Africa is a Country

The Bullshit Files: The “Mandela” Ray Ban “Sculpture” in Cape Town

“Real art makes those with privilege feel uncomfortable”–Tokolos Stencils.

“Did you see this Madiba shit they’re putting up on Sea Point promenade?” read my girlfriend’s instant message. I had to wipe my eyes looking at the event invite. It was eye-wateringly crass. The City of Cape Town was unveiling an “artistic tribute” to Nelson Mandela entitled Perceiving Freedom, in the form of a pair of wayfarer Ray-Ban sunglasses on a green space in one of the wealthiest parts of the city. The invite featured a Mandela quote and a picture of him wearing a pair of similar styled sunnies. A coterie of ‘righteous’ officials and representatives, including F.W. de Klerk—there is also a proposal to rename an arterial after him—and from the World Design Capital and Ray-Ban were in audience.

Not merely a puerile gesture at public art, Perceiving Freedom is a pathetic appropriation of commemoration as cover for a commercial promotion. Really, it’s a stunning emetic trigger that suggests that Nelson Mandela is beckoning us from the afterlife to buy Ray-Ban sunglasses, to do our duty for reconciliation and nation-building by consuming this luxury product.

What an incredible opportunistic whitewashing of an iconic legacy. No wonder the unveiling is on the cusp of summer, and not a year before Mandela’s passing. And is it not ironic that the marketing spin does not mention that Madiba’s eyes were damaged while he was incarcerated on Robben Island, the result of dust and blinding light of years of working the lime-quarry.


Luckily Perceiving Freedom has clear and not rose-tinted lenses. It’s oriented to face Robben Island. Michael Ellion, the artist, intended it to allude to Mandela’s ruminations about freedom, and the viewers’ lack of perception of ‘the invisible barriers and prejudices’ that still cloud their perspective. In other words, ‘misperceptions’ about race, class and gender can be overcome with a pair of Ray Ban sunglasses, rather than the hard work of interrogating one’s privilege.

But this is not surprising. In South Africa, there’s a growing idea that deep psycho-social problems that relate to the difficult past can be resolved through acts of consumption. And, often, sentiment overrides taste when it comes to the commodification of liberation history. The Robben Island Jewelry project shows that ‘reconciliation’ narrative can transmute the debris of even the most traumatic black histories into gold.

But maybe Perceiving Freedom is too ‘higher concept’ for me, ‘too cerebral’. It’s certainly far removed from Soft Walls, another work that engaged with belonging in the city. Michael Ellion had intended his piece to be “a testament to the power of the mind”. Go look at his website. Even so, you cannot but notice his sunglasses concept is not original, since it bears strong resemblance to another in Denmark (thanks @Telemigo).


You may need sunglasses to approach this work. The promotional photos indicate that the majority of the dignitaries, beneficiaries and sponsors involved were white. Why such a significant lack of black participation? How did Michael Ellion land such a prime piece of exhibition real-estate, and how did he acquire sponsorship and or the endorsement of the city? Why do art publications like Art Times blindly endorse the project? This raises questions about the dominant tastemakers in the South African art world, and their interests in shaping what is considered appropriate public commemoration, especially in relation to the World Design Capital project.

You only have to look at Tokolos Stencils, a radical art collective, who have been mobilising the memory of Marikana through stencil art and by ‘disrupting’ colonial and apartheid statues. They have been branded vandals. But neither has the city made any effort to erect a Marikana Memorial of its own, let alone one on the holy ground that is Sea-Point Promenade. Who really are the vandals here? What is appropriate tribute? Because all I see when I look at those sunglasses is the vandalism of Nelson Mandela’s legacy and the spoiling of public space in Cape Town.

Images Credit: Via Art Times on Facebook.

The key figures in Colombia’s Picó sound system culture

The sound system, or Picó culture of the Caribbean coast of Colombia is very close to my heart. Not only is there a strong relationship between it and the popular music of 1970’s and 80’s West and Central Africa, but the propensity towards innovation via digital production (something that I’m near obsessed with as a DJ) is very strong in this part of the world as well. As I’ve highlighted in previous writing, Atlantic costeño audiences and producers will consume and reproduce everything from soca to zouk to mbaqanga to vallenato to salsa to dancehall to soukous to contemporary Nigerian Pop – incorporating their own indigenous African rhythms, language, and cultural understandings into the diverse musical stew. Throw in the Spanglish-patois influence of the Caribbean islands of San Andres and Providencia, and you have the makings for my Black Atlantic musical mecca.

I’ve now taken two pilgrimages to this part of Colombia (while neglecting other, equally fascinating, parts of the country) in order to see, interact, and learn in this environment. Each time I’ve been there I end up lamenting the lack of attention the scenes get outside of Colombia and a small circle of international DJs. Well, Native Instruments – the German music software and hardware company – has taken a step in the right direction by financing the below documentary. Directed by Luis Antonio Delgado, it follows Colombian music producer Mauricio Alvarez around the region as he encounters some of the key players in the Picó scenes of Cartagena and Barranquilla. Check it out below:

cross-posted at Dutty Artz

Digital Archive No. 2 – Africa Through a Lens

So last week, I wrote about Afrobarometer, a site featuring survey data from 35 African nations. Since the Afrobarometer is based among multiple continent-based partners, this week I wanted to feature a project that is based in the United Kingdom (in future weeks, expect projects based in the U.S., France, and a range of African nations).  By varying the perspectives of the projects that are featured in this series, this series can showcase a range of perspectives and approaches to African digital archives.

This week’s featured archive is Africa Through a Lens:

Put together by the National Archives in the United Kingdom, Africa Through a Lens is part of the wider World Through a Lens collection, featuring photos taken from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office photographic collection housed in the National Archives.  This collection covers nearly a century of history on the African continent, with content from 25 countries from the Scramble for Africa, the colonial era, and the era of independence.  Jenni Orme, Diverse Histories specialist for the National Archives, summarized the importance of this collection in an introductory podcast for the project, explaining that this collection allows for “glimpses into one of the most challenging times in the history of the British Empire and the political formation of the Africa that we recognize today.”  These glimpses are obviously glimpses through Western eyes, but through these photographs the viewer is granted “a chance to see and imagine the experiences of those who were being observed,” making this, according to Orme, “both a personal as well as a political collection.”

The photos have all been posted on the National Archive’s Flickr account, allowing for both easy access and commentary.  The project encourages users to contribute any insights they have on the photographs in the comments.  This is especially useful for the photos that there is limited data available on, cataloged under “Africa-Unknown”.  Users can comment on these photos, adding their own insights and ideas about their content and location.  This is an awesome feature for this site, because it allows users to participate in the cataloging of these materials, opening up knowledge production beyond the archive and into the general public.

Follow the National Archives UK on Twitter @UkNatArchives for updates and announcements about their collections.

* Feel free to send me suggestions in the comments or via Twitter of sites you want us to cover.

The whole ‘Zambia has a white president’ meme

When Zambian President Michael Sata died in London last week after being sick for some time, Western media (and some on Twitter) spent little time reflecting on his rule (basically a neoliberal disaster coupled with economic nationalism, out and out xenophobia towards Chinese and a massive temper). Instead, people who never write about Africa or who couldn’t locate Zambia on a map were more interested in Guy Scott, Sata’s vice president and the stand-in leader till the next presidential elections early next year. (Buzzfeed, not known for writing about acting presidents, cut and pasted his various sayings like he is Barack Obama.) What of course interested the media (especially British media; they were after all the former colonisers there) most, is that Guy Scott was white.

CNN declared “Zambia’s Guy Scott makes history as white president in sub-Saharan Africa.”  In any case, as AIAC’s Neelika Jayawardane reminded Al Jazeera America readers, Scott is not the first white leader of a democratic African country. For example, Paul Berenger, a white Mauritian of French descent, served as the island’s first non-Hindu prime minister from 2003 to 2005. (For apologists of Apartheid or UDI in Rhodesia, your various racist white dictators don’t count.) Meanwhile, The UK’s Telegraph decided Scott was elected; something that came as a surprise to Zambians. Asked  @MissBwalya on Twitter: ‘

“I’m Africa’s First White Democratic Leader.” – Guy Scott according to the UK Telegraph. Uhm, did I miss the election? #Zambia

Even the BBC jumped on the bandwagon, with the story being the top headline simultaneously on BBC News Africa, BBC News and BBC worldwide.

South African political scientist and newspaper columnist Steven Friedman wondered on Facebook: “”I keep on reading and hearing from local and European media that acting Zambian President Guy Scott is ‘Africa’s first white President in 20 years’. Can someone help me–how many black Presidents or heads of government has Europe had in the last 20 years? In the last 500 years?”

In any case, Scott may not qualify to become President. Zambia’s constitution (changed on the behest of its first post-1990 president Frederick Chiluba) mandates that only people whose parents were born in Zambia can run for president. (Though below Aaron Leaf suggests that’s not so cut and dried.)

Guy Scott is politically interesting of course, with a mix of populist (we’re sure a lot of people chuckled at how he characterized South Africans) and some backward views (see what he thinks of gay rights, for example). And, he wasn’t even in the job a few days, when he incited a riot over firing an official of the ruling party (he was trying to get rid of a political rival.)

But we need analysis. We still trying to get together a few Zambia experts to write something on Sata’s rule (something like we did with debating the future of trade union-led political movenments in South Africa). Meanwhile we suggest reading Laura Miti’s essay on 50 years of Zambian independence (celebrated last month) and these essays by AIAC’ers Neelika Jayawardane (on Al Jazeera America) and Aaron Leaf (on Quartz) on the “Guy Scott is white and that’s important” meme. Here’s excerpts from Neelika and Aaron’s pieces.


… Scott’s whiteness has never been as big a deal to Zambians as it has to outsiders. At an election rally in 2008, I watched Scott take the stage in front of 10,000 rowdy supporters and launch into a passionate speech in fluent Nyanja and Bemba, Zambia’s most common indigenous languages, ending it by doing the signature dance of his party, the Patriotic Front. He was a crowd favorite—more so, it seemed, than Sata himself.

… Despite having a Cambridge degree, as every article likes to point out, Scott is politically much like Sata, his longtime mentor—a proponent of both higher foreign direct investment and higher mining royalties with a populist streak that earns him support among Lusaka’s youth. Scott has been a fixture in Zambian politics since the early nineties and is always at pains to display his African-nationalist bonafides: a close professional relationship with Robert Mugabe (whom he reveres), and strong words regarding Chinese business practices in the country.

Another truism in the press is that Scott is ineligible to become president of Zambia because of the fact that his parents, who emigrated from Scotland before independence, were not born in the country. But while Scott himself has stated that he is ineligible, Elias Munshya, a trained lawyer who has written extensively about the Zambian constitution, believes his candidacy should not be a problem: according to him, if Scott’s candidacy were to go in front of the Zambian Supreme Court, they would very likely give him the go ahead. According to Munshya, because there was no concept of citizenship in Zambia under British colonization “residents of Zambia at independence became Zambian.” This puts Scott’s candidacy claims, says Munshya, on equal footing with anyone else whose parents were born before 1964.

But Scott’s chances of getting elected are much harder to predict. “It could go either way,” says Munshya. “The Patriotic Front is divided at the moment. If the party rallies behind him and the supreme court rules on his candidacy, he stands a chance to win.”

And here’s Neelika:

Scott was seen as the man Sata scored in order to create spectacle and distraction during the 2011 elections. In fact, Scott has long been ridiculed because he is a somewhat bumbling figure who lacks statesmanship and authority.

… The debate about his heritage aside, Scott’s short time leading Zambia is not a big deal. “Uncle Scotty” is as Zambian as a Zambian can get. He’s able to deal with a little derision as long as his largely ceremonial position of authority protects him. He is famous for making undiplomatic, ill-thought-out statements, and the list of his faux pas is as long as Zambians’ legendary patience with its elderly patriarchs. He’s a little fearful of anything too new and different, as exemplified by his public expressions of worry about gay people who ask for the right to safety and happiness. In addition, his economic views are rather conservative. There’s going to be none of that free education and free health care, as was the dream during Kenneth Kaunda’s heady years.

In the short time since Sata’s passing, Scott fired Zambia’s Minister of Defence and the ruling Patriotic Front party’s secretary-general, Edgar Lungu. A few people took to the streets and burnt a few things – it looked like a minor bonfire, not a riot. (I wondered why there was no protest when ministers sacked country of riches.) In any case, amid outcry, Lungu has been reinstated to his party post.

All this minor trauma-drama should tell us: the second white man to head a democratic African nation is not going to change a thing. Relax, people.

Music Revue, No.3: Sodade

I’ve been listen a lot to Cesaria Evora lately (sparked by a conversation with someone over the weekend.) I was watching a Youtube video of her show at the Grand Rex in Paris back in April 2004. There was one song in particular that really got me. It’s called “Sodade” which I learned translates to “longing” or something approximate. I don’t know a word of Portuguese but I’ve listened this song over and over again. There’s something amazing about not being able to understand lyrics but still being able to comprehend what a song means. I really can’t say if this has anything to do with my upcoming trip to Liberia and thinking about the emotions I might confront by being so close to the suffering there, but the song always leaves me with an immense feeling of sadness.

MSF doctor writes about her experience working in Ebola zone in Sierra Leone

Before arriving in an Ebola project, most MSF expatriates have to go through two days of intensive training. An important part of this is putting on the full personal protective equipment (PPE). Dressing up for the first time is incredibly uncomfortable, essentially covering your entire body in plastic, tying a waterproof hood around your head, with an N95 respirator mask that protects your mouth protruding through a slit in the mask of the hood. Only your eyes are exposed and then you wear goggles. On top of the yellow suit is a thick waterproof apron and your feet are covered in heavy rubber boots that protect against penetration inside the high risk area. All of these items have to be of a certain standard to ensure a high degree of protection and minimize the risk of infection. Depending on the environmental temperature at the training centre, you start perspiring inside the PPE and begin to feel your green cotton scrubs become damp underneath the suit. This is all part of the initiation and no one enjoys their first experience. You’re told that you will get used to it, and after ten days be quite comfortable in PPE but I think that has more to do with a mental shift that takes place in order to continue working and fulfill responsibilities inside the high risk area than a physical adaptation.

Field conditions are often much more challenging. For one, the environment is extremely humid and you are already perspiring before putting on the PPE. The first item is a pair of latex gloves and you must get used to the feeling of latex clinging to your damp hands so that you can continue dressing. The last item is the goggles, you want to spare as much time, even if only a few minutes, before putting it on because it mists up inside, obstructing your vision so that high risk procedures such as drawing blood for routine tests or administering intravenous fluids become almost impossible. The longer you stay inside the PPE, the more you sweat and on some days it feels as if you’ve lost up to 2 liters of fluid as your scrubs are drenched when you undress. To prevent people collapsing with exhaustion, no one is permitted to be inside for longer than an hour, but the discomfort starts long before this. You start feeling sweat running down your body, the respirator gradually becomes soaked and is sucked into your mouth as you inhale.

Since the face protection in not breathable or absorbent, sweat runs down your face and bending forward can cause droplets to drip off your eyelashes onto the goggles. If water collects in the respirator it also feels as if you’re exhaling underwater. At some point, the top tie of the hood becomes a tourniquet around your head and it hurts. It takes a few rounds of PPE before you silence the voice in your head telling to you rip off the goggles. In fact, you have to consciously remind yourself not to touch your face while in PPE inside the high risk area to avoid contamination. But all of this is bearable if you know why you’re in it, so going in with a purpose helps. Another big motivation to put on PPE and make sure it’s on properly are the stories of how vulnerable health care workers got infected with Ebola and died. Many didn’t know what they were dealing with until it was too late and others were simply not adequately protected.

Musa Kenie, a 24 year old community health officer from Kailahun, Sierra Leone working at MSF’s Ebola case management centre (CMC) in the district says the country has suffered a huge loss of health care workers, especially amongst those who were community-based, such as nurses trained in maternal and child health. In a country where the maternal mortality rate is one of the highest in the world, this is devastating. Musa tells me about his first encounter with a patient suspected of having Ebola at Kailahun Government Hospital on the 17th of May this year, “My colleague mentioned that there were rumours of an Ebola outbreak in Koindu, the border town near to Liberia and Guinea, and this is where the patient came from but we did not suspect Ebola even though she had a high fever, postpartum bleeding and was confused.” The only protective equipment Musa and his colleagues had at the time were elbow-length obstetric gloves, no face masks, no goggles, no apron, no rubber boots. He attempted to insert an intravenous cannula in the patient’s arm while going through all the possible causes of postpartum bleeding, trying to find a diagnosis but Ebola was still not on the list of differential diagnoses when the woman died more than 12 hours later.

On the 20th of May, Musa was sent to train under a senior colleague for six months in Buedu, a town 17 miles away from Koindu, before being posted to his own catchment area. But in Buedu community health centre he found four patients isolated in the maternity ward with the same symptoms: fever, vomiting and diarrhoea. “Now we were thinking of cholera,” he says. Within a day of his arrival, surveillance officers from the Ministry of Health and Sanitation arrived to take blood samples from the four patients. This time they wore aprons, face masks and gloves. Musa was informed of similar cases in Koindu and that blood samples from there would also be sent to the Haemorhagic Viruses laboratory in Kenema. If the results were positive, he was told the government would declare an Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. And shortly thereafter, that’s what happened. Almost six months later, we stand in a clearing in the forest used to bury those who died of Ebola at the Kailahun CMC. It’s a field of unmarked graves containing bodies of people from different parts of the country. Most of them died alone and were buried before their families could identify them. One grave is marked by a wooden sign board with the words “RIP Rosaline Kamara” handwritten in red paint. Rosaline was a friend of Musa’s and a maternal and child health nurse aide who was admitted to the CMC but didn’t survive. Making the sign board was Musa’s way of honouring her memory beyond the statistics in the wake of Ebola’s indiscriminate attack.

Its true that nothing I read about Ebola or heard from my colleagues in the field could prepare me for the reality of it. Even when I’m certain that my PPE will protect me from being infected by the virus, I cannot escape being affected by the pain, loss, helplessness and unfairness of it all. It’s not the wide-scale effects that ultimately penetrate one’s illusion of separateness, not dead bodies or death rates or sick people falling out of an ambulance at the entrance of the CMC. It’s the more subtle experiences of having to isolate family members when someone tests positive and the others are negative, then witnessing their grief and anxiety when they’re separated from each other. It’s in the profound sadness we feel for children who refuse to eat or speak as an expression of their acute despair after seeing one or both of their parents die in adjacent beds. It’s the cold precision with which infection control measures are enforced and the way in which these violate what makes us human, like barring a mother from breast feeding her baby or denying those left behind much needed closure of funeral rites for their dead relatives. And sometimes it’s a hopelessness and loss for words when we find out that another healthcare worker has died.

Poverty, underdevelopment and weak health systems are amongst the reasons this outbreak has claimed so many lives, so it makes sense that in the absence of any radical treatment the care that MSF provides to Ebola patients is centered on oral rehydration, nutrition, hygiene and a standard course of antibiotics and antimalarials. With this regimen we’ve seen a greater than 40% cure rate at the Kailahun CMC, which is truly inspiring. I’ve been here for four weeks so far and despite hearing rumours and having expectations, I’ve not seen any Cuban doctors or American troops come to help where we are. While we impose restrictions and militantly implement universal precautions to secure our borders, West Africans in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea are trying to make sense of the decimation and find a way to move forward after so much of the little that they had to begin with has been taken away. Not enough was done by the international community to avert the disaster and prevent the spread of Ebola at the epicenter of the outbreak. Six months later, with an increasingly punitive and fearful approach towards quarantine of those who’ve chosen to help, it appears as if the world’s response is still shamefully off the mark.

Novelist Taiye Selasi doesn’t like passports or nations.

The videos of the TED Global 2014 lecture series are not out yet. But if the follow-up blogposts are anything to go by, we can anticipate what Taiye Selasi will tell us in her presentation.

As far as I can tell from Thu-Huong Ha’s quick summary of her talk, Selasi sang the same song she’s been singing for the past few years: “Our passports don’t define us.”

She claims that countries are ephemeral things. Nations can “be born, die, expand and contract.” For that reason, they ought not to define who we are. “History is real,” she insists, “cultures are real, but countries are invented.”

My guess is that Selasi has read books such as Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. Perhaps this is why she speaks of nations as imaginary or invented things. She is right. Nations are not “naturally occurring things.” They are invented. But, then, as Anderson himself would agree, countries are no less “real” just because they are invented.

Selasi concluded her TED talk with the question: “How can I come from a nation? How can a human being come from a concept?” Does she really think that nations are merely concepts?

Nations are invented. But they are also legal, political, and historical entities. They are not things we can wish away like a bad dream. Our nation, our passports do define our lives, our access to resources, and our ability to circulate in the global landscape. To the powers that be, the powers that decide on the distribution of the resources on which our lives depend, we are never simply humans. We are, first and foremost, passport-holders.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for critiquing the nation as a form of legal and political identity—especially in the ways it fosters global forms of inequality. But a solid critique of the nation demands that we understand its significance, its power, its history, what is useful about it but also what is dangerous about it. Wishing away the nation as ephemeral and dispensable is itself a dangerous position to take for the simple reason that it completely misunderstands what nations are and why, despite their glaring shortcomings, they continue to exist and define individual life and global relations.

At some point in the talk, Selasi quips: “You can take away my passport, but you can’t take away my experience”—a variation on the “our-passports-don’t-define-us” statement. She also points that what matters is not your country but where “shopkeepers know your face” or what locality “shapes your weekly emotional experience.” Let us be frank here and admit that there is something disturbingly hollow about these kinds of statements. It sounds like some new age political mysticism. Let’s just throw all our passports into the bonfire and dance about in our naked humanity.

But here is where the problem lies.

Selasi hates the “Where are you from” question. It complains that it fails to acknowledge that her identity is multiple. After all, she “was born in the UK and grew up in the US, with an English-born mother raised in Nigeria and an Australian-born father raised in Ghana who has been living in Saudi Arabia for the past thirty years.”

But these are just biographical details. The mere fact that Selasi has a mixed heritage, grew up in different countries, and now has apartments in three different continents proves nothing, least of all that passports—as a legal document—don’t define us. She is confusing biographical quirks for legal status. She doesn’t seem to realize that there is a difference between identity as a subjective, biographical problem and identity as a legal and political reality—two very different issues with different genealogies and, therefore, requiring different kinds of critiques. One does not cancel out the other.

Image Credit: TED Talks.

The Spear of the People

In September this year, Inkosi Mhlabunzima Maphumulo would have turned 65 years old. But on February 25, 1991, an apartheid hit squad murdered the traditional leader and Contralesa president as he pulled into the driveway of his home. Maphumulo’s assassination sent shockwaves across the Pietermaritzburg communities that had come to know him as the “peace chief” for his efforts to quell KwaZulu-Natal’s political violence.

During the last decade of apartheid, Pietermaritzburg was the scene of some of South Africa’s deadliest violence as a state-fueled civil war wracked its townships and countryside. Pietermaritzburg is the city where Nelson Mandela gave his last speech before his 1962 arrest. It is the birthplace of the ANC’s fiery and controversial Harry Gwala and the Liberal Party leader and novelist Alan Paton.

Despite this, the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands and its capital city, Pietermaritzburg, have a bit of a reputation as a “sleepy hollow.” But a group of local artists, activists, and business people are working to change that perception. The people working to promote Pietermaritzburg’s history and arts are a diverse group, forming a partnership between business people, local government, and artists. I sat down with two of them, businesswoman Amanda Xaba and the playwright Mzi Mngadi, to discuss the fruit of their collaboration, the stage production Umkhonto Wabantu.

Amanda Xaba started a communications company in 2006 and named it after her grandfather, local struggle hero Anton “Mfenendala” Xaba. In 2012, the company formed a trust to manage his legacy and launched a corporate magazine. Besides local business coverage and lifestyle advice, each issue features one of Pietermaritzburg’s struggle heroes, starting with her grandfather and including Maphumulo, Gwala, Jabu Ndlovu, and Chota Motala. In one issue, Xaba described the impetus for promoting Pietermaritzburg’s history: “When I asked my son who or what Moses Mabhida was he answered, ‘the stadium in Durban.’”

They also launched the Mfenendala Cultural Arts Group, adopting the Pietermaritzburg Artists Association with financial support in order to educate more people about the role of Pietermaritzburg in the liberation struggle.

The Pietermaritzburg Artists Association, formerly known as “Die Bafanas” was founded by Sipho Mthembu, Khaba Mkhize, and Muzi Mthembu in the 1980s as a black community theatre with a focus on political education. They also performed several of Mkhize’s plays, including Hobo the Man, Pity Maritzburg!, and Ubuntu. The Association’s current director, Nelson Thulani Mngadi, grew up steeped in the city’s theatre. Die Bafanas used to practice at his house. He remembers watching: “I think maybe I was about seven years old seeing those veterans on stage. Most of them were my role models and mentors. I admired everything about them and learnt a lot. The old Sobantu generation was very talented and passionate about stage plays, musical, theatre and sports.”

MJM (3)

Die Bafana’s community education mission continues in the association’s partnership with Mfenendala for Umkhonto Wabantu. Mfenendala reached out to the association and the Sobantu school teacher, poet, novelist, and three-time Comrades race medalist, Mzi Mngadi. They gave Mzi the magazine articles on local struggle heroes and the accompanying research… and asked for a story.

Mzi’s Umkhonto Wabantu highlights the history of KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, carefully covering a tumultuous era of South Africa’s past while celebrating the region’s liberation heritage without hagiography. The first day of the production was reserved for high school and tertiary learners, whose tickets were covered by some funding from the National Heritage Council. I attended the second showing on 27 June 2014. The Winston Churchill Theatre filled with local dignitaries, university faculty and students, heritage representatives, and the families of those featured.

Umkhonto Wabantu dealt emotively with the tragic moments of KwaZulu-Natal’s history. When I brought up the range of emotions evoked by the drama, Mzi called it a “salad,” echoing the sentiment that Khaba Mkhize offered up 20 years earlier to describe another Pietermaritzburg community theatre production, his Pity Maritzburg!

Pity Maritzburg was written by the events, not me. It was like a fruit salad. You take the apple, slice it, put it there, you take paw-paw, y’know.” – Khaba Mkhize in “Natal Cockroaches Fly

While the events and characters may have written Umkhonto Wabantu, Mzi gave it beautiful form. He used Zulu storytellers to set up each scene. Thami Gumede paced the stage as an imbongi and even in English mimicked the pace of a Zulu praise singer. Winile Madlala, in her MK uniform, was much more reserved but equally powerful. The chorus animated the theatre with its performances of the songs of the liberation struggle.

umkhonto banner

With Umkhonto Wabantu Mzi told the region’s history as the families of those portrayed sat in the front row. Mngadi expressed his concerns about the audience: “I had fears about that before the play. It’s not easy to unleash or construct something that is about people with relatives still living.” But there was nary a dry eye as four soldiers pushed the coffin of Victoria Mxenge, draped in an ANC flag, across the stage and violence ensued. I sat next to Inkosi Maphumulo’s daughter as Siphamandla Ngcobo strode confidently across the stage as the late chief. All knew immediately who it was – not necessarily because of the head ring denoting his leadership status, but on account of his infamous leather jacket. Buyi chuckled and whispered, “they got that right!”

There were other laughs too. By far the evening’s lightest moments surrounded Mandla Mbuyisa’s portrayal of Harry Gwala, wearing the signature neck brace and thick glasses. Mbuyisa would bellow, “viva, ANC, viva!” and the crowd erupted. The audience also loved Phumlani Madlala as PACSA’s Peter Kerchoff – though the playwright may have taken some liberties with Kerchoff’s politics.

As Umkhonto Wabantu remembers these local struggle heroes—the late peace chief, comrade Gwala, and Mfenendala—it reminds that the sleepy hollow isn’t so sleepy.

* Top Image Credit: Die Bafanas perform from a truck outside Jan Smuts cricket stadium demonstrating against rebel English tour 1990 (photo – Rafs Mayet, Africa South Art Initiative Culture and Working Life Project)

Those iconic Nigerian hairstyles from the ’60s

Long before Chris Rock wondered what was up with black women’s hair (“Good Hair” 2009), black women in Africa were busy engaging in acts of self-fashioning that married their political sensibilities and their aesthetic leanings in ways that defied limitations of imagination and gravity. And photographer J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere was there to document that passing moment, showing us that hair was always political – reflecting not only one’s personal aesthetic position within global currents, but those of one’s nation, as well.

In the first of the BBC World Service’s new video series, Bisi Silva from the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos explains that one hairstyle – much like today’s styles associated with celebrity (like the “Farah Fawcett”, or the “Rachel”) – was even given a name: “Onile Gogoro” – Yoruba for “tall house” or “standing tall”. But this was not a style associated with any ordinary human celebrity; it was the embodiment of aspirations and euphoria of a nation at independence. Variations of these hairstyles were all over – I remember them in Zambia as late as the ’80s, before the “wet look” (known as the Jheri Curl in the US – BTW, the creator of that look, Comer Cottrell, just died this year) and hair straighteners took over.

J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere_Untitled_1963

Back in the ’60s, photographers were busy documenting the men of Africa, the patriarchs in their horn-rimmed spectacles, contending with the men of Europe, who wanted to maintain their control.


But Ojeikere documented how the ordinary person felt – how women in Nigerian urban scenes responded to independence, unleashing their poetic aspirations through style – their hair, clothing, walk, and body language. This hair stood tall on a solid structure, allowing one to reach higher than one’s physical limitations permitted. It captured the swirl in a wave that would otherwise only last a few moments in the ocean.

What a lovely imaginative leap, to go from thinking lofty thoughts about what independence offered us, to thinking…how shall I fashion myself – my living, physical body – to reflect my political desires, the euphoria that my fellow citizens feel?


When I see Ojeikere’s photographs today, I think of the same narratives I hear about New York’s first skyscrapers, built at the turn of the twentieth century: of the mythologies surrounding the Flatiron Building (1902) and the Chrysler Center (1930). Each of these grand buildings was imagined at a seminal historical moment of great hope and impossible-possibility. Into their construction went the desire to both show off and contain virility. So too, this hair.

Today, when one walks the avenues of Manhattan, one can easily pass by those powerful dreams that produced iconic buildings. We could easily forget those potent episodes in our histories. Ojeikere’s photographs remind us of such a wild moment – a moment that produced quintessentially Nigerian personifications of “freedom”, “modernity”, and sexual, creative, and generative power.

J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere_Untitled (Onile Gogoro)_1972

Photo Credits: J.D. Okhai Ojeikere & CCA Lagos

5 Questions for a filmmaker… Philippa Ndisi-Herrmann

Born in Bonn in 1985, Philippa Ndisi-Herrmann is a Kenyan and German photographer and filmmaker. She is intrigued by the invisible boundary between individual and collective identities, and fascinated by the influence of ancestral memory, living space and culture on our understanding of ourselves. She is drawn to Lamu, an Island in the Indian Ocean, where The Donkey that Carried the Cloud on its Back an ongoingfeature-length documentary project, originates. She lives in Nairobi, Kenya where she writes, cooks, paints, shoots, makes jokes, reads Rumi, and falls in love.  Here’s a teaser for “The Donkey that Carried the Cloud on its Back”

What is your first film memory?

It was The Bear by Jean-Jacques Annaud. I was maybe five. My mum had returned from the UK bearing gifts and brought me back the video. I watched it alone, captivated. The forest was entrancing and the silent bears mystifying. I cried. I watched it a few times, not many, but that was the first time I was moved by a film – and perhaps the first time I understood a feeling, in this case, the feeling of separation, of loss and aloneness through the film medium.

Why did you decide to become a filmmaker?

In my late teens, I realised that one of my purposes in this life was to plug myself into our greater understanding of human kind, by contributing and conveying sentiments, feelings and moments. I knew I was an artist – but I felt the media that I knew, words and drawings, did not suffice; film felt like a multi-sensory medium to convey a feeling. Film was tangible; you could hear, you could see, you could feel – it was real, the human story could be told and understood. Film to me is one of the strongest and most powerful tools to create compassion. If only for a brief period, you can live another’s life – and this experience can deepen and change your perspective and understanding of life. More compassion is what the world needs, and film is a way of positively contributing to the greater human experience.

Which film do you wish you had made?

Many of Bergman’s, because he is genius and perhaps Walter Salles’s Central Station (1998) or Half-Nelson by Ryan Fleck.

However I will say I wish I made Biutiful because it is poetry and spiritualism. To me, the film explores the memory other’s have left behind and the memories we leave behind. Is it the love we have for others or is it our memory and moments with them that make up our “souvenir” of them? I also liked the clash of antiquity and the real world. A wonderful film. After I saw it, I used to fall asleep to that film for many a night. It made me even more inspired to make films!

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

I will say Out of the Furnace. It is exquisitely directed – we always know the character’s motivation and the director Scott Cooper explores the complexities of conflict so well.

Paradise Love ( as well. I admire the film because of how Director Siedl seems to have observed the most minute details and presented them in such a way that is so strong and clear. The place where the film takes place is very familiar to me, it is a seaside resort town that I have been to many times as a child and adult. The dynamics of relationships between young local guys and middle-aged European women has been a source of fascination for me so I appreciate how he explored this. What I liked about the film is how Siedl explores the everchanging power play between the two characters and of course the way in which “power” and lack of power affects self-esteem.

I also like how Paradise Love touches on imperialism and addresses hangover of sex and colonialism. Oh and I love the way Siedl designs his shots. Most of his scenes are just one shot, sometimes only one take. Often locked off. Many of his shots are full of visual contrasts and each shot is like a photographic portrait. The dialogue is crazy too, very real but crazy.

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

“Which are your favourite film scene(s)?”

I will tell you two, off the top of my head, but from my heart; one from the perspective of a filmmaker and the other from the perspective of a romantic, starting with the latter:
When Édith Piaf and Marcel go on their first date in a fancy restaurant in Olivier Dahan’s La Vie en Rose and fall in love at that table. I love the dialogue and editing; I love the way the filmmaker hold certain shots and the way the scene is told through Edith recounting the story to her best friend.  Dahan later references this scene toward the end of the film when Edith in her old age, is interviewed by a young woman. Sublime and beautiful; touching and romantic!

From a filmmaker’s point of view I pick the prologue to Biutiful; the scene in the white forest with Uxbal and the young man – everything in it is perfect and moving; the owl’s feathers blowing in the wind, the dialogue, the images, the intimacy and spiritual relevance.

* The ‘5 Questions for a Filmmaker …’ series is archived here.

How Frelimo rehabilitated Renamo in time for Mozambique’s Elections

Mozambique’s October 15 elections demonstrated how “divided” the country is. Frelimo, the party in power since independence in 1975, won the elections with 57 per cent of the vote for its presidential candidate Filipe Nyusi and 144 of 250 seats in parliament, but the results in the provinces and severe irregularities on voting day and during the vote count paint a more complicated picture. Nyusi won more than two thirds of the votes in traditional Frelimo strongholds—the southern provinces and the northern-most province of Cabo Delgado, while the opposition parties gained more than 60 per cent in the Renamo strongholds of Zambézia and Sofala provinces. Many instances of ballot box stuffing and a disorganized process of the tabulation of results have been documented, but the National Election Commission (CNE) approved the results on November 1.

Overall, Renamo gained 37 per cent—an increase of more than 20 percentage points in comparison to 2009. Renamo’s success in the elections was remarkable, as the party was weak and disorganized after boycotting last year’s municipal elections and Renamo-affiliated armed groups had frequently clashed with government soldiers over the last two years (we wrote about this here). Negotiations with the administration of President Guebuza about changes in the electoral law and equal representation in the security forces lead to a last-minute deal in early September. Dhlakama, after being absent from Maputo for several years, returned to the political scene and attracted a large number of curious voters wherever he traveled during his campaign for the presidency. In contrast, the relatively new opposition party, MDM, a winner of last year’s municipal elections, did not live up to the expectations.

We talked to political scientist Domingos Manuel de Rosário, researcher and professor at the Universidade Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo, about the elections and Dhlakama’s surprising success:

After the 2009 elections, many commentators thought that Renamo was too weak and divided to ever win a large share of the vote again. Why was Dhlakama able to mobilize so many voters after his long absence from Maputo (and politics) and the violence by Renamo-affiliated groups over the last two years?

It was [President] Armando Emílio Guebuza’s style of governance that politically rehabilitated Dhlakama. Guebuza’s governance style—exclusionary and arrogant—marginalized most of the Mozambican population. Dhlakama was greeted as a hero [when he came back from hiding] because he was the only valid alternative to confront the Frelimo government and its president who was considered one of those responsible for the social ills of our sick country.

Guebuza’s state-building model—even the process of decentralization—only included those who were close to Guebuza and left others marginalized. These were large segments of the population, and this created important factions, even within the Frelimo party. So when Dhlakama appeared, he was perceived as the only one who could confront Guebuza, especially since Dhlakama’s political discourse had ceased to be aggressive and had become a [political] alternative to the dictatorship of Frelimo’s parliamentary majority in the Assembly of the Republic.

There is also the perception that the [recent] war was started by the Frelimo state by ordering the attack on the headquarters of Renamo [in Nampula in March 2012.] Dhlakama only moved to Nampula city and then to Maringue [his base in in Sofala province] and never attacked the population. It is also clear to the people who traveled [in the areas in which violence occurred] and published [their views] on social media that Renamo only attacked buses, trains, and trucks that carried soldiers and never those vehicles that only carried civilians. Don’t forget that Mozambicans experienced the worst trauma of the 16-year war (the civil war, 1976-1992) and when the clashes erupted and the one responsible could be identified, it contributed to Dhlakama being perceived as a hero, as the Messiah and as the Savior of the Mozambican people.

Who do you think voted for Renamo? Who does Dhlakama attract?

In urban areas such as Maputo and Matola, Dhlakama received the largest number of votes since [the first multiparty elections in] 1994 because these are cities with a large number of young people who have access to social media. Young people who completed their university education in the various public and private universities of low quality have trouble finding jobs. In addition, corruption and bribery means less access to jobs in both the public and private sector, and professional qualifications for a job have taken a backseat to being known or having a family member who occupies a higher position.

So it’s new voters, young, old—a bit of all social categories of the Mozambican people. Particularly the demobilized of the civil war who were never socially reintegrated; young “marginalized” without jobs, without prospects of life in rural areas and whose future is uncertain, who are willing to do anything and who are without fear of losing whatever they have because they don’t have anything.

What do you think about the new president, Filipe Nyusi? Is he Guebuza’s puppet, as some have suggested?

Of course he is Guebuza’s puppet, yes. The great question is whether he will continue Guebuza’s work or whether he will distance himself and introduce a new form of governance. We will see when he forms his new administration whether this will be a Guebuza administration headed by Nyusi or a Nyusi administration that represents a rupture with the past and recent present. The latter is what Nyusi promised during the campaign. However, there are many doubts whether he can do this since he does not control the party. So his ability to form alliances within the party will be important to control the party, a very important mechanism for its political governance. It is also necessary to remember that he is a descendant of the military wing of FRELIMO (the liberation front). So there is a confluence of economic and political interests. And we also shouldn’t forget that Guebuza left a great burden for him—the creation of a fund for social reintegration of the “residual forces of Renamo.” Where will he find the money? And who belongs to these residual forces? What about those who were never reintegrated after the 16 year-war? And what about the Mozambicans who are politically and economically marginalized? When will they be integrated into society? Will it be necessary to either belong to the military or having fought [during the war] to receive one’s place in Mozambique? And in addition to these points, remember that the elections are considered problematic and not transparent.

What do you think is the future of the relatively new opposition party MDM that won three of the country’s four largest cities in the 2013 local elections, but whose presidential candidate, the mayor of the second largest city Beira, Daviz Simango, only received 6 per cent of the vote?

MDM’s results don’t surprise me. What is it that MDM did politically in recent years? MDM will be the victim of its own “supposed” success. Success is the result of [political] work. Yet MDM never did this work and provided political alternatives. Moreover, MDM’s mobilization is a big nightmare. Finally, the rise of the figure of Manuel de Araújo [mayor of Zambézia’s province of Quelimane] created a dual structure, as two prominent figures, Araújo and Simango, now dominate the party, which can pose major problems to the MDM in the coming years. MDM will have major problems to become the main opposition party. These elections showed well that Daviz Simando is strong in elections of local officials, but in elections of national officials, Simango becomes irrelevant and insignificant. He can’t compete to become president. More so because he was competing against a great charismatic leader (Dhlakama) and a strong party machine (Frelimo and Nyusi).

What is your overall assessment of the elections?

These were the most problematic elections in Mozambique since 1999. Many irregularities were registered. The Technical Secretariat for Electoral Administration (STAE) is the major culprit of this situation. It’s a highly politicized structure, which hasn’t evolved over time so that the forces that have influenced it have been almost the same since 1994.

Domingos Manuel de Rosário just finished a project on decentralization reform and public service provision and currently works on a book project about the civil war in Mozambique (1976-1992). Interview translated from Portuguese by author.

Image credit: eNews Africa

Oscar Pistorius and the Judge

South Africa is a divided society with a vile history of injustice. Injustice runs along very bright lines: black versus white, women versus men, the rich versus the poor, government versus the people. For a long time, there wasn’t much debate about whom the law favoured: white, rich males, usually wielding the political power of government.

Since democracy, South Africa has been locked in a different kind of struggle. While the bright-lines have disappeared (at least in law), the people are still attuned to them. Our biggest fear as South Africans is that the Beast of Apartheid may not be dead; it may be living in the shadows of the rainbow nation.

Oscar Pistorius’ murder trial was bound to rub us all the wrong way. In many ways, Pistorius is a poster child for the old South Africa: a rich (spoilt) white male who wields unearned privilege and believes that the country owes him a favour. Oscar splits South African society in all ways possible.

To some whites, Pistorius is a victim of rampant black-on-white crime. His fear of the ubiquitous black criminal forced him to shoot the love of his life in cold blood. To most blacks, he represents gun-wielding whites who see a criminal in every black person.

To the poor, Pistorius represents the rich who buy and sell justice—jumping queues with expedited trials while poor folk rot in jail, even before they have had a day in court.

To some women, Pistorius is a domestic-abuser-turned-“victim”. His case was beyond pale, just like the millions of other domestic abusers who bash women and then drench the public in tears begging for forgiveness.

Judge Masipa convicted Pistorius on one count of culpable homicide (manslaughter) and on one gun-related charge. She sentenced him to an effective five years in prison, although he will be entitled to apply for parole in 10 months. Masipa has been publicly vilified for both her conviction and sentence. Billionaire Donald Trump – that true beacon of intelligence – commented on the sentence: “Oscar Pistorius will likely only serve 10 months for the cold blooded murder of his girlfriend. Another [O.J. Simpson] travesty. The judge is a moron!”

Pistorius’ case was the hardest possible judicial assignment for any judge on the post-apartheid bench. Justice meant, ultimately, whatever one’s ideology and sense of history demanded. Masipa’s verdict and sentence, whichever direction she decided, were about more than justice for Reeva Steenkamp; she had to comment on the state of the Republic.

After 16 months of a grueling trial, how did Judge Masipa do? To answer this question, we must take a detour to a similarly difficult time in South African history: 1990.

In 1990, after centuries of brutal violence and wrenching oppression, South Africans were about to build a new country. All that the country had as a point of reference was a very recent history of repression, brutality and a biased, rotting judiciary.

The biggest question, then, was justice for apartheid victims. What would justice look like for those whose families were torn apart, for those who lost life and limb fighting for freedom? Mandela and his comrades knew that the problem of justice needed a cunning long-term solution. They crafted one: a constitution quite like no other!

The aspiration for the crafters of the Constitution, as Mandela explained later, was to ensure that, “Never, never and never again shall it be that [this] beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.”

The Constitution declared that its purpose was to ‘Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law.’ (Preamble) The new South Africa would be founded on the values of ‘Human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms… Supremacy of the constitution and the rule of law.’ (§ 1)

The Constitution entrenches in our society certain inalienable rights. Everyone – including an accused or convicted criminal like Pistorius – is equal before the law and entitled to have his or her dignity respected and protected. (§ 9 and 10)

Most of all, the Constitution is ‘the supreme law of the Republic; law or conduct inconsistent with it is invalid, and the obligations imposed by it must be fulfilled.’ (§ 2) To this end, ‘The courts are independent and subject only to the Constitution and the law, which they must apply impartially and without fear, favour or prejudice.’ (§ 165)

Judge President Mlambo, who is perhaps responsible for assigning Judge Masipa to the Pistorius trial, noted the broader justice questions posed by the case. He said:

‘[In] a country like ours where democracy is still somewhat young and the perceptions that continue to persist in the larger section of South African society, particularly those who are poor and who have found it difficult to access the justice system…. I have taken judicial notice of the fact that part of the perception that I allude to is the fact that the justice system is still perceived as treating the rich and famous with kid [gloves] whilst being harsh on the poor and vulnerable.’

The challenge facing Judge Masipa was heightened in two ways. First, the facts were hardly in dispute. It was not in dispute that Pistorius shot and killed Steenkamp. The mixed question of fact and law was about Pistorius’ intention when he shot Steenkamp. Pistorius’ guilt or innocence hinged only on his state of mind. The difficulty is: only Pistorius knows his state of mind when he committed the offence—a bitter pill for the public to swallow.

Second, Judge Masipa had to answer a bigger question about the meaning of justice in post-apartheid South Africa. This question is fashioned along the bright-lines I outline above and it is subject to intense public opinion. She was being asked whether the law still favours rich white males over the poor, women and blacks?

She handled the task quite remarkably. She and the judiciary saw the Pistorius trial as an opportunity to teach the nation and the world about South Africa’s constitutional compact. The lesson: In South Africans, justice means what the Constitution says it does. The Constitution says justice means treating the accused with dignity, fairness and legal restraint whilst punishing him or her for proven facts. Many will ask: what does justice mean for Reeva Steenkamp?

John Rawls wrote in A Theory of Justice that, “The main idea [of justice] is that society is rightly ordered, and therefore just, when its major institutions are arranged so as to achieve the greatest net balance of satisfaction summed over all the individuals belonging to it.” In South Africa, we have created such institutions through the Constitution.

Institutionally, the State has formidable public resources (money, police, specialists etc.) to discover facts. The State employs gifted lawyers to place those facts lucidly and forcefully before a judge. The accused is punished for those facts proven by the State beyond a reasonable doubt. The judge must ignore public opinion and personal idiosyncrasies in order to be the arbiter of fact, ‘without fear, favour or prejudice.’ For the victim, justice means punishing the accused for wrongs in accordance with institutions of law. Justice is the rule of law.

The punishment must be preponderant to the nature of the crime, the offender and the interests of society. According to Professor Snyman Criminal Law, ‘the court [must] weigh the accused’s personal circumstances against the nature of the crime and the interests of society. The [accused’s] personal circumstances constitute mitigating circumstances, whereas the nature of the crime and the interests of society amount to aggravating circumstances.’

These were the principle guiding Judge Masipa’s decision, and she remained true to them. Despite considerable public opinion, Masipa did what the Constitution demanded of her. We could all speculate about how Oscar committed a different crime or how he deserved a harsher sentence. Speculating is the easy part. Adhering to a binding social contract – the Constitution – is much, much harder!

John Rawls explains that: ‘From the standpoint of the theory of justice, the most important natural duty is that to support and to further just institutions. This duty has two parts: first, we are to comply with and to do our share in just institutions when they exist and apply to us; and second, we are to assist in the establishment of just arrangements when they do not exist […].’

All of us are a single stupid decision away from a jail cell. Should we ever make such a stupid decision, we all want the justice of fairness and restraint shown by the court in the Pistorius trial.

The trial highlights some worrying trends about wealth and justice in South Africa. The rich and famous can afford the most expensive legal counsel, which improves their experience in the justice system. This is an important issue. We should all support Chief Justice Mogoeng’s efforts to promote access to justice for everyone by bridging the gap for indigent accused. However, these are questions of policy and they should be kept out of the courtroom!

Some people remark that ‘South Africa will never see another Nelson Mandela.’ People like Judge Masipa, and painful events like Reeva Steenkamp’s killing, remind us why we do not need another Mandela. As a country, we will survive through our commitment to values of dignity and human rights. Even if those values also work, quite uncomfortably, for the benefit of criminals like Oscar Pistorius.

Image via The Telegraph

Making African Celebrity Culture

Soon after the MTV Africa Music Awards chief executive drops hints that there will be a special guest, Khloe Kardashian and her entourage appear at the awards’ press conference in Durban, South Africa. The audience buzzes with excitement as she glides towards the plush stage. She generates more interest just by walking around than do her then-boyfriend, American hip-hop superstar French Montana, or any of the African headlining musicians. A reigning icon of global celebrity culture, Khloe is famous for being famous; her family’s celebrity comes not as a by-product of other talents, but as the central, self-generating goal of carefully orchestrated social media and branding work. The excitement around Khloe’s appearance is a sign that this awards show is more than a musical event. It shows the rise of celebrity culture in Africa and the sense that it is not just about music and style but also business strategy.

The MTV Africa Music Awards, more popularly known by its acronym MAMAs, was held on June 7th, 2014 at Durban’s International Conference Centre (ICC). It is one of the biggest African celebrity events in recent years. Under the rubric “Celebrating Africa’s Finest Talent,” the MAMAs stake MTV Base’s—the African channel of the Viacom network—claim as definitive tastemakers in the competitive popular music market. The event has three tasks: packaging African music for US and European audiences, uniting diverse tastes of African audiences from across the continent, and pleasing a South African crowd and news media.

Before traveling to Durban, I stopped in Johannesburg. There I make plans to attend the MAMAs with Dzino, a long-time media strategist who I have known since he became a central player in South Africa’s late 1990s pop culture boom. Dzino attends the MAMAs not for the musical experience but to strategize about potential sponsorship and collaborations for Johannesburg’s first Social Media Week 22-26 September 2014 which he is co-organizing through DigiSense.

Savvy media people like Dzino recognize how entrepreneurial capitalism has become a way of life and personal philosophy that blurs the distinctions between commerce and pleasure. And, celebrity culture is the celebration of this business philosophy in Africa and around the world. But, I am surprised it is not given more serious attention, considering the proximity of celebrity culture to pressing contemporary issues like wealth distribution, rising media technologies, international trade, and political, ethnic, and religious identity in Africa.  Most writings on celebrity life are pithy journalistic accounts or scandalous dirt-digging personal tales.

I arrive in South Africa from Accra, Ghana where I have also been exploring the links between new media, popular culture, and business strategy. There I met up with Ghanaian hiplife stars Reggie Rockstone and VIP who have just shot a video for their hit collaboration “Selfie,” that celebrates the art of taking pictures of yourself and posting them on social media. I also ran into a Multichoice TV music video shoot “Africa Rising” with some of the hottest stars from around the continent including Davido, Sarkodie, Tiwa Savage, Lola Rae, MiCasa, and Diamond, most headed to the MAMAs in Durban the following week. The collaboration is exemplary of recent attempts by the culture industry to combine national musical tastes to shape a more pan-African continental fan (and consumer)-base. Crowds in Accra’s markets and streets jump with excitement when they see these musicians who they have seen mostly online. Ghanaian musicians and industry insiders are in awe of the visiting Nigerians as they flex around town in their Porsche SUVs acting every bit the superstars. The selfie and the collaboration are practices that perhaps best characterize how fame is being remade through social media and how popular music is permeating African public life.

This is not new. In the colonial and early independence eras, musicians like Ghanaian E.T. Mensah, Nigerian Fela Kuti, and South African Hugh Masekela were heroes and key social commentators. However, today the confluences of popular culture and digital technology with the opening up of continental online markets make musicians into a new celebrity order which recasts collective racial and political struggle as dreams of personal pleasure and branded wealth.

Peter Okoye, half of the Nigerian twin-brother super-duo P Square, recently posted to Instagram several pictures of new cars, including a 2014 Bentley said to cost around $200,000. P Square’s impeccably produced infectious dance hits like “Personally” and “Chop My Money,” huge performance fees, and fabulous lifestyle—including the widely rumored purchase of a private plane—make them emblematic of Nigeria’s current dominance of continental popular culture.

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The images are immediately reposted across social media and influential entertainment blogs. While some commentators call Peter’s Instagram vain, others celebrate the cars as signs that “money is good ooo” and “hard work really pays.”

The image of Peter’s baby daughter in the car’s driver seat is a sign of pure aspiration and ambition paying off. These images celebrate both work and leisure, private wealth and public spectacle. Famous musicians are role models who, as one Ghanaian fan of Nigerian music explained to me, “allow you to forget your life and hope for something better.” Celebrity fosters consumption that makes fans hungry for more.

“Celebrity is escapism. Celebrities live the lives that people want,” argues media consultant and freelance publicist Selina Ifeanyi M.  Selina regularly travels between London, Lagos, and Kinshasa though was in Accra consulting for visiting Nigerian musicians. In developing an artist’s personal brand and social media presence, she encourages them to tweet at least six times a day, creating an intimacy with followers. “The key is for fans to get to know who the artist really is… to bring them into the musician’s personal life.” Successful musicians seduce fans by being fabulous and larger-than-life—perhaps even miraculous—while simultaneously drawing them in to their personal struggles and intimate pleasures. For entrepreneurial PR folks like Selina and large media houses, celebrity is a strategy. The artistry of publicists and managers behind the scenes involves creating fame by association so that audiences and consumers pay attention. Celebrity turns style into potential success; luxury is not a sign of preexisting material wealth but a marker of identity and a marketable value in and of itself, a sign of mobility and possibility. Celebrity-ness is a potent, sometimes contradictory combination of work and leisure; producing present pleasure and erasing past struggle. Social media shape how this aspirational, highly-mobile generation imagines possible futures, allowing stars and fans alike to abstract ideas of self from immediate lived contexts and project them into digital communities made through online and mobile circulation.

Celebrity culture is a microcosm of entrepreneurial capitalism as it dominates economic conversations and strategies around the globe; it is the idealized lifestyle of an aspirational consumer-oriented worldview. Celebrities are like tourist sites, IPOs, and apps; managers and strategists package these products to create wealth out of the process of self-making itself. The language of celebrity is optimistic and future-oriented at its core, opening the possibility that success can appear out of nowhere, that anyone can be a star, and that immanent talent can triumph over conditions of structural and historical inequality. Celebrities are focal points for struggling peoples; celebrity culture is a business strategy built on hope and desire.

Ghanaian singer Efya outside hotel in Durban, South Africa for #MTVMAMA

MTV Base has two offices on the continent in Lagos and Johannesburg. The MAMAs were first held in 2008 in Abuja, Nigeria, 2009 in Nairobi, and 2010 in Lagos. But the show has not been staged since, and there is a lot at stake for MTV in reviving them now in Durban, the second city of South Africa. For this event they must reconcile the independent spirit of African musical innovation with the interests of their parent company Viacom and main product sponsor Absolut Vodka—both global corporations with local subsidiaries working to develop their brands in South Africa and Africa. Crucial to their task is to link various tastes into a Pan-African brand as fans of various genres and from countries across the continent often have little in common.

The MAMAs are part of an explosion of awards shows across Africa over the past decade, most sponsored by events promoters, drinks and mobile telecom companies, and media outlets, that celebrate music and film in attempts to expand market share for companies by directing audience tastes. The economics of popular culture oscillate between mass marketing and creating the image of exclusivity; widely publicizing music and images of stars while creating scarcity and coolness by excluding fans from the worlds they desire. Numerous large and small awards events compete to be definitive places for discerning excellence. As Selina notes, “red carpet events in Nigeria, and other places in Africa, are driving the music industry.” Smaller events struggle for legitimacy and a piece of the entertainment market, enticing established artists to come by nominating them for awards, while artists vie for spots at established red carpet galas. Most fans, of course, cannot attend elite shows with theirs displays of a luxurious lifestyle—high fashion, cars, drinks, beautiful bodies. Their exclusiveness creates public desire for something just out of their reach. People follow the proceedings on TV and online, voting via text message for their favorite artists. Elites, executives, bloggers, media, and artists circulate celebratory images of a fabulous life for the masses to scrutinize and admire. In this sense, live events are of secondary importance, acting as flashpoints for simultaneous social media circulation. For the MAMAs, #MTVMAMA (that’s the hashtag) is publicized as the event’s official Twitter feed. Facebook pages, Instagram and Vine accounts, and Twitter handles for stars and influential bloggers, artists, and publicists direct social media traffic to build anticipation for the awards. Stars send out pictures of themselves arriving in anticipation of the awards.

IMG_6651At #MTVMAMA, in front of the Selfie station, V J Nomuzi prepares to do an interview.

Most MAMA participants fly to Durban on the Friday, filling up the hotels along the beach. The South African entertainment industry relocates from Johannesburg while international participants settle in for the weekend. The activities begin Friday afternoon with a series of workshops organized by Phiona Okumu, marketer, writer, social media guru, and editor of Afripop! who has been instrumental both in creating and reporting on numerous Afro-cosmopolitan arts and media projects. She is also working with Dzino as a key organizer of Johannesburg’s Social Media Week. Moving between London, Kampala, and Johannesburg, she has helped link African artists to British mainstream tastes by writing on music for The Guardian. The workshops are held at the downtown Durban Playhouse. Panels of artists answer audience questions about how to be successful in the music industry. In the two afternoon sessions, “DIY Music Marketing” and “Reaching Africa and Beyond,” artists discuss how the internet has created new opportunities for music making and distribution, allowing artists to be successful without corporate support.

About fifty students from Durban’s Creative Arts College attend the workshops. One first year student Calvin Motaung, who is studying sound and music technology, asks the panelists whether they have ever compromised their music to cater to consumers. He wants tips from successful artists on how to balance artistic content and marketing. During a break in the workshop, Calvin and his mates drink coffee in the theatre’s lobby. He tells me that in learning sound and music technology at Creative Arts College they study the business side of things as a foundation for their artistic work. “Music and production software we already know. We need to learn how to connect to audiences and how to be professional.” Calvin is still searching for his own sound but cites hip-hop star Drake as his major musical and personal influence. He is hungry for tips from the panelists. “These workshops give insight into how the industry works… for upcoming artists it is important to stop mimicking. You can’t aspire to be different if you keep doing the same things that the people you look up to are doing.” Calvin wants to reach global audiences with his music; it is both a musical and a marketing challenge. “The message I took from the panel was ‘you have to be versatile to cater to listeners.’ If you have enough drive you can push towards your goal, but you have to be business minded as well finding your own unique sound … take charge of your career.”

While the students cannot afford tickets for the actual MAMAs the following evening, the workshops energize these aspiring artists. Speakers encourage attendants to work on their own and not to wait for a manager or corporate support. “You are the publisher of your music… you do not need a record company…you don’t need a marketing strategy… put stuff online then email and contact radio stations… People download songs on line it might not be played on radio that might not matter.”

Blinky of Nairobi’s groundbreaking alternative funk-disco-rock-hip-hop group Just A Band encourages artists to make music, ignore traditional distribution and marketing routes and get their sound out to the public however they can. Blinky jokes about the infrastructural differences between South Africa and Kenya and the implicit significance of digital and transportation infrastructure for connectivity. The audience laughs as he teases that while South African roads are great and the cities developed, internet access is terrible. The joke points to where public life happens. For a growing cosmopolitan segment of youth, it is less in the streets than online. Panelist talk about a South African musician touring Greece with DJ Black Coffee because he had a hit song even though it never got on radio. “If your song is good, people will play it. Find a way to get it out and bring people to listen to it; use YouTube or Soundcloud or whatever. The internet allows you to create your own industry. Radio often picks things up that are already big on the streets through internet. Some African artists are touring the world and earning from their music even if they are not known commercially.” Calvin explains to me that music is a possible career as well as a passion. “Music is a way to make a living. If you can stay current and relevant you can afford to make it your job. That you can get your monthly salary and pay bill; that is my goal; here it is we must be able to feed your family first; but music is what I know how to do and what I love.”

I first met Just a Band in their Nairobi studio not long after their music video for “Ha He” featuring Makmende a Kenyan superhero in a 1970s Blacksploitation style adventure went viral. They became an alternative voice of Anglophone African music. Just A Band might never have tens of millions of YouTube hits like top Nigerian pop musicians. But their goals are less in line with mass appeal of most popular artists. As Blinky and I chat after the panel he explains that African music has evolved with room for various sub-genres and small-scale styles as well as massive pop stars. Blinky and his bandmates are part conceptual artists and intellectuals and part pop stars. He is skeptical of the red carpet spectacle to come. “We play the music we want to play. We can be ourselves and represent the world in our own way. We are not trying to be these red carpet celebrities.” Success requires both artistry and business savvy.

Alex-Okosi-Tim-Horwood-MTV-MAMA14Alex Okosi and Tim Horwood launching the MAMA Press Conference. Photo Credit: Al Nicoll, MTV Networks Africa (Pty) Ltd

The official MAMA press conference is on Friday evening. Alex Okosi, Senior Vice President and Managing Director for Viacom Media Networks Africa, and Tim Horwood whose Twitter account lists him as “Creative Director Viacom Africa / Channel Director, MTV Base. Undercover Corporate Ninja” launch the press conference by unveiling the redesigned award, a gold sculpture of Africa built from abstracted microphones. Okosi is often credited with starting MTV Africa in 2005 as part of the MTV family of global networks to challenge Channel O as the preeminent South Africa based music television station. From Nigeria he studied business in the US, relocating to Johannesburg to head up Viacom’s corporate office. To the press Okosi is relaxed and in charge, joking that he perhaps is no longer a youth but is there to support new movements. Horwood started in South African television as a child actor, later working his way up at MTV. Okosi explains that the MAMAs are a “celebration of the best of African talent… amazing, beautiful, creative vibrant young people; [it is] an opportunity to show [our] amazing youth culture… something we can repackage for global consumption… We are live bringing the event to the world and using social media to bring the event to the continent.” Horwood explains that the MAMAs is “a world class production ” its production standards on a par any event around the world. One of his main passions at MTV has been pushing for African music and video productions that conform to international technical standards so they can compete next to work from American and European markets. When I interviewed him at MTV back in 2010 he expressed frustration that, while there was so much musical talent from across the continent, the musical and video production quality was often so bad that they could not be broadcast. Corporate Africa has worked hard to professionalize the DIY technology revolution that created the current boom of African popular music.

Marketing strategy is built on critical understandings that racist stereotypes continue to shape Euro-American representations of Africa as either radically exotic or endlessly tragic. Okosi explains, “It is key to have a good story about Africa written. People can see awards and young people and glamour better than the same sad story that is always told.” Social media buzz is already questioning the logic of picking an American host—comedic actor Marlon Wayans—and American headlining performers, Trey Songz, Miguel, and French Montana—for the MAMAs. As Okosi explains the goal is “to showcase the best of Africa’s talent to the rest of the world and across Africa. We are going to have great African talent and some international celebrities. It’s going to be an incredible showcase of what Africa is all about.” Placing African artists alongside a well-known American host and musicians, the two executives explain, will bring broader international exposure by association.

It takes hard work to create and circulate images of leisure and pleasure. Pop culture is built on a division of labor between artistry and business savvy, front and back stage. The MAMAs require the work of hundreds of Viacom employees, freelancers, marketers, publicists, brand managers, public relations workers, sponsorship sales people, artists’ managers, stylists, videographers, photographers, DJs, bloggers, Tweeters, print journalists, fans, aspiring artists, and superstars. In some ways, the real artists are not the singers on stage but the people behind the scenes who are planning, writing the scripts, and creating stories of desire through a mix of corporate and personal entrepreneurship, branding tactics, and social media orchestration that make the celebrity world appear. But folks used to being behind the camera or notepad or keyboard often actively avoid the spotlight. Stars and wannabe stars are good at providing perfectly crafted, predictable answers to question and posing just-so for pictures. That is part of the job: be boringly effortlessly perfect. But back-stagers and scene-makers so adept at celebrating others balk at being placed in the public eye themselves. They freeze when asked the most basic questions about their motivations and their work. It is not usually talked about. As I write this article many key coordinators tell me not to use their names or pictures. They prefer to remain anonymous. As one explains to me, “there is a reason I am backstage and not seeking the spotlight like these artists.”

South African and Nigerian journalists dominate the proceedings. They ask artists about their chances of winning awards. Artists express gratitude, humility, and excitement at being there. They are paired in ways designed to link linguistically and geographically disparate artists and audiences, Ghanaians with Angolans, Nigerians with Tanzanians. Diamond from Tanzania is followed everywhere by his own documentary video crew. Sarkodie from Ghana wears accessories from his fashion line “Sark.” Nigerian stars Davido, Flavour, Tiwa Savage, Ice Prince, Dr. Sid, and Don Jazzy take the stage with glamour, confidence, and humility, pulling well-dressed entourages in their wakes.

Famed South African producer and DJ, Oskido is one person who bridges the gap between front and back stage. At the press conference he answers questions with the hot duo of Mafikizolo, the big stars for the South African press. Oskido discusses his two decades as a foundational producer and DJ who shaped South African House and Kwaito music. His work began with the 1990s revolution in DJing and computer beatmaking/production. The rise of small private studios in bedrooms and kitchens across African cities like Soweto allowed for young artists to make electronic music without access to instruments and major studios and circulate them on cassettes and then radio. Kwaito provided a gritty, celebratory sound track for the end of apartheid and the transition to democracy. In the 2000s this gave way to digital production, internet circulation, and mobile downloads. Oskido labored through these productive though difficult times. He is asked if it feels good to finally get industry recognition by being nominated for awards. He says he appreciates the glamor of the event but explains that often the best music does not get nominated. Making music “is not about awards but about respect in the community.” He is looking at the MAMAs as an opportunity to network and gain exposure. “We don’t want to end up in Africa but to grow internationally. Media can help. We need them to profile us as African artists to put our stories out.”

At the press conference, the City of Durban spokesperson unfortunately follows more charismatic artists, explaining that the international prominence of MTV will showcase Durban as an attractive destination and bolster its tourist industry. Durban’s slogan for the event is “The Warmest Place to Be.” A marketing manager for Absolut Vodka says that MTV “is an iconic brand” that brings their product positive associations. Their association is a long-term project to link MTV’s stylishness, glamor, international appeal to Absolut. As Absolut brand representative Connor Mcquaid explains for the MTV cameras, this is part of a global branding strategy. Absolut is partnering with hip edgy digital youth culture platforms like Vice, Wired, and Pitchfork to rebrand themselves for a younger generation. Sponsoring edgy street culture and rising artists is a relatively cheap, on-the-ground way to appear in touch with youth and reach new markets. Over the past five years across Africa, drinks (Absolut, Guinness, Ciroc, Hennessy), mobile hard-ware (Nokia, Samsung, rlg), and mobile service providers (MTN, Glo, Zain, Vodaphone) in particular, have been the major sponsors of musicians and events across Africa using musicians’ local appeal and coolness to brand products in increasingly competitive markets.

Energy rises as American R&B heartthrob Trey Songz mounts the stage. Though young he is releasing his 6th album Trigga. He is polished, engaged, and incisive. He teases the media by humming the opening line to his mega hit “Nana.” It is his second time in Africa, he explains, and he is excited by the MAMAs spectacular preparations. Asked about the recently kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, he refers to his Instagram where he has addressed the #bringbackourgirls campaign. “It is devastating that something like that can still happen today. The best thing we can do is use our voices to bring attention to it.” He causes a stir when he cuts off a female reporter asking a question, by giving a boyish smile and cooing, “you’re pretty.” He is acutely aware of his sexiness, stating directly that his performances are about creating “a fantasy,” fulfilling a desire. He pretends to take his shirt off as members of the press lean forward. “When I take my shirt off, women love it.”

Next up are headliners Miguel and French Montana, and then comes Khloe Kardashian, the icon of current celebrity fetishism, whose attendance at the event is calculated to cause local excitement and gain international exposure. She walks in, looks around, and walks out. All eyes turn. Everyone is Tweeting. Whispered debates swirl through the crowd about whether or not she had butt implant surgery, even though Khloe recently took to Twitter to deny rumors that she artificially enhanced her rear end. So the press conference for the biggest African awards show has its defining moment. The goal of using well-known Americans to showcase African talent is successful. Newspapers splash Khloe across their pages with headlines like The Independent’s “Khloe Jets in For MTV Awards.” She epitomizes pure fame, a celebration of self-fashioning. Her presence at the MAMAs shows how at its core celebrity is a celebration of the ability to create, brand, and market the self.

When beautiful people congregate, there is a buzz of excitement, but also anxiety. After all, celebrity culture is driven by aspiration which entails hope as well as uncertainty about the future. The MAMAs, like most mainstream Anglophone African popular culture, is haunted by the fear that things are better, more classy/glitzy/glamorous/trendsetting in the American music industry. As a thirty-year old female Durban native now an executive at Deloite in Johannesburg explains, “South Africans are insecure about local content. We always have to have international artists to feel legitimate.” Critics feel that African trend-setters and business strategists too often look “outside” for guidance. For many fame in ones home country, or even across the continent, is often not enough; true success entails recognition in America and Europe. One aspiring rapper I meet is annoyed by the MAMAs. He has “no interest in African awards or acts.” He raps in English and admires K’naan and Akon as African artists who have reached broader audiences. “I don’t want my music to be seen as African music or African hip-hop. It is hip-hop. We should not be in a separate category or awards show… I am not a African rapper but rather I am a rapper.”

MTV-AMA14Khloe Kardasian arrives. Photo Credit: Al Nicoll, MTV Networks Africa (Pty) Ltd

Newspaper street billboard publicity for Khloe Kardashian.

After the press conference, artists, executives, and press mingle and network over cocktails courtesy of Absolut Vodka. Musicians and managers from different countries chat about potential future collaborations. Journalists plot out their stories. Camera crews conduct impromptu interviews. An attendant helps artists use an iPad selfie-cam snapping images for instant social media upload. Publicists organize sound bites, images, and social media for easy re-circulation. Strategists are already planning for future connections. Dzino talks with colleagues about potential tie-ins for Social Media Week in three months time. He jokes about how the language of business has come to dominate the entertainment world. “You should always use words like ‘outcome’ and ‘synergy’ and ‘content development’ and ‘social entrepreneurship.’ It is about selling an approach, creating a brand, not the specific product because you believe it is good or useful… And of course, you know artists are brands not people!” Social Media Week will showcase the significance of new media in all facets of business, social life, culture and politics. It takes place at numerous cities around the world twice a year. The New York-based parent company that owns the brand take a percentage of the proceeds from each city franchise in exchange for the use of its globally prestigious image. Last year it was held in Lagos for the first time in Africa. Dzino and the Digisense team won the rights to put it on in Johannesburg. They are putting together the program of well-known attendees, searching for major sponsors, and looking for ways to connect with civic, educational, and corporate institutions.

Dzino’s first company Black Rage Productions, incorporated in 1996, shows how the relationship between media, business strategy, and politics has changed in the 20 years since the end of apartheid. It was one of the first black owned and run production companies to have a major impact on post-Apartheid media and entertainment. After attending Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape, three friends, Dzino, Maria McCloy, and Thuli Skosana, founded Black Rage to combat prevailing racist, stereotypic ways that Africans were presented in the media. The company was a pioneer in using entrepreneurial business strategy to rethink popular culture for a rising Black South African consuming public.

As Dzino recalls, “we had radical ideas about reshaping how the media portrayed Africans and how to reach African consumers. At the time, entertainment was just Black people dancing or being violent or stupid…racist imagery dominated the media. We saw a huge market for smart, edgy content for and about African people… In the mid-1990s, mostly white executives were running things; they did not realize there was a huge African market with changing cosmopolitan tastes.”

Black Rage presented a critical, eclectic vision of how young black Africans lived, connecting pan-Africanist politics to everyday life through popular arts. As Skosana remembers, “we wanted young artists to be in charge of their destiny.” They worked in radio, print, fashion, with musicians like H2O and Zubz, and in television producing influential shows like lifestyle variety program “Street Journal” on SABC. Their popular website—now defunct—was, in the late 1990s, one of the first attempts to create a comprehensive online entertainment portal with streaming music, reviews of events, venue lists, fashion, etc.

The Black Rage founders were models for a rising generation of tech-savvy entrepreneurs that emerged, perhaps unexpectedly, following the 2008 economic crash. The global crisis corresponded with the corporate penetration of many markets across Africa despite economic hard-times. It had the unintended effect of spurring many first-generation Africans working in Europe and America to seek better opportunities in African capitals. Skosana, now working in Copenhagen, notes, “Young Africans get sick of Europe, tired of racism and of being foreigners. We are highly trained; and now there is so much opportunity in returning to Africa.” Their digital, cosmopolitan sensibility challenged traditional business models and their knowledge of young African markets allowed creative business approaches to reaching and uniting dispersed African consumers.

Holding the MAMAs in Durban is a bit of a surprise. While it hosts the Durban International Film Festival, perhaps Africa’s premiere film event, it is not a media hub. The beachfront strip with its art deco hotels and apartment blocks was an apartheid-era whites-only vacation area. Recently renovated, it caters to locals and tourists alike with cafes, surfing, bicycling, jogging and all manner of relaxation. A major global port, it has historically been a center of the country’s South Asian community, Zulu nationalism, and labor organization. Durban is laid-back and slightly out of the way in contrast to Johannesburg’s reputation for violence and edgy creativity and Cape Town’s European urbanity and township sprawl.

Saturday afternoon outside of the main hotel on the beachfront, stars come and go. Media reps languidly hang around hoping for interviews. I meet Faith History who is CEO of Faith History Productions. Born in Nigeria and schooled in the US, she is a television presenter and content producer for a numerous media outlets. In the mid 2000s, she recognized the potential of rising popular music and film in Nigeria. With a friend she started doing interviews with artists when they toured the US, eventually relocating to South Africa to fully focus on African culture and media. In 2010 as the FIFA World Cup was held in South Africa, she began hosting “Rolling with Faith” a program to showcase people from all over the world coming to South Africa. Faith’s business model is built around her desire to shape her own content and business strategy.

“You can either work for an outfit or be independent like me. I want to have control over what I do. My name highlights that I want to celebrate history. Everything we do is important and should be recorded and presented. History shapes how we understand the world.”

Outside the hotel with her cameraman and assistant in tow, she smiles and greets artists as they stroll out into the sunshine, orchestrating multiple impromptu interviews for her EL TV (Ebony Life Television). She is also licensing material for the Africa Magic channel on DStv. I chat with one of the headlining performers Nigerian rapper Ice Prince as Faith prepares to interview him. I last saw him at the 2013 SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas where we were both on a panel discussing African digital music. He had recently been part of a tour of a US by Nigerian music stars that was well attended by Nigerian-Americans though unsuccessful in its goal of penetrating the American market.


Next to Faith, British-Kenyan DJ Edu and his producer discuss their radio program while British-Ghanaian DJ Abrantee and his video cameraman prepare to do an interview. Edu, currently on BBC Radio 1xtra and Abrantee, currently on Capital Xtra, are the two London-based pioneering radio personalities responsible for bringing African music to a mainstream British listening public, popularizing “Afrobeats” as a catch all term for Nigerian and African pop and “Azonto” for the West African dance craze that went semi-global.

As Edu notes, “a lot of the artists who have gone mainstream we, have been part of the journey. Now big corporates are investing their time, there is interest. So we have to be a part of it as the BBC has vested interest all over the world.” As Edu points out, African artists continue to struggle to gain recognition. “It is such an unstructured industry that corporates are the best way for artists to make enough money… to push the genre to new audiences.” Abrantee interviews Dorcas Shola Fapson, a London-based British-Nigerian actress. While her character Sophie is “an unapologetic party girl,” the actress is thoughtful and soft-spoken with a degree in Criminology… She is in South Africa for the first time having been flown in to present an award. Fapson came to prominence in MTV’s co-sponsored TV serial “Suga” about relationships, HIV, sex and youth culture set in Nairobi and Lagos.

Helen Jennings, fashion journalist, former editor of Arise magazine, and veteran reporter on African pop culture and style, has also been flown from London, contracted to do several different articles on the event. With her Johannesburg based photographer, Chris Saunders, she takes Nigerian artist Dr. Sid across the street to the beach for a quick interview and casual photographs.

Efya from Ghana is presenting an award and it nominated for Best Female Artist. We chat as she poses for photographers. For her, awards shows are an opportunity to seek out collaborations helping artists “to come together as a continent not just shine within their countries.” Awards also push the African music industry as “they bring out competition and competition is good for any time of business. It is a great way for everyone to step up because if you want to win you have to work hard.”

The strong London contingent confirms that while Lagos and Johannesburg are the current centers of Anglophone African music, London is the third point on the axis, a launching point for artists, media, and business links in Anglophone African entertainment. Other cities like Accra, Dar es Salaam, Kinshasa, Luanda, Nairobi, Kampala, and Lusaka are of secondary importance in this particular corporate imaginary of Africa for entertainment industry marketing purposes—of course there are other Francophone and Lusophone corporate maps of the continent being simultaneously drawn.

In and out of the hotel lobby event organizers, artists, journalists, and managers rush to make final preparations for the evening. MTV PR people manage media accreditation, press, red carpet, and VIP access. They want to provide the conditions for favorable reviews, articles, and social media. As the afternoon wears on some people head to their hotel rooms to relax and change for the evening while others go to the shopping mall for last minute fashion accessories.

As night falls, there is a buzz surrounding the International Conference Centre (ICC). Groups of teenagers hang around the entrances. Those with tickets navigate security, while others peer into the glass atrium looking for stars in the elegantly appointed lobby. Selfie-ing is highly encouraged. A crucial part of any event is taking pictures of yourself looking glamorous, having the time of your life. Young couples flirt and pose against branded backdrops or ask celebrities to pose with them. Standing room tickets for the venue floor cost 200 Rand; seats around the sides of the cavernous concert space are 450 Rand. For Durbanites, this is a rare opportunity, as one young attendee explained to me, “we do not get many international events here so this is a chance for us to be part of bigger things… to see and be seen.” Fashions are on display from formal suits to hip-hop swag to eclectic hybrid looks, mixes of skinny jeans and bow ties, bright colors and classic elegant patterns. A small but visible contingent of gay-boys camp it up in the lobby. Women flaunt skintight dresses, some to the floor some barely below the hip. Event organizers are efficient and hectic, coordinating last minute stage arrangement, access for the press and VIP, organizing the Red Carpet.

Diamond on the Red Carpet.

Mafikizolo on the Red Carpet. Photo Credit: Al Nicoll, MTV Networks Africa (Pty) Ltd

The “Red Carpet” is a concept that extends the idea of arrival in time and space. It is a sort of place at the beginning of an event, an entrance that has been prolonged and transformed into a destination; it is a narrative frame for desire, the desire to arrive somewhere and be someone celebrated purely for your glamorous presence. It is a celebration of the possibility of beginnings, of reinvention, of the purity of appearance and first impressions. The Red Carpet is a frenetic runway for staging intimate moments between press and stars. It is setting for fashion, perfect smiles and neat sound bites.

On the Red Carpet everyone plays assigned roles. It is the art of not saying anything to express pure presence.

One artist leans in to a microphone explaining, “I am blessed to be here.”

Another says, “This nomination is humbling… it is just an honor.”

wayans1Marlon Wayans on the Red Carpet.

Various small and large video crews and still photographers gather behind barriers as stars are announced and parade past. Celebrities most in demand cause minor frenzies. Camera operators shout their names to get them to turn. A photographer standing on a metal chair hurls insults at Miguel for walking away too quickly; he quickly refocuses his lens on the next star. Microphone-wielding interviewers rush to grab a few personal words. Interviewers curse under their breath when they are ignored. Lesser known artists look slightly insecure, unsure where and how fast to walk. Only, official MTV crews are given direct access to artists, while smaller crews must struggle with metal barricades and hope stars turn in their direction.


Zaba Simbine, a DJ for Durban’s East Coast Radio and TV presenter for teen style show Hectic Nine-9 on SABC 2, is one of the people behind the Red Carpet. We chat as her crew waits for artists to arrive. She explains, “every single news publication, radio, TV show is behind the Red Carpet. It gets very cut throat behind here. You can’t even stand. I am waiting in the back so I can scoot to the front to do interviews.” A self-described medical school dropout, Zaba explains she was a child model, singer, dancer, and musician, brought up to be an entertainer. But, she is concerned about the affect of celebrity culture on South Africa. “That was my strength. But everybody’s forte is not being a DJ. Some people need to be doctors and lawyers and receptionists. I actually don’t like celeb culture in South Africa because in this country we have a very high unemployment rate. But every single child wants to be on TV wants to be on radio wants to be a singer wants to be famous. You find girls on Twitter posting up revealing pictures to get that attention to become famous which to me is a very big problem… Celeb culture right now is consuming the youth of our country. Now they are thinking the only way you have a real job is if you are famous.” Still, she is impressed by the Kardashian’s entrepreneurial model and excited to try to meet Khloe. “Kristen, the mother, is a mastermind business woman. It is very very smart if you have five beautiful daughters and you say I am going to train my daughters to always be beautiful, to always carry themselves well and to make money off of just having the surname Kardashian. The Kardashians are a huge brand… They understand the entertainment industry. Every time they pull a media stunt, it is what the media wants at that time.”

Dorcas Fapson on the Red Carpet. Photo Credit: Al Nicoll, MTV Networks Africa (Pty) Ltd


Sarkodie on the Red Carpet. Photo Credit: Al Nicoll, MTV Networks Africa (Pty) Ltd


Efya on the Red Carpet. Photo Credit: Al Nicoll, MTV Networks Africa (Pty) Ltd

Leaving the Red Carpet, I run in to Ghanaian rapper D Black on the up escalator to the VIP section. Elite patrons mingle upstairs while the masses cue to enter the main auditorium. He has not been nominated for an award this year and is relaxing with friends and networking. Absolut Vodka sponsors the VIP section; aspiring models all six feet tall in skintight non-dresses serve fruity drinks with smoking ice and edible flowers. Attendees finish their drinks and take their seats as the awards show is about to begin. It is an event made for television—and social media—and as such the live audience’s experience is secondary to their job as prop for electronic consumers. The audience must display enthusiasm, glamour, and pleasure to frame the staged activities.

The well-orchestrated stage show is backed by video displays of geometric fluorescent patterns and clips of artists and nominees. A DJ hypes up the crowd before host Marlon Wayans takes the stage. Wayans routine is meant to play with the idea that Americans have one-dimensional ideas of Africa. While he tells stereotypical, simplistic jokes about Africa he simultaneously makes fun of the idea that Americans have such perceptions of the continent. His live jokes, about the immense size of African women’s butts and how he is shocked that South African weather is cold, are interspersed with pre-recorded clips of him interviewing African artists while taking on the persona of a naïve questioner, making fake African-language clicks, clapping his bare feet, etc. But the ironic and critical tone of Wayans performance is lost on most of the audience; the sound system’s reverberations allowing the live crowd to only half hear the jokes. Twitter, Instagram, Vine, and Facebook criticisms of his semi-ironic humor quickly fly and, much to the organizer’s chagrin, continue as one of the event’s prominent social media afterlives.

In the days leading up to the show, nominees and organizers encourage fan interest by imploring them through social media to vote on line and to follow various news feeds. During the show Twitter, Vine, Instagram images and comments from artists, bloggers, publicists, and fans provide instant commentary on performances, fashion, awards etc. Social Media-ites aim for pithy and snarky comments for easy re-circulation or detailed reflections on a particular person’s dress or speech or performance. Live social media feedback is not like older electronic and print media commentary about an event but rather is itself part of the action. The MAMAs highlight a fundamental tension between the digital life of celebrity and the liveness of performance which has implications for the changing economics of music industries. Time moves differently on social media than in face-to-face lived experience.

Ghanaian D Black is watching and Tweeting from the audience. He has attended numerous awards shows as both a nominee and business strategist. He was at the first two MAMAs in Nigeria and was a nominee at the BET Awards in the U.S. two years ago. The grandeur and scale of this show impresses him. He likes the fact that American artists are here, “I can’t imagine an African artist complaining about sharing a stage with them. American culture, for better or worse, is what we all have in common. If they tune in to hear Trey Songz then they will listen to Sarkodie and Davido and South African groups, cool… At the MAMAs in Lagos a few years back there was less hype, less press. No one in South Africa was listening to Naija music and no one in Nigeria was listening to South African music. Now there is much more cross over. This is a more ambitious event… linking audiences between countries.” But he corroborates what many social media comments say: “an African host could have done better.” D Black recognized early on the importance of social media for the African music business. When he has a new track he hypes it first on social media, linking it first to his Facebook and Twitter followers. Top Nigerian artists have huge Twitter followings like Davido with almost 900,000. D Black does well for a smaller market with 133,000 Twitter followers. Like other stars and publicists, he gets paid to Tweet and post things on-line. Sponsorship deals have come from companies like Ciroc Vodka and Ghanaian hard-ware technology company rlg who seek a young hip presence on social media. Popularity becomes a self-generating income stream.

Workshop organizer and strategist Phiona Okumu is also Tweeting from the audience. Former Black Rage founder Thuli Skosana follows Phiona’s Twitter comments from Copenhagen. Watching the live TV broadcast she tells me that she “felt there was something missing. I could not tell who was who. On social media I got more of the atmosphere and details and personalities. All I got on TV was the rent a crowd appearing to have fun. That is the problem with watching when you know how these things are orchestrated, though! Phiona provided play by play” of activities on stage and “quirky things you would not see.” Since celebrity is a business strategy, Twitter is at the moment, one of its main tools. As Skosana points out, in some markets like New York Twitter may have oversaturated the market, in South Africa is it still being rolled out. “Most people do not realize that a lot that happens before you see a Tweet. Someone is paying many visible people to make social media links.” Brands pay stars to post on social media, while artists and event organizers hire publicists and bloggers to live Tweet.

The show is well managed and quick paced, despite pauses to coordinate performances for broadcast and occasional microphone issues. The live audience is exuberant, enjoying the short, frequent musical performances interspersed between the announcements of award nominees and winners. Award nominees seem to come from geographically strategic markets across the continent. And the winners reflect the dominant market share of Nigeria and South Africa.

Marlon Wayans plays on stage with a Vuvuzela. Photo Credit: Al Nicoll, MTV Networks Africa (Pty) Ltd

Davido is the big winner of the evening, taking home Best Male Vocalist and Artist of the Year Awards. Only 21 years old, the Nigerian-American singer is at the pinnacle of stardom. He is energetic and expects success. He likes to Tweet pictures of expensive watches and cars. With a string of recent hits like “Skelewo” and “Aye,” he has taken over as the leading Nigerian—and thus African—pop musician. D Black is happy for his success but warns of fans’ short memories, “Davido is the hottest thing at the moment. But he needs to work hard to stay there. He should enjoy it now because he will fall off quickly if he doesn’t have another hit. It is not easy to stay at the top in this business.” Davido (on Twitter: @iam_Davido) Tweets pictures of himself from backstage. Ice Prince (@Iceprincezamani) Tweets a picture of Davido receiving an award from French Montana taken from the stage looking out into the audience.

Screen Shot 2014-07-14 at 2.33.37 PMDavido Tweets from backstage.

Screen Shot 2014-07-14 at 2.31.17 PMIce Prince Tweets from the stage.

Nigerian soul singer Tiwa Savage is another big winner, taking home Best Female Artist. Tracks like Eminado showcase her vocal and stylistic range and excellent production team. Her fashion sense, relaxed confidence, and energetic stage presence shows her to be at the top of her game—smart, sexy, and in charge.

Tiwa Savage accepting Award for Best Female Artist. Photo Credit: Al Nicoll, MTV Networks Africa (Pty) Ltd.

While the Nigerian artists celebrate freshness, the South Africans show the power of longevity and reinvention. Mafikizolo, around since the 1990s, is riding a wave of renewed national popularity of Kwaito-House. They receive the loudest cheers, winning two awards for Best Group and Song of the Year for “Khona.” During the performance of Khona, a haunting dance track with jazz piano overtones, the crowd shouts and dances as one, waving their mobile phones and iPads in the air.

Theo Kgosinkwe of Mafikizolo. Photo Credit: Al Nicoll, MTV Networks Africa (Pty) Ltd

MafikizoloMafikizolo Performing. Photo Credit: Geotribe, MTV Networks Africa (Pty) Ltd

Sarkodie wins the Best Hip-Hop Award. He raps primarily in the Akan language, though even listeners who cannot understand his poetic wordplay, enjoy his rapid fire delivery and melodic vocal precision. Though his announcement is met with relative calm from the ICC audience who seem unsure who he is. Sarkodie is at the top of the hip-hop scene in Ghana and seeks more international recognition. In the audience, D Black Tweets congratulations for his Ghanaian compatriot. While Nigerians, Ghanaians and other artists from relatively smaller markets come to South Africa to shoot videos and to meet MTV Base and Channel O executives to try to get their music played on television, they still struggle to reach beyond their national audiences.

MTV-MAMA14Sarkodie wins Best Hip Hop. Photo Credit: Al Nicoll, MTV Networks Africa (Pty) Ltd.

Nigerian Clarence Peter is perhaps the most the sought-after African music video director whose numerous works are credited with bringing a new level of technical and artistic quality to the genre. He is tapped to win the Transform Today Award by Absolut aimed to promote the sponsor’s goal of making long-term links between their brand and young creatives around the world. Actress Lupita Nyong’o, who got her start in MTV Base series Shuga and has rocketed to success in Hollywood in 12 Years a Slave wins Personality of the Year. She is on-set shooting the new Star Wars film and her acceptance speech has been prerecorded and shown on the video screen.

The crowd is quiet as Toofan wins Francophone Artist and Anselmo wins Lusophone Artist. As one journalist jokes, “we treat French and Portuguese artists the way that the BETs treat African artists. Just give them one award and send them on their way.” The Best Alternative music category nominees are white South African groups; the winner is Gangs of Ballet. Similarly, the audience is polite but uninterested.

Many of the performances are collaborations. The logic of collaboration is important in the contemporary music industry. For rising artists associating with more established musicians gives them wider exposure. For artists from nations with smaller markets performing with musicians from other countries promises new audiences. For corporations and media outlets they help maximize brand exposure. In recent years, African musicians have sought international collaborations as vehicles for global recognition. Some are improvised as when Reggie Rockstone and other Ghanaian artists grabbed Jamaican Beenie Man and Haitian Wyclef Jean after their performances in Accra to record impromptu tracks and videos. Others are more organized attempts to bring American attention to African musicians as when D’Banj featured Snoop Dogg on the remix of “Mr. Endowed” in 2011, when Fuse ODG featured Wyclef Jean on the remix of “Antenna,” and when P Square featured Akon on “Chop My Money.” Mafikizolo, Davido, and Diamond are all aiming to reach audiences outside of their national constituencies. Davido and Mafikizolo have collaborated on “Tchelete (Goodlife),” Davido and Diamond perform a live collaboration that synchs with a playful, prerecorded video of them running through the building. Diamond, who mostly sings in Swahili, is shifting his style and using more English though has been criticized for trying to be “too Western” and forgetting his Tanzanian fans.

MTV-MAMA14Davido performing. Photo Credit: Al Nicoll, MTV Networks Africa (Pty) Ltd.

The award for Best Collaboration goes to South African House DJ collective Uhuru for their Kwaito-House hit “Y-Tjukutja” featuring DJ Buckz, Oskido, Professor and Uri-Da-Cunha which they perform to the crowd’s delighted cheers.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s performance also reflects a crossover sensibility. They rehearse and tune their voices as a stage manager does last minute adjustments to their movements. They begin again with a mobile Steady-Cam operator in front of them, performing into the camera for the television audiences. They do beautifully arranged acapella versions of DBanj’s dance anthem “Oliver Twist,” “Y-Tjukutja”, and “Xigubu.”

Americans Trey Songz and Miguel both wow the crowd with their stage-craft. The show concludes with French Montana and then all the artists streaming onto the stage waving flags of various African countries.

Trey Songz performing. Photo Credit: Al Nicoll, MTV Networks Africa (Pty) Ltd.

Miguel performing. Photo Credit: Al Nicoll, MTV Networks Africa (Pty) Ltd.

After the show, the after-party is at Boulevard on Florida Road. Servers stagger under the weight of giant trays laden with food amongst the well-dressed crowds. Upstairs Trey Songz dances on the back of a couch near the DJ booth. With a mischievous smile he surveys the crowd of women dancing seductively trying desperately to catch his eye. DJ Edu from London shakes his head and jokes about the playlist upstairs. “We come all this way to hear New York music. At least Trey Songz and Wayans feel at home!” Downstairs there is an eclectic mix. The crowd heats up as the ageless Oskido spinning Kwaito-House late into the night.

As the weekend winds down, the South African music industry returns to Johannesburg. Strategists are already planning for future events. Dzino and his team ramp up their Social Media Week plans, working non-stop, strategizing on how to use connections to bring well-known celebrities and significant brand sponsors on board and create buzz. MTV uploads still images, sound bites, and video to their website for press to use. Artists and event organizers anxiously monitor the press and social media to assess the outcome and long-term effect of the show.

Much to the organizers frustration, some of the South African print media spend an inordinate amount of time criticizing the MAMAs based on getting poor seats for the performance and for not receiving the preferential treatment they feel they deserve, despite being given accommodation, travel, and VIP access. Some journalists are more concerned with reporting on their own experience rather than the audience, artists, or contexts of the event.

Snarkily playing off of the MAMAs anagram, one headline reads “MTV Alienates Media Again it Seems.” The article begins, “I couldn’t see anything… I looked around in terror; wondering if it was because I was older than the Tweeting, Instagramming, attention-of-a-flea, reality TV wannabes next to me. But, nay, they and the other real journalists were just as peeved.” The article reflects broader anxieties among journalists about their growing obsolescence in the face of new social media. This points to a crucial aspect of current celebrity culture in which bloggers and social media-ites increasingly blur the lines between publicity and publicness.

IMG_6820Dziono reading the newspaper at the MAMAs.

Digital entrepreneurs both make hype as well as are a part of it, and stars are often their own best publicists, while traditional journalists seem confused by the simultaneity of an event and its social media representation. Self-made bloggers and social media personalities are not observers of the fabulous life but participants who Tweet it into existence. As they praise or criticize an event they constitute a network of digital interactions that give it social significance.  Social media sparks debates that in themselves constitute a poplar cultural sphere. Buddha Blaze, Kenyan hip-hop impresario, watched the MAMAs from Nairobi. Using the show as a chance to start online conversations about the state of Kenyan music, he posts to Facebook, “The debate now is does Kenya have enough strong pop artists to compete against their Nigerian, South African and global counterparts???” Buddha is critical of Kenyan artists for only thinking about local audiences and praises Mafikizolo as an example of a group reaching out to broader audiences because they are not confined by a “South African sound.” Some followers agree while others defend Kenyan music.

Two weeks after the MAMAs, Davido, Sarkodie, Tiwa Savage, and Mafikizolo are all together again at the BET awards in Los Angeles, California, nominated for the Best International Act: Africa category. BET—also part of the Viacom family—is making an effort to give African artists an American platform, experimenting with American interest in international music. Davido wins, but the award is presented the day before the actual awards show. Performances by the African artists are also held the night before, as a minor side event. Davido retweets comments from fans, corporates, and colleagues congratulating his win. The mobile service provider MTN, Sarkodie, and many others send congratulations, proclaiming he deserves the award for all his hard work. The artists use the opportunity to publicize their growing international appeal. Some are frustrated, however, with the lack of interest or attention from the event and from Americans in general. But there is always another awards show. Plans are under way for the All Africa Music Awards sponsored in part by the Africa Union as well as BET, Channel O, and SABC. Judges meet in August in Lagos assessing over 2000 entries from across the continent. One of the judges explains to me that this awards show will be different, not just a corporate show but a real celebration of the best of African music.

The rare success of a hand-full of stars stands in for the potential of their nation and the continent. Youth across the continent gauge their personal potential through images and tales of their celebrity heroes while corporations promote these associations for their own ends.  Pop stars display leisure and decadence but also highlight hard work as the moral pathway to success. African superstars are both idealized figures and everyman archetypes, icons to the fantasy that everyone is potentially a star. Celebrity culture seduces audiences with their own aspirations. The power of celebrity is to create endless desire and convince people to want something they cannot have or be someone they cannot be. Increasingly, celebrity is not a sign of desire or value but an abstract object of desire itself—both content and form; something to be manufactured, circulated, and marketed.

Fame is an old idea but it has a particularly virulent and intoxicating power in the era of digital social media. While holding onto the idea of celebrating individual genius and miraculous, God-given talent, celebrity culture values populist tastes and the idea that talent could be anywhere. In some ways social media gets rid of the expert, the connoisseur, the professional assessor of value and talent in favor of the crowd. The logic of fame implies that being known is a product of a set of skills or accomplishments or aesthetic sensibilities that a public values. But increasingly across the globe celebrity is an engine in itself, driven by marketing, PR, corporate interests, aspiring artists, and adoring publics all of whom use social media that makes the celebration of celebrity a beginning and an end in itself. Celebrities are objects of public desire requiring continual work to maintain as fresh; people behind the scenes—cosmopolitan young business executives, DJs, bloggers, beat-makers, publicists, and managers— travel and toil to create artists’ on and off-stage performances and stories. Celebrity creates icons of a successful lifestyle who mix sex, wealth, leisure, and work, building the desire for a personal future that is better than the present, fulfillments more intense than the ones you have; successful business dealings; money and luxury accessories; attractive bodies. Celebrity is a mirror for the self, contrasting who you are with who you could and should be very soon.

All photos credited to Jesse Weaver Shipley unless otherwise noted.

Every Man Gotta Right to Decide His Own Destiny: 35 Years of Bob Marley’s Survival

This past September, Rolling Stone reported that Bob Marley’s Legend, his posthumous greatest hits collection, had reached the top bracket in the Billboard 200 weekly music chart of album sales—Marley’s first appearance in the top ten since 1976. As is the frequent custom these days, this spike in sales was not due to any palpable cultural shift, but instead the result of a sales marketing ploy (cheap music downloads for a limited time) on the part of Google Play for Google Play, with Marley a surprise beneficiary.

It has been thirty years since Legend’s 1984 release, only three years after Marley’s early, tragic death from cancer at the age of 36 (a striking coincidence with Frantz Fanon, who also died at 36 from cancer). And I might have entitled this piece thirty years of Legend, except for the raw fact that the album largely, if not completely, erases Marley’s political legacy. Containing most of his charted hits with his backing band the Wailers, it is primarily an apolitical affair, though inclusions such as “I Shot the Sheriff” and “Get Up, Stand Up”—both originally from 1973’s Burnin’—provide a sense of the irreverence found in his back catalog. “Buffalo Soldier” (from the posthumous album Confrontation released in 1983) and “Redemption Song” (from his final album, Uprising, released in 1981) similarly invoke histories of black empowerment and resistance, the latter song drawing in part from Marcus Garvey (Garvey is considered a prophet by Rastafarians). But the trouble with Legend, as with most retrospective compilations, is that it upends the album concept—the sound recording as a problem-space, to borrow an expression from Columbia University anthropologist David Scott, who also happens to be from Jamaica.


Survival is an album with a purpose. Released in 1979, it is arguably Marley’s most political recording, forming part of a trilogy with Uprising and Confrontation. While the titles themselves signal this tenor, historical context is also important: Jamaica was hit hard economically during the 1970s (similar to many countries in Africa and elsewhere in the “developing” world), different civil rights movements in the Americas appeared to be reaching uncertain denouements, and, not least, political struggles remained, particularly in southern Africa. Marley himself was a victim of the political violence that had gripped Jamaica, surviving an assassination attempt in 1976.

Reflecting these uncertainties, Marley unapologetically revives a pan-African spirit in Survival, with a front cover that looks like the ultimate flag quiz—representation from 48 African countries, plus the album title overwriting a version of the infamous “Brookes” slave ship diagram. The back cover resembles a BlackPowerPoint slide from an African history 101 class (Rasta style), including a photograph of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia operating a machine gun juxtaposed with a quote by Marcus Garvey: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.”


Among the tracks themselves, “Zimbabwe” is the most famous, a recording that signaled the right to self-determination (“every man gotta right to decide his own destiny”) specific to the Second Chimurenga then occurring against white minority rule in Rhodesia—an act of solidarity that would further manifest in Marley and the Wailers performance in Zimbabwe as part of its independence celebrations in April 1980. (Read Tsitsi Jaji’s recent, wonderful book, Africa in Stereo, for a recollection of the importance of this moment.) But tracks such as “Africa Unite,” “Survival,” “Babylon System”—“Babylon” being Marley’s preferred Rasta expression for Western (neo) colonialism (“Babylon system is the vampire, yeah!”)—and “So Much Trouble in the World” also sing/shout Marley’s political concerns. Survival was banned in South Africa by the apartheid government. And none of its tracks, it should be noted, show up on Legend either.

That Marley’s politics have been minimized by the music industry is not necessarily surprising. Furthermore, his pedagogy is decidedly different from that of, say, the urban feel of Public Enemy, the confessional dislocation of Earl Sweatshirt, or the broken, art-rap lyrics of Death Grips. Marley’s rage comes with backup singers. And you can dance to it. Yet, as part of a long-standing tradition of insurgent thought and political resistance emanating from the Caribbean, Marley and his album Survival contributed to his political time and place, enabling a recurrent sense of continuity from Garvey to the present, as only recorded music can.

The Politics of Postapartheid Housing

The South African government has delivered well over 3 million formal homes free of charge since the 1994 transition. But in post-apartheid Cape Town, many recipients of these houses are fed up. Rather than the endpoint of the post-apartheid urban crisis, deficient delivery reproduces it anew, accentuating discontent in the process.

At the heart of apartheid lay the fortification of South African cities as white spaces. Above all, this meant the prevention of non-whites from entering city centers by force if necessary and cloaking this in the rhetoric of legality. A series of key developments in the 1970s and 80s, however, catalyzed a reversal. Most prominently was the repeal of the pass laws in 1986, the set of laws that required non-whites to carry pass books with them at all times and limited their entry into spaces designated as “white group areas.” In the case of Cape Town, designated a so-called “Colored Labor Preference Area”[1] during this period, Xhosa residents were deemed “migrants” and deported over a thousand kilometers eastward to state-created “homelands”[2] in the Eastern Cape. The systematic underdevelopment of these rural bantustans left many so-called “African” South Africans with little choice but to return to cities in search of employment. As the apartheid state began to shy away from the 1960s and 70s model of forced relocations, by the early 1980s, black residents were able to establish squatter settlements in peri-urban locations around the country, seeking jobs in cities and having no other affordable housing options. This is not to suggest that informal settlements were not already present in urban areas—they date back to the 1890s, and above all, to the period of interwar industrialization[3]—but they multiplied at an unprecedented rate during this latter period.

The sudden lifting of influx controls meant a rapid but delayed urbanization. These residents had been forcibly kept out of many cities since at least the 1930s, and certainly since the passage of the Group Areas Act in 1950. With the transition to democracy in 1994 and the African National Congress’ ascension to power, this immediate proliferation of shantytowns was viewed by the ANC as a threat to its own legitimacy. Mandela’s promise of a million houses within a decade was expeditiously fulfilled, with the development of a massive housing rollout plan in 1994 as part of the Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP). People in need would receive formal 40 m2 houses, called “RDP houses,” free of charge. Even after the closure of the RDP office two years later, these houses would continue to be called “RDP houses,” at least colloquially, and retain this name even today. Every person in every shack settlement in South Africa who I have encountered knows what “RDP house” means, and this is generally the term used to describe state-provisioned formal housing.

Since 1994, more than 3 million such RDP structures have been delivered.[4] As Tokyo Sexwale, then Minister of Housing, famously remarked in 2010, “The scale of government housing delivery is second only to China”.[5] Assuming the average household size of 3.6 people,[6] this means that nearly a quarter of the South African population has been housed under this delivery program.[7] Yet during the same two decades since 1994, the number of informal settlements has increased more than nine-fold.[8] Currently, between a quarter and a third of urban South Africans live in informal housing.[9] This might take the form of informal settlements, or sometimes, as in most of Cape Town’s so-called Colored townships, it means that people erect shacks in the backyards of formal houses and pay rent to the homeowner. Thus the same period during which all of these people were formally housed saw an exponential increase in the number of people living in shacks. Despite one of the most substantial housing delivery programs in modern history, urban informality mushroomed during the two decades following apartheid.

The overwhelming bulk of this can be attributed to late and post-apartheid urban influx, driven above all by the underdevelopment of the bantustans. Frequently too, RDP house recipients illegally sell their homes for a fraction of their value in order to meet immediate needs.[10] If accepting an RDP house frequently requires relocation to a peripherally located site, commuting costs can increase substantially. Given that no transport subsidy is provided and these houses do not come with jobs, they are often sold out of necessity, with residents returning to the same informal settlements and backyards where they were before.

More damningly of the more than 3 million RDP homes constructed between 1994 and 2010, more than 2.6 million of these are at “high risk.” Nearly 610,000 of them need to be demolished and rebuilt altogether, and this is according to the National Home Builder Registration Council’s (NHBRC)[11] own figures.[12] Twice that number have workmanship related issues, which the NHBRC estimates will cost on average R12,000 ($1130) per house. The combined cost of remedying structural defects, minor defects, and non-compliant construction is estimated to be R58.7 billion ($5.5 billion).

The shoddy construction is largely attributable to so-called Black Economic Empowerment companies, in essence private sector startups given nepotistic contracts with no oversight or accountability in the name of some sort of progressive affirmative action. Given the extremely low profit margins in RDP housing delivery,[13] larger construction companies tend to shy away from applying for these government construction contracts, or “tenders” as they are known in South Africa. In other words, the privatization of implementation means that costs are trimmed at the expense of providing durable structures. When the Department of Human Settlements releases a subsidy for an RDP house, the structure ultimately provided by a private contractor must meet a number of national guidelines in terms of size and quality. But with RDP home provision far from a lucrative industry, these companies have every incentive to cut corners.

What began as an attempt to resolve the post-apartheid housing crisis has now actually exacerbated it.
What began as an attempt to resolve the post-apartheid housing crisis has now actually exacerbated it. RDP delivery has reinforced the apartheid era geography of relegation by formalizing peripherally located shack settlements, rendering their far-flung locations permanent. With these houses already deteriorating and residents frequently opting to sell them off, delivery has hardly served as the antidote to proliferating urban informality. Whereas post-apartheid housing protests were initially most common among shack dwellers, cities across the country have witnessed a recent rise in protests by dissatisfied RDP recipients. In Cape Town, these protests have spread across the Cape Flats, from Scottsdene in the northeast to Pelican Park in the southwest. Increasingly RDP beneficiaries are joining the ranks of informal settlement dwellers and backyarders in organizing against the municipal state, the perceived culprit of the post-apartheid housing crisis.


When I visited one such residential RDP development in Cape Town in early June, I encountered houses much smaller than I was used to seeing—they didn’t even seem to comply with the 40 m2 requirement. This development—Pelican Park—is a flagship project for the City, providing countless photo ops for Mayor Patricia de Lille, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille, and numerous other visitors. Ten years in the making, it is the City’s first integrated housing development, meaning that RDP houses, subsidized gap units, and mortgaged housing will exist in the same development.[14] Roughly 2000 RDP houses will exist in Pelican Park when the project is completed in 2017.

Beyond the size of each house though, it was the shoddy construction that was driving recipients of these structures to organize against the City. Residents were beginning to form various neighborhood committees to contest what they viewed as deficient housing. One recipient of a new home, Layla, took me into her new place. I met her when she was still living in an informal settlement just a few kilometers away, but after years on the waiting list, she finally secured a formal structure at the new housing development of Pelican Park just a few months ago. The internal walls were left unplastered and made of large, light gray concrete bricks. If you rubbed the bricks—and not even particularly vigorously—sandy material would fall away. One could easily rub a divot into one of these bricks in a matter of minutes.

“I must make it livable,” Layla told me, pointing to the few pictures and mirrors with Arabic script she’d hung on the walls. I noticed that the molding on the ceiling was actually just white styrofoam glued along the corners. Apparently this was from the contractor—not of Layla’s doing. It reminded me of the so-called “New Tech” houses I’d seen in Delft,[15] constructed almost entirely out of styrofoam. I asked her why the walls were left unfinished, and the floor was exposed concrete. “The company that built these houses said they ran out of money from the subsidy. It was all in the plan, and look how cheap the materials they used were, but now they say they ran out of money from the [RDP housing] subsidy, and so they couldn’t put tiles on the floors, couldn’t put plaster on the walls, couldn’t finish it really. So now we have these houses, and we must make it livable ourselves, they say. But how? We have no money. That’s why we’re in these houses in the first place!”

She took me upstairs. At the top of the staircase, there were two doors. Each led into a tiny roombarely large enough for a queen-size mattress—also unfinished. Layla pointed to various cracks that had already appeared in the wall. Granted yesterday was one of the coldest days I’d experienced in Cape Town—there was even a bit of snow in Mitchell’s Plain, an exceedingly rare sight—but it was freezing in there. The walls provided little in the way of insulation, and there were generous “vents” cut through the brick all throughout the house, effectively rendering inside and outside equivalent temperatures.

We descended the staircase again. At the bottom was the living room, with a tiny kitchen in the hallway leading to the front door. There was a small bathroom—again, with very large cracks in the brick—and then another tiny room—the smallest of them all— right next to the front door.

“They have us now on high consumption,” Layla told us, referring to the electricity usage bracket in which each of the recipients is located. Everyone seemed to know the term well. “We’re supposed to be on low, but they have us on high consumption. We don’t even know how to change it. Then there’s the solar geyser they promised us.[16] It’s in the plan—look!” She pulled out the blueprints and official plan for her home, and it was indeed there. I snapped a photo for examination in greater detail later. She also gave me a piece of paper with all of the specifications, but I couldn’t find any mention of a solar geyser there. I saved it for later. “It’s not even the City that’s not giving us the solar geyser—it’s Eskom![17] They are supposed to, but now they say it’s too expensive. But they have to give it to us!”

Two women were seated in Layla’s living room—one elderly and heavy-set, the other younger and a bit more middle-class in comportment (though also an RDP house recipient). The older woman took me outside. “Look over there,” she said, pointing to a house down the road. “See those men on the roof? They are putting my roof back in. It blew off yesterday, and I just moved in! Seriously, tiles blew right off. In a brand new house? Are they crazy? Go over. You must take pictures.”

Once back inside, the third woman pointed to the walls. “Look,” she said, taking us into the bathroom. “It’s not cement, but just sand pushed together to look like cement. See all these lines, these cracks? In a new house! What’s it going to look like in 20 years? It’s all falling out already!” She pulled out her phone. “I must show you these pictures of my house. Give me your number and I’ll send them on WhatsApp.” She showed me one photo where she’d removed the cover on the light switches, and in the hole behind it, the wall was stuffed with crumpled newspaper. “How is this not a fire hazard? They aren’t supposed to put paper in there, but it was cheaper than real insulation or even concrete or sand. They didn’t even fill it in!” A second photo revealed a sizable crack in the ceiling that was there when she moved in. A third showed a light fixture falling out of the ceiling. “That one they told me they’d fix. Not the crack though.” Layla chimed in: “Now Human Settlements wants to come because we’re meeting. Before they were trying to run away from me, but now they see we’re getting organized.” The older woman joked, “There they busy with my roof,” pointing in the direction of her house.

Between Layla’s house and the older woman’s was the entrance to a small informal settlement. “It’s been here for 24 years,” Layla told us. “Or rather, they were down the road, but they were moved here 2 years ago to make room for some of the first houses. They haven’t been integrated.”

“What? They weren’t included in the Pelican Park project?” Faeza asked. A backyarder herself, Faeza was visiting the project from the predominantly Colored township of Mitchell’s Plain. As the chairperson of a relatively new citywide social movement called the Housing Assembly, she was helping to organize dissatisfied residents in Pelican Park. “No,” the older woman answered. “Four of them did get houses a few months ago. But the rest they say are being moved to Delft.”

“It must be Blikkiesdorp,” Faeza responded. She was nearly moved there herself just a couple of years ago, but refused after visiting the notorious relocation site. “At the end of the day we are humans and not dogs. Did they build these houses for animals?” Layla couldn’t contain her frustration. “It’s not about quality for them, but just quantity. We gonna be hidden too because the bank houses gonna cover everything up.”[18]


Two weeks later I returned to Pelican Park. Residents had constituted themselves into three committees. The purpose of each committee was to represent RDP recipients in their struggle with the City over the faulty homes. “This is one committee,” Layla told me, “but there are two more. Pelican Park is coming in three phases, and so that means three committees. Each will choose two people, and then there will be six on the umbrella body. That means that six will report back to the Housing Assembly. The rest of the working group is meeting tomorrow.” It was interesting to watch how representative bodies formed in the earliest part of this relocation site. The residents in Layla’s phase of Pelican Park were meeting to form a local committee, and I’d come to help facilitate an interactive workshop on the RDP housing crisis with a few members of the Housing Assembly. We were holding the workshop and meeting in an empty RDP house; the recipient had yet to move in.

Auntie Winnie, one of the women who had been moved from the same informal settlement as Layla, walked over to me. I hadn’t seen her since she lived in Zille-Raine Heights, a small land invasion not too far from Pelican Park. She was mixed about her situation: “This has to be like the happiest time of my life, but it’s like a nightmare.” She’d waited most of her adult life on the waiting list, and here she was with a defective house.[19] She turned to me: “They said they were supposed to spend R100,000, R120,000 [about $9400 to $11,200] on this subsidy, but they didn’t spend more than R40,000 [approximately $3750]. It’s a scandal. Where is the money?”

Winnie disappeared to go make sandwiches while the meeting began. Layla gave the introductory remarks. “I’m an activist,” she emphasized. “Not ANC, not DA. I come from Zille-Raine Heights where we took land because we were gatvol of backyards, gatvol of being on the waiting list, and gatvol of paying rent.[20] They tried to move us to Happy Valley, but we refused.[21] We know that the database don’t actually work. There’s people that’s five months on the waiting list that got a house here. But others 30 years, 23 years on…the waiting list.” She was presumably referring to others in Zille-Raine Heights who did not receive houses in Pelican Park. No one was clear as to how the selection process proceeded.

A few days later, when I interviewed the City’s head of housing allocations, Alida Kotzee,[22] she explained some of these disparities. While typically RDP houses are allocated according to time on the waiting list, “this case was political,” she told me. Then Mayor Helen Zille had personally promised the residents of Zille-Raine houses, and so they named the settlement after her.[23] Moreover, the land these residents were occupying was owned by a nearby school, and so residents needed to be relocated. Thus while generally RDP provision proceeds according to the demand database, exceptions are made in cases of land invasions and other contingent circumstances requiring immediate attention, or else in “political” cases. Zille-Raine Heights was both political and a land invasion. No answer was provided as to why all residents weren’t relocated, but I didn’t press the matter.

Beyond the problem of the selection process though, residents remained dissatisfied with their homes, viewing them as haphazardly constructed warehouses for the poor. “They promised us free-standing, but these are not even semi-detached!” one woman inside the meeting shouted. “They showed us the plans, but these houses are 3 or 4 in a row. It’s all lies, empty promises. We’re being lied to. This is not what we signed for. It’s unhealthy here—unhygienic. It’s like a dirtbin through my house.” More complaints: no sports field or park for the children (as guaranteed in the RDP, claimed Ebrahiem); a lack of amenities—schools, clinics, churches, mosques; there’s no library; safety and security is already becoming an issue, and they weren’t provided with burglar bars.

“How can we afford burglar bars? We can’t! If we could afford them, we wouldn’t be here!” another woman interjected. “It’s a health risk, living here,” added another. “Too many people have asthma to be by these raw walls. Both of my children have asthma. It’s cold, it’s damp.” “And it’s already overcrowded, and we just moved in! I stay by my sister, and lots of families are staying with each other here already. I stay in a three-bedroom but have to sleep in the kitchen.”

These were residents who had been living in informal settlements or in backyards, many without electricity. On my last visit to Zille-Raine Heights, people were cooking over an open fire in the middle of a field, and some of the shacks I entered had dirt floors and low ceilings. These RDP recipients’ standards were not high, yet here they were, organizing a neighborhood council in order to contest the delivery of houses they alleged were substandard and in some cases, already falling apart.

This crisis of delivery in post-apartheid Cape Town is hardly an aberration, but mirrors experiences in municipalities throughout South Africa. The fact that the majority of RDP houses are substandard or pose health and safety risks only two decades after the program’s inception is obviously alarming. But even more significant is the fact that rather than mitigating the demands of the post-apartheid housing crisis, RDP delivery appears to actually accentuate them. If delivery began as a means for the ruling party to both control rapid urban influx and shore up its own legitimacy, the current delivery regime has resolved neither problem. Above all, deficient delivery only intensifies anti-state politics. Far from placated recipients removed from the rolls of the waiting list, residents remain incensed, dissatisfied, and above all, organized against municipal governments.

When analysts write about the recent spike in service delivery protests across South Africa, it is frequently presumed that delivery will conciliate residents and dissipate this “rebellion of the poor.”[24] In other words, delivery and protest are typically viewed as antithetical. Yet as the case of Pelican Park demonstrates, recipients of the ultimate service—free formal housing—are far from satisfied. Rather than the endpoint of the post-apartheid urban crisis, deficient delivery reproduces it anew, accentuating discontent in the process. Residents’ names are scratched from the waiting list and from the municipal state’s perspective, these cases are considered closed. But for relocated residents, this is simply the continuation of their struggle for access to decent housing. Removal from the waiting list without the receipt of houses that they consider tolerable is akin to dismissal and marginalization—far from the “progressive realization of the right to adequate housing” guaranteed by the post-apartheid Constitution in these residents’ book.New home recipients meet to discuss the common problems they are facing with their recently obtained housing in Pelican Park, Cape Town.

Photo Credit: Zachary Levenson.

* This piece originally appeared in The Berkeley Journal of Sociology, Volume 58.

WOW! Watch this little girl name the presidents of 30 countries

Some people think that Africa is a country. Some people, such as the New York Times editors, think that Ivory Coast is two countries (see below). Many people struggle to name prominent politicians in the countries where they live. Zara is not like any of these people.

She is a little girl who can name the presidents of Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Uganda, Ethiopia, Mali, Sudan, Republic of Congo, Botswana, Gambia, Tanzania, France, Angola, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Namibia, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Brazil, Portugal, USA, Russia, the Philippines, China, Colombia, and Argentina. Plus Joe Biden.

She can probably also name all the people who’ve pronounced themselves president of Burkina Faso in the last three days (but for that you’d need a considerably longer video). She does name Blaise Compaore, so this was filmed before the uprising there.

Zara for president!

She’s well ahead of the New York Times, who recently abolished Liberia in favour of a second Ivory Coast.


Like the New York Times, CNN could certainly benefit from having someone like Zara on staff — she’d never have let this kind of thing past on her watch.


The reality of the conditions for farmworkers in South Africa

It seems that no music video in the history of South African music, has attracted as much controversy as the Cape Town hip hop collective Dookoom’s “Larney Jou Poes,” which loosely translates into English as “Boss, you’re a cunt”.* In the two weeks since its release, it has attracted over 50,000 views and inspired innumerable op-eds, mainly in response to the accusation made by the opportunistic far right-wing Afrikaner lobby group Afriforum, that the video was racist hate speech. The video shows Dookom frontman and OG Cape Flats rapper Isaac Mutant leading a group of angry farmworkers on a tractor, and culminates in the word “Dookoom” being burnt into the hill of a farm.

A video showing farmworkers clutching guns, farming implements and the burning of the band’s name into a hill seems rather tame in the world of hip hop. NWA made Fuck the Police in 1988, and the ante has only been upped since then in terms of violence, graphic sex and drugs.

There are innumerable hip hop tracks that contain threats of violence, boasts about cocaine sales and references to real world violence, all of which are free to see in South Africa, and that Afriforum, who most likely didn’t know what hip hop was until they saw the video, didn’t call to ban. Why, then, is there such an overreaction to Dookoom’s video?

The answer of course originates, like so many other things, in South Africa’s history of race relations. Despite the long history of the white minority screwing over blacks in South Africa since 1652, as Isaac Mutant points out in the song, there has been a carefully planned effort to re-brand us whites as the true victims of South Africa’s history – particularly Afrikaans farmers. By drawing on the imagery apocalyptic fantasies of natives rising up against the colonizer in a frenzy of bloodlust that pervades the colonial imagination, right-wing lobby groups have been able to spread a myth of an ongoing campaign of violence and genocide directed by blacks with the covert support of the ruling African National Congress against white farmers in the international media.

This campaign has seen groups, who essentially have separatist and borderline fascist politics that call for an Afrikaner homeland as a form of returning to the good old days of apartheid, go through a process of re-branding in which they disguise their racist politics in the discourse of human rights.

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At one level, they have quite successfully adopted the language of “minority rights” from the domain of United States politics. This language can be quite easily used to shift the focus from the legacy of slavery, colonialism and white supremacy to giving “minorities” a seat at the table. At the next level, these groups claim that attacks on Afrikaans farmers are at a genocidal level and form part of a grand plot. In this they have adopted the genocide discourse, which has becoming increasingly popularised in international politics following the Rwandan genocide. White genocide in South Africa is mythical; the evidence suggests that the murder rate among South African whites is comparable to that found in Europe or the United States, while the country’s murder rate as a whole, despite have significantly decreased since the late 90s, is far higher than the world average stand at 32.2 per 100 000. Most murder victims are black males.

This myth is used to portray black anger, particularly directed towards the question of land reform, as essentially criminal in nature and beyond the pale in a democratic South Africa. Lobby groups such as Afriforum style themselves as a human rights group, when they simply are another obstacle to economic transformation in South Africa.

But back to Dookoom, on the 4th of November 2012 in De Doorns, a town on the outskirts of the Great Karoo desert, just off the N1 (the national highway that connects the cities of Johannesburg and Cape Town), a number of grape pickers refused to work. This set off a wave that quickly spread beyond the confines of the town across the Boland (the fruit- and wine-growing area of the Western Cape,) in which thousands of workers joined a wildcat strike demanding a new minimum wage of R150 a day. I was covering the strike as a journalist at the time.

The strike did not originate, contrary to the paranoid insinuations of the Democratic Alliance, the centre-right party that governs the Western Cape, in the machinations of an ANC determined to win back the one province not under its control. It began with a group of workers at a single farm in De Doorns, mostly women, sick of a system that is best described as an updated version of feudalism persistent in the farmlands and the “hunger loan” of R69 ($5), as workers described it to me. Workers sick of the racist paternalism of white commercial farmers, workers sick of not having money to feed their kids or send them to school, and the entire legacy of the 1913 land act – the culmination of a historical process of the dispossession of black South Africans of their land.

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In a sadistic, co-ordinated response to the striking farmers – particularly in Robertson – farm owners are ensuring that their colleagues will not hire so-called problem workers who they have dismissed after the strike, saying the financial burden of the new minimum wage is coercing them into restructuring. Many workers have simply not received the new minimum wage at all as farmers desperately applied to the department of labor for an exemption from paying the new wage, relying on the lengthy nature of bureaucratic processes to buy them a window to co-ordinate a response to the strike. Other permanent workers have been fired only to be rehired as casual laborers, often through labor brokers, and farmers have increased their efforts to scour remote places such as Upington in the Northern Cape in an effort to secure cheaper and more placid workers.

The agricultural sector is notorious for being of one the most difficult sectors for unions to organize due to the seasonal nature of employment for many workers, the sheer distance between workers on different farms, and the very nature of the relations between farmers and permanent workers. Most permanent workers live on farms and many are from families who have lived there for generations. Farmers often refer to these workers as being part of what they call an extended family, despite the starvation wages that are the norm in the sector.

Farmworkers are locked into a relationship in which they are dependent on farmers not only for their accommodation, but for the necessities of life – from children’s school clothing to fuel for keeping their homes warm during the winter. While farmers often consider their support for these necessities indicative of their longstanding charity and generosity, they ignore the fact that workers are dependent on their goodwill in order to survive because wages are far below the cost of reproduction.

Workers’ dependence on farmers for accommodation and what farmers call charity is now being used as a weapon of retribution in the aftermath of the wage increases, just as it was used coercively to discourage workers from taking action before the uprising. The insidious character of the relations between farmers and workers is further underscored by the perpetuation of such abominable practices as the infamous dop system – paying workers with cheap alcohol instead of money.

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Another coercive practice occurs in the form of micro-credit made available to workers through farmers, either through shops run by farmers on their properties or through small loans given to workers to help them make ends meet. These loans lock workers into a perpetual cycle of debt as they are forced to spend a significant percentage of their monthly earnings on repaying their employer. This is on top of the rent, water, and electricity workers already pay to farmers.

After the uprising, farmers retaliated against workers who participated in the strike and their families by retrenching them, justifying this move by citing the financial burden of the the new minimum wage and the workers’ participation in an ‘illegal’ or ‘unprotected’ strike. Of course, it would have been impossible for them to have participated in a protected strike, because less than 10% of workers in the sector are unionized.

Farmers then raised the rents of workers’ accommodation, often by over a 100%, and threatened to evict those who couldn’t pay. Some began to force family members who didn’t work on the farm to pay rent for the first time. Others threatened to evict dismissed workers, claiming they needed to make space for new employees. Many permanent employees have been fired and rehired on a temporary basis, forming part of an increasing casualization of the farm workforce. For example, over 60 CSAAWU (Commercial Stevedores and Agricultural Workers Union) members, many of them women and union leaders were dismissed in the aftermath of the strike. Furthermore, most of the retrenched farmworkers have been blacklisted, meaning that other farmers refuse to hire them.

The quality of the farmworkers’ houses is often disguised by a fresh coat of paint or, in some of the farms near Robertson, by solar panels. While these houses may appear comfortable, spacious, and environmentally “correct” to a casual passer-by, they in fact often house eight people in only two rooms and have no running water. The solar panels, giving the illusion of the farmers’ commitment to defence of the planet, are rarely connected, actually serving as window dressing designed to impress rather than as a source of power. Many of these houses are still covered by toxic asbestos roofs.

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This paternalistic mentality resurfaces again in the responses from organizations such as Afriforum to the Dookoom video. They claim that because the video violates the tone of civility required to engage in the process of land reform, it should be removed from the public sphere. In other words, because the video presents violence against property and has some nasty words in it, it’s a threat to social cohesion, something needed for the process of land reform. In essence, these groups are attempting to remove the anger at the core of the strike from the discussion, and instead place it into the domain of racist hate speech. Removed from the discussion, of course, are the horrific work conditions that are predominant in the agricultural industry and the poverty wages that continue to be paid.

* “Poes” is a difficult word to translate into English, but essentially it is a strong swear word which means vagina, but if used as an insult, it approximates more to the word cunt and in afrikaans it is considered an insult to refer to “Jou poes” or ‘your cunt’, the ultimate form of this is to talk about “Joe ma se poes” or “your mother’s cunt”.

Latest episode of Radio Netherlands Worldwide’s ‘My Song’ series features politically engaged Senegalese rappers

Fed up with what a group of young Senegalese describe as the state of mind of their society being one of ‘defeat’, they decided to start a collective called Y’en a Marre, meaning ‘we are fed up’. Although they came from all walks of life – a mishmash of musicians, activists and journalists – they had one thing in common: to bring about change in Senegal. One way to do so was through music. So the hiphop component of the collective decided to write the song ‘Dox ak sa gox’, meaning ‘To work with your community’.

The Radio Netherlands Worldwide (RNW) series “My Song ” interviews musicians about their music. (Previous episodes are archived here). In the latest episode of the series My Song, Senegalese rappers Djily Bagdad and Thiat reflect on their song and the work of Y’en a Marre.

For a French interview with Y’en a Marre member Fou Malade, click here

* My Song, the series, is produced by Africa is a Country’s own Serginho Roosblad. It is filmed by Sandesh Bhugaloo and edited by Serginho. Sophie van Leeuwen helped out on this episode.

What next for Burkina Faso?

At the moment of writing this post – October 31, late afternoon – the leader of Burkina Faso may be Gen. Honoré Traoré, the army chief of staff, who declared himself president yesterday. It may, instead, be Lt.-Col. Isaac Zida, second-in-command of the presidential security regiment, who has just announced the closure of the borders. By the time you read this post, it is possible that retired Gen. Kwamé Lougué, who was sacked as defense minister in 2003, and whom many protestors and opposition figures appear to trust, will have emerged as leader instead – or some other character yet to be named. The power struggle clearly involves factions of the military with very different interests and degrees of intimacy with the régime of former president Blaise Compaoré, who resigned this morning and has taken refuge in Ghana, and how it will be solved – through negotiation, bloodshed, or otherwise – is the question of the hour.

On Radio Omega, the private news station in Ouagadougou whose internet feed has been invaluable for following this crisis from afar, the host and guests, right now, are engaged in a detailed but somewhat theoretical discussion of the mechanics of a political transition period that one cannot yet be sure has begun. The emphasis is on rules and constitutional arcana: what new texts must be written, who should write them, how should the process be supervised? The speakers are digging into the procedural concerns that take up so much discussion, and occult so many concrete issues, in Francophone Africa. A member of parliament is on the line, saying that as far as he is concerned, the dissolution of the national assembly, announced yesterday, is not of legal effect. Then a surprise call from a top political figure: the head of the opposition, Zéphirin Diabré, with an urgent appeal for protestors to stop looting and damaging property. The host tries to draw him out: “Are you in touch at the moment with the military?” Diabré says he can’t talk about that right now, and quickly hangs up.

As the top of the hour nears, the host asks his guests, point blank: “So who do you think is currently head of state?”

There is a beat, followed by the audible equivalent of a chorus of Gallic shrugs. “Well,” one says, “I’m guessing it’s the chief of staff, and this colonel is acting as spokesman.”

“But the wording of his communiqué makes so mention of the chief of staff, and the way he signs it, in the name of the forces of the nation, makes it sound…”

“True. Perhaps he’s taking over.”

“So would that be a takeover in constitutional terms, or in military terms?”

“Probably in military terms. No one’s talking about the constitution.”

“So it’s a coup within a coup?”

“Let’s call it a coup within an uprising.”

Everyone chuckles, and the show ends. The music break is conscious hip-hop in French, with a live balafon. After a public service announcement about keeping Ouagadougou’s streets clean, and then some ads, a reggae track comes on. Its chorus is the revolutionary slogan that Capt. Thomas Sankara installed during his three years of inspirational rule, before his friend and deputy, Compaoré, killed him in 1987: “La patrie ou la mort, nous vaincrons.” The slogan has been all over the streets of Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso these last few days of mass protest, ushering Comparé out after 27 years of reign.

Everyone loves a good popular uprising, especially one that unseats one of Africa’s more dinosaur-like presidents, who was in office much longer than most of his people have been alive – Burkina Faso’s median age is 17 – and who wanted to cling on by forcing through a constitutional amendment that would let him contest yet another term. That classic technique doesn’t wash the way it used to. Thomas Sankara remains a hallowed pan-African figure, too, and to see people power in Burkina Faso overthrowing, at last, the Brutus figure who ended his experiment in liberation politics is a stirring image. The surprise effect can’t be overlooked either: really, it is only the Burkinabè people and a small number of outside friends and observers who had any sense of the momentousness of these protests. Distracted (and overstretched) by the Ebola outbreak and the Boko Haram crisis, very few international outlets had reporters in Ouaga for the events, and reporters trying to hurry there now are apparently having trouble getting visas.

One who was there, the Reuters photojournalist Joe Penney, has filed a series of images that not only show the massive scale of the demonstrations and the customary confrontation of protesters and riot troops, but also capture a bit of this romance. One is an instant-icon image of protesters in motley gear – military berets, button-downs, one guy bare-chested holding up a set of speakers, another giving the finger, and one in a classic Public Enemy T-shirt – posing on the set at the just-taken-over state television headquarters (see top of this post). Beyond the sheer effervescence and punk-rock energy of the scene, it’s also a brilliant pastiche of the familiar coup image, where too many soldiers crowd into the frame while one of them reads out a ponderous communiqué suspending the constitution and civil liberties in the higher interest of the nation. But a few hours later, it was precisely such a scene that unfolded at army headquarters, as the declaration naming Gen. Traoré president was read. The six hours or so between those two moments, in the afternoon of October 30, signaled – even as an #AfricanSpring hashtag began to float in social media – the Burkina Faso uprising’s inevitable tilt from romance to Realpolitik.

What happens now? By the time you read this post, the plates will have likely shifted again. But there are several classic scenarios, all of which, for now, seem to point toward a military-run transition of some kind. Constitutionally, the speaker of parliament is supposed to take over in the event of “vacancy of power,” but the constitution seems to be out the window. A high-stakes negotiation is almost certainly under way among military factions that harbor deep resentments toward one another and an opposition that will struggle to stay united. (The smart move for Diabré and company may be to let whatever is happening between Gen. Traoré and Col. Zida play out, then deal with the winner.) Compaoré, from his exile in Ghana (or wherever he goes next) may retain some indirect influence through certain military channels, and he has interests to salvage. The regional organization ECOWAS has been missing in action – to say nothing of the African Union – but it is very likely that presidents of neighboring countries such as John Dramani Mahama of Ghana and especially Alassane Ouattara of Côte d’Ivoire, whose camp has many close ties in the Burkinabè elite and military, are weighing in discreetly. The involvement of the French and American ambassadors is a given.

In the last decade, Burkina Faso has become a central node in the new security apparatus that France and the U.S. are building, separately but in coordination, in the Sahel region, to combat jihadi movements and buttress their other interests. Ouagadougou is a base for U.S. drones as well as French special forces. As fluid as the current situation may be, nothing in the power struggle under way appears to threaten Burkina Faso’s fundamental alignment with France and the U.S., and both powers are likely actively working to shape an outcome they can work with. In recent weeks, France had already signaled readiness to see Compaoré exit the scene (a letter from François Hollande promised Compaoré French support should he seek to exercise his talents in some international organization); reporter Nicolas Germain of France 24 told me today on Twitter that French diplomatic sources had commented to him that Burkina “unlike some countries, has a credible opposition.” As Germain commented: “that says everything.”

There is no need to temper the genuine joy, in Burkina Faso, that Blaise Compaoré is no longer head of state. But hope for a more radical kind of upheaval, of a progressive and pan-African nature, is likely to be dashed. And the grassroots activists of Ouaga and Bobo, who have chosen as emblems the broom and the wooden spatula used to prepare the millet dish tô, know that their chores in the national household are far from over.

(Photo by Joe Penney. Follow him on twitter.)

Hipsters Don’t Dance Top 5 World Carnival Tunes for October 2014

The October edition of Hipster’s Don’t Dance’s monthly chart on Africa is a Country is here! Check it below, and be sure to visit the HDD blog regularly for all their great up-to-the-timeness out of London.

DJ Olu x Bance

HKN records has been quiet of late but this debut single from DJ Olu’s up coming mixtape is something special. Channeling The Invasion (Bay area production crew) this is some simple infectious party hip hop.

Sauti Sol x Sura Yako (Feat. Inyanya)

Recent MTV EMA winners Sauti Sol teams up with Inyanya on this latest single. Sauti’s win was quite impressive bearing in mind that they were not even in the original ballot.

2face Idibia x Diaspora Women (Feat. Fally Ipupa)

Where to being with this. It’s catching but looking at the lyrics for longer than 3 minutes leaves you perplexed. Is he saying it’s good or bad, we can’t really figure it out. I can say my barber loves it.

Yola Araujo x I am (Feat. Fabious)

First of all it’s not the evergreen rapper from Brooklyn. Instead this breezy and seductive kizomba jam from Angola is making waves across the continent.

Papetchulo feat. Sandokan – Você Tem Swag

Sometimes you just really mis that era when Timbaland and Danja made exciting fresh pop music and you can’t help but enjoy hearing it in new forms.