The contradiction of being gay in South Africa

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Although homosexuality remains a taboo subject in many African societies, South Africa is a very liberal country in terms of gay rights. South Africa is the one African country where it is not only legal, but the gay community is thriving.

South Africa has the most permissive gay rights legislation in the whole world, and also hosts several successful Gay Pride marches, its first being in 1995.

South Africa’s constitution is one of the most advanced and progressive anywhere in the world.

In an effort to reverse the wrongs of apartheid, it ensures that human rights, gender equality and gay and lesbian rights are all properly protected.  The post-apartheid constitution includes a clause making discrimination based on sexual identity illegal.

In December 2005, South Africa’s high court said it was unconstitutional to deny gay people the right to marry, and instructed parliament to amend marriage laws to include same-sex unions.   As a result, in 2006, same-sex weddings were officially legalized in South Africa – the first country to do so in Africa.

On paper, South Africa’s approach to gay rights is admirable.

Yet the townships, where black Africans were forced to live under apartheid, remain largely conservative with deep-set notions of masculinity, tradition and religion and little understanding of what it means to be gay.

Lesbians not only face being thrown out by their own families, but even the police, meant to protect them, are said to laugh or to call their fellow officers to listen in when the women report hate crimes.

The first case of homophobic violence to gain national prominence in South Africa was the 2006 murder of Zoliswa Nkonyana, 19, who was clubbed, stoned and beaten to death by a mob of 20 young men.

This brought to public the battle against the South African phenomenon called “corrective rape.”  “The thinking is, all it takes is one good man to cure you of being a lesbian,” Sharon Cox from Triangle – a gay rights organization – says.

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Eudy Simelane

One of South Africa’s leading sportswomen, openly gay football star Eudy Simelane, was one of the first women to live openly as a lesbian in KwaThema township near Johannesburg. Simelane, a gay activist, was raped and killed in South Africa in 2008.

More than 30 lesbians have been reportedly raped and murdered in homophobic attacks in South Africa since 1998.

But according to Triangle – a gay rights organization – only two cases of “corrective rape” have ever made it to the courts; there has been only one conviction. Triangle says it deals with up to 10 new cases of corrective rape every week.

In 2009 in a township on the edge of Cape Town, Millicent Gaika, a 30-year-old openly gay woman, was beaten and raped for five hours. Gaika later told police that throughout the assault, her attacker repeatedly said, “You think you’re a man, but I’m going to show you you’re a woman.”

In April 2011, lesbian activist Noxolo Nogwaza, 24 years-old, was brutally stoned, stabbed and gang-raped in the same KwaThema township east of Johannesburg that Eudy Simelane was killed in three years earlier. Five year later, no one has been arrested for Noxolo’s murder.

Most recently, Motshidisi Pascalina, a 21-year-old lesbian from the township of Evaton, just south of Johannesburg, was brutally murdered in January 2016.  Almost 4 months after Pasca was murdered, no one has been arrested.

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Motshidisi Pascalina’s mom holding a picture of her after her murder in January 2016

Some say things are slowly opening up, yet the differences with nearby gay-friendly cities like Cape Town are stark.

“They are free. Nobody is telling them what to do. You can grab your girlfriend’s hand and kiss in public. So here in the township, you can’t do that — kiss in public. If you do that, you are at risk,” said Lindeka Stulo, 25, who spent a month in hospital with a broken leg after the first brutal beating, and has been beaten on three other occasions for being a lesbian.

A sign that times might be slowly changing for the LGBT community in South Africa came in 2014 when two openly gay politicians made history.

In May 2014, Zakhele Mbhele was elected as a Member of Parliament in South Africa, becoming the first openly gay black MP to be elected on the continent of Africa. Mbhele, 29, represents the Democratic Alliance, the country’s main opposition.  Mbhele is the third gay MP to serve in the South African government, following Ian Ollis and Mike Waters, but the first black gay MP in the country’s history.

At the time of his election, Mbhele was officially the 203rd openly gay member of parliament worldwide.  Coos Huijsen in the Netherlands was the first in 1976.

Mbhele said he was aware of this significance of his election and hopes his victory can inspire young LGBT South Africans.

Also in May 2014, South African president Jacob Zuma appointed the country’s first openly gay cabinet minister, Lynne Brown.  Brown, 52, is now the Minister of Public Enterprises in the cabinet.

Brown, who was previously the Premier of the Western Cape province, now holds the highest-profile role for a gay politician in Africa.

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Chris Hani’s killer set free

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Janusz Walus, who murdered Chris Hani in 1993, was granted parole in a South African courtroom last month.  Walus, 60, had served 23 years of a life sentence.  His release follows the 2015 release on parole of Clive Derby-Lewis, the former Conservative Party MP who ordered the murder of Hani.

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Janusz Walus and Clive Derby-Lewis

While the judge in Walus’ case coldly suggested that the Hani family should “move on” after their frustration with the decision, it brings back into the fold the man that Chris Hani was and what he did for South African freedom.  For many throughout South Africa, they will not be “moving on,” but will continue to remember Hani as one of the country’s greatest freedom fighters.

Hani had joined the South African Communist Party in the early 1960s and was among the first volunteers for the military wing of the African National Congress, Umkhonto we Sizwe.  In 1963, he chose to go into exile to train to be able to one day come back and fight to free his country of oppression.

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Umkhonto we Sizwe soldiers training in Angola

In August 1967, he was a commander in the infamous Wankie operation, one of a number of attempts made by Umkhonto we Sizwe and ZIPRA (Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army) to infiltrate trained cadres back into South Africa through Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe).  They wanted to establish routes back home to South Africa for MK fighters, and Hani’s inspiration for this came from Vietnam’s liberation struggle.  He was trying to create his own Ho Chi Minh Trail in southern Africa, and the battle that ensued was “one of the most courageous…in the history of the ANC,” according to Janet Smith and Beauregard Tromp in their book, Hani: A Life Too Short.

But his mission suffered from inadequate weapons, intelligence, maps, and men.  They eventually surrendered, but only after a number of early successes in battle.

For Hani, this combat experience had turned him into an admired leader with authority. It was, after all, the first time South African liberation forces had engaged the enemy in battle.  “The Wankie and Sipolilo campaigns were the largest-scale military conflicts that MK engaged in throughout its 30-year history,” according to Janet Cherry, author of Umkhonto we Sizwe.

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According to Smith and Tromp, Hani’s courage “gave hope to those fighting for liberation all across Africa, echoing throughout South Africa and inspiring a new generation.  The legend of Chris Hani was born.”

As Hani said, “although we didn’t succeed, I think we inspired the population.”

Hani was the head of a group of young cadres who was not content on sitting around and talking and waiting for change to come to South Africa.  In his eyes, the time had come for talk to be turned into action, and he grew frustrated by the ANC leadership for not having the same immediacy to their strategy.

Hani particularly targeted Thabo Mbeki, the son of ANC stalwart Govan Mbeki.  Hani and Mbeki were ideological opposites.  While Hani went to war in Wankie, Mbeki was studying abroad at the University of Sussex in England, funded by the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), the white liberal student organization.  While MK cadres had been killed in battle, some of the children of the ANC leadership were studying in Europe.  Hani and others believed they would enjoy the comforts abroad, and return home only once the battle was won.  For this, he detested them.

Hani wanted deeds, not words. He wanted to fight for liberation, not wait for it to passively come along.

It was Hani who led the fight at the Morogoro Conference in Tanzania in 1969 where the ANC agreed to reinvigorate itself, deciding with renewed vigor to infiltrate South Africa both militarily and politically.

It was Hani who was the hero of the youth generation who fled South Africa after the 1976 Soweto Uprising.  To them, he symbolized the courage and willingness to fight, and the whole reason they fled the country was to train and arm themselves to be able to return to fight for their country’s freedom.  Hani symbolized that fighting spirit to them.

But by 1990, events in South Africa had changed, and Hani returned to South Africa from exile.  Hani viewed the situation different from the ANC leadership, though.  He believed fervently in the armed struggle and felt it needed to continue as MK wanted a military victory over the apartheid regime.

However, with negotiations and the suspension of the armed struggle, Hani’s dreams of a military victory over apartheid had fallen to the wayside.

Politically, with Mandela free and assuming the mantle of the ANC, the role of deputy president was hotly contested between Thabo Mbeki and Hani.  According to Smith and Tromp, “In Mbeki, they saw a consummate diplomat who had led many of the negotiations with the apartheid state up until then, and been instrumental in rallying much of the world behind the cause of the ANC. … Hani was the voice for those who believed the Nationalist overtures at parleying were nothing more than a gambit and could not be trusted. When the time came, the ANC would be ready, gun in hand, to embark on a new era of warfare.”

In fact, Hani had such overwhelming support that a 1991 cable recently released by Wikileaks states that “Many observers believe that Hani would trounce Mbeki if there were a popular vote among ANC supporters.”

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Walter Sisulu put an end to the tensions by putting his name in the ring and agreeing to become deputy president under Mandela.

However, Janusz Walus and Conservative Party MP Clive Derby-Lewis were busy planning Hani’s assassination.

Hani had been targeted for years for assassination by the apartheid regime. According to Smith and Tromp, the task of eliminating Hani started in 1980 with the Security Branch.  From car bombs to army raids, Hani was the target of the apartheid regime but they were unsuccessful for years.

Walus and Derby-Lewis would ultimately be successful, though. They had hoped national grief would emanate out of the assassination of Hani, that this would extend into violence, that the violence would rupture into anarchy, and the anarchy in the apartheid regime maintaining its power in the country.

In April 1993, at the age of 51, Chris Hani was assassinated in the driveway of his home in Johannesburg by Walus.

When he killed Hani, Walus was 38 years old. An immigrant from Poland, he had made a life for himself in South Africa for over a decade at this point.  He was a fervent right-wing supporter who was willing to do whatever possible to prevent the supposed communist ANC from taking over.  Within days, Walus gave the police the name of his mentor and the man who arranged and planned the assassination, Clive Derby-Lewis.

At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in 1997, Walus and Derby-Lewis admitted their intent: to provoke a race war and derail a negotiation process that would inevitably lead to the end of white minority rule.

Both Derby-Lewis and Walus were sentenced to death in October 1993 for the assassination, but the ANC opposed the death penalty, so the sentences were commuted to life imprisonment.

Two amazing events happened in the immediate aftermath of Hani’s death that helped shape the nation over the next several years.  The police were able to so quickly track down Walus after the assassination due to Retha Harmse, who was passing by Hani’s house when the shooting occurred.  Harmse, an Afrikaner woman, took down the license plate number of Walus’ car and turned this information over to the police.  Her actions made her a hero that night when Nelson Mandela, in an effort to calms the anger of the country, addressed the nation on national television.  In an impassioned speech meant to contain the violent backlash, Mandela recognized Harmse’s courage as a symbol of the unity that people could look to for unity.

In Mandela’s speech that night, “Chris Hani is irreplaceable in the heart of our nation and people.”

In many ways, it was this speech that made Mandela the de facto leader of the nation, regardless of the fact that the elections were not for another year.

In an obituary for Hani, published in the Independent on Sunday, British journalist John Carlin wrote:  “If Mandela was the patriarch, the jailed Messiah, Hani was the man with whom activists identified on a more familiar level. He was the brother in arms, an idol among black youth, the symbol of armed resistance.”

Hani was Mandela’s likely future heir. With his wide support amongst the youth and his history of leading military campaigns and his leftist leanings, who knows what a Hani-led South Africa would have been like.

But it’s not clear whether Hani would have stayed in politics had he lived, and – if he had – whether he would have beaten Thabo Mbeki in a race to succeed Mandela to the presidency. Whatever his decision, Hani would undoubtedly have been an energetic part of the post-apartheid nation-building process that transformed South African institutions and implemented one of the world’s most progressive constitutions, all supported by an independent judiciary and a free press.

934634_784045As a committed communist, Hani would have welcomed the expansion of access to housing, electricity and water across the country, but he would have no doubt been critical of the free market economic model that the ANC adopted. Over 20 years since the election of Mandela to power, Hani would no doubt have had much to say about the fact that one in four South Africans is unemployed and over a million people still live in sub-standard housing.

Hani dedicated his entire adult life to the struggle for democracy and freedom in South Africa.  He stands among the pantheon of South African icons who brought freedom to the country and helped to end the brutal system of apartheid.  Hani stands tall amongst the likes of Mandela, Sisulu, Tambo, Sobukwe, Luthuli, Biko, and Tutu.  As Janet Smith and Beauregard Tromp state in their book, Hani: A Life Too Short, Hani was “one of the world’s great revolutionary heroes.”

Student protests not new in South Africa

Universities in South Africa resemble war zones these days, not institutions of higher education. North West University’s Mafikeng Campus were told to go home last week as the institution’s management opted to shut the campus down “indefinitely” in the wake of violent protests. And this follows the University of the Free State’s decision to close their campus for days after violent protests. This same situation is happening across the country, including the University of Pretoria, the University of the Witwatersrand, and the University of Cape Town.

President Jacob Zuma condemned the destruction of property on campuses: “No amount of anger should drive students to burn their own university and deny themselves and others education.”

Universities have been a focus for unrest for months over issues including rising tuition fees, allegations of racism and disputes over the use of the Afrikaans language. The issues may differ from one campus to the next, but there is an underlying theme: post-apartheid South Africa has not lived up to its promises.

If you are poor and black it is still extremely difficult to get a good education in this country, let alone dream of going to a tertiary institution.

Race remains the country’s fault line, and the protests and violence erupting around the country reflect, in many ways, a deep anger bubbling under the surface in many parts of civil society in South Africa.

But students in South Africa are not new to recognizing their power and using it to influence change. Student protests during apartheid were influential in bringing the National Party to the negotiating table and ending that racist, oppressive system.

Students and teachers boycotting school, from primary school up through university, was a constant form of protest during the apartheid era in South Africa. Students and teachers boycotted school for various reasons, including calling for more qualified teachers, access to textbooks, the ability to have Student Representative Councils (SRCs), the ability to decide the language of instruction, and especially for the repeal of the Bantu Education Act of 1953. Being able to boycott classes empowered students to take an active part in the anti-apartheid resistance and showed that just because you were young and in school, you could still be an activist and fight for change.

There had been isolated acts of boycotts by Africans at schools starting in the 1920s, but it spread as a more prominent form of protest in the 1940s. Gene Sharp, author of Waging Nonviolent Struggle, said, “Since the 1940s, school boycotts had become a regular tool of student protest by non-European South Africans against separate and unequal education, and against the racist apartheid system itself.” Between 1943-45 there were more than 20 student strikes in schools, primarily at the all-black institutions of Lovedale College, Healdtown School, and University of Fort Hare. A number of students were expelled from these institutions during this time as a result of student strikes, including Nelson Mandela. But student boycotts were utilized to an even greater extent following the passage of the Bantu Education Act of 1953, which enforced separation of races in all educational institutions and brought apartheid into the schools.

In December 1954, the ANC called for a total rejection of Bantu education, which was an apartheid law that enforced racial segregation and inequality in schools in South Africa. The ANC called for the immediate withdrawal of children from African primary schools as a protest. This student boycott, mainly in the Transvaal and the Eastern Cape, saw over 7,000 children withdrawn by their parents from government schools during 1955.

The community made sure that these young students were not just sitting at home and not receiving any education, however. Informal “cultural clubs” were started for boycotting children, run by teachers whose classes were out on boycott. These teachers worked with kids in playgrounds and any open space “with no school equipment of any sort, not even schoolbooks or slates, since any teaching would soon label the club as an illegal, unregistered school,” according to supporter and “cultural club” organizer Helen Joseph. These “cultural clubs,” according to Helen Joseph, created “action arithmetic games and counting songs, geography lessons, where we could ‘chat’ about the continents, for lack of atlases. We produced history stories, for which we rewrote the history of South Africa in our own version… Everything had to be some sort of a game or informal group activity.” In this sense, schools were being boycotted, but students were still receiving an education.

Although this was not able to get the Bantu Education Act repealed, it did empower students and showed that boycotting schools was a more active form of resistance.

The 1953 Bantu Education Act also laid the seeds of the 1976 Student Uprising in Soweto and around the country. The brutal realities of this act were in full effect in schools by the 1970s:

  • The government spent 30 times more on the education of a white student than a black student
  • In 1967, there was a 58 pupils/teacher ratio in Soweto
  • From 1962-1971 no new secondary schools were built in Soweto as the government said all new high schools would be built in the Homelands
  • In 1961, less than 10% of teachers in black schools had graduated high school
  • Only 33% of Grade 12 students graduated in 1968

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Then, in 1974, the government announced the compulsory use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction from Grade 7 onward in Math, Social Sciences, and Biology in the southern Transvaal, which included Soweto. Few teachers knew how to speak Afrikaans, and students regarded it as the language of the oppressor, and thus this regulation proved to be highly volatile. It was set to take effect in 1975.

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Abram Tiro

Student anger was aided by the rise of the Black Consciousness movement, the South African Student Organization (SASO), and the influence of Abram Tiro. Tiro was a SASO leader and student at Turfloop University in 1972 and was outspoken in his calls for educational reforms. He was subsequently expelled from the university, in response to which black campuses throughout the country rallied behind Tiro and the students from Turfloop, boycotting classes in 1972. Tiro went on to teach in Soweto right at the time when Afrikaans was being enforced as the language of instruction there, and he became a role model and icon of the young students.

On May 16, 1976, students at Phefeni Junior Secondary School in Soweto refused to proceed to their classrooms after the morning assembly, boycotting their classes. They demanded the principal explain why they were now expected to study in Afrikaans. Six other schools around Soweto soon joined in them on the boycott, and by early June, 2,700 students were boycotting classes. The South African Students Movement (SASM) organized a student march on June 16, organized by Tsietsi Mashinini, a local high school student. The march was in protest at the Afrikaans ruling and in support of the local students who had been boycotting classes for over five weeks. More than 15,000 students marched, carrying signs that read, “Down with Afrikaans” and “Bantu Education—to hell with it.” This march launched the Soweto Uprising, in which hundreds of students were shot and killed by the police, leading to student protests and school boycotts throughout the country. Afrikaans as a medium of instruction was eventually abandoned in black schools.

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Newspaper article on the Phefeni student boycott in Soweto in May 1976

The 1980s saw the second wave of black student revolt against apartheid, ushered in on the momentum from the student boycotts and protests of the 1970s. The 1980s student boycotts took place throughout the country.

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Matthew Goniwe

In 1983, when the government tried to transfer popular teacher and community organizer Matthew Goniwe out of the Cradock area, teachers and pupils throughout Cradock embarked on a 15-month school boycott — the longest in South Africa’s history. Over 7,000 students and teachers were involved, demanding not only that Goniwe not be transferred, but also to have Student Representative Councils (SRCs) in schools, better textbooks, and more qualified teachers. Goniwe refused to be transferred out of Cradock and was fired as a result, but the boycott continued, calling for his re-instatement.

School boycotts continued into 1984. In August 1984, on the day of the Tricameral Parliament elections, which was an attempt to add separate Indian and Coloured houses of Parliament to the all-white Parliament, boycotts of classes spread throughout the country, especially among the Coloured community. Over 800,000 students boycotted classes on this day to show their disapproval of the Tricameral Parliament, which they knew would not give them any more rights or representation in government. In November, “more than 400,000 students and an equal number of workers took part in a two-day general strike, temporarily shutting down both schools and industry throughout the Southern Transvaal region,” according to Gene Sharp. By the end of 1984, 220,000 students in various parts of the country were boycotting classes.

The next year — 1985 — saw more of the same. During the year, over 674,000 African students at over 900 primary schools boycotted classes. Over 230 secondary schools (out of a registered 323) were also part of boycotts during the year. It got to a point where education in the townships virtually ceased to exist as most of the students and teachers were boycotting classes.

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All of these student boycotts played an important role in showing the government that apartheid was not going to be accepted anymore, especially not in education. They played an important role in the anti-apartheid mass movement of bringing the country to a standstill in protest, which in turn played a significant role in bringing down apartheid.

To understand how and why students are turning to protests to right the wrongs that they see in education in the country, one only has to look back in the country’s history to see the power and influence that students have to effect change.

Democracy in Africa Explored

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There are a number of constant negative refrains that continue to be portrayed about the continent of Africa in terms of governance, and The Guardian recently brought the biggest myths to light and explored them:

  • Is democracy spreading across Africa?
  • Is Africa dominated by so-called “Big Men”?
  • Are elections the only indicator of a thriving democracy?
  • Does voter turnout correlate with corruption?
  • Does violence correlate with the passing of power?

With Robert Mugabe recently celebrating his 92nd birthday in lavish fashion, and with him still clearly in control of Zimbabwe after 28 years, there are ample questions that need to be asked about the state of democracy not just in Zimbabwe, but across the continent.  After all, Mugabe’s reign is not unique as nine leaders have wielded power for more than 20 years; three of them have been at the helm for more than 30 years.  Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has been in power since 1979, as has Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos.

In fact, just last month, Ugandans re-elected President Yoweri Museveni again, with him already having been in power of the country since 1986.

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A club of authoritarian leaders have maintained an iron grip on power in parts of Africa, either by amending laws to extend their terms of office, hosting rubber-stamp elections or repressing opposition and civil society. Of course, African countries are not alone in this – Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, led for more than three decades; Cambodia’s Hun Sen has also been in power for more than three decades; and in Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev has held office since before the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Even in Europe, Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko has been in power sine 1994and Russia’s Vladimir Putin has arguably been in power since 1999.

Africa does unfairly get stigmatized with authoritarianism, though, despite these other examples in other regions of the world.  The reality it, though, that there are just as many examples of peaceful and regular democratic elections and changes in power across the continent.  One of the most recognizable and important was Nelson Mandela who chose to step down as president of South Africa after just one term in 1999.  Mandela had the support and prestige to stay in power indefinitely, but he knew that he needed to set an example of democratic rule by allowing regular free and fair elections, and respecting the decision of the people.  This set a trend that remains in effect in South Africa.

Aside from the growing number of leaders passing power peacefully after elections, there have also been cases of public backlash against leaders who have tried to prolong their tenures.  In 2014, Blaise Compaoré’s bid to extend his 27-year presidency in Burkina Faso was thwarted by a popular uprising, while upheaval in Burundi was sparked by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid to prolong his term.

Nor is leadership the sole preserve of men. In 2006, Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became Africa’s first democratically elected female head of state. She was followed by Joyce Banda in Malawi and Ameenah Gurib-Fakim in Mauritius.

Several countries defy the narrative of a democratic deficit in Africa. In its 2016 Freedom in the World report, Freedom House named Nigeria, Liberia and Ivory Coast among the countries with the biggest improvements in political rights and civil liberties. Botswana, Ghana, Cape Verde and Benin have also been lauded as democratic examples.

This year, at least 16 African nations are holding presidential elections. Although elections do not automatically lead to representative governments, competitive, multi-party elections constitute a indispensable aspect of democracy, and regular ballots indicate progress towards ensuring citizens are able to choose their leaders.

As former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said, “Democracy is not just about one day every four or five years when elections are held, but a system of government that respects the separation of powers, fundamental freedoms like the freedom of thought, religion, expression, association and assembly and the rule of law … Any regime that rides roughshod on these principles loses its democratic legitimacy, regardless of whether it initially won an election.”

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Africa has most certainly become more democratic since independence.  According to Martin Meredith in The Fate of Africa, “in the first two decades of independence, there were some forty successful coups and countless attempted coups.”  This undemocratic trend continued for decades, and when Abdou Diouf of Senegal accepted defeat in an election in 2000, he was only the fourth African president to do so at that time in four decades.

But in the sixteen years since then, countless examples of democracy have clearly become apparent throughout the continent of Africa.  The continent is clearly trending more towards democracy, despite the existence of authoritarian leaders and corruption.

African Superheroes

Move over Superman and Wolverine. Meet Guardian Prime and Enzo Kori-Odan.

While superheroes in comic books and in video games have predominantly been white characters, two companies in Africa are attempting to change the perception of what a superhero looks like.

Nigeria’s Comic Republic

In response to the lack of black comic book stars, Comic Republic, a startup based in Lagos, Nigeria burst onto the scene in 2013, responding to what they saw as a lack of uniquely African superhero stories.

Founder Jide Martin says: “I thought about when I was young and what I used to make my decisions on: What would Superman do, what would Batman do? I thought, why not African superheroes?”

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Guardian Prime

Comic Republic’s flagship character, is Tunde Jaiye, otherwise known as Guardian Prime. He is described as a fashion designer by day, superhero fighting for a safer Nigeria by night.

Martin says of the character he created: “I saw that Nigeria was filled with so much negativity. This hero [was] designed to give us faith to see that our actions and words could indeed make a difference and throw a positive light on Nigeria to a global audience.”

Comic Republic’s list of characters also includes a number of female superheroes, too. Ireti, one of nine central characters, is described as a “mighty warrior with powers that surpass normal men.” There’s also Bidemi Ogunde, an archaeology student and gymnast at the University of Ibadan who has special powers.

Creative Director Toby Ezeogu said: “There is a lack of female heroes on the African scene in general. We wanted female characters that would become icons to the African girl growing up, to give them something to aspire to – that they too can be heroes.”

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Ireti

But why did the platform want to focus on women superheroes? “The question should be why not,” exclaims the company’s head of marketing and corporate communications, Eduvie Oyaide. “With Jade Waziri, you see a stern commander who studies the activities of the heroes and ensures they are kept in check, then you see Aje, a female witch who needs to learn how to control her powers and use them for good or evil, you see Avonome, created out of a desire to teach more about the Nigerian culture using African fantasy; there is Ireti also of African descent and Jazz, a new character who joins a group of young teenage university graduates (The Extremes) in the quest to fight crime.”

“There is a lack of female heroes in the African scene in general,” adds Ezeogu. “Girls don’t have heroines to look up to these days, rather they have celebrities of questionable character. What you end up with is a generic stereotype of the female gender. Girls are seen to others as delicate roses, and we say yes, females are roses, but roses have thorns and roses are tough not delicate. We wanted female characters that would become icons to the African girl growing up to give them something to aspire to that they too can be heroes and it’s not an all male field.”

Comic Republic set out to inspire a positive movement. “We believe in the power of stories,” says Oyaide. “Sometimes, people struggle with acceptance of who they are. With our stories, we want to reprogram the values and beliefs that drive behavior among individuals. We want to inspire people to believe they can be so much more than they think if only they believe, we want to drive them to believe they have the power to influence their future.”

So far they’ve produced six major titles and over thirteen editions, all of which are available to read for free online.

Their Vanguards series features all of their superheroes together in one comic, and has been likened by some fans to “Africa’s Avengers.” According to the company’s Creative Director Tobe Ezeogu, it’s a movement that doesn’t just include fighting bad guys and saving the day, but rather, shows how these likeminded individuals came together to fulfill their dreams for a “better safer Africa.”

Cameroon’s Kiro’o Games

As a recent CNN article stated about Enzo Kori-Odan, “Finally, a video game hero for Africa.”

Enzo is the creation of Cameroon’s Kiro’o Games. According to Madiba Olivier, the company’s founder, “I wanted to break what I call ‘the exotic world’ image of Africa.”

AurionHis African role-play fantasy game, Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan, is the first of its kind in Cameroon.

So far Africa’s rich and diverse cultures is seldom incorporated into computer games. Olivier’s creation is changing that.

Unlike most fantasy games, this one features an African hero, and creates an alternative world inspired by African folklore and mythology.

The hero of the game, Enzo Kori-Odan, is the ruler of Zama — a diverse country free of an imperialist past but now threatened by a coup. The story centers around Enzo and his wife Erine, and their fight to regain the throne. The hero’s power comes from the collective energy of his ancestors, a force known as the Aurion.

Enzo

Kiro’o Games currently is one of several video game studios gaining prominence in Africa.

These two ventures from Nigeria and Cameroon are challenging the narrative of what superheroes look like, and inspiring a generation of young Africans at the same time.

The Sarah Baartman story continues

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Sarah Baartman

The tragic story of Sarah Baartman is one of racism, sexism, and colonialism.

Rumors over the last several weeks surrounding Beyonce possibly writing and starring in a film about Baartman have brought the horrific story back into the attention of the world.  While Beyonce has denied being part of any future film about Baartman, it has nonetheless led to numerous stories about Baartman’s tragic life.

So who was Sarah Baartman?

Two centuries ago Sarah Baartman died after years spent in European “freak shows”.

Sarah Baartman died on 29 December 1815, but her exhibition continued.

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.

Baartman was a young Khoisan woman cajoled into going to Europe in 1810 with the prospect of making money by exhibiting her unusual body. 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.

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

Baartman’s life was one of tremendous hardship.  She was born in South Africa’s Eastern Cape in 1789, her mother died when she was two and her father, a cattle driver, died when she was an adolescent. She entered domestic service in Cape Town after a Dutch colonist murdered her partner.

In October 1810, although illiterate, Baartman allegedly signed a contract with English ship surgeon William Dunlop and mixed-race entrepreneur Hendrik Cesars, in whose household she worked, saying she would travel to England to take part in shows.

The reason was that Baartman, also known as Sara or Saartjie, had steatopygia, a genetic condition resulting in extremely protuberant buttocks due to a build-up of fat.

These made her a cause of fascination when she was exhibited at a venue in London’s Piccadilly Circus after her arrival.

Englishmen and women paid to see Sara’s half naked body displayed in a cage that was about a meter and half high. She became an attraction for people from various parts of Europe. She was objectified in the most literal sense, put on display in front of gaping crowds six days a week, doing suggestive “native” dancing and playing African instruments. She was allegedly exhibited over 200 times during her stay in London.

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Wealthy customers could pay for private demonstrations in their homes, with their guests allowed to touch her.

“Economically, sexually, and racially,” Rachel Holmes, author of The Hottentot Venus: The Life and Death of Saartjie Baartman, writes, “she was unfree.”

Baartman’s promoters nicknamed her the “Hottentot Venus”, with “hottentot” – now seen as derogatory – then being used in Dutch to describe the Khoikhoi and San, who together make up the peoples known as the Khoisan. Venus was the Roman god of love and beauty.

During her time with Dunlop and Hendrik Cesara, the campaign against slavery in Britain was in full swing and as a result, the treatment of Baartman was called into question. Her “employers” were brought to trial but faced no real consequences. They produced a document that had allegedly been signed by Sara Baartman and her own testimony which claimed that she was not being mistreated, which she was allegedly coerced into saying.

Baartman’s show gradually lost its novelty and popularity among audiences in London and she went on tour around Britain and Ireland.

In 1814 she moved to Paris with Cesars. She became a celebrity once more, drinking at the Cafe de Paris and attending society parties. Cesars returned to South Africa and Baartman came under the influence of an “animal exhibitor”, with the stage name Reaux. She drank and smoked heavily and, according to Holmes, was “probably prostituted” by him.

It was in Paris that Baartman was forced to be studied and painted by a group of scientists and artists.

This period was the beginning of the study of what became known as “racial science”, says Holmes.

Baartman died aged 26. The cause was described as “inflammatory and eruptive disease”. It’s since been suggested this was a result of pneumonia or syphilis.

The naturalist Georges Cuvier, who had danced with Baartman at one of Reaux’s parties, made a plaster cast of her body before dissecting it. He preserved her skeleton and pickled her brain and genitals, placing them in jars displayed at Paris’s Museum of Man. They were displayed as part of a cultural exhibition and they remained on public display until 1974.

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Cuvier, after he had dismembered her, wrote:

“The Negro race… is marked by black complexion, crisped of woolly hair, compressed cranium and a flat nose. The projection of the lower parts of the face, and the thick lips, evidently approximate it to the monkey tribe: the hordes of which it consists have always remained in the most complete state of barbarism…. These races with depressed and compressed skulls are condemned to a never-ending inferiority… Her moves had something that reminded one of the monkey and…the orangutan.

The white race, with oval face, straight hair and nose, to which the civilized people of Europe belong and which appear to us the most beautiful of all, is also superior to others by its genius, courage and activity.”

“The domination of Africans was explained with the aid of science, thereby establishing the Khoisan (‘the Hottentots’) as the most ignoble group in the progression of mankind, purported to mate with the orangutan,” wrote Natasha Gordon-Chipembere, editor of Representation and Black Womanhood: The legacy of Sarah Baartman.

Almost two centuries after her death, a Member of the Parliament of France, Jean Dufour, sided with the truth and said, “Enslaved, exploited, shown as an animal, (Sarah) was dissected by scientists who wanted first and foremost to confirm their theory of the superiority of a race over the others.”

After his election in 1994 as President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela requested the repatriation of Baartman’s remains and Cuvier’s plaster cast. The French government eventually agreed and this happened in March 2002. In August of that year, her remains were buried in Hankey, in Eastern Cape province, 192 years after Baartman had left for Europe.

At her burial in South Africa in 2002, President Thabo Mbeki said,

“The story of Sarah Bartmann is the story of the African people of our country in all their echelons. It is a story of the loss of our ancient freedom. It is a story of our dispossession of the land and the means that gave us and independent livelihood.

It is a story of our reduction to the status of objects that could be owned, used and disposed of by others, who claimed for themselves a manifest destiny ‘to run the empire of the globe.’

It is an account of how it came about that we ended up being defined as a people without a past, except a past of barbarism, who had no capacity to think, who had no culture, no value system to speak of, and nothing to contribute to human civilization – people with no names and no identity…”

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Sarah Baartman’s tragic story has been told in numerous books, documentaries, and films over the years. But whether or not Beyonce uses her fame to highlight the story of Baartman is inconsequential as this rumor alone has provided the public with yet another opportunity to understand just how cruelly and inhumane black Africans were treated by Europeans in the 18th and 19th century.