Africa is a Country

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.

Let’s talk about racism in Colombia

Last week, a classified ad appeared in a Colombian newspaper. It read, in the broken language of pay-per-word ads:

A female surgeon doctor with college degree Internship in Clinic Inscription. 25-30 years old, of white skin. Needed, a personal interview Dr. Guarín, next July, 22nd, 10 A.m.

Soon every news outlet in the country, as well as social media (including the newspaper which originally published it, El País) got wind of it, writing stories. It was universally, and rightfully, condemned.

The day of its publishing, a small crowd gathered outside of Dr. Guarín’s office to protest the racism of the ad and at least one organization, the Fundación Chao Racismo, announced it would sue the physician for breaking the country’s anti-discrimination laws. The media backlash prompted the managers of the Farallones Clinic, where Dr. Guarín has his private practice, to distance themselves. They did so first by making it clear that the doctor merely rents a space there and is not affiliated with them, and then by asking him to stop renting it.

The whole ordeal was forgotten quickly, though, with Colombia’s relentless news cycle bringing a different scandal each day. Still, it was mildly refreshing that at least this small outburst could have happened in a country where racism is rampant, yet it rarely hits mainstream conversations, where it is easily disregarded and treated as a foreign ailment.

As with everything else in Colombia, our racism is also a problem of elitism. Black and native voices are often dismissed because they tend to come from the periphery. Freed black slaves in the middle of the 19th Century settled in their own neighborhoods or their own towns, away from their previous oppressors, while the native groups that preserved their cultures managed to do so, mainly, by staying away from the European settlers. People who belong to any of these two groups, then, tend to come from remote and depressed areas, forgotten by the government, where basic needs are unmet, public services are lacking and education is of low quality.

Therefore, from the “center”, from the main cities of the country where things are sometimes better, these people are seen as “inferiors.” For example, it is a common assumption among some Colombians that dark skinned people are poor, while fair skinned people are rich, or at least well off.

Of course, there is also the purely racial aspect of it. I have only mentioned “black” and “native” people in the last paragraphs, because those are the only “races” we can think about in Colombia. They are the ones that steer away from what is more common. Most of us (including myself) are mixed-race. We have a word in Spanish for it: “mestizo”. Even people whose skin is very pale declare themselves as “mestizos”. This is what we are taught in school: we are a “mixed” country; this is what the 1991 Constitution declares: we are a “multiethnic, pluricultural nation.”

The Spaniards originally used the word “mestizo” to describe a “half-white, half-indigenous person,” but it is likely that most of us have also black ancestry at some point, though it is hard to know, as often this fact would be hidden from family histories out of shame. Many have changed their names and obscured their lineage in hopes of looking more “European.” So for the majority of us it is hard to tell exactly where we come from and we simply decide to be part of the “raceless” bunch.

The most recent national census, done in 2005, asked about ethnicity, rather than about race. In it, 3.43% of the country’s population identified as “indigenous,” 10.62% as “afro-Colombian” and 85.94% as “without ethnicity” (and 0.01% as “Rom”, which is a whole other story). It is hard to speak about racism in such a place where “race” and “ethnicity” are, largely, not a concept. Modern Colombia lacks the vocabulary for it. “Race,” “ethnicity” and “racism” are things that only apply to others, to that periphery I mentioned before, to those who are not part of that “mixed country.”

It is telling that this ad was published in Cali, the third most populated city in the country and, among the top three (which includes Bogotá and Medellín), by far the one with the biggest black population. As it sits on the Western edge of the Colombian Andes, Cali is just a few hours drive from the country’s Pacific Coast, where most freed slaves decided to settle, and where most of Colombia’s black population is concentrated. It is the first choice for many young black people who want to get a college education, or a chance of a better job. This is somewhere in Colombia where the “mixed country” interacts daily with those people who have an “ethnicity”, where the phrase “white skin” makes some sense, where it means “not black”.

Also telling are the arguments used by Dr. Guarín for his defense. “I am not a racist”, he said, “I asked for those requirements because that is what my partners from Bogotá asked me to do”. We are supposed to disregard the fact that this doctor published a racist ad because people in Bogotá–where there is very little presence of both black and native people–told him to do it, and they don’t understand these things, you see?

He went on to say: “I even have friends who are ‘morenos’.”  Not “black”, but “morenos.” It literally means “dark-skinned.” It is not a race or an ethnicity, but just a state of being. When you get tanned, for instance, you become a bit more “moreno.” Sure, you can call black people “morenos,” as they have dark skin, but calling them such devoids them of their racial identity, it places them in the “mixed country,” where racism is meaningless.

That the newsmedia of the country acknowledged that there was something wrong with this ad was a step forward into truly dealing with our discrimination. Nonetheless, El País didn’t hesitate to publish such a thing, nor did it acknowledged any wrongdoing while reporting the story. For now, it seems that the mainstream media (and therefore, the majority of the population) believes that racism is just a problem of a “few bad apples”.

Yet, as more and more black and native artists, musicians, actors, athletes and writers start to become part of the general consciousness, hopefully, we can find a way to truly talk about in the mainstream media about Colombia’s discrimination.

The Redemption Trope in South African Cinema

Come Back Africa (dir. Lionel Rogosin), Mapantsula (dir. Oliver Schmitz) and Tsotsi (dir. Gavin Hood) mark three distinct eras in South African cinema. The oldest of the three, Come Back Africa, shot secretly in the late 1950s, shows the routine violence of the apartheid state. The viewer experiences the monotony of social exclusion through the life of Zachariah, a man displaced by rural economic hardship and forced to find work in Johannesburg. The director, through his clandestine approach, captures the apartheid city functioning as intended. Surplus black labor swirls amidst menial jobs in mines, restaurants and luxurious homes. The white faces are appropriately villainous, spitting racial epithets and enjoying the social and economic privileges of apartheid rule. By the 1980s, the unmooring had begun. The Johannesburg of Mapantsula is more chaotic and uncertain. Viewers are introduced to Panic, a petty criminal, turned possible police informant. Apartheid is presented as untenable, as protests erupt in the townships and jails swell with political prisoners. If the fall of apartheid is anticipated in Mapantsula, the uncertainties of the post-apartheid state are captured in Tsotsi’s ambivalence about the new trajectory of the “rainbow nation.” In Tsotsi, black urban wealth exists alongside the poverty of black townships, and the gatekeepers of privilege are no longer exclusively white. While differences among these films abound, they are unified by tropes of redemption enacted through the figure of a black, male anti-hero. I conceive of redemption as a move toward personal salvation, attempting to right perceived wrongs or failings. In what follows, I demonstrate how concepts of redemption found in these films are implicated in the wider national history of South Africa.

Come Back Africa opens with a series of movements, bodies moving here and there, in and out of shadows. This opening is apt for the narrative arc of the film. The protagonist, Zachariah, embodies the perils of movement under apartheid. At the start of the film, Zachariah is forced by drought from his home in the countryside. He leaves his wife and children to find work in Johannesburg. This forced migration leads Zachariah to various jobs, including as a mine worker, a housekeeper and a waiter. Through a series of mishaps instigated by racial antagonism, Zachariah is forced to move from job to job. But the work is low paying and often hard to come by. Zachariah also lives in constant fear of being arrested for having insufficient working papers. Despite these events, Zachariah continues to see work as his path to salvation. Here, work is not merely about material survival—though that is important. Work emerges as a way to rationalize one’s position, and it is linked to ideas about redemption. Zachariah aims to redeem himself as the provider for his family through work, and he continues to promise his wife that life will be better once he finds a steady job. Indeed, Zachariah’s aversion to his wife taking a job reveals the way work acts as a means for him to redeem his masculinity. However, the mechanisms of apartheid have stacked the odds against him, and Zachariah’s attempts to find long-term employment are continually thwarted. Zachariah’s unrelenting faith in the redemptive power of work demonstrates how the processes of apartheid were rendered livable. In this environment, the daily grind of attempting to secure work routinizes life. Here, visions of salvation are contracted, as concerns about the next pay check transform into attachments to fleeting moments of stability. The black apartheid subject is redeemed by (making apartheid) work.


Historian and philosopher David Theo Goldberg describes aspects of this lived experience of apartheid in “A Political Theology of Race (On Racial Southafricanization).” Goldberg describes the period following the 1948 codification of apartheid laws as one of perceived triumph (“triomf”) for the Afrikaner regime (300).

The apartheid government succeeded in compartmentalizing nearly every aspect of black life and it rendered social exclusion commonsensical and livable. For Zachariah, the consummate 1950s black apartheid subject, redemption is ultimately elusive. Two scenes in the film underscore this point. The first moment occurs when Zachariah encounters a group of South African intellectuals and activists in a bar. Their conversation begins to broaden his understanding of the intricacies of life under apartheid. This scene is supposed to be a moment of politicization, where Zachariah discovers the merits of the struggle. However, the director does not take the obvious trajectory here. Zachariah does not join the would-be revolutionaries, and he does not dive headlong into the anti-apartheid movement. His response is more subtle and representative of the 1950s time period. Zachariah speaks of an innate feeling that activists’ words have resonance for his life. He says, “I don’t understand, but I like it.” The concluding scene of the film is where the trope of work as redemption is irrevocably severed. Zachariah’s wife is murdered after a violent altercation with a fellow township resident. When Zachariah returns home, he is distraught. His final cries of anguish, which conclude the film, reveal the pervasive cycles of violence birthed by apartheid—all are affected, even those who attempt to find avenues to make apartheid livable. Ultimately, Zachariah’s efforts to make apartheid work, to essentially play by the rules of the system, do little to protect his family. His vulnerabilities as an “everyman” are exposed as the film closes.

Mapantsula also shatters the image of apartheid as a workable system. Set in the late 1980s, the film follows Panic, an anti-hero engaged in a life of petty crime, while the city of Johannesburg and the surrounding townships convulse around him. Panic spends his days robbing white South Africans and his nights drinking in the local bars. His life is essentially adrift, with little purpose or direction. Yet, the residents of his township are growing increasingly militant, engaging in violent standoffs with police forces. Goldberg describes this period of apartheid’s denouement as one of widespread political action with growing support for the outlawed African National Congress. Mapantsula illustrates this moment in South African history. Temporally, the film is disjointed and it is told through flashbacks of Panic’s life. Eventually, the viewer learns that Panic has been arrested following a protest in the township. State police attempt to obtain information about the unrest from Panic because of his previous involvement as a police informant. Throughout the film, police officers alternate between cajoling and threatening Panic. Like Come Back Africa, the momentum of Mapantsula builds to its final scene. After unending torment, Panic refuses to cooperate with the police. This scene is by extension a refusal to honor the legitimacy of the apartheid state. Panic’s form of redemption is very different from Zachariah’s. Mapantsula’s anti-hero is redeemed through a commitment to the struggling collective. Unlike the wailing Zachariah, the Panic of Mapantsula’s final scene is stoic and resolved. He has left the petty-mindedness of temporary gain and has allied himself with a quest for liberation.

The reorientation of Panic is indicative of Goldberg’s assessment of how the changing political tide of the 1980s brought together groups of unlikely allies. The trope of redemption found in Mapantsula maps onto popular narratives about the nature of South Africa’s revolutionary struggle. The morality of the movement is positioned as so strong that it had the power to transform even the “amoral” characters in South African society. There is something faintly biblical about how the story of Panic is told, where the film’s protagonist emerges as the wayward son who eventually comes home to the nation. This narrative mirrors larger discourse about the ANC itself. In its decades long struggle to end apartheid, the ANC assumed a mythic character. It was positioned as the literal and figurative savior of South Africa. Similarities between the figure of Panic and ideas about the ANC are also linked to the subjective position of the criminal in South African historical memory. Prominent members of the ANC were jailed and declared criminals by the state, yet they were eventually absolved by the righteousness of their cause. Similarly, Panic’s previous sins are figuratively forgiven at the moment he decides to defy the state and support the cause of liberation. Thus, if Come Back Africa ends on a note of despair, then Mapantsula ends on a note of hopefulness. The path forward is presented as clear, and in Panic, the promise of the nation is represented by a black subject redeemed through political consciousness.


The political overtures of Tsotsi are more subdued than in the other two films. This is perhaps appropriate for a film that considers what Goldberg calls “apartheid’s afterlife.” The title character is a criminal, like Panic, however, unlike the latter, Tsotsi’s targets are primarily black. Set in the mid-2000s, the film highlights an era of black access following the disassembling of formal apartheid structures. But, as Goldberg’s characterization suggests, exclusion and social stratification live on. In the film, Tsotsi steals a car from a wealthy black couple and finds himself in possession of their infant son. Tsotsi soon grows attached to the child, which reminds him of his own tormented childhood. Tsotsi is eventually redeemed through his affection for the child, and he attempts to make amends with those he has wronged in life. Though the state is largely absent from this film, the narrative of the nation is once again told through the story of a black, male figure. The baby in Tsotsi’s care becomes a symbol for the promise of what the nation could be, and that discovery is what ultimately saves Tsotsi from his life of crime.

However, the onus for change in Tsotsi seems misplaced. If, as Goldberg argues, the structures of apartheid persist through institutions like healthcare, housing and employment, personal redemption is insufficient to stem the tide of dispossession. (Goldberg refers to this as the “spiraling apartheid of class.”) Tsotsi is somewhat successful in its representation of class fissures in contemporary South Africa. The world of the couple whose baby is taken is far removed from that of Tsotsi, his family and friends. Scenes of their large house replete with expensive wares and topnotch security are juxtaposed with imagery of Tsotsi’s small township shack. Yet, it is the latter, not the former, who must seek redemption and better himself. The narrative of the film suggests that waywardness of Tsotsi’s life is the product of mere circumstance and a structural critique is noticeably absent.

A type of liberal, self-help ethos is present throughout the film, and this is reflective of the current era in South Africa. In her article, “Liberal or Liberation Framework? The Contradictions of ANC Rule in South Africa,” political scientist Krista Johnson describes the post-apartheid environment as one dominated by forces of Western capital and hegemonic neoliberalism (200). The push toward privatization in many aspects of life also facilitates a climate of personal responsibility. Despite its strengths as a film, Tsotsi falls prey to this type of thinking. Thus, in the film’s climatic closing scene, Tsotsi returns to give the stolen baby back to the couple. He is scared and frightened, as police cars surround him. Yet, the sacrifice is portrayed as worth it. Tsotsi has seen the errors of his ways and he stands ready to accept whatever punishment is meted out by the state. For their part, the wealthy couple is largely silent. Again, their status and privilege is unquestioned in the film. Tsotsi is the one who must redeem his life. This disavowal of imbedded structures of power and privilege and the film’s unwillingness to engage questions of political circumstance weaken its overall effectiveness. However, both these weaknesses do much to locate the film within a very specific moment in South Africa, full of uncertainty about how to address the lingering apparitions of apartheid.

All three films contribute to a better understanding of South African history and politics. Viewing these films attuned to tropes of redemption further demonstrates how the nation has been conceptualized at different moments. During the 1950s of Come Back Africa, the state has consolidated power, marking the boundaries of social and political belonging, while also restricting the freedom of movement for certain populations. This moment of triumph for the apartheid regime is represented by the life of Zachariah, a displaced laborer. For Zachariah, work becomes the mechanism through which he can craft of life under the constraints of racial terror. For most of the film, his attachments do not extend beyond this limited scope of finding a job. Yet, the film’s conclusion demonstrates the folly of this thinking. The murder of Zachariah’s wife highlights the prevalence of violence, the unworkability of a system that demonizes people, robs them of their humanity and redirects animosity toward their fellow sufferers. For 1950s South Africa, redemption remains elusive. The world of Mapantsula in the 1980s is more hopeful, if also more chaotic. Apartheid is no longer able to function and the path toward liberation is increasingly clear. In this moment, even criminals are swept up in the fervor. Panic’s refusal to cooperate with state forces speaks to a local and global refusal of apartheid’s continuation. Thus, Panic emerges as a redeemed figure. He leaves a self-centered life of personal gain and becomes part of a collective uprising. The hopefulness was not meant to last, though. By the dawn of the 21st century, formal apartheid was gone, but vestiges remained. In Tsotsi, issues of class are brought to the forefront, with black comfort existing alongside black misery. However, the film falls into a cynical trap of liberal self-help. Tsotsi does not have a movement or a cause through which to discover a path toward redemption; all he has is a baby. The baby, as a representation of what the nation could be, leads Tsotsi to personal salvation but not liberation. South Africa is left as a nation of possibility with no clear path forward.

James Matthews being James Matthews

The film, Diaries of a Dissident Poet, follows poet James Matthews around Cape Town, tracking him during a year, from his 83rd to 84th birthday. It opens with a small celebration of his 83rd at the District Six Homecoming Centre in (downtown Cape Town) and moves on to scenes of him in conversation or banter with various people – among others, the journalist Roger Friedman at Oryx Multimedia, photographer George Hallett, and singer Melanie Scholtz, who has set some of Matthews’s poetry to music (Freedom’s Child, 2013). There are also scenes of him talking to camera and to the (off-screen) director at various locations–outside his house in Silvertown, Athlone or outside the house where he was born in the Bo-Kaap. We also see Matthews read poetry to pensioners at a church or walk down his street with a small bag of groceries.

In line with its title, the film is loosely structured and we follow the subject in his day-to-day activities: weight lifting in the mornings (Matthews, true to form, shows off that he can flex his pectoral muscles with the best of them), getting ready to attend a graduation ceremony at the University of the Western Cape where he will receive an honorary doctorate, listening along with Scholtz to pre-masters of their musical collaboration.

The film satisfies the observational demands of its diarist format in that it is generally set in intimate spaces. Not only are there shots tracking Matthews through his house or shots of him sunning himself bare-chested in his garden, but the banter between Matthews and Friedman, and between Matthews and Hallett, shows the poet at ease in familiar surroundings and what appears to be intimate social relationships (Hallett and Matthews know each other from at least the early 1960s).

James Matthews is a worthy subject for documentary film. His biography as an early Black Consciousness poet, with the distinction of authoring the first collection of poetry to be banned by apartheid censors (Cry Rage! co-authored with Gladys Thomas; published 1972, banned 1973); several following books banned, months-long detention in 1976; his endeavors, along Black Consciousness lines of self-reliance, to publish his and others’ writing himself with his founding of BLAC publishers; and opening an art gallery, etcetera, all this make him a subject worth exploring. And, in the popular imagination of those with an interest in South African culture, Matthews is a legend of sorts. A documentary film about him is thus welcome. But perhaps the film is overawed by that very legend and the diary or observational form leaves the viewer feeling that there is something missing.

The interest inherent in the diary form typically comes from the promise of revelation it holds for the viewer who may already be familiar with the subject. We hope that seeing the subject going about normal, day-to-day activities will reveal something about the subject not to be found in potted biographies or word-of-mouth legend. We hope, in short, to see the subject in a new light.

For anyone familiar with even just the touchstones of Matthews’s biography, Diaries unfortunately holds back. While Hallett and Friedman rag Matthews as a “sell-out” for accepting, respectively, an honorary doctorate and a government honor (the Order of Ikhamanga, Silver, 2004), this is only an intimacy of sorts – a familiarity – between friends. For those familiar with the Matthews legend, the kind of bantering between him and friends reveals nothing new about the character. We see James Matthews being James Matthews.

Where there is an opportunity to be properly diarist, the film holds back. Early on, Matthews is in a three-way conversation with the (off-screen) filmmaker and another man (rough cut, no subtitles) over the photograph of a woman, Elizabeth Bruce, a photograph presumably from a funeral program because it includes birth and death dates (1931-2004). The opening question is badly cut: “[Is jy nog] steeds lief vir haar?” ([Do you] still love her?). One presumes that Bruce was his wife or partner. Matthews clearly doesn’t want to talk about it in any specific detail. “Nee,” he says, “I tell you, what was done, is done. It took a lot of pain, but it’s done.” He repeats this disavowal seconds later when the third person contradicts him. And here I feel the film misses an opportunity, as diary, to go beyond popular legend and official literary biography. Was Elizabeth Bruce his wife? Did they have children? How long were they married? Was there a painful separation?

My sense is that, for those familiar with Matthews’s biography – whether intimately or only in broad strokes – the film works only in that we see what we already know. It doesn’t probe the subject, but remains at a respectful distance. When, for instance, Matthews insists that the honorary doctorate or the Order of Ikhamanga was awarded not “for the poetry as such… [but] for what I had done in the struggle”, he is not asked to elaborate. If it’s not for his poetry – and other cultural activities – what does he mean it’s for what he had done during the struggle. It’s an accepted literary commonplace that anti-apartheid cultural activity – writing a poem, designing a poster – contributed to “the struggle”. Anyone familiar with any of the poets of the 1970s and 1980s writing anti-apartheid poetry accepts that these writers fulfilled social and psychological roles. But it would be good to have a more specific sense of how one of these writers saw that contribution.

The overall effect is that the legend that is James Matthews does not appear in sharper relief, nor is it bolstered. Sometimes the legend is in fact undercut. When Matthews reflects on his younger days, during which, apparently, he was a hell-raiser, there is a sense of deflation: he and his friends go to a party, steal bread, cheese and wine, and leave. Another example is when he falls into a drunken sleep while appearing in a panel discussion at a literary event (Matthews has long ago stopped drinking). It may be true that at the time this behavior may have been considered “disastrous”, to use Matthews’s description, but it doesn’t appear particularly scandalous.

Roger Friedman refers to an occasion where Matthews was escorted from a venue for standing up and heckling or swearing at Abdullah Ibrahim at the latter legend’s homecoming concert. Here again I would have liked to find out more. Why was one Cape Town legend, for all intents and purposes on the same side of the anti-apartheid struggle as his target, heckling another? Was there personal animus behind the heckling? Or was it one motivated by a tension between exiles and those artists and activists who stayed in South Africa?

In addition to leaving the viewer curious, an unintended side effect is that Matthews fades from focus rather than being brought into more focus. A shot of him reading with cello accompaniment captures this when the camera pans from Matthews to the cellist while he is reading – we hear his voice, but he slides off the screen.

The diarist format of Diaries of a Dissident Poet is thus not exploited in the manner one expects and it becomes a film for insiders, who may be happy with seeing or recognizing the legend on the screen. (Matthews is a very photogenic subject.) For such viewers, vital moments in the film – heckling Abdullah Ibrahim, the place of Elizabeth Bruce – may need no explaining. For viewers with only a broad familiarity of Matthews through publications and word-of-mouth legend, the film falls short. No new knowledge or insights into the biography or character of the subject is on offer. And for viewers unfamiliar with Matthews or his work, the film does not explain its own interest: it does not provide a reason, say, as to why the film exists.

Barry intends the film as some form of archival work – that is, as archive creation. In I Am Woman (available on Youtube) she refers to her film on Matthews, in production at the time:

I’m more interested in being with my camera in an intimate space, telling the stories of artists. That’s what I’m interested in because it’s archive and it’s archive that we need to have; we need to remember our artists, they’re important, they’re our historians who see things through a different lens … I’m making … a film on the poet James Matthews …

Traditionally, archival material is a by-product of other activities – bureaucracy, a writer’s drafts, the rushes and rough cuts of a filmmaker. “Archive” is a label we apply retrospectively to documentation that we (might) find useful for other reasons long after the primary intentions for such documentation have disappeared. Material that has served its primary purpose may find a different use that is both secondary (to its original purpose) and primary (for a new purpose).

How does one intend something to be archival? In what way might this film be archival? Is it a primary or secondary document? How might a researcher, 50 years hence, look on it as primary archival source? How might this film, as archival source, serve to help us to remember our artists? What kind of memory might that be?

It may be that by setting her vision on some future, indefinable use of the film – by prospectively intending it as archive – the filmmaker has allowed a possible present and primary reason for its existence shift from view. That is, why should we remember and pay homage to Matthews. Why is it important to remember him?

While the answer to this question may be self-evident to insiders, it is not argued in the film. There is the commendation read at the graduation ceremony, but this too is short-hand and not an exposition by the film. The interest in Matthews is thus left unexplained; our reason for having to remember him is thus unavailable to that future researcher digging around our literary archive.

Photo Credit: Victor Dlamini.

What is happening to Mombasa, Kenya?

Historically known for a relaxed pace of life, Mombasa on Kenya’s coast has also been a regional hub for business, trade and tourism. Its population is diverse; recent figures indicate the city is divided between Christians and Muslims (59% and 41%, respectively), with one-third of inhabitants also originating from outside of the region. Along with its diversity, Mombasa has also been associated with experiences of everyday tolerance.

In the past year, this seems to be changing. Mombasa has come under particular scrutiny with reports of a police raid on a mosque and the incarceration of more than 100 youth, targeted killings of prominent Muslims leaders, shooting in a local church, heightened international travel advisories, and the evacuation of tourists by UK-based tour operators.

Serious attempts to understand recent events require attention to local differences and how they shape unrest. I suggest there are three broad differences that must be considered.

First, religion. Kenya is predominantly Christian, but Mombasa is situated in a region where the dominant way of life appears intimately bound to Islam.

Second, place of origin. Place and identity are closely linked in Kenya. Mombasa is part of the ‘home’ areas of coastal ethnic groups, controversial due to land ownership by those originating from outside the region. However, the city challenges discourses of autochthony, with a growing number of inhabitants from ‘upcountry’ Kenya, but whose birthplace, occupation and children belong to Mombasa.

Third, ethnicity. While arguably dynamic and negotiable, ethnicity remains an organising principle for political contest in Kenya, as people perceive that the benefits of political office follow ethnic lines.

Through recent events, these differences have not provided for the emergence of clearly defined victims and perpetrators. Muslims identify disadvantage within a national context dominated by Christians, reinforced by targeted anti-terrorism efforts. Christians in Mombasa perceive disadvantage in a region dominated by Muslim politicians. Coastal ethnic groups see themselves as continually marginal in national political and economic structures, while ethnic groups constituting the national ruling coalition find they are a minority in the region.

There is a sobering potential for different explanations of insecurity to resonate in ways that enable multiple groups to identify as victims. This is particularly concerning as identities converge into broader fault lines, for example, Christian and upcountry versus Muslim and coastal, producing captivating, simplistic narratives of persecution.

While stability does require addressing direct causes and conditions of violence, both internal and external, it also hinges on the popular narratives that define disadvantage, and shape people’s willingness to speak and act. Competing views of disadvantage point to a pressing need for action by those in positions of power: action that acknowledges multiple differences that resonate locally; action that presents a transparent and just response to insecurity across these differences; and action that values and upholds the right to life and security of all denizens of Mombasa.

The winners and losers of the platinum strike in South Africa

On January 23 this year the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), a firebrand breakaway of the COSATU-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), took an estimated 50,000 mineworkers to the plateaus of Rustenburg to demand a R12,500 (about US$1,250) basic salary.

For months – without pay, their families going hungry and their spirits waning – the workers were assiduous. While the mining companies were spurting money, they too were not budging.

Five months later, the workers are estimated to have lost between R42,501 and R52,000 in pay. The business journalist Alec Hogg argues that it will take workers over a decade to recover this amount. The mining firms, on the other hand, are estimated to have lost between R11 billion and north of R24 billion, depending on who you ask.

On Monday 23 June, the workers and firms announced that they had reached agreement and clinched a 3 year deal. The two lowest bands of categories will receive a R1 000 increase for the first three years. Other categories will receive between 7.5% and 8%; benefits and allowances will be fixed or rise with inflation.

A question many are asking is who won the five-month and 26-day battle?

Critics of Amcu (and labour in general) have weighed, calling the deal a “hallow victory” for Amcu (hint: a loss). Mr Hogg, for example, points out that: on January 29, six days into the strike, “the mining companies offered increases of between 7.5% and 9% with the higher figure tagged for the lowest paid workers. This offer, incidentally, was increased on April 17 to between 7.5% and 10%. If [Amcu] had accepted the offer received six days into the strike, the lowest paid worker’s monthly earnings would have increased by that 9%, or R644, to R7 798.”

According to Mr Hogg, the difference between the offer made by mining firms in January and the offer accepted five months later is a meagre R356.

In my view, any analysis of the gains and losses made by workers on purely financial terms will be insufficient, if not utterly flawed.

While one could properly quantify the losses and the meagre, almost negligible, economic benefits of Amcu’s exercise, the extra-financial gains are weightier and more significant. The answer to the question ‘who won’ requires some digression.

In 1912 the South African Native National Congress – now African National Congress – was founded to “address the just grievances of the black people” with the Union Government. Shortly, in 1913, the Native Land Act was promulgated, further aggravating situation. Natives were rendered landless pariahs in their country of birth. More policies were written and laws passed which further alienated natives. In 1948 the voting minority gave green light to a more brutal regime, entrenching race-based discrimination, repression and economic exclusion.

In 1955 the Congress of the People agreed to draft a Freedom Charter. That too did not help. Instead of making concessions, the regime tightened its noose. It offered black South Africans a deal: to leave South Africa and gain independence in homelands. Liberation fighters rejected this deal and opted, instead, to intensify the struggle. They were either killed or thrown into jail, where many spent between 10 and 27 years.

In 1990, after scores of the movement’s members had been thrown in jail, tortured or slaughtered by the regime, the movement agreed to a deal. To any observer, the deal was a loss for the movement. The demands for land, for nationalisation or common ownership of strategic sectors, which had been at the centre struggle, were stacked off. For a short while the newly-formed democratic government even went to bed with the apartheid regime in a “Government of National Unity”.

With the economy in the hands of apartheid beneficiaries (white and some black), the apartheid status quo of economic, social and cultural exclusion persists. Black South Africans remain wanting in rural areas, outside the economic epicentre. Basic services – like education, clean water and health infrastructure – remain concentrated in former “white areas”. Blacks must thus assimilate themselves into social, political and economic cultures. Except, this time, they do it for carrots and not to avoid sticks. Twenty years after democracy, many still ask who won the 82-year battle.

The answer is, in my view, more complex than demand versus gain. While (black) South Africans attained very of little their social, cultural and economic demands, their bargaining position has improved considerably. As equal citizens in a democratic republic – even if as poor as church mice – we wield significant political power and socio-cultural potential. The constitutional settlement negotiated between 1990 and 1996 is a springboard on which we can launch ourselves to a better deal –– that is if we try hard enough.

Comparably, mineworkers are in a terrible bargaining position. For centuries mines have been the driving force behind the South African economy, with cheap (migrant) labour as the engine. The system of race-based oppression was constructed, partly, to keep black mineworkers outside the economic epicentre.

Further, economic laws of supply and demand dictate that mineworkers (who are in oversupply) are disposable.

The bargaining position of mineworkers is further weakened by the alliance between labour and the government. Leaders of COSATU often capitulate under government pressure and give in to “market demands”. The government and the market are synonymous, which makes labour subservient. This is where the Amcu strike comes in.

Having persisted for 5 months, and made it out alive, workers have made their biggest show of strength since 1949. They have also reduced the platinum stockpiles which serve as a cushion for mining firms. This is a benefit of the strike which is not measurable through economic models.

The strike serves an even greater purpose for Amcu (and labour in general). It has solidified support and showcased Amcu’s tenacity under pressure. Because Amcu is apolitical (and thus does not have the support of the tripartite alliance or the government), the strike was driven purely by workers for workers’ interest. This should increase Amcu’s support base.

The strike is the start of a new era in South African labour politics. COSATU has been plagued by infighting. The interests of labour appear to be taking the backseat as the rank and file of the alliance scrambles for political power and government positions.

Amcu, on the other hand, is an outlier. By rejecting politics, it found a niche in workers who are less bothered by who is the president of the day. These workers are concerned with their own interests –– the politics of bread.

This makes Amcu a wildcard, which is why market-minded academics, pundits and other political players were against the strike. “The market” takes comfort in knowing that the ANC-led government has control over the labour movement. Very often, the government will intervene and labour backs off. This was impossible with Amcu because it does not have a stake in government. If Amcu had succeeded, it would have further eroded ANC support by uniting workers outside the alliance’s reach.

The fact is Amcu came out stronger, with the trust and support of workers. The union showed potential members and supporters that it was single-minded and capable of withstanding national and international pressure. The government, which is usually in the deep pockets of tax-forking mine bosses, has also awoken to the potential power of a united worker front.

Amcu is the clear winner! While it may be true that workers made an economic loss that may take years to recoup, they have also made significant political gains. These gains are a springboard for future shows of strength and they improve the bargaining position of organised labour in the country.

Whether the Amcu will grab the opportunity to consolidate its gains by unifying and rallying worker outside of the alliance is the first question we should ask. The second is whether it will resist the urge of politics, and thus remain independent and incorruptible, at least politically.

* Photo Credit: Siphiwe Sibeko.

White Schools in postapartheid South Africa

It’s a little over two decades ago that South Africa’s Whites Only schools began to ‘welcome’ Black students (African, Coloured and Indian) students into their classrooms. Guided by the official principles of multiculturalism and equality, many a White teacher witnessed his or her classroom diversify. In response, many of them adopted the rhetoric of ‘color blindness.’

Ever since, the media has exposed various incidents that showed that (surprise) color-blindness was neither real, nor desirable. Race, it turned out, was quite a real thing in the average Rainbow classroom. Examples of violent incidents abound.

In 1999, the country’s Human Rights Commission, for example, raised alarm bells about widespread physical violence and death threats faced by black newcomers in formerly white public schools. Later, a bunch of white Limpopo parents literally barricaded their school gates. More recently, one teacher in Bloemfontein was suspended for using the racist “Kaffir” slur (the South African equivalent for “Nigger”). Another white teacher compared black people to demons. Late last month the Human Rights Commission announced that it was wrapping up its investigation of another school in Bloemfontein, where teachers not only called pupils baboons and monkeys, but also told them to go back to their township schools instead.

Pupils at the school in Bloemfontein said teachers told them to go back to the black schools in the townships because their parents could not afford to pay school fees, and that they would never succeed in life and would end up like their parents who work in chain stores.

The ways in which white parents (through governing bodies) and schools’ leadership structures resist racial integration and uphold white superiority in former white schools is one of those things that everybody knows about and only a few will deny or talk about. A 2010 study on South Africans’ attitudes to social integration in schools observed: “It is widely believed that not many white parents feel comfortable letting their children share the same school with children of other races, especially African children.”

In most former white schools, however, racial hierarchies are not so much maintained and reproduced by the extreme physical, vile and verbal kinds of violence that we encounter as ‘incidents’ in the media. Instead, white superiority is more commonly inscribed on students’ identities in more subtle, implicit and ‘every day’ ways, through race, class, language, hair, style, culture, sports as well as by the refusal to hire more Black teachers. It’s the type of assimilative push towards whiteness, a symbolic kind of violence, which may be more difficult to recognize as a human rights issue, but one that’s institutional and that affects thousands of Black South African children every day. Yet compared to the ‘baboon’ and ‘barricade’ type of racism, you got to dig much deeper to read about the experiences and effects of symbolic violence.  What it feels like when your mother-tongue is forbidden, your culture fetishized or when your hair style and accent deemed too Black. Or what it’s like when you know your teacher considers you less smart than you are, just because maths (in your second or third language) takes you a tad longer to digest.

When white middle class superiority is woven into the fabric of the institutions, you can hardly blame white students for adopting similar attitudes. In this 2004 study by Battersby, one Black student lamented that:

there are certain, few black kids that are accepted by the white kids in this school. You know what I’m saying? And the rest are just another black kid that you walk past in the passage, that you don’t give a damn about. And no one says it, but it’s just there. And no one will say it.

And in this 2010 study, Ndlangamandla quotes a student as saying

the fact that eh, only one Indian person is doing Zulu in the … is really bugging me because you know, eh, a lot of black people are doing Afrikaans. We are trying to adapt to eh, white people’s ways, but they don’t wanna learn something new or learn our language and that makes me feel bad, because I am proud to be African, you know.

As the sociologist Crain Soudien argued in his 2012 book, without other forms of support, students are likely to leave such assimilationist environments “with feelings of alienation and discomfort.”

More books and studies on the topic can be found here, here and here.

* Photo Credit: Hasan Wazan.

The World War One in Africa Project: What happened in Africa should not stay in Africa

For the next four years, the world is celebrating the Centenary of World War I,  and once again Africa is not invited to the party.

The story of Africans’ involvement in the Great War is unheard of outside of academia, and thus remains to be told: the tens of thousands of African lives lost at home and abroad, defending the interests of foreign powers and the lives of complete strangers; the forced recruitment of African soldiers to fight Europe’s war, and of African workers to replace the labour force gone to the front; the battles between colonies pitting Africans against each other on their own soil; the reshaping of Africa’s borders and inner workings after the war under new rulers.

It was supposed to be the “war to end war” and yet, by the proxy of colonial empires, it created war where no one cared for it, dragging an estimated two million Africans into the conflict, originating from Algeria to South Africa. Such bitter irony is lost on today’s France, Britain, Germany, Belgium and Portugal, all colonial powers who sat at the Berlin conference in 1885 to finalise the scramble for Africa.

Not only are the commemorations of the First World War becoming resolutely local, but the colour of memory remains essentially white. Even the small steps taken to remember the role of former colonies, like this year’s invitation to African troops to take part in the Bastille Day celebrations, amount to mere pats on the back for spilling their blood obediently.


The reality of World War I in Africa is messier. As early as September 1914, Britain faced a rebellion from some 12,000 of its own South African troops, Afrikaners for whom the Second Boer War remained an open wound, who went on to proclaim a free South African republic, some of them even joining forces with the Germans. And though France praised itself for being able to count on its “Black Force“, it faced significant resistance throughout the recruitment campaigns, which culminated in the Volta-Bani revolt where things escalated into an all-out anti-colonial war in 1915-16.

Yet when looking into Africa’s involvement in World War I, the draft of African soldiers constitute the smaller end of the telescope. Throughout the East Africa campaign, the longest and deadliest part of the war on the continent by far, both Britain and Germany relied heavily on porters, to the tune of four per one soldier. This translated into one million Africans under British command carrying, cooking, cleaning, and dying of exhaustion, malnutrition and disease, in a guerrilla war of short raids and long treks from present-day Kenya to Zambia over the course of four years.

Europe’s 20th century started in 1914, and the yoke of colonialism steered Africa along for the ride. Migration trends were set, economies transformed, borders redefined. The task we’ve given ourselves is to dig this heritage out: not to commemorate its passing, but to restore its meaning. We claim no expertise as we aim to educate ourselves as much as we hope to teach others. In light of current zeitgeists — a morbid obsession with the past in Europe and an unfeigned disdain for anything but the future in Africa — we believe the Centenary to be a fertile common ground for investigating the present. The next four years represent a window of opportunity to connect the dots and discuss the knots, to challenge the boilerplate narrative and change the usual narrators. Let’s unpack what the world thinks it knows, and put what it should not ignore right under its nose.

Join us on Twitter, on Facebook and on our website.

* Photo Credit:  Sar Amadou, Wolof class of 1900, Seventh regiment of Senegalese Tirailleurs, June 1917 (by Paul Castelnou)

It may be time to drop the ‘world music’ label (and The Brother Moves On has something to say about it)

Last week the second Cape Town World Music Festival (CTWMF) took place, and warmed up a very cold and wet “Mother City” weekend. The notoriously lax Cape Town audience (myself included) got out from under our duvets to check out some of the best bands in South Africa, as well as some international acts, such as Malian guitar maestro Vieux Farka Toure and US singer/ songwriter The Mynabirds.

The festival has had a few ideological bumps in the road to its success. In 2011 the Israeli embassy provided airfare for Israeli artist Boom Pam to fly to the festival, which resulted in much criticism and a call from Palestinian solidarity group BDS South Africa to boycott. Luckily CTWMF seems to have cut ties with the Israeli embassy, which is good. The festival itself, held at Cape Town’s beautiful city hall, was well received by all who attended. However, on another note, we need to ask, why use the dated term “world music” for such a progressive and inclusive lineup?

Acclaimed Johannesburg-based band/performing arts collective The Brother Moves On performed a much- anticipated and moving set on the first night of CTWMF.  Near the end of their show they commented on the term world music. Lead vocalist Siyabonga Mthembu addressed the audience, questioning the legitimacy of the term. Guitarist Zelizwe Mthembu, Siya’s cousin, expressed his disdain in our video interview: “The term world music has taken a whole lot of genres and placed them under one category… you can’t do that!” He was quick to add however, that the festival organizers had put together an amazing lineup, and because of that they could call the festival whatever they want.

The term itself originated in Western academia. Ethnomusicologist Steven Feld writes in his essay “A Sweet Lullaby for World Music” that the term was first circulated in the 60s by academics as a friendlier, less cumbersome alternative to ethnomusicology, which referred to the study of non-Western music and the “musics of ethnic minorities.” Although its mission was liberal and inclusive, Feld writes that this reinscribed a binary which separated musicology from ethnolomusicology, the West from the rest: “The relationship of the colonizing and the colonized thus remained generally intact in distinguishing music from world music.

The 1980s and 1990s saw a proliferation of Western artists collaborating with and drawing samples from artists from the third world, such as Paul Simon and Peter Byrne. This often perpetuated the global power structures that colour the relationships of the West from the rest. In “Sweet Lullaby for World Music,” Feld writes about how The Grammy Award winning Deep Forest sampled a UNESCO Solomon Islands recording in which a woman named Afunakwa sang a lullaby called “Rorogwela.”  The recordist, Hugo Zemp never gave his consent, let alone the singer Afunakwa, and the song became highly lucrative, even appearing in commercials for Coca Cola and Porsche. Because of legal loopholes and the recording being labeled as “oral tradition,” Deep Forest and their record label legally owed nothing to the original sources of their hit. The lullaby eventually became sampled again by Kenny G-esque Norwegian artist Jan Garbarek, who misidentified the song as Central African and named his smooth jazz version “Pygmy Lullaby.


We have to conclude that the term world music is at best dated, and at worst problematic. So, CTWMF, perhaps its time to drop the word world from your title? Cape Town Music Festival has a nicer ring to it. Why clump together the maskandi of Madala Kunene, the experimental afro-rock of the Brother Moves On and the electronic kwaito of Okmalumkoolkat under this contentious label and continue Western classifications of ethnic others on our own soil? In all fairness, the festival audience didn’t seem to be bothered, but perhaps that speaks to a general Eurocentric attitude which pervades in the administrative passageways and cultural hubs of the Mother City.

Photo Credit: Kent Lingeveldt.

Tanzania and the Palestinian Struggle

The current conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has once again brought to the forefront the suffering of the Palestinian people. It has reignited the debate on collective punishment they are made to endure as well as the unequal application of firepower by Israel.  After close to 20 days of Israeli air raids followed by a ground invasion of Gaza, the casualties from the conflict have been lopsided, with 80% to 90% of the casualties on the Palestinian side being civilians. The death toll has climbed to over 1,000 Palestinians killed and 5,500 wounded.  On the Israeli side, 42 soldiers and 3 civilians have lost their lives in the conflict. It begs the question: what is the value of a Palestinian life?

While there are no easy answers to bringing peace in the Middle East, what is apparent to those who dare say it is that Israel policies on Palestine have continued to violate basic human rights. It was partly due to this that many African countries broke off their diplomatic relations with Israel during the Yom Kippur War of October 1973. Today however, the landscape has changed significantly, with previous staunch supporters of the Palestinian cause in Africa sufficiently neutralized by Israel’s diplomatic and economic push in the region.

Take the example of Tanzania, which under its first leader Julius Nyerere, provided the moral leadership to the rest of Africa on the Palestinian question. After gaining her own independence in 1961, the country’s top mission was to support liberation of other countries still under colonial yoke, including those under Apartheid in South Africa and Namibia, as well as the Palestinian cause.  Mwalimu Nyerere spoke forcefully in support of Palestinian right to self-determination as early as 1967 after the Six-Day War when he delivered a speech on Tanzania’s foreign policy based on principles of justice and freedom for all human beings irrespective of where they lived. This policy guided the country’s foreign policy for many years during his tenure which ended in retirement in 1985. The following excerpts from the speech are relevant to Middle East:

“Our desire for friendship with every other nation does not, however, mean that we can be unconcerned with world events, or that we should try to buy that friendship with silence on the great issues of world peace and justice. If it is to be meaningful, friendship must be able to withstand honesty in international affairs. Certainly we should refrain from adverse comments on the internal affairs of other states, just as we expect them to do with regard to ourselves. ..

“The establishment of the state of Israel was an act of aggression against the Arab people. It was connived at by the international community because of the history of persecution against the Jews. This persecution reached its climax in the murder by Nazi Germany of six million Jewish men, women, and children … The survivors of this persecution sought security in a Jewish national state in Arab Palestine. The international community accepted this. The Arab states did not and could not accept that act of aggression. We believe that there cannot be lasting peace in the Middle East until the Arab states have accepted the fact of Israel. But the Arab states cannot be beaten into such acceptance. On the contrary, attempts to coerce the Arab states into recognizing Israel – whether it be by refusal to relinquish occupied territory, or by an insistence on direct negotiations between the two sides – would only make such acceptance impossible”.

“In expressing our hope that a peaceful settlement of this terribly difficult situation will soon become possible, it is necessary for us to accept two things. First, Israel’s desire to be acknowledged as a nation is understandable. But second, and equally important, that Israel’s occupation of the territories of UAR [now Egypt], Jordan and Syria, must be brought to an end. Israel must evacuate the areas she overran in June this year -without exception – before she can reasonably expect Arab countries will begin to acquiesce in her national presence. Israel has had her victory, at terrible cost in human lives. She must now accept that the United Nations which sanctioned her birth is, and must be, unalterably opposed to territorial aggrandizement by force or threat of force.”

“That is Tanzania’s position. We recognize Israel and wish to be friendly with her as well as with the Arab nations. But we cannot condone aggression on any pretext, nor accept victory in war as a justification for the exploitation of other lands, or government over other peoples.”

Tanzania had established formal diplomatic relations with Israel in 1963 before severing them in 1973, when it recognized the PLO as a legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and becoming the first African country to allow the PLO to open an Embassy in Dar es Salaam. During those 10 years of diplomatic relationship with Israel, Tanzania benefited from development assistance and investments towards agriculture, infrastructure development and security cooperation among others. Regarding this beneficial cooperation he was receiving at the time, Mwalimu Nyerere said “while it [Israel] was a small country it could contribute a great deal to his country since Tanzania faced similar problems to the Jewish state. The two main issues facing both countries, he said, were (1) to build a nation and (2) change the landscape, both physically and economically.”  unnamed

It is said that Nyerere’s Ujamaa villagization program was modelled after the Kibbutz system and his agricultural cooperative schemes were adopted from Moshav model. Many roads in the main city of Dar es Salaam were built by the Israelis, such as the Port Access road now renamed Mandela Expressway. The Israelis even built their own Embassy there, which they had to abandon in 1973. The embassy building was later taken over by the Americans who moved their own embassy there in 1980 (it was the same building that was bombed in 1998 together with the US Embassy in Nairobi). 

Relations between Tanzania and Israel were not restored until February 1995. By then, Mwalimu Nyerere was no longer in power. The majority of the other 25 or so African countries which had broken ties with Israel in 1973 had reestablished them, with a big wave taking place between 1991 and 1994 as a result of the Oslo Accords. Some countries like Malawi, Swaziland and Lesotho have never broken their ties with Israel at any point in time, enjoying continuous friendship throughout the troubled times of the Middle East Wars. Today, more than 40 African nations have diplomatic relations with Israel, with only a handful still refusing to either recognize her (Algeria, Libya, Sudan and Somalia) or yet to establish diplomatic ties with her (Guinea,  Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Chad, Comoros, Tunisia, Morocco and Djibouti). 

By 1995, Tanzanian foreign policy had evolved from that of liberation and common brotherhood of man, to a new era of “economic diplomacy”. The idea was to make foreign policy a tool to support economic transformation, focusing on “the pursuit of economic objectives, while at the same time preserving the gains of the past and consolidating the fundamental principles of Tanzania’s traditional foreign policy.”  However, the effect of this policy change is that Tanzania’s voice on matters such as the Palestinian cause has faded. Many blame not just the change in policy but the current crop of leaders failing to maintain the spirit of Nyerere’s moral leadership. The government is accused of not being quick as they used to be in condemning atrocities against Palestinians, and when they eventually issue statements, they amount to empty words with no concrete actions or repercussions, not even the mobilization of citizens to publicly demonstrate and voice their support as used to happen in Nyerere’s day. In a documentary interview last year, Tanzania’s Foreign Minister Bernard Membe denied any outside pressure or lobby to soften their stance saying, “our support for the Palestinian cause is unwavering. It’s principled and nobody can uproot it. The world is smart and clever. They know these are some of the areas that Tanzania cannot be touched.” 

On the eighth day of the ongoing crisis, during a press conference Minister Membe condemned the killings of innocent civilians in Gaza and “called on Israel to stop their ongoing aggression on the Gaza Strip” and also called on “the armed Palestinian groups to stop firing rockets into Israel.”  Ironically, the government newspaper buried this condemnation inside another story about plan to take Ambassadors accredited to Tanzania to visit the mausoleum of Mwalimu Nyerere. You can’t make this stuff up. Even Foreign Ministry’s own blog story emphasized the issue of dissolving the FDLR rebels in Eastern DRC and mentioned the Gaza remarks in passing. It was after days of mounting pressure from different corners that the Ministry released a separate statement fully focusing on the current situation in Gaza.  

Meanwhile, while the crisis is ongoing, media reports were full of stories about the Israeli Ambassador to Tanzania making the rounds to bid farewell to national leaders at the end of his tour of duty. The story on Gaza was never featured in the reporting, instead a lot of emphasis on the economic cooperation with Israel, who will soon open a fully-fledged embassy in Tanzania instead of being accredited from Nairobi.  It is unlikely that Tanzania will rush to open an embassy in Tell Aviv any time soon, but for the first time it accredited its Ambassador in Cairo, Egypt to represent the country in Israel. The relationship is thriving and over 6,000 Israeli tourists are expected to visit Tanzania this year through weekly “tourism-oriented flights” from Tel Aviv to Kilimanjaro operated by the El Al airline. 

Dr. Azaveli Lwaitama of University of Dar es Salaam, wonders about the usefulness of the colorful statements in support of Palestinian cause from countries like Tanzania while at the same time allowing Israel to continue “weaving itself in the economic fabric” of the country.  Prof. Azaria Mbughuni of Spelman College in Atlanta, who has extensively researched Tanzania’s contribution in the liberation of Southern Africa, still believes that the issues of justice and human rights remain relevant in Africa’s foreign policy and need to be fully restored.  He says that, “the struggle of Palestinians is a struggle for human rights. It is not a struggle for a particular religion, for the Palestinian people belong to different religious creeds; it is not a struggle for race, for the Palestinian people come in different shades; it is a struggle for land, it is a struggle for the basic human principles of freedom, dignity, and the right to self-determination”. 

Africa’s Last Colony

Earlier this year I flew to the Algerian military town of Tindouf, as part of a Vice News crew, to help make a documentary and write an article about the struggle for an independent Western Sahara. Tindouf sits outside a network of five camps housing Sahrawi refugees from the war between Morocco and Polisario, the Sahrawi liberation movement fighting for a referendum in the region. The war lasted from 1975 – when Spain, with Franco on his death bed, ceded one of Africa’s last colonies, the Spanish Sahara, to Morocco and Mauritania – to 1991, when the UN brokered a cease fire, confidently and erroneously predicting that they would bring about a referendum within six months.

Twenty-three years later, the Sahrawis are still waiting for that referendum and the UN doesn’t even monitor human rights abuses in occupied Western Sahara. In fact, Spain’s ceding of the territory is not recognised by international law, making Western Sahara “the only non-self-governing territory on the African continent still awaiting the completion of its process of decolonization.”  With Western Sahara, it’s easy to get bogged down in international legalese. On the ground, the life lived by the 100,000 or so refugees is one of desert exile, a limbo that prevents them from either putting down roots where they are or returning to their land, in which many of their fellow Sahrawis suffer under Moroccan rule.

The camps are run on aid. There are few jobs and fewer education programmes. People worry that if they spend too much time making their temporary home nice, it will become their permanent home. Depression is common in a place caught between a past defined by betrayal and a future that seems to promise only stasis. On an afternoon at the hospital for victims of the seven million landmines littering the desert, the air hung thick with the heat as we spoke to a man who had spent the past thirty years in the same bed, his legs destroyed. As I sat in a patch of shade in the courtyard, it was easy to see his existence as a metaphor for the whole situation.

From the refugee camps, we headed into the wide, barely inhabited stretch of desert given back to the Sahrawis by Mauritania in the late 1970s. We were joined, in our 20-year-old Land Cruiser, by a Polisario commander and six of his fighters. In an area increasingly used by Jihadist groups to smuggle drugs, the Polisario tell us they remain in charge, even guarding the UN Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara’s (MINURSO) desert base, which blinks multi-coloured in the night like an oil rig, a testament to human impotence. Warming his hands in front of a fire, the commander of one of Polisario’s nightly anti-smuggling patrols tells us that they believe Morocco control the drugs trade in the region.

The Kingdom of Morocco calls Polisario terrorists. They say Polisario have enslaved the Sahrawi people, keeping them in refugee camps (or “gulags”, as Moroccan spies refer to them) in order to profit from the conflict and the largesse of their main sponsors, Algeria. Polisario has had the same leader since the 1976, members of its high command are said to own large houses in Spain and the military regime in Algeria is using them as part of its proxy war with its hated rival Morocco, but the vast majority of people we spoke to in the camps see no differentiation between Polisario and the Sahrawi cause. Out at their desert bases, surrounded by ancient meteors and fossils, Polisario took us through their network of tunnels and showed us some of their military hardware, much of it dating from the Cold War. One commander showed me an Apartheid-made cannon: in the 1970s and 1980s the Polisario would capture South African-made weaponry from the Moroccans and send it down to their revolutionary brothers in the ANC.

Back at the refugee camps, I think of how Polisario relates to successful African liberation movements like the ANC. I think of those other movements that turned sour once they were realized, of Russia post-1917, ZANU in Zimbabwe and the EPLA in Eritrea, of South Sudan and its troubled birth. No-one could say that an independent Western Sahara, sitting in an unstable region, surrounded by rivals and hated by Morocco, might not suffer a similar fate to those places, but there is no good reason why Western Sahara shouldn’t be granted the same right to decide on its freedom that has been granted in East Timor, Kosovo, South Sudan and, later this summer, Scotland.

Right now, the people of Western Sahara feel betrayed, which could lead them to break the ceasefire. This is one of the reasons the film is called The Sahara’s Forgotten War: the international community has abandoned the Sahrawis. Countries across the world recognise Western Sahara’s right to exist in theory but in practice, they trade with Morocco or, as is the case with the United States, actively support them. The Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara is full of phosphates, fisheries and potentially oil and gas.

The Polisario’s frustration at the failure to bring about a referendum is close to boiling over. They told us repeatedly that they were “ready for war” but they lack the resources and international support to mount a full scale offensive on Morocco. They are more likely to carry out IRA-style bombings in big Moroccan cities like Rabat and Casablanca. In the world’s last major colony, the affects of Europe’s scramble for Africa and Morocco’s imperial delusions are plain to see.

Watch here:

Also read Oscar’s full article here.

Once a month Hipsters don’t Dance will bless us with their top 5 World Carnival tunes

logoAfrica is a Country is proud to present a new partnership with London-based DJ crew Hipster’s Don’t Dance. The British DJ duo with Trinidadian and Nigerian origins are doing an amazing job representing the Atlantic music world to the London massive with their regular parties, and reflecting back their London scene to the world with their outstanding blog, DJ mixes, and edits. Taking a cue from the lively West Indian Carnival in London, they are injecting other faces of London’s immigrant cultures into the scene, and cultivating what they call a “World Carnival Sound.” Starting this month, they will be doing a regular round up of their top five World Carnival tunes here on Africa is a Country. Here is their top five for July 2014:

Moelogo – The Baddest (feat. Giggs)

Currently the biggest song out and it has a sneaky chance to be the song of the summer. By adding Giggs , and his incredible voice, to this track it has given this song an even bigger audience. P.S. congrats to Moelogo on signing his major label deal.

Wizkid – Show You The Money

Wizkid when will you release an LP?  There are a ton of us that would really like that to happen. Instead he is chilling in LA with Chris Brown and Ty Dolla $ign, this will be placed alongside his other Wizkid classics like Jaiye Jaiye and Caro.

Edem – Wicked and Bad (feat. 4 x 4)

Some Ghanaian dancehall that instantly connected with a lot of DJ’s, it will be interesting to see this work in the club. This could have a big crossover appeal with dancehall and U.K. club heads.

Dj Hassan – Early Momo (Feat. Patoranking)

Its been a busy month for Patoranking, between this, the Girlie O remix, and his anti-bleaching cover of Loyal he really is setting himself up to be the man of the moment. Having a cut on the incredible Bam Bam Riddim can’t hurt either.

Dr Sid – Baby Tornado (feat. Alexandra Burke)

Continuing the theme of odd Afropop collaborators (Idris Elba, Diana King, Olivia….) this one works really well. The video is glossy enough to make it on to UK music channels as well, which is probably the best way into everyone’s homes these days.

5 Questions for a Filmmaker … Akin Omotoso

Award-winning South African/Nigerian filmmaker Akin Omotoso is the director of the feature films “Man on Ground” and “God Is African“, the documentaries “Wole Soyinka – Child of the Forest,” “Gathering the Scattered Cousins” and the short “Jesus and the Giant” among other films and TV-productions. Omotoso is also an actor, with roles in Andrew Nicol’s Lord of War alongside Nicolas Cage, as Rwandan President Paul Kagame in “Shake Hands with the Devil” by Roger Spottiswoode, and in the South African TV-series “Generations” on his CV.

What is your first film memory?

I have a couple of film memories from between the age of 4 to 6, mainly because video had just come out and my parents were watching a lot of films that drifted in and out of my consciousness. My first memory is of Sidney Poitier, but I couldn’t tell you which film. It was probably a combination of his films but Poitier as a first film memory is not a bad one to have.

Why did you decide to become a filmmaker?

I decided to become a filmmaker because I love telling stories. I always loved telling stories and always loved stories. I wanted to be a novelist at first, but at drama school that notion turned into becoming a director.

Which already made film do you wish you had made?

Lumumba directed by Raoul Peck. The final image in that film is still among the best closing images I have seen, and the opening image of my latest film Man On Ground is a homage to it.

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

Daughters of the Dust by Julie Dash. It was the first film that I saw that had a non-linear narrative. At the time I didn’t understand what I was watching other than it was very confusing but intriguing at the same time. When I watched it again a second time I was blown away. It’s a beautiful film. The way the story is told, the way the African oral tradition is woven into cinematic realisation, the gorgeous cinematography, the music and the performances. A true visual feast.

Which question should I have asked? 

People always ask me “Do you think African Cinema has arrived?” I always reply “It never left.”

Photo Credit: Victor Dlamini.

Walking With Wole Soyinka

Several times, I have met Professor Wole Soyinka without actually meeting him. It was either in a crowded reading room in Washington D.C. or at some event in Nigeria. As a photographer not as a writer, I really wanted to meet the man away from the usual crowd that surrounds him all the time. I wanted to do a proper portrait of the man and the legendary white Afro. With his hectic schedule, one couldn’t really tell where he would be at any particular time or how possible it was to even be alone with one of the world’s busiest and famous men of letters.Earlier this month, as events to mark his 80th birthday swirled around towns in Nigeria and beyond, I begged my friend Lola Shoneyin, the novelist and Soyinka’s daughter-in-law, to help me gain access to him. She agreed to try, not promising anything because Kongi, (as he is called by many) had a hectic schedule and wouldn’t really have time to be photographed.

However, I got lucky. Lola called me at about 10pm one night to say she had found an opportunity for me to photograph him.  There was a short documentary she and her husband were making of Soyinka to mark his birthday. I would have to rise early the next morning for the two hours drive from my base in Lagos to Soyinka’s private country house in the outskirt of Abeokuta.


I was elated. I’d finally get to photograph him in his lair. I had heard all kinds of tales about this famed house he built in the middle of the forest. Getting there, we needed a guide because though Lola had been to her father-in-law’s house on numerous occasions, she still couldn’t navigate her way there alone because of the convolutedness of the location in the forest.

The first shocker as we got close to his long path leading to the forest read “TRESPASSING VEHICLES WILL BE SHOT AND EATEN.” I figured then that I had to expect the unexpected and also hoped Lola had made an appointment. A man who promises to eat vehicles could do worse to an uninvited photographer. The red-brick house, which nestled atop a hill with a tiny river flowing below and giant trees towering above it, was surreal. For the first few minutes, I couldn’t take pictures. I just marveled at the serenity of the natural habitat. Coming from the craziness of a mega city like Lagos to this quiet green environment was not something I wanted to squander. I took in the clean air and stared at the flowers while Lola went in to tell Prof that he had guests.

I have to navigate carefully in this man’s domain, I told myself. There were more warning signs. If I had doubts about his seriousness when I arrived, I dispelled these when he later brought out his double-barreled hunting rifle while we were interviewing and photographing him. He had no qualms bearing arms, as a famed hunter.


The six hours I spent in Soyinka’s presence flew by like a second. As an artist and a writer, I felt at home amidst his varied art collection, of contemporary and ancient works. He had more sculptures than paintings and it was obvious his preference was three dimensional works of art. Books sprout from ground and walls and bookshelves. I listened intently to the Nobel Laureate’s wild tales and conquests.

Perhaps what was most intriguing to me was his elaborate sense of humor and how he could switch from one extremely serious world affair, like the yet to be rescued kidnapped Chibok school girls in the northern part of Nigeria, to the fact that a man should never run out of wine in his house.

We took a tour of the house and all the hidden reading rooms (there were reading spaces everywhere) and a special prayer room for Christians, Muslims and traditionalists – to Soyinka, there is room for all religions to co-exist. The house on the hill had everything, including an amphitheater for drama rehearsals and performances. There was a shooting range that provided a bird’s eye view of a section of the path that led to the house.


When it was time to visit his reading spot in the middle of the forest, the heavens opened with loud thunder and lightning which had  Soyinka, a man who has great regard for Ogun, the god of thunder and iron, and had written so much about it, bust into chanting and incantation. We waited for the rain to subside before going out. We walked along the edge of the forest, watched the river flow gently across our path. With fresh raindrops on the leaves, the forest took on an ominous look.

Prof. Soyinka’s white hair against the dense and dark green of his environment was pleasing to capture.  His steps were smart and sure, not betraying his age and decades of struggle against the vilest rulers Nigeria has had. It is not every day one gets to tread the same path as a living legend, so I listened to him with every part of my body.

In a nicely nurtured section of a cultivated garden with lush green grass and blooming flowers, the man stopped and pointed to a serene section, “That is the cactus spot. At some point in life a man has to think of mortality.” I blinked and clicked at the direction he’d pointed. That cactus spot, I hope and pray, would have to wait many more years for its lone occupant, because the man I walked with on that raining day is a rare strong breed.


Watch’s Umlilo’s new music video “Magic Man” here first

You’ve seen the teaser, now see the video. Umlilo, is back with his fifth music video single, ‘Magic Man’ from his upcoming EP, ‘Aluta’. 

Produced by Umlilo, ‘Magic Man’ is an electronic fusion of different sounds ranging from dark post-dub with afro-dancehall accents to a baroque synth pop accompanied by Umlilo’s powerful vocals.

“Magic Man represents a person’s metamorphosis from a tortured outsider to a fully realised divine being and I wanted the music to reflect the transformation,” says Umlilo. “It’s one of my most personal songs and I wanted to explore the physical struggle in all of us to transcend beyond the ordinary and mundane to become greater people.”

Umlilo teamed up with director Jasyn Howes and DOP Nicolas vd Westhuizen, with the avant-garde styling expertise from Art Mataruse, make-up artist Charli Vdr and visuals by Danielle Clough.

Performers Sheldon Michaels and Alex Alfaro join Umlilo in a dark ritualistic journey to become the enigmatic and ethereal Magic Man who skirts on the outskirts of the norm. Shot at Old Cotton Mills in Epping, Cape Town, the video is a fitting visual accompaniment to the lush and eclectic single.

Watch ‘Magic Man’:

* For more on Umlilo, see TwitterFacebook and Tumblr.

Why Oscar Pistorius’ anxiety spectacle might matter more than we think

Guess what? Oscar Pistorius, the South African Paralympic champion who is tried for shooting and killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, turns out to be sane. He might still lose his temper, like the other day when VIP-ing it up in a fancy night club in Johannesburg or tweet ill-guided Bible verses, self-celebratory do-good pics or compare his life to a Holocaust survivor, but unlike what his psychiatrist proclaimed, none of this is rooted in an anxiety disorder. An independent team of psychiatric experts concluded as much after a month-long evaluation.

You can’t blame them for giving it a go, though. After all, psychiatric conditions are excellent tools for reducing agency in bad behavior, character flaws, nasty temper, hypermasculine aggression and lethal rage. With symptoms such as ‘worrying, overthinking, attention problems, impulsivity, activity issues and inappropriate behaviour’, anxiety disorders and attention deficit disorders (AD/HD) are amongst the best-known kinds. They often go together and overlap. So for Oscar, medicalizing his mistakes by making his violence a matter of the brain rather than the mind, could have served him well.

We won’t know for another month what the Judge made of all this, but that does not mean that the consequences of this failed psychwash attempt, and the media attention it has generated, are limited to Oscar alone. Quite the contrary; those who are likely to be most affected by it, albeit indirectly, got absolutely nothing to do with Oscar or the trial.

Instead, it’s the spectacle’s media attention, and the misperceptions, ignorance and skepticism around mental disorders that it feeds and fuels, that may impact their lives.

Because the way South African media appears to have it, these disorders are most relevant in relation to the white and wealthy, such as medication abusers on wealthy college and high schools in the suburbs. Like Oscar’s case, such reports reinforce the idea that such disorders are nothing more than socio-cultural imports affecting the well to do, designed to either excuse their flaws or drug them with Ritalin. It doesn’t help that the experts, researchers and websites that do take the disorders seriously, seem to insist on illustrating their works with pictures of white boys. This is despite the fact that various studies, such as this one and this one, suggest that AD/HD levels of Black South African children are at least as high as Western children and their anxiety levels often higher.

It’s not like overdiagnoses, medication abuse or attempts to medicalize bad behaviorshould not be problematized. Of course they should. But not without acknowledging that the flipside of overdiagnostication is that others, who are actually suffering from these disorders, are being missed. And that the ones who are likely to pay the price for misperceptions and ‘convenience use’ in South Africa are not the middle and upper class Oscars and college buddies, but the black (including coloured) children that make up the bulk of the 5-10% of South African children estimated tosuffer from AD/HD, and struggle with anxiety, whose struggles won’t be understood or recognized. Because teachers’ misperceptions of mental disorders, as this study in the Cape Town area shows, are shaped by the media too.

Biased media reporting won’t advance popular and professional understandings on how psychiatric conditions interact with race, poverty, gender, culture and other sources of stress (which of course affect Black children much more). Diagnostic criteria need to be sensitive to all of these contextual factors too. Finding out who suffers, why, to what effect and what kind of accommodations and types of support they need is important. Especially for those in poor schools.

Overdiagnoses is an issue, that’s right. But underdiagnoses should be taken at least as serious.