Sunday, 29 June 2008

Weighing the Africa in South Africa

Original article found at:


The morning papers on May 19 recorded a grim scene. A young Mozambican man was pictured on hands and knees, his body engulfed by flames. Set upon by a group of South African youths, the unidentified man had been stabbed and severely beaten before being set alight. Taken in Ramaphosa, an impoverished settlement east of Johannesburg, the photograph forms part of a mosaic of news photographs documenting the ruthless wave of attacks targeting African immigrants resident in South Africa’s townships.

Five days after the publication of the Ramaphosa photograph, the deceased man’s identity remained a mystery. On Friday May 23, Johannesburg’s The Star newspaper attempted to honour the man’s life with an obituary, of sorts. ‘They called him Mugza,’ read the front-page headline. The narration was sparse: the man had shared a shack with another Mozambican man, also murdered; the two had only recently arrived in the area. Accompanying the words was a new photograph. Taken four days after the attack, it showed a pair of shoes, a scattering of concrete blocks and a duvet heaped over a pile of burnt clothing, the latter belonging to the deceased. It was a devastating image, recalling Joel Sternfeld’s photograph of the Los Angeles roadside where Rodney King was beaten – even Roger Fenton’s famous study of a cannonball-strewn landscape in Crimea. Art-historical allusions and photographic doubling aside, what gave the photograph its real impact were the three schoolgirls in the distance. In one news report, it was claimed that school children in Alexandria (the Johannesburg township where the wave of xenophobic attacks first started) had laughed at terrified immigrants seeking shelter at police stations.

In his contribution to the South African edition of the ‘Africa Remix’ catalogue, published in 2007, Achille Mbembe, a Cameroonian social scientist and writer based in Johannesburg, makes a bold claim for his adopted city. A place of atrophying skyscrapers and recently constructed African head offices, of casinos, shopping malls and expensive sports cars, of levitating restaurants and electrified suburban compounds, Mbembe regards Johannesburg as ‘the centre of Afropolitanism par excellence’.

You don’t have to look too hard nowadays to see this newfangled word popping up in cultural criticism. (Holland Cotter, in his recent New York Times review of the pan-African group show ‘Flow’, currently on at the Studio Museum in Harlem, uses it.) But what does it mean? ‘Afropolitanism,’ writes Mbembe, ‘is not the same as Pan-Africanism or negritude. Afropolitanism is an aesthetic and a particular poetic of the world. It is a way of being in the world, refusing on principle any form of victim identity – which does not mean that it is not aware of the injustice and violence on the continent and its people by the law of the world.’

Johannesburg, with its multiple racial and ethnic legacies and globalised economy, argues Mbembe, is a model for African development. ‘It is where an ethic of tolerance is being created, likely to revive African aesthetic and cultural creativity, in the same way as Harlem or New Orleans once did in the United States.’ There is some substance in these words, notwithstanding the evidence of people and their homes being torched, of the displaced seeking refuge in churches, police stations and tented camps in Johannesburg, of busses hurriedly ferrying African nationals out of the continent’s richest city, away from a confused citizenry desperately grappling with the contradictions of a post-apartheid enlightenment. There is truth. The thing is, it is a fragile one and coexists with other truths. Perhaps this what energises and so haunts Mbembe’s writings, what makes Okwui Enwezor’s ongoing curatorial projects – so critical and engaging – also fraught with ambiguity.

In a recent interview, author Chinua Achebe spoke of the competing narratives that have come to define Africa. Rather than banish the news photographer, whose subject is suffering, this signal figure suggested that we allow the contradictory pictures to coexist, that Africans strive to uphold the worldliness and mobility so much a part of their everyday life and history – notwithstanding the reality of its multiple shadows. Which reiterates, rather than contradicts, what Mbembe is arguing, just differently.

Coexistent with this attempt to define a ‘theory’ of cosmopolitan enlightenment, the recent pogroms in South Africa point to other, more furtive realities at play. One of these deals centrally with money: South Africa is the dominant economic power in sub-Saharan Africa. Where money exists, so too do impoverished economic migrants and culture. (Just take a walk around contemporary London.) One spin-off of this somewhat reduced reading is that South Africa has become an important conduit for trading into Africa, economically, politically, even culturally. Fact: five South African artists appear on ‘Flow’ – no other country enjoys as prominent a representation.

I recently interviewed Clive Kellner, director of the Johannesburg Art Gallery, arguably the country’s foremost public institution, and put it to him that South Africa’s international successes have often been at the expense of Africa – more pointedly, that South Africa is a proxy for Africa. Lazy curators seeking to engage the continent visit South Africa, sleep and dine well, make a few easy selections, and fly back home, comfortable in the knowledge that Africa has somehow been represented. ‘Absolutely, I agree a lot,’ responded Kellner. ‘What happened with a lot of South African artists is that they entered these contemporary African shows, and then they get a gallery overseas, and then divorce themselves from South Africa and Africa – they just want to be international. Which is fine – labels are a problem – but there is a very particular process and trajectory they seem to go through.’

Which is not to gainsay the successes of South African artists internationally, nor to suggest that they are morally complicit in the xenophobic attacks. That would be plain ridiculous. But just like the ongoing debate about white South Africans and their debt to apartheid, the recent flare-up of xenophobia in the country highlights the very real debt that South Africans owe to Africa. It is a tangled debt, tied at once to anti-apartheid struggle history, current economics and, in this context, global art trends. Denying that any such debt is owed is tantamount to denying Mugza a name. It is a realization not lost on South Africans. On May 25, a Sunday, the country learnt that the 22-year-old man senselessly murdered in Ramaphosa had a name. He was Ernesto Nhmawavane.
Sean O’Toole

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