. South Africans are quick to assert that they don’t dislike ‘Africans.’ It’s just that we are unique. Our history and society are too different from theirs to allow for meaningful comparisons. See – we are even lighter in complexion than them and we have different features. I have heard the refrain too many times, ‘We don’t really look like Africans.’ Never mind the reality that black South Africans come in all shades from the deepest of browns to the fairest of yellows.

This idea that South Africans are so singular in our experience; that apartheid was such a unique experience that it makes us different from everyone else in the world, and especially from other Africans, is an important aspect of understanding the South African approach to immigration.

As long-time researcher Nahla Vahlji has noted, “the fostering of nationalism produces an equal and parallel phenomenon: that of an affiliation amongst citizens in contrast and opposition to what is ‘outside’ that national identity.” In other words, South Africans may not always like each other across so-called racial lines, but they have a kinship that is based on their connection to the apartheid project. Outsiders – those who didn’t go through the torture of the regime – are juxtaposed against insiders. In other words foreigners are foreign precisely because they can not understand the pain of apartheid, because most South Africans now claim to have been victims of the system. Whether white or black, the trauma of living through apartheid is seen as such a defining experience that it becomes exclusionary; it has made a nation of us.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which sought to uncover the truth behind certain atrocities that took place under apartheid, was also an attempt to make a nation out of us. While it won international acclaim as a model for settling disputes that was as concerned with traditional notions of justice as it was with healing the wounds of the past, there were many people inside South Africa who were sceptical of its mission. As Premesh Lalu and Brendan Harris suggested as the Commission was starting its work in the mid 1990s, the desire for the TRC to create the narrative of a new nation led to a selection of “elements of the past which create no controversy, which create a good start, for a new nation where race and economic inequality are a serious problem, and where the balance of social forces is still extremely fragile.”

This is as true today as it was then. Attending the hearings was crucial for me as a young person yearning to better understand my country, but I am objective enough to understand that one of the consequences using the TRC as the basis for forging a national identity is that ‘others’ – the people who were not here in the bad old days – have found it difficult to find their place in South Africa.  Aided and abetted by the TRC and the discursive rainbow nation project, South Africans have failed to create a frame for belonging that transcends the experience of apartheid.

Twenty years into the ‘new’ dispensation, many South Africans still view people who weren’t there and therefore who did not physically share in the pain of apartheid as ‘aliens.’ The darker-hued these aliens are, the less likely South Africans are to accept them. Even when black African ‘foreigners’ attain citizenship or permanent residence, even when their children are enrolled in South African schools, they remain strangers to us because they weren’t caught up in our grand narrative as belligerents in the war that was apartheid.

While it is easy to locate the roots of xenophobia in our colonial and apartheid history, it is also becoming clear that our present leaders do not understand how to press the reset button in order to remake our country in the image of its future self. They have not been able to outline a vision for the new South Africa that is inclusive of the millions of African people who live here and who are ‘foreign’ but indispensable to our society for cultural, economic and political reasons.

America – with all its problems – offers us the model of an immigrant nation whose very conception relied on the idea of the ‘new’ world where justice and freedom were possible. Much can be said about how that narrative ignores those who were brought to the country as slave cargo. It is patently clear that America has also denied the founding acts of genocide that decimated the people of the First Nations who lived there before the settlers arrived. Indeed, one could argue that while oppression and murder begat the United States of America, the country’s founding myth is an inclusive one, a story of freedom and the right to life. In South Africa murder and oppression also birthed a new nation, but the founding myth of our post 1994 country has remained insular and exclusive, a story of freedom and the right to life for South Africans.

The South African state has always been strongly invested in seeing itself as an island of morality and order in a cesspool of black filth. The notion of South Africa’s apartness from Africa is deeply embedded in the psyche that ‘new’ South Africans inherited in 1994 but it goes back decades. For example, the 1937 Aliens Act sought to attract desirable immigrants, whom it defined in the law as those of ‘European’ heritage who would be easily assimilable in the white population of the country.’ This law stayed on the books until 1991, when the National Party, in its dying days, sought to protect itself from the foreseeable ‘deluge’ of communist and/or barbaric Africans. The Aliens Control Act (1991) removed the offensive reference to ‘Europeans’ but it kept the rest of the architecture of exclusion intact.

As a result, when the new South Africa was born the old state remained firmly in place, continuing to guard the border from the threats just across the Limpopo, as it always had.   It was a decade before the Bill on International Migration came into force in 2003 and it too retained critical elements of the old outlook.

The ANC politicians running the country somehow began to buy into the idea that immigrants posed a threat to security. Immigration continued to be seen as a containment strategy rather than as a path to economic growth. As President Jacob Zuma tightens his grip on the security sector, and extends the power and reach of the security cluster in all areas of governance, this attitude seems to be hardening rather than softening.

None of South Africa’s current crop of political leaders seem to be asking the kinds of questions that will begin to resolve the question the role that immigration can and should play in the building of our new nation. South Africa’s political leadership sees Africa in one of two ways: either as a market for South African goods, differentiated only to the extent that Africans can be sold our products; or as a threat, part of a deluge of the poor and unwashed who take ‘our jobs and our women.’

No one in government today seems to understand that post-apartheid South Africa continues to be the site of multiple African imaginations. One cannot deal with ‘Africa’ without dealing with the subjectivity of what South Africa meant to Africa historically, and the disappointment that a free South Africa has signified in the last decade.

So much of the pan-Africanist project – even with its failings – has been about an imagined Africa in which the shackles of colonialism have been thrown off. South Africa has always been an iconic symbol in that imaginary. Robben Island and Nelson Mandela, the burning streets of Soweto, Steve Biko’s bloodied, broken body: these images did not just belong to us alone. They brought pain and grief to a continent whose march towards self-determination included us, even when our liberation seemed far, far away. With the invention of the ‘new’ South Africa the crucial importance of African visions for us have taken a back seat. South Africans have refused to admit that we are a crucial aspect of the African project of self-determination. In failing to see ourselves in this manner, we have denied ourselves the opportunity to be propelled – transported even – by the dreams of our continent.

What would South Africa be like without the ‘foreign’ academics who teach mathematics and history on our campuses? How differently might our students think without their deep and critical insights about us and the place we occupy in the world? How might we understand our location and our political geography differently if ‘foreigners’ were not here offering us different ways of wearing and inhabiting blackness? What would our society look like without the tax paying ‘foreigners’ whose children make our schools richer and more diverse? What would inner city Johannesburg smell like without coffee ceremonies and egusi soup? What would Cape Town’s Greenmarket square be without the Zimbabwean and Congolese taxi drivers who literally make the city go?

In an era in which borders are coming down and becoming more porous to encourage trade and contact, South Africa is introducing layers of red tape to the process of moving in and out of the country. The outsider has never been more repulsive or threatening than s/he is now. This is precisely why Gigaba’s announcement of the Border Management Agency is so worrisome. Yet it was couched in careful language. Ever mindful of the xenophobic reputation that South Africa has in the rest of the continent, Gigaba asserts, “We value the contributions of fellow Africans from across the continent living in South Africa and that is why we have continued to support the AU and SADC initiatives to free human movement; but [my emphasis] this cannot happen haphazardly, unilaterally or to the exclusion of security concerns.”

Ah, there it is! The image of Africa and ‘Africans’ as haphazard, disorderly and ultimately threatening is in stark contrast to South Africa and South Africans as organised, efficient and (ahem) peace-loving. The subtext of Gigaba’s statement is that South Africans require protection ‘foreigners’ who are hell bent on imposing their chaos and violence on us.

Nowhere has post-apartheid policy suffered from the lack of imagination more acutely than in the area of immigration. Before they took power, many in the ANC worried about the ways in which the old agendas of the apartheid regime state would assert themselves even under a black government. They understood that there was a real danger of the apartheid mentality capturing the new bureaucrats. Despite these initial fears, the new leaders completely under-estimated the extent to which running the state would succeed in dulling the imaginations of the new public servants and burying their intellect under mountains of forms and rules and processes. They also didn’t understand that xenophobia would be so firmly lodged in the soul of the country, that it would be one of the few phenomena would unite blacks and whites.

South Africa’s massive immigration fail is a tragedy for all kinds of reasons. At the most basic level, the horrific levels of violence and intimidation that many African migrants to South Africa face on a daily basis represent an on-going travesty of justice. Yet in a far more complex and nuanced way, South Africa’s rejection of its African identity is a tragedy of another sort. All great societies are melanges, a delicious brew of art and culture and intellect. They draw the best from near and far and make them their own. By denying the contribution of Africa to its DNA, South Africa forgoes the opportunity to be a richer, smarter, more cosmopolitan and interesting society than it currently is.

I spite of ourselves South Africans still have a chance to open our arms to the rest of the continent. The window of opportunity for allowing our guests to truly belong to us as they have always allowed us to belong to them is still open. I fear however, that the window is closing fast.

Image Credit: Zachary Rosen

Ali Mazrui and Me

I am asked on a regular basis, on campus and off, a question I assume is posed to many scholars of Africa, especially non-African ones like me: “What made you decide to teach African history?” And whether I give the long or short answer, my reply always begins with explaining the pivotal role Ali Mazrui played in that decision. Basically, I can say with certainty that I would not be a historian of Africa if it were not for Ali Mazrui.

As a high school student in suburban New York, I always sought books, documentaries, maps, and even travel brochures that depicted places we did not learn about in the classroom. For a while, I was particularly obsessed with Australia, and regularly wrote to the Australian tourism agency for literature. Africa was a preoccupation, too, but it was much harder to learn about the continent beyond South Africa, and the mainstream news on that country was grotesquely distorted by American Cold War propaganda. Today, I still recall the excitement I felt, in 1986, when the Public Broadcasting Service advertised a new series called “The Africans: A Triple Heritage,” written and narrated by a Kenyan scholar named Ali Mazrui. When the program aired, I eagerly watched every episode and recorded each one on my wood-paneled VHS recorder. It was thrilling to view snapshots of life in Africa, hear Mazrui’s critical viewpoints on western imperialism, and get an accurate description of the vicious apartheid system that was on its way to defeat.

Three years later, the popular news magazine Time ran an article about academic superstars wooed from top universities by rival institutions. I read with delight that Mazrui was leaving the University of Michigan for the State University of New York, Binghamton – now known as Binghamton University – where I was set to begin my sophomore year. I resolved to meet Mazrui as soon as I got to campus just to tell him how much I enjoyed “The Africans.” In retrospect, my determination seems absurd, but it turned out to be a meeting that would change my life.

I did exactly as planned: I showed up one morning at Mazrui’s new Institute of Global Cultural Studies and introduced myself to his long-term assistant Nancy Levis. She directed me into Mazrui’s office and there he was: sitting behind his desk, welcoming me to sit down with what I would come to recognize as his trademark smile. I explained that I wanted to meet him to express my appreciation for his television series. We discussed the program briefly and then he asked about my personal background and educational plans. At the end of our conversation, Mazrui commented on what he perceived to be my passion for Africa, and he made a suggestion that had never crossed my mind: “Why don’t you study African history?” This was a revelation to me since, like many first generation college students, I did not realize all the choices before me and I focused on German history only because of my ancestry. Mazrui’s question led me on a journey that began that semester, enrolling in my first undergraduate African history course at Binghamton, and continues to this very day, teaching my own African history courses at The University of Memphis. And throughout, Mazrui was an advisor, an inspiration, and a role model.

Mazrui’s humanity and decency, his faith in people, and his genuine warmth were all manifested in that first meeting I had with him. His proposal that I study African history was remarkable beyond the fact he had just met me, a 19 year old white undergraduate without any meaningful understanding of Africa or connection to it; I also walked into his office on crutches, as I suffered from Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis which at the time left both of my legs immobile. And, despite my disability, Mazrui never ceased encouraging me, both of us knowing my studies would lead me to graduate school somewhere in the country and extensive fieldwork across the ocean.

All through my undergraduate education, Mazrui guided and supported me. Two examples of his mentorship at Binghamton stand out for me. The first was when he advised me to enroll in his graduate seminar, Africa in World Politics, where I found myself the only undergraduate in a room full of PhD students from around the world. He always seemed to take a special interest in my contributions, certainly another expression of his encouragement. That same year, as I was preparing for graduate school, he invited me for what I would describe as a “debriefing” or “exit interview.” In a very frank, paternal talk, he cautioned me that I would encounter resistance to my chosen scholarly and career paths, as some would question my right to teach African history. And, reminiscent of his question to me the first time we met a few years earlier, Mazrui asked, “Are you prepared to deal with this?” I felt confident that I was, for many personal and ideological reasons, and indeed I have faced occasional resistance, even hostility, over the years, but that conversation with Mazrui serves to reassure me on those difficult days.

Since then, we kept in touch, through letters, then emails when the latter became more widespread in the 1990s, chance encounters in Ghana, and sitting down to chat at the annual meetings of the African Studies Association. I particularly enjoyed those occasions, when Mazrui, walking in the midst of an entourage of colleagues and assistants, students and admirers, would beam his big smile when he noticed me, stop the train of people behind him, and ask about my family and work. It was an honor and privilege to invite him to Memphis in 2003 when he delighted a filled-to-capacity auditorium with a typically Marzurianaist lecture entitled “The African Predicament: Legacy of Partition, Lure of Reparations.” And, as he had done with me and countless others during his many decades of teaching, Mazrui took time to meet with my students, and later wrote me to ask for their contact information so he could continue to stay in touch.

Image Credit: Twitter.

South Africans lack table manners and posture. That’s all.

South Africa TV will soon debut “Real Housewives of Johannesburg.” If that’s not enough, in other news, the country’s first School of Etiquette is now open in one of Johannesburg’s rich northern suburbs.

The owner of the Etiquette School, Courtney Carey, has been doing the media rounds. Much of the coverage, is not surprisingly, soft pedal stuff. In one instance, the American state broadcaster Voice of America asked her about her vision on the strained social and economic relations in South Africa.

In the interview, Carey suggested the true type of capital that stands in the way of the country’s mission to improve social and economic relations is cultural. What South Africans need to all get along, we learn, are manners. And they’re for sale at her school.

Carey studied at the University of Cape Town, but also lists “Washington’s Protocol School and the New York School of Etiquette” as part of her education.

Apart from the general manager of her guesthouse, who is a black Zimbabwean, her team is all white; they are her parents. From her website it’s pretty clear she targeting black South Africans (and their employers).

Etiquette, which Carey defines as “the fine art of getting along with people,” is easily misunderstood as being all about manners. Yet that would be superficial. Instead, underpinning the quality and strength of social relations, Courtney explains, it’s about the right kind of behavior and social skills to suit the situation that you are in.

So, for those South Africans who seek to build better relationships, get promotions, improve their food-intake and expand their entrepreneurial revenue, we’ve distilled the pedagogical foundational of the curriculum, as it was revealed in the interview and on her website, and turned them into five lessons. The quotation marks indicate Courtney’s quotes, the illustrating examples are our own.

First, improve the behavioral nuances of your business persona and ensure you come off as “comfortable and confident in any environment”. This means that you got to invest some serious time in learning “how to deliver a good toast”, as a bad one can be devastating for your social upward mobility.

Second, are you one of those people who keeps her phone close-by, because you don’t want to miss out on a job or something else you think is urgent? You got it all wrong. Eish, if only you know how many South Africans are “losing businesses and friends for making careless use of their cell phones.” Put it away people. Just be polite, for once.

Concerned about food? Focus on your table manners instead. So stop thinking about ‘what’ you plan to eat and be more mindful of ‘how’ you will eat it. Courtney uses soup spilling as an example of the type of ‘irritating’ table manners, that structurally interfere with successful relationship building. The thing with the soup is that, if you keep it too far away from you, you’ll inevitably spill (..) your chances. If you think that’s elitist, you may want to think twice. According to Courtney, “it’s not about snobby eating…we teach people how to dine easier, cleaner and safer”.

Fourth, for those South African women who seek to build better relationships and independent businesses, it is absolutely vital to distance themselves from the deceptive liberalism of the Constitution (which activist groups have put quite some time and effort in). No, girls. Forget about challenging rigid and hetero-normative gender-roles. You’ve got to “let men be chivalrous” and answer his ‘gentleman’ acts with gratitude if you intend to move forward. “A lot of women now believe that because we are emancipated and we can be independent and run our own businesses and lives, that we don’t need a man to open the door for us or carry a box for us or stand back for us when we walk through a door”, Courtney laments. To all those South African women, who are trapped in the economic comfort of their financial independence and safety of their normative sexuality, she sends a strong message that breathes idealism and passion: “ be better mannered to men… and be more feminine”.

Lastly, two key words that should be mainstreamed through the other ones: genuineness and exclusivity. Nothing of the above will work out if you’re not really feeling it and just put up a show. Faking chivalry, etiquette and interest in, for example, a potential client may be tempting (if you’re hungry) but you’re probably better off if you leave the client to a competitor instead. This is because you can only succeed in being attentive to people and making them feel important if “you genuinely believe they’re important”. A practical example would be a business deal that may pay your rent and school fees for two seasons, but that would force you to work with someone who, according to your gut, is not all that important. Don’t bother; it’s not going to work out.

Image Credit: School of Etiquette Website.


The Photographs of Thabiso Sekgala

There is one photograph (above) of the late Thabiso Sekgala’s that always reminds me of home. It is of lavender jacarandas lining a country road, paling a little from the weak winter sun. The haze of purple is just past its prime, and the blossoms’ fresh hopes are waning. Perhaps there’s a frost on them. Squat one-or two room homes line one side of this flattened dirt road – and I can see patches of brown on the lower walls, where rain has, over many years, splashed mud on to the lime wash. In the back, a fog obscures the skyline, and I imagine a river running through. This still life is a familiar memory – walking to school in the high plateau. We moved towards a sky large enough to swallow small bodies. The sun had burnt the winter fog by 7am, but a white snake of vapour slipped over the river’s cold path. When we walked to the top of a termite mound, where we were instructed not to go (mambas made their home there), the whole path of the river revealed itself – the giveaway was the white cotton fog blanket, following the water faithfully through the flatlands of the veld. As a child, one’s meandering path to school and back was as seemingly aimless – yet as directed as this river by the forces of topography. And my trajectory, I knew, was likely going to be different from those who lived in the homes that lined the dirt road.

Sekgala’s name is synonymous with his photographs of former homelands of Bophuthatswana and KwaNdebele, the mostly non-arable lands on which the majority of South Africa’s population were permitted to live during the apartheid years. The 1913 Natives Land Act that limited black South Africans to these lands was intended to refashion black identity as something inherently staid, static, rural. Although these locations –13% of South Africa – were the visible face of political and administrative apartheid, and although there is no law that now prevents their populations from leaving, the long-term effect is that there really is no exit pass for most who live there.

Sekgala knew how to reveal the lie that built the myth of the rural idyll. His images of Bophuthatswana and KwaNdebele are readings of Freud. How was it that Thabiso’s camera knew more about what “unheimliche” meant in ways that that no words of theory could ever capture about being out-of-place in South Africa? Here, we see the ethereal, the heartbreaking, the there-but-not-there cartographies of homescapes that are not home. These are photographs that reflect the solitude of those countryside cousins who live far away enough that we can ignore them, but it is not a solitude that makes us want to return to that “there”. Like the skin of fog that follows the passage of a river, even when the sun has burnt away the cloak of secrecy over most of the land, Sekgala’s photographs expose the invisible topography of landscapes that nonetheless direct and limit those who are forced to course through those spaces. But somewhere in his photographs is also our will – pushing, moving, at loggerheads with history’s hand.

In many of his images, one sees no people – like David Goldblatt, Sekgala’s camera examined structures, but not the imposing structures like churches and municipal buildings that maintained apartheid in the towns and cities for those apartheid served best. Here, the camera follows the shadow of those plans – the darker end of that grand design – the isolation, the unviability, the impossibility of making life on these patches of bleached land.

But he also photographed the people who had to make life course through that landscape. I’ve always thought about this one photograph of a boy whose slim body finds it impossible to fill out his ill-fitting polyester trousers and pale blue school shirt. The sleeves are rolled up a little untidily, the tie tied a bit too short, and the belt around his slim waist – secure in the wide belt loops of his trousers – bending pliably with his pose. The shine on the trousers’ fabric, near where the boy’s hands slip into the pockets, tell us that they have been well-worn – perhaps by an older brother. This is a proud child, looking in askance at the photographer – you know he’s a bit naughty. A small frown wrinkles the space between his eyebrows. The sky behind him is as bleached as his shirt, and the distant point of habitation – signified by blurred lights and low buildings – wink at the photographer. What will become of this boy? His education?

Sometimes, the world can break your heart, even while it makes you smile.


Like jacarandas, the people Sekgala photographed were not home here. They, too, attempt to flourish, year after year, in lands to which they were transplanted. Sometimes, they line the avenues and flower so miraculously that it is difficult to imagine that they are strangers to this arid landscape, that they have not always been here. We remember home, and we think of these transplants as part of what makes home.

Last year, Sekgala exhibited his work at the FNB Art Fair and at the Goethe-Institut in Johannesburg, together with Kenyan-born Mimi Cherono Ng’ok, and fellow South African Musa Nxumalo. Ng’ok curated the show, titled “Peregrinate: Field Notes on Time Travel” – it was a show that circled around ideas of being both homed and unhomed by one’s returns. I was meant to write a review of their work, but was exasperated, because the two men didn’t send me their work in time for me to write a proper review. “Boys,” I thought dismissively. Instead, I asked Mimi if I could contribute a short story to the catalogue. “Returns” – about the impossibility of going home, about the impossibility of home for those of us whose homes are, in many ways, inhospitable – accompanied Sekgala, Nxumalo, and Ng’ok’s work. I was proud to walk a few steps with them on their journeys.

I wish I had email-bombed Sekgala, and spoken to him about his work. (The only thing that makes displaced people feel a sense of home is speaking to others who are unhomed.) I’d hoped to catch up with him later.

Sekgala was born in Soweto in 1981. He died on October 15. He had many more photographs to take.

Kenyatta went to The Hague: how to bet and win against the (international) system

In the aftermath of the Kenyan 2007 presidential elections, political violence erupted, resulting in 1,200 deaths and the displacement of more than 600,000 people. In the end, three individuals stand accused of crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Court: Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Deputy President William Ruto, and the journalist Joshua Arap Sang.

Uhuru Kenyatta went to The Hague as a Kenyan citizen. In a dramatic political performance, Kenyatta stripped himself of his presidential powers, temporarily bestowing them on William Ruto, his second in command, and also on the ICC docket. Apparently, that was the price to pay to assuage the outraged Kenyans who saw their sovereignty trampled by the court. As a Kenyan friend once told me,  a few years ago, some folks in her country were asking how dare prosecutor Ocampo, “someone who rides a mere bicycle to work” summon their leader?

But, whereas many are praising Kenyatta’s bravery for traveling to The Hague rather than skipping his day in court, let’s keep in mind that his appearance was his safest option. Al Bashir reminds us that having an ICC warrant out for your arrest may be a serious nuisance.

What is clear in this Kenyan saga is that the Kenyan state – or more precisely Kenyatta and Ruto — have always managed to stay one step ahead of the Court. From the early days of the legal proceedings against Kenyatta and Ruto, the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor has been playing catch up with these guys, who have demonstrated that you can work within the international legal system and outsmart it at the same time. Long gone are days of the Kenyan political class chanting: “Don’t be vague. Let’s go to the Hague.” Using their ICC indictment as a political platform, former opponents joined forces as the Uhuru-Ruto ticket and won the 2013 presidential elections.

From the beginning, it was not a clear case. Did the Kenyan post-electoral violence (PEV) amount to crimes against humanity? The late Judge Hans-Peter Kaul issued a dissenting opinion, arguing that the ICC lacks jurisdiction ratione materiae in the situation of the Republic of Kenya. For him, the crimes committed during the 2007-2008 PEV in Kenya do not amount to crimes against humanity as defined by the Rome Statute. Nevertheless, when Kenyans failed to adequately put in place the mechanisms to reckon with the PEV, Ocampo used his proprio motu powers to initiate an ICC investigation.

The fact that two of the accused occupied the highest offices of Kenyan executive power made Ocampo’s job tricky, and brought to center stage many of the birth defects of the first permanent international criminal court. The ICC needs the cooperation of the states to carry out its investigations. For example, states grant visas to investigators (although as an international lawyer complained to me this past summer in The Hague “the prosecutor has investigated Darfur but has never set foot in Darfur. It raises an obvious question of how did they do it”).

The Kenyan state’s failure to facilitate the work of the ICC prosecutor has been disastrous to the prosecutor’s case against Ruto. All nine prosecutor’s witnesses have stopped cooperating, which led to the prosecutor having them declared hostile prosecution witness. Some witnesses have also recanted their prior testimonies, revealing that they were coached to incriminate Ruto. The Kenyatta case doesn’t look any more promising for the ICC’s prosecutor. As we await the Trial Chamber’s verdict on Ruto, it is very likely that the charges against Kenyatta will be dropped and the case closed.

Notwithstanding the obstruction of the Kenyan state, the prosecutor has made its fair share of mistakes as well. The Office of the Prosecutor has faced strong criticism for one-sided investigations elsewhere: targeting rebels or political adversaries while turning a blind eye on crimes that may have been perpetrated by government forces in Uganda, DRC and Cote d’Ivoire. And, Ocampo went for a cruise on the Dutch canals with then-Ugandan Defense Minister Mbabazi while the investigation in Uganda should have targeted both the LRA and the Ugandan army. Seriously, I’m not making this up. Sarah Nouwen wrote about it here, page 952 to be precise.

The novelty of the Kenyan cases lay in this being the first time the ICC was prosecuting two sides of the conflict simultaneously, but it seemed to have back-fired when those two sides joined forces to take the state. Now the ICC faces the challenge of prosecuting sitting heads of state.

In the end, if the case against Ruto collapses and the charges against Kenyatta are dropped – a very likely scenario – it will be a blow against the Office of the Prosecutor, but not necessarily a terrible outcome for the ICC. It would mean that a trip to The Hague is not necessarily a one-way ticket, which could dampen the neo-colonial critique of the Court, and strengthen its legitimacy.

For the Office of the Prosecutor, such an outcome could also lead to a new strategy for investigations: investigate first, and according to the findings, decide on who to prosecute, rather than focusing on specific individuals first and then trying to build a case against them. This might leave the court open to less political manipulation.

The Future of The Gettleman

After re-reading this article last night, I traveled to the end of the world and was happy to find that I am still writing insightful pieces such as the below, which was first published in the New York Times on October 19, 2029.

The apocalypse has a silver lining, except it’s black and white – and if we live long enough to procreate another generation, a harmonious hue of caramel. The recent shower of meteorites has done more for inter-racial solidarity in Africa than Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey and Robin Thicke combined.

“I was watching this pale blonde woman running up and down dodging the pieces of falling rock,” muses Peter Otieno, a matatu (minibus) driver in Nairobi, “and I thought, wow! Bazungu may be so powerful but at the end of the day they’re just human, like me.” Otieno offered Erin Vogt, a Norwegian aid worker, shelter in his matatu, which he had strategically parked beneath a grassy bank that absorbed the impact of the meteor shards.

Yesterday, Vogt invited him to her house to thank him for saving her life. It is there that I met him, his calloused hands fumbling with imported china as a huge smile split his face. His eyes occasionally wandered around the room with a blend of gratitude and disbelief.

This time last year, Otieno was probably wielding a machete on the streets. Thanks to the apocalypse, now he was sitting on Ikea furniture with his expat friend, drinking peppermint tea. “It’s nicer than chewing gum!” he exclaimed, eliciting a smile from the elegant Vogt, who admits that this is the first time she has had a black person over for tea.

“The apocalypse changed everything,” she explains. “It was always us bringing them things, teaching them things, helping them make the most of their wealth, you know? Sometimes, as much as you love your work, you would get this sense of exasperation like, will they ever stand on their own feet?” But the apocalypse has brought out a new side in Africans – one marked by resourcefulness, organization and compassion.

This mentality is commanding respect from the large population of white people that have re-settled in Africa since its rise two decades ago. In turn, their vulnerability in the face of the Apocalypse has touched the hearts of Africans, giving rise to a new era of solidarity.

“We are in this together,” declared Otieno. “Erin told me that when she is evacuated after this shower subsides, I can have all her Maasai blankets and her teas. She even followed me on twitter.” Vogt shrugged, seemingly embarrassed by this revelation of her generosity. “It’s the least I can do,” she said modestly. “He is my African brother now.”

As told to Paula Akugizibwe @ihozopa

‘There is no Ebola here’: What Liberia teaches us about the failures of aid

Professor Thandika Mkandawire is a development economist with a sharp mind and an even sharper tongue – one of Africa’s finest.  Last week I moderated a discussion on health and governance in Africa at a conference in Cape Town in which he gave the keynote address.  He demonstrated why he is such a celebrated public intellectual.  In front of an audience of over one thousand scientists, doctors and health systems researchers, Mkandawire paraphrased Georges Clemenceau’s famous quip that war is too important to be left to generals, by suggesting that ‘health is too important to leave to health practitioners.’

In the midst of an Ebola outbreak, and at a conference taking place in Africa, the words – which were intended to be light-hearted – stung.  In part I suspect that this was because they rang true.

While health professionals are crucial frontline responders, the Ebola crisis is indeed too important to be left to medical personnel. Like most responses to humanitarian disasters that are mounted by the international community, the Ebola response is focused too narrowly on the technical aspects of containing a problem, and too little on the underlying social and political reasons why the problem has been allowed to fester in the first place.

Liberia has been especially interesting in this regard. Ebola has certainly foregrounded the reality of Liberia’s non-existent health system but the failure of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s government to contain Ebola is emblematic of much larger problems of governance, leadership and trust. The virus has emerged from the nexus of these overlapping problems.

The Ebola crisis in Liberia has also shone a spotlight on the faults of the international development system that has propped up Sirleaf’s political leadership.  In many ways, one could argue that Ebola serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of ignoring cronyism in countries where a government that is friendly to Western governments is in place. Liberia is one of the most dependent countries on Earth: 73% of its gross national income comes from aid agencies and Monrovia, its capital city, is crawling with aid agencies.  There are literally hundreds of international NGOs with offices in the city, and in addition to the 800 million the country receives in foreign assistance each year, the UN spends an additional $500 million annually on maintaining a peacekeeping force.

So one might have expected that the easiest place to contain Ebola would have been Liberia.  There are already 7500 UN troops on the ground who would be able to mount the kind of logistical effort necessary to reach homes and communities with chlorine bleach, to transport the sick and to ensure stability should panic spark violence.  The reality has been the opposite.  From day one, the handling of the Ebola outbreak has been a study in the dysfunction of the aid system.  The aid community has created a mentality that the country cannot act on its own.  Instead Liberia’s leaders have chosen to wait for the slow moving bureaucracies that have occupied it for a decade to wake from the inertia of the well-fed aid system.  They have convened press conference and made pledges, but there is no plan in place for a comprehensive response.

Efforts thus far have been so externally driven that even the identification of the virus itself took place in France. MSF staff who first picked up on the outbreak early this year had to fly blood samples to a lab in Lyons because there is not a single institute for tropical health and medicine on the African continent. This bears repeating: there is not a single institute for tropical health and medicine on the African continent

The Liberian Ebola situation can be summed up thusly: a virus that is deadly but can be effectively contained with good planning and logistics has managed to escape from a country that has one of the largest concentrations of ‘helpers’ in the world.

It is no wonder then that those requiring the help –  the ordinary people of Liberia – have largely refused to take the advice that is being given to them.  The questions about whether or not Ebola is real began to emerge in April when the media picked up on the story of a group of Monrovians who had attacked a clinic.  The looters had insisted “there is no Ebola here.” So little did they trust their own government that they thought that Ebola was invented by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and others as a ploy to get more development aid.  They were saying, in no uncertain terms, that the hand that feeds them is also the hand that pinches them.

There can be no more damning an indictment on the aid industry than the fact that these deeply held suspicions exist.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, numerous outbreaks of both Ebola and the Marburg virus have been stopped in their tracks in the past few years. In part this is because health workers in the DRC know what to do when they suspect Ebola, which is to act quickly and tell everyone.  They have also learned not to leave people behind when they suspect they might be infected.  Health worker’s trips to Ebola-affected communities factor in extra days to convince those who might be ill to come back with them. This is fairly common knowledge in the public health community, and therefore cannot be unknown to Liberia’s leaders.

The American troops who finally arrived after Liberia’s leaders berated them for taking so long to respond are struggling to acclimate to the heat; their US-made tractors are failing in the terrain and their estimates for how long it will take to build the first centre are projected further and further into the future.  For some reason in the minds of the leaders of those countries most affected by the current Ebola outbreak, Kinshasa is further away from Monrovia and Conakry and Freetown than Washington.

The World Health Organization has also come under fire from Liberia for taking too long to declare Ebola as an emergency.  In doing so, they are pointing the finger outwards, but they are also suggesting that their country has no autonomy and can do nothing on its own. This is not true of course, but to a nation whose leaders are so well trained in the politics of dependency, it is difficult to think outside this paradigm.

For all of their recent economic progress, too many African countries are in a similar position to Liberia.  Like Johnson Sirleaf and her ministers, many of Africa’s leaders have been unable to imagine a future without Western aid.  For its part, the West too has been unable to re-imagine African countries as the complex geo-political entities that they are.  Neither side is able to recognize that African countries have valuable indigenous experience and can move quickly and relatively cheaply in the face of disasters if they leverage one another’s expertise.  Most importantly, African self-help comes without the overhead and the strings that have come to define Western aid.

The failure to recognize this is understandable.  Africa is ground zero for the devastation wrought by decades of bad development advice and poor planning.  Ebola is simply a mask; the ugly face of a global aid system that is broken.  And so the outbreak – in the context of a country that is all helped out – provides a heart-breaking reminder of how little Africans trust the Western governments on whom they rely during disasters.

We may need them, but we are loath to trust that they have our best interests at heart.

The Historic Legacy of Ivor Wilks

I first met Ivor Wilks in 1976, when I appeared in his office doorway – a befuddled, nervous, and apprehensive undergraduate – with a rather vague and naïve idea about applying for an undergraduate research grant to study in Ghana. In retrospect, Ivor had no reason to take me seriously and probably every reason to brush me off, but he did not. He asked me in; he introduced himself first; he asked about my background, and my plans, and he seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say.   

A year later I was off to Ghana and a few years after that I returned to Northwestern to complete my Ph.D. under his guidance. I was a first generation college student when I met Ivor.  I had no absolutely no idea, no clue that there even was such a thing called “graduate school,” much less that it was something I might want to do.   But Ivor was amazingly adept at demystifying the academy and his own discipline of history. He taught history as a craft, much like cabinet-making, and his instructions were straightforward: assemble your tools, hone your skills, practice your craft.

Over the years I have met dozens of Ivor’s former students — in the US. Britain, and in Ghana — and my experience was by no means unique. Ivor was an extraordinary teacher and mentor, patient and generous with his time, and remarkable in his ability to make students (be they disoriented freshman or advanced Ph.D. student) feel that their ideas were worthwhile and deserved to be taken seriously. Indeed, the hallmark of Ivor’s long and illustrious career was the inseparability of his scholarship and his teaching. Ivor lived by the Asante proverb “Nyansa nyɛ sika na wɔakyekyere asie (Wisdom is not gold dust that should be tied up and put away).”  He never recognized a boundary between research and teaching and that, I suspect, goes a long way toward explaining his remarkable success as a graduate instructor and dissertation advisor. In the 1960s, he supervised an entire generation of masters theses at the University of Ghana. Beginning in 1972, he directed the completion of over 30 doctoral dissertations in African history and served on the committees of countless others. Several of those whom he supervised went on to produce the next generation of PhDs in African history on three continents.   

But it is, of course, historical scholarship for which Ivor is best known and many, myself included, would argue that his was absolutely crucial to the founding of African history as an academic discipline in the late 1950s and to its development over subsequent decades. But I know full well that Ivor would throw up his hands in horror if anyone so much as hinted at him being a “founding father” of the field. In 1995, he was invited to give the Aggrey-Fraser-Guggisberg Memorial lectures in Ghana – a series of five presentations, which were greeted each night by over a thousand eager listeners. To that audience, he sought to explain his own intellectual lineage – a lineage in which he was no “founding father.” The Muslim Dyula communities, he said, keep detailed records:  “I Muhammad, son of Sulayman Watara, studied under Ibrahim …who studied under . . . [and] in this sense,” Ivor told this audience, “I have no teacher or teachers, I have no isnad, no chain of teachers extending back over the generations. My real teachers were men, and sometimes women, who had no academic credentials whatsoever, but whose understanding of the past was truly remarkable….” Ivor then concluded his lecture by paying tribute to six of those extraordinary teachers: Jacob Dosoo Amenyah, a veteran of World War I; Domfe Kyere of the Kumasi Nsumankwaa, born in the 1860s, whom Ivor met when he was in his 90s; Isaka Dodu, the Chief Butcher of Wa; al Hajj Muhammad Marhaba Saghanughu, Mufti of what was then the Upper Volta; al-Hajj Osumanu Boyo of Kintampo; and, finally, Rev. Joseph Agyeman-Duah, of Kumasi. I am sure that rather than being remembered as a “founding father,” Ivor would want to be remembered as a good student, as one who listened and, in turn, passed on his knowledge, as part of a long lineage that neither began nor ended in the western academy.  Tete ka asom — ancient things, as Ivor learned and as he taught, remain in the ears.

And over the decades, Ivor’s careful listening and keen analytic eye resulted in the uncovering of vast collections of sources for African history and in the publication of an incredible corpus of research. Much of Ivor’s work focused on the Akan states of southern Ghana, especially on Asante. His Asante in the Nineteenth Century (winner of the 1976 Herskovits prize) and Forests of Gold, combined with a host of articles and chapters, uncovered the complexity and dynamism of precolonial African history in ways that remain unrivaled in the historiography of the continent. While much of that historiography, particularly in the early years, focused on politics and the state, largely to counter the ignorance and arrogance of the Trevor-Ropers of academia, it came to embrace a richness and diversity of interests from economic and social history to women’s history, religion, law and education.

While Ivor’s work on Asante is probably his best known, it is, in fact, only one of the areas of African history to which he contributed. His research and publications on Islam, especially on the great networks of the Dyula in West Africa and on Muslims in Asante and in Wa, is among the most distinguished in the field. Again, his painstaking efforts to get at local histories and sources — local chronicles, genealogies, letters and oral reminiscences — have assured that African voices and African histories remain central to the western academy’s understanding of Islam in precolonial West Africa.

Though Ivor was based at Northwestern University for a quarter of a century, his years in Ghana (1953-1966), including as a founding member of the University of Ghana’s Institute of African Studies, forever shaped how he viewed the world and his own place in it. Indeed, the many thousands who attended his lectures in 1995, years after he had moved to Northwestern, are a powerful testament to the high esteem in which he is held in Ghana to this day, and not just within the walls of the university. I have lost count of the number of times that I have asked older, often non-literate, Asantes, about some aspect of their past, and they have simply and patiently told me: “ah, but you must go read Wilks.”  What a perfect tribute to a remarkable historian.

Nante yie, Ivor

Nante yie…

* Ivor Wilks (born 1928), Northwestern University Professor Emeritus of History, died on October 7, 2014 in Wales. A prolific author, meticulous researcher, and a teacher of boundless generosity, Professor Wilks is best known for his foundational texts on the history of Asante and of northern Ghana.

Ebola: Where we are; where we should be

Is it coincidental that the so-called Ebola humanitarian crisis—dubbed global complex emergency by the West—is unfolding on the upper Guinea coast the site of intense activities during the European slave trade? Is it coincidental that the upper Guinea Coast, or precisely the Mano River Basin, which include two Pan-African state projects, Sierra Leone and Liberia, are at the centre of this so-called humanitarian crisis? Is it coincidental that these two nation-states—Liberia and Sierra Leone— just emerging from a brutal civil war lasting more than a decade and bringing life to a complete halt cannot cope with the ebola epidemic because of their broken institutions? Lastly, is it coincidental that Guinea-Conakry, where the ebola scourge allegedly started has the singular distinction of being the African nation that rejected De Gaulle’s offer of integration with France, which eventually unraveled the French colonial empire?

The above layerings—thick descriptions– do not arguably speak to any historical conjuncture in particular. What they do is that they foreground, by way of backgrounding, the issue of context in understanding what has been dubbed a monumental crisis of global proportion by those who always claim to speak for us in their language: the ubiquitous West!

There are at least two fundamental and complementary moral levels at which we can begin to make sense of the current situation. Again not coincidental, the President of Sierra Leone contacted Mr. Ban, the UN CEO, asking for help on 25 May : a date permanently penned in the calendar of African patriots wherever they may be. 25 May entered African history as a shameful compromise wrenched from the progressive forces from above by the internal enemies of African liberation under close watch by the West. 25 May was therefore not a victory for progressive forces in Africa. As if history was trying to mock the Sierra Leonean President, CEO Ban of the UN refused to budge even as Koroma kept on bombarding the CEO with phone calls regarding the ebola issue. CEO Ban’s decision to ignore President Koroma’s raises fundamental questions about independence, dignity, survival and nationhood in our neo-liberal in 21st century.

Why would an independent nation-state in Africa continue to depend on external support from the UN when history has shown time and time again that the UN is not the global all-nations organization that its advertisers make it out to be? Do we need to recall its role in the Congo? In Somalia? In Rwanda? Lacking the wherewithal to tackle issues of daily reproduction, the decadent power brokers of the nation-states in Africa have increasingly become dependent on the West and their multilateral institutions for virtually everything. This dependence; now bilateral; now multilateral; continue to shape relations between Africa and the West as the neo-liberal economic machine becomes the only framework within which solutions are sought. But this internal dialectic—concretely related to the external dialectic— is profoundly about ‘governance’ and the failure to deliver the proverbial fruits of independence. Like the nationalist paradigm before it, the so-called struggle for second independence has failed to take us to the promised land.

How revealing that the response –silence, which should be read as a deafening response— to Koroma’s plea was not a UN mission to save what the West now call the ebola pandemic in West Africa. As a throw back to the history of yesteryears the three countries are to be rescued by their respective colonial patron!!!!! How sad? The British embraced their Sierra Leone creature in the same manner in which the French cuddled their rebellious and prodigal contraption—Guinea-Conakry. To crown it all an African-American president, Hollywood-style, dispatched ‘boots on the ground’ to distant Liberia to continue the work of the American Colonisation Society of the nineteenth century.

If the internal dynamic is profoundly about ‘governance’; the external dialectic is also about ‘global’ governance particularly as it affects Africa’s relations with the outside world. That an imperial rescue mission had to evolve as the preferred form of Western response to the so-called ebola crisis begins to undermine the lie about the UN and WHO in providing the necessary wherewithal to make robust intervention a reality. Both the UN and the WHO are dependent on funding from the imperial citadels. Starved of funds they just cannot function. Much more important is the use of the UN architecture as cover for imperial ambitions. The UNDP, UNIDO, WHO et al operate, or are in business, because of us; the other; they were not designed for or operate in the West. Similarly organisations like WHO, UNDP, UNIDO serve the interest of those at the imperial citadels through funding and control. Like the UN, WHO could not intervene in a timely manner not only because they have funding problems but precisely because the organisation’s haemorrhagic fever department had being dismantled after the SARS scare in 2008/09. Why dismantle a department that exclusively serves a disadvantaged region of the world in an outfit that is supposedly designed as a global institution? Here again we confront the vexing question of governance and its corollary: democratization and accountability.

Ebola has come to signify all that it is wrong in the current world order.  It is a metaphor for neo-colonial machinations, internally as well as imperial dominance globally. Ebola is about governance and democratization at both the internal and external levels. This underlines the moral imperatives of participation; consent; and inclusivity. Internally, absolute-maximum leaders and their minions empowered by top down constitutions sanctioned by the neo-liberal West are incapable of delivering on anything under the sun. Externally, the extent to which so called global institutions—the UN and WHO— are controlled and dominated by those whose activities/interests run counter to our collective national and continental interests, these problems will continue to hamper our forward march. It is not enough to raise these issues only in time of so-called crisis. These issues should perennially be on the menu– they are the issues!

Freetown, Sierra Leone
October 9, 2014

What does it take to become a UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador?

After Africa Is A Country learned that the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) appointed former Spice girl turned fashion designer Victoria Beckham as a Goodwill Ambassador, our team decided to debate, “What does it take to take to become a UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador?” Here’s what we came up with as a way to understand how Victoria Beckham made the cut:

Job requirements:

  1. A history of speaking publicly about sexuality, key to addressing the entrenched stigma around sex and HIV that prevents many people from taking an HIV test. VB: “I dress sexily – but not in an obvious way. Sexy in a virginal way.
  1. An understanding of gender, and how harmful gender norms impact girls and young women. It’s preferable if you make public statements in this regard. Case in point; VB: “I like little girls to look like little girls.”
  1. Proven commitment to diversity. In VB’s case, she hired one black model out of 30 for a fashion show.
  1. Ability to tweet insights into the future of the HIV response to your following. VB while on a township tour in Soweto –”Education + art = Aids free future.” 
  1. Prior interest, knowledge or engagement in health, poverty, human rights or development beneficial. (VB: “I haven’t read a book in my life.”
  1. Please do not apply if you are interested late in life to revive your career, benefit personally by your association with a cause, or embark on a journey of emotional self-discovery. VB, “It’s taken me to get to 40 to realise I have a responsibility as a woman and as a mother. For some reason people will listen to me. This is the beginning of an incredible journey for me.”

What should it take to become a UNAIDS (or other UN) Goodwill Ambassador? AIAC will run a follow-up post in the next few days; if you’d like to contribute, share your ideas on Twitter/Facebook.

Misunderstanding the Ebola Crisis Is Worse Than Ignoring It

When the first case of Ebola reached U.S. soil last month, the world finally began to pay attention—but not in the right way.  In December 2013 the Ebola virus appeared for the first time in rural Guinea. No one imagined then that it would set-off the devastation that is sweeping across West Africa or the hysteria that has engulfed the world. Closed borders, evacuated expats, canceled flights, quarantined neighborhoods, biological warfare (re: CNN’s poorly chosen headlines): all of it seems more akin to a science fiction movie than a real public health challenge. To be sure, Ebola is a dangerous disease with no treatment or vaccine. What is worse is that we know so little about it, including how the pathogen that until recently was only found in Central and East Africa arrived in West Africa. It is clear, however, that the way in which the outbreak is portrayed in popular media has contributed to confusion, fear and a panicked response, which have only exacerbated an already desperate situation.

Read any article on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa these days and I guarantee you will come across references to Africans eating wild animals, people hiding infected family members from health workers, patients being taken to witch doctors for treatment, or conspiracy theories about how the disease is man-made. The half-truths and out-of-context information inserted into the reports we read or hear about Ebola are implicitly making one point: that it is African primitivism which is to blame for the outbreak (or to quote Bernie Goldberg on Fox News: “Many Africans are Backward People”).  These overly sensationalized stories and outright racist commentaries divert our attention from the real threat to saving lives: collective inaction and apathy.

What we don’t hear about (or hardly so) are the underlying causes that have made this outbreak seemingly uncontrollable—reasons that are disappointingly mundane and don’t make for a front-page story, like this one on Newsweek, fittingly entitled “A Back Door For Ebola: Smuggled Bushmeat Could Spark a US Epidemic”, complete with an image of a chimpanzee on the cover.  Essentially, the root of the crisis is the tenuous economic and political state that the countries which have been hardest-hit by the outbreak—Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone—find themselves in. Among the least developed places, decades of civil war have only recently given way to fragile stability and slow economic growth in this part of the world. Now more than ever, the hard won economic and peace gains experienced in these countries over the past decade seem to be in jeopardy.

Grappling with an Ebola outbreak in any place is a challenge, but in this context it is nothing short of a nightmare. Healthcare systems in many West African countries were already feeble and unable to address basic health concerns, let alone deal with a public health crisis of this magnitude. In Liberia, a nation of 4.3 million people, there were only 50 doctors in the entire country before Ebola began ravaging medical workers. The World Health Organization estimates that an injection of $1 billion would be needed to mobilize an effective response to the outbreak that could be contained in 6-9 months, in the best-case scenario. Support has been trickling in from other countries but the response has been too slow. To date, aid organizations like Medecins Sans Frontiers, which are at the heart of the response, have been running on limited resources, turning people believed to have contracted the virus away on a daily basis because there is no more room in their health centers. The CDC warns that if the international community doesn’t spring into action soon, the window of opportunity for getting the outbreak under control will quickly close.

Mobilizing funds is the straightforward part. Then there is the politics. The lack of trust in government is likely the biggest culprit for the rapid spread of Ebola in West Africa, as described in this excellent piece about Liberia. “The lesson that the big people in government cannot or will not protect you is one Liberians have learned over a long hard history of exploitation, corruption and war.” The story is not much different in Sierra Leone or Guinea. Though important improvements in governance have been made and West African states are working under extreme pressure to curb the outbreak, the collective memory of betrayal and disappointment has not faded away so easily.

Imagine, one day you are told that there is a dangerous, highly contagious, foreign virus that is spreading through everyday human contact in your community; that quarantining your sick loved ones or your entire neighborhood is in your best interests; that there is no cure for the virus but miraculously some foreigners who had contracted it were able to take a pill that saved them. Who would not have a hard time believing this, entrusting their lives in the hands of their leaders and fully cooperating in a response? Perhaps the majority of us would not be so dubious of our governments, but we must recognize that our behaviors and beliefs are shaped by a certain privileged experience: how many have spent the majority of their lives in a system where government has failed its citizens miserably, time and time again?

My point is that if we really care to understand the Ebola outbreak and seek to support the countries affected by it in a meaningful way, then we must look past all the dramatized, hyped-up, sensationalized stories and recognize that context matters; politics and economic development matter. In an op-ed blasting the international community’s weak response to the outbreak in West Africa, World Bank head, Jim Yong Kim, and humanitarian activist, Paul Farmer, noted that “If the Ebola epidemic devastating the countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone had instead struck Washington, New York or Boston, there is no doubt that the health systems in place could contain and then eliminate the disease”. Though the forecast for West Africa is more sobering, the outbreak is not insurmountable. With international support and a coordinated response the fatality rate could be brought down from 50% to 20% and the epidemic eventually contained.

Yet, so far, the main concern of countries that have not been affected badly by the outbreak has been how do we keep Ebola out, not how can we help end this. In the wake of the first U.S. Ebola case, American lawmakers are urging for travel bans on Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, despite the fact that medical experts say imposing travel bans will only make things worse in these countries.  And so, every time we react to news of Ebola with fear, panic and stigmatization, we miss the opportunity to respond with empathy, support and thoughtfulness. Meanwhile, people continue to die needlessly, and the problem continues to snowball with 1,000 new cases emerging each week.

What is it like to be a refugee in Germany?

“Gitmo in Germany?” and “German Abu Ghraib” were two of the headlines across news wires in late September after photos and a video documenting the abuse of Algerian asylum seekers by security officers in an asylum center had circulated. The photo shows a guard standing next to an asylum seeker who is lying on the floor with his hands tied behind his back; the guard put his foot on the asylum seeker’s head, as if to keep the man down. A video showed a man lying in his own vomit, while he was verbally attacked by the guards.

With the escalation of war in Syria, the number of asylum seekers in Germany reached a 20-year high, and Germany expects to receive a total of over 200,000 new asylum seekers this year. But German cities are not prepared to receive that many people, and, as has become clear once more, they resort to cost-saving measures that backfire. The asylum center in which the abuse occurred (Burbach in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia) is managed by a private company, and the security officers charged with the abuse were from a sub-contractor, a private security firm that apparently did not put much effort into careful selection and training of the officers. According to the German magazine Der Spiegel, some of the officers had links to the neo-Nazi scene.

Officials promised rapid documentation and clarification of the events, as well as prosecution of the perpetrators. They fired the sub-contractor and vowed to tighten background checks of security personnel. But German civil society actors and media outlets kept asking what is being done to address and solve the underlying issues: overcrowded asylum centers, the lack of resources to build new facilities, the privatization of security in these centers, and the dubious background of security officers and their links to right-wing parties. “The plight of refugees is used for business,” the NGO ProAsyl (pro asylum) criticized. Opposition leaders called for a “national refugee summit.”

Indeed, the latest abuses are not isolated incidents. In 2002, state security identified four Neonazis working for security firms in facilities in Brandenburg. In 2013, journalists, based on official reports, estimated that ten percent of the 1150 active Neonazis in Brandenburg worked in the security sector. As some point out, part of the problem of the lack of response to these incidence is that only when the security service identifies such right-wing tendencies, politicians listen; there is much less reaction when civil society initiatives point to instances of discrimination and abuse by right-leaning officers.

The general trend has been to make immigration more difficult, rather than improving the conditions for asylum seekers and refugees. Conservative politicians even make it their explicit goal to keep conditions precarious in order to send a message to “Africa” that coming to Germany as a refugee is difficult and burdensome. None of the 16 states requires shelter operators to hire social workers. When numbers of asylum seekers were relatively low, at around 20,000 between 2006-2009, municipalities—that are responsible for providing shelter—blocked attempts at renovating asylum centers, and the tendency was to close as many “superfluous” facilities as possible. As a consequence, the city of Duisburg announced in August that the city would shelter asylum seekers in tents.

More fundamentally, even at a time when Germany is commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall and exodus of East German refugees who had gathered at the West German embassy in Prague, few people think back and compare their own situation with that of the asylum seekers and refugees in Germany today. Media reports looking back at the situation 25 years ago celebrated the high level of solidarity with which West Germans welcomed those who had fled from the GDR. Today, asylum shelters are surrounded by anti-refugee rallies organized by far-right groups. And when a member of parliament from the Christian Democratic Party recently suggested to settle asylum seekers in families instead of anonymous shelters, he received outraged responses.

The photos and video of the abuses will surely change how Germans think about refugees among them, but not for long—a couple of weeks after the publication of the photos, few still talk about them. What’s needed is a much more thorough change in attitude towards migrants and solidarity for their situation.

How do we talk about the memory of Apartheid

In 1966 the South African government declared District Six—a high-density, mostly coloured residential area intrinsic to the fabric of downtown Cape Town for at least a century and situated on prime land beneath Table Mountain —to be a white “Group Area.” The state promptly set about forcefully removing District Six’s “non-white” residents (eventually about 60,000 of them) to land up to 30 miles further to a flood plane known as the “Cape Flats,” which consisted of mostly swamp land and sand dunes populated by invasive vegetation.

Despite the fact that nowadays developers and the city council (governed by the mostly white Democratic Alliance which relies partly on the votes of poor coloureds who now inhabit the Cape Flats) would sooner forget that District Six ever existed (they want to remake that part of the city into a Maboneng-style district for hipsters and whites with money), and despite the fact that nothing but an ugly gash on the hillside near the city is the only evidence of razed buildings, its historical significance has been extensively memoralized. There’s a downtown museum—a few blocks from the original neighborhood—dedicated to its memory and District Six, and its former inhabitants have been the subjects of scores of books, novels, films and photographic exhibitions.

What we get from the Museum and these media are celebrations of a multiracial milieu: it was, after all, the neighborhood that started as a home for free slaves and black migrants to the city, a place which also attracted poor European—mostly Jewish—immigrants. We also see, in the objects and photographs of remembrance, evidence of the residents’ resilience—of how the mostly poor and working class renters made it in a city that made life difficult for them already. Finally, we see how, through forced removals, these people who built a vibrant place of possibility were condemned to various parts of the desolate Cape Flats.

Though District Six also had other black residents, it is coloureds that primarily lay claim to District Six (most coloureds don’t identify as black, but many trace their ancestors to Mozambican and Angolan slaves or Khoi and Xhosa unions). District Six is for them a lament for a lost city and a lodestar in reconstructing a more integrated metropole. And because the land where District Six stood has not been occupied much since, the area still stands as a monument for racial inequality and exclusion. Even as you drive above it on the elevated highway that takes you from the suburbs into central Cape Town, you can’t miss the presence of its empty expanse

The result of its lasting absence/presence is that popular memories of District Six—though it is punctuated by occasional stories of deprivation and communal violence (the infamous Cape Town Mongrels gang originated there)—generally celebrate those who lived there. (My father, who was born in Peninsula Maternity Hospital in District Six—but grew up in Newlands and Kirstenbosch—has the same nostalgia for “die Distriek.”).

The now-razed neighborhood also had profound influences on the city’s cultural life. The writer Alex la Guma (he died later, an exile, in Cuba) brought the quarter to life in his books (“A Walk in the Night”) as well as in his journalism for the Communist papers, The New Age and The Guardian. Musicians like Abdullah Ibrahim honed their skills in its clubs.

Yet, occasionally, residents recall more complicated memories, like how they remember or care to forget the history and legacy of institutions like the Eoan Group.

Eoan, a derivative of the Greek word for dawn (Eos), was founded by a white British immigrant, Helen Southern-Holt, in 1933 as a kind of ethnic uplift organization—a “culture and welfare organization” aimed at coloureds in District Six. Its politics was hardly radical. The emphasis was on teaching “the Coloured race” how to speak “proper,” have good posture, manners and hygiene. More importantly, they would also learn the arts, especially ballet and opera. The group used a building, the Liberman Institute, donated by a Jewish philanthropist.

Led by conductor Joseph Salvatore Manca, an Italian immigrant to Cape Town who worked as a bookkeeper for the city council, the all-coloured company (in terms of the performers; most trainers were white) performed from the early 1940s onwards, and gained some local and national fame. Condescending white critics were fond of declaring the group up to their high standards and some group members took this as genuine praise. But Eoan was a genuinely talented company of performers, conducting national and, later, international tours (especially to the UK).

Eoan was a performance company that consisted of talented members; it was not a charity for half-baked dancers. Were they born somewhere else (free from race prejudice or dictatorship), they would have been celebrated for their work. What is remarkable is that a number of Eoan members would go on to prove themselves on global (meaning European and American) stages. They include the ballet dancer David Poole, who passed for white (one Eoan member remembers: “he went to London coloured and came back white!”) and joined the Sadler Wells Theater Ballet as well as the Royal Ballet in London; Gordon Jephtas, a pianist and arranger, on occasion accompanied famed Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi at the Royal Albert Hall in London. One of the male lead singers, Joseph Gabriels, a former municipal worker, became the first South African to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

By the time the government had bulldozed District Six to the ground in 1968, the Eoan Group had moved to Athlone coloured township on the Cape Flats, where they made their home at the Joseph Stone Theater, built as a theater space for coloureds. (Any visitor to Athlone will recognize the theater situated on Klipfontein Road, a main thoroughfare close to Athlone Football Stadium). By the late 1970s, however, Eoan was in decline. Though it retained the quality of its performances, a mix of factors contributed to its eventual decline.

Manca (who could be ornery, but was admired by Eoan performers for his high quality of coaching) dueled with Eoan’s coloured administrator, Ismail Sydow, over who should manage the group’s affairs and direction. Sydow was a local coloured grocer whose wife sewed the group’s costumes. Sydow eventually won out over Manca but soured inter-group relations in the process. But as race politics in Apartheid South Africa went, that was an inconsequential victory since both men shared Southern-Holt’s vision. In fact, such rivalries and minor coups happen in performance companies everywhere.

More important to Eoan’s fortunes were the group’s choice of political patrons and its compromises over racism and Apartheid.

Perhaps, it is only in hindsight that we can see how much racial politics and the changing laws affected the group’s dynamics. But at some level, the Eoan Group appeared doomed to controversy and political compromise right from the onset. It originated in Southern-Holt’s white, Conservative, Christian-based rhetoric and her disavowal of any “politics.” However, as the National Party came into power in 1948 and made law out of already discriminatory social practices, Eoan members couldn’t escape being politicized. (Remember this was the period of the “Defiance Campaign” when resistance to Apartheid increasingly took a mass form.) Group members had always vowed to not perform to segregated audiences. However, by the late 1950s, they had given in and were performing to audiences that were divided by a rope: two rows of coloured patrons and eight rows of mostly rich whites. Members rationalized—or so Manca made them think—that they needed the money.

Before long, Eoan applied for money from the Department of Coloured Affairs, a very unpopular arm of the state set up after 1948 to “govern” coloured education, social welfare and housing similar to “Native Affairs” and the Bantustans. Manca also encouraged Eoan to play concerts for white Cabinet ministers. Soon Eoan was going on overseas publicity tours for the Apartheid state. Ada Jansen, one of the senior coloured administrators of Eoan, went to the United Nations on a visit arranged by the regime and its defenders to try and break the cultural boycott and weaken international solidarity in opposition to apartheid. The company also went on tours of Western Europe. (Eoan was certainly not the only group used by the South African regime in this way, of course.)

For Eoan’s critics, the group had gone too far with compromises. The coloured middle classes, whose best qualities Eoan claimed to represent, now despised the group: Most coloureds that cared or noticed (especially the literary elites, political activists, andthe professional classes) now openly resented Eoan.

In 1956, the writer Alex la Guma (charged with treason that same year in a mass trial which included Nelson Mandela) wrote a letter to Eoan about receiving government funding to perform to segregated audiences:

People can … conclude, therefore, that the Eoan Group supports Apartheid. In fact, the whole idea remains one of the slave period when the farmers hired Coloureds to perform for them, their masters. Today in the 20th century we do not recognize the white man as our master. This is the land of our birth and we demand government support for ALL cultural movements. BUT WITHOUT APARTHEID STRINGS (La Guma’s emphasis).

By the late 1970s, most patrons had deserting Eoan’s shows. Opponents like the South African Council on Sports (they concerned themselves with more than games), was openly calling on people to boycott Eoan. In 1979, SACOS, who championed the slogan “no normal sport in an abnormal society,” in a piece of Gramscian theater, declared Eoan a “banned organization.”

Alex La Guma and SACOS—which between them represented competing strands of antiapartheid organizational politics—had a point. During Apartheid, the National Party worked hard to court moderate coloureds as a buffer against African demands. Some coloureds were willing participants in these schemes. The belief among some coloureds to see white people as their natural allies and patrons, of course date back further and implicates slavery, colonialism, mission Christianity, and various government “reforms.” However, throughout South African history, this hardly paid off: social conditions for the majority of coloureds approximated those of their African neighbors. Nevertheless, this paternalism stuck and may also explain why most coloured voters relate to white parties in the city and the Western Cape province. By the late 1950s, Eoan were thus charter members of divide-and-conquer policies.

It can be very difficult for someone with little or no time or even any understanding of the nuances of race, politics and identity in Cape Town to fully grasp the conundrum of groups like Eoan Group and its achievements and controversies. It also doesn’t help that Eoan is a part of a past that few want to revisit in South Africa.

This is why the appearance of a book (Eoan: Our Story) and a film (An Inconsolable Memory) about Eoan is a significant event. “An Inconsolable Memory” and “Eoan: Our Story” both trace their origins to about 100 odd containers and 75 folders filled with documents and information donated by the Eoan Group to Stellenbosch University. From these documents, the university created an Eoan Archive in its Documentation Centre for Music (DOMUS). A group of mostly white researchers sifted through the documents and looked into the prospect of publishing a book out of all this. DOMUS staff were joined on a steering committee by Ronald Samaai, the brother of a former Eoan Group member, and Ruth Viljoen, the widow of Eoan baritone, Lionel Fourie. The filmmaker Aryan Kaganof was invited to film the proceedings and go along on interviews.

The film and book set out to tell the story of the surviving Eoan group members.

The material in the book and film often overlap, with the book sometimes serving as a written transcript for the film.

“Eoan: Our Story” (the book) is organized into themed sections (“Beginnings,” “In Rehearsal,” “Playing Roles,” “Final Curtain,” etcetera). Conversations jump back and forth over time. Much of it is verbatim testimony by Eoan members compiled during interviews (45 in total). However, there’s little context, except for brief descriptions by the editors. This may be consistent with the book’s stated objective to let the Eoan members speak (“our story”), but leaves the reader in the dark about the weight of certain decisions or events. Everything is important and we just have to trust the editors.

Most Eoan members insist they only wanted to practice their art and could care less for “politics” (whether for or against Apartheid). They want to remember a time of glamorous costumes, triumphs and the occasional stage mishap. In general they are proud of the group’s legacy. Some read a progressive legacy into the past: In Eoan they could stop being, say factory- or dockworkers. Talent was what mattered.

Not surprisingly, the resistance and condemnation they faced for taking Apartheid’s money or playing to segregated audiences, still hurt. They want recognition for their efforts. They want people to see that they could perform and that they could create art regardless. For them, being black or coloured, had nothing to do with their abilities or talents. They were also acutely aware of the limitations of Apartheid. They don’t remember their involvement as transgression or collaboration.

Occasionally, some of them recognize the charged environment within which they operated, including within the group itself. Many of them point to slights at the hands of the conductor Manca and other white teachers at Eoan. Manca, for example, discouraged coloured chorus members from learning how to read music, and one of the Eoan trainers, the soprano Emma Renzi, to this day disparages Joseph Gabriels as a “little Cape coloured” who only got invited to sing at the Met in New York City because of his likeness to the more famous Enrico Caruso. That Gabriels enjoyed a fairly stable and successful career in Europe escapes her.

But what seems to hurt (and rankle) surviving Eoan Group members more was the criticism they got from other coloureds. Eoan members relied on the “community” to reinforce their sense of themselves; to validate them and when that validation was withdrawn—slowly from the 1950s onwards–they suffered.

The twin effects of the “testimonies” in the book and the film are that it is hard to deny the coloured members of Eoan the pleasure of wanting to produce and practice their art given the oppression of their daily lives. It wasn’t like they had the pick of opera companies; and until the mid-1980s, they could not perform in whites-only opera houses and theaters. By the time political freedom arrived in 1994 many of them were retired or had died (Gordon Jephtas died in New York City in 1992). They were too old to enjoy freedom.

Between the book and the film, it’s Kaganof’s approach that points to more promising possibilities for getting at some of the unease and murk associated with Eoan. The Stellenbosch researchers probably felt the same way as they indicate in the front of the book. (“And then there was (Kaganof’s) presence behind the camera: filming, moving, filming, winking, filming, laughing soundlessly. How much of what transpired was directed by Aryan Kaganof? I suspect more than we think.”) Kaganof’s film makes you wonder whether documentary film is better suited at getting at our fragmented, complicated pasts. In an interview after I read the book and watched the film, Kaganof told me that “… the film permits itself certain territory that is forbidden to the book. The nature of the academic contract locks the book into the terms of the release form. The film operates outside of that contract and hence shows us that, perhaps, ‘official’ history is only part of the story, and perhaps the least interesting part.”

Kaganof’s film opens with this message: “Let us not begin at the beginning, nor even at the archive, but rather at the word memory…” The emphasis in the film will thus be on fragmented memories. The pace is deliberately show and long, uninterrupted, shots dwell on interviewees as they read the release form for example or offer him tea in mostly overstuffed living rooms (the film also gives a sense of the class politics of Eoan). Kaganof is always present in the film. You see or hear him occasionally as he prompts interviews and in the editing choices he makes.

Then there are the lengthy archival sequences of District Six—mostly street scenes, people milling about or hanging over balconies of run-down tenements, and of children playing among ruins. The overriding sense is one of poverty and neglect. These scenes are overlaid with original recordings by Eoan’s opera company. I counted a total of about 30 minutes worth of these scenes. Some elements in these scenes are often repeated. Three shots in particular: the first is of a (white?) man, probably a security policeman, loafing around a street and who looks straight the camera; and the second, footage that Kaganof shot of a white homeless man lingering outside the Cape Town City Hall (where Eoan performed during Apartheid) as well-dressed patrons arrive for some performance. These shots are jarring—they are the only shots of whites in the film despite the heavy footprint of whites on how Apartheid worked—and you can’t help noticing that. Finally, there’s a slowed-down sequence of a bulldozer about to demolish a house. The sense of loss, anger and disorientation produced by these scenes stays with the viewer for a while after. In contrast, the book has a breezy quality to it in the way it presents the testimony of Eoan group members.

There’s a moment in the film, right at the end, where Ada Jansen, a key organizer for the Eoan Group mentioned earlier, asks Kaganof to put off the camera and he doesn’t and she gives her most honest answer about how people felt about Eoan: “They (other coloured people) hated us for being collaborators.” In this moment, Jansen comes across as proud of what she did, unrepentant and resigned about her position. But also hurt and coming to terms with that past. It is quite revealing. One can debate Kaganof’s ethics and whether it was justified to reveal the truth, but it gets at some of the questions any person interested in Eoan may want to broach or are fascinated by.

One thing the film and the book made me think about is that there must be more productive ways to write or think about black people whose lives or work were compromised by colonialism or Apartheid in South Africa. The popular, default position is usually to label the most disgraced amongst them as traitors or quislings. Some within the ANC and the United Democratic Front publicly promoted singling out and shaming collaborators. In extreme forms, collaborators were executed (e.g. municipal policemen, Askaris, informants) or their houses firebombed or burned down. Sometimes they or their families were shunned or worse physically attacked or murdered. Of course, some black people compromised by Apartheid (homeland leaders, tricameral politicians), were “rehabilitated,” with a number of them even turning up later as ANC MPs in a postapartheid parliament. But in general, the compromised have been written out of history through a mix of shame and a tendency to focus only on those who individually resisted the system. Curiously, the tainted ones end up in a worse place than that reserved for whites, the beneficiaries of those systems.

In a new article in The American Historical Review, the U.S. historian Dan Magaziner (he has previously written a book about South Africa’s black consciousness movement) tackles some of the puzzles thrown up by this history. Specifically Magaziner writes about a group of black South African art teachers (products of Ndaleni, a legendary all-black art institution in Kwazulu-Natal) who worked in racially segregated schools after the imposition of Apartheid.

In Magaziner’s telling these teachers attempted to carve out their independence, producing art that went against state directives, while in the process training generations of black artists and art teachers. Yet by the 1980s, many of them were ostracized, and in extreme cases paid with their lives (one of them, working in the Ciskei Bantustan in 1980, was murdered by his own students who identified him as a direct representative of the oppressive state).

Magaziner concludes that for historians it is important to recognize what kinds of lives were possible for these art teachers. “The state, its educationists and their racialist ideologies were (the) reality (of these teachers) and limited the form of their lives. So they chiseled that reality and tried to make something beautiful of it.”

Yet Magaziner argues that to reduce these art teachers, and others in their position, to history’s victims—“to dwell on such cold, objective facts”—also denies them “the dialogue with reality that constituted the art of their lives.” Magaziner’s solution is to pursue the “echo” of Ndaleni: “a distortion in time, voices that do not say exactly what we expect to hear and whose sense we struggle to discern.” As Magaziner writes about one of his subjects: the challenge is to see “the complexity of his experience, the fine-grained, everyday negotiations of satisfaction and struggle that doubtlessly marked his life.”

Chances are appreciation, and a more critical understanding of Eoan will probably grow if this book and film gets a wider distribution (though the latter is unlikely) and when historians (and other researchers) revisit the social life of black people under colonialism and Apartheid.

The best contrast to Eoan’s fate is how African American performers of the Jim Crow and segregation eras are viewed now than when they played for segregated audiences in America’s clubs and theaters, donned blackface or performed humiliating sketches on radio, television and in film. For example, later generations of civil rights campaigners despised the jazz trumpeter and bandleader Louis Armstrong, for his bug-eyed performances in front of white audiences and trips on behalf of the US State Department in the 1960s to counter Soviet criticism of persistent racism in the United States against blacks. (Armstrong, also controversially, performed in blackface as “King of the Zulus” in the 1949 New Orleans Mardi Gras.) Malcolm X said of Butterfly McQueen, a black actress who played a servile maid in “Gone with the Wind”: “When Butterfly McQueen went into her act, I felt like crawling under the rug.”

However, with time, some of these same critics have been kinder to performers like Armstrong, 1920s singer Bert Williams (he performed in blackface in minstrel shows) or Butterfly McQueen. Armstrong, for example, it turns out often veered off script during those State Department trips and quietly supported the legal defenses of civil rights campaigners.

Yet, for all this, we can’t help but feel uncomfortable with groups like Eoan that made major compromises with Apartheid. At the same time we have to recognize that there weren’t any easy good choices for blacks living under Apartheid who wanted to be creative. Yes, there were artists who resisted heroically and who suffered greatly for it. But as someone who doesn’t want to suffer in his own life (and I lived my formative years under that system), I find it hard to expect anyone else to do it. The fact that the choices were either martyrdom or compromise was part of the injustice of Apartheid. Why should blacks always have to be so much better than everybody else?

The Rusty and Golden Radiators are back!

The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH), the organization responsible for the brilliant Africa for Norway campaign, is back with their annual awards for the worst and best fundraising videos by international development organizations:

…and, like last year, Africa is a Country is on the jury! Judging for the Rusty and Golden Radiator Awards will commence soon, however we need your help dear Africa is a Country readers.

The committee is still looking for nominations, so if you have any ideas please share it in the comments on this post, or if you prefer, submit directly via email here: For inspiration, check out last year’s winners on the Rusty Radiator Awards website.

#SAHipHop2014: Rapper Flex Boogie Live At Fingo Festival

As member of the hip-hop quartet Ba4za, Hakeem Lesolang presided over one of the most fertile yet under-appreciated eras in South African hip-hop. Capcity Rapcity as it was referred to by the bundles of heads scattered across Mzansi, fed our collective appetites the fuzzy memories of yester-year hip-hop through a steady stream of boom-bap rap music.

Flex Boogie is the artist that emerged when Hakeem decided to explore what lay beyond the jazz-leaning loops and banging drums characterized by production from the likes of Nyambz.

His career took a fashion-conscious direction, a decision which had the unintended consequence of giving him the distinction of the largest fedora hat-collecting rapper in the country. It’s the tenth year since Ba4za’s introduction to the South African hip-hop scene. The four Muslims – two brothers named Malik and Muhajir, and Hakeem and Abdul Qadir – still maintain a strong brotherhood but haven’t recorded music collectively in years.

Flex Boogie is growing his network as an independent artist. He had performances lined up for the full duration of the Grahamstown National Arts Festival, and shall soon be on a tour which will have him play dates in London, New York, and the UAE.

This is what he had to say post his performance on the second last day of the Fingo Festival.

*This article is part of Africasacountry’s series on South African Hip-Hop in 2014. You can follow the rest of the series here.

The great Thomas Sankara was murdered on this day 27 years ago

It is the 27th anniversary of the death of Thomas Sankara, and once again we mark the passing of one of the great leaders of the Twentieth Century. Sankara was a Marxist revolutionary in the last years of the Cold War, a Pan-Africanist when the Pan-African project was at its lowest ebb, a committed feminist long before so-called “global civil society” started to preach about “empowerment” of women, a leader who sought to organize the uplift of a whole society long before elites began to boast about “Africa Rising”.

Sankara was murdered on October 15, 1987, by a conspiracy of European and African interests afraid of what transformative potential Burkina Faso under Sankara suggested and the danger of those ideas spreading. Here’s what Fela Anikulapo Kuti (don’t let anyone colonize Fela btw) said after Sankara’s death:

“His departure is a terrible blow to the political life of Africans, because he was the only one talking about African unity, what Africans need, to progress. He was the only one talking. His loss is bad (Long silence) but my mind is cool because Sankara’s death must have a meaning for Africa. Now that Sankara has been killed, if the leader of Burkina Faso, today, is not doing well, you will see it clearly. This means that in future, bad leaders would be very careful in killing good leaders.”

You can look at Blaise Compaore’s record in power since Sankara’s murder, and decide for yourself if he’s a “bad leader”. Back in 2008, AIAC life-president Sean Jacobs remembered Sankara in the Guardian. Here’s a snippet (read the whole thing):

Sankara preached economic self-reliance. He shunned World Bank loans and promoted local food and textile production. Women, the poor and the country’s peasantry benefited mostly from the reforms. Sankara outlawed tribute payments and obligatory labour to village chiefs, abolished rural poll taxes, promoted gender equality in a very male-dominated society (including outlawing female circumcision and polygamy), instituted a massive immunisation programme, built railways and kick-started public housing construction. His administration aggressively pushed literacy programmes, tackled river blindness and embarked on an anti-corruption drive in the civil service.

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.

We remembered Sankara last year and called for a great political biopic to be made that could fire the contemporary political imagination:

A revolutionary leader possessed of a towering intellect and extraordinary magnetism, Sankara had rejected the orthodoxies that still today ensure that African nations are structurally dependent on old colonial powers and their global financial institutions.

Like Che Guevara, Malcolm X, and Steve Biko, Sankara’s appeal (to young people in particular) has endured precisely because his transgressive radical politics have proved impossible to subsume within a liberal narrative which is all about the heroism of moderation and non-violence and is in fact predicated on deep racist anxieties. Martin Luther King Jnr and Nelson Mandela were treated as dangerous pariahs by the Western establishment, but in time their histories have been absorbed in popular culture within a bland politics of respectability based on non-racialism and willingness to compromise.

A Thomas Sankara biopic would work partly because there is no white man in this story (except the various shadowy figures of Francafrique). In “Cry Freedom” (1987) Richard Attenborough managed to present Steve Biko’s life as a story in which the hero is white.

There’s the Shakespearian denouement of the trusted lieutenant (Blaise Compaoré) murdering his great friend, usurping his position and tearing up Sankara’s great social project.

But we don’t want to see a film about what might have been, however seductive that aspect of Burkina Faso’s history is. The point is that Sankara’s visionary politics of African sovereignty and unity — like Lumumba’s — remain as impossible today as they were within the context of international affairs towards the end of the Cold War.

We want to see a film showing Sankara’s commitment to feminism and women’s rights, his environmental projects against desertification in the Sahel, his reform of traditional leadership; a film about how his rejection of “support” from the World Bank and IMF enabled a project of galvanizing Burkinabe society that is unimaginable today where these structures of dependency and Western control have come to be the “common sense” basis for all politics in countries like Burkina Faso.

The best film about Sankara is a fantastic 2006 documentary, “The Upright Man” by Robin Shuffield. Watch the whole thing here:

It’s also well worth your time watching Sankara’s famous speech “Against Debt”:

Finally, here’s his unforgettable speech in Harlem, New York:

[Image at the top of this post is piece of artwork by Jona Ras Tarzan]

AIAC Music Revue: Is DJ Lewis’s “Stop Ebola” his “Grippe Aviaire” pt. 2?

DJ Lewis recently released a “Stop Ebola” song and video that reminds me of “Grippe Aviaire”, a song he released during the global Bird Flu pandemic some years ago:

As I mentioned in my Cultural Anthropology contribution, “Grippe Aviaire” was more making fun of the disease, with a popular dance mocking the bird’s behavior more than trying to be educational about it. Perhaps that’s principally why Lewis’s attempt at an Ebola awareness song doesn’t sit quite right with me. Sure, there’s a cute no touching dance, but it all seems a little too playful, not really effective in any attempt to sensitize audiences. Plus, with all the fuss made over the role of traditional healers in the initial spread of Ebola, what’s the meaning of the last part of the video?

To be honest, most coupé-décalé artists would be too decadent (in their regularly scheduled programming) for this kind of message to be taken seriously by audiences anyway. Tiken Jah Fakoly summed this view up pretty nicely in an interview with Afropop in 2011, when he was asked about his role as a voice for the oppressed:

Yes, it is very hard. It is not easy but I chose it. I chose to do reggae music so I have to do this. If I didn’t want to, then I should’ve chosen “coupé-décalé” or something (laughs). For me reggae music is a fight, it is a mission so it’s not easy but it is our mission.

DJ Arafat and Soum Bill are two of the artists I have seen make sincerely socially conscious coupé-décalé, and I do believe coupé decalé is political in an “Of mimicry and membership” kind of way. But DJ Lewis kind of comes off as more of an opportunist in this case than anything else. Siddhartha sent over some great insight about the larger context of the genre after visiting Abidjan this year:

The bigger context here on the music side is that coupé-décalé is pretty stale at this point. It’s been around for 10 years now which is a long time for a style that isn’t exactly built on complex messaging. And coupé-décalé is fun but it’s derivative to begin with (of Congolese music and party style in particular). So DJ Lewis is also coasting on past glory here, not just the glory of his (awesome) Grippe Aviaire song, but the glory of the whole genre.

In Abidjan last January I didn’t hear a ton of coupé-décalé. I mean, it was there in the background, and I wasn’t really in the clubs (I did go to a few smaller, “bar-climatisé” spots, but they had mostly Congolese music on, and also some Naija jams) so I didn’t have a full panoramic view, but still, it feels like the genre is long past its prime.

Meanwhile zouglou which has been left for dead on previous occasions is chugging along, probably because it has more to say. But there’s space for a new Ivorian party music to rise up, for sure.