ABOUT LAST NIGHT: Africans & etc


Good Morning, Coffee, anyone?

I wanted to start this week’s blog by writing about the recent e-tolling saga ( formally known as the Electronic Toll Collection or ETC) in Johannesburg which has had Johannesburg motorists up in figurative arms. I wanted to note and remember with you what happened in Johannesburg’s streets after the ETC, went live in December of 2013.  I wanted to remind you of  the three most outspoken and loudest voices against etolls in Johannesburg with the exception of the Opposition for Urban Tolling Alliance OUTA: Ousted Cosatu president, Zwelinzima Vavi,  Patrick Craven, who resigned as the labour union federations’ spokesperson in April this year and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) which has since been expelled from the Union Federation.  I thought it curious that the panel of experts resolved to continue with the etolls despite widespread public opposition, and that Cosatu under the new leadership has all but changed its line and has tacitly endorsed the new dispensation, urging Gauteng citizens to just pay in not so many words.  I thought it was a curious coincidence then I thought; wait a minute, this is much deeper than I thought.

Eish Joe…

This feels like a long hang-over:  The Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project ( GFIP) which includes the two main ETC methods: the “boom-down” electronic toll collection and the ” open road tolling” (ORT) which went live in Johannesburg in 2013 were implemented in 2007. Which means that the decision to install ETC in Johannesburg was taken in the early 2000’s under former president Thabo Mbeki’s administration with minimal to no public consultation with the caveat that perhaps in this instance a majority vote for the ANC was enough of green light for all of the ANC government policy positions.  The project which  was largely completed by April 2011, is ostensibly not the incumbent President Jacob Zuma’s decision even though he served as former President  Mbeki’s right hand man for much of his tenure.  In fact these decisions were likely taken and implemented in mid to late 90’s, with the first casualty being the controversial Arms Deal  Saga.

It’s so boring though…

You may think that this is effectively a moot point, but I think it puts the issue in context and makes very clear the country’s policy of  privatizing some key national assets; which  I think (though I will stand to be corrected) will in time include Eskom, Telkom, Sanral etc. Which has not shifted since the country’s democratic dispensation. This follows to the tee former President Nelson Mandela’s plea to the International community for foreign direct investment  (FDI) in public-private partnership deals which formed the basic foundation for the country’s economic policies over the years: Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP), Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) and now the National Development Plan (NDP).  President Mandela urged investors to come to South Africa saying ‘ We have many public assets, and we have the workers and labour unions under our control, we would like to partner with you” during his maiden trips as the country’s first democratically elected president. So what? Perhaps giving in on economy in exchange for “political” freedom was the only peaceful option for transition available to him and his team at the time. Perhaps he hoped that in time we’d gain some ground and through some  sheer force of political will gain some control over our economic future, perhaps it was just a foot in the door,  perhaps it was the best way to avoid a civil war. Again so what?

 Consider God’s Bits of Wood

As we mark and celebrate  Africa Day this week, we do so soberly in South Africa on the back of brutal attacks against our brothers and sisters.  And boy do they have a lot to teach us. They’ve been there before. Take a look at the  book, God’s Bits of Wood, a seminal work of literature by Senegalese writer and film maker Ousmane Sembene, in which he fictionalizes a historical account of the 1947/8  Senegal-Niger railway strike which changed the course of West Africa’s  political history.  For six months workers demanded salary increases, back pay, family allowances and pension funds – equal to what railway line workers in France were earning. A preposterous request by any stretch of the imagination at the time. Africans were not even considered human, let alone workers who deserved to earn salaries equal to white people who were then considered superior by virtue of the colour of their skin which also offered them a higher level of education, training and skills.   The striking workers were ignored and during the course of six-months, had to survive without food, water and money.  However they refused to relent, instead they united with other workers in Mali and Senegal and refused to go back to work on the repeated promise that their concerns/needs will be gradually addressed. Their employers argued that they had already benefited from Frances’ civilizing mission to Africa and a family allowances would prove too expensive as the Africans kept more than one wife, calling all African women concubines and or whores in short. Following a march from  Mali to Dakar, Senegal led by those very concubines ( Women’s march) the striking railway workers received all of their demands in full; effectively forcing the French to recognize black African workers (African labour) as fundamentally equal and worthy of the same benefits as their European (white) counterparts when performing the same tasks. The book is a work of genius.

You’re not serious…

I think the ETC saga in Gauteng presents a similar opportunity for motorists in the province ( and South Africa citizens in general) to stand for what is right, but of course the battle will not be won by three of the estimated 3.5 million registered motorists in Gauteng. It will  only work if all motorists stay united so that government understands that since it did not consider it necessary or imperative to fully and properly consult tax/rate/ payers/users of highways before signing said deals, it is equally and just as unnecessary for them to expect them to pay for something they never endorsed in the first place. It is a matter, indeed, of principle.  Government cannot continue to pay lip service to “Batho Pele’.  Perhaps in this way, this and the next administration will know to actually put people first when making plans for the country,  as it is ultimately this country’s citizens who will have to pay. This might, hopefully,  pave the way for  government to re-consider its fiscal policy to date and maybe think about truly restructuring  South Africa’s economy in a way that truly creates and sustains real growth. Because try as we might, we are not France nor are we Norway, Denmark or any of these European countries we are meant to emulate and impress. We need to create our own economic policies and plans that are tailored to fit and suit our unique economic position and  not size zero designs meant for models who live on coffee and cigarettes – we cannot unfortunately copy and paste development. I have faith that if we truly apply ourselves we will find the best economic solution for ourselves, but it has to come from South Africans and not as has been the case so far, our benefactors.

Yoh, dude! So you wanna be starting somethin’

It will be useful to quote here, political economist Mary E Clark  when she said “In life some things can be counted and others cannot. Those things which matter most – Beauty, faith, friendship and self-expression – are immeasurable. There is no way to count them. They are not marketable. As soon as we put a price on them they are debased and prostituted. Yet as a society this is exactly what we do. Only what can be bought and sold is given value” I think this is one of those “things” in life, that just cannot be bought or sold: the right to self-determination.


More ZEN less PH0BIA


Anti- Xenophobia Protest March 27 May 2008
Anti- Xenophobia Protest March 27 May 2008

11.  May. That date brings so many memories. I recall them today because it was a day of paradoxes which I am now only aware of ironically in hindsight.  The 11th of May 2008 was a day of new beginnings, a day of some kind of a fresh start. I walked into the walls of the largest Buddhist temple in Africa, dehydrated, hoping to come out refreshed, energized and ready to live a peaceful life. We  ( I and three others) were going to spend a weekend in silent meditation…connecting with our inner chi and though we were not disciplined enough  not go out the night before we still made it against all odds, half way on a Saturday the 11th of May 2008.

It was a meaningful occasion, especially for me  because I had attended high school just a street away from where the majestic temple now stands, oddly isolated from the once sleepy town of Bronkhorspruit. You can see it on the highway from Pretoria to Witbank.   Back then when I was 13,  learning Badminton, practicing Kung-fu and reading Miles Munroes’ in Pursuit of Purpose between selling pies at break time,  sweeping mounds of hair from my mothers Hair Salon, watching the Lion King and having “debates” about the existence of God, race  and Homosexuality with my class mates… the temple  whose foundations were still being dug seemed like a faraway dream. Like something that would probably never happen. Or even if it did my choice of faith would prohibit me from walking through those gates.  But in May 2008 I drove through Nan-hua Temple with Chris  and Black Panther (my car) two of my then best friends.

One of the T-shirts we made. With Christiane  Dankbar and Carole Chauvin.
One of the T-shirts we made. With Christiane Dankbar and Carole Chauvin.


We joined two friends Mali and Fumi? Our masters were at pains to explain that men and women were not allowed to share the same room. A rule which was for once,  all in our favour. We couldn’t have wished it otherwise.  Our first lesson after lunch was learning how to plan and be prepared  for life by learning the art of  making tea.  Then we did Tai Chi, Kung fu stretches , walking, sleeping, eating meditation, we practiced being grateful for everything, between bites  of noodles and greens and suppressed pious laughter…..shhhhh…silence was encouraged.  It was beautiful. On Sunday we bought music to keep meditating on the  way back to the busy buzz of the city of gold.  We were floating on repeated chimes of the Chinese flute and violins when at the petrol station; Mali leaned on black panther and said d through the window “You guys are busy meditating while Johannesburg is burning!” I had never heard anyone say that before “Johannesburg is Burning” what do you mean? We asked perplexed as if waking from deep sleep. Turn on the radio, it’s on the news.  I immediately switched to SAfm, and heard the shocking news that there had been wide-spread  violent attacks on foreign nationals in the city center, some people were dead some injured, shops had been looted it was just mayhem.  I called my boss to ask if they needed extra hands. He said it was fine they had it covered. What was covered? But by the next morning I was walking through the deserted streets of Jeppe’s town on the outskirts of Johannesburg’s city CBD… trying to piece together some kind of a story a sequence of events. Who – What – When – Where – How and Why? The streets were eerily empty… the shops abandoned… broken glass, black soot, the only sign of violence…. shop owners gingerly trying to salvage what remained  of the weekends’ carnage”.

On of the T-Shirts in the Making. We hand made more than 20 - and gave them away for free.
On of the T-Shirts in the Making. We hand-made more than 20 – and gave them away for free.

A far and distant  memory seeps to the surface like a mirage…. one day in Bronkhorspruit we woke up to news of a terrorist attack… the Indian shopping center had been bombed…. there were TV news journalists asking people questions. Did you see anything. I wanted to see. I was a street trader, selling hair clips, lipstick and nail polish( it helps grow your nails, makes them strong) A better option for me compared to knocking on people’s homes  like Jehovah’ Witnesses.  I had to go to the loo near where the bombs had exploded… I didn’t bargain on a platform of pit-toilets and large half-naked women balancing precariously between the dark manholes…with yellow water falling from even darker hidden places. But I saw the damage… and heard the word.  Terrorism. The market was busy, teeming with people  who continued to shop as if nothing happened.    The last time I had been in a deserted town  in a place where clothes, money and possessions lost all their value… where people left everything behind was…. was in the Hot Summer of June 2006 in Lebanon.

But the  xenophobic violence quickly spread across the country… like wild fire and became daily headline news.  The police were becoming desperate to find the ‘criminal”,” third force” element that was quote unquote responsible for the violence. They had a list of names and were now knocking on doors, shacks, banging them down,  barking “where is so and so? we’re told he lives here? Are you hiding him? I don’t know who you’re talking about . A woman would respond  peering fearfully through a corrugated iron door “Hhey mama, we know he lives here”….. “mkhiphe” take him out… where did you buy this TV, this DVD? You steal? Where are the slips?  All of it sounded too familiar, so close to me…. I know a time like that in my life…. Years ago…somewhere in Orlando West Soweto  on the kitchen table… my uncle Thente was getting a  Tjambok’s  hiding – a lesser punishment for whatever crime he was    at the time, white soldiers in full army uniform stood around our   faded green enamel  kitchen table. My  great-aunt watched on helplessly as he flinched and groaned with every lash, his lips and eyes blood-shot. Do you Know him? What would I have said peeping through my bedroom door.  He died a few years later. But not before teaching me how to draw, and introducing me to the joys of eating ‘is’khokho’.

The front-lline. Anti-Xenophobia Protest march, Johannesburg, South Africa.
The front-lline. Anti-Xenophobia Protest march, Johannesburg, South Africa.

“black bags meant for  garbage are prized possessions here” was the line my colleague Sherwin  and I  used to open  our radio story on scores of refugees returning to their countries of birth following the aftermath of the Xenophobic attacks.  “You hesitate when you ask questions” he says to me taking the microphone and showing me how it’s done.  I was overwhelmed.  I spoke to refugee after refugee…. I spent days on the side of the road…. In Lindela  …. In the corridors of the Methodist church in downtown Johannesburg. None of it made sense.  We Printed T-shirts. We marched in solidarity.  Slept behind bars.  Appeared in court.  Until someone asked – How does a victim become the perpetrator? It was just a play. The line. I knew then that the events of 11th May 2008/2007/6/2004/1993 etc had changed my life. I’m still trying to find myself in the ashes of the burning man.  I just cannot believe it’s happening again.


"The Angry Wind"
“The Angry Wind”

BOOK REVIEW: The lost Kingdoms of  Africa by Jeffrey Tayler

Wow. A huge wide smile spread spontaneously across my face when I stumbled on Jeffery Tayler’s travel book “The lost Kingdoms of Africa” – its tagline– “through Muslim Africa by Truck, Bus and Camel” wetted my appetite so much so I immediately started looking for a cozy corner where I could sit and start reading I was so excited. But it was to be the back summary of the book that made me thank the heavens above that I had found another way of travelling back to where I had just come  from, an abrupt return which I am only now beginning to fully accept.

“This is the account of a journey through the realms of Africa so remote, so geographically and culturally isolated that their frontiers have rarely been breached.  The Sahel region of the lower Sahara, whipped by ferocious winds and shrouded in secretes, home to a vast Muslim population is the southernmost outpost of Islam’s dominance in Africa.  Comprising the southern Sahara regions of Chad, Northern Nigeria, Niger, Mali and Senegal, it once witnessed the emergence of Africa’s wealthiest and most exotic Kingdoms and Empires. To this day it produces some of the continent’s leading writers, musicians and artists, perilous and poverty-stricken, it rarely sees travelers  I was already jealous of this guy, Jeffery Tayler, I mean he gets to travel the Sahel by truck, taxi, bus and boat, something I have always wished I could do and he  gets to do  it! Wow.

Tayler –an American travel writer based in Moscow – already sounded amazing to me, with three titles of travel novels under his belt. Moreover he was well prepared for his adventures into Muslim Africa having learnt and being fluent in both Arabic and French.  Wow. Anyway what lay between the pages is the most uncomfortable ride of my life  full with so many sweeping patronizing  derogatory  generalizations and misguided judgments of  Black/African people that  I literally had to force myself to read it through to the very last line, just to be fair.

I,  like him struggled through the Harmattan (from the twi haramatta, a derivation of the Arabic haram, forbidden, evil, cursed) which he describes as a parching easterly wind that originates above the wastes of the Sahara and blows for days over Central and West Africa. The Harmattan is his constant and most loyal companion through out  his travels and is the most visible character in the book apart from himself – the narrator.  He spends so much time describing it that at one point when someone asked me  “how’s the book” my  response was “I feel as if I have grains of sand stuck between my teeth”.  He does have a way with words. Jalil a name which Tayler uses to introduce himself during his travels.

Tayler prides himself (rightfully so) on his purely classical Arab language skills but has almost nothing positive to say about the countries he visits (the African kingdoms he so lustfully desires are lost to him) nor the people who host him along the way.  Perhaps the timing of his travels as an American in “Muslim” Africa was a miscalculation on his part. He travels to the Sahel shortly after the 2001 September 11 terrorist attacks in  the US. But the Muslim extremism he tries to excavate from the “Sahelians” seems to only to exist in his head. “how about Bin Laden?, al Qaeda?” he keeps asking as if expecting an  answer more congruent with his perception of Muslim Africa as the breeding ground for  Muslim fundamentalists bent on launching  a full war against the West.

My envy of his travels vanished and was soon replaced with sheer sympathy for him. I had the heavens to thank for that I had  not read the book before traveling to one of the lost kingdoms of Africa  because  the book does an excellent, if not superb  job of discouraging the reader to never dare set foot there.

Page after page is littered with the same monotonous accounts of religious fundamentalism, Christians against Muslims and visa versa, black Africans hating themselves, abusing, enslaving, oppressing and killing and maiming their children mercilessly in the name of culture or  tradition and let’s not forget their collective yet secrete  hatred for all  Arabs, which  is trumped only by their  collective love and admiration of their truest  savior – the white man.  Poverty, corruption, disease, tribalism, hatred, back-ward and uncivilized cultural and traditional practices are highlights of his trip. At some point he admits to recoiling at the mucus ridden dry faces of  black children greeting him and wanting to touch him ” I couldn’t help it” he says. It is ultimately “nature” in the form of the  snake like Niger River and the moon which offer him some solace during the 2500 mile trip.  It’s as if he never moves from one country to next, as if he is constantly and mercilessly trapped in the blinding epicenter of the harmattan orbit   The last three chapters pretty much some up his experience of the Sahel —-Djennes bitter winds (the book was initially published with the title Angry Wind in 2005), Death in the Sun and Misere.

His description of Bamako -Mali in Chapter 19 (Misere) sums up his entire book:

“The chants of the mendicants, the hyena-honks of taxis, the grunts of the women, and the oaths shouted by angry drivers all compose a cacophony of urban distress as grievous as it is in vain. Vain because beyond the Sahel the voices of these people cannot be heard, their stories will never be told. They are born to live poor and die hard, leaving nothing behind: their misery once the subject of ideologies of liberation and revolt now inspires no one. ‘The Wretched on the Earth” Franz Fanon called people like them in another time, but he is dead, and his oeuvre, passé. However, in defiance of intellectual fashion the wretched remain orphaned of Western defenders, ever leaner, ever hungrier, increasingly angry, serving their sentences, awaiting an emancipator, a commander. For now , poverty and despair  banish thoughts of revolution among these masses, but later when a savior appears, he will exploit their suffering to create an army of the enraged that will swamp coalitions of the willing, breach the walls and storm the west”.

It is of course hard to maintain or sustain the self-righteous anger that so easily bubbles up to the surface as I read what  I can only describe as well written yet putrid account the Sahel because that is ultimately his experience, moreover the facts of what he observes; civil wars, disease, hunger, corruption and general lack of progress in many African counties is frustratingly still true today. What is upsetting is he posits all of judgments as truths ‘that will never change.  He is so confident and self assured and  misunderstandings I wished I could talk to him about it. Take his description of a typical greeting:

“How was I she asked, and how was I doing with ‘la journee? Et ta famillle? Et ta sante? Et la fatigue? Et las journee? Et la famille? Et la santé? Et la…. ‘One did not answer each inquiry but responded simultaneously with an echoing litany of languid verbiage, interspersed with “merci, merci, ca va, merci, oiu merci,et vous?”

He concludes that this greeting ritual must have been inherited from North African Arabs whom are the only people he seems to have modicum of respect for throughout the book. Another  misguided  assumption. Despite my efforts to free myself from mental slavery and not reduce Tayler’s’ work to a simplistic black and white racial interpretation of us and them –  I also just couldn’t help it. The book makes it hard for one to go anywhere else.  He does at time try to provide some semblance of objectivity, or balance. In  the final chapter of the book he tries to collect create some context to WHY  Africa is so  “Wretched and miserable”  but his deep seeded Afro-pessimism  prevailed to the very last line:

“Western companies continue to control African export markets, fixing the prices they pay Africans for the commodities they take from their shores. These impersonal facts and figures add up to a bleak but human truth:  Sahelians will suffer in the future more than they do now, and die more than ever. Their imams will tell the survivors whom to blame.”

That’s where the book should have started. But I am grateful to Jeffery Tayler for writing this book – because now I will make it my personal  life’s mission to ensure that there is another account  of Africa, written from a Black African Female perspective….of love, triumph , prosperity and freedom, because there is life in the Sahel – he just didn’t  want to see it

Mali Money Mali Money….. MALI!

Malians Demonstrate outside RTS ( Senegals National broadcaster)
Malians Demonstrate outside RTS ( Senegals National broadcaster) 2012

Friday  18 January 2013.

Mali made headline news in Senegal this week; at least one would think so from the news on  news channels in the country. The Malian Crisis which started in earnest in 2012 intensified this week  leading to an announcement by its parental country, France that they will be sending troops to  the embattled country as a matter of urgency, in a couple of days in fact.  French officials  said the situation in Mali is now completely unacceptable in a speech he gave to a seemingly disinterested audience at the United Nations (Security Council meeting).  Close to 2000 french troops are now in Mali  after initial air  strikes to diffuse the threat by jihadists attacked,  the BBC reports today that Islamist fighters  have withdrawn from two towns in central Mali.   A year ago (2012) France was just as passionate and unwavering in its position not to intervene in the Malian crisis as they have recently proclaimed regarding the current crisis in Central Africa.  There,   calls by the government and it’s citizenry to France “Our brother, mother” to intervene were met with a stern no!  France would not be sending troops to Central Africa to help its government diffuse the encroaching terror of the rebel groups () which is taking over the country. Even though France has troops deployed in Central Africa, they are only there to protect their own interests, they announced to the media.

So now with France agreeing to send troops to Mali, one has to wonder what has changed.  France clearly has interests in Mali which are now being threatened hence the announcement to send troops there. To an untrained eye, France had every reason to intervene in Mali last year;  when the army which deposed then President Amdou Tumani Toure, was losing the battle  against the Taureg fighters  who have now taken control of key towns and cities including the historic town of Timbaktu in the Northern parts of the country declaring the north an Independent Azaawad state governed by strict Muslim Sharia law.  Fighting ensued between the break-away army groups led by Captain Amadou Sanogo – they wanted a new leader, whom they hoped would be decisive in augmenting more fire power to the  country’s army to defend its sovereignty.  Captain Sanogo announced that though they were willing to defend the country from the Taureg Rebel groups they had no ammunition to do so successfully. They were losing men in battle.  TFM, the second largest media group in Senegal, screened a mini-documentary by the television station’s chief editor Bacar Ba this week.  The film showed images of a new group of armed Jihadists saying they are fighting against French Imperialism in Mali.   The film was followed by a panel discussion which discussed some  of the issues at play in Mali.  What is the role of France, Islam,  and the Arab influence in the country, the role of ECOWAS including the role of Senegal is in the whole debacle.   Mali and Senegal as we say in isiZulu “Abantwana boMontu “(they are of the same parent: France) and before they were granted their independence circa 1960,   they lived together as a unit under the Malian Federation.

So if anything, Senegal has more of an interest in restoring peace to its sister country which it borders to the east.  However, Senegal has not pronounced much on what action it’s taking to assist in the unfolding crisis, Blasé Campoare Burkina Faso’s president has been playing a central role in peace negotiations there.  In reality, Senegal has sent more troops that any other country within Ecowas,  ( 500 according to news reports here) panelist during the discussion also agreed that Senegal was key in stabilizing the crisis Liberia and in fact too many other countries on the continent including the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Senegal it would seem has also adopted the policy of quiet diplomacy which one hopes will have better results than that of South Africa and Zimbabwe.

In other news that have left me feeling a little cold; the airwaves are abuzz in Senegal following South Africas refusal to grant 10 Senegalese  journalists visas to travel to South Africa for the African Cup Of Nations (AFCON)  which opens tomorrow. I am saddened by their refusal. Football is important in Senegal, much like the desert needs the rain,  let alone the strained foreign relations that will happen as a result. South Africans  will in the future now require Visas to come into Senegal ( reports say from, July ) something which they never required before. One hopes for the sake of  Africa that the issue will be resolved without any permanent damage.