Apr 24 2014

South Africa at 20: Storms behind the Rainbow

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In the first post of our series looking at 20 years of democracy in South Africa, LSE’s Jason Hickel argues that while a lot has improved in the country over the past two decades, everyday life for most South Africans remains a struggle.

27 April marks the 20th anniversary of South Africa’s first democratic elections.  Most of us remember those iconic images of citizens queuing up in long, snaking lines to vote Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) into power.  It was an extraordinary moment, replete with hope and pregnant with expectation, enough to supply years’ worth of the jubilant narrative that many have grown accustomed to hearing about South Africa.  This narrative finds its apogee in celebratory Hollywood films like Invictus, which features more than its fair share of jubilant people dancing in the streets, but it is equally prevalent at an institutional level.  The World Bank and the IMF have long praised South Africa for its accomplishments since 1994, even if it only comes down to the country’s record on economic growth and friendliness toward foreign direct investment.

Black South Africans waited in long queues to cast their ballot for the first time in 1994 Credit: AP

Black South Africans waited in long queues to cast their ballot for the first time in 1994 Credit: AP

What is most interesting about this triumphalism is that it is so flagrantly contradicted by reality, to the point where it begins to appear almost as a form of propaganda. Many things have improved in South Africa since 1994, to be sure.  State racism has ended, and the country now boasts what many describe as the most progressive constitution in the world.  People have rights, and there are institutions designed to protect and uphold those rights.  Still, everyday life for most South Africans remains a struggle – a struggle that is infinitely compounded by the sense of disappointment that accompanies it, given the gap between the expectations of liberation and the state of abjection that the majority continues to inhabit. Continue reading

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Apr 23 2014

South Africa at 20: The re-awakening of “the left” in post-apartheid South Africa?

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As the African National Congress (ANC) pursues a “talk left, walk right strategy”, Stephen Hurt  of Oxford Brookes University analyses what “the left” needs to do to become a potent force in South Africa’s politics once again.

In the next few months the media coverage of South Africa will inevitably focus on the forthcoming national and provincial elections in May, however more interesting developments have taken place in recent months that may be of greater significance for the medium-term. For most of the post-apartheid era “the left” within South Africa has been predominantly associated with the tripartite alliance between the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). However, increasing divisions within Cosatu led to its largest affiliate – the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA) – removing its electoral support for the ANC in December 2013 and arguing for Cosatu to leave the alliance. Then, earlier this month, NUMSA announced formal plans to develop a new, leftist political movement in South Africa, tentatively entitled the “United Front and Movement for Socialism”.


Are we entering a transformational period of the traditional “left” in South African politics?

So, what are the prospects for a re-awakening of “the left” in South Africa? Will NUMSA be able to build effective links with the array of “new social movements” that have emerged during the last decade? Continue reading

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Apr 22 2014

Book Review: The Lion Sleeps Tonight and Other Stories of Africa

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In his formidable essay collection The Lion Sleeps Tonight and Other Stories of Africa, Rian Malan offers a remarkable chronicle of contemporary South Africa as it navigates the post-apartheid transition and beyond, says LSE alumna Francesca Washtell.

The collection is Malan’s first book since he published his frank and caustic memoir, My Traitor’s Heart, in 1990, on his return from exile in the United States. It became an instant classic, venerated by authors such as Salman Rushdie and John le Carre, and is still a stalwart on the reading lists of Africanists and scholars who want to understand more about the lived experience of apartheid. While some labelled him a racist, most praised his honesty in his portrayal of race relations and the anxieties of his own tribe, the Afrikaner.


The Lion Sleeps Tonight, then, has a lot to live up to. It brings together his journalistic writings, published and unpublished, that have appeared over the years in the likes of Rolling Stone, The Spectator, The Observer and Esquire, some of which were previously published in South Africa under the title Resident Alien. Continue reading

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Apr 21 2014

Book Review: Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia Since Live Aid by Peter Gill

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The terrible 1984 famine in Ethiopia focused the world’s attention on the country and the issue of aid as never before. Peter Gill was the first journalist to reach the epicentre of the famine and one of the TV reporters who brought the tragedy to light, and in this book tells what happened to Ethiopia in the 25 years following Live Aid. Maria Kuecken finds that Gill does great justice to this ever-pertinent issue by illuminating a complexity of confounding factors through a digestible narrative and plenty of poignant anecdotes.

Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia Since Live Aid. Peter Gill. Oxford University Press.

Against a backdrop of weather shocks and volatile food prices, the word famine is continuously banded about when describing current food security crises in the Sahel and Horn of Africa. Yet the near-constant declaration of famine with requisite foreign intervention does little to put an end to these episodes. To find out why, long-time journalist Peter Gill examines the dynamic between famines and foreigners in Ethiopia. A primary target for the blame is Ethiopia’s political leadership, and the foreign actors who share responsibility in supporting it: governments, journalists, NGOs.


Gill himself is a foreigner entrenched in Ethiopia’s story. He retraces his steps back to the ground zero of Ethiopia’s 1984 famine, Karem, juxtaposing his past experiences with present-day interviews. To the Western world, emaciated children have been the faces of Ethiopia since the inception of Live Aid, and it was more often the media, not the monitoring organizations, that rang the alarm for a food crisis. When Gill asks a young student if famine will come again, the student notes, “eighty per cent of our people live in rural areas and almost all of them depend on rain-fed agriculture to live. They only have one harvest in a year. So if the rains are bad, then there will be a problem.” Indeed, Ethiopia’s obstacles to a food secure future include unalterable geographic characteristics and slow-changing social norms on reproduction, qualities exhibited in many parts of the developing world. However, the real problem is political in nature. Continue reading

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Apr 19 2014

Ethiopia: Where conscience is constantly on trial

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In Ethiopia, Muslim leaders are facing an unjust trial for crimes they did not commit. LSE’s Awol K Allo reports on a trial that is “exposing the agonising and ultimately insoluble contradiction between the government and its laws”.

A high profile trial against protest leaders – intellectuals, activists and elected members of “The Ethiopian Muslim Arbitration Committee” – is shaking the Ethiopian political landscape. The government argues that the accused harbour “extreme” Islamic ideologies. It accuses them of conspiracy with terrorist groups to overthrow the government and establish an Islamic state in Ethiopia.

29 Muslim leaders in Ethiopia are facing charges under its anti-terrorism law

29 Muslim leaders in Ethiopia are facing charges under its anti-terrorism law Photo: AFP/Getty Images

The accused have professed their innocence and denied the charges. In the courtroom, they present the prosecution’s case as the continuation of repression by legal means, which resembles the totalitarian perversion of truth and justice of Stalinist and Apartheid regimes.

While letting the legal process take its course, the accused are exposing the agonising and ultimately insoluble contradiction between the government and its laws. They protest the complicity of the court in the ultimate travesty, daring to speak truth to power, a la Daniel Berrigan: “You cannot set up a court in the kingdom of the blind, to condemn those who see, a court presided over by those who would pluck out the eyes of men and call it rehabilitation.” Continue reading

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Apr 18 2014

Predictable Causes and Prospects of the Current Political Crisis in South Sudan

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Samson Wassara examines the historical roots of the current political instability in South Sudan.

The political crisis of 15 December 2013 is the tip of an iceberg that remains to be dealt with in the immediate future or over a relatively longer period of time. The causes of the crisis are rooted in historical legacies of the long civil war that seemed to have ended with the signature of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in January 2005. However, the cosmetic reconciliation between the SPLM/A leading to the signing of the CPA did not heal the wounds of the 1991 rift. Origins but not causes of the current crisis can be traced back to that event. But causes of the current crisis are associated with the past. What is significant is the indifference of third parties, both national and international, which contributed to the outbreak of untold violence in Juba that is spreading rapidly in the Greater Upper Nile region.


A truck of SPLA soldiers drive in Juba on 21 December Credit: Reuters/Stringer

The Issue

In the first place, the failure of institutionalization of the political system and disregard for the rules of the game are the immediate foundational causes of the crisis. The Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS) was established on a weak foundation. The establishment of institutions was based on ethnic aggregation and personality cults. The political system entrenched institutionalized mistrust where political leaders had more faith in ethnic protégées than in national institutions enshrined in the Transitional Constitution of the Republic of South Sudan (TCRSS). Established institutions were highly politicized without taking due note of rules and regulations governing them. Conversely, where there were such rules and regulations they were relegated to the margins of the modus operandi. These structures were inherited by the government of South Sudan at independence on 9 July 2011. Further, little attention was paid to national reconciliation. Political leaders missed the opportunity to promote post-conflict peace building among people and institutions after the unity of South Sudan demonstrated during the Referendum vote of January 2011. Continue reading

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Apr 17 2014

Book Review: The Force of Obedience: The Political Economy of Repression in Tunisia by Béatrice Hibou

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Matthew Partridge reviews The Force of Obedience, a book on the corruption and corporatism at work in Tunisia, and how the rhetoric of “modernisation” has in some cases been used to justify policies that have increased the power of the state.

The Force of Obedience: The Political Economy of Repression in Tunisia. Béatrice Hibou. Polity. June 2011.

In 2008, a U.S. State Department official sent a dispiriting cable back to Washington D.C. entitled “Corruption in Tunisia: What’s Yours is Mine”. It began, “According to Transparency International’s annual survey and Embassy contacts’ observations, corruption in Tunisia is getting worse. Whether it is cash, services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht, President Ben Ali’s family is rumoured to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants”. However, according to Béatrice Hibou’s The Force of Obedience: The Political Economy of Repression in Tunisia, this institutionalised theft was not just a consequence of Ali’s dictatorship, but was one of the many means by which he used economic controls to ensure political dominance.


In particular, Hibou argues that this “corruption” did not just extend to the bribes and expropriation that other students of Tunisian politics have focused on, but also encompassed a wide-ranging series of discretionary interventions that enabled the regime to set up what she describes as a “policing state”. Under this system the rule of law was replaced with “a whole series of micro-decisions which foster the meshing of logics characteristic of Tunisian modes of government” and “make the control and individual surveillance of everyone possible”. Continue reading

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