I hope you are well as can be at this time as we look forward to the end of the year – I’m sure you’ll agree that 2020 has been a trip! The news cycle in this past fortnight has centered around the US election, and the tense days that followed as the vote was counted. As the results were trickling in I was looking through my notes from four years ago – because of the whirlwind that 2020 has been, I wanted to remember what I was thinking when Trump was elected in 2016. I came across an op-ed I had written at the time for The Star newspaper, where I argued that there was “nothing ‘African’ about Donald Trump.” I’m referring to the framing that has been memed to death since he was named presidential candidate by the Republican Party four years ago. Trevor Noah did a comedy sketch early in 2016 where he proposed that Trump would be America’s first “African dictator”. Trump apparently already has some “default” qualities of a typical African dictator.
Dark charisma? Check. As Noah puts it, “Whether you like it or not, [Trump] has the charisma of a car crash; you don’t like it, but you can’t stop looking at it.”
Unbridled egoism? Check. Threatening to lock up your enemies? Check.
At that time, people were even asking why Barack Obama didn’t do the African thing and run for a third term!
But I remember writing that as meme-worthy as this argument was, it had a dark side too. I wanted, and still want, to resist the idea that Africans have some kind of global monopoly on bad leadership, and that the only way we Africans can engage with the Trump car-crash-horror-show is by a gleeful schadenfreude.
We Africans have nothing to gain by sniggering at the “tribal” tendencies that the US election has seemingly unleashed, in a country that was supposedly the bastion of democracy.
These kinds of broad strokes make us lose the nuance that shapes political expression everywhere. They make us internalize that violence and impunity are somehow inherently African, instead of confronting the fact that African nation-states themselves were founded on the ashes of an incredibly destructive colonial enterprise. And they reify the idea that Trump is an aberration, a glitch in the perfectly glittering American matrix, instead of what he really is – “as American as apple pie”, in the words of Dr. Cornel West, “a sign of our spiritual bankruptcy—all spectacle and no substance, all narcissism and no empathy, all appetite and greed and no wisdom and maturity.”
Therefore, as my friend Vik Sohonie argues, president-elect Joe Biden’s job is not to restore American preeminence. That is not going to happen. Instead, it is to manage America’s decline, “gracefully, and with dignity.”
With those heavy words, here’s what we’re on this week:
What We’re Reading: The Shadow King, a novel by Maaza Mengiste, set around the 1935 Italian invasion of Ethiopia. That invasion is arguably the first conflict of World War II, and reminds us that Africa, and African women, were never incidental to these events – they were central to them. Mengiste spent years researching the historical events surrounding this novel, even learning Italian and living in Rome, as she unearthed an archive of photographs that would inform the novel.
What We’re Watching: The Letter Reader, directed by Sibusiso Khuzwayo. A moving coming-of-age story of a young boy from Johannesburg sent to live with his grandmother in Kwa-Zulu Natal. There, he reads letters to villagers at a time when it suited the apartheid regime to keep black South Africans illiterate.
What We’re Listening To: The Missionary, an eight-episode podcast that explores the disturbing and traumatic story of Renee Bach, an American missionary who operated a charitable treatment center for severely malnourished children in Uganda despite having no medical training. One episode in and I was shouting in the car – I was angry, astonished and upset. And then I had to listen to the whole thing.
Curator | Baraza Media Lab