Bylines Thought Leader

Digital tongues: Africans in conversation 2

A little later than promised here is part two of “Digital Tongues”. For new readers here is a brief recap of what this is about:

“Digital Tongues” is a series of Skype and email conversations between myself and four other Africans from Egypt, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa. As I lack ruthless editing skills, I decided to publish the as a series of three posts in the hope that those living on the continent and it’s diaspora, will read and participate in the dialogue in their own way by posting a comment below or blogging or tweeting their thoughts. This is one of many discussions young Africans need to be having in order to push forward the concept of Africa as a whole continent and bridge the perceived gaps between “North” and “sub-Saharan” Africa and the ethno-political divides within Africa’s five regions.

Here, the five of us discuss African politicians and social media, perceptions/misperceptions of Africa in the international media, in African politics and the effect that dividing North and sub-Saharan Africa has on perceptions of the continent. We also discuss how the national and nationalistic politics of our respective countries impacts on the construction and understanding of our own identities.

In this series, the conversationists are: myself and Sophia Azeb, an Egyptian living in the US. Sophia is studying for her PhD, Tolu Ogunlesi is a writer and journalist, currently working asfeatures editor of 234 Next, a Nigerian newspaper. From Johannesburg, the city of bright lights and fast cars, is Khadija Patel, an opinionista for the Daily Maverick. Last but not least, is Sonja S Uwimana, a Rwandan American working in international development who, if she’s like me, cares as much for Hollywood’s “help starving Africa” humanitarians, as stinky piss on hot concrete. (For part one and a more colourful introduction to the participants, see thisprevious post.)

Tendai (Zimbabwe): Sonja, where do the Sudanese locate themselves in terms of their identity and the geopolitical labels imposed on us? Are they in “sub-Saharan” Africa or North Africa? Or the Middle East?

Sonja (Rwanda): I find it frustrating (and somewhat hilarious) that whether I’m in north or south Sudan, I’m told I could be Sudanese … and yet both sides don’t recognise each other in that way. [On location] they are all of those, and none of them.

Tendai: And what does being Arab mean in Egypt? I thought I knew, but sometimes I struggle with understanding what “Arabness” and “Arabised” mean.

Tolu (Nigeria): And then there’s the peculiar Libyan case — self-defining as Arab, but with strong Gaddafi involvement in the AU, and his dubious pan-African vision … not sure the rest of North Africa really cared that much about a pan-African ideal.

Tendai: All hail the King of Kings of Africa!

Sophia (Egypt)*: Arab is often used as a racial category — something I frankly think is akin to people claiming a “pure” heritage of (whatever).

Tendai: But are Egyptians of “pure” Arab heritage?

Sophia: Absolutely not! We’re talking about a nation almost precisely in the centre of the trading world of ancient times and today. North Africa and South-West Asia have been home to peoples of all phenotypes, racial and ethnic identities, languages and cultures. “Arab” culture, like other cultures, is built around language affiliations.

Tolu: So is it correct to say that what we call the Arab world is bound more by language and religion than by any racial homogeneity?

Sophia: Tolu, I would say so, but that doesn’t mean that the mythology of a racially homogeneous “Arab” world doesn’t exist in South-West Asia and North Africa as well as the West.

Tendai: So Arabness like Africanness is a social construction, made up of many cultural and political practices over time. Concerning Arabness, I don’t get it’s inclusions/exclusions. Why, simply because of their skin colour, are Sudanese Arabs “not quite Arabs” or “Afro-Arabs“, yet other Arabs in Africa are also of ethnic mixes indigenous to Africa? And similarly with Africanness in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Rwanda and Nigeria it is used for political and cultural convenience and power plays. What are some of the identity issues in your countries and how do young people — all generational differences therein — see themselves?

Khadija (South Africa): As I said earlier [in part one], we’re not sure ourselves what being South African entails. But what is really interesting is watching how the rise and rise of a black middle class with middle-class values and tastes are being “excommunicated” as blacks. But we must remember that social identities are inherently fluid and the thrill in studying them is founded mostly in watching them in a state of constant flux.

Sonja: Ha! Well if you ask our dear leader, Kagame, we are all Rwandan. My generation is very much still imbued with the myths of my parent’s generation, who are the ones who grew up under colonialism and came of age during independence.

Tolu: In Nigeria the major defining characteristics are ethnicity and religion. Hundreds of ethnic groups, a handful of major ones (each with upwards of 25-30 million people) and two main religions — Islam and Christianity. No wider-world identity ambiguities — all Nigerians regard themselves as black Africans. Plus we had no “settler culture”, unlike say Kenya.

Sophia: My father’s generation — Nasser-era Egypt — often identity as black, African and Arab simultaneously. And now my generation has the opportunity to revive that very pan-Africanist, Non-Aligned Movement ideal of cultural and racial solidarity. For now, all I have to offer to your question about Sudan, Tendai, is that it is as arbitrary as any racial classification is. The fight for racial solidarity is just one stepping stone on the road to a collective struggle against neo-colonialism and neo-liberal economic opportunism. In Egypt, Mubarak did not only depend on creating strife between Copts and Muslims — he also manipulated Nubians, Bedouins, light-skinned and dark-skinned “Arabs” to struggle among each other.

The same thing is happening in Palestine, much more successfully — Palestinians of African descent and Palestinians of Asian descent (and mixed Palestinians) are very focused on uniting with each other against Israeli apartheid. They are aware of the tactics Israel has used to separate them by race, not only religion.

Tendai: We also had a “settler culture” in Zimbabwe and as Mubarak executed his own ethnicity and religion-based strategy of divide and rule, we have it too in my country. Mugabe works on an insider/outsider and inclusive/exclusive strategy (Giorgio Agamben) and among the insider’s ie black Zimbabweans, there’s preferential treatment depending on tribe/race — but still ensure he presides over the nation. Zimbabwe’s tribal divisions are there, but thankfully they don’t run as deep as some African countries.

Khadija: It’s easy for me to say ‘”agh over here, we don’t do the whole tribal thing”. But then I’m a fourth generation urban South African of Indian descent. Rural realities are of course staggering in their contrast. And yet, we are dogged by assertions of Afrikanerdom everywhere in South Africa. And the often vitriolic rhetoric from the ANC Youth League has further contributed to a sense of ethnic polarities.

Sonja: Kagame’s Rwanda is one where we are all Rwandan. Where we don’t talk about that which has historically divided us, but behind closed doors, “Hutu” and “Tutsi” are still very much alive.

Tendai: So what happens if you need a national identity card, what do they write?

Tolu: Curious about Rwanda. Do forms bear “ethnicity” markings? Or is it a “We’re All Rwandan” policy, “Death to Ethnicity/Tribalism”? In Nigeria most forms you’ll fill (and even people’s resumes) will have “STATE OF ORIGIN” on them.

Sonja: Any mention of ethnicity means you are somehow leading us back down the road to 1994, which is why Kagame has instituted all those “anti-genocide ideology” laws.

Tendai: And what’s the conviction rate under those laws?

Sonja: So far it’s mostly affected journalists, who are receiving sentences of upwards of 17 years. You’ll be hard pressed to find private citizens who speak “out of turn” in Rwanda. On the other hand, in the diaspora, we do all the talking we want yet can’t seem to find a way to have meaningful dialogue.

Tendai: Seventeen years is harsh. So much for PK Mr Nice Guy, eh? About IDs for black Zimbabweans it’s like Nigeria, not for CVs, but for things like your ID you have to state your tribal village, animal totem, chief’s name and ethnic group.

Tolu: LOL. You’re kidding about the chief’s name bit right?

Tendai: No I’m not, it’s evolved from earlier forms of colonial bio-power. When I got my ID my mom wrote all the info down on a piece of paper for me. Note that I was born in a town and have lived in a city all my life. I go to the rural areas for holidays and don’t think I’ve ever met this chief and yet, without naming this stranger I could not get my ID card.

Khadija: I keep thinking back to the xenophobic riots that broke out in Johannesburg in 2008. Many of those killed were later found to have actually been South African citizens. Yet, that piece of paper that ought to have safeguarded them, was ultimately no refuge from a bloodthirsty crowd.

* Correction: In the previous post, Sophia Azeb had been asked about the role of social media in the Egyptian revolution and a link was posted to the wrong blog post. The correct link is to a piece called “We are not all Clay Shirky“.

Bylines Thought Leader

Digital tongues: Africans in conversation 1

The brilliant Tendai Marima roped me into a fascinating conversation on identity, Africa and the curious space of Africans in the contemporary.

“Digital Tongues” is a series of Skype and email conversations between myself and four other Africans from Egypt, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa. I can’t bring myself to shred any major parts of this digital chat, so I’ve decided to publish this as a series of posts over three days this week. I hope readers will also participate in dialogue by posting their thoughts below. Here, the five of us discuss African politicians and social media, perceptions/misperceptions of Africa in the international media, in African politics and the effect that dividing north and sub-Saharan Africa has on perceptions of the continent. We also discuss how the national and nationalistic politics of our respective countries impacts on the construction and understanding of our own identities. In this first part, the conversationists are: myself and Sophia Azeb, an Egyptian living in the US. Sophia is studying for her PhD and moonlights as a superheroine exorcist dashing out the Orientalist demons of Dubya in Americans. Tolu Ogunlesi probably belongs to that rare breed of human beings who go to bed muttering must … send … one … more … tweet and though I’ve never met him, I’m sure he’d appreciate an “On Twitter, do not disturb” sign as a Christmas gift. In between his musings about Nigerian politics and daily life, Tolu is a writer and journalist, currently working as features editor of 234 Next, a Nigerian newspaper. If there’s a Twitter-coloured dreamcoat out there somewhere, I’d like one shipped to Johannesburg, South Africa for Khadija Patel. Surely her efforts as a global news aggregator have not gone unnoticed by the good Lord. When she’s not tweeting about world events, Khadija is an opinionista for the Daily Maverick. Last but not least, is Sonja S Uwimana, a Rwandan American working in international development who, if she’s like me, cares as much for Hollywood’s “help starving Africa” humanitarians, as stinky piss on concrete.

Tendai: (Zimbabwe) Welcome, everyone. I hope we’ll have an interesting discussion where each can enlighten the other about how we each see identity issues and political relations on the African continent.

Sonja (Rwanda): Cool. Any leading questions? I’m on deck for Rwanda then.

Tendai: Can you tell us when Paul Kagame will be back on Twitter after that entertaining exchange with the journalist Ian Birrell?

Sonja: He still is! Even when he was in Chicago recently.

Tendai: How have I missed his tweets???

Sophia (Egypt): Beloved leaders need their own twitter list. I wish at least one of the Hosni Mubarak twitter accounts was actually the man himself.

Tolu (Nigeria): It’s Facebook for Mr Jonathan in Nigeria. Well over half a million fans as we speak. I think only Obama’s got a higher number. I’m fascinated by how the new bunch of African leaders are taking to social networking. Even Zuma recently had a page set up for him as president of South Africa.

Sonja: How much is it actually them though? I find it hard to believe that Kagame tweets for himself. Seems to me it’s some overzealous editor of Rwanda’s New Times newspaper, state-owned of course.

Khadija (South Africa): Zuma’s recently taken to Twitter. We do wish his timeline would be as lively or newsworthy as Kagame’s but alas we’re stuck with a Twitter presence that someone in the presidency is using to give Zuma an affectation of social media prowess. But like all things in recent South African politics, the real story of social media among our bigwigs is with the ANC Youth League. After threatening to close down Twitter (forgive their delusions of grandeur), they’ve recently taken to social media platforms with some gusto.

Tolu: I’m curious to know how the Idi Amins and Mobutus (were they alive) would have handled Twitter and Facebook. Would Amin have tweeted from exile in Saudi in a bid to rehabilitate himself (reputation-wise)?

Tendai: Idi Amin might. He had a charismatic enough side to his twisted personality to try Twitter. With followers, he might imagine he presided over a kingdom of Scotland.

Sophia: Amin and Gaddafi would have almost exclusively DM’d each other, I think.

Tolu: Sophia, so do you think social networking played any significant role in Egypt uprising?

Sophia: I do, yes. I wrote a brief post about my perspective on it for the blog Sonja and I both contribute to. But I do think the West crediting social networking as inspiring a “shift from the typical Egyptian apathy” (or similar stereotypes) has been a desperate attempt to rationalise these large-scale uprisings that are not just against dictatorships, but also incredibly corrupt and devastated economic structures and US imperialism.

Sonja: It’s all anyone wants to talk about and I’ve given up trying to change the narrative and then, of course, come the “what about sub-Saharan Africa” questions.

Sophia: Oh yes, we’ve discussed this before. “Sub-Saharan”, “Middle East”, “Middle East and North Africa” etc. These terms are so incredibly problematic and totally neglect the nuances of identities through Africa and Asia.

Tendai: I think there is a tendency to oversimplify things within the mainstream media — just as we want to speak of Twitter revolutions, we draw permanent yet imaginary lines in the sand to distinguish north from south overlooking the centuries of complex encounter in these spaces. I suppose in today’s world of easy, convenient discourses, to begin to understand Africa as a whole and the sum of many parts would be too difficult for those who produce the dominant narratives on Africa.

Khadija: Hey, over here [in South Africa], we’re still getting used to the fact that we’re not an island floating somewhere off the coast of Blighty somewhere. We actually have a whole continent attached to us. Seriously though, South Africans are becoming increasingly insular and our media caters to this predilection.

Sophia: Internationally, it’s certainly faulty media coverage. It’s almost totally focused on South West Asia and North Africa — when politically convenient, I mean — and a reliance on the imperial borders we all live under and our former/current colonial masters still propagate (including a depressing number of scholars of colour in the West) that make impossible fair and thorough coverage of uprisings, protests etc.

Tolu: I wrote a piece for CNN about “sub-Saharan Africa” [protests] and realised how tough it is to be very nuanced in an 800-word piece that tries to cover sub-Saharan Africa. Damn! At times like this you realise that Africa is a BIG place and that no theory covers two countries, every situation is different.

Tendai: Even within one county like Sudan the media trips up, badly. The constant references to “black African” versus “Arab” read like woeful misunderstandings of the context-specific politics of race and identity in Sudan. Khadija, does the South African media trip up with South Africa’s identities?

Khadija: For sure! But then as South Africans we’re still working out what it means to be South African. We continue to reel from the effects of being a severely fractured population so opportunities to share experiences and construct a sense of “South Africanness” through shared experiences are scarce.

Sonja: I’m actually more interested in the ways we (as “Africans” — whatever that means) also propagate these “Arab” vs “African” / “Middle East” vs “sub-Saharan Africa” divisions.

Tendai: That’s a good point, Sonja. How “Arabs”, “Afro-Arabs” and “Africans” see ourselves — politically and culturally — feeds off of and feeds into how others see us. In Zimbabwe, we have a violent kind of nativist politics that is tied to the notion of being an indigenous African and Zimbabwean ie black. But when the Chinese and Europeans come with their cheque books, it all goes eerily quiet on the frontiers of indigenisation.

Sophia: Just a few months ago I heard several black American and Canadian scholars at a conference definitively conclude that Tunisia and Egypt have the US Civil Rights Movement to thank for their uprisings and then declare Egypt and Tunisia to be “non-white but not black African” nations. A sentiment many in South West Asia and North Africa also ascribe to, but one many of us are working against, given the complexities of our identities — racial, ethnic, religious, gender and otherwise.

Tendai: But what is it that makes us racialise everything? Why are we still hung up on colour?

Khadija: I recently participated in Michelle Obama’s Young African Women Leaders Forum. I was one of 76 women from across sub-Saharan Africa who had been identified as “young women leaders”. Now, without delving into what exactly what all of us had done to merit a place there, what perplexed me was that these were 76 women exclusively from sub-Saharan Africa. We’re all trying to reach across our borders and find a sense of Africanness but the absence of “Arab” Africans was not at all questioned. If we are indeed to discover a sense of pan-Africanness then we have to look beyond linguistic and racial divisions. Or, is it easy to clump together the [north] Saharan block because they share a linguistic heritage? Or is it indeed racial?

Tendai: I wonder who did the choosing for the Michelle Obama Young African Leaders and what kind of view of Africa informed their choice. Concerning the Saharan north and south, I think there are very good reasons there are these linguistic, cultural and racial determinants creating the imaginary divide, but it also has negative effects especially when it seen as a raced division.

Sophia: I think we’re hung up on colour because it is precisely how neo-colonial and authoritarian powers keep us separate. The divide and conquer trope is very real, but it has shifted in dramatic ways.

Tendai: And we too have become the dividers and conquerors.

… to be continued on Tuesday.


Bylines Magazine Work

On Nationalisation for the Christian Science Monitor

From the moment that African National Congress Youth League leader Julius Malema uttered the word “nationalization,” South Africa’s media and business community have spoken of little else.

The reaction has been swift and negative, with dire warnings that any attempt to wrest ownership of South Africa’s rich mineral resources away from its powerful mining houses would be the beginning of the end for foreign investment and for the South African economy in general. Mr. Malema didn’t stop at mines, of course, but also spelt out his vision for a radical economic transformation that calls for nationalising a number of sectors including mining and banking as well as expropriating land from white people in the name of agrarian reform.

“Our calls for mines to be nationalized and land to be expropriated without compensation is currently our most important issue,” Malema told delegates at the ANCYL conference. 

That South Africa finds itself at this juncture should come as no surprise, of course. The Youth League’s call for nationalization is wrapped up in the ANC’s most revered manifesto, the Freedom Charter, which was adopted in 1955. According to the Charter, “The wealth of the country shall be shared among all who live in it.” Such a radical view of wealth-sharing, however, has been a project that remains delayed, even after 17 years of liberation. But while, business leaders and some within the ruling ANC alliance warn against the dangers of nationalization, patience among ordinary South Africans, and particularly younger unemployed South Africans, is wearing thin.

Patrick Bond from the School of Development Studies at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal sums up the business community’s reaction as “a deep suspicion of populist nationalisation” movements in South Africa.

More surprising is the negative reaction that comes from within the leftist ANC alliance, with none other than Blade Nzimande, the general secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP). Speaking at this week’s conference of the COSATU trade union, Mr. Nzimande condemned the Youth League’s nationalisation drive as an attempt to bail out failing black-owned businesses, or what he calls “elements in crisis.” For its part, the ANCYL recognises that nationalisation efforts will be met with international condemnation and has expressed a need for “political mobilisation” to combat international reprisals against their efforts towards nationalisation. 

With a closer reading, it’s clear that the ANCYL does not, in fact, propose state ownership of the entire mining industry. Rather, a state mining company would be the majority shareholder and allocate the remainder of shares to private companies.  As it currently stands, legislation introduced in 2002 in the form of the Minerals and Petroleum Resources Development Act [28 of 2002] (MPRDA) brought mineral rights under state control.  The act gives communities the opportunity to obtain a ‘preferential right’ to prospect or mine a mineral on land registered under the name of the community with the objective to “make provision for equitable access to and sustainable development of the nation’s mineral and petroleum resources.” The shift from the current system to the one vetted by the ANCYL would alter the current dynamics of the private-public partnership. Mining rights, according to the ANCYL proposal, would be handed out by the proposed state-owned company and not the Ministry of Mineral Resources.

This new approach would only serve to benefit individuals and companies that are part of South Africa’s new elite, says Andile Mngxitama, editor of New Frank Talk, and a leading black consciousness thinker in South Africa. “The problem with nationalisation,” Mngxitama says, “proposed by a state that is pro-elite means the nation becomes cursed.”  Mngxitama has joined the chorus of detractors who believes the ANCYL’s version of nationalisation will serve only to replace private capitalism with a state capitalism, with little, or no, benefit to the people it is meant to benefit.

Patrick Bond cautions that the 8,000 recorded protests in the last six years against the government’s poor service delivery record points to a greater South African context that is “anti-poor”.

Bobby Godsell, chairman of Business Leadership SA and a former CEO at mining giant AngloGold, believes that “smart business leaders understand the extent of ‘excluded’ South Africans, that is those without economic activity, secure shelter, quality education, decent healthcare, in short, a place to stand in the new South Africa.”  “I have no “theological” opposition to governments owning and controlling companies that produce goods and services,” Godsell says, “I would ask only that there be a clear public interest as to why they do that, and then that they, like everyone else, should be judged by their results.”

But past experience shows that the state’s ability to manage businesses is lacklustre at best. The national broadcaster,  the national airline, the Land Bank and South Africa’s only nationalised mine, Alexcor, have all been embroiled in well-publicised  managerial challenges. Nationalization in other African states, too, gives reason to be cautious.

 The Zambian economy went into freefall after its copper mines were nationalised under Kenneth Kaunda in 1968, but rebounded in the 1990s when private capital like Anglo American was invited back by then President Frederick Chiluba. They bailed out again two years later, after siphoning off large profits.

Yet not all nationalization programs are alike. The nationalisation of copper mines in Chile is hailed as a nationalisation success story and is reported to have benefitted both workers and finances, in what is essentially a soft form of nationalisation – a public-private partnership – which began in the 1950s. Godsell however cautions that Codelco, the government owned Chilean copper company “operates under exactly the same rules as other private sector mining companies who produce copper in Chile”. “In fact,” Godsell continues, “private sector companies produce more copper in Chile than does Codelco. This competition gives the people of Chile as the ultimate owners a basis on which to judge the efficiency of this company”.

Venezuela’s giant oil industry and many other key industries, like telecommunications, energy and cement have been subject to a stringent nationalisation programme. The massive oil industry was nationalised in 1999 and though profits have now become public property, development watchdogs caution that private sector skills are still needed there to support aspects of the company’s oil production.

Back in South Africa, Mngxitama believes,“Nationalisation is a gesture by an ANC with nothing else to offer the poor”.  It is indeed the ANC-led government’s failure to deliver basic services to some of the poorest in the country that will accelerate calls towards nationalisation. ANCYL spokesperson Floyd Shivambu has been quoted in the local press confidently saying: “The business community must accept that nationalisation is going to happen in South Africa.”  Big business, of course, would beg to differ. “I, in no way think some form of nationalisation is inevitable,” says Godsell .

Bylines Featured Miscellaneous Published

Be ‘Witness’!

The Witness, a Kwa-Zulu Natal publication owned by Naspers very naughtily, used my Muslim Marriage Bill column without first seeking permission from me, or The Daily Maverick. The column has certainly been the most successful of my columns so far- I’m told it’s been doing the rounds among the ‘FWD’ brigade. I went viral baby.

Okay, not quite, but placate me here.

You can be be witness to my column in Kwa Zulu Natal daily, here.