The World Unseen
In this remarkable début novel the reader is pitched headlong into the closed and rigorously demarcated world of 1950s South Africa, seen through the eyes of two young Indian women, Amina and Miriam. The two women are as different as can be. Miriam is a dutiful wife and mother, attempting to reconcile her hopes and dreams with the harsh realities of life and struggling to remain positive despite her loneliness in the sweltering, isolated hamlet of Delhof. Amina is a rebellious and unconventional soul: a taxi driver and café owner who is constantly searching for ways to defy the apartheid laws. Despite their differing personalities, the two meet and hit it off, a friendship that has unforeseen effects on Miriam, leading her to question the traditions and conventions she has been brought up with.
The writing in The World Unseen is uncluttered and assured and the author has created a strong cast of supporting characters the reader can empathise with, from Amina’s partner Jacob and her scandalized grandmother, visiting from India, to Miriam’s conventional and hidebound husband Omar. The themes Shamim Sarif tackles are big ones – community, conformity, freedom and responsibility – but they are handled so lightly and naturally that the reader never feels bludgeoned by ‘issues’. This is an honest and deeply humane portrait of ordinary people struggling, in the depths of a merciless system, to give their own individual meaning to their lives.
The Assassination of Lumumba
The murder of Congo’s first democratically elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba has been deliberately shrouded in mystery for over 40 years. An elaborate but messy cover-up and a stalled UN investigation have allowed the true sequence of events to be obfuscated. Lumumba rose to prominence on a wave of people power during the heady days of decolonization in Africa. Within three years the nationalist movement forced Belgium’s hand into giving the Congolese their independence.
But whereas the brutal former colonial power wanted a compliant, malleable African government that would allow Western companies to continue to extract Congo’s valuable mineral resources, Lumumba wanted independence on terms that would benefit the Congolese people. The West – Belgium, the US, Britain and the United Nations – united against him and within seven months Lumumba had been assassinated.
The Belgian Government – with the help of mercenaries – went on to crush the nationalist movement in the rest of the country. In the process some 200,000 Congolese were killed before the corrupt Mobutu was installed as a Western-friendly military dictator. De Witte’s meticulous reconstruction might, for the casual reader, feel overburdened with detail at times. But it’s worth persevering with because the damning evidence he amasses – much of it in the conspirators’ own words – is sufficient to implicate a string of leading Belgian officials right up to the then Prime Minister as well as the UN Secretary-General at the time, Dag Hammarskjöld. Indeed, the book has now forced an official enquiry in Belgium.
Whilst the battle for control over the resources of the Congo (now DR Congo) continues today this important book restores Congolese history and saves it from the official version peddled by those directly implicated in the affair.
Books on globalization are landing on reviewers’ desks thick and fast in the sudden flurry to get a grip on (and make money from) the world’s dominant trend. Books on sex are... well, as popular as ever.
Yet, this book, combining the two, is refreshingly original if not unique. Australian politics professor Dennis Altman is a wonderfully clear writer and thinker with a magpie skill for accumulating relevant nuggets of information. This makes Global Sex both illuminating and fascinating.
We get bizarre details of the exponential growth of cybersex (the computer room is now, apparently, the busiest place in some sex clubs) alongside hard-hitting analyses of how the rampant commodification of sex affects the most vulnerable: poor women and children caught up in the ever-growing sex trade. His perception of the oppressive puritanism of religious fundamentalism as a result of, and reaction to, economic globalization is particularly useful.
In an era when sex is most commonly linked with contemporary capitalism, Altman’s presentation of the politics of sex is clear and refreshing. Persuasively, he argues that a ‘meaningful sexual politics in a globalizing world must involve both the iniquities of the larger socio-economic order, and those implicated in the broader structures of sex and gender, which are constantly being remade through the very processes of globalization’.
Global Sex is dazzlingly ambitious in its scope, ranging from fellatio in the White House and bulimia in Fiji to aids in Africa and transgender in Taiwan. It also acts as a timely reminder that the personal is still political.
Vital Signs 2001-2002
The one-billion-dollar expenditure on Viagra in the rich world exceeded the health budgets of most developing countries in 2000-01. Between 1999 and 2000, the total global area under transgenic crops increased by only 11 per cent as opposed to 40-per-cent a year between 1996 and 1999, reflecting growing public concern. The US, Argentina and Canada now contain 98 per cent of the area cultivating these crops.
These ‘statistical snapshots’ from the Worldwatch Institute’s Vital Signs 2001-2002 are some of the indicators which are generally ignored by economists, governments and the media. But they serve to illustrate and predict global conditions in terms of wealth disparity and ecological sustainability.
The latest instalment in an annual series, Vital Signs 2001-2002 consists of short chapters summarizing world trends from global warming to education, from soybean harvests to refugee movements. Insightful analysis, combined with concise explanation of the data’s relevance, makes the profusion of statistics intriguing rather than dull or overwhelming. The accompanying graphs and tables may be visually uninspiring, but they are at least clear and easy to interpret. The tone of the writing is informal without being patronizing and, despite the fairly daunting implications of some of the trends revealed, the book kindles optimism by noting developments such as the growth in socially responsible investment and sustainable modes of transportation. Vital Signs, then, is exactly what its title suggests.
Made in Medina
That Rachid Taha’s Made in Medina opens with a track that splices a deliciously sulky North African melody line with some crashingly loud electric guitar bursts, is possibly a sign that not all Algerian music can be lumped into the rai category. ‘Barra Barra’ (Outside) – sung by Taha in Arabic with an emphatically rolled double-r – is a blistering call to the alienated youth of the Paris banlieux. Made in Medina is definitely, and defiantly, more Clash than Khaled.
The agenda has moved on in the 15 years since Algeria’s first wave of protest pop hit the airwaves. Born in Algeria, resident in Paris, Taha’s concerns may be resolutely French in their subject matter – including racism – but his medium looks towards a synthesis of Maghrebi, Egyptian and Western beats to deliver its blow. Teaming up with System 7 producer Steve Hillage, Made in Medina integrates without compromise.
Ever since Taha’s band, Carte de Séjour (Residence Permit) recorded a furious rendering of the patriotic song ‘Douce France’ (Sweet France), banned by French radio, it has been clear that this is a musician to watch out for. Since then he’s brought Arabic beats into a mainstream consciousness. But Made in Medina isn’t – even with songs like ‘Foqt Foqt’ (I’m not taken in) – all snarl. Femi Kuti guests on the delirious, flamenco-infused ‘Medina’ while ‘Qalantiqa’ alludes to frenetic Algerian folk music (much handclapping and impromptu yelps) and the glory days of 1940s rai. All in all, an ambitious project.
My Beautiful Sinking Ship
They may call California ‘the Sunshine State’ but there is a bit of LA that is forever shrouded in darkest gloom. It’s the place where the Devics live and its boundaries resonate to the sounds of fractured bar-room piano, melancholic basslines and vocals of such abject misery that Tom Waits or Nick Cave had better take note. You’ve probably realized by now that the Devics’ third album is a glorious affair.
But My Beautiful Sinking Ship is far more than a 15-track gloom fest – although it must be said that nothing uncomplicatedly happy seems to happen in a Devics’ song. A quartet dominated by Sarah Lov’s strong, edgy and decidedly mellifluous vocals and Dustin O’Halloran’s piano/guitar, the Devics occupy the sonic if not psychic territory of a broken vision of popular song. Through their refracting lenses, the album’s title song and the pure emotional collapse of ‘The Man I Love’ echo Weimar cabaret paired with an understated blues. At other points, a deliberately scratchy production – it’s here where the undertow acoustic bass and drums of Ed Maxwell and Evan Schnabel come into their own – conjures up a filmic feel. There is a knowing humour here. The Devics are a band steeped in the history of popular song, but ultimately the strength of My Beautiful Sinking Ship is in a flexible economy that could, with a bit of luck, reposition American songwriting.
Amazons in Saris
At the age of 16, in order to get to know her father’s family, filmmaker Nathalie Khanna made her first trip to India. She was appalled by what she found. Not that her father’s family were anything other than warm and welcoming. What shocked her was the realization that India was an apartheid state; that in spite of rhetoric and laws to the contrary the caste system which relegates 160 million Indians to the status of dalits or ‘untouchables’ is still alive – and killing.
Khanna returned more recently to pursue an image that had captured her imagination: that of dalit women carrying guns. In the state of Bihar a group of village women had armed themselves after the gang rape and murder of one of their colleagues.
Atrocities committed against dalits by the private armies of the landowning caste are a common occurrence. Indeed, this 46-minute video film carries shocking footage of an overnight raid carried out by the private army Ranvi Sena during which 60 innocent dalits were slain. But the plight of Bihar’s dalits is getting worse. Caste is used by various political groups to garner support – and it is not in the politicians’ interests to get rid of it. Supposed links with the communist Naxalites is sometimes given as a reason for killing dalits, but the more fundamental reason is to keep the most exploited and oppressed of India’s people in their place.
Khanna’s film is a search for Bihar’s dalit army of women, the ‘amazons in saris’ of the title. It is also something of a soul-search for the French-Indian director. The result is not an unqualified success, but it is a genuine and heartfelt attempt to get to grips with a subject that is all too often sidestepped by journalists working in India. The pain, outrage and frustration of being a dalit comes across keenly. The overall political message is clear: what’s needed is a national movement to liberate dalits. A sensitive, thoughtful and necessary documentary.
Louise Gray views the inspired South African satirist.
When democracy finally arrived in South Africa, some wondered what would happen to the career of apartheid’s foremost satirist, Pieter-Dirk Uys. This was an actor who, often likened to Barry Humphries’ Dame Edna Everage, never shied away from putting on a dress to make a point.
And Uys’s point was quite simple: apartheid was an inhuman system which, in relegating the country’s majority population to servitude, was also brutalizing the white majority who ran it. Dressed up in a full-length spangled gown and a maniacally coiffured wig as he introduced Evita Bezuidenhout – ‘the most famous white woman in South Africa’ – his unashamedly edgy satire soon found its mark.
Uys – who, born in 1945 as the child of an Afrikaner Calvinist father and Jewish Berlin-born mother, was able to boast that he’d come from two chosen people – had created a monster to deal with a monstrosity. Members of the Afrikaaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) – he would refer to them as a load of ‘eccentric overweight old-fashioned former Nationalists’ – would turn up at increasingly popular shows to start riots. On one occasion, Uys found piles of rocks under the theatre seats after a show: the AWB had, in the midst of getting (or perhaps totally misunderstanding) Evita’s barbs, forgotten to stone him.
But even in the new South Africa, it became clear that the country needed satire as much as ever. Although a simple reading of recent politics might suggest that Uys’s work was done – Mandela had embraced him, Archbishop Tutu danced with Evita – the reality was quite different. Post-apartheid shows like Truth Omissions (1996) and Dekaffirnated (1999) questioned the ease of transition towards majority rule. Although no-one who has seen Uys’s performance can doubt his passion for justice, he is, like the best kind of clown, someone also able to stand on the sidelines, to hold an accusing mirror towards society.
Nowhere has this been more stark than in what has become his one-man campaign for aids education. In a country where an unbelievable one in nine has aids, the whole issue of prevention and treatment is a proverbial hot potato, When President Thabo Mbeki publicly doubted the link between the hiv virus and aids, there was worldwide outrage from scientists. But there was also dismay: even if the Government did accept the link, the country hasn’t the resources to afford the combination therapies available in the West.
It’s into this highly charged arena that Uys has leapt. Since 1999, he has been visiting schools – in townships, cities, everywhere – lecturing children on the necessity for safe sex. ‘It’s ridiculous that an old queen has to go out talking to kids about heterosexual sex,’ he jokes in his current show, Foreign Aids. He’s aware that the activity puts him at odds with both Calvinist and traditional societies. But, he counters, he lives in a country where infected men think that sleeping with a young virgin is a cure for aids and where a government minister can talk about making an anti-viral muti or magic potion out of peach leaves.
Uys has spoken to over 300,000 schoolchildren in the past year, financing this from his cabaret and show earnings. Uys ends his Foreign Aids show by bounding from the stage to the theatre foyer, setting up a makeshift stall and selling beaded ribbons for as much as people can afford. They have been made as part of a project started by another extraordinary South African, a schoolgirl called Nqobani Mkhwanazi, to raise money for the Wola Nani centre for hiv-positive teenage mothers and babies. It’s only by seeing the catastrophe for what it is, argues Uys, that we can start to focus on survival. Amen to that.
For more information about Pieter-Dirk Uys: www.evita.co.za