IMG_1531

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.”

On the surface this looks like probably the most cynical bit of news to come out in a week of particularly cynical actions (search Israel + Gaza, Senegal + gays, and Karl Rove + Bush + housing crisis for just a taste). A wealthy US-based investor, Philippe Heilberg, recently bought a tract of land the size of Dubai in southern Sudan. His calculation is basically that he will benefit from the projected disintegration of countries like Sudan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Somalia.

“You have to go to the guns, this is Africa,” Mr Heilberg said by phone from New York. He refused to disclose how much he had paid for the lease.

There seems to be no clearer example of war profiteering — or at least attempting to be a war profiteer — than this. Still, beyond the possible moral implications of this move, I wonder what this will mean for the future of many resource-rich African countries. China is investing heavily in resource-rich countries like Angola. When I visited Maputo in Mozambique a couple years ago, I could already see some of the inroads being made there by Chinese investors just by looking at who was frequenting the main tourist market and the architecture of some new administrative buildings in the center of the city.

Wars about resources are raging in Nigeria about oil and Congo about tin, Tuareg rebels in Niger and Mali are demanding a piece of the action there when it comes to uranium reserves, and a recent coup in Guinea, is, in large part, about the country’s bauxite reserves. It seems like these conflicts are a reckoning of sorts for the post-colonial splitting of African countries. People like Heilberg are questioning the basic coherence of many of these countries. In the end, investors like Heilberg might argue, the predicted realignment of Africa will be along strictly resource-based lines. Now, there’s a bit of an apples to oranges problem here, but I think it would be interesting to go back to these countries’ independence and see how the ensuing philosophies, cultural changes, and economic development might have put these countries on different tracks for this supposed upcoming split.

DRC, for instance, had a burgeoning urban culture with world popular music in its early days, but a famously harsh dicator in Mobutu Sese-Seko, and ravaging, extended warfare may have destroyed even the most basic fabric of any possible Congo-based society. It’s gotten to the point where it’s unclear how a country like Congo would even theoretically split. Would is be along regional/cultural lines? Will it be drugged, armed children splitting from their broken families? Given the current proliferation of the latter, this is a sickening, but not entirely unrealistic possibility, especially given the lack of international will in the area when it comes to anything besides basic resource plunder.

In a country like Nigeria I suppose a regionally-based split would be possible, but it would almost certainly unleash an incredibly violent backlash from the regions that would stand to lose from the seizure of the valuable oil there. Sudan is so dysfunctional and disjointed that perhaps Heilberg’s bet is not so off. Somalia and Ethiopia? The former may be a perfect place for investors who figure out ways to invest with warlord power, but given the inability of anybody to figure out how to harness that power when it comes to developing political coherence, you have to be a little skeptical. When it comes to Ethiopia, I don’t understand the speculation there.

This kind of leaves open more questions than it answers, but Heilberg’s move could be much more instructive than it is idiosyncratic.