Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 8, 2018

Two new, problematic African films

Filed under: Africa,Film — louisproyect @ 8:53 pm

Two films opened at art houses in New York yesterday that purport to say something meaningful about African society. I am afraid that they say more about the directors and screenwriters since the message they convey is carefully tailored for Western audiences in general and the film festival/art house circuit in particular. Generally, I cut such films some slack since they are made by creative teams trying sincerely to tell stories about real social and political issues. Rather than rating them as “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes, I simply say nothing. To paraphrase my mother, “If you can’t something nice about somebody (in this case a film), say nothing”. I dispense with my mother’s advice on this occasion since both films reflect a creative and political default on a continent undergoing permanent crisis and badly in need of a new Ousmane Sembene.

Playing at Cinema Village, “Five Fingers for Marseilles” seeks to adapt a Sergio Leone film to the hinterlands of South Africa just as his “A Fistful of Dollars” was an attempt to adapt “Yojimbo” to the Old West. Leone’s films were straightforward escapist entertainment while director Michael Matthews and screenwriter Sean Drummond sought to entertain as well as to comment on post-apartheid South Africa. Although the film did put Black South African actors to work, Matthews and Drummond—two white South Africans—made a film that did not come close to achieving the goal set forth by the pair in an interview with “Cinema Escapist”. As Drummond put it:

If you look at the greater theme of the movie, [Marseilles] has never been free and it takes a new generation to fix it. The liberators often hold back from true liberation, which you see here [in South Africa] with the ANC (African National Congress, the party of Mandela who have been the dominant political power in South Africa since 1994). They lost sight of what the goal was – hope for a new generation without the baggage of the past – and a lot of White South Africans feel like Honest John, in this limbo and not knowing what their place is [in Post-Apartheid South Africa].

The Marseilles referred to in the title was an actual place historically. Colonists often named settlements after cities from their country of origin and this was one of them. At the start of the film set in the apartheid era, five young people—four boys and a girl constituted as the five fingers of a fist—have begun taking target practice with slingshots to use against the cops who come to their village to extort payoffs from shopkeepers and generally bully the long-suffering Blacks. When the cops arrest the girl and begin taking her off to jail, Tau, the group’s leader, rides off on his bike to rescue her. Although it is not exactly clear how a youth on a bicycle could have pulled it off, his riding in their path manages to spook the driver so badly that he takes a sharp turn that upends the paddy wagon. Tau then wrests a gun away from one cop and kills both him and his partner. All this takes place in front of the other three boys have caught up with them. They bring the girl back to Marseilles while Tau flees to parts unknown to escape arrest.

Instead of hooking up with Umkhonto we Sizwe, Tau becomes a common thief. The only benefit of living by the sword was that it gave him the skills he needed to return to the village and go to war with the Black gang that is making life unbearable for the dwellers  led by the villainous Sepoko, the “Ghost”. Sepoko and his crew serve the same purpose in this narrative as the gangs in both Leone and Kurosawa’s films—someone to hate. Unfortunately, writer and director neglect the most important part of developing villainous characters: complexity. If they function like the mustache-twirling bad guys in 1930s Tom Mix serials, dramatic intensity will not be achieved.

Tau has returned to Marseilles not to confront evil but perhaps escape from his criminal past. Since his character is exceedingly taciturn, who knows? From the minute he hits town, he is beset by Sepoko’s goons who have plans to take over and see him as a potential obstacle. Like both “Yojimbo” and “High Noon”, the local government is spineless and corrupt–and evidently ANC. Eventually, Tau rounds up a new gang of five that has a climactic gun fight that will remind you of “Gunfight at O.K. Corral”. Matthews and Drummond are obvious film buffs that like Quentin Tarantino enjoy recycling the classics. This tendency is fairly widespread among film school graduates in both the USA and South Africa.

The saving grace of the film is the spectacular landscapes around Lady Gray, the town in the Eastern Cape where it was shot. A couple of months ago I wrote about the Eastern Cape in the context of how desperate poverty was forcing locals to poach rhinos in order to sell the horns on the Chinese black market. Now that would have been a great theme for Matthews and Drummond. I doubt that my review will ever cross their desk but for budding filmmakers who read this blog, a word of advice should be sufficient. Make films that are socially relevant and fresh.

Rungano Nyoni, the director/screenwriter of “I am not a Witch”, was born in Zambia but moved to Wales with her parents when she was 9 years old. On a visit to Zambia a few years ago, Nyoni read about how women were being accused of witchcraft just like Salem in 1693. This gave her the idea to make a film about a young girl who after wandering into a village is accused of being a witch.

This leads a local official to consign her to a kind of leper’s colony where other accused witches, all old enough to be her mother or grandmother, are forced to work in the fields of local farms as virtual slaves. Since they have been found guilty of witchcraft, they must be prevented from escaping. In keeping with the ultra-dry humor of the film, they are not held back by chains but by ribbons extending by hundreds of feet and drawn from spools on a flatbed truck.

The young girl, who is called Shula by the other accused women, is treated differently. Local officials are convinced that she can identify who is a criminal from a large group of accused men, make rain fall on a parched land by casting a spell, and generally perform supernatural feats. Her celebrity grows to the point where she is interviewed on a Zambian talk show although she refuses to talk. Throughout the film, she is totally passive while being passed from one adult to another determined to exploit her non-existent powers. I found it totally impossible to believe that a young girl would not be screaming and kicking on every occasion. Despite the title of the film, she never once cries out “I am not a witch”.

Within five minutes of Googling, I was able to ascertain that the Zambian government has set up camps for women accused of witchcraft but they exist mainly to protect them from ignorant and vengeful villagers. The nearest analogy would be battered women shelters in the USA.

Shockingly, this exploitative film has garnered a 100 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I am about to change that. If you’re up for something like this, you can see “I am not a Witch” at the Quad and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

April 12, 2018

The two degrees of separation between Robert Mercer and Chinese Communism

Filed under: Africa,China,Trump — louisproyect @ 8:58 pm

For more information on the graphic above, go to https://steemit.com/news/@cryptospreads/let-me-introduce-you-to-emerdata-ltd-a-data-processing-company-directed-by-alexander-nix-and-rebekah-mercer-among-other-shady

In yesterday’s NY Times, buried within an article on the problems Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah were having over the Cambridge Analytica fallout, there was startling revelation:

The Facebook scandal has hit just as the Mercers appear to be expanding their business in the world of big data. Public records show that Ms. Mercer, her sister Jennifer and Mr. Nix serve as directors of Emerdata, a British data company formed in August by top executives at Cambridge Analytica and its affiliate, SCL Group, according to British corporate records.

Incorporation documents state that Emerdata specializes in “data processing, hosting and related activities.” An SCL official told Channel 4, a British television station, that Emerdata was established last year to combine SCL and Cambridge under one corporate entity.

Exactly what ambitions the Mercers, who joined the Emerdata board last month, have for the company is unclear. Another Emerdata director, Johnson Ko Chun Shun, is a Hong Kong financier and business partner of Erik Prince — the brother of the education secretary, Betsy DeVos, and founder of the private security firm formerly known as Blackwater. Mr. Ko, who declined to comment, is a substantial shareholder and deputy chairman in Mr. Prince’s Africa-focused logistics company, Frontier Services Group.

Mr. Ko and Mr. Prince have links to the Chinese government: Another major Frontier investor is Citic, a state-owned Chinese financial conglomerate that for decades has employed the sons and daughters of the Communist Party’s elite families.

So, we can assume that this new company Emerdata is just a new name for the SCL Group, a British corporation that was the mothership for its American offshoot Cambridge Analytica. The NY Times states that Emerdata’s ambitions are unclear but you have to assume that it will have the same nefarious aims as the corporations under the big umbrella it provides, namely to use powerful computer systems to analyze both public and private data in order to promote crooked reactionaries like Donald Trump. While some leftists scoff at the idea that Cambridge Analytica was anything but smoke and mirrors, the idea that this kind of operation is going on in the USA or anywhere else is a threat to democracy just as much as the ability of the Mercers, the Koch brothers and any other plutocrat to pour millions into election campaigns in the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United.

If you need any other proof of Emerdata’s criminal tendencies, just consider the connections to Erik Prince. Prince’s Blackwater was a private security firm that was involved with the murder of 15 Iraqi civilians in 2007. He is also under investigation for serving as Trump’s envoy in a meeting with Putin’s representative on Seychelles island in January 2017. The Intercept reported:

The identity of the Russian individual was not disclosed, but on January 11, a Turkish-owned Bombardier Global 5000 charter plane flew Kirill Dmitriev, CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, to the Seychelles, flight records obtained by The Intercept show. Dmitriev’s plane was an unscheduled charter flight and flew to the island with two other Russian individuals, both women. The RDIF is a $10 billion sovereign wealth fund created by the Russian government in 2011.

Prince is not on the Emerdata’s board but his associate Johnson Ko Chun Shun is. Ko and Prince are the prime movers in Frontier Services Group (FSG), an innocent-sounding name for a company that functions as China’s Blackwater in Africa. To keep the restless natives at bay, Prince and Ko’s firm will serve as a subcontractor lining up goons to keep Chinese mines, oil drilling, plantations, etc. safe.

The biggest Frontier Services Group shareholder is the Citic Group, an investment fund owned and controlled by the People’s Republic of China. In addition to its Africa operations, FSG has signed contracts to support China’s One Belt, One Road initiative including building a series of bases in China’s Xinjiang Province, where the restless Uighur natives have to be kept in line as Communist “development” goes full steam ahead. I guess you all know what the One Belt, One Road initiative is all about. That’s China’s bid to defeat the cruel, imperialist West. And who better to smooth the path in front of the initiative is Erik Prince who is a past master of killing restless natives.

Most of FSG’s business is in South Sudan, however. That’s where China’s new colonial aspirations reach highest. In order to protect its oil drilling sites from attacks by militias representing tribes hostile to the state’s partnership with China, the FSG can be a life-saver for superprofits.

For a comprehensive report on FSG, I recommend the 10 page report from the Oakland Institute. It states:

Prince has spent most of his post-Blackwater years building rapidly deployable logistics, intelligence, and security capacity. His new logistics company, Frontier Services Group (FSG), has outposts in Africa, the Mediterranean region, and will soon be present in Central Asia.

Before launching FSG, Prince began assembling logistics assets in Africa to back his financial investments within his equity fund FRG. The fund advertised to external investors its ability to “leverage unique relationships and experienced management, as well as existing security and logistics capabilities,”78 allegedly a competitive advantage to access untapped subsoil resources in risky and infrastructure-lacking areas of Africa.

With FRG’s first venture, Prince secured an agreement to build an oil refinery in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State, in the locality of Thiangrial. This was a project with heavy logistics and security needs, for which Prince tapped his network of private security connections. A long time colleague, John “JP” Palen, was asked to help coordinate plane transportation for surveys and oil sampling at the site. Palen, a former US Air Force pilot, worked at Prince’s Presidential Airways from 2006 to 201081 before being employed at Transerv, an aircraft company linked to Prince’s R2 and PMPF projects.

Okay, so what’s going on here?

The most reactionary elements in American politics—the Mercers and Erik Prince—are in a alliance with the Chinese Communist Party to protect its assets in Africa and anything that stands in the way of its One Belt, One Road initiative that unfortunately some have mistakenly viewed as a big step forward toward a multipolar world. Perhaps it was easier to sustain illusions in BRICS, the One Belt, One Road initiative, and Chinese “communism” at a time before China became much more of an obvious colonizing presence in Africa. And for those sitting on the fence, these ties to Robert Mercer and Erik Prince should dispel all illusions.

August 21, 2017

Mama Africa

Filed under: Africa,Film,music — louisproyect @ 5:36 pm

If “Mama Africa”, the fine new documentary about Mariam Makeba, was nothing more than a compilation of her performances going back to the songs she sang in Lionel Rogosin’s groundbreaking anti-apartheid film “Come Back, Africa” in 1959, it would be well worth seeing. But it is more than that. It is a portrait of a leading Pan-African activist who deserves to be ranked alongside Paul Robeson as a tireless fighter for human rights for all people.

In a way, Rogosin’s film launched her career as a freedom fighter since everybody involved with it understood the risks they were taking. She only appeared briefly on stage, and sang two songs lasting four minutes but made such an impression on those who saw “Come Back, Africa” that she was invited to perform in London and New York, where she met and impressed Harry Belafonte who had by now established himself as an outspoken opponent of Jim Crow. He helped her get her first recordings made, “The Click Song” that was based on the highly percussive Xhosa language and “Pata Pata”, a dance tune she considered superficial.

One of the things that struck me about early her professional history is how much it overlapped with the folk music revival that to a large extent relied on great musicians like Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte who had been part of the Communist Party’s cultural milieu. Songs like “Wimowe” (The Lion Sleeps at Night) were often performed side-by-side with “This Land is Your Land” and “We Shall Overcome”. By 1959, the battle against Jim Crow in the South and apartheid in South Africa were closely linked in the minds of young people like Joan Baez or Peter, Paul and Mary.

Mariam Makeba was not in South Africa when the Sharpesville Massacre occurred a year later. She was anxious to attend the funerals of two family members were victims of the racist cops but discovered that her passport had been revoked. Like Paul Robeson, she had become an unperson. Because of the massacre and the violation of her right to travel freely, Makeba became even more outspoken and dedicated to eliminating apartheid.

Indeed, the film is social history as well as a personal history of Marian Makeba. As the Civil Rights movement gave way to the Black Power Movement, Makeba’s path crossed that of Stokely Carmichael, the leader of SNCC who had coined the term Black Power and become a leading Black nationalist and afterwards a Pan-Africanist who adopted the name Kwame Ture. After Carmichael and Makeba married in 1968, her songs took on a sharper political edge and were performed at rallies in the USA and Africa.

The film benefits from interviews with some of the key people who knew her as fellow musicians or activists. We hear from her bass player and drummer from the early 60s who offer thoughtful assessments of her as a person and a musician. She was beloved by everybody, especially for her readiness to prepare an elaborate meal on a moment’s notice. We also hear from her grandson Nelson Lumuba Lee who fleshes her out as a personality. He states that the accidental death of another grandson at a young age from accidentally swallowing some pills left her disconsolate and probably made performing and activism more difficult, especially as she grew older.

Makeba was able to return to a free South Africa in 1990 and became an enormous influence on younger female vocalists who pay tribute to her in the film. Indeed, it is hard to exaggerate the impact she had on African music and politics. It must be said, however, that Hugh Masekela, her most famous collaborator has a dim view of South Africa today, describing it as a neo-colonial state dominated from the West and the East.

“Mama Africa” was directed by Mika Kaurismäki, the older brother of Aki Kaurismäki—my favorite director. Mika directed a wonderful film titled “The Girl King” that I also recommend highly. It is the story of the lesbian Queen of Sweden who was tutored by Descartes—no that is not fiction! It can be seen for a mere $1.99 on Youtube.

Unfortunately, a disabled Macbook prevented me from posting this review until today but I urge my readers to try to attend a screening as indicated below:

Parkway Theater, Baltimore – 8/18 to 8/24

Austin Film Society – 9/23 & 9/30

Virginia Film Festival – 11/10 & 11/12

IFC, New York City –1/19/18 to 1/25/18

Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, Toronto – 2/27/18

I would also advise checking the distributor’s website to check about other screenings.

November 26, 2016

New York African Diaspora International Film Festival 2016

Filed under: Africa,Film — louisproyect @ 8:31 pm

Last night the African Diaspora International Film Festival (NYADIFF) opened in New York City. Based on the three films I had an opportunity to see in advance, I strongly urge you to visit their website and look for schedule information for those and other films that are intended to present such “films to diverse audiences, redesign the Black cinema experience, and strengthen the role of African and African descent directors in contemporary world cinema” as the organizers put it.

If you were like most on the left, including me, the idea of a biopic about Toussaint Louverture would be inextricably linked to a project associated with Danny Glover after he received $18 million from Hugo Chavez in 2006 to begin such a project. From the looks of http://www.louverturefilms.com/, it appears that the film will never be made since in Glover’s words the company started with Chavez’s money is now dedicated to a somewhat different agenda:

Louverture Films produces independent films of historical relevance, social purpose, commercial value and artistic integrity. Taking its name and inspiration from the leader of the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint Louverture – famous for always creating an “opening” in the face of enormous obstacles – Louverture Films partners with progressive filmmakers and producers around the world and particularly from the global South, and pro-actively supports the employment and training of cast and crew from communities of color in the United States.

As it happens, you can still see a biopic about the man whose feats CLR James celebrated in “The Black Jacobins” as part of the NYADIFF. Made for French TV in a two-part series in 2012 and directed by Phillipe Niang, a Frenchman of Senegalese heritage, this is a tightly paced historical drama with excellent performances that should be on the “must see” list of anybody trying to understand the difficulties of the colonial revolution. In many ways, the struggle led by Toussaint Louverture prefigured the chaos in Syria today with its intractable divisions and meddling by outside powers.

Niang could have easily made a film that was 1800 minutes long rather than 180 and it still would have only scratched the surface of the Haitian revolution—or more properly speaking the one that occurred on the western half of the island called Hispaniola that was divided between Spanish and French rule. Known as Saint-Domingue, it was the Pearl of the Antilles to the French and just as key to the mother country’s prosperity as Jamaica was to the British.

When the rebellion began in 1791, Louverture made tactical alliances first with the Spanish and then with the French but only in the interests of the underlying principle of abolishing slavery. Jimmy Jean-Louis, a Haitian actor who turns in a tour de force performance of Louverture, is adept at portraying the complex relationship between his character and all the elites he is forced to compromise with in order to achieve his ultimate goal. Not only does he have to deal with outside powers, he has to balance clashing interests in Saint-Domingue, including those of the slaves, the Mulattos (the term used by the characters in the film as was the case historically) and the white plantation owners—some of whom were British.

Since this is a biopic, Niang used a narrative device that ties together all of the important stages of Louverture’s struggle against slavery. Jailed in France, he is visited by Pasquier, a cop sent by Bonaparte to find out where he has supposedly buried a vast treasure accumulated during his brief rule. This entails recording the details of Louverture’s life in the hopes of finally finding out the secret hiding place of the treasure, which eventually leads to a Citizen Kane Rosebud type ending.

Sitting in his cold cell, the ailing ex-General tells his life story that function as a series of flashbacks in the film. Most of it is true, even though it hardly conforms to the image that most of us have of Toussaint Louverture. I found myself consulting “The Black Jacobins” throughout the film just to make sure that Niang wasn’t making things up.

For example, in part one we see Louverture serving as a junior officer to Georges Biassou, an early leader of the revolt who is depicted in the film as a capricious drunk. Even if Niang’s portrait was overdrawn, James described him this way: “Biassou was a fire-eater, always drunk, always ready for the fiercest and most dangerous exploits.”

If there’s any value to Niang’s film, it is that it will spur audience members to study Haitian history, starting with CLR James’s classic. I plan to read it as soon as I can since its account of events in Louverture’s reign jibes with the film, as far as I can tell from a brief foray into “The Black Jacobins”. If you had the idea that James’s classic was some kind of hagiography, you will learn that for him Louverture was a combination of Trotsky and Stalin.

In part two of the film, we see Louverture—now a governor who has declared himself President for Life—inviting plantation owners back to Haiti and imposing forced labor on the former slaves after the fashion of the American south following the end of Reconstruction. As was the case in the cotton belt, former slaves in Haiti preferred to work on their own small plots rather than pick sugar cane. The film depicts Louverture directing his soldiers to impose labor discipline on a white-owned plantation. James writes:

His regulations were harsh. The labourers were sent to work 24 hours after he assumed control of any district, and he authorised the military commandants of the parishes to take measures necessary for keeping them on the plantations. The Republic, he wrote, has no use for dull or incapable men. It was forced labour and restraint of movement. But the need brooked no barriers.

His nephew Moïse, whose mother was killed by white rapists, was much more like the Louverture of our imagination. Played effectively by Giovanni Grangerac, he is constantly pressuring his uncle from the left—a Jacobin to his uncle’s Girondist in effect. Fed up by the refusal of Louverture to go “all the way”, he leads a Nat Turner type revolt that eventually is crushed by Louverture’s troops and lands him in front of a firing squad. James writes about Moïse’s resistance:

And in these last crucial months, Toussaint, fully aware of Bonaparte’s preparations, was busy sawing off the branch on which he sat. In the North, around Plaisance, Limb, Dondon, the vanguard of the revolution was not satisfied with the new regime. Toussaint’s discipline was hard, but it was infinitely better than the old slavery. What these old revolutionary blacks objected to was working for their white masters. Moïse was the Commandant of the North Province, and Moïse sympathised with the blacks. Work, yes, but not for whites. “Whatever my old uncle may do, I cannot bring myself to be the executioner of my colour. It is always in the interests of the metropolis that he scolds me; but these interests are those of the whites, and I shall only love them when they have given me back the eye that they made me lose in battle.”

Although I can recommend seeing this film without reservations, I would be remiss if I did not mention the highly critical review by historian Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall. Titled “Happy as a Slave: The Toussaint Louverture miniseries”, her article regards it as “well-intentioned” but bordering on Margaret Mitchell territory:

While Niang likely did not realize he was doing so, the film papers over the brutality of slavery. Violence against slaves is almost non-existent. Even in isolated instances (such as an invented scene where Toussaint’s chained father drowns; another where his invented sister reports being raped; and another in which mob of angry colons chases Toussaint), the film is quick to contrast bad whites with kindly slave-owners. Whippings are completely absent; work on the plantation looks peaceful and bucolic.

Yes, all this is true but one-sided. Niang probably didn’t see the need to portray slavery as brutal since this would have been assumed at the outset. Instead the focus is on Louverture’s heroic struggle to abolish slavery and to win independence for his nation against what turned out to be insurmountable odds. I say this on the day that Fidel Castro died, a man that CLR James would have likely regarded as the Toussaint Louverture of the 20th century.

On the surface, “Seasons of a Life” sounds like a Lifetime movie. A lawyer and his wife are dealing with her inability to become pregnant and adopt a baby boy. To help the couple raise him, they hire a sixteen-year-old nanny—a poor orphan–who the boy adores.

So does the husband but on a different basis. When the wife takes a business trip, he forces himself sexually on the nanny and continues to do so whenever the wife is away. This leads to her becoming pregnant and a refusal to have an abortion that the lawyer insists on her having. After the baby boy is born, he applies pressure once again on the vulnerable young woman to put the baby up for adoption that he will have first dibs on through prior agreement with the adoption agency’s chief.

The nanny in Horatio Alger fashion gets great grades in high school and wins a scholarship to college and then into law school. Once she is established, she shows up at the man’s home and announces that she plans to sue him for custody of her child.

This is not exactly a film I would have sought out but since it was made in Malawi by a Malawian director, I decided to watch it and am damned glad I did. This is a film that will tell you far more about the ascending middle class in Africa than any Thomas Friedman column plus it is a well-written and well-acted old fashioned tale of the sort that might have starred Bette Davis. Strongly recommended.

Finally there is “Youssou N’Dour: Return to Gorée” that chronicles the great Senegalese singer’s attempt to bond with African-American musicians in a kind of pilgrimage to the New World.

Located near Dakar, Senegal, the island of Gorée was one of West Africa’s major slavery depots. The film begins with N’Dour reflecting on the great injustice done to his homeland and his hopes for a new project involving various musicians whose ancestors might have departed from this terrible place. He will visit the New World to gather together a diverse group of musicians who share a common identification with Mother Africa.

After being joined in Senegal by his pianist Moncef Genoud, a blind Frenchman born in Tunisia, the two depart for the U.S.-the first stop Atlanta, Georgia. There they meet the Harmony Harmoneers, a local gospel group that he watches performing in church. Despite his affinity for their music, he stresses the need to avoid references to Jesus in their performances together. The songs that he is recruiting fellow African descendants to sing with him have to do with children getting a good education, not being saved by Jesus. Without making any obvious points about their religious differences, we see Youssou praying toward Mecca in his hotel room later.

Next stop is New Orleans, where N’Dour looks up drummer Idris Muhammad and bass player James Cammack. Muhammad, a devout Muslim like N’Dour, is like a number of American jazz musicians who were drawn to a religion in which racial discrimination does not tend to rear its ugly head. The enlarged group now wends its way to New York, where they pick up jazz vocalist Pyeng Threadgill, who is the daughter of avant-garde musician Henry Threadgill. A reception for Youssou N’Dour includes a special guest, Amiri Baraka, who reflects on the importance of African identity for him when he became politicized in the 1960s.

Ultimately the musicians arrive back in Dakar where they hear a local griot lecture on the injustices committed at Gorée. Idris Muhammad and Pyeng Threadgill are shown bonding with local musicians and ordinary citizens.

Throughout the film, we see Youssou N’Dour in performance in a setting somewhat different from the customary Afropop context. He has obviously developed a new affinity for jazz and meshes well with his ad hoc band gathered together for the occasion. The band is eventually joined by the Harmony Harmoneers in a performance that illustrates how music is the universal vocabulary of humanity.

March 3, 2016

They Will Have to Kill Us First; Timbuktu

Filed under: Africa,Film,Jihadists — louisproyect @ 10:10 pm

Two films dealing with the jihadist takeover in northern Mali will be considered in this review. The first is a remarkable documentary titled “They Will Have to Kill Us First” that opens tomorrow at the Village East in New York; the other is “Timbuktu”, a narrative film that was released in May of 2014 and that can now be seen on Amazon streaming. While “Timbuktu” has garnered a 99 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it is not without its problems. I have to admit that I walked out on it 15 minutes into a press screening two years ago but decided to give it another try in order to survey  such films within a broader consideration of the jihadist penetration of a country whose cultural significance is impossible to exaggerate. In both films, music and its banishment provide the narrative arc.

Directed by Joanna Schwartz, “They Will Have to Kill Us First”, is a profile of a group of musicians who were forced to leave the northern towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal after Ansar Dine (Arabic for defenders of the faith), a group aligned with al-Qaeda, took over. Now they are living in Bamako, the capital of Mali, or in other countries bordering Mali such as Burkina Faso. Drawn to Mali originally to cover the annual Festival in the Desert concert, Schwartz was introduced to Khaira Arby, the “nightingale of the north” who had sought refuge in Bamako. She was the person whose words about being denied the right to sing in her hometown Timbuktu serve as the film’s title.

She also profiles another female star exiled from the north known as Disco to her fans. Her real name is Fadimata Walet Oumar, the wife of a man identified only as “Jimmy” who was a top military leader of the Tuareg insurrection that was in a united front with Ansar Dine at one point. In the tangled political history of Mali, it is necessary to acknowledge that simple divisions between “good” and “evil” were not possible. The central government in Bamako had oppressed the Tuaregs for generations just as Bashar al-Assad had oppressed the Sunni majority. When the Tuareg resistance emerged as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), it found itself tactically aligned with the jihadists of Ansar Dine, a group that was made up of members of the Ifora tribe of Tuaregs and their allies from Algeria and Nigeria. The MNLA was dedicated to carving out a territory much as the Kurds are attempting in Syria and Iraq while Ansar Dine’s goal was to create an Islamic State based on Sharia law in all of Mali. Considering the possibility that the MNLA fueled the flames that led to his wife’s exile, Jimmy struggles between his ideals and the harsh reality they collided with.

Disco’s neighbor in Timbuktu was the guitarist Moussa Sidi who is now living in exile in Burkina Faso eking out a living playing in tiny clubs and at weddings. His wife stayed behind in Gao where she worked as an MNLA activist. Jailed for her beliefs, she remained unrepentant. Unlike her, Sidi was far more interested in music and good times than politics even though as a Tuareg he opposed the oppression his people suffered and remained true to his Muslim beliefs.

Finally, there are the members of Songhoy Blues, a group with no particular connection to the Tuareg struggle who fled to Bamako to escape the violence and tyrannical social norms of the north. They exemplify the Malian esthetic with their blend of American rock, Arabic harmony and Sub-Saharan rhythms. After they came to the attention of Brian Eno, the band toured England to great acclaim.

The film mixes interviews with the various musicians and their performances. It also includes a soundtrack from other Malian musicians including Ali Farka Touré, a superstar guitarist from the north who died in 2006 long before the troubles might have driven him into exile as well.

The climax of the film consists of the musicians on a return to Timbuktu to perform before adoring fans, only made possible by the military defeat of Ansar Dine by the Malian military and French intervention on its behalf. The Tuareg question still remains unresolved.

In the press notes for “They Will Have to Kill Us First”, Schwartz provides an answer to the question “What did the extremist groups do?”:

Extremists imposing Islamic law in Mali’s north were abusing human rights, particularly those of women, and paying families for children to become rebel fighters.

They imposed an extremist version of sharia law: music, football, alcohol and cigarettes were banned. There were cases of summary execution of captured soldiers, instances of lootings, rapes, stonings, beheadings and amputations. Women were forced to be covered and their ability to work was restricted. Men were forced to wear short trousers. Forced marriages happened – with a wife costing less than $1,000. Children were enlisted to fight and their families were paid about $600 or less.

The extremists destroyed ancient shrines, manuscripts from Timbuktu, and Sufi mosques. Radio stations, mobile phone towers and satellites were also destroyed.

This is essentially the conditions described in “Timbuktu” that begins with a scene depicting machine gun fire shattering African statues.

From that point on, the film pits longtime Timbuktu residents trying in their own passive resistance way to live as they have for millennia. They are observant Muslims but resistant to the Wahhabi straightjacket that Ansar Dine is trying to impose on them. We see its chieftan wrangling with a local imam who abjures them from oppressing the people with their harsh rule. When the Salafist states that they are obeying jihad, the imam replies that he too is for jihad but only within in his own heart as he struggles to avoid evil.

In a most telling scene, Ansar Dine morality police are sent out on a mission to find out the source of music that has been banned, just like soccer and long pants for men. When they track down the culprits, they are not sure what to do since the words of the singers accompanying a jaunty tune has to do with glorifying Allah rather than chasing after the opposite sex. It doesn’t matter. They are arrested and whipped.

The main character in the film is Kidane, a Tuareg herdsman who has stayed behind with his wife and daughter in the desert not far from Timbuktu determined to survive under jihadi rule even as all of his neighbors have fled. To show that he symbolizes Tuareg traditional values, he plays the guitar in his tent to provide the kind of entertainment his people have enjoyed from time immemorial.

Eventually a quarrel with a local fisherman escalates into a violent confrontation that leaves the fisherman dead and Kidane being arrested. His trial by a Sharia court is fairly consistent with the actual practice and arguably a lot less irrational than the other rules imposed on townspeople, including one that forces women to wear gloves at all times even if they are handling fish in the marketplace.

What the film lacks, and to an extent this is true of the documentary as well, is any kind of background on what caused Ansar Dine to be spawned and its ambivalent relationship to the long suffering Tuareg people. By characterizing Ansar militants as a kind of horror movie deus ex machina, and by failing to put its invasion into any kind of context, the film suffers from a certain amount of dramatic flattening. It would have made for a more interesting film if the leader of the jihadists had a back story that explained why he became such a fanatic. Since director Abderrahmane Sissako represented him as an Arab who did not even speak the local language, he remained rather opaque.

That being said, the film is definitely worth watching especially if you are trying to get a handle on the local manifestation of a global problem that some regard as the greatest threat to Western civilization since the days of the Ottoman Empire at its height. Perhaps the one-sided portrayal of the jihadists explains the 99 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. With Arab terrorists and fanatics replacing the Communists and Nazis as evil incarnate, films such as “Timbuktu” satisfy a certain self-righteousness in the intelligentsia. It would have been a far more interesting film if it accurately reflected the true leader of Ansar Dine, who in fact was not an Arab but a Tuareg named Iyad Ag Ghaly who was a native son of northern Mali.

Ghaly was a leader of the Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s that foreshadowed the 2012 events depicted in the film. Indeed, his evolution into a hardcore Salafist could have provided a most interesting back story that would have enriched the film, as indicated by a fascinating article that appeared in the March 30 2012 Time Magazine (http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2110673,00.html):

The vitriolic falling out between ag Ghali and the MNLA goes some way to illustrating the complicated tapestry of interests and tensions within the Tuareg rebellion, a topic that swam into focus first after weaponry from Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s looted arsenals flooded into the Sahara last year. With thousands of expatriate Tuaregs who worked for Gaddafi’s military forced to flee Libya amid the revolutionary chaos, much of the hardware is thought to have made its way to northern Mali. Desolate and unpoliceable, this swathe of desert and rocky scrub is also home to the regional terror franchise, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. That combination set alarm bells ringing. What, exactly, was the relationship between Tuareg fighters, with access to large quantities of heavy weaponry, and AQIM?

The truth, of course, is complicated. With an eye to U.S. military assistance, economic aid, international sympathy, the Malian government has much to gain by tarring the MNLA with the al-Qaeda brush — but the links are tenuous. True, over the years al-Qaeda emirs “are said to have worked to create some local relationships, both through marriage and transactions with some segments of local Tuareg and Arab communities,” explains Andrew Lebovich, an analyst with the Navanti Group who focuses on Sahelian issues. But “AQIM itself has yet to claim a role in the [Tuareg rebellion], and no overt evidence has been produced to show an AQIM role in the fighting in the north.”

Nor is Tuareg society the best fodder for Islamic fundamentalists. “Tuaregs prefer to worry about enjoying this life rather than… ensuring the perfect afterlife,” a U.S. diplomat wrote in 2009. Tuareg women go unveiled; the menfolk cover their faces but drink and dance. In fact, it is the government in Bamako — rather than the veiled warriors of the north — that may have abetted the terrorists. In 2010, an Algerian diplomat told his US counterpart that someone in the Malian establishment had tipped off AQIM operatives ahead of a combined Algerian-Malian mission against the organization, enabling the terrorists to slip the net. “It looks worse than weakness on the part of the Malians,” the Algerian diplomat growled. “It looks like willful complicity.”

Yet none of this helps explain ag Ghali and his defenders of the faith. “Iyad is a special case,” says Andy Morgan, author of a forthcoming book on the Tuareg and a former band manager of Tuareg rockers Tinariwen. “He has undoubted strengths as a political and military leader, with a perhaps a greater grasp of political tactics and subterfuge than any other Tuareg. [And] he was as much of a hedonist as many of the other [Tuareg] living in Algeria and Libya… apparently, a great fan of cigarettes, booze and partying.” Later, the story goes, ag Ghali underwent a religious re-birth, growing a voluminous beard and getting kicked out of Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, during a diplomatic posting, for consorting with jihadists.

Speaking of Tinariwen:

 

November 13, 2015

Democracy, Mugabe-Style

Filed under: Africa,democracy — louisproyect @ 3:32 pm

Democracy, Mugabe-Style

Beginning on Wednesday November 18th, the Film Forum in New York will be showing “Democrats”, a cinéma vérité documentary judged best at the Tribeca Film Festival this year. Directed by Camilla Nielsson, a Danish director trained at NYU who has made political documentaries since 2003, it consists exclusively of footage of two Zimbabwean lawyers as they go around the country making the case for and against Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF. On the pro side is Paul Mangwana, a former Minister of Information; on the con side is Douglas Mwonzora, an adviser to Morgan Tsvangirai, the head of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Both men have been assigned by their rival parties to work on a new constitution. It is 2008, when Mugabe and Tsvangirai rule Zimbabwe in a nominally power-sharing arrangement that resulted from political and economic pressure, particularly from the USA and Britain. Serving on the Constitutional Parliamentary Committee (COPAC), they traveled across the country over a three year period to monitor community meetings tacitly organized to hear ordinary people express their views on matters such as term limits, etc.

Almost as if on cue from central casting, the ZANU-PF representative Paul Mangwana is cynical and mocking, implying on numerous occasions that he regards the whole exercise as a dog and pony show. By contrast, Mwonzora is sober and thoughtful.

However, don’t expect a simple morality tale to unfold. The film is much more interested in demonstrating the tangled nature of Zimbabwean politics where Mugabe’s continuing rule after 35 years is only partially based on violence. To a large extent the dominance of the ZANU-PF is a function of the ineptitude of the opposition as can be gleaned from a key scene. When Mwonzora shows up at rural village to get a report on how the meetings on the draft constitution went, an MDC member tells him it did not go well at all. Their party members showed up drunk and unclear about their purpose. For Mangwana, the domination of the meeting by ZANU-PF members was easy to understand. Smiling like the cat that ate the canary, he says that his party was better organized.

Read full review

October 30, 2015

Sembène and the Spirit of Rebellion

Filed under: Africa,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:40 pm

Saul Bellow once asked tauntingly “who was the Zulu Tolstoy” in an obvious dismissal of African potential. Considering the career of filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, who is the subject of the great documentary “Sembène” that opens on November 6th at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York, you would conclude that the potential is enormous, held back only by what Andre Gunder Frank once called the development of underdevelopment.

Although I have been following Sembène’s film career for decades, “Sembène” offered new insights into what a genius he was. Born in 1923, his father a fisherman, Sembène fell in love with movies at an early age after seeing scenes of Jesse Owens’ track victories in Leni Riefenstahl’s pro-Nazi Olympics documentary. “For the first time,” he told the LA Times in 1995, “a black honored us by beating whites. . . . It became the film for the young people of my generation.” We can be sure that this was not Riefenstahl’s intention.

Sembène quit high school after punching out a teacher who had hit him first. He then joined the Free French army during World War II. After the war he became a rail worker, participating in an epochal Dakar-Niger railroad strike in 1947-48. After stowing away in a ship to France, he became a longshoreman in Marseilles and a member of the French Communist Party.

In France he started writing fiction in order to depict the reality of modern African life that could best be represented by the African. As the documentary points out, he was to become a modern version of the griot, the travelling storyteller who was to Africa as Homer was to the Greeks. Indeed, the real question is “who was the African Homer”, not Tolstoy. The answer is that Ousmane Sembène comes pretty close.

His first novel “The Black Docker” was published in 1956. But in the early 1960s, Sembène decided to turn his attention to filmmaking (“the people’s night school”) because most Africans were illiterate and could only be reached with this medium. His films would follow the same road as his writing, to offer an alternative to Tarzan movies and garish epics like “Mandingo.” “We have had enough of feathers and tom-toms,” he said.

read full article

May 5, 2014

Obiang’s enablers

Filed under: Africa,corruption,oil — louisproyect @ 9:48 pm

President Barack Obama, President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, and their First Ladies

From Wikipedia:

Controversy

In July 2003, state-operated radio declared Obiang “the country’s god” and had “all power over men and things.” It added that the president was “in permanent contact with the Almighty” and “can decide to kill without anyone calling him to account and without going to hell.” He personally made similar comments in 1993. Macías had also proclaimed himself a god.[14]

Obiang has encouraged his cult of personality by ensuring that public speeches end in well-wishing for himself rather than for the republic. Many important buildings have a presidential lodge, many towns and cities have streets commemorating Obiang’s coup against Macías, and many people wear clothes with his face printed on them.[15][16]

Like his predecessor and other African dictators such as Idi Amin and Mobutu Sese Seko, Obiang has assigned to himself several creative titles. Among them are “gentleman of the great island of Bioko, Annobón and Río Muni.”[17] He also refers to himself as El Jefe (the boss).[18]

In 2008, American journalist Peter Maass identified Obiang as Africa’s worst dictator, worse than Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.[19]

Since the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011, Obiang has been the world’s longest-ruling non-royal head of state.

In an October 2012 interview on CNN, Christiane Amanpour asked Obiang whether he would step down at the end of the current term (2009–2016) since he has been reelected at least four times in his over thirty years’ reign. In a Gaddafi-like reply, Obiang categorically refused to step down at the end of the term despite the limits set on presidential service in the 2011 constitution.[20]

Abuses

Abuses under Obiang have included “unlawful killings by security forces; government-sanctioned kidnappings; systematic torture of prisoners and detainees by security forces; life threatening conditions in prisons and detention facilities; impunity; arbitrary arrest, detention, and incommunicado detention.”[21]

Wealth

Forbes magazine has said that Obiang, with a net worth of US$600 million, is one of the world’s wealthiest heads of state.[22] Official sources have complained that Forbes is wrongly counting state property as personal property.[23]

In 2003, Obiang told his citizenry that he felt compelled to take full control of the national treasury in order to prevent civil servants from being tempted to engage in corrupt practices. To avoid this corruption, Obiang deposited more than half a billion dollars into accounts controlled by Obiang and his family at Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C., leading a U.S. federal court to fine the bank $16 million.[24] Later scrutiny by a United States Senate investigation in 2004 found that the Washington-based Riggs Bank took $300 million on behalf of Obiang from Exxon Mobil and Amerada Hess.[25]

In 2008, the country became a candidate of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative – an international project meant to promote openness about government oil revenues – but never qualified and missed an April 2010 deadline.[25] Transparency International includes Equatorial Guinea as one of its twelve most-corrupt states.[25][26]

Beginning in 2007 Obiang, along with several other African state leaders, came under investigation for corruption and fraud in the use of funds. He was suspected of using public funds to finance his private mansions and luxuries, both for himself and his family. He and his son, in particular, owned several properties and supercars in France. In addition, several complaints were filed in US courts against Obiang’s son. Their attorney’s stressed that the funds appropriated by both Obiang’s were done so entirely legally under Equatoguinean laws, although they may not agree with international standards.[27]

From the Militant newspaper, a socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people:

N.Y. conference discusses
Equatorial Guinea today
(feature article)

BY MARTÍN KOPPEL
HEMPSTEAD, New York—A three-day international conference at Hofstra University on Long Island was a forum for discussion and debate on a wide range of topics about Equatorial Guinea—its history, economic development, languages, natural resources, literature and art, biodiversity, and ethnic composition and conflicts. The event, held here April 2-4, was titled “Between Three Continents: Rethinking Equatorial Guinea on the 40th Anniversary of Its Independence from Spain.”

Equatorial Guinea, a Central African country of about 1 million inhabitants, gained its independence from Spanish colonial rule in October 1968. For 11 years the people of Equatorial Guinea faced a brutal dictatorship under the first president, Francisco Macías, who in 1979 was overthrown by young Guinean military officers led by Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the current president. Since the mid-1990s the exploitation of the country’s newly discovered oil and natural gas reserves has turned it into the third-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa.

In what was one of the least economically developed nations in Africa, the government is today using some of the revenues from the labor of those who work in the oil fields to begin to create the nationwide infrastructure necessary for industrial development—such as paved roads, electrification, cellular phone networks, safe water distribution, primary health care, and the national university. Equatorial Guinea remains marked by the contradictions between this rapid transformation of production and the legacy of millennia of economic activity based on hunting, fishing, and subsistence agriculture, distorted by subjugation to slave traders and colonial domination.

(clip)

December 20, 2013

Screening Slavery

Filed under: Africa,Film,slavery — louisproyect @ 6:22 pm

We need more films like “Quilombo”–about slave revolts rather than slavery.

Counterpunch Weekend Edition December 20-22, 2013

Screening Slavery
by LOUIS PROYECT

In a podcast discussion between veteran film critic Armond White and two younger film journalists focused on their differences over “12 Years a Slave” (White, an African-American with a contrarian bent hated it), White argued in favor of benchmarks. How could the two other discussants rave about Steve McQueen’s film without knowing what preceded it? That was all the motivation I needed to see the two films White deemed superior to McQueen’s—“Beloved” and “Amistad”—as well as other films about slavery that I had not seen before, or in the case of Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Queimada” and Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Sansho the Bailiff” films I had not seen in many years. This survey is not meant as a definitive guide to all films about the “peculiar institution” but only ones that are most familiar. Even if I characterize a film as poorly made, I still recommend a look at all of them since as a body of work they shed light on the complex interaction of art and politics, a topic presumably of some interest to CounterPunch readers.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/12/20/screening-slavery/

December 7, 2013

Thoughts triggered by the passing of Nelson Mandela

Filed under: Africa,philosophy — louisproyect @ 2:05 pm

In December of 1987 I traveled to southern Africa with a small Tecnica delegation to meet with the African National Congress then still in exile over the feasibility of extending our Nicaragua technical aid project to the ANC and the frontline states.

We were invited to Thabo Mbeki’s house in Lusaka, Zambia where his wife Zanele asked me to take a look at her laptop computer. She was having trouble saving the file she was working on, which was Oliver Tambo’s speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the ANC. It turns out that she needed to put a formatted floppy diskette into the B drive in order to save Tambo’s speech. Once she did that, the speech was saved for posterity’s sake. I just discovered that the speech, which was delivered on May 13, 1988, can now be read online.

Tambo expressed his solidarity with revolutionary Nicaragua in the speech:

We must also pay tribute to the people of Central America who are daily sacrificing their lives for justice and peace. In this connection we support the peace efforts undertaken by the Sandinista Government and would also like to associate ourselves with those Non-Aligned countries who have expressed their support for the Nicaraguan Government`s candidature to host the next Non-Aligned Summit Meeting in Managua.

He also paid tribute to Nelson Mandela who was still in prison:

In July of this year, our organisation, the masses of our people and the rest of the international community will observe the 70th birthday of that great African patriot and revolutionary, Comrade Nelson Mandela. This will be an occasion further to intensify the campaign for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, the release of all detainees and the granting of prisoner-of-war status to all captured freedom fighters.

Just two years after Tambo gave this speech, Daniel Ortega would lose the election to Violeta Chamorro, the American-backed politician who would be the culmination of Ronald Reagan’s campaign to make the Nicaraguans “cry uncle”. Ortega was only able to return to power by forsaking the historical Sandinista program for socialism.

On February 11th 1990 Nelson Mandela would walk out of a South African prison, and four years later he became president of South Africa, serving five years. Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, whose policies parallel that of the chastened FSLN in Nicaragua, succeeded him in office. In an article that appeared in the January 10, 2013 issue of Foreign Policy, there’s a frank description of “Orteganomics” that sounds a lot like what the ANC has been carrying out since taking office:

Although Ortega campaigned on the Christianity, socialism and solidarity platform of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s Alianza Bolivariana (ALBA), his regime has few of the trappings common to other ALBA countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and several Caribbean islands. His actions to date suggest he is politically authoritarian, economically pro-business, socially populist — and, above all else, pragmatic. This mix translates as an eclectic set of policies that can best be characterized as Orteganomics.

The Marxist slogans of the revolutionary period are gone, as is direct government involvement in production. In fact, Ortega’s economic model retains many of the legal and regulatory underpinnings of his predecessors’ policies. In its October 2007 reconciliation with the IMF, the Sandinista government pledged to implement policies linked to targets on fiscal discipline, along with spending on poverty and energy regulation.

Sometimes I wonder how I keep at it. As I approach my 69th birthday in January, every single mass revolutionary movement I have organized to defend has turned out this way once taking power. If you had told me in 1967, when I joined the Trotskyist movement, that a victorious NLF would join the Communists in the north in transforming Vietnam into a nation in which there are billionaires, I would have laughed in your face. But here it is from the March 25, 2013 issue of Forbes, the magazine that proudly describes itself as a “capitalist tool”:

On a brilliant morning last October Dong Khoi Street, the premier commercial thoroughfare in Saigon, was closed for nearly two hours to celebrate the opening of Vincom Center A, a precisely, if infelicitously, named shopping center. The development was remarkable, not just for its scale (410,000 square feet of commercial space; three floors of underground parking; a 300-room, five-star hotel) or for its high-end tenants (Versace, Hermès, Dior) but simply because it was opening at all. Vietnam’s real estate market had been frozen hard since crashing in 2011, with at least 13.5% of the country’s $10 billion in real estate loans having gone bad.

But Pham Nhat Vuong, the man most responsible for this $500 million commercial triumph in the heart of what is still officially called Ho Chi Minh City, wasn’t drinking any champagne, cutting any ribbons or giving any speeches. Rather, the 44-year-old quietly watched the ceremony from a front-row seat. “I prefer sipping happiness by myself,” Pham explains later, in a rare interview from his elegant new offices in Hanoi’s Vincom Village, another of his projects.

After returning from Zambia in early 1988, Michael Urmann, the founder and executive director of Tecnica, hired his old friend and comrade Hari Dillon to supervise the expansion of our organization into Africa. By 1990, when the ANC was legalized, we had dozens of volunteers working in the offices of the ANC and COSATU training people in the use of databases and spreadsheets just as we had done in Nicaragua. Michael and Hari had been in the Maoist Progressive Labor Party in the late 60s and had kept in touch. After leaving the party, Hari had become a key anti-apartheid activist in the Bay Area and his connections helped us raise funds for our work in Africa. Unfortunately, the ouster of Daniel Ortega dried up funds for Tecnica and eventually we folded—when I am not exactly sure.

Not long afterwards Hari took a job with the Vanguard Foundation, a Bay Area philanthropic group that funded leftist causes. I had lost touch with Hari for over 20 years but was shocked to discover about a year ago that he had been arrested for misuse of Vanguard funds. I kept in touch with him throughout the trial until his sentencing in January of 2013. He is going to serve three years and four months as the San Francisco Gate reported that month:

An East Bay man who stole $2.5 million from investors in the San Francisco nonprofit he headed while it was being driven into bankruptcy by con man Samuel “Mouli” Cohen was sentenced to three years and four months in federal prison Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer sentenced Hari Dillon to a prison term 10 months longer than federal prosecutors had recommended after a hearing that included testimony from some of Dillon’s victims, investors in the now-defunct Vanguard Public Foundation.

“He decimated the lives of those he called friends,” said Cindy Woods, who described herself as a former friend of Dillon’s and a swindled investor, along with her family. “He’s simply a sociopath, not a victim.”

The FBI issued a press release that described what Hari did with the money contributors trusted him with:

Dillon admitted that while soliciting and collecting these fees, he defrauded various victims by intentionally failing to tell them that he intended to and did use some of their contributions for his own personal expenses. For example, according to his plea agreement, Dillon used approximately $60,000 to pay his American Express bills. In addition, the government noted in connection with sentencing that Dillon used victim money toward luxury hotel expenses, fine dining, limousine travel, and other personal expenses. In all, Dillon admitted that of the tens of millions he solicited and collected for this investment, most of which he passed on to Cohen, Dillon skimmed not less than $2.5 million, defrauding his victims out of that amount.

I knew Hari when he lived modestly in a San Francisco apartment on a Tecnica salary. I am tempted to say that his evolution into someone staying at luxury hotels parallels the evolution of the FSLN in Nicaragua and the ANC in South Africa.

When I visited Thabo Mbeki back in 1987-88, I had suspicions that he was someone used to the good life. He lived in a two-story house in Lusaka and drove a Mercedes-Benz that was parked in the driveway. His father Govan was known as a member of the South African Communist Party and was arrested along with Nelson Mandela. As it turns out, Thabo Mbeki was also a CP’er, Mercedes-Benz and all.

And, surprise of surprises, so was Nelson Mandela. I refer you to the South African Communist Party’s website:

At his arrest in August 1962, Nelson Mandela was not only a member of the then underground South African Communist Party, but was also a member of our Party’s Central Committee. To us as South African communists, Cde Mandela shall forever symbolise the monumental contribution of the SACP in our liberation struggle. The contribution of communists in the struggle to achieve the South African freedom has very few parallels in the history of our country. After his release from prison in 1990, Cde Madiba became a great and close friend of the communists till his last days.

There was a time, when I was much younger, when I would have made some “smug” remark about Stalinism but after seeing that Trotskyism was no prophylactic against corruption, I will avoid that temptation. In fact I had high hopes that the South African Communist Party would turn out different. At least I can take solace that one of the party’s top leaders has never lost faith. Here’s Ronnie Kasrils from the June 23, 2013 Guardian:

What I call our Faustian moment came when we took an IMF loan on the eve of our first democratic election. That loan, with strings attached that precluded a radical economic agenda, was considered a necessary evil, as were concessions to keep negotiations on track and take delivery of the promised land for our people. Doubt had come to reign supreme: we believed, wrongly, there was no other option; that we had to be cautious, since by 1991 our once powerful ally, the Soviet union, bankrupted by the arms race, had collapsed. Inexcusably, we had lost faith in the ability of our own revolutionary masses to overcome all obstacles. Whatever the threats to isolate a radicalising South Africa, the world could not have done without our vast reserves of minerals. To lose our nerve was not necessary or inevitable. The ANC leadership needed to remain determined, united and free of corruption – and, above all, to hold on to its revolutionary will. Instead, we chickened out.

So what keeps me going? In a way I feel like Sisyphus, the King of Corinth in Greek mythology who the gods force to eternally roll a huge boulder up a hill that rolls back on him just as he reaches the top. I first learned of the myth of Sisyphus back in 1961 when I was a freshman at Bard College. Back then existentialism was all the rage. The acrid smell of Gauloise cigarettes hung heavy in the campus coffee shop as 18 year olds discussed the meaninglessness of life. You can read Camus’s book online. I haven’t looked at it since 1961 and tend to look askance at Camus nowadays, especially for his waffling on the war of independence in Algeria. I have to admit, however, that a favorable review of his correspondence from that period by George Scialabba, a writer I admire very much, might force me to take a second look.

Most of Camus’s book is an examination of existential beliefs focused on the question of whether suicide is justifiable in the face of an absurd world. Since I tend to shy away from such discussions, I went directly to the pages that deal with the Greek myth itself. Camus writes:

His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing. If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there is but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable. For the rest, he knows himself to be the master of his days. At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s eye and soon sealed by his death. Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling.

“There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night”. I guess those words describe my absurd commitment to Marxism. Like the Greek gods who condemned Sisyphus to repeat a futile act throughout eternity, I will continue to push that rock up the hill for the rest of my life. I don’t know if I will ever see the sun but it is the shadows of a savage system that keeps me going.

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