1. Nigeria 3.0


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    Lagos, from on high…

    For a variety of reasons, we have left Nigeria for next to last. Three years, thirteen African countries, plus supplementary trips through China and India, in search of the Africa Rising story - a narrative we dub “Africa 3.0”. Our reasoning is proved correct as soon as we hit the streets of Lagos, a city that’s remarkably astute in summing up every challenge, and opportunity, the continent currently faces.

    Take for instance the highway through Apapa, Lagos’s portlands, which is nothing if not a précis on the limits of the petro-state. Oil trucks are backed up on the verge for kilometres, their drivers dozing on makeshift hammocks beneath the tanks. Puddles of water from last night’s rain mix with rainbow swirls of crude - one errant cigarette butt would send a mushroom cloud into the stratosphere. In the shadow of five-storey-high oil reservoirs, our car stops in the parking lot of a gated market. Men bent under the weight of television sets trudge through the mud.

    We negotiate our way around them, gingerly stepping along gangways of rotting wood. Almost every stall - and there are hundreds - inhabits a beaten-up shipping container. Blenders, monitors, hard drives, slow cookers, rice cookers, hair curlers, hair straighteners, hair dryers - an emporium of secondhand “Made in China” household detritus. Oil and cheap electronics: the Sino-Africa story in microcosm.

    This is an excerpt from a piece published in the Sunday Times (SA) May 5, 2013. A PDF of the full story can be found here.

    Published: 07/05/2013

     


  2. Improbable Africa


    Elephants in the future

    Last week, at the behest of futurenauts Alexandra Daisy Ginsburg and Cher Potter, Africa 3.0 made a mini-splash at the Milan Design Week. Ginsburg and Potter asked us to write a scenario for their Afrofuture workshop, in which participants create the tools and weapons for a utopian/dystopian bio-diverse “tribe” that exists at some point in South Africa’s future. Called Improbable Africa, the project is an ongoing experiment that will culminate during next year’s Design Indaba in Cape Town. These ladies are thinking outside the spaceship, so to speak. Check out the site with pics here

    Published: 14/04/2013

     


  3. BRICS Banks on Talks


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    High flying discourse

    The South African city of Durban is awash in talk. The yammering is due to the fifth annual BRICS Conference - the loose cabal minted by a Goldman Sachs hack to describe the emerging economic might of Brazil, Russia, India, China and - coming late to the party and contributing 2.8 percent of the net GDP - South Africa.

    Most of the chatter concerns the potential BRICS Development Bank, or BDB, which will collect contributions of $10 billion from the participants. But, critics argue, South Africa is hardly undercapitalized, and the African continent itself boasts over 10 development banks as it is. The Chinese themselves have promised over $20 billion through various multilateral forums. So, what’s the big deal?

    BDB, or so the telling goes, represents a genuine corrective to the market fundamentalism of the International Monetary Fund and its cohorts. This is a “statist” development bank, that won’t demand what developing countries can’t possibly deliver. Perhaps. But for now, it’s all talk, garnished by a healthy dose of kibitzing.

    Published: 26/03/2013

     


  4. Hip Hop Heads Vote Zimbabwe


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    Shhh! Science being dropped

    Once again, the geniuses at Nomadic Wax have dropped a hip-hop mix tape that is more post-graduate course in international science than it is digital music product. Internationally Known Vol. 3, mixed by Dj Plain View, and hosted by the inimitable Dumi Right, features, according to the liner notes, over 40 artists from 30 countries, represented on 38 tracks. The standouts — no bias here — are the Zimbabweans. Were Africa 3.0 to have a constant background soundtrack, it would be Zim hip hop. Heard it and loved it during our research stint in the country, and it remains in constant rotation.

    Download the mix-tape (free) at Nomadic Wax.

    Published: 13/03/2013

     


  5. Henke Pistorius vs. the ANC: On the spin-doctoring of a fake controversy


    Running on empty…

    Want an idea on how dumb South African society has become? When Henke Pistorius and the ANC hit the mat, the only winner is Stupidity. 

    Anyway, so here’s what’s happened so far. (Please keep in mind that this is a précis.) A child is born. Shortly thereafter, he has part of his legs amputated. He grows up wanting to be a runner. (Kids!) Simultaneously, carbon fibre technology is developed to the point where aircraft and many of the expensive cars the boy will one day own are crafted from this miracle material. One day, someone straps carbon fibre blades to the boy, and it turns out he can run quite fast – not faster than some other runners with carbon fibre blades (See: Olympics, London), but quite fast nonetheless.

    It’s a tale of uplift and self-affirmation. If he can do it, we can do it, they can do it –everyone can do it! It’s a metaphor for South Africa’s regenerative capabilities. Our nation was born without legs, and we made our own and ran like hell. Take that, Oprah.

    Then, he shoots up his own bathroom when a white model happens to be hiding in it.

    Oy.

    Where I come into the story-where I make my debut in the ever shifting stream of this narrative-is with the press releases. See, your average journalist is inundated, completely slammed, veritably drowned, by press releases released by ex-journalism students making more money than actual journalists because at some point, they wisely ticked the PR box on an employment form. Here’s a sample-a sample!-of the press releases I received today.

    The Rammolutsi Crisis Committee wants me to cover a community march against poor service delivery, lack of sanitation, corruption and poor housing in Moqhaka Municipality. The Nu Metro movie chain sent me its upcoming release schedule. Something about Marikana I didn’t understand. Something from SAA that might have been an advert-I can’t tell the difference anymore.

    And this:

    Holding statement

    Pistorius family distances itself from Henke Pistorius’s comments in UK newspaper

    South Africa, Pretoria, March 4 2013

    Oscar Pistorius’s family is deeply concerned about the comments made by Oscar’s father, Henke Pistorius, to UK newspaper the Telegraph about the family using its weapons to defend themselves against crime in South Africa, and especially about his comments that the ANC government is not willing to protect white South Africans. “The Pistorius family own weapons purely for sport and hunting purposes,” said Arnold Pistorius, family spokesperson.

    Oscar and the rest of the Pistorius family distances itself from the comments. “Henke’s interview with the newspaper was unapproved by our media liaison team” Pistorius said. “The comments doesn’t represent the views of Oscar or the rest of the Pistorius family.”

    "We are acutely aware of the fact that we are only at the beginning of a long road to prove that what happened to Reeva Steenkamp was a terrible accident and that Oscar never intended to harm her, let alone cause her death.

    "As a family, and Oscar in particular, we will never be the same after the tragic events on 14 February this year. We are still in deep mourning, trying to come to terms with what happened. For this reason and out of respect for the Steenkamp family, the Pistorius family will not grant any media interviews at this time" Arnold Pistorius said.

    Issued by Vuma Reputation Management

    This is what it’s like to see the sausage of your daily news being made. Not pretty, is it?

    Now, the interesting thing about Vuma Reputation Management – and by “interesting”, I mean “disquieting”-is that it seems to specialise in pre-emptive “reputation management”. On paper, this sounds like a good thing. Before you do something stupid, there is an expensive company in your employ sending out thousands of emails explaining why you’re about to do it, and why it isn’t as stupid as it seems. Often, over the course of the Pistorius saga, Vuma has done its best to get ahead of the news cycle. Which, of course, is what it’s paid to do.

    Read the full article on Daily Maverick.

    Published: 03/12/2013

     


  6. Mist and Myths Shroud China’s Invisible City


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    This grub is set to blow!

    The ritual is simple, brutal. The chilli-clogged broth arrives in a large bowl and is placed on a heating coil at the centre of the table. Small plates of offal, vegetables, meat and wonton are assembled around it, like doomed warriors in a JRR Tolkien action sequence.

    When the broth starts bubbling and the array of peppers start leaping in anguished torment, it is time to drop in the brains, the bok choy, the lotus leaf and the pig intestines, wait for them to shrivel up and bob to the surface, and then place them in your mouth.

    If you have identified the above as the Chinese hot pot, you are only partly correct. This is Chongqing hot pot, or má là hu gu, a regional derivation that is justly infamous for how much punch every mouthful packs.

    “When I first came here, I could not eat,” Janet Wen, regional manager at our splendidly appointed Kempinski Hotel tells us. “I am from Fuzhou [a coastal province where the grub is more recognisably Chinatown] and the food here is simply too spicy. I was starving. I am still not used to it.”

    I understand Wen’s pain. Halfway through the meal, the table resembles a badly run triage ­theatre. The “má là” appended to the “hu gu” means “numb and spicy”, which refers to the signature ­Sichuan ­pepper, or prickly ash - blackened kernels of viciousness that are simultaneously analgesic and agony inducing. (Imagine a drug that is both upper and downer, with ­neither sensation cancelling the other out.) The mouth feels like a venue for ­thermonuclear war, but not in a bad way, if you can believe it.

    In almost all respects, má là hu gu is the perfect metaphor for the city that produced it.

    Chongqing is, at first glance, ­completely inaccessible - an insanely complicated system of interchanges that teeter on giant concrete stilts, rising high above the Yangtze, or what is allegedly the Yangtze, for visibility is rarely more than a few hundred metres in wintertime. The city is swallowed by a milky fog, which renders the hundreds of skyscrapers that blink out of the gloom as inchoate lumps. They only take shape when you stand at their doorsteps, should the fresh-off-the-donkey-cart cab driver know enough about the city to get you to your destination in anything approaching good time.

    Read the full story on Mail & Guardian.

    Published: 03/12/2013 

     


  7. The House That Bo Built: Taking Chongqing’s Pulse After the Fall


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    Build much?

    Almost a year after Bo Xilai, the Chinese princeling involved in the most significant political scandal in China since, well, the Gang of Four were kicked around, the city that personalised his particular brand of neo-leftism awaits a second coming. Chongqing is in a deep freeze; its awakening will offer many clues on the Xi Jinping decade.

    They call it the invisible city. For one thing, Chongqing spends much of the year hunched beneath a thick pillow of fragrant fog, its alleged skyscrapers obscured behind an admixture of moisture and pollution. For another, it’s a municipality of almost 32 million souls – roughly the population of Canada – that gets very little attention. It does not have the awe-tinged cachet of other monstrous metropoli, like Sao Paulo, or, Mexico DF. Even in China, Chongqing plays second fiddle to nearby Chengdu, which locals assure the visitor is “much, much more international”.

    But glance at a map of the Middle Kingdom, and note that Chongqing is in the middle of it. With its privileged position on the banks of the Yangtze, Chongqing has long functioned as a river port and a landing spot for the hundreds of river clans that made the region a rich and spirited nexus point. No surprise that Chongqing was, during the Sino-Japanese war, the Kuomintang’s provisional capital. It is also the youngest municipality to come directly under the management of the central government in Beijing – in 1997, it was formed in order to co-ordinate the resettlement of migrants from the Three Gorges area, and to jumpstart development of the western regions. In 2010, it became one of only five so-called “national central cities” to evolve since Deng Xiaoping began the process of decentralisation in 1979.

    So Chongqing, then, isn’t properly a city. It’s a power centre. The municipality sprawls over more than 77km², gulping in trading towns, counties, districts and swatches of rural land. The de facto city holds about seven or so million people, and it is a very busy place. But all the activity belies a significant sense of instability – nobody quite knows where the city is going. And it has everything to do with the fall of Bo Xilai, one of the biggest political scandals ever weathered by the Chinese Communist Party, the shockwaves of which have yet to cease battering the city.

    “My parents did not want me to come here,” one businesswoman told me. “They fear it is unstable. They want to know what will happen here.” One pervasive theory is that the CCP will punish Chongqing for the sins of its one-time leader. That seems highly unlikely. The government has too much riding on the success of this city– and yet the choices it has made hardly inspire confidence.

    Read the full article on Daily Maverick.

    Published: 12/03/2013

     


  8. Some Thoughts on North Africa


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    Praying for change in the north

    Reviewed in this article: A Season in Hell, By Robert R. Fowler

    Eleven days before Christmas 2008, a Canadian diplomat named Robert Fowler, along with his driver Soumana Moukaila and his assistant Louis Guay, were abducted on a road in Niger by some very unfriendly men. Al Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are not a tour group, and yet they showed Fowler and his companions the Sahara in a way that only a few people ever get to see, and even fewer live through. Fowler was at the time United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-moon’s Special Envoy to Niger, tasked with negotiating a solution to a conflict in the nearby Agadez region. He emerged from this ordeal four months later, emaciated, but otherwise physically unharmed.

    You will be unsurprised to learn that Fowler has written an account of that time, called A Season in Hell: My 130 Days in the Sahara with Al Qaeda, the third such “I Was Kidnapped By [insert terrorist group] In [insert ungovernable hellhole]” memoir to be released in Canada this year. (And you were wondering why the publishing industry is in trouble?) A Season in Hell is the best of the bunch. Fowler’s book, added to Mellissa Fung’s Under an Afghan Sky and James Loney’s Captivity: 118 Days in Iraq and the Struggle for a World Without War, deliver a portrait of Canada’s decade at war with fundamentalist Islam in pointillist detail, which leaves us to conclude the following:

    We had no freaking idea who we were fighting, nor the moral sophistication to understand why we were doing so.

    Robert Fowler, despite many years of public service, is not a species of Canadian saint à la Roméo Dallaire - to his enormous credit, and despite a blurb from the beatified Stephen Lewis, he doesn’t appear to be gunning for canonization. Under his reign (that’s the only word for it) as deputy minister of National Defence in the ’90s, his purview was run more like a feeding trough than an army. He survived corruption allegations, only to thoroughly trash the Liberal Party in 2010 - it had given up, alleged Fowler, on long-standing Canadian foreign policy objectives in order grasp at the dissolving strands of power. As far as Fowler is concerned, successive Canadian governments have undermined our values in order to toady up to Israel, and thus secure the Jewish vote. (What Fowler is missing is Stephen Harper’s deep, genuine commitment to the Jewish state, for reasons that have as much to do with his religious beliefs as they do with winning a riding or two in Toronto.) He is a stalwart believer in foreign aid - the very same foreign aid so convincingly rubbished by commentators such as Dambisa Moyo - and an acolyte of the United Nations, despite its lousy record in Africa, and beyond.

    Read the full review in the National Post.

    Published: 22/01/2013

     


  9. Lance Armstrong Meets Africa 3.0


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    This way, ignominy

    Shortly after Oprah Winfrey Tweeted the following inanity from her diamond encrusted iPhone - Just wrapped with @lancearmstrong More than 2 1/2 hours. He came READY! - I took a subway ride across the length of Beijing, from Sanlitun to Haidian District. I emerged into the brumal morning with the Tweet clanging in my head.

    He came READY! insisted Oprah. Nothing better brings home the theatrical aspect of the weepy televised confessional more than those five capital letters, followed by that exclamation point. After all, Lance Armstrong always came ready. He came ready to races as a young triathlete; he came ready to chemotherapy as a young cancer patient; he came ready to his eighth Tour de France as a doped up cheat. If he were not so perennially ready, he’d be gracefully retired and successfully reinvented as an ESPN commentator, or the governor of Texas, or both. Instead: the inevitable Oprah interview, and an American life that is beginning to defy all reasonable narrative precedent - a Haratio Alger Jnr. who came from nothing and became Sauron on a bicycle.

    Anyway, Beijing. I found the man I was looking for inside a coffee shop adjacent the Su Zhou Jie station, hiding in a booth near an emergency exit. Jia Ping is a human rights lawyer in a country that isn’t particularly supportive of his vocation. And while he is an expert in health law, Jia’s think tank advocates for greater transparency in all governmental affairs. In terms of his personal welfare, he walks a very fine line. He is a star at Davos, but he’s bupkes in the corridors of power in Beijing. He buries his outrage by drafting a body of work he hopes one day, in a progressive China, will amount to some sort of a legal framework.

    I meet men like Jia Ping all the time, mostly because my professional life plays out in the swamp of developing world corruption. “The Latin word corruptus,” intoned an architect I interviewed some years ago in Namibia, “from the root ruptus. Rupture, break down, rot. Corruptus - promoting the conditions for the rotting of.” Like Jia Ping, the architect was battling a disease at the core of his society, sickening as it does every single aspect of public and private life. The book I am currently co-authoring is ostensibly a work of investigative reportage on Africa’s massive growth spurt, powered in no small part by the involvement of the Chinese. But there are times when I think of it as a tragedy detailing the effects of corruption on men like Jia Ping, and the downtrodden folk they fight for.

    “In India,” Jia told me, after we had settled, “when I go through customs, I must pay some little thing, some small money. That is the corruption in India - always, you have to pay some small thing to some small person. In China, I don’t think that as a foreigner, you will ever have to do this. [Jia is only partly correct - as a white foreigner, I’m fine. But I know that airport agents routinely fleece black Africans at Guangzhou airport, and in other Chinese trading centres.] In China,” Jia continued, “the corruption is systemic. By which I mean that it is cooked into the system. It is how life is lived here. People with connections get everything, and people with no connections - who don’t work for or with the government - give everything. That is how power works, how it is concentrated, manipulated.”

    By this point, you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with Lance Armstrong and Oprah Winfrey. Quite a lot, actually. Because as a cyclist who has spent the better part of my adult years racing and thinking about bicycles, and as a writer who has spent the better part of my professional life in the developing world, I have found that cycling serves as a metaphor for just about everything, but especially for how easily an organizational system can rot from the inside. Or, conversely, how difficult it is to stem the rot.

    Read the full article on Hazlitt

    Published: 21/01/2013

     


  10. Choke On It: China’s deadly pollution problem


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    Place over head at all times

    What does it feel like to live in a country growing roughly 10% year on year? Right now, the Chinese would say that it doesn’t feel so hot. For those of us in the Middle Kingdom, hunched beneath the grey of an unending pollution cloud, the price of development feels very high indeed.

    When in doubt, a schoolteacher once told me, turn to Dickens. And so, under a cloud of smog so enormous and persistent that it threatens to obliterate the memory of sunshine, I dig through Great Expectations: “The shameful place,” said Pip, describing Smithfield, Victorian London’s meat market, “being all asmear with fat and blood and foam, seemed to stick to me.”

    It’s the “foam” in that quote that has clung to my memory after all these years. What, one wonders, could possibly be foaming in industrial age abattoir? Do we really want to know? So it goes in 21st Century China, the country that acts as the planet’s bottomless credit card – massive annual GDP growth nursing the developed world through a bunch of self-inflicted credit crises. What exactly lurks in the air that makes it lethal to unborn children and the aged, and every living creature in between? 

    Just about everything, is the short answer. At the beginning of last year, no doubt in an effort to start softening up the population for a raft of necessary but costly anti-pollution measures, Beijing began publishing the density levels of PM 2.5 – particles of 2.5 microns or smaller that can damage the lungs. Safe daily levels are about 25 micrograms per cubic metre. Currently in Beijing, the PM 2.5 density is at around 900. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

    Indeed, one of the jokes doing the rounds is that it’s now healthier to suck back a box of Marlboro’s than it is to go for a jog. (Not that you’d want to in -6°C.) A cold front is moving in, and by late Tuesday things were expected to clear up somewhat. But it is now more obvious than ever that the capital and the environs are suffering from a pollution problem that can effect the economic, and therefore the social, stability of the country. 

    Read the full article on Daily Maverick.

    Published: 16/01/2013