africa is a country
While we would like to go full steam year round, the fact that we have day jobs (for example, I work as a professor), mean we take a break from the site every summer. Officially we went on break Friday, July 16th (we set up you up with a Sierra Leone-connected mix). However, in honor of one of our patron saints, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (not the Hollywood version, but the more radical, contradictory Mandela) whose birthday it is today (he would have been 98 years old), we’re making the break official. Don’t worry, we’ll cook up some stuff for the fall and we’ll be back on September 1. In the meantime, you can go potter around the website and catch up on our archive. If you have really bad withdrawal symptoms, check in occasionally at our social media media (Facebook here, here and here, Instagram and Twitter here, here and here). See you in the Fall.
This, the final music break before Africa is a Country takes a month-long break itself, is inspired by the rise of two artists on the international pop scene. Blood Orange and Sampha are two London-raised artists with Sierra Leonean roots, currently making waves on both sides of the Atlantic. When checking out NY-based music and culture magazine The Fader recently, I noticed that it featured Sampha on the cover of the latest issue, and touted Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound as “Xanax for these jittery days.” These news items appeared alongside a feature on my own ocean-spanning Sierra Leonean project the Kondi Band. So in celebration of this serendipitous occasion, I present to you a playlist (hit play below, sit back and enjoy!) of up and coming international artists that you may or may not have realized have roots in the tiny West African country of Sierra Leone.
Music Break No.98 – The Freetown Sound Edition
1) Berlin-based Lamin Fofana opens us up with a blessing from his Sci-fi and Fantasy released First Symphony EP. 2) Up next is Blood Orange’s 80s flavored, New York featuring video for “Augustine” 3) Singer, songwriter, and pianist Sampha performs live in the BBC Radio One studio. 4) German reggae superstar Patrice has Sierra Leonean roots, and draws a direct cultural line between Sierra Leone and Jamaica. 5) Forget de diamond, today Sierra Leone’s proudest export (one we share with Ghana) has to be the one Idris Elba. Here he is teaming up with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis for “Dance Off.” 6) A couple years back when I got connected to Young Fathers’ Alloysious Massaquoi via email, I couldn’t help but notice his familiar and common Sierra Leonean last name. It turns out that while his official bio states that he moved from Liberia to Scotland as a child, in fact, his father moved to Liberia from Sierra Leone (and our fathers were classmates in school!). So, welcome home to Sierra Leone Ally! 7) Detroit-based blues rock singer Mayaeni recently signed to Roc Nation management, and in celebration released the above video for “Million n’1.” 8) David Moinina Sengeh has been featured in the Music Break before, but I couldn’t leave this Boston-based multi-talented Sierra Leonean artist out of this special edition! 9) World Music artist Seydu spent many years living in Spain, where I came across his music at a local record store years ago. I believe he has since relocated back to Freetown, and his recent musical output has been a celebration of that homecoming. 10) And lastly, Fela! the musical was a huge success across the world, but maybe not everyone knows about the Sierra Leonean roots of the person portraying the musical’s chief protagonist, Mr. Sahr Ngaujah!
And one last HBO-style cliffhanger bonus clip to leave you this August break. Check out this intense trailer for “Flowers”, a new short film partnership between Sierra Leonean-American filmmaker Nikyatu Jusu and Yvonne Shirley!
See you all in September!
In the 109th minute of the most important match of his career, Éderzito António Macedo Lopes, or simply “Éder,” rifled a low shot past French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris to place Portugal in a position to win the 2016 Euro Cup, an achievement the team would realize some ten minutes later. From my Lisbon apartment and, even more loudly outside my window, the raucous sounds of unbridled elation abruptly shattered the prevailing anxiety. Remarkably, though, given Portugal’s proud history in the sport, this victory garnered the country its first major footballing championship.
Portugal finished third in the 1966 World Cup, led by the great Eusébio, and decades later the so-called “golden generation” of Portuguese players, Luís Figo most prominent among them, lost in the 2004 Euro Cup final in Lisbon, in heartbreaking fashion to a Greek side that played some of the most efficaciously painful football ever witnessed. I was living in Portugal at the time, and can confirm that the nation mourned, profoundly, at the final whistle and for some time thereafter. Essentially the same Portuguese squad finished fourth at the 2006 World Cup, but many of the talented players retired in subsequent years and the team consequently suffered, while still experiencing some success at the major tournaments.
All of these squads, or selecções, as they’re known, featured African-born or African-descendant players from Portugal’s former colonies or now independent Lusophone African nations. Portugal was one of the first countries to utilize naturalized Africans in its national teams (second only to the French, whose use of such players has received significantly more attention), deploying these athletes in earnest beginning in the 1950s. In that decade, stars such as Matateu, Mário Wilson, and Hilário, each of whom hailed from Mozambique, began suiting up for the selecção; the legendary Eusébio would make his debut for the national team in 1961. Yet, despite the individual successes of these illustrious players and the numerous club titles they accumulated, they were never able to secure a trophy to parade through the streets of Lisbon. Indeed, only after Guinean-born Éder fired his historic shot did Portugal – as a multiracial squad and, arguably, nation – finally achieve this elusive objective.
If Portugal was an unlikely champion, Éder was an even more unlikely hero. Born in Bissau, the capital city of the former Portuguese colony of Guiné (now the country of Guinea-Bissau), Éder relocated to Portugal as a child and eventually established himself as a solid player in Portugal’s first division, enjoying his best years with Braga. He’s currently contracted to French club Lille, following a poor spell at English side Swansea. But, at 28, he’s heading into the twilight of his career, at least as a striker. Yet, he played an instrumental role in doing what even the incomparable Eusébio was unable to achieve in his otherwise trophy-littered career.
Éder, as a player with African roots on this iteration of the selecção, was certainly not alone. Arguably, 18-year-old Renato Sanches, who was named the Euro 2016 “Young Player of the Tournament,” made the most important contributions. The son of a Cape Verdean mother and Sãotoméan father, Sanches’ performance during Portugal’s 1-0 extra-time victory against Croatia earned him the Man of the Match award, while also helping to propel the squad through the ensuing knock-out rounds. In fact, Sanches’ talent and potential have already prompted German heavyweight, Bayern Munich, to pay his former club, Lisbon-based Benfica, a record transfer fee to lure him to Bavaria.
Meanwhile, Angolan-born William Carvalho was also a steady presence in Portugal’s championship side. As a defensive midfielder, he played a key role in anchoring a very stingy Portuguese defense, which, remarkably, yielded only a solitary goal during its four knock-out stage matches. Constantly rumored to be a primary target of the major Premiere League clubs, Carvalho may well be ready to take the next step in his career, but for now he remains a rock in the middle of Lisbon-based Sporting’s midfield. Cape Verde-born Nani was also vital to the success of the selecção. Playing as a forward on a squad with only modest attacking ambitions, Nani still managed to score three times (Portugal scored only nine goals in seven games, with three of these strikes coming in an exciting draw against Hungary). And, perhaps, most importantly, once Portugal’s biggest star, Cristiano Ronaldo, left the final against France after only 25 minutes, Nani held the ball up well and interacted nicely with substitute Ricardo Quaresma, generating what little in the way of attacking football the squad could muster. João Mário, also of African descent, was seemingly everywhere during the tournament, though his performances could often be characterized by endeavor rather than results. Danilo, born in Guinea-Bissau, and Eliseu, whose mother is Cape Verdean, also logged important minutes at the tournament.
Although this collection of players will certainly not be the most celebrated in Portugal’s more-than-60-year tradition of picking players of African descent, this group, which featured both direct and indirect connections to the former colonial empire, did strike. And when it mattered most: in the 109th minute of the final. The empire had finally struck for Portugal in a way that no previous generation of African footballers had in tournaments of this magnitude. Indeed, in this manner, and in many other ways, the empire endures – much to the chagrin of the French squad and the more than 65 million French citizens who were hoping to avoid the fate of Portugal’s 2004 Euro Cup squad, which similarly lost 1-0 in the final match, as the host nation, and by an identical 1-0 score line. If only the 2016 Euro Cup final had been in Athens.
Fittingly, on their flight back from France to Lisbon, the Portuguese selecção posed for a group photograph. Huddled around the prized Euro Cup, a photograph of Eusébio was propped up next to it. Finally.
The Elsenburg Agricultural College lies 50 km east of Cape Town, tucked among the quiet valleys of the Cape Winelands. This is one of South Africa’s most fertile regions, and for the past three centuries its surface has been dominated by thousand-acre plantations, its wealth extracted in the form of olives, fruit, and wine. Originally a farm for the Dutch East India Company, the first group to colonize the Cape, Elsenburg was purchased by the Cape colonial government in 1898—by then, under British control—and set up as a school. For the next century, Elsenburg would groom young white men to enter South Africa’s agricultural industry, teaching them how to breed livestock, manage labor, and protect the vineyards and orchards they’d inherit from their fathers.
When Apartheid ended, Elsenburg opened its doors to black and coloured students, and a small contingent enrolled every year. Many of the black students had family in the Eastern Cape, whose rural regions are plagued by historical underdevelopment and dry soil. Most coloured students came to Elsenburg from farmworking communities nearby, zones governed by exploitation and poverty. Like their parents and grandparents, these students didn’t own land. But for many of them, Elsenburg held a kind of promise: an official license not only to produce food and make wine, but to begin cultivating a language of agriculture that could reunite the country’s new citizens with their native soil.
Elsenburg post-Apartheid, then, was a space of strange intimacies; where people from obverse faces of South Africa’s geography of dispossession were placed side-by-side in crop fields and wine cellars, to learn how to become farmers. For years, the cohabitation seemed a peaceful one, an island of placidity in a nation stirring with unrest. Disturbance didn’t arrive at Elsenburg until July 2015, when a group of students began to strike against the school’s language policy. Nobody paid much attention at the time, Elsenburg being too remote to capture the flickering attention span of the media or the revolutionary drive of student activists at nearby Stellenbosch University. But the events revealed in frightening lucidity the viciousness that undergirds South Africa’s agricultural industry, becoming an object lesson in how mastery over language upholds mastery over land.
Both the English and the Dutch settled South Africa, but it was the latter and their posterity who came to dominate the country’s agriculture. Throughout its history, Elsenburg used Afrikaans, the vernacular of those Dutch descendants who call themselves Afrikaners. In the early 2000s, the school officially adopted a 50/50 language policy, granting equal weight to Afrikaans and English. The latter represented a common compromise for the newly integrated student body. Though few claim it as a mother tongue, English is grasped by nearly all of South Africa’s high school graduates, regardless of race or geography.
This compromise, however, turned out to be merely symbolic. Only upon starting classes would new students learn that, although Elsenburg’s website and application forms contained both languages, most of lectures were still delivered in Afrikaans. This situation was amenable to coloured students, who also claimed Afrikaans as a first language, but it posed a serious handicap to new black students. Every year, a group of them would appeal to the Elsenburg administration to make English mandatory. The authorities always resisted. Afrikaans was the mother tongue of the school’s majority, they reasoned: in 2015, black students made up only one-tenth of the student body, while coloured and white students comprised, respectively, 10 and 80 percent. So black students were told that they could ask for translations in class.
Some would, but rarely for long. “It gets tedious when you have to keep raising your hand to say, remember me?” a student named Olwethu said. Olwethu grew up in the nearby wine-producing town of Paarl, where he, like hundreds of other children, spent school holidays working in the vineyards. Being taught in a foreign language, Olwethu explained, forced him to adopt a kind of mental myopia. When studying became a matter of rote memorization, it became impossible to absorb any conceptual knowledge—to command a deep or wide understanding of anything the lecturer said.
One young woman would sign the roll sheet, wait for lecture to end, then return to her room and memorize into the early morning. Others stopped attending class altogether. Every few years, a student would fail one too many modules and be forced to leave. In respect of this phenomenon, the institution maintained a sort of practiced obliviousness; according to one administrator, they didn’t keep racial breakdowns of student performance. And so Afrikaans remained in place—just another quiet, attritional mechanism through which black citizens were maneuvered out of the agricultural field.
To name something is an act of power. As European settlers expanded their geographical claims over South Africa, they also formed an official discourse of space, place, and territory. Indigenous understandings of land and nature were silenced, erased. Monopoly over space, then, was also a monopoly over language; and Afrikaans was instrumental in maintaining both. In 1875, a group of white Afrikaans speakers gathered in Paarl and founded the Genootskap van Regte Afrikaners, or the Society of Real Afrikaners, “to stand for our Language, our Nation, and our Country.” Afrikaans was inaugurated as a “pure” tongue, exclusive to the people that God had destined to inherit South Africa. Afrikaans writers forged the tradition of the farm novel, or plaasroman, an entire literary genre that depicted the relationship between the white farmer and his property as natural and romantic. After their defeat in the Anglo-Boer War, Afrikaners dug in further. They claimed their culture was anti-imperial, Afrikaans a native tongue also victim to English’s growing hegemony.
In the identity of the white farmer, then, Afrikaans is the yoke between land ownership and racial purity. And like most nationalist tales, this one is based on a fallacy. Afrikaans originated as a creole, born out of the close proximity between slaves and Dutch settlers. Today, it’s the mother tongue of most coloured people (a significant number are descendants of slaves) in the Western Cape, who comprise the majority of the working class. But the Afrikaans that is taught in universities, developed for the arts, and preserved for heritage is not the Afrikaans of this majority, but, rather, standaard-Afrikaans. This is the dialect recognized as scientific, primary and precise: the Afrikaans spoken by the white farmer, not by his farmhands.
Last July, on the first day of a new semester, the black agricultural students at Elsenburg didn’t attend class. Instead, they marched from room to room, singing and chanting until lecturers had no choice but to dismiss the sessions early. They sang songs and carried signs alluding to their own mother tongues, to Xhosa and Zulu and Sotho, but they brought forward one demand: to be taught in English. English, the black students argued, would open access to the classroom and begin to level the spectacular inequalities that plague the field of agriculture. But the purpose of their demonstrations went beyond the pragmatics of learning. In challenging Afrikaans, the students dared to disturb the invisible order that governed both the school and the farmlands at large. Language, after all, shapes and mediates reality; and, the dominance of standaard Afrikaans was the very construct that tethered a powerful white minority to their property and their wealth, to all the fictions of belonging that justified their place in South Africa. And at Elsenburg, Afrikaans kept these fictions alive; it reinforced the position of those with farms to inherit, and rendered everyone else itinerants or intruders.
The first response was complete bewilderment. Days after the strike began, an official from the Western Cape Department of Agriculture (the province is governed by the Democratic Alliance) enacted a two-week trial of English-only instruction. The decision activated a panic button within the farming community: upon learning that Afrikaans was under threat, parents, alumni, and industry officials unleashed a torrent of objections on the school’s head office. Elsenburg’s governing board ruled that the decision for an English trial didn’t follow due process. By the end of the week, classes had returned to Afrikaans, so black students continued to strike.
What became evident, however, was that the agricultural establishment had nothing to fear. For it was the white students, many of them barely more than 20 years of age, who mobilized to protect the language they held sacred. When the administration first put the English-only trial in place, a group of white students boycotted class and marched, singing an outdated national anthem that pledged allegiance to “the fatherland.” Afrikaans, one woman claimed before her classmates, was their heritage. It was understood that such arguments didn’t include their coloured peers. While a few coloured students attended protests—a handful in solidarity with black students, others in support of white students—most stayed silent on the language conflict.
When the media eventually appeared—in September, a day after a fight erupted between the two factions of students—the headlines reduced the conflict to a racial row. Officials invited a mediator to campus to teach students how to reconcile. Classes for the remainder of the term were separated by language. By early October, order was restored at Elsenburg, but a strangeness had infected the student body. It was the clarity that only rupture could bring.
As the decolonization movement swept South Africa’s tertiary institutions last year, so did the land question. Here, for example, are the opening words from a recent column by novelist Panashe Chigumadzi: “We will only accept apologies in white generational wealth and land.” The “land” has become shorthand for the socioeconomic structures that remained in place after 1994, but the words also bear physical, concrete meaning: the territorial patterns and divisions that, to this day, control how relations between people are understood and imagined.
A week before the fight broke out at Elsenburg, members of the Economic Freedom Fighter (EFF) party, a rising national movement formed by disgruntled ANC members, drove out to the Winelands to march with the black students. They brought a banner that said, “Return the stolen land!” It went missing later that afternoon. Aside from this incident, people didn’t explicitly bring up the question of land during the demonstrations at Elsenburg. It would’ve been redundant. Drive past the farms and vineyards of the Western Cape and you’ll see how old myths of belonging remain written onto the earth’s surface; how they continue to classify nature as either unruly wilderness or productive capital, and dictate whose bodies are allowed inside—and on what terms.
Whatever permanence this vista suggests is merely an illusion. Even before the agricultural students went on strike, the sedate fields and valleys had begun to simmer with the anger of workers no longer willing to suffocate in silence. This landscape grows more fragile with each passing day.
Following weeks of public demonstrations against corruption, bad governance and a rapidly deteriorating economy, people all across Zimbabwe heeded a call last week for a nationwide stay-away, in an act of defiance against the government.
In recent weeks, protests both within and outside the country have increased in both number and intensity. On Friday July 1, the Zimbabwe-South Africa border post, Beitbridge, was shut down and a Zimbabwe Revenue Authority warehouse set on fire, after citizens took to the streets to protest a government ban on the importation of basic goods.
On Monday July 4, public transportation drivers in Harare clashed violently with police during riots over police harassment and extortion on the roads, while in London, UK activists besieged Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa. The following day, teachers, doctors and nurses in Zimbabwe began nationwide strikes over the government’s failure to pay their salaries on time.
President Robert Mugabe’s order for Zimbabweans to “go about their normal business” on Wednesday went unheeded. Rather, the national stay-away day, galvanized by the social media movement #ThisFlag (to contest ownership of national symbols by the ruling party), marked one of the biggest and most peaceful stay-away actions since 2007.
In South Africa, a wing of demonstrators from the #tajamuka movement, called for Zimbabwean residents there to protest outside the Zimbabwean consulate. The Zimbabwean government responded by shutting down the social media networks, particularly Whatsapp, in an effort to thwart the stay-away. The Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) further warned members of the public against sharing information or images pertaining to the stay-away, citing such materials as threatening, subversive and offensive, and stating that anyone generating or sharing such materials would be arrested. Hackers from the group Anonymous Africa retaliated by shutting down government websites and the state controlled broadcaster, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC). In the aftermath of the stay-away, leaders of the #tajamuka movement are calling on citizens to march on the State House this coming Saturday and demand Mugabe’s resignation.
While stay-aways have been held several times since 2000, this one is markedly different on account of its non-partisanship, and its use of social media as a mechanism through which to foment and coordinate dissent: Citizens, through direct public mobilization, have deliberately articulated the need for an alternative social order; they have done so without a formal opposition political party to galvanize them; they have done so using the technological avenues available to them. Zimbabwean Twitter feeds, Whatsapp threads and Facebook walls have become spaces of electronic civil disobedience.
This digital activism is not restricted to the online environment. It has manifested in the form of collective public action. The use of social media platforms allows for the co-construction of a new type of social movement and the possibility for alternative forms of social, political and economic organization. Concrete demands have been made. Calls have gone out for the government to remove roadblocks that police officers use to demand bribes, pay civil servants on time (by the end of last week, the government had paid some of the salary arrears), take action against corrupt ministers, remove import controls (which have since been somewhat relaxed), and rescind plans to introduce “bond notes” as a means of easing the liquidity crisis in the country.
Mugabe’s government is facing serious popular resistance. Could this resistance be the basis of a national movement with real political potential? Yes, absolutely. Zimbabwe is in a new phase of politics. The public demonstrations – both organic in the form of riots and protests and organized in the form of the strike and national stay-away – point to an increasingly active and performative citizenry. Through the interface of global digital platforms and local activism, Zimbabweans are reconfiguring visibility and voice, understanding them locally, nationally and transnationally, and thereby illuminating new possibilities for alternative subjectivities and social formations.
But, there are concerns. As things stand, three separate resistance blocs are most visible; #ThisFlag, #tajamuka and Acie Lumumba’s fledgling political party, Viva Zimbabwe. A key challenge moving forward is to foster a continued coalescence of ideas, visions and plans beyond anti-Mugabe rhetoric and politics. The recent and ongoing actions in Zimbabwe point to very real forces at work, with the potential to transmute political and social arrangements within the country. Looking ahead, Zimbabweans will need to harness those actions, ideals and agendas cohesively so as not to lose momentum or face the risk of falling into obscurity – the unfortunate and all too common destination of many such movements.
The last time that Saul Williams and Black Spirituals shared a stage, the global ride-hailing corporation Uber had just announced it would expand its headquarters to Oakland—San Francisco’s relatively down-market, but doggedly resilient and resistant neighbor across the water. Decades of uneven development had made Oakland a site of both economic suffering and social refuge for many people of color, migrants, and other marginalized groups. Now, the announcement seemed to script the city’s next chapter as a leading location for the growth of the region’s high-technology (and high-inequality) economy and workforce. This narrative of rebirth had been penned years ago. But the news about Uber arrived like a cold breeze off the water from the west. The city—like any city, never of one mind—groaned and cheered all at once.
For many, the news sent anxieties about accelerating displacement into overdrive, calling forth the specter of “uber-gentrification.” After all, the developer behind the deal wasted no time snapping up three “underutilized” parcels in the area (read: beauty supply store, burger stand), promising to make them proper with market-rate housing (which would cost the typical household 70 percent of its income). Furthermore, the tech sector had been excoriated of late for under-hiring Blacks and Latinos relative to their rates of education in computer science and participation in the national workforce (let alone their residence in Oakland). This controversy came to signal a skirmish within a broader war, unfolding across the region, over the social and spatial positionality of precisely who is entitled to design, engineer, manufacture, hustle, pray, conjure, code, write urban futurity.
Williams and Black Spirituals reconvened on June 2nd—this time with local poet, actress, and playwright Chinaka Hodge—for the opening night of the Bay Area Book Festival in neighboring Berkeley. Titled “Poetry as Design,” the performance promised to collapse the binaries seemingly hard-wired into the logic and narrative of “uber-gentrification” as the progressive conquest of science over art, technology over soul and innovation over old.Image Credit: Benjamin Michel (KQED Arts)
Each of these artists, noted Zoé Samudzi—a curator with the Matatu Festival of Stories, which organized the event—was united by a common drive to undermine and manipulate dominant languages in order to unleash meaningful difference. It is this formative quality of language—the fact that, whether textual, musical or corporeal, it underlies and directs everything from ride-hailing apps to poetry to the raced, classed and gendered notions of the “good city” that drive inequitable development in Oakland—that gives art a politics, that makes poetry, potentially, an act of design. If language informs actions, enabling some, disabling others, then we must always ask: Which languages, whose languages, script the sensible?
Over the course of a 40-minute sonic ceremony, Black Spirituals, composed of percussionist Marshall Trammell and electronic multi-instrumentalist Zachary Watkins, gave new meaning to the notion of technological “wizardry.” Methodically gathering fields of noise from Trammell’s precise but evolving drum patterns and Watkins’s space-clearing synthetic drones, the duo conjured what amounted to an awe-inspiring electrical storm (creative destruction, Samudzi called it). Their elements—one hard and punctual, the other open and spacious—met and complemented each other like the earth and the heavens. When after 15 minutes the drums fell silent, dissolving the musical container, the distant reverb of the synthesizers, ceaselessly recirculating, rushed into the void like wind through a cavern; as if by synesthesia, Black Spirituals crafted an ethereal landscape of sound.Image Credit: Benjamin Michel (KQED Arts)
Next, Hodge piloted the audience back to earth with poems contoured by the pleasures and pains of places she and her family have made home: West Oakland (before and after gentrification), Brooklyn (after Biggie), Kankakee, Illinois (known for its three K’s…). Her work is ever attentive to urban geography as both place and narratives about place, each heavily contested, each informing the other. “I’m from West Oakland,” she stated. “We get a bad rap…And as we get a bad rap, we’re being replaced, as if our bodies never mattered, as if our stories never mattered.”
In response, she read two pieces from Dated Emcees (2016), her first published book of poems that narrate the neighborhood through its long-term residents. In “crude portraits of the Lower Bottoms,” she told of a beauty store where women decorate and deaden themselves “like pressed flowers,” rendering them pretty, but “easy to move.” “what about the live rose with thorns / what about the dangerous beauties / americans never picked?,” she pondered. How might such bodies resist being contained or culled?
Finally, Williams took to the stage accompanied by Black Spirituals. In their second ever collaboration, he surfed through pages of poetry, serving up whole pieces without reading their names, or spitting choice lines, before going off-script in an improvisatory dialogue with Trammell and Watkins—truly a free style. For Williams, who regularly remixes the vocabulary of our digital age, this kind of poetic praxis is a powerful means to “override your history.”Image Credit: Jessica Jones (KQED Arts)
“Dismantle definition dogma and duty,” he urged in “Coltan as Cotton.” “Hack into masculinity/femininity sexuality. What is taught? What is felt? What is learned? What is shared? Hack into God. Stories of creation: serpents and eggs.”
Throughout the performance, Williams posed a paradox, one familiar to the poet and the freedom fighter alike: How can one make anything new—make the “past die,” as he put it—while operating within codes inscribed before our time? And with this he issued a warning: The techno-utopianism typical of the Bay Area runs the risk of importing the systemic viruses of the past into the future social order. “It may have already,” he noted. “What does Uber pay its drivers?”
For that reason, Williams re-centered the audience on the importance of poetry as design, on divining ways of coordinating collective action that don’t depend on corporate-owned mobile apps or even things as basic as the Christian calendar (“I think the Church was the first start-up,” he mused). So what might a liberatory technology look like, a futurism of freedom?
“Got me thinking that maybe the past tense of ‘dream’ is ‘drum,’” he flowed during his freestyle. Or maybe “future conditional,” he corrected, after a beat.
For the IMF to publicly wonder whether neoliberalism may have been oversold is like the egg-industry admitting that it may not have always been perfectly clear whether their practices of caging hens in batteries placed the well-being of animals first. As we all know by now, last month the IMF admitted that it may have overestimated the virtue of structural adjustment measures in promoting economic development. Africa is a Country’s own Grieve Chelwa remarked that while the IMF’s essay, titled “Neoliberalism Oversold?” gives one hope that the IMF is finally coming around to the position that its policies caused a lot of damage across the world, and that “perhaps the Fund will be more cautious this time around as it intervenes in resolving the nascent debt crisis in Africa,” what appeared as an apology was a bit weak and awfully late.
And then, we stumbled upon “The Decade of Adjustment: A Review of Austerity Trends 2010-2020,” a 2015 study that made us wonder whether the IMF is sorry at all. (The study was carried out by the International Labour Organization, Columbia University’s Initiative for Policy Dialogue and the South Centre, who looked into over 600 IMF country reports and government spending projections of a total of 187 countries.)
What “The Decade of Adjustment” suggests is that unless the Fund has dramatically changed its approach the past couple of months (something their Chief Economist has subsequently questioned), far from backpedalling on austerity, the Fund keeps pushing low-income countries towards policies that prioritize fiscal adjustment, spending cuts and privatization. Their growing acceptance of what critics of structural adjustment programs have been arguing for decades, (that it depresses growth, well-being and employment, particularly in low-income countries) seems to have had minimal impact on their actions.
The authors predict what may best be described as an “Austerity Apocalypse” the next few years, with South-East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa likely to be the worst affected. If things play out as the authors predict (but urge against), the wage cuts, lay-offs, subsidy reforms and other austerity measures that have hit us the past five years, were only the prelude to what’s coming. “Overall,” the report notes, “austerity is expected to impact more than two-thirds of all countries during 2016-2020, affecting more than 6 billion persons or 80 per cent of the global population by 2020.” They continue: “In total, we project that fiscal adjustment will cause the loss of 7 per cent of global GDP and of approximately 12 million jobs over the 2015-2020 period,” with 4,7 million jobs lost in high-income countries alone and 2,4 million in low-income countries.
Across Sub-Saharan Africa, the main adjustment measures that are implemented and considered for the next few years are subsidy reform and wage bill cuts and caps, followed by increases in consumption taxes and other social welfare cuts. Ghana and Mauritania are examples of countries that, as the report notes, have already raised their Value Added Tax (VAT) by 2.5 and 2 per cent respectively.
Rather than just reflecting what governments told the IMF about their policy plans, the hundreds of documents that were reviewed in the report reinforce wide-spread concerns about how the IMF actively pushes low income countries (not just debtors) to spend less and privatize more through the annual surveillance consultations that governments subject themselves to as members of the Fund. Connecting their own findings to other recent analyses, they write that the “IMF’s role in influencing policy through surveillance” appears as the main incentive for low-income governments to walk (or run, rather) down the austerity road, noting that despite “the large incidence of poverty” in Sub-Saharan Africa, many countries “are advised to narrow-target their existing social protection programs.” For instance Burundi, Botswana, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Togo are among countries that have been advised to further squeeze their safety nets.
The Fund’s operations, they conclude, “have not yet reflected [the] findings” of the “numerous studies [that] highlight the fallacious basis of austerity programs,” including the IMF’s own recent research that “acknowledges that fiscal consolidation has adverse effects on both short and long-term unemployment, private demand and GDP growth, with wage-earners hurt disproportionately more than profit- and rent-earners.”
Quite obviously, these measures fly right in the face of the new development goals of the UN (the 2030 Agenda) and the AU (the 2063 Agenda), which are supposed to end poverty, ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all. They will most certainly not make it easier for Sub-Saharan Africa’s working poor (around 38 %) to lift themselves out of poverty or bring down its excessively high vulnerable employment rate, estimated at 76.6% (see page 54). With low wages reported as the number one reason for public protests in 2014 , with working conditions and public service delivery a close 2nd and 3rd, the prospect of ever more austerity spells disaster for the poor.
The authors argue that the IMF’s recommendations and their rationale around fiscal balances not only deviate “public attention from the unsolved root cause of the crisis, which is excessive deregulation of financial markets, as well as from logical global solutions, like a sovereign debt workout mechanism that deals fairly with both lenders and borrowers,” they will also interfere with the employment-generating growth, something that African countries particularly need.
The notion that there is no money for safety nets, decent jobs, quality education and health care simply is a myth. Just by tackling the illicit financial activities of transnational corporations and rich individuals alone, Africa could win (back) about $50 billion a year. That’s why, in addition to debt restructuring, the authors see progressive tax reforms as a far more effective and just approach than austerity, a position that’s shared by many tax justice advocates and African governments alike. There’s some hope to be gleaned from the fact that their insistence is at least pressuring the IMF, the World Bank and the OECD (who basically controls global tax rules) to take some steps. But if we are to avoid the apocalyptic predictions of “A Decade of Adjustment,” a whole lot of tax justice surveillance will be needed.
Anjan Sundaram’s new book, Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, takes aim at the vaunted position Rwanda enjoys in the western imagination. Far from being a success story of post-conflict peacebuilding since the 1994 genocide, Sundaram’s Rwanda exists in an authoritarian bubble characterized by fear and repression. Over the course of nearly five years living in the country, Sundaram witnessed the steady dismantling of Rwanda’s press corps and the stifling of free speech more broadly. In order to survive, some of Sundaram’s students, colleagues and friends reinvented themselves as regime propagandists, while others went into hiding or fled the country entirely. By silencing and co-opting the press, Sundaram argues, the government has largely succeeded in destroying the possibilities for independent journalism in Rwanda. I recently spoke with Sundaram about Bad News, the nature of political repression in Rwanda, and his experience working with journalists in a place where even mild criticism of the government can cost one their life.
What brought you to Rwanda? Did you know what you were getting yourself into when you decided to relocate there?
I went to Rwanda in 2009. At the time, I was looking for a quiet place to write my first book, Stringer about the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rwanda seemed like a quiet, calm country; peaceful, maybe even a little bit boring. Rwanda also happens to share a border with Congo, and so I thought that in the event that I needed some inspiration while writing Stringer I could jump across the border. What I knew about Rwanda was what you’ll continue to find in the press today – that it is a harmonious country that is recovering from the genocide and making great progress.
But I was also offered a job teaching and working with Rwandan journalists in a program funded by the European Union and the United Kingdom. I thought that this would be a great way to engage with society, working alongside my journalist colleagues in the country. What I quickly realized was that they were operating in an incredibly repressive environment. One journalist told me about how he had been beaten into a coma after he brought up the issue of press harassment in front of President Paul Kagame at a press conference. Another student, who was sick with HIV, told me about how during imprisonment she was dragged from room to room, not allowed to sleep, driven to exhaustion, and how her child was effectively orphaned during this time. These journalists were special. They were some of the last independent journalists left in the country.
The Rwanda you describe is almost totalitarian in nature.
I didn’t write this book from the perch of free speech evangelism. I focused on journalism in the book because I wanted to explore the consequences of a collapse of the free press. What happens to society? As I write in the book, “a society that cannot speak is like a body that cannot feel pain.” A crucial feedback mechanism is lost, and the government becomes capable – whether voluntary or involuntary – of incredible harm.
What is troubling about Rwanda is that the entire country is controlled at a very minute level. The country is divided into villages, each village has between one hundred and 150 families, each with a chief and an informer. Orders passed from the central government down to the villages travel very efficiently. It was this same structure that was used to execute the genocide in 1994, and was one of the reasons for the genocide’s speed and efficiency. As soon as the order was issued in Kigali, the killing commenced nearly simultaneously across the country. People went out to kill after orders were made by the local cells. That structure is still in place today, and President Kagame uses it to pursue a variety of ends.
He decides, for example, that plastic bags are bad for the environment. And so almost overnight, plastic bags basically disappeared from the country. Rubber slippers should be worn by everyone, he decides. Again, rubber slippers appear on people’s feet almost overnight. And during elections, Kagame orders that everyone get out and vote, leading to participation rates in Rwanda of 95 percent, whereas in other countries you’d get closer to 30 percent. The power of this system is extraordinary. Because it was used during the genocide, many Rwandans I know are incredibly worried about how it might be used in a country increasingly totalitarian, in which there are no alternatives to Kagame’s power, and in which society hears only one voice – that of the government.
There’s a moment in the book where one of the Rwandan journalists cautions you not to think so much about what you see, but instead to look for the things you don’t. And it seems to me that this idea echoes in the way in which journalists look to get around the government in their reporting on the country. Can you talk about how some journalists have gone about doing this, to the extent they’re able to?
That’s a great question. The thing about dictatorships in general – and Rwanda is an example of a modern-day dictatorship – is that the world has moved well beyond Cold War stereotypes, with a few exceptions like North Korea. In a modern dictatorship, spies in trench coats don’t follow you on the streets, the phone lines don’t crackle. What you have instead is something much more sophisticated. Politicians wear Western suits and announce that their country is open for business. You have multi-party elections. It’s a very different facade. In order to understand modern tyranny, then, you have to learn to listen and see quite differently. The example you referred to came from one of my students, Gibson, who taught me how to look, to see not what the government shows you, but what it hides.
To your question about how the media work around the government, there are several examples of this, but they occurred more frequently in the past than they do now. Gibson, for instance, wrote a story about malnutrition. The government narrative boasted that hunger had been banished from Rwanda, and that food production was at an all-time high. But malnutrition is a significant problem. Unfortunately, journalists could not write about this topic without official sanction. So Gibson tried to perform his role as a journalist by publishing information that would help parents feed their children better without stating overtly that there was a malnutrition problem. There are other examples, as well.
There was a paper called The Chronicles which has since been shut down. It was published in English – the language of the elites – and so most Rwandans couldn’t read it. The conversation was therefore limited almost exclusively to Rwanda’s elites. Because the paper had no widespread readership, it posed almost no threat to the government. One of The Chronicles’ front-page headlines asked “What is Paul Kagame’s salary?” The story actually had no news content. It turns out Kagame’s salary, officially, is in the median of most heads of state. But the fact that the paper’s editor was willing to ask the question was news. It was a benign question on its face, but in Rwanda it was understood as breaking a taboo.
But then the editor went in even further. In 2010, Paul Kagame said he would not run for a third term in power, and promised to respect the constitution that limits presidents to two terms. This editor suggested that Rwandans should take Kagame at his word, and argued that society should spend time thinking carefully about what sort of leader the country needed, what sort of leader should follow after Kagame. He actually went around interviewing the leading lights of Rwanda – politicians, intellectuals, and the like – about where the country was headed, where it should head. Very soon after, the paper was shut down. It was harbinger of what was to come. Just recently, Kagame announced that he would break his previous promise to respect the two-term constitution and will run for a third term as president. The constitution has been changed to allow him to remain in the presidency until 2034, potentially.
More generally, there are other ways in which people try to get around the government. I met one man in a village who appeared to be insane, but later pulled me aside and told me he had things to tell me in private about what was happening in the village. In public his persona was one of madness, and so people dismissed him, which gave him a kind of permission to say things that ordinary people might not.
There’s a kind of sad irony in that, in the sense that those who speak truth to power in Rwanda are sometimes, as you describe in the book, driven to insanity by government repression. But you also discuss the ways in which living in Rwanda disoriented your own sense of reality, and took a psychological toll on you while you were there. Can you talk about this a bit more?
Rwanda is a very easy place to live in on the surface. It’s clean, it’s orderly. Officials obey orders. But once you get beneath the surface – and I did through my work with Rwandan journalists – it became a difficult, almost impossible place to live in. For example, one night I heard an explosion. I raced out to the site, but was told that nothing had happened by officials. Some of my colleagues confirmed that they too had gone to the site and had attempted to take photographs. But the officials denied that anything of the sort had happened. And over time, if you cannot get confirmation from the outside world of the things you hear, in this case, you begin to doubt that you had heard what you thought you had heard. This is extremely disconcerting.
I related in the book an instance where a colleague took me out to the countryside where many people were homeless. We weren’t sure why the people were homeless or that they were homeless at all—it wasn’t reported by the press. I was shocked to see thousands of people living out in the open, in some cases quite sick. It was rainy season, so some were suffering with pneumonia or malaria, the elderly and children were dying. Some people lived in the few cement homes in the villages, stuffed into tiny rooms with goats and pigs for want of space. All of the huts that had previously housed these people were disassembled. Thatch lay on the ground. It could have been put back on roofs, and yet the people didn’t do it. There was no sign of aggression, no signs of violence.
I was stunned by what I saw. When I asked one of the villages who had done this to them, who made them homeless, he said, “We did.” As it turned out, President Kagame had decided that grass roof huts were primitive, and local officials – desperate to please him – had gone out to the villages to get them to tear them all down. Remember, civil society was broken, no journalists were going to report this. The villagers tore down their own huts, and then asked: now what? And the officials told them that they had to wait for further instructions. I saw in front of my own eyes the harm a society can inflect on itself when it can’t speak. There had been these moments before – most famously the genocide – when society did itself harm under direct government orders. And large numbers of people complied. To live in a society where such massive betrayal of the self was happening so often became increasingly disturbing and distressing for me.
It isn’t just people that get broken down, including those reporters that are coerced into following the government line. As you describe in the book, foreign governments and humanitarian agencies – who know better – are also going along with the program. Why?
Any foreign correspondent worth his or her salt will tell you that their reporting in a country is only as good as the local journalists they’re partnering with. This is especially true today as foreign correspondents often parachute in, spend – if they are lucky – about a week in that place and have to produce a seemingly authoritative report. What’s happened in Rwanda is, with local press destroyed, the link between society and foreign correspondents is broken. Some journalists who come in might genuinely believe that what they are seeing and what they are hearing is the truth. They might not be aware or sensitive to the incredible fear and tyranny in Rwanda. It’s one reason for the positive press about Rwanda – essentially repeating the government narrative – that celebrates a country rising from the ashes after the horrors of genocide.
But for those familiar with dictatorship, the facade is quite obvious. I remember meeting a Russian UN worker whom I asked, just a few days after his arrival, what he thought about Rwanda. He laughed, and said, “It’s just like the Soviet Union: I opened the newspaper this morning and there’s only good news!” An untrained eye might see a prosperous, happy country in those positive reports. But to someone like him who knows, who is familiar with these contexts, well, the whole thing rings alarm bells. Another woman I met, who had grown up in the former Yugoslavia under Tito, reported similar things. There was something about the tone adopted by the government; she knew she had to be very careful about what she said in Rwanda.
To your question about foreign governments and international aid organizations: they are aware of everything that is happening in Rwanda, aware of the repression. They are aware of every single military official, journalist, activist, who has been killed, forced into exile or disappeared. They know about it. And yet they continue in a hypocritical relationship with the Kagame government. Western aid programs are “successful” largely because of the same efficient, repressive system the Rwandan government uses to maintain power. These aid agencies come into the country with all sorts of plans written up and, as soon as they have been approved by the Rwandan government, 95 percent of people follow the plan.
This is in stark contrast to most of the rest of the developing world, where you might be lucky to get 30 or 40 percent compliance and participation in aid programs. And so, for many Western governments and aid agencies, Rwanda is a paradise. I have seen so many foreign officials, and foreign aid officials, receive promotions for their effectiveness and the efficiency with which their operations are conducted in Rwanda. The incentives are all in the wrong place. There is no incentive for them to speak up about the repression. In fact, they have come to a point where they can use it for their own ends, their own benefit.
It has led to a perverse relationship between Rwanda’s repressive system and international aid organizations. This is nothing new, it should be said. Dictatorships have long been convenient for Western governments. In a dictatorship, they often only have to deal with one person. There’s no need to deal with the parliament, for example. And so foreign interests are served quite easily: there is no parliament to observe or ratify your treaty. Western governments have long had these relationships, whether with Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, or the regime in Saudi Arabia, or Bashar al Assad in Syria. It’s the same thing with Rwanda – there’s very little difference, in fact.
What’s been the fallout from the book since it’s been published.
I knew from the beginning that writing a book like this would mean severing all my ties with Rwanda. I lived there from 2009 through 2013 – almost five years in total. It’s the longest I’ve lived in any one place in all my adult life, the closest I’ve come to knowing a sense of home. And so I had many close ties, close friendships, with people in Rwanda, and I knew that I would have to forsake those in order to say what I thought needed to be said. But it was a price that I decided was necessary and worth it, because of the frequency with which the government was abusing its power in Rwanda.
It was important to write this book, as well, because as a foreigner I can afford to lose those ties. A Rwandan who says the things I say in the book could face death, and will certainly face harassment. The stakes are much higher. The journalists I was working with were incredibly brave – they knew the stakes, they knew the risks in confronting the government. They knew they could lose their lives, and some of them did. But they were hoping for a country that is freer, a country that was less likely to witness more violence in the future, a country where their children could enjoy a sense of freedom. The stakes were higher, but also were the rewards. It’s a completely different situation for them.
It was a traumatic experience to come out with the book. It has changed my life. I wouldn’t try to go back to Rwanda. Journalists who have criticized the government have been barred from the country, deported in some instances; some of their children have been threatened, even in the United States and Canada. I don’t expect to be let back in any time soon. The Rwanda government, interestingly, sent one of their officials to a talk I was giving at Chatham House in London. That official asked me very personal questions – who I was living with in Rwanda, what my visa status was at the time, and so on. The minutiae of the questions were clear signals that they had been looking into my file. Otherwise, the government continues to put forward the narrative that it always has: that there is no repression of the press in Rwanda, or if there has been, it is now free.
The end of the book includes an appendix listing more than sixty journalists – and the list is hardly exhaustive – who have been killed, arrested, disappeared, tortured, or forced to flee the government in fear for their own lives after criticizing the government. There has been no comment from the Rwandan government on this.
The book concludes on a downbeat note. Is it your sense that nothing has changed since you left, that the free press is dead and destroyed in Rwanda?
At the end of 2013, there was a government effort to “improve” the condition of the press, on the surface at least. An oversight body was set up so that journalists could regulate each other, but last year, I believe, the head of that body had to flee Rwanda in fear of his life. He had opposed the government’s banning of the BBC, arguing that an important information source for the people that had been banned. This amounted to an implicit criticism of the government. He received death threats, and ultimately fled to Germany. So no, I don’t believe there has been much change; things may be worse now. That said, there are still some very good journalists in the country. But they are largely silent. They have seen what has happened to their colleagues who attempted to do the work of journalism, who attempted to hold the government accountable. And so they do not carry out their profession as they should, for very understandable reasons.
Originally presented in a lecture series and later compiled in The Philosophy of History (Germany, 1837), Hegel adds: “The Negro … exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality—all that we call feeling—if we would rightly comprehend him. There is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character.” Hegel then promises himself not to ever mention Africa again, for “it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit.” What we properly understand by Africa, he concludes, “is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature.”
More than a century after Hegel’s ruminations, Robert D. Kaplan, a US journalist and policy pundit, published “The Coming Anarchy,” a devastating portrayal of West Africa in the February 1994 issue of the US-monthly magazine, The Atlantic. The Cold War had just ended and most of the western world was triumphantly riding on the crest of a wave of optimism. Celebrating this triumph—of the west and of what he called the western idea—Francis Fukuyama, writing in a 1989 issue ofThe National Interest, an American bi-monthly international affairs magazine, suggested, “what we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such.” By “the end of history as such,” Fukuyama did not simply mean the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution. More fundamentally, he meant the reconciliation of the market principle and the idea of freedom, and “the universalization of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
But, projecting himself to the day and times after history had ended, Fukuyama could only see melancholia and sadness, a profound nostalgia for the Hegelian world: “The end of history will be a very sad time.
The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual care-taking of the museum of human history.”
As Fukuyama wrote his epitaph to history, Africa was in the midst of a spectacular collision. Apartheid and white minority rule were coming to a formal end in South Africa while a genocide of cataclysmic proportions was unfolding in Rwanda. Liberation and apotheosis of long years of struggle on the one hand, self-destruction on the other. Declining per capita incomes and production, low levels of savings and investment, slow growth in agricultural production, failing export earnings, strangled imports and unserviceable foreign debt burdens—all plagued most of sub-Saharan Africa.
In his scenario for the 21st century, Kaplan argued that West Africa in particular was becoming: “the symbol of worldwide demographic, environmental and societal stress, in which criminal anarchy emerges as the real ‘strategic’ danger. Disease, overpopulation, unprovoked crime, scarcity of resources, refugee migrations, the increasing erosion of nation-states and international borders, and the empowerment of private armies, security firms, and international drug cartels are now most tellingly demonstrated through a West African prism.” In Kaplan’s geography—just as in Hegel’s a century earlier—West Africa became the epitome of those regions of the world where central governments were withering away, tribal and regional fiefdoms were on the rise, and war had turned pervasive.
West Africa, Kaplan argued, was reverting “to the Africa of the Victorian atlas.” He added: “It consists now of a series of coastal trading posts, such as Freetown and Conakry, and an interior that, owing to violence, volatility, and disease, is again becoming, as Graham Greene once observed, ‘blank’ and ‘unexplored’.” Kaplan invoked the English political economist Thomas Malthus, describing him as “the philosopher of demographic doomsday” and a “prophet” of West Africa’s future. “And West Africa’s future, eventually, will also be that of most of the rest of the world … in an age of cultural and racial clash.”
This apocalyptic view of Africa’s future was echoed in 2000 when, building upon Hegelian tropes once again, the influential UK financial weekly The Economist declared that Africa was “hopeless.” In a famous editorial, titled “Hopeless Continent,” it conjured up images of destitution, failure and despair, floods and famine, poverty and pestilence, brutality, despotism and corruption, dreadful wars and plunder, rape, cannibalism, amputation, and even the weather, to suggest that Africa’s future was definitely doomed. Foreign aid workers, peacekeeping missions, humanitarian agencies and the world at large could well give up, so deeply “buried in their cultures” were the reasons for so much human misery, it concluded.
As I write, poverty and unemployment are still widespread on the continent, in some instances more so than in other emerging markets. In many quarters of the rich world, Africa, with its apparently never-ending tales of disease and disorder still inspires pity and disbelief, when it does not elicit deeply held humanitarian and philanthropic impulses—and the contempt that usually comes with them. People still struggle to make ends meet—but these days, where don’t they? They still demand products that could be both cheap and reliable. Needs are still obvious. Scarcity is still a fact. They don’t always have enough to eat. They may lack education. They may despair at daily injustices and some want to emigrate. Many still fear a violent or premature end.
But that’s not all.
Secondary-school enrollment has grown by 48% between 2000 and 2008. Over the past decade, malaria deaths in some of the worst-affected countries have declined by 30% and HIV infections up to 74%. Life expectancy across Africa has increased by about 10% and child mortality rates in most countries have been falling steeply. Over the past ten years, real income per person has increased by more than 30% whereas in the previous 20 years it shrank by nearly 10%. Only 20% of the continent’s one billion people are online, but that share is rising rapidly as mobile networks are rolled out and the cost of internet-capable devices continues to fall. As a matter of fact, more than 720 million Africans have mobile phones and 100 million were on Facebook by 2014.
Mobile telephony in particular has revolutionized the ways Africans interact and the way small and medium enterprises, farmers and informal traders operate. As a result, mobile revenue is today equivalent to 3.7% of African GDP—more than triple its share in developed economies where it was an incremental innovation. Were the internet to eventually match or exceed the level of impact mobile telephony has already achieved, it could contribute some $300 billion to Africa’s GDP by 2025, according to a 2011 report by consultancy McKinsey. It is calculated that, in this leapfrog scenario, increased Internet penetration and use could propel private consumption almost 13 times higher than current levels of $12 billion, reaching some $154 billion by 2025.
Let me take another example: the transformations that are affecting urban forms. These have been caused partly by the emergence, in the continent, of megacities and mega-regions whose density, massive spatial expansion, sheer scale of population, high levels of risks and great wealth disparities have been accompanied by dynamic and unexpected modes of urban growth. Major cities such as Lagos, Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Nairobi, Luanda, Dakar and Abidjan have continued to expand in a relatively uncontrolled, decentralized if not random way since the 1980s. Today, these cities are better understood as largely de-territorialized mega-regions with multiple urban enclaves.
Their myriad public spaces are increasingly privatized. Novel patterns of trans-regional migrations, settlement and high consumption are transforming their economic and cultural fabric, paving the way for highly stylized and hybrid or creolized forms. Visible and invisible networks of social and economic exchange participate in, but are also separate from the mainstream flows of global capital, real and fictitious. One of their defining features is not only their disjunctive social geography, but also the way in which humans and non-humans are linked together in heterogeneous and often unrecognized assemblages that contribute to the making of a unique urban civilization. More than at any other time in their recent history, these mega-regions are the direct outcome of new socio-economic forms as well as a different politics of human/non-human/techno-ecological relations.
Let’s consider, furthermore, what is going on in contemporary African art. In the Hegelian paradigm, there is obviously no such thing as “African contemporary art.” Were it to exist, it would have neither authors nor concepts, only ethnicities and their fetishes. It is enough to place completely trivial domestic objects or ceremonial objects in a museum or a gallery for them to be transformed into objects of art. In any case, the fact is that since French artist Marcel Duchamp, who nominated consumer objects as art, there are no longer works [oeuvre] as such in the west. Duchamp signed the death of the work of art in the classical sense of the term. There is no longer any image to isolate or to capture. Or at least there is no longer anything to interpret. There are only selections to be made and collections of objects to be assembled, curated and exhibited.
Since Duchamp, one might say that the act of giving form, of animation, has moved to the background. When the west “discovers” l’art nègre (Negro art) at the beginning of the 20th century, it is before all else fascinated by what it forgot—that image and form did not need to be separated; in fact they could be reconciled in the object; and their reconciliation in the object is what endowed them both with a singular animating power. Thus the vital construction of African objects at the beginning of the 20th century.
The magic of the arts of Africa and its diaspora has always derived from its power of dematerialization, its capacity to inhabit the commonplace and sensible, precisely with the aim of transforming it into an idea and an event. Historically it has come from an unambiguous recognition of the fact that the infinite cannot be captured in a form. The infinite exceeds every form—even if, from time to time, it passes through form, that is, through the finite. But what fundamentally characterizes form is its own finitude. Form can only be ephemeral, evanescent and fugitive. “To form” is to inhabit a space of essential fragility and vulnerability. This is the reason why caring and nurturing life are the main functions of the arts.
The idea of art as an attempt to capture the forces of the infinite; an attempt to put the infinite in sensible form, but a forming that consists in constantly doing, undoing, and redoing; assembling, dis-assembling and reassembling—this idea is typically ‘African’. It fully resonates with the digital spirit of our times. This is why there is a good chance that the art of the 21st century will be Afropolitan.
Whatever the case, today, another cultural geography of the world is in the making. Whether one likes it or not, Africa is firmly writing itself within a new, de-centered but global, history of the arts. It is breaking with the ethnological paradigms that will have corseted it into primitivism or neo-primitivism. More and more, the term “Africa” itself tends to refer to a geo-aesthetic category. Africa being above all the body of a vast diaspora, it is by definition a body in motion, a de-territorialized body constituted in the crucible of various forms of migrancy. Its arts objects too, are above all objects in motion, coming straight out of a fluctuating imaginary. Such too, is African modernity—a migrant form of modernity, born out of overlapping genealogies, at the intersections of multiple encounters with multiple elsewheres.
Indeed if modern art is a response to the crisis of the image, it is possible that this crisis is at the point of being resolved by contemporary afro-diasporic creation. Afro-diasporic creation is the vehicle that will allow us to escape from the crisis of the idea of the image opened up by modern art.
As we enter the 21st century, the Hegelian mythology—and its multiple actualizations—manifestly no longer holds. This mythology is now firmly unravelling. Something else is going on. It is being picked up both by Africans themselves and, curiously enough, by the world of high finance. A tacit consensus is emerging around the idea that after China, what is going on in Africa will have a huge impact not only on Africa as such, but on our planet. The emerging tacit consensus is that the destiny of our planet will be played out, to a large extent, in Africa. If there is one single idea I wish you to take from this intervention, this is it. This planetary turn of the African predicament will constitute the main cultural and philosophical event of the 21st century. It will take us far away from the Hegelian myths I cited at the start of this lecture.
This planetary turn is the result of an on-going—not yet entirely manifest—conceptual shift about which I would like to make three comments. Firstly, that Africa is gradually perceived as the place where our planetary future is at stake—or is being played out—is due to the fact that, all around the world and especially in Africa itself, older senses of time and space based on linear notions of development and progress are being replaced by newer senses of time and of futures founded on open narrative models. Secondly, within the continent itself, Africa’s future is more and more thought of as full of un-actualized possibilities, of would-be-worlds, of potentiality. Many increasingly believe that through self-organization and small ruptures, we can actually create myriad “tipping points” that may lead to deep alterations of the direction the continent is taking. Thirdly, in fact, it has of late been a matter of tacit consensus, especially among international financial institutions and experts, that Africa represents the last frontier of capitalism. While this last claim is contested in various quarters, there is nevertheless ample evidence to support it. Two examples will suffice.
The first relates to an obvious fact: Africa’s economic pulse has been quickening during the first decade of the 21st century. Real GDP rose by 4.9% a year from 2000 through 2008, more than twice its pace in the 1980s and 1990s. Telecommunications, banking, retailing and construction are flourishing, even booming. Private investment flows are surging. From $9 billion in 2000, foreign direct investment increased to $62 billion in 2008—relative to GDP, this is almost as large as the flows into China. Africa’s collective GDP, at $1.6 trillion dollars in 2008, is now roughly equal to Brazil’s or Russia’s. The continent is among the world’s most rapidly growing economic regions.
Even more crucial to the on-going transformations is the rise of middle-class consumer. Today, 40% of the continent’s one billion people live in cities, a proportion roughly comparable to China’s and larger than India’s. It is estimated that by 2035, that share will rise to 50% and Africa’s top 18 cities will have a combined spending power of $1.3 trillion. In 2000, roughly 59 million households on the continent had $5 000 or more in income above which they start spending roughly half of it on non-food items. By 2014, the number of such households had reached 106 million. According to 2010 McKinsey Global Institute report, Africa already has more middle-class households (defined as those with incomes of $20 000 or above) than India. Private consumption rose by $568 billion from 2000 to 2010. From 2012 to 2020, consumer-facing industries are expected to grow a further $410 billion.
But Africa represents the last frontier of capitalism in another, second sense. It is, against all odds, a region of our world where some of the most far-reaching formal and informal experiments in neo-liberal deregulation have been taking place. Suffice it to mention, in this regard, the structural adjustment programmes of the mid-1980s and their cohort of austerity measures countries such as Greece are now saddled with. During those years, Africa was a laboratory where some of the ideas and practices that would later be brought back to and implemented in parts of Europe were originally tested. Such was the case of the idea that the duty of governments is to install, impose and enforce market relations wherever possible; or that political intervention in the economy must refrain from redistribution, except from the bottom to the top, to create incentives for growth, the assumption being that people at the top work more if they pay lower taxes on higher incomes, whereas people at the bottom work more if their social security is taken away and their wages lowered.
These were also the years when, under the guidance of the IMF and World Bank, Africa experimented with the idea that public provision should be replaced with private purchases and growth is the result of income flowing to the already rich. Both the satisfaction of needs and the servicing of wants were subjected to the movement of markets, sociation by consumption and naked cash became the dominant mode of social integration. From then on, citizenship was bound to look structurally similar to customership, and political relations like market relations.
Even more decisively, this is the region of the world where the relationship between transnational extractive projects—which underpin most of Africa’s economic growth during the late-20th and early-21st century—and the transformations of contemporary global financial capitalism (especially under the sign of clandestine economies, enclave economies and offshoring) have been the most perversely tested. During the last decade, Africa made its greatest ever contribution of “illicit” financial outflows and net income payments to the rest of the world. A 2013 African Development Bank report estimated that between 1980 and 2009, the economies of Africa lost between US$597 billion and US$1.4 trillion in net resource transfers away from the continent. In comparative terms, sub-Saharan Africa’s net income payments are almost three times those of the Eurozone and five times greater than those of China or India, writes Senegalese development economist Ndongo Samba Sylla.
One important implication of these transformations has been the extent to which they have influenced almost everything from household economics to environmental disruptions, scientific expertise to state governance. Another possibly even more important implication has been the extent to which these kinds of transnational operations disentangle the production of profit from the place in which the industry happens to find itself, while structuring liability and responsibility in such a way that the firms involved can remove themselves from local social, legal, political and environmental entanglements.
As sites of experimentation, Africa’s extractive economies have been deeply involved in—and will keep contributing to—the shaping of key aspects of contemporary financial capitalism. For instance, they have contributed to the remaking of the corporate form at the global scale—the structures and conditions of corporate activity and what it means to incorporate in the first years of the 21st century. The monetisation of risk—a key structural feature of contemporary futures markets—has been shaped to a large extent by experiments with new forms on the African continent. So have been offshoring (including of the means of violence), private contracting (including of security services), gambling, other economically stigmatised activities and various innovations in the field of tax avoidance. Whatever the case, the current African moment can therefore be characterised as a moment of acceleration. Africa is now perceived not as the empty cipher of Hegelian mythology, but as likely to become a significant source of rising global consumption.
If indeed the current African moment can be characterised as a moment of acceleration, the question is acceleration towards what. What are the forces behind it? Is such a historical trajectory sustainable? At what cost and who is likely to pay for it or to benefit from it? Acceleration, I would say, towards a kind of capitalism that is mostly disjointed, almost galactic in the sense that consists of a seemingly random collection of disconnected enclaves. These enclaves are incongruously linked together in a contrived form that cannot be easily grasped within the conventional analytical paradigms. It is a capitalism of multiple nodal points, of scattered patterns, of spatial growth combined with neglect and decline. This form of capitalism is mostly extractive.
It is a frontier-type of capitalism organised around enclaves (especially mining enclaves), islands and bubbles. It will continue to profit from long-term rising global demand for oil, natural gas, minerals, food, and arable land. In any case, over the next decade, the world’s liquid-fuel consumption will increase by 25%—twice the pace of the 1990s. Projections of demand for many hard minerals show similar growth. Meanwhile, Africa boasts an abundance of riches: 10% of the world’s reserves of oil, 40% of its gold, 80 to 90% of the chromium and the platinum metal group. Those are just the known reserves. More lies undiscovered.
The development of this form of capitalism in Africa is a key aspect of the world-historical shift in the fortunes of humanity that is now underway by dint of the rise of China (and India). What characterises the unfolding of capitalism in China is its “compressed” nature. It is the fact that a fundamental shift of national economic structures occurred in the 1970s mainly through: firstly, a large industrial sector rapidly absorbing low-wage migrant labour into manufacturing for a large-scale export market; and, secondly, through state investment in critical sectors. The later shift deepened the industrial sector, and consequently raised wages, leading to increased inequalities and social polarisation.
Furthermore, a steady stream of migrant labour has been freed from the countryside as a result of land appropriation—legal or illegal, violent or peaceful. The flow of rural residents to urban areas is officially regulated through the hukou registration system that requires would-be migrants to seek approval from local authorities to move to a new area.
Advanced forms of accumulation such as high-value manufacturing, high-value services and innovation-led economic expansion in a global setting coexist with primitive forms of accumulation and a vast agrarian sector. The increasing technological complexity in the structure of its economy, in addition to contributing to growth and rising incomes, is fast adding to the pool of precarious employment due to displacement of labour, hiring of contract labour and the increasing structural power of capital, argues Indian studies scholar Anthony P. D’Costa in his 2014 essay ‘Compressed Capitalism and Development’.
Whatever the case, China has, for now, become a far more prominent actor than others in the future-making of Africa, to the point where Africa is now not only a planetary question, as I was intimating earlier on, but also and more specifically a Chinese question.
But what aspects of Chinese capitalism are being externalised in Africa? We cannot stress enough the multiplicity of transformational outcomes arising from China’s involvement in Africa. Those transformations will run in multiple directions and in complex combinations. China has become the workshop of the world with labour-absorbing, export-oriented manufacturing sectors aiming to upgrade to high-value, capital-intensive manufacturing.
The African trajectory is far from being based on export-oriented industrialisation. In some regions of the continent, land transfers are on the rise, the result of wholesale expropriation of land by real estate speculators, large corporations in the natural resource business, and by state-led infrastructure development. But the process of primitive accumulation is far from having acquired the intensity it reached in China.
Africa, like China, comprises an urban labour market with informal, casual work and self-employment, along with precarious, short-term, poorly paid and insecure jobs. This market offers a plethora of low-cost commodities and services. If in China petty commodity producers act as a reserve army that big global and national capital may deploy and exclude when needed to support their worldwide accumulation, such is not the case in Africa.
China’s entry into Africa—or Chinese externalisation, as I prefer to describe it—is largely driven by state-run enterprises. For now the globally active Chinese companies, particularly in terms of investment, are the predominantly state-owned ones in energy, mining and construction. Chinese externalisation is accompanied by many of the harsh labour conditions associated with European industrialisation and expansion. The benefits of Chinese investment for local employment are equivocal. Chinese managers prefer to use imported (and effectively indentured and contractually tied) workers from China.
The latter often live in separate compounds and have almost no relationship with local communities. And yet China’s presence in Africa links to the dynamism of small-scale indigenous capital in many ways. Capital goods and business systems emerging from China are particularly appropriate for small-scale African entrepreneurs. This includes low-cost motorcycles and solar chargers, cheap and easily repairable tractors and other types of mechanised farming equipment, machinery for packaging, metalworking and woodworking, and capital goods used in a wide variety of industries.
People across the continent have been living with and adapting to a high degree of climate variability and its associated risks for centuries. Yet the accelerated changes in the climate and increasing incidence of climatic disasters during the 20th century have brought risks into sharper focus. They threaten to erode Africa’s natural assets (land productivity, livestock, water and energy resources) and capabilities (health, nutrition, education) while keeping the region in a low human development trap.
This scenario is exacerbated by the continent’s natural fragility. Two-thirds of its surface area is desert or dry land. Its terrestrial and coastal ecosystems are highly exposed to natural disasters. The region’s livelihoods and economic activities are very dependent on natural resources and rain-fed agriculture. The spread of malaria to higher elevations because of rising temperatures compounds the effects of climate change with an increasing disease burden. Its forest coverage has shrunk by 10% between 1990 and 2005. Reduced rainfall, soil degradation and the depletion of precious natural resources is happening in a context in which two-thirds of Sub-Saharan Africans make a living from the environment. The economic, social, migratory and security impacts of this vulnerability on the rest of the world cannot be ignored—the continent will be home to over two billion inhabitants in 2050.
The continent is central to the global environmental crisis and holds some of the most potent solutions to the global ecological trap overshadowing the 21st century. Although its forest coverage has shrunk, Africa is home to the second largest mass of tropical forest in the world. The carbon storage capacity of African biotopes is considerable. At a time when global emissions are rapidly rising, this gigantic carbon capture machine is—like agricultural land—one of the essential elements of climate control. There is however a cost to preserving these natural resources, and to exploiting the vast potential of the continent’s renewable energies.
Let me end where I started: with Hegel, that is, with race and racism, and the future of the human species in this post-Hegelian age and the planetary turn of the African predicament. Race has once again re-entered the domain of biological truth, viewed now through a molecular gaze. A new molecular deployment of race has emerged out of genomic thinking.
Worldwide, we witness a renewed interest in terms of the identification of biological differences. In these times of global migrations, many are entertaining the dream of “nations without strangers.” Genomics has injected new complexity into the figure of the human. And yet the core racial typology of the 19th century still provides the dominant lens through which this new genetic knowledge of human difference is understood—and , indeed, is taking shape and entering medical and lay conceptions of human variation.
Fundamental to on-going rearticulations of race and recoding of racism are developments in the life sciences. I already mentioned genomics. I should add our renewed understanding of the cell, neuroscience and synthetic biology. The last quarter of the 20th century has seen the rise of a molecular and neuro-molecular style of thought that analyses all living processes in body and brain in terms of the material properties of cellular components such as DNA bases, ion channels, membrane potentials and the like. This process started during the first half of the 20th century and reached its momentum during its last quarter—and continues to wield influence in the 21st century.
It is a process that has been rendered even more powerful by its convergence with two parallel developments. The first is the emergence of the digital technologies of the information age, and the second is the financialisation of the economy. These developments have in turn shaped two sets of consequences. On the one hand, there is a renewed preoccupation with the future of life itself, and on the other, capital is doing new work under contemporary conditions. Thanks to the work of capital, we are no longer fundamentally different from things. We turn them into persons. We fall in love with them. We are no longer only persons, or we have never been only persons.
We now realise that there is probably more to the idea of race than even Hegel imagined. New configurations of racism are emerging worldwide. Because race-thinking increasingly entails profound questions about the nature of the human species in general, the need to rethink the politics of racialisation and the terms under which the struggle for racial justice unfolds—here and elsewhere in the world—today has become ever more urgent. Racism is still acting as a constitutive supplement to nationalism. How do we create a world beyond nationalism? Behind the veil of neutrality and impartiality, racial power still structurally depends on various legal regimes for its reproduction. How do we radically transform the law?
Even more ominously, race politics is taking a genomic turn. In order to invigorate anti-racist thought and praxis, and in order to reanimate the project of non-racialism, we particularly need to explore the emerging nexus between biology, genes, technologies and their articulations with new forms of human destitution. At stake in the contemporary reconfigurations and mutations of race and racism is the splitting of humanity itself into separate species and sub-species as a result of market libertarianism and genetic technology.
Also at stake, once again, are the old questions of who is whom; who can make what kinds of claims on whom, and on what grounds; and who is to own whom, and what. In a contemporary neoliberal order that claims to have gone beyond the racial, the struggle for racial justice must take new forms.
But simply looking to past and present, local and global re-articulations of race will not suffice. To tease out alternative possibilities for thinking life and human futures in this age of neoliberal individualism, we need to connect in entirely new ways the project of non-racialism to that of human mutuality. In the last instance, non-racialism is truly about radical sharing and universal inclusion. It is about humankind ruling in common on behalf of a larger commons, which includes non-humans—this is the proper name for democracy. In this sense, non-racialism is the antithesis of the rule of the market. The domination of politics by capital has resulted in the waste of countless human lives and the production in every corner of the globe of vast stretches of dead water and dead land.
To reopen the future of our planet to all who inhabit it, we will have to learn how to share it again, amongst but also between its humans and non-humans inhabitants, between the multiple species that populate our planet. It is only under these conditions that, aware of our precariousness as a species in the face of ecological threats, we will be able to overcome the outright possibility of human extinction opened up by this new epoch, the age of the Anthropocene.
* This article originally appeared in City Scapes, the publication of the African Center for Cities.
The biggest news item of the past week was Britain voting to cancel its membership to the European Union. (The EU has many hoops that you need to jump through to join. Contrast this with African Union membership, for example). The results of #Brexit (how the referendum is known popularly) vote came as a big surprise, particularly to the self-appointed thinking classes, the kind of people whose opinions about globalization, neoliberalism, financialization and so forth don’t, in any way, threaten their daily existence. “Take that, experts!”
The short-term fallout from the referendum has been somewhat monumental. British Prime Minister David Cameron, he of “fantastically corrupt” fame, immediately announced he’d step down as prime minister by October this year. The British pound dropped to a level not seen in almost 30 years. Stocks on the London Stock Exchange, and on exchanges across the globe, weren’t spared too. But most of this appears to be a knee-jerk reaction to an outcome that was not at all expected – especially by the experts that folks in the financial industry clamor to listen to. Some degree of normalcy should return in the coming days or weeks as some of the uncertainty is resolved.
Since we can’t resist the urge to pontificate on this or that “African” issue, we thought we should share our 2 cents (or is it 1 pence at today’s exchange rate) on the likely economic impact of Brexit on Africa.
The one obvious channel through which Brexit could affect economies in Africa is if it triggers a recession in the UK. A recession might affect trade and investment between the two regions. The Bank of England thinks a recession might very well be on the cards. A study reviewing all studies that have estimated the likely economic impact of Brexit found: “GDP losses for the UK in the range of 10% or more [could not] be ruled out in the long run.”
How much trade takes place between the UK and Africa? Not much, it turns out. Combining data from the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) for 2014, the latest year for which we have comparable data, we calculated that exports from Africa to the UK represent about 5% of Africa’s total exports. Africa is more worried about a slowdown in China, its biggest trading partner by far.
To be sure, some individual companies that export to the UK might suffer. For instance, the Kenya Flowers Association is rightly worried. Although here it appears that most of the worrying has got to do with uncertainty around whether Kenya and the UK will have to negotiate new trade deals that might be different from the ones already negotiated with the EU. More about this later.
What about foreign direct investment (FDI)? How important are UK investments to the continent? Again, not as important as one might think. For 2014, total FDI flows from the UK to African economies were only about 16% of total flows to the continent. In terms of the stock of FDI, a measure of the total value of investments in Africa, the UK’s portion was only 8% in 2014 (both estimates obtained from combining ONS and UNCTAD data). And the UK mostly invests in mining, quarrying and financial services, and mostly in South Africa. These sectors are hardly the type to drive self-sustaining and job-creating growth on the continent. If anything, they tend to be exploitative.
What about the pound’s “collapse”? Will it affect Africa’s trade competitiveness? Again the answer is highly unlikely. Fortunately, this is not 1901. International trade is hardly conducted in pound sterling these days. (Yes, we think it’s time they dropped the bit about it being “sterling”). So a weakening pound (which implies strengthening African currencies vis-à-vis the pound) is almost irrelevant for Africa’s trade competitiveness.
One of the ways the UK’s decision to leave might really affect Africa is if it jeopardizes the continent’s trade agreements with the EU. For instance, the East African Community (EAC) is due to sign an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the EU in October. The Kenya Flowers Association is worried that the EPA might not extend easier access to the UK, an important market for Kenyan flowers. Many other regional bodies that have already signed EPAs, such as SADC and ECOWAS, will be wondering the same. It will be months, and perhaps even years, before we know what the actual implications for the UK are in terms of trade agreements with Africa. Although given the relative unimportance of UK-Africa trade, it’s highly unlikely that a post-Brexit architecture will look drastically different to what it is today. (By the way, EPAs are a terrible deal for Africa).
The UK doesn’t have the same influence on the continent that it did decades ago. And Brexit will be further proof of that. If the UK sneezes Africa will … well Africa will say “bless you” and move on.
In the shadow of the Brexit vote, on this episode of Africa is a Radio, we celebrate the UK Afrobeats scene – another homegrown, immigrant enriched culture out of London and its surrounding environs. Along with that, we do the usual visit to the African continent and its diaspora to see what’s going on around the various towns.
Also, be sure to tune into TheLotRadio.com this Sunday at 6pm New York time, where Africa is a Radio will be broadcast live!
1 DJ Juls – Teef Teef feat. Mr Eazi, Eugy & Sarkodie
2 Kano – My Sound
3 Los Rakas – Me Enamoró
4 Geko – Baba
5 Belly Squad – Banana
6 MHD – Afro Trap pt. 4 (Fais le mouv)
7 Cobhams Asuquo – Boosit feat. Falz
8 Rihanna – Bitch Better Have My Raba (DJ Triplet & DJ Shabsy Remix)
9 Reniss – La Sauce (prod. by Le Monstre)
10 H Name – We Live Together (Nga Yan) feat. Stanley Enow
11 DJ X-Trio – Africa
12 Luke Howard – Lo Life
13 Novalima – San Antonio (Aero Manyelo Remix)
14 John Sofakole – Sofakole
Some of the most indelible images of Muhammad Ali come from his 1974 trip to the Congo. He was the feted guest of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko — who renamed the country Zaire in 1971 — for the spectacular “Rumble in the Jungle” title bout with heavyweight champion George Foreman.
The fight exemplified Ali’s boxing smarts. It was there that he debuted his “rope-a-dope” strategy to defeat Foreman in eight rounds. More significantly, however, Ali framed it as a demonstration of black pride: an African government hosted the fight; black pilots flew him there, and his trip amounted to a kind of homecoming for a descendant of African slaves.
Some of America’s and Africa’s top black musical talent — James Brown, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba, Manu Dibangu, and others — headlined a massive concert to accompany the fight. All the while, Ali reveled in the love and support of ordinary people wherever he went.
But the “Rumble in the Jungle” was far from the harmonious picture of black advancement Ali and his media acolytes painted. Instead, the fight highlighted the contradictions of postcolonial politics and racial nationalism.
These tensions defined Ali’s lifelong political engagements — at times principled and progressive, at other times opportunistic and or conservative.
His host for the “Rumble in the Jungle” was far from a progressive third-world leader. For one thing, he was accused of working with Western powers to murder Patrice Lumumba — the first prime minister of the newly independent Congo — in 1961.
The United States, Britain, and erstwhile colonizer Belgium, together with their local allies, opposed Lumumba’s agenda for genuine independence, which included nationalizing the country’s natural resources.
Mobutu, who had been Lumumba’s right-hand man, eventually seized power in 1965. By the time Ali arrived nearly a decade later, he had turned the state treasury and the country’s natural resources into his private property and imprisoned or killed off most dissent.
That Ali said nothing about Mobutu’s despotism may have surprised many, but it was consistent with racial and Cold War politics at the time.
African-American support for movements that espoused Africanist-centered politics was very high during the late 1960s and into the 1970s. Mobutu mastered this rhetoric.
His government promoted what he called an authenticité policy: it banned Western aesthetics and culture, instead promoting African music, dress, names, and hairstyles. This was echoed in some African-American cultural practices, especially those associated with the Nation of Islam and Afrocentric movements.
But activists working with African revolutionaries found these developments frustrating. A case in point is the civil war that broke out just months after the Ali-Foreman fight in Angola.
Angola had recently attained its independence from revolutionary Portugal, and Western powers and their surrogates in the region — like apartheid South Africa and Mobutu’s Zaire — were not happy when the left-wing People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) came to power.
The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) — a movement funded by the United States and South Africa — presented itself as more Africanist than MPLA, which had some white and creole leaders.
Many African Americans supported UNITA over MPLA. This is why historian and activist Walter Rodney, in a 1976 speech at Howard University, reminded his audience that “we must of course admit that to declare blackness is a very easy thing to do.”
In Zaire, Ali seems to have made a similar move, unwilling or unable to look beyond the pageantry of racial nationalism.
*These are excerpts from a longer piece on Muhammad Ali’s complicated legacy as a boxer and political figure. Read the rest here.
The Italian photojournalist Michele Siblioni documents nightlife in Kampala, Uganda mostly in the neighborhoods of Kansanga and Bunga: Strip clubs, bars and sex workers are his main subjects.
Siblioni’s website features a video in which one of the women he photographed shows him a tattoo with the words “fuck it sexy” written across her thigh alongside a penis and testicles. When Siblioni asks why she got the tattoo, she says she likes penises and sex. It is this type of back and forth between Siblioni and his models, that draws your attention to his exoticizing of black female sexuality.
The project is now a book, Fuck It. The centerpiece of the book is a cigarette-smoking black women. The effect: the real subject becomes the lens of the photographer himself.
There’s the image of a black woman with an ornamented ring as well as earrings. She is facing Siblioni’s camera at an angle, taking in a long drag of her cigarette. The photograph shows her fake nails, and we do not see her eyes or forehead, which is covered by a blurry finger. The image of women smoking cigarettes is one of the older tropes of sexually provocative imagery. The cigarette is a phallic symbol, and the smoke colors the image with an aura of lust and intoxication.
In another image a black woman is caught midway through her walk on the stage wearing a sequined bra and sequined underwear. Her pose is strong, and her walk is resolute, even as her eyes face the floor. The photograph shows a glimpse of the casual strip shows in Kampala. And there’s the photograph of the nude black woman wrapped in an animal print blanket. Her chest is bare and her vagina shows. She is posing quite assuredly for the camera.
The photographer’s interest lies in the black woman’s physique, and always in her on-display sexuality, reminding one of tropes observable in other African photography surveys where the images have been taken through outside lenses. How the women respond to Siblioni’s camera is key. The camera functions as an erotic tool in the exchange between Siblioni and his black women. The camera attracts and provokes sexually-charged poses. There is yet another black woman sitting on a straight-backed chair in reverse. She looks into the camera, with intoxicated eyes. And, guess what? She is smoking a cigarette.
Other photographs in Fuck It show an environment of rudimentary housing, ghettos, and homeless people. A photograph of a pile of broken egg shells; another of the jacketed security guard with a bow and arrow shows us the surprising dynamics that shape this environment. Siblioni’s vision resolves into a montage of urban decadence and provocative black female sexuality.
The chaotic merges with the pornographic, black women are given the same amount of attention as homeless people, night watchmen and seedy bar scenes. The quixotic way in which Siblioni moves from party to street to egg shells to night taxi conductor to charcoal sacks to swimming pool to boda bike riders, and to heaps of rubbish is both cinematic in its ambition, and recalls the Whitmanesque imperative described by Susan Sontag, “Treat all moments as of equal consequence.” We end up seeing Fuck It as part of the vertigo of a wild party; a half-consciousness of scenes we barely recall afterwards. And yet there is no real subject outside of the photographer himself. The place of the photographer, beside the black females, and security guards and the heaps of rubbish, is that of a benefactor. Siblioni’s naivety in his photographing black female sex workers in Kampala is the obfuscation of being a white male primarily interested in photographing black female bodies.
Danish photographer Jacob Holdt arrived in the US in the 1960s and spent five years hitchhiking across the country. Looking at American Pictures, the photobook Holdt produced, one can draw a few parallels with Siblioni’s book Fuck it. Both are foreign white male photographers spending a few years in another country, where they focus primarily on black people. Both are drawn to depictions of black sexuality, and to the aesthetic of handheld flash photography and grainy film. Both can be viewed in the context of porno miseria – depicting an underclass in a degrading environment.
There’s one Holdt photograph of a black woman in a bathtub staring straight at the camera. Her eyes have a particular kind of sadness. She is completely naked. She’s wearing a choker around her neck. I’m drawn to this image because of Holdt’s depiction of black female sexuality. The photograph is beautiful, and the subject is the woman herself, and her thoughts, her sense of vulnerability.
Holdt’s technique in which black women shared their open nudity with him, and for his camera, has more to do with his political mission in the US. Holdt was interested in the lives of the underclass, and sought – though facetiously – to integrate fully into a life of limited or non-existent wealth. He made this photographic series in order to demonstrate for his native Denmark the devastating effects of those living in a country without welfare, and the country’s industrial capitalism.
Holdt’s images of pornography are defined by his political and moral ambitions. I find the photograph of the nude girl in the tub facing the camera really fascinating because of the allusion again to purity and innocence, but similarly to the presence of the photographer and his moral position. Holdt’s pornography is not made for his own sexual gratification, but rather to expose the intimate lives of black people. His photographic journey is an experiment of living with the underclass. His photography is based on a misguided faith that he could become integrated in the underclass. Holdt also assumes a position of power in his storytelling.
Michele Siblioni, on the other hand, experiences a bar club scene that is tailored to serve an expatriate clientele. The explosion of foreign aid to Africa countries in recent decades has seen the rise of an expatriate population, and of course, of bars, clubs, and sex workers. The idea of Siblioni entering the bar scene in Kampala is also about the economic position of aid workers and the white male expatriates. Not only is Siblioni using his photography to document his own adventures, but the environment he does this within has been constructed to satisfy the white male desire for black women. In contrast, Holdt’s work becomes very intimate, and shows a genuine interest in getting to know his subjects. Holdt is interested in the intensely personal.
I go back to the relationship between Holdt’s pornography and Siblioni’s pornography; Holdt’s pornography is rooted in glimpsing the intimacy of black people as further evidence of exposing the life the underclass. Siblioni’s pornographic imagery is rooted in the specific desire of the photographer to see and to experience exotic sexuality, while prying on the privacy of black women.
In both instances, the photographer is exploiting his subject, though in Siblioni’s case the purpose of shooting the subject is for his own pleasure, and hence the work can be interpreted as characterizing the white male gaze. It seems that the ultimate goal of Fuck It is to achieve the satisfaction of the white male ego, via the camera lens, and through exotic depictions of black women.
In terms of economic development, most African countries are operating below the least developed country income threshold of $1,035 per person. While developing countries in East Asia, most importantly China, have been lifting millions of people out of poverty at break-neck speed, Africa’s poverty rate has barely budged. In 2011, 69.5% of people in sub-Saharan Africa were living on less than $2 a day, only three percentage points lower than in 1981. As a result, Africa’s share of world poverty is 40% higher today than it was at the turn of the millennium.
The key to China’s rapid growth, and most other countries that have experienced the transition from low to high income, has been industrial policy – targeted interventions by the state to push economies towards the global technological frontier, especially in the manufacturing sector, while relinquishing dependence on agriculture and natural resources.
There are virtually no internationally competitive manufacturing firms in Africa, so the continent desperately needs industrial policy. The report summarized in this post is the result of work I did with Dr Ha-Joon Chang and Dr Muhammad Irfan, for the UN Economic Commission for Africa. Titled Transformative Industrial Policy for Africa. It aims to serve as a guiding tool for using industrial policy in Africa.
Industrial policy as a development theory is nothing new. One of its seminal advocates was Alexander Hamilton, the first treasury secretary of the United States. The core of Hamilton’s argument was that backward economies – which the US was in the late 18th century – needed to protect and nurture their industries in infancy through various policy measures until they could attain international competitiveness. Heeding the advice of Hamilton, successive US politicians made the country a bastion of protectionism: it had the world’s highest average tariff rates on imported manufacturers throughout the 19th century. It is ironic, then, that financial institutions much influenced by the United States – the World Bank and the IMF – thwarted any attempts by African countries to use industrial policy in the 1980s and 1990s. During those decades, neoliberalism swept the world – an ideology that saw the state fit for little more than adhering to the free market. In most of Africa, the state was consequently scaled down. But this also ended up diminishing any hope for industry to flourish.
States can surely fail, but industrialization has never happened without an active state, with its slew of tools and incentives aimed at making firms competitive in advanced sectors of the economy. The report re-emphasizes the significance of state intervention for the purpose of industrialization. In doing so we make two key policy points:
One is the importance of history. Successful catch-up economies have rarely (if ever) formulated successful industrial policy plans out of thin air. Although every country has its own political, economic and social nuances, learning from history is important. That’s why the report dedicates a large chapter to successful cases of industrial policy, from 19th century United States to 21st century Vietnam. The report deliberately provides a wide variety of cases, so that policy makers can pick and choose from this “treasure box” of tools.
Recurring tools include: tariffs and subsidies to nurture industries in their early stages, often handed out to firms on the condition of meeting performance requirements; the provision of long-term subsidized credit to industry through state-owned development banks; and the establishment of state-owned enterprises to take on risk that the private sector is hesitant to underwrite.
Take the example of South Korea between 1960 and 1990. The country’s risky entry into steel was made by the state setting up POSCO, which today is one of the world’s largest steel companies. Steel and other industries received long-term financing from the Korea Development Bank, which in 1957 accounted for 45% of total bank lending to all industries in the country. But this type of financing and other forms of subsidies usually came on the condition of meeting performance standards, like reaching a certain amount of exports in a five-year time frame.
Second, policymakers should take the changing global economic environment into consideration, but should do so with caution. Since the mid-1990s, production networks have become increasingly global and fragmented. A popular argument, especially advocated by international organizations, is that developing countries shouldn’t build entire industries to develop, but rather join a segment of a global value chain, often controlled by big transnational corporations. For example, instead of trying to build their own brand of phones, they should just assemble iPhones for Apple.
However, the report shows that since the 1990s, many countries have become trapped in a low-growth path through this type of segmented specialization. Examples in Central America, such as the Dominican Republic and Mexico, show how countries can be stuck with low-value tasks, be it assembly of electronics products or the sewing of jeans, without creating any linkages to the domestic economy. On this point, the history of economic development is clear: in order to prosper, developing countries need to take ownership of their own industries, not simply be production puppets of transnational corporations based in the West.
Ultimately, industrial policy should be context specific, so the report doesn’t provide a golden formula for success. Ethnically and culturally, the 54 countries in Africa are arguably more distinct from each other than countries in Europe.
But economically, they’re strikingly similar. No African country has structurally transformed its economy, making the move from dependence on agriculture and natural resources to manufacturing. That’s why industrial policy needs to be put on the forefront of the development agenda on the continent.