Africa is a Country

Should South Africa have arrested President Bashir?

Twitter lit up on Sunday and #Bashir was trending worldwide.  As the African Union summit convened in South Africa, the fate of Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir seemed to hang on a pending decision from a South African judge and the question was: Will South Africa arrest President Bashir and hand him over to the International Criminal Court?

Six years ago, the ICC issued a warrant for the arrest of Bashir for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in Darfur. He has so far avoided arrest by carefully selecting the dozen countries that he has visited since he became an “ICC fugitive.” Human rights organizations have followed scrupulously Bashir’s travel schedule and each time, have campaigned vigorously for his arrest.

Credited with having one of the most independent judicial systems on the continent, South Africa was poised to be the stage for a dramatic – if not theatrical — legal showcase. As soon as Bashir landed, the Southern Africa Litigation Centre introduced before the Pretoria’s High Court a request to issue a warrant for the arrest of Bashir on Sunday. The court issued an interim order that Bashir must not be allowed to leave the country until a final decision be made on the application on Monday morning. After 24 hours of conflicting reports regarding Bashir’s whereabouts, it is now clear that he has left South Africa, pre-empting the Pretoria High Court ruling.

This in itself is a huge development and will have many political implications. But to be sure, even if the court had decided that the South African security forces must arrest Bashir, putting handcuffs on the Sudan’s president may have only been wishful thinking. For one, Bashir could take refuge in Sudan’s embassy in Pretoria, and South Africa would not be able to go in and arrest him. Such an instance would have resulted in the Assange scenario, and it is not sure whether the Zuma administration wants that.

Moreover, it may well be that South Africa’s domestic laws provide for the arrest of Bashir, but it is still not clear whether South Africa is obligated by international law to arrest Bashir. As crazy as it may sound, Bashir may still have head of state immunity. There are certainly opposing sides on this debate among international law scholars.

Because the ICC prosecutes “the most serious crimes of concern to the international community”, the Rome Statute, which is its founding treaty, doesn’t allow for immunity. It means that by ratifying the Satute and joining the Court, states signs away the immunity of their officials. But Sudan hasn’t done so. The ICC gained jurisdiction over the Darfur crisis through a UN Security Council resolution. The question becomes then whether a mere UNSC resolution can strip a head of state from his/her immunity? Those who argue that the UNSC resolution overrides Sudan’s non-party to the ICC status often invoke the case of Charles Taylor to make their point. But Dov Jacobs here and here argues that nothing under international law obligates South Africa to arrest Bashir.

To be sure, anything related to the ICC is as much about law as it is about politics, despite the denegation of the purists. Why else would the UNSC have the power to refer situations to the ICC, including in states that have opted not joined the Court? Is there any international body more political than the UNSC?

Why then should we fault South Africa for taking into consideration political calculations in deciding whether to arrest Bashir or let him sneak out of the country? Had South Africa arrested Bashir, that would have sent shockwaves throughout the African Union that may well have been fatal to the organization’s survival. As South Africa is one of the powerhouses of the organization (and keeping in mind the African Union’s official position is that its member states should not cooperate with the ICC to arrest Bashir,) one may also wonder what could South Africa gain from arresting Bashir?

This may well be Bashir’s last trip outside of Sudan, as it’s getting hot out there for an ICC fugitive. For the ICC, this dramatic showdown is certainly a positive outcome that points to its increased legitimacy and relevance. The question remains to be seen whether the African Union will still stand behind Bashir, or quietly withdraw its support.

Weekend Music Break No.77

Weekend Music Break, your weekly round up of hot tunes and music news from around the African Continent and its diaspora, is here!

This weekend we have Belgium based Congolese artists Badi and Fredy Massamba’s team up “Belgicain”; Show Dem Camp puts out an Afro-House song featuring Iye on the hook; still in the house zone, but in Angola, Maya Zuda and Bebucho Que Cuia present “Dois a Dois”; French-Senegalese rapper Booba heads to South America once again to shoot the video for his song “Tony Sosa”; Nigerian Davido sets his sights across the Atlantic by teaming up with Philadelphia gangsta rapper Meek Mill; Another cross-Atlantic collaboration sees a pair of Americans and a pair of Brits trading verses over a ominous R&B-trap beat; In preparation for the launch of his new album, Sarkodie also launches a trans-Atlantic gangsta-rap collabo this week, here he goes to dancehall territory with Stonebwoy and Jupiter; The Havana Cultura project recently shared “Madres” by Daymé Arocena, a live performance dedicated to the Orixa Yemaya (Yemoja, Iemanjá); Seattle-based Chimurenga Renaissance heads to the ruins of Great Zimbabwe for their track “Pop Killer”; and finally, F’Victeam, a Congolese dance squad, shoots a martial arts themed Ndomobolo/Decale video (embedding disabled so watch it here). Enjoy!

Refugees vow to ‘return home’ after meeting with ‘appalling’ British holidaymakers

This piece is a response to a recent article in the Daily Mail.

Among the Syrian and Afghan refugees landed on the Greek island of Kos there has been talk of returning to their home-countries after their stay has been disturbed by the ‘awkward’ behavior of British holidaymakers.

“It is truly appalling,” one grandmother of seven complains, “They are ruining our entire running-away-from-war-torn-states-in-search-of-a-better life experience. They have turned our whole desperate-flight-to-freedom into a nightmare, and we will certainly think twice about returning to Kos next year.”

With over 1,200 migrants arriving in Kos over a very short period of time, Kos has become a popular destination amongst those fleeing for their lives. But, with the nuisance of conceited discourses and rampaging prejudice, will it remain so?

“As we landed, we were accosted by a primitive tribe here who call themselves “holiday-makers”” says a young father, while ladling broth into his malnourished daughters mouth; “We were disgusted by their overfed, sweaty appearance! The men wear white tennis socks in sandals, and the women are crimson and sometimes hit us with rolled up copies of The Sun,”.

The migrants have labeled the holidaymakers ‘charter people’, referring to organized package charter trips being the holidaymakers main form of transportation. There have been reports of how the charter people cause unease by sitting around in restaurants being hobby-racists and blustering about their deluded and mall-placed outrage. Some have even described how holidaymakers sometimes watch as people do everyday things like hanging laundry, cooking on woodstoves, or crying over brutally murdered family members.

“We came to Europe in search of a better life for our children.” Says a widowed mother of four, “We have heard stories of Europe as a place where basic human decency and compassion are respected. So far, thanks to the holidaymakers, we have been disappointed. Perhaps living in a conflict-zone is better than living in a society where people are so utterly self-centered and disconnected.  ”

A group of refugees are already attempting to construct a return boat out of fish and chips wrappers and broken prossecco bottles. However, others profess a desire to befriend the charter people. One man even came to the aid of a young holidaymaker.

“She was badly injured, all we could ascertain was that she worked a journalist for the Daily Mail” says a former Syrian doctor, who rushed to the woman’s aid. “At first it seemed a simple case of rectal cranium immersion. However, by the time I got there it was too late. The woman had already lost all sense of perspective.”

For some more insight on the European migrant situation, check out what we’ve written about African migrants to Europe here and here. And, listen to our discussion on the wretched European immigration policies and the complex geo-politics behind passage across the Mediterranean on our podcast.

Hipsters Don’t Dance Top World Carnival Tunes for May 2015

Apologies for the late arrival. Hipsters Don’t Dance is back with their May chart of World Carnival tunes. Enjoy this roundup, and remember to visit the HDD blog for all their great up-to-the-time-ness out of London!

Burna Boy x Soke

After a few swings with some sub-par sounding singles, Burna is back with this contemplative effort. As well as signing to a major US label (Universal), Burna also teased a collaboration with the one and only Heavy K. We can’t wait for that one to drop.

Henry Knight Ft. Yemi Alade, Di’ja & Joe el x Olopa

Sometimes all you need for an upgrade is to add Yemi Alade to the remix and we are there. Olopa has been a staple in our DJ sets for a year now due its unrelenting pace. Sadly not all the MCs keep up with its speed but it’s a fun listen.

Coptic – Keep Shining ft M.anifest

As you can probably tell we are big fans of M.anifest and this collaboration with fellow Ghanian, Coptic, is a call to arms to other MCs. Coptic produced for the likes of P. Diddy and Snoop Dogg and now he can add M.anifest to that list.

Project Kamutupu x Kamutupu

Something a little smoother now, and it’s Lusophone house from Project Kumutupu, which is now our favourite thing to say. The video itself is beautiful as well.

Goon Club Allstars x Rudeboyz EP

We were privy to this release back in November when we first met Moleskin from GCA. He told us at the Future Sounds of Mzansi premiere in London about his plans for this EP. He wanted to release raw pure club music with no hype apart from the music itself. No exoticism, no promos, just the music. The club world is embracing this EP which is amazing to see and anything that highlights Africa in a positive manner we are happy to share.

Do our passports continue to be punished for being African?

Late last week, I was informed that I would not be able to travel to Dubai for an important meeting scheduled months ago. Like other countries across the globe, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) halted travel for those with Guinean, Liberian, and Sierra Leonean passports during the height of the Ebola outbreak. It has not lifted these restrictions.

The miniature red suitcase I had packed lay abandoned on my wooden floor. I caressed my dark green Liberian passport as if to reassure this inanimate marker of identity that my citizenship was not on trial here. The specter of Ebola had simply triumphed over reason.

Yet, the irony of this episode hasn’t escaped me. Dubai is a hub for cross continental travel. In 2013 alone, the UAE boasted the fifth largest international migrant pool in the world—hosting 7.8 million foreign residents out of a total population of 9.2 million. Furthermore, foreign labor migrants account for 90 percent of the country’s private workforce, mostly from Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.

Unlike the US and UK, where anti-immigrant sentiments have reached fever pitch, the UAE seems more pliant to international travelers. So, naturally, I thought it was odd when I attempted to complete the online visa form and Liberia was not listed as an option for ‘present nationality’. Nor were Guinea and Sierra Leone.

This was punishment for simply being born in Africa with a particular African passport. Even the organizers of the meeting were shocked, disbelief sprinkled in their conciliatory e-mails and phone calls. All diplomatic channels had proved futile. The verdict was irreversible. I would not be getting on that plush Emirates flight.

Never mind that Liberia was declared Ebola-free on May 9, exactly one month ago.

Never mind that I have not been to my homeland in over 10 months. Nor was I asked about recent travel there.

Never mind that my country and its people are slowly trying to recover from an invisible foe that killed nearly 5,000 and infected about 11,000.

In the past year, I’ve seen my passport scrutinized more intently than ever before, but the UAE blanket bias felt like adding salt to a fresh wound. At first, I experienced blinding rage with a touch of indignation. The kind that gurgles in the pit of your gut, and then explodes. Then I was amused by the absurdity of it all. If I were traveling directly from Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone and had a passport from a country on UAE’s list of exemptions, I would have gotten a visa on arrival with ease. No questions asked.

Mild acceptance slowly seeped in, reminding me that we maintain immigration hierarchies as a form of erasure and silencing. In our obsession with citizenship tiers, West is best. North trumps South. And white is inevitably right.

Never mind black/brown solidarity. Or does that even exist?

I have shied away from returning home fearing the kind of immobility that sees people not as complex beings but as nameless, faceless ‘threats’ to national security. A sedentarist kind of metaphysic that keeps certain people in their place. People like me.

Truth be told, the natural human compulsion for mobility is currently under threat because of irrational immigration bans such as the UAE’s. For all the rhetoric about globalization’s free flow of ideas, capital and technology, the world remains obsessed with restricting the movement of people who don’t fit into our neat boxes of what is tolerable or even desirable. The UAE saga is a microcosm of a larger debate about the need for immigration reforms worldwide.

The scapegoating of migrants across the globe deflects attention from the fact that most countries have failed to improve the quality of life of their domestic citizens. Afro-fobic attacks in South Africa, Australia’s Pacific Solution, and the plight of Rohingya Muslims off the coast of Indonesia are extreme examples. Immigration is framed as a zero sum game, with finite rights and resources available to a select few.

I watch migrants who look like me risk their lives on sardine-packed, rickety boats to cross the Mediterranean, and know intuitively that they wouldn’t flee if they had a choice. With each desperate attempt to cross over, what they are effectively saying is that Europe must make amends for waging unjustifiable wars and supporting authoritarian regimes in some of their countries of origin.

Centuries ago, Africans were so eager to escape lives of bondage, some dove to sudden death in the Atlantic. They were the first forced migrants I can recall. Now, many of us travel across these same waters for short-, medium- and long-term trips. Not because of some deep, abiding love for life abroad, but because it gives us a measure of flexibility. It keeps us physically connected to the rest of the world.

And for someone like me with chronic wanderlust, the ability to travel unencumbered is almost as necessary as oxygen itself. Although a self-professed transnational, I used to be suspicious of Liberians who changed their nationality out of convenience. But after interviewing more than 200 of us across five urban centers in West Africa, North America and Europe for my doctoral thesis on citizenship construction and practice, I have become more empathetic. Many of us make the switch because of the access so easily denied me by the UAE.

But we shouldn’t have to.

I can’t say I would ever consider exchanging my passport for another, especially since Liberia prohibits dual citizenship. Yet, the UAE debacle has shaken me to the core. It’s made me acutely aware that citizenship is both personal and political.

Peace deployed as a weapon in Angola

On April 16th, Angolan security forces, including a heavily armed rapid intervention police unit, raided a religious encampment under the leadership of self-proclaimed prophet José Julino Kalupeteka with the aim of arresting him. Kalupeteka’s controversial religious sect, dubbed “A Luz do Mundo” (Light of the World), was known to shun certain state-sponsored activities such as vaccination campaigns, the national census and public schooling. About 3,000 people were living peacefully in the hilly encampment when the police struck.

Much has been written about the Mount Sumi event both in English and Portuguese by several reputable sources: Aslak Orre writing for the CMI, Rede Angola’s Luísa Rogério and Maka Angola’s Rafael Marques. But almost two months after the tragic events in Huambo and even an official statement from the UN Human Rights Office (promptly slammed by the Angolan government), we’re nowhere closer to knowing what exactly happened in Mount Sumi, Huambo, why it happened, and how many people perished. The Angolan government speaks of “only 13 dead”, while others, including prominent civil society activists and opposition parties, speak of a massacre of more than a thousand civilians.

What is clearer, however, is the government and its security forces’ violent relationship with its citizenry. Ironically, it deploys the discourse of peace as a weapon.

The raid was a failure. Several policemen were killed by sect members armed with machetes, for reasons as of yet unclear, and an unknown number of civilians died. The first reports by state media here in Angola mentioned only the fallen policemen; it was only days later that we learned that civilians had been killed as well. It’s here that reports begin to significantly diverge. Immediately after the massacre, the government cordoned off the area to any and all civilians and declared it a military zone. It took a full two weeks for the first visitors, parliamentarians from UNITA, the main opposition party, to be granted access, closely followed by the leader of the country’s third largest party (CASA-CE) and then Rede Angola’s journalists. All three say that something macabre took place.

Ampe Rogerio. Rede Angola. Accampamento_Sume_Huambo_AR-233-580x361

That such an event can take place 13 years after the ruling MPLA signed its landmark peace accord with UNITA, effectively ending Angola’s 27-year civil war, is cause for great concern. It underscores the regime’s deep, systemic unease with sectors of the public that it doesn’t control, including certain religious groups, human rights activists, opposition parties, and protesting youth, and their willingness to use disproportionate violence against these groups.

While the state acts violently, it speaks of peace. The government goes to great pains to highlight the country’s thirteen years of peace as an act entirely of its own making and less that of the Angolan people. State media refer repeatedly to President José Eduardo dos Santos as the Architect of Peace, adding another brick in the wall of his cult of personality. Peace has allowed for our national reconstruction. Peace has allowed for our economic boom. Peace has allowed for the creation of our billionaires, our Marginal, our Miss Angola pageant, our takeover of Lisbon’s expensive Avenida da Liberdade and half their banks to boot. It’s a discourse that removes the Angolan people from the equation and casts them not as willing participants of peace and an essential part of its maintenance, but as beneficiaries who owe something to the state.

Thus, peace is brandished as a weapon. Speaking ill of the government or complaining about it means that you don’t want the peace it’s so generously given you. Protesting against the gross mismanagement of public funds means you are a nuisance and not invested in peace. Asking too many questions means you don’t like peace. Protesting about it in the streets means you actively want a return to war. The government’s official mouthpieces — the national newspaper and the national television channel (the only ones with national reach) — use this line of thinking to devastating effect.

For example, the regime has actively promoted violence against peaceful, law-abiding demonstrators as a way to “keep the peace.” One of the most notorious examples of this was when an unidentified man, using a pseudonym, was broadcast live during the nightly news program physically threatening demonstrators with violence if they did not stop their (tiny) public protests. He was doing so, he said, in order to maintain peace.

It’s important to note that this use of peace as a weapon to silence criticism and stifle civic conscience isn’t just limited to rhetoric. During the wave of (tiny) anti-government protests in Luanda (in 2011, 2012, and 2013), state-sponsored militias carried out brutal attacks against unarmed youth demonstrators both during and before the protests. But the sheer economic reality of this mindset is even more revealing. As Tom Burgis writes in his book, The Looting Machine,

Angola’s 2013 budget allocated 18 percent of public spending to defense and public order, 5 percent to health, and 8 percent to education. That means the government spent 1.4 times as much on defense as it did on health and schools combined. By comparison, the UK spent four times as much on health and education as on defense. Angola spends a greater share of its budget on the military than South Africa’s apartheid government did during the 1980s, when it was seeking to crushing mounting resistance at home and was fomenting conflict in its neighbors.

That a post-conflict nation is spending so much of its budget on defense when its population is woefully undereducated and its health system oversees one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world is frankly maddening. Angola has wasted a decade of double-digit economic growth and the highest oil prices in its history on guns. During peacetime.

As Kalupeteka’s sect can attest, the country’s heavily-armed security force doesn’t need much provocation to “enforce peace.” Even if it means combating its own population.

Swaziland’s Bushfire is Spreading: A music festival review

‘Yoh, Swaziland is hot’ says The Soil’s Buhle Mda as she melts onto the main stage at MTN Bushfire festival. And it was. 25,000 people were gathered in Swaziland last weekend for the kingdom’s international music festival – not too shabby for a nation of under 1.5 million people. This is a festival which carries the overarching aim of ‘igniting a collective response for social change’. Black African music, cultures and languages are foregrounded. The voices singing in Zulu to The Soil on that Sunday (‘it was a Sunday, ubuhle bakhe took my breath away’) far overpowered those joining in with The Parlotones and their default rock during the set before. A large portion of the line up consisted of Swazi musicians, and from the remainder, the appreciation shown for Swaziland and its people was overwhelming. Ntsika Ngxanga from The Soil echoed the sentiments of other South African artists when he stressed how important the refuge and solidarity from Swaziland was during Apartheid; comments which add weight when we consider the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa.   

It came as a great surprise, then, when the SA Times Live tossed out this piece on the exclusion of Swazi people from the festival. The writer appears to have confused Bushfire with some other festival, probably in Switzerland. According to them, ‘Swaziland’s citizens stood sadly outside of the festival they hosted’. (Swazis going about their business on the road to Malkerns are transformed into Ntsika’s refugees, exiled from their motherland). The police and musicians were the only locals to receive free tickets to the festival. And the amount of Swazis on the line up was pitiful.

Meanwhile, in Sw-azi-land, tickets sales within the kingdom far outnumbered those from other countries, and international ticket sales closed long before national ones in order to ensure that the bulk of tickets were sold locally. Educators, artists and entrepreneurs were amongst a multitude of locals who came to Bushfire free of charge. The kombis around Mbabane, eZulwini and Manzini have been abuzz with ‘Bushfyaah’ for weeks. Most importantly a third of the international line up is from the host-country, despite the fact that its music industry is extremely meager compared to the other countries that were represented. Bushfire is just as much about promoting Swaziland’s artists to an international audience as it is about showcasing international artists in Swaziland.

The fact is that we would have a hard time to find a festival that bridges the gap between the global and the local as well as Bushfire does. It is all too easy for major festivals to simply superimpose themselves onto their location, with hardly a glance to the people who occupy that space for the entire year. Yes, it’s impossible to avoid this completely –- even with the relatively low ticket prices, many Swazis cannot afford to dish out E600. But Bushfire does its best to compensate for this, with a series of outreach programmes that puts your average NGO to shame. There is the annual Arts Round Table discussion which sees 50 local artists and creative industry workers coming together to ‘increase knowledge sharing within the artistic community and equip individuals and organisations with skills to succeed as professionals within the creative sector’. This year there was a free performance at the nearby Mahlanya market by Tonik and Friends the day before the festival commenced. Since 2010, Bushfire Festival has been prefaced by the Schools Festival – an entire 3 days of creative workshops for 1000 Swazi high school students and their teachers by international facilitators such as Gcina Mhlope. The key goal of the Schools Festival is to expose Swazi students, who have no formal arts and culture curriculum in their public schools, to the arts. It is an invaluable event for Swaziland, one that recognizes art as a vital form of expression in the face of an education system which denies this. It ensures that there is a pool of educators and young people who are invested in the growth and spread of the arts in their kingdom. Ultimately, it wants to see a formal arts curriculum implemented in schools.

IMG_0026

Image via the author

Then there is the creation of the Firefest Route, the archipelago of allied festivals across Southern Africa, which allows musicians to receive exposure in multiple countries, and facilitates pan-African collaborations. For 2015, the offspring of this festival circuit include Swaziland’s Afro-soul singer Floewe’s performance at Azgo festival in Mozambique, and Bholoja’s collaboration with Bongeziwe Mabandla on Bushfire’s Main stage. Bushfire is first and foremost a platform for African musicians to gather from and share with each other. It comes as no coincidence that Swaziland, with the renowned warmth and peacefulness of its people, is the country to host this beacon of inclusivity and diversity.

Yebo, eSwatini kuya shisa. Yes, Swaziland is hot. And Bushfire spreads.

Rhodes Must Fall at Oxford (too)

Last month the Oxford Union (a student debating club) advertised a drink named ‘The Colonial Comeback!’ as its featured cocktail for a debate on whether Britain owes reparations to her former colonies. The drink was a strange mix – exotic, if you will – and the flyer was complete with a photograph of chained black hands.

Perhaps the blatant allusions to slavery and the formerly conquered continent were comical for the flyer’s designers. Maybe they even felt a touch of nostalgia, a sense of longing for the good old days.

Oxford Union flyer

To be honest, it’s not surprising. We in the West are fed a tainted version of history that depicts one part of the world as the beacon of hope and intelligence, the other as primitive and helpless. This narrative is fueled by western media and educational institutions that carefully select images and stories portraying the Other (Africa in particular) as an undifferentiated mass wrought with disease, war, malnutrition, and so on.

If you don’t critically examine those images and question their validity, you fall into a trap. You see Africa as ‘the hopeless continent.’ You deny an entire continent its dignity. You also deny the fact that Europe benefitted immeasurably by pillaging the land and dehumanizing the people of the colonies. This history has material, economic and social consequences today. It does not sit discreetly in the past.

We have been at Oxford for a year as master’s students in the African Studies Centre. We – who are from Africa and the West – have realised that too many people are still blinded by a worldview inherited from the colonial era. We are all a product of our lived realities and of our education, and it appears many of Oxford’s students arrive here with a highly backward, jaded perspective of the world. What does that say about our collective future?

This is Oxford. Its students are supposed to be the best and the brightest, the future leaders of this world. But true intelligence requires intellectual courage, and intellectual courage requires the capacity to identify and challenge your own assumptions and those of your society. The fact that a slave’s hands can be used to make a joke at an institution founded on critical debate is proof that we need to reinvigorate this practice.

We have to stop ignoring the blatant prejudices that persist in our ‘modern’ and ‘transformed’ society. Spectacular, physical violence is enabled by symbolic violence — the violence of words and images. Therein lies the problem. If we are blind to symbolic violence, then we open the door for real, tangible violence — whether it is bloody and physical, subtle and misogynist, or economic and deeply entrenched.

Frantz Fanon described colonialism as fundamentally about an unequal arrangement of spatial relations. In 2015, at the University of Cape Town, Achille Mbembe insists decolonization requires the deprivatization of what should be public spaces. This means our universities should not be dominated by a chauvinistic epistemological order that is blind to what it owes to orders of knowledge it considers “other.” They should be spaces of transformation where ideas are contested by students and academics alike.

But instead our most important intellectual spaces remain privatized by the same privileged few who benefited most from our colonial past.

Two weeks ago, South African writer Margie Orford addressed Oxford’s African Studies Centre about the violence that haunts South Africa. Speaking about Cape Town, a city still divided along the racial lines drawn by colonialism and apartheid, she described slavery as “a rock hidden in the depths of the past that continues to move the surface of the present.”

Slavery was based on the systematic dehumanization of people. It corrupted the master and it eviscerated the slave. Those who think they are removed from its legacy, clean of it, are not only its historical benefactors, but are complicit in its central lie: that one person can decide the humanity of another. Colonialism was built on the same principle, recast as the ‘civilizing’ mission and perceived to be re-humanization on ‘enlightened’ terms.

That the Oxford Union is able to make colonialism into a joke is a sign of just how narrow and self-justificatory its worldview is, how archaic, how reactionary. That is a failing of its institutional culture. But transformative potential is there, too, sitting in its benches, staring it in the face. Oxford, and even the Union, is a place full of people from all over the world who know what it is to be the descendants of the enslaved, of the colonized. All these “other” people are here, too.

But the Other is a fallacy. That dichotomy never actually existed: it had to be invented, and then asserted by the imperial and colonial powers. Those who trivialize it fail imaginatively and morally. They demonstrate that they are not free of the colonial mindset.

So where do we go from here? We’ll defer to the Rhodes Must Fall movement, begun by students in Cape Town and now active here at Oxford:

“It must be emphasised that this movement is about more than Rhodes. Rhodes, as an agent of empire, signifies a perspective that is the product of a seemingly innocuous approach to education. He is the product of an institutional culture and a colonization of the mind that reaches far more deeply than the figure of one individual.

So for Rhodes to truly fall Rhodes must first stand.

Rhodes must be made to stand, revealed for what he really represents: the mutually productive culture of violence, racism, patriarchy and colonialism that to this day remains alive, aided and abetted by the University of Oxford, which continues to stand as an uncritical beneficiary of empire.”

The flyer was not an honest mistake. It was a signal that symbolic violence and racism are alive and well. If the Oxford Union is serious about addressing these issues, then it should join the Rhodes Must Fall at Oxford movement.

For this is the beginning of the movement, not an isolated incident that ends with an apology. We — and people everywhere — have had enough of the apologetics of empire, of weak justifications for racism and misogyny.

The Rhodes Must Fall movement is starting a much-needed conversation about the institutional roots of these issues at Oxford. Hopefully that conversation will lead to solutions.

In the words of The Coup: “I got faith in the people and they power to fight / We gon’ make the struggle blossom like a flower to light.”

We are aware of the irony of writing about this from our position within an extremely privileged space. It is problematic that we, as students from African countries or students interested in African countries, are doing this part of our work all the way over here. This distance is one of the legacies of the problems we discuss. We also believe in the absolute necessity of criticism from within. These institutions were built on the principles of free thought and intellectual rigor, and so they need to listen to those they teach.

“Lots of Little Kenyas” — a conversation with Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

The novelist Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor was kind enough to stop by Africa is a Country HQ while she was in New York for the PEN festival. Over tea and hibiscus-flavoured doughnuts, we talked about all sorts of things: from reimagining the Indian Ocean, to the mini-bus ride she took with Binyavanga Wainaina during post-electoral violence, to the new generation of creative talent coming up in Nairobi right now

Thanks to Yvonne for the many rich insights she shared. I hope you enjoy.

Here’s what Julianne Okot Bitek had to say about “Dust” as she put it forward for our Book Recommendations of 2014:

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor wrote Dust for me. For once, I’m a perfect reader; both my creative and academic curiosities are satisfied. Dust tackles some big questions inside the story of a family tragedy — a man is killed right at the beginning of the novel and his sister wants to know why. What does Kenya mean? How do English, Swahili, Silence and Memory serve as national languages? Ah, but the beauty of the novel lies in Owuor’s excellent ear. She uses Luo, Kikuyu, Swahili, Turkana among other Kenyan languages liberally and nails local accents so beautifully it makes me want to cry. Msee, and I can hear it. Mzee, and I know that it’s someone else and where he or she is from. If Kenya is a colonial construct, it’s also a collection of myths. “You can’t live in the songs of people who do not know your name,” is a cynical refrain, but perhaps, some day we can. For those who need verbs to temper the lyrical prose, be assured that I found three: see, feel, hear. It’s a very good novel. Read it.

We’ve been mainly text-based up to now on AIAC, but we’re going more and more multimedia: check out our regular podcast (a mixture of talk and music MC’d by our very own Chief Boima) and also Africa is a Country TV. Look out for more original audio interviews on literature, politics, arts, and music — right here!

Why would you only watch Canada at Canada’s World Cup?

In some ways all women are the same.  We bleed every moon until you hit a certain age and then we all get hot flashes. We like sex even though we are told we should not like sex. We have sex. We have babies. White women, brown women, yellow women, black. We are all the same. But, that’s where the similarities end.

When the whole country roars for Canada once every four years or at an Olympics when a group of women kick a ball around, I rarely join in. It’s just like any old hockey game to me. I have little in common with those who play except that we menstruate and can have babies. I am talking about football, what they call soccer in Canada. I will still call it football.

Canada is not a football country. Try all you want. It is the world’s game and that football world does not include Canada you see. Except amongst a small minority that live in discrete pockets around the country; mostly in Toronto, the football world was never embraced by Canada. It does not know how. I don’t understand why Canada bid for these games when we could not even provide a proper grass surface. But most of Canadian mainstream media went nuts going on about the wonderful Canadian women’s team; even the coach got on board writing a column about the team every day in a sports section. Some articles talked about the revolution and evolution of the women’s game but only through Canadian eyes seeing Canadian women in a country that couldn’t give a bollocks about football. Despite best intentions, they seemed hollow and dishonest to me. And worse, unwelcoming to the women of the world. Media choreographed to draw as many Canadian eyes to the TV screen. Mostly white eyes in a mostly white country. 

I daresay Toronto being the most multicultural and least white city in Canada, if not the world, is where football is most celebrated in all of North America. Not one single game in this women’s world cup is being played in Toronto.  In my case it’s not necessarily that I want to watch Canada but the likes of Nigeria, Cameroon, even Japan, Korea, Brazil.

Here’s the thing. This world cup is not about Canada. Canada who will forever carry the shame of having made the women of the world play on plastic matting that has green weird stuff on it.  Plastic stuff that heats up like a stove top and make your feet so hot that it’s nasty uncomfortable. Canada has no business tooting its own horn when it did not even have the decency to give the world a watered field of grass.

World Cups are called World Cups because they are about the world. There was something weird about eyeballing the Canadian team over and over because it reinforced that the media was out of touch with the international nature of football, choosing jingoism instead.

The coverage, as much as the grounds, just seems super artificial.  And the weekend’s opening games didn’t help.  The big European teams thrashed newcomers from poorer countries with tiny football budgets.  Except for New Zealand which was beaten 1-0 by Netherlands the others were non-European or non-Western. Ivory Coast, China, Thailand. Joke is it was a last minute soft penalty shot which will remain controversial that won Canada that game against China which would’ve ended drawn. Cathal Kelly wrote a fine piece on that and in the comments section and on twitter he got beat up by the “see Canada do Canada” league.     

But despite my worst fears that the games would die an early death, I’d been dreaming of African football as I always do when I hear of a World Cup and football.  You see it’s an old tradition.  Every world cup I thrill at the Africans who come to the party and always give so much joy. Old habits die hard and I’ve been counting on the Africans.  I was not looking to Canada or Germany for that. It was Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Cameroon. I needed my fix. But looking at my twitter feed or indeed the local papers it felt like I was the only person in Canada who had turned their mind towards African teams.  Next to nothing was written about them in the media. Oshoala and Sunday are in town but no one interviews them or their coach. But the Canadian coach writes daily in the papers over and over about the same team? Will they profile Gaelle Enganamouit after she became the first African player to score a hat-trick at a senior World Cup?

After the thrashing that Ivory Coast took at hands of Germany I worried that economics had a hand in this. That the low budgets and dearth of facilities of poorer countries would scuttle their progress. But I need not have worried.  Because the Africans always deliver. Monday was opening day of the Women’s World Cup.  It was not Saturday and not on Sunday. But when Sunday came to play on Monday. Nigeria. Cameroon. The party started on Monday. Budget or no budget, the Africans always bring an unbeatable spirit to the games that you don’t see in any of the other teams. And that changes everything.

It is indeed the Football World Cup and Nigeria and Cameroon are in the house. Rejoice. Football always wins in the end.  And here’s to the women of the World.

Time of the pathetic hero

Andrew Miller’s a Jozi-based freelance scribe. Years spent with a muscle disease have allowed the writer to patiently hone his writing craft as well as flex his philosophical biceps with Jozi’s artists, writers and passers by at his dinner table in Melville, Johannesburg. A tireless six years of editorial bench pressing has saw him produce his very first novel known as Dub Steps, which won Dinaane Debut Fiction Award. Kagiso Mnisi speaks to him about the writerly life and white male privilidge, among other things. Tseliso Monaheng shot a video segment which you can watch here.

Peering into the sci-fi we meet Miller’s chief character, Roy Fotheringham, who is neither an anti-hero nor intent on saving the day. He is a plain old pathetic as a human being. There is no shred of redemption in Roy as his middle-aged frame continuously gets gushed and mangled by past and present failures.

Miller’s version of the future is of immersive virtual reality, hyper-augmentations, and holograms. It presents an alternative paradigm of experience. After a night of binge-drinking, Fotheringham is thrust into a still Joburg without human activity, just “the occasional bark of what must have been a dog” and roaming “free pigs.” With a chip on his shoulder the chief character meanders the country and circumlocutes back to Jozi. His relations to the few people he encounters further precipitates his self-loathing amidst an air of survival.

Kagiso Mnisi: You cut your teeth in the Jozi poetry scene of the late 90s and late 2000s. This was a time when it was a thing to be a poet. How would you describe the stories that emerged? And did you ever carve yourself a space in that scene?

Andrew Miller: For me it was an interesting time because being a whitie in the city was interesting thing and the only reason why I got into that scene was because my wife and I had opened a gallery, so there was ample exposure to the wave of poetry that had mushroomed. You would have poets wanting to use our space for their sessions and being a writer myself I thought it fit to participate. So for me it was a very exciting time and having viewed poetry as no-hoper, much of the excitement came from being immersed in the militantly creative abyss that Jozi poetry scene was. I was inspired by the socially angry stuff spat by poets. The hard core polemic posturing was a thing of the times.

You have two independently published works, namely Hintsa’s Ghost and Getting Up. The former is an anthology of poetry and the latter a collection of essays. How was it going through the indie route to produce these?

Yeah, we started a little independent publishing company with a couple of people. It was interesting because I being the only whitie in the house brought on a perception that I possessed mlungu [white] power. This is a perception that one has access to cash and corporate networks. And all of us as a group were interested to see whether that theoretical access to this monied world of corporates could be leveraged to everyone’s advantage. And so we experimented with what it would be like to publish what was happening in the city at the time. For me Hintsa’s Ghost was a nice little poetry book that worked out well. Getting Up was extremely flawed in every possible way. There was some material that  was good in it. However, I think it could have been a better book if I had been exposed to an editor. That is part of the problem if you’re a writer being involved in publishing, designing and marketing the book. You kind of lose your editorial head, which is what happened.

Literature, or the written word at large, mostly serves the age it lives in. Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome To Our Hillbrow took a stab at inner city blues post ’94 as well as the contradictions prevalent in an urban Jozi. Kgafela oa Magogodi offered the experimental Itchy City which chronicled the millennial hustle and bustle of Jozi. How is Dub Steps a tale of its times — or its future times, for that matter?

I think it reflects the weirdness technology has brought us, and continues to bring us. We’re only at the very beginning of the techno revolution and yet the changes in the way we communicate, and what we seek to achieve through communication, have been profound. Within this context I think it also reflects just how fragile South African society is at the level of human relationships. We’re living in an era of Hyper Morality – supported by ubiquitous communication and a very obvious communication obsession – but we struggle to speak to each other in the most basic way.

Your main character, Roy, in Dub Steps is neither a hero nor an antihero in the traditional sense. You’ve even went on to describe him as pathetic. Why did you opt to create such a figure?

He became alive as I wrote him, and he grew to be more narcissistic and self-referential as the story grew. I guess this reflects in some way my reality over the last decade, where I’ve been one of few white people working in an office full of black people. In this context, it’s blindingly obvious how much your peers have to carry you along with them in terms of language and culture. I was always very grateful to have been dragged by my peers with such grace and humour during our shared office time. Roy – as a pathetic hero – reflects all this, which is, I think, a very common South African paradigm at the moment. There’s always a hint that he could come to life and act in a meaningful way, but he never does. Now that the book is done and out there, this is probably my favourite part about it. The obviously pathetic character of the protagonist — it’s a very South African thing.

In the post-apocalyptic world of Dub Steps, human relations are put to the test in a ‘new desolate world’, what would you say is the greatest challenge in modern day Joburg for co-existence?

History. Each individual has a choice to make about where history begins, and what that means in terms of how we interact. Does our history start in 1994? 1948? 1913? During the hundred years war in the Eastern Cape? How you choose to answer that question dictates a great deal about how you choose to behave — commercially and socially — in modern Joburg. Because we all make such different choices as to where history begins, it’s very easy to get caught on the wrong side of assumptions you didn’t even know you had. #Rhodesmustfall is just the beginning, in my view, of the SA history challenge. Joburg, because it is often ahead of the rest of the country in terms of racial, social and class interaction, will face this challenge first.

We all know that the best-selling formats here in South Africa are sports autobiographies; political analyses by opinianistas; motivational books and, of course, CSI-type hack work packaged as literature by some folks at Primedia. You on the other hand went on to write a sci-fi riddled with popular urban cultural paraphernalia. Where is the method in that madness?

The best-selling formula is well-established in SA, as you say, but it only serves a tiny portion of the populace. When you line real life up against what’s on the shelves and on the TV, it’s obvious that huge swathes of local culture, lives and lifestyles aren’t represented. I wanted to write a story for people who listen to hip hop and dance music; who make art and hold street fashion shows and who dress like bums and avoid the office block and the call centre as much as possible. [People] who push for something new and different through things like poetry and art. There are a lot of young and not-so-young people out there who live in this context. I wanted to write something for them. I also wanted to write a story in the classic sense, where the polemic content lives well below the surface — a story that entertains, first and foremost. I’m not sure whether there’s any commercial logic to this approach, but at least I enjoyed the process.

The only safe thing to talk about in Eritrea is Football

Having lived all my life in Eritrea, I left the country in January 2012. Some European countries have recently claimed the situation in Eritrea has improved in order to justify accepting less Eritrean refugees. I wanted to share my firsthand experience of what daily life is like in Eritrea – a country with the highest ratio of imprisoned journalists that does not allow international media. Yesterday, a new report from the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea said “It is not law that rules Eritreans – but fear.”

National ceremonies to distract from a grim reality

Eritrea is a country engaged in continuous cycles of ceremonies. The Independence Day celebration (May 24) goes on for about ten days in which the whole country shuts down and the media continuously broadcast footage of the armed struggle. It is followed by Martyr’s Day (June 20) and then a ten days long National Festival. After the festival comes the Commemoration of the Armed Struggle (September 1). Those nationalistic holidays are coupled with Christian and Muslim holidays; all are broadcast live on the national TV station.

Fish is rarity in a country that has more than 1000 kms (621 miles) of sea coast. Mining is booming, but has hardly improved the deteriorating living conditions. Government employees are underpaid and therefore disfranchised. Government salaries that were restructured in 1994 do not allow for incremental raises or promotions – despite that a decade later, inflation has increased by 700 percent. With the current inflation rate, a Minister’s gross monthly salary is equivalent to less than $100.00. As a result, corruption is rampant. Private businesses were crippled when the government tightened its import policy in mid-2003. The ruling party’s company, Red Sea Corporation (09) is the sole importer of goods. Basic food commodities are rationed and allocated to families, often based on their obedience in attending party meetings and doing mandatory community work.

A growing penitentiary state

The three bodies of government remain dysfunctional. The military commanders continue to assume the highest authority. With their unlimited power to issue arbitrary arrests, the country has turned into one big penitentiary state with numberless underground prisons. As reported by Amnesty International, there are currently more than 10,000 prisoners of conscience.

Although every Eritrean is by default a member of the Defense Army, the government also started another program in 2012. It decreed all government employees and others demobilized from the army for medical reasons would be enlisted in the reserve army, known as the militia. All civilians (aged 18 – 70) with the exception of ministers are now required to go to military drilling. Every member of the militia is required to report regularly to guard major government institutions and residences. All are armed. In addition to the frequent military training, members of the militia are also forced to leave their homes for weeks at a time to do manual labor in the dams being built around the capital.

Since 2003, the last year of secondary school education has been taught in the military training center, Sawa. (The only university, University of Asmara, was officially closed in February 2006.) In the last year of secondary school, students combine military training and academic studies amid difficult weather and acute shortages of basic supplies. At the beginning students at the colleges were also doing regular military training and the colleges were under the command of the military training center. Although the military interference in the colleges has slowly eased, students continue to be watched and organized under close scrutiny of the ruling party and its many manifestations. Every summer, substantial students and young lecturers from the colleges attend a mandatory political indoctrination program in a desolate place far from the capital called Nakfa.

Despite a shoot-to-kill army along the border, thousands flee daily

The country’s manpower and capital have fled the country. Despite that there is not currently an armed conflict, the country has 357,400 registered refugees from a population of 6 million people. This makes it second to Syria in terms of the numbers of refugees.

But leaving the country is not as easy as the staggering figures indicate. From age 6 onward, Eritreans cannot leave the country officially unless they are granted permission by the government for ‘exceptional conditions’ – like government delegates or critical medical reasons that go through a tedious screening process. The young people who are fleeing the country daily must navigate a dangerous journey across tightly secured borders guarded by an army that follows a “shoot-to-kill” policy. In very complex situations, where the border guards turn into smugglers and the security personnel selectively negotiate, some people have to pay sums of $5,000 to be smuggled by cars from the capital.

A boy collects empty canisters to sell on the streets of Asmara.

A boy collects empty canisters to sell on the streets of Asmara.

 

The only safe thing to talk about is football

The remaining young people are stranded in Eritrea with few options. Religious practice, like any other form of individual freedom, is highly controlled. The government closed all Pentecostal churches and nationalized their properties in May 2002. Only the official Islam, Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Protestant, and Catholic faiths are allowed. Believers of the growing Pentecostal churches have to practice in hiding under the vigilant eyes of state security. If they are caught, they are imprisoned in unusual military prison centers in very tight and small ship containers until they renounce their faith.

The sole alcoholic beverage and beer factory, run by the ruling party, produces a limited quantity of alcohol; alcoholic drinks are also rationed. It is only for this reason that substance abuse is not a common trend among young people living in a state of limbo. As communication with outside world is nearly impossible, people take refuge by watching European football and re-runs of Arabic dubbed Turkish soap operas; the often crowded cinema houses broadcast live football matches of Premier League or La Liga. The usual discussions and bets in public spaces are only about football. Most youth wear jerseys of the European clubs; even the President watches football and is a public Arsenal fan.

My experience of life in Eritrea is best captured in the Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laâbi’s poem, “In Praise of Defeat.” As Laâbi describes: “Death has grown weary/Even peace is ugly,” because in the poet’s description, “The fear of living/has replaced/ the fear of dying.”

Why were Kenyans tweeting #52YearsofSufferinginNEP on this year’s Independence Day?

Last week was Madaraka/Independence Day in Kenya, and it was marked by lots of government fanfare and spectacle. While many did voluntarily turn up at the stadium to be part of these state celebrations (unless you were part of the National Youth Service and your boss told you you that you had better show up with your green shirt to listen to the president), many more remained at home and unconvinced about this independence.

Notwithstanding the fact that there was definitely enough jingoism at these celebrations to provoke a Kenyan space launch (history shows that even a phantom moon landing works just fine), the ruse, if there ever was a successful one, has definitely been washed out of our eyes as the majority of our people suffer from such violences that even ubiquitous podium declarations of “independence” “indivisibility” and “sovereignty” cannot cover these up.

Trending that same day, the hashtag #52yearsofsufferinginNEP challenged these veneers of freedom and showed just how North Eastern Kenya folks felt about Madaraka Day. People from places like Garissa, Mandera and Dadaab have seen their homes made synonymous with terror and al-Shabaab.

“52 years of suffering in NEP” is not a chance statement. The central idea was clear: when the promise of Kenyan freedom is up for discussion, not every Kenyan counts (despite Uhuru’s assertions otherwise). Here is a snapshot of some of the tweets from #52yearsofsufferinginNEP.

Our County Gov't are celebrating Madaraka Day yet many youth r missing after been taken away by security agents #52YearsOfSufferingInNEP

— Mohamed hassan (@Emka09) June 1, 2015

13 helicopters to fly dignitaries to functions n zero choppers to take officers for rescue mission in #Garissa #52YearsOfSufferingInNEP

— Kenya West© (@KinyanBoy) June 1, 2015

Constitution is suspended in NFD, martial law is in full force #52YearsOfSufferingInNEP

— Nomad (@Hudheifa_Aden) June 1, 2015

#52YearsOfSufferingInNEP: Police harassment, extortion, home invasions, physical violence and massacres.

— Mo SheikHz (@MosheikHz) June 1, 2015

Early on in his speech Uhuru had to correct himself when, instead of saying “adorn our freedoms with wholesome values,” he accidentally said that these “freedoms” should be “adorned with “wholesale values” (check out Madaraka Day speech at 6:13 minutes). Bearing in mind the current situation documented above, could this have been a Freudian slip?

One of my favourite tweets was from @Farhiyaa4, who said:

When NEP hear is madaraka day and realize they have been suffering since madaraka day. #52YearsOfSufferingInNEP pic.twitter.com/V7c1qyBWOh

— Ina Cabdulqadir (@Farhiyaa4) June 1, 2015

Nothing appears to ever change in “NEP.”

Currently, insecurity has necessitated the closure of 90 schools. What’s more, poor roads are being washed away by the rains and these compound the abject poverty and poor services that have been made the norm in this part of Kenya.

Garissa hospital is also the only hospital facility in the country where, in 2011, a stray cat was reported to have climbed in through a window and began to eat the body of a still born baby who was left lying on the table.

And yet these counties remain our scapegoats?

While the idea of independence may be contested in Kenya broadly, this hashtag shows that its grand claims for freedom and justice remain much more ironic in places in the North. And with the violences unabated in this part of our world and further extreme measures looming in the horizon, Madaraka Day is definitely an unsuitable name for June 1. Just like Uhuru may be a very ironic name for our president.

Justice in a Portuguese slave store

Dona Ana Joaquina dos Santos e Silva was the most renowned high society hostess of 19th century Luanda. She was an Angolan of African and Portuguese descent. She made her money by selling other Angolans and shipping them to slavery in the Americas.

The person who first told me about Dona Ana Joaquina was Rafael Marques. It must have been 2001. We were driving through Luanda’s Cidade Baixa, the downtown which, at the beginning of this century, was still defined by dank and sometimes half-ruined colonial buildings. Signboards with the names of Portuguese and Brazilian companies staked out the building sites, where the Baixa of today – the Baixa of glassy banks and corporate headquarters – was starting to push upwards through the compost of the old.

One construction site was different. Concrete was still the raw material, but on the façade of this new building the grey stuff was being moulded into the ledges and cornices more typical of the buildings that were crumbling nearby. This was the former home and warehouse of Dona Ana Joaquina. A mix-up somewhere in government – the pursuit of profit coming up against nostalgia for the city’s slaving past – had led to an order to demolish the building, and then to another order to rebuild it. The new-old building was to be put to use as a court of justice. Rafael explained all this with his relish for the absurd that he deploys as a way of dealing with a country in which the absurd is the stuff of everyday life.

It was in this facsimile of a slave house that Rafael has stood trial over the past few months, facing charges of libel brought by Angolan generals turned mining magnates who felt offended by his exposure of human rights abuses in the diamond industry. The few photos that were sneaked out of the court before the session was closed to the public showed light-skinned generals deploying the might of the state against a lone black journalist: a sight that might have surprised those unfamiliar with Angola’s race politics.

Today’s Angolan elite has become richer than ever before on the back of petroleum sales, but it owes its ascendancy to the slave economy of centuries past. Although the Angolan coast was for hundreds of years under the political control of Portugal, colonisation was a relatively hands-off affair, and the rulers of the metropole were content to leave the running of the economy to a class of mixed-race and creole Angolans. (For an exploration of the contradictions that this threw up, read José Eduardo Agualusa’s Nação Crioula, a novel in which the character of Gabriela Santamarinha is based, I suspect, on Dona Ana Joaquina.)

Large-scale colonial settlement in Angola began only after the Second World War, displacing the old creole elite from its position of dominance in commerce and administration. This prompted the children of this elite to turn against the colonial system that had favoured their ancestors, and thus began the current of nationalist thought that gave rise to the MPLA. The class and racial origins of the MPLA were deployed, albeit cynically, by UNITA’s leaders as ideological fuel in mobilising against the state in the Angolan interior. In Luanda, the uprising of 27 May 1977 by the former minister Nito Alves was driven by grievance at what Alves perceived as the domination of the party by a white and mixed-race elite. The MPLA version of events in turn paints Alves as an anti-white racist.

In a half-century of existence the MPLA has had two leaders, both of them sufficiently black to make Angola look like an African country on the world stage. Yet the economic and military underpinnings of power are paler of complexion. Only recently has the Angolan military acquired a black commander in chief, a general who defected from UNITA during the peace process of the early 1990s. The president’s security still depends on a group of light-skinned men, useful because they will never have the popular legitimacy to stage a coup, who are rewarded for their loyalty with mining concessions. Rafael Marques was convicted of criminal libel because he exposed the abusive manner in which these concessions are managed.

The Angolan elite has been good at covering its traces. The fact that the MPLA aligned itself against apartheid in the 1970s and 1980s allowed its leaders acceptance as the good guys, as if South Africa was the only country whose race politics mattered. That ruling class has a longer history, though. And central to that history is the traffic in human life that took place in houses like that of Dona Ana Joaquina.

Decolonizing the University

This text is a transcription of a talk given at Azania House, Bremner Building, University of Cape Town, April 2015.

I want to thank you all for this wonderful invitation to be a part of the conversations you have been having here at UCT, and at Azania House. We, those outside your university, and at other universities, down the road and across the country, are watching with great enthusiasm and inspired by the courage and thoughtfulness with which you are conducting this moment of subversion. I have to say that I am in particular very encouraged by the connections you have made between subjections of different kinds, particularly two very neglected forms of subjection — in the sphere of knowledge production, and in the sphere of gender and sexuality. These are remarkable connections and the kind of leadership that is visible to those of us on the outside, shows a genuine effort to unsettle imperial hubris, but also patriarchal power relations.

I have been asked to speak on “Decolonizing the University”, and I am going to say a few things that I think don’t need saying here, because the discussions you have had are already ahead of many of us in thinking about this question. But the first thing I suppose I would say is that we — those of us in pockets all around the country – UWC, Unisa, Rhodes, Fort Hare — many pockets — are all dealing with this question of what to do with the Universities we have inherited within the larger question of justice and the transformations of the wrongs of apartheid. I would like to think of these wrongs of apartheid as violences.

I want to make a distinction between three kinds of violences we confront in South Africa, and that we inherited.

The first is political violence, the second economic violence, and the third epistemic violence. Each of these violences — political, economic, and epistemic — carries with them demands for justice. I will say that  justice in relation to the first two that we have probably spent most of our time focusing on, and it is  the first two that animate most of our political discourse and oppositional discourse.

Let me elaborate. The history of state formation in South Africa is the history of settler colonialism. And at the heart of settler colonialism is the removal, decimation, alienation and dispossession of the population that was there by an external grouping. The magical trick that settler colonialism performs is to denaturalize the right to belong of the local population — to make them foreigners, while naturalizing the foreigner as the person who has the right to belong. Foreigners become natives and natives become foreigners. You know that old anecdote — “they came with the bible and we had the land, they told us to close our eyes. We opened our eyes, and we had the bible, but they had the land”. This magical trick of settler colonialism was  a political decision, legitimated through law and enacted and administered by a bureaucracy. Millions of people moved and removed and separated and thousands violently repressed for resisting. The violence of migrant labour, of forced removals and dislocated families, this is the political violence we inherited.

By political justice I mean the justice through which this particular wrong was righted. The justice we answered this injustice with could have followed two options. The first could have been, following much of the experience of other African countries who inherited such a problem, was to turn the tables — if the foreigner was made native and the native made foreigner through colonial injustice, postcolonial justice could now make the foreigner once more foreigner, and the native once more native. That was one option. It was exercised as a form of citizenship in many African countries after independence when the question of who belonged where was decided. The other option was to try to decolonize the question of citizenship — by changing the terms that colonialism gave us — foreigner, settler, native — and work towards a form of citizenship which was not about where you are from, but where you are at. This was in many ways remarkable and not the norm for most of the continent. I know there is growing controversy over this, but I will leave it there for now. My point is that political violence was answered through a particular form of political justice.

Economic violence many of us are familiar with and deeply troubled by — it is the reason we have the highest inequality in the world, and racialized poverty and universities that are mostly black and mostly white and mostly rich and mostly poor. If political justice solved the citizenship question, we know it didn’t solve the question of economic justice. I think we are all familiar with the new political movements that have emerged as a result of that problem. And we also might agree that it was, and is, this economic violence that drives  most of the discussion on the transformation of the education system, which focuses on access for those previously excluded. Economic violence and the demand for economic justice is the dominant slogan of our time now.

The third violence, epistemic violence, is perhaps the most difficult one to confront. That’s perhaps because it is so invisible, so naturalized, so part of the ordinary and every day life that it’s hard to talk about. And yet it is perhaps the most important of the three violences. Why would I say that? Well, you have to think a person an animal first in order to treat them like an animal. You have to have a concept of what a human looks like first, in order to misrecognize another human as property or a slave. Epistemic violence is about thought.  And the political and economic effects of that thought. Colonialism’s  political violence and capitalisms’s economic violence had to be thought first. The abstract history of the march of human freedom, let’s not forget, is also the concrete history of conquest, colonialism, patriarchy, and the struggle for equality.

Epistemic violence is then in the very marrow of everything we think is good about our modernity, its concepts and its achievements. If the struggle for political and economic transformation asks where are our black students and where are our black professors, the struggle against epistemic violence adds: and what are we teaching and researching and how are we doing that and why are we doing that?

Because the university is a place of authoritative knowledge, certified knowledge, it is at the heart of epistemic violence. It is where authorized and legitimate knowledge is cultivated, preserved and protected but also changed. More so, when we think of the modern university in Africa. I am not talking about the university in general, since there were famous ancient seats of learning in Africa before colonialism, the Alexandra Museum and Library in Cairo in 3rd Century BC. In Ethiopia as Paul Zeleza reminds us, under the “Zagwe dynasty in the twelfth century” monastic education “included higher education”, and there was “the Qine Bet (School of Hymns), followed by the Zema Bet (School of Poetry, and at the pinnacle was an institution called Metsahift Bet (School of the Holy Books) that provided a broader and more specialized education in religious studies, philosophy, history, and the computation of time and calendar, among various subjects.” There was also of course the “Ez-Zitouna university in Tunis founded in 732. Next came al-Qarawiyyin mosque university established in Fez in 859 by a young migrant female princess from Qairawan (Tunisia), Fatima Al-Fihri. The university attracted students and scholars from Andalusian Spain to West Africa.”

And then there was also course the learning at Timbactou, and so on.

What we are talking about here is the modern European University in the form that is globalized today. That form of the university mostly arrives in the rest of the continent as a postcolonial invention, after independence. South Africa with its settler colonial history has a longer encounter with the university. Being at the heart of epistemic violence, the university  is however not simply, as this moment attests, a conveyor belt of automatons, or robots or ideological zombies of the dominant interests and order. The modern university is also that site of constant invention, contestation, negotiation, subversion and potentially, reinvention.

The concept of decolonizing the university is then also about justice that addresses the epistemic violence of colonial knowledge and colonial thought. In many respects we in South Africa are mafikizolo’s. We are the Johnny come-lately’s to a problem that many before us have grappled with, whether it be early debates at Lovedale college now Fort Hare, the postcolonial reform of education in South Asia and the Middle East, the famous debates on the hill at Dar Es Salaam, the Ibadan and Dakar schools of history, or in its more scary versions the crass Africanization of just about everything in Mobutu’s Zaire. There is much to study and much to learn from. There are many examples to be inspired by, and perhaps too many examples of pitfalls and mistakes. So in our conversations so far, I think the first thing we did was to realize that decolonizing — or having a postcolonial critique of —  in our case humanities and social sciences, was actually an obligation to learning. It was a moment of coming to terms with the realization that our education had equipped us very well to know many things. But it had also equipped us excellently to be ignorant of most of the world and arrogant about our ignorance. This reinforced the heritage of settler colonialism directly or indirectly. We do after all think that we live in the West in South Africa. The assumption in this arrogance of ignorance can be traced to the old mantra of the colonial administrator of India, Thomas Babington MacCauley, who famously quipped: “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” He didn’t even of course bother to say anything about Africa, since he like Hegel concurred that there was no evidence of civilization to be found on this dark continent in the first place. Now this is what we of course call epistemic violence. It authorizes thinking about Others in ways that enables political and economic violence to be enacted on the bodies of subject men and especially women. It also authorizes ignorance since it reinforces the prejudice that there is nothing much to learn from these parts of the world that could make us better, or help us create a better world. That is what we are talking about when we say we have a Eurocentric worldview in our education. It centers the idea of Europe, as a metaphor, and turns all others into bit players or loiterers without intent on the stage of world history, either too lazy to do anything ourselves or always late, and running behind to catch up with Western modernity.

Eurocentrism then is not the same thing as whiteness since we all know that the forms of our modernity which are so celebrated reinforce the idea of who has created the best kind of society that we all should emulate. The equation of Eurocentrism with whiteness (and White Supremacy) misses the fundamental insight of Fanon — that both whiteness and blackness are products of a colonial encounter; as much as the native and the settler are products of that same colonial encounter. Testimony to that is that after independence we have seen that Eurocentric modernizers come in all shades, genders, shapes and sizes, bearing all kinds of passports.

Now, the question might be, well yes, we recognize that we have left out a lot of people from history, and left out Africa from our curriculum. We can resolve this epistemic violence through the justice of now including Africa in the university, naming things and building new statues, and adding a new course to the degree, and adding a book to the syllabus. This is all good, and necessary and important struggles we all wage at the institutions we are in. And we must celebrate the victories when they come.

But we have to ask ourselves always, what more can we do to work towards undoing the epistemic violence of colonial knowledge? Should we settle for a supplemental concept of history, where we now add African Studies onto the existing curriculum with the danger of once more ghettoizing it from the other mainstream disciplines? Or, do we have to reconfigure the entire curriculum in ways that allows us to think the world, now equipped with the intellectual heritages that we have been taught to ignore from across the previously colonized world? Who then will teach the teachers if our existing faculty are limited in interests and expertise? How do we recruit new knowledge into our universities that breaks with geographical and linguistic apartheid so that the antiquated idea of a Department of English can be a department for the  comparative study of Literature? And how do we bridge the continental fault lines between Anglophone, Francophone, Lusophone, and Arabic knowledge? And should a decolonized knowledge project ask questions about the work that the disciplinary forms of knowledge do to reinforce unequal power relations or inhibit our thinking about certain objects of knowledge in particular ways?

Let me give you an example from the research problem I am interested in, which has to do with contemporary political violence and citizenship in Africa, to be more precise: in Northern Congo, in Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, in South Sudan and Sudan, in Rwanda, and in Northern Mali and Libya. Mostly this kind of violence is studied by political scientists. And when you read most of the political science literature on Africa, I will wager most of it we teach comes from certain parts of the world. Most of it has certain concepts and assumptions that they work with. Most of it is premised on the idea that there is an ideal form of the modern state, and some people live in it, and the rest of us live in various degrees of perversions, departures from,   and failures of it. Ours are pathological versions of the modern state. The most empiricist version of this is of the kind of political science that measures our lack of things, through Afro barometers and the like. The most poetic and theoretical you might find, for example, in the writings of the French political scientist on Africa, Jean Francois Bayart, and echoed perhaps unwittingly by my Cameroonian friend who wrote a widely celebrated book ‘on the Postcolony.’ They all tell us that we are pathological deviations of the script of political modernity in one way or another.

To the despair of scholars, many political elites and modernizing nationalists alike, contemporary political violence across the colonized world remains predominantly articulated in terms of identity, all the particular attachments that colonial secular modernity promised to emancipate us from. The promise and hope of liberal political modernity in particular, was that it would offer a political form — the nation-state, a political value — that of universal equality, and that it would cultivate freedom as individualized, with minimal external impediments. Now, what for me might be interesting is if we try to think of contemporary political violence outside of the assumptions of failure. Not to swing the bat in the other way, to celebrate failure as achievement. But rather to not measure or theorize ourselves on the basis of what we are not, in the negative.

If we were to move towards emancipative, less violent and more egalitarian societies in Africa we would have to re-imagine political community as grounded in the particular histories that colonial rule had bequeathed us. If we are fighting over identity questions, as Mahmood Mamdani shows in his work, we might need to better understand how colonial power solidified the distinctions between native and non-native, indigenous and foreigner, race and tribe, in a way that transformed cultural difference into a form of difference that matters politically today.

The teleological assumption of colonial modernity was that freedom, equality, modernity and the market would result in the dissolution and loosening of the hold of particular attachments, whether these be religious or ethnic or racial on the individual, other than the national. Attachments were  consigned to the sphere of ‘culture’ while freedom was designated as that which flourished in the sphere of individualized civic life. If the former was static, fixed, regressive, conservative and traditional, the latter was dynamic, changing, emancipative, modern and progressive. The grounds of a modern political community, coupled to a capitalist market economy, offered then the promise of a peaceful future best suited to the flourishing of human freedom. The corporate versions of Africa Rising and Afropolitanism lives on this hope in many respects. In Africa in particular, the trouble in realizing this image of the good society has been defined as the cultural problem of the persistence of tribalism. We might add now more prominently after Northern Mali and Northern Nigeria, religion, and after the battle over the legacies of settler colonialism in Southern Africa, race, to that persistence of particulars. When, we want to know, can we move beyond race and tribe and religion? These are said to work against  the aspiration towards abstract equality and citizenship. Most liberals concurred that these attachment of culture would evaporate over time, many on the Left shared this modernist assumption as well, even though critical of the usefulness of political instability for the interests of  global capital. To make sense of the persistence of particulars many of us on the Marxist Left theorized identity as the strategic invention and deployment of pre-modern categories now mobilized to secure economic interests, particularly the control of the natural resources that made neo-colonies useful only for their primary commodities. The insights of political economy where remarkable, but by the 1990’s in the wake of the Cold War, they were also increasingly found to be wanting.

If we are to think our way out of these postcolonial predicaments, we would have to take the question of how we think the problem very seriously. We are currently witnessing  even more acute expressions of political violence articulated along religious and identitarian lines. The centrality of historicizing citizenship, difference, majority and minority distinctions remains even more germane to making sense of contemporary violence. We are reminded that promises of liberal freedom and the ‘powers of the secular modern’ remain hegemonic but also intensely chimerical and inadequate both to think with and to construct political community out of.

Our current predicaments demand then fundamental inquiries about the inheritances of citizenship defined by imperial and colonial rule, and the challenges these continue to pose for the promises of emancipation and equality for political subjects who might be said to always be defined by attachments. Think of the Imazighen, Touregs and Berbers that cannot be incorporated into Libya, Mali, Tunis and Algeria. Think of the Banyarwanda who live in Kivu in Congo for generations now and tried to change their identity to Congolese, or the Banyamulenge, or Tutsis in South Kivu who changed from Banyarwanda to the people from Mulenge, Banyamulenge, but colonial inheritances of citizenship keep them separated from Congo as foreigners not natives. And the Hutu among the Banyarwanda that cannot return to Rwanda tainted as perpetrators of the genocide. Northern Nigeria struggles with conflict fought on religious identity terms and the South along ethnic lines, where colonial rule politicized religion in the north and tribalism in the South. Boko Haram or al-Shabaab have not emerged out of a divine nowhere; they are not simply iterations of a global Islamist threat, but have intensely historical, regional and national dynamics that propel them. In the case of Boko Haram, it  has to do with the fate of the North in the colonial and postcolonial period; and the War on Terror post 9/11, which licensed treating these movements as the new terrorists, the new enemy.

Might it be then that we need to decolonize the concept of difference rather than aspire to dream of the liberal individual who exercises rational choice as most Political Scientists tell us? It may mean we need to theorize a concept of culture that depoliticizes cultural attachments if colonialism politicized them. The problem then is not cultural attachments per se, or identity per se, but politicized culture. When we move away from liberal modernity’s assumptions — and away from the despair and discourse of failure — we can begin to theorize our political modernity in the positive rather than the negative, with all its messiness. My point is not to get you to address these questions, but to give you an example of what it might mean to rethink a problem in light of the critiques of knowledge production and to try to think it differently so that different possibilities emerge, different horizons of political imagination might open up, less clear because they don’t have a clear ideal type in mind.

When you ask, what does it mean to think the world from where we are at, from our location, and ask what that means for how we organize knowledge, how we teach, who we teach, or we compare ourselves to, who we learn from, you are going to the gut of a liberal colonial sensibility that lives on in the present — the one that goes all the way back to MacCauley’s dismissive remark about who produces anything worthy of being called civilization.

The question might then be asked of you and us, do you want to return us to the particular against the universal, do you want us to step out of the global and the cosmopolitan and only think about the local, is relevance as a criteria for knowledge not the straight jacket of parochialism and narrow thinking? These are important and difficult questions to grapple with. But this binary between the local and the global, the universal and the particular, might be a mischievous distraction. Why should we pit the local against the global or the universal against the particular? We can also change the menu rather than be pressured to only accept those options. It may actually mean that we think more carefully about the argument of the  Senegalese philosopher Souleyemane Bachir Diagne, who suggests  that the way to think about decolonization and the universal is not to concede the universal to an imperial imagination, but to work towards a truly universal universalism. We need not give up then on the uni in the university, but we can try to redefine the very idea of the university itself.

Africa is a Radio: Season 2, Episode 4

Africa is a Radio has a Football (is a Country) focus this week. Things have been moving so fast in FIFA’s controversial world that this show is a bit behind on the latest news. But we think you will enjoy the discussion anyway. Also included is a brief discussion around today’s UEFA Champion’s League Final.

And, a new segment in our show is an interview series we will have with various public figures. Our first interviewee is Kenyan author Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. The audio included in the show is only a brief excerpt, so visit the blog later on this week to get the whole thing.

Of course, as always, the show includes a selection of tunes from across the African continent and its diaspora. Stream it here via Mixcloud, and download the archive from Groovalizacion.

The African Champions League Final in Berlin

If the New York Times can try to make today’s UEFA Champions League Final all about America on the spurious basis that Gigi Buffon might end up coaching the US team some day, then we should have no trouble making it all about Africa.

Barcelona, the heavy favourites, don’t have the African superstars they used to — Yaya Toure, Seydou Keita, Samuel Eto’o — but the Juventus squad includes Ghana’s Kwadwo Asamoah, Italy’s Angelo Ogbonna and the French pair Patrice Evra and Paul Pogba.

Evra will have to try to stop Messi, Neymar and Suarez. Suarez and Evra have history, as many people know, and Evra, 34, would surely love to celebrate a Juve win by rubbing Suarez’s nose in, as he famously did at Old Trafford a few years ago.

Suarez is a remarkable character (the biting) and an extraordinary footballer (the scoring). Davy Lane’s piece, The Suarez Conundrum, is perfect pre-game reading.

Fewer people know how interesting Patrice Evra is.

Today is Evra’s fifth Champions League final, though he’s only won it once. He was captain of France, but the French dislike him intensely. (As we know, the French have serious issues about what their national team looks like all these years after the end of empire).

His decision to represent France rather than Senegal angered a lot of people: “I was called a monkey who grovels for the white man and labelled a money-obsessed traitor to the nation.”

Born in Dakar to a Cape Verdean mother and a Senegalese diplomat father, he grew up mainly in the Paris suburbs.

Evra speaks seven languages, including Wolof and Korean (which he learned in order to chat with his former teammate Ji-Sung Park).

In 2010 the legendary Lilian Thuram called for Evra to be permanently banned from the French team for his role during the World Cup fiasco, though we maintain that nobody with any sense could have put up with the buffoonish French coach, Raymond Domenech.

Evra’s team-mate for Juventus and France is Paul Pogba, 22, widely regarded as the best player of his generation. Pogba used to play for Manchester United, but turned his back on the club and Alex Ferguson when he didn’t give him enough playing time. Back then, many in the UK criticized Pogba as arrogant and said he’d regret leaving Manchester and the English league. A few years down the line and Manchester United would have to pay upwards of £70 million to bring him back.

Pogba’s parents are Guinean, and his brother Mathias plays for Crawley Town and the Guinean national team.

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Weekend Music Break No.76

We took a break last week, but we’re back experimenting with a new format. This Weekend’s Music Break is in the form of a Youtube playlist so you can just hit play, sit back, and enjoy. Let us know if you have any thoughts about the new format in the comments!

Our selection this weekend is:

1) A dedication to today’s Champion’s League Final with the Eto’o Coupe Decale dance.
2) P-Square and Awilo Longomba’s new “Enemy Solo”.
3) Angola’s Mery with “Fogo cruzado” feat. Ksuno Beat.
4) South African rapper Boolz with “Aphe Kapa”.
5) Nigerian-American rapper hits the studio with friends in “Roslin’s Basement”.
6) A group of DJs from around the world collaborate on an impressive live “Scratch Jam”.
7) Lisbon’s Batida releases a video for beautiful “Ta Doce” feat. AF Diaphra.
8) Haiti’s Beken sings “Tounen Lakay” in a live session.
9) Italian-Moroccan rapper Maruego brings a controversial subject to the small screen with “Sulla stessa barca,” which translates to something like, “we are all in the same boat.”
10) Finally, Y’en a Marre gets a half-hour documentary on MTV’s rebel music series.

Are corrupt Africans really ruining FIFA?

We all know, thanks to the English FA chairman Greg Dyke and many other bigoted media commentators, that corruption at FIFA is caused by small African nations where greed is “cultural.”

Just yesterday the man who runs English football (and used to run the BBC) had this to say:


[The investigation into FIFA] is not colonialism at all. But there is no doubt that there are a set of values which you find in western Europe, and in America, and in Australia, that don’t apply everywhere. My experience in Africa is that when people go into politics in Africa, it’s incumbent upon you as part of that to look after your family. That’s just cultural, it’s a cultural difference.

Of course politicians in predominantly white countries that aren’t Africa have no interest at all in “looking after” their families. Everybody knows this, right?

Just look at the Clintons, for example. Virtually destitute at this point, are the Clintons. They got so poor due to their devotion to selfless and low-paid public service that they had to start relying on meagre multi-million dollar donations to the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation to scrape a living.

Or the Bushes. One of the Bushes became president and the rest have been left to languish in obscurity. The Bush boys had to make do with a string of menial jobs — running oil companies, owning baseball teams, governing the states of Florida and Texas, being the President of America etc — because their father was a man of such unstinting probity that he simply wouldn’t countenance his kids getting any advantages over common folk.

Nope, it’s definitely just the Africans who “look after their family.”

And so it’s the Africans who’re to blame for FIFA’s troubles, particularly “small African nations” for whom giving and receiving bribes is just part of the culture. Just look at all the revelations in the past week or so. The pattern is clear enough. Let’s run through some of them.

The small African nation of Germany reportedly did a massive arms deal to secure Saudi Arabia’s vote for World Cup 2006. Gerhard Shröder, then Chancellor of Germany and a classic African despot, is said to have been behind the deal. The Guardian reports serious allegations: “that the German government lifted arms restrictions days before the vote in order to make the shipment and help swing Saudi Arabia’s vote to Germany.” What else can you expect from a tinpot African country like Germany, eh? I guess they were just looking after the family. It’s a cultural thing.

Another corrupt African official is Chuck Blazer, who for many years ran soccer in the little-known African nation of the United States of America and took all kinds of bribes and kickbacks.Like the classic African despot that he is, Blazer spent his ill-gotten gains on fripperies like a luxurious Manhattan apartment for his herd of cats. You see, it’s corruption in tiny, impoverished countries like this that needs to be stamped out. They’re ruining it for everyone and until the big, powerful countries have all the power in FIFA, nothing will change. As pollster Nate Silver recently suggested, it would be much better if only rich people had influence over FIFA.

Then of course, there’s the Irish African Republic, which in the manner of corrupt African nations everywhere, was paid off by a 5 million Euros bribe from FIFA to go away and shut up when they were upset about Thierry Henry’s handball.

And don’t forget the eastern-most of all African islands, Australia, which used taxpayers’ money to pay bribes in support of its bid to host the World Cup in 2022.

They said it was only African nations that were supporting Blatter. But of course we knew long ago that France, who voted to re-elect Sepp Blatter last week, had joined the African continent.

We at Africa is A Country would like to extend a warm welcome to Africa’s newest member states, including Germany, Australia, Ireland, France, and the United States. They do say Africa is growing!

This FIFA business has really redrawn the map of Africa. At this rate, FIFA will have to expand the number of places Africa is allocated at the World Cup quite substantially.

(None of this, by the way, is in any way a defense for the many corrupt and unaccountable officials right around the world who are doing football a disservice. Journalists everywhere need to be much more forceful in subjecting them to proper scrutiny, and the teeth of FIFA’s reform must be focused at the local level.)

I’ve been doing lots of media interviews this week on FIFA, and the question that keeps coming up is whether they should dump the inclusive and democratic “one-nation-one-vote” system, which they say gives too much power to African and Asian countries.

Next time an interviewer asks me, I’ll just say yes they should scrap it, because it gives too much power to corrupt nations like Germany and the United States.

Of course, that voting system needs to stay as the bedrock of an inclusive, accountable FIFA for the future. The connection between specific cultures/regions and the corruption revelations is totally spurious.

I tried to explain this in an article for The Guardian:

A staple of European and American reporting on Fifa in recent years has been the idea that its voting system (which grants equal representation to nations regardless of size, wealth and footballing pedigree) lies at the root of corrupt practices of the kind outlined by the US lawyer Michael Garcia in his report and most recently by the US Department of Justice.

The wonderful investigative reporter Andrew Jennings offered a classic example of this unhelpful conflation of separate issues when he told the BBC last week: “Frankly, if the next World Cup is Guinea-Bissau v Tanzania, that will say it all.” Neither country was remotely associated with the particulars of the recent indictments – these were chiefly concerned with dodgy dealings involving sports marketing firms in North and South America – but for Jennings the notion of small non-western nations having decent standing in the game is evidence enough of Fifa’s corruption […]

Arguing that Fifa’s one-member, one-vote system is what causes corrupt practices in football is like arguing that corruption scandals in British politics (for example, the “cash for access” sting that suckered [parliamentarians] Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw) are the result of each constituency in the country electing a single MP regardless of population or historical importance. There is no basis for it: it’s hogwash. Those who repeat this twaddle do so only to gloss with a thin veneer of respectability their view that football should be run in the interests of a small group of big-hitting nations and to hell with everybody else.

It’s also been noticeable how little the longer history of FIFA has been discussed. Again, this isn’t to defend local officials anywhere who might use this to cover their ass, but to point out that fears that football could be run by and for the West at everybody else’s expense are hardly without a basis in history. As Sean Jacobs and I wrote here (prior to Blatter’s re-election and resignation):

In 1974, the Brazilian Joao Havelange defeated [England’s pro-apartheid] Stanley Rous by marshaling an alliance of non-Western nations, many of them emerging from colonial rule, whose interests had hitherto received scant representation within FIFA. It is that same bloc that first elected Blatter in 1998, and which he will rely on if indeed FIFA presses ahead with this week’s scheduled election.

Blatter’s last serious challenger for the FIFA presidency was the Swede Lennart Johansson, then president of Europe’s governing body UEFA, who ran against him 17 years ago. Johansson was lionized in ESPN’s recent film (one gets the impression there’d be none of this corruption if he had become FIFA President), which failed to mention that one reason he lost that election was that he was perceived as a racist.

A Swedish newspaper published an interview with Johansson in 1996 in which he was quoted as saying: “When I got to South Africa the whole room was full of blackies and it’s dark when they sit down all together. What’s more it’s no fun when they’re angry. I thought if this lot get in a bad mood it won’t be so funny.”

It turns out that the good old days were actually pretty bad old days. Those who want Blatter out and FIFA reformed have to deal with that history and that reality, and accept that a global organization where Europe and America has disproportionate influence would also be corrupt.

For more, check my piece for Al Jazeera on what the future of FIFA should look like. There’s also an episode of The Stream where I talked about some of this stuff with Shaka Hislop and Jerome Champagne.

Finally, two excellent posts by the economist Branko Milanovic on his blog: The real stakes behind the FIFA scandal, and The age of open financial imperialism. Both highly recommended.

Protect the game, it belongs to everyone.

Are Beethoven’s African Origins Revealed By His Music?

Historical debate on German composer’s Ludwig Van Beethoven was reignited on June 1st 2015, when a collective of Historians and musicians published a website named Beethoven Was African.

The collective ambitions to provide a different lens with which to appreciate the legacy of Beethoven, by re-focusing the debate surrounding Beethoven’s origins on the core question: his music. In the following interview, ANY, a member of the collective and the pianist who plays the sonatas in Beethoven Was African: Polyrhythmic Piano Sonatas, gives us some more insights on the results of the research.

When you say “Beethoven Was African” what do you bring that the many other theories that already exist on the possible African ancestry of the composer don’t?

Our research provides a new interpretation and new keys to understanding the music of this composer, as well as to the many mysteries that exist in his biography that have not been resolved to date. For instance, why did such an important man for his time not have a valid baptismal certificate, or a birth certificate? Why was his identity subject to so many rumors and conjectures during his lifetime? This project aims to bring a new biographical light on the composer’s life, and offers a new way to understand and play his musical work.

Ludwig Van Beethoven had a precise and almost absolute knowledge of polyrhythmic systems and patterns from the Gulf of Guinea Region, on the West African coast. Although they are unwritten, I would even say that these West African traditional polyrhythmic patterns, which still exist, were fundamental to his work as a composer. Ludwig Van Beethoven has achieved the perfect synthesis between polyphonic modes and tonal system, developed in Europe in the centuries that preceded his era, with polyrhythmic system and patterns from West Africa.

When playing this music, with this awareness of the polyrhythms present in the work of Beethoven, the music magically becomes clearer, more harmonious, more beautiful.

Beethoven Was African by ANY

The album Beethoven Was African is the demonstration of this discovery. By what magic effect do these polyrhythms allow us to discover the multitude of melodies present in each part of the piano sonatas? How come these polyrhythms allow us, for the first time in the history of the recording of these music pieces, to cleanly hear the part played with the left hand, to hear the rhythm of the latter, to reveal its hidden polyphony, and not consider it anymore as a simple accompaniment of the melody played with the right hand?

If you compare the pieces of the Beethoven Was African album with their equivalents in previous recordings of 20th century pianists, for example, you will realize with astonishment that the left hand appears almost with no rhythm, no soul. By listening carefully to the musical pieces contained in the Beethoven Was African album, you will hear that some parts induce something like a swing motion to the listener. These sonatas therefore induce something that was absent in Beethoven’s music so far: dance. It occurred to me that it was impossible at some point to bring out the real nature of Beethoven’s pieces of music, I would even say to recreate the music as the composer played it, if I dismissed the polyrhythmic patterns that guide almost all the piano masterpieces of Ludwig Van Beethoven.

This discovery of polyrhythmic patterns identified in the score left by the composer fed the biographical research. It was necessary to understand why the composer had this  polyrhythmic ability, and who had transmitted it to him in this Europe of the late 18th century.

In regards to the biographical research, the project is new because of the method used. Previous research on the African origin of the composer relied mostly on passages from 19th century biographies on the composer, which never explicitly mention an African identity for Beethoven. Historians involved in Beethoven Was African project questioned documents and artifacts produced while the composer was alive: correspondence, cultural journals, portraits, the writings and sayings of his contemporaries. It is this method of historical investigation that allowed us to move forward and discover unpublished documents, and finally to unravel what is probably one of the greatest mysteries in the history of art.

Why do these 19th century biographers, those who are authoritative today, not mention this African origin?

Because this African identity has been concealed throughout his life by the composer himself. The political and social condition of African or African descendants residing in Europe between 1770 and 1827 explain the adoption of this public image strategy. During Beethoven’s lifetime few people knew his face. He was obsessed with a strange paranoia and kept changing domicile. He moved into at least 67 homes in Vienna alone. Sometimes he lived in 2 or 3 residences simultaneously, so that no one could never really know where he was. An anecdote: one night in 1821 he was arrested on a street in Vienna and brought to the police station. The head of the Vienna Police ignored his true face and was unable to authenticate him, despite the fact that Beethoven had been living in Vienna for at least 20 years. The police chief had to call the director of the Vienna Opera, who was one of the few people who had already met the composer. A strange thing when you consider that Beethoven was at that time the most famous Austrian composer.

Beethoven had a decisive influence on the narrative that was to prevail on him after his death. If he did not write his own memoirs, he dictated them before his death to Anton Schindler who was his secretary during the last 4 or 5 years of his life. The composer himself had chosen his biographer. The biographies published after Schindler’s Beethoven as I Knew Him are variants of this fascinating story that we all know, of this “romantic hero”, created by the composer himself and dictated to his secretary. In addition to being among the most brilliant composers of all time, he certainly possessed an unmistakable narrative genius.

Indeed this original biography would serve to remove the family background controversies that persisted in music and aristocracy circles in Europe in the early 19th Century. It is this illusion created by the composer, hiding his face behind false portraits,  that allowed his first biographer to compose a plausible story that completely eluded persistent questions related to his identity.

What questions about his identity existed in his lifetime?

Who were his parents, for example? It should be noted that this issue was never resolved in his lifetime. Seven successive editions, between 1810 and 1817, of the Paris dictionary of musicians assume that Ludwig Van Beethoven could be the natural son of Frederick II of Prussia. This statement is echoed by other newspapers of the time. For instance, Harmonicon, the most serious London-based music magazine in the 1820s, repeats that assertion in its biography of the composer published in 1823. There is an explanation to this rumor. Frederic II of Prussia was known to own numerous court Kamermohrs, or African room servants.

Frederick the Great as a child with his sister Wilhelmine - Antoine Pesne 1714 via Wikiart

Frederick the Great as a child with his sister Wilhelmine – Antoine Pesne 1714 via Wikiart

These African slaves were children who had been deported to the European continent, and had the function of being companions for children of the European high society. In writing this, the dictionary of musicians of Paris made it clear to insiders of European courts that Beethoven was the fruit of adulterous sex of the Prussian king and one of his kamermohr. A year before his death, Beethoven was asked once again by one of his relatives about this rumor. He refutes, leaving some doubt, as usual, about the identity of his biological father saying, “Make the true details of my parents, in particular those of my mother, known to the world.”

Afrodescendants in 19th Century Europe had no birth certificate. This was the case of Beethoven. This lack of a birth certificate caused him a lot of trouble in his life. Today, a debate persists on the authenticity of the birth certificate attributed to him. What is certain is that Beethoven himself has on at least three occasions explained, via correspondence to his entourage, that the birth certificate considered authentic today was not his. One of the reasons that prevented one of Beethoven’s weddings from happening was precisely that lack of birth certificate. Similarly, he lost the first part of the trial for the custody of the son of his deceased half-brother. This was because he was unable to provide a credible birth certificate on his filiation.

Why does the portrait of the composer that we all have in mind represent an individual with absolute European phenotype?

You certainly talk about the portrait painted in 1820 by Karl Stieler. It was on the order of Beethoven, even though he paid the artist through a third party. In a letter in which he sent a lithographic reproduction of this portrait to Karl G. Wegeler, a close friend who knew his face, he wrote that it was an “artistic masterpiece”; because unlike the previous ones, this portrait goes very far in the distortion of his features. It was not until the late 19th century, when the myth that he had himself helped to create became the official story, that this portrait began to be disseminated. After the composer’s death, 19th Century art critics regularly published notes on the evaluation of the existing different portraits of Beethoven. Stieler’s portrait was systematically put aside when these critics took the trouble to interview the composer’s living contemporaries.

During his lifetime, Ludwig Van Beethoven concealed his face through false portraits for which others posed in his place. We have at least 13 portraits and engravings that he personally authenticated as depicting his features, but which show at least 7 individuals with different faces and features. Ludwig Van Beethoven definitely had an advanced understanding of the power of image. Without forcing the line, we can say that Beethoven shaped and transformed his public image, in the manner of a Michael Jackson, but two centuries before him. He had no plastic surgery at the time, however he had portraitists who lent themselves to this game of illusion, mainly because they were paid to do so. Beethoven also took advantage of a significant innovation born in Germany in the late 18th century: lithography. By reproducing false portraits and spreading them in European capitals on the cover of his scores, he was certain to sell much more than if he had shown his true features. Among these portraits produced during his lifetime, and for which Beethoven is deemed to have posed, can we find his true face, or is it lost forever?

Fortunately for us, the composer has left some clues about his real face, a puzzle that has allowed us to identify with certainty his real features. We believe we have found them in a sketch by French painter Louis Letronne, drawn in 1814, and whose original is probably lost today. A copy of this sketch, lithographed in 1837 by another French, Frederic Hillemacher, was preserved [it is featured image on this post].

How can we be certain that this is the only authentic portrait with the true features of the composer that has passed to posterity? Well, we do know that Beethoven had contracted smallpox as a child, and that this disease partially disfigured his face, leaving characteristic marks. In particular, he had a deformation on the left side of the upper lip, and many scars on the left side of his face above the nose and between the eyes. These marks show up in a mask molded over his face by Franz Klein in 1812, and if you look at Hillemacher’s lithograph, the same scars appear at exactly at the same place.

The reasons that lead the composer to conceal his features and his origins during his life are understandable. Why has did he also have the desire to deceive history after his death, since you’re saying he is the author of the biography that we know of him?

There are two reasons he was careful to organize his image for posterity. First, he must have thought that the rumours and social pressures existing during his lifetime would continue immediately after his death. What would have happened if in the 19th Century, historiography had discovered this deception? The risk was that his music would no longer be played. He had spent his life convincing the public to believe that he had only European origins. After composing one of the most important monuments of the history of art and the human spirit, he wished above all that his work would be passed to posterity.

A second, more important reason exists: to play his music as he played it, to understand it, to hear it, so that it produced the same enchantment as when he played or led it when alive, one had to understand that an important part of the music education that he received in his childhood and early adolescence was an intimate knowledge of polyrhythmic science and art. And, he was a bit of a joker. He must have been amused to see that with the scores he had produced, interpreters were unable, and still are, to produce the same music that came out these texts when he played it. He often said, “It will take at least 50 years before my music is understood.” In actuality, his calculation was off by 150 years. Today, we realize that to play it properly, one has to understand that he had a dual identity. That he was also an African.

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