On safari

We are not just marking the end of 2019, but also the end of a momentous, if frustrating decade for building a more humane, caring future for Africans.

Museum van Volkenkunde, Leiden in the Netherlands. Image by Sean Jacobs.

From the start, I have always had two sets of goals with this project: one, to shape political, social and economic conversations about Africa away from that of the priorities of development agencies, superpowers, or the latest fads, including those coming from within the continent. And, secondly, to expand our work to reach new and diverse audiences who consume media beyond our niche (and loyal) readership. On the first: We started with media analysis and broadened it to provide an outlet for new kinds of writing by and about Africa and Africans from particularly left and progressive perspectives. On the second: It means translating our work into languages other than English (there’s a large world of opinion and analysis and learning beyond those parts). But it also means extending beyond text-based opinion and analysis to creating more visual media.

To get to our goals, in the last few months, our work has received much needed financial investments: First, I won a Fellowship from the Shuttleworth Foundation and, second, Open Society Foundation awarded us a three year grant. We want to thank these organizations for their faith and confidence they place in our work going ahead. We want to make it clear that in no way will they dictate to us what to publish or produce. That’s not how they operate. But more than just the confidence placed in our work, these are also clear signs of our influence and the value placed on Africa Is a Country‘s role in the public sphere.

No less an authority than Brazil’s leading newspaper (its version of a paper of record), Folha de Sao Paulo, declaredAfrica Is a Country [is] probably the most important platform for information and analysis on Africa outside the continent today.” Sweeter is when our readers praise us. Sample: “Your articles slap hard …” or Chambi Chachage, historian of capitalism in Tanzania, telling me, on camera, that “Africa Is a Country is a very big thing for me. I put it up there. I always read it, tweet it, retweet about it. And one day I will write an article.” We can go on.

The funding is allowing us to, firstly, firm up or institutions. For the last ten years I, alongside a small team of volunteers, did the heavy lifting towards making the site run. In 2014, Boima Tucker, became Managing Editor and the first paid staff with a very small monthly stipend thanks to Shuttleworth Foundation and Jacobin Foundation. Otherwise we paid contributors with small grants or project payments from Ford Foundation, Nordic Council on Africa, Al Jazeera, etc., or we connected people to paid work. With the new funding, Boima is now full time, and a number of other staff join as independent contractors. We appointed a new Senior Editor, Caitlin Chandler, whose job it is to make sure our text-based copy has a consistent look and feel. As a result, Caitlin steps off our Editorial Board. And, even more excitingly, we appointed a Staff Writer, Will Shoki. We are particularly pleased about Will’s appointment. Will, based in Johannesburg, South Africa, will write weekly analyses and summaries of the news. He has written for us before, but his piece on the South African government’s decision to shore up the power of colonial style local authorities is his first in his new position. Crucially, in his post, he linked these events in South Africa to previous reforms like this in Uganda. Finally, we have formalized our two Copy Editors, Andrea Meeson and Kangsen Feka Wakai. (Kangsen is also a regular contributor to the site.) We also have a new Intern, Myrakel Baker, originally from Houston, Texas, and currently a student in New York City.

One other big announcement: We are adding Sisonke Msimang to our Editorial Board. Sisonke has been a Contributing Editor of Africa Is A Country over the last few years. Sisonke is a sought after public commentator and writer as well as a mentor and trainer to young writers, so we are are very pleased.

Our team are a group of incredible people. Grieve Chelwa, one of our Contributing Editors, is one of the most exciting and sharpest economists of the next generation. Oumar Ba, an Editorial Board member, has a new book on the International Criminal Court coming out early next year; another Board member, Dylan Valley, was named an Atlantic Fellow on Racial Equity and a VR film, “The Occupation,” he made about urban land politics in South Africa has been accepted into the Sundance Film Festival. Marissa Moorman, also on the Board, wrote a book about radio and postcolonial politics in Angola. That’s just to name a few. The same can be said for our myriad contributors.

2019 also marks a decade since I decided to name the site Africa Is a Country. I had previously blogged as Leo Africanus. Since the name change and the move to a more collective approach to publishing work, more than one-thousand writers have contributed to the site. In this time, we have created significant content on the website and on our social media, including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and crucially, Youtube, covering everything from #Metoo in Nigeria and Ghana, land politics in various locales on the continent, new social movements, the impotence of liberal party politics, the surveillance state in Africa, the precariousness of urban life in Nairobi, youth politics, the effects of climate change in Africa (the continent is ground zero), worker rights, immigration or border politics, reactionary politics (neoliberal authoritarianism, xenophobia, Afro-capitalism), political alternatives to neoliberalism and state led pan-Africanism projects, the politics of economics as a discipline, reusable pasts, and cultural politics. I don’t want to single out articles from the last year or the last decade. We want to promote them all. We’d suggest over the break to dive into our archive.

We have a number of initiatives planned for the new year—in terms of translation, both literally and figuratively — and we would love to sustain the growth and energy we have have managed until now. Although we are happy to have received funding for now, we certainly aren’t out of the clear in terms of future needs. That means, in fact, we need your help more than ever. If you would like to get your (tax-deductible) donations in before the end of the year, please visit our donation page.

As De La Soul once prophesied the “stakes is high,” and we plan to continue to refocus our energy on the crucial issues that are making our future world, today. It is is not that we don’t want to focus on representation or identity politics as is often the mode today, but we want to understand how they relate to people’s lived experience and material conditions. We care about how people live, how they thrive, what prevents them from thriving, how they self-organize and what forces shape their ability to live full, meaningful lives. In the new year, we want to prioritize all our platforms equally—not just our website, but also our social media. Expect us to be more pro-active.

We take heart from the words of Fred Hampton, the American radical socialist killed by Chicago police in December 1969, “You don’t fight capitalism with no black capitalism, you fight capitalism with socialism.” Similarly, we agree with Thomas Sankara, the brilliant, if naive, leader of the revolution in Burkina Faso, before he too was killed: “It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen. We must dare to invent the future.”

To that end, let me end with some remarks about where I saw hope in the last decade for a new kind of African politics, that dare to invent the future.

There are a number of recent cases where Africans have managed to push the conversation beyond liberal reforms as a political goal or did not spent all their energies on the politics of nostalgia; i.e. to harken back a simpler time of national liberation or charismatic leaders.  Young people, a generation with no memory of colonialism, but living through the effects of Structural Adjustment, globalization, authoritarianism and neoliberalism, are at the heart of this new politics. The short-lived Egyptian revolution is one example. So were the events in Tunisia that led to the fall of Ben Ali. Then there is #OccupyNigeria and #RevolutionNow in Nigeria. #WalktoWork in Uganda. Senegal’s pivotal 2012 elections also stand out. There, a youth movement were crucial to the electoral defeat of Abdoulaye Wade. So was the 2014 Civic Broom movement to sweep away dictator Blaise Compaore’s government. The ongoing protests in Sudan and Algeria and the rise of political figures like Bobi Wine and Stella Nyanzi in Uganda, or the Mathare Social Justice Center in Kenya can also be viewed as part of this new kind of politics.  There’s also the diaspora: The American congresswoman Ilhan Omar, probably the most exciting African politician now taking on Empire; her daughter, the climate rights campaigner, Isra Hirsi; the Somali workers who took on Amazon in Minneapolis-St Paul (see here and read political scientist Joe Lowndes’ last paragraph here); the footballer Demba Ba, or Zohran Kwame Mamdani, running for New York State Senator as a Democratic Socialist, among others.

But it is perhaps in South Africa where some of the most interesting developments around imagining a different kind of politics has taken place.

There it has been remarkable to watch the political capital, built over a century of popular struggle, get squandered as the ruling African National Congress became more preoccupied by leadership battles and corrupt dealings. The ANC seemed to forget its supposed historical mission to transform what is still a deeply racist and classist society.

The first wave of movements challenging this status quo was in the early 2000s when a number of social movements emerged to jointly challenge then-President Thabo Mbeki’s disastrous AIDS policies and the effects of the government’s neoliberal economic framework on people’s access to housing, affordable electricity and water supplies, quality education, and land reform. These movements challenged the government through court cases, defiance campaigns, and breaking the law. They included groups that moved evicted residents back into their houses or illegally reconnected water and electricity supplies that had been cut by local authorities for non-payment. But these movements, with the exception of the AIDS movement, which saw the ANC as its ally and not its enemy, never managed to grow national profiles or sufficiently shake the status quo; on the latter, the postapartheid deal between white capitalists and black resistance fighters to govern South Africa as a free-market capitalist country.

It is, however, the newer wave of protests which deserves our attention. More coordinated nationally, it happened between 2015 and 2017. They came from students at the country’s universities. They used hashtags: #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall. This group were beneficiaries of the ANC’s policies to open up access to higher education. So it was ironic that it was them who challenged the ANC’s hegemony. Crucially, these student protests that engulfed campuses, while limited by their narrow base and focus, gave a glimpse of what it could look like if the black majority turned on the ANC.

Their critique was deep-seated. It was a mix of representational and class politics. They questioned the terms of the postapartheid settlement premised on racial reconciliation at the expense of a material reckoning with South Africa’s racial and class apartheid; they also rejected the ANC’s version of history. They reminded South Africans that it was the ANC government that oversaw the murders of Marikana (where 34 miners, demanding equal pay and benefits were mowed down by police); that South Africa’s problems are no longer specific to the apartheid legacy, but are the global issues of poverty and inequality, labor rights, corporate responsibility, and the behavior of multinational corporations. They hearkened back to Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement, which filled the void inside the country in the late 1960s when the ANC was beginning its long exile. These students and their supporters demanded that colonial and apartheid public symbols be taken down. Crucially, they demanded free, public higher education and an end to what is known in South Africa as “outsourcing,” that is the policy by universities to privatize campus services like cleaning, catering, and campus security. One consequence was the loss of benefits like a tuition discount for the children of campus workers.

In a break with past liberation politics, they challenged the patriarchal nature of postapartheid politics and the widespread oppression of women, especially black women, in South Africa.

This is key: The students were black. The government couldn’t dismiss them as ungrateful whites. They were to inherit the state. They included the children of government ministers and senior servants. Unlike their poorer fellows, they were not protesting in nameless townships far from the city centers. Assaults on them headlined the evening news. This was the first time the ANC’s hegemony over liberation and over the future was being openly challenged. In the end, they succeeded in getting colonial symbols removed, most famously that of Cecil John Rhodes, the poster child of 19th century British colonial capitalism in South Africa. Secondly, Zuma, while president, announced that the government would freeze increases for student fees (the government did not, however, scrap university fees altogether). Interestingly, despite their alliances with campus workers around outsourcing, they struggled to connect their struggles with that of off-campus poor black communities over housing, health care, elementary and high school education, or affordable water and electricity.

The verdict on the student movement is still out. We will only know its impact a few years from now. By way of comparison, it’s undeniable that the effects of Occupy Wall Street Movement of 2012 are only being felt on US politics now. As the Fees Must Fall and Rhodes Must Fall generation fan out into the professions or to work in civil society, social movements, trade unions, or, crucially, the civil service or as public representatives, we will only be able to judge the real effects of their struggles in South Africa or what kinds of inspirations they can give to struggles elsewhere.

Further Reading

Happy new year

In 2018, we hope to continue translating scholarly debates and high-level political and cultural analyses into accessible language.

Give us your money

With all the excitement around us joining Jacobin, we were a bit worried that the fundraising part might have gotten a lost in the shuffle.

So with that we just wanted to make a reminder post …