The Woyingi Blog

About The Short Film Pumzi, an African Sci-Fi Post-Apocalyptic Morality Tale

I have recently stumbled upon the trailer for the short film Pumzi (Pumzi means ‘breath’ in Swahili). The film has been travelling around the US but I haven’t heard if it is coming to Canada. As a Sci-Fi fan, I would love to see more African Sci-Fi films. South Africa’s District 9 was visually stunning with a great plot but it had no Black African central characters. I want to see more Black African Sci-Fi heroes on film; they already are coming up in fiction, thanks to the work of writers like Nnedi Okorafor, a Nigerian American whose fantasy novel Zahrah the Windseeker I recently reviewed (See The Woyingi Blogger’s Review). 

From the short film Pumzi

The film is directed by young Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu who studied film at UCLA. Kahiu won Best Director at the Africa Movie Academy Awards for her film From a Whisper, about the 1998 bombings of the US Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar el Salaam, Tanzania. I unknowingly had already seen her work as a director because she directed the behind the scenes documentary for Philip Noyce’s film Catch a Fire, which is based on a true story of a regular oil worker who becomes a freedom fighter in apartheid South Africa. She also directed a documentary about the Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai

Pumzi is a Kenyan/South African co-production. Its South African producers are Simon Hansen (who produced the short film Alive in Joburg which became the feature film District 9), Hannah Slezacek and Amira Quinlan of Inspired Minority Pictures. Kahiu was able to come up with the grant to finance the film from the Goethe Institut, Focus Features (which also produced District 9), and the Changamoto Fund. The film was shot over two weeks on location in South Africa. There were no Kenyan actors used. The film runs for about 21 minutes. It was screened at the Sundance Film Festival and Cannes, where it won Best Short Film. Kahiu is now working on trying to develop Pumzi into a feature-length film. 

South African Actress Kundzani Moswela with Kenyan Director Wanuri Kahiu

The film is set in East Africa 35 years after World War Three, the “Water War”. The war has caused large-scale ecological devastation. Put simply, “nature is extinct”. The land is uninhabitable so humans must leave inside specially sealed compounds. Humans only have recycled urine to drink. 

The central character of the film is Asha, played by Kudzani Moswela, a South African model and actress. Asha is a curator at a virtual natural history museum in the Maitu community, which is one of these compounds. One day she receives a sample of soil that is not toxic and she decides to use it to plant a seed she has in her possession. It starts to grow! Asha wishes to see if the soil sample is indicative that there is plant life on Earth again. In order to get permission to go outside she must apply for a visa from the authorities of the Maitu community. She is denied. Asha then decides to break out of the compound in order to see what is happening on the Earth’s surface for herself. 

Asha and the soil sample that might be a sign of hope for the future

Kahiu has written the following statement about writing and directing the film: 


There is no part of myself that has not been involved in the making PUMZI. PUMZI has invaded my every thought, my dreams, my senses. PUMZI has been my heart and it’s rhythm. 

The film started as a joke. A friend and I pondered the possibility of living in a place where we paid for air. We invented the city, the virtual natural museums, the people. That was over 2 years, many tears, much frustration and several re-writes before the film was ready to go into production. At some point, the Universe (with help from Kisha Cameron) conspired and introduced me to the Producers of the film and it was a perfect fit. They were passionate about the project, profoundly knowledgeable about Sci-Fi and exceptionally generous with their expertise and resources. During pre-production one potential crewmember commented that making Pumzi (based on the budget and the ambition we had) was like pulling a rabbit out of a chicken’s ass’. Naturally he wasn’t hired, but the crew who were went above and beyond what was expected. 

A week before the shoot was scheduled to start we had not cast the lead character, Asha. And then Kudzani Moswela walked in. Her audition, her presence and her excitement for life dissipated any doubt. She was Asha. She breathed into the film unimaginable softness and courage. She became the heart of my heart. Her interpretation of Asha and the story was painfully tender and through it new, undiscovered layers of the film came alive. 

Now, years, months and many painful Visual Effects hours later, Pumzi is finished. More beautiful, more poignant, more charming than anyone expected. Pumzi is a visual ode to life. A life that (as described by Lorraine Hansberry)has within it that which is good, that which is beautiful and that which is love. Pumzi is the essence of all these. Pumzi is my breath. 

In an interview with Kenya’s Daily Nation, Kahiu states

Wangari Maathai has been talking about this issue for years and we never heed her advice so I am not here to tell people to conserve the environment alone, I am showing them what will happen if we don’t. 

According to, Kahiu researched classic 1950s films to create Pumzi’s futuristic sets, comparing the processes of matte painting and rear-screen projection with indigenous African artwork. Kahiu states: 

We already have a tradition of tapestries and functional art and things like that, that loan a backdrop for films. 

Being a filmmaker in Africa is not easy. Not only is it hard to get financing for films, it is also not a respected profession. Kahiu, whose mother is a doctor and whose father is a businessman, still struggles for recognition even in her family. In an interview with CNN she said

I have aunts who come up and say ‘Oh, you’re still doing that thing?’ like I should move out of it, or it’s a phase I’m passing through. 

It is also particularly difficult to be a woman filmmaker. As Kahiu reflects

The success of Kathryn Bigelow shows how, even in 2010, it’s still like ‘Oh my gosh! A woman made a film that’s winning awards!’ It’s ridiculous. 

Kahiu is committed to building a profitable film industry in Kenya. She says

I would like to work and build an industry, so that everyone walks away well-paid, with great hours. 

Kahiu would advise young African filmmakers to do the following

To write their own stories. Their own experience as Africans. And to plant a tree. 

Further Reading: 

Website for the film Pumzi 

Trailer for the film Pumzi 

Interview (2009) of Wanuri Kahiu in the Kenya Daily Nation available online 

Interview (2009) of Wanuri Kahiu in available online 

Interview (2010) of Wanuri Kahiu by CNN available online 

Interview (2010) of Wanuri Kahiu in 

Interview (2010) of Wanuri Kahiu by Bird’s Eye View 

Interview (2010) of Wanuri Kahiu in Vogue Black 

Website for Kahiu’s film From a Whisper 

Trailer for the film From a Whisper

Watch Kahiu’s short film Ras Star available online

Website of Awali Entertainment Ltd, co-founded by Kahiu 

Website of Focus Features’ Africa First Program

Website of the African Movie Academy Awards 

A particularly cool image from the short film Pumzi

Film Review: The Wilby Conspiracy (1975)

Posted in Africa on Film, Apartheid, Countries: South Africa, Films, Reviews, Sidney Poitier, South Africa on Film by the woyingi blogger on September 9, 2010

Film: The Wilby Conspiracy (1975)

Director: Ralph Nelson

Starring: Sidney Poitier, Michael Caine, and Rutger Hauer

Genre: Action

I often go searching for DVDs at my local Giant Tiger. This is not just because DVDs are so cheap there. It is actually because I have found some of the strangest, rarest, and most fascinating films there. My entire collection of Sidney Poitier Films have been purchased from Giant Tiger.

The Wilby Conspiracy is probably one of the most unexpected roles I have seen Sidney Poiter play and one of the real gems I have discovered at Giant Tiger. Despite the seriousness of its subject matter, it’s something of a comedy in the British 60s style which is both farcical and cheeky in its use of sexual titilation. When I say that it is an unexpected role for Sidney Poitier, I guess what I mean to say is that for about the first hour or so of the film I was thinking-“Why is Sidney Poitier, such a distinguished actor, in this piece of fluff?” The Wilby Conspiracy is sort of a sexy South African version of  “The Defiant Ones” set in South Africa. But, The Wilby Conspiracy is actually one of the first Hollywood films to speak firmly against Apartheid in South Africa and watching the film must have been something of an education for American and British viewers as it truly brings home the injustices of the apartheid regime. It is also directed by Ralph Nelson, who had previously directed Poitier inLilies of the Field (1963), a role for which Poitier won an Academy Award for Best Actor, becoming the first Black person to do so. So, by the end of the film, I understood by Sidney Poitier took the role.

In The Wilby Conspiracy, Poitier plays Shack Twala, a Black South African dissident who has been in jail on Robben Island for ten years. We first meet him in a courtroom in Cape Town where his young and attractive White South African lawyer is trying to appeal for his release based on the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Miraculously, the court agrees. This is the begining of The Wilby Conspiracy.

Twala’s lawyer, Rina van Niekirk, is so excited by her victory that she invites Twala to come with her and her English boyfriend Keogh, played by a young and dashing Michael Caine, to go back to her office to drink champagne. Twala agrees, although it is apparent that for a Black South African dissident who has just been released after ten years in prison he can’t be as carefree as his young White lawyer. On their way to Rina’s office their car is stopped at a barricade and Twala is ordered out by the police because he doesn’t have a pass card.

In 1952,  the Abolition of Passes and Coordination of Documents Act was enacted. This misleadingly-named law required all Africans to carry identification booklets with their names, addresses, fingerprints, and other information. Africans were frequently stopped and harassed for their passes. From 1948-1973, over ten million Africans were arrested because their passes were “not in order”. Burning pass books became a common form of protest to the apartheid regime by Black South Africans.

Although Rina tries to explain to the police that Shack doesn’t have a pass because he has just been release from prison, the police arrest Shack and put him in handcuffs. Rina insists that they do not and ends up being punched by one of the officers. Keogh comes to her defence and he and Shack end up seriously beating up the police officers. Rina knows that both Keogh and Shack are facing arrest for assaulting police officers. Their only option is to get out of Cape Town. Shack proposes that he and Keogh make their way to Johannesburg where Shack has a friend who can get them across the border to Botswana. Keogh reluctantly goes along with Shack.

Shack and Keogh’s misadventures on the way to Johannesburg are reminiscent of the film The Defient Ones which stars Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis as two escaped prisoners who must work together in spite of their mutual prejudice to survive. But Caine and Poitier never achieve the level of cameraderie that Curtis and Poitier did, making this part of the film not as enjoyable as it could have been. Along the way, it becomes clear that Shack and Keogh are being followed by a South African Secret Police Officer named Horn. But why are they being followed? Why don’t the police just arrest them when they have the chance?

Shack and Keogh reach Johannesburg and must find Mukkerjee in the Indian district. Mukkerjee is a dentist and member of the same Black Congress that Shack is involved with. Shack gave Mukkerjee diamonds to hide. These diamonds are meant for Wilby Xaba, who is a leader of the Black Congress living in exile in Botswana and trying to collect money for weapons to lead an armed resistance to apartheid. But Mukkerjee no longer has the diamonds as he put them in a sink hole so they would not be found by the police. Mukkerjee’s assistant, Persis Ray, knows about Mukkerjee’s work with the Black Congress but doesn’t approve. She ends up killing Mukkerjee in order to get the diamonds for herself but in the end is killed by Keogh and Shack. Keogh and Shack retrieve the diamonds and get a plane ride out of South Africa on Rita’s estranged husband’s private jet. They are followed by Horn. We soon realize that the only reason that Shack was released from prison was in order to lead the South African Secret Police to Wilby Xaba’s location in Botswana so that they could arrest him. That’s The Wilby Conspiracy.

Wilby Xaba is played by Joe de Graft. It would be interesting to know how many people who saw the film in 1975 recognized him. Joe de Graft is a prominent Ghanaian playwright. He was a student and later a teacher at Ghana’s renowned Mfantsipim School. At the time of the film, he was living in Kenya and working at the University of Nairobi on a UNESCO appointment. He contributed greatly to Kenya’s theatre scene.  He passed away a few years after the making of this film in 1978.

The Wilby Conspiracy is based on a novel by British Writer Peter Driscoll, known for writing thrillers set in foreign locales. According to Professor  Mary-Kay Gamal Orlandi, the film version of Shack Twala’s character is more heroic than his literary counterpart. She writes:

Just how pointed Shack’s portrayal is in the film can be seen by comparing it to the novel. There Shack escapes from Robben Island through a secret police deal; he is forty years old, decrepit and scared. He and Keogh are thrown together by chance when Keogh takes pity on him; it is Keogh who arranges the flight, retrieves the diamonds, everything; Shack is killed by Horn during the retrieval of the diamonds. Rewriting this role and casting Sidney Poitier in it shows the filmmakers’ determination to present a strong, intelligent, politically educated African working for the liberation of his country.

The very fact that the film’s screenwriters had to rewrite the story in order to create a more noble Black character shows their own committment to both the anti-apartheid struggle as well as creating strong and positive roles for Black actors. Keogh is not allowed to be the White Knight Saviour in the film and it is only by the end of the film, after everything that he and Shack have experienced, that he takes a determined political stand. I appreciated this as it was more realistic. Shack Twala has no choice but to resist and fight on against all odds. Keogh is just trying to get back to his normal cushy life. The screenwriters also developped more interesting female characters than those in the original novel. As Orlani states:

The women’s roles, too, are strong ones. In the novel Rina is simply Keogh’s mistress; in the film (played by Prunella Gee) she is an idealistic lawyer, a bit naive in her assumption that the United Nations Code on Human Rights will be accepted by a South African court. (It is, but apparently this is part of the plot to get Wilby.) Her strength is physical as well as intellectual and moral: she stands up to and pays the price of a humiliating body-search. When she and the men are running through the veldt to catch the plane, she does not collapse and get carried, like so many heroines. The other woman in the film, Mukkerjee’s dental assistant Persis, tries to convince the others to divide the diamonds. She cares nothing for the struggle; she has bourgeois ambitions to get to London, “where a girl like me has a decent chance.” When the diamonds have been retrieved, she asks Mukkerjee, “You are determined to give the diamonds to those black terrorists?” Mukkerjee replies, “Those black terrorists are the only hope for South Africa. If the emerging nations of the Third World are to obliterate terrorism and racism…” “I don’t give a damn about the emerging nations!” breaks in Persis and shoots Mukkerjee in an attempt to steal the diamonds. Her character is overdrawn and melodramatic, but she is certainly more than an ornament or sex object.

Both of the female characters in the film are used for sex appeal, however their roles are quite complex and interesting. Rina is the only White South African character who we are supposed to like in the film. She is trying to fight for justice in her homeland which puts her own freedom and safety in peril. The predicament of the White South African with a conscience during apartheid was a tough one. During the 1970s more and more White South Africans became involved in the anti-apartheid movement. Those who became activists risked imprisonment and many had to go into exile. The apartheid system was built to keep each racial community away from each other. Although Whites were meant to be the benefactors of this, they were also not supposed to cross the boundaries. Rina is a rebel not only in her resistance to the apartheid regime but also in her romantic relationships. She is seeing Keogh but she is in the process of getting divorced from her abusive rich playboy husband Blane, played by a young and strapping Rutger Hauer. Rina has to use Blane’s plane in order to get Keogh and Shack out of South Africa to Wilby in Botswana. This means Blane has to pilot it. She has to use sexual favours in order to get his help; however she also blackmails him by saying that she will tell his father, who is an ardent racist, that Blane has been having sex with Black women in Mozambique. Sex and marriage between Blacks and Whites was outlawed officially in 1950 under the apartheid regime. This law also classified South Africans into three racial categories: Whites, Coloreds (mixed race peoples and  Asians) and natives (Black Africans).

Interracial sex takes place between an Indian and a Black South African in the film. Shack Twala has been in prison for 10 years and it becomes apparent that he is desperate to have sex. In a strange scence, Shack forces Persis into his hiding place. It is clear he wants to have sex with her but he doesn’t communicate this to her with words. The two exchange looks until it becomes clear that Persis is game and then the two have sex. I think this could be the first time a Black man and a South Asian woman have engaged in sex on film…making Mira Nair’s steamy Mississipi Masala, starring Denzel Washington, the second time. Sex between Indians and Blacks was also forbidden under apartheid law, and generally the two communities did not socially mix apart from business transactions. Even in terms of resistance to apartheid, South Asians and Black South African relations were strained. Persis’ character, played by the gorgeous 1965 Miss India Universe Persis Khambatta who is best known for her role as Lieutenant Ilia in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, is the most enigmatic in the film. She seems to have nothing but contempt for Blacks and yet she has sex with one. She expresses that she feels trapped in the Indian district of Johannesburg. With Persis’ character, one can see that although the South Asian communities of South Africa were definitely at an advantage in comparison to Black South Africans, they were also  ghettoized and trapped. Persis sees her way out by betraying Mukkerjee and stealing the diamonds as opposed to working in solidarity with Black South Africans like Shack. Like Rina, she is rebelling against the conformity of the society she lives in, but only for her own benefit. The dilemma of which side to support plagued both South Asian and Coloured politics throughout the apartheid regime, and was particularly frustration for Indian South African activists like Fatima Meer, who wrote the first authorised biography of Nelson Mandela.

The supreme villain of the film, Horn, is also not a conventional bad guy. He is intelligent and seems to have real conviction about what he is doing. He is comparable to the character Nic Vos that Tim Robbins plays in the filmCatch a Fire. Nic Vos  is meant to be an amalgam of several real-life South African secret police officers. Both express a deep concern that the activists of the anti-apartheid movement are communists and being supported by communist countries (which was actually the case-The film Catch a Fire was written by Shawn Slovo, who is the daughter of noted anti-apartheid activists Ruth First and Joe Slovo, who were leaders of the South African Communist Party). Considering that this is the time of the Cold War, these concerns seem quite understandable. However, unlike Vos, Horn is also a racist and deeply against racial mixing. Again, when one understands how deep-seated this thinking was and is still among Afrikaners, to the point where many believe that to be true Christians they must remain racially pure, one sees that racist ideologies are not simply a matter of ignorance or stupidity, as we too often try to dismiss them today. The determination and intelligence of Horn’s character is what makes him so frightening and what makes Michael Caine’s actions at the end of the film seem almost unavoidable. As Orlani writes:

The character of Horn is crucial to the film’s success, not only because it is superbly acted by Nicol Williamson but because it avoids easy judgments of him as just a baddie. Historical and ideological reasons, not individual moral ones, are suggested for his positions and behavior. He is an Afrikaner, probably a farmer’s son. His racism is not a sign or a result of his being evil. It is an article of belief and his actions proceed naturally from it. When (in disguise) he approaches Keogh on the road to Johannesburg, Keogh pretends to be a commercial traveler. “Ladies’ underwear?” says Horn. “I’d hate for your kaffir to handle the merchandise.” When Horn comes to threaten Keogh and Rina, he finds them taking a bath together, “I’m surprised your friend Shack’s not in the bath with you — he’s shared your plates and sheets, hasn’t he?” He says to Keogh with genuine puzzlement, “It hurts me to see an intelligent educated white man so against his own people.” He regards antagonism between the races, as the natural state: to Mukkerjee, “Stick to what you Indians know best — cheating the blacks.

The only character that I would probably want to take the screenwriters to task on is that of Mukkerjee. He seems to be written as a stereotypical Indian, who is rather nervous, feeble, and mousy. He is Shack’s main ally yet there seems to be no cameraderie between them. More should have been invested in trying to demonstrate why Shack would trust Mukkerjee with the diamonds. As it is portrayed in the film Shack doesn’t seem to like Mukkerjee and Mukkerjee seems afraid of Shack. I would have preferred to see Mukkerjee as a stronger and cleverer character who has a genuinely strong connection with Shack based on common values and convictions. Orlani writes about Mukherjee as follows:

Mukkerjee, by contrast, is a rather comic character. Short, middle-aged, nervously smiling, he is terrified when Horn invades his office to search for Shack, naive in his idealism and no match for Persis’ determination. On the other hand, his depiction makes the important point that a revolution is not made up exclusively of handsome heroes. When Keogh finds out who Shack’s contact in Johannesburg is, he says incredulously, “A politically committed Indian dentist?” setting Shack up for another good answer: “We have all colors, even yours.”

That said, the film is definitely promoting a message of solidarity between differing racial and class groups. Collective efforts are the most succesful in the film as opposed to individual efforts. As Orlandi writes:

The film clearly promotes unity, not separatism, as the way of change for South Africa. The characters in the film can be seen as representative of their various classes and races — blacks, Indians, whites, working-class, lower-middle class, and bourgeoisie — working together. More important, there are several scenes in which the individual stars are upstaged by group efforts. When Shack and Keogh stop in the village, men and women push over a hut to hide the car, children rub out the tire tracks with their feet. As the two fugitives eat and recuperate, they are surrounded by smiling faces while music plays in the background.

The most dramatic scene depicting the power of the people is when Horn’s helicopter is brought down by several of the villagers Wilby has been working with. They then tear the machine apart. The most striking point the film makes is that violent resistance to apartheid is necessary. At the end, Horn says that he won’t stop hunting down the likes of Shack and Wilby. Keogh says that he knows this and then proceeds to shoot Horn dead. Keogh has gone from being a disinterested and disengaged English visitor to a violent militant. It is important to remember that Nelson Mandela, now one of the world’s most beloved political figures, was the head of the African National Congress’s military wing and was considered a terrorist by the apartheid regime. One man’s terrorist is often another man’s freedom fighter. However, this opens up many questions about the ethical use of violence in contexts of resistance and revolution. These are of course questions that a film like The Wilby Conspiracy doesn’t have the capacity to answer.

The Wilby Conspiracy was filmed in Kenya. Michael Caine wrote about the experience in his autobiography. He was surprised that no one recognized him as a celebrity; however everyone recognized Sidney Poitier. Poitier got the best tables in restaurants and was even invited to meet the then President of Kenya Jomo Kenyatta. The film could not have been filmed in South Africa for obvious reasons. Sidney Poitier, along with other American entertainers such as Sammy Davis Jr., Arthur Miller, and Nina Simone signed the We Say No To Apartheid Pledge in 1965. Poitier was well aware about the apartheid regime as it had effected the distribution of his films in South Africa. Several of his films were outright banned, for other films Poitier was edited out of interracial scences. As America was trying to integrate, South Africa was enforcing segration. The casting of Poitier in The Wilby Conspiracy must have brought home to American audiences the similarity between the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and the struggle for integration and civil rights in the United States.

The Wilby Conspiracy is a fun ride with a political conscience. I recommend that you check it out.

Further Reading:

The Wilby Conspiracy: Action for the sake of politics by Mary-Kay Gamel Orlandi (film review available online)

The Wilby Conspirarcy New York Times Film Review available online

Introduction to Apartheid: Lesson Plan for Middle Schools available online

How to Study Africa: From Victimhood to Agency by John Lonsdale

Posted in Africa in the Media, The Woyingi Blogger by the woyingi blogger on August 14, 2009

How to study Africa: from victimhood to agency
John Lonsdale

Why do most westerners see “Africa” as feckless victim and “the west” as a rescue service, and how far are Africa specialists responsible for this misperception? The scholar John Lonsdale argues that a renewed focus on African agency is essential to a deeper understanding that can help redress local and global structures of inequality, injustice, and misrule.

John Lonsdale is emeritus professor of modern African history and fellow of Trinity College Cambridge. Among his books are (as co-author) Unhappy Valley: conflict in Kenya and Africa (James Currey, 1992) and (as co-editor) of Mau Mau and Nationhood (James Currey, 2003); he is also the author of seventy articles or book chapters on Kenyan and African history This article is adapted from John Lonsdale’s plenary lecture at the Aegis conference on African Studies at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies on 30 June 2005

On Monday 25 May 1959 Iain Macleod, then minister of labour in a British Conservative government, wrote privately to his prime minister, Harold Macmillan. It was a bad time for British rule in Africa. Eleven Kenyans had been clubbed to death at Hola detention camp after refusing to do the forced labour that was designed to reclaim them from their “hard core” allegiance to the Mau Mau rebellion.

There was also a state of emergency in Nyasaland (Malawi). More Africans had been killed there, this time by police gunfire. In a long letter on how Britain might best respond to such imperial crises there is one particularly arresting sentence. Looking forward to the approaching election, Macleod wrote:

“Black Africa remains perhaps our most difficult problem so far as relationships with the vital middle voters is [sic] concerned. It is the only one in which our policies are under severe criticism and for example the only one on which we are regularly defeated at the universities. Indeed the universities feel more strongly on this issue than on any other single matter.” (National Archives/Public Record Office (Kew): PREM.11/2583; emphasis added).

Imagine, British universities then felt more strongly about Africa than about academic salaries or levels of state funding! To have been an Africanist at that time must have been very heaven. The pity of it of course was that there were very few of us, mostly linguists, anthropologists, medical experts, agricultural and veterinary scientists. The Journal of African History and Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines, brave trumpeters of a seemingly new field of scholarship, started only in 1960, the “year of Africa” that followed. So the strength of university feeling must have reflected a general sense of political obligation to Africa among Britain’s middle classes.

There was also a widespread perception that Africans were now a political force to be reckoned with. They had to be heard, and were. African leaders who jetted into London to negotiate the terms of their independence electrified university audiences. Press cartoons of the time portrayed Africans not as starving children or emaciated victims of disease, but as virile nationalist giants, overshadowing puny British politicians.

The press could also accuse ministers of ruining Britain’s good name in Africa by reason of their cowardice or folly. The same must have been true in France and Belgium – though not in Spain or Portugal, at that time dictatorships not only in Africa but also at home.

Africa has changed since then – as has Europe. Fifty years ago European electorates felt they had responsibilities towards Africa. Africans were their colonial subjects. Africans were also demanding responsibility for themselves. European publics listened. They knew the names of African leaders: Leopold Senghor, Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere, Zik (Nnamdi Azikiwe).

One of the leaders of Mediterranean Africa, Gamal Abdel Nasser, had in 1956 humiliated both France and Britain in the “Suez” fiasco. Had European publics been more ignorant, Iain Macleod would have been less worried. It was a time of hope for Africa and Africans, perhaps of unrealistic expectations. The world expected Africans to use their energetic new sovereignties to slay the dragons of poverty, ignorance and disease. Some African leaders took up the challenge by adopting the slogan “Freedom and Work”.

And now? Which European minister would warn his leader – Balkenende or Chirac, Schröder or Zapatero, Berlusconi or Blair – that the outcome of the next election might depend on what they did or did not do about Africa? How many Europeans care what Africans think? How much obligation do they feel towards Africans today? Even after the outpouring of publicity, protest, and pop music surrounding the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, and the accompanying “make poverty history” campaign, the answers may not be comforting.

How far are the professed “friends of Africa” – scholars, students, activists – to blame for the mix of everyday indifference and latent fear, tempered now and again by pity? What can we do to repair our failures in representation? Perhaps it would be to do what best serves our own professional interest: regard African colleagues as allies in a common cause, and repair the failures in African higher education that so diminish the African ability to speak to the rest of the world as intellectual equals, expert witnesses in their own cause, full citizens of our one world.

These questions and answers raise others. How many Europeans today could name any Africans, apart from the bogeyman Robert Mugabe at one extreme and the twin saints at the other, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu? How many less exceptional African leaders attract attention even when, as in summer 2005, the media overflows with African stories? How many Europeans expect Africans to solve their own problems? Do newspapers report how Africans themselves argue about political and social issues, generally with more commitment than European electorates at home?

Why do we need celebrities to enlist our attention? What Bob Geldof and Bono have done is marvellous (the Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen tells me that Geldof proved to be a sharp student of development economics in the telephone tutorials Sen gave at the popstar’s request in 2004). But there are also two dangers in the “celebritisation” of Africa’s needs:

  • the sense of guilt that Geldof and Bono arouse in their audiences may prove fleeting and ineffective – when it is important that the G8 and the European Union need to be subjected to intellectually sustained and politically creative scrutiny
  • the image of the secular saint flatters the self-regarding, even racist, European image as the heroic dragon-slayer riding to the rescue of a voiceless and helpless African continent, trapped by poverty, ignorance and disease

This, after all, is only the latest chapter in a long history of the mirror-construction of two “racial” identities, European and African. It began at least two centuries ago, during the struggle for the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. The slogan of the Quaker abolitionists, coined in 1787 – just before the French revolution – was “Am I not a man and a brother?” But the African slave into whose mouth this revolutionary question was placed was himself shown, on the Anti-Slavery Society’s seal, down on his knees before his white audience, not on his feet. (Four years later, black slaves were very much on their feet, musket in hand, following Toussaint l’Ouverture in their Haitian rebellion.)

So today, popular media constructs Africa as the hopeless, history-less, “other”, the dark antipodes to the purposeful, liberal – above all, storied – west. The occasion for the resumption of this image, after the hopeful picture painted by African nationalism, appears to have been the Nigerian civil war of the late 1960s, when the (London) Sun called secessionist Biafra The Land of No Hope. The self-righteously civilising mission of the past two centuries has thus revived in a post-colonial age.

“Parachute journalists” – so different from the “old Africa hands” like Colin Legum or Basil Davidson, or Richard Dowden more recently – accompany sometimes equally transient aid-givers into what they can understand only as a tribal, lawless, starving Africa, from Somalia and Rwanda in the 1990s to Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) today.

This populist version of the “civilising mission” infantilises Europeans as well as Africans; it reduces media consumers to voyeurs demanding instant gratification for their immediate feelings – when the real need is to face up to the long, complex, often dispiriting negotiation of critical solidarity with people who demand that their own views be heard.

People specialising in the study of Africa from outside the continent must welcome this task, arduous as it is. But what can we do to help achieve it?

Then and now

This is a task of enlightenment, in most ways harder than it was for our predecessors of fifty and more years ago. Perhaps in one sense only has it become easier, in that pop stars have created an enormous audience for news of Africa, if one that may have little patience with complex academic discussions. We must learn to engage with – even educate – that audience, even if the politicisation of pop is a two-edged sword.

In other ways, the times have moved against “Africanists”. Above all, “freedom fighters” have too often become lords of misrule. The transmutation of Kwame Nkrumah, Hastings Banda, Haile Selassie, or (again) Robert Mugabe tell the melancholy story.

It is difficult to find local heroes today, the equivalent of South Africa’s African National Congress in the 1980s. Africa’s women have the best claim to that title. But in general, Africans and their friends have become disillusioned with the fruits of freedom: stony and pitiless as in the Sudan and Zimbabwe, shrivelled into nothing as in Somalia, or utterly corrupted as in the DRC.

At the same time, many African states would be capable of delivering the public goods of societal renewal – Senegal, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Botswana, South Africa among them – if they were permitted the affordable means to tackle the social cancer of HIV/Aids.

But there is a deeper problem in addressing the task of enlightenment. In the 1960s, students of Africa were able to read the work of African leaders – Julius Nyerere, Frantz Fanon, Tom Mboya, Leopold Senghor – and to learn about Africa in wonderfully cheap books such as the Penguin African Library. The authors were often cosmopolitan journalists with long African experience, such as Patrick Keatley of the (Manchester) Guardian (a Canadian), Brian Bunting of the Rand Daily Mail and (Johannesburg) Guardian (a South African), and Jack Halpern, editor of the Central African Examiner (born in Berlin). African novelists also appeared in Heinemann’s equally accessible African Writers Series, launched by Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in 1962.

A lesser-known series that addressed both European and African students was just as significant. Its authors were often white expatriates, deeply involved in the adventure of setting up new African universities. This was Oxford University Press’s “Students’ Library”, whose first title – George Bennett’s Kenya: a Political History – I bought in 1963 for the equivalent of a few pence today.

Academics were then prepared to write short, simple – but learned – books for a student audience (nor were they burdened by today’s severe bureaucratic obligations). The OUP’s public-spirited authors included Margery Perham, Bolaji Idowu and Fred Welbourn on African Christianity, Merrick Posnansky on the distant past and Philip Whitaker on the relevance of western political theory to African problems.

Whitaker was on the extra-mural staff of Makerere University College, Uganda – as were his better known contemporaries in Ghana, Thomas Hodgkin, Dennis Austin and David Kimble; this is the sort of teaching service that stands in urgent need of revival today.

The enlightenment such people offered was amazing. They brought African and European audiences into the same historical discourse, with, for instance, comparisons between African and European nationalisms or discussion of classical Greek solutions to contemporary African problems.

What has become of the Penguin African Library, or the Student’s Library? Which Africans can interested students now read in cheap editions? Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom is the only recent autobiography that comes to mind. James Currey’s African Issues series is the sole source, I believe, of moderately priced but unimpeachably expert discussion on contemporary Africa. Perhaps we should be all the more grateful to Geldof and Bono, the Penguin Specials of today.

It is all the more important that younger Africanists should be aware of the precedent set by our predecessors in bringing Africa and Africans to the attention of a western public. Public academic engagement with African issues has a long and intellectually strenuous history, as a brief (and insular) survey of its achievement and inheritance suggests.

Predecessors in hope

The first modern attempt to educate British voters about African issues – leaving aside university support for the 19th century anti-slavery movement and the early 20th century Congo reform movement – seems to have been in 1929, when the Student Christian Movement produced an eighty-page booklet on East Africa in Transition.

This summarised and discussed the 350 pages of a commission of enquiry into the possible “closer union” of the British territories in Eastern Africa, an issue full of racial dynamite in a part of Africa where white settler interests competed with the principles of “native trusteeship” at the heart of British policy. So the precedents go back a long way, even if one ignores them.

A decade later – and nearer to my own theme of the need to listen to Africans as equals – Bronislaw Malinowski presented to a western readership Jomo Kenyatta’s work, Facing Mount Kenya. As a displaced Pole, conscious of the twin dangers of fascism and communism, Malinowski believed educated Africans experienced the shared “tragedy of the modern world in an especially acute manner.”

Malinowski welcomed Kenyatta’s views as those of an observant world citizen. The Commission for Africa’s 2005 report is entitled Our Common Interest. The contrast is stark: self-interest rules in place of universal tragedy; Africa is no longer a prophetic voice but a common concern.

Much more sterling work was accomplished by Africanists’ predecessors of more than half a century ago, including the international galaxy of scholars who advised Lord Hailey’s African Survey (1938). That era of hope for Africa included the renowned figure of Margery Perham, Oxford’s University teacher of generations of British colonial cadets. At the intellectual centre of empire, she went to great lengths to include Africans in the circle of a common humanity.

In 1936, Perham edited a collection of biographies, Ten Africans. It is extraordinary to read her introduction today, and to recognise how much she is our contemporary. Britons, she remarked, accepted as normal what was in truth “the peculiar condition of empire under which we control the destinies of people we do not understand.” The absence of ordinary social relations between the races, “through which people come to know and like each other”, was, she thought, to blame for this misunderstanding. She continued:

“The main reason for this is the ‘backwardness’ of Africans. It is an obvious and fundamental fact, but one upon which we are apt to lean a little too hard in order to make ourselves comfortable in a difficult situation. In default of true knowledge we too often make do with assumptions: the primary one, that Africans are backward; next, that they are almost all equally backward; even that they are inherently, and so permanently, backward. Cut off as most of us are from any contact with Africans as individuals, we think of them or deal with them in the mass…”

Margery Perham carried on the work of introducing individual Africans to the world after 1945. In 1946 she found a publisher for and wrote an introduction to Obafemi Awolowo’s book, The Path to Nigerian Freedom, when he was but a law student. A decade later she wrote an introduction to the young Tom Mboya’s radical pamphlet, The Kenya Question: An African Answer, published by the Fabian Colonial Bureau. Ten years later still, she introduced J M Kariuki’s shocking memoir of what he had suffered at British hands in Mau Mau Detainee.

Here was a senior academic, one of the chief public moralists for imperial trusteeship, actively helping to give young Africans a subversive voice at the seat of empire – and one who could write, privately, that Jomo Kenyatta was the sort of person with whom one could speak without condescension, “man to man”.

Scholars at the time had great faith in human agency – perhaps because willpower seemed so self-evidently decisive during and after the ordeal of world war. Margaret Wrong, secretary of the international committee for Christian literature for Africa, started her book, Five Points for Africa – a plea for a new deal for the continent – with the chapter “We are Men”, echoing the question the Quakers had put to the merchants of slavery.

Joyce Cary, former colonial official and no friend to African nationalism, was nonetheless passionate in his call for the sort of African freedom that increased personal choice: “To leave any man in ignorance, sickness, poverty, or racial contempt, without help, is to hold freedom cheap.”

Melville Herskovits, a founder of African studies in the United States, was no less eloquent in the cause of African agency, more cultural than individual in his opinion. To him colonial rulers were wrong to suppose that “Africans were … highly malleable, a people whose destiny it was to be mo[u]lded into the image their tutors delineated for them.” Africans were “a force in being”, no mere “supplementary resource”. Nationalism thus restored to Africans the creativity of power: “Culturally, no less than politically, independence made of them free agents.”

How might we, in our generation, recover a similar sense of purpose and obligation for ourselves and for Europe, in the cause of an African agency that Africa’s recent history, no less than the popular mood of today, seems to deny?

Globalised apartheid?

What we need, I suggest, is an analogy for what got us angry and active in the past.

Would it be too much to compare today’s politically and socially divided but economically unified world with the apartheid South Africa of yesterday? The parallels are surely very close. The rich countries’ immigration and asylum laws operate in ways not greatly different to pass laws. Northern farmers enjoy the same price guarantees and export subsidies that used to protect white settlers from black peasant competitors. The world’s terms of trade, the operations of international oil companies, seem designed to exploit African resources for very little in return other than the arming of African protectors – like the township police of yesteryear. Skilled African workers are recruited to the rich countries’ health services; their “social reproduction” costs are borne by poor African states that reap no benefit from their trained manpower – just as black South African migrant labour was reproduced in the Bantustans, more or less cost-free to its white urban employers.

If that analogy is anywhere near accurate, then might not the precedents of the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM), and the campaign against British investment in South Africa, also be useful? Mike Terry, former executive secretary of the AAM, says that “anti-apartheid became part of British student culture and economic boycotts an accepted norm”. AAM also embraced the enthusiasm of the pop music world.

A related point is that African studies stand in great need of economists and economic historians who might understand the real impacts of globalisation on Africa. Three simple thoughts arise, to prompt research into complexity.

First, Africa stands in great need of capital, and the formal relations of production and governance that demand the wider distribution of capital’s profits than to its owners alone. How capital can thus be “socialised” – whether by foreign direct investment or by African state or cooperative ownership – is surely best argued out between Africans.

Second, is it possible that the precipitate rise of Chinese textile and other exports will make African labour globally redundant, and will thirst for oil and markets make China the newest friend to African dictators?

Third, economists will doubtless never agree on how far the fault for Africa’s economic stagnation lies at the door of global structures or the malign local agency of kleptocratic rulers. Existing interpretations of contemporary Africa have paid most heed to changing forms of structural fate. Is it time for a change?

Structure and agency in African studies

Africanist scholarship has not always been the most usefully critical friend of Africa. That judgment may be no more than the prejudice of an historian, whose instinct is for stories of human agency – about who did what to whom, to whose advantage and at whose expense. Historians, like anthropologists, tend to be particularists, resistant to the grand generalisations beloved of sociologists, political scientists and economists.

With this qualification, the problem in studies of Africa over the last two generations is that Africanists have tended to create three successive, “single” models, teleologies or paradigms of Africa in the public mind. All of these are largely empty of the identifiable, awkward, individual Africans that Margery Perham long ago felt made us, or our analyses, uncomfortable.

The first model, friendly to African nationalism and the new African nations, is the “modernisation” theory that held sway in the 1950s and 1960s. This translated the socially mobile behaviour that was thought to characterise industrial Atlantic society, with its urban anonymity and capitalist rationality (but without its class struggles), to an almost entirely pre-industrial, largely rural, scarcely capitalist Africa.

This liberal political theory was totally disconnected from the parochialisms of African societies; it was also strangely empty of human courage and ingenuity. “Charisma” was an analytical category rather than a personal quality in someone like Nkrumah. Nationalism, far from being a creative adventure, was (as James S Coleman wrote) a sociological banality, “the inevitable end product of the impact of Western imperialism and modernity on African societies.”

The second model is “underdevelopment”, modernisation’s dark mirror image. This approach had many strands, some more vulgarly Marxist than others. Its partisans could not agree on how far Africa had been exploited by colonial capitalism. Its proponents tended to argue as if Africa had no hope until the socialist world revolution. But no “underdevelopmentalist” knew how to analyse African social classes and their struggles, a confusion reflected in the common use of the term “petty bourgeoisie”, trendy code for an analytical blind alley.

Without well-defined classes, it was hard to discover heroes of class struggle, people who might mobilise a capacity to change things, however tight the constraints on their agency. A truncated teleology of paralysed dialectics generated few of the African voices which Perham had given us.

The third model is “neo-patrimonialism” – although its scholars disagree on the meaning of the term. In general, it signifies a fatal conjuncture between one of the past glories of African history and its modern nemesis, and leads to an emphasis on the creative resilience of free peasantries in self-governing, stateless, frontier societies.

Today, the argument runs, political elites patronise the same small communities – “tribes” – in order to press their private demands on the state’s public goods. Clientilism, bound by personal codes of honour, cannot build states that obey a rule of law and, without law, states can expect neither investment nor any wide political legitimacy.

Yet even in such “neo-patrimonial” analyses of what are quintessentially face-to-face politics, it is rare to meet fully rounded political actors. Indeed, there is a curiously mechanical quality to our analyses of the intricately personal politics of neo-patrimonialism. The logic is too inexorable, inviting two objections: it invites acceptance of what is at best questionable, that international non-governmental agencies can resolve problems of governance when it often appears that they absolve African governments of the necessity to tackle them; and that not all African states have followed the same downward path to its inevitable end.

All three analyses of modern Africa have shared a basic weakness: lack of historical depth. Without this it is difficult to see how African states have developed differently from one another over the last half century. But there are indeed many diverse social, political and nationalist histories within Africa, emerging within different sorts of colony, shaping different purposes for independence, and permitting different ways of responding to post-colonial crises.

What the three models miss is the exercise of agency by political leaders, or their failure to act. The social sciences seem structurally averse to recognising such contingency. An understanding of the variety of modern African history rests on a balance between structure and agency.

The recovery of African voices

What is to be done? If the globalisation of apartheid gets anywhere near the truth, then global justice must be the goal for the west’s political leaders – as I think it was for Iain Macleod, prompted by the fear of what Africans might do were justice denied.

But there are obstacles in the path of such distributive justice: the protections demanded by producers in the industrialised world; the security priorities of “the war on terror”; popular objections to the immigration of today’s huddled masses; the curse of oil and strategic minerals; the age of Chinese mass production that may turn Africans anew into “surplus people”. Europeans no longer fear African protest – unless they happen to be Muslim. Conversely, there are few African heroes, allies in development, not least because African states lack so many of the competitive institutional authorities that can, on occasion, call rulers to account.

The G8 has proposed its compromise solutions. But what can mere academics do to see that even compromises are honoured? Our only power is to educate imaginations. But that – both in what we write and in what we advocate – is potentially enormous.

The most powerful goad to action on behalf of justice is surely a universal imagination that Africans are also men and women like us, with the will, however constrained by past history, to change their societies for the better. What Africans perhaps most need from our research are the biographies that give voice to their reflective, polemical, thoughts.

Alexander McCall Smith may have done more for Africa than all the rest of us, with his creation of Mma Precious Ramotswe of Botswana’s No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Certainly, more people will read McCall Smith than, say, JDY Peel’s account of how Yoruba Christians have acted with a consciousness of history as acute as any European’s, or John Iliffe’s panorama of how a sense of honour has stiffened African agency throughout history, perhaps more so than is prudent for the conduct of modern states. The historical perspective that makes biography worth writing, one that concedes some causal weight to a willed sense of purpose, is beginning to colour our analyses at last.

But Africans need our advocacy as well as our learning; without passionate commitment there can be no dispassionate research. The best way to combine such passion with its opposite, professional disinterest, is for European Africanists to concentrate our public energies on demanding that our governments support the properly funded, properly protected, rebirth of African universities – a matter to which the Commission for Africa paid some, but too little, attention.

There would be many benefits of such an initiative; I will suggest five:

  • the renewed ability of African scholars, as in the 1960s and 1970s, to challenge the monopoly on what passes for useful Africanist knowledge now held by westerners; our colleagues would again be our competitors, and western leaders too would once again hear African voices to which they would have to pay heed
  • restored African universities would find the energy to rethink Africa’s development needs, and allow higher education to find a new direction, better adapted to a knowledge-based world economy; at the centre of such academic globalisation must surely be the Atlantic African diaspora of academics and other professionals
  • African universities’ access to moral and political philosophers as well as science and technology would be a way for Africans to create a revolution in public morality; a distant, difficult but essential aspiration to offer public thinkers in these institutions
  • African universities would be enabled to think through problems of social reform and economic competition in the context of the global economy
  • African universities would be helped to revivify public spheres of political discourse, against the will of rulers unaccustomed to any competing authority; productive effort needs confidence in the future that only politics can provide; and rational bureaucratic politics, held to account by democratic institutions of collective opinion, is the least worst option.

The critical public voices I envisage will need to be protected, to be properly paid, with international standards of information and research infrastructures. This is a tall order. But what is the alternative? African states must be encouraged to submit to the self-disciplines undertaken by the few that have avoided the depths of “clientelist crisis”. Most are already subject to many external conditionalities, each a derogation from sovereignty. Another conditionality is as likely as any other to help Africans get off their knees and on to their feet. Is there a not a case for insisting on an “Academic Rights Watch” conducted by some international body, of which the Association of African Universities would be a foundational element? Might that not be a condition for all educational aid? Is this the one simple point that academics might fasten on when considering a goal for our political activism?

Finally, how might we as Africanists equip ourselves for such public advocacy? In our own national academies we are weak, as disregarded as church mice. Our individual national research assets in Africa are puny. But we could turn such separate weaknesses into the beginnings of a collective strength, by forming an “ever closer union” of research activities on Africa

We could also resurrect something like the Oxford University Press’s Student’s Library. The first title might even be a summary, eighty-page, discussion of the 460 pages of the Commission for Africa (priced at two euros or less)?

How many of us still alive thirty years hence will be able to echo what Basil Davidson said to me in 1998, looking back on his activist journalism of the 1960s: “The names come faltering back, and the dramas associated with them and I am repeatedly made grateful to have lived though those tremendous years”? The responsibility for a new partnership with Africa and Africans is ours.

The Woyingi Blogger’s Comments:

I have a used book-buying addiction, but I am of course selective in my purchases as much due to being broke as discrimination. Two of the series I am desperately hunting for in used book stores across the country are the Heinemann African Writers Series and the Penguin African Library Series, both mentioned in this article. I’m happy to say that I have managed to dig up quite a few of these titles. These books are almost entirely out of print now. Why?

I’ve been really disturbed by how much activists, on the left as much as on the right, people of colour as much as Whites, are extremely ignorant of African Affairs. This has been seen most extremely in the reaction of both left-wing and right-wing activists to the “crisis” in Darfur. But at least people are talking about Darfur. So much is happening that doesn’t even reach the headlines of right-wing newspapers or spark the concern of the political left.

Who cares about Africa or Africans? Who thinks we have anything to offer to the world other than something to be pitied in a way to expiate Rich people’s guilt or to be paraded around for Hip Activist Street cred? People only care about us if there is something in it for them, even if it’s simply furthering their own ideological beliefs be it neoliberalism, Marxism, or Islamism.

There are so few books in wide distribution written by Africans, particularly by Black Africans, about Africa. In the section for African History in Chapters most if not all of the books are written by non-Africans, mostly journalists not even academics. I know, it’s Chapters but it’s not that much different at independent book stores either….sometimes they have even less. There are books available online but they are often from academic publishers and incredibly expensive…probably because they know that the general public isn’t interested and so only specialists will buy them.

I think that this is because many people who aren’t Black are still so cut off from interactions with Africans, particularly with Black Africans. They haven’t learned to see us as individuals not faces in a newspaper, but people with our own thoughts, opinions, beliefs. And again, this isn’t just a White people issue. People of colour who aren’t Black are pretty much the same in this regard. Just because you are a person of colour doesn’t mean you don’t have racist ideas about Black Africans.

I’m lucky to live in an area that is predominantly Black African. My neighbours are from Somalia, Zimbabwe, Congo, Liberia, Ghana, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Rwanda, Burundi, and Sudan. Most are countries known for their conflicts and little else. Most of my neighbours originate from the educated elites of these countries who are now living as refugees in diasporas across Canada and around the world. I wish that they had the time to write their stories but they are too busy struggling to survive in this cold country.