Africa’s Great Civilizations on PBS


On PBS this week, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. narrates a phenomenal and important documentary entitled “Africa’s Great Civilizations.”  In each of the three episodes for this miniseries, he takes a new look at the history of Africa, from the birth of humankind to the dawn of the 20th century. This is a historical journey through 200,000 years of history, from the origins, on the African continent, of art, writing and civilization itself, through the millennia in which Africa and Africans shaped not only their own rich civilizations, but also the wider world.

From the Great Zimbabwe to the Swahili coast, from the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela to the pyramids of the Kush in Meroe, and from the ancient libraries of Timbuktu to the grandeur of the Kongo Kingdom, this incredible series shows the rich history of the African continent and the important role it played in world history.

Gates wants to change the way people outside Africa think about the continent. Too often people conjure up images of poverty and disease because few know of its great empires, its powerful leaders, its art and the trade routes that shaped the continent and beyond.

According to Gates:

The story of Africa has been systematically denied to us for two reasons. The first is slavery. The second is colonialism. Europeans had to invent an Africa as a place of emptiness and barrenness and backwardness in order to justify the enslavement of 12.5 million human beings who were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean between 1501 and roughly 1866.

And then, after slavery finally was abolished – the slave trade – European colonial powers looked at a big empty map of Africa and carved it up like you carve up a pizza pie. And they just passed out slices. They’d say, OK, Germany, you want Tanganyika – here. Senegal, this is for you, France. And what I wanted to do was to tell the story of the great African people and their civilizations.

Watch the series on PBS, or watch each episode online.  Check out the trailer for the series below:

The assassination of Olof Palme resurfaces

While most of the violence connected with the South African apartheid regime occurred within South Africa, the apartheid regime went to great lengths to maintain apartheid for decades outside their borders, as well.  This included not just military invasions and assassinations in neighboring states, including Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Angola, but also bombings and assassinations in Europe, as well.

One of the most high profile of these targeted assassinations was possibly that of Sweden’s Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986.


Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme (1969-1976, 1982-1986)

Palme is the only European head of state to have been assassinated since before World War II.

He was gunned down in Stockholm as he was walking with his wife on February 28, 1986.  He was shot twice in the back at close range.

Convicted murderer, petty thief and drug addict Christer Pettersson was initially convicted of Palme’s murder in 1988, but was later acquitted by an appeals court in 1989 due to insufficient evidence.

Despite eyewitness accounts and numerous leads over the last three decades, the identity of the killer remains a mystery.

Like the murder of US President John F. Kennedy, the killing of Palme has haunted Sweden ever since, and has attracted a legion of conspiracy theories.

Palme was outspoken on many issues, from speaking out against America’s involvement in Vietnam to supporting Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Organization.  He had befriended Fidel Castro, and dared to take a leading role in the fight against apartheid in South Africa.

Palme was not alone as Sweden had a long history of being at the forefront of the fight against apartheid in South Africa.

In the aftermath of World War II, Sweden fully supported colonial self-determination so much that journalist Per Wastberg referred to it at such a level that “anti-colonialism was embedded in the Swedish consciousness.”  They were not simply taking a stance of neutrality, but supported the forceful advocacy of decolonization.

Starting in the 1960s, Sweden was providing material support for liberation movements in Africa. This took the form of equipment, food, educational materials, and transportation. The Swedish organization that was formed to engineer this aid was the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), formed in 1962.

Freedom fighters were also welcomed in Sweden, making it a haven for leaders of liberation movements. While Britain and the United States were terrified to be seen with the “wrong” terrorist or guerrilla fighter, Sweden openly welcomed these leaders.  Oliver Tambo, the president of the ANC, went to Sweden for the first time in 1962, starting a long relationship between the ANC and Sweden.

For many years, according to De Wet Potgieter in his book Total Onslaught, Sweden was the biggest funder and most loyal supporter of the ANC’s liberation struggle. More than 50% of the ANC’s finances for the military, propaganda, diplomatic, and economic struggles against the South African regime in the 1980s came from Sweden.

Sweden had even started funding the International University Exchange Fund (IUEF).  Based out of Geneva, the IUEF was a Swedish initiative run from Stockholm.  The purpose was to provide scholarships to victims of apartheid from South Africa, as well as students who had fled oppressive, right-wing regimes in Latin America, to study in Europe.

Sweden had also been the first country to adopt strict and unyielding sanctions against South Africa, having starting imposing these unilaterally in the 1970s.

The so-called Swedish People’s Parliament Against Apartheid, a collection of Swedish popular organizations opposed to apartheid, had also been formed and was also one of the world’s most powerful anti-apartheid movements.

Olof Palme, as prime minister of Sweden from 1969-1976 and 1982-1986, was the leader of Sweden’s anti-apartheid fight. He was an outspoken critic of South African apartheid, and he was proud of the leading role his country took in support of the ANC against the apartheid regime.

As a result, Sweden and Palme were at the forefront of European and worldwide action against apartheid South Africa. As a result, Sweden was fast becoming one of the biggest problems in South Africa’s war against the ANC.

One week before his death, Palme had made a speech condemning apartheid at a meeting of the Swedish People’s Parliament Against Apartheid in Stockholm, which was attended by ANC leaders Oliver Tambo and Thabo Mbeki.  While many people spoke at the meeting, including Tambo, Palme’s address was the most scathing.


Oliver Tambo and Olof Palme in Stockholm in February 1986

In this speech, on February 21, 1986, Palme did not mince words in attacking apartheid.

According to Palme in his address, “Apartheid cannot be reformed; it can only be abolished.”


Palme also advocated for a global boycott of South Africa: “We are all responsible for apartheid. If the world wants to eradicate apartheid, it can do so tomorrow, by simply withdrawing support for the apartheid regime. …The system will survive as long as it receives external support. If that support is withdrawn and turned into resistance, apartheid cannot continue to exist. If the world decides to abolish apartheid, apartheid will disappear.”

These comments were infuriating to the South African government, and clearly it gave some cause for concern about the sort of international anti-apartheid movement that Palme was calling for.  According to De Wet Potgieter, “The South African government hated Palme… The economic and psychological toll that his anti-apartheid campaign took on South Africa was incalculable.”

In fact, as early as October 15, 1985, in a Military Intelligence secret report, concluded that Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was now an “enemy of the state” of South Africa. In this report, the most chilling section read: “Action proposed previously against Mr. Palme should now be given urgent attention.”

On February 28, 1986, Palme was assassinated.


Plaque placed in the sidewalk in Stockholm where Palme was assassinated in 1986

In the early days of the police investigation into the assassination, according to James Sanders in his book Apartheid’s Friends: The Rise and Fall of South Africa’s Secret Service, journalist Per Wastberg reported that the murder had been the handiwork of three South African agents.  Wastberg received the information from one of her South African sources, yet her information was ignored by the Swedish police.

More than ten years after Palme’s assassination, Eugene de Kock, testifying in a Pretoria court, declared that he had notified the South African Attorney General of numerous apartheid crimes, notably the assassination of Palme.

De Kock had been the commander of C10, a counter-insurgency police force based just outside Pretoria, on a remote farm known as Vlakplaas.  This government hit squad became the number one death squad for killing anti-apartheid activists, both in and outside of South Africa.

The government denied the existence of a group devoted to exterminating insurgents, but Vlakplaas’ purpose was to do just this. According to Max du Preez in Pale Native, “The list of murders, tortures, assaults, and kidnappings was long.”

In A Human Being Died That Night, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela points out that, “The covert operations program did not “officially” exist but was clearly necessary for apartheid to survive.” And the government saw it as that important that they pumped millions in secret funds into de Kock’s unit for years, according to Gobodo-Madikizela.

With the start of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), de Kock applied for amnesty and appeared before the commission for the first time in 1997. Before the TRC, de Kock confessed to crimes against humanity. He specifically confessed to more than 100 acts of murder, torture and fraud, taking full responsibility for the activities of his undercover unit.

One of these murders was that of Palme, which he said was one of Craig Williamson’s projects.  Williamson was a South African Police major and an infamous apartheid spy responsible for a wealth of state-sponsored overseas bombings, burglaries, kidnappings, assassinations during the 1980s. From 1977, Williamson was a regular visitor to Stockholm.  He has successfully infiltrated the IUEF, using it as a front to spy on the ANC and diverting funds away from its treasury back to the apartheid regime. However, there is no evidence that Williamson was in Sweden at the time of the assassination.

Williamson was investigated but never charged with the assassination.

Another possible apartheid link was Nigel Barnett, a South African military intelligence agent and a spy for apartheid South Africa.  Barnett interestingly had been adopted as a child by a family with Swedish antecedents, had visited Sweden on numerous occasions, and could speak Swedish.  Barnett also had videotapes of television coverage of Palme’s assassination and an airline ticket stub from Johannesburg to Stockholm from 1986.  When investigated by Mozambique authorities about the murder of Palme, Barnett even failed a polygraph test when asked if he had murdered Palme.  However, there is no evidence that Barnett was in Sweden at the time of the assassination.

Barnett was investigated but never charged with the assassination.

Another possible apartheid link was Roy Allen, who worked with the South African Military Intelligence in the 1980s. He worked as a spy in Europe and was in Stockholm on the night of the murder – February 28, 1986.  He was questioned by South African investigators in 1996 about the Palme assassination but was never charged.

In fact, no South Africans have ever been charged with the Palme assassination.

Sweden has now named a new chief prosecutor to lead the inquiry into the 1986 unsolved murder of the Palme.  Krister Petersson, Stockholm’s chief prosecutor, has been brought in to oversee the case, which will start in February.  Only time will tell if the mystery of this assassination will now finally be solved.

Sam Nzima’s Soweto Uprising picture one of TIME’s 100 photos of all time


TIME has put together their compilation of the 100 most influential photographs of all time and Sam Nzima’s infamous Soweto Uprising picture of Hector Pieterson is included in this list.

hector 2

Sam Nzima with his famous photo

According to TIME, suddenly the world could no longer ignore apartheid. The seeds of international opposition that would eventually topple the racist system had been planted by a photograph.

Check out the TIME website for more info on Nzima’s photo and a great video where Nzima describes the photo himself.

Remembering Fidel Castro’s impact in southern Africa


With the passing of Fidel Castro, a lot has been written about his influence in Latin America, but Castro also had a profound impact on southern Africa, as well.

In Cuba it seems there will forever be two histories of Fidel Castro.

One is the revolutionary who succeeded and became the guiding star for all who saw the world through the lens of Marxist Leninism.

The other is the brutal dictator who suppressed democracy and kept his country poor.

There is one place where Castro undoubtedly made a difference: southern Africa.

The main presence of Cuba on the African continent was in Angola, which became a Cold War battleground in the 1970s and ’80s.

“The collapse of the Portuguese dictatorship in April 1974 opened the first fissures in the dam that protected white rule,” Piero Gleijeses, professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University, states in his book, Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria & the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991, points out. The Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique became independent, and suddenly apartheid South Africa was nervous of these free black states in their neighborhood of southern Africa.


Almost immediately, the South African and US governments intervened to install a regime that was allied with the West as opposed to one that would be allied with the Soviet Union.  Pretoria and Washington worked together to crush the left-wing Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), and the Soviet Union and Cuba worked together to support the MPLA.  As Piero Gleijeses points out, “Southern Africa had been hurled into the vortex of the Cold War.”

The Russians sent about 1,000 advisers and money but no combat troops. East Germany also sent military assistance.

Castro, however, saw an opportunity to exert his brand of international solidarity and make a difference on a global scale.

Between November 1975 and April 1976, 36,000 Cuban soldiers, as well as military advisers, tanks, and fighter aircraft, poured into Angola in an effort to help a new nation maintain its independence from the West.

Castro in Angola with President Agostinho Neto

Fidel Castro in Angola with President Agostinho Neto (r. 1975-79)

Poster of President Agostinho Neto and Fidel Castro after Angolan independence celebration

Poster of President Agostinho Neto and Fidel Castro after Angolan independence celebration

By April 1976 the Cubans had pushed the South Africans out of Angola.  For the next fifteen years – until 1991 – tens of thousands of Cuban soldiers remained in Angola. Their number peaked at 55,000 in 1988.

The Cuban role in Angola is without precedent. No other Third World country has projected its military power beyond its immediate neighborhood. Brazil sent troops to the Dominican Republic in 1965; Argentina briefly intervened in Nicaragua in 1980-81; China’s military activities outside Asia were limited to the supply of weapons and the dispatch of a few hundred instructors to  Africa.

Africans, Americans, Cubans, and Soviets jostled in a confusing landscape. They fought over the future of Angola and the decolonization of Namibia, Africa’s last colony. Beyond lay the great prize: South Africa.

In Angola in the late 1970s and 1980s, the left-wing MPLA government faced two enemies bent on its destruction: the rebel leader Jonas Savimbi (leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA)), and the South African government. Pretoria was well aware of the MPLA’s commitment to help those who fought for the eradication of apartheid; therefore, the MPLA had to be destroyed. The South Africans bolstered Savimbi with economic and military aid.  But the South Africans did more than help Savimbi: they waged war on Angola for longer than a decade, sending their troops at will into the south of the country to defeat the MPLA.

South African President PW Botha visits Angolan Rebel leader Jonas Savimbi

South African President PW Botha visits UNITA’s Jonas Savimbi

Sandwiched between Angola and South Africa is Namibia. It had been a German colony before falling under a South  African mandate at the close of World War I. South Africa had subsequently ruled it its own province. In 1971 the International Court of Justice and the UN Security Council had decreed Pretoria’s occupation of the country illegal and ordered it to withdraw immediately. South African officials knew that if Namibia were ever truly independent, it would have “an extremely negative impact on every front” for the apartheid regime. It would encourage “black militant groups in South Africa . . . [and] lead to a decline in white morale.”

In the shadows was the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), the Namibian guerrilla movement that challenged Pretoria’s rule. SWAPO, a U.S. ambassador to South Africa wrote in 1977, “has, over the years, in the mind of the [Namibian] population come to symbolize independence, equal rights, and freedom from South Africa.” SWAPO, South African officials lamented, would win any free election; therefore, the UN-supervised elections that the international community demanded could never be allowed to happen.  South Africa would never give up Namibia unless they were militarily forced to.

The SWAPO guerrillas were based in Angola, where the MPLA government gave them what, a South African general wrote, “is virtually a prerequisite for a successful insurgent campaign, namely a border that provided safe refuge.” In Angola, the SWAPO guerrillas were trained by Cuban and Soviet instructors.

Like SWAPO, the African National Congress had its military camps in Angola where its fighters were also trained by Cuban instructors and armed by the Soviet Union.

Thus there was a complex and deadly interplay between Angola, Namibia, and South Africa. The MPLA helped SWAPO and the ANC, which fought against apartheid South Africa. The South Africans, in turn, wanted to topple the MPLA and hold on to Namibia.

The Cuban soldiers, armed by the Soviet Union, protected the MPLA government and thereby protected SWAPO and the ANC. Even the CIA acknowledged that the Cuban troops were “necessary to preserve Angolan independence.” Nevertheless, their presence there was intolerable to the US, which was seeing the world only through their Cold War-colored glasses.

It was through this lens that the US shamefully aided and supported the apartheid regime and its allies, while Cuba supported the anti-apartheid movement and its allies.

The first attacks were in 1983 and a full-scale battle took place in 1986 – the biggest battle in Africa since El Alamein in Egypt in 1942.

Cuba played a key role in deciding the fate of southern Africa. It was the Cubans who pushed the Soviets to help Angola. It was they who stood guard in Angola for years, thousands of miles from home, to prevent the South Africans from overthrowing the MPLA government.  It was they who in 1988, with the reinforcements Castro sent, forced South Africa to concede defeat at the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, and in doing so, forced the South African army out of Angola.


It was Cuba’s victory in Angola in 1988 that forced Pretoria to abandon Savimbi and UNITA and hold free elections in Namibia – which SWAPO subsequently won.  It was they who ultimately forced both PW Botha and FW de Klerk to the negotiating table and helped break the back of apartheid South Africa.


Cuba ultimately ended its combat mission in Angola in 1991 after the South African military was defeated and forced to withdraw from Angola and grant independence to nearby Namibia.

In the words of Piero Gleijeses, “Cuba changed the course of history in southern Africa.”

Cuba played such an important role in helping bring down apartheid and free South Africa that Nelson Mandela traveled to the island in 1991 to publicly thank Fidel Castro and the Cuban people for their help.  During his speech, Mandela said it was the Cubans who “destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor … [and] inspired the fighting masses of South Africa.”

mandela and castro - 1991

Mandela and Castro in Cuba in 1991

“The defeat of the apartheid army served as an inspiration to the struggling people of South Africa,” Mandela continued. “In Africa we are used to being victims of countries that want to take from us our territory or overthrow our sovereignty. In African history there is not another instance where another people has stood up for one of ours.”

According to Piero Gleijeses, “Cuba is the only country in the world that sent its soldiers to confront the army of apartheid and defeated the army of apartheid, the South African army, twice—in 1975-1976 and in 1988.”

Nelson Mandela clearly recognized this when he made Fidel Castro the guest of honor at his inauguration ceremony in 1994 upon being named South Africa’s first black president.

Thank you Cuba

Bloemfontein, South Africa — a banner thanking Cuba as part of the ANC Centenary in 2012

To learn more about the fascinating role that Castro and Cuba has played in southern Africa, check out the documentary, Cuba: An African Odyssey:

Cuba and Africa

The Eden Project: The latest attempt at creating a “White’s Only” enclave in South Africa

While it is certainly not new, it is nonetheless shocking that a fringe of the Afrikaner population in South Africa are still advocating for a “white’s only enclave” within the country.

This most recent movement, led by Jacqui Gradwell, vows to lead his people (the Afrikaners) away from oppression, much like the Voortrekkers of the 19th century. Afrikaner culture is under threat in the new South Africa, he reckons. White people face “genocide”. So Gradwell wants to lead like-minded whites—40,000 of them, he predicts—to a farm in a remote part of the Eastern Cape to live together in an agrarian idyll.


Jacqui Gradwell

This farm – a 5,700 acres site – is planned as a “whites-only” settlement dubbed “Project Eden.”  A total of 370 housing plots, two schools, an administration block and a rugby pitch have been pegged out in the first phase of development, which is yet to begin.

Gradwell claims that Afrikaners are the victims of “apartheid in reverse,” and therefore this planned project is perceived as an act of survival and freedom.  It was this same fear that drove the “white flight” out of South Africa in the aftermath of 1994 democratic elections.

I remember the statistics very well from my visit to the Voortrekker Monument’s Heritage Center in Pretoria. In their post-1994 section of the museum, where I thought I would see references to the election of Mandela and the birth of democracy. Instead, I was shocked to see exhibits on the “great poverty amongst whites” that had resulted from policies such as affirmative action.  The museum explained that life amongst Afrikaners was supposedly so bad with Mandela as president that one million whites (20% of the white population in the country) had left the country between 1995-2005.

According to the nationalist Afrikaners who stayed behind, Gradwell specifically cites “the murder of 88,000 white people” since the first free vote of 1994 as evidence of “a genocide against our people.”

Barry Kieser, 56, has been robbed at gunpoint 12 times in the last two years in what he believes is a “rising tide of hatred against whites” in South Africa.

Fearful for his safety, he is now planning a move to the controversial new community.

“Leaving our homes to be with our own people is the only way we can survive the growing tide of hatred against us,” Kieser says.

A return to the old way – when whites and non-white South Africans lived apart – “is the only way to preserve our culture,” Gradwell insists.

Gradwell is unapologetic that the qualification to be part of the Eden Project is based on race.

“They must be white because all the murders and all the violence in this country are perpetrated by black people,” the 55-year-old farmer says firmly.

“They must also be Christians and we intend to stick to that principle, we want to bring safety back to our own people,” Gradwell said.

“Seventy per cent of black South Africans live exclusively together in their own communities, in townships and so on. They don’t want white people to live among them. Why can’t we have the same thing?”

While Gradwell’s plan has generated many headlines, it has garnered little support. To date only 167 families have bought so-called “havens” in The Eden Project.

Disgruntled whites already have an enclave, but hardly anyone wants to live there either. Orania, an Afrikaner-only town in the Karoo desert, has been around since 1991. Despite impressive organization and towering ambitions (it has its own currency, the Ora, and a flag, which features a white boy rolling up his sleeves), it is home to just 1,100 people. Orania’s isolation has left it economically unattractive and politically irrelevant.

The chief executive of South Africa’s Institute for Race Relations said he had no issue with whites wanting to live apart.

“If people want to do their own thing and no one else is being harmed, then let them get on with it,” Frans Cronje said.

Cronje, however, says that “rank and file South Africans are actually pretty committed to making it work with each other.” A survey from the IRR found that 76% of South Africans thought race relations had improved or stayed the same since 1994, when apartheid ended. In another poll, 68% of respondents said that they expected a happy future for South Africans of all races.

Nonetheless, according to the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, more than half of South Africans barely interact with people of other races except when at work or while shopping.

The Tragic Story of “El Negro”


In the early 19th Century, it was fashionable for Europeans to collect wild animals from around the globe, bring them home and put them on display. One French dealer went further, bringing back the body of an adult African man.  Dutch writer Frank Westerman came across the exhibit in a Spanish museum 30 years ago, and was determined to trace the man’s history.

His name is not known, only his nickname: El Negro.

His fame comes from his posthumous travels – lasting 170 years – from Botswana to a museum exhibition in France and Spain. Generations of Europeans gaped at his half-naked body, which had been stuffed and mounted by a taxidermist. There he stood, nameless, exhibited like a trophy.

In the Darder Museum of Natural History in Banyoles, Spain, El Negro was prominently still on display in the 1980s.  In the museum, “El Negro” was displayed standing in a glass case in the middle of the carpet.


postcard of “El Negro” on display in a Spanish museum

As Westerman states, “This was not Madame Tussaud’s. I was not staring at an illusion of authenticity – this black man was neither a cast nor some kind of mummy. He was a human being, displayed like yet another wildlife specimen. History dictated that the taxidermist was a white European and his object a black African.”

The story begins with Jules Verreaux, a French dealer in “naturalia”, who in 1831 witnessed the burial of a Tswana man in present-day Botswana.  He returned at night to dig up the body and steal the skin, the skull and a few bones.

With the help of metal wire acting as a spine, wooden boards as shoulder blades, and stuffed with newspapers, Verreaux prepared and preserved the stolen body parts. Then he shipped him to Paris, along with a batch of stuffed animals in crates.

According to the French newspaper Le Constitutionnel, which was writing a review of “El Negro” on public display in France, the “individual of the Bechuana people” attracted more attention than the giraffes, hyenas or ostriches.

This disturbing scene is similar to that of Sarah Baartman.  Baartman was a young Khoisan woman cajoled into going to Europe in 1810 to publicly exhibit her body, which Europeans viewed as unique and exotic. Stage-named the “Hottentot Venus”, she was paraded around “freak shows” in London and Paris, with crowds invited to look at her large buttocks. She eventually came to the attention of scientists who wanted to study her.


Even after she died, her brain, skeleton and sexual organs remained on display in a Paris museum until 1974. Her remains weren’t repatriated and buried in South Africa until 2002.

Another similarity is what the Germans did with skulls of indigenous populations in their colonies in present-day Namibia.

In German concentration camps, female Herero and Nama prisoners were forced to boil the severed heads of their own people.  The skulls of the dead Herero and Nama were then placed in crates and shipped to museums, collections, and universities in Germany.

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This practice was started by Eugen Fischer, a prominent German anthropologist, who first went to Namibia in 1904 wanting evidence to show that racial degeneration was real.

German South West Africa became a field laboratory of German racial scientists in the early 1900s, led by Fischer.

As late as 2008, Freiburg University still had 12 skulls from Namibia, and the Medical History Museum of Berlin’s Charitie Hospital had 47 Namibian skulls.

In October 2008, the Namibian government formally requested the repatriation of all Namibian remains still held in German universities. These skulls, eventually sent back to Namibia, received a proper burial in the land of their birth, and finally, the chance to rest in peace and dignity.

For “El Negro,” more than a century after his original display he was still in a Spanish museum.

Everything began to shift in 1992 when there were increasing calls El Negro should be removed from the museum. The Olympic Games were coming to Barcelona that year and the lake of Banyoles was the venue for the rowing competitions. Surely, any athletes and spectators who visited the local museum would take offense at the sight of a stuffed black man.

These calls were supported by prominent figures such as the US pastor Jesse Jackson and basketball player Magic Johnson. Kofi Annan, then still Assistant Secretary-General of the UN, condemned the exhibit as “repulsive” and “barbarically insensitive”.

But due to heavy resistance among the Catalan people, who embraced El Negro as a “national” treasure, it was not until March 1997 that El Negro disappeared from public view and was put into storage. Three years later, in 2000, he began his final journey home.

Spain had agreed to repatriate the human remains to Botswana for a ceremonial reburial.

The remains of the Tswana man lay in state for a day in the capital Gaborone, where an estimated 10,000 people walked past to pay their last respects, before he was laid to rest.


The story of “El Negro,” as well as that of Sarah Baartman and countless others, are representatives of the darkest aspects of Europe’s colonial past.  They represented theories of “scientific racism” – the classification of people according to their supposed inferiority or superiority on the basis of skull measurements and other false assumptions

Today they are seen by many as the epitome of colonial exploitation and racism, of the ridicule and commodification of black people.

How big is Africa?

Maps are political and influence how we perceive the world, especially the map that was most widely used in schools throughout the 20th century.

In the 16th century, a Belgian cartographer developed a new map predominantly designed for sailors at the height of European exploration.  The map that Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594) created became the standard map projection for nautical purposes.  His 1569 world map became known as the Mercator map projection.


As someone who originally made globes, Mercator took a unique approach to converting a three-dimensional curved surface to a flat sheet of paper. Taking the equator as the logical map center left big, confusing gaps near the poles. Mercator’s solution was to stretch out the northern and southern extremities of the globe to fill those gaps, producing an elegant and usable map.

He drew longitude and latitude as straight lines (as opposed to curved lines) that cross at right angles.  This had the benefit of helping sailors to navigate the seas as it accurately depicted the shapes and directions of landmasses.

While a revolutionary tool for captains and explorers, the projection distorts the relative size of the continents, to the advantage of the West.

The repercussions of this are still being felt today.

On the Mercator map, Africa is left looking much smaller than it really is, and as a result, the interpretation is that it is less important and influential.

But Canada, Russia, the United States and Europe are greatly enlarged, and therefore more important and powerful.

That European and North American countries are enlarged is no accident. This system provided more space for Western cartographers to mark towns, cities, and roads in their part of the world, says Menno-Jan Kraak, president of the International Cartographic Association and professor of cartography at the University of Twente, Netherlands.

“If you would take a map projection with equal areas then there is almost no space on the map to display all [these details].”

There was, of course, much to map in Africa, too, but that mattered less to the cartographers up north, he adds.

One of the dangers of the Mercator map is that it can make enlarged countries seem unnaturally powerful and intimidating.

“The term ‘power of representation and representation of power’ sums up quite well how maps and the rise of the Western nation-state system — and with that, empire and colonialism — are linked,” says Marianne Franklin, professor of Global Media and Politics at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Not only was this map useful to 16th century sailors, but it also became the standard map projection of the world for centuries.

“Somehow this map projection came to be used on most world maps, especially those produced for classrooms since the beginning of the 1900s,” says Kraak. “Most of us have grown up with this world image.”

Mercator maps “continues (to prevail) despite many challenges to their fairness and accuracy because they underpin the ongoing Anglo-Euro-American presumption that the world belongs to them, and pivots around these geo-cultural axes,” Franklin says.

In reality, Africa is a massive continent, and the more area-accurate Peters Projection Map demonstrates this.


Area-accurate Peters Projection Map overlaid with the Mercator Projection Map

On the Mercator map, Africa is perceived to be the same size as Greenland. In truth, Greenland is no bigger than the Democratic Republic of Congo, and China, the United States, India, Mexico, and all of Western and Eastern Europe combined could all geographically fit inside the borders of Africa.

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Check out the difference between the size of Africa on a Mercator map compared with more area-accurate maps.

How we see regions on the map affects how we perceive them.  It is time that we start accurately displaying the true size of the continent of Africa.