Monthly Archives: July 2008

red, yellow, black

You are watching the television. It’s evening. You’ve finished dinner, and are sipping on tea, or a beer, perhaps a whisky. Your children might be asleep, your lover might have popped out. You are watching the news of your nation, alone, in your small front room. A peaceful hour to yourself, to sit and see what is happening in your country. There is music and a picture of the globe, spinning spinning spinning then stopping on the continent of Africa. There is your nation, in the bottom third on the left. And here’s the presenter, a large woman with golden skin and a huge smiling mouth, a deep strong voice, a woman you trust because you’ve seen her in a glossy magazine about local celebrities. She featured – a single mum – with her two kids. She’s strong and determined. She’s making it alone out there. She takes you through the stories of the day. She guides you around the country, dropping in on small towns all about the place where senior leaders have passed through. Her colleagues have done good film work. Here’s the Supreme Leader of the People’s Most Trusted Guide standing on a stage infront of a microphone perched on a tall metal pole just in front of his mouth. The Supreme Leader of the People’s Most Trusted Guide is wearing a baseball hat in the colours of the nation which are also the colours of the Supreme Leader of the People’s Party. Red, yellow, black. The Supreme Leader of the People’s Most Trusted Guide (SLPMTG) wears the baseball caps with pride, and he wears a thick T-shirt also richly coloured in red, yellow, and black, which stretches over his large, firm belly. In his hand, he holds a flag which is also in the colours of the Supreme Leader of the People’s Party: red, yellow and black. The SLPMTG is shouting to his Brothers! His Sisters! His Children! His People! His Party! The Liberators! of The Nation! As he shouts, he waves his flag and the colours of the flag ripple with the colours of his cap, and his shirt. The camera pans around to the cheering Brothers! Sisters! Children! and Liberators! of The Nation! They too are wearing baseball caps in the colours of the Supreme Leader of the People’s Party – red, yellow, and black; they too are wearing T-shirts in those colours; they too are waving flags in those colours – red, yellow and black. It is a beautiful sight, a colourful and exciting sight of excited people dressed in harmony with the colours of The Nation and The Party. The camera sweeps back to the stage, where the SLPMTG is now standing holding a large box. It must be heavy, for he is bending a little and has had to give his flag to an assistant. From the right of the frame, comes a Brother! from the People! As the Brother walks towards the SLPMTG, his Brothers! and Sisters! and Children of The Nation! cheer even louder. The camera swings back to them, to their cheering, and they have all raised their red, yellow and black flags and are waving them in a frenzy, shouting, cheering, smiling. The camera swings back to the stage, where the SLPMTG is now pushing the large box into the arms of the Brother! of The Nation! The camera zooms in on the box. A photograph on the side of the box shows a large desk-top computer and keyboard. The SLPMTG is giving this to the Brother! of The Nation! The crowd roars! Flags ripple and rattle in a frenzied shaking and applause. The camera pans out, showing a long line of Brothers! and Sisters! of the Nation! all queueing up to collect their desk top computer. The sound fades away, and we are back in the studio, our golden female presenter explaining, “These are the Youth of the Supreme Leader of the People’s Party. These are the Youth who liberated our Nation. They are being rewarded.” Our golden lady opens her face to a vaster smile than she has ever offered before. Her eyes twinkle, and for the first time, you notice a shining from her lips, a thick gloss that covers her beautiful pink lips. Your fingers are touching your own. Your drying lips. It crosses your mind to make sure you find some thick gloss in the morning on the way to work.

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harvesting hunger with Angolan diamonds…

The seizure of farmland for the purposes of commercial diamond mining in Angola’s Lunda provinces is causing widespread hunger and deepening poverty, according to new research to be released tomorrow by my friend, the Angolan journalist, Rafael Marques. The report focuses on the activities of the Sociedade Mineira do Cuango which is a joint venture led and managed by a British-based mining enterprise, ITM Mining, in partnership with the Angolan diamond parastatal, Endiama, and Lumanhe, a private company owned by Angolan Army generals. This report encourages us to think a bit deeper about the definition of so-called blood and conflict diamonds.

If you’re interested in knowing more, please email Rafael on rafael@snet.co.ao

For those of you who are reading this in Johannesburg, you can come and listen to Rafael speaking about this topic next Tuesday, 5th August, from 5.30pm. I will also be speaking alongside a former BBC colleague, Justin Pearce, who wrote an interesting book based on his days of reporting for the BBC in Angola from I think 2001 to around about 2003, An outbreak of Peace. Today, Justin is working on a PhD about Angola at Oxford. I’m very excited about speaking alongside these two very gentle men. Oh, and by the way, we’ll be serving drinks after… so, come.

I nearly forgot to tell you where: it’ll be on the 6th floor of the Richard Ward Building (who he?), on the East Campus of the University of Witwatersrand, in the WISER seminar room. And believe me, we are, truly… And you might wish to ponder that the talk comes exactly a month to the day before Angolans will go to the ballot box to vote in the country’s second ever legislative elections. Other facts for the uninitiated: Angola became independent, so to speak, in 1975; the MPLA has been the ruling party since then; there have been two presidents, Agostinho Neto (1975-1979, when he died in Russia, some say, was murdered in Russia), and José Eduardo dos Santos (1979 to date). Angola is currently the biggest oil producer in Africa, selling more petrol to the Chinese than even the Saudis. The country is, as Rafael’s report informs, about to become the world’s 4th biggest diamond exporter. In Angola, one in four children die before they hit five years of age, and over two-thirds of the population (estimated to be anything from 12m to 15m people) live below what aidies and economists call ‘the poverty line’. Luanda, the capital, is estimated to be the most expensive city in the world – yes, in the world – overtaking Tokyo.

Oh, and the presidential elections, are not due until this time next year, when the President will be celebrating 30 years in power. Isn’t that just nice.

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through the looking-glass, with Tarzan and Jane

Not so long ago, I was wandering in what for many people would qualify as a jungle. It was the Mayombe Forest in Cabinda, the small enclave that belongs to the Republic of Angola but is sandwiched between the two Congos. I was with a group of Cabindans, one of whom told me, ‘This is the biggest jungle in the world, stretching from Cabinda all the way through the Congo, and into Gabon. You are now in the biggest jungle in the world.’ Another member of the group disagreed. ‘I think this is as big as the Amazon rain-forest of Brazil,’ he said. Size, for me, has never been the ultimate measure of quality – but I was nevertheless amazed and wowed by Mayombe. During our drive into the thick twisting mass of green and brown and yellow and more green, we stopped and picked up an old man. He was carrying a large machete. ‘This is what we need,’ said the driver, ‘to find the magic tree.’ Half an hour later, the vehicle came to a halt and we all piled out. The old man with the machete and the driver then spoke to each other for several minutes, before leading us off the road and into the forest. The old man with the machete led the way, his arm swinging back and forth as he chopped at the forest to clear a path. He moved at great speed, swift and skillful, such that we never had to break the walk and stand still while he hacked away at the twisting, hanging, writhing flora. We walked and walked and walked. And finally came to a halt beneath a very large tree – a huge tree, so huge that I could not see the top – whereupon we were treated to a short but intense history lesson from one member of our group, aided by the old man.

I was thinking about that day in Cabinda this morning in bed. I was thinking about something someone said to me not so long ago. The words the person spoke were these:

‘It’s a jungle mentality.’

As I understood it, the person was referring to the current politics within the ANC, in particular to the man who had said he would not only die for Jacob Zuma, but he would kill also. Possibly, this person was also referring to the wave of violent xenophobia attacks that swept Johannesburg and other areas in South Africa earlier this year. Anyway, I was thinking about this, this morning, in bed – it was shortly before six – having also read, last night, this essay by Paul Theroux entitled Tarzan is an expatriate. Someone sent the essay to me, saying that my own essay You let her into the house? (published in this new anthology by Rasna Warah, a book most definitely worth buying here) reads as an ‘update’ on Theroux. That was very kind. But I digress, for the Theroux piece is also hinting at the jungle, though – as I understand it – he makes the link between expatriate fantasies and real experiences of ‘Africa as jungle’ and the expatriate role in it as Tarzan or Jane.

To return, though, to the earlier anonymous quotation I provided above, it struck me – as I pondered this person’s analysis of ANC/South Africa politics – that the jungle is of course a highly complex yet delicate eco-system. The person’s statement evidently says so much more about their own (mis)understanding of what a jungle is (a dark, scary place where animals hoot and howl and attack each other for no reason?); says so much more about where they place themselves in relation to that ‘jungle’. Which brings me back to Theroux’s essay, of Tarzan and Jane. And what is so gloomy about all of this is that Theroux wrote his piece forty-one years ago, before I was even born (just), in 1967.

How little things have changed.

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the freedom to throw up

I stopped reading newspapers in the UK several years ago when I decided I didn’t have enough energy to sustain the irritation that surfaced every time I read pages and pages of simplistic and biased reporting. Today, I tend to rely on books, blogs and certain select magazines to inform myself about the world in which we live. If that sounds pompous, so be it.

South African newspapers – especially when it comes to reporting the world – are as bad, and sometimes worse, than the British press. Frequently, they reprint UK copy (pulling from Prospect, the FT, The Sun, the Daily Mirror, the Guardian and no doubt others), just as the state broadcaster SAFM uses BBC reporting to fill minutes of news slots (amazingly, SAFM even transmits BBC reports on Zimbabwe, reports that are produced in the Johannesburg BBC bureau office… and, yes, that is true). South African newspaper copy on (the rest of) the continent of Africa is… actually, I don’t think I can bare to go there today… Instead, let me take you into the world of South African reporting of itself, in particular, it’s great ageing hero, Nelson Mandela.

Below I offer to you, sweet reader, a piece I had the misfortune of reading this weekend. It comes from the Travel & Food pages of a paper called The Weekender. Yes, I know all Travel & Food pages are ghastly… and don’t ask me how I came to this… but it is my belief that this piece – which was, I promise, published – is an indicator of just how far this country has, er, walked since 1994.

Titled ‘Food and the struggle for freedom’, the cook book review begins:

“If anyone had ever told me I’d cry over a banana, I’d have scoffed, but I have.

“The story goes like this: in 1979, when former president Nelson Mandela had already been imprisoned on Robben Island for 15 years, [funny that, I thought he was a terrorist in those days?] he received a present of a parcel of fruit from Dullah Omar’s wife Farida.

“‘Ah, a banana! It’s the first time I see a banana in 15 years,’ he said.

“I know I should already know this; I’ve been to Robben Island and done the tour, but somehow it was this book that brought home to me the starkness of the Robben Island diet for prisoners.”

Our reviewer then gives a short list of the kind of food “grown black men” and “Coloured and Indian men” were allowed to eat on the island, and continues:

“Reading the chapter on Mandela and his comrades’ Robben Island diet made me so angry I seethed for days – and guilty that back then I had no idea that Mandela and Co were being treated so badly. (Cut me some slack, I was eight in 1979.)”

You can feel that seething writhing off the page, can’t you? Poor luv.

She goes on:

“While the political prisoners supplemented their diet with what they could grow in vegetable gardens and scavenging from the sea, what angered me was the deliberateness of planning so meagre a diet for those men – regardless of who they were – that South African Communist party member Laloo Chiba remembers his gums bled.

“Food as punishment.”

You don’t say. Grrrr… she’s getting cross now:

“Reading, I seethed on.”

I had to stop at this sentence and re-read it several times. Was this a subbing error? Did she originally write, “Seething, I read on”? Who’s having the laugh now? Seeth, seeth, seeth. Brrr… Grrr… Woof! Woof! But I’m going to leap over three thick paragraphs of seething and take you here:

“We all measure our lives, partly, in food: stolen sweets; family meals; first-date dinners; slices of wedding cake under the pillow; birthday cakes; and Trapido has delivered to us a Madiba who is more human than icon…”

Incredibly, it gets worse:

“This book made me want to apologise to black people for the small [baby?] acts which, during those apartheid years, so deliberately and so pettily set black and white apart (and, I suspect, in some quarters, still do).”

She suspects! This is marvellous! Stay with me, reader, and gulp on the following paragraph:

“Most of us white South Africans born before 1985 or so can remember incidents [incidents?] (or patterns of behaviour) [much better!] such as one Trapido relates of how even at the “liberal” law firm Witkin, Sidelsky & Eidelman, where Mandela did his articles, the secretary informed him that new cups had been bought for his tea, with “the unstated [un-what?] message being that he was not to use the existing crockery from which white members of staff drank”.”

Oh, alas, the lax liberals of olden times.

Let me quickly put you out of your misery – and take you straight to the closing line. Hold on to your seat for this clanger of a conclusion:

“But what I like best is knowing that this man, famous during his years as president for horrifyingly early mornings, now comes downstairs around 9.30am or 10am for breakfast. Quite right!”

Phew. Good, good, good. All better then. Nasty stories all gone away. Nicey breakfasty.

Hunger for Freedom: The story of food in the life of Nelson Mandela by Anna Trapido.

P.S. Chapter fourteen is called, Happy Endings and Just Desserts.

OK, you can go and run for that bucket now. And don’t forget to wash your hands.

The full article – if you’re sure you want to read it – can be found here.

[Reading: Waiting for the Barbarians, by JM Coetzee, who has become one of my all-time favourite authors. He is a truly brilliant writer.]

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heart of darkness

In between bouts of violent vomiting and, um, appalling diarrhoea, I finished reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness last night at three or four in the morning. Yes, I, too, read something into the illness, particularly that type of illness: expelling poisons and toxins from my squirming, wrenching stomach. Expelling the book, the words of Conrad, who, as Achebe wrote, was clearly “a bloody racist”, became a physical act that has stayed with me this morning. I feel wobbly, weak and anaemic. Achebe has said it all (see foot of blog immediately below for link to his essay, written in a year which has become so terribly loaded for me, 1977) before, and I don’t think there’s much that I can add. Other than being amazed that people I like and respect have defended Conrad on this particular piece of work. Why? Why feel the need to defend him? He’s dead, for starters. But would these same people defend someone who wrote a similar work today? Perhaps they would.

Not that I regret the book being written. I’m glad to have read it. Glad to have thrown into sharp relief the ways in which we Europeans slide into thinking and writing about places and people when we land on this continent of Africa. The usual self-doubt rumbled away as I turned the pages: do I also fit this mentality? Is this how I see, in my case, Angola? Am I unaware of my own deeply self-obsessed thought patterns? For that is also what struck me about the book: it is incredibly self-orientated, I mean, about the self. And I am (deeply) aware that in my own case, my relationship to Angola is, shamefully, about my Self. Not only. But partly. Inevitably.

I’m relieved I didn’t read this particular Conrad until now. I’m glad I’ve done my own travelling first, had my own rows with all and sundry about the way African contries are (re)presented in the international (and sadly, domestic) media, in novels, talk shows, and songs. I’m glad I’ve dragged my mind through years of doubting, reading, doubting and more reading, before encountering Heart of Darkness.

But I see no excuse for the respected scholars, writers, journalists et cetera, who defend the piece of work. I was disappointed in it, as a story, but more stunned by the extent of praise and worship it has received over many decades. How deeply disappointing.

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blue overalls

At the airport, I stand with a mother who is waving off her youngest son as he drifts towards England and on to King’s Lynn. The first time any of her four children have left South Africa. It is God’s wish, she tells me over and over. And it is God’s wish that we have met, she added. The usual guilt surfaced; the feelings of necessary confession that I don’t believe buzzed about my head. But I said nothing. Something in her strength that left me a little envious: The moment he is gone, I shall forget him. He is with God, and in God’s hands. I shall forget. We pushed our travelling and departing loves together, me insisting that the bald man with glasses and wide feet would ensure her young son, in white and red silky clothes and a cloth hat of many colours, makes it through the stop over and out the other side at Gatwick, as far as the train to King’s Cross. From there, I said, already jealous of his freshness and inexperience, the deep blankness of expectancy in his eyes, he will be on his own. His adventure will have started! He will see our drunks asleep on the pavement of St Pancras and wonder if he’s really in that England. Her mouth opened to a deep dark hole and pale pink tongue: Drunks! In England? I nodded. Her son smiled nervously. Then we all spun apart to hug and whisper private wishes.

I hope I meet the young man in a year, to hear what he thinks of that small wet island full of self-delusion and so little knowledge of the rest of the world despite what it tells itself. Our greatest defect as a nation.

I cruised home with the Mother of a motor steadying on D-knob, down the R24, N12, N3, the N12, M2 and M1. Lanes merging and disappearing and reemerging. Golfs and Porches, and vast white Jeeps wrapped with ribbon and bows of thick metal piping (suitable for a large bath for elderly and disabled giants), saw across vanishing white lines ahead. I felt like the lady in the magician’s coffin: cut in half night after night but miraculously surviving unharmed time and time again. How I later reached home I don’t know, for my attention was torn away from the freeway early in the journey.

From the centre of a vast poster rising up from the bottom of an old gold mine dump, a woman stood with her back to me, legs spread. She caught my eye as I passed for she was looking over her shoulder – blonde hair scraped up into a casually-messy-but-very-much-sculpted-tussle of a bun – in a cheaply kinky come on baby kinda way. Her back, bare, was remarkably pale. Her skin so white it might have been photographed with powder sprinkled over the shoulders down to her slim, trim, touchable waist. From there, a familiar pair of blue cotton trousers, ever so slightly baggy, split into a large A, with her feet, as I said, spread apart. WE WANT YOU TO WEAR US, read some words on the same poster. And the name of the company, which I now forget other than remembering some of the letters (I’m sure I saw a G, a V, an R and an O), was printed in large thick black font just above our pretty lady’s empty head. Other words on the poster explained briefly and cleverly that the company also sells all sorts of robust clothing and outdoor jobbing equipment necessary for the thousands of South Africans to whom the best-selling newspaper here, the tabloid Daily Sun, is dedicated. The men in blue overalls. The men you often see at the side of the road, wearing thick woolly hats, digging into ditches or driving short compact yellow vehicles that wave long metal arms at the passing traffic. The men who march down the centre of a shopping street, waving silvery cars with thick black velvety tyres in and out of small spaces, picking up bits of change from drivers who aren’t quite ready for eye contact. The men who lie on tidy grass verges at midday in winter, warming their bodies to the shine of the sun, legs crossed and crumpled and folded. Thick wool hats temporarily tossed off.

What of the lady’s arms? They were not visible in the poster. Crossed in front of her I imagine, covering her breasts I imagine. From who? From us? The camera crew? In her workmen’s trousers. In her blue workmen’s trousers. Our pale powdery girly… oh, Shirley.
[Later, escaping with: Abdullah Ibrahim, cherry/mannenberg and reading: Heart of Darkness which I confess (why?) I have never read before; and Molotov, a South African magazine]

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blue overalls

At the airport, I stand with a mother who is waving off her youngest son as he drifts towards England and on to King’s Lynn. The first time any of her four children have left South Africa. It is God’s wish, she tells me over and over. And it is God’s wish that we have met, she added. The usual guilt surfaced; the feelings of necessary confession that I don’t believe buzzed about my head. But I said nothing. Something in her strength that left me a little envious: The moment he is gone, I shall forget him. He is with God, and in God’s hands. I shall forget. We pushed our travelling and departing loves together, me insisting that the bald man with glasses and wide feet would ensure her young son, in white and red silky clothes and a cloth hat of many colours, makes it through the Doha stop over and out the other side at Gatwick, as far as the train to King’s Cross. From there, I said, already jealous of his freshness and inexperience, the deep blankness of expectancy in his eyes, he will be on his own. His adventure will have started! He will see our drunks asleep on the pavement of St Pancras and wonder if he’s really in that England. Her mouth opened to a deep dark hole and pale pink tongue: Drunks! In England? I nodded. Her son smiled nervously. Then we all spun apart to hug and whisper private wishes.

I hope I meet the young man in a year, to hear what he thinks of that small wet island full of self-delusion and so little knowledge of the rest of the world despite what it tells itself. Our greatest defect as a nation.

I cruised home with the Mother of a motor steadying on D-knob, down the R24, N12, N3, the N12, M2 and M1. Lanes merging and disappearing and reemerging. Ahead, Golfs and Porches, and vast white Jeeps wrapped with ribbon and bows of thick metal piping (suitable for a large bath for elderly and disabled giants), slalom across vanishing white lines. I felt like the lady in the magician’s coffin: cut in half night after night but miraculously surviving unharmed time and time again. How I later reached home I don’t know, for my attention was torn from the freeway early on.

From the centre of a vast poster rising up from the bottom of an old gold mine dump, a woman stood with her back to me, legs spread. She caught my eye as I passed for she was looking over her shoulder – blonde hair scraped up into a casually-messy-but-very-much-sculpted-tussle of a bun – in a cheaply kinky come on baby kinda way. Her back, bare, was remarkably pale. Her skin so white it might have been photographed with powder sprinkled over the shoulders down to her slim, trim, touchable waist. From there, a familiar pair of blue cotton trousers, ever so slightly baggy, split into a large A, with her feet, as I said, spread apart. WE WANT YOU TO WEAR US, read some words on the same poster. And the name of the company, which I now forget other than remembering some of the letters (I’m sure I saw a G, a V, an R and an O), was printed in large thick black font just above our pretty lady’s empty head. Other words on the poster explained briefly and cleverly that the company also sells all sorts of robust clothing and outdoor jobbing equipment necessary for the thousands of South Africans to whom the best-selling newspaper here, the tabloid Daily Sun, is dedicated. The men in blue overalls. The men you often see at the side of the road, wearing thick woolly hats, digging into ditches or driving short compact yellow vehicles that wave long metal arms at the passing traffic. The men who march down the centre of a shopping street, waving silvery cars with thick black velvety tyres in and out of small spaces, picking up bits of change from drivers who aren’t quite ready for eye contact. The men who lie on tidy grass verges at midday in winter, warming their bodies to the shine of the sun, legs crossed and crumpled and folded. Thick wool hats temporarily tossed off.

What of the lady’s arms? They were not visible in the poster. Crossed in front of her I imagine, covering her breasts I imagine. From who? From us? The camera crew? In her workmen’s trousers. In her blue workmen’s trousers. Our pale powdery girly…

oh, Shirley.

[Later, escaping with: Abdullah Ibrahim, cherry/mannenberg and reading: Heart of Darkness which I confess (why?) I have never read before, and now at page 80, am amazed that anyone could suggest it isn’t heaving with racism (see this piece for more); and Molotov, a South African magazine]

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