Friday, August 29, 2014

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Strangers

This week's episode began with a story about Leon meeting a random South African on the train into work after they recognised each other’s accents. The odds are small that a former bass player for Durban band Arapaho would meet a co-host of Tune Me What on an early morning commuter train out of San Diego, but stranger things do happen. In true Hitchcockian style, crimes were traded. Tune Me What agreed to play an Arapaho track (risking the wrath of Matthew van der Want) and the bassist agreed to wear white after Labour Day. This last part may or may not be true.

But inadvertently, this light-hearted show threw up a very serious issue.

While the episode was uploading to our server last Friday lunchtime, a friend of ours posted a link to article on a Facebook group he manages about South African music and censorship. The article was from the Mail & Guardian and headlined: 'Anti-Indian lyrics sow seeds of hatred'. But it was the sub-headline that caught our attention: The ANC has distanced itself from rap group AmaCde's 'Umhlab' Uzobuya', which takes up where Mbongeni Ngema's song 'AmaNdiya' left off.

Mbongeni Ngema, the celebrated lyricist and musician behind the musical Sarafina!, was being labelled a racist? Well, it turns out − and we’re not sure how this escaped our notice − that Ngema has the dishonourable distinction of being the first artist to have a record banned for broadcast in post-Apartheid South Africa. Unfortunately, our latest show praises him and plays out on his tune 'Stimela Sase Zola', but it was too late to do anything about that. This particular song is innocuous and uncontroversial, but we do feel uncomfortable playing artists who have written tracks that led the South African Human Rights Commission to say:

"Objectively judged the song amounts to hate speech, in spite of the reconciliatory introduction of the writer. The song itself does not convey the same message…. [It] promoted hate in sweeping, emotive language against Indians as a race and incited fear among Indians for their safety.”

And, frankly, when his reply to the charge used paranoid language normally associated with racist lunatics like the late Eugene Terra’Blanche, our eyebrows could not raise any higher:

"By their [the commission's] action he feels that they have declared war against the African race."

What?! But this was all more than a decade ago, so it is hugely troubling that songs with this sort of theme are re-emerging and finding an audience.

A global campaign against so-called 'Murder Music' from Jamaica has been hugely damaging to that country’s music industry and export potential. It would be an enormous pity if music inciting hatred and violence grew roots in South Africa.

Quite apart from the country’s racially-charged history, there remains fertile ground for this. In the past few years there have been several very unpleasant instances of violent xenophobia rising.

Now, we don’t see our role as presenters of a music programme to be censorious gatekeepers, vetting every artist for transgressions against political correctness. As our previous ‘crime’ episode shows, musicians are just human beings as prone to saying and doing stupid things from time to time as anyone else. But a line has to be drawn somewhere, and for us, inciting hatred and violence against people on the basis of their race, creed, colour, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or other similar status is simply not acceptable.

Until such time as he offers a fulsome and convincing apology, we shan’t be playing any more Mbongeni Ngema, and we certainly won’t knowingly play anything by the likes of AmaCde.

To groups like AmaCde, we say to you: Put your talent to something positive. Don’t waste it on stirring up hatred and violence. It might earn you short-term notoriety, but − apart from being immoral − it is a dead end both artistically and commercially. Just look at the tattered careers of Jamaican artists like Buju Banton and Beenie Man who could have been global stars, but instead face closed doors.

Anyhow, after reading about this very serious and depressing issue, what could be a better pick-me-up than another fun-filled episode of Tune Me What?!?

Tune Me What? is a podcast and blog by Brett Lock and Leon Lazarus that highlights South African music and artists at home and around the world. For more information, visit tunemewhat.com or facebook.com/TuneMeWhat.

Think Africa Press welcomes inquiries regarding the republication of its articles. If you would like to republish this or any other article for re-print, syndication or educational purposes, please contact: editor@thinkafricapress.com.

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Hong Kong, China:

The old couches, low tables placed in front of them, only amplify the smallness of the room where a 50-year-old Tanzanian lady is serving boiled bananas and chicken. A handful of African customers sit enjoying familiar meals and smatterings of Kiswahili can be heard being spoken. But despite appearances, this restaurant is a few thousand miles from any African shore. The room is on the 16th floor of Block D in the notorious Chungking Mansions of Hong Kong.

The Tanzanian lady who runs the restaurant as well as the guest house connected to it has been in Hong Kong for 5 years and is just one of many Africans who have long made their homes here. Modu Medard, a Ghanaian, has lived and worked at this well-known trade hub for 16 years, selling garments and shoes from his shop on the busy first floor of the Mansions. Not far from that store, Babangida, a Nigerian, sells jeans and shoes made in China, and has been operating his shop for 7 years.

According to some estimates, there are around 20,000 African migrants in Hong Kong which, alongside Guangzhou, Yihu, Macau, Shangai and Beijing, is one of the preferred destinations for Africans going to China. A few thousand of these are permanent residents, while a few hundred are refugees. Most are traders or operate businesses such as restaurants, but some have also started venturing into other activities such as teaching English and playing professional football.

Hong Kong’s African market

Chungking Mansions is a five-block 17-storey building located in the Kowloon area of Hong Kong. Evidently aged, the building is filled with just about everything: wholesale and retail shops; clothes and shoes stores; groceries; shops selling all sorts of electronics, from radios to computer accessories. The complex also houses several budget hostels and restaurants. It seems that there is a money changer on every floor.

It is a hub for traders from Africa, India, and Pakistan, asylum seekers and illegal workers. These make up the 5,000 people who live in the building, while 10,000 are said to visit daily.

According to Gordon Mathews, professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, a fifth of the mobile phones that reach sub-Saharan Africa may have passed through Chungking Mansions. Meanwhile, Issa Ssekito, the spokesperson for the Kampala City Traders Association (KACITA), estimates that some 70% of phones imported to Uganda come from China.

Hong Kong is an important hub of the rapidly growing trade between Africa and China that both sides are keen to emphasise. In 1995, China’s trade with Africa was valued at $6 billion; by 2010, it had risen to $130 billion; and in 2013, it was estimated to have reached $210 billion.

However, while the figures are impressive, many African traders in China are less than reassured and report finding it increasingly difficult to buy and sell goods. Ssekito, who deals in Chinese electronics which he buys from Guangzhou and Shenzhen, believes the growing Sino-African trade relations are tilted in favour of the Chinese.

“China says it has a liberalised economy but it is closed. It is hard for an African to start a company or even open a retail shop in any of the Chinese cities unless you partner with a local,” he says.

He suggests that about 70 Ugandan traders travel to China weekly to buy goods, ranging from cosmetics, electronics, footwear, clothes and ceramics. KACITA helps these traders gain visas, but Ssekito claims that for some groups such as women below 30, it is almost impossible to get a visa.

“They think such girls are going for prostitution,” he says.

Indeed, China seems to be increasingly wary of visitors from Africa, and China and the Hong Kong Special Administrative region government recently tightened work and visa rules in a move aimed at barring illegal immigrants.

According to Babangida, Nigerians encounter similar problems over issues of visas in Mainland China. “It is hard for Africans to operate businesses in China,” he says. “We tried… and failed...They deport several Nigerians even if they have a visa. It is not fair."

Challenges in China

For those traders who are able to acquire visas and remain for their agreed stays, the promise of profit awaits but not without challenges along the way. One particular issue is the language barrier, which can have repercussions beyond simple difficulties in communication.

“Most Chinese traders do not speak English. In some cases when we fail to understand each other, they ask us to show them our passports and when they realise you are Ugandan, they choose the grade of goods to sell you. Sometimes these goods are of poor quality,” claims Ssekito.

KACITA, he says, also handles 5-7 cases a month of traders alleging that they received poorer quality goods than they had agreed.

But despite myriad challenges, many African traders still believe business in China is worth the trouble and lucrative. Ssekito, for instance, says that he is planning to start exporting Nile Perch swim bladders to Hong Kong, where he says they are in high demand due to their use in Chinese traditional medicine. The Tanzanian restaurant owner meanwhile explains that she earns several times more money in Hong Kong than she could back home and that she sends enough to her family to support them. And Medard says that he has also educated his children in Ghana using earnings from his shop in Chungking Mansions, and invested in real estate back home.

Despite the increasing difficulties, these migrants making tidy profits in Hong Kong are not about to give up any time soon.

This article was made possible by a grant from the China-Africa Reporting Project managed by the Journalism Department of the University of Witwatersrand.

Think Africa Press welcomes inquiries regarding the republication of its articles. If you would like to republish this or any other article for re-print, syndication or educational purposes, please contact: editor@thinkafricapress.com.

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Over 40,000 people living in shin-deep disease-filled sludge and water, surrounded by an abusive conflict. Sleepless nights standing in water that sits for weeks on impermeable mud, children dying every day, buried in the same slick earth in unmarked graves, dark skies threatening to flood already submerged grass homes even further.

It’s hard to imagine that things could get worse here − the UN base in Bentiu, South Sudan, is already hell − but it just might. In the last weeks, South Sudan’s war has come right up to the edges of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) base with gun battles and shelling in Bentiu shaking the air. As has been demonstrated time and again in this nine-month war, just because civilians have fled to a UN base does not mean they are safe.

Moreover, regional leaders tasked with ending the war have just missed an opportunity when the heads-of-state summit of East Africa’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the body mediating South Sudan’s peace negotiations, ended on 25 August without tough action.

South Sudan’s government and opposition agreed, yet again, to respect a ceasefire agreement that has been broken many times before and, yet again, agreed to talk peace. Such paper promises made in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa have not made South Sudanese civilians any safer before, and what little hope there may have been in this latest promise quickly eroded when a UN helicopter was shot down just south of Bentiu the very next day.

As fighting has continued, IGAD has spent months dragging its feet on taking promised punitive measures against the warring parties to cajole them to the negotiation table and keep them there. And no such measures were announced at the end of the summit by the region’s presidents even though just before they met an IGAD mediator said the “velvet gloves” were off. IGAD’s threats should have been followed through not just because fighting continues in South Sudan but because of the way this war is being fought.

A recent report by Human Rights Watch found that abusive tactics that violate the laws of war lie at the heart of how both South Sudan’s government forces and the opposition are fighting. There has been systematic targeting of civilians because of their ethnicity or presumed allegiances as well as mass pillage of civilian property and wanton destruction of huge swathes of towns.

The result has been disaster. An estimated 1.5 million people have been forced to flee their homes, famine looms, and over 100,000 people – frightened that they will be shot and killed because of their ethnicity or by marauding, pillaging troops − have sought protection from the UN mission, which opened its gates as the systematic abuse began in the first hours of the conflict.

UN bases, however, haven't proven completely safe, and bases sheltering desperate civilians have been attacked at least twice with impunity. The opposition has never accounted for the December attack on the UN camp in Akobo, Jonglei state, in which over 20 men from the Dinka ethnicity were sought out and executed. Similarly, the government has never begun its promised investigation into the 17 April assault on the Bor UN base, also in Jonglei, in which gunmen, including government security forces, killed more than 50 people from the Nuer ethnicity. In fact, the government blamed the victims, in effect condoning the attacks.

The response from the international community, including IGAD, has also been muted, and East Africa’s leaders missed another opportunity to make a strong statement to both parties that they must ensure that civilians are protected at the recent summit.

Targeted sanctions against abusive leaders would send a strong message that there are consequences for harming civilians. IGAD could also call for a UN Security Council arms embargo on South Sudan to end the flow of weapons into a country where they are used to attack civilians. IGAD has just started publishing its reports on violations of the cessation of hostilities agreement, which will be a good step forward especially if these reports include information from well-resourced monitoring teams on violations against civilians and of the laws of war.

The summit was the moment for IGAD to show its leadership in the region, to help protect civilians in it: not just again hope for peace. For the sake of the South Sudanese people, the regional body cannot afford to miss another such opportunity.

Think Africa Press welcomes inquiries regarding the republication of its articles. If you would like to republish this or any other article for re-print, syndication or educational purposes, please contact: editor@thinkafricapress.com.

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Oppikoppi

Nelson Mandela once said that no-one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. South African musicians may therefore know more than a thing or two about the country.

South Africa has exceptionally high rates of crime and it comes as no surprise that many of our most beloved musicians have crossed over onto the wrong side of the law and landed themselves in hot water. Whether by driving paralytically drunk or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, some have swapped the spotlight for the flashing blue light.

This week we donned our investigative reporting hats and dug out the rap sheets on some of South Africa’s best known musicians and performers. It should be noted that this list is far from exhaustive and, in fact, we avoided sharing the worst with you.

Robbery: We begin with Mzwakhe Mbuli, a supposedly devout former deacon at the Apostolic Faith Mission Church in Soweto. He was known as 'The People's Poet', and enjoyed a place at the top of the mbaqanga heap. All that came crashing down in 1997 when he was arrested, charged and convicted for robbing a bank in Waverly, Pretoria. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison although the evidence appeared to be largely circumstantial. Mbuli was released from Leeuwkop prison in 2003. (It should be noted that Mbuli always maintained his innocence and insisted he was framed.)

Driving under the influence: Arno Carstens has enjoyed great success as the front man for the Springbok Nude Girls and as a solo artist. Bouncing between Johannesburg and London he has managed to release seven solo albums and has collaborated with some of the biggest international acts in the world including the Police, The Rolling Stones, Simple Minds and Ultravox. He also featured as the lead vocalist and co-writer on Mike + The Mechanics 2011 album The Road. Of course, with fame often comes alcohol abuse, and Arno was arrested in Cape Town in 2011 for driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.20 (the legal limit is 0.08). Officers noticed his black Mercedes swerving across the road erratically. The trial has been postponed a number of times and has yet to be decided.

Assault: Kelly Khumalo, the beautiful and talented singer and actress, was arrested in 2013 for assaulting the wife of Orlando Pirates goalkeeper, Senzo Meyiwa. City Press reported that Khumalo found Meyiwa and his wife Mandisa chatting at the side of Empire Road in Johannesburg. She stopped the car and, together with her sister who had been travelling with her, physically assaulted Mandisa. While cooling off in a jail cell, Khumalo began tweeting in tongues. One tweet read “Rabakashanda rabosiya ekhelemende. Rebesiya! Fire fire fire fire fire fire fire fire.” We all love irony, and this case is no exception. Just one year prior, Khumalo had become a staunch advocate against domestic violence. Apparently if it is on the side of the road in Gauteng, it doesn't count as domestic.

Piracy: Jack Parow is definitely our favourite Afrikaans rapper and his larger than life persona and drunk lout image is obviously finely crafted. We say this because only a year ago, shortly before the 2013 Oppikoppi music festival, Parow was supposedly arrested for stealing a catamaran at the Vaalkop dam and sailing it away under cover of darkness while blind drunk. It turned out that the advertising agency FoxP2 had dreamed up the stunt to promote Captain Morgan rum!

Affray, or “Wrong Place, Wrong People, and Wrong Time”: Famed musician and producer Sello “Chicco” Twala had the misfortune of managing Brenda Fassie at her most volatile. He landed up paying dearly for the gig. In 2003, he interposed himself between Fasie and her lover Sindisiwe Khambule while they duked it out at a nightclub in Johannesburg. Chicco, along with the feuding couple, were landed in jail for the night. The following day, Fassie gave an interview to the City Press newspaper during which she apparently snorted a line of cocaine.

Speeding: It appears that there is a competitive spirit amongst South African musicians on this front. Steve Hofmeyr, the controversial and polarising pop singer, was arrested in Bronkhorstspruit for driving at 169kmph (105mph) in an 80kmph (50mph) zone. Not to be outdone, R&B Singer Donald Moatshe was nabbed on the N2 in Ballito, KwaZulu-Natal clocking 182kmph (113mph) in a 120kmph (75mph) zone which landed him in jail.

Drug possession: A classic rock star trip(up).You would think musicians would be clamouring to get into this category, but this week all we have for you is an unconfirmed story about Watkin Tudor Jones a.k.a. Waddy Jones a.k.a. Ninja from the highly controversial Afrikaans gangster rap group Die Antwoord. Apparently, Waddy attended a legalise marijuana rally outside parliament in Cape Town. Dressed in camo gear and carrying a Djemebe drum and a bag of weed, Waddy rolled a large joint as police arrived. If it is true, his rhythm may be great but his timing is awful.

International visa violation: Koos Kombuis, the anti-establishment Afrikaner maverick synonymous with the anti-apartheid Voëlvry movement, ran afoul of the law in Namibia while on a short musical tour and vacation. He was arrested at Walvis Bay airport for overstaying his visitor's visa. He appeared in a magistrates court and was immediately acquitted. He should have demanded an apology from the Namibian government for being forced to stay an extra day.

Fraud, or “The Strange Case of Reanimation”: In December 2009, Khulekani Mgqumeni "Kwakhe" Khumalo succumbed to “ill health” and died. The 27-year-old had enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top of Zulu Maskandi, a traditional musical style. His fifth and final album had already sold 78,000 copies at the time of his death. In 2012, a man claiming to be Kwakhe came home to his family. He claimed that “zombies” had held him captive. He claimed that the undead had shaved off his dreadlocks and threatened to knock a nail into his head. His family accepted him and his grandmother and sister vouched that this was indeed the Kwakhe they had buried, even though he looked different and refused to sing or play any music. Police arrested the imposter and charged him with fraud after taking DNA and fingerprint evidence. I guess Kwakhe II hadn’t thought of those finer details in his plot to inherit the fortune amassed by Kwakhe I.

Special Mentions

Evasive manoeuvres: Zolani Mkiva, Nelson Mandela’s praise singer and South African poet laureate, was arrested by the Joint Anti-Corruption Task Team for evading more than R741,000 ($70,000) in taxes through his private security company. He took his partner, the son of a Xhosa king, with him.

Stifling uniformity: Kwaito star Mkhonzeni “Professor” Langa was arrested for impersonating a policeman and released with a warning and a R3,000 ($280) fine. He wore the uniform as a stunt while attending the Metro FM Music Awards in Durban. Police who watched the award ceremony on television spent the following day tracking Langa down to find out where he had got the uniform.

Luckily, the ten desperados featured are better at music than at crime, so in-between learning of their criminal pratfalls, this episode of Tune Me What is at least a very enjoyable hour of music!

Tune Me What? is a podcast and blog by Brett Lock and Leon Lazarus that highlights South African music and artists at home and around the world. For more information, visit tunemewhat.com or facebook.com/TuneMeWhat.

Think Africa Press welcomes inquiries regarding the republication of its articles. If you would like to republish this or any other article for re-print, syndication or educational purposes, please contact: editor@thinkafricapress.com.

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The US-Africa Leaders Summit, held at the start of this month, fell at a time of rising concern over the sustainability of Africa’s economic emergence. In particular, many watch with excitement, as well as anxiety, at the ravenous investor interest in African debt and in new joint ventures that aim to serve the continent’s consumers. The boom in investment has been so striking of late that these flows could soon be Africa’s leading source of hard currency.

However, while these trends continue to inspire hope in some quarters, in many other circles faith in the idea that this capital surge will generate full employment, reduce inequality and eradicate poverty is waning. Instead, various commentators now worry about overheating, overreach, resource misallocation and non-performance. Meanwhile, stories such as excessively-indebted Ghana’s recent expression of interest in subjecting itself to another course of International Monetary Fund (IMF) medicine provide further fodder to those that emphasise the potential for bubble trouble south of the Sahara.

Nevertheless, the US-Africa summit ended with a promised $14 billion in new US private investments in areas such as energy and infrastructure. This was also served up with the potential carrot of extended trade preferences under the US African Growth and Opportunity Act, and bathed in a thick glaze of philanthropic feel goodery sprinkled with a sugary, anodyne dash of corporate social responsibility. Africans might want to consider taking this meal with a lorry load of salt.

From the perspective of Corporate America, Africa offers a deep well of potential profits. Big US energy players, for example, understand that Africa’s unmet power and electricity needs represent an unprecedented investment opportunity. In fact, US agencies such as the Overseas Private Investment Corporation have already been tasked with cutting the costs of American efforts to maximise returns from African energy.

However, amidst this rush to profit from Africa's energy needs, it ought not to be forgotten that US economic thinking may have fuelled this problem in the first place. Many economic governance ideas linked to neoclassical economic models developed primarily in the US and exported via the IMF and the World Bank have long been big stones in African shoes. And African public power and utility projects floundered in the 1980s as conditional or 'policy-based' loans pushed by the Fund and the Bank aborted Africa’s flirtation with the state-guided paths to development that Germany, South Korea, Taiwan and the US itself once followed.

If Africa's economies are to develop, they must do so not simply through the reanimation of misguided market fundamentalist orthodoxies. One clear way in which the continent could do things differently − and banish long and painful memories of the politics associated with Western economic ideas − would be through the newly-established BRICS New Development Bank, which is set to have $100 billion at its disposal. Disbursements from this Bank could speed up the development of private and public sector corporations and be used to support the public provision of education, electricity, healthcare, museums, parks, water or any other unmet public need.

The BRICS bank could be hugely significant, though how exactly it is to function remains to be seen. But the New Development Bank is not the only option available to Africa. Another route the continent could take which is worthy of great consideration would be to turn to the ideas of celebrated economist John Kenneth Galbraith.

Turning to JK

The first possible Galbraithian way forward is rooted in his efforts to call out the shaky foundations of ‘accepted’ economic beliefs. The Canadian-cum-American economist famously referred to the tendency for political and economic elites to unthinkingly regurgitate ideas or explanations that their audiences assumed to be true as conventional wisdom.

His searing critique of viewpoints that departed from reality but were nonetheless esteemed for their acceptability resonates in Africa today. For decades, adherents to the neo-classical approach have attempted to control the parameters for the production and application of ‘respectable’ economic knowledge. Leading hardcore believers have actively narrowed the range of African governance options or systems subject to serious debate. For too long, the theoretical preoccupations of this knowledge cartel have obscured or discounted the ideas, institutions and power relations that actually move and constrain Africa.

Take last year’s scholarly revelations regarding the apparently ‘poor’ state of African statistics on economic growth. This attention was well warranted, but lost in the hype over 'poor numbers' was the reality that figures such as GDP may be unhelpful to begin with. GDP, for example, does nothing to count the contributions that hundreds of millions of unremunerated women make at home and in their communities to keeping Africa moving day in day out. Africa would be significantly helped by better-resourced efforts to gather new kinds of numbers that would enable the continent's genuine progress to be tracked.

A second application for Galbraith in Africa can be drawn from his insights regarding the power of big corporations. As more and more transnational companies setup shop across the continent, our reference points for understanding how power is exercised must shift. Multinationals increasingly contribute to the growth of industry and professional networks unconnected to domestic centres of political power. Many also provide services in the absence of effective public provision such as sanitation and schools, and as such, private corporations now play larger roles in African governance.

Galbraith documented many innovations that mitigated corporate power, including anti-trust laws and industrial policies, that permitted the US to add more value to its exports and diversify away from its colonial-era specialisations. Similar initiatives could prove hugely useful to African economies today.

Finally, Galbraith’s work on advertising and marketing could help African leaders better understand the forces that work against the sovereignty of African consumers. His writing on this topic challenged the notion that the US was all about free choice. He showed that adverts cooked up by Madison Avenue’s ‘Mad Men’ were ultimately designed to make consumers serve corporate needs, and he detailed the centrality of advertising to the internal planning systems of consumer goods groups. In this light, corporations exerted increasing control over individual preferences over time, and underwrote the emergence of a fast food and mall culture that further entrenched their interests.

As Big Retail increasingly eyes the continent, Africa could employ these ideas to help the continent's ‘widening’ consumers to avoid snatching underdevelopment from the jaws of emergence. The disbursement of resources that would enable whistles to be blown on false advertising and that could fund the promotion of healthy living choices would be a good start.

Galbraith is, of course, not a silver bullet. Without a doubt, there are many other wellsprings in Africa and elsewhere that could and should be tapped to refresh political economic thinking. But Galbraith does matter. And he certainly offers rising Africa a drink of political economic pluralism more revitalising than the market fundamentalist Kool-Aid that has long passed its use by date and more energising than the bogus PR that was imbibed so headily at the US-Africa summit.

Think Africa Press welcomes inquiries regarding the republication of its articles. If you would like to republish this or any other article for re-print, syndication or educational purposes, please contact: editor@thinkafricapress.com.

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30 years ago, on 4 August, 1984, the former French colony of the Upper Volta was re-baptised as 'Burkina Faso' amidst a revolutionary process that proved to be one of the most inspiring, yet ultimately tragic, episodes of modern African history.

In 1983, the young Captain Thomas Sankara had come to power in a popularly-supported coup d'état and − with broad support from leftist political parties, students, women, and peasants − initiated a range of ambitious projects, including the country's name-change, that aimed to make the country more self-reliant and free of corruption. Sankara also sought to decentralise and democratise power in order to facilitate more participatory forms of governance, though elections for national offices were never attempted.

By many measures, this visionary project was enjoying a number of promising successes, but on 15 October 1987, Sankara's experiment and life were cut short when a group of fellow soldiers, led by his former close ally Blaise Compaoré and backed by foreign powers, murdered him. Compaoré promptly took the reins of government effectively ending the revolution.

In the 27 years since Sankara's overthrow, Compaoré has managed to keep a hold of power and largely ruled with impunity, though there have been periodic protest movements. Most notably, there were widespread demonstrations in 1998 after the journalist Norbert Zongo was killed, while 2011 also saw a marked rise in protests and mutinies.

And now, over the past year, the political opposition has reorganised itself once again and sharpened its message in anticipation of the presidential elections due in November 2015. So far, the most heated dispute has erupted over the issue of term limits. In 2000, the new Article 37 of the constitution reduced presidential terms from 7 to 5 years and imposed a two-term limit. Since then, Compaoré has been re-elected twice meaning that he would not be eligible to run again in 2015, but the ruling party is now calling for a referendum on the article.

It is in this fraught context that the streets of the capital Ouagadougou have become restive today and that the words and images of Thomas Sankara have been revitalised − his quotes declared at demonstrations, his face printed on posters and t-shirts, his revolutionary slogans such as “Homeland or Death, We will Overcome” remembered and recited. With a revived revolutionary spirit, the people have boldly taken up where Sankara left off, bringing to life his assertion in 1987, as rumours of a planned coup began to spread, that “Even if you kill me, thousands more Sankaras will be born.”

Spearheading the wider movement − dubbed 'That's Enough' − has been the Balai Citoyen (“Citizen Broom”) collective and its main leaders, the reggae musician and radio host Sams’k Le Jah and rapper Smockey. The symbol of the broom represents both the neighbourhood cleaning groups that Sankara initiated and the need to clean the country of bad governance and corruption today. The protesters want Compaoré gone, and there’s a prevailing sense that they will not relent until this happens. The movement is peaceful and festive and inspired by the youth movement in Senegal known as Y’en a marre (“We’re fed up”) which played a role in forcing President Abdoulaye Wade from office in 2012.

The fall of Sankara

As many know, the name 'Burkina Faso' translates as “Land of Honest People” or "Land of Incorruptible People", and this moniker seems to capture what it means to be Burkinabé – honest, hard-working, proud and free. The name additionally reflects the multi-ethnic vision and nation-building aspirations of Sankara in that it combined the Mooré word for 'honest' (Burkina) with the Jula word for 'homeland' (Faso).

But the name change was also a statement against imperialism. Speaking about the issue in Harlem, New York City, on 2 October 1984, Sankara explained: "We wanted to kill off Upper Volta in order to allow Burkina Faso to be reborn. For us, the name of Upper Volta symbolises colonialism.” On another occasion on French television Sankara expanded, saying: “Upper Volta doesn’t mean anything for anyone, particularly for us, the Burkinabés…. By contrast, Burkina Faso is a name drawn from the land itself, that has meaning in our language − the ‘Country of Honest Men.’”

In essence, the name change was about decolonising minds and freeing Burkina Faso from foreign cultural and economic domination, and many Burkinabés who lived through these revolutionary years remember feeling a new sense of pride in being from Burkina Faso and in having the dynamic and bold Thomas Sankara as their president. Outside the country, Sankara also became something of a revolutionary hero, being labelled the “African Che”, particularly among the youth. His famous adage, “Everything that man can imagine, he is capable of creating,” injected optimism and hope into many people’s lives.

True to the country’s new name, Sankara would live up to the highest standards of incorruptibility. At a time when most African heads-of-state used power to enrich themselves, Sankara set out to end the practice of employing political power for personal gain and lived a life of frugality and simplicity, dying with few possessions and scant money or real estate. Sankara also sought to end decades of French colonial and neo-colonial domination by reaching out to countries in the non-aligned world. His revolution restored the dignity of the people by giving them a political voice and through social and agrarian reforms. He addressed a wide array of problems with relentless vigour, ranging from environmental degradation, women’s rights, education, local cotton textile production, and public health. And while there were errors along the way, as Sankara frequently admitted himself, he persistently sought to correct them.

Following Sankara's assassination, however, Compaoré did his best to turn all this on its head. He was quick to blame Sankara's policies for all the country's problems, promised to "rectify" the revolution, and used the media to defame him. And for decades now, Compaoré and his ruling party, the Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP), has managed to keep the opposition at bay. This is partly due to Compaoré’s use of clientelist networks, though the fragmented nature of the opposition and wide proliferation of political parties have also enabled the CDP to dominate.

Meanwhile, the “Sankarist” parties have long lost their revolutionary edge. The most prominent leader among these groups, Bénéwendé Sankara (unrelated to Thomas), came second in the 2005 presidential election (albeit with less than 5% of the vote), but he has since seen his political fortunes wane. Furthermore, the social movement currently brewing in Burkina Faso has sought to distance itself from the old Sankarist parties anyhow as they view them as having tarnished Sankara's image with their political opportunism.

Shifting sands?

Although the relations of force within Burkina Faso have been firmly in Compaoré’s favour since 1987, this may now be shifting on various fronts. Most notably, at the start of January 2014, 75 key political figures from Compaoré's party resigned. A couple of weeks later, following a mass protest against the proposed referendum on Article 37, these former officials formed the People’s Movement for Progress (MPP).

This new opposition party is led by some of Compaoré’s closest former allies − including Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, Salif Diallo and Simon Compaoré (no relation of Blaise) − all of whom are skilled political operators. Kaboré, for instance, was president of the National Assembly from 2002 to 2012 and had been president of the ruling CDP before his defection. The MPP’s opposition to attempts to change Article 37 may well be self-serving, but it allies them with a social movement that places democratic, transparent governance and respect for the rule of law firmly centre stage.

Compaoré responded quickly to these events by establishing the Republican Front, a loose coalition of mostly pro-CDP parties that has been taking the argument to the people that it’s better to hold a referendum on Article 37 than hurl the country into chaos.

This year then, demonstrations and counter-demonstrations have been held as both the opposition and the Republican Front tour the country. In the likes of Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso’s second city, opposition parties have come together to form local Committees Against the Referendum (CCR) coordinating their tactics with leaders in Ouagadougou. Meanwhile Compaoré has taken his Republican Front on the road, organising mass rallies in the capital and, in a bid to impede his opponents as much as possible, has gone so far as to cancel the passports of MPP leaders.

A thousand Sankaras

Compaoré may well have several tricks up his sleeve, but one of his problems in all this is that the ghost of Thomas Sankara never disappeared. Despite Compaoré's efforts, his predecessor's ideas and inspiration would not be easily erased from history, and for many Burkinabés, it was the unceremonious manner in which their beloved leader was thrown into an unmarked grave and the dragging of his name through the dirt afterwards that stings the most. Fighting for the truth around his death is a question of dignity and respect for the man they see as having given his life for their country. For years, the issue was debated primarily within the context of the “Justice for Sankara” movement in France and on active social media networks, but it is now spilling out into the streets with renewed force.

In 2013, after years of pressure from opposition members, a French member of parliament called on the French government to open its archives and investigate Sankara's death. In April 2014, however, the court in Ouagadougou ruled, after years of delay, that it would not allow DNA experts to access Sankara’s tomb in order to verify the identity of his body. In recent weeks, during an interview, Compaoré did finally confirm that “Thomas is buried in the Dagnoën cemetery in Ouaga,” but nothing more was revealed.

In the meantime, the 'little Sankaras' have come of age. As rapper Smockey said, quoting Sankara: "A mobilised and determined youth is not afraid of anything, even an atomic bomb.” And after years of fear and silence around his death, the time is ripe for the youth to pick up his legacy. Young Burkinabés listen to Sankara’s speeches on cassettes, watch videos about him on the internet, and are using this history as a weapon in their struggle today. Despite state efforts to suppress Sankara’s memory over the past three decades, the people have rediscovered the revolutionary patron saint who brought pride and dignity to Burkina Faso. This symbolic figure might be precisely what Burkinabés need to face the political challenges ahead, knowing full-well, as Sankara stated at the UN General Assembly in October of 1984, that, ultimately, “Freedom can only be won through struggle.”

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