Update, 25 November 2011: I discuss South African photographer Oupa Nkosi, whose work I admire, in this post. You can see many more of his photos at "2011 Through Oupa Nkosi's Lens," a slideshow on the Mail and Guardian's website, here.
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I spend a lot of time un-teaching African history. It's my job.
Every spring semester, my modern African history class is filled with 120 undergraduates who are bright, eager to learn, and convinced that the continent is trapped in a never-ending cycle of war and corruption, famine and disease. They're wrong, but it's not their fault. They've simply absorbed the images of a broken, hopeless Africa that American popular culture and the mainstream media have fed them. (There are still too few projects like Ed Kashi's rich, nuanced look at the politics of oil in Nigeria -- The Curse of Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta. See notes and second thoughts below.)
So, as I teach, I un-teach. I show my students that many of the notions that they carry around in their heads are exaggerated stereotypes and woefully incomplete cliches. They're the products of lazy journalism and a culture that has yet to rid itself of the ideas that accompanied the Atlantic slave trade and colonialism. It's an exercise clearing away the brush and scrub so that we can break new ground. Simple, no?
Sunday World photo: Sibusiso Msibi. Khanyi Mbau, holding glass, with Kenny Kunene, holding Mbau.
I wish that I could tell you that this photo is ironic deconstruction of racist cliches. I can't. It is what it seems to be. The occasion was South African businessman Kenny Kunene's recent 40th birthday party, which Johnannesburg's City Press called "the definition of bling and debauchery." The bill for alcohol alone -- including 66 bottles of Dom Pérignon, 36 bottles of Cristal, and 32 bottles of 18-year-old Chivas Regal -- came to R500,000 (about $70,000). That's a lot of booze, but, according the Guardian, "what everyone will remember is the sushi, or rather the manner of its serving. For Kunene's delectation, the rice and raw fish was spread out on the thighs and stomach of a young model wearing only shoes and black lingerie."
City Press photo: Lucky Nxumalo. Khanyi Mbau and Kenny Kunene share a special birthday moment.
No surprise, then, that Kunene has become the poster boy for shamelessly conspicuous consumption in county where, as the Guardian points out, 1.6% of the... population earns a quarter of all personal income. Only 41% have a job and just 58% have attended secondary school; 9% don't have access to water, 23% don't have toilets and 24% don't have electricity. Average life expectancy is 52, the lowest since 1970. Zwelinzima Vavi, the South Africa's most important labor leader, pointed to Kunene's party when warning of elites who "scavenge on the carcass of our people" like hyenas.
There's no denying that, 16 years after the fall of apartheid, many South Africans are troubled by the country's great disparities in wealth and by the seemingly intractable poverty of millions. But to see all members of the new elite as hyenas preying on the poor is to be the victim, once again, of exaggerated stereotypes and woefully incomplete cliches. Which brings us to South African photojournalist Oupa Nkosi and his superb photo essay on the country's Black Diamonds. It's breath of fresh air.
Photo: Oupa Nkosi. Guests sample different brands of whisky at the Whisky Live festival held in Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa on November 11, 2008. (Click directly on any of these photos to see larger versions.)
The term "Black Diamonds" originated in marketing and refers to South Africa's emerging black managerial and professional class, a group that's about 3 million strong. A recent report from the University of South Africa's Bureau of Market Research argues that for "the first time in South Africa's history the emerging middle class is predominantly African, as they now actually outnumber emerging middle-class whites." The growth of this class is one of the signal successes of the post-apartheid government. The increasing gulf between the incomes and prospects of the rich and the poor (which political and economic cronyism have only exacerbated) is its overwhelming failure.
In this context, people like Kunene make Black Diamonds tempting targets for both condemnation and satire. It's a temptation that Nkosi resists.
Photo: Oupa Nkosi. A woman enjoys a foot massage during a break at the Black Management Forum held in Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa on October 16, 2008.
Yes, consumption is conspicuously visible in Nkosi's photos. But so is the hard work that makes it possible. Rather than being self-caricatures, Nkosi's Black Diamonds possess a certain restraint and dignity.
Photo: Oupa Nkosi. Songezo Mjongile, the former CEO of Lembede in the ANC Youth League, talks on the phone on the Soweto Business Express train that was launched at Naledi Station in Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa on July 3, 2007.
Nkosi's work on the Black Diamonds has received a considerable amount of attention, most recently at the Bonani Africa 2010, Festival of Photography, held a couple of months ago in Cape Town. In a perceptive essay that accompanies the exhibition, Jon Soske captures the nature of the arguments that surround the Black Diamonds and the strength of Nkosi's photos:
In terms of unexpected iconoclasm, perhaps no other contribution matches Oupa Nkosi’s sympathetic portrayal of the new African middle classes in Black Diamonds. This story is central to the country’s future; few developments have transformed South African society as radically. Nevertheless, the discourse regarding the emerging black elites remains divided between a utilitarian and moralistic extreme: the Diamonds either represent the unique vehicle of black empowerment or creatures of corruption and gross opulence. And rarely does it seem that the material successes of white elites, particularly English-speaking liberals, provoke equivalent censure. Subverting both frameworks, Nkosi’s stylish and concurring portraits exalt the experience of achievement itself: its performance, its embodiment, its personae and its pleasures.
Photo: Oupa Nkosi. Soweto township has seen huge development in the last 14 years, and a lot of businesses in this area are booming. The region has become a popular spot for tourists to sample a bit of local culture and cuisine.
Nkosi is neither a romantic nor an apologist. In the photo above, we know that this restaurant is an island of prosperity in a sea of poverty. But we're also reminded that the Black Diamonds remain intimately connected to South Africa's townships, where, in fact, many of them continue to live.
In the photo below, however, we can be sure that it's not an accident that Nkosi included the caddy in the frame.
Photo: Oupa Nkosi. Lerato Motsoeneng takes a swing during a game of golf with his friends at the Louewkop Golf Course in Sunninghill, Johannesburg, South Africa.
Looking at the photos of Kunene's birthday party, we might think that we're learning something significant about South Africa's new elite. We're not. We're learning something about a small part of that class, at a particular moment in time.
Nkosi's photos widen our view and encourage us to think more creatively about the relationship between the Black Diamonds and the world in which they live.
You can see more of Nkosi's Black Diamonds series at "Twenty Ten: African Media on the Road to 2010 (and beyond)," an initiative of World Press Photo.
Notes and Second Thoughts, 18 November 2010: I'm not especially happy with this sentence: "They've simply absorbed the images of a broken, hopeless Africa that American popular culture and the mainstream media have fed them." It's lazy. In fact, I read and learn from mainstream reporting about Africa every day -- the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Economist, NPR, and the BBC, not to mention the African press online. At the moment, I'm reading and enjoying China Safari, by journalists Serge Michel and Michel Beuret and photographer Paolo Woods, a book which is also well within the journalistic mainstream. National Geographic published Ed Kashi's work on the politics of Nigerian oil, and, the good Lord knows, you can't get more mainstream than National Geographic. I could give other examples, but I've made my point. The media isn't monolithic. There's a lot of good stuff out there, mixed in with the bad.
The problem isn't mainstream reporting, in and of itself. The problem is the fragmented and decontextualized way in which my students and, I think, millions of other Americans, receive and absorb information about Africa. In newspapers and magazines (online and in print), as well as in movies and TV shows, in appeals from charities and NGOs, most of the images of Africa that people see do conform to the stereotypes of war, disaster, corruption, and disease. Fleeting and often misunderstood (after all, most people aren't African specialists), these images unwittingly pepetuate the notion that African is a synonym for failure.
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PS Pete Brook recently wrote a fascinating piece that addresses some of the issues I've raised in this post. He's looking at photos of rich and powerful Africans and the ways in which westerner's suspicions and doubts about wealth originating in developing counties affects the way in which they interpret them. You can read it here.