The Pulse of Africa: Bongani Madondo, a South African journalist, arts critic, and writer

by Atim Annette Oton

The Pulse of Africa is a series by Atim Annette Oton talking with Africans in Africa and across the Diaspora on Africa’s progress, issues on culture, technology and opportunities in this decade.

Bongani Madondo is a South African journalist, writer and arts critic. He is my South African friend: I call him my brother from another mother. We are kindred spirits, we think alike in many ways. A bit of a radical. So when I asked him these questions, it was both easy for him to respond and difficult to edit himself.  He responded with tons of stuff. I edited as best as I could. Bongani is truth, he says it as he means it. He is direct, brash and brazen. As a critic and writer, he is doing what he is best at: dissecting, identifying and diagnosing the truth.

Journalist and Non-Fiction author, Bongani Madondo is a multi-award winning profile writer and multidisciplinary cultural commentator working across a variety of media. His work on music, inner city architecture, urban cultures, politics of style, visual & performance arts is highly respected within academia, mainline media and the streets.                                                



1. How do you feel about Africa‘s progress and opportunities in your industry and city this decade (2010’s)?

I have always been terribly troubled [as well as, on occasion, inspired] by the world’s media and others ways of looking at Africa as a single catchphrase: A collective. Homogenous. One black block of either violence, mediocrity, barbarism, or on the other hand, a condescending liberal anthropological of over celebrating certain quaint aspects of supposed discovery.

It goes like this: “Oh, they can use technology”!, “Oh, their music is so emotional and touching,” “Oh here’s the latest African corruption crime buster”, “Oh, here look at this African he went to Harvard”, and “Oh, they still live in poverty but so happy and pastoral…” I say bullshit to all that.

We need news ways of looking at Africa. Not even the third way, no. Just a complex, simple and accepting way of looking at Africa the way you would look at all continents, even then is hardly ever employed…people don’t look at whole continents unless there’s something supposedly sexy about them: Asian Tigers, or in literature: The new magic realists after Marquez…Oh, save me from that.

 Let’s look at two not-Oppositional views, as they might appear:

  • a. Individual countries
  • b. Individual Africans making a living without economic borders [A 21st century Pan-Africanist]

Individual countries:

Several individual countries- some of course bolstered and empowered by the Pan Africanist spirit of African Union, some experimenting with new economic models and the drive to root our corruption and reboot the economy, some by pure luck as a result of mineral/natural resources such as oil, etc- have made a steady progress since the early stages of the last decade.

Although Nigeria is always cited as the most corrupt country in the continent, many people are not looking at the anti-corruption successes of the lady now returning as the Finance Minister as well as a new spirit of renewed entrepreneurship in new media, lifestyle and arts industries in cities such as Lagos.

For example, both the nascent pop culture, music, fashion and the now “sexy” ghetto DIY sensibilities and booming industry of Nollywood should count for something, in terms of jobs creation that the government wouldn’t even have dreamt of creating it. Kenya’s economy is building up and has been building up despite that country’s much documented corruption (see Michaela Wong and the Kenyan crime buster’s book It’s Our Turn To Eat).

Same as the usual success stories, South Africa and Botswana. But others aren’t doing bad at reviving their economies and helping create a positive, vibrant outlook much preferred by the new Middle Class in Africa. Countries such as Ghana, Zambia, Namibia and Uganda are in fact creating a vibrant middleclass; and with them a new lifestyle, based on African style consumerist and production culture, as well as entrepreneurial spirit.

Of course, there are plenty of sad and despairing cases…Zimbabwe [once one of the most educated, vibrant and proudest countries not long ago] Congo, Kinshasa, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Swaziland, Burundi, etc. are really not where it is at.

But that’s life. It’s not a unique African thing. Is the entire Asiabooming with wealthy Chinese style dictatorial capitalism? Are all former Soviet countries the exact beacons of democracy and technology upsurge? Gimme a break! How about the Middle East -Arab Spring anyone? Bah!

Personally, I am a very bad African. I do not measure my personal successes by the material-o-meter of where I originate from. I travel a lot and am a citizen of the world. I am one of those you have heard enough of and you have started cracking jokes about: I am an AfroPolitan, and the world is my canvass.

Although if I had to chose I would love to live in Lagos, Manhattan, Prague, Johannesburg [my city] and Dakar. I don’t know about opportunities in my “industry.” In my country, the industry I work within -the media- is still in the hands of white folks and their “newsly” created black conservatives are guarding, fiercely, ill gained white loot in exchange of a swanky address in the ‘burbs, policies for their children’s education, and a few bottles of cognacs.

Nothing’ has changed.

All the major mainstream magazines have white editors, white owners, white sub-editors and managing editors and the like. Although I am inspired by a new wave of young techy black generation [completely apolitical, scant if any sense of history] but creating their own narratives as bloggers, twitteratti, designers, music, merchandising business, etc, especially the pop-cultural and IT fields, utilizing latest technology.

Now I say that’s what the real battle was all about: for our children to be able to compete and create their own realities.

Individual Africans making a living without economic borders

I am also loving the new Pan-Africanist small entrepreneur. He/She who is from Ghana and opens several Ghanaian/Senegalese/Ivorian/Eithiopian cuisine joints in Johannesburg, in Nairobi, in Kinshasa and still be back home in Kumasi or St. Louis in Senegal, or Abidjan in time to celebrate X-mas or whatever religious/sacred days with the whole clan, often a traveling clan itself.

I love African entrepreneurs not looking at the governments for any salvation at all, but are utilizing mobile technology, to make borders obsolete. The thing that still saddens me is that none of the major billion dollars mobile technology firms are owned by black Africans themselves: It is either by Vodafone [European] or a slew of competing big time operators owned by Arabs, Indians, Chinese or ol’ money white South African entities.

2. How is technology, mobile telephones and social media changing Africa and your industry?

With a device on your hand, and access to an internet cafe’, better still, a PC or laptop, anyone can have a voice. The fact that a rural granny at some forgotten place can organize other rural grannies to create a sustainable small village business and still play leading role in the battle against HIV and the Aids epidemic while maintaining families where daddies and grand dads ARE STILL NOT there, either in big cities or were victims of civil wars, is a remarkable feat.

A Voice. A voice can be everything anyone needs at the direst of times. Technology has become the most influential personal space democratizing as well as conflict creating force. Which is good, cause out of conflict resolution should follow.   And that is often taken for granted. Sometimes its not even material indicators we should look at to measure success and progress.

3. What problems do you feel have to be overcomed by Africa in your industry? 

I just think the publishing “space” should be forced to be conducive to the creation, promotion and prosperity of African/black voices and black owned media. In my case, I don’t know a lot of African and black owned publications and radio/TV channels.

If and when they happen to be black, they are state owned [and you know what are the problems with state owned enterprises]; and if they are owned by independent entrepreneurs [Blink, Tribute magazine, etc], they are quickly shout out of business by the three or so traditionally white owned ol’ big boys club media owners.

Basically things haven’t changed that much in South African corporate sphere. Which is why you still hear such an integrationist Middle Class liberals like me still using quaint essentialist terms such as “white” and “black” instead of  “South Africans”- because, go around and ask everyone, it’s still that way in all aspects and spheres of life.

When the black government which has its hands tied in the back anyway, because of its own corrupt tendencies, and because it is beholden to bullying white media lobby groups and white media, tries to make a difference, they are met with stifling opposition and loudest, pre-emptive noise accusing it of reverse racism, which is of course the biggest pile of bullshit I have ever heard in any post-colonial setting] .

Back to the trades.

So, the existing advertising companies as well as clients themselves dish business to their old white clients/friends/ol’ money network I guess it is human nature to deal with the tried and tested.

New media such as online space has not done pretty well in terms of serving as alternative advertising revenue for new black media, either. Although, I’m sure all of that will change and all old white traditional big walls will be circumvented or fall as more and more new markets and smart media owners from all walks of life utilize the growing benefits and possibilities of what online can/offers.

Ideally, South African needs its own Arise, Ebony, etc, and black owned radio channels. The other truth is – and this is pertinent and almost peculiar toSouth Africathan any other African country –black folks here, actually love the idea of “going to look for a job”: code word for going to work for a white man. It is part of a legacy of Apartheid and the creation of new urban/industrialization of our country.

The idea of mobility… movement …trekking out of home to the big cities and coming back end of the year has its roots in the creation of mining towns such as Kimberly, Johannesburg and port/harbor enterprises in cities such as Durban and Cape Town. Hundred years later, grand-grand-grand children of the first batch of migrant workers still behave like their forebears.

So what needs to be done?

Other than a mind-shift, I have no idea what should be done. Not sure Affirmative Action as understood by captains of the industry is the answer. It just creates much dependency and not industry or production diversification.


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