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Mother of George: Independent African Film

Mother of George
Adenike and Ayodele (The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira and veteran actor Isaach De Bankolé) are a Nigerian couple living in Brooklyn. Following the joyous celebration of the their wedding, complications arise out of their inability to conceive a child – a problem that devastates their family and defies cultural expectations, leading Adenike to make a shocking decision that could either save her family or destroy it. Acclaimed director Andrew Dosumnu (Restless City) captures the nuances of this unique and fascinating culture by creating a beautiful, vibrant, and moving portrait of a couple whose joys and struggles are at once intimate and universal.
Dania Gurira
Now playing in limited release, “Mother of George” is one of those tiny movies you should seek out, wherever and however you can. Directed by Andrew Dosunmu (“Restless City”), the film premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and was singled out for its sumptuous cinematography by Bradford Young (who also shot “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”). The film concerns a Nigerian couple living in Brooklyn who are experiencing some fertility problems, and the emotional fallout that follows. It’s not exactly the most chipper of subjects, but Dosunmu draws you into the story, thanks largely to Young’s painterly visuals and a lead performance by Danai Gurira (from AMC’s highly rated zombie drama “The Walking Dead”). It’s the rare drama that stays with you long after the credits have finished rolling, a deeply affected, gorgeously photographed glimpse into a world you likely know nothing about and probably barely knew existed.

It speaks to Gurira’s talents as an actress that she can star in two completely different projects in two completely different roles (in “The Walking Dead,” she plays the samurai-sword-wielding bad-ass Michonne), and pull off both flawlessly. We got to talk to the actress, who had a memorable supporting turn in “The Visitor,” as well as a 6-episode stint on HBO’s “Treme,” to talk about what it was like oscillating between such extreme characters, how she researched her role, and what she’s got coming up next (she’s also a playwright herself).
Mother of George
How did you get involved in the film?
I knew of Andrew. We had done a film together, his first one [“Restless City”], and we just really clicked. We worked really well together and had really enjoyable experiences as collaborators, even though of course I had a really supporting part in that role. We just get and respect each other’s artistic voices. He had seen the plays that I wrote in production. He had seen “The Visitor.” I loved the work I had seen him do. So it made sense that when he decided to make his “Mother of George,” he wanted to work with me again.

Did you do a lot of research? What was that sort of process like?
I was raised in Zimbabwe, where my parents are definitely from. It was fascinating, because I really do appreciate specificity when it comes to telling African stories. As a playwright, I make sure that I tap into specific experiences with our speech. I love celebrating our specificity because I think that the horrible thing about how Africa is treated, is that it’s very generalized. Of course, a lot of research through film, movies, and things like that that have been passed on to me. And of course, Andrew and the costume designer were both Nigerian, so really spending time with them. Also, one woman in particular, Andrew’s friend’s mother-in-law, whose name was also that of my character in the film, Adenike, was the woman I spent probably the chief part of my time with to really absorb and she’s only been in the country a short amount of time. She was a fascinating study.

As you were making the film, did you sense that that the visuals would be unique?
I did, because you could even see how the colors, the design of everything we were doing, was so rich. Right down to what we were wearing. Everything was just so rich. But also they worked hard. I know there were times I would be like, “Are you guys going to shoot my face? Are they just shooting my hand right now?” I knew they were doing some really interesting stuff because they would choose an angle where the camera was looking and I was like, “What? Why? What’s going on?” But I knew it was going to be really fascinating and interesting. I worked with both of them before on “Restless City,” so I know how they don’t do things in a typical fashion ever. So there were times I was acting a scene, but I was behind a curtain and the camera’s over there, so stuff like that. I knew it was going to be different. I had no doubt it was going to look a little different.

What’s so fascinating about the movie too is that it all takes place in modern-day in Brooklyn but it seems of a different time, of a different culture. How did you guys go about establishing that both in your performance and elsewhere in the film?
It wasn’t that hard. I grew up in Southern Africa and we do have a lot of modernity, but that is the African experience. You can have a lot of modernity around you, but you’re still upholding traditions and customs. That’s true of many cultures, actually, that some might consider very ancient or archaic. To me, it felt very along the lines of what I witnessed growing up on the continent and also just really what can happen here when people move, they don’t throw away who they are culturally. It’s not just Africans. It’s Asians, it’s Japanese, it’s Indian culture. You retain a lot of things. It’s important. It’s who you are. And it’s a choice. It becomes a choice in this environment because you can always not do that. But that was a really rich negotiation of self that I feel that I witnessed my whole life in terms of how seeing even African women negotiate being at the cusp of so many moments in history. But you also want to retain certain cultural components of who you are, traditional components, and that’s a choice. They’re choices and I want that, I want to retain this and I want to retain that and I know I can do this or dress that way, but I love this way of how we do things, I love this way I dress. So I think it was very enjoyable to dramatize that. I feel like it’s a very interesting moment the African woman is in. I think it’s rarely seen.

Was there anything you found in research doing the role that was particularly difficult?
Well, I’m probably not likely to do what she did, but getting to her circumstances, her mindset, it wasn’t that shocking to me, but I wouldn’t do it. My choices would have been different. I would have navigated this a little different, but I’m very different from her. So I think what was key was really connecting to her need. Her need and then her circumstance.

Papa Machete: A Short Film About Haitian Machete Fencing

Papa Machete
Papa Machete tells the story of Alfred Avril, an aging farmer who is also a master of the esoteric art of Haitian machete fencing.

Documenting the mysterious martial art of Haitian machete fencing through the story and practice of one man.

Our team recently completed filming of Papa Machete, a character-driven short film that explores the noble, esoteric, and slowly vanishing martial art of Haitian machete fencing, and the practice of one man, master fencer Alfred Avril, one of the few remaining masters who is working to keep it alive.

Mr. Avril is a subsistence farmer living in Haiti, who garners an extremely modest side income teaching traditional Haitian fencing. Despite the respect his martial-arts mastery earns him in his small community, he and his family continue to live under conditions of acute poverty.

Our footage captures an aspect of Haitian life and culture rarely seen, showing the deeply spiritual significance of an art-form too easily cast in a negative light. Through this project, we’ve been able to document an elegant yet functional martial-arts system that is largely unknown to the world at large, and the broader social context within which it serves to foster continuity with the past.

Why this is important

Often, when people think about about Haiti, they focus only on political turmoil, natural disaster or extreme poverty. In the scramble to address the dire needs of its people, the positive things that Haiti has to share with the world are too often ignored. We believe that a false perception of Haiti as a country lacking in “cultural capital” is part of what keeps it impoverished, and that any path toward alleviating Haiti’s material poverty must include highlighting its cultural richness. It has been our hope that Papa Machete will bring much deserved attention to Haitian martial arts as a vital piece of Haitian culture.

Up until this point, our project has been self-funded, with additional donations from family and friends. We now find ourselves just short of the funding needed to complete post-production, for sound design and color correction to truly transform our footage into a cinematic success.

Beyond this, we feel responsible to be of help to Mr. Avril in a substantial, material way, as he struggles to preserve his practice. After being welcomed into his home and community, it became clear to us that a huge part of the challenge Mr. Avril faces in keeping the tradition of Haitian fencing alive comes from the fact that he lives in such a tenuous situation. In particular, Mr. Avril’s tiny house at which he trains his students is listing noticeably to the side, and will soon collapse. This house is in any event so small that his children and grandchildren must sleep in a dilapidated tent left over from the 2010 earthquake relief effort. These structures clutter and impinge upon the small property where he conducts his fencing lessons.

We believe that the most immediate thing we can do to help Mr. Avril continue to perpetuate the tradition of Haitian fencing is to construct a simple, structurally sound steel- and-concrete home/training facility – one sturdy enough to withstand earthquakes and hurricanes. Because of Mr. Avril’s modest requirements, this can be done for as little as $6500.
Continue reading…

Ayitian Ourstory with Professor Bayyinah Bello

Bayyinah BelloIn this fascinating interview with leading Haitian historian Professor Bayyinah Bello (State University of Haiti) you will learn about the birth of the First Black Republic in the West as she reflects on the 200th anniversary of the Haitian Revolution and its legacy. An excellent introduction to Haitian history suitable for 11th graders to adults.

Warrior Queen: The Great Asante Queenmother Yaa Asantewaa

Ekiah Productions – Warrior Queen from Bowstring Studios on Vimeo.

Warrior Queen, a short by Ekiah Productions, tells the story of the great Asante Queenmother Yaa Asantewaa who led her people into battle against the British.

Cubans Visit their Ancestral Home in Africa

By Emma Christopher (Photos Sergio Leyva Seiglie)

HAVANA TIMES — There are very few good news stories to come out of the transatlantic slave trade, but there was one recently in Sierra Leone.

Around 180 years after their ancestor left aboard a slave ship, four Cubans—Humberto Casanova, Alfredo Duquesne, Elvira Fumero Añí and Yandrys Izquierdo—visited the chiefdom she once called home.

Their ancestral roots have been traced by Dr. Emma Christopher, of the University of Sydney in Australia, using a collection of songs and dances this small group of Cubans has kept alive.

After several years of research across Liberia and Sierra Leone, their origin was traced to Sierra Leone’s Upper Banta chiefdom, where several of the Cubans’ songs and one of their dances were identified as part of the initiation rite of the now-defunct Menda secret society.

Nobody in either Sierra Leone or Cuba is a fluent Banta speaker anymore—the language has died out—but incredibly people on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean still sung songs in the old dialect.

It was enough for the people in Upper Banta to recognize the Cubans’ songs and claim them as family. “They Are We”, a man named Solomon Musa said as he watched footage of the Cubans’ culture the first time Dr. Christopher visited his village.

Others in the surrounding area told of old stories passed on from their ancestors of people stolen away into slavery, including an entire initiation group from the Menda society who were taken just before their initiation rites were complete.

Whether the Cubans’ ancestor was one of that group is impossible to prove, but to some of the old people in Upper Banta it seems that their ancestors’ stories of stolen people have been proved true. From the first time they saw footage of the Cuban group’s cultural performance, they asked whether the Cubans might be able to visit so that they could all be together “as brothers and sisters”.

It took a couple of years for that to come about, because it was difficult for the Cubans to get permission to travel. With the recent change in the law, however, four of their number was at last able to return to their ancestral homeland.

The warmth of the welcome was certainly worth the wait. First visiting Paramount Chief Tommy Jombla in Banta Mokele, both the local people—led with beautiful singing by Christianne Jombla, the chief’s granddaughter—and then the Cubans, drummed, sang and danced in a day of sheer joy.

The Cuban’s chief singer, Elvira Fumero Añí, became overwhelmed with emotion and tears poured down her face. “I’ve never felt so accepted,” she said, speaking of the importance of knowing your origins. Even Chief Jombla joined in the dancing.

After visiting the Chiefdom headquarters, the party went to the village of Mokepie, where Mama Lucy Amara, the last head of the Menda Society,greeted them.

She showed them the medicine house that belonged to the society, which was partly destroyed in the civil war during the 1990s. Expressing her desire to get the society restarted, Mama Lucy was delighted to hear that some Menda traditions are carried on in Cuba. She and Elvira later shopped and cooked together, building up genuine affection regardless of the language gap.

The culmination of the trip was a week’s stay in the ancient village of Mokpangumba. Accompanied by Mama Lucy, the Cubans walked towards the village (which has no motor road access) to the sound of drumbeats and singing. No less than four masked devils from the secret societies and virtually the entire village had turned out to celebrate their arrival.

There were cries of delight as Cubans and Sierra Leoneans who had seen each other on film recognized each other in person and went to greet each other with warm hugs and laughter. It was the start of a visit that would be life-changing for many of those involved.

The visitors were determined not to just be tourists. They were clear about wanting to experience village life as it is now. One of the visitors, woodcarver and artist Alfredo Duquesne, visited the farm of Baggie Kpanabum and learned to climb palm trees and cut down the kernels and then process it into palm oil.

Mr. Kpanabum was very surprised, saying that even some people in the village don’t know how to do this work so he had no idea that somebody from overseas would come and learn.

The Cubans also taught the local youth to play their national sport: baseball. But the local team’s defeat on the baseball field was soon revenged when the Saloneans were able to show off their own national sport.

Fielding a team comprised of both the Cuban visitors, members of the crew filming a documentary about the visit (Cuban photographer and field producer Sergio LeyvaSeiglie, Cuban cinematographer Javier Labrador Deulofeu and Barmmy Boy Mansaray from Sierra Leone) as well as some locals drafted in to assist, the ‘away’ side was beaten 1-0 by the experienced locals, despite their generous hosts playing gently.

For the duration of the stay there was a great deal of singing, dancing, and drumming. The few songs still known by both groups were enjoyed many times, with detailed discussions of the different ways that words are now pronounced.

There was also sharing of songs that have not survived in Cuba and teaching of new songs that the Cuban group had composed more recently.

Joe Allie, an elderly man in Mokpangumba who stared in wonder when he first heard a recording of the Cubans singing a song which had once been his grandfather’s favourite, danced for the first time in twenty years. And he kept dancing. He even readily attempted some newer Cuban dances, including the cha-cha-cha and the rumba.

The affection of the village towards the visitors was astonishing. Each day people showed up with gifts, and their tolerance for these people with whom they no longer shared any language, or much culture beyond the old songs and dances, made the trip an unforgettable experience.

Leaving the village was wrenching, with ‘brothers’ such as Alfredo Duquesne and Baggie Kpanabum swapping clothing and photographs, determined to keep in touch.

The challenge now for all involved is to build bridges from this beginning. To build again a community from one so long ago broken by transatlantic slavery is an unprecedented project but a worthy one.

Perhaps, just perhaps, through the forming of these new ties, better days can dawn for both Mokpangumba—which badly needs many amenities—and for the Cubans who have long felt rootless and isolated.

It is a major undertaking and how best to do that is something only decided by discussion and thought on both sides. But surely together is better than apart, even after almost two centuries of separation. “We need to help each other,” said Duquesne, “that’s what families do.”
See for more information and photographs. A documentary about the entire project, called ‘They Are We’ will be released later in 2013.

Angela Davis and Assata Shakur’s Lawyer Denounce FBI’s Adding of Exiled Activist to Terrorists List


One day after the exiled former Black Panther Assata Shakur became the first woman named to the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list, we’re joined by another legendary African-American activist, Angela Davis, as well as Shakur’s longtime attorney, Lennox Hinds. Davis, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is the subject of the recent film, “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners.” She argues that the FBI’s latest move, much like its initial targeting of Shakur and other Black Panthers four decades ago, is politically motivated. “It seems to me that this act incorporates or reflects the very logic of terrorism,” Davis says. “I can’t help but think that it’s designed to frighten people who are involved in struggles today. Forty years ago seems like it was a long time ago. In the beginning of the 21st century, we’re still fighting around the very same issues — police violence, healthcare, education, people in prison.” A professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University, Hinds has represented Shakur since 1973. “This is a political act pushed by the state of New Jersey, by some members of Congress from Miami, and with the intent of putting pressure on the Cuban government and to inflame public opinion,” Hinds says. “There is no way to appeal someone being put on the terrorists list.”

Sierra Leone Teen, Kelvin Doe AKA DJ Focus, Wows MIT With AMAZING Skill

Originally posted on The Huffington Post | By Hayley Hudson
Posted: 11/19/2012 5:13 pm EST Updated: 11/19/2012 8:11 pm EST

At the age of 13, a boy living in Sierra Leone created batteries and generators using materials he picked up around the house or from trash bins. Now, he’s wowing experts in the U.S.

Kelvin Doe, now 16, became the youngest person in history to be invited to the “Visiting Practitioner’s Program” at MIT, according to CNN.

Doe, a completely self-taught engineer, manages his own fully-staffed community radio station in Sierra Leone where he broadcasts news and plays music under the moniker ‘DJ Focus.’ The radion station is powered by a generator created from a deteriorating voltage stabilizer, which he found in the trash, while a simple antenna lets his neighborhood listen in.

“They call me DJ Focus because I believe if you focus, you can do an invention perfectly,” Doe said in a video produced by for their THNKR YouTube channel.

Among those inventions is a battery that he created to light up homes in his neighborhood.

“The lights will come on once in a week, and the rest of the month, dark,” Doe told interviewers.

It took several attempts before Doe finally had a working prototype for the battery — a combination of soda, acid and metal, wrapped together by tape.

MIT discovered Doe during Innovate Salone, a national high school innovation challenge held in Sierra Leone by an international organization called Global Minimum. Doctoral student David Sengeh recognized his skills right away.

“It’s very inspirational,” Sengeh said in the video. “He created a generator because he needed it.”

Before attending Innovate Salone this year, Doe had never been more than 10 miles from home. With Sengeh’s help, in September he journeyed to New York for the 2012 World Maker Faire, where he sat on a “Meet the Young Makers” panel with four American inventors.

Doe’s fame only promises to grow from here. Soon he will be a resident practitioner with the International Development Initiative at MIT and a guest presenter at Harvard School of Engineering, where he’ll gain even more practical knowledge to help his community.

“Whatever things I’ve learned here, I will share it with my friends, colleagues and loved ones,” Doe said.

Taxes Threaten an Island Culture in Georgia

Published: September 25, 2012
New York Times

SAPELO ISLAND, Ga. — Once the huge property tax bills started coming, telephones started ringing. It did not take long for the 50 or so people who live on this largely undeveloped barrier island to realize that life was about to get worse.

Sapelo Island, a tangle of salt marsh and sand reachable only by boat, holds the largest community of people who identify themselves as saltwater Geechees. Sometimes called the Gullahs, they have inhabited the nation’s southeast coast for more than two centuries. Theirs is one of the most fragile cultures in America.

These Creole-speaking descendants of slaves have long held their land as a touchstone, fighting the kind of development that turned Hilton Head and St. Simons Islands into vacation destinations. Now, stiff county tax increases driven by a shifting economy, bureaucratic bumbling and the unyielding desire for a house on the water have them wondering if their community will finally succumb to cultural erosion.

“The whole thing just smells,” said Jasper Watts, whose mother, Annie Watts, 73, still owns the three-room house with a tin roof that she grew up in.

She paid $362 in property taxes last year for the acre she lives on. This year, McIntosh County wants $2,312, a jump of nearly 540 percent.

Where real estate is concerned, history is always on the minds of the Geechees, who live in a place called Hog Hammock. It is hard for them not to be deeply suspicious of the tax increase and wonder if, as in the past, they are being nudged even further to the fringes.

Theirs is the only private land left on the island, almost 97 percent of which is owned by the state and given over to nature preserves, marine research projects and a plantation mansion built in 1802.

The tobacco heir R. J. Reynolds Jr. bought the mansion and most of the island during the Great Depression, persuading the Geechees who owned the rest to move to 400 swampy inland acres. Today, Hog Hammock is not much more than a collection of small houses and a historic cemetery, with a dusty general store and a part-time restaurant, Lula’s Kitchen, where shrimp and sausage are transformed into a low-country boil, a classic example of Sea Islands cooking.

That kind of history makes it hard for people to believe county officials who say there is no effort afoot to push them from the land. The county has offered 15 percent reductions in tax bills until the appeals that most people have filed can be heard. But it is going to be a challenge to pay even the reduced rate. While there is work cooking and cleaning for visitors to the plantation house, maintaining state research facilities or renting space to vacationers, money is difficult to find.

The relationship between Sapelo Island residents and county officials has long been strained, especially over race and development. In July, the community relations division of the Justice Department held two meetings with residents to address charges of racial discrimination. A department spokesman said the meetings were confidential and would not comment.

Neither would the chief tax appraiser, Rick Daniel, or other elected county officials. But Brett Cook, who manages the county and its only city, Darien, says local government does a lot to support the Geechee culture.

“It’s a wonderful history and a huge draw for our ecotourism,” he said.

This summer, he pointed out, the county worked with the Smithsonian to host a festival that culminated in a concert with members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters, who practice a style of singing and hand claps developed by slaves.

The issue, said Mr. Cook and other county officials who would speak only if their names were not used, is not one of cultural genocide. They are just trying to clean up years of bad management and correct property taxes that were kept artificially low by questionable policies.

McIntosh County has a history of bureaucratic mistakes and election corruption. Its rocky political landscape was the subject of a book, “Praying for Sheetrock,” by Melissa Fay Greene, which detailed its racial segregation and the 1970s fight between a domineering white sheriff and people who wanted to elect the first black government official.

The county, which has about 14,000 year-round residents and thousands more with vacation homes, had for years put off reviewing its taxable property. An outside firm did the last valuation in 2004. Paul Griffin, the chairman of the Board of Tax Assessors, called the work “very, very sloppy” at a June meeting covered by The Darien News.

In 2009, the county was in the process of updating its tax digest when the state froze property taxes to help stanch the effects of the recession. Instead of continuing its work, the county stopped the process until this year.

Meanwhile, property was sold — some of it to wealthy people interested in vacation homes on the mainland and some on Sapelo Island. Those sales never made it to the tax records until now.

“We’re rural, we’re on the coast and we’re desirable,” Mr. Cook said. “When the market got hot six or seven years ago, a lot of individuals holding $15,000 or $20,000 lots on the marsh could sell them for $100,000 or $150,000.”

The county also started a new garbage pickup service and added other services, which contributed to the higher tax rates, he said. Sapelo Island residents, however, still have to haul their trash to the dump.

“Our taxes went up so high, and then you don’t have nothing to show for it,” said Cornelia Walker Bailey, the island’s unofficial historian. “Where is my fire department? Where are my water resources? Where is my paved road? Where are the things our tax dollars pay for?”

Here, where land is usually handed down or sold at below-market rates to relatives, Ms. Bailey has come to hold four pieces of property. She lives on one, which is protected from the tax increases by a homestead exemption. The rest will cost her 600 percent more in property taxes. “I think it’s an effort to erode everyone out of the last private sector of this island,” she said.

Government systems have been devised to try to save Sapelo Island’s Geechee culture. Hog Hammock is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the state created a Sapelo Island Heritage Authority in 1983, which the governor oversees. But critics contend that the authority could serve as a vehicle to more development.

State lawmakers have discussed creating a trust that would protect land from development but allow residents who could not afford to keep their property to stay. But that is still just an idea.

The National Park Service recently released a 272-page management plan for the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which stretches from Wilmington, N.C., to Jacksonville, Fla. It calls for creative solutions to preserving Gullah land, said Michael Allen, the service’s foremost expert on the community, of which he is also a member.

But it says nothing about how to fight the tax collector.

State Senator William Ligon, who represents the county and is a real estate lawyer, suggests that residents file a lawsuit if they do not get relief.

“In an economy where property values have been declining, I think I would want to look very, very closely at what had been done at the county level,” he said.

None of that offers immediate relief to residents who have tax bills piled up on kitchen tables and in desk drawers.

Sharron Grovner, 44, is one of them. Her mother, Lula Walker, runs the little restaurant on the island. Ms. Grovner buried her father not too long ago. Her family has more than four acres of property and faces more than $6,000 in taxes. Like most, they have appealed. “You can do the best you can do for a year, but then you are going to need some kind of help,” she said.

Still, they are not going to let go of the land. “It’s like this,” she said. “People like me don’t sell their property.”

Has the post-Apartheid bubble burst?

Aljazeera Features
Azad Essa Last Modified: 19 Aug 2012 07:00

What began as a typically grating labour dispute between unions and a mining magnate over poor wages and working conditions – the daily grist of fragile labour relations in South Africa – turned quickly into a week of violent clashes with police, talk of death threats and sporadic killings.

And then came the game changer.

Thirty-four striking miners were killed and scores more were wounded when police unleashed a spray of bullets at the assembled crowd outside the Lonmin-owned platinum mine at Marikana on Thursday, in what is being described as the most violent police operation since the end of apartheid.

Confusion over the finer details of the shooting still abounds, but just days later, scrutiny of the shooting itself pales against the more probing questions of the real character of South Africa that it has exposed.

In fact, scrutiny has now fallen on the incongruities of post-apartheid South Africa – perhaps more closely than ever before.

With the aid of the perhaps illusionary rhetoric of “the new South Africa” that is hard at work tackling an ever widening income inequality gap, a rampant rate of gender violence and a stubborn culture of corruption, the ANC-led government has been able to choreograph a compelling narrative of satisfactory growth, multicultural reconciliation, and political stability, at the tip of a continent that many perceive as locked into a spiral of poverty, exploitation and ruthless mismanagement.

In apparent reward for rescuing itself from Apartheid without too much fuss, South Africa punches far above its weight in world politics. The country’s inclusion into the BRICS club of emerging economies, its membership to the G20, two stints as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and, most recently, its successful election to the chair of the AU Commission, all go to illustrate South Africa’s growing clout on the world stage.

But for millions of disenfranchised South Africans, the country’s gleaming global image is at sharp odds with a more harsh reality, says Andile Mngxitama, a prominent columnist and editor of the New Frank Talk magazine.

“The gloss of [hosting] the FIFA World Cup was always an attempt to communicate a different story of what was happening on the ground,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Now the world has caught a glimpse of this other reality.”

‘Abnormal country’

Despite being classified as an upper-middle income country by the World Bank, unemployment in South Africa sits between 25 and 36 per cent. An estimated 50 per cent of the population lives under the poverty line. Recently, Unicef said that seven out of ten children live in homes that endure severe poverty. The group also discussed a set of circumstances that places the country in an unlikely position to be able to reunite its diverging societies of rich and poor.

Then in June, the World Bank applied its newly developed Human Opportunity Index to South Africa and the results were far from flattering.

While the report lauded the impressive gains made in access to primary education, electricity and telecommunications, it noted as well that the spatial effects of Apartheid still determined how well these services were actually distributed.

President Jacob Zuma himself has alluded to failed economic transformation when he said, also in June 2012: “The structure of Apartheid-era economy has remained largely intact.”

The disparate world of rampant inequality, where the black majority continues to live in an apparent disconnect from the vision of the new dispensation, was echoed widely in angry editorials of the The Sowetan and Amandla magazine, the morning after the shooting.

The Sowetan described South Africa as “an abnormal country … where the value of human life, especially that of the African, continues to be meaningless”, while Amandla said the tragedy “sums up the shallowness of transformation”.

It is the narrative of transformation, South Africa’s ability to emerge from an ugly past through negotiations and reconciliation that has been abruptly torn asunder by events in Marikana this week.

“The lack of humanity on both sides is a slap in the face of what we thought was possible,” explained Ari Sitas, sociology lecturer at the University of Cape Town.

Similarly, Lubna Nadvi, an activist and lecturer in politics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal told Al Jazeera: “The underbelly will rear its ugly head every once in a while, if the country’s real problems are left unaddressed.”

While the world hails South Africa as the definitive gateway to Africa, encouraging the country to assert its clout more prominently across the continent, a growing discontent lurking beneath the surface has been brushed aside. Low-income suburbs are crippled by an overwrought electrical grid; dusty townships remain lawless and insecure, and up to 12 million South Africans live in slums, where they face poor sanitation, barriers to water access and attacks on human dignity.

“Many communities protesting against poor service delivery suffer police repression and excessive state violence on a daily basis,” Mngxitama said.

Police brutality

South African police say they were acting in self-defence at Marikana on Thursday, but the scale of the damage, recorded in part by television cameras, has once more set off alarm bells concerning the capacity of the police and a perception among some regarding their inclination towards violence. In 2011, police behaviour was highlighted when community leader Andries Tatane died after a beating, reportedly at the hands of police, during a protest in Ficksburg in the Free State.

Sipho Hlongwane, political correspondent at Daily Maverick, said that the most shocking aspect of the Marikana incident was the reportedly slow response of the police and authorities.

“This incident did not come out of the blue, like perhaps the [Andries] Tatane incident … it was brewing for a week. Ten people had already died and still the police and authorities did nothing,” he said.

“Many communities protesting against poor service delivery suffer police repression and excessive state violence on a daily basis … The ANC will stop at nothing to defend the narrow interests of the political elite.”

– Andile Mngxitama, New Frank Talk

“The ANC will stop at nothing to defend the narrow interests of the political elite.”

Hlongwane’s observation is particularly significant when viewed in the context of police operations at community protests in recent years.

A study [PDF] by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) titled The smoke that calls, completed in 2011, focused on xenophobic violence and community protests in South Africa over the past decade, and found that police were either guilty of responding too late or found to have “escalated confrontation and tension”, including “incidents of assault and allegations of torture against suspected protest leaders”.

The frequent incidence of community protests against local government and the slow rate of service delivery has been one manifestation of a rising anger with the ruling ANC for inadequately representing the needs of the country’s poor.
But even as President Zuma calls for an inquiry into the Marikana shootings, many believe that it is a dissatisfaction with the ANC and its trade union partner COSATU – the biggest labour confederation in the country – to adequately take up the plight of the country’s marginalised that first fed the rise of renegade youth leader Julius Malema, and the creation of rivals to COSATU.

That so many workers “left” the National Union of Mineworkers, an affiliate of COSATU, to support the rival Association of Mineworkers and Constrution Union in an “illegal” strike in lieu of higher wages is indicative of the sheer desperation felt by many miners.

“The danger here is that COSATU appears to be failing to convince people that they can speak for their needs adequately,” Hlongwane said.
He is, however, reluctant to stress dissatisfaction with the ANC as an undercurrent of events in Marikana this week.

“I try to resist pushing this incident into a larger narrative of the ANC government not caring and not responding to the needs of the people – [but] their poor response ties into this,” said Hlongwane. “Though I do think we should look at this company and where bargaining processes went wrong.”

Labour power

President Zuma cut short a trip to Mozambique to visit Marikana on Friday, but lecturer Sitas said the inquiry he announced is unlikely to reveal the greater causes of the incident.

“The commission will have a hard time in arriving at anything sensible,” he said. “They will be obsessing about who fired the first bullet.”

The bigger dilemma, it would appear, is understanding how the increasing drudgery of the working class towards traditional union leadership, for long seen as the vanguard of the social and economic interests of workers in South Africa, will affect the ANC’s most reliable voter base.

And it is within this context of job vulnerability – in which people are made to feel insecure – that workers must choose sides.

“Either you are compliant or rebellious or, often, there is an oscillation between the two,” Sitas said.

However bullish COSATU has become in South African politics, trading influence with government over real bargaining power on the shopfloor, as Sitas described it, or building a worker aristocracy, as Mngxitama calls it, workers aren’t likely to reject the ANC just yet.

“There is a mismatch between reality that sees people vote for the ANC, and the ANC-led government’s inability to deliver promises,” Mngxitama said.

But it won’t always remain this way.

The comparisons of Thursday’s incident with the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 – when apartheid police shot and killed 69 black protesters – are already doing the rounds; so too, have parallels been drawn with the North African and Arab uprisings.

Not so fast, Sitas interjects.

“This is still our government, not a [Hosni] Mubarak government. I do not see it as dramatic as Egypt. The comparison with Sharpeville – in terms of firepower – could be equated, but it is irresponsible to say it is the same thing.”

Nevertheless, the incident at the Lonmin mine in Marikana this week may signal the end of the world’s honeymoon with “the miracle” of post-Apartheid South Africa.

“The world is watching,” Nadvi concluded. “They probably don’t fully understand what they have just witnessed, but they know now that there are some serious issues here.”

Follow Azad Essa on Twitter: @azadessa

Returning to the Ancestral Waters of Remembrance

Returning to the Ancestral Waters of Remembrance is a moving short film documenting a group of sisters and brothers’ journey from the diaspora to Ghana, West Afrika in hopes of reconnecting with their ancestors and reclaiming a lost heritage. The story takes place during the spring of ’09 in a small village full of painful history – Assin Manso. At this site, the group traverses time and space to revisit the flowing waters of the now infamous “slave river” where countless captured Afrikans took our last bath. In this moving piece, Adiama founder Kwadwo Gyasi Nkita-Mayala leads the group through a healing journey of ancestral reconnection. This version has been modified for online use.