Friday 29 April 2016

Five or Six Waves?

One of my most influential texts was a pamphlet Five Waves: a Brief Global History of Revolutionary Anarchist Communist Mass Organisational Theory & Practice, Zabalaza Books, Durban, South Africa, 2005, which was translated into many languages including Italian by the Federation of Anarchist Communists (FdCA) - see cover below - and into Greek by the Organisation of Anarchists of Greece (OAE). A defense of Bakunin's dual-organisationist tradition, what made it unique was not only its international perspective on the anarchist movement - including the Caribbean, Middle East, Africa, Central Asia and South-East Asia, regions just about never included in anarchist histories - but its periodisation of the history into five waves of militancy that not only showed there was a wave before the foundation of the influential French CGT in 1895, but that there were significant waves in the Far East, Latin America and Africa after the defeat of the Spanish CNT in 1939, and a survival up to the present day. The text was eventually expanded and published as a book, Cartographie de l'anarchisme revolutionnaire, Lux Editeur, Montreal, Canada, 2012.

Now that I have completed an overhaul of that text with a significant expansion, particularly regarding new studies of the Manchurian Revolution, and the Uruguayan Revolt, I have been reviewing my periodisation and found that there was an unusual quarter-century cycle of roughly 26 years which consituted the waves, or at least that was true for the first, second, third and fifth waves; the odd one out was the fourth wave which ran for some 40 years, essentially covering the Cold War period. So I wondered if a natural end to the fourth wave might not be 26 years after the imposition of the "Maoist" dictatorship in China in 1949, with the death of Franco in 1975? That would give a "short" fifth wave of only 16 years until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and then another 25-year (sixth) wave until the consolidation of the Rojava Revolution in 2016. I'm not sure if at this stage I will stick with five waves or introduce a sixth for the Spanish-language edition, but I will discuss this on other anarchist fora and post the results here.

Friday 22 April 2016

A Snake Gives Birth to A Snake

They came in their droves, each one in turn lighting their own tiny candle. There was the skinny young man in the brown leather jacket and cloth cap, the curvy woman in her silver-patina skirt and white blouse, the petite bald man with his severe black suit and tailored shirt, the young woman with the gold earrings matching her gold heels and her braids piled high on her head. Each one had lost someone in the Rwandan "Hundred Nights" Genocide of 1994 and they were at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg on Thursday night to pay their respects to their dead - and to watch a film on the treacherous themes of forgiveness and reconciliation in atrocity-fractured societies.
The event was hosted by Constitution Hill - the former prison at various times of resistants like Nelson Mandela, Helen Joseph, and Mohandas Gandhi, now turned into the site of the Constitutional Court and the Section 9 institutions which support the Constitution - plus the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre, the South African History Archives, and the High Commission of Rwanda. The film screening commemorated the 22nd anniversary of the initiation of the murderous Hundred Nights by Agathe Habyarimana's Akazu inner circle of Hutu elite, the Hutu extremist Zero Network and their Interahamwe and Impuzamugambe genocidaires, and the 20th anniversary of the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing into the atrocities of the apartheid era, on 15 April 1996. 
I had covered the TRC when it sat in Durban, especially the amnesty hearing of former Vlakplaas death-squad commander Dirk Coetzee, and had covered the 10th anniversary of the Hundred Nights in Kigali and Butare in 2004, so I had been invited to attend. We had an overflowing venue with perhaps 200 people, including many Rwandan Genocide and some Jewish Holocaust survivors, in the audience. 

Before the memorial candles were lit, Rwanda High Commissioner Vincent Karenga (seated at right above) warned about the attempt by Rwandan genocidaires - some of them sheltered by countries that had given them asylum - to reach out to "genocidal forces" abroad in the world, seeking justification for their crimes, stating that the slogan "Never Again!" would be irrelevant if education on the causes of the genocidal impulse were not vigorously pursued. This was followed by a brief set of filmed interviews with Genocide survivors (at least two of whom I later spotted in the audience) and their stories of what happened to their families defied imagination: the one woman spoke of her mother being turned over to the Interahamwe by Catholic nuns who had promised to shelter her; the genocidaires came and cut her legs off, then finding her still alive the next day, cut off her breasts, then the following day, returning to find her dying, executed her. 
The documentary film itself, A Snake Gives Birth to A Snake, takes its name from the chilling response of an IFP member when asked by the TRC why he had hacked a nine-month-old girl to death with a panga during the 1992 Boipatong Massacre in which 45 people were slaughtered. It follows an ethnically diverse South African acting troupe as they recreate the roles of the most crucial interlocutors of the TRC process, that of the translators themselves, around twelve of whom are gathered together by director Michael Lessac. 
With iconic South African musician Hugh Masekela devising songs based directly on TRC testimony ("They cut off my husbands hands..." etc), the play not only recreated the clash of competing truths at the TRC, but as the doccie shows, pitted the actors' own sense of their place in our shattered history against each others, as they increasingly come under the strain of the burden of our political history while touring the play in Rwanda, then Northern Ireland, then ex-Yugoslavia, with veteran journalist Max du Preez documenting the process.

After each performance, the troupe gathered together audience members from all of the competing sides in the host country and held a round-table discussion on the themes raised in the play - with an especial focus on the meaning of forgiveness and whether it is desirable or possible. It was a rougher journey than either actors or film-makers had expected: in Rwanda, the point was made by one audience member that among young Rwandan school kids, the parents of half of them are dead, and the others are in jail for genocide; in Northern Ireland, even the Catholic and Protestant dead are buried separately and one Irish National Liberation Army veteran stated that if Ireland had a TRC it would benefit the victims' families not at all because he felt no guilt for the killings he had committed; while in ex-Yugoslavia, the troupe continually ran into problems of trying to bridge the ethnic divide as it was almost impossible to secure mixed audiences, or to even screen Albanian and Serbian translations of the play alongside each other.
At one point du Preez asked a circle of young Rwandans for advice on how to deal with the fact that with his pale skin and Afrikaans surname, he will always be presumed to be an apartheid perpetrator (in fact he was convicted of "terrorism" for his journalism), and the one young Tutsi girl responded that there were Hutus in her class and she "loved them dearly" because they allowed her to express herself from time to time in bitter outbursts against the Hutus for having initiated the Genocide; so, she said, the solution was not to run away and hide your guilt, but to go and live among your former victims and show them your human face so that one day your humanity and contrition will be accepted by them.
The film gave me serious cause for thought on my own career as a journalist: even with 26 years behind me, much of them spent working in poor black areas, I felt that I was still only part-way down a long journey of reconciliation, and the current debate on decolonisation and the entrenched nature of cultural and structural racism underscores that many wounds are unhealed. After the screening, I spoke informally to UDM leader Bantu Holomisa: "Looking back at that time [Boipatong], I can't believe we made it," he said to me; "Sadly we still have much unfinished business," I replied; "Yes we do," he responded.


Wednesday 20 April 2016

Talk at UJ Library on A Taste of Bitter Almonds 12 April 2016

Introduced by Prof Ylva Rodny Gumede, head of the Department of Journalism, Film & Television at the University of Johannesburg, this talk covered both Drinking with Ghosts and A Taste of Bitter Almonds in terms of introducing the concept of continuity versus change in South Africa's transition from autocracy to democracy. Thanks to Theodorah Modise for these pictures and for the podcast of my talk (unfortunately, the sound only starts at the 5,23 mark, so Ylva's very kind introduction is sadly lacking): TBA Launch at UJ Library

Tuesday 19 April 2016

New Books and Projects

Having now published four books - Black Flame (154,000 words), Cartography of Revolutionary Anarchism (50,000 words), Drinking With Ghosts (102,000 words), and A Taste of Bitter Almonds (96,000 words) - I'm on a roll and have several more books and multimedia projects in the pipeline, in the order of their degree of completion. I am only detailing my non-fiction works here:

1) Isandlwana: A Love Story (15,000 words), is a complete departure from my areas of speciality as it is a meditation on the nature of love. I finished writing it in January and I am now looking at publishing options. The blurb on the back reads: "Michael Schmidt is an awful poet, so this work is a non-poetic stream-of-consciousness forensic meditation on his personal experiences of love, hate, loss, and redemption, interspersed with songs he has penned and images he has either painted, photographed or manipulated. He is no Stendhal, no Miller, and no Nin; in fact he’s not sure what he is, being robbed of union at the very moment of illumination. Here, past loves and lusts are blurred together into a singular longing, yet also disentangled for their unique flavours and scents. Here, in a grand circuit from Lisbon to Lyon, Seville, to Shobashobane, Faro to Fuentes Georginas, Berlin to Bloemfontein, and Paris to Port Elizabeth, pain and death rotate in satellite of the ephemeral and treacherously delicate uncertainties of sex and love. Here too, faith and apostasy, truth and travesty collide in the integral joy/saudade of the human condition, and his lens zooms from intimate recognition to the obfuscation of incomprehending distance."

2) The Anarchist-Communist Mass-Line. This is a series taking a look at historic combinations of anarchist-communist organisations with mass movements in revolutionary or sub-revolutionary situations that required anarchists to adopt armed struggle. The series started with Bulgarian Anarchism Armed, published in Portuguese as Anarquismo Bulgaro em Armas, with Jack Grancharoff (Australia), revised by Will Firth, translated by Bruno Domingos Azevedo and Felipe Corrêa, Sao Paulo, Brazil, 2008, but which was interrupted by my other research, writing and publishing initiatives. I have now updated Bulgarian Anarchism Armed (8,000 words), completed writing Ukrainian Anarchism Armed (19,000 words), and am working on Korean Anarchism Armed (10,000 words so far), and Uruguayan Anarchism Armed (12,000 words so far), the latter two drawing on new research into the Manchurian Revolution by Emilio Crisi, and into the Uruguayan Anarchist Federation by Ricardo Ramos Rugai. I will possibly also include Spain, Italy, and Mexico and am considering combining them all into a single book once completed.

3) Wildfire: Global Anarchist Ideological and Organisational Lineages (356,000 words so far). This is the result of 15 years of research and writing, and I am busy with an extensive re-write. It will be by far the most comprehensive overview of the anarchist movement from an internationalist perspective, drawing especially on new transnational studies such as Maia Ramnath's Haj to utopia: How the Ghadar Movement Charted Global Radicalism and Attempted to Overthrow the British Empire, California World History Library, USA, 2011. Far more extensive, rigorous and less North Atlanticist than the previous contender, Peter Marshall's Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism, HarperCollins, UK, 2008, Wildfire will totally overhaul our understanding of the global reach, practical internationalism, and dynamic impact of the anarchist movement over the past 15 decades. Unlike previous organisational histories, it tells the tale of parallel, sometimes competing organisations - for example, the FORA-IX, FORA-V and IWW syndicalist organisations in Argentina, alongside political organisations like SROPC, ALA,  ACAOP and FRA - and attempts to follow their development from conception to closure, including their offspring and ideological impact.

4) The People Armed: Anarchist Fighters Verbatim. This is an international multilingual multimedia project that will be featured on its own website as a resource for researchers. The initial installment will be ten interviews (video, text transcript, and stills portraits) of anarchists who took up arms against the state/capital in Algeria, Argentina, Britain, Canada, Chile, France, Iran, Iraq, Spain, and Uruguay. The Spanish and Chilean interviews have already been done and the others are in the process of being organised. I am the series editor and contributing historians have been sourced from across the world. 

5) Black Crowbar: Anarchist Counter-power in Theory & Practice. This book will represent the culmination of several lines of inquiry about how anarchists historically managed to build interlocking specific, syndicalist, militia, councillist, and mass-delegate institutions of proletarian counter-power in order to challenge, and ultimately replace capital and the state. Currently being written, it draws not only on brilliant new anarchist theory such as that  laid out in Bandeira Negra: rediscutino o anarquismo, Felipe Corrêa, Editora Prismas, Curitiba, Brazil, 2015, but also on my multimedia Critical Mass: Anarchist Revolutionary Models 1870s-1970s and my multimedia On the Waterfront consolidation of the primary research conducted into dockside and maritime syndicalism in Buenos Aires, Argentina (Geoffroy de Laforcade), Santos, Brazil (Edgar Rodrigues), Cape Town, South Africa (Lucien van der Walt), Barcelona, Spain (Chris Ealham), and Mariupol, Ukraine (Malcolm Archibald). In particular I contrast statist and anarchist conceptions of people's revolutionary war.

6) Unexploded Ordnance: Untold Southern African Stories. With former ANC exile journalist Richard Jurgens, this will be a collection of transnational writings on the Southern African region compiled and edited by Richard and myself, but with contributors drawn from among the leading writers from the region. We are about to pitch the idea to one of my six publishers.

7) Not Night, but An Absence of Stars. With brilliant Lebanese writer Rasha Salti, this will be an online memorial to forgotten massacres, such as the 1960 Mueda Massacre in Mozambique (image below) and the 1961 Secret Massacre in Paris, to secret police torture centres such as the black prisons in Morocco and Orletti Motors in Buenos Aires, and to those disappeared by the state, including the disappeared of the dirty war in Chile and of the counter-revolution in Iran. Rasha and I will curate the project, which will firstly see a call go out to visual artists (photographers, painters, sculptors, film-makers, dancers) to produce an image relating to the a place of torture, massacre and disappearance in their own country which will be featured on the website, then a call go out to verbal artists (poets, writers, griots, journalists, song-writers, composers) to write a work in response to one of the visual arts submissions. All submissions will be featured unedited on the website - with the caveat that we will reserve the right not to feature works we consider endorse statist terror and bigotry. The aim of the project is not merely to commemorate the dead but to interrogate massacre and memory, and to introduce creatives working in this field to each other with the hope that important transnational collaborations will evolve out of it. We are busy nominating creatives in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and Europe (so far) to act as translators of the calls, and as point-people for different linguistic communities to interact with on the project, and are now seeking funding.


Friday 15 April 2016

Launches of A Taste of Bitter Almonds

The first two launches of A Taste of Bitter Almonds went off swimmingly. The first launch, a local community affair, was last Thursday night, 7 April 2016, at the Roving Bantu Kitchen in Brixton, Johannesburg. A mixed-income suburb in a state of dynamic transition, Brixton embraces poor and middle-class city dwellers from across Africa; it is one of those suburbs that truly has transformed ethnically and societally since the fall of apartheid; and remember - this was once the roost of the notorious SA Police Brixton Murder & Robbery Squad, which was feared for probably committing more murders than it solved, and after which the Afrikaans-language folk band Brixton Moord en Roof Orkes was named in irony. 

This blurred and blended nature of Brixton is at odds with the maintenance - and extension - of municipal geographic apartheid past the demise of the hated Group Areas Act into today under allegedly "social democratic" ANC rule, a contradiction that I interrogate in both urban and platteland South Africa in the book. And the Roving Bantu Kitchen, run by former ANC exile Sifiso Ntuli - who had to skip the country in 1981 for being photographed by the press burning an apartheid flag on the Wits University campus - and his wife Ashley Heron (thanks for the great beans curry!), was the ideal venue to interrogate a society in transition. 

Sifiso (wearing the anti-nazi t-shirt below) is an engaged and intelligent maverick who does not spare the rod for his parent party in its deviation from its founding ethics. He named his bar-restaurant-live venue, tongue-in-cheek after an aspersion cast at him by a PAC member when he first arrived in exile in Dar es Salaam: "Ah, you are one of those roving bantus who jumps from cloud to cloud." 

The Kitchen is decorated with everything from kitsch 1970s Springbok LP covers and pages of Volksblad from the 1960s which feature weird adverts for black "maid's" uniforms (shown smiling, serving white folk), to posters of martyrs like MK's "Lion of Chiawelo" who was killed after holding off the police for hours in an epic firefight in Soweto in 1980 - the event that radicalised a young Sifiso - and a series of sombre drawings by SA-Israeli artist and jazz clarinetist Harold Rubin on the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre. 

I spoke about conditions of exclusion in democratic South Africa - then threw open the floor to what became a lively debate between audience members of a range of colours and ages on the question of how our senses of identity as Africans are continually challenged and morphing. Thanks, Sifiso!

The second launch, the more official, academic one, was at the main Library of the University of Johannesburg this Tuesday, 12 April 2016, hosted by the brilliant Prof Ylva Rodny-Gumede, head of the department of Journalism, Film and Television. The book was billed by the Library as "a challenging new view from the ground on race and class that interrogates the continuities between apartheid's autocracy and today's troubled democracy in the world's most unequal society. The book's themes of identity, dispossession, and reclamation are grounded in the colonial era: examining the multiracial nature of settler colonisation and the First Nations Genocide sets the scene for an exploration of the maintenance of apartheid geography and conditions of exclusion under democracy, from zama-zama coal-miners and poor whites, to prostitutes and pogromists, witches and wastrels, lesbians and land claimants."

We had a full house of around 80 people, consisting of students (including members of the right-populist EFF), academics, journalists and other professionals. My talk was live-streamed (I will post the link shortly), and I spoke about the need to reinterrogate the dominant narrative of transition in South Africa with greater emphasis placed on structural, class and societal continuities, and also about how we as a people have an unfortunately ingrained need to sub-divide each other by ethnicity, creed, etc, when we are actually all related by blood and a shared culture, while the real divide is class (the EFF members walked out at this perhaps because it did not accord with their party's racialised, anti-class views).

The talk was otherwise well-received and the debate that followed was measured, nuanced, and intelligent. We sold copies of my books on journalism, A Taste of Bitter Almonds, and Drinking with Ghosts, as well as my books on anarchism, Cartography of Revolutionary Anarchism, and Black Flame - the latter being the new South African edition now that the first three US print-runs have sold out and the copyright has passed back to Lucien van der Walt and myself.

Wednesday 13 April 2016

In the company of Assata Shakur and William Blum

The website of my wonderful South African publishers, BestRed, an imprint of HSRC Press, the publishing arm of the Human Sciences Research Council, features my previous book, Drinking With Ghosts on their website alongside two other publications, Black Liberation Army co-founder and former Black Panther Assata Shakur's "Assata: The FBI's Most Wanted Woman", and William Blum's "America's Deadliest Export: Democracy":

The parent HSRC Press also produces a wonderful Voices of Liberation series on African & African Diaspora liberation movement thought-leaders including Patrice Lumumba (Leo Zelig), Frantz Fanon (Leo Zelig) - both of which I have on my bookshelf - plus Ruth First (Don Pinnock), Albert Luthuli (Gerald Pillay), Steve Biko (Derek Hook), and Chris Hani (Gregory Houston & James Ngculu). As an aside, Jacana puts out a series that includes biographies of Thomas Sankara (Ernest Harsch), which I am currently reading, and Steve Biko (Lindy Wilson).

Thursday 7 April 2016

Interview on Chai FM

Thanks to Johannesburg Jewish community radio station Chai FM and Chad Thomas for hosting me again, as they did just over a year ago for my previous book Drinking with Ghosts; it's always a pleasure! The podcast of my Human Rights Day (21 March 2016) interview with Chad about my book A Taste of Bitter Almonds is downloadable here:

Spoiler: Thomas and the organisations mentioned below are all aware of the defamation campaign against me.

Part of the interview involves work I will be doing shortly on the South African Cities of Refuge Project - my project alongside South African PEN to get Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Stellenbosch on board the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), a network of more than 50 municipalities which have agreed to host persecuted journalists, writers, visual artists, and musicians for a two-year interim exile period during which they can sort their lives out. Among the broad consultations on the Project from its launch in 2014, were engagements with the Cape Town Holocaust Centre, and with the brand-new Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre, the idea being that because the Project and these Centres have a converging interest in migration and countering bigotry, exiled ICORN Guest Writers could use the Centres as platforms for debates and exhibitions of their works - works that are usually outlawed in their home countries. 

Separately, the Johannesburg Centre and I will be screening a film on the justice process at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda at Arusha, Tanzania. The Centre is a suitably severe, yet light-filled venue as you an see in the photographs below: the external walls incorporate railway tracks (railways were used as transporters of the doomed in the Holocaust and other Genocides), which then vanish in the atrium, being transformed into recessed shafts of light; while the internal walls are of a rough brick laid in the same British masonry method that was used at both Dachau and at the Women's Jail at Constitution Hill. Although it will only open in a month or so, demand to use it has been so high that it has already hosted an exhibition on "Germany's Confrontation with the Holocaust in a Global Context".

Saturday 2 April 2016

Rhumba in the Jungle, Sunday Times, 2003

Kinshasa is still reeling from two wars, but, as MICHAEL SCHMIDT discovers, it’s a city that likes to party (Sunday Times, Johannesburg, 18 May 2003).

IT WAS the showdown of the decade in a heaving stadium bursting at the seams with scores of thousands of sweating bodies as heavyweights Muhammad Ali and George Foreman went eyeball-to-eyeball. Eight years younger than Ali and having wiped the floor with the only two boxers ever to beat his opponent, Foreman was the bookies’ favourite at 8:1 when he jetted in to Kinshasa in the then-Zaïre in 1974 for the fight billed as the “Rumble in the Jungle”.
The arc-lights blazed in the tropical night as James Brown cranked up the over-capacity crowd at the 80,000-seater Tata Rafael Stadium who had paid from $10 for a seat in the stands — still expensive today — to $70 for a box, and an astronomical $250 for a seat on the field around the ring. The atmosphere, according to my driver Papa Pierre, a veteran “fixer” for British wire agency Reuters, who drove Ali’s father to the stadium on fight night, had “an ambiance more than Independence Day”.
From the moment the first-round bell went, Ali was subjected to a systematic punishing series of body-blows, and he quickly took two crunching rights to his jaw. Foreman later said he had landed “some of the hardest punches I’d ever delivered on a man”. Ali’s unique strategy — if one can call it that — for the fight was to tire Foreman out by allowing him to get him up against the ropes and hammer away at Ali’s muscle-bound midriff. The “rope-a-dope” tactic put Ali squarely in harm’s way for the hammering of his life. But it worked: a baffled Foreman slowed. The hypnotised crowd roared “Ali, bamba ye!” (Ali, kill him! in Lingala). In the eighth round, the punchline was Ali’s and he exploded a one-two on the spent Foreman’s chin. The champion crashed to the canvas and Ali was once again king of the ring.
It’s three decades on, and Kinshasa itself looks like it’s gone eight rounds with Foreman after its two back-to-back wars of the late 1990s. The city began as a tiny starch-white Belgian enclave, still represented by the downtown cluster of Art Deco blocks and vermilion-latticed Chinese restaurants. Today, it spills comfortably from the tennis courts of the genteel to the chaos of hilly poor suburbs. The streets are potholed, the buildings dilapidated and faded, but the Notre Dame Cathedral celebrates négritude with a pot-bellied drum in its choir and a Madonna-and-child statue with black features. Still, Tata Raphael is a rusting relic, melancholy and weed-ridden, with the former training rooms locked and gloomy. Plans to smarten it up and turn it into a museum are sorely lagging.
But at the KAB Gymnasium next to the Number 1 Stadium, two medium-weights from Simba (Swahili for “Lion”), the national boxing team, dance and slam Ali-like in the original “Rumble” ring. Coach Dominique Milambo is proud of the ageing ring’s history, but to him, the more contemporary fact that President Joseph Kabila was an amateur boxer seems to matter more: “It’s just like in South Africa; Nelson Mandela was a boxer. It’s the same thing.”
Kinois, residents of Kinshasa, give the impression of living in a perpetual present, of leaving the bigger political battles over their country’s future and past to the gun-toting elite. It is a pleasure to see them at play. And especially to see public facilities used so enthusiastically: at the Number 1 Stadium, built in 1995 with Chinese money, the lights burn late into the cicada-stirred night as thousands of city youths practice their athletics, netball, boxing or soccer. One of the most inspiring football teams is Vivi, named after the first capital of the independent Zaïre, and consisting of a reservoir of 30 youngsters aged between six and 12, many of them former street kids, under the guidance of Henri Capon, a Belgian-Congolese, and his two coaches. I even played a game myself, against aid agency folk and embassy kids at the American School next door to the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s pallisaded hilltop retreat with its overgrown former zoo. Although the city is still reeling from the left-right combination of the twin wars, life goes on.
Joseph Conrad described the Belgian colonial-era Congo River in sinister, implacable terms. But today, its wide sweep seems to bear the dreams of an entire continent (plus a few dugout canoes and entire trees) to the unseen coast. Across the water, lies Brazzaville, the lesser twin of Kinshasa. Plunged into a deeper darkness at night, it is reachable by rattle-trap ferry, but nervous soldiers ward off photographers because it is an international border.
Kinshasa has a curiously Chinese feel to it, due in large part to those other twins: giant gilt statues of the late Laurent Kabila and of independence leader Patrice Lumumba, unveiled by Joseph Kabila a year after his father’s assassination. The statue of the chubby Kabila bears more than a passing resemblance to Mao. Work on the Lumumba statue started in 1973 at the instigation of Mobutu. At pains to misappropriate the popularity of the man he had had tortured and killed, Mobutu nevertheless underscored his distaste for Lumumba by never quite getting around to finishing the project over the next 30 years. Raoul Peck’s acclaimed 2002 film Lumumba, an intimate forensic meditation on the extinguishing of one of African socialism’s leading lights, has been shown in cinemas, on TV and is widely available on video in the DRC.
But in the modern Congo, the national museum of which was looted by art dealers in the first war, amnesia seems to be upheld as a virtue. Kinois prefer to party. Near the stadium, wildly popular Congolese rhumba musician Noël Werrason (the surname means “Son of the Forest”) is winding up his boy-band into its pelvic-grind rhythms to the delight of a packed courtyard audience, mostly of young women. The singer-dancer line-up fluctuates between four to eight men, some of whom take turns at playing a set of congas, a steel plate that looks like an armoured triangle, an electric keyboard and three electric guitars. The music is sometimes as crass as distorted township taxi kwaito, sometimes far more melodic and intricate, and the dancing veers between a crude haka-cum-toyi-toyi and a more sophisticated Full Monty. The mood is up-tempo and the band exchanges jokes and pleasantries with their fans.
For those who have suitcases full of virtually worthless Congolese francs, stylish dressing in all the top Italian and American brands is a must, a counterpoint to the savagery of the recent conflict. At smart garden-eateries where the dress set come out to play, Versace and Dolce & Gabbana rub shoulders with Levis and Armani. Skimpy, painted-on Aguilera-wear for women and silk neckties for men. “You have to dress well, Johnny Versace, something expensive; it’s like a religion,” says my interpreter, Emery Makumeno.
He said if he was to describe Kin, as the city is nicknamed, as a woman, she’d be “very materialistic”. But in a country where the dollar is king and a respectable monthly salary only tops the $30 mark, living large is out of reach for most Kinois. At a run-down restaurant called Mama Kani’s, I tuck into boiled plantain — a banana-shaped fruit that tastes more like sweet potato — spinach-like bitekuteku and roast chicken, while Papa Pierre eats mabundu, a large river-fish, with pondu — cassava leaves — spiced with red pepper. We both ignore the panga-wielding butcher hacking chunks off a deer amid a swarm of flies in the background. The meals, plus a cold locally brewed Skol lager or a glass of Sprite come to $5 each.
The markets are packed with everything from tacky lounge suites to bicycle spares. Hooters blare constantly. I had just remarked how Papa Pierre believed hooters superior to brakes (his disc-brakes squeal and grind together) when he clipped a passing car, smashing his side-mirror and taking the metal trim off his doors.
On the streets of Kin, in between the weaving vehicles held together with wire, you can also buy apes and monkeys — either as pets or as food. This bush tucker industry, combined with the illicit muti trade in “gorilla” fingers (imbued with the power to make one an invincible warrior), has devastated the Congo’s endemic population of bonobos, a black-haired species similar to chimpanzees that is only found in the DRC’s equatorial rainforest.
Last year, Claudine André set up Lola ya Bonobo (Paradise of the Bonobo) on a private estate to the west of Kinshasa and today cares for a mix-and-match troupe of 25 bonobo refugees. André got involved with bonobos in 1997 when she made daily trips to the looted Mobutu compound to feed the abandoned animals in his zoo.
Her amazing charges may be wild, but they use tools to crack nuts and understand French. André calls them the “hippies of the forest” because unlike chimps, which sometimes gang up on each other or kill their young, bonobos prefer making love to war and are as relaxed, cheerful and non-violent as most Kinois. I think they make a better national totem than either Mobutu’s leopard or the Kabilas’ lion.
Kinshasa may be punch-drunk from its latest rumble in the jungle and it may have lost a few memory cells in the hammering, but the city I leave behind appears to have quit while it was ahead, so it can look forward to a second career — maybe in fashion. 


A Decade Ago...

A decade ago, I was a newspaper journalist, working as one of two seniors for Sunday Times, then Africa's largest newspaper, then as defence correspondent for the Nigerian-owned, Johannesburg-based ThisDay, then later as group special investigative writer for the Independent Newspapers group, based at the Saturday Star in Johannesburg. At left, my press accreditation for covering the implementation of the Pretoria Peace Accords in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2003 for Sunday Times; and at right, my press accreditation for covering the "Summer War" in Lebanon in mid-2006 for Saturday Star. Congolese syndicalism (re)emerged around 2000, according to a report to the 21st IWA congress in that year (I had distributed, via a Congolese trade unionist, boxes of French-language anarchist/syndicalist journals in Kinshasa in that period, but I can't claim these were influential). Today, a syndicalist Workers' Force (FO) organisation operates in the DRC.

But 2003 was my first trip there, and I was accompanied by Sunday Times photographer Sydney Seshibedi. Operating out of Kinshasa, we visited the UN observer mission, MONUC, and its Radio Okapi, the main hospital, a cathedral over Easter, and other venues to take the temperature of a society in transition (something that has become one of my main focuses as a journalist). We ate plantain and drank quarts of Skol and Primus beer on the Congo River, visited the original ring, still in use for training, which was the scene for the epic 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman (see poster below: I later met Foreman and urged him to revisit Kinshasa, which he had forsworn after his defeat, as I know he will be warmly welcomed), played a game of soccer with the youth, attended a concert by talented multi-instrumentalist Werrason, and visited Claudine Andre's Lola Ya Bonobo sanctuary for these smallest of the great apes to the west of the city; they are very endearing but endangered, animals, so please support the efforts so  save them here: I would return the DRC in 2005, but this time, the eastern town of Goma, to cover military integration of the Congolese Defence Force with former rebel forces. A decade later, I wrote about my DRC experiences in my third book, Drinking with Ghosts (BestRed, Cape Town, 2014).

The 2006 trip to Lebanon was precipitated by Israel and Hezbollah exchanging heavy fire, damaging much of Lebanon's infrastructure and killing many innocent civilians in the process. My colleague Julian Rademeyer and I hitched a ride via Cairo into Amman with the Gift of the Givers charity who intended transporting relief aid to Lebanon (Jordan would later, as a result of the Arab Spring, develop its own anarchist movement). We over-loudly applauded a terrible Ukrainian-Russian Abba cover band at our hotel, and then, because the Israelis had shut down the airspace, and had bombed all but the northernmost access road into Lebanon via Syria, Julian organised a fixer who drove us via Damascus and past Homs - not a journey to be undertaken lightly today! - via the Bokayaa border post into Lebanon, driving through a pine forest that was bombed to matchwood by the Israeli Air Force an hour after we passed through. 

Operating out of Beirut, I visited the bombed working-class district of Dagieh, and went as far south as Ghazieh, outside of Sidon, visiting hospitals, morgues, bomb-sites, First Aid stations, refugee camps, and a funeral at which entire families were being buried while Israeli bombers and drones crawled the skies overhead, smoked a hookah pipe on the Corniche, Beirut's beachfront promenade, visited an old Jewish cemetery and an abandoned synagogue in search of Lebanon's last Jews (see bullet-holed edifice below: there are only 60 diehards remaining after they were so heavily victimised in the Civil War), and had dinner with Georges Saad, of the Lebanese anarchist organisation al-Badil al-Shuyu’i al-Taharoui, as bombs wiped out blocks of flats in the very next suburb. Although the experience contributed to my post-traumatic stress disorder, it also gave me a passion for the Middle East that laid the foundation of my friendship with brilliant Lebanese writer Rasha Salti, with whom I am working on an international, multilingual online project on massacre and memory entitled Not Night, but An Absence of Stars.