Tuesday, December 15, 2009
If you don’t know rugby, a touchdown is called a try. This movie about the great World Cup rugby game at the beginning of Mandela’s Presidency definitely scores. It takes place when South Africa’s shaky new multiracial democracy was still finding its feet after years of white rule. Mandela needed to make peace and heal the land. He saw an opportunity to create rapprochement and a national bonding experience by embracing the game beloved by his former enemy and despised by his supporters.
However, there are also some fumbles - the other meaning if you will – of “try”.
Without doubt, Morgan Freeman gives an Oscar-worthy reincarnation of Mandela – thus putting himself firmly in the King-Poitier-Ali-Crosby-Oprah-Obama pantheon of black-people who radically changed white perceptions. Matt Damon too, gives a great aw-shucks performance as an innocent racist who understands how much he has to change. You’ll barely recognize this bulked up version of Damon and his South African accent is flawless. But, for the most part they are stock characters – you don’t really know what makes Mandela tick and you can’t fully grasp the transformation of Pienaar (Damon), the rugby captain, because you just don’t know that much about him.
While the movie works well at the storytelling level, it also rings somewhat hollow. You see this momentous change in a terrible political situation through old newscasts but not through the cast. The black presidential security detail has to make peace with white special service cops who may once have jailed them. The white cops are now reporting to people who may once have tried to blow them up. But you see none of this in personal backstories. The pacing is slow but it is steady and it builds. The end may be predictable but the audience still applauded. If you have no idea what rugby is you will leave the theater unenlightened and those of us who know about rugby can see the ball was somehow dropped.
Therein lies the problem: this is a movie about symbols, the kind that can bring everyone together, make peace and bind a nation. If you can’t really explain the true nature of rugby, you can’t really explain its significance in this story. As for the title: what is a nice Latin word like Invictus doing in an African movie? Shouldn’t Mandela - just one generation away from living in a hut with a polygamous family - be reaching back to an African poem for inspiration? Wouldn’t you expect something more African than classical?
In a way, it echoes the story of the kouros statue the Getty Museum once acquired. Scientists analyzed the stone and lawyers certified the paper trail. But when Thomas Hoving of the Met took one look at it, he knew it was fake because it looked “fresh” – something you don’t expect in a 3,000 year old statue. In fact, it was a modern reproduction made from authentic stone from that period.
That is not to say this movie is a fake but it is obviously made – well made, mind you – by people of a different age, place and time who have fused the authentic with something that isn’t quite right. The author is a British journalist who covered South Africa, the screenwriter is a non-rugby loving ex-patriate South African living in Morro Bay, California. The supporting actors and Damon’s voice coach are all authentic South Africans but the director and the two lead actors are American. As good a job as they did technically, something got lost in the mix. Instead of being too lively, this movie is, if anything, muted - even somber. You’d have to wonder what it would look like if a South African director had made it. What if, say, Gavin Wood (Tsotsi) or an up-and-coming African director had done it, how different would it would be?
First, you would get a visceral sense of the times. People were very scared, very divided but also hopeful. The townships were bursting with exuberance. The whites experienced fear, loathing but also optimism. You see it in Invictus but you really don’t feel it. The celebration of the blacks matched the viciousness of the old white regime while the crime spree justified their old fears. Houses once designed to be open - even admired - became surrounded with walls, then barbed wire, power gates and finally, electrified fences. Yet the whites felt somehow liberated too and to understand that you’d have to see how war and rebellion-weary they had become. You never quite feel the two different cultures – an African world drenched in music, dance and excitement versus a stiff, though cordial white world where the music is at best, restrained.
Most of all though, you would understand why rugby really matters. It is not just that the white Afrikaners were the country’s exclusive payers of rugby, it is that it’s a territorial game. Rugby is played around the scrum, that beehive formation of men from each team pushing against each other in contention for a ball thrust in its midst at the beginning of each play. Whichever team plucks it out – usually by foot – gets to run with the ball. The traditional advantage of the South African team is that they are one of the heaviest in the game. That is why Damon filled up on pap ‘n wors for the role. The heavier the scrum the better the chance they have of pushing the other team out of the way and grabbing the ball.
The point about rugby in South Africa is not just that it is the game of the oppressors but a kind of reenactment of the way they pushed the indigenous people off the land to get at its resources. That explains why the formerly great Bokke had lost their mojo. Thanks to majority rule, they were being pushed off their land and they just couldn’t pull off their old act on the rugby field any more. At least, not until they had gotten permission, marching orders and reassurance from the new black president.
The poem, Invictus, is never fully fleshed out and in truth it was an obscure 19th century poem written by a 12 year old who’d lost his leg to TB. While understandably awkward as a poem it ends with these two resounding lines:
“I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”
In fact, Mandela never sent that poem to Pienaar. He had been inspired by it in jail but he actually sent the rugby captain a version of Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech to inspire him.
Regardless of the actual poem, what matters is that Mandela reached out to a third place – a non-African heritage - to bring these former warring Africans of different races together. How do you explain that to Americans? They see these great aerial shots of Cape Town, the sophisticated cities contrasted with the black shantytowns (although you never go into any of these “informal” houses) and they must wonder: What Africa is this?
That is not say this isn’t a very good movie. It is not “Biko”, “Gandhi” or even “Chariots of Fire” though it is at least at the very front of the second tier. There is an academy award nomination or two in this and Clint deserves kudos for taking on something so far afield from his usual fare: Dirty Harry reincarnated as a couple of near-saints. As a feel-good movie it does indeed score: almost everyone wins – the whites, the blacks (he did forget the Jewish guy, Joel Stransky, a kind of South African Sandy Koufax who actually won the game with the drop kick.) The New Zealanders - ironically called the “All Blacks” on account of their uniforms - get to be the losers here even though they were a much more racially integrated team.
Not only that, but the All Blacks began each game with a fearsome Maori wardance called a Hakka which seemed to be lead by the blondest player. All the Bokke could do was glare back. But any South African knows they have their own ceremonial weapon, which is just as formidable: the Zulu War Dance. Yet no one mentions it – perhaps because Afrikaner rugby players don’t dance like that – ever - and Mandela was Xhosa as were most of the ruling ANC party and they were feuding with the Zulus. The New Zealanders even had rugby’s first true superstar, Jonah Loma, a terrifying figure who could simply plough through the opposing team with legs as thick and as unstoppable as tree trunks rolling down a cliff.
Nevertheless, Mandela’s support, Afrikaner determination and a little Hebrew footwork won the day and put the country on the track toward unity. In the end, this movie wins the cup but you get the idea there is more to be drunk from it along with a few more visits to the well.
© Alan Brody
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
When Africa Moves Your Cheese
by Alan Brody
You might want to wait for Robert Mugabe and his henchman to exit Zimbabwe before you visit this resort, but you won’t be able to put down this riveting book about a spunky senior couple and their story of survival. Set at the edge of a country that has descended into economic disaster and official thuggery, this is about people who just want to hang on – and they do!
Part adventure tale, part family memoir and trip into the mind of post-colonial Africa, this amiable but gripping story is a also compelling business case study of sorts – a bush version of Who Moved My Cheese? The Rogers family, a white Zimbabwean couple with roots going back several generations, retire to a craggy estate near Mutare in the East which they turn into a backpacker lodge with chalets, a swimming pool and al fresco bar.
They thrive for several years during the early benevolent period of the Mugabe regime when whites were welcome and the struggle against the old supremacist Rhodesian government forgotten. White emigrants even returned, many encouraged to buy and build in the new majority African-ruled Zimbabwe. That all began to change around 2000 when Mugabe saw his lifetime presidency challenged and he turned to sacking white farms as a way to maintain support.
This took the life out of the economy and with it, the tourist business. Luckily for the Rogers, their craggy estate had little farm value - especially after poachers took out their modest game stock - so the shambling estate avoided the expropriation list. But that still didn’t pay the bills, so the author’s Dad, Lyn Rogers kept coming up with one survival scheme after another in a way that could make for a third-world-dictator version of the Harvard Business School case study. These included: subletting the premises to a brothel manager, running a marijuana operation and then, most famously, the resort becoming a hang-out for illegal diamond dealers. All along, as their food options dwindle, his mother Ros, punctuates these chapters with a scheme of her own: improvised meal ideas for her proposed cooking book, Recipes for Disaster.
Written as a kind of family journal by our affable traveler, Douglas Rogers, we get drawn into many adventures in this troubled place. With a gentle inquisitiveness, he drinks and tokes with the locals who quickly recede from typical African stock characters into real people with their own unique drives, personality and logic. From the amusingly over-articulate John Agoneka to the savvy diamond dealer Fatso and his sidekick No Matter, this is the real Africa you don’t find in a tourist package or your typical bwana book where the white explore and the blacks carry. Likewise, his portraits of the diehard whites who somehow adjusted from white domination to African majority rule and then suffer their disillusionment is matter-of fact yet compelling. When the whites go native such as when the matronly Miss Moneypenny, their “private banker” dances naked at the instruction of a witch doctor to settle a score, it seems perfectly reasonable under the circumstances.
While less lyrical perhaps than Peter Godwin’s White Boy in Africa or Alexandra Fuller’s Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight and the near hypnotic Scribbling the Cat, it more than makes up for it as a page-turner, eye-opener and to the pin-striped set, an entrepreneurial cliff-hanger. This is an African journey by way of a survival plan B, C & D where good doses of bribery and connivance fill in for Drucker and Due Diligence. All along, you feel like you’re one of them, talking to these folks and listening to their stories in one of their own African languages.
Considering how dark the situation in Zimbabwe became with over 10,000% inflation, the book is almost optimistic. Compared to Godwin’s When a Crocodile Eats the Sun it makes you feel like keeping an eye out for Mugabe’s one-way ticket out of there so you can visit this unsinkable lodge and its irrepressible owners and staff. In the meantime, you could just read the book and breathe in a sigh of democratic relief.
The Last Resort by Douglas Rogers - published by Harmony Books
Friday, September 25, 2009
So here it is - and whatever you do - you will have to go to the movies to catch this one!
Aliens in Africa Make the Worlds Come Together
A Review of the Sci-Fi movie by Alan Brody
Who'd have thought the no. 1 box office movie started as a "mockumentary" from 2005 and posted on YouTube, of a UFO landing in Johannesburg, South Africa - circa 1982 - at the height of apartheid. In many ways this is a wild movie - like nothing you've seen before. Real, uncomfortable and deeply interesting. This is today's Blair Witch Project but only bigger, better and more exotic. More technology too.
Neill Blomkamp is the director and co-creator and it is produced by the man who brought us The Ring.
For South Africans this is having déjà vu but this time as a kind of weird comedy verite. You're seeing what apartheid really looked like back in the day - but instead of the Africans being treated like animals, the mostly white strike force of the movie - who look a whole lot like South African Police from the apartheid days are treating aliens that way. Only here, the aliens look like giant shrimp with legs.
In much the same way Art Spiegelman's Maus made the Nazis and Jews of the holocaust seem more real as rats and mice respectively, this makes the once oppressive world of apartheid seem more vivid.
This time, the chief enforcer is no Schwartzenegger, instead, he is an efficient, mild-mannered bureaucrat from like Steve Carrol mold in The Office.
For some reason he is the only one videotaping his mission to displace the aliens to a new camp. Unlike your typical higher civilization though, these aliens are a mixed bag. A million of them washed up in a dilapidated spacecraft above the country's largest city -poor, destitute. Forget E.T. meet galaxy trash. They speak something that sounds like Xhosa played through a vacuum cleaner. They have a madness for cat food and are willing to sell whatever technology they have. But we can't use it for reasons of interplanetary DNA.
Watching all this UFO stuff go on with heavy South African is a riot. When Wilkus tells an alien to "Voetsek" any South African in the audience has to laugh convulsively.
So is this an allegory? Do we have a subtext here? Could these aliens represent a new kind of force, like say, the Chinese who are becoming highly influential in Africa?
To Americans - this is just strange stuff . A new, gritty kind of sci-fi flick. Something like Mad Max meets Office Max.
But somewhere along the way you are getting a cultural lesson. The whites are venal and somewhat bumbling but they get along with the local Africans. You could say aliens unite everyone against them. Except that is, for the Nigerians - they run the show when it comes to dealing with aliens - and they given to extreme violence and primitivism.
Life gets more interesting when the various races merge with the aliens. That is no mere sci-fi for South Africans; this is a headscratcher within a sci-fi flick because miscegenism was a very big deal back in those days. Since all reproduction here is by way of pathogenesis, this is arguably a family film. However, it is not a chick flick, so check with the girls first. They might just prefer to spend the afternoon with Lindsey Lohan. From a tourism point of view, it cements Johannesburg's image, begun with Tsotse, as the township capital of the universe - even though the city itself looks crudely interesting with its blockish skyscrapers etched against a dry, sun-drenched sky.
There are a number of loose ends in the story, but the experience of Johannesburg set to this strange world with a giant space ship hovering over downtown (somehow this missed the world news at the time, but Wilkus, the hero gets to make it his personal videotape) is just too exquisite for the ex-pats to not want to see..
I'd have to say the experience could make you want to reach out for some African music and a cool one - but that antidote will have wait for a different kind of South African movie. In the meantime sit back and watch a not-distant place and time of Africa become box office interest no. 1. In this galaxy, that is.
Alan is the author of White Shaka Boy
Volume 2 of White Shaka Boy launched at Brooklyn Book Fair - Sep. 13.
Vote for the soundtrack songs on the Fame Game
Episode 2 of the award-winning online visual book, White Shaka Boy goes online today.
The soundtrack, the English and Zulu song "Umile" reached no. 2 on the R&B charts of the international independent music site Overplay.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
The bottom line is that China sees Africa as a way to catapult their economy to the status of the US – and they have a grand plan to do so.
Let me say it is not all bad – China is building the kind of sorely needed infrastructure that the West has mostly shied away from. In the 70’s Mao Tze-Dong built the Tanzania-Zambia railroad to take copper and other resources from Zambia’s landlocked mining region to the port of Dar es Salaam.
In addition to the interest-free loan China sent about 25,000 of its engineers to help complete the awesome project. No doubt many learned Swahili.
25 years later China stepped up the pace but with a much more targeted vision – wining over African leaders with gifts of mansions and motorcades and then building just the infrastructure they need to move the resources from the low-cost mines they control to the ports that will ship the materials to China. Once in China, they are turned into the products they will sell to the rest of the world – including Africa.
The negative is that emerging manufacturing industries in Africa are leveled by the Chinese factories. The best jobs are reserved for Chinese workers and whatever wealth is generated for Africa tends to stay in the hands of the countries’ leadership. Some trickles down but not enough and the Chinese have a habit of propping up some unsavory dictators like Zimbabwe’s Mugabe and the Sudan’s Bashir.
The downside to all this is that once the economy begins to recover, many of the commodities we need will be either owned by or reserved for China. Plus, the opportunity for growing our economy by selling to a developing Africa is deeply compromised.
To win the hearts of Africans China even resurrected the legend of Zheng He, the 15th Century Chinese sailor who was probably a marauder and was shipwrecked in Kenya. He and his crew began many biracial families in Kenya which experienced various kinds of discrimination. They have since been resurrected as heroes of sorts in China. The idea is to show China’s deep roots in Africa.
(In some ways, this parallels the White Shaka story and in this regard, it is a prism by which an American audience can understand the deeper issues of this new economic run on Africa.)
The opportunity for America - if it wakes up - is this: Africa doesn’t really like China. They certainly appreciate the attention, the money and for some, the new sources of corruption. But they much prefer their relatives in America. And with a son of Africa in the White House…..
Indeed if you compare the Zheng He legend with the Obama reality, you can see why the Kenyan’s are particularly crazy about Americans. Obama is not just a favorite son but he is competing against some deep Chinese propaganda.
Alas, we give Africa little attention beyond the usual charitable stuff and the mortal fear of fresh atrocities. Charity is good but hardly the engine of economic growth and stability they need. More importantly, they crave a fellowship with cultures and people they have come to understand at many levels - and that is us. They would gladly buy our products over China’s but as we all know, when they do, the product is actually made in China….
What we can do is take advantage of a couple of things. Africa is not good with maintenance, we can certainly provide legions of help there. Most of all they want self-sufficiency and for that they want training, support and fellowship which can offer. Unlike China, we are happy to help them build and develop factories which will make products highly suited for their environment and their working style – which shall we say, is very, very different from the Chinese.
To do all of this we need an awareness, a national program and a plan to connect this new American generation with this new generation of Africans.
White Shaka is an adventure story for sure, but it is also a parable about taking the traditional concepts in an African culture – in this case, the Zulus – and showing how they can be transformed into a 21st Century solution.
White Shaka is going online and now the theme music from Episode 2 - Umile - went to no. 2 on the Rhythm and Blues charts of overplay.com
Sunday, July 12, 2009
Its already doing that thanks to cell phones. There are now over 50 million on them on the continent.
So here's how to do it. Convert these to smartphones, create a secure online currency a la Paypal and let individual Africans participate on the world market.
It is really that simple. Once businesses and non-profits can go directly to individuals and vice versa then thieving government officials and billion-dollar banknotes like Zimbabwe become irrelevant.
Why send a bag of rice when you can give a village a way to earn rice credits that they can cash in at a store?
Why send a mosquito net when you can finance a local mosquito net factory.
You get the idea - we can leapfrog the old barriers of post-colonial Africa just by tapping into the wireless economy. Instead of giving people things we enable them to jumpstart their own economies. Cell phones offer a way to bypass the traditional gatekeepers who are generally forced to become corrupt by the system itself.
In fact, cell phones themselves are an example of this new approach. Look at it this way - in 15 years Africa grew from a legacy of just 5 million phone lines - almost all government controlled - to 50 million cell phones - mostly privately controlled.
Old thinking is to give conscience money to the poor while buying up resources cheaply. This isn't grand collusion although it might as well be - Bono raises money and give it away to poor villages while the corporations funding him look for ways to sell baby formula or extract minerals for less. Unfortunately, the Chinese are beat us at this game because they skipped the conscience money part and increased the direct payments to the governments and top officials to get the resources even more cheaply. Example 1 - Darfur (in case you wondered who paid for the oil pipeline that financed the janjaweed).
Plus the Chinese don't place moral conditions on anyone. Example 2 - sending weapons to Mugabe in Zimbabwe so that he increase military pressure when his rigged elections were being contested.
Smartphones and the wireless economy tied to small manufacturing infrastructure is the new success model for Africa. It requires two things: underwriting the distribution of phones and the guarantee of a new "Marshall" Protection Plan. Hands off the little guys - if you steal from the world wireless economy we can find you and we'll get you, so don't do it.
Once people are engaged they buy or borrow what they need to grow their own food, information on how to do it and access to markets that will buy it. They will know what to make or grow and who to trade with.
This will extend to medicine and medical knowledge.
It will tend to redistribute wealth and power among the harder working and women.
This concept will require on-the-ground guarantors and vigilance against a new kind techie kleptocrat, but it is still much, much better than anything we have done in the the past. And it is inevitable.
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
White Shaka Boy - the multimedia graphic novel about a New Yorker who discovers his personal Obama-like connection to Africa, won an Award in the Fuze Slideshare online storytelling contest.
White Shaka was judged the best Multimedia Story in the International Fuze Slideshare Storytelling contest that attracted contestants from all corners of the universe, where it was described by one voter as an "AWESOME...use of slides to tell a story."
Judges included Tony Hseih, CEO of Zappos; Om Malik, Journalist; Don Tapscott, author of Wikinomics, Pete Cashmore, Founder, Mashable and Ann Handley, CCO of MarketProfs.
Slideshare is the leading Powerpoint presentation sharing site. Fuze Meeting is a collaborative videoconferencing site.
White Shaka Boy is a parable about the new land grab taking place in Africa today. It is based on a true story about a teen who discovers he is the biracial heir to the only white Zulu Chief of Africa. To win back his empire he has to learn about Zulu culture and the new realities of urbanized Africa. He also discovers early feminism in Zulu war culture and the underlying connection between Shaka fighting method and Gandhi's Satyagraha (passive resistance).
White Shaka features an award-winning, sophisticated Zulu hip-hop soundtrack from the album by Imbube, produced by Draztik. The graphics were produced by Revo Yanson.
The book and story concept was created by Alan Brody, a well-known new media pioneer, journalist, speaker and entrepreneur who stumbled upon this saga while researching an article about his early years, growing up in Africa. "I wanted to show my clients that to succeed in sales you have to be willing to make direct contact with your prospects - a grinding, rejection-laden process. I thought I could use the techniques of Zulu warfare to show how to thrive. Then, I stumbled upon this story and somehow, my inner comic creator, music-lover and African adventurer came together."
White Shaka can be ordered on Amazon with the complete 17-song soundtrack CD for $19.95 or directly from the White Shaka website
All 35 Webisodes will be loaded on Slideshare over the next 6 months.
Slideshare is a popular presentation-sharing site in the business world that has crossed over to the creative world.
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
You wouldn't be reading this if you weren't into graphic novels - but they are books too....
So what do you do?
1. Graphic novels online.
2. Visual summaries of print books
We're doing both!
White Shaka is now being serialized online.
Our publisher ViziPress.com is producing visual summaries of some great books:
What Would Google Do?
You got 3 minutes - we'll tell you what these books are really about!
Monday, May 25, 2009
The US public is about to get a wake up call when Mr. Obama shows up in West Africa in July. They figure this is probably no more that a diversion from our economic troubles at home – so now they ‘re going to see huts, misery and warfare. Should make us feel better right?
Actually what they are going to see are thriving, if challenged urban metropolises, sophisticated, if accented business thinkers and then something else……
China. And the question on the lips of many enthused Africans: “What took you so long?”
While we were looking the other way China has moved in the African vacuum left behind after the Cold War collapsed. They will find that most new mining development, banking and oil has been bankrolled by China. Many of these contracts give China both preferred pricing on new commodities but actually restrict sales to competitors – like us.
We will wake up to find who is really underwriting the conflict in Darfur and then we will be startled to find what has happened in Africas, largest and once most war-torn country: The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The Chinese are planning to build a dam so big that it will light up Europe. Imagine a Europe that buys its power from a $60bn dam in the jungle!
We are also going to find that Africa has developed a new personal trading platform that totally change the way governments function on the continent – cell phones. Outside of commodities, cell communications is bar far, the fastest growing business in Africa. Cell towers have leap-frogged wired infrastructure with the result that Africans can talk to each other – they even trade cell minutes as a form of currency.
Once you add secure accounts and smart phones, you know have a way to plug individual Africans into the World Market. At first that may not seem like a big deal but let’s imagine that western charities stop giving money to organizations that have a habit of grabbing huge chunks off the top – instead they open personal accounts by chief, village, family and person and hand out resources at the personal level. The value is held outside the country so the government or local thug can’t steal it – suddenly, you have a new Africa. You have mosquitoes in your village – buy some nets on our eBay Africa store we’ll ship ‘em to you. Need some water purification straws with that? No problem – and by the way, if you can get our cassava to market by Monday you’ll get twice the normal rate.
China won’t be offering these services anytime soon – but we will – it is part of the DNA of the Internet culture. And Africa is expecting it, they want it….from us. China, after all, is not exactly a friendly presence: after they have paid off the local powers, they tend to move in as a hermetic army seizing the key jobs and thought they will learn the lingo they are generally perceived as aliens. They can also be brutal. We, on the other hand, are perceived as returning brothers and sisters. The racial guilt trip built into the US conversation, has not only been put aside thanks to Mr. Obama’s presidency, but it was never a big part of the personal conversation in Africa, anyway. The only conversation that matters is opportunity and personal growth – they are ready to get a piece of the American Dream, African style.
In aggregate you have these two converging possibilities – a continent with a wealth of energy (oil and natural gas being discovered almost daily up and down the West coast), natural commodities whose value is increasing and the possibility of getting wealth into the hands of individuals as opposed to the former kleptocracies.
Needless to say, the carping about “let’s focus on America” will continue. How silly, the one continent that needs to buy just about everything we stand for – from proudcts to technology to ideology, and could actually pay for it, thanks to their natural wealth, has the power to transform our economy – just as Europe did in the 50’s. If we just get over our history and our self-absorption our next great wealth machine lies over the Atlantic – a short hop from our new trading partner.
Saturday, April 18, 2009
Here's a great article about it in the Times of London.
Zuma to rule South Africa like Zulu king
The president in waiting tells of his blueprint for government
The story of White Shaka Boy is construct based on the only interaction between the West and the Zulus at the level of a chief and in an interracial context.
Friday, March 27, 2009
Read on - it's an eye-opener!
Owned by China: South Africa, Dalai Lama and.............America?
By Alan Brody
When South Africa disinvited the Dalai Lama from their Peace Conference on Monday, they did a lot more than become the laughing stock of the Civilized World. They signaled that China is the New Colonial Master of the Universe.
The Great Game is afoot again but only China seems to be playing. And this time, they are making up the rules: be bloodless, as invisible as possible and try to dominate world’s resources. So when the economy recovers and we need commodities again - guess who will be naming the price? And if China decides to call in our national debt, who will we be working for, Mr. Obama?
The South Africa incident is just the first, indirect public display of China’s ten-year resource invasion of the 3rd World. In the land of Mandela, sports officials, exhilarated at hosting the 2010 World Cup Soccer Games call on the Man of the Mandala. With billions invested in stadiums, housing and airport infrastructure, the country is ready to take their seat as the New Africa’s finest at the table of leading nations. So their three Nobel Peace laureates, Nelson Mandela, Bishop Tutu and F.W De Klerk grandly invite the Dalai Lama to join their showcase Peace Conference to let the World know - it’s more than soccer. They’ve arrived!
Then the government, under President Kgalema Motlanthe, very casually informs the World that the Dalai Lama is not welcome because his issues with China “will distract attention from the games.” Amazingly, even the South African Business Press is taken by surprise asking essentially how much business does China do that they would sell their prized moral status down the river? According to South Africa’s Business Day, China only purchases 20% of their commodities. They actually suggested that China needs South Africa more than they need China.
Wake up fellas – you are in post-20th Century, post apartheid-liberation denial. Europe is fading, the US has been leaving town. China is your leading trading partner at over $50+ billion and they just opened a $500 million investment fund in your backyard. What has Tibet done for you lately, anyway?
That South Africa just didn’t see it coming is testament to their economy’s diversity and advanced infrastructure. China’s influence is barely visible, showing up only in banks and lines of credit. So when China dropped $3.6bn in South Africa in 2006 - it was for a chunk of Standard Bank – the bank with Africa’s biggest reach.
But elsewhere in Africa, where there is little development, China’s simple goal – extract resources and cut out competition – is plain to see. They will pay off whomever they need to build whatever infrastructure it takes to get raw material “A” to port “B” to get it to Chinese factory “C.” In the truly impoverished but resource-rich countries, the locals see the new mines, the hydropower dam and one new road with the trucks driving their booty directly to the port. Scads of Chinese engineers show up, learn the language and do the job. Chinese food becomes available in the jungle, the locals get a lowly job or two and ton of Chinese manufactured goods which obliterate most local manufacture. However, Presidents stay in power, new Palaces and luxury cars appear and numbered accounts are opened.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo they have done something no western colonialist has done – built roads into the jungle – swapping some $6 billion for raw materials. They are developing mines and even planning a $60 billion dam that will tower over the colossal 3 Gorges Dam in China. In Nigeria, they put $8 billion into hydropower, and in Kenya, $580 million into dams. In Zimbabwe it is whatever weapons Mugabe needs to stay in power. China is the biggest investor in the Angola’s oil bonanza - putting our easy access to a huge spigot of Atlantic Ocean oil in question. In Darfur, you might want to ask who is funding the oil pipeline?
When I visited South Africa in 2005 to research my book, White Shaka Boy, a kind parable of western neo-colonialism, the only hint I saw of China was in the malls. Almost every product – except the local foodstuffs – were identical to those we found in America. The only reason we scooped up bargains is because we have opposite seasons, as theirnsummer approached, my family loaded up on winter closeouts to take back home.
If it were not for the seasonal arbitrage, the prices would have been about the same as the US. The brands were either exactly the same or jarringly similar. The products however, were exactly the same because, guess what - they are all made in China just like ours. Welcome to the Great Wall Mart, folks……..
Yet, just 10 years earlier when I had visited South Africa – before China began its great resource grab - there were few Supermalls and the products on sale were truly different. Clothing and furnishings were locally made. They were cheap and had genuine African and Indian influences or unique interpretations of European design. Now it’s all world brand/world design and made - in China. From clothes to housewares to electronics – almost every local attempt at manufacture has been hollowed out. Africans are now shopkeepers like everyone else in the world with mostly small scale and specialty manufacturing, assemblers of goods made elsewhere and producers of foodstuffs and of course, raw materials
Like Americans, South Africans have also been blinded to China’s encroachment because the visible side of overseas investment was in Real Estate - fueled by oil money. The northern coastal land, once relegated to sugar cane fields, was being rapidly transformed into luxury housing and resort complexes. The area on the KwaZulu/Natal coast where my Graphic Novel is set, is the site of South Africa’s leading filmmakers’ own multimillion dollar Miami-style real estate play - funded by Middle East money.
Yet event that has faded – the massive $500 million theme park – AmaZulu World, once planned by a Dubai company for the very area where my story is set on the Zulu coast, fell off the map when oil prices plummeted.
China however, remains.
Our only trump card is that Africans like us and they love the fact that we have an African America president. They create Rap on their laptops, wear Yankees caps, Knicks t-shirts and acquire our products wherever they can. Except that they are almost always made in China. So even if we decided to create a kind of African Marshall Plan to grow both continents economies, we’d very quickly discover the new Bamboo Curtain
That’s dark side of the Great New Game which we will see when the economy picks up again. As we need fresh commodities, those checks drawn on the money we borrowed, will all be made out to China at the prices they are likely to dictate. And it is not just Africa - if the Dalai Lama were to keynote a Peace Conference in most of Latin America, my guess is he’d find the welcome mat just as quickly removed. They’ve been dong the same thing there…….
So thank you Mr. Motlanthe, you just informed us of not only of who you’re working for, but who we’ll be working for: and it’s not Uncle Sam, because right now, he too is getting his paycheck from China.