Tag Archives: africa

The Swazis who dare to demand democracy

You know a monarchy is feeling the heat when errant subjects face a beating with spikes. Last month, the prime minister of Swaziland, Barnabas Dlamini, threatened to use “sipakatane” — the beating of the feet with of metal or wooden spikes — to cow pro-democracy activists into submission. His comments came after a protest march triggered fifty arrests and the deportation of several South African trade unionists from Africa’s last absolute monarchy.

King Mswati III has led Swaziland since 1986. Ruling by decree, he has maintained the state of emergency his father, King Sobhuza II, instituted in 1973 — five years after independence.

Forbes magazine estimates Mswati’s wealth to be $200 million, making him the world’s 15th richest monarch. In a country with the world’s highest prevalence of HIV (at 40%), and with seven out of ten citizens living in poverty, Mswati’s lavish lifestyle (funded by an annual allocation larger than the education budget) has provoked outrage. Plans to buy a $45 million Bombardier jet in 2002 were shelved but the king’s penchant for heavy metal persists, with a purchase of ten BMWs (one for each of his wives) in 2005 and 20 armour-plated Mercedes last year.

The Swazis are losing patience with this conspicuous consumption, however. In August 2008, hundreds of women marched through the streets of Mbabane, the capital, to protest against a shopping trip for nine of the king’s wives to Europe.

In February this year, the Swaziland Democracy Campaign, an umbrella body of Swazi and South African organizations, including trade unions, churches and NGOs, was formed. The organization rallied hundreds to march for democracy during a common market of Eastern and Southern Africa summit on the seventh of September, as Mswati played host to 19 African heads of state.

The police responded in brutal fashion. Mario Masuku, president of Swaziland’s banned political party, PUDEMO, was put under house arrest while his deputy, Sikhumbuzo Phakathi, was arrested at the border. Phakathi remains in detention, fuelling concerns he will meet the same fate as Sipho Jele, a fellow activist who died in police detention earlier this year.

Zanele Matebula, the deputy international secretary of South Africa’s largest trade union, COSATU, was one of the 50 activists detained. After four hours of being questioned by police, she and four colleagues were booted out of the country.

“To deport five people, they mobilised about 300 members of the police, military and other officials. It was ridiculous. It was all about the pretence of a strong state,” Steve Faulkner, a union spokesman, told the M&G. “But this is a turning point for Swaziland,” he added. “In spite of the intimidatory behaviour, the confidence of the people is soaring and they’re really getting organized.”

Swaziland’s future is uncertain, but what is clear is that its nascent civil rights movement is gathering a momentum not seen since independence. With Swaziland economically reliant on South Africa, the latter is ideally placed to capitalise on this momentum and pressurise Mswati to reform. But as its approach to Zimbabwe shows, South Africa is notoriously reluctant to step on the toes of her neighbours. It will be up to the rest of the international community encourage Swaziland’s monarchy to modernise.

According to the Swaziland Solidarity Network, the EU provides £65 million in aid to Swaziland annually, while the US donates approximately $200 million. Donor countries should stop turning a blind eye to Mswati’s excesses and should rather use this funding strategically to encourage democratisation.


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Impressions of Africa: history and identity revealed

“Impressions of Africa: Money, metals and stamps”, an exhibition at the British Museum till February next year, offers a fascinating prism through which continent’s history, ideologies and politics can be viewed.

What we can easily dismiss as simply day-to-day necessities are revealed to be vital weapons to cement identity, impose ideology, advance propaganda and forge reconciliation.

When Katanga province seceded from a newly independent Congo in 1961, the fledgling nation used the symbol of copper handa crosses, a pre-colonial currency, to differentiate itself and convey a separate identity. The crosses were used both in coins and stamps. A bank note, only half-designed, is on display with the Katanga’s handa-bearing flag. The brutal civil war that ultimately reincorporated the renegade province had ended before the note could be finished, let alone put into circulation.

Another breakaway, the oil-rich Biafra, which seceded from Nigeria in 1967, used postage stamps in its propaganda war against the Nigerian federal government, which brutally deprived the region of food and other vital resources during the conflict. During the province’s short-lived secession, grim illustrations of starving children and injured men were depicted on stamps sent around the world with the aim of drawing attention to the abuses perpetuated by Nigerian army forces, and stimulate international support

In its pursuit of an empire, France used its currency in Africa to psychologically reinforce its dominance over its territories. Many notes in French west Africa featured the French archetype, Marianne, gazing benevolently, if sternly, on a “helpless” African mother and child. Ironic for a nation which was supposedly built on the foundation of “liberty, equality, fraternity”.

Ghana was the first colonised African country to attain independence (in 1957). It was led initially by the intellectual Kwame Nkrumah who steadily devolved into a power-hungry despot. Nkrumah’s pillaging of state coffers and disastrous economic policies brought the once thriving country to the brink of bankruptcy within ten years.

The first coins and notes after independence both feature the new leader. This was, he said, so that people “know they’re independent” and that ordinary Ghanaians, when they saw his visage, would “see an African just like them”.

You can see his point. What does wonder, though, is role this played in fuelling Nkrumah’s megalomania and personality cult. When your face is on every coin, it’s hard not to think of yourself as elevated to immortality.

I never knew that Ethiopia’s currency in the first half of the twentieth century was the Austrian Maria Theresa Thaler. Apparently those dating back to 1780 were particularly prized. During the Italian occupation of the east African country (between 1936 and 1941), attempts to impose the lire on Ethiopians was largely unsuccessful – the Thaler continued to be used as an act of defiance.

Zimbabwe’s currency, of course, offers a devastating comment on the country’s history: the displayed Z$ 100 trillion note offers a powerful indictment of Mugabe’s ruinous reign. But perhaps the death of the Zimbabwean dollar is the most powerful indictment of all: the disappearance of the sovereign currency, replaced by South African rands, US dollars and Botswana pula, is one sign of how Zanu PF has devastated the Zimbabwean economy and brought suffering to millions of people.

For decades, money in South Africa baldly symbolised minority domination, through the use of only two languages – English and Afrikaans – and iconography only from so-called “white” historical narratives. Thankfully, joyously, this is a thing of the past. Now, South African money is a tool for reconciliation: visible in our new coat of arms, and in the use of all eleven official languages. A two rand coin issued in 2004 commemorated ten years of freedom, with a long line of figures (reminiscent of images of long, curving lines of patient voters at the first democratic elections in 1994) following the South African flag, itself a powerful symbol of unity.

Impressions of Africa is free at the British Museum until 6 February 2011. Next week: Afrodissident visits the British Museum’s South Africa Landscape.

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With its resilient economic growth, Africa is the darling of “Time”

Time magazine has named Africa’s business potential as one of the “10 ideas changing the world right now”.

For once Africa isn’t being depicted as a disastrous basket case — indeed in this article quite the opposite is the case. With positive economic growth for African nations forecasted to continue (despite the global downturn that has caused so many other economies — especially in the first world — to contract) Africa is cited as a glimmer of economic hope in these gloomy recession-hit times.

The article says:

[A]id is no longer Africa’s main source of foreign income. Africa is becoming a business destination.

In 2006, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, foreign investment in Africa reached $48 billion, overtaking foreign aid for the first time. That gap has only widened, reflecting a quadrupling of foreign investment since 2000. As the senior adviser in Africa for the International Monetary Fund (IMF), David Nellor, noted in a report last September, sub-Saharan Africa today resembles Asia in the 1980s. “The private sector is the key driver,” wrote Nellor, “and financial markets are opening up.” War is down. Democracy is up. Inflation and interest rates are in single digits. Terms of trade have improved. Crucially, said Nellor, “growth is taking off.” The IMF puts Africa’s average annual growth for 2004 to ’08 at more than 6% — better than any developed economy — and predicts the continent will buck the global recessionary trend to grow nearly 3.3% this year.

As a result of this, Africa is the best bet to back for investors operating within the turmoil of the current  global economic climate.

As the article says:

In an article for the online journal allAfrica in February, Oxford University economist Paul Collier and Witney Schneidman, who advised President Obama on Africa during his campaign, noted that Africa now offers the world’s highest rate of return on investment. “Africa, usually the poorest performing region in the world economy, is now likely to be among the best-performing,” they wrote. “Moreover, the region has been largely immune from the current banking crisis…The continent’s financial institutions did not venture into derivatives or sub-prime mortgages.” Shanta Devarajan, the World Bank’s chief economist for Africa, says the current downturn might be unfair to the continent, since it is “not remotely Africa’s fault,” but it should not alter the underlying trend: “There has definitely been a transition in the last few years. The continent now has huge potential.” Or as Stephen Hayes, president and CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa, puts it, “Africa offers more opportunity than any place in the world.”

The article explores China’s lusty rapprochement with the continent, in which the resource-ravenous power is building infrastructure in return for affordable natural resources to fuel its economy.

It also looks at the controversies surrounding aid from the developed world, and the need for the Africa’s burgeoning private sector to lead the way in eradicating poverty:

[L]ong-term charity, living life as a beggar, is degrading. Andrew Rugasira, 40, runs Good African Coffee, a Ugandan company he set up in 2004 to supply British supermarkets under the motto “Trade, not aid.” He is emblematic of a new generation of African antiaid, antistate entrepreneurs. For Rugasira, aid not only “undermines the creativity to lift yourself out of poverty” but also “undermines the integrity and dignity of the people. It says, These are people who cannot figure out how to develop.” Aid even manages to silence those it is meant to help. “African governments become accountable to Western donors,” says Rugasira, “and Africa finds itself represented not by Africans but by Bono and Bob Geldof. I mean, how would America react if Amy Winehouse dropped in to advise them on the credit crisis?”

It’s great that the Africa — at long last — is being feted in mainstream western media as a place of potential. Of course the rampant poverty, conflict and corruption still bedevil the continent. But there’s so much more to the continent.

As Time says “Look … at the African growth figures once more. Compare them with this year’s forecasts for the developed world. Who’s the basket case now?”

Read the rest of the article here.

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Conversations with the Foreign Policy Journal

Check out my interview in the Foreign Policy Journal with Iranian journalist  Kourosh Ziabari. We discuss everything from Zimbabwe and the conflicts in Darfur and the Congo to the 2010 World Cup and Africa’s media representations and role of the international community in conflict situations.

Click here to check out the interview.

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