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Updated: 1 year 21 weeks ago

Azonto Soca in Your Area

Wed, 02/26/2014 - 20:00

It’s Carnival time again! Besides being one of my favorite annual excuses to party (although I usually partake in August, as I’m usually stuck in the northern cold at this time of year), it always gives me an excuse to catch up on the musical output of many of my favorite scenes from around the Atlantic world.

Yesterday, when listening to a new soca mix from Hamburg-based DJ duo So Shifty, I couldn’t help but get (over)excited about some of the connections I heard being made between Africa and the Caribbean. The first song that stood out was “Chuku Chuku” by Denise Belfon:

“Chuku Chuku” caught my ear, because I noticed that it interpolates “Ashawo,” a global smash by Nigeria’s Flavour. The song already had a trans-atlantic dimension as a version of the classic Cuban song “Manisero” or “The Peanut Vendor.” Afropop did a great audio documentary on the legacy of the Cuban original, and its mark on popular music:

However, perhaps unaware of the origins of the melody, Flavour meant for “Ashawo” or “Nwa Baby” to be an homage to Nigerian Highlife, a style that had lost out to the more Hip Hop and Dancehall inflected musics that became popular across West Africa in recent years. The original highlife version of “Nwa Baby” was Rex Lawson’s “Sawale”:

In the end Dancehall won out, and Flavour’s popular “Ashawo Remix,” versioned from Benin to Ethiopia to Zambia, became the logical candidate for a song to cross back over the ocean to the Caribbean.

That’s all exciting in its own right, but it wasn’t what excited me most about So Shifty’s mix. The song that deserves that distinction is one by Olatunji Yearwood (shout out the Nigerian OG). This is the tune that caused me to proclaim via Twitter the arrival of Azonto Soca:

To me, besides the clear rhythmic similarities of the Stag Riddim to Azonto, Olatunji is clearly channeling the singing styles of Ghanaian and Nigerian pop singers, making the connection explicit.

I’ve been aware for some years that contemporary Afropop styles were becoming popular in Caribbean scenes. Decale Gwada or Madinina Kuduro show how connected the French Caribbean islands are to the Francophone capital, and some of those explorations have crossed over into the smaller neighboring islands. In the past, I’ve even heard Kuduro tunes played at house parties during Brooklyn’s West Indian day parade. During last year’s Labor Day weekend festivities, I had to laugh when the DJ at a Soca fete I was attending in East New York threw on Puerto Rican Don Omar’s cover of a Portuguese singer’s misappropriation of an Angolan dance style, and then proceeded to give a massive shout out to Venezuela!

But these incarnations for me are outliers: intrepid explorations into the outer realms of the African electronic diaspora by experimenters or progressive-minded DJs, or just quirky fads. The arrival of the influence of contemporary Afropop on the Soca mainstream didn’t become clear to me until this January. While I was DJing a party in Brooklyn, Dlife, one of New York’s biggest Soca DJs approached me to talk about the Afrobeats tunes I was playing. He then told me about Machel Montano’s Carnival remix of Timaya’s “Shake Yuh Bum Bum”:

I imagine my Sierra Leonean father and his friends, who used to take me to the Caribana Fesitval in Toronto as a child, would be quite tickled if they attended the celebration this year. In order to understand this you have to know that for decades Africans have been consuming Caribbean music, merging different musical cultures and histories into new forms. In Sierra Leone especially, Calypso-influenced styles such as Palmwine are part of our national heritage. Because of this, and because of my experiences going to Carnival-like celebrations in North America, I’ve always felt that Anglophone Caribbean culture from places like Jamaican and Trinidad was part of my own cultural heritage. For me it is a great source of pride to see some explicitly African contributions coming to the fore in Dancehall and Soca circles. Every year in Brooklyn, amongst the roll call of Caribbean nation flags waving on Eastern Parkway, once in a while you might see a Ghanaian or Nigerian one pop up. This year those flags might wave just a little higher!

After a couple of initial tweets, the great Wayne and Wax chimed in, and asked my why I heard the songs as Azonto. We had a quick exchange where we discussed the rhythmic breakdown that identify it as Azonto or not, and Sidhartha called us nerds. Alexis Stephens chimed in with Busy Signal’s version of U Go Kill Me, and pointed out the connections that DJs in London like Hipsters Don’t Dance are making in their work. So Shifty responded with Yung Image’s cover of P Square on the Alingo Riddim, and Iswayski submitted a mix by Brooklyn-based Guyanese Grenedian DJ Speedydon. Erin MacLeod loved it, and overall grand time was had by all.

Later in the night, as almost if to settle the issue @RishiBonneville submitted this video from St. Vincent:

Tempering my excitement for a resurgence of some kind of 21st Century Pan-Africanism, this all tells me more a story of the ascendance of a unitary global pop. This global pop rides the waves of neoliberalism, and aspirational belonging to an individualized consumer-driven global economy. However, it also accompanies an increase in South South connections, albeit mediated often via immigrant populations in Northern capitals – but also new economic relationships and the Internet. It’s doing crazy things to culture, and such musical connections in this day and age are just more proof that we’re living in a hyper-connected world. The differences between Rio, Port of Spain, Accra, London, and New York are melting away to reveal one giant mega city – inside of which the divisions between classes may tell us more about international society than national borders.

However, let’s not dwell on the dark side of globalization too much, after all this is Carnival! The only time in many former-slave/colonial societies that racial, class, and cultural barriers are temporarily lifted in the service of universal revelry. So go ahead, dive into Azonto Soca, and imagine the possibilities of our new world!

Top image by Blaine Harrington.

Nigerians in Space

Wed, 02/26/2014 - 17:00

Few government agencies have ever inspired confidence in the state, or scientific progress, like NASA did in the 1960s. So when the end of its space shuttle program was announced back in 2010, the agency celebrated the end of its life quietly. NASA’s current administrator, Major General Charles F. Bolden Jr., tactfully ignored the anti-Communist vitriol that put the first man on the moon, and everyone forgot why the CIA was concerned with space exploration in the first place. Almost everyone. There are stories involving secret military space programs today that can make your head spin.

Among its classified materials, NASA keeps a bag of rocks that Neil Armstrong collected during the first moonwalk. The rocks have no scientific value; the bag wasn’t sealed properly, and the sample was contaminated by regular earth dust in the landing craft. They are an unlikely target in an elaborate conspiracy to undermine the American imperial project. But then again, they’ve been sitting in Houston for decades, reminding young scientists of a time when lunar colonies were just a few years away. As the novelist Deji Olukotun sees it in his new novel, Nigerians in Space, these moon rocks are souvenirs of the future, amulets inscribed with all of the pride, wonder, and anxiety it takes to keep an idea alive. “NASA wanted the astronauts to leave with something no matter what in order to justify the expense” (62).

In Olukotun’s new novel, a Nigerian scientist stuck as a mid-level employee in the Houston laboratories finds himself with an opportunity to rip into the space-time continuum, to reclaim personal and national honor by returning the rocks to the moon “on behalf of all colonized people.” Equipped with such material, Olukotun would hardly ignore classic science fiction experiments and clichés. Nigerians in Space captures the cocksure attitude and dignified clip of the 1950s radio play, with more mischievous and macabre elements that reflect the frustration of anti-colonial and Pan-African politics. As we follow the Nigerian program (codename Brain Gain) from its launch in 1993 to an amorphous present day, cross-generational conflicts give us plenty of time to reflect on changing methods for handling security, national identity, and charisma. But Olukotun doesn’t dwell on the technology that has been developed. More alarmingly—as one generation’s faith in its dreams becomes signs of ill health to the next—he asks us what we believe is possible.

* Nigerians in Space launches tonight at 7 pm at WORD Bookstores’ Brooklyn book store. The red dots in the image above, by the NASA Earth Observatory, is of the non-stop flaring lights in the Niger Delta.

The other news from Uganda this week

Wed, 02/26/2014 - 14:00

Here’s the ‘other’ news from Uganda this week. Dateline: Kampala: “Police have warned the public against undressing women whom they perceive to be indecently dressed, saying the Anti-Pornography law is not operational yet.” Yet.

Ever since Simon Lokodo, State Minister for Ethics and Integrity and lead proponent for a ban on miniskirts (that’s him above), announced that the Anti-Pornography Bill had been signed into law, women have faced violence, especially in taxi ranks. According to Lokodo, “If your miniskirt falls within the ambit of this definition then I am afraid you will be caught up by the law.”

Except that, despite Lokodo’s most fervent efforts, the miniskirt ban actually never made it into the final legislation. Women across Uganda shut it down. From #SaveTheMiniSkirt online campaigns to Save the Miniskirt parties to formal lobbying to organizing in the streets and off, women shut it down. Women understood that the issue of their clothing was nothing more or less than an attack on women’s autonomy. For Rita Aciro Lakor, the executive director of Uganda Women’s Network (Uwonet), “It’s about going back to controlling women. They’ll start with clothes. The next time they’re going to remove the little provisions in the law that promote and protect women’s rights.”

Control. Protection. These are familiar terms to women who have struggled against the State’s attempt to rein them in, from New York to Jakarta to Kampala and beyond. The discreteness of the discourse serves to cover up the heart and soul of the operation, which is violence and terror, all in the name of protecting women.

So here is the reality of the Anti-Pornography Law 2014. There is no ban on miniskirts. Yet women university students are raped and murdered. Yet women across the country are brutally assaulted in public by crowds of men, stripped, sometimes naked, and then further assaulted. And a nation, and a world, asking, “Why are Ugandans killing, undressing” their daughters and sisters? And the police warn the law is not operational yet.


Bloomberg Africa evokes Reagan’s “welfare queen” stereotype for poor South Africans

Tue, 02/25/2014 - 16:00

Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg was in South Africa this month to launch the Bloomberg Media Initiative, a $10-million project to build capacity in business and financial journalism across the continent (starting first in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa—which is a questionable choice of countries). But he should probably also invest some of his billions closer to home, too; at Bloomberg Africa, the Africa-focused overlay of his New York-based Bloomberg News agency.

In an article published Tuesday, the agency elided details and invoked shades of Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” stereotype to argue that South Africa has a welfare addiction.

The article transports the reader to the economically depressed town of Brandvlei, in the Northern Cape, South Africa’s most sparsely populated region, to bring us the image of a 72-year-old coloured grandmother, Eva Matthys, instructing her 13-year-old granddaughter on how to cook ground lamb for the family of 12′s supper that night. (That’s Ms Matthys sitting in front of the window  in the image above that accompanied the story.) But, wait for it, this is scandalous, because the family didn’t dance for their supper, which the writer appears galled to realise includes side dishes as ornate and lavish as macaroni and Bolognese sauce.

This was paid for by South African taxpayers, Bloomberg Africa notes in wide-eyed disbelief.

“Welfare dependency, a problem across the developed world, has reached a danger level in South Africa. More people receive aid than have jobs, and the ratio has been worsening for five years,” it says, before going downhill from there, repeating words like “dependency”, “welfare addition”, and the irrelevant statistic that South Africa spends more than Mexico and South Korea on its social program as a buttress against the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s statistic that this spending is nonetheless less than the developed-world average.

In short, the article uses a poor family as a foil to write an unconscionable hatchet job on the country’s social grants program. The things it gets wrong are numerous, the most significant of which are:

1. “Only one of the 12 [members of the Matthys family] works”: Uh, yes, but only three are of working age. Four of the family members are children, two more are barely 17 (and should be in school), and the remaining two adults are 72 and 78, well into retirement age.

2. The $400 figure in the headline and body copy is approximately $1.50 per day for each of the nine members of the family receiving the grants, barely above the World Bank’s poverty line of $1.25 per day and below the $2 per day the South African government uses. Despite Bloomberg Africa’s best attempt to convince us otherwise, this family is not living large off the taxpayer’s buck.

3. The article repeats that the unemployed working-age members of the family (including school-aged kids) would look for work if they weren’t earning social grants, as though the grants are the cause of their unemployment. In South Africa, unemployment is structural and is not from indolence or the lack of trying on the part of the unemployed.

17-year-old Christoline — Eva’s granddaughter, who dropped out of high school when she gave birth to a daughter at 16 — suggests that she’d travel the 370 miles to Cape Town to look for work if she weren’t receiving a grant, because Brandvlei has no jobs prospects and a 90% unemployment rate.

But don’t mistake the desperate situation taking away the social grants would create for her as just the thing she, and her family, need to get jobs. If you know and understand the country’s history of racist land dispossessions and forced removals, and the destructive social effects of the migratory labor system on the communities supplying workers to the country’s economic centres like Cape Town and Johannesburg, you’ll know that it is a good and just thing that the social grants are stopping Christoline from leaving behind her one-year-old baby, family support network, and the possibility of returning to school in order to chase the faint promise of a job hundreds of miles away. It’s precisely this reason that the Human Sciences Research Council recently proposed that countries in sub-Saharan Africa should expand their social grants program to include a grant that aims to keep families together, even if they do decide to relocate to more economically prosperous areas.

But for some reason, this zombie myth about social grants causing unemployment will not die. This despite studies that showing that there is no evidence of a dependency culture, and micro-economic evidence showing that social grants provide recipients with the means to look for jobs and that little evidence exists that they discourage job seeking.

Like Reagan’s welfare queen, I suspect the persistence of this myth has a lot to do with racial prejudice.

4. Social grants fuel alcohol abuse: Like the myth linking teenage pregnancies and child support grants and the unsubstantiated claim that women in the Eastern Cape were drinking heavily while pregnant to claim disability grants for the child who’d be born disabled, an immortal trope exists that social grants fuel alcohol abuse. The Bloomberg article quotes a community worker who points to a group of young men stumbling toward a liquor store. But the drinking age in South Africa is 18, which is also the last year a teenager qualifies for the child support grant. That should have been the first clue for Bloomberg that this was dangerous and, at best, circumstantial anecdote, especially when compared to the evidence of the good social grants do for teens in communities like Brandvlei. And had Bloomberg Africa done a little more work, they would have known that the vast majority of social grants are spent on food and education, not alcohol.

5. Lamb for 12 paid for by South African taxpayers: The tax system in South Africa is progressive in some ways and regressive in others. While only working people earning above a certain threshold pay tax calculated on rates that escalate with income, sales tax is a flat 14% paid by everybody on most (basic food stuff and other items are zero rated) household goods. Even though it has a disproportionate effect on their ability to provide for themselves, the Matthys family pays sales tax on items that are not zero-rated. They, too, are taxpayers.

As a friend commented on my Facebook wall, “I never thought the day would come that I’d read an article that lambasts a poor family for eating a nice family meal — but I guess that day is here.”

All this said, an equal amount of scrutiny over this article should be directed to the South African Institute of Race Relations, which has been issuing policy briefs and media statements for a few years now to sound the warning that social grants program is too extensive and using that to qualify the positive effects social grants have had on the lives of recipients. The institute’s Lerato Moloi is quoted in the Bloomberg article doing just that.

For the thoughtful, the research on the impacts of social grants does not raise sustainability as the program’s primary, or even secondary, conundrum; the research points to the likelihood that the grants are barely enough to keep millions of South Africans out of abject poverty, but not enough to allow them the freedom to do much else beyond stay alive.

* Written with contributions from Michelle Solomon (@mishsolomon).

Know your Dutch history

Mon, 02/24/2014 - 11:00

Twenty years ago, Teun van Dijk published the book Elite Discourse and Racism, in which he discusses the subtle ways that racial discrimination pervaded Dutch society at the time. To van Dijk it appeared that, as pivotal socializing agents, Dutch families, schools, politicians and media had a great deal of influence on how children came to perceive and interact with ‘other’ people, such as Dutch nationals and immigrants that were not white (many from the former colonies) and people from ‘The Third World’. In an attempt to illuminate these relationships a bit further, van Dijk decided to take a look at how Dutch school curricula dealt with these ‘others’. What emerged from the elaborate study of schoolbooks that followed was that the general portrayal of ‘The Third World’ as well as minorities of color in the country itself was, well, rather incomplete.

Immigrants, for example, were discussed solely as an issue of integration and assimilation. Positive contributions by, or even backgrounds of these people, glared in absence. Centuries of slavery in the former Dutch colonies did not take up all too many pages either.

On the topic of sub-Saharan Africa, van Dijk found that the continent was largely framed as one of poverty, victims, hopelessness and illiteracy (with creepy witch doctors) and juxtaposed against our own modern and wealthy society (with, you know, real doctors). The power dynamics and imperial histories that underpinned contemporary global inequality and poverty seemed of little interest. The global wealth pie, as Dutch history seemed to have it, just happened to have unequal chunks and taste(s) a bit richer in the West. Whoever sliced the sweet thing in our advantage, and with what instruments, failed to make it into the books.

It wasn’t like Dutch imperial history was ignored altogether. But the ways in which the overseas adventures and ‘native encounters’ of the past were selected and represented were just a bit ominous. Though already pretty outdated and charged at the time, terms like “negroes,” “bushmen” and “natives” were pretty common in the curricula. Worse, some books presented the resistance by those who were enslaved or colonized even in negative, disapproving terms. After critically analyzing the types of histories that teachers fed their classes, one of van Dijk’s conclusions was that “Dutch children are not trained to identify and challenge racist attitudes.”

Twenty years since, the country may have introduced a New Canon of Dutch history (2006), but children can still order Bush Negro customs online (until Serginho wrote a post about it), read how to dress up like a “n****bitch” in fashion magazines (until the rest of the world said this was not OK) and rest assured that at least 18% of their population will defend their annual Blackface tradition of Zwarte Piet (and fiercely so).

If there is indeed a direct connection to schools’ history curricula on the one hand and race relations on the other, the question on how far schools and teachers have come in these past twenty years seems a compelling one to ask.

And so we did. We decided to direct it to Maria Reinders-Karg, who has worked as both former school teacher as well as an education specialist at NiNsee (the National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery History and its Legacy). In a creative and inventive response to the government’s severe funding cuts for NiNsee, Maria recently founded the educational organization MiraKa.

Particularly focused on primary and secondary schools, MiraKa offers class activities, lesson plans and participatory workshops that deal with those pages of Dutch heritage that may not inspire the utmost of national pride but deserve to be part of class dialogues.

Not surprising given Maria’s background and expertise, slavery and colonialism (as well as contemporary slavery) are central themes in MiraKa’s work. This is because in the Netherlands, Maria says, the sense of resistance against this side of national history has indeed persisted. According to her “it’s a process of acceptance, which we, as a country, are not yet ready for.” “For many school teachers,” Maria explains, “who haven’t been trained to tell these sensitive histories themselves, it remains a difficult story to tell.” And although the new Canon of Dutch History offers a somewhat more balanced view of Dutch heritage, and at least pays some attention to slavery and resistance (in English, it looks like this), most people will have to either purchase this material themselves or go look for it online and in museums, as they are no basic staple in schools.

But the stories of how the Netherlands built itself, where its glorious international adventures have taken it throughout the centuries, and whom it oppressed, enslaved and brutalized in the process deserve to be part of the staple. According to Maria, “it is important that the Dutch slavery history gets anchored in history curriculums the same way that the Second World War is,” so that it will become a ‘shared’ history, carried by all. “In the Netherlands, we are all a product of this history,” she says. (Despite the fact that no other country handed over as many Jewish people as rapidly as the Netherlands, Dutch cooperation with the Nazis is often neglected in a simplified narrative of bad Germans versus good Dutch people.)

MiraKa is one of the organizations that constructively, positively and pro-actively works towards making this legacy a shared one. For more information about MiraKa’s activities, programs, readings and heritage tours (for both children and adults), take a look at the website.

The Congolization Movement

Sun, 02/23/2014 - 14:00

On January 17th, a group of local artists (Pitcho Womba Konga, Fredy Massamba, Badi Ndeka, Caroline Dujardin, Kamanda Milele, Lety Kangaka, Jack Rémy, Karim Kalonji, Christian Levo, Malkia Mutiri and myself) pulled off “the Action” in L’Horloge Du Sud, better known as the Afro-European cultural spot in the center of Brussels. The date was chosen carefully to launch the “Congolization” artistic movement while remembering the assassination of Patrice Lumumba (he was murdered by a conspiracy of the Belgian and American governments along with General Mobutu). Pitcho Womba Konga, myself and all our cultural partners wanted to promote more than ever spaces where artists related to the Congolese diaspora could freely tell their side of the story.

Three main attractions were in place :

1. The photo exhibition “Faits Divers, from Leopoldville to Kinshasa” with mixed photos from my selection and from the Royal Museum for Central Africa’s collection to help Belgo-Congolese communities deal with their past and move forward.

2. While remembering the 53rd anniversary of Patrice Lumumba’s assassination, we celebrated in our own way his universal legacy with a vibrant actualised version of Lumumba’s famous June 30th, 1960 independence speech. The words of that speech were personified by black, white and mixed-race actors. We concluded the “new” speech by paying homage to Nelson Mandela and all the freedom fighters with the call and response “Amandla !”, “Awethu!” Watch a video of “The Action”:

3. Afterwards, Badi Banx and Fredy Massamba moved the crowded L’Horloge Du sud with their thematic related songs. In the video “The Action” (above), beside extracts from the speech, you can hear Fredy’s call for “Unity” in Africa. The N.G.O. Coopération Education Culture (CEC) had installed an audio system with many headphones allowing anyone to listen to extracts from books recently written by Africans or/and about Africa.

“Congolisation” is a movement that joins forces with Africans and Europeans interested in allowing each one to tell freely her/his version of a story. In other words, The Action that took place on January 17, 2014 at L’Horloge Du Sud marked the importance of shining a cultural new light on the African diaspora in general and the Congolese diaspora in particular.

“Congo Dialogues.” Alice Seeley Harris and Sammy Baloji on exhibit in London

Fri, 02/21/2014 - 11:00

The London gallery Autograph ABP is currently exhibiting Alice Seeley Harris’ well-known 1904 Congo Reform Association photographs, together, or in some form of juxtaposition, with new commissioned photographic and video work by contemporary young Congolese artist Sammy Baloji. This choice is either bold or inexplicable.

English missionary Alice Seeley Harris’ famously shocking and sensational images of the atrocities committed by European officers and their African sentries in fin-de-siècle Congo Free State (1885-1908) are being exhibited to the public for the first time since 1904. Harris was among the most active members of The Congo Reform Association, which, as Sharon Sliwinski writes, was both the largest human rights movement of its time and the first to use photography as a means of mobilizing public outcry against the Leopoldian regime’s atrocities in Central Africa. Believing that there was a “right way” and a “wrong way” to colonize Africa, Anglo-American protestant missionaries were also taking their anti-Leopoldian crusade to a religious, moral, cultural, and political terrain where contestation of the idea of “right” in opposition to power and tyranny, became a multi-layered affair marshaling public relations machines in Belgium, Britain, and the United States.

When Congo’s “red rubber” scandal broke in Europe and North America in the early twentieth century, it was largely due to the efforts of the Congo Reform Association (CRA) led by the shipping clerk and finance journalist Edmund Morel, in association with then British Consul to the Congo Free State (CFS) Roger Casement. Key to revealing and circulating what the CRA presented as incontrovertible visual evidence of ongoing atrocities in the Congo were a series of photographs taken by the British missionary, Alice Seeley Harris, who, together with her husband John Harris some years earlier, had traveled to the Leopoldian State in search of “heathens” to convert and civilize. The Congo Free State was an internationally recognized sovereign state under the authority of King Leopold II of Belgium, who became the Reform Association’s main target. The “Congo State” was run with great brutality by the field officers of concessionary companies with financial ties to the Crown and to Belgian political and financial circles.

The foundational moment of her activism, as Harris recalls it, was the appearance of a man named Nsala on her doorstep. Nsala arrived at the mission one day carrying a small bundle of leaves in which were wrapped the hands and feet of his daughter, who, together with her mother, had been mutilated and killed by ABIR (Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company) sentries in retaliation for Nsala’s failure to meet his rubber quota. One can only imagine the horror of such a moment, yet Harris kept her head and asked Nsala to pose for a photograph with the child’s severed hand and foot. (Image below) She went on to further document the abuses and produced a well-known series of photographs that were circulated as lantern slides in illustration of lectures and presentations given in Churches across Protestant Britain and North America.

The portrait of Nsala with his daughter’s remains is perhaps the most arresting image of the collection. How can one even begin to talk about such an image? Sliwinski remarks on its “calmness,” which I think is another way of saying that it defies language and signals “the horror,” for which there can be no words clearer than the rantings of a madman.

Sammy Baloji is a Congolese artist from Katanga, Congo’s “copper” province, whose work explores postcoloniality and themes of memory, decay, colonial violence and its legacies, as well as history and silencing. While many of Harris’ photographs are filled with the energy of rage and sorrow of their “now,” much of Baloji’s work is silent and mournful, somewhat like the photograph of Nsala above, except that Baloji’s work does not employ the same classic formality in composition.

Baloji has often worked through juxtaposition, imprinting colonial images upon contemporary settings, and sometimes placing ruined colonial landscapes as backdrops for an interrogation of a ruined postcolonial present. His falsely anodyne panoramas bear traces of their past in greater or lesser degrees of visibility. At other moments his backdrops are more clearly defined by the presence of accumulated “imperial debris,” which has piled up and become sediment over the last 50 years. His are landscapes, figurative snapshots of colonial and postcolonial modernity, which appear as both sites and matrixes of what Ann Stoler calls “ruination.” For Baloji, juxtaposing a colonial-era image of barefoot Force Publique soldiers holding up for the camera a large bird, which some European officer just shot, collaged on a photograph of a contemporary refugee camp (see top image), provides a direct route to the entanglements of colonial oppression, environmental degradation, and postcolonial violence.

In the current exhibition, Harris’ images have been placed on the ground floor – and are to be viewed first – while Baloji’s photographs are located on the floor above. The genealogy of “first Harris’ images, then Baloji’s work,” implied by the exhibition’s promotional materials and through this placement is an interesting choice.

Baloji’s work has often sought hybridity in photographic representation as he confronts how he sees contemporary Congo to the ways colonial photography saw the Belgian Congo. According to the APB press release, “Like Harris, Baloji uses photography as a medium to interrogate current political concerns with reference to the past.” While this is undeniably the case for Baloji, the description does not quite fit Harris’ work or her purpose in 1904. Creating conceptual relationships between Harris and Baloji seems curious, as Baloji’s work is not very directly or very obviously in dialogue with Harris’ strongly and disturbingly militant images. On the other hand, images of men, women, and children with severed hands and feet – whether actually seen, or known about and imagined – have been imprinted on the unconscious of generations of Congolese. As Nancy Hunt suggests, these images’ iconicity has become deeply internalized.

A strong trace and a manifestation of deep postcolonial sorrow, the influence of Harris’ images is perhaps to be sensed in Baloji’s work.


The exhibition’s website offers a downloadable 12-page PDF pamphlet featuring Sharon Sliwinski’s article “The Kodak on the Congo. The Childhood of Human Rights,” which was originally published in 2006 in the Journal of Visual Culture. Some installation views here.

When Harmony went to Hell. Congo Dialogues: Alice Seeley Harris and Sammy Baloji runs at the London gallery ABP Autograph until 7 March 2014. The Harris photographs can also be seen at Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum until 7 September, 2014.

Debate: The future of the workers’ movement in South Africa

Thu, 02/20/2014 - 18:15

In May this year, South Africa will host its 5th general election since the advent of democracy in 1994. The ruling African National Congress have dominated these elections until now (62.6% of the vote in 1994, 66.3% in 1999, 69.6% in 2004 and 65% in 2009) and are poised to get a majority again, though there are questions about the size of that majority given widespread discontent and disillusionment with the current ANC leadership. Yet, opposition parties have failed to take advantage of this, with most offering up media stunts and tepid criticism of the ANC’s economic policies. The result is that most voters hold their noses and vote ANC or stay at home. Unfortunately, the media don’t help. Nevertheless, there are signs of a shift in South African politics outside “parliamentary politics.” One such development was the decision in December 2013 by the country’s largest union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), to formally break from the “tripartite alliance” the ANC maintains with the trade unions and the South African Communist Party (SACP) and that has been going on for at least more than 2 decades now. NUMSA also announced that it would begin the process of building a left political alternative to the tripartite alliance. Below we re-publish a piece (originally published in The Con Mag) by AIAC’s Ben Fogel (he is also an editor at Amandla Magazine and a contributor at Jacobin Magazine) on the significance of this break. But we also asked a number of labor commentators–trade unionist and political economist Peter Dwyer, sociologist Sakhela Buhlungu, historian Alex Lichtenstein and former trade unionist and political scientist Steven Friedman–to send us short comments on Ben’s piece to get the debate started. All that good stuff is below. Let’s debate. 


Benjamin Fogel:

In January 1973, dockworkers in Durban embarked on a wave of wildcat strikes against low wages. In total, some 61 000 workers took part. What became known as the “Durban Moment” not only broke the industrial relations framework that had been established after black trade unions had been smashed by the apartheid state in the 50s and 60s, but also led to the rebirth of the black trade union movement, which saw the establishment of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) in 1985.

A similar moment took place on August 17 2012, the day after 34 workers were shot and killed at Marikana in the North West. Workers, rather than ending the strike after the massacre, continued their attempt to secure a new wage of R12 500. They were soon joined by tens of thousands other workers from across the platinum belt. The strike lasted another 90 days. Cosatu’s biggest affiliate at the time, the Nation Union of Mineworkers (NUM), leaked tens of thousands of members as it failed to support workers’ demands. In many cases, it sided with management against striking workers.

This led to a third moment, which took place between December 17 and 20 2013, as Cosatu’s largest affiliate – and the largest union in African history – the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), held a special national congress to decide on the future of its relationship with the trade union federation and its alliance partners, the African National Congress (ANC) and South African Communist Party (SACP). At the end of the congress, Numsa decided it would formally break away from the tripartite alliance after being in it for more than 20 years. It set its sights on expanding its scope to other sectors, including the mining industry, and declared open war against the faction led by Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini, which is dominating the union’s leadership. Most significantly, it began the process of building a left political alternative to the tripartite alliance.

The key moment of the Numsa congress didn’t take place in some back room meeting of its elite or in the commissions that debated and decided on Numsa’s resolutions; it took place on the first night of the conference when Rehad Desai’s documentary on Marikana, Miners Shot Down, was screened to more than 1 000 delegates, guests and journalists. The proceedings of the next day began when delegates marched into the venue clutching R100 rand notes singing, “Who killed Mambush at Marikana? Zuma must resign. Phiyega must resign. Ramaphosa must resign.”

At that moment, it became apparent that Numsa, would break with the alliance and this would initiate what a delegate described as “the post-Mandela period” in South African political history. In the words of its new president, Andrew Chirwa, “The state of the working class is in shambles. The working class is leaderless.” Perhaps stepping into that void, Numsa gave R350 000 it had raised to some of the Marikana worker-leaders and their family members. A worker-leader wearing an Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) T-shirt began singing to a Numsa delegation that had been told repeatedly by Cosatu’s leadership that Amcu is a homicidal vigilante union intent on undermining the unity of the working class for the benefit of its bosses. Later that evening, a Limpopo delegate said, “We can’t vote for an ANC that kills workers with taxpayers’ money.” He added: “This is the worst thing the ANC has done since 1994 … It wouldn’t have happened under Mandela.”

Why is Numsa splitting from the tripartite alliance? These reasons are pretty straightforward: Despite numerous attempts, Cosatu has been unable to influence the policy direction of the ANC since 1994 and has consistently moved in a neoliberal direction, first through the adoption of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution programme (Gear) in 1996 and now more recently with the adoption of the National Development Plan (NDP). As Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim admitted at the congress, “the strategy of swelling the ranks of the SACP and ANC has failed.” The ANC remains, as its leaders like to point, out a “multi-class formation”, but the unions and left-leaning sections of the alliance are becoming increasingly politically marginal and the SACP has transformed into a reactionary clique that uses Stalinist jargon to defend the president at all costs. Or, as Jim put it: “We want a vanguard party, not Blade’s fish and chips,” in reference to SACP secretary-general Blade Nzimande’s single-minded determination to liquidate whatever the SACP once stood for into unconditional defense of President Jacob Zuma.

The last attempt to force the ANC left was at Polokwane, in which the alliance’s left made a Faustian pact with Zuma, his shady backers and various disparates to come into power and break with “the ’96 class project” and remove its representative in chief, former president Thabo Mbeki. But this, ultimately, would prove fatal for the left. Their mistake was twofold: Firstly, in thinking that they could call the shots and control Zuma, and secondly in individualising the political struggle within the alliance through the figure of Mbeki. The supposed leftward turn of the ANC after Polokwane never came, and the much-vaunted “Lula moment” proved to be phantasmagoric. The working class has been rewarded for bringing Zuma to power with e-tolls, the youth wage subsidy, the NDP and, of course, Marikana.

The Numsa congress saw a break not only with the figure of Zuma, but the idea of the ANC as a vehicle for pursuing the interests of the working class. The SACP was the object of so much scorn that the possibility of winning it back wasn’t even considered. This signifies a change in political consciousness. Whereas before the ANC could never be wrong, merely the people in charge of it, Numsa argued that the ANC viewed workers as voting fodder that could be ignored between elections. As the final declaration put it: “There is no chance of winning back the alliance to what it was originally formed for, which was to drive a revolutionary programme for fundamental transformation of the country.” And with these words, Numsa broke with the ANC. “Numsa as an organisation will neither endorse nor support the ANC or any other political party in 2014.”

Following this, it declared: “Numsa calls on Cosatu to break from the alliance. The time for looking for an alternative has arrived.” Numsa sees part of its mission to attempt to fulfill that leadership vacuum both in terms of the “leaderless” working class and in terms of the left in South Africa more broadly. It seeks this in the face of the disintegration of the alliance’s left, the continued irrelevance of much of the molecular independent left and the collapse of social movements in the past five years or so.

The media expected Numsa to announce it would form a mass workers party with immediate effect to compete in the 2014 elections or announce its merger with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) or something along those lines. But the trade union chose to pursue a strategy of building a united front with left-leaning elements of civil society, other unions and community organisations before it moves towards the stage of building a party. There have been suggestions that Numsa and the EFF are natural allies, but both Numsa membership and leadership were highly critical of the EFF during the conference. It was asserted that the EFF was anti-capitalist rather than being socialist, meaning that it was not committed to workers’ control as a principle of economic transformation. Furthermore, Numsa regards EFF leaders as undemocratic and is highly suspicious of Malema and his cohorts’ previous history “as capitalists”. All of this is clearly outlined in the report given at the congress by Jim.

What type of party Numsa would evolve into is still very much an open-ended question. It could be a broad mass workers party or it could be another vanguard party. But, like the “Durban Moment” in 1973, this Numsa moment marks a new direction in the trajectory of the workers movement in South Africa.



Sakhela Buhlungu:

It has taken more than 20 years for the dominant current of South Africa’s labour movement to begin to emerge from stasis resulting from its embeddedness within the ruling political block led by the African National Congress. The massacre of mineworkers at Marikana and the subsequent organisational implosion of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) are emblematic of the desire by COSATU workers to find an alternative voice, on the one hand, and of the determination of tripartite leaders to maintain their hegemonic position in the labour movement, on the other. It therefore natural that many left-leaning activists will find the NUMSA’s rebellion against the ANC, the SACP and the conservative block within COSATU a welcome development to be applauded and celebrated. After all, many of them have long argued that the “swelling the ranks of the ANC” approach does not, and will not work. Like them, I find it so refreshing to see NUMSA activists and their allies show up ANC, SACP and some COSATU leaders for being shallow, dishonest and, in some cases, irredeemably corrupt.

Having said that, I find some of the celebratory support for the wave of militant mobilisation, whether in the form of AMCU or NUMSA, unhelpful and myopic. It is not good enough to stand on the sidelines and cheer the new wave of activist unionism. We should also help them think through the pitfalls they will face along the way and some of the implications of the decisions they take. I think it is extremely shortsighted any union, NUMSA included, to make an individual (Vavi) the focus of their campaign just as it was for Cosatu to give unconditional support for Zuma in 2005. After all, Vavi is not an angel in the current contestation. There are many who will say that he is getting a dose of the medicine that he administered on many of his opponents in the past.

The general thrust of the campaign for socialism is attractive. But all we have at present at present are slogans and dogma. In the absence of detail and political clarity it is very easy for a well-meaning campaign to be hijacked by demagogues and charlatans who thrive in conditions of political and confusion and absence of clarity.

The reality of the current situation is that COSATU has collapsed. Whatever remains of it will be a shadow of the former ‘giant’ whose birth Cyril Ramaphosa so eloquently proclaimed in December 1985. Anything that is to take its place will have to break the mould and adopt a new paradigm. In some respects NUMSA is doing this, for example by moving organizing towards value chains. But even here, it is not clear if the goal is to have one super general union. I also find their brand of Marxism archaic and often crude. A basic reading of Marx’s biographies will show any reader that he would have opposed many of the strategic choices being made by invoking his name. After all, it was Marx himself who once chastised his son-in-law, Paul Larfargue, for being too Marxist than Marx himself.


Peter Dwyer:

I fully agree that the decision by NUMSA to break from the ANC and also its call for COSATU to break from the Alliance will go down as a turning point in the history of the South African working class. I would have included the ‘Polokwane moment’ as important point on the timeline that has been unfolding since 1999. I have long argued that many on the Left outside of the Alliance underplayed the importance of the Left inside the Alliance replacing Mbeki with Zuma. What I am more circumspect about is Benjamin’s implicit assertion that the NUMSA moment represents a more generalised change in political consciousness. We don’t yet fully know how this move has gone down at the rank and file level who make up the bulk of NUMSA’s 340,000 members. Call me an old fashioned empiricist but we need to hear more of their voice and those in and around the Alliance, in COSATU and the SACP.  Whilst Jim and others are no longer welcome in the SACP, we should not underestimate the continuing importance of the SACP leadership acting as a political glue to hold the Alliance together, particularly the trade unions through the structures of COSATU. The failure of FOSATU during apartheid was to build an independent working class party. The NUMSA leadership have prioritised this as an urgent ask. It will nonetheless still prove a formidable one.


Steven Friedman:

To a long-time labour watcher, likening Numsa’s resolutions to the 1973 ‘Durban moment’ is jarring. On reflection, Fogel may have a point–but it is hardly sure that these decisions will do for workers what the 1973 strikes did.

For the first time, a major Cosatu union–the country’s biggest–has broken with the ANC alliance and is talking openly about an alternative. This could reshape electoral politics–if Numsa does form a party and it wins 10 percent or more, the ANC could lose its majority. And so there is a chance that Numsa will be the catalyst for ending the ANC’s electoral dominance by 2019–obviously a watershed event.

But there are many ‘ifs’ attached. Numsa may not opt for a party, preferring a civil society alliance: its post-conference declaration was not overly enthusiastic about entering party politics. And if it does choose a party, winning 10%  may be difficult: Numsa clearly suspects that many of its members still favor the ANC – why else say that they are free to campaign for it as long as they do this in their own time? – and it could be right. We are in uncharted territory and so we don’t know whether most union members are ready to ditch the governing party.

Numsa’s move may also do much more to change national politics than to improve worker leverage. Even if it does end the ANC’s majority, will that mean more influence for working people? Might it not simply trigger a new alliance across current party lines of interests unsympathetic to worker needs?

This is not an argument against Numsa’s position. Workers cannot remain within a nationalist alliance forever if they want their interests taken seriously. But organised workers are nowhere near a majority in this society and building a winning coalition of workers and the poor will be a long task with uncertain prospects.

Numsa’s decision may, therefore, yet enter history as a trigger to later possibilities rather than an immediate advance for worker interests.


Alex Lichtenstein:

In an address given to COSATU in September 2006, then Deputy-President Jacob Zuma said:

We can also never forget the role of trade unions in reviving our struggle during the 1972-73 Durban strikes. The strikes had a major impact in the revival of internal mass resistance to apartheid in the 1970′s. These strikes were led by amongst others, cadres who carried the political influence, of the revolutionary trade union federation, SACTU. This indicates the correctness of the approach of political revolutionary trade union movements, as distinguished from those union movements that concern themselves only with factory floor issues.

Like Benjamin Fogel, Zuma regarded the “Durban Moment” as the touchstone for the contribution of the workers’ movement to the liberation of South Africa. Unlike Fogel, however, in the interest of consolidating a nationalist interpretation of the history of the ANC-labor alliance, Zuma effectively wrote out of history the “workerist” perspective that did so much to shape South African trade unionism between 1973 and 1985.

Over the fifteen years I have been travelling to South Africa, on every visit I seem to encounter friends on the left who are sure that this is the moment that sections of COSATU will decide they have had their fill of a neo-liberal program dressed up in radical rhetoric, and will break with the ANC and the Alliance to form the nucleus of a workers’ party. While I have always shared their hopes, I have usually greeted these claims with skepticism. But I think this time might be different, in part because of my own reading of the history of the South African labour movement.

To put it concisely, NUMSA’s search for an alternative labour politics builds on a long tradition of workers’ control, shopfloor democracy, and struggle unionism that independent unions like its predecessor—MAWU—built during the 1970s. Denigrated then by the SACP and its allies in the ANC as “workerism” (meaning economism), this tradition never really went away, even while its most powerful vehicle, FOSATU, was absorbed into COSATU in the 1980s and then the Alliance after liberation.

Then, as now, the ANC and the SACP demanded that the labour movement subordinate what were regarded as its sectoral interests to the larger needs of the Struggle, the Transition, or the National Democratic Revolution. Then, as now, workers were expected to modify shopfloor militancy in the interest of larger strategic political goals. Then, as now, shopfloor democracy, the power of shopstewards who remained closely knit with comrades in the workplace, and the tradition of report-back and workers’ control, were expected to take a back seat to national-level collective bargaining, a growing class of union office-holders, and a labour federation that grew closer to management than to workers, replacing democracy with labour bureaucracy.

I do not want to exaggerate the degree to which this was the case immediately in 1985, with the formation of COSATU, a federation in which the power of shopfloor democracy remained, at least at first, quite strong. Because it was so central to the birth of the new unions in the 1970s, “Workerism” has remained a powerful, if buried, tendency within the South African labour movement to this day; the conflict on the Platinum Belt represents its rushing to the surface, like a dormant volcano coming to life. The effort on the part of the ANC and the SACP to suppress and overcome this tendency has been a long, drawn out struggle, and one hardly to unique to South Africa. Wherever working-class movements have joined with a national bourgeoisie in a revolutionary process, they have found that for them the struggle continues after liberation, and their former allies become their antagonists, if not their masters. The question is usually this: how long it will take the working class to see the writing on the wall? Marikana, it seems, was the revelation.

Chimamanda Adichie lines up the homophobic arguments and knocks them down one by one

Wed, 02/19/2014 - 19:08

We’ve seen a range of responses from African intellectuals to the crisis of homophobia, especially in states that are planning  oppressive anti-gay laws As well as Binyavanga Wainaina, several Nigerian intellectuals have also weighed in. Yesterday was Chimamanda Adichie’s turn, and she made a very important contribution.

The thing I like about the piece is her generosity. She confronts directly the confused and contradictory assortment of ideas which have become so influential in shaping homophobia and the language in which homophobia is now being expressed. She is frank and uncondescending, refusing to gloss over or euphemize the vulgarity of homophobic thinking. The hardest thing for an intellectual when speaking out against such crass, hateful ideology is to take it seriously enough as a way of thinking to which large numbers of people have become deeply attached. That’s what Adichie does here, and that’s one reason why this intervention might challenge people in a deep way.

Here are some key excerpts:

The new law that criminalizes homosexuality is popular among Nigerians. But it shows a failure of our democracy, because the mark of a true democracy is not in the rule of its majority but in the protection of its minority – otherwise mob justice would be considered democratic. The law is also unconstitutional, ambiguous, and a strange priority in a country with so many real problems. Above all else, however, it is unjust. Even if this was not a country of abysmal electricity supply where university graduates are barely literate and people die of easily-treatable causes and Boko Haram commits casual mass murders, this law would still be unjust. We cannot be a just society unless we are able to accommodate benign difference, accept benign difference, live and let live. We may not understand homosexuality, we may find it personally abhorrent but our response cannot be to criminalize it.

A crime is a crime for a reason. A crime has victims. A crime harms society. On what basis is homosexuality a crime? Adults do no harm to society in how they love and whom they love. This is a law that will not prevent crime, but will, instead, lead to crimes of violence: there are already, in different parts of Nigeria, attacks on people ‘suspected’ of being gay. Ours is a society where men are openly affectionate with one another. Men hold hands. Men hug each other. Shall we now arrest friends who share a hotel room, or who walk side by side? How do we determine the clunky expressions in the law – ‘mutually beneficial,’ ‘directly or indirectly?’

Many Nigerians support the law because they believe the Bible condemns homosexuality. The Bible can be a basis for how we choose to live our personal lives, but it cannot be a basis for the laws we pass, not only because the holy books of different religions do not have equal significance for all Nigerians but also because the holy books are read differently by different people. The Bible, for example, also condemns fornication and adultery and divorce, but they are not crimes.

For supporters of the law, there seems to be something about homosexuality that sets it apart. A sense that it is not ‘normal.’ If we are part of a majority group, we tend to think others in minority groups are abnormal, not because they have done anything wrong, but because we have defined normal to be what we are and since they are not like us, then they are abnormal. Supporters of the law want a certain semblance of human homogeneity. But we cannot legislate into existence a world that does not exist: the truth of our human condition is that we are a diverse, multi-faceted species. The measure of our humanity lies, in part, in how we think of those different from us. We cannot – should not – have empathy only for people who are like us.

Some supporters of the law have asked – what is next, a marriage between a man and a dog?’ Or ‘have you seen animals being gay?’ (Actually, studies show that there is homosexual behavior in many species of animals.) But, quite simply, people are not dogs, and to accept the premise – that a homosexual is comparable to an animal – is inhumane. We cannot reduce the humanity of our fellow men and women because of how and who they love. Some animals eat their own kind, others desert their young. Shall we follow those examples, too?

Other supporters suggest that gay men sexually abuse little boys. But pedophilia and homosexuality are two very different things. There are men who abuse little girls, and women who abuse little boys, and we do not presume that they do it because they are heterosexuals. Child molestation is an ugly crime that is committed by both straight and gay adults (this is why it is a crime: children, by virtue of being non-adults, require protection and are unable to give sexual consent).

There has also been some nationalist posturing among supporters of the law. Homosexuality is ‘unafrican,’ they say, and we will not become like the west. The west is not exactly a homosexual haven; acts of discrimination against homosexuals are not uncommon in the US and Europe. But it is the idea of ‘unafricanness’ that is truly insidious. Sochukwuma was born of Igbo parents and had Igbo grandparents and Igbo great-grandparents. He was born a person who would romantically love other men. Many Nigerians know somebody like him. The boy who behaved like a girl. The girl who behaved like a boy. The effeminate man. The unusual woman. These were people we knew, people like us, born and raised on African soil. How then are they ‘unafrican?’

If anything, it is the passage of the law itself that is ‘unafrican.’ It goes against the values of tolerance and ‘live and let live’ that are part of many African cultures. (In 1970s Igboland, Area Scatter was a popular musician, a man who dressed like a woman, wore makeup, plaited his hair. We don’t know if he was gay – I think he was – but if he performed today, he could conceivably be sentenced to fourteen years in prison. For being who he is.) And it is informed not by a home-grown debate but by a cynically borrowed one: we turned on CNN and heard western countries debating ‘same sex marriage’ and we decided that we, too, would pass a law banning same sex marriage. Where, in Nigeria, whose constitution defines marriage as being between a man and a woman, has any homosexual asked for same-sex marriage?

Read the whole post over at The Scoop.

Here’s a clip of Area Scatter, the performer Adichie refers to (h/t @kritzmoritz):

Seun Kuti also weighed in not long ago (don’t be put off by the odd headline).

What these critical interventions by Adichie and Kuti in the wake of Wainaina’s courageous stand suggest is that a certain obduracy is setting in against the nonsensical homophobic demand for the expulsion of LGBT people and those who refuse to persecute them. As Binyavanga Wainaina told the Guardian last week:

It’s like my father said, ‘When trouble comes you don’t put your worldly goods on a bicycle.’ This is my place. I am 43, I have bad knees, you know, diabetes. I could easily take another teaching gig in New York, hang out in Brooklyn, have some nice sex, write a funky book. But you know, that’s gone. I want to put a stake in the ground. My mum and dad are not here. It’s kind of my turn.

New Documentaries To Look Out For at the Luxor African Film Festival

Wed, 02/19/2014 - 14:00

The third edition of the Egyptian Luxor African Film Festival again has a wide-ranging programme scheduled for next month. Selected films will be showing in different competitions: Long Narrative, Short Narratives, Short Documentaries and Long Documentary. Below you’ll find a couple of the selected documentaries’ trailers (set in Togo, Senegal, Ghana, Somalia, South Africa, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and Angola) that were recently uploaded to YouTube and Vimeo, plus links to the films’ websites — where available.

Nana Benz (2012, 85 min, director Thomas Bölken) | Togo

Touba (2013, Chai Vasarhelyi) | Senegal

Lettres du Voyant (2013, Louis Henderson) is a documentary-fiction about spiritism and technology in contemporary Ghana, which attempts to uncover a mysterious practice called “Sakawa” – internet scams mixed with voodoo magic.

From the same filmmaker, Louis Henderson, also showing is Logical Revolts (2012) | Egypt

Angola Ano Zero (2013, Ever Miranda) | Angola

The River (2013, 86 min, Abdenour Zahzah). During a journey on foot along the Oued El Kebir River, Zahzah encounters mini-societies of people who give us a different picture of Algeria.

Ali’ens: Somalis in Transit (2013, 90 min, Paula Palacios) | Somalia

Emirs in Wonderland (2013, 75 min, Ahmed Jlassi) | Tunisia

Made in Gougou (2013, Latifa Doghri) | Tunisia

Light and Dark (2013, 45 min, Paulene Abrey), a biopic of South African artist Norman Catherine | South Africa

LAFF takes place from 16 March to 24 March. See the Festival’s website for more details.

Ghana in 2013: Five Lessons Learned

Fri, 12/27/2013 - 17:00

It has been a year since Ghana held presidential and parliamentary elections — elections that saw John Dramani Mahama hold on to the presidency six months after he stepped into the position following the death of the then president John Atta Mills.

In 12 months, we’ve had an unnecessarily lengthy court case, corruption claims and the usual party backbiting. From the entertaining, mundane and sometimes depressing events and revelations, here are five of the most important lessons we learned from this year.

1. Ghanaians like catchphrases

There were many amusing moments during the eight-month-long election petition that saw the opposition, the New Patriotic Party (NPP), challenge the results of the 2012 election. It was during that time that inventive names like “Finger of God polling station” came to light, whilst the infamous “pink sheets” — the document on which votes were recorded at each polling station — were thrown into regular conversation to mean anything controversial. It is also the title of a recent song by Samini:

But the most mocked and most integrated catchphrase has to be: “You and I were not there” from NPP vice-presidential candidate Mahamudu Bawumia. When asked in court if biometric verification was properly carried out at the polling stations, Bawumia’s response was: “You and I were not there.” When questioned about whether over-voting took place, Bawumia met it with another: “You and I were not there.” His mantra continued for days (yes, days) and left viewers wondering: “Why are we even here?” His response was all well and good, but if you are ever in court and your evidence is shaky and fails you, you know what your rebuttal shouldn’t be.

A good catchphrase can also help you win an election. See: “E dey be k3k3.

2. Party politics is real

Reading some of the local newspapers or listening to debates and call-ins on the radio will teach you nothing about how Ghana is really faring as a country. If you disagree with any given point, rhetoric quickly centres around the party you support or are linked to as a means to explain away your opposing view. You are sure to hear something along the lines of “he is an agent of the NDC [or NPP].” Policy think tank IMANI has been routinely accused of being a “surrogate of the NPP.” And when it comes to discussing corruption, there is much finger-pointing without any sign of resolution.

3. Having the gift of the gab is better than the gift of effective governance

If you want to show the country you are a capable leader, avoid plummy accents, ties and three-piece suits. Be a man of the people. This is the image President Mahama has aimed for. But as he has jetted across the world preaching about how proud he is of Ghana’s stable democracy (see point 5), the country’s finances are going to the pits, infrastructure projects have been consistently stalled, whilst power and water supply have been erratic all year. But what does it matter — e dey be k3k3.

4. Ghanaian ministers are not particularly ambitious when it comes to making extra curricular monies

When the deputy minister of communications, Victoria Hammah, was sacked for claiming that she will leave politics after making $1 Million, many were offended that she would aim so low. Look at what the Nigerians are achieving.

5. Ghana will forever be a “beacon of democracy” in the eyes of the West

The decision by the NPP to challenge the results of the 2012 elections was heralded as a step to further solidify Ghana’s “progressive” democracy. International media barely covered the election, let alone the court case that followed, so cracks in the election that was deemed to be free and fair were overlooked. After the petition was dismissed, no serious commitment was made to implement electoral reforms so as to avoid a repeat of the widespread irregularities. And at the same time the justices of the Supreme Court will continue to be appointed by the president as will the commissioner of the Electoral Commission. Conflict of interests much?

Khady Sylla made films out of the impossible and the untranslatable

Fri, 12/27/2013 - 08:00

Filmmaker, novelist, storyteller, visionary, Khady Sylla died this year, at the age of 50. Apart from African Women in Cinema, little note was made of her passing in the English language media. The Francophone press took some note, and since then there have been one or two festivals and memorials, commemorating Sylla’s work. The relative lack of notice is not particularly surprising. Khady Sylla was a women who recorded women’s silence into revolutionary Spring and listened to the light in the dark spaces where women work and where women go mad.

When she died, Sylla was at work, with her sister, Mariam Sylla, on a new documentary about their grandmother, Penda Diogo Sarr. The film is entitled Simple Parole, and according to those who have seen it, it is a symphony of silences.

Sylla was best known for two films, Une fenêtre ouverte (An open window) and Le monologue de la muette (The monologue of the mute), a story that…

…takes place in Dakar, which is to say more or less everywhere, and we’ll need more than pretty words to bury it definitively in the past:

Sylla described her work process on Une fenêtre ouverte:

In 1994, fascinated by the number of mad people wandering the streets of Dakar, I decided to make a movie about them. Unfortunately or perhaps inevitably, the film was over-exposed, much like my view of both the wandering mad ones and frankly of the world more generally … A little while after over-exposing the film, I fell sick and crossed over to the other side. I saw what others did not see: the dislocated eye, antiquity of the glass bubble, the sky that had fallen too low, the horizon that come too close, I experienced the real interior.

And somehow, out of the impossible and the untranslatable, Khady Sylla made film, made art, and made sense. In the film, at one point, Sylla says,

You look at yourself in a broken mirror. You see pieces of your face. Your face is crumbled. And the one who looks at you from the broken mirror, he sees pieces of images of your face. Which of you will actually solve the puzzle? Maybe you’re both actually on the same side of the mirror? It is the void. I hallucinated, I soliloquized at the top of my lungs, I was completely oblivious to the world around me. I felt myself dissolving into the light. The light seemed too bright, too alive. It penetrated me through all my pores. I was no longer whole. I was pieces, fragments of Khady. I rocked back and forth in utter madness.

Khady understood that this madness was particular to women, particular to Senegalese women, particular to migrant women, particular to all sorts of particularity, in exactly the same way that it was part of women’s story more or less everywhere.

That is the lesson of Le monologue de la muette. The “mute” here is Amy, a Serer village adolescent who works in Dakar as a domestic worker. Amy spends the movie in radical silence, but we hear the monologue of her silence. And inside Amy is a revolutionary who rails against her super-exploitation and rubbishes the false promises of ‘development’, and who in her heart and soul and deeds, is preparing for the Spring: “Our Spring will come. Our spring will circle the Earth. Spartacus is with us.”

Spartacus is with the maids. Rest in peace, Khady Sylla. The Spring will come, and it will circle the earth.

Facepalm…Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore go to “Africa”

Mon, 12/23/2013 - 17:00

Judging from the trailer, the upcoming Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore comedy Blended not only recycles their familiar on-screen partnership (this is the third romantic comedy they’ve done together) but also recycles dated Hollywood notions about “Africa.” The film is about a pair of single parents who after a dismal first date, magically end up on vacation at the same African resort.

The trailer features some tired tropes: smiling singing Africans, generic wildlife, and adventuring in the bush. While the characters exclaim “we’re going to Africa!”, the only place they end up going to is Sun City, famously boycotted in South Africa’s bad old days by United Artists Against Apartheid. Sun City was built during apartheid in what was then the “Bantustan” of Bophutatswana, one of the “homelands” created by the apartheid government as part of their “Separate Development” plan. It also made black South Africans involuntary citizens of phony sovereign states that they had no relationship to. However that’s a history lesson for another time.

One of the main reasons Hollywood films come to shoot in South Africa is that crew and location costs are much cheaper than in the States. Very rarely do they use South Africa for itself, for example using Cape Town as Seattle in Chronicle or as a monkey wrench of locations in The Lord of War. The new Sandler movie seems to do even worse: using South Africa to represent a homogenous composite of Africa that only exists in the minds of ignorant Westerners.

While I have no illusions about Sandler having a responsibility to create smart cinema, it would be great if they didn’t collapse a continent into a Holiday Inn.

African refugees walk to Jerusalem in mass protest against indefinite detention by Israeli state

Mon, 12/23/2013 - 14:00

Last week on December 16, in an act of civil disobedience, over 150 asylum seekers walked all the way from the ‘open’ prisons facility in Be’er Sheva in southern Israel to Jerusalem. Contesting the new policy which forces them to live in ‘open’ facilities, asylum seekers protested against their indefinite detention without trial as well as Israel’s refusal to recognize them as refugees.

In September of this year, the Supreme Court overturned the amendment bill to Israel’s Anti-Infiltration law, which treated all irregular border crossers as “infiltrators”, including asylum seekers. The Anti-Infiltration Law allowed the state to hold asylum seekers in custody, without trial, for up to three years. While the law was overturned and ruled unconstitutional on the grounds that it disproportionately harms asylum seeker’s basic right to freedom, in order prevent their release upon the Supreme Court’s decision, the Knesset rapidly moved to forward a legislative amendment to transfer asylum seekers to “open detention centers”, where they could be held indefinitely.

In protest of their indefinite detention, a group of asylum seekers left the ‘open’ prison facility, “Holot”, in the south of the country, walking six hours toward Jerusalem to demand freedom and their refugee rights before the Knesset. Asylum seekers and human rights activists joined the freedom march from Tel Aviv.

Shortly upon their arrival to Jerusalem, violent arrests followed outside the Knesset building.

A second freedom march was launched on December 19, and this time asylum seekers were immediately arrested by immigration officers and returned to prison.

In response to the recent demonstration PM Benjamin Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page that “the infiltrators who were transferred to a special facility can stay there, or return to their home countries,” and that “the law exists for everyone. A law is a law, and it most certainly applies to illegal work infiltrators.”

Israel has yet to properly internalize the concept that refugees deserve protection. Israel’s policies aimed toward asylum seekers are punitive in nature and are meant to both deter the arrival of individuals into the country as well as encourage the departure of those that are in the process of seeking asylum. Israel refuses to de-link its immigration policies from its asylum ones and therefore refuses to recognize that categorical distinctions exist among individuals entering its territory, and that while some might be work-migrants, some are nonetheless potential refugees and should therefore be given the opportunity to go through an asylum process, instead of being imprisoned for years without trial.

Commenting on the possibility of being arrested by immigration officers, one Sudanese refugee said that the possibility of going back to prison “doesn’t really matter because if they catch us they’ll take us back to the previous prison. It doesn’t matter which prison you’re in.” He also noted that the new facility is “just like a prison, only the doors are open,” and that the open door policy is meaningless since the facility is placed in the middle of the desert.

Am I supposed to be more Brazilian than black?

Fri, 12/20/2013 - 13:00

We’re always told (by our media, politicians, commentators, etcetera) that Brazil is the most multicultural and multiracial country in the world. That Brazilian miscegenation gave birth to a unique kind of beauty and that the Brazilian mixture of races and cultures provided us with a complex of interracial relations that has, in some way, harmonized racism, in the name of some greater interracial identity. Now, “there are no races, but the Brazilian beautiful race,” the Brazilian beauty of the “Brazilian race.”

The documentary film, “Raça,” explores whether nationality should be considered a race (the “Brazilian race”) and whether black Brazilians should abandon once and for all their racial identity for the sake of some Brazilian unity. The filmmakers also ask whether this question itself isn’t already a consequence of institutional racism. Am I supposed to be more Brazilian than black?

Directors of the film are Joel Zito, a Brazilian filmmaker and researcher known for his work on black issues, and Megan Mylan, an American documentary film director. It was released in May 2013. Here’s a trailer:

“Raça” notes that Brazil imported ten times more slaves than the United States and was the last country to abolish slavery in 1888. Despite all this history, only 7,6% of Brazilians declare themselves as black. In contrast, at least 47% identify as white, 2,1% are “yellow” and 0,3% Indian. The remaining 43,1% declare themselves as “pardos.”

Pardos are the descendants of black, white and/or Indian — basically the children of the “Brazilian mixture” — and form the so-called “Brazilian race,” although as a group they’re still not as large a group as the self-declared whites.

While blacks are less than a tenth of the population, they form the largest majority of those living in the poorest neighborhoods or locked up in prison. In other words, blacks are the poor and the criminal, and vice-versa, while pardos are the blacks that became good, who became less black, or whiter.

Pardos thus became the perfect product of the Brazilian whitening culture.

In Brazil, racism and racial identity do not take place through the blood line — you’re not necessarily black if you or your parents are the child of an interracial relation — they take place through racial features: the less or more black physical features you have, the more pardo or more black you are considered.

So, because there is such an emphasis on whiteness as desirable, and black culture and beauty, most pardos also aspire to whiteness. Black people started choosing not to be black.

When people identify as black, however, and are proud of it, they’re usually told there are no races, that Brazil is multiracial and multicultural, that nobody is one hundred per cent anything and that they should only be proud of being Brazilian. And so, like that, any black person is just an individual free of identity and the only place for black to be plural is either in the favelas or in prison.

“Raça,” the film, tells three different stories of the struggle for equality by black Brazilians: They are Elda Maria dos Santos (better known as “Miúda”), José de Paula Neto (“Netinho”) and Paulo Paim. The filmmakers followed them from 2005 until 2011.

Miúda is a descendant of slaves who lives in a “quilombola” community of Linharinho, in the state of Espírito Santo. “Quilombos” are traditional communities created by runaway slaves existing until today. There are still more than one thousand Quilombola communities in Brazil. The most urgent struggles of Quilombola people are to have their traditional lands legally demarcated by the State. Miúda is the personification of that fight for recognition. Her community risks losing its traditional lands to AraCruz, a huge multinational paper and cellulose company. AraCruz’s eucalyptus plantation is encroaching on Quilombola land.

Netinho, the former lead singer of the very popular pagode group Negritude Júnior, is trying to start and maintain the first Brazilian TV network directed and presented by and for black people, the TV da Gente (TV of the People). Mainstream media in Brazil is still one of the greatest consolidators of white supremacy and whitening culture in Brazil. For example, while “colorblindness” erases black people from the screen, practices like blackface are still taken as an acceptable and common fact in Brazilian media. Netinho and the people behind TV da Gente arise to claim and stand the ground of black people in the media.

Paulo Paim, the only black senator in Brazil at the time when the film was made, advocates the sanction of the Estatuto da Igualdade Racial (Racial Equality Act), which had been passed around in the senate for ten years without the due attention. The Estatuto da Igualdade Racial is a set of laws that aims to correct the social inequalities between races. These include racial quotas for universities, ensuring a minimum number of black and Indian students in the universities. For example, blacks make up just 2% of the students in the Universidade de São Paulo (considered one the best public universities in South America). The Estatuto da Igualdade Racial also pushes for the legitimization of the Quilombos, guaranteeing the rights to quilombola lands to quilombola descendants.

The film shows Paim responding to some white opponents’ absurd accusations of reverse racism and racialization, as if there were no races in Brazil. Paim also gives some touching and brave speeches. In a “remarkable” discourse, one of his opponents, a well-known senator, Demóstenes Torres, alleges that miscegenation in Brazil didn’t happen as a result of the rape of black women during slavery times, and that the sexual relations were consensual. Paulo Paim is an extraordinary and admirable — as well as very patient — black man who perfectly and movingly answers those allegations.

“Raça” is a black must-see and is essential to a further and deeper comprehension of the complex structure of racism in Brazil. It is touching, tearful, enraging and absolutely clear in revealing the Brazil’s racial paradox. It takes the mask off racism and names its promoters in the media, in politics, in the economy. From the beginning of slavery and colonization until today, the economic, social, political and cultural lives of black Brazilians have little in common with white Brazilians. They also share very few public spaces. So, am I supposed to be more Brazilian than black? “Raça” answers that question. It refutes the idea that “Brazilian” is a race. Life in Brazil is still black and white.

Vintage Cru: Challenging the Status Quo in South Africa with Dance

Fri, 12/20/2013 - 09:30

In the South African entertainment hierarchy, dancers are not usually considered to be at the top of the pile. DJs, singers and soapie stars often command greater audiences. Yet there’s a dance group out there that’s changing the game. Over the last year, they’ve become increasingly visible, appearing on television shows, at festivals and in the country’s biggest music videos (remember the guys in the gold pants killing it in Mafikizolo’s “Khona”?). The group is called Vintage Cru and through their unique blend of next level contemporary dance, relentlessly avante garde style and outspoken challenge of parochial social norms, they’ve risen to become one of the most exciting acts in South Africa.

The journey hasn’t been without its challenges however. With openly gay members in the group, the Vintage Cru has endured countless insults and threats. In late September 2013 they were even assaulted as they boarded a taxi in Johannesburg (fortunately no one was physically harmed). Despite the intimidation, they have stayed focused on pushing the boundaries of dance in South Africa and they remain resolute in unapologetically living the lives of their choosing, inspiring others to do the same.

We spoke to a few members of the Vintage Cru, Ashwin, Lee-chè, Tarryn, Rogue and Tokyo about elevating the standard of dance, defying heteronormativity, the realities of race in the “rainbow nation” and their eventual takeover. This interview was conducted jointly with Ts’eliso Monaheng.

What is the philosophy/ethos of Vintage Cru?

Ashwin: Vintage started with myself and Lee-chè. We wanted to have an all male waacking/vogueing group because to South Africa this was something new. To us it was original, we had to bring something new to the dance industry in South Africa. At that time we never knew anything about fashion, we never knew anything about being legendary, we never knew about building something for yourself. We loved dancing so we thought we might as well do it all the time. And it was four boys with Kyle and Sigulela as the other two.

But we thought we needed more. And then we bumped into Manthe Ribane who used to work at this small shop in town called Fruitcake. She had this aura about her. Some people just give off this aura where you love to be around them. And when we met her we thought this girl might just be what we were missing. Manthe brought image, she brought style to the group. And that’s when we decided our image as a group needed to evolve.

Then one of the members came up with “Vintage” because he googled it and he saw that it related with “legendary” and “timeless”. That’s what we took on as a group… because anything that we created from that point on we wanted to be legendary. So when people look back into the archive of everything that we’ve created they’ll think it’s still amazing, it’s still brilliant, like vintage itself.

Lee-chè: Another thing is, because we are such outcasts we took it upon ourselves to create a place where we get to be free and experience ourselves the way we want to. We tackle social norms that people don’t want to speak about in our performances, we attack those issues, we challenge, and we don’t care if you don’t want to speak about it we’re still going to show it to you in our performances. When we go on stage we bring a gallery on stage. And that means the House of Vintage is creating an art piece in a museum, but it’s on stage. So we add the fashion, we add the theater, we add the music, we add the choreography. We add all of these aspects into our performance because no one else is doing it in the world. It’s the gift that we’ve been given.

Vintage Cru

Manthe recently left the group, but you added 4 new members in February 2013. How have the new members contributed to the group’s evolution?

Ashwin: When we had our auditions we said in the beginning we weren’t only looking for dancers. Dancing is 1% of everything that you need. You need personality, you need to have a skill to bring to House of Vintage. Tokyo, he studies fashion. So it added an element to the group, now we can design our own things because we have a brain who knows how fabric should be working. We have Rogue who does marketing. As a group, marketing for us is big. We want to reach the rest of the world out there so we put his skills to the test. With that, every other member had to find their skills. Tarryn does videography and radio as well.

For the new guys, when you saw the call for auditions, what made you want to join?

Rogue: The fact that they were themselves when I first met them. I felt like I needed to come out of who I was at the time and become who I really I am. So joining the Cru was the first step of accepting myself.

Tokyo: Being in Vintage is about accepting yourself for who you are. Because for me, before I joined the crew, it was not so easy in terms of my sexuality. Whilst in the Cru I’ve eased into it and relaxed into my sexuality. So yeah, it has helped me as a person, not just as a dancer or a designer.


How do you address social issues in your performances?

Ashwin: If we just walk in town, already it’s a problem for people. We have this thing we say when taxi drivers try to have their way with us: we’ll never remember them, but they’ll always remember us. Because at the end of the day there’s 10,000 taxi drivers, but there’s only one Vintage Cru. For our social impact in terms of dancing, we sit and think of what is relevant with the world right now. In terms of South African politics, social issues that people never want to talk about. Like gender-based violence, one that we’re always faced with in the Cru. As well as poverty, which is still a big thing in South Africa. Because we are a fashion group, style plays a big role as well. To South Africans our style themes are weird, but I promise you in 5 years, everyone will be dressing like us and joining the trend.

Lee-chè: I think the way we approach it is, when we create, we see what’s happening and we want to take our knuckles and we want to knock at peoples’ foreheads. Wake up! When we were on the show Step Up or Step Out, there was a piece we did which was a lesbian wedding. And we knew what we were doing because we knew we were going to be on TV. For the performance we had Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and we had Tarryn marry Robyn. The guys were the bridesmaids in heels. And at the point we knew, this is going to be something that South Africa is going to talk about. Because they never show these things in South African media, when they show it, it has to be after 9pm or censored and not on a Sunday during primetime when everyone’s at home.

Tarryn: When we did that performance it was the same week there was a documentary on TV about the gender-based violence especially targeting lesbian women and gay men. It was about how they were being shot and killed for being gay. So we did our performance that Sunday evening and then an hour later it was Debora Patta showing how people are being killed. For us, we know this is real, this is happening and if we don’t say anything or dance about it, no other dance crew is going to do it.

Lee-chè: We utilize what we can because when we know we’re on a platform like that we can push it. We did one performance where we dealt with a homeless person. We brought this image of what it is like to struggle. We’ve done peer pressure, drugs. I think a lot of people don’t get it though. Because when we portray these things it’s still a shock to them. It’s like a slap in the face. People think, “why are they talking about something that we don’t want to talk about?” We want to keep these things undercover since we’ve been a democracy, since 1994. They know we’re gay, but they still want us to keep it undercover, even though they know we deal with it in daily life. I was a victim of gender-based violence because I got stabbed in Johannesburg, but that didn’t stop me from doing what I needed to do. That was what inspired a routine we did on the show Turn It Out, where it was like, “Fuck South Africa for all it stands for. I’m still going to keep what I’m doing whether you like it or not, if I die because of it, fine! At least I was dying for a good purpose, because I was trying to change society.”

Tarryn: There’s so many people that are inspired by what we do. We get so many supportive messages on facebook and twitter. Before the final Step Up or Step Out show we got this message from a woman who said, “You guys inspire me. I watch you every Sunday and I’m voting for you. I was in a car accident and I’m paralyzed and I’m in a wheelchair now, but I still want to dance, I still dance in my heart and it’s only because you guys have given me that hope.” For us, that motivates us to carry on doing what were doing. We can touch people on a broad scale.

Why didn’t you win the Step Up or Step Out competition?

Lee-chè: Let’s go there. This is something I’ve realized from being on TV since back in the day. You don’t win in South Africa unless you’re part of the majority. And unfortunately we only had one black person in our group at the time and that was Lebo. We were on a TV programme and unfortunately a black crew has to win. Because if a black person doesn’t win it means we’re not living in a democracy. It means we are not living in the new South Africa. It means it’s not BEE. It means those things if we have a group with coloured people like us winning a competition like that.

Tarryn: Yet we’re also black and we also fall in that gap. But it’s like, “You’re a little lighter, so sorry. Your people didn’t vote for you, so sorry.”

Lichee: We’ve also realized it’s based on the people who create these shows. They already know whom they want to win. Whether you are changing social perspective, whether you are upping the ratings, they already have a winner in their mind. They will keep you there until the end because we are the ratings, but at the end they’ll drop you because they don’t care anymore. They already got what they needed from you so now they can move on with life. But we’ve taken that and smacked them in their faces because we’ve become better than the winners. But we couldn’t win because we’re not black enough.


Have your performances contributed to opening peoples’ minds?

Lee-chè: People always tell me, “You’ve made me become a more free person. A person who I want to be.” When it comes to Vintage as a crew, we’ve created this standard of life where even if you live in Soweto and life is hard and you can’t be yourself, you’re still going to push to be the person you want to be because you have people like us who inspire you, when everyone is not there. We will hold your hand through that moment if we have to.

Ashwin: Also, dancers are always on the bottom on the entertainment food chain. People believe that dancers alone can’t make a show happen and we’ve proven them wrong. We had a 25 minute performance with outfit changes. And as dancers we’re always at 100%. So after 2 minutes we were already coughing blood, but we kept our composure as a group and made it to the end.

Tokyo: We’ve now even gotten to a place where we are being booked as the main artists for a show and not as simply backup dancers anymore.

Tarryn: The funny thing is we’ll go to a casting and look at the reference photos of how people are styled and it’s us in the photo. When they think of what they want they think of us. Full force. Live jive!


Can anyone become a dancer?

Lee-chè: This is something I think South Africa is missing. If you say you’re a dancer and you go on stage and show me you know how to make your arm straight and pop properly, but you don’t have entertainment value, then I’m sorry, but you are not a dancer. What we believe in is that you need to engage your crowd and make them feel something.

Tarryn: Because at the end of the day when people see a dancer they are watching music in motion. We all listen to music and we all interpret it differently, at the end of the day it takes a brilliant dancer to actually show what the music is doing. You can’t go on stage and be pap! Then you are not a dancer, I’m sorry. Us here we take it seriously, it’s our 9-5. Yoh, it’s deep!

Lee-chè: It’s something we’re very passionate about and I think it’s the reason why some of the other dance crews don’t like us. For them it’s like, “OK, I’m going to go to rehearsals tomorrow for 2 hours and be late 30 minutes and then start dancing, what I create it’s just to make money.” For us we are here everyday of our lives, Monday to Sunday 356 days of a year, the only time we get to see life, is when we go to perform. It’s about the drive for perfection, the drive to create legendary and timeless performances. When we leave this planet Earth we want to be known. We want to leave behind a legacy.

Ashwin: And people are just afraid of the truth. If we are going to watch you perform on stage and you are not breaking your body for me then I’m going to tell you it’s kak. I’m going to tell you what you just did now is pure kak! Where’s your passion, where’s your drive? It took three competitions for us to understand that we’re bigger than who we are. We lost three dance competitions in a row, in front of South Africa, millions of people. It took all of that for us to realize our true potential. That’s the thing that other dancers are missing. Maybe another group won the competition, but when we see them today, we’re like, “Hi, are things still good? Oh you’re working at Ackerman’s (a budget clothing store), that’s nice. Good for you. I’ll see you at the Summer Awards, I’m choreographing.” Simple as that.

Where do your dances come from? Are your influences traditional, contemporary or something else?

Lee-chè: As a choreographer I want to create something that no one else is doing. Whether it starts out bad or good, it always ends up being something everyone thrives in. At the end of the day all of it turns out beautifully, like an art piece. Inspiration comes from everyday life. Circumstance. Sometimes I watch videos and I decide I need to do something around that tip. There never needs to be a time where you can say we’re just waacking or just voguing. I never want to be identified by just one style. That’s the same way we approach fashion and that’s the same way we approach life. It needs to be timeless and it needs to be legendary.

Ashwin: We have respect for different dance forms and we pull our inspiration from them. We pick up on small things like the different facial expressions in ballet and tango. We pay attention to detail.

Lee-chè: Music is a feeling that you have to evoke through dancing. For us if the song is saying this than do this. If “Khona” is saying you need to stomp into the ground so that hell can feel you. Then you will stomp into the ground. We can do pantsula, but if the music is not saying pantsula, we’re not going to do pantsula. The music influences the direction of a lot of what we do.


How has your upbringing and your interactions with different people influenced your outlook on life?

Lee-chè: This is a very personal thing to me. I grew up in Cape Town in a very rough neighborhood. My father was a gangster and he basically just sold our toys, sold everything for drugs. So I grew up and went to school and I didn’t see black people in my class. When I moved to Johannesburg that’s when I first got acquainted with black people. That was nice and I always used to be the friend in class. Because I’m a free person and I loved interacting with people and learning new things. Back in Cape Town the separation is there. Coloured people do not relate to black people. It’s racist to the core. Something hasn’t clicked in some coloured peoples’ minds that it’s about humanity. But for me being in Vintage, it had to click immediately because I deal with different people all the time and the entertainment industry is filled with people of different colours. I didn’t hold the things that were done to me by different kinds of people against me, the robberies and the stabbing, I instead reversed them and related as a human to the situations. I don’t know if I can change coloured peoples’ perceptions of black people, but as long as I can show that I am a friend to black people, maybe you observing can also do that in your daily life.

Ashwin: We always say Cape Town is a Country on its own. I was fortunate to have a mom who was open-minded. From the time I was four my mom moved me to an area where I could be with different kinds of people, not just coloured people. Although she was a single mom doing her thing she made sure I was in the new South Africa. When I go to Cape Town I take my black friends with me and I don’t give a fuck. I’m going to behave the way I want and they are going to accept it.

Tarryn: In Johannesburg, the roles are reversed because there are more black people here. People have this perception that coloured people are violent and I deal with it every day of my life. But we don’t let that phase us, we just keep on moving.

Lee-chè: Because we are so close knit as a family we will defend each other to the core. We can be entertainers on TV, but there’s this level of respect we have as people and we’re going to defend each other until the end. If you can’t relate to a person of another colour because of your stigma, that’s your problem, but I have grown up and gotten to know people on a human level and that’s what I’m taking with me until I die.


South Africa is marketed in terms of being a “rainbow nation”, how do you see it?

Tarryn: You’re right it is depicted that way. At every casting there must be a black person and a white person and they must be interacting even if they don’t like each other. It’s not happy go lucky every day. They are selling dreams. Even on this block in Maboneng you can see the dream vs. the poverty.

Ashwin: Outside we get attacked daily, whether it’s verbally or what. Some days you have the strength to go through it, other days you just want to hit someone.

Tell us about The Takeover, your plan to rise to the top of the entertainment industry in South Africa and beyond?

Ashwin: The Takeover started in February when we decided we wanted new members in the group. With the new members it tallied the team to 9. We were able to split the team and kill two birds with one stone. In July we began the Takeover 2.0 by pushing the ratchet element because now people in South Africa are beginning to pick up on the word ratchet. If you look at our pictures from 2011, we’ve been doing ratchet. Because we’re in the last phase now you’re going to be seeing more behind the scenes material about what it’s like to be a Vintage member before you see us on stage. It’s also called the “Bow Down Phase” because we’ve been working too hard and it’s high time that you actually respect us for what we’ve doing.

Lee-chè: Takeover of all sectors of the entertainment industry – empire. All the sectors you think we can’t. That’s what we’ll be doing. Point out an art form and we’ll be there. The characters we’ve created like Ratchet Rochelle are just the tip of the iceberg. The one’s coming are even more controversial. One thing we don’t like doing is we don’t like speaking about something until it happens. So we’re really on the hush until, boom!

The interview, Johannesburg

Vintage Cru consists of 9 members: Ashwin, Lee-chè, Tarryn, Lebo, Robyn, Rogue, Tokyo, Kyle and Junior. They regularly tear it up in Johannesburg. Follow them on Twitter, facebook, YouTube and tumblr.

Black and white images (c) Tseliso Monaheng | Color images (c) Zachary Rosen

An Interactive Study Map of African States

Thu, 12/19/2013 - 19:35

“Africa is a country,” some say with irony. Or derision. Or perhaps in sheer frustration, as those of us resident in some other part of the world try to share our interest in the vast, variegated topographies, cultures, and political constellations all called “Africa.” A critique of continents, the etymology of Ifriqiya, and a European fascination with Bilad al-Sudan are well-rehearsed elsewhere. Here in the U.S., we all operate politically and intellectually in a world-view shaped by the U.S. State Department and an area studies model of regions that presents Sub-Saharan Africa as separate from the Maghreb and Mediterranean Africa.

As Africanists, our stock-in-trade includes pushing back. As teachers, scholars, and commentators we poke and prod at constructed geographies, charting unities across previously demarcated sub-regions and identifying particularities in eco-zones or communities that are conventionally grouped with larger nations. In a post-modern landscape, geography is admittedly malleable. But that does not make it optional. I may be hopelessly old-school to say so: but to make sense of a place, you still have to find it on a map.

Before we can enable readers to follow our logic, students to engage with new ideas, and fellow commentators to write about Africa with more nuance and fewer stereotypes, they first have to know where we are. If you’d like a way to reinforce that “Nambia” and Zambia are different places; that there are, in fact, two Congos; or that geographically, Lesotho is more like Switzerland than is Swaziland, this simple interactive political map of Africa can help.

The map toggles between two modes. In study mode, the user can hover the mouse over a current map with national borders. This action highlights and labels individual countries.

In test mode, the users can drag a country name from the adjacent list and drop the label in the right place. If they’re correct, the label sticks. If not, they can try again.

I developed the map with undergraduate students in mind, but I’m aware that it’s not just college sophomores in the U.S. who struggle with the complexities of African geography. Although political boundaries are just one piece of that puzzle, this exercise may at least help dispel the notion that Africa is a country.

You’ll find the interactive study map here. Go on test yourself.

To Be Young, Angry and Black

Thu, 12/19/2013 - 15:20

The finality of death means that we can never know how Mandela would have liked to have been remembered. His mortal remains, lowered to the ground at Qunu, will become a symbol of contested memory. Growing up in post-94 South Africa, I have seen how chestnuts are traded in the national discourse. Hurriedly, the proverbial elephant in the room is allocated an illusory tag – to mask the discomfort of lived reality; to invoke alarm; and ultimately, to conceal the truth.

A key lesson in Mandela’s life is that he – the man, not the myth – rarely had the opportunity to sketch himself. The world did this for him. Mandela’s mediated life was filled with tags: “rabble-rouser” when he was younger, “black pimpernel” and “terrorist” (thanks, Cameron, Reagan et al) when political urgency found him. When the sun finally shone on him, the world projected its hopes onto him, recasting Mandela as a “global icon”, “South Africa’s liberator” and “talisman”.

Mandela’s South Africa suffers from a similar queasiness. Contemporary issues – some contentious, some not – are tagged by convenience. Our national discourse is polluted with signals; their tone ranging from Rainbow Nation-ism to crude denialism. In youthful naivety you ask: “What is a “born free”, when real opportunity still has a hue attached to it?”; “Who are these ‘young, angry and black’ people you refer to?”; “Why is it that the language of reconciliation has trumped more substantive ideals like social justice?”

Three weeks ago, I stood in a packed room at Cape Town’s indie bookshop, the Book Lounge. Wannabe politician, and former black consciousness activist, Mamphela Ramphele was there to launch her autobiography, A Passion for Freedom. After the dull questions were asked, Mamphela shared an interesting anecdote:

I was in Rustenburg this past weekend. One of Malema’s supporters took off his beret and greeted me with respect. This proves to me that these young people need acknowledgement. The young man was really decent to me.

As Ramphele narrates, the young man was from a small, forgotten community in Rustenburg. He is unemployed, young and black; a reality in post-94 South Africa. He is a member of the Economic Freedom Fighters, the latest democratic-left ensemble advocating for ‘radical change’, led by Julius Malema. The party attracts the “young, angry and black and angry” tag at whim.

Scores of young people, aged 15-34 are unemployed and looking for work in South Africa. The media tags them as “young, angry and black”. We are told that they are the faces behind “service delivery protests”. The ethereal term “service delivery”, itself, reducing the plight of poor South Africans to something less knotty: the provision of, and access to, basic services; disguising and invalidating the quest for true dignity.

The face of the EFF is young-ish and black. Their “redistribute now” missive has earned both valid and lazy criticism. Their tone is perceived by many to be “dangerous” and “irrational”. For Ramphele, the red-beret clad young man from Rustenburg should have been less respectful towards her. For he is “young, angry and black”. The faceless trope deprives him of agency; he is driven by dangerous impulses and anger; he is one within an uncontrollable mass, predestined to produce instability. He is a threat. In a country that oscillates between the haze of Rainbow Nation-ism and the reality of economic exclusion – “young, angry and black” is a good scarecrow.

In South Africa, the threatening discourse has more obvious roots. Under the old order, the politics of fear projected imagined threats to make sense of false adversaries. Remember Mandela the terrorist? Think swart gevaar (black danger) – used by PW Botha and his ilk. The anxiety of swart gevaar sprung far beyond the fear that black people would take over the country. At its root was the imagined fear of the ferocious native – unable to control irrational “anger” and “impulse”.

There are other more colorful tags in Mandela’s South Africa. The Rainbow Nation also gave birth to fuzzy and illusive tags like “born free”. These chestnuts represent a failure of imagination. We believe that there are three standard responses to our pressing challenges: the mysticism of Mandela’s South Africa, senseless alarmism, and myth-making.

As a young South African, Mandela’s legacy leaves me conflicted. I do not doubt the significance of the collective achievement made possible by Madiba and his compatriots. My conflict stems from a recognition that we have not moved beyond the glorious moment of 1994. It is why political leaders like Mamphela Ramphele, big business and the media can downplay the lived realities of the vast majority of South Africans. They deploy tags like “young, angry and black” to mask their lack of imagination.

The day after Mandela’s burial also happened to be Reconciliation Day. Reconciliation – also to be filed under popular South African tags – is a reminder that sometimes, altruistic ideals can be deployed as an opiate.

Now that the 10-day long gedoente is done, our reality will re-etch itself. For many young South Africans, the country we have inherited is littered with contradictions. Mandela, the great statesman our parents told us about, straddled South Africa’s great divide with charm. Yet our divisions have never been bridged. As youth, we now find ourselves in an in-between space: the significance of liberation is chanted aloud, while our lived reality rings a different tune.

Vecinos. Neighbours. A Short Film on African Migrants in Barcelona

Wed, 12/18/2013 - 14:00

The short film below was part of a residency I completed at Jiwar, Creation and Society based in Gracia, Barcelona, funded by The Africa Centre and the Spanish Embassy of South Africa. I focus my artistic practice on memory, place, and home making with a strong focus on migration. Spending the past five weeks in Barcelona I forged a small path through the city, and made this film:

I am intrigued by how people who are a minority, such as African “migrants” in Barcelona, navigate the city. What is their experience of it? What happens after one survives the treacherous crossing by boat or how has the experience changed after living here for twenty years, like Xumo Nunjo who works as a musician/artist.

Xumo Nunjo, originally from Cameroon:

I am from the planet Earth, born in Africa, I have lived in Europe for the past twenty years. You can never lose your African roots — they are too strong, but you have to be universal, you have to be planetary. Home is the cosmos. Home is this planet. Don’t accept anything else.

How does one hold on to a deeply rooted sense of self, a cultural identity, and make new paths whereby lines of ethnicity, race, and nationality begin to shift and become malleable in order to adapt and make new forms of home?

Armed with a complex position, a great deal of curiosity, and a wealth of questions, this project needed to be multi-layered. Thus Vecinos is a multidisciplinary project. I worked in different modes: from documentary portraiture to participatory photography, whereby people took pictures on disposable cameras of what they wanted to show of Barcelona in terms of their experience of navigating and negotiating the city, thus “neighbourhood making”. These images were exhibited in Spain and will be exhibited in South Africa in 2014.

Some people I met are very rooted within Barcelona, surrounded by friends, studies, dreams, their lives are lived in the present – home being where they are, and this is what they chose to photograph. Yet they also keep strong connections to home, running NGOs to educate youth at home in Senegal like Mamadou Dia, who has also written 3052, a book about his experiences.

Mamadou Dia has been living in Europe for the past eight years, he came to Spain by boat from Senegal:

The term neighbor in my country is a sacred thing. In fact we always urge people to consider them, the neighbors are an extension of the family. I was lucky to live a short time in Barcelona and to become friends with my neighbors. We always recommend to look at the community where we live, a mother, a father, brothers and friends, so it will feel protected as a family and people can live in harmony.

Based on my five weeks of hanging out with various Africa migrants living in Barcelona, the short film above reflects the experiences of how people have come to Barcelona and have made the strange familiar, and how certain things, such as a sense of European individualism, continue to remain unfamiliarly strange. Gelia Barila Angri is the last interviewee to feature in the film:

She says:

I’m 24 years, and I’m from Equatorial Guinea. I came to live in Barcelona when I was 16. So I’ve been here eight years … For me, a home is where you make your home, where you feel comfortable. No matter where you are born. For me personally my home is here, but I always remember my roots, I never forget where I come from.

Somali author Diriye Osman’s “Fairytales for Lost Children”

Wed, 12/18/2013 - 11:00

In a dark couple of weeks for LGBT rights, the Indian government’s supreme court has re-criminalised gay sex, ensuring men and women now face police harassment and potential life imprisonment, stating gay sex is “unnatural, immoral and a reflection of a perverse mind.” While in Australia the first same-sex marriage law was revoked by the high court just days after being passed, annulling marriages that had already taken place. This retraction of LGBT rights has come in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s recent bill, so vaguely defined, that he has implemented a draconian governmental stance in a country where violent attacks on the LGBT community are normalised and commonplace.

Diriye Osman, author of the short story collection Fairytales for Lost Children explains in his piece for TimeOut London: “countries like Nigeria and Uganda are crawling with covertly US fundamentalist-backed Christian missionaries clamouring to promote anti-gay hatred as a vital component of religious salvation.” There are still 57 countries that have signed a statement opposing LGBT rights, some holding onto the right to exercise the death penalty. In Osman’s country of birth Somalia, the maximum sentence being life in prison.

The German philosopher Theodor Adorno once claimed “Every piece of art is an uncommitted crime”. In consideration to Fairytails for Lost Children, such an expression is sonorous. Osman has orchestrated a melodic world that is alive and effervescent in the pulp of the pages. The collection of narratives oscillate around a common nucleus, exploring a myriad of identities and gender-sexual spectrums, the result of what feels like delicate inward expeditions. Whether the protagonist is a “hard-boiled, six-foot Somali tranny” working in a mental hospital; or a femme boy trying on lingerie for a conflicted “masculine, active man” with a wife. We are allowed entry into each characters internal psychology, intimately hovering in the blind spot of their consciousness.

Describing himself as “Somali first, Muslim second, gay third,” Osman has employed the structures and syntax of children’s stories — albeit nocturnal lullabies, more akin to the Brothers Grimm tales — or folktales. At his most flamboyant, the prose vibrates with a restless immediacy, riffing like a syncopate jazz trumpet, or with the liquid roll of a hip-hop canter, flecked with Somali and Sheng. “Bwoy had moves. Toes tightened into corkscrews. He fucked with his body’s limits, bending, flexing until he broke through. Attitude and Arabesque became pop, lock, drop. No sweat. Such control is dangerous. I know this dance. It is ours.” Not an isolated example of Osman’s ability to depict sex with a lightness and visceral poetry, sex that is inherent, not merely flesh hung over a skeletal story or moment, but human and holistic.

Each character is progressively aged in each story, which generously bares differing perspectives and ideas in time, as well as in a number of environments: Peckham, Nairobi, Bosaaso. But despite this linearity there lies in the narratives and character portrayals, a coexistence of polarities. One of them subterranean tides, undertows of torment and pain, the other, a buoyancy of wonder, optimism and profound resistance. It is within this reverberating field that a tension moves, bringing the narration to breathe, and nourishes the work. In the opening of ‘Shoga’, based in Kenya, a grandson is having his hair braided by his Grandmother, that as an image is a delicate and tender scene between close family, yet soon this is fiercely reconfigured to a taut conflict.

‘…this business of me braiding your hair has to stop! You’re a boy not a lady-boy!’ ‘You know you love me,’ I smiled. ‘Besides, what’s wrong with being a lady-boy? It’s a good look.’ She pulled my hair and said, ‘Waryaa, if you grow up to be gay, walaahi I will do saar.’ ‘Saar’ was a brand of Somali exorcism.

Such a collision is enlarged to a dramatic horror in the short memoir piece ‘Your Silence Will Not Protect You‘ in which Osman recounts revealing much he had kept hidden to his family, who subsequently disowned him. Made even more harrowing by it unfolding in increments. “I had always thought of family as a fixed, all-powerful entity. I was raised in a culture where family was the most important thing. But as a young gay man I had to learn that nothing in life is fixed, especially family.”

Although the stories are populated by rejection and loneliness ‘Earthling’ introduces Zeytun, a character that is never alone. Suffering with aural hallucinations, interrupting and in a persecutory form, these voices rob her of the capacity for stillness. While the majority of memoir or fictional accounts of mental illness document either the frenetic energy of a soul detonating, or the bleak, crowded darkness of depression. We are here exposed to the unromantic, unsentimental reality of mental ill health — in this case psychosis — and the possibility of oppression being internalised.

Each of Osman’s characters has been written into emancipation, whether it be erupting, a gentle acceptance, or falling quietly — like snow in fog. This book is also a record of the physical, mental and emotional effects of conservative power, pressure and prejudice on his richly resistant and defiant characters. In totality we are presented with an exhibition of loss: innocence, fear, family, shame, virginity, love and belonging. But what is lost leaves the space for something more precious, sacred and transformative. Something necessary. The freedom to explore your own ways of being with ownership — that as the last line of the collection states — “We own our bodies. We own our lives.”