South Africa

Three Views of Modern Africa

I’m teaching this course at San Francisco State’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute starting next week–we cover the post-colonial histories of Egypt, Zambia, and South Africa. Check it out.

 

Africa
Foreign policy
Middle East
Politics
South Africa

Comments Off

Permalink

Economic Leverage: UC Students Fought Tooth and Nail to Divest from South Africa

photo(3)

Before the pro-Palestinian BDS movement, before the new push for fossil fuel divestment on college campuses, there was the anti-apartheid struggle. My new piece for California magazine chronicles its growth, from its beginnings amid the civil rights movement to the sustained pressure on the UC system to divest from apartheid South Africa to its eventual victory in the late 1980s.

When Nelson Mandela died last December, it seemed that the whole world mourned his passing. Twitter overflowed with love for the former South African president. South Africans of all colors and ages sat vigil outside his Johannesburg home. Leaders from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe traveled to FNB Stadium to memorialize Africa’s secular saint, and Barack Obama told the assembled dignitaries, “Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done.”

Indeed, 30 years earlier the prospect of a free South Africa was almost unimaginable. Mandela had been imprisoned for decades. Although black townships from Cape Town to Durban were in open revolt against the white-run government, the regime had all the money and firepower it needed to keep the rebellion in check. It also enjoyed the full-throated support of the administrations of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who considered Mandela a Communist terrorist.

It was against that backdrop in April 1985 that a few dozen anti-apartheid students launched a sit-in at the entrance to Berkeley’s Sproul Hall. They hung banners, organized teach-ins, and, as night fell, unfurled sleeping bags on the steps. Within days, hundreds were sleeping there overnight, and thousands were turning out for midday rallies.

A banner above the steps spelled out their demand:

END UC TIES TO APARTHEID

CALL TO DIVEST

Articles
Berkeley
California
Foreign policy
Politics
South Africa

Comments Off

Permalink

Radio Freedom, on the radio

I spoke to Johannesburg’s Power FM today about Radio Freedom, the ANC-in-exile’s revolutionary, anti-apartheid radio program from the 1960s through the ’80s. It was fun, though I wish I didn’t sound so sleepy at first–it was 4am my time. Here’s my piece on Radio Freedom from last year.

Africa
Politics
South Africa

Comments Off

Permalink

Radio Freedom: A History of South African Underground Radio

rfLast week, The Appendix published my piece on Radio Freedom, the ANC’s revolutionary radio station during the apartheid era. I discovered that, in many ways, the station’s history parallels that of modern South Africa itself.

At seven p.m. sharp, seven nights a week, during the darkest days of apartheid, an incendiary radio broadcast beamed out from Lusaka, Zambia. It began with the clack of machine-gun fire, followed by a familiar call-and-response:

Amandla Ngawethu!

“Power to the People!”

The shooting faded in and out, waxing and waning with the chant.

Hundreds of miles and two countries to the south, people gathered in matchbox homes in Johannesburg’s industrial townships and community centers in the Cape Flats and thatched-roof huts in black homelands to hear the transmission. They hunched over shortwave radios, straining to hear through clouds of static. They listened with the lights off, making sure that nobody had followed them. Secrecy was necessary, because there were informers everywhere. Just hearing this stuff could get you eight years in prison.

Africa
Articles
Music
Politics
South Africa

Comments Off

Permalink

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.

Africa
Articles
crime
South Africa
Travel

Comments Off

Permalink

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.

Africa
Articles
South Africa

Comments (0)

Permalink

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.

Africa
crime
Photography
South Africa
Travel

Comments Off

Permalink

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
Photography
South Africa
Travel

Comments Off

Permalink

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
Photography
South Africa
Travel

Comments Off

Permalink

Atar, Mauritania

3609275062_785754cb66

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

Atar, Mauritania, 2007.

Riding the line between Arab North Africa and black sub-Saharan Africa, Mauritania is three-quarters sand and, thanks to creeping desertification, growing more desiccated by the day. This is the land of the Moors, Africanized descendants of the Arabs who once ruled Spain, a nomadic and arch-conservative people who lord it over their black countrymen. Slavery, though officially outlawed, is still a fact of life.

The Moors are (to generalize a bit) taciturn to the point of caricature, indifferent to outsiders, and uncommonly hostile to photographers. A man jumped out of a Mercedes to scold me for photographing a wall; even little kids wagged their fingers. “Haram!, Haram!” they yelled. It’s forbidden.

After a few days of these frustrating interactions, it was refreshing to stumble on a black neighborhood in Atar, the gateway city to the Sahara. Evening was coming on, and the desert was cooling off. The streets stirred to life as the sun began to drop. Kids swarmed everywhere, kicking a soccer ball. Adults emerged from their homes, headed for the market. People smiled at us.

Africa
Middle East
Photography
South Africa
Travel

Comments Off

Permalink