Africa

The Thug

thugartRemember the movie Tsotsi, about a South African criminal? My story, “The Thug,” profiles a real-life tsotsi. It appears this month in the literary magazine Carte Blanche.

Most nights the crew headed north to the suburbs. Nigerian middlemen brought them orders from car buyers all across southern Africa–Mozambique, Tanzania, Zimbabwe. Maybe somebody wanted a C-class Benz, maybe a 4×4. Often, the Nigerians already had a car picked out. All Bongani had to do was take it: “We’d wait for the owner. We just ask for the keys, nothing else. If he is fighting, then we grab him and tie him with wires or ropes and put him in the house.”

They’d drive their treasure out to the empty spaces of eastern Johannesburg, half-industrial suburbs near the airport where there was plenty of privacy. The Nigerians would be there with the money.

There were four guys in Bongani’s crew, and they stole six or seven cars a week. It was lucrative: he made a few hundred dollars a week when business was good. The thieves couldn’t have done it, of course, without cooperation from the police–both black cops in the townships and white cops elsewhere. “You must have cops who know you,” he said. “You must pay the cops.”

Breaking off his story, he moved to his stoep. He swept his arms out, taking in the whole of Soweto beyond his courtyard. “I could tell you that maybe 30 cars have been stolen this morning.”

Read it here.

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South Africa
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Rainmaker: The Sort-of Super PAC

credoimgThe current issue of San Francisco publishes a quick Q&A I did with Becky Bond, head of Credo’s super PAC–which has the distinction of being the only super PAC out there that disapproves of super PACs. Here’s a PDF.

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Jimi Hendrix, Musical Esperanto

jimi

My newest piece for Thought Catalog, a meditation on the legacy of Jimi Hendrix, and his use as a catch-all comparison for all sorts of non-Western music.

I’m not sure exactly when I first heard a musician from some far-flung spot on the globe described as the “Jimi Hendrix of [insert place name here].”

It’s only natural to reach for some sort of shorthand to translate the esoteric sounds of distant cultures into a language understandable to anyone with a passing knowledge of western culture. People might not know what a kamelengoni is (for the record, it’s a 12-stringed, harp-like instrument), but when you describe Vieux Kante as the Hendrix of the kamelengoni, everyone gets it: the guy’s a badass.

Read the whole thing here.

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Up from the Underground

5060942255_b637964972_zA couple of weeks ago, the Mail & Guardian ran a story of mine on the 1970s Zamrock scene. Sub-Saharan Africa isn’t much known for its rock’n'roll, but for a brief time in the late 1960s and ’70s every young guy from Lagos to Lusaka wanted to be Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton. Zambia, which makes few headlines in the west, was the cradle of this scene, hence the name. It was a heady time–these guys were full-on rock stars, with platform boots, groupies, and wild parties–but the economy tanked, the AIDS epidemic hit, and the scene was snuffed out.

I profile Jagari Chanda, probably the most famous Zamrock star of his day, who sang for a band named the Witch. He now ekes out a living as a gemstone miner in the bush. He’s looking for another shot in the music business. I hope he gets it.

It is a Saturday night in Kitwe, a rough mining town in Zambia’s Copperbelt, and the bar is growing louder by the minute. The DJ plays American hip-hop, the beer flows and crowds of young miners, grizzled expatriates and working girls shout over the din.

Once upon a time, every head would have turned when Emmanuel “Jagari” Chanda walked through the door. Tonight, nobody realises that the barrel-chested sexagenarian in the leather jacket was once Zambia’s biggest rock star.

(The photo comes from the cover of a self-released compilation Jagari put together. For years, hard-to-find releases like this were the only way to hear the music. Now-Again records, though, has begun reissuing albums by the Witch and other Zamrock greats.)

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The inundation of the Nile

cairo_stereoscope0011

Third in an occasional series of found photographs. This is a stereoscope from 1900, depicting a pastoral, pre-Pyramids Road Giza district, a place without sleazy discos, papyrus shops, and choking exhaust.

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Once Found, Now Lost

longshotThe second issue of Longshot Magazine–that’s the one written, edited, and put together in just 48 hours–is out now, and it’s got a piece of mine called “Once Found, Now Lost.” The issue’s theme is “debt,” and I wrote a personal piece about my uneasy relationship with a guy I worked with in South Africa. You can read the story online, or buy a print version of the magazine if you like. I’m proud to have been a part of it.

Late one afternoon, Soul turned up drunk at my place. I was pulling the razor-wired gates shut when he appeared beyond the wall, listing a little. Gray-green clouds massed above our heads; the Highveld rains were coming on. He wanted to know if I’d drive him to Soweto.

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Urban Africa (on the road)

smith-chris_khayelitsha

My photo exhibit, “Urban Africa,” is showing at the Sierra Gallery at Modesto Junior College through the end of April. So if you’re in the Central Valley (or passing through there), please do check it out.

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Kliptown blues

3976813773_955a6d976a_o(From the 4xAfrica show at Rayko SF, which runs through February 27. Click on the image for a larger version.)

Kliptown, Soweto, South Africa, 2009.

I took this photo while hanging out in a so-called “informal settlement” on the edge of Kliptown. People called the area Chicken Farm, supposedly because it had been part of a white-owned farm decades ago, before apartheid’s enforced racial sorting.

My guide that day was a friend of a friend, a “former thug” (as he was described to me) with a deep scar down the left side of his face. He grew up nearby, and remembered buying bread and sweets at the now-derelict shops. He got into the gangster game in his early teens, he told me, to provide for his family. By his last year in high school, he and his crew were stealing six or seven cars a week, mostly from whites in the northern suburbs, and delivering them to Nigerian middlemen who smuggled them out of the country. Later, his gang graduated to commercial truck hijackings and to home invasions. He insisted that he always urged nonviolence–at least at first. “‘Where’s our money?’” he’d ask the homeowner. “‘When you open the safe, it’s cool. We’ll leave you, and we’ll be gone. But it’s bad when you are not talking.’”

The thug did a few stints in prison, then got out of the game following a premonition that he was going to die violently. Nowadays he rises at 4 a.m. to get to his job as a landscaper in the northern suburbs, which pays less in a month than he used to earn in a week. To make ends meet, he still “consults” with younger car thieves on weekends.

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Soweto, and the socioeconomic arms race

3976819575_5884ed3733_o3(From the 4xAfrica show at Rayko SF, which runs through February 27. Click on the image for a larger version.)

Elias Motsoaledi informal settlement, Soweto, South Africa, 2009.

I first visited Johannesburg in 1998 as a backpacker exploring Africa on the cheap. I had been to the developing world before, but nothing had prepared me for the bright, hard line that divided rich from poor here. The rich, mostly white, northern suburbs were hidden behind high walls, the bougainvillea laced with razor wire; some poor areas didn’t have electricity or running water. Sometimes only a highway separated the two.

Soweto, at the time, was closer to the bottom rung, a sprawl of Lilliputian brick houses and tin-roofed shacks, soot-filled skies and menacing guys manning the corners. I kept returning, and in the ensuing years Soweto has boomed. There’s a large and growing middle class (the media has dubbed them “black diamonds”), and the township positively bursts with new condos and malls and parks. The growth isn’t very surprising. After all, under apartheid, blacks weren’t even allowed to own homes. As Brian Mahlangu, an irrepressibly optimistic former banker who founded the township’s first home-lifestyle magazine, put it to me: “Soweto was never allowed the chance to grow; now it is being given a breathing chance.”

But it is an unfinished revolution. For most people, political freedom hasn’t yet translated into economic freedom. South Africa has the second greatest income inequality in the world, and many are tired of waiting for their share of the pie. Strikes have rocked the country in recent years, as miners, taxi drivers, and even the army protested low pay and unfair treatment. Land invasions by the homeless (which carry the whiff of neighboring Zimbabwe’s chaos) have spiked, and an ever-growing ring of squatter camps now encircles Johannesburg. “We are working toward an explosion,” Andile Mngxitama, a radical land-rights activist told me over drinks one night. “As I always tell the squatter-camp people: ‘Do you realize that you actually surround these wealthy people? You’ve got them surrounded.’”

It’s a socioeconomic arms race between the squatters and the middle-class, and it’s hard to say who’s winning.

Africa
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The shebeen

afpc_rsa_shbn(From the upcoming 4xAfrica show at Rayko SF. Click on the image for a larger version.)

Diepkloof, Soweto, South Africa, 2002.

Under apartheid, blacks weren’t allowed to drink in bars designated for whites (though white-owned companies were happy to sell them alcohol), so unlicensed taverns–shebeens–sprouted from virtually every township block. Many of these bars are still around today, and most of them have the proper documentation. In my South African reporting I’ve spent equal amounts of time in churches and bars, and I prefer the bars–where you can play pool and Space Invaders, listen to Jay-Z or local house music, and have boozy, serpentine conversations about politics, soccer, and life in general.

Africa
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