Africa is a Country

5 Questions for a filmmaker … Taghreed Elsanhouri

Taghreed Elsanhouri directed the first Sudanese film to be screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, “All about Darfur,” in 2005. That same year the film also won the Chairperson’s Prize at the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF). Her other credits include ‘Sudanna al Habib’ (2012) and ‘Mother Unknown‘ (2009). This interview is the second in a series. Archived here.

What is your first film memory?

My first film memory is the first film I saw on the big screen. It was an Arabic film called Laylat Alqabt Ala Fatima (The Night Fatima was Arrested), based on a novella by Egyptian journalist and writer, Sakina Fu’ad. She was part of a group of women who wrote about the role of women in a changing society.

Why did you decide to become a filmmaker?

At one point in my life, when I was still working in broadcasting, I suffered from a stint of writer’s block, which made me feel like The Little Mermaid. I felt as if I had lost my voice–that it had been sold or stolen somewhere along the way. Making films became my way to recover my voice.

Which already made film do you wish you had made?

I recently saw British/Ghanaian filmmaker and co-founder of the Black Audio Film Collective John Akomfrah’s exhibition ‘Hauntologies‘ in London and I’m grateful to him for this work, in particular for giving life, through visualization, to a black man and woman who appear in a 16th century painting. Although I do not feel comfortable wishing I had made already made works, I aspire to make films that recover lost voices as perfectly and beautifully as Akomfrah.

Name one of the films on your top-5 list and the reason why it is there.

Babette’s Feast by Danish director Gabriel Axel, because it deals with the human impulse to give back, and the poetry of memory.

Ask yourself any question you think I should have asked and answer it.

What was your motivation for making your latest film Our Beloved Sudan? I wanted the footprints of my country to appear in the history, and to tell a story about the partition of my country from a Sudanese perspective.

* The previous entry in this series is here.

Letter to Kenya

Dear Kenya,

My friends and family know I have been one of your biggest advocates and ambassadors. I love you. You are mine and I am yours.

I chose to leave the bright lights of the west to come home and use my craft towards building our vision of our self and transform the world’s vision of us. Whenever I was away from Nairobi I missed it.

Well, what to say, a few weeks ago I went away to Europe, a place where I had once lived and a place I chose to leave. This time, when away, I was struck many times how I hadn’t realized how badly the situation in Kenya had affected me.

“ How’s Kenya? ” People would ask.

Immediately I would shake my head. Not because I wanted to.

“ Well, last year we had the lengthy election situation where the high court had to decide who would be president, then our politicians demanded larger salaries, our airport burnt down, then we watched a saga for days as kilometers away people were brutally shot down in a mall, then we learnt our army looted the mall as they drank tusker beer, our government gave us no answers, then we had bombings on buses, markets and churches, and our police blindly arrested anyone that looked Somali and kept them in a cage, but all the government did was implement a law on drinking and driving, then we had the killings at the coast and blamed it on the opposition and so on and so forth and so it goes. ”

Friends I met wanted to come visit you, instinctively and strangely I discouraged them.

“ Don’t come, at least, not now. ”

Away, I saw and experienced things I had forgotten I longed for. Clean drinking water. Spontaneity. Stumbling upon a cafe, a bar. Art house movies in cinemas. Great music. Drinking and taking public transport home. Not having your bag searched. Historical architecture that was respected and not mowed down.

But more importantly. Walking. Alone. At night, as a woman. Freedom to talk about politics with anyone. Police you did not need to fear because they did their job and did not harass you. Demonstrations that were respected. Social security; free or affordable good healthcare. Being in a car and not having to lock the door. Sleeping in the countryside with no fences or gates or guards. Going to bed and not having to worry if I will be robbed or raped. One night in Berlin I heard fireworks and thought it was bombs.

Last night my taxi driver picked me up from the airport and as we drove through the night he said,

“ Philippa now there is a speed limit. 50 km is the limit. So be careful on the roads. ”

“ Oh, I said any thing else the government has imposed? ”

“ No. ”

“ Be careful which roads you take. They are really making money through bribery. ”

Don’t get me wrong, Kenya, we lose too many of our people to road accidents. I appreciate this gesture.

Yet speed limits, higher salaries and limits on drinking and driving against the backdrop of citizens living in fear of crime, terrorism and not having food to feed your children?

Gee whiz. Thanks.

I am not idolizing the west.

Kenya has an understanding of community that, I would like to believe, thousands of euros cannot buy. We laugh easy. Make jokes easily.

But you see dear Kenya, how much longer must we take everything with a pinch of salt or search for ways to laugh through the pain in our hearts? How much of our personal freedom and security do we have to sacrifice?

Dear Kenya, I have longed for you for so long. I have loved you for so long and that’s why I returned. We’ve had some breathtaking and fun moments together that made me love you more. I was so proud of you. But you have never seen me as your own and I feel I have finally realized my love is still not returned, not returned to me and not returned to anyone else besides those who understand the game of serving one’s best interests regardless of the anguish of others.

Dear Kenya, give me something, give me anything. Give back please. My commitment to our love is waning.



Philippa Wacera Ndisi-Herrmann

The Contemporary Mark of Assata Shakur

This past July, icon of Black American activism Assata Shakur’s autobiography was re-pressed by Zed Books in London. At times thought to be dormant, black American activism has seen a resurgence in recent weeks across the United States after the killing of Mike Brown by police, and the suppression of protests in Ferguson, Missouri. In a timely guest post, Kwesi Shaddai reflects on Shakur’s relevance for today’s generation:

Despite repeated attempts by the U.S. government to “neutralise” her, Assata Shakur remains a powerful voice for the perennial voiceless throughout the world. Now considered to be the most wanted woman alive, her recent inclusion on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list reflects her status as one of the few cointelpro targets to evade life imprisonment, or death at the hands of the state. However, today’s activists who continue to fight the unresolved issues that she faced 40 years ago now also find themselves caught in the same crosshairs. Assata: An Autobiography by Shakur, republished this summer, underlines the extent to which she was targeted by the secret services as a leader of the Black Liberation Movement. As explained by Angela Davis, the latest move to now brand Assata as a terrorist is itself a reflection of terrorism, as it has clearly been intended to intimidate the next generation of activists into compliance.  

This is a salient point, as Assata’s influence across the globe continues to be both pervasive and inter-generational, and this reality poses a real threat to the establishment. For example, following the unsolved murder of Tupac Shakur, persistent rumours spread like wildfire that he had somehow evaded the authorities to seek political asylum in Cuba alongside his “auntie” Assata. Although this urban legend has grown to the extent that Obama’s speechwriters and CIA propagandists now “playfully” reference it, Assata’s real-life escape from the United States has always made the prospect of Tupac “sipping daiquiris” in self-imposed exile seem plausible, and this in itself highlights her continued relevance. 

Within contemporary hip hop culture, even the most apolitical of listeners is familiar with the historical struggle that underpins Tupac’s misappropriated and misunderstood concept of “T.H.U.G L.I.F.E”. As one of the most notorious figures of that era still breathing, Assata’s political legacy provides an ideological link between the potential activists of today and black liberation leaders of the past, like Tupac’s mother Afeni Shakur, his step-father Mutulu Shakur, and his godfather Geronimo Ji Jaga. With this in mind, by branding Assata a “domestic terrorist” and placing a $2 million bounty on her head, the FBI are essentially sending a veiled threat to anyone who believes that real hip hop culture is an informed movement of the masses. 

As an advocate for the power of hip hop and a self-described “runaway slave,” Assata has never compromised her message. In her own oft-quoted words, the civil rights movement never had a chance of succeeding, as “nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them”. Without doubt, institutional racism, structural inequality and the prison industrial complex are all still in existence today, and as disenfranchised people experience their own awakening to these facts, it is understandable that many eventually gravitate towards Assata’s politics. 

But having said that, it’s imperative that her personal journey towards self-empowerment is never lost in the shadow of her legacy. After all, there was a time when the main pages that Assata read in the newspapers were the comic strips and the horoscopes! Even when she first began questioning the plight of her community as a young college student, she still believed the propaganda that U.S. military intervention in Vietnam was a humanitarian effort to spread democracy. As she herself reveals her autobiography, her first realisation of how brainwashed she really was left her feeling like a “bona fide clown”, and this marked the beginning of a new chapter in her life.

Arguably, it’s just as important for young activists today to accept Assata’s early naivety as it is to learn about her later militancy. The soul-searching and self-reflection that she shares in her autobiography acts as a much-needed mirror held up to the lives of her readers. How else can we grasp the urgency of her message unless we use her example to first admit our own shortcomings? In many ways, acknowledging her ultimate transformation from Joanne Chesimard to Assata Shakur is just as fundamental as following the well-trodden journey of Malcolm Little from street hustler to Malik El Shabazz, as revealed in his autobiography. 

Tellingly, this natural evolution from disenfranchised apathy to self-empowered activism that we are all invited to make is the exact process that the establishment seek to attack by placing a $2 million bounty on Assata’s head. 

But herein lies the real issue – in our own way, we are all Joanne Chesimard. 

After all, how many people are incensed by the systematic injustice evident in the world today? How many of us are in a position to take steps – no matter how small – to right these wrongs? 

To be clear, suggesting that we are all Assata is not simply an acknowledgement of our collective subjection to an oppressive world order. Nor is it merely a nod to the “Assata Shakur Is Welcome Here” posters that plastered black communities across the United States and beyond when she first escaped from prison in 1979. 

Instead, it is a humble declaration of understanding and solidarity. Long before Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden were even born, Joanne was an unlikely hero who sought out the truth and became a government target for her newfound principles. 

In the five years prior to joining the Black Panther Party, she was a student and local activist who became gradually politicised by the murders of Malcolm X, MLK Jr, Bobby Hutton, Fred Hampton, Mark Clark and many other innocent activists. Throughout that time, the official objective of the FBI was to prevent the rise of a “black messiah” capable of leading Black America and the Diaspora towards self determination. 

When she was finally arrested as a founding member of the Black Liberation Army in 1973, she was shot twice while surrendering with her hands above her head, and left for dead. She then spent the next four years in custody awaiting trial – two of which were spent in solitary confinement in a men’s prison – before being wrongly convicted for murder and sentenced to life imprisonment plus 33 years. After being liberated from prison two years into her sentence, she went on the run for five years and resurfaced in Cuba as a political refugee in 1984. She has remained on the island ever since as the most wanted woman in the world.

With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps the question you should all be asking yourself now is, if you really were Joanne Chesimard in the mid-1960s, would you have ever dared to take the fateful steps to become Assata Shakur? 

To mark the occasion of the summer re-print of Assata Shakur’s Autobiography, Zed Books offered up a nice playlist of rap songs that illustrate the intimate connection between the activist and hip hop culture:

To Live and Die with Ebola in Liberia

Shaki Kamara was a 15-year-old Liberian boy who lived in Monrovia’s notorious and misunderstood neighborhood of West Point. He was one of the casualties of the awful Ebola epidemic that’s gripping Liberia, but he didn’t die of the virus. Shaki was shot by Liberian security forces in an altercation with residents of the neighborhood after they woke up to find that they’d been quarantined overnight by the government. After initially making the absurd claim that his injuries were caused by barbed wire, the government admitted that soldiers fired live rounds at scared members of the West Point community and ordered an inquiry into who gave the order to shoot.

In early September, West Point’s residents were subjected to a draconian and perplexing quarantine that was imposed after some members of its community raided an isolation facility and broke out suspected Ebola patients. According to reports, the raid was a result of anger in West Point over the presence of outsiders at the facility, and was accompanied by chants of “There is no Ebola!” For people who don’t have an intimate knowledge of Liberia, the incident must have seemed like the work of fools. For those who know the country well, it was a sad reflection of a dynamic of neglect that exists across Liberia.

On the streets of Monrovia and in the country’s small towns, Liberian society is seen as deeply exclusionary and built to service the needs of money rather than those of the poor. In the past few years, the Liberian government has gone on a string of house demolitions on behalf of moneyed elites, handed out huge chunks of communal land to foreign investors, banned motorcycle taxis that the poor use to go to and from work, and operated a police force that’s been sanctioned by rights groups for a deeply entrenched culture of corruption. In the country’s dysfunctional legislature, labor advocates have been unable to pass a “Decent Work Bill” because politicians fear that a minimum wage will cut into the profits of their private plantations.

Meanwhile, people from places like West Point sit in the hot sun for hours, hawking goods and dodging police raids while government bureaucrats and aid employees zip by in air conditioned trucks that cost more then they will see in a lifetime. They are looked down on by the country’s upper classes and barely engaged by a development sector that concerns itself with capacity building workshops and efforts to increase GDP and boost investment.

The development community and the Liberian government will have some self-reflecting to do in the wake of the outbreak. The idea that this has been a crisis only of the country’s health care systems is wrong. This has also been a crisis of governance. Liberians have refused to believe that Ebola is real because they see their government as relentlessly corrupt and unconcerned with the survival and health of the poor. This isn’t a shock to aid agencies; in fact, it’s an open secret that they discuss amongst themselves.

Once the outbreak is over, key questions will need to be asked and openly discussed. Namely, has the approach of relative silence in the face of anti-poor policies and entrenched corruption produced the results that Liberians deserve? How can bureaucracies that hop from one high-walled compound to the next hope to understand what’s bubbling underneath the surface outside the barbed wire? Discovering the right answers to these questions is vital. As we are seeing, getting it wrong can have tragic consequences.

Why are affected West African states so spectacularly ill-prepared to deal with Ebola

I was in Conakry when reports first surfaced of cases of the Ebola virus disease (Ebola) in the Forest Region of Guinea.  There had never been an Ebola outbreak outside of Central Africa before.  Initially, my colleagues and I were unconcerned about its ability to impact our lives. We joked about switching from handshakes to fist-bumps. We teased one colleague that he would now have to forego bushmeat for lunch.  When I returned home to Freetown in Sierra Leone later that month the customs officials asked for my yellow fever card and nothing else.

Since making flippant jokes about it in March, Ebola has spread to Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.  Since the epidemic started December 2013 and 14 September 2014, a total of 4507 cases were reported to the World Health Organization (WHO). At least 70% of these people are dead, by WHO estimates released earlier this week.   The WHO admits, however, that this is likely an underestimate as hundreds have probably died without seeking treatment, either because it was inaccessible or they perceived it as ineffectual or even dangerous.  And the WHO now claims that “… if control does not improve now, there will be more than 20,000 cases by Nov. 2, and the numbers of cases and deaths will continue increasing from hundreds to thousands per week for months to come.”  No one is laughing at Ebola now.

On July 31, President Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone declared a State of Emergency. On August 7, I left Freetown feeling unsettled and guilty—knowing that the US passport in my pocket meant I was one of the lucky few that could easily get out of harm’s way.  As my plane took off I wondered how Ebola had been able to spread so far so quickly and why the governments involved were so spectacularly ill-prepared to deal with this crisis.

With few exceptions (like this and this), most news reports so far have focused on Africans’ enduring ignorance as the main reason for the transmission of Ebola.  Little has been written about the political and economic structures that have shaped the rise and spread of Ebola.  Yet, the fundamental drivers of the Ebola epidemic—inadequate public health infrastructure, neglect of tropical diseases and environmental destruction facilitating the rise of new pathogens—are all symptoms of an even more fatal disease: neocolonialism.

Neocolonialism is that alliance between foreign governments and local elites that emerged after independence in the 1960s and 70s to perpetuate the exploitation of African labor and natural resources for the benefit of foreign investors.  Most Western politicians, scholars and journalists, of course, prefer to blame poverty exclusively on Africans themselves, on Africans or their leaders’ innate corruption. For example, at the recent US-Africa Summit, Vice President Joe Biden delivered the “familiar lecture from Western governments” to African leaders on the need to curb corruption to foster economic growth. This explanation conveniently ignores the role of Western governments and corporations in creating and perpetuating Africa’s poverty.  The US-Africa Summit itself just continues this ignoble tradition.

Neocolonialism robs African governments of the resources necessary to invest in social development.  First, there is a decided lack of transparency in the extractive industry which allows foreign companies to make sweetheart deals with corrupt local politicians where they pay obscenely low royalties and taxes. Second, African governments have spent too much money servicing debts that were often borrowed by authoritarian regimes.  Western banks are complicit in capital flight, helping African elites to conceal and protect their ill-gotten gains. Historically, Western governments have supported dictatorial governments as long as they are welcoming to Western investors (or, during the Cold War, in sync with Western interests). As a result, Africa is actually a net lender to the rest of the world. Instead of investing Africa’s economic surpluses in its productive base and in the health and education of its peoples, African and Western elites connive to transfer Africa’s savings to the West.

Neocolonialism also denies African governments the policy space to pursue autonomous economic development.  Since the 1980s, the World Bank and the IMF have forced African governments into neoliberal reforms through Structural Adjustment Programs (SAP). SAPs require countries to slash spending in public health and education and drop barriers to trade and foreign investment in exchange for debt refinancing and relief.  These “pro-market” reforms strangle infant industries in their cribs and preclude the industrial policies that have been necessary for economic development nearly everywhere else.

It’s true that religious beliefs, misinformation and superstition have aggravated the Ebola epidemic. However panic and misinformation typically accompany the rise of new, deadly, infectious diseases.  Let’s not forget the hysteria surrounding the appearance of AIDS in the US. Susan Sered argues that this misplaced focus on sorcery and superstition obscures the fact that longer life expectancy in the US and Europe is the result of government investment in public health infrastructure.  If Americans are healthier than West Africans, it is because we have better access to safe water and medical care, not because “we gave up our religious beliefs.”

The health systems in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia are among the world’s worst.  Sierra Leone has the lowest life expectancy of 193 countries surveyed by the WHO. Initially there was only one health facility in the country (the Lassa Fever Ward at Kenema Government Hospital) that could provide appropriate treatment to Ebola patients. There was no hospital in Kailahun District where the outbreak first entered Sierra Leone from Guinea.  Health officials had to transport patients to the Kenema Government Hospital on a muddy road in the middle of the rainy season in makeshift ambulances.  Nurses have gone on strike  over having to work without personal protective equipment. Patients are now afraid to go to hospitals for other ailments out of fear that they may get infected with Ebola once there.  Nurses and doctors are abandoning their posts given the dangerous working conditions. The WHO warns that the number of Ebola cases could surpass 20,000 before the epidemic is contained.  The collapse of the health care systems in each country, however, threatens to kill far more West Africans of malaria and other endemic diseases than Ebola itself.

Western governments, and the international financial institutions they control, deserve much of the blame for the disastrous state of health systems in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. “In health,” the WHO states plainly, “SAPs have slowed down improvements in, or worsened, the health status of people in countries implementing them. The results reported include worse nutritional status of children, increased incidence of infectious diseases, and higher infant and maternal mortality rates” [emphasis mine].

Colonialism and neocolonialism are also the ultimate cause of the unprecedented emergence of Ebola in West Africa.  Although too many scientists think that the natural sciences are free of politics, zoonotic diseases like Ebola that spread from animals to humans do not operate in a context free of economics and politics.  Rob Wallace describes the process: “The more the remaining monkey and bats and other animals are collected from deeper in the forests increasingly pressured by logging and mining, the more likely [zoonotic] spillovers are to accrue.  And, by a growing, peri-urban transportation network, to spread.” Neoliberal economic policies and large multinational corporations’ operations have devastated West Africa’s ecosystems and communities through logging, mining and land grabs, creating new pathways for opportunistic pathogens to evolve and disperse.

To make matters worse, there is simply no desire on the part of Western pharmaceutical companies to invest in a vaccine or treatment for Ebola.  First, as Leigh Phillips explains, Big Pharma knows that treatment of chronic diseases is more profitable than a one-time vaccine so they refuse to invest in life-saving cures.  Second, they know that African markets are tiny; therefore “Ebola is a problem that is not being solved because there is almost no money to be made in solving it.” In short, “It’s an unprofitable disease.”

The people of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia have already had more than their fair share of suffering.  Sierra Leone and Liberia recently endured brutal civil wars including mass rape and mutilation and the recruitment of child soldiers (in both cases, the IMF/WB’s fiscal bloodletting certainly contributed to state collapse).  Kailahun District, the epicenter of the epidemic in Sierra Leone, has long been cursed by blood diamonds. In the short-term we need to pressure “donor” governments to step up and mobilize the necessary financial and human resources to contain the epidemic.  Even the head of the World Bank understands that if the Ebola epidemic had “struck Washington, New York or Boston, there is no doubt that the health systems in place could contain and then eliminate the disease.”  Why are West African lives any less valuable? The Onion’s sassy headline says it best: Experts: Ebola Vaccine at Least 50 White People Away.

But the people of West Africa deserve more than our sympathy, we must express our solidarity with the African activists and social movements fighting foreign corporations, international financial institutions and their own corrupt elites for greater democratic control of their governments and economies.  Only by curing the scourge of neocolonialism in Africa can we prevent the emergence and spread of more deadly epidemics.

The Independent African Republic of Scotland

Nelson Mandela speaks to the crowds in George Square, Glasgow, 1993. He received the Freedom of Glasgow bestowed on him 12 years previously, when Margaret Thatcher regarded him and the ANC as terrorists. Watch clips from his visit to Scotland here. Scotland (including Andy Murray) votes today in a referendum for its independence from the United Kingdom and posh men in expensive shirts. 

While you wait for the result, we can recommend the following sources: the @Africans4Indy twitter account; this good history courtesy of the BCC; everything by Gerry Hassan, like this; John Harris’ report for The Guardian; this Tommy Sheridan interview; Rachel Hamada on the shifting political landscape there; this Tom Devine piece and Africa is a Country’s own Elliot Ross on Al Jazeera America. Finally, read AFKInsider and Nathan Chiume (on Africa is a Country) on which Africans are watching the Scottish referendum closely.

Africa is a Radio: Epsiode #6

Africa is a Radio went on break last month along with Africa is a Country, so I’m just now able to get to posting July’s show here. This episode focuses on South African Hip Hop, both commercial and underground with a special report from Pretoria by Ts’eliso Mohaneng. Enjoy, and look out for September’s Episode on Groovalizacion soon!

What is the matter with … TB Joshua

Last week a building that was part of the complex that is the Synagogue Church of All Nations in Lagos, Nigeria (‘pastor’: TB Joshua) collapsed. When the story was first reported on Friday, the death toll stood at 3 people.  Then yesterday, the South African President Jacob Zuma announced that “at least 67 South Africans were killed.” Nigerian rescue workers, according to the BBC, have now upped the total number of bodies pulled from the rubble at 70 people.  Some may wonder why it took so long (five days) for that information about 67 more victims to emerge.  The short answer is that the South African government had little control over that process: TB Joshua’s church has a reputation for acting outside the law (his church is usually off limits to Nigerian security forces and local authorities who struggled to get access to the site since the building collapse and the church most probably flouted building regulations. Apart from some tepid press statements, Joshua’s bizarre explanations for the building collapse was to blame the devil, a plane that sprayed a mysterious substance over the building and Boko Haram. But even more than that, some may wonder what so many South Africans were doing at Joshua’s church (at the time of the collapse, South African media reported that 5 South African church groups were visiting Joshua’s church).  There’s been some good coverage and comments about Nigerian preachers on Nigerian Twitter (see Elnathan John)  and on sites with a Nigerian focus, like Sahara Reporters (like this, here,

But back to TB Joshua, who represents a wider trend on the continent. Back in December 2011, Sean Jacobs wrote a post about TB Joshua (known for his outlandish claims about the future and who has Julius Malema among his fans) and his appeal, including, especially to South Africans. We’ve reproduced that post below:

Nigeria’s Pastor

By now you’ve probably watched the (British) Channel 4 TV documentary film about Nigeria’s millionaire preachers–the fake healings, buckets full of money collected by church leaders (“tithes”), police escorts, mall openings as well as all that flash. This all against a background of grinding poverty. I watched it last night. Most Nigerian blogs not surprisingly (many of them are believers of some sort), have focused on theological debates thrown up by the documentary. One of the preachers, Dr Fireman, when quizzed about his ostentatious show of wealth, responds to Channel 4′s journalist: “Jesus was rich and had an accountant who followed him around.” No one’s surprised that with low confidence in political parties and the state, people gravitate toward fast-money preachers promising eternal salvation, financial and physical health. However, it appears the filmmakers could only get to the B-List preachers since we didn’t see any of the really rich preachers. Those preachers, compiled in a list by a Forbes blogger earlier this Fall, include David Oyedepo (estimated net worth of $150m), Chris Oyakhilome ($30-50m) and TB Joshua ($10-15m).  Of all these men, it is perhaps Joshua is the most interesting (there’s even a TB Joshua Watch online).

TB Joshua claims to heal HIV/AIDS, cancer and paralysis at his Synagogue Church of All Nations in Lagos. More significantly, he has also found a willing audience among African elites, especially its political class and leading sporting personalities.

But first to his claims as a healer.

Joshua serves as an advisor to many of Nigerian leading sports people. They  thank him profusely for their good health. But it is not just his country’s sports people who have put their trust in Joshua’s healing powers. In one celebrated case, Jaco van der Westhuyzen, a top rugby player from South Africa traveled to Lagos with a knee injury and claimed to have been healed by TB Joshua. Two fellow Springbok team members, who had cancer, also traveled to Lagos to see Joshua and promptly stopped their treatments.  Two of Van der Westhyzen’s teammates, Ruben Kruger andWuim Basson, also went to see TB Joshua. He claimed to heal them too, but they died of their cancers. Consistent with evangelical Christianity’s teachings, Kruger and Basson’s failure to get well were rationalized as their lack of faith. (In Basson’s case, Joshua even claimed to communicate with him beyond the grave.)

South African television has reported stories of especially white South Africans traveling in large groups to Joshua’s church for healing.

As for the politically connected who travel to see and hear Joshua in Nigeria, they include Ghanaian president John Atta Mills, of whom it is claimed that “… Joshua had prophesied his victory in the Ghanaian polls, specifying there would be three elections and the results would be released in January.” Atta Mills has described Joshua as a mentor.

Separately, a Zimbabwean newspaper reported that prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai visited Joshua’s church in September. So have other leaders of Tsvangirai’s MDC movement as well as Mugabe’s ZANU-PF. Some were hoping it would give them an edge in party political contests.

The same newspaper mentioned a few other high profile guests: former presidents Frederick Chiluba (Zambia), Pascal Lissouba (Congo-Brazzaville), André Kolimba (Central African Republic), Omar Bongo (Gabon) and Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini (who came to testify about his “daughter’s healing from epilepsy”). The president of Zimbabwe’s football association Cuthbert Dube also claimed to be healed by Joshua.

Not all governing elites are as welcoming of TB Joshua and his healings (and predictions–he claims to foresee plane crashes, natural disasters, though critics point out that the videos where he apparently makes such predictions are cleverly edited). In fact, Cameroon has banned Joshua.

But the most curious recent guest at Joshua’s church has been Winnie Mandela, seen in this recent video, below, with Joshua’s Emmanuel TV, referring to herself as “the grandmother of Africa,” blamed everything that’s wrong on the continent on modernity (except Christianity of course) and who suggested Africa needs “democracy of a special type”:

BTW, we keep wondering why do South Africans travel to Nigeria, when they have their ownmiracle-making farmer at home?

New film, “Beats of the Antonov,” unlike anything I have ever seen

Every now and then, its seems as if there is nothing new out there. Everything seems derivative, repetitive or just plain bland. As a filmmaker, I sometimes go through moments of extreme lack of inspiration; and even question my choice of career. And then an unexpected spark happens to light the way. Beats of the Antonov, a new documentary from Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka, is such a spark. The film premiered last week at Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and is by Kuka’s account possibly the first film by a Sudanese filmmaker to screen there. I wasn’t surprised when last night the film won the People’s Choice Documentary Award at the TIFF.

Kuka paints a beautiful picture of music, war and identity in the Blue Nile and Nuba regions, and the film is unlike anything I have ever seen.

Here’s the trailer:

The Antonov of the title comes from the Russian planes that are used by Omar Al-Bashir’s regime to bomb villages in Sudan. Instead of a dry journalistic account of the ongoing Sudanese conflict however, the film is a deep exploration of a nation in an identity crisis, with its ruling elite pushing an Arab nationalist identity onto a diverse African citizenry. The title of the film makes a correlation between the bombs of oppression and the resilience of culture, the music of a people and the suffering they endure.

The film uses a non-linear narrative style, not following any particular series of events, but rather is a collection of vignettes, many of which spring from spontaneous jam sessions in refugee camps. Kuka, who has also been a war reporter, caught the inspiration for the film while spending time in one of the refugee camps in the Blue Nile region. “The music sounded different than any other Sudanese music I had ever heard before, because they were made from found objects in the refugee camp,” Kuka told me over a coffee in Cape Town, where he finished post-production on the film, working with Big World Cinema producer Steven Markovitz and editor Khalid Shamis. “They created this contraption where they connected home made instruments to an old radio. They had created a new sound. It was amazing, and this is why I made the film; I fell in love with the music. It’s Sudanese music, but it’s a unique mixture of Sudanese traditional music that was born in a refugee camp. I was afraid that they didn’t realize how amazing this music was.”

In addition to head bopping jam sessions with instruments made of pipes, plates and old tires, some of the most compelling music in the film is the genre of “girl’s music” sung by the young women in the region. They are both oral history and snapshots of modern life. One of the songs deals with young men who are really just teenagers being sent to fight in the Sudanese Liberation Army, with haunting lyrics like “those boots are too big for you.”

The film also takes a long hard look at what it means to be Sudanese today, and confronts the Arabization of Sudanese identity, an ideological displacement running as an undercurrent to the physical displacement of the refugees in Sudan. “Bashir himself is not that identity he wants to be,” Kuka says, and explains that with his long dreads and afro-centric mindset, he gets flack for not fitting the prescribed national identity. “Very few people fit this image of what is Sudanese. You have this fake image and 5% of the population fit it, and then you have 95% of people who are trying to fit it.”

One of the characters in the film is a young musician and ethnomusicologist named Alsara, named by Addis Rumble as “the princess of Nubian pop and Sudanese retro.” Alsarah, now based in Brooklyn, New York , has returned to Sudan to do field recordings and research in the Nuba region. In a traditional narrative documentary, it would have been an obvious choice to follow her on her journey to record the music and bring it to the West, however Kuka avoided making her or any single interviewee the subject of the film. “It’s normal for us to meet a lot of people in real life, so you meet a lot of people in this film. You don’t need one-character-driven stories. It’s not my style and I don’t think it’s needed… talking to a lot of people and talking to them in a way that’s less definitive will give you the experience of living this.”


The film succeeds in this endeavor, instead of telling you what to think about the Sudanese conflict, it gives you a sense of the realities on the ground, a feeling for the place, and the kinds of issues which people are thinking through. A person I know who saw the film said you had to experience the film with your heart, and not your head. Beats of the Antonov and its infectious music stayed with me for days after viewing it. Rather than giving any answers in this film, Hajooj Kuka asks a lot of important questions. “At the end what I want people to leave with is this complex idea of Sudan, rather than the simplified notion that the media gives you.” Kuka plans to expand into features in the future, and is excited about developing a unique voice and style. With more films like this coming from African directors, we could be witnessing the start of a new canon of African film.

What Binyavanga Wainaina thinks of the Caine Prize

This is Africa is prone to tabloid headlines (they’ve been running tons of sex related posts lately), but Nigerian journalist Chiagozie Nwonwu‘s interview with Binyavanga Wainaina (writer, commentator, rights defender “a public figure, not D’Banj, but with enough people”) is worth all the sensationalism. In the interview, Binyavanga covers a lot of ground: Nigerians moving to Nairobi, the reaction in both Nigeria and Kenya to his coming out last year (“my gay drama”), that he has “three per cent Nigerianness in my body,” the impact of Chocolate City, P-Square, Victoria Kimani, Wazobia, and, most explosively, the Caine Prize for African Short Story Writing. We’ve tweeted from the piece earlier today, but felt it would be better to just embed Binyavanga’s answer to a question about Kenyan and Nigerian rivalries about who has won more Caine Prizes:

I am going to take this first to another road because I think all you Nigerian literati are way too addicted to the Caine Prize. I give the Caine Prize its due credit, but it just isn’t our institution. All these young people who are ending up in that place were built up by many people’s work.  If there was no Saraba, if there was no Farafina workshop, if there was no Cassava Republic, if there was no Tolu Ogunlesi meeting Nick in South Africa and then workshoping stories, if there was no Ivor Hartmann, if there were no thirty thousand Facebook groups that I know off or don’t know, there will be no Okwiri, there will be no Elnathan, etc. What is  happening is you people are allowing the Caine Prize to receive funding and build itself as a brand and make money and people’s career there in London while the vast majority of these institutions are vastly underfunded and vastly ungrown, and they are the ones who create the ground that is building these new writers. Why do I have to  sit in interviews with Nigerian journalists who want to help Caine Prize get more money in the sixth richest country in the world?

I want people to say, Okwiri, who won the Caine Prize, is the founder of Jalada, an online magazine that has won five prizes in the last year and published, I think, the most exciting fiction I’ve seen in ten years. Just that magazine, has more excitement than many known ones, but they are invisible. Seven years ago, I came here (Nigeria) and I felt nothing is going on in the online community in Kenya. Then Dami Ajayi and Emmanuel Iduma went and started Saraba. People there in Kenya smelled Saraba, made their own and that was it. Now, writers in America and approaching writers published in Saraba and these online magazines to give them fellowships abroad. Okwiri made her name long before the Caine prize. I picked her for a long list of under-20 writers. I didn’t even know her then. Because the ecosystem is so big that you don’t even know each other anymore. Up until now, I’ve not met her and if I have, we bumped into each other. I know she wrote a review of my book launch, but I don’t remember meeting her. The idea that she won the Caine Prize and journalists now want to feed the fact that she was made by the Caine Prize is unmaking her. You ask any smart Kenyan writer who is in the game, they tell you Okwiri is the new be. And we are talking two years ago. We must lose this s**t. Give due credit but don’t go giving free money and free legitimacy. Because the Caine Prize right now needs your legitimacy to get money. They take press clipping from all Nigerian media and use that to source for funding. We need to focus on how we can grow our own ecosystem.


Scotland’s referendum is significant for people that want to secede. Like Zanzibaris

“Should Scotland be an independent country?” That is the question Scots will be asked when they go to the polls on September 18th. The outcome of the vote will have a significant impact on the future of Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. More interestingly, this referendum is being closely watched in a seemingly unlikely corner of the world: the Zanzibar archipelagos in East Africa.

Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania. The islands are famous as a tourist destination, boasting beautiful white sandy beaches and narrow streets of Stone Town.  Scottish explorer, David Livingstone, began and ended many of his journeys in Zanzibar. For hundreds of years, the islands have served as the center of Kiswahili culture and remain proud of their past glory as the epicenter of trade and wealth in East and Central Africa, with links to the Middle East and Asia that go as far back as 7th century.

More recently, the islands have been a hotbed of political tension with roots emerging from 1950s rivalries between nationalist movements, mainly Africans and Arabs, during the struggle for independence from Britain. The rivalry led to a violent revolution in January 1964 carried out by Africans against Arabs, killing many and forcing others to flee the islands. Few months later in April 1964, the islands formed a union with the then Republic of Tanganyika to form one sovereign United Republic of Tanzania. Under the arrangement, Zanzibar was allowed to retain a small degree of autonomy under its own island government dealing with local affairs, while major issues such as foreign affairs, defense, immigration and currency were placed under the Union government. This “two tier” union structure was conceived in order to ensure that Zanzibar won’t get “swallowed” by its much larger partner, and so Tanganyika (nowadays referred to as Mainland Tanzania) won’t bare the substantial burden of running both the Tanganyika government and the Union government.

Historical specificities aside, the structure of the Union of Tanzania is quite similar to that of the United Kingdom. England’s government ceased to exist in 1707 when it merged with Scotland to form the UK; much the same way Tanganyika ceased to exist after the Union with Zanzibar to form Tanzania. England does not have its own government, with her affairs being managed within the UK’s central government; much the same way Mainland Tanzania’s local affairs are managed within the Union government. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland enjoy devolved powers from the central government the same way Zanzibar does. Whether or not Julius Nyerere, co-founder of the Union of Tanzania (who incidentally studied British History and Constitutional Law at University of Edinburgh), was inspired by the structure of union he saw in Scotland and decided to adopt it back home, is debatable.

While the UK was born out of conquests and suppression of Scottish language, religion and culture for many years, Tanzania was born out of Pan-African ideas and the African independence movement. The calculated need for self-preservation within the unstable new regime in Zanzibar after the revolution also played a role in bringing about, and later on, preserving the Union. Global geopolitical concerns which were heightened by the Cold War simultaneously accelerated the formation of the Union. There is also strong suggestions of the CIA nudging the formation of the Union to prevent Zanzibar from becoming a communist heaven.

Despite tensions and discontents from both sides, the Union has survived for 50 years, with the Mainland providing much needed stability to the islands. Constant demands for larger autonomy for Zanzibar, and periodic calls for full secession from the Union, have come up throughout the life of the union. Today, many political observers admit to a resurgent and united “Zanzibari Nationalism” that has united elements of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi  (CCM) in Zanzibar with the opposition Civic Union Front party.

In the same way there is an undercurrent of resentment by the Scottish towards the English and vice versa, there is similar degree of resentment, although not deep seated, between Zanzibaris and Mainlanders. For the most part, people from both sides of Tanzania do intermarry, do resettle and trade among each other as they have done for generations without any problems.

Zanzibari nationalists lament the gradual increase by the union government of the so-called “Union Matters” from the initial 11 to the current 22 issues, which further erodes the little sovereignty they had. They want the Union government to remove the “Tanganyika jacket” by creating a separate entity to run Mainland affairs. On the other hand, there have been persistent demands by some mainlanders for the restoration of Tanganyika government because they feel they have been carrying most of the weight in servicing the Union compared to Zanzibaris.

The referendum in Scotland is a significant event for states that want to secede.  There is a sense that an independent Scotland could indeed set a precedent or provide inspiration for entities like Zanzibar. According to a Tanzanian diplomat in London, “both sides of the divide in Zanzibar are following the debate in Scotland and are awaiting the outcome of the referendum with apprehension.” Each side will be able to use the arguments and outcome to advance or vindicate their position. While there are no known formal links between the two “separatist” movements, Rachel Hamada, a non-partisan journalist who has spent the last decade between Scotland and Zanzibar, says she is aware of many Zanzibaris who support secession “who have been observing events in Scotland with great interest. If Scotland does go its own way, undoubtedly pro-separation campaigners from Zanzibar will want to investigate the path to such a vote.”

Tanzania’s ruling CCM have resisted calls for a special referendum on the structure of the union. There’s also the question of who deserves to be asked to vote in such a referendum: Zanzibaris only (population of 1.3 million), mainlanders only (population of 43 million) or both? 3 years ago they agreed to rewrite the entire Union Constitution that will be followed by a referendum to adopt it. The commission that drafted the new constitution presented a “three-tier” structure, which CCM as a majority block in the Constituent Assembly objected to. This led to a walkout this past April by the opposition. Last week, the constitutional process officially stalled, and efforts are currently underway to find ways to resume it after next year’s general elections. The plan was hinted earlier in July by Mr. January Makamba, a pro-Union and reformist politician from CCM, when he said, “If there is a need to postpone the current constitutional process, let us do it so that we get a better constitution which has the consensus from all sides. Since the structure of the union is a highly contentious issue, it should be sent back to the people to decide via a referendum before the constitutional process resumes after the 2015 general election.”

Supporters of three-tier government structure in Tanzania argue the ruling party CCM is using fear-mongering to claim that the three-tier structure as proposed in the draft constitution will lead to the break-up of the Union. CCM believes the proposed structure would leave the Union government weak and dependent because it will be stripped-off its economic power base. They are in favor of more devolution of powers within the current two-tier structure, but they are yet to present specific proposals. Similar accusations of fear-mongering has been leveled towards the “No” campaign in Scotland (known as “Better Together”), with observation that their public messaging on behalf of the UK has been poor, lacking best content creativity and social media savviness needed to convince the public. The same can be said with pro-union Tanzanians, who for many years have been slow to react to the arguments presented by Zanzibaris, to the extent the latter have been able to create a dominant narrative.

Generally, pro-union factions in both Scotland and Zanzibar have been portrayed by their local opponents as “stubborn conservatives” who are unwilling to change and insist on unworkable structures that won’t preserve the unions for long-term. There is a strong feeling in Zanzibar that pro-union supporters are mostly political elites in the current Union government and ruling party CCM. According to Evarist Chahali, a Tanzanian journalist and columnist living in Glasgow, a similar perception has frequently been heard among the pro-Scotland independence supporters that, “the whole ‘Better Together’ thing is about preserving the status quo for some Scottish politicians at Westminster.” The feeling in both “separatist” movements is that despite a good degree of political devolution and autonomy, they are each subjected to a union ruling class which doesn’t understand or care about their local issues. This partly explains why the rest of UK is run by parties that have been rejected in Scotland. Conversely, the opposition CUF is stronger in Zanzibar compared to mainland Tanzania where its support declined in the last elections.

Interestingly, Scotland is said to be home to a substantial number of Zanzibaris who went there to seek asylum after the 2001 post-election violence at home. These foreign born asylum seekers and refugees from Commonwealth countries like Tanzania are eligible to vote in the referendum, and will form one of the strongest polling block for the “Yes Scotland” independence camp. These exiled Zanzibaris are known to be opposition supporters and generally are against the Union. However, it remains to be seen whether their role in helping Scotland secure its independence could translate into encouraging the same to happen in their homeland.

Despite the recent drop in numbers of undecided voters, it’s still hard to predict the outcome of the Scottish referendum. For a while, most polls suggested that the “Better Together” camp would prevail, but recent the polls have been tightening, meaning the outcome could go either way. If the results are for “Yes Scotland”, there will be a long period of negotiation on the terms of separation, involving issues such as the division of the national debt, the division of oil revenue, Scotland’s membership of the EU, her retention of the Queen as head of state and continual usage of the Pound Sterling, as well as terms of any future bailouts from UK. All will be hard fought, as journalist Rachel Hamada adds: “Even with devolution in the late nineties, which had widespread political support, the negotiations were fierce, so we can expect they would be ferocious this time round”. The divorce will be long and bitter, and Tanzanians should expect the same should a similar situation happen to them. Analysts agree that if “No” vote wins, it will be because the “Yes” vote for independence did not make a compelling and reassuring case to provide a knockout punch to convince the Scottish that they will be better off independent. Either way, most observers agree that the result will be close and thus there will be consequence. UK will have to consider measures to give Scotland greater powers. The Union could prevail due to the simple fact that it is the devil the Scottish people know.

The whole of UK is an island with Scotland as part of it, while Zanzibar is an island disconnected from her partner in the mainland. Yet, an important common denominator between Scotland and Zanzibar is oil resources. Although Scotland has a finite supply of oil in the North Sea, the “Yes Scotland” campaign has based much of their argument on the ability of this resource to sustain and propel an independent Scotland. Zanzibar is yet to discover oil near its Indian Ocean waters, but has campaigned hard to remove oil and gas from Union Matters so that they can manage the resource locally. The Union government quietly agreed, and last year Zanzibar signed an agreement with Shell to do exploration in their waters. “There is a perception that potential for oil in the islands boosted the desire for the Zanzibaris to go solo,” observes Chahali. Many opposition supporters in Zanzibar believe that oil will transform the islands to their past glory, and they add this argument alongside the restoration of national pride and the need for greater links with the Islamic world as key arguments for full autonomy.

Perhaps the main lesson to Tanzania has been how ‘civilized’ the Scottish referendum process has been so far. While emotions on both sides have been running high, there have been very few incidences of violence or threats to derail the process. Once UK government approved the referendum, it made it clear that they would honor whatever outcome from the vote. Party politics have been kept at bay, with “Better Together” campaign being led by Alistair Darling, a Labour politician who is campaigning on behalf of the UK government led by the Conservative Party. On the other hand, the “Yes Scotland” camp led by First Minister Alex Salmond has tried to make the issue of independence that of the Scottish people rather than his Scottish Nationalist Party.

Many agree that the way forward for Tanzania is for more devolution or greater identity and autonomy for Zanzibar, with Union retaining big issues such as defense and economy. The Union President Jakaya Kikwete admits to long-running political “fault lines” in Zanzibar which necessitated a power sharing agreement in 2010 between the two major parties in the isles. But Kikwete recently played down any notion of a strong “separatist movement” in Zanzibar, saying it wasn’t a big issue that needed to be blown out of proportion. He believes it can be contained: “We will always be able to manage them and I don’t think they will be able to wreck the country,” he assured. However, many observers believe it was partly due to such fears of secession that compelled the President to see the wisdom of initiating a rewrite of the Union Constitution in order to preempt violent demands for more autonomy in Zanzibar and to guarantee survival of the Union “for the next 50 years”. Tanzania and the Cameroon, remain the two longest surviving and most successful unions in modern day Africa after the collapse of Ghana-Guinea Union, the Senegambia and United Arab Republic (UAR). No other examples remain of independent Africa countries that decided on own volition to unite.

The Resurrection of Nat Nakasa

“This is Simply a Personal Statement from Me to You”

On August 18th I attended the memorial service for Nat Nakasa at the Broadway Presbyterian Church in Harlem.  What began as a somber event quickly turned joyous as we celebrated the South African writer and editor’s long overdue trip home. With isiZulu songs echoing off the church walls, it was truly a moving experience.  The only trouble was, had it not been for the life-sized photographs of Nakasa flanking the altar, I might not have recognized who we were there celebrating.  Words like “stalwart” were used to recall South Africa’s long struggle against white supremacy and Nakasa was described as ‘the voice’ of his long suffering community. The keynote address by Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa related him to Pixley ka Isaka Seme, the ANC founding father who had attended nearby Columbia University at the turn of the 20th century.

I am a historian, who researches and writes on South African literary history.  I first came to know Nakasa through his literary journal, The Classic.  I was writing a MA thesis about four South African journals/magazines; Drum, The Classic, New Classic, and Staffrider. I was introduced to Nakasa in a thoroughly historicized fashion.  Which is to say: I came to know him as the product of his social context, a writer embedded in a set of institutions and personal relationships that conditioned his voice.  I completed my MA thesis in 2010 and turned my attention to other aspects of South African writing and reading (you can read it here).  Over the past few years, I have read with fascination as biographers, journalists, and politicians reanimated the writer I had met in the archive.  In the last few months, however, the Nakasa I knew has become almost unrecognizable.  My growing sense of unease reached a crescendo in Harlem, for to memorialize or commemorate a person generally means ripping them from their historical context and cramming them into whatever present space is vacant and useful.  This is what it means to do violence to memory, forgetting the past while forcing it to do work.

What happens to the writings of a man when he is dead and gone?” Nakasa once asked Essop Patel, who later published a collection of Nakasa’s work.  This poignant depiction of a young man grasping for validation of his time on Earth was recalled at the memorial service as a way to remind us all that Nakasa lives on in his written legacy.  Yet if one were to peruse the numerous articles written since MinisterMthethwa’s announcement that Nakasa was coming home (and often enough before that too) it would be difficult to make the claim that this legacy has been honored.

Nakasa was a writer, and his writing offers us the best historical evidence available.  Nakasa’s archive primarily consists of his published writings, various collections of correspondence (mostly at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, a bit in Austin, TX, USA), official documents (U.S.A. and R.S.A government files), and personal anecdotes and recollections.  All of this material has been available to be considered by anyone interested, yet for decades Nakasa’s legacy remained largely a matter of academic interest, if that.  That began to change in the late 1990s, however, when a prestigious South African journalism award was named after him.  By the time I was researching my thesis in 2008 – 2009, his was a bigger name, due in no small part to the Office of the President awarding him the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver in the late 2000s. In the wake of this celebrity revival, people began to take a greater interest in Nakasa. Ryan Brown, an American freelance journalist won a Fulbright Fellowship in 2011 to research his life (she wrote about her project on AIAC in 2012).Interest in Nakasa has since abounded – resulting in, among other coverage, the American journalist Danny Massey’s expansive New York Times piece on Nakasa’s American exile, which drew liberally from published and unpublished academic research.

One thing all of these accounts share is a general feeling of unease with the ambiguity that Nakasa proposes as subject. His was not a life that fit many of the preconceived narratives through which we grasp black South African existence. I and other students of Nakasa acknowledge the liminal nature of his experiences through well-worn references to “fringe country” or the space between two worlds, but too many of us inevitably gravitate toward rigid categorical evaluations of who he was, what he did, and why it mattered. The temptation to make him ‘count’ in the way that South Africans are supposed to ‘count’ is too great. We want him to be a hero in the most recognizable sense of the word.

Why else would it be suggested at this man’s memorial service that he was a people’s champion of the struggle?  A cursory review of his portfolio should make it abundantly clear how inappropriate this is.  In the first issue of The Classic, his own magazine, he chose to reprint one of his speeches in which he opened with a disclaimer rejecting the responsibility to represent Africans or “anybody at all” (The Classic 1, no. 1 (1963): 56). “This is simply a personal statement from me to you,” he explained.  Obviously this has been a difficult concept to take seriously.

Conflicts over representation are nothing new when it comes to Nakasa though.  It is quite clear from his published works that he was having a difficult time figuring himself out and finding his place in the world.  Those who followed him have an an equally difficult time fixing a definition on this writer.  In her 2008 thesis, Heather Margaret Acott provides perhaps the best accounting of how Nakasa’s fortune rose and fell in the press during the 1990s according to the need for “’rainbow nation’ icons.”

I would suggest, however, that what has been happening in the press recently reflects something slightly different.  In the early 2000s, South African art and culture critic, Sandile Memela wrote two articles castigating the liberal white media establishment and Nakasa as their “darling” (see “The Man who was at Odds with his Identity” City Press, 9 September 2001). “Because he was a major hit in white liberal circles,” Memela explained, “he has been exhumed from the grave and made an icon of black journalism.” Memela has surely revised his opinion because he made the trip to New York to act as host of the memorial service for Nakasa’s actual exhumation.

Let me be clear: the problem is not that Memela changed his mind. There is nothing pernicious about people’s interpretation of evidence changing with time.  What troubles me is that Memela’s change of heart illustrates the fickle ways in which he and others continue to police the past, to pick and choose what lives and perspectives are worthy of remembrance and celebration. At one time Nakasa was out of bounds because he had the temerity to write to white audiences, which disqualified him from serious consideration as a representative of the people. Now, before my eyes, he was and is repositioned, first as a misunderstood prophet of the ‘rainbow nation,’ and now as the anti-apartheid voice of black communities.

It is astonishing to watch Nakasa himself being shaped to fit today’s needs.  He is being unmoored from his own life, the issues that concerned him, the evidence that is his writing, and the context that motivated that work.

Why was Nakasa’s body met at King Shaka by an MK honor guard?  I understand the need for spectacle and ceremony, but neither MK – nor, to be clear, the broad-based struggle against apartheid – was his life.  Are the trappings of the struggle the best way to remember this writer –  or are they simply the only way?  Howard University Law Professor Harold McDougall, who knew Nakasa at Harvard, spoke at the ceremony in New York; he described a mentoring program he had developed and urged South African officials to consider establishing such a program for young journalists in Nakasa’s memory. At Wits you can read a letter Nakasa wrote to Lewis Nkosi expressing his hope that The Classic might inspire four new township writers per year. This is how we should celebrate Nakasa.This fits.

In the discipline of history, as well as contemporary politics, the struggle has exerted an enormous gravitational pull for years.  Rightly so: the dismantling of apartheid was an incredible victory worthy of study and celebration.  The greatness of this victory is matched only by the terribleness of the system; indeed, it is theawfulness that makes the victory great.  Yet what Nakasa’s recent treatment reveals is that the awfulness and greatness have become disconnected somehow.  This week’s celebration demands that Nakasa fit into an easily recognizable role in that victory; writing through that awfulness is no longer enough.

The Johannesburg journalist Neo Maditla recently wrote that Nakasa was “unremarkable.” Nakasa was not unlike most South Africans who survived apartheid oppression just “trying to make it to the next day.”  This feat (occasionally known as life) only appears unremarkable within the framework of an oppression-resistance binary, which has the effect of flattening the amazing texture of so many lives, including Nakasa’s.  The insistence that only struggle lives are worth remembering and celebrating is the policing of the past.  It leaves the vast majority of South Africans, those who did their best to get by and to leave something behind for future generations, on the outside looking in, marginalized for their failure adequately to ‘struggle.’  In 1986, South African writer Njabulo Ndebele cautioned South Africa’s writers against allowing spectacle to dominate their collective literary imagination and extolled attention to the mundane, the ordinary.  Perhaps Nakasa should inspire us to rediscover the unremarkable?  For if the struggle against white supremacy is the only story worth acknowledging, than that oppressive system has truly retained its grip on authority in mockery of all that was sacrificed in the name of the future.

While Nakasa was quite remarkable in a number of ways, to enumerate these would take us down another path over which his failure to ‘struggle’ would loom.  So I conclude with this notion that he was unremarkable.  On Saturday President Zuma will preside over Nakasa’s reburial.  Will he allow Nat to speak through his own words?  Who will be returning to Chesterville, a prodigal son or a triumphant hero?  Is it even possible to celebrate a black South African who lived in the second half of the twentieth-century without making reference to the struggle?  Do we have the vocabulary for such a celebration?

After the memorial service I briefly spoke with a South African reporter for her radio program.  She asked how I, as someone who has done some scholarly work on the subject, think about and remember Nakasa?  I replied that as I’ve lived with Nakasa my thoughts on him have changed, running the gamut from struggle writer to CIA stooge, but recently I’ve decided that I like thinking of him best as a young man just trying to find his way in the world by writing.  She was not impressed and quickly went off, presumably to find someone willing to say something about fringe life or rainbows.

I like my image of Nakasa as a young man writing and living. I think we’re just out of practice understanding that as something worth celebrating.

The Economist magazine has had a “Slavery Problem” since 1843

The Economist has a slavery problem, as Greg Grandin has recently called it. Grandin’s wonderful article is a response to a series of lamentable book reviews published by The Economist that deal with the topic of slavery: Grandin’s own The Empire of Necessity, and more recently Edward Baptist’s The Half Has NeverBeen Told. The list goes on, as Grandin reports. But, as he continues, this slavery problem is old, well pedigreed even. During the U.S. Civil War, he notes, The Economist “stood nearly alone in supporting the Confederacy against the Union.” If cheap cotton was blood cotton, so be it. Summarizing this long running slavery problem, Grandin concludes: “The Economist seems committed to making sure that white people aren’t taken for total villains and darker-skinned folks held accountable for their share of world’s inequities. It also seems dedicated to make sure the economic system created by slavery [i.e., capitalism] is denied its parentage, and on insisting that the miseries that continue to be produced by neoliberal capitalism can only be cured by more neoliberal capitalism.”

Indeed. The Economist’s “slavery problem” is even older than Grandin suggests, though. It dates back to the very first issue of the paper itself.

It’s almost certainly a coincidence, to be sure, but a suggestive one, that The Economist’s first issue was published on 1 August 1843. That is, on the ninth (or fifth, to account for the end of Apprenticeship in 1838) anniversary of Emancipation Day. The anniversary was celebrated throughout the Atlantic world. Emerson and Douglass gave speeches on it; US abolitionists held picnics—and of course gave speeches too—to mark it. In the British West Indies, shops shut down, holidays were granted. Newly freed folk prayed in church and celebrated with whatever means were available to them; the better off feasted and drank (with plenty of toasts to Victoria and the Empire). Creole newspapers would go all prolix on the event, taking the anniversary as a chance to reflect on the beneficence of empire as well as the work still to be done to secure a meaningful (or, for the plantocracy, sustainable and profitable) freedom. And so, given the liberal bent of The Economist, given its belief in the glorious mission of Britain in this our fallen world, one would imagine that it too would participate in the convention of mouthing a “Glory be to Empire!” or toasting Wilberforce on the anniversary of emancipation. It was simply what Britons did.

Nope. Not a word. It’s not that the West Indies don’t make an appearance, though, in the august prospectus heralding the emancipation of the market. They do. But as refuse to be jettisoned.

It all has to do with The Economist’s guiding principles. Simply put, The Economist was founded as a pressure rag for free-trade agitators. Its first issue offers a lengthy essay that details both the economic problems derived from Britain’s “restrictive system” of mercantilist tariffs and the glories that awaited a free-trade Britain. Sound familiar? Like something you might have read in it yesterday? The Economist is literally the most ideologically consistent publication to have ever existed.

For The Economist, two commodities in particular figured the irrationality of the “restrictive system” of mercantilism: corn (i.e., cereal grains, in particular wheat) and “the greatest foreign article of consumption, and therefore of exchangeable ability, SUGAR.” Together, corn and sugar accounted for most of the caloric intake of your average Briton. For this reason, the price of corn and sugar was understood as having a strong determining effect on wages, and so the costs of production, and so the costs of goods, and so the costs of production, and so on and on. The cheaper these primary goods, the lower the cost of production, the greater would be the abundance of Britain. The problem, though, was that tariff walls favoring British farmers on one hand and West Indian sugar planters on the other kept the prices of these goods high.

Quite high. Sugar production in the British West Indies didn’t totally collapse after emancipation—it’s a debated topic, anyhow—but it dropped. It had been dropping for years, as an effect of the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, soil exhaustion, bad cultivation technique, the collapse of estates due to impossible debts, the quotidian resistance of the enslaved, and so on. With the end of slavery, many more plantations went bust, free people worked out multiple arrangements with plantations that invariably entailed a diminished production of sugar, and no British capitalists were really willing to sink much into most of the islands. Free trade agitation, too, affected the capitalization of the islands; it was widely understood that it was only the restrictive tariffs that kept the West Indies afloat, and few capitalists were willing to risk the investment when the tariff walls were starting to come down. And so the situation: More Britons were consuming sugar, but the supply was inadequate, and so expensive.

The West Indies and their protected markets were thus a primary target of The Economist, the best example that one could find to describe the idiocy of anything but liberalized markets. (It’s always a shame to me, when reading The Great Transformation, that Polanyi so absorbed the Little Englandish imaginary of free-trade liberals that he can’t think sugar with corn, his primary example.) And so the solution: liberalize sugar markets. “We must be willing to take,” The Economist’s first issue declares,  “the sugar and coffee of Brazil, Cuba, and Java,” “to avail ourselves of the vast and rich productiveness of Brazil, Cuba, Java, &c.”

Of course, the “rich productiveness” of Brazil and Cuba owed everything to slavery. The Economist didn’t agitate for the resumption of slavery in the British Empire, no; it simply demanded what amounted to its externalization. On a day when about a million emancipated humans celebrated their freedom, The Economist agitated for a position that would intensify slavery elsewhere. When news reached Cuba that an act to liberalize sugar markets was passed in 1846, the slaveholding elite reportedly partied well into the night: they now had access to the biggest sugar market in the world. British capital poured into Cuba and Brazil—it had been for some time—and so too did enslaved humans captured in Africa. (Following Engels on the late re-constitution of serfdom in Eastern Europe, Dale Tomich with good reason calls the period following liberalization the “second slavery.”)

In one of the weirdest about-face alliances in British political history, some antislavery activists joined with the West Indian plantocracy to protest liberalization—but not many. By the 1840s, free-trade activism absorbed much of the utopian impulses of antislavery organization; free-traders cribbed antislavery organizational practices to boot. Friendships were shattered, groups dissolved, and all because there was a simple choice: free trade in “slave sugar” or moral trade in “free sugar.” Free trade activists with prior antislavery connections such as Richard Cobden insisted that slavery could only be abolished through free trade, when rational, liberalized markets would reward the best, most rational form of production, which was always taken by liberals (with good evidence to the contrary) to be free-labor production. Freedom meant cheapness; cheapness meant freedom. Or, as The Economist put it in its first issue, “we seriously believe that FREE TRADE, free intercourse, will do more than any other visible agent to extend civilization and morality throughout the world—yes, to extinguish slavery itself.”

By opening British markets to “slave sugar,” Britain effectively guaranteed the hyper-underdevelopment of the islands. Indeed, if just a decade earlier, abolitionists insisted that enslaved humans were just like any other British subject, entitled to the same rights and protections, liberalization cut into this flickering moral geography, decisively constituting at the politico-economic level an inner Britain and an outer one. The postemancipation world was rendered institutionally foreign and so not as deserving of British care regarding its level of economic development—or, really, much care at all. In practice, then, liberalization entailed the economic and political abandonment of the islands. As Disraeli later asserted, the “wretched” colonies had been a “millstone” about Britain’s collective neck; he tore the millstone away. (He didn’t, and it’s weird that he, an arch-protectionist, should say he did, but free trade had become so ideologically hegemonic that down was up.) It became common to compare creoles’ resistance to emendations of tariff protections with Luddites’ destruction of machinery—with the implication, of course, that machines won out in the end. Nature following its course, Providence providencing. (Marx would absorb this figuring of the West Indies in his remarks on free trade, but only to insist that flows of capital and distributions of commodity production are not natural.) Still, plenty of liberals fantasized that the islands would simply sink into the sea. “[I]f we could,” Anthony Trollope writes in his West Indies and the Spanish Main, “we would fain forget Jamaica altogether. But there it is,” he lamented. Indeed. Brontë’s Rochester responded to the inconvenient presence of the West Indies in manorial Britain by locking his mad creole wife Bertha in the attic. Just think about how some Yanks think of Detroit.

The result of liberalization, then, was not simply to intensify slavery throughout the Americas or to more fully saturate British markets with slave produce. Nor was the result simply to decimate an already decimated West Indian economy, although it did that too. Most importantly, the result of liberalization was to reduce Britain’s relationship to the West Indies, and to West Indians, to a market rationality, and one wherein the market directed Britain’s attention from subjects who just a decade earlier had been the focus of Britons’ intense political and moral concern. (As Eric Williams half-melancholically, half-sarcastically put it, echoing Burke, “The age of empire was dead; that of free traders, economists, and calculators had succeeded, and the glory of the West Indies was extinguished forever.”) That is, of course, not how the emancipated understood their relationship, not normatively. Not when they offered letters of thanks to Victoria for their emancipation, not when they wrote petitions to Victoria soliciting economic assistance for the islands, not when they declared themselves British subjects and so entitled to all the rights and privileges attaching to that quality. It’s hard for us to read such documents now, with our postcolonial eyes, and see anything but imperial hegemony. But in such supplications we gain quotidian access to what emancipation, at least in part, meant for creoles: freedom to transact with Britain, to be included in an expansive polity, and to possess a legibility there that differed from the logic of the market.

The Economist has a slavery problem then, to be sure. But it has another one, too, and a bigger one. Call it a freedom problem. It’s partly, as Grandin suggests, that The Economist offers the same (neo)liberal solution to every (neo)liberal problem: more freedom (for capital). And yet, were The Economist to recognize the complicity of its ideology in the production and persistence of slavery, I’m not sure much would change. After all, the publication was quite conscious that cheaper sugar purchased on liberalized markets entailed, in the short run, intensified slavery abroad. One lesson here, one I wish people effusing over new studies of capitalism and slavery or the new capitalism studies stuff, is that we need to stop thinking that somehow naming capitalism’s imbrication in slavery in any way constitutes a radical act, an emancipatory gesture. Capitalism already knows how shitty it is. It doesn’t care.

The Economist’s freedom problem runs deeper than its willingness to capitalize on a form of production premised on freedom’s negation. It is rather that its monochromatic definition of freedom as market freedom rendered it incapable of hearing the other kind of freedom articulated both as a demand and as a gift in each black creole missive of gratitude or supplicatory petition to the queen. In composing freedom in the economy, as the economy, The Economist rendered itself, and its liberal readers, and a liberalized Britain, incapable of hearing the aneconomy that inheres in every demand for black freedom. To be a person, not a thing; to be described in print as a British West Indian, not metonymized as sugar; to be a subject one hangs around with, celebrates emancipation with, and even after the cane juice isn’t worth the squeeze. Indeed, sticking around when there’s no good reason to do so is probably the basis of any politics worth sticking with; such a practice entails a collective fracture of social necessity that originates (as) anything I’d call freedom. The rebels of Morant Bay didn’t get going because their economic prospects were bleak; they were always like that. They got going because the queen told them to fuck off.

And so let’s say this: If The Economist’s slavery problem consists in its abandoning ideological responsibility for capitalism’s deep ties to slavery, its freedom problem consists in its redefinition of freedom as the capacity to abandon. Ex-slaves were the first, and foundational, victims of this freedom.

This article first appeared on Of CLR James, Chris Taylor’s excellent blog (well worth reading through the rest of his posts). Chris Taylor tweets @ChrisJudeTaylor

What’s the matter with … R.W. Johnson

The South African RW Johnson has undergone a transformation of youthful radical to smug “anti-apartheid” liberal anti-communist and scholar of the French Left (think Tony Judt-lite), resulting in the final incarnation of a  pompous red-faced “liberal” colonial academic flinging reductionist tribal stereotypes into the public sphere. His intellectual credibility was forfeited a few years ago in liberal-left circles when he wrote a racist piece for the London Review of Books‘s (LRB’s) blog in which he compared  the horrific xenophobic attacks in South Africa to baboons fighting rottweilers.

We are being besieged by baboons again. This happens quite often here on the Constantiaberg mountains (an extension of the Table Mountain range). Baboons are common in the Cape and they are a great deal larger than the vervet monkeys I was used to dealing with in KwaZulu-Natal. They jump onto roofs, overturn dustbins and generally make a nuisance of themselves; since their teeth are very dirty, their bite can be poisonous. They seem to have lots of baby baboons – it’s been a very mild winter and so spring is coming early – and they’re looking for food. The local dogs don’t like them but appear to have learned their lesson from the last baboon visit: then, a large rottweiler attacked the apes, who calmly tore it limb from limb.

Meanwhile in the squatter camps, there is rising tension as the threat mounts of murderous violence against foreign migrants once the World Cup finishes on 11 July. These migrants – Zimbabweans, Malawians, Congolese, Angolans, Somalis and others – are often refugees and they too are here essentially searching for food. The Somalis are the most enterprising and have set up successful little shops in the townships and squatter camps, but several dozen Somali shopkeepers have already been murdered, clearly at the instigation of local black shopkeepers who don’t appreciate the competition. The ANC is embarrassed by it all and has roundly declared that there will be no such violence. The truth is that no one knows. The place worst hit by violence in the last xenophobic riots here was De Doorns and the army moved into that settlement last week, clearly anticipating trouble. The tension is ominous and makes for a rather schizoid atmosphere as the Cup itself mounts towards its climax.

This piece of crude racist stereotypes provoked widespread outrage among intellectuals and academics all over the world, eventually culminating in an open letter condemning the LRB for continuing to grant old Bill Johnson with a platform. The letter was signed by the likes of Africa is a Country founder Sean Jacobs, political scientist Achille Mbembe and literature professor Paul Gilroy, as well as writers China Miéville and Teju Cole. Johnson was subsequently forced to find other platforms for his rants and raves, such as the South African website Politicsweb – which will publish anything – and reactionary publications  such as the Spectator every now and again.

The LRB is known to not condone racism. But in 2010, instead of condemning or editing the obvious racism in his blog post, the publication chose instead to reduce it to a matter of “interpretation”.

Why then is the LRB–which I must confess is my favourite literary publication and is usually on the left–giving Johnson a platform in 2014? Granted, his piece in their latest edition is a review of Michael Jago’s biography on Clement Attlee – but a quick search on the LRB’s website (these includes blog posts) reveals Johnson has authored no less than five pieces since 2010; including a few on South Africa. Perhaps his reputation among the editors of the LRB still rests on the laurels of being their designated left-liberal anti-apartheid critic in the 1980s, when Johnson was still an Oxford don. Or perhaps they haven’t bothered to take the criticism they received in 2010 to heart.

Politicsweb, Johnson’s main platform, shares his politics, and until recently published fellow angophile  racist and now rape apologist David Bullard.  Politicsweb editor James Myburgh – who was an ex-Democratic Alliance (DA) insider and confidant of its former leader Tony Leon – is the sort of South African who feels the need to publish  a  10,000-word defence of George Zimmerman’s  murder of Trayvon Martin and to term affirmative action Verwoerdian.

As the years passed since the aforementioned incident in 2010, Johnson has moved even further to the right – to the point of actively promoting reds-under-the-beds conspiracy theories about the apparently malignant role South African communists played in every  political choice made by the ANC since the 1950s. His  allies in this paranoid quest are the likes Stephen Ellis, Paul Trewhela  and Rian Malan, all of whom seem to share a collective belief in black inferiority and the inability of the likes of Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu to lead the ANC without being manipulated by white communists. For them, black intellectuals psychologically associate whiteness with excellence and are thus obsessed with whites, something clear in Johnson’s crude writings on Thabo Mbeki.

Part of this mission, which he shares with the South African Institute of Race Relations’ Anthea Jeffery, is to redeem the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and its leader for life Gatsha Buthelezi as the true liberation movement, presenting  a moderate or even social democratic alternative to the “Stalinist ANC.” This is despite the IFP’s involvement in political violence against the ANC, United Democratic Front and unions throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, in which IFP militants killed thousands of people in what effectively was a unofficial civil war, where the IFP was armed, trained and covertly supported by the apartheid state, the police and military.

His other hobby is to denounce current Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille for breaking up the Kelvin Grove old boys club  type of liberalism of Leon’s  DA, while accusing her of betraying the supposed grand legacy of South African (or rather, Cape Colony) liberalism by attempting to seduce ANC voters.

Johnson’s most recent book, South Africa’s Brave New World, published in 2009, was described by the Guardian  as “a record of pretty well every piece of unsubstantiated gossip to have circulated South Africa’s rumour mills.” Examples include the idea that Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe had advance warning of the 9/11 attacks, the ANC had Chris Hani murdered, and that Thabo Mbeki is the antichrist (no, really. Johnson blames almost everything wrong in South Africa on Mbeki).The LRB’s own reviewer, Wits University sociologist Roger Southhall, noted that “Johnson has little regard for competing scholarship, particularly in the fields of contemporary history and social science.” The novelist Andre Brink, writing in the Daily Telegraph, added that “he [Johnson] relies mainly on newspapers, including lightweight magazines, and often quotes himself, or hides behind cop-out phrases such as ‘It was generally assumed …’, ‘There was suspicion…’, ‘Causing some to believe…’ or, scattered throughout the notes, unsubstantiated references to private information or private sources”.

To illustrate Johnson’s conspiratorial paranoia, take a look at this quote:

Not only was [Robert] Mugabe one of the few people given a fore-warning of the events of 9/11, but he had actually allowed al-Qaeda militants to fly into Zimbabwe in the week following 9/11 to get fitted out with false Zimbabwean passports.

The source for this stupendous claim is, of course, a footnote citing the great authority himself, author RW Johnson. Johnson was invited a few months ago on to Eusebius Mckaiser’s Power FM radio show to discuss a recent article in which he claimed that blacks would vote for white leaders of the DA due to the fact they associate whiteness with excellence on competence. When challenged by Mckaiser to produce evidence for this claim, Johnson mumbled about a number of conversations he has had with black people, making it clear that it was merely anecdotal. When this was pointed out to Johnson, he promptly hung up the phone.

It is not enough for Johnson to criticise the likes of Mugabe and Mbeki, but he has to turn them into world-historic evil characters on par with the great monsters of history.

At a recent event in Cape Town, hosted by South African online publication Daily Maverick, Johnson was spotted pontificating during a question and answer session about how the ANC was some sort of Nguni racket designed to keep out other tribal groupings from the presidency, thus resulting in some sort of tribal pact between the Xhosa and Zulu to keep everybody else out. Johnson increasingly sounds like the old racist uncle ranting at the dinner table about the essential righteousness of the British empire in teaching the Bantu about Jesus and modernity, through the musket and sword if need be.

While it’s not my place to speak of the merits of Johnson’s reading of the Attlee years, it is fair to ask the question: why is Johnson, despite the mountains of evidence testifying to his transformation to an A-grade crank, still being given space in the world’s foremost literary publication? Johnson should be rightly relegated to the fringes of the internet, where his fellow McCarthyite cranks and colonial nostalgics can engage in back-slapping while on the gin in the comment section. I sincerely hope the LRB doesn’t still think Johnson is one of us (the intellectual liberal-left) and can look past Johnson’s punchy prose style to see the rotten core that has come to characterise his writing.

This is not censorship – Johnson already has other platforms – only a refusal to grant Johnson and his malevolent politics the intellectual credibility attached to being publishing on such an esteemed platform such as the LRB that he feels entitled to as an ex-Oxford don. Also be sure to check out the otherwise outstanding edition of the LRB, with a superb array of reflections on Scottish independence and Jenny Diski’s account of being with diagnosed cancer.

* This is the first instalment in a new series: “What’s the matter with …” We also plan to revive the “Take me to your leader” series, which previously lasted one instalment.

Sepp Blatter says sports boycotts don’t work. ‘Would Mandela agree?’

Earlier this week Sepp Blatter, defending FIFA’s decision to not rescind its decision to award Russia the World Cup in 2022, said “Boycotts in sport never has had any benefit.” Watch it here for yourself. As, a site not usually know for its progressive politics (they usually line up behind the worst aspects of US foreign policy) wondered: “Would Mandela agree?” In fact some Belgian fans thought the same over the summer when they pressured the Belgian FA to cancel last Sunday’s European qualifier against Israel in Jerusalem. In the end, the game was moved to Cyprus, but we don’t think that will be the end of calls for boycott of Israel’s football team. Meanwhile, it just so happens that on September 18th, Hlonipha Mokoena (Columbia University), Dan Magaziner (Yale University) and myself will revisit the legacy of the 1980s cultural boycott against white South Africa during a panel at The New School in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

Apart from the successful sports boycott white South Africa was subjected to, our discussion will include the events and complicated legacies of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album, for which Simon defied the UN boycott, traveled to South Africa and recorded with local musicians. The larger context for September 18th’s public event is “… labor issues in the United Arab Emirates, funding structures of the Sydney Biennale or the current São Paulo Bienal, participation in this year’s Manifesta in Saint Petersburg, and calls to renew a cultural boycott of Israel.” In fact, other seminars in the series will look at some of these. Back to September 18th: Joe Berlinger’s documentary marking the 25th anniversary of “Graceland” album, will also be screened separately that day as part of the event. Here’s the trailer:

BTW, we may, or may not bring up, Stevie van Zandt’s view of Paul Simon (if the video doesn’t cue, fast forward to 19 minutes, 15 seconds:

All the details to the event at the link below. See you there.

Prayer in the time of Ebola

News of Ebola in West Africa immediately sent me back to the spring of 1974, when another highly contagious and deadly hemorrhagic virus known as Lassa fever swept through my hometown of Jos, Nigeria. All through that hot and dry season, people drove straight through my city with their car windows closed, even though they had no air conditioning, so as not to catch what they feared to be blowing in the wind. I was a young child at the time and as the daughter of a pastor, I prayed fervently for those suffering. I prayed that the afflicted would be cured, but in spite of my prayers, many people died. I was shaken by these deaths but nevertheless continued to pray for I took hope in the seemingly miraculous recovery of an American missionary nurse.

Nurse Lily Pinneo was the first Lassa fever patient dramatically airlifted out of West Africa to the United States, just like today’s first American Ebola patients, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol. Nurse Pinneo not only recovered from Lassa fever; she returned to Nigeria with her antibodies, which were then successfully used in the form of a serum to cure others. In light of the recent anxieties surrounding the arrival of Ebola patients in the U.S., it is hard to imagine that Nurse Pinneo was not transported in a specially outfitted medical evacuation plane. Instead she traveled in the first class section of a commercial flight with little more than a curtain separating her from the other passengers. It was a Pan American Airways Boeing 707 that stopped in Accra, Monrovia, and Dakar picking up new passengers at each point.

Now, some forty years later after the Lassa fever outbreak, I worry about Ebola and in particular about my friends and family who live in West Africa. “Please be careful,” I urged my brother in a recent email sent from where I live in San Francisco to where he works in Lagos. I was hoping he might reassure me by saying he was taking extra care, but instead he replied: “There’s nothing much one can do to be ‘careful’. Like everybody else in Nigeria, I will just have to rely on prayer.” I groaned when I read this for I’m not sure my brother believes in prayer and even if he does, his email reads like a vast over-reliance on prayer at a time when there are many more practical things that can and should be done. Except perhaps in a densely populated megacity with close to 21 million people living in the context of widespread poverty and a lack of awareness about disease. Here, the arrival of a pandemic such as Ebola could be catastrophic, even apocalyptic. What my brother’s response made me realize was that in places like Lagos where the healthcare system is inadequate and health workers are constantly on strike, this leaves people with little option but to rely on prayer.

While I no longer have the same unwavering belief in prayer that I had as a child, I continue to pray. At the start of the Ebola outbreak, Ling, my local dry cleaner, pointed to a photograph of her beloved Pope Francis and told me she was praying for those suffering from Ebola. I told her I was praying too. Several days later, in a conversation with my Palestinian neighbor, Mohammed, as we bemoaned the atrocities taking place in the Middle East, we both spoke of how we could do little but pray. So like my brother and many others in Nigeria, as well as those in the areas most affected by Ebola in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia and now Senegal, I find myself, almost in spite of myself, relying on prayer. And yet prayer is undoubtedly a powerful way of fostering bonds between neighbours and friends. Prayer might even be powerful enough to bring about miracles, but it can never be a substitute for the alleviation of problems that require coordinated international efforts on matters of governance, regional security, healthcare and public services. Ultimately, what I pray for most urgently these days is for greater, concerted human effort to solve today’s most terrifying problems. Some things are simply beyond human control, but Ebola is not one of these.

Image Credit: Victor Ehikhamenor

On Safari

Telling “the African story”

We often hear political and business leaders and Africanists talk about the need to “tell the African story.” For us, “tell the African story” means nothing. In other words, it is a cliché of no value. We don’t know what it is supposed to mean. It may be that the idea of a definitive “African story” gains traction as a response to bigoted representations of the continent that have been influential in Western journalism and thinking. But like the idea of the need for “positive stories about Africa”, it’s facile and unhelpful. Our suspicion is that political and business leaders say that when they feel uncomfortable with airing real problems that ordinary Africans experience. The phrase also assumes–as our blog title mockingly suggests–that Africa is a Country.

African journalists rarely think or talk about their vocation in these terms. In most cases, they lack the continental consciousness to think or write in this way. The national trumps any continental solidarity or focus. So does the local. Their focus is very different from their counterparts in the West who report on “Africa.”

Journalists are also under stress and lack resources to travel between or report from elsewhere in Africa. News organizations mostly republish wire stories or cut and paste reports from Western media. In South Africa, for example, it is not unusual for prominent newspapers to take their “international” and continental coverage straight from Western publications, often ones that stereotype Africans. For example, the Independent Group’s newspapers republish copy from Britain’s rightwing “Daily Telegraph” and the tabloid “Daily Mirror.” The worst is the Sunday Independent, where copy from the New York Times and Washington Post make up whole sections and the Mail and Guardian which reposts UK Guardian copy in bulk on its world news pages with very little edits. There’s a few homegrown networks (e.g. SABC Africa, which may not be operating anymore) or subsidiaries of “global” or US networks-like CNBC Africa, ABN News-which attempt a continental bias, but can’t help themselves in parroting cookie-cutter Western storylines, tone or foci.

That said, most African journalists, like their counterparts in the West, are connected to social media which means there is now no limitation to their stories being read by Western mass audiences and elites alike. One thing to do, especially online, might be to talk back to Western media about these stereotypes. We see that space opening up more and more. We are reminded of a piece written a while back by a former New York Times correspondent in India writing at the end of his tenure about how he had to get used to the idea that the subjects of his reporting read what he wrote and could now write back in real time.

At the same time, it should be noted that most of the time a Western foreign correspondent’s articles are of almost no interest at all to people in the country he or she is reporting from. The domestic news agenda is completely different — so that domestic media scandals are completely ignored by foreign correspondents.

Western media organizations tend to assume that their foreign reporting is taken much more seriously overseas than it really is. Ask someone in an African country what they think about Nicholas Kristof’s reporting, and invariably the answer will be: “Who?”

So what should be the role or contribution of the African press in Africa’s transformation?

Report stories. Investigate malfeasance. Get out of the newsroom. Produce compelling media. Give readers proper historical context. No PR stories. Using the vernacular can be helpful for meaningful reporting.

Lots of the journalism in Africa is not properly edited or thought through.

Without being prescriptive, if a continental consciousness has to develop, it should be akin to a non-essentialist pan-Africanism that is suited to this time that challenges and broadens received wisdom about the African continent and its people in Western media, countering ahistorical and decontextualized images of the continent and its people. With the web that is now not that hard to do. Without doing “development” journalism, journalists need to reinvent the narrative and visual economy of their African locales.

Global media, with few exceptions, have shown themselves time and again to be utterly unable to cover the continent in the depth and detail it demands, still less with any appreciation for Africa as a site of astonishing cultural and artistic productiveness. The imperative of journalists in Africa should not be to produce patronizing ‘positive’ news stories or PR-style neoliberal boosterism, but sustained daily work of presenting and engaging critically with the cultural and political life of Africa and Africans wherever they are and, crucially with its diaspora, now only a click away.

People need to stop taking this “potential investors” mumbo jumbo seriously. Governments are accountable to citizens, not investors. The idea that “potential investors” will be scared off by accountability journalism exposing corrupt practices is ludicrous. Look at Angola and the work of Rafael Marques de Morais through his site Maka Angola.

Marques has exposed scandal after scandal, but big oil companies still seem to want that Angolan oil. Some of the world’s most notoriously corrupt countries are also the most attractive to investors — not that their investment is of much good to ordinary people. A major challenge for all journalists is to think independently of the very pervasive neoliberal ideology of institutions like the IMF and World Bank, and media like The Economist magazine, according to whom all government policy must be dictated by the needs of “potential investors”. As the Malawian researcher and writer Jimmy Kainja quipped to us presidents like to do this supposedly very important thing called “talking to investors,” but nobody’s ever quite sure what the result is.

The Naked Woman on Nelson Mandela Square

On Monday, a woman walked towards the giant Mandela statue at Nelson Mandela square in Sandton, Johannesburg and stripped naked until security guard came to remove her as demonstrated in the cellphone images that were captured and distributed on social media by bystanders. It is not clear who this woman is or why she did it but somebody on Twitter called her Braveheart and I must agree, there is something beautifully valiant in her statement.  Some dim witted people on News 24 complained about the type of body she has, some have called it ”yuck” and that it would have been better to have a younger ”firmer” body instead. This type of thinking, not unlike some news reports that have insinuated that she is mentally unstable, is perhaps the type of thinking that Mystery Braveheart seeks to challenge about who we have become as a society.

A black African female body — something usually under duress in South Africa, constantly cleaning, carrying and wiping; the perpetual provider – caring, mothering, fathering, paying, praying; and always the recipient of various brands of a frightening South African masculinity – pursued, abused, sexualized and caressed in varying degrees of love and hate. This black African female body willfully walks to the towering figure of Nelson Mandela and disrobes. As visible as he is, presiding over an erect symbol of capital, she becomes visible.

In my eyes, the statement transcends her beautiful physical attributes, and becomes an embodiment of how many of us feel. In a world where nudity has become the smut that sells product and personality, hers is a pure human body, one that allows more people to see themselves in her shapely hips and breasts that look back at you. That we are unsure of the context of this act is in and of itself, pure.

As she leans in to place her head on the bronze knee of Mandela’s statue, I see a vulnerable woman in plain pain. She could have gone to any of the many places that are named after Mandela but she chose this one, a physical embodiment of South Africa’s neo-liberal agenda, one that prioritizes capital and not people, it is a building that represents all the wrong turns we’ve made to end up in a situation where 25% of South Africans are unemployed, where the majority are still poor and the poor are still black. It’s a building that represents our nation’s status as the dumping ground for Western Imperialism. An inference of the commodification of Mandela’s image, commoditized by the power that oppressed him, used to conciliate the South Africans into believing that nothing happened to them. She may be mentally unstable, would that be surprising? The real miracle in South Africa’s popular tale of reconciliation is how many of us have not reached a state of undress in pronouncement, no matter which side of the divide one falls. That she chose the powerful and now in his absence, changing image of Mandela is telling. The Mandela who placed the responsibility of morality into the hands of black South Africans, when immorality had ruled over them for 46 years, the Mandela who forgave the people but did not put on trial, the system that put him on trial, the Mandela who promised to not dislocate public life so that places like Sandton could continue being Sandton, unfortunately maintaining Alexandria as its unchanged appendage – that Mandela may be the one she is begging to, asking from and questioning.

She claims this space in response to the noise that pervades all available public space, especially in Sandton, all the noise that has facilitated the idea that nothing happened. What’s there to be angry about? What’s there to be sad about? Shop. Everything is okay. Whether it is art or not, her statement has allowed us to interrogate the state of unconsciousness that the country’s powerful are in when it comes to the needs of those whose power is exerted through their bodies, limited to their bodies or limited by their bodies. Her nudity wakes us up, either in protest or solidarity to the fact that everything is not okay.

Thank you Mystery Braveheart, if that’s what you were going for.