Science fiction offers a useful way to explore China-Africa relations



Science fiction can serve as an imaginative production of political theory.
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Nedine Moonsamy, University of Pretoria

In 2007 the then President of China, Hu Jintao, delivered a speech to South Africans acknowledging the benefits of a strategic partnership. He also stressed that the connection is not merely pragmatic. It must, he argued, serve to honour and deepen the countries’ long abiding friendship in the future.

The idea of friendship has undoubtedly informed the nature of Sino-African engagement. But if we use contemporary science fiction as a barometer, African sentiment towards China appears more inclined towards dystopian forecasts.

Science fiction writing often serves as a thought experiment that explores shared and hidden beliefs whose material and political reverberations lie further in the future. Various short stories portray how China’s economic ascension, operating under the guise of African development, uses technology as a means to invade and control Africa.

Narratives of this kind surface neo-colonial fears that a “new scramble for Africa” seems imminent. But they also provide a speculative arena to interrogate how we ultimately perceive the value, use and future of Sino-African political friendship.

As I’ve explored in my research, this means that science fiction can serve as an imaginative production of political theory. It intercedes in ways that international relations cannot because of the confines of diplomacy.

Three stories

My research focused on three short science fiction stories from Africa.

In the first, Tendai Huchu’s “The Sale”, China has taken control of Zimbabwe through the production of a corporatised state called CorpGov. It’s a surveillance state that leaves no room for political dissension. Zimbabwe has been purchased by China in a piecemeal fashion. It is now set to lose its last free portion of land in a final sale. When a young Zimbabwean man fails to prevent the sale of this remaining plot of land, he succumbs to despair and puts himself in the path of a Chinese bulldozer.

His suicide evokes a sense of profound helplessness and warns that China will need to be vehemently counteracted in the near future to protect Zimbabwe’s already breached borders. Huchu’s narrative provides a sharp sense of clarity that makes the story incredibly impactful.

The pathos of “The Sale” holds a mirror up to China. It communicates an earnest appeal for more humane engagement. Yet the heaviness of its dystopian narrative also breeds a spirit of nihilism or Afropessimism. This overrides any sense of African accountability in the degenerative state of future Sino-Zimbabwean relations.

Abigail Godsell’s “Taal” (an Afrikaans word meaning “language”) is self-conscious in this regard. It’s set in the year 2050, after a nuclear war between China and America has left the entire globe in a state of desolation. As a result, the South African government willingly signed over ownership of the country to China in exchange for protection.

The central protagonist, an especially resentful young woman named Callie, has joined a militant rebel group in a covert attempt to overthrow the Chinese. But after injuring a soldier, she pulls off his helmet and is surprised that he converses in Afrikaans because, to all other appearances, he is Chinese. The fact that he speaks Afrikaans implies he is a South African. She is stupefied by the exchange: it highlights her simplistic understanding of what the enemy should look like.

This uncanny revelation undoubtedly draws attention to the spectral presence of Chinese-South Africans who have not received due recognition as bona fide citizens.

Callie, who is initially critical of Chinese propaganda, begins to read her positionality as a South African freedom fighter on equally problematic terms. Her defensiveness drops and she confesses that South Africa was caught off-guard amid a global crisis. The country did not have a sufficient national security plan; China has offered significantly more protection than the South African government was capable of at the time.

Godsell’s introspective narrative shift focus away from Chinese agitation. It allows the reader to consider the nature of South African apathy by conveying that the country may not lack a fighting spirit but, unlike China, lacks the necessary foresight and organisation to bolster the nation.

Negative representations of China in the African imaginary gesture at the idea that a certain amount of envy informs the continent’s responses to China. They also suggest that African countries can benefit from emulating China’s uncompromising nationalistic and commercial drive. This possibility is more fully explored in Mandisi Nkomo’s “Heresy”.

Nkomo’s narrative is set in the year 2040. South-South interactions challenge the global status quo. China has risen in global economic rankings. But South Africa has not fallen under its sway: the nations are caught up in a highly competitive space race. South Africa is determined to not be outdone by the Chinese and channels its resources in meeting this goal.

“Heresy” conveys how Africans can construct an invisible enemy out of China by exponentially accelerating South African development. This light-hearted narrative assumes the challenge of imagining the current tension of Sino-African relations otherwise. It shows how friendly rivalry can inadvertently lead to African progress.

Rethinking friendship

In their book Friendship and International Relations, academics Andrea Oelsner and Simon Koschut write that it is:

necessary to think of international friendship not as something that is merely being performed at the intergovernmental level but as something that is being enacted in the day-to-day activities and imaginations at all levels of society.

This certainly includes science fiction narratives that present us with a “succession of literary experiments, each one examining a small part of a much larger image and each equally necessary to the greater vision”.

Through these short stories, it immediately becomes possible to consider how China-Africa relations need not result in Chinese neocolonialism and African exploitation. They offer us more creative approaches to political friendship by reinventing and reinterpreting the roles of both parties in their narratives.

Similarly, pursued in this way, the future of China-Africa relations need not be seen as a singular act of solidarity that demands repeating. Instead it could be viewed as a more fluid encounter that allows for mutual investment in world-building projects while also providing enough objective distance to nurture difference and autonomy.The Conversation

Nedine Moonsamy, Senior Lecturer, University of Pretoria

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Letters reveal Africanist hero Robert Sobukwe’s moral courage, and pain



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Between 1963 and 1969 Robert Sobukwe spent six years of near-complete solitary confinement on Robben Island.
Book cover

Derek Hook, Duquesne University

This year marks the 59th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa. On 21 March 1960 the apartheid police opened fire on unarmed marchers protesting against a law that forced black people to carry identity documents. Over 200 were injured and 69 killed. The following edited excerpt is from a new book featuring the prison letters of Robert Sobukwe, who organised and led the march.

In a letter of condolence written on 5 August 1974 to Nell Marquard, a friend who he had been corresponding since his time on Robben Island, South African pan-Africanist leader Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe made a telling observation:

I learnt some time ago that one cannot put oneself in another’s position. We may express sympathy, feel it and even imagine the pain. But we cannot feel it as the one who suffers it. They have a saying in Xhosa that the toothache is felt by the one whose tooth is aching.

Sobukwe, who clearly knew about suffering, loneliness and the impossibility of ever fully communicating one’s pain to another, was writing just after the death of Nell’s husband, the noted Cape liberal, author and historian, Leo Marquard. Given that Leo was a prominent liberal, and that white liberals had not always been friendly to the aims and agendas of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) – the organisation that Sobukwe led from 1959 until his arrest in 1960 – one might have expected coolness from Sobukwe. Not at all. Sobukwe, as always, was gracious:

I am thankful that I was able to talk to you two years before Leo’s death and more thankful that he died knowing how much his contribution had been appreciated.

Touching as this acknowledgement of his contribution would have been for Marquard, the real poignancy of Sobukwe’s letter comes a little further on, when he starts speaking of the myriad difficulties he has faced since leaving Robben Island, where most of South Africa’s liberation struggle leaders were jailed.

It has not been a good year for me. I had planned to leave [from Kimberley] … by car on the 31st May and make straight for Cape Town. But these boys [apartheid security police] beat me to it. They came on the 30th May, 1974 to serve the fresh lot of bureaucratic output. Well it’s good to know that our security is entrusted to such alert people.

Despite the fact that he makes light of it, one senses in Sobukwe’s letter that the constant surveillance and harassment of the security police was taking its toll. Behind the ironic salute to the astuteness of the police, there is also a disturbing foreshadowing. Steve Biko, in many respects Sobukwe’s most direct political heir, would be stopped and arrested on a not dissimilar road trip from Cape Town four years later, an event which would lead directly to his death at the hands of the Security Police. Sobukwe continues:

Veronica (Sobukwe’s wife) has had a major operation as you probably read in the papers. She should have had this operation last year, but did not and the condition got worse. She has made a remarkable recovery, thanks to my very efficient and tender nursing, and has now gone back to Joh’burg for a check up. From there she will be in Durban to spend a week or so with her sister before proceeding to Swaziland to see the children.

Between May 1963 and May 1969 was to spend six years of near-complete solitary confinement on Robben Island.

These circumstances had their origins in a momentous historical event organised by Sobukwe himself. On 21 March 1960, Sobukwe had led the Pan Africanist Congress in what he called a “positive action” campaign, protesting against the oppressive pass laws that governed the movements – and indeed the lives – of black South Africans.

This mass action resulted in the Sharpeville massacre later that same day, in which at least 69 people were killed when the South African police opened fire on a crowd of protesters. This event, which drew international attention to the injustices and brutality of apartheid, was a watershed moment in the history of South Africa. It led to a three-year jail sentence for Sobukwe for inciting people to protest against the laws of the country.

Not content that by 3 May 1963 Sobukwe would have served his sentence, the apartheid government passed an amendment to the General Law Amendment Act, the notorious “Sobukwe Clause”, which enabled the Minister of Justice to prolong the detention of any political prisoner year after year.

He was then relocated to Robben Island, and kept apart from other prisoners, where he remained for six years. The clause – never used to detain anyone else – was renewed annually by the Minister of Justice.

Sobukwe, in a very significant sense, was never a free man again after his 1960 imprisonment. The apartheid government unleashed a series of bureaucratic cruelties upon him after his May 1969 release from Robben Island. They forced him to live in the geographically remote town of Kimberley – far removed from any friends, family or associates.

The house where Sobukwe was held on Robben Island .
Flcker/Daniel Mouton

They insisted he take on a low-ranking job that would have made him complicit in the apartheid policies that he went to jail protesting. He refused. They repeatedly refused to allow him to leave the country to take up job offers he had received from the United States; and they obstructed his attempts to get the medical treatments that he needed, and that would have extended his life (he died of lung cancer on 27 February 1978).

This then is the background to the consolations that Sobukwe sought to offer Nell Marquard in his 1974 letter. It’s only on the last page of that letter that he seemed to finally find the words that suited both his emotions and the note of commiseration that he wished to convey to Nell:

The Xhosa have standard words of condolence. They say
Akuhlanga lungehlanga lala ngenxeba (There has not occurred what has not occurred before … lie on your wound).
God bless you. Affectionately, Robert.

This resonant phrase – which also appears in Sobukwe’s letters to his friend Benjamin Pogrund – applies equally, if not more so, to Sobukwe himself. “Lie on your wound(s)” is a call to bide one’s time, to heal, and to reconstitute one’s self despite evident suffering. It is a call to have courage, to bear the moral burden of pain, and it provides an apt title for what was the most difficult period of Sobukwe’s life, namely his time on Robben Island, which the selection of letters collected in this book, published by Wits University Press, represents.The Conversation

Derek Hook, Associate professor of Psychology, Duquesne University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

New African literature is disrupting what Western presses prize



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Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie after a reading of her book ‘Americanah’ in Lagos in 2013.
Akintunde Akinleye /Reuters

Jeanne-Marie Jackson, Johns Hopkins University

African literature is the object of immense international interest across both academic and popular registers. Far from the field’s earlier, post-colonial association with marginality, a handful of star “Afropolitan” names are at the forefront of global trade publishing.

Books like Chimamanda Adichie’s “Americanah” and “Half of a Yellow Sun”, Teju Cole’s “Open City”, Taiye Selasi’s “Ghana Must Go” and Yaa Gyasi’s “Homegoing” have confounded neat divisions between Western and African literary traditions. The Cameroonian novelist Imbolo Mbue captured a million-dollar contract for her first book, “Behold the Dreamers”. That’s even before it joined the Oprah’s Book Club pantheon this year.

Such commercial prominence, though, has attracted considerable and unsurprising push back from Western and Africa-based critics alike. Far from advancing narratives with deep roots in local African realities, such critics fear, many of Africa’s most “successful” writers hawk a superficial, overly diasporic, or even Western-focused vision of the continent.

Noviolet Bulawayo was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2013 for her book
Olivia Harris/Reuters

The most visible of these critiques has been directed at the Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo’s “We Need New Names” (2013). The Nigerian novelist Helon Habila worried in a review in the London Guardian that it was “poverty-porn”. The popular Nigerian critic Ikhide Ikheloa (“Pa Ikhide”) frequently makes a similar point. Fellow Nigerian writer Adaobi Nwaubani critiqued the West’s hold on Africa’s book industry in a much-circulated New York Times piece called “African Books for Western Eyes”.

Such debates about African writing could, and likely will, go on forever. Questions about Africa’s place in the current global literary marketplace broaden some of the most urgent queries of the postcolonial era. Who gets to document African realities? Who are the “gatekeepers” of African publishing traditions?

It goes on: To what sort of audience does African writing cater? What is the role – and what should it be, if any – of Western institutions in brokering cultural prestige?

All these issues merit concern.

Between the default poles

Too often, though, African writing ends up volleyed between two default poles of “corporate global” and “activist local”. Some onlookers, as in a recent essay by the Canadian scholar Sarah Brouillette, go as far as to name the biases of even Africa-based print outlets. Kenya’s Kwani Trust is exposed as “Western-facing” due to a web of donor relations. “West” here is code for neoliberal. “Western-facing” is for complicity with a market that skews toward British and American interests.

Faced with a “world system” argument like Brouillette’s, African literature would seem trapped between a rock and a hard place.

But, in fact, this tells only a small part of the story of how African writing now makes its way through the world. It is incomplete to the point of being outdated, given the boom over the past five years in new, globally conscious small US literary presses collaborating with African writers.

A “West subsuming Africa” brand of critique works fine for scholars with no real skin in the game of literary publishing. It also denies real agency to a lot of African writers and other literary professionals. On the ground the literary field is far more forward-thinking and diverse.

There is an entire new body of African writing that escapes this closed circuit of damning truisms. A wave of new or recently galvanised independent literary presses in the US and the UK are working in tandem with some of Africa’s most generative outlets. Together they are publishing and promoting work by young and adventurous African writers.

Labours of love

Books published originally by presses like Umuzi (South Africa), amaBooks (Zimbabwe) and Kwani (Kenya) find second lives with international publishers working to defy the constraints of profitability. They’re mostly labours of love with skeleton staffs that speak to a transcontinental commitment to innovative African writing.

Here are a few key examples of African texts published by independent American outlets – “independent” here refers to presses beyond the “Big Five” US trade publishers (Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster.

These include Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Ugandan epic “Kintu” which was originally launched by Kwani. It was the first Anglophone novel put out by the brand-new Transit Books based in Oakland, California. The press seeks maximum visibility for translated fiction alongside texts originally written in English. They advocate for more ethical legal and financial dealings with translators, as well as international writers.

Congolese author Fiston Mwanza Mujila.
Marc de Gouvenain

A number of similarly tiny, ambitious ventures have published some of the most acclaimed recent African writing in translation. Deep Vellum Publishing was behind the English translation of Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Etisalat Prize-winning “Tram 83”.

Also dedicated exclusively to works in translation, LA-based Phoneme Media in 2016 published the first ever Burundian novel in English, Roland Rugero’s deeply contemplative “Baho!”. Phoneme’s tagline, fittingly, is “curious books for curious people”.

In a similar vein, Brooklyn’s Restless Books was founded to combat “parochial, inward-looking, and homogenised trends in American publishing”. Among their forthcoming titles, translated from the French is Naivo’s “Beyond the Rice Fields”. It’s the first novel from Madagascar to see its way to English.

Veteran nonprofit press Archipelago Books is also in Brooklyn. In 2015, it published the translation from the Portuguese of Angolan writer Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s “A General Theory of Oblivion”.

Every one of these throws a wrench in a clear, cynical sense of what kind of novel Western presses prize. That is not to mention the many African writers, publishers, and editors working in concert to promote these same texts.

Small, focused channels

It applies to the Anglosphere too. Books that offer a decidedly more locally textured experience than those of the “Afropolitan” rock stars have made their way abroad through small, focused channels.

These works might include Tendai Huchu’s “The Maestro, the Magistrate, and the Mathematician” (published originally by amaBooks, and in the US by Ohio University Press); Imraan Coovadia’s “Tales of the Metric System” (from Umuzi, and again by Ohio University Press); and Masande Ntshanga’s “The Reactive” (also Umuzi; in the US by family-run Two Dollar Radio.

Clearly, this collection just scratches the surface. But what these works have in common is an investment in stylistic and structural experimentation that confounds rather than caters to an international taste for “digestible” fiction, or to mostly Western points of cultural and institutional reference.

This counter-current of transnational African literary life complicates the equation of culture, geopolitics and economics in more useful ways than stale materialist critiques.

As such titles and presses continue to gain acclaim and recognition by an international readership that is aware of and hostile to shallow representations of Africa – and who crave engagement with challenging fiction, regardless of its origin – critics will need to rethink some of their orthodoxies.

The ConversationThere is more to both African literature and Western publishing than meets an eye too practised in its suspicion. If literature is doomed only to echo the failings of globalisation, then why bother? On the contrary, a new generation of writers and publishers deserve our awareness of the “global literary marketplace” as a meaningfully multidimensional space.

Jeanne-Marie Jackson, Assistant Professor of World Anglophone Literature, Johns Hopkins University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

African libraries that adapt can take the continent’s knowledge to the world


Lara Skelly, Cape Peninsula University of Technology

South African librarians were shocked in 2013 when one of the top researchers at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology claimed that he no longer needed the library to do his research.

Professor Johannes Cronje’s paper echoed an increasingly common way of thinking. Why, after all, do we need libraries when the Internet does such a good job of providing us with information?

But libraries are not just collection points for information. The best ones also help create it – and those which embrace this role will flourish in a completely changed world. This is particularly true for African libraries: there is more of an opportunity than ever before to bring the continent’s knowledge to the world.

A dual role

Libraries collect information and make it available to a particular community or communities. Some, like church libraries, specialise in collecting certain kinds of information.

The Internet can do exactly the same thing. Anyone can create a collection of information online and make it available to users. And who needs librarians when search engines like Google are on hand to help track down information?

Such technological advances mean that the traditional library is losing customers who just want to find information.

Libraries fulfil another crucial role, though. They help to create information. Modern libraries offer many services that help their users to put information online. Most academic libraries, for instance, have repository services that collate a university’s research output and make it publicly available.

They are extending this service to research data, which will save future researchers from collecting the same data and taxpayers from paying for it again.

These services are becoming common in public libraries as well, through an innovation called makerspaces. Here, users can make items of information. They can create music, produce items using 3D printers or engineer complex designs.

In makerspaces, librarians aren’t helping users to find information from the world. They are helping users to find information in themselves. Libraries should continue to develop services that help people create information.

Eli Neiburger from the Ann Arbor District Library talks about what libraries can do to survive.

In a way, these “new” developments really aren’t that different from what libraries have always done. Libraries curate and disseminate information. In the past, librarians curated information from foreign creators and disseminated it to a local community. Modern librarians curate local information and disseminate it to a foreign community. The flow of information has flipped.

Opportunities for African libraries

African libraries have been slow to embrace this evolution. There are twice as many repositories in Asia as there are in Africa, and ten times as many in Europe. But the continent is slowly gaining ground.

The University of Cape Town is the first in Africa to offer a Masters of Philosophy in Digital Curation. Early in 2015, the University of Pretoria opened up a makerspace, the first educational one on the continent.

The altered role of libraries is a great opportunity to showcase African knowledge. Getting information into the world is easier and cheaper than ever. African libraries need to take up the responsibility of being partners in information creation.

This means that policies must be altered – and, of course, that budgets must be increased. University leaders, decision makers, governments and library users need to understand and support the changes that are reshaping libraries.

Librarians, too, must embrace these changes. They will require new skills to support the creation of information. Many library schools are already responding to these new needs by offering advanced degrees in digital curation.

It will be also be important to reconsider the very physical space of a library. Paper-and-glue book collections are shrinking and, in some libraries, disappearing. These collections have long been the symbol of quiet thinking. Will libraries still be silent spaces of learning without them? How will libraries retain their users’ trust if they are turned into cool cybercafés?

These are some of the tough questions that librarians must answer if they expect their funding to continue and to rise – and if they want to remain relevant well into the future.

The Conversation

Lara Skelly is Librarian: Research Support at Cape Peninsula University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Changing the World: December 18 – Helping Africa


One of the most disadvantaged areas in the world is Africa, where so many people live in poverty, along with all of the accompanying issues associated with poverty. It is a tragic situation, which the West can do a lot more about.

To help the African situation visit:

www.allafrica.com

www.standupforafrica.org.uk

A response to reading ‘365 Ways to Change the World,’ by Michael Norton