Saturday, 24 June 2017

Showcasing Notes From a Funeral

Notes From a Funeral is a book-in-progress. I'm not sure exactly how it will work out, but it consists primarily of snatches of dreams, snippets of overheard conversations, stolen chats from emails and the internet, and a few brief musings and observation of my own. The title came to me as it seems remarkable to me how many of our conversations seem to naturally have this dark undercurrent, an interstitial subtext about death. It's all very raw and as-it-occurs, so not sure if it will wind up being in this format or be reworked somehow. Anyway, I'm adding a photograph to illustrate the first paragraph of the midstream extract below...


The water moved about, among and between us
Like a cool lick of autumn between our chilled thighs
Your teeth chattered yut-yut-yut-yut
And I mimicked your shiver, our skin goosefleshed 
As you threw your arms around my neck
Your lips purple in the night air, your eyes luminescent like Kali’s
Your black coiled hair like barely-constrained baby snakes
Your bikini midnight blue, but paler, moonlike, underwater
We were breaking the rules: no brown girls in this pool
But our nighttime love breathed and slipped all bonds
Now tonight, I walk the cool slate of my flat, barefoot
A quarter of a century later
Worrying like a forlorn, half-mad desert spirit
Why you never inscribed a book to me.


So this was when I was working in Nigeria. This colleague of mine was telling me about juju and I didn’t believe him so he arranged that I attend this ceremony. He said, ‘There will be a part of the ceremony you can watch and a part that as a white man you can’t be allowed to witness.” I said “OK,” so we went this one night and he introduced me to this ancient woman, I think she was about a hundred, and she was so old she was just one big wrinkle. She didn’t speak any English but she talked to me then drank this kind of liquid, I’m not sure what it was. Then she began to do this dance and at some stage, I shit you not, right before my eyes, she changed into a goat. Now, I am an atheist and I can’t say I believe in this one way or another, but I saw what I saw.


“Can I speak to Salim please?” the lawyer says into his cellphone as Centurion blurs by the Gautrain’s windows. “OK, what are the other lawyers’ names? It must be Hanif then; is he in? OK, then please tell him to contact me regarding the Loren Louw case… El-oh-ahr-ee-en, El-oh-yew-doubleyew. We’re taking his farm from him as he owes us a lot of money.” The lawyer is dressed in dark blue jeans, a checked shirt, brand new rubber-soled brown leather boots. He has been on a continuous stream of calls, mostly in Afrikaans, asking people on the other end of the line whether they are in Croatia or not, and about other matters. This one about the farmer’s dispossession, presumably on behalf of a bank or other creditors, relayed in English, piques my interest. In sitting down, he has allowed his beige coat to fall open, revealing the black handle of a chrome-plated pistol tucked into his waistband. It goes without saying that passengers are not allowed to carry firearms on the train. Reminds me of the Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd, a protest song about an interwar Oklahoma bank-robber with a reputation as a bit of a Robin Hood for redistributing stolen cash to the poor: “As through this world you travel / you'll meet all kinds of men / Some will rob you with a six-gun / some with a fountain pen / And as through your life you travel / as through your life you roam / you won't ever see an outlaw / drive a family from their home.”


Pirate Bill 2 years ago (edited)
Well, it was February 1971 and I was one of the last draftees. I decide to go see the Capitol in Washington, DC before reporting to basic at Fort Knox. I stuck my thumb out in Toledo and before long I was somewhere in Pennsylvania where I ran into this kid who was thumbing around, too. I guess he was about 16 and I was just 18 but you know I was old enough to tote so that made me the elder expert in matters of life and love and all other "etceteras". I don't know the kids name. I suppose I did for a while but, now, all I remember is that he was running away from home because he said his dad was in the CIA and was an intolerable nutcase. We determined that we might find a place to sleep at the University of Pittsburgh and headed there, directly, to try and find a place to crash. From the student union some straight types directed us to a crash pad and on the way this guy with long hair and a beard, driving in an old green station wagon, picks us up and takes us to the address which turns out to be a vacant lot. So the guy with the long hair and the family wagon says, “Hell, you can crash at my pad," which we agreed was a good idea. Turns out the hippie guy (whose name has also long been forgotten) was an artist and had a lot of very cool things in his house, among which was his own grave-marker, fully memorializing his life in everlasting stone, sitting right there in the living room in front of the fireplace. Being a hospitable sort of guy, the hippie fella brings out a grocery bag full of pot and we all proceeded to get stoned and for the very first time I listened to “The Dance of Death and other Plantation Favorites” by John Fahey. I have been a fan ever since.

Billl Ruxton 1 year ago
Don't fall into the trap of overly analyzing His playing, because you'll just get existentially frustrated. LISTEN and enjoy what His genius has given us. Yes, you semi-intermediate fingerpickers can sort-of approximate what he's doing, but you'll never do it as clean as John, because GOD touched Him and only Him in Takoma Park Maryland, right at the edge of the tectonic plate between the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain, where the universe bends dimensions, and Man can only kneel and let one's fingers try to fret the Quantum fingerboard of several dimensions at one time.

Patrick McCluskey 10 months ago
Whoever posted below that John is fine and well living outside Salem, you are a liar. I knew John the last 8 years of his life and played in a band with his manager at the time (Terry Robb) and had many, many interactions with him during that time including jamming with him a few times. He was a beautiful guy with a troubled past. I was given his Martin D1976 (very rare bicentennial guitar from Martin) for YEARS. In fact, I probably wouldn't have had to give it back to him had I not reminded Terry (multiple times) that he gave it to me for safekeeping. I have lots of memorabilia, though. He was an amazing and interesting guy, but he did have his demons. He died living in a fairly dire house, middle of a cold winter with no heat (in Eugene, Oregon) with a half dozen other indigent people (who din't die from exposure), suffering from an obvious emotional problem, after he'd been robbed of everything he had from his ex-wife, Susan. That's what I saw, first hand.


The bicoloured stray dog dances sideways on the beach, its paws a delicate counterpoint timpani to the febrile scuttling of the tiny crab it faces. The moment is pretty, tricky, as the dog matches the crab’s transverse scramble wits its own Lipizzaner gait, catches it in its mouth and bites… death nests coiled in the petals of beauty.


My grandma was the best man I’ve ever met – and I’ll explain what I mean by that. She used to be a regular housewife and just do the cooking and cleaning. She lived on a farm outside of Glasgow and her husband never came back from the war. So within five months she had learned how to raise the entire engine out of the Land Rover, strip it down and how to clean the valves by hand and so forth.



Showcasing Isandlwana - a Love Story

Isandlwana - a Love Story is a multimedia project of mine that includes a written meditation on love and loss, interspersed with paintings (all mine) or photographs (mostly mine) that I have manipulated, plus songs I have written. The blurb for the project reads: 

Michael Schmidt is an awful poet, so this work is a non-poetic stream-of-consciousness journey into his personal experiences of love, hate, loss, and redemption, interspersed with songs he has penned and images he has either painted, photographed or manipulated. It is a forensic meditation into what in Xhosa is called inxeba lenlitziyo, the wound of the heart. He is no Stendhal, no Miller, and no Nin; in fact he’s not sure what he is, being robbed of union at the very moment of illumination. Here, past loves and lusts are blurred together into a singular longing, yet also disentangled for their unique flavours and scents. Here, in a grand circuit from Lisbon to Lyon, Seville to Shobashobane, Faro to Fuentes Georginas, Berlin to Bloemfontein, and Paris to Port Elizabeth, pain and death rotate in satellite of the ephemeral and treacherously delicate uncertainties of sex and love. Here too, faith and apostasy, truth and travesty collide in the integral joy/saudade of the human condition, and his lens zooms from intimate recognition to the obfuscation of incomprehending distance. 

Below is the introduction to the work - kindly edited by former ANC exile Richard Jurgens - in which I have included three versions of an image: my original photograph, my 1999 painting of the photograph, and my 2016 photo-manipulation of the painting. The final product will only include the last image though...


Write what you know, they say, so I’ll write about the dead-veined leaves of days blown into the furnace. Yet how some sparks emerge, unconsumed, undying pinpricks in the Leviathan night. How does one rewind the autumnal DNA to the time when sap surged, not without fear but without respite? The conflagration is passed, after all – and bell-jar butterflies soon asphyxiate, shudder and fall, sighing like Edwardian silk settling in a coffin. I guess the only way is to spiral up with the sparks, those few whose iridescent, irreducible cores are crowned with titanium, and which glower like the eyes of Bengal tigers in the forests of malarial dreams, dead stars burning.



Elvis’ stillborn brother
in his cardboard box he sings
of their souls’ might
two hundred sev’ty nights
when they both were kings

Elvis’ darkling brother
in his old shoebox he croons
of the gods they’d be
his brother and he
before they broke the strings

Never wanted to be famous
never wanted to be born
only wanted to be linked
undivided in dark embrace

Elvis’ changeling brother
with his third eye he spies
a Dravidian maid
his heartstrings she plays
until he all but cries

Never wanted segregation
never wanted to be scorned
only wanted to be twinned
whisp’ring like hummingbirds

Elvis’ monstrous brother
in the lonesome night he howls
for his sweet monster-girl
like a Bedouin bereft
pain shrouded in a cowl

Never wanted to be ground
winnowing of his seed
only wanted to be binary
their harmonics on the wind

Elvis’ lovelorn brother
head a nest of wasps he sings
of their souls’ might
two hundred sev’ty nights
when they both were kings


Friday, 2 June 2017

Radovan Karadžić’s Eyes

Picture courtesy Weights & Measures. All other photographs (c) Michael Schmidt

Radovan Karadžić’s eyes are penetrating as they stare out of the canvas, his overlarge pupils swallowing the light, defying the viewer, challenging our humanity. But in a negative of the image, painted by artist Bradley McCallum, the pupils of the man convicted of the Srebrenica Genocide are a vacant bone white.
McCallum documented the International Criminal Court (ICC), and he is in South Africa with his exhibition of paintings of those accused by the court. It is timely given the recent reversal of two African countries’ positions on their relationship to the controversial court: in February, The Gambia reversed its decision to withdraw from the ICC, while South Africa’s High Court declared our notice of withdrawal to be unconstitutional.  
The notices of withdrawal issued in October by Burundi, then South Africa, then The Gambia – with Kenya, Uganda, Namibia, and now Zambia threatening to follow suit – sparked fears that the primary international instrument of holding perpetrators of genocide, war crimes and gross human rights violations to account was unraveling on the very continent that, convinced by President Nelson Mandela, had driven its creation in 1998.
On 7 April, South Africa battled to explain to the ICC in The Hague its refusal to arrest Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir in 2015 for genocide – and now faces possible censure by the UN Security Council for failing to uphold international human rights law. The Institute for Security Studies’ Allan Ngari wrote that the “ICC now has an opportunity to pronounce itself with finality” on the immunity enjoyed by heads of state.
In exploring the balance between humanity and inhumanity in photorealist colour-and-negative diptych in his Weights & Measures exhibition, McCallum has expanded beyond the ICC trials to look at similar processes such as the international criminal tribunals on ex-Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia, and Sierra Leone.
He has painted former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who in 2013 was the first African head of state convicted of war crimes, committed during Sierra Leone’s civil war, as well as portraits of accused found not guilty, supplemented by photographs of prosecutors, judges, and anti-impunity campaigners – plus an evolving suite of sound recordings of victims’ testimony.
At a teaser launch of the exhibition at the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Center, McCallum screened a special message from Ben Ferencz, the last surviving Nuremburg prosecutor of the SS Einsatzgruppen death-squads.
“Weights & Measures has recognised the value of portraits to teach people a lesson,” Ferencz said. “You ask yourself, ‘was this person a mass-murderer?’ You will come to the conclusion that I have, that war makes murderers out of otherwise innocent and decent people.”
The ICC has come in for criticism by legal professionals such as Professor Alexander Mezyaev of Russia, a former defence counsel before the ex-Yugoslavia Criminal Tribunal, who has argued that the ICC acts “as a ‘legal’ tool for regime change, giving legitimacy to the removal of disobedient heads of state,” and aims at creating “a new body of international law which will reflect only the interests of the Western powers.”
A similar sentiment motivated the Zuma government to exit the ICC – yet McCallum stressed at the launch that the charges brought against African leaders before the ICC “were brought by African victims.” McCallum said his work was about more than guilt or innocence, but was rather intended “to open windows to discussions you otherwise might not have” about restorative justice and the fight against impunity.
After viewing the exhibition, Zimbabwean Arnold Tsunga, Africa director of the International Commission of Jurists, condemned the “African phenomenon” of the abuse of positions of sovereign power and even of the democratic process and its institutions to secure impunity for crimes against the people. He cited the cases of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto who he said had abused their posts by playing victim and interfering with the ICC investigation into crimes against humanity charges they faced for the 2007-2008 post-election violence.
In response, one of South Africa’s leading transitional justice experts, Yasmin Sooka, said that opposition to the ICC stemmed from the fact that it was the only court in the world that did not afford incumbent heads of state immunity from prosecution, but she asked pointedly: “Do we identify only with African leaders – or do we support their victims?”

Former Ansar Dine militiaman Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, sentenced by the ICC to 9 years for the war crime of destroying cultural heritage in Timbuktu.

Former DRC Vice-President Jean-Pierre Bemba, sentenced by the ICC to 19 years for war crimes and crimes against humanity and fined 300,000 Euro for witness tampering.

 Photographic portraits of judges at the ICC in The Hague.

Nuon Chea, former Khmer Rouge Brother No.2, found guilty of crimes against humanity by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia and still standing trial for genocide.

 Former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladić, left, and other accused in various tribunals, at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre.

Radovan Karadžić, jailed for 40 years by the ICC for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.


Sunday, 21 May 2017

Meditations on a Pharaonic Slave System

Meditations on a Pharaonic Slave System. A review of Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Vintage, UK, 2013)

I don’t usually read Man Booker Prize winners – probably from an aversion to worthiness – but I picked this novel up in an airport because of the centrality to its plot of the savagery of the Burma Railroad built in appalling conditions during World War II by 60,000 Allied prisoners of war and 180,000 South East Asian labourers. 
My maternal great aunts who lived in the then Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, were imprisoned in concentration camps by the Japanese after the colony was invaded in 1942, but my great uncles were not as fortunate – they all died on “The Line” their corpses among the 12,621 POWs who perished under, as Flanagan neatly puts it, “a Pharaonic slave system that had at its apex a divine sun king,” the Japanese Emperor Hirohito. 
Flanagan’s tale revolves around the axis of The Line which serves both as the incubator of the later war hero fame of his protagonist, lanky, bookish, befuddled and remote Aussie surgeon Dorrigo Evans, and as the divider that severs Dorrigo from the only thing that has ever seemed real to him (apart from playing footie as a kid), his intense love affair with his uncle’s young blonde working-class wife, Amy Mulvaney.
The book is somewhat of a meditation on Japanese war crimes and atrocities – 32 Japanese soldiers were hung for their abuses of POWs on railroad – and the nature of inhumanity, as Flanagan spins side-tales of the post-war evolution of Tenji Nakamura, a Japanese officer, and Sergeant Aki Tomokawa who retreat in old age into a peaceful conviction that their crimes were honourable. 
Two other side stories allow Flanagan to explore the nature of suffering and survival, as he follows Sergeant Frank “Darky” Gardiner to his bitter and demeaning terminus, and bugler Jimmy Bigelow to an old age blessed with the loss of his memories of the horrors of having been forced to carve the railroad almost by hand and willpower alone through dense teak and bamboo jungle in torrential rain.
The book is hard to read because of the bleakness of Flanagan’s view of love and loss, and the sheer severity of the POW’s travails. On The Line, Dorrigo throws himself into saving those of his men he can, out of a helpless sense of duty rather than humanity – the same instinct that propels his loveless post-war marriage to a society belle. The text is enlivened by pithy descriptions and scattered gems of Japanese poetry, but if you are looking for a searing love story, this one burns all before it – as a firestorm outside Hobart, so powerfully described – to cinders and ash.


Tuesday, 16 May 2017

The Asian and African Impact of Portuguese Anarchism

The Asian and African Impact of Portuguese Anarchism. A review of João Freire, Freedom Fighters: Anarchist Intellectuals, Workers, and Soldiers in Portugal's History (Black Rose Books, Canada, 2000)

A good friend of mine is descended from one of the assassins in 1908 of King Carlos I of Portugal and his heir-apparent, Prince Royal Luís Filipe, which precipitated the fall of the monarchy in 1910. Overshadowed in most histories by the Spanish anarchist movement next door, the Portuguese movement may have been numerically smaller but was relatively, by head of population, a *larger* movement, with the anarcho-syndicalist General Confederation of Labour (CGT) achieving an almost totally hegemonic position in the working class until the rise of what became the quasi-fascist New State in 1927, the suppression of free labour and the imposition of what was tellingly named "national syndicalism". Its impact was also felt as far afield as Brazil and Lisbon's colonies such as Mozambique or Macau, where the early labour movements were built in part by exiled Portuguese anarchists. 

In 1892 a law was introduced in Portugal enabling the deportation of anarchist agitators to the Portuguese colonies of Angola, Azores, Guinea-Bissau, Macau, Mozambique and Timor. Sometimes deportation followed jail time in Portugal, and it typically involved further penal servitude in the colonies, sometimes followed by indefinite banishment. As Freire notes, the 1892 anti-anarchist law was followed in 1896 by a law – applied retroactively – enabling deportation for speeches and publications that promoted or defended anarchist acts, with six months in prison to be followed by indefinite deportation; any newspaper that reported on anarchist activities or police actions against anarchists also faced closure and charges against the editor. 

As a result of these laws, several hundred anarchists were deported, mainly to East Timor; an unknown number were sent to Goa, India, and many were also sent to the African colonies and the Azores. Some continued their activities in these countries: for example, two Portuguese anarchists deported from their homeland for their political activities, José Carvalho and Manuel Coelho Traficante, started an anarchist group in Macau called The Dawn of Liberty, but were were again deported, this time to Timor, for their pains. To my knowledge The Dawn of Liberty was the first anarchist group in China - and the seeds it planted appear to have flowered exceptionally well, for south China became an anarchist stronghold, with anarcho-syndicalists building China's first modern union in Guangzhou in 1918, the Teahouse Labour Union, which drew 11,000 members from among trade guilds and teahouse employees, while British-occupied Hong Kong saw a strong IWW current develop.

Anarchist general Chen Jiongming, Governor of the Guangzhou Commune

Guangzhou even came under anarchist administration over 1921-1923 thanks to the influence of Chen Jiongming (1878-1933). According to Sanderson Beck, Chen’s anarchist-influenced federalism resulted in one of the rare instances outside of Manchuria of Chinese anarchists wielding power over a substantial region, their traditional stronghold of Guangzhou: “The anarchist general Chen Jiongming regained Guangzhou, and he called [republican general] Sun Yat-sen back in October 1920. They set up a republican government in April 1921, and 225 members of the old Parliament under the 1912 constitution elected Sun president. He [Sun] accepted the autonomy [from the Peking republican government] of the [Guangzhou] provincial government with Chen Jiongming as governor and commander of the Cantonese army. Chen promulgated a provincial constitution and limited military expenditures to 30% of the budget while reserving 20% for education… Chen Jiongming’s anarchist friends led the trade unions.” Sun later tried to dismiss Chen “but he was popular from his victories in Guangxi” and it was Sun himself who was forced to flee by Chen’s anarchist forces to Hong Kong in a British gunboat. Sadly, this example of an attempt at pragmatic anarchist counter-power appears to be poorly studied. 

The port city of Guangzhou under anarchist control in the early 1920s

The anarchist impact in Portuguese-colonised Africa was likewise notable but understudied. According to Lucien van der Walt, “After 1896 to 1905, a number of deported Portuguese served time in jail in Mozambique. In November 1896, the Transvaal government was informed by the Portuguese Embassy in Pretoria that the anarchist Joao Manuel Rodrigues had escaped imprisonment on the transport ship Africa when it docked in Cape Town en route to East Timor, and might be seeking refuge in Pretoria. He was not, it seems, recaptured. Gilberto dos Santos also escaped in Cape Town, but was recaptured and died soon after of bilious fever. Several anarchists were held in Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique, one of whom, António Caldiera, made a ‘spectacular escape’ from penal servitude in Angola and re-entered Lisbon where he was recaptured in 1905 and sent to Guinea-Bissau. After a republican government was established in Portugal in 1910, the anarchist printer and deportee José Estevam was set free in Mozambique, but he was imprisoned again when he set up a Revolutionary League in the port of Lourenço-Marques. He was, however, only one of several Portuguese anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists active in Lourenço-Marques in the first two decades of the 20th Century. The local press in Lourenço-Marques leaves no doubt about the presence of convinced and militant anarchists, and the revolutionary syndicalism of the CGT, whose newspaper A Batalha (The Battlewas available in Lourenço-Marques, remained the dominant orientation of trade union radicals in the city until at least 1927."

Lourenço-Marques harbour, under revolutionary syndicalist influence, in the 1910s

Founded in 1919 as an anarcho-syndicalist restructuring of the National Workers' Union (UON) which had been founded with 50,000 workers in 1914, the Portuguese CGT initially represented 147 unions, as well as a powerful Syndicalist Youth (JS) wing. The CGT newspaper A Batalha achieved a daily circulation of 25,000 by 1920. The CGT won the right to an eight-hour working day, and on the basis of this strength, became the only national Portuguese labour organisation until 1924 when a very much smaller Communist Party union centre was established. By 1922, the CGT reached 90,000 members (anarchist historians like Rudolf Rocker claim a figure of 150,000, which would effectively mean that every fifth Portuguese citizen was a CGT militant, a rather unbelievable figure). The CGT's membership declined over 1923 and 1924 to 55,000 because of repression, and a certain amount of bleeding due to the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP). Yet the communist challenge saw the CGT mobilise: by 1925, 70,000 members had rallied to its flags and A Batalha was circulating 50,000 copies daily, making it the second-largest daily newspaper in Portugal of any political orientation, though it was often read out to large groups of illiterate workers so its influence was exceptionally broad. 

As with developments in Spain, however, the growth of the Portuguese anarchist movement was interrupted by a military coup, in 1926. The Portuguese Anarchist Union (UAP) was suppressed, the CGT severely restricted, and many militants deported to the colonies, especially to Timor, Angola and Mozambique. After a failed insurrection in 1927, the CGT was driven underground and its headquarters and presses were seized. The PCP fared even worse: in 1928, its total membership stood between fifty and seventy.

By 1933, the year in which Salazar built his New State, ordered the dissolution of the existing trade unions and the creation of fascist-styled corporatist unions, the CGT's clandestine membership was estimated at 15,000. In that year all anarchist activity went underground, but in 1934, all clandestine trade unions and proletarian "revolutionary committees" embarked on a general strike in protest. A state of siege was declared and there was widespread and armed resistance and sabotage. In Marhina Grande, north of Lisbon, working people stormed the barracks and seized weapons and the local revolutionary committees which consisted of both CGT and PCP militants declared a soviet. But the soviet was defeated after two days of fierce fighting. Many militants were deported to Portugal's Asian and African colonies (especially Angola and Cape Verde) and concentration camps were set up all across Portugal. An assassination attempt on Salazar by CGT secretary-general Emidio Santana failed. 

Due to the clandestine nature of their struggles under fascism, the number of Portuguese anarchist groups in the 1930s fell to 12, compared to the 49 that had operated in the 1920s, but in 1931, a Portuguese Libertarian Alliance (ALP) was founded, networking groups in five centres. Changing its name the following year to the Portuguese Regional Anarchist Federation (FARP), the alliance had as its mouthpiece Terra e Liberdade (Land and Liberty) and the Libertarian Youth (JJLL) as its youth wing, worked in parallel to the FAI and managed to survive repression.

The peninsular Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI), established in 1927, held a joint congress with the FARP in early 1936 during the Spanish Revolution and the following year, the CGT, FARP and JJLL discussed establishing a united front with the Communists and other anti-facists, as well as a common prisoner-relief organisation and a joint Revolutionary Youth Front, but ideological differences and the role of the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) in the Spanish Revolution saw the attempt founder. In fact in the 1930s, the communists slowly gained control of the clandestine trade unions from the anarchists and their Intersyndical Committee (CI) rose to 25,000 members. The hand of the Salazar regime weighed down heavily on the anarchists, but the movement was not dead: when Salazar sent 40,000 troops to aid Franco, the crews of three navy ships mutinied until shelled by shore batteries. By 1938, the Portuguese FARP and its allied CGT, cut off by the Spanish fascists from anarchist Spain, were hammered by a new wave of domestic fascist repression, although the CGT still claimed 50,000 underground members.

I guess it's easy to forget that Portugal's authoritarian state of affairs persisted far longer than the nasty, brutish and short Nazi regime or even Franco's long-lived autocracy, until the Carnation Revolution of 1974 and Portugal's withdrawal from its African empire. Sadly, because of this long winter, the Portuguese anarchist movement today remains a fringe shadow of its former self with no connecting tissue to previous generations (in the 1950s, the few Angolan anarchists, for example, had to subsume themselves into the dominant Marxist politics of the liberation movements such as the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola, MPLA). And here I must personally thank Friere for his very helpful messages pointing to the existence of a minority anarchist tendency in the post-war Angolan liberation movement.

Freire's much needed study is commendably analytical rather than anecdotal, backed with statistics and tables. In particular it covers the key role of the anarchist movement which had managed to penetrate the armed forces in overthrowing the monarchy in 1911 alongside the republicans - curiously similarly to what occurred in China in the same year - largely because of a desire to take Portuguese society out of its stagnation and to modernise it. Friere's book is an important study in English of this understudied movement, and an important recovery of memory from the darkness that was the Salazarist era.


The Forgotten Tradition of French Sovietism

The Forgotten Tradition of French Sovietism. A review of David Berry, A History of the French Anarchist Movement 1917-1945 (AK Press, USA, 2009).

To an English-speaking outsider, the French anarchist movement - as distinct from the Francophone anarchist movement in North Africa, Vietnam, etc - is often viewed as the "mother" movement because of the massive CGT union federation which, under anarchist sway, amalgamated with the local Bourses du Travail in 1895, establishing an "apolitical" model of mass anarchosyndicalism that was replicated in Fracophile countries such as Poland and most of Europe and lands as far away as Brazil, Egypt and Senegal. 

The French movement proved to be one of the largest, most influential and most durable of all anarchist movements; and apart from its suppression for four years during the Vichy era, it has operated uninterrupted from its rise in the trade unions of the First International in 1868 until today, where it still maintains a 24-hour radio station, several small anarchosyndicalist unions, research institutes, publishing houses, and a significant interlocking set of counter-cultural networks. 

So for a French-speaker, seen from within, the movement while no longer hegemonic in the French labour movement as it was from 1895-1920, can even today provide a totally immersive socio-political experience. Which for a researcher often makes it difficult to see the wood for the trees. What makes the task more difficult is that the movement fragmented in 1920 and subsequently, faced with the prestige of post-1917 Bolshevism, so keeping an eye on *all* the different factional organisational responses to that is rare. 

Berry's huge achievement is to provide a really holistic view of the fragmenting movement as it met the triple threat of Bolshevism, French fascism and Nazism, and reformism (the CGT at its peak in 1920 had 2,46-million members, larger than the famous Spanish CNT during the Spanish Revolution - but it was largely white-collar, very removed from its blue-collar origins). 

While a majority of "pragmatic" apolitical syndicalists were happy to form an opposition within the reformist (including Bolshevik) union centres, in a self-defeating strategy, the explicitly revolutionary anarcho-syndicalist minority kept splitting away from these centres to form ever smaller purist federations, while alongside this, the "political" anarchist organisations grappled with the erosion of the mass movement's industrial base, resulting in some bitter schisms, especially between the tightly-organised "platformists" and the pluralistic "synthesists", a lively division that continues to this day.

The fragmentation of the movement also meant very different responses to crucial issues such as how to engage with the French ultra-right, the Spanish Revolution, and the Algerian liberation movement, with the platformists being for direct combat and the synthesists largely for critical support for the latter. Berry also does not shy away from the troubling question of those few anarchist individuals who collaborated with or were compromised by Vichy.

But Berry's greatest contribution to our understanding of French revolutionary politics of the interwar years regards the forgotten tradition of French Sovietism, a mass movement that tends to be overlooked by students of sovietism (council communism) in other areas such as Italy, Germany, Hungary, and even Britain. The movement had its roots in the hardline anarchocommunist and anarchosyndicalist resistance to the militarism of WWI, and flowered in May 1919 with the establishment of an anarchocommunist Parti Comuniste (PC). If this seems strange, bear in mind that similar anti-statist, anti-parliamentary, anti-authoritarian (and thus non-Bolshevik) CPs were established in the same period in Britain, Brazil, Portugal, South Africa, and arguably in Czechoslovakia and Vietnam, in each instance predating the "official" CPs.

The PC established rank-and-file networks within the CGT which lead to an Autonomous Regional Soviet appearing in Paris and holding a congress in December 1919 at which 35 such soviets from the capital and other parts of France were represented, defeating the Leninist line and reaffirming libertarian sovietism. This resulted in the formation of the Communist Federation of Soviets (FCS), with le Soviet (The Soviet) as its fortnightly mouthpiece. As Berry explains, the FCS was structured on workplace workers’ councils, which together with communities were represented in local soviets, which in turn were represented at regional soviets, with the overarching policy-making body being a congress of soviets to which only workers’ councils and local soviets sent delegations. Sadly, the FCS declined in 1921 with the founding of the official PC, whose members were mostly drawn from organisations to the right of the FCS such as the Socialist Party. Favourable revolutionary conditions would not appear in France again until 1968, by which time anarchism/syndicalism was a still-virile, yet fringe movement.

Berry's book is a crucial text for students not just of the anarchist / syndicalist / council communist movements, but of interwar French politics and unionism more broadly. I hope he follows it up with a book on the denouement of the post-war French anarchist movement to the current day.


In search of early Italy's "lost" Bakuninist organisations

In search of early Italy's "lost" Bakuninist organisations. A review of Nunzio Pernicone's Italian Anarchism, 1864-1892 (AK Press, USA, 2009)

I'm a historian of the global anarchist movement (Black Flame - 2009; Cartography of Revolutionary Anarchism - 2013), but during what I term the First Wave (1868-1894), the Italian anarchist movement was always a bit vague to me. The reason was that most historians make a point of stressing that the Italians made their mark not in Italy, but as travelling militants, especially in Egypt, Tunisia, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and the United States. But the conundrum was: if Italian anarchists were so influential in the revolutionary labour movement abroad, how was it possible that they had little traction where they came from?

Now Pernicone has helped explain why: Firstly, the dominance in Italy from the time of the Italian Federation of the IWMA of a form of self-described anarcho-collectivism (later anarcho-communism) that was insurrectionist and anti-syndicalist in the manner of Hatta Shuzo and the "pure" anarchists of Japan (they initially supported mass formations, but were just not very keen on unions), and later due to repression became staunchly anti-organisationist / anti-mass too. Not a smooth trajectory, bearing in mind that the likes of the young insurrectionist Luigi Galleani also cut his teeth on worker organising. Secondly, the new Italian state was dominated by two political factions: the “Historic Right” consisting of conservatives and monarchists, while the “Historic Left” consisted of nationalists and republicans – but this “Left” was compromised by its post-unification support for the monarchy; as a result, until the 1890s, government swung between two anti-socialist poles, which saw the emergent anarchist movement and the socialists more broadly, suffer continual cycles of repression. This repression was meted out by two processes that were not submitted to the courts where they could have been challenged: “admonishment” under which militants were put under restrictive surveillance; and domicilio coatto, which involved forced internal exile on islands off the coast such as Lampedusa. 

And yet, despite this climate, organisational efforts were perennial. The first International Revolutionary Brotherhood organisation in Italy, the Society of Legionnaires of the Italian Social Revolution (SLRSI), was founded by Bakunin in 1866, being reformed the next year as the Liberty & Justice (LeG) group, which lead directly to the foundation of the Italian Federation (FI) of the IWMA in 1869 that adhered to Bakunin’s line against Marx. Although initially based in Naples and its docks and the island of Sicily with more than 3,500 members by 1870, and swelling to an early peak of 32,450 members by 1874, primarily in north-central Italy, the FI was heavily repressed by the state in the late 1870s, while its insurrectionist (which later developed into an anti-organisationist) bias meant it would have to wait decades to achieve its own trade union central. But one of the key innovations of the FI was its emphasis on the equality of women: driven by women leaders such as Luisa “Gigia” Minguzzi of the FI’s Tuscan Federation and Vincenza Matteuzzi of the FI’s Marchian-Umbrian Federation, by 1876, the FI had organised women’s sections and groups in the cities and towns of Florence, Aquila, Imola, Perrugia, Carrara and Prato. 

By 1880, the FI was essentially dead in the water – although well into the decade in northern Italy, groups in various cities remained loyal to the internationalist line and still considered themselves part of the FI, now aligned to the Black International. Although repression had a generally negative impact on the Italian anarchist movement, with the majority adhering to a self-defeating self-described “anarcho-communist” line that talked insurrection but adopted anti-organisationism, so did little but produce incendiary newspapers and eschewed worker’s struggles, there were some positive organisational developments among the constructive minority. For example, in 1885, Ambrogio Galli’s Anarchist Communist Group (GCA) of Milan founded the Upper Italian Federation (FAI) with the purpose of reviving the movement, particularly among the workerists of the Italian Workers’ Party (POI) founded three years earlier with a programme that excluded from membership any who were not working class; initially the two camps had much in common, but the hostility of most anarchists to what they saw as the reformism of trade unions lead to a parting of their ways. There was better progress in 1885 when the Forlì Congress brought together 11 northern cities, scores of anarchist groups and federations from almost every region, resulting in the formation in August of the regional Anarchist Socialist Federation of Pesaro-Urbino (FASPU) and by 1887, a Forlì International Federation (FIF) was founded with 300 members; meanwhile although in 1876, a tiny and ephemeral Florentine Anarchist Federation (FAF) had been founded, adhering to Malatesta’s pro-organisational line, significant advances were made by Minguzzi among women workers at one of the two cigarette factories in Florence. However, these initiatives remained overwhelmingly regional and were unable to achieve national federation.

One of Bakunin’s main Italian disciples and in many ways his successor, was Errico Malatesta (1853-1932) who turned his back on his middle class origins to become an inveterate militant, insurgent, organiser and polemicist, and moved from an “anarcho-communist” insurrectionist position that he had held in the 1870s to a mass anarchist position. In 1889, he wrote his Programme, published in his newspaper L’Associazione, in Nice, France, as a call to arms against the deleterious effects of the anti-organisationist, terrorist and individualist deviations which had driven the Italian anarchist movement into isolation from the working class. Impressed by the strike-wave then surging across Europe, especially the struggle of the London dockworkers, Malatesta wrote in another article in the newspaper that “The masses arrive at great vindications by means of small protests and small revolts. Let us join them and spur them forward... Indeed every strike has its revolutionary characteristic; every strike finds energetic men [sic.] to punish the bosses and, above all, to attack property and to show the strikers that it is easier to take than to ask.” 

In his neo-Bakuninist Programme, Malatesta stated that “a great revolution is approaching, perhaps it is imminent,” and so the anarchist movement was faced with a “great mission” for which it needed to construct an international revolutionary anarchist-socialist party (later described by Malatesta as “the totality of all who embrace the programme, who advocate its triumph and who consider themselves bound not to do anything opposed to it”). As Pernicone paraphrases it, “Malatesta believed that although only the masses could make the revolution, they needed the guidance of a vanguard anarchist party. For only the anarchists, who harboured no secret desire for power, could arouse the masses to full consciousness of their might and spur them to destroy the state and every other obstacle blocking emancipation. And only the anarchists could be relied upon to resist the formation of new governments that would impose their will upon the masses, arrest and divert the course of the revolution, and prevent the evolution of a libertarian society.” 

Malatesta’s Programme finally bore fruit in 1891 at the Capolago Congress in Switzerland, to which more than 200 associations (two thirds of them anarchist and one third socialist and workerist) affiliated, representing more than 50 Italian cities and towns, plus exile groups from Switzerland, France, Britain, Egypt, the United States, Argentina and Brazil, at which it was overwhelmingly decided to found a Revolutionary Anarchist Socialist Party (PSAR), which soon established regional federations across Italy; repressed by the state, the PSAR’s regional federations were revived in 1897, though by then, Malatesta had moved away from the party’s original syncretism towards endorsing a far more ideologically coherent programme; within fifteen years, the Italian pro-organisational anarchists controlled their own 80,000-strong anarcho-syndicalist labour centre, the Italian Syndicalist Union (USI).

In sum, Pernicone has: corrected a longstanding Marxist occlusion regarding the Italian revolutionary left between the Risorgimento (state unification) of 1861 and the eventual establishment of a Marxist party in 1892, a bias that reflects the initial dominance of the Bakuninists; restored the pro-organisational history of the Italian movement - which was especially defined by its dispute with the anti-organisationists, a battle that it eventually won, in time to be on the barricades during the anti-colonial Red Week in 1914, not to mention the revolutionary Red Years of 1919-1920, with the USI peaking at 800,000 members, backed by a political organisation - in echo of Bakunin's dual-organisational strategy - the 20,000-strong Italian Anarchist Union (UAI); and lastly, Pernicone has offered tantalising glimpses of the establishment of Women's Sections which were to prove so influential as the vanguards of anarcho-syndicalism where it dominated the labour movement in most of Latin America until the 1930s.


Thursday, 4 May 2017

The Red of His Shadow

A review of Mayra Montero's novel

Vodoun, the syncretic religion of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, comprising Haiti in the west and Dominican Republic in the east, is seldom accurately represented in fiction, subject as it has been for centuries to white mistrust of black theology, and in recent times to B-grade horror movie renderings of zombies.
Even Harvard scientist Wade Davis’ excellent 1985 book The Serpent and the Rainbow – a unique investigation into the real psycho-pharmacological bases of zombiesm, combined with a history of the rebel black republic of Haiti after its successful slave revolution of 1804, and a detailed explanation of how vodoun developed as an underground slave exaltation of West and Central African religions under the guise of their overlords’ Catholicism – was turned into a cheap Wes Craven thriller in 1988.
An unsurpassed exploration of the roots of rock ‘n roll via Haiti, where the faiths of African and Irish slaves combined to form vodoun and shape modern American culture, is the 1985 essay by Texan writer Michael Ventura, Hear That Long Snake Moan, which is available online. But Davis and Ventura offer rare English-language non-fiction insights into vodoun, so it was perhaps inevitable that an accurate depiction in fiction would be penned by a Cuban writer, in Spanish.
With a light touch, but penetrating empathy, Mayra Montero explores the mutual antagonisms, racism and interwoven cultures of pitch-black migrant Haitian “Congo” cane-cutters working for a pittance in a coffee-coloured Dominican mulatto world. Bucking traditional prejudices and a rain of curses from her family, the clairvoyant Dominican Anacaona marries the Haitian cane-cutter Jean-Claude Revé, brother to the vodoun houngan Papa Luc Revé, whose shy but willful daughter Zulé, possessed of a natural susceptibility to be ridden by the Loa, those ancient African gods, is destined from a young age to become the mambo of her own vodoun Societé.
Every year during Holy Week, Zulé’s Societé prepares itself with incantations, appeals to the Loa for protection and profit, dresses in its finest, beats its ritual drums, and, lead by its elders and queens, sets out from the batey, the worker’s barracks near the sugar mill, on a sacred procession, a Gagá, through the countryside, during which time they will exchange gifts of rum, cigars, cakes and fowl with the batey communities and Societés they encounter, while the mambos and houngans dispense advice and intercede with the spirit world.
It is usually a time of great celebration, but this year everyone is on edge because they know Zulé’s Gagá is destined to cross paths – and machetes – with the rival Gagá of the Haitian houngan Similá Bolosse, feared as a bokor, a master of the dark arts, not least for his connections to the disgraced yet still dangerous tonton macoute death-squads of ousted Haitian president Papa Doc Duvalier, and their drug shipments, the loss of one of which is blamed on Zulé. 
Montero’s lush and livid prose is brought to us by the skilled translation of Edith Grossman, who has also made Latin American greats like Gabriel García Márquez accessible to English readers. Peppering her text with vodoun chants and slave songs in Haitian Creole, Montero draws us into the realities of the cane-cutter’s physical poverty and spiritual abundance. 
With language as plain as cassava yet as firey as rum, she spins a tale – apparently inspired by a real crime of passion – which for all its grittiness has the lyrical, doomed beauty of many of Latin America’s great voices; definitely a talent to watch.


"Should I wait for darkness to see the stars?"

Journalist and arts rights activist Sidd Joag, photographed by Fredrik Elg

Introduction by Sidd Joag

During the 2016 Malmö Safe Havens meeting, I had the opportunity to meet Michael Schmidt, a veteran journalist from South Africa who was charged with documenting the event. After two full days of performance, screenings, panels, conversation and debate, the idea of a series of articles placing the city of Malmö at the center of the current global matrix of civil unrest, repression, violence, displacement, migration and integration emerged. Malmö in particular is a fascinating yet understated cultural nexus with an air of welcome and acceptance that is rare, and increasingly threatened by wide-sweeping anti-immigrant sentiments across the Global North. This is especially noticeable in countries like Sweden with long histories of hosting displaced people amicably.

In “Should I wait for the darkness to see the stars?” Michael Schmidt, quoting the playwright, brings us into an atmospheric performance of (and by) Monirah Hashemi in her latest play Sitarah – The Stars, a disturbing contemplation on the role of women in Islamic society, the grave injustices they face and the transfer of their extraordinary resilience globally through diaspora communities. Schmidt weaves a series of vignettes that give us a glimpse into the deeply personal motivations of activists on the frontlines and how they actively affect change in their countries of origin.

What is the range of damage that we acknowledge or evaluate when we consider the psychological and socio-cultural toll of violent conflict and displacement? Schmidt presents us first-hand accounts of possibility that fortify our collective resolve to address the disturbing and divisive issues of today with clarity and kindness.

The remainder of the article is here: Arts Everywhere


Monday, 24 April 2017

Yom HaShoah 2017

Sugihara Chiune

At the weekend, I attended as I do every year Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Jewish Cemetery in West Park, Johannesburg, known as Yom HaShoah. I personally prefer the Romani term Porajmos, the Great Devouring, to the terms Shoah (Destruction) or Holocaust (Consummation by Fire), as it reminds me of a Kali-like devouring demon and in fact, an alternate Romani term is Kali Traš, meaning Black Fear, but this is merely a matter of personal resonance. 
This year, the survivor’s testimony was given by Don Krausz, one of the fifty or so survivors who live in South Africa, a man I have often encountered at the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre and who spoke on behalf of survivors at my event there last year commemorating the conclusion of the 22nd annual remembrance of the “Hundred Nights” Rwandan Genocide. 
I had, however, never heard him speak before of his personal experiences, as a child between the ages of 12 and 14 as he traversed the concentration camps of Ravensbruck, primarily a camp for women and children, and Sachsenhausen, which had originally been set up to detain the politicals, but which Krausz described as a “destruction camp,” a final way-station on the way to the terrible terminus of the gas chambers.
There in Sachsenhausen, Krausz’ job as a teenager so wasted away that his hands could almost encircle his waist, was to remove the corpses of those who died overnight of starvation, disease or the extreme winter cold of -28⁰C so that they could be tallied with the morning roll-call of the survivors. 
He recalled one day passing “The Bunker”, the camp’s Gestapo interrogation block, and seeing a woman stripped to her underwear in that icy weather and tied to the barbed wire as a punishment – but miraculously still alive. He recalled talking to the Sachsenhausen veterans which included old communists and anti-fascist fighters from the Spanish Revolution (there were likely anarchists among them, though most Spanish republicans were sent to Mauthausen where 10,000 of them died) about their experiences. 
Eventually, after having survived a death-march where perhaps 500-6,000 were shot en route for not being able to keep up the punishing pace of 30km/day on starvation rations of a single potato and slug of water every three days, he was liberated and returned to Holland to find his mother and sister still alive – though his father and so many others had perished. By the Nazi’s own records, he said, some 12-million people died in their archipelago of more than 42,000 concentration, labour, and extermination camps.
Krausz’s moving testimony was followed by Rabbi Yossi Goldman who spoke of his late father’s escape from Poland through to Japan with the help of the Japanese diplomat Sugihara “Sempo” Chiune, the vice-consul stationed in Lithuania, and thence on to Shanghai and eventually to Johannesburg where, Goldman said, his father’s proudest achievement had been rebuilding his Shoah-decimated family. 
Sugihara, who died in 1986, is today recognised by Israel as “Righteous Among the Nations” – an honorific for non-Jews who saved Jews from Nazi annihilation – for rescuing between 10,000-40,000 Eastern European Jews by giving them transit visas to travel through the USSR to Japan and China.
At the end of Goldman’s testimony, steeped as it was in his religious convictions, a lone voice – seemingly that of a frail old man – cried out from under the cypress trees, as it does every year, to the obvious discomfort of the mourners, though security made no move against him, probably knowing him to be a concentration camp survivor, “There was no God at Auschwitz!”


Thursday, 20 April 2017

Character Study for my First Novel

Here's a start I made on a character study for my first attempt at a novel, centred on the crew of an Algerian seaman in the mid-1950s who smuggles lamb into the Levant then Turkish morphine base and Laotian opium into Marseilles for the Union Corse, then WWII surplus arms into Algeria to foment the liberation war against colonial France. The character study is of the ship's motorman, in other words, unlicensed mechanic, who starts out as an anarchist barber in the port of Donostia, Basque Country, becomes a gunman during the Spanish Civil War, then flees the fascist defeat of Donostia and becomes a smuggler. The actual writing style will differ significantly from my character studies, however. The core characters, like this one, are of my own creation, but some, like Queen Dina bint ‘Abdu’l-Hamid of Jordan  whose yacht delivered the first known shipment of arms to the Algerian freedom fighters via Morocco in February 1955 – are real!

The shiv was hand-made, and that made him proud, for he’d previously always had flash through his hands steel manufactured by lathe in Sheffield or elsewhere, things of sublime silvered beauty that reflected the moonlight just so, to be sure, but machined things nevertheless, nomatter the craftsmanship keening the edge. But this was half of his own creation, half of a forgotten madness. He’d found the naked haft lying in a pile of smoking evidence destroyed in some leger demain out the back of the Guardia Civil station in Elizalde, a river village just inland from Donostia, then an industrial port city on the make. He’d wiped the blackened detritus of burned cotton – clearly the clothes of some disappeared crim – off the glowering blade and looked at it in wonder. He was only sixteen. 
The blade was crude and manufactured from a simple slice of steel. It was the shape of a Roman spearhead – the same that did Jesus in and that the Nazis had by rumour stolen from a museum in Austria – but this was more visceral and real. Its fat and heavy core was bevelled at the edges with a rough but purpose-oriented eye on a grinder. It was shaped with two slight transverse points at the base of the blade, as a means, it seemed, of giving an overzealous stabber a moment of pause before plunging their fist wrist-deep into an enemy’s belly. There were incautious hacklines at that midpoint because grace and a fine finish were not its purpose; rapid, perfunctory death was its aim. 
He’d had a long-lost friend drill three holes into its handle two decades ago; two held fast an ageing wooden handle with brass pins, and the third held a hank of black leather cord with which he could swing it, casually, suggestively, as he walked the night streets. 
His name was Joan Gomes Etxebehere, a Basque motorman, somewhat feared on the timeless docks and fish-stunk alleyways of Donostia, but the Spaniards called him Navaja, meaning Razor, for he carried in his greasy leather toolbelt not only the spanners and hex keys of his current trade, but the straight-razor and shaving kit of his prior. For Navaja had been a barber before the conflagration – though in later life, a gunman after a sort – so his pitch-black hair and curled moustache were always impeccable, regardless of the soiled degeneration of his dungarees. Sharpness was his creed, and the home-made shiv he carried hidden in a leather pouch sewn into the inside of his left boot.


Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Anti-African Racism in China

A racist detergent ad featuring a young Chinese woman stuffing a black man into a washing machine only to be delighted at the Chinese man who emerges at the end of the wash cycle provoked outrage in China last year. It is but one indication of the rising intolerance towards Africans living in the country — and could be a driver of their subsequent exodus. 
The 1997 Asian economic crisis caused some African traders to relocate their businesses from Thailand and Indonesia to the Chinese port city of Guangzhou. There, predominantly male business community of mostly Malian, Congolese, Nigerian and Guinean expats, but also Angolans, Burkinabé, Somalis and others, settled in 7 km stretch that swiftly became known as Little Africa. Their numbers have increased to perhaps 100,000, making it the largest African settlement in Asia.
They built a bustling market in the central square of Little Africa, but few African traders in
Guangzhou were hawkers of low end goods. Ghanaian professor Adams Bodomo, in a survey for his 2012 book Africans in China, found that 40% of migrants had tertiary education. And they were among the biggest contributors to the 2014 peak of African-Chinese trade flows, which exceeded that of US trade with the continent by US$ 120bn.
Guangzhou-based journalist Jenni Marsh, in a Wits-funded analysis of the phenomenon, interviewed Amadou Issa, who arrived in China in 2004 with only $300 to his name. By 2015, Issa had a Chinese wife and was a wealthy exporter of construction materials. He lived in an $800,000 apartment in the city’s smartest district, and drove a $64,000 car.
Other Africans invested non-business skills in China, such as Senegalese footballer Youssou Ousagna, who relocated to Sichuan in 2005 after being scouted by Chengdu Tiancheng football club. He is fluent in Mandarin, and married a Chinese woman.
Afro-Chinese marriages are on the rise in Guangzhou. In June 2014, Marsh covered Nigerian Eman Okonkwo’s wedding to Jennifer Tsang for the South China Morning Post. Marsh wrote: “In Guangzhou, weddings like this take place every day. There are no official figures on Afro-Chinese marriages but visit any trading warehouse in the city and you will see scores of mixed-race couples running wholesale shops, their coffee coloured, hair-braided children racing through the corridors.”
But there were rumblings of trouble. A sensational public race debate was sparked in 2009 over Lou Jing, a 20-year-old Afro-Chinese woman who entered the final rounds of Go Oriental Angel, an imitation of TV talent contest American Idols. A racist backlash on social media included calls for her to “go back to where she came from” — even though she was born in Shanghai to a Chinese mother and an African-American father.
A 2008 Wikileaks cable from Guangzhou to the CIA had noted that many Chinese did not want to live in Little Africa because of “differences ” that ranged from “culture to lifestyle [and] hygiene,” and warned that local police were incapable of communicating with the Africans. The cable said local authorities were “extremely concerned with the high concentration of Africans into a few Guangzhou neighbourhoods”, especially as the diaspora had no formal representatives with the exception of “Big Brothers”, Africans who had Chinese citizenship and who spoke Cantonese .
In 2015, Marsh interviewed one Big Brother, Emmanuel Ojukwu. Since his arrival in 2007, Ojukwu had established his reputation as the elected head of Nigerian expats, and was calling himself “the president of Africa in China”. Interviewing him again for CNN last September, Marsh found him despondent over the numbers of Africans who had not returned to Guangzhou after the holidays, remarking that Little Africa had lost its character and vitality.
“Over the past 18 months,” she wrote, “hundreds — perhaps even thousands — of Africans are believed by locals and researchers to have exited Guangzhou.”She said exact numbers were hard to find. “A dollar drought in oil-dependent West African nations, coupled with China’s hostile immigration policies, widespread racism, and an at-once slowing and maturing economy, means Guangzhou is losing its competitive edge.”