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.


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.

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.

On Monday, The Times published my story about a somewhat famous house in Johannesburg where Mohandas Gandhi once lived (the accompanying video can be viewed here). The owner of the house, Nancy Ball, has been struggling to find a buyer with an interest in preserving the house’s historical legacy.

Hidden away on a quiet street in Orchards, north of central Johannesburg, the house was designed by Gandhi confidant, architect Hermann Kallenbach.Its distinct thatched roofs and rondavel style give the house its informal name “The Kraal”.

Gandhi lived at the house with Kallenbach for three years, beginning in 1908.

Ball told The Times: “He left a lot of his peace here. It’s a very special place.”

She tried to find a way of selling the house to someone with a historical interest in the property and enlisted Stephen Gelb, founding director of the Centre of Indian Studies in Africa at the University of Witwatersrand, on a voluntary basis, to try to find a suitable buyer.

Gelb tried to solicit the interest of prominent Indians in South Africa and even explored the possibility of Wits acquiring the property for use as a residence for visiting professors.

Little interest among the Indian community has surfaced, and Wits was similarly uninterested, Gelb said.

The story has been picked up by a number of international news sources, including BBC, and a number of Indian newspapers. But one Indian article, in the Deccan Times, caught me by surprise with its aggressive slant to the story.

Invoking Gandhi’s name to earn a fast buck does not seem to have worked wonders.

Unlike the London auction, there aren’t much takers for the house, where the icon of non-violence began his experiments with Satyagraha. Even the Indian-origin community members have shown scant interest in buying the property.

Based on the inquiries I myself have received, in addition to what I’ve heard from the other relevant parties, there’s been a great upsurge in interest since the article’s publication. Somehow, I think such “wonders” could still be forthcoming. To be continued…

Quick quiz question: 2006, 2008, 2009 — What do these three years have in common in South Africa?

These were years when the public at-large, the middle classes, the bourgeoisie, the media, the establishment, or whatever else you might call it, started paying attention, if momentarily to poor people. In those three years major instances of often violent protests erupted in townships and slums throughout the country.

Unfortunately for poor people, and for the greater understanding of everyone involved, the reasons for these demonstrations have often gotten lost in a fiery haze. In 2008, the protests took the form of xenophobic attacks on foreign-born store owners and other migrants living in South Africa.

Such violence was clearly reprehensible. It also gave middle classes an excuse to ignore the valid frustrations of poor people whose frustrations boiled over in a particularly disgusting way. Instead of being ashamed in its complicity with a system that deprives the poor, toiling in sewage-ridden, shack-filled, unsafe and unfit slums, the middle class could rest on its outraged high horse. How dare South Africans attack others simply for not being South African?

Such sentiments are all well and good, but they also smack of willful ignorance. The violence in places like Alexandra last year was not fundamentally about hatred of foreigners. The acts of hatred were symptomatic of a greater frustration with the lack of progress in many townships. Based on my interviews with a number of shack-dwelling residents of Alex over the past four months (and I will grant the limits of this kind of anecdotal evidence), a discussion of foreigners is always accompanied by the larger issue of the general state of living in the township. “How can all these foreigners come here when things are already so out of control?” “We can’t get any jobs. Why can they get jobs?”

The frustration is not so much with foreigners, as the overall state of living. So witness the protests in Thokoza and Balfour this past week as the latest example of protests that appear to have hit closer to the mark in terms of public perception. This, despite worrying instances of xenophobic attacks attached to the demonstrations. “Service delivery” is once again the name of the game.

I interviewed Udesh Pillay, an expert on “service delivery” at the Human Sciences Research Council. He points out that the ongoing protests have their roots not in xenophobia, but in the more fundamental struggle for human dignity in the 1980s against apartheid. Many of the protests of this time focused on specific issues like rent prices and utility services, while aiming to “render ungovernable” townships throughout the country.

In the case of apartheid, the government could not respond because it was born of a system that was inherently illegitimate. Now, the government has been elected through legitimate means, but does not have the structures that will allow for constructive engagement with communities. Democracy does not end with elections. Community engagement with elected officials is the real nuts and bolts of democracy, a way for the will of the people to be heard and developed in the public sphere.

“Service delivery,” Pillay told me, is then a stand-in phrase for the greater lack of accountability that currently exists in slum governance. I would argue that it is this lack of accountability that is totally anathema to the middle-class-driven public debate on this issue. The assumption is much more cynical, and anti-democratic. They elected Zuma and the ANC. This is what they get. Why are they so violent and xenophobic? Why are their leaders so incompetent?

In order to move forward, such questions need to be replaced by those informed by a more democratic point of view. How can communities engage consistently and constructively with local government? This is an issue that has never been practiced well in South Africa. The apartheid government enacted policies concerning the overwhelmingly black poor without consultation, and in the democratic era little has changed in many townships.

Currently up for debate is why the government is not implementing their policies properly. Instead the questions need to be about how the policies are developed in the first place. The likelihood of proper implementation would then be much closer behind.

In my ongoing quest to find and tell stories from Alexandra in Johannesburg come an article and related video about how street hawkers are being affected by the recent opening of a landmark shopping mall in the struggling, but vibrant township.

Informal sellers of produce, cigarettes, matches, and other assorted goods in Alexandra each have their own regular customers.

Still, it didn’t take long for Olivia Makalela to break into the market when she set up her stand five years ago.

She sang , danced and shouted slogans to attract attention to her stand in a courtyard next to the bustling 2nd Avenue, on the edge of the historic township.

But business has fallen in the past two weeks. Makalela blames the new Pick n Pay across the street, the anchor store of the recently opened Pan Africa Mall.

The issue is likely not going away. The youth wing of the Alexandra Chamber of Commerce is calling for a boycott of the mall for not totally unrelated reasons. An interesting case in how progress for some can — and often does — leave others behind.


Close to a month ago, I attended a show by Abdullah Ibrahim with his New York City-based band Ekaya at the University of Witwatersrand’s Great Hall. Ibrahim is a jazz artist who represented the sound of a time and place with compositions like “Mannenberg.” Combined with his fantastic musicianship, he is a legendary jazz player and composer, and, at the end of the day, a consummate South African artist.

A newer player, not nearly on the level of Ibrahim, but highly notable nonetheless is guitarist Selaelo Selota. My friend Kulani Nkuna recently interviewed him for The Times. In the piece, Selota discusses how he has used music to search for his northern South African, Pedi roots.

In Ibrahim’s time, it was most artistically relevant to reflect the sound of the townships, the sound of an often silenced, significant part of South Africa’s culture. For contemporary artists like Selota, and even pop star Thandiswa Mazwai, it has become more important to harken back to a deeper past, incorporating rural, traditional sounds.


In a city known for flashy displays of wealth, I found such opulence in what many might consider the least likely of spots. Kin-Malebo, a cafe on Raleigh Street in Yeoville, an inner city neighborhood in Johannesburg known for its large immigrant population.

A sapeur competition of contestants from Congo-Brazzaville (Republic of Congo) and Congo-Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo) was the order of the day. The shoes were worth over US$1000, the designers mostly Italian, the poses striking, and the color coordination either absurdly outlandish, or purposely understated.

“La Sape” is “Central Africa’s equivalent of the Mod movement,” writes Michela Wrong in In The Footsteps Of Mr. Kurtz (2000). “An abbreviation of Society of Ambiencers and Persons of Elegance, La Sape as a movement was actually born across the river in Congo-Brazzaville in the 1970s. But it was in Zaire that it really made its mark, moving hand-in-hand with the explosion of the Lingala music phenomenon onto the international scene and fuelled by the birth of a monied urban elite who had travelled, shopped abroad, and knew their Yamamoto from their Montana, their unstructured jacket from their deconstructed suit.”

… “Asserting oneself (“affirmer”) is one of the key concepts in La Sape’s vocabulary, ranking in importance alongside understanding how to “débarquer” — make an entrance (never, but never, to go unnoticed) — and knowing how to walk. A sapeur’s walk is an art form in itself, a mixture of swagger and stroll as individualistic as a graffiti artist’s tag.”

This week is the anniversary of xenophobic attacks that roiled townships around Johannesburg and in many other parts of the country. Much of the public discourse on the attacks is centered around a notion that South Africans are “ashamed” that other South Africans could be so hateful. I have to admit that, at some level, this strikes me as a bit of cognitive dissonance.

In some ways even more than race (though never divorced from it entirely), the gulf between rich and poor here is the greatest divide this country faces. Those involved in the attacks were the poor of this country. I understand how it is shaming for people abroad to know that such attacks happened in South Africa. It was, of course, embarrassing to travel as an American abroad when W. was in office. Still, it rings a little hollow to suddenly state a common identity with the country’s poor, when so much of South African daily life flaunts that lack of identity.

I commented to a colleague today on the vast proliferation of BMWs on the roads in Johannesburg, easily the highest concentration of the car brand that I have seen anywhere in the world. He laughed knowingly and said, “You know what they say, Black Man’s Wife.”

The wave of xenophobic attacks was a horrific display of the lack of compassion for fellow humans for which anyone is capable. It was also a terrible outcry about the desperate situation in which this country’s poor find themselves. A year later, both the poverty and the anti-foreign sentiments are still rampant. As long as people are without basic housing, water, food, electricity, jobs, etc, such desperation will easily turn to anger. And that anger to violence. It makes sense to stand up to the sentiment that someone from another country has a somehow less worthless life. But then, I imagine, it would be equally important to stand up when the situation of unequal worth of life is pervasive among those already within a given country.

I covered Times photographer Alon Skuy’s exhibit opening of his fantastic photographs from last year’s attacks earlier this week. A real photojournalistic achievement. The video is here.

Though absurd displays of opulence and wealth exist the world over, it does strike me as particularly distasteful in many places in Africa, where the depths of poverty are often so great. So it’s hard do anything but shake one’s head at the hubris of wealth demonstrated by the likely future president of Malawi, John Tembo:

Asked to confirm that he is fabulously rich, the veteran politician laughs off, chuckling: “I cannot say I am rich but I thank God that at least I can afford a glass of wine every day and at least a glass of whisky every week.”

Two (related) ways that township life reflects the day’s headlines = two of my recent video reports for The Times:

Expectations for a Zuma presidency in Alex

Continuing horror of last year’s xenophobic attacks

The advertising bill for “Princess Magogo,” an opera in Zulu composed by Mzilikazi Khumalo, one of South Africa’s premier living composers, has only one critical recommendation: the vague “internationally acclaimed.”

The longer, official write-up explains:

The world premiere of Princess Magogo was staged at the Durban Playhouse in May 2002 and attracted worldwide interest. It was broadcast live to the USA, UK and Europe by WFMT Radio and Networks Chicago. Since then it featured at the Centenary Celebration of the Ravinia Festival in Chicago (2004), Het Muziektheater in Amsterdam (2005) and Den Norske Opera in Oslo (2007). On popular demand it was taken on a national tour to the Western and Eastern Cape (2006).

I attended this production of the opera on Sunday afternoon, and I have to admit that I did not for one moment think of the previous international reception of this incredible achievement. I have little doubt that the rest of the crowd felt similarly. It was clear early on that what makes this opera special is its unique blend of storytelling, singing, traditional Zulu dancing, costumes, and stage design.

This production need not stand on its international reception. Must we be so surprised that South African art can succeed on the worldwide stage? “Princess Magogo” is a success because it is a South African work of art that combines homegrown and Western artforms seemlessly and if I go any further this post will descend into a stream of meaningless platitudes.

The performance was an incredible expression of the continuing promise of the so-called “New” South Africa. This can also be said for the crowd, which I expect was one of the most racially representative crowds to attend an opera in this country. The opera is universal in its stories of kings, queens, princes, princesses, love lost, military strife, etc. At the same time, Zulu dance sequences and even narrative segments elicited appreciative, knowing responses from the many Zulu-speaking members of the audience.

I mention this not to patronize the audience, but to emphasize the local significance of this kind of work. South Africans can be proud that it has been received well among international audiences. They should be more proud that a work with such local resonance is theirs. “International acclaim” be damned.

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