Monday, January 20, 2014

Thabo Mbeki: Slaying the Mandela Colossus

With the glowing tributes paid to Nelson Mandela by various world leaders during his memorial and his stature being compared to godlike figures like Martin Luther King Junior and Mahatma Gandhi, the narrative of the supremacy battles the iconic leader engaged with his successor Thabo Mbeki sounds un-Madibalike.

The topsy-turvy relationship between the duo brought out a side of Tata that few in the world will ever know, or believe.

Having taken the reigns of power from the “Grand Old Man”, Mbeki fought hard to step out of the great man’s shadow not only in South Africa but also across the world. This attempt, more often than not, ended up triggering rifts between him and Tata.
To understand the extent of this highly unpublicized conflicts between the man and his political mentor we analyzed, among other sources, Mbeki’s world acclaimed biography Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred.

Penned by one of South Africa’s finest scribes Mark Gevisser, the highly objective book took eight years of research where the writer had numerous interviews with the subject, family, close associates, critics and political friends and foes besides visiting his alma mater in Sussex, Moscow and Mbewuleni, his place of birth in Transkei.
“Given Mbeki’s history as the African National Congress’ (ANC) ranking diplomat, their first major public clash happened in the arena of foreign policy,” Gevisser explains in the 900-page tome

 “And although it appeared to be a brushfire-lit with the callous malice by the Nigerian Dictator Sani Abacha- it pointed to a problem that would become the fault line of their relationship, and would eventually cause it to break down almost entirely”.
Mbeki preferred Mandela handle Abacha with velvet gloves while the latter, under intense pressure from world leaders, wanted to punch Nigerian dictator bare knuckled. The hanging of Saro-Wiwa left Mbeki egg-faced and Madiba fuming.

The same differences emerged between the two on the issue on Zimbabwe. While Mandela clearly stated that the likes of Mugabe should not be tolerated due to his rubble-rousing land issue, Mbeki embraced the Zimbabwean strongman in public and accused his critics as racists out to demean Africans leaders.

The Mandela-Mbeki rivalry sometimes spilled into the public galleries in the full glare of cameras.

During Mandela’s 80 birthday in 1999, a day after he married Graca Machel, the newlyweds were feted with a mega concert televised globally and graced by the likes of Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder.

In his trademark love for classical literature, the then vice-president got carried away and chose for his toast to Madiba a misplaced passage from Shakespeare that brought the entire gathering into a tense silence.

Come let’s away in prison.
We too alone will sing like birds in th’ cage.
…so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh.
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues.

“In other words: go away. Retreat into the dotage of idle chit-chat, with the wife young enough to be your daughter, and leave us alone to carry on with the real work,” Gevisser notes. “He all but shocked the rambunctious event into silence, as it carried King Lear’s tragic words to his daughter Cordelia just before his death”.

Besides being faulted for comparing Mandela to the autocratic Lear, poetizing prison to a man who had spent 27 years in jail was criticized by the media and those present as distasteful and lucking decorum.

After being asked by the press whether he would fit in the old man’s shoes during his acceptance speech as the ANC President after Mandela stepped down in December 1997, Mbeki crudely joked that Madiba wears “such ugly shoes” and “I would never be seen dead in such shoes”.

But the most dramatic spat between the two post-apartheid heavy weights was captured by a BBC documentary filmed during a wedding event in 2003 to which both men were guests. Infamous for his tendency to show up in events late, Mandela was not impressed by the fact that Mbeki was forty five minutes behind schedule. The microphone picking the old man’s snapping “we are hungry” to his predecessor Mbeki, who instead of apologizing hits back by “I’ am sure you are”.

But Madiba, being a true fighter, would not take the jibe lying down.

“In the late thirties there used to be a president of the ANC who used to say ‘I am the black prime minister. I cannot come early to meetings. I must come late, and all of you must see what a black prime minister in this country looks like’,” the old man said when he stood to speak. “I think my president here has taken after that president”.

To show his displeasure, Mbeki snubbed the old man’s calls for three months.

Another point of departure for the two men were their leadership styles which, analysts have observed, were dictated by the nation’s needs at the times each was at the helm.

 Mandela’s was pre-occupied with being the father of the nation hell bent on national reconciliation, which included assuring whites that the economic strata won’t be forcefully disrupted. On the other hand, Mbeki pursued transformation which would lift blacks out of poverty without forgetting, and probably not forgiving, centuries of white domination that have pushed millions into despondency.

“If people dislike Mbeki, it’s because he is the anti-patriarch. He doesn’t have a family. He’s not a ‘whose your daddy?’ kind of a guy,” an intelligence operative well versed with the introvert leader told his biographer. “He doesn’t want to be anyone’s daddy. He wants to engage with you as an equal, and if you are useless, he’ll tell you. He’s not going to soften things for you”.

Lacking what he referred to as “Mandela Exceptionalism” that endeared the revered icon to comrades and crowds, Mbeki preferred stringent management approach and concentrating power at the center. This, Gevisser notes, led to a more consolidated presidency and controlled political structures as opposed to Madiba’s lose system and style, which triggered many to brand Mbeki a despot.

Proponents of the despot theory pointed towards the way all functions of the state revolved around the presidency, parliament was whipped to submission and key party positions were filled with Mbeki yes-men. This apparent intolerance to dissent and the obvious quest to consolidate state power around his office, apparently, multiplied enemies. 

Powerful political heavyweights like Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU) leader Zwelinzima Vavi, South Africa Communist Party (SACP) supremo Blade Nzimande, Cyril Ramaphosa, Tokyo Sexwale, Mathews Phosa and ANC Secretary General Kgalema Montlante all became antiMbeki crusaders.
This gang would prove deadly in the ANC rebellion that eventually horded the “Jew of kaffirland” out of office in 2008. 

“When we spoke about it, he offered up a practical example, to make his point that Mandela’s status precluded good government, and that his executive style privileged personality over process,” Gervisser notes in his objective and engaging narrative. “There were also several instances-particularly following Mandela’s retirement in 1999-when demands or requests came through from Mandela which Mbeki felt that he had to veto, because they were inappropriate. This undoubtedly created tension between the two men”.

The friction between the duo played in the international scene where many world leaders, according to Mbeki, were “slow” in noting that he was now the president a few months after the old man’s retirement. Sometimes the new leader went overboard in a bid to assert his authority.

Being a close friend of the then US President Bill Clinton, Mandela once visited Washington just a few days before Mbeki made an official state visit as the head of state in 2000. Madiba’s rapturous welcome in the American capital all but buried his successor’s tour.
Determined to make a point to both Clinton and Mandela, Mbeki made an unexpected visit to Texas to meet with the Republican frontrunner for that year’s elections George W. Bush.

“Mbeki had told several people that, when he first met Al Gore, the vice-president and Democratic Party candidate arrogantly told him what needed to be done in Africa,” his biographer claims. “Bush said, in his good-ol’ boy way, ‘Gee, I don’t know nothing about Africa. You tell me what you think I should do”.

This personal chitchat, perhaps, explains why Mbeki had an unparalleled access to White House during the entire Bush presidency despite South Africa’s harsh stance on certain American policies like the Iraqi war and Zimbabwe.

“At one point, Bush allegedly complained to Mbeki that he felt awkward being phoned by Mandela when it was Mbeki, now, who was his South African counterpart,” Gevisser further says. “Meanwhile, Mandela would complain that in the course of the day he could call all the world leaders and the only one who would not return his call immediately was ‘my own president’”. 

But while most of these differences were subtle and well concealed Mbeki controversial perception on the AIDS pandemic, according to analysts, invigorated the aging Madiba into full fighting spirit.
The second black South African president had stirred controversy across the world by claiming that he did not believe in the conventional theory that HIV caused AIDS, hence delaying his government’s response to a disaster that was claiming 800 South Africans daily.

Besides openly saying the president was wrong and criticizing the government slow adoption of a nationwide ARV programme, Mandela’s quest to meet Mbeki and discuss the issue face-to-face was allegedly spanned off for a year.

“Finally, when Mandela got to see Mbeki privately in early 2002, he felt he was treated dismissively-said those close to him-as a ‘quarrelsome old man’”, Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred alleges.

This, Mbeki men claimed, triggered Madiba to take the AIDS campaign with fervor and zeal. When the government was appealing against a court order demanding that it provides pregnant women and rape victims with Nevirapine, Mandela approved the awarding of the two medics who have pioneered the treatment with Nelson Mandela Prize for Health and Human Rights.

Asked whether he thought Madiba was waging a proxy war against his government, Mbeki was straight forward in the claim that the old man was trying to remain relevant in a world where he couldn’t influence government policy any more.

“’That was the problem, it’s that disempowerment… I think, to some extent, it came up close to him as a conscious effort on my part to disempower him’”, he told Givesser during an interview. 

“But at the same time, he was implying that Mandela had ‘strayed’ into AIDS not just out of heartfelt conviction, but also as a response to the disempowerment he had felt at the hands of his successor”.
Another issue that triggered a rift between the two is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. Mbeki was opposed to the report demonizing ANC freedom fighters for supposed gross human rights violations for their treatment of detainees in their Angolan camps in the mid eighties.

On the hand Mandela, due to retire from the presidency in six months, made a point of calling TRC chair Desmond Tutu to let him know he accepted the report in its entirety, a fact that irked Mbeki as the ANC President.
“The TRC was wrong and misguided in its scurrilous attempts to criminalise the heroic struggles of the people of South Africa,” he objected. “These struggles had, in fact, brought about the dawn of peace, democracy and justice”.

But despite these differences the two men had many meeting points. 

Besides Mbeki writing many of Mandela’s speeches including the one at his historic inauguration in May 1994, the old man trusted his vice-president with the running of government while he concentrated with national reconciliation and global engagements.
By the time Madiba was subdued by illness and old age up to his eventual demise a few weeks ago, the two comrades had, apparently, fully reconciled.

“Mbeki made peace by agreeing to draft an exquisite 85th birthday message to Mandela in July 2003, in which he lauded his predecessor as “God’s gift to the world” and a “monument to the triumph of the human spirit”,” the biographer concludes. “Shaun Johnson who edited the publication in which the message would appear recalls taking the message to show Mandela: He reads it twice and his eyes tear up. He calls Zelda(la Grange, his assistant) in, and asks her to get “my president” on line…”.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Sheng Nation: Intrigues of a Savvy Street Parlance

The East African Community (EAC), which is currently undergoing rocky times with Tanzania complaining of being ignored by Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, is perhaps the only region in the continent with a uniting language. 

Swahili is touted as one of the biggest linguafrancas in the world with an estimated 100 million people using it in East and Central Africa and beyond according to the University of San Franscico’s College of Art and Sciences.

But while EAC is banking on Swahili to foster its quest for an elusive unity, some Kenyans believe that sheng, a slang spoken by many urban youth, could be one of the glues to socially unite the 47 counties.

“Sheng should be promoted since it’s a uniting factor among young people living in urban centers all across the country,” King Kafu, a popular sheng presenter at Ghetto Radio, told The Standard. “If properly enhanced, sheng can play a huge role in killing negative ethnicity and promote national unity among the youth, who are seventy percent of the population”.

The street parlance has confounded linguists and speakers alike over the years. Sheng is not only hard to comprehend for “outsiders” but also linguistically amorphous, volatile and chaotic.
Words and phrases are discarded as first as they are coined, making it one of the most mutative slangs in this side of the globe. Terms like ashara (ten shillings), jongo (a shilling), moti (car) and wagido (dog) that were a favourite in the past are now faded and forgotten.

“The goodness of sheng is that across all ethnic groups to enable the youth to communicate implicitly among themselves,” explains Abdonbinson Karoki, a self-declared sheng guru from Kasarani area in Nairobi. “The fact that the artistic slang have come of age is evidenced by the fact that even corporates are using it in their advertising slogans”.

The easiest way to tell a favourite issue or item among the urban youth one need not look further than the number of sheng words attributed to it.

Take for instance the reference term for a gorgeous young woman. In the early nineties in Eastlands neighbourhoods like “D” (Dandora) and Oriosh, Bangla or Bango (Kariobangi). It was Shaba, ngethe, supuu, mamaa and gala in the nineties then it evolved to shori, mtotoo, saramboo, mroro, vima, tuki, mreshi, msupa, gingi and manzi and dwanki in 2000s. 

Police, who constantly cross paths with ragamuffin city youths, have also been called many names from sinya, sanse, karao, ponyi to mavedi, popo, mambang’a and many more. 

The frequent armed robberies across the city have also triggered an avalanche of references for firearms that include thiao, mguu ya kuku, mchuma, ndeng’a, mtoo, mkwaka among others. 

Money has been referred to as dough, niadu, ganji, kisisa, noti, mkwanja, chwaa and chwakada. A thousand, the most favourite denomination among mahasoras, have been christened kapa, tenga, ndovu, thao, brambo, muti and ngiri while a shilling have been referred to as bop, jongo and dala.

Bang, a regular item in the highness diet among many youth, is called gode, kuchi, ngwai, pireh, limah, ankada, bomu and pakalolo while the process of smoking is kuspliff, kuchoma, kuskank, kuriao or kujiskizia. 

“Sheng does not qualify to be called a language because it lacks three key parameters of a language namely native speakers, regularized grammar and stable vocabulary,” opines Dr. Maloba Wekesa, a linguistics lecturer at the University of Nairobi. “For this slang to come anywhere near being a language it has to transcend the use among cohorts groups and be appreciated as a communication tool in official places”.

The don says sheng should not be taken as an isolated case because other countries have their own versions of what he calls urban vernaculars.

“In Democratic Republic of Congo there is Indobin, in Cameroon there is Camfranglais and in South Africa there is Tsotsilaal,” Dr. Maloba, who says sheng is just an urban linguafranca or pidgin that should never be called a language, explains. “Therefore sheng is not news and those alleging that it can develop and be adopted as a subject in school or an official language are daydreamers who should not be taken seriously”.

He says it’s a linguafranca or pidgin designed to entertain a certain group and lock out others but after sometimes even the speakers eventually distance themselves from it.

Some of the renowned linguistic scholars who have done notable works on sheng are Dr. Lillian Kaviti, Pro. Abdul Aziz, Alamin Mazrui and Kenyan Ambassador to Germany Keny Nyauncho Osinde. 

“Condemners of sheng like academicians should respect the language since it’s a source of livelihood for many. I pay my bills and educate my family through it,” explains popular sheng presenter Mbusi. “I have a dream that one day the government will recognize sheng as the forty third Kenyan language”. 

Mbusi, who also prophesies sheng will be a future subject in school, is famous for popular trademark phrases like “Hakuna mbrrr…cha!” and kungu’kuta miwa kung’ukung’u.

“The essence of language is communication and if people can communicate in sheng then it has fulfilled its mandate as a language,” he says. “Otherwise if you remove sheng from the scene people like me would go back to Korogocho and poverty, which is not a very good idea”.

So rapid is the evolution of this urban parlance that when some creative Nairobians tried to script a sheng dictionary, its contents were irrelevant long before the booklet hit the streets.

Jua Cali, a popular genge artiste, has done a popular number called Kuna Sheng that have remained a hit since its release.
But who decides on the words and their meanings?

“Sheng words starts in the low income mtaas (neighbourhoods) where they are coined by young men who want to communicate in their own secret language,” King Kafu says. “Many words are developed but while some never get past those who coined them, some grow to national fame”.

King Kafu, whose real names are Nicholas Cheruiyot Kimel, says that although each neighbourhood has their own sheng it’s the most powerful sheng that prevails.

Sheng mob uwaga zinanzishwa na wagondi juu ao ndio utaka kubonga na language wasee wengine awashikanishi (most sheng words are started by thugs since they want to communicate in a language no one else can understand),” alleges King Kafu who spent three years cumulatively at Industrial Area Remand Prison for being involved in criminal activities. “This way they can avoid their plans being eavesdropped on”.

Kafu, who have a sheng-teaching segment in his morning show Breko, laments that some people are spoiling the popular urban tongue by using words wrongly.

“Every neighbourhood have it’s own unique and different language,” he says. “This means that the sheng that is spoken in “D” or Githare (Mathare) is different from the one spoken in Kibich (Kibera), Oyole (Kayole), Paipu (Pipeline) and other hoods in Eastalando”.

To be equipped with the latest sheng vocabulary and phrases for his popular morning radio show, King Kafu frequents various neighbourhoods to interact with the youth and catch the latest words and phrases.

“This is the only way to keep abreast with one of the most dynamic languages in this side of the Sahara,” he explains. “I usually listen and pick those words that sound interesting and use my platform as a presenter to spread them to the masses”.

He also claims to have created some words himself, a fact that we couldn’t verify. The dynamic radio man says he is the one who coined the words zangaro (prison), mtu wa bling (armed robber) and ngati (a stupid fellow).

Although some words are the obvious shortening, reversing or twisting of the originals in English or Swahili, others are complete inventions whose origin is hard to trace.

“The word Sonko was coined in the nineties, inspired by the late Sierra Leonean rebel maniac Fodey Sankoh,” claims Marto from Githurai. “He was the ultimate symbol of a mad boss so youngsters started referring to bosses as ‘sonkos’, which offered stiff competition for previously unchallenged terms like ‘mdosi’”.

Other words whose origin is hard to trace is Keja (house), mbulu (chaos), dwanzi (fool), msoti (broke fellow), mbuyu (father), buda (dandy or father), shona (full or built up), usororaji (nosiness), nyong’inyo (socks), ndeng’a (gun) and vedi (policeman).

The apparently vague origin of some sheng words have led some religious puritans to allege that they are coined by Satanists under the sea to confuse the young generation.

But this is fiercely disputed by sheng “native” speakers who says the language is just a creative way of enabling urbanite youngsters to exclude the uninitiated.

Associating sheng with things like ma-devil (devil worshippers) or claiming it hampers the speaker’s ability to communicate in fluent Swahili and English is total nonsense,” King Kafu, who is also a columnist at our sister publication The Nairobian, opines, “I can speak both languages if I want to. There are many other youth in Nairobi who can speak both languages perfectly. Even the political class, including the president, sometimes speaks sheng, which shows the language is rapidly gaining respect”.

While some words disappear as fast as they appear, others have endured the test of time to sustain their relevance. “Manze”, a sign of amazement, “ishia”, literary meaning “go away”, “fala, ngamwe and ngati”, all of which refers to a dimwit, “manga”, to eat, “noma” which means trouble.

Some neighbourhoods especially those in Eastlands and low income areas like Dandora, Mathare, Kariobangi North and other speak some of the most complex sheng in town. They are also the language’s boiling pots where most words are coined.

“These low income hoods have very many idle youth, most of whom engage in crime, congregate in “bases”(jobless corners) chewing gomba or mbachu (miraa) or playing cards or football,” King Kafu explains. “It is during these long idle hours that they coin sheng words to communicate among themselves”.
Sheng is also determined by age groups. 

Younger people especially those in urban primary and high schools speak a more complex version of sheng than their counterparts in tertiary levels where formality is emphasized by the “system”, as they refer to the institutions.

Given the fact that in universities and colleges there is a mixture of rural and urban youth, English starts forcing its way into “shengers” linguistic sphere as they prepare for the formal workplace.  Not unless they hang out with their friends in the “hood” more often, by the time they are graduating their sheng is heavily diluted.

“I went to Jamhuri High School hence when I joined Egerton University my sheng was hard to an extent that colleagues from other parts of the country were always bamboozled by my word choice,” explains Pius Ojiambo, who grew up in Dandora. “But by the time I closed schools for semester breaks which was about four months I would find myself grappling with new words. My friends in the hood would always laugh at me and call me msee wa ocha (rural man)”.

Things changed even further when 26 year-old landed a job in one of the corporate organizations in Kenya where he spent five and half days of the week and he had to shift from his beloved “D” to South B.

This is usually the story of many from the sheng “strongholds” who qualify for higher learning and later on join the corporate world, where English is emphasized as a medium of communication.  It’s the price they have to pay for their transition from “huslers” to “ma-source”.

“The fact that sheng use diminishes with the individual’s rising success is a clear indicator that it’s only a uniting factor at some levels,” concludes Dr. Maloba. “After realizing progress or getting out of that particular group people find less ground to associate with it”.

These story was first published in The Standard newspaper