The victory by the African National Congress at South Africa’s polls this week has renewed controversies about the ANC’s leader, Jacob Zuma. In an article I wrote marking Zuma’s victory that appeared Friday in the London Guardian, many readers seemed confused between the term “populist” and “popular.” Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first president, was popular but not populist. As a political tendency, “populism” seeks to challenge the wealthy, redress gaps between rich and poor, and improve the self-esteem and pride of the have-nots. Populists also tend to attack elites for looking down at the ordinary ban, and for using their superior education to make policies more complicated than they ought to be. Zuma is clearly populist in the traditional sense. The trouble with populism, historically, has been the abuse of the movement by its leaders. In practice,, populism can quickly slide into dictatorship. In America, Huey Long, of Louisiana, used the slogan “every man a king” to rouse his supporters. In the Pan African movement, Marcus Garvey, elevated ordinary black people to the center of his political movement. Populists can even be unpopular, which may in the end be what happens to Zuma. Rather than acquire too much power, he may end up with too little — because of his own limitations.
Apr 20 2009
The wise decision by Senegal’s court of appeals, to set aside convictions against eight gay men in the country, represents an important first step in West Africa towards a new legal framework for treating homosexuality. In Senegal, as in most West African countries (and East African countries as well), homosexuality remains a crime. In this case, the justices did not challenge the immorality of such a prohibition; rather they concluded that the ordinary evidence required to convict a homosexual — catching them in a sexual act — was not obtained in this case. Indeed, the ruling actually supports the legal ban. But the judges nevertheless deserve praise for their brave choice. In West Africa, even defending homosexuals when they are right — as they often are — invites abuse and even reprisals from the wider society. Let’s hope that Senegalese people of good will can withstand the inevitable backlash and aim even higher — full equal rights for people of all sexual orientations.
Apr 19 2009
Mahmood Mamdani, the great Africanist, has stirred up fresh debate over the uses and abuses of the human tragedy in Sudan’s Darfur region with his new book, Saviors and Survivors. Since I have criticized humanitarian do-gooders over the years for their mistakes and mis-apprehensions in representing African affairs, I’ve predisposed to give Mamdani a fair hearing. But I do part ways with him, as I explained today on the valuable blog, Making Sense of Darfur.
Apr 15 2009
BBC’s “World Tonight” (Radio Four) invited me to speak on a program devoted to the national elections in South Africa. My role was to discuss with the political economist, Moeletsi Mbeki, the wider economic currents in sub-Saharan Africa against the backdrop of the global financial crisis — against the backdrop of 15 years since the end of apartheid and the likelihood of another African National Congress government, this time under the leadership of Jacob Zuma.
In the April 13 broadcast emphasized some refreshing positives in my segment with Mbeki, whose thinking I admire. But the dour attitudes often shown by the British towards African futures were on immediate display. The opening interview, with an ordinary South African woman, quoted her as saying about her own country, “At the moment I’m feeling bitter.” Fair enough, given the severe crime and great wealth inequality in South Africa today. But then she added, “Nothing has ever happened since 1994.”
Nothing? The remarkable achievements of South Africa since 1994 cannot be dismissed so easily.
Mbeki gamely highlighted positives, fairly I felt (even though he is the brother of the more famous Thabo Mbeki). The narrator of the program, with whom we did not speak, pointed out that crime was a response to wealth inequality.
In a country which suffered 19,000 murders last year, violence takes on a pathological normality that mocks the power of rational analysis. The BBC is of course right to bemoan rampant crime in South Africa, but this particular broadcast failed to identify the roots of violence in the history of apartheid itself, and especially state-sponsored promotion of violence within African communities. The apartheid regime invested heavily in the promotion of violence between black Africans for more than a century. The “divide and conquer” tactic bequeathed to an independent South Africa habits of violence, however indefensible, that cannot simply be switched off. The legacy of apartheid is no excuse for continued violence, but no pro-peace program for civil society and community policing in South Africa can gain any traction without squarely facing history.
Apr 12 2009
Kenya’s coalition government is facing an unrelenting barrage of criticism — and now predictions of “imminent” civil war, by security analysts in the East African country.
The main charge is that Kibaki and Odinga, the respective leaders of the country’s powerful Kikuyu and Luo ethnic groups, have failed to make good on promises made a year to forge new alliances, undercutting the appeals to “tribal” affiliations that marred the national elections in December 2007 and led to widespread post-election violence. The failure to create a trans-ethnic political culture in Kenya, bemoaned loudly by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, is linked to a deeper pathology in the country’s ruling elite: endemic corruption.
The pillage of national revenues is the subject of an incendiary new book on Kenya by the British journalist Michela Wrong who essentially indicts the entire national political leadership in the theft of more than $500 million in public funds.
The coordinated attack on Kenya’s reputation — along with baroque and increasingly cries of impending doom — reflect a narrow-mindedness about the region. Kenya’s ills are indeed terrible but they are probably less terrible than those afflicting neighboring Sudan and Somalia. To be sure, Kenyans should move to reduce the violence that imperils civil society and the country’s poor and elite alike.But the best way to create conditions for peace may not be to exaggerate the threats to it, in Kenya or anywhere else in Africa.
Apr 09 2009
Google has posted on YouTube a presentation I made on “Married to Africa” at the company’s campus last month. The video mainly consists of questions I took from employees curious about the region. I spoke about my affection for people and places. The high point of the film is seeing a stylish jacket designed by the most popular Congolese tailor in Kampala. The jacket, made of cotton and from fabric produced in Congo, has various flamboyant features that are hallmarks of the Congolese sartorial style. The jacket has an extra-long body, unusual lapels, and loud colors — all designed to draw attention to the wearer’s joyous sense of life. Congolese design is fast gaining ground in Kenya and Uganda, where Western dress is too popular. Many people from Congo have moved to the relative safety of Nairobi or Kampala after years of upheaval in their own country. Whether in clothing design or music, the influx of Congolese have made a welcome mark on cities not known for distinctive dressing or style. Of course, the challenge in dealing with a Congolese tailor is making yourself understood. In my case, I solve this problem by permitting my tailor to measure me — and then do whatever he wants! The results are invariably distinctive and pleasing.
Apr 05 2009
Sean Jacobs, a South African intellectual living in the U.S., writes often about his region of origin, perceptively unraveling many of the social and cultural confusions that handicap writers and reporters — especially those not from Africa — on the continent. He’s written a kind review of my memoir, highlighting the role that music plays in the narrative. Dance also provides a backdrop to my stories about Chizo Okon, my wife. She is quite a remarkable dancer and partial to tunes from the Igbo highlife singer Osadebe and a legendary 1970s band from Port Harcourt, her home city, called the Oriental Brothers. Alas, most of the band’sÂ recordings are unavailable, though earlier this decade a series of fabulous compilations were released in digital form. The recordings of the Oriental Brothers ought to be made available again, by someone.
Apr 02 2009
Criminal prosecutions move slowly in South Africa, but in the case of murdered reggae star, Lucky Dube, justice was delivered this week.
Three men accused of robbing and killing Dube in 2007 were sentenced to life imprisonment, the harshest penalty possible in a country without the death penalty.
There are no lessons in Dube’s murder, but there is an awful metaphor: Africans continue to suffer gravely from self-inflicted wounds. Whether because of poverty or inequality, foreign exploitation or domestic, many talented people are devoured day by day. The pathologies of ordinary life continue to consume the well-endowed and the less-endowed alike.
Dube’s death is a reminder that the inequities within African countries now loom as large, or even larger, than the gulf between Africa and the rest of the world. Dube’s killers said they did not recognize him; they thought they were killing a Nigerian, a wealthy immigrant to their country. Their casual rationalization highlights the everyday resentments, in African cities especially, that increasingly creates urban worlds where haves and have-nots co-exist in the shadow of violence.