The Woyingi Blog

African Women’s Lives: Sebenzile Matsebula

Posted in African Women's Lives, Africans Living with Disabilities, South African Women by the woyingi blogger on July 17, 2011

I had the opportunity to meet Sebenzile Matsebula here in Ottawa during the Women’s Worlds Conference which took place from July 3-7 2011 at the University of Ottawa.

Matsebula is an internationally recognized disability rights activist. She worked as the Director of the Office on the Status of Disabled People (OSDP) in the Presidency of Thabo Mbeki for 8 years. She is currently the Executive Director of Motswako Office Solutions, which is recognized by the South African Government as a Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE) contributer. In 2009, South African President Jacob Zuma appointed Matsebula to the Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment Advisory Council, which is mandated to advise the government on Black Economic Empowerment in order to remedy the economic legacy of Apartheid. She is the mother of two grown sons.

Sebenzile Matsebula was born in Barberton, in the Eastern Transvaal, South Africa. In 1957, at the age of ten months, she contracted polio. She ended up in the hospital with a very high fever. The illness resulted in both her lower limbs becoming paralysed, therefore Matsebula must use a wheelchair. Matsebula studied at the University of Botswana and Swaziland where she obtained a B. Sc. Biology, Statistics and Environmental Science. She has furthered her studies in the field of Biometrics at Pennsylvania State University and the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon in Canada.

According to Matsebula she first became involved in the disability rights movement while she was still in Swaziland:

I remember having many interactions with [William Rowland], Friday Mavuso, Maria Rantho – all those people that came out to Swaziland to create an awareness of this new shift in thinking. We had come from a culture of a welfare state, where disabled people were looked after and cared for by charities, by the good Samaritans. Then there was this movement, saying, in effect, “No, that actually isn’t the right way…disabled people have a responsibility to effect changes in their own lives.” That was my first exposure, which I must say was a wonderful exposure. I was involved with the sector from 1986 as a researcher – because I was trained in the sciences – but it wasn’t until 1988-89 that I got involved with the movement as a movement of people with disabilities. And I have been involved ever since, with an increasing awareness and an increasing understanding of what disability rights are all about.

In a 2004 interview with Disability World, Matsebula described some of the achievements of the Office on the Status of Disabled People (OSDP) :

Well, you could write a book about that; but let me pick up some highlights. There are several aspects: At government level one of our key successes has been the training in departments. When our new democracy started, a lot of posts were created to ensure the mainstreaming concept, and people were deployed into government departments to facilitate this mainstreaming. Those people would have had experience in social welfare, as teachers, and whatever, but they did not have experience or an understanding of disability. We then trained those people so that, as they discharged their duties, they had a clear understanding of disability as a concept, as a principle, and as a way of living.

That has been a very successful project because, besides creating awareness and making people do their work effectively, it has enabled us to gain allies in government. Because of their strong understanding of disability, these people have become passionate about their work and go out of their way to promote disability issues. So we now have what we call “focal persons”, but they’re actually allies that serve as our ears and eyes and inform us of what is going on and of any problems. If we need an entry point into a department, we know there is somebody who will work with us meaningfully.

The following is a statement Matsebula made at the Danish Civil Society Conference in 2006:

I contracted polio at ten months of age in the Eastern part of South African where I was born. I then lived through an era of disempowerment as a black African, as a female and as a disabled person. Therefore I can relate to all forms of discrimination, marginalisation and disempowerment in a real sense.

Yet inspite of rather difficult social circumstances my experience in life as a adult was of a more positive one resulting from now living in a new political dispensation that promotes the rights of marginalised sectors of the society, the equalisation of opportunities and self representation particularly in decision making processes.

This experience was brought about in my work in my 8 years of working in the highest office of South Africa, in the Presidency of Thabo Mbeki as head of the disability unit. The government of South Africa and its political principals has unconditional political commitment to the respect of rights of all vulnerable groups through the constitution and the bill of rights. This high level political commitment subsequently enabled me and my compatriots to play a meaningful in the development of the country at all spheres of governance. It is commitment that is substantiated by an annual allocation of government resources.

As a result of this equality and equity of local participation, South Africa subsequently has some of the best policies, best practices and programs that govern vulnerable groups.

However in my work on the African continent I have observed real hardships, which are faced by vulnerable groups in African societies as a result of the absence of meaningful policies and a lack of political commitment to the alleviation of tragic social problems.

This is also evident in that the voices of the poor are continuously marginalised in PRO-POOR development processes, which has unfortunately been perpetuated by external influences. From my experience I have a total conviction that sustainable development and the real and true African ownership of processes will be realised only through meaningful and recognised public participation and self representation by all marginalised sectors of our societies.

Further Reading:

Profile of Sebenzile Matsebula available online

Interview (2004) with Disability World available online

Integrating disability within government: the Office on the Status of Disabled Persons by Sebenzile Matsebula, Marguerite Schneider and Brian Watermeyer, available online in Disabilty and Social Change: A South African Agenda by HRSC Press

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Reflections: Gaddafi, Mandela and “African Mercenaries”

Posted in Black-Arab Relations, Blacks and Racism, Countries: Libya, Muammar Gaddafi, Nelson Mandela, Reflections by the woyingi blogger on February 23, 2011

You can compare Libya’s Gaddafi to Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak but for those of you who are “anti-imperialists” there is a particularly disturbing lesson here because Gaddafi was supposed to be “one of the good guys”.

Unlike the cases of Ben Ali and Mubarak, the case of Gaddafi really bothers me because it is clear that he has been, and continues to be, protected by some sort of Anti-Imperialist Old Boys Club who talk about justice but don’t seem to actually want to hold themselves or their parties or their “brother leaders” accountable for following it.

Mandela and Gaddafi

It’s easy to point fingers as Western Imperialists but if you can’t be accountable to your own people you are just as bad, perhaps even worst, because you came to power claiming to bring justice and go around the world saying you and your governments are examples to follow!!!

Gaddafi was/is often touted by the left as the Fidel Castro of the Middle East. He saw himself as a natural successor to Nasser‘s vision of Pan-Arabism. He used Libya’s oil money to support groups fighting for self-determination (such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and the African National Congress (ANC).

Nelson Mandela was instrumental in helping Gaddafi resolve the Lockerbie Affair and regain easy relations with countries like Britain and the United States. Mandela shrugged off criticisms within South Africa and internationally, particularly from the United States, when he reached out to Gaddafi. He had this to say to his critics: “Those who say I should not be here are without morals. This man helped us at a time when we were all alone, when those who say we should not come here were helping the enemy.” Clearly, Mandela’s support of Gaddafi is linked to Gaddafi’s support for the ANC during the Apartheid era.

Mandela was the first award winner of the Al Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights in 1989, an annual prize founded by Gaddafi himself (Other recipients include Lous Farrakhan, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, and Turkey’s Erdogan). Mandela returned the gesture by bestowing one of South Africa’s highest honours, the Order of Good Hope, on Gaddafi in 1997.

Gaddafi turned away from Pan-Arabism (mainly because most Arab Nations couldn’t be bothered with his nonsense nor could they be manipulated by him because they had their own oil money) to Pan-Africanism (African countries are much poorer and lacked as much oil money and therefore were ripe for manipulation) He proposed the idea of the United States of Africa. The extent to which Gaddafi has been involved in financing conflicts in Africa is truly horrifying (Chad, Niger, Uganda, Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of Congo)

David Maynier of the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition to South Africa’s ruling Part the African National Congress (ANC) has accused the South African government of having sold sniper rifles to Libya, although South Africa’s Minister of Defense and Military Veterans Lindiwe Sisulu denies this.

Allegedly, African Mercenaries have been flown into Libya to attack protesters. Who are these African Mercenaries? The question might be asked “Aren’t Libyans Africans? That depends on who you ask. Often when the term African is used it means “Sub-Saharan” African ergo Black-Skinned. The fact that Gaddafi has many Sub-Saharan African Mercenaries at his disposal should come as no surprise. Such mercenaries have been trained in camps funded by the Libya Government across Sub-Saharan Africa. As Jose Gomez del Prado with the United Nations Human Rights Council states:

You can find, particularly in Africa, many people who’ve been in wars for many years. They don’t know anything else. They are cheap labour, ready to take the job for little money. They are trained killers.

But it’s important to not dehumanize these “mercenaries”.  One of the central characters in Nigerian author Helon Habila’s novel Measuring Time is one of these mercenaries. He begins as just a young man looking to escape the dead-end poverty of life in his small village in Nigeria. He joins a Libyan-funded training camp and eventually ends up as a mercenary in Liberia. There, his conscience shaken to the core, he finds redemption.  However, the poverty of these mercenaries doesn’t justify their violence against Libyans.

What really worries me is that preexisting prejudices against Blacks in Libya, given the long history of the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade, will erupt in violence against innocent Sub-Saharan African Migrant Workers in Libya who already face discrimination and harassment. In 2000, violence against Sub-Saharan African Migrant Workers by Libyan Citizens left allegedly 135 people dead. In an interview with the LA Times in 2000, one Ghanaian migrant worker had this to say about Gaddafi and the Libyan people:

“President Kadafi has a good idea, but his people don’t like blacks, and they don’t think they are Africans because of their skin color,” said Kwame Amponsah, 22. He spent three months in Libya before fleeing in October, returning to Ghana’s poor southwestern agricultural Brong-Ahafo region. As many as 80% of the nation’s returnees hail from this area, according to authorities.

Currently, the number of Sub-Saharan African Migrant Workers living in Libya is estimated at over 1 million (Libya has a population of over 6 million). They often work in sectors such as construction and agriculture.

I pray for the freedom of Libya’s people and the safety and security of the migrant workers living there.

Further Reading:

Muammar Gaddafi

WikiLeaks cables: A guide to Gaddafi’s ‘famously fractious’ family (2011 article in The Guardian available online)

Gaddafi Urges Pan-African State (2007 article from BBC News available online)

Al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights Website

Human Rights Watch: Libya: Security Forces Kill 84 Over Three Days

Gaddafi and Mandela: Brother Leaders

Mandela Welcomes Brother Leader Gaddafi (article from BBC News available online)

Strategic Moral diplomacy: Mandela, Qaddafi and the Lockerbie Negotiations by Lyn Boyd Judson (2005 essay University of South California) 

A Medal of Good Hope: Mandela, Gaddafi and the Lockerbie Negotiations by Lyn Boyd Judson (2004 essay from the University of Southern California)

Sub-Saharan African Migrant Workers in Libya

Migrant Workers from Ghana Flee Libya, Cite Racism (LA Times article 2000 available online)

Libya`s post-sanctions boom makes it African El Dorado (2009 article available online)

Has Gaddafi unleashed a mercenary force on Libya? by David Smith (2011 article from The Guardian available online)

Trans-Saharan Migration to North Africa and the EU: Historical Roots and Current Trends by Hein de Haas (2006 article available online)

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: 

DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT 

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 Wired.com, 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 Jamati.com available online 

Interview (2010) of Wanuri Kahiu by CNN available online 

Interview (2010) of Wanuri Kahiu in Wired.com 

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

Reflections: John Diefenbaker and the “un-hyphenated” Nation

Posted in Apartheid, Canadian History, Countries: Canada, Countries: South Africa by the woyingi blogger on March 27, 2010

I’m helping the daughter of an aunty of mine with her History Summative. It has to be on a Canadian Prime Minister. She chose John Diefenbaker. I was happy about this because since reading Canadian philosopher George Grant’s Lament for a Nation“, I have been fascinated by John Diefenbaker and his involvement in promoting civil rights in Canada.

John Diefenbaker led the Conservative Party to victory in 1957. He was the Prime Minister of Canada from 1957 to 1963. Growing up, I absorbed some snippets of Diefenbaker’s history from TV, but like most Canadians my age, I didn’t learn much about Canadian history and frankly felt that our history was boring.

John Diefenbaker

I knew about the Diefenbunker and wanted to visit there some day (I still haven’t managed to yet). I knew that Diefenbaker didn’t get along with President John F. Kennedy but I didn’t really know why. I knew that Diefenbaker had cancelled the Avro Arrow but didn’t know why. I also had come to my own conclusion that Diefenbaker was one of our ugliest Prime Ministers.

But while reading Grant’s Lament for a Nation I discovered that Diefenbaker was something of a progressive for his time, despite being the leader of the Conservative Party.

Diefenbaker once said  “I am the first Prime Minister of this country of neither altogether English nor French origin. So I determined to bring about a Canadian citizenship that knew no hyphenated consideration.”- March 29, 1958, Maclean’s. Diefenbaker believed in promoting an “unhyphenated” Canadian identity, and that protecting the rights of all Canadians, regardless of race or national origin, was key in building the idea  of Canada as “one nation”. However, this position make him quite unpopular among the Québecois.

Here is a list of some of the positions, decisions, and accomplishments of Diefenbaker that I think were pretty progressive and important for more Canadians to know about:

1) Diefenbaker opposed the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II

While an MP in the Conservative Opposition, Diefenbaker was appointed to the House Committee on the Defense of Canada Regulations. This committee was an all-party committee responsible for examining the war-time rules related to arrest and detention without trial. When Mackenzie King’s Liberals sought to forcably relocate Japanese Canadians from the Pacific Coast and interned them, Diefenbaker was against such actions. I wonder how much this had to do with his background as a German. At the time, Diefenbaker was concerned about Canadians accusing German Canadians of disloyalty and during his early political career he had been called a “Hun” and faced harassment because of his obviously German last name. It should really be no surprise that redress for the internment of Japanese Canadians were made under the Conservative Government of Brian Mulroney, seeing as this had been an action that Conservatives like Diefenbaker had opposed.

2) Diefenbaker and First Nations’ Rights

On March 31, 1960, First Nations and Inuit peoples were given the right to vote in Canada by the Diefenbaker Conservatives. This allowed Registered Indians living On-Reserve the right to vote in federal elections for the first time. Before this, if a Registered or Status Indian wanted to vote, he had to renounce his Status.

3) Diefenbaker’s Appointment of James Gladstone, the First Status Indian Sentator

Although Cree by birth, James Gladstone was adopted by the Blood/Kainai Tribe, a member of the Blackfoot Nation, because he was born on one of their reserves. He was President of the Indian Association of Alberta and was appointed to the Senate in 1958, two years before Status Indians were given the right to vote in federal elections. Gladstone’s presence in the Senate was key in pressuring Parliment to grant Status Indians their civil rights.

4) Diefenbaker’s Appointment of Ellen Fairclough, the First Woman Cabinet Minister

In 1957, Diefenbaker appointed the first woman federal cabinet minister, Ellen Fairclough. She held the posts of Secretary of State, and later Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. During her time in Parliment, she worked on issues related to the status of women, including private members bills pushing for equal pay for equal work for women.

5) The Canadian Bill of Rights

Taken from Diefenbaker’s Bill of Rights by Thomas Axworthy:

John Diefenbaker was a passionate advocate for the rights of the downtrodden, and as early as 1936 he had begun to draft a Canadian Bill of Rights. Elected to the House of Commons in 1940, Diefenbaker began to introduce annually a private member’s bill enunciating a made-in-Canada Bill of Rights. Becoming leader of the Conservative Party in 1956, Diefenbaker stunned Canada with an upset victory over the Liberal Party in 1957, and work on a Canadian Bill of Rights began immediately. Believing that Canada’s internment of the Japanese during World War II was a disgrace, he told the House of Commons that a Bill of Rights “would make Parliament freedom-conscious.” In August of 1960, his cherished Bill of Rights was proclaimed.

Mr. Diefenbaker made the strategic decision that his Bill of Rights would apply only to the federal jurisdiction. He did not believe that the provinces would agree to amend the Constitution. “Let us clear our own doorstep first,” he told critics who said he did not go far enough.

6) Diefenbaker and Aparteid South Africa

Taken from The Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online:

Despite his vehement rejection of the South African policy of apartheid, Diefenbaker was hesitant to consider exclusion of South Africa from membership in the British Commonwealth on the ground that the association should not interfere in the domestic affairs of its members. Political pressure for action intensified after disorders and a police massacre of peaceful demonstrators in Sharpeville in March 1960. At a meeting of Commonwealth prime ministers in May Diefenbaker worked with Prime Minister Macmillan to avoid a split among the leaders along racial lines. They found their escape in convenient delay. The conference offered South Africa time to revise its policies by agreeing that in the event it chose to become a republic, it would have to request consent from other Commonwealth members for readmission to the association. When South Africa’s whites voted that October in favour of a republic, Prime Minister Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd announced that he would seek continuing Commonwealth membership at the meeting in March 1961. Diefenbaker arrived at that meeting carrying divided counsels on South Africa, some calling for its exclusion, some for renewal of its membership coupled with a Commonwealth statement on racial equality, and others for further delay. As the conference opened he was undecided, but at the suggestion of Bryce he advocated a declaration of principles to be adopted before a decision on South Africa’s readmission. The effect would be to force a choice on South Africa rather than on the other members. When Verwoerd called for additional wording which would exclude his country’s practices from blame, Diefenbaker sided with the non-white leaders in rejecting the proposal. Verwoerd withdrew the South African application and left the meeting. Following South Africa’s departure, the conference dropped the effort to adopt a declaration of principles, but Diefenbaker told reporters that non-discrimination was an “unwritten principle” of the association and that it was “in keeping with the course of my life.” He accepted the outcome as the least divisive one possible and received wide praise at home and abroad for his defence of the principle of non-discrimination.

Diefenbaker’s position negatively affected his relationship with British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan,  who already thought Diefenbaker was a nuisance because of his interference in Britain’s economic policies. Diefenbaker was the only one of the white Prime Ministers to take an unequivocal stand against aparteid and spoke of a Commonwealth that opposed racial discrimination. He had be well advised by Civil Servant and ardent Keynesian, Robert Bryce that if Aparteid South Africa, with British support, had been allowed to remain in the Commonwealth most of the Asian and African countries would leave, defeating the purpose of the Commonwealth and making it nothing more than a whites-only club.

Further Reading:

Lament for a Nation by George Grant

Alliance and Illusion: Canada and the world 1945-1984 by Robert Bothwell (To learn more about Diefenbaker and the Commonwealth of Nations)

Race and Reconciliation in South Africa, a BBC Radio Documentary

Originally written July 5, 2008

I encourage people to check out the BBC World Service Radio Documentary Race and Reconciliation by Audrey Brown about issues of Race in South Africa, including the recent attacks on migrants in cities across the country.

The reality is that aparteid only ended 14 years ago.
Why would anyone expect the deeply racist ideology that divided people into sections: White, Coloured, Blacks to have changed over such a short time?
Look how long it took for the US to recover from the racial divisions of slavery after slavery was abolished. Over a hundred years!

Although the focus is on race, poverty is really the central issue here. When there is a scarcity of resources people will compete desperately for them and divide themselves by race, religion, and nationality in order to justify their entitlement to these scare resources. Sadly, this is human nature. Why are people surprised? I don’t get why people where so surprised this happened in South Africa, just because aparteid is over. You can’t erase the economic, social and psychological dammage aparteid has done in just 14 years!

Migrant Labour is coming to South Africa because South Africa is one of the strongest economies in Africa. South Africa also needs skilled labour because many of the Whites have left and the Blacks were barred from getting the skills needed to run their own country under aparteid. Migrants, coming from such places as Nigeria, Mozambique, and Somalia, come with skills or with some capital to set up businesses. You also have poorer migrants coming from conflict zones, particularly Zimbabwe, who are willing to be paid lower wages than Black South Africans. There is also the belief that the foreigners are involved in organized crime. These fears sound pretty similar to what whites here in North America feel about migrant labour. But because our economic situation isn’t as desperate here we don’t see this level of violence.

There also seems to be bitterness among more well to do migrant Africans who believe South Africans should be grateful to them and allow them to benefit economically from South Africa because they came from countries that took in South African exiles during aparteid or somehow fought against the Aparteid government. I have a serious problem with this concept of collective gratitude. Just like I don’t think all the citizens of a country can be guilty of what their government does because they can’t be held individually responsible for their governments wrong actions, they can’t be held individually responsible for the good their government has done either. Nor should they demand collective gratitude from other people. The division between South Africans and migrant Africans will not be resolved if well off migrant Africans consider themselves superior to Black South Africans, which from many of the blog postings and Facebook groups I’ve read after the violence against migrants started seems to be the financially well-off migrant Africans attitude to Black South Africans. Black South Africans were called ungrateful, lazy and stupid and not deserving of the economic benefits of South Africa. This situation reminds me of the attacks on Korean convenience store owners by Blacks during the LA riots.

On a positive note,the violence seems to have brought some of these more privileged migrant Africans closer to the poorer migrant Africans for the first time, as they have volunteered to help the homeless refugees.

I get the impression that many migrant South Africans don’t actually interact with Black South Africans as friends. It also appears that Brown and Coloured South Africans don’t interact with Black South Africans as friends either. Again, you can’t expect the hatreds and prejudices between these groups to change if they aren’t even interacting with each other. But how can you begin such interaction if everyone is scared for their phycial safety, is worried about losing their homes and livlihood and/or thinks they are superiour? Again, class plays a role because as much as the poor Black Africans and the poor migrant Africans are fighting each other for scare resources they also actually interact with one another, live and work together, and in some cases marry each other.

Race and Reconciliation

Fourteen years after liberation and sixty years since the beginning of what was then ‘apartheid’, this documentary series explores and uncovers the extent to which race still plays a part in everyday life for those living in South Africa.
Part One – Rainbow nation or racial tension?
In January this year, an 18 year old white farm boy, Johan Nel, walked into the black settlement of Skierlik in the North West Province and shot dead four people, a mother and the baby on her back, a 10-year-old boy and a man.

Audrey Brown meets South Africans from all walks of life to find out whether recent racial incidents have revealed cracks in what has been dubbed the miracle of ‘the rainbow nation’.

In the face confrontation and controversy, she asks difficult questions about how different South African communities view one another.

Can issues of race and reconciliation comfortably sit side-by-side?
What do South Africans really think about one another?
How do you get people to engage on the issue?
And can racism ever be eradicated there?

A generation after Nelson Mandela walked free, race now seems as dominant an issue today as it was in the darkest years of apartheid.

In the first part of this series, Audrey Brown travels to Skierlik to explore how racial tensions are quietly erupting – and how the ripples are being felt around the country.

At one point, one of the White South Africans Audrey is speaking to says that he can’t marry a Black woman because he’s a Christian and it’s against his religion to mix races. What kind of Christianity is he talking about?

I was deeply moved by the story of the young White woman who was raped by Black South Africans who invaded her house but refused to blame their crime on their race. I was also happy to hear that her family had been visited by a Black South African Church group. Bringing people together in this way after crimes of this nature are committed is so crucial if there is going to be real reconciliation.

Part Two – The Politics of Race

BEE or Black Economic Empowerment has formed one of the central planks of government policy for the last 14 years.

It has created a new generation of determined, young black people – known as ‘black diamonds’.

But what about other South Africans?

Where do they fit in?

Audrey Brown travels to the Western Cape to explore how privilege and access to resources is increasingly being seen as an issue of colour.

She speaks to people from the so-called Coloured community to find out how black and brown populations feel about one another.

Is there real hatred, or is race simply being used as a political tool?

In the new South Africa, it’s not Whites versus Blacks, it’s Coloured people and Brown people versus Blacks. Just Great.

Part Three – New waves
Since 1994, South Africa has been seen as a place of hope and opportunity.

And the latest wave of people are from Nigeria, Senegal, Zimbabwe and everywhere in between.

But how has this new wave of immigrants altered the ‘rainbow’ and how are attitudes and the recent attacks by South Africans on foreigners, painting a disturbing picture of a new type of conflict, based on race, colour and nationality?

Audrey Brown travels to Atteridgeville, a township outside the capital, Pretoria, to explore what really lies behind the recent troubles.

During an interview, a Black South African says that he believes that the attacks by Black South Africans on Black African migrants is a result of internalized Black self-hatred. He says it must be this because attacks haven’t happened on White and Asian migrants. Although, I think he has a point, the reality is that attacks aren’t happening on White and Asian migrants because White and Asian migrants don’t live near or among Black people. They are safe in gated communities. But many poorer Black African migrants actually live and work among Black South Africans, making them more accessible targets of violence.

The producer of this documentary is Audrey Brown. Audrey Brown is herself a Black South African. She was born in Klipstown, near Soweto.

Audrey Brown

Audrey Brown

Who is Audrey Brown?

Here are excerpts from a personal interview:

I knew I wanted to be a journalist from the age of about seven and I’ve been dipping in and out of it ever since university, as I’ve tried to find different ways to find out about the people of the world.

My first job in radio was here at the BBC between 1992 and 1994. I fell in love immediately and irretrievably.

But then I followed other paths first – television, writing, teaching and curating, before coming back to radio, my first love. I rejoined the BBC in January 2005.

While in South Africa, I co-presented a morning radio show. One morning the sports presenter said something that was only vaguely funny, but I suddenly got an attack of the giggles and I couldn’t stop.

I infected the rest of the team and, as I found out later, a substantial part of the audience as well. After struggling unsuccessfully for several minutes to contain my laughter I had to leave the studio.

I have too many broadcasting heroes to name, but have to mention the late great Chris Bickerton. He is the only person I knew who sounded like the same person on and off air.

Also, Tim Modise, a broadcaster in South Africa, for his natural charm and courtliness.

Your favourite African novel?

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah …and almost everything written by Bessie Head.

What makes you angry?

Stupidity, spite, cruelty, selfrighteousness and smugness.

Why do you love Africa?

Because it is often better than anything one can imagine.

What depresses you about Africa?

That it can be worse than anything you’ve ever seen.