africa


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The Kenyan federation, Mungano wa wanavijiji, kicked off an enumeration of the railway line slum of Kibera in Nairobi this week. The survey process there is an example of how politically complicated collecting information can get, as well as just how valuable the data actually is.

My colleague Jack Makau has a great in-depth piece on the history of enumerations in Kibera. This is the second large-scale enumeration undertaken by the federation there in the past six years. It is all tied to planned evictions along the line that have never been carried out, as the Kenyan government’s move to privatize the railway line has proceeded in very slow fits and starts. The twists of this process, which was originally envisioned to have finished years ago, shine a light on the combustible combination of resources, government processes, the role of multinational institutions (in this case, the World Bank), and a community’s attempt to organize itself around its own resources and capacities.

Slums in Nairobi face acute tension between structure owners and tenants. An enumeration can highlight such divisions, especially when it is so closely tied to an eviction. Everyone wants to be counted so they can get their hands on the resources associated with the relocation. An exchange team from the South African Federation of the Urban Poor (FEDUP) was supposed to leave a week ago to support the enumeration process, but postponed the trip when conflict between structure owners and tenants delayed the start of the survey. I will be joining the team when it leaves for Nairobi on Sunday, and will be keeping this blog updated with how the process plays out over the next week or so.

The Kibera case complicates what is often seen as a simple binary between evicting and not evicting when some kind of business project threatens people’s homes. In this case, the relocation is allowing slum dwellers to assert themselves in their relationship with government and multinational organizations. It was a big accomplishment for the federation to get the government to agree to let the community count itself, and to have that information be the basis for their relocation.

When the World Bank — a major funding partner of the railway rehabilitation and relocation of the nearby slum dwellers — accepts a methodology like community-led enumeration to serve as the basis for its programs, it is an important first step towards putting organized communities of the urban poor at the center of their own development. At the end of the day, resources — money — are the name of the game. And it is an important development that resources for relocation are directly tied to the results of information that comes out of a community’s own organizational capacity and practice. Land and money will be allocated to those who are counted.

It can be hard to see the full impact of these kinds of activities in the short term. What looks like collusion today can appear to be a major contestation tomorrow. What looks like incremental change today could spark a revolution in five years time.

The process of engagement with government and other key actors like the World Bank is a messy one. But when slum dwellers can get hold of this process and use it to direct resources towards the organized poor, new, people-centered kinds of development can begin to take place. Getting these kinds of institutions to rely on one of the most valuable resources poor people have — information — is an important first step to changing the overall relationship that they have with the poor.

Perhaps even more importantly, it is a step towards changing the relationships that the poor have with each other. As Jack writes about the first enumeration of Kibera in 2004,

What previously were amorphous collections of shacks and stalls transformed into a community. The residents and traders were joined by what they perceived as a common threat. Community organizations formed months ago to fight off eviction found new purpose. Both traders and residents formulated and started to articulate issues that affected them generally. The enumeration would serve to capacitate and federate these groups.

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deepsea village (1)

photos by Irene Karanja, Pamoja Trust

By early December, ordinary people living on the riparian reserve in Deep Sea informal settlement had organized themselves to move off the land. The move was in compliance with a Kenyan Ministry of Environment order. The people on the reserve assumed that they would end up living on the land within the settlement that had been designated for this relocation. Muungano wa wanavijiji, the Kenyan Homeless People’s Federation, assisted the people living close to the water to count themselves. The completion of this exercise meant that community members would know exactly who would be affected by the move to a far away corner within Deep Sea informal settlement, in the Westlands division of Nairobi. 160 households — 349 people — were now set to relocate.

So why was the land allocated to others? Why are Muungano wa wanavijiji members from this community in prison? Most significantly, why are the people once living on the riparian reserve now homeless?

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Violence, displacement, and legal disempowerment perpetrated by entrenched political and market interests are systematic realities in the lives of slum dwellers the world over. In the past six months, we have noted threats and witnessed acts of evictions in the historic Old Fadama informal settlement in Accra, Ghana, as well as the death, destruction of houses, and illegitimate arrest of slum dweller activists in the Kennedy Road informal settlement in Durban, South Africa. In both of these cases, it was clear that moves towards people-driven development were threatening vested interests of capital and power. Local politicians and businessmen resorted — either by themselves or through associated vigilantes — to violent means to assert their claims to the spoils of development. This is the same development that should be going to those who are otherwise the legitimate owners of their own fate: informal settlement dwellers themselves.

In previous bulletins about these cases, we have noted the need for closer analysis of the vulnerabilities of slum dwellers to the structural violence, either direct or indirect, perpetrated through state, parastatal, and market forces. The new case from the Deep Sea informal settlement illuminates the ways in which these susceptibilities arise when communities organize themselves towards their own development. This exposes the cruel contradictions of the state and the market as custodians of housing and urban development.

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According to Pamoja Trust, a support NGO for Muungano wa wanavijiji, construction began on the allocated parcel of land for the relocation shortly after the Muungano-led enumeration. These houses went to allies of the local chief, according to residents. Those living on the riparian reserve were cut out of the move.

Community leaders drew up a letter of complaint, which was taken up by the Westlands District Officer. In response, he ordered a partial demolition of the new structures on 18 December. Now those who occupied the new structures protested, demanding back the money they claimed to have paid for the right to live there. According to eyewitness accounts gathered by Pamoja Trust, the police, local chief, and district officer began searching for the community chairman to serve as a scapegoat.

While the demolition was taking place, local police handcuffed the chairman, Richard Monari, who had helped write the letter of complaint. He was held in a police car for two hours, during which time witnesses report seeing a stranger handing a sachet of bhang (marijuana) to a plainclothes police officer. Three police officers and the local chief then took Monari to his house. His wife protested to the police and district officer, according to her testimony given to Pamoja Trust:

“I have seen and heard you from the time you came. You arrested my husband for exposing the transactions that have happened over this parcel of land through your office. Now I have seen this policeman plant the bhang in my bed. I know you want to get rid of my husband because he is contesting the business that you have been doing in this community in the name of resolving the riparian reserve issue.”

As she held her baby, a policeman slapped her. Her husband was arrested and taken to Parklands police station on charges of drug possession.

The crowd saw what was taking place and turned on the government officials. Both the chief and district officer had to flee.

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The Deep Sea case is just the latest to highlight the need for slum dwellers everywhere to organize around their own capabilities and resources to fundamentally alter the ways that state and market assets accrue to them as urban citizens. Deep-seated interests are vested in the urbanization of poverty. Laws, near-pyrrhic victories in courts, and unfocused public demonstrations will not restrain them. It will take the full force of ordinary slum dwellers organizing themselves community-by-community, coming together at the city level, at the national level, and at the international level. It will take alliances with professionals who reinforce and enable the priorities, methods, and capabilities of poor people themselves.

The state and the market clearly must be challenged when they perpetrate acts of violence and oppression against ordinary poor urban dwellers like in Deep Sea, Kennedy Road, Old Fadama, and elsewhere. But ultimately, these forces must be engaged to achieve the development priorities of ordinary poor people at a scale that will change the course of the urbanization of poverty in our world. People-centered development will come when the people are truly the focus the state’s political structures purport to serve.

Governments can provide the resources to facilitate development. Still, they must ultimately recognize the primacy of the priorities and capabilities of organized, ordinary poor people. Such organized communities, working in hand with the facilitating power of the state, will put an end to the all-too-present specter of the cruel hand of the market and government, and engage the poor as full citizens of the places where they live and work.

demolitions going on

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David A. Smith of the Affordable Housing Institute has a great post about a Federation of the Urban Poor (FEDUP) – led enumeration in Durban last month. It gives a good sense of how the community-led self-surveying is a key tool for community empowerment, as well as how this fits into the greater strategies of community-driven housing delivery and slum upgrading. Here’s a key quote from Smith:

Enumeration by the people themselves represents outsourcing an essential governmental function both to accelerate its delivery and to create political standing for the poor themselves. If you won’t do it for us, we will do it for ourselves and make you acknowledge us.

When we talk about “outsourcing an essential governmental function” such as census-taking for evidence-based solutions, I wonder what does it really mean to “outsource” such a project? If governments are not doing it, then is it really an “essential government function”? And what does it even mean to call something an “essential government function”?

The political value of an enumeration sheds some light on these questions. As I mentioned, enumerations are not just about momentary community empowerment for the sake of community empowerment. Having witnessed other FEDUP enumerations, I can say that the show of songs, slogans, and speeches can have a powerful emotional effect, something Smith also describes in his Durban experience. But the real test of enumerations is the way they can change our very notions of government.

It is helpful to think of these surveys not as “outsourcing,” which implies that it is some kind of half-hearted, last ditch measure, but rather as the most effective way to do such a survey to begin with. Poor communities are best placed to know the kinds of issues that really need to be surveyed, they stand to benefit the most from the information, and they have the most legitimacy to conduct the surveys. Once they have the information, they can negotiate with governments from a more informed, more organized, and more constructive standpoint.

In fact, it may be more useful to think of such “outsourcing” as the most effective thing government can do on this particular issue. But we can do away with this market-based language (every time I type the word “outsourcing” I think of big telecom companies, but maybe that’s my own problem). Ultimately, the government will have to act on this information. Instead of being the driving force behind development of poor communities, governments can think of themselves as facilitators working in partnership with poor communities — in fact, being led by poor communities. Poor communities need the political will, the technical capacities, and the finance that only governments can provide. And governments cannot facilitate these things without encouraging the organization of poor communities around their own resources, a key example being the information gathered through enumerations.

So it is not a binary of either governments leading or governments throwing up their hands and “outsourcing” community development and organization. Instead, governments can be facilitators, encouraging the very people they serve to take the lead and organize themselves. Then, governments will benefit through the strengthened political will and practical expertise to work towards development that can only come from these kinds of “people-centered” approaches.

I don’t know why I felt the need exactly to separate the following books from the previous two categories. I think I try to use a book once in a while to pull back from some of the more particularized reading that I do. So here are what I call “books about ideas” that I read this year.

South Africa

It can get pretty troublesome, though tempting, to discuss a  place as an idea. I don’t want to get into the pros and cons necessarily, but a new anthology of academic and personal essays about Johannesburg, entitled Johannesburg: Elusive Metropolis, shows why it is important to consider Johannesburg as a unique kind of space. Totally dehumanizing and afraid in one sense, it is also a staging ground for all kinds of 21st century African realities: immigration, inner city and peri-urban urbanization of poverty, etc. And don’t let me forget the incredible art, culture, and life that comes out of all this craziness. Missing from either section in the book (academic or personal essays) was a real discussion of the structural issues of urban poverty that are so central to Johannesburg as both a unique city, and was, what many of the writers describe as a quintessentially African city. I was happily surprised to see a favorite former professor of mine, Tim Burke, — described by Sarah Nuttal as “one of the few theorists of African consumer culture” — cited in this book. You can find his internet writings here.

Poverty

Mike Davis’ Planet Of Slums was a good review of recent literature on the subject of urban poverty. Get through some of the rhetoric — the book is way too “grounded” in the literature and not much reporting on the actual ground — but it is a helpful intro to some of the basic issues and facts.

Hernando de Soto’s Mystery Of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs In The West And Fails Everywhere Else was similarly useful as a starting point. In my work these days, I see policy makers twist his analyses into the simple silver bullets that they are not. Still, the book is a good introduction to some of the ways that land tenure is a fundamental aspect of urban poverty.

The really big picture

I would like to say that “poverty” as a heading is synonymous with “the big picture.” And I do fundamentally believe that poverty is the biggest issue we face as humanity working towards some kind of transcendental enlightenment. But I read two books this year that aim for the biggest macro lens possible, so it is worth somehow putting them into a separate category for the sake of convenience.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue in Empire that the subjects of 21st century “Empire” with a capital E are not the same as previous forms of lower case “i” imperialism. Sovereign boundaries and state structures are not the ultimate determinants of power, but merely tools for global institutions and structures. And the question to ask, they say, is not when to resist, but when not to resist these structures. Since reading this book, I can’t even count how many times I see contradictions of the current order as articulated by Hardt and Negri.

Amartya Sen takes on John Rawls and seemingly all other modern philosophers of justice in The Idea Of Justice. We should not be so concerned with the theoretical perfect system of justice, and focus on principles geared towards increasing justice in the real world, he argues. A compelling plea for both engaged theorizing and action.

Non-fiction for reading for me in the past year generally fell into two main categories: straight-up history and more journalistic narrative. I’ll reserve a third post in my “reading 2009” series for books that I read that fall more into the category of what I call “books about ideas.” Ideas and ideologies are in all kinds of writing, but in that third category this is more explicitly the case.

In any event, it was unsurprising to me that much of my non-fiction reading focused on straight-up history and journalism in South Africa. South Africa is a particularly vibrant place in terms of commentary and other kinds of political and historical writing. New books are coming out all the time on a variety of relevant subjects. It’s the kind of country that is small enough that there are always gaps waiting to be filled. At the same time there is so much energy in this young democracy that keeps writers and readers pushing to fill these holes.

South African politics and current events

By no stretch of the imagination did my reading in South African politics and long-form journalism run the true gamut of what has come out in the last few years. Before I left, I devoured Jonny Steinberg’s Three Letter Plague (published in the USA as Sizwe’s Test). The story follows a young man in a particularly poor, AIDS-riven area of the Eastern Cape who is deciding whether to take an AIDS test. At around the same time, a Medecins Sans Frontier doctor is trying to set up testing and care programs throughout the province. It’s an all-too-rare example of examining a problem equally from three different angles: intellectual / scientific, interpersonal, and political. And Steinberg is just a damn good writer.

Also, on HIV/AIDS was The Virus, Vitamins And Vegetables: The South African HIV/AIDS Mystery edited by Kerry Cullinan and Anso Thom of the Health-E News Service. A series of essays by journalists, doctors, and activists about the ideological and bureaucratic pathologies of the Mbeki government in developing and implementing — perhaps it would be better to say not developing and not implementing — its HIV/AIDS policy.

Another book of essays on recent South African events was the University of Witwatersrand’s collection on the xenophobic attacks in 2008. A lot of good stuff, including Anton Harber’s essay on media complicity and oblivion on this issue (see my earlier discussion of this essay here). This is an issue that too often gets reduced to self-righteous preening and demagoguery when it really demands careful nuance like in Go Home Or Die Here: Violence, Xenophobia And The Reinvention Of Difference In South Africa. It also has a lot of impressive photos by Alon Skuy, a former colleague at The Times.

Jeremy Gordin’s biography of Jacob Zuma did not have particular insight, but it worked well for me as an open-minded “just the facts” approach to a compelling personality. It was especially useful to read prior to the election in April. Mainstream media in this country was a bit of a disgrace in that, only after he was elected, did many who were perfectly willing to pontificate on their fears about a Zuma presidency learn even basic facts of his rather impressive life.

South African history

Philip Bonner and Noor Nieftagodien’s new history of Alexandra township in Johannesburg was inspiring to me as a documenter and historian. Their reliance on hard-nosed field work combined with substantive archival research is a great example for most any kind of history. They could not have written this book without involving people in the community in their field research. Their integration of such a community-based approach to history should serve as a model for further work in modern South African, as well as in other places.

I grew up with a lot of South African jazz that my father used to have in his music collection. Now that I live in South Africa, I’ve been able to explore this a lot more deeply for myself. Gwen Ansell’s Soweto Blues: Jazz, Popular Music & Politics In South Africa connects a lot of the dots in SA jazz history — the early Sophiatown days, exile, rural-urban migration, democracy — and does it in her usual, welcome, no-nonsense style readers of her regular Business Day column know well.

A random assortment

I finally got around to Michela Wrong’s account of the Mobutu Sese-Seko’s fall from power in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), In The Footsteps Of Mr. Kurtz. Shows what happens when a talented journalist gets the opportunity to examine the historical big picture, pull away from the mere day-to-day, while still incorporating her own first-hand reportage.

I am somewhat embarassed that I spent any amount of time reading Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent Of Money. This is mainly because he has been such an incorrigible deficit hawk in his recent newspaper commentary. Still, the book is a pretty accessible financial history, with some interesting anecdotes along the way.

I finally got around to Peter Hessler’s first memoir, River Town: Two Years On The Yangtze. I have been a big fan of Hessler since reading his Oracle Bones a few years ago, and subsequently catching a lot of his articles in the New Yorker magazine. His writing is always compelling and insightful, and he sticks out among American observers of China for two reasons: (1) he is a real student of the country’s history and (2) he integrates the history into his contemporary stories with particular elegance. I’m looking forward to his new book, Country Driving, which is supposed to come out early next year.

In my first full year out of an academic environment, I tried to make sure that I kept up a steady diet of reading. My friend Brian, who graduated a year before I did, wrote on his blog earlier this year, that he felt that his reading patterns were relatively scattershot shortly after graduating, but were tending to become more focused around specific subject areas. So over the next few days, I’m going to try to think out loud about some of the books I’ve read this year, and see what kinds of trends may or may not be developing.

I find that people with a heavy interest in public policy and related fields tend to view fiction as a bit of a diversion. Literary public policy types may view fiction as a necessary diversion, but ultimately, still a diversion from the more concrete stringency of policy, political history, etc, that dominates bookstores in places like Washington, DC. Though I work in what may be most clearly seen as the “non-fiction world” — a mix of journalism, policy, and advocacy — I have tried to keep my personal reading grounded in a more intentionally balanced mix of fiction, non-fiction, and books centered around the inquiry into ideas. As a not entirely unrelated aside, the one place I am sorely lacking is women’s voices. Almost time for some New Year’s resolutions on this score.

South African fiction

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that this was a year in which I moved to South Africa, much of my reading in all three areas was focused on this general area of the world. I read a collection of short stories and articles from Drum magazine in the 1950s. Drum symbolized a period of intellectual and artistic vibrancy in the Sophiatown neighborhood in Johannesburg. The stories in The Drum Decade, edited by Michael Chapman, are concerned with the grit, life and music of that place and time, held by many to have been a golden age of black life in the city.

Es’kia Mphahlele wrote for Drum and went on to a storied career as an educator and writer in South Africa, in exile, and upon his return home towards the end of his life. Down 2nd Avenue gets at a lot of the troubles of impermanence and harshness of growing up as a young black man in the urban centers of present-day Gauteng province. Mphahlele’s sympathetic eye for his own emotions and those of others is a good lesson for writers and readers anywhere. His description of his decision to go into exile illuminates the dilemmas faced by many South African writers and artists especially during the 1950s and 1960s. I think this may be a set work in most South African schools, but if you’re in a new place, sometimes you have to start with the basics!

Niq Mhlongo’s Dog Eat Dog was a fun, insightful look into the mind of a student at Wits in Braamfontein, the neighborhood just north of the Johannesburg city center that is also home to my office. My impression is that some of the discussions about race relations in the immediate aftermath of Nelson Mandela’s elections have become more complicated and perhaps not such an obsession fifteen years later. On the other hand, universities in South Africa still have a lot of old white men (and women) running the show. I can imagine the opening scene between Dingz — the main protagonist — and a stodgy white lady in the university bursary office to be just as likely today.

Mandla Langa’s The Lost Colours Of The Chameleon is an unabashedly political novel. But it comes at the psyche of dictatorship, corruption, and the crumbling of a family dynasty from a highly personal level. More insightful than the pop-psychoanalysis of an actual, non-fictional leader like Thabo Mbeki that Mark Gevisser did in his A Dream Deferred last year (published in the USA in 2009 as A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki And The Future Of The South African Dream). And yes, I did read the full version of the Gevisser book — none of this “abridged” nonsense!

Elsewhere in Africa

Dambudzo Marechera’s Black Sunlight was republished this year. The Zimbabwean “enfant terrible of African literature” lived up to such a billing. The novel really gets inside the madness of an unnamed city under seige. Avoids being hyper-politicized by including a spoonful of sexual desire on the part of the narrator.

I didn’t know until recently that Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene also published books during his prolific life. I recently finished a collection of two novellas, White Genesis and The Money Order (no link — I bought it used and I think it is out of print). The first is about the societal effects of polygamy and male dominance in traditional Senegalese society, the second about the intersection of inept, low-level bureaucracy, migration, and urban poverty in Dakar.

United States

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee is not really fiction, but it is so experimental in terms of form that I think it is alright to include it here. I read this as part of a long-term syllabus I am crafting for myself for writing about poverty. Perhaps we can excuse this as being of its time, but I don’t think a writer from a position of privilege need ever spend so much time emoting about his own guilt if he aims to really engage with the circumstances of his subject. Crass sympathy (“oh, poor them”) is not a good substitute for truly engaged empathy. Still, this was well worth reading and I’m happy I didn’t do it as part of a college course, as many American students do. It demands a more unconventional kind of reading for which there is rarely time in college.

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or Evening Redness In The West was by far the bloodiest, most violent book that I have ever read. I will always be down with McCarthy’s totally morbid vision of human nature and the particularities of how that plays out in the American context.

Outsider Europe

I read a couple of Russians this year basically on a whim and my feeling that I have a natural affinity for 19th century Russian literature, even though I have not read so much of it. A friend gave me The Brute and Other Farces by Anton Chekhov just before I left for South Africa in March. A good read for a year of farces encountered both personally and throughout the world.

Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls has a lot of farcical aspects to it as well. A crazy traveling entrepreneur laughs in the face of landowners throughout the Russian countryside. Good stuff.

Finally, this would have been a great year in fiction reading if only because my favorite writer of all time, Orhan Pamuk, finally came out with his new masterpiece, The Museum Of Innocence. An incredibly obsessive character portrait of a self-described “anthropologist” of his own life. Turns out this means that the main character, Kemal, constantly feeds his obsession for his almost-there love, Fusun, and the city where he suffers, hates, and loves: Istanbul. Also, before I left the United States, I picked up Pamuk’s collection of essays, Other Colors. It was great to read him find fragments of his city, his book collection, and his own novels.

You need only check the date of this post and the previous one to realize my lax upkeep of this blog. There are a few excuses that I have for this fact. They vary in legitimacy. One week I had a cold. Then I changed jobs. Then I visited the USA for a few weeks. Then I started a new job. In between somewhere there was a second cold. I’m still not sure if I’ve had H1N1 yet, but it is something of which I persist in perpetual fear.

It would be ridiculous to try to catch up on all blog-worthy thoughts (yes, I know that the bar is rather low on this count) and all the stories I had published by The Times. Before I resume regular posting in the here and now I figured I would highlight a couple choice stories that I enjoyed working on and perhaps you might enjoy perusing as well.

I posted previously about a competition of la sape that I witnessed in the Yeoville neighborhood in Johannesburg. I ended up going back there to speak with organizers and the eventual winner of the competition. In all honesty, it was one of the most fun stories I have ever worked on. My hope was that this showed through in the audio slideshow that I produced about the event.

Well, the whole fiasco about the Gandhi house came to a close, though the seller, Nancy Ball, never ended up divulging the details about who bought it. It appears none of the people fingered as the final bidders actually bought the property. In the meantime, I wrote a piece about Gandhi’s not-so-simple legacy in South Africa.

Especially in his early days in South Africa, Gandhi’s activism was much more parochial than the universal non-racialism of the ANC. In attempting to secure fair land rights for Indians in the new, bustling Johannesburg, he protested in 1905 that “kaffirs” (a term he used often in his early writings) were being allowed to live in what was then known as a “coolie location”, theoretically reserved for Indians.

The 1906 incident in the train portrayed in Richard Attenborough’s 1982 biopic film Gandhi is also troublesome. Gandhi was advocating that just upper-caste Indians be allowed to use the train, not people of all races.

His views did appear to evolve over time and it is hard to deny his inspirational fight against British colonialism in India.

In South Africa, his influence as a freedom fighter persists. Annual marches in KwaZulu-Natal celebrating his legacy attest to this.

Still, no South African besides Gandhi’s granddaughter, Kirti Menon, came forward with an offer for The Kraal compelling enough for the Ball family in terms of both money and historical preservation. According to Nancy Ball, the final three bidders were Menon, Malaysian e-commerce tycoon Vijay Eswaran, and a late entry by the Indian government.

Eswaran told The Times that if he buys the house he plans to create a museum that would “remind this South African nation of the great legacy indeed that they have”.

Menon echoed this sentiment. “Gandhi’s period in Johannesburg is of particular importance in his own development,” she said.

Gandhi’s time in Johannesburg was clearly influential. But its “legacy”, as Eswaran calls it, is a complicated one. His philosophy inspired, but his activism, limited in its universality, echoed throughout later Indian-black relations during the struggle against apartheid and discrimination. Mid-20th century riots in Durban are examples of violent tension between Indians and blacks. Some chafed against the ANC’s insistence on non-racialism and tying the Indian cause to the greater anti-apartheid one. Even now, it is an issue that hits a raw nerve.

There is little both as hip and worrying to people interested in international affairs as China’s relationship to Africa. Beyond a fly-by-night visit by Barack Obama, it’s one of the only reasons the rest of the world will pay any attention to the continent.

Of course, the reasons for the African interest among Chinese businesses and government officials boils down to the same reasons most non-Africans have always cared about Africa: money and resources.

Foreign Policy‘s Elizabeth Dickinson notes that Africa’s resources are not only in vogue among the Chinese, but perhaps more broadly among the BRIC countries. Those BRIC countries that have managed to navigate the current economic crisis relatively well (of the four countries — Brazil, Russia, India, and China — Russia is almost definitely suffering the most) boast of decoupling from the developed world’s economies, and the opportunities their independence allows:

With aid and investment drying up from Europe and the West, it’s wise of the BRICs to fill the void. More than good business, it’s proof of the BRICs claim that they’re in Africa for the long haul. Guess who wins that game?

Still, most of the attention is coming from China — who else is going in deep enough to bail out Zimbabwe when no one else will? This has led to a lot of speculation in English-language press that there’s basically just a new colonial boss in town. Nothing encapsulated this view better than French president Nicholas Sarkozy’s chilly reception at a funeral for Gabon’s president Omar Bongo. Bongo was the quintessential French colonial stooge in the “post-colonial” African setting, the “epitome of françafrique,” writes The Economist. He even managed to arrange for the firing of one of Sarkozy’s ministers, overseas aid minister Jean-Marie Bockel, who had dared to call for the end of the excesses and patronage relationships of françafrique.

As France and other western states muddle along in trying to fashion a post-colonial world order that still affords enough of the practical benefits of colonialism, China the basically the only contender for the top of the heap of this world order. The attractiveness of China to Africans is partly a matter of the fact that the Chinese are just not the West, writes William Wallis in the Financial Times:

Europe still sees Africa as a burden. The Chinese, Brazilians, Indians and others see it as an opportunity.”We have a competitive advantage,” says Gu Xiaojie, China’s ambassador to Ethiopia, with a certain amount of glee.

“My own experience is that they [African governments] are uncomfortable dealing with developed countries. They think they [Europeans] want to impose their own ideas and they have a long [mutual] history that is violent and bitter.”

But China’s star shines brightly beyond the fact of who it is not. Quite plainly, it is often the only major economic power that seems to give a damn. Shortly before I left Philadelphia for Johannesburg, I had a discussion with my former professor in Chinese history during which I mentioned that the Chinese may be running roughshod over African workers and communities in the course of their projects in the continent. Her response was simple and, honestly, hard to refute: Who else is paying attention?

Howard French notes that both political and financial attention from China is in easy supply. Top political leaders visit the continent every year, including a visit by Hu Jintao concurrent to my discussion with my professor in late February / early March. Moreover,

from Angola and Congo and from Nigeria and Mozambique, the big news in Africa has recently been measured in big business deals, and this story could almost be summed up as all China, all the time.

A Shanghai-based housing developer argues that Africa is a key plank in China’s grander geopolitical strategy in China Safari, a new book on China’s role in the continent written by two French journalists, Serge Michel and Michel Beuret.

“I’m going to be honest with you, China is using Africa to get where the United States is now, and surpass it.”

This may be overstating the case. While the view from Africa may make this plausible, the view from China may look quite different.

Jeune Afrique recently had a large report on China in Africa, and took a much more skeptical view than most of the writing from English-language publications, perhaps reflecting a greater overall disillusionment with outside influence in Africa among those in the francophone world. In an interview with He Wenping, director of African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, reporter Pascal Auaralt asks if there might be a lack of knowledge about Africa among many Chinese. He does not exactly defend her countrymen and women. She points out that there are only 20 students in her program, the largest African studies program in the country.

From the global to the local, in no particular order…

  • For those who can read a bit of French, Radio France Internationale’s round-up of West African media reaction to the death of Gabon’s President Omar Bongo is fascinating. (I also have a piece in The Times that includes interviews with a couple of SA-based analysts about Gabon’s post-Bongo future.)
  • Ken Saro-Wiwa, Jr writes in The Guardian about his recently settled case against Shell Oil in Nigeria.
  • Chris Blattman has a much friendlier take on Douglas Foster’s Zuma piece than I did a couple weeks ago.
  • Philadelphia Daily News blogger Will Bunch takes on the Philly news establishment, and has some wise, if unkind words that are applicable to all newspapers in this day and age. Newspapers should focus on “forging new connections with the communities, more open to citizen journalists and forging ties with local bloggers, rethinking the whole purpose of print.” Philadelphia is a city with a vibrant online, informal, citizen journalist / blogger scene. On the other hand, the ineptitude of the print newspaper situation killed the notion of the viability of daily print-based newspapers in my mind. My current attitude towards the medium? Fun and a highly enjoyable throwback, but ultimately near-useless.
  • And, for fun, what the hell is happening to the hangouts of my youth?!?!

No use writing here if I can’t occasionally plug a family member. My father, Daniel Bradlow, has a great (if I may say so) letter in today’s Financial Times bringing some sense to the heated debate about development aid raging between Dambisa Moyo, William Easterly, Jeffrey Sachs, etc. A good summary of the debate by the FT‘s William Wallis can be found here.

The main gist of his point is that aid is too often treated

as fundamentally different from the other sources of development finance that African countries utilise. It is not. Like these other sources – for example international capital markets, foreign direct investors, remittances etc – it entails both costs and benefits.

This means that, like them, there will be some occasions when aid, despite its costs, will be the best source of finance for the particular purpose, and some situations in which it will be an inappropriate source. Identifying the most desirable times for utilising aid requires governments to dispassionately assess both the explicit and implicit costs and benefits associated with the offers of aid that they have received, and of the alternatives to those offers. It also requires negotiating the best possible deal with the chosen source of funds.

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