White Masks/Zebra Trousers

At my alma mater, the University of Cape Town, there sits a statue of the Arch-Imperialist himself, Cecil John Rhodes with his gaze permanently fixed on Cairo. Ever since the statute’s unveiling in 1934, it has cast a long shadow on the sun-soaked steps of the campus. Now and again debates arise on the campus calling for its removal. During Apartheid many Afrikaans students were opposed to the statute’s presence as it served as a bitter reminder of the former Governor of the Cape Colony’s conduct and machinations during the Boer War, and the horrors of the concentration camps. Today the debate’s focus is more on Rhodes’ imperial and racist legacies. The charged debates draw out the compromised history of the University, with students and academics debating the meaning of history, notions of privilege and service, and what perceptions of post-colony and post-apartheid mean. In short, the presence of Rhodes’ statue ensures that these vibrant and essential debates continue. I am not an admirer of Rhodes by any means and would argue against any oration of his shameful memory. This is the same approach I take with the yearly Bongo Ball. The greatest service it provides is not in the charity work it so loudly proclaims but in the debate it generates.


Image courtesy of Danie van der Merwe, © 2007, some rights reserved
Image courtesy of Danie van der Merwe, © 2007, some rights reserved

The name itself, “Bongo”, provides a lightning rod for debate on the memory of imperialism and colonialism and how much of that history and current legacy this institution, the University of St. Andrews, is heir to. While St Andrews is far removed from the daily realities of the post-colonial condition, the Bongo Ball can be a means to ground otherwise abstract arguments. It provides a focus point, and illustrates arguments over the efficacy of aid versus trade; the West’s continued patronising attitude to Africa; and the fetishisation of an entire continent.

However well intentioned the Ball might be, claiming that it is for ‘charitable purposes’ can not be an invitation to provide a forum in which colonial sentimentalists are given an excuse to don a tiger onesie and have fun for a night. The good intentions and noble results of the Ball are nonetheless mitigated by the Euro-centric simplification of an entire continent’s worth of culture, reducing Africa to animals, drums, and exotic evening wear. Patronising and colonial sentiments in this instance do exist, and we ought to confront and deal with them. As Larry Achiampong, a Ghanaian-British artist, succinctly stresses:

“… just because images of Golliwogs and Blackface are not paraded in the way that they were in the past, it doesn’t mean the world has thrown that type of mentality to the dust. I think in the UK we are quite guilty of easily sweeping moments like these under the carpet in the hope that no one will unearth them. Stare at a clown long enough and the jokes begin to disappear.”

That being said, a once-off night of charitable fundraising might be forgiven, however, this is not a once-off event. Rather, it seems that at St Andrews the only exposure the wider university has to the African continent is primarily in terms of a charity case. This week is the Bongo Ball, last week it was Mary’s Meals, soon enough it will be Project Zambia, or another reminder about conflict minerals in the DRC, not to mention the numerous other groups organising trips to “Africa” for missionary or charity work. Those attending the Ball would do well to heed the advice of Franz Fanon: “The native must realise that colonialism never gives anything away for nothing.”

The problem is straightforward: as noble and admirable as each of this individual groups and charities may be, they do not exist entirely independent of each other. Together, however unintentionally, they shape and perpetuate an essentialised image of an entire continent that is only viewed as the needy recipient of aid. Africa is not portrayed as a place of agency, of adults, as normal or everyday normality. Here it is shown to be a place in need of constant assistance, a place of charity, an excuse for a (not so) unique ball. It is only ever as a place of the ‘other’ who needs your £5, £20, or whatever the price of a good night out listening to a DJ play tracks from the Lion King might be.

Although the Bongo Ball does provide a platform for African musical talents, that platform still rests on charity. When the Vengaboys came to St Andrews, they did not visit as part of a charity drive to highlight human trafficking and drug abuse in Amsterdam. Did Alt-J raise awareness of Leeds’ socio-economic problems?

In a wider engagement with Africa that did not focus on its problems, pathologies, and weirdness, my concerns would pass unnoticed. I do not wish to damn these groups, rather to ask that they are more reflective of their messages; to understand that by contributing to a persistent message of ‘charity only’ they may do more harm than good. Indeed, negative consequences often follow the best of intentions.

The crisis confronting many African states, if even such a generalisation could be made, is that the established neopatrimonial state systems are no longer able to absorb the growing demands for a share of the wealth. The best solution for such countries is a growing middle class in a growing economy so that the state is no longer the only game in town. Africa desperately needs jobs over charity, investment over aid. That same £2000 raised for a summer trip to Zambia to help build houses maybe better spent towards a year’s employment for a labourer in Lusaka. Or can Africans not be trusted to build their own homes, schools or offices? Why does a white European have to be there to see it done? If a house is built and a white person is not there with a group of happy smiling black children, was it built at all?

These are not singular instances of charitable notions either; they are continuous and ever so slightly competitive. Together they contribute to further iterations of the ‘problem with Africa’. Africa isn’t a problem to be solved, something to be fixed, or a place to find oneself. The images of the African ‘normal’, of smiling kids in tattered clothes singing and dancing in front of the white, Western aid worker, are reiterated. We never see the image of African intellectuals or fancy buildings or banal everyday scenes with an Instagram filter. Rather we see time and again that great picture of patronising liberalism: a white person with a group of smiling dancing black kids.

I do not wish to admonish those active in such groups, nor am labelling anyone or anything as racist. I am not calling for the Ball to be banned; I am not even calling for the organisers to change its horrifically imperialist name. All that I ask is that as intelligent and engaged citizens of a world that is wider than East Fife, we ask ourselves the more difficult questions about what our actions and choices are creating and re-creating, and who me may harm in our presupposed beneficence. If we ever tire of asking these difficult questions, perhaps we should draw strength from Fanon’s prayer: ô mon corps, fait toujours de moi un homme qui s’interroge!

(Oh my body, make of me a man who always questions!)

One Reply to “White Masks/Zebra Trousers”

  1. A good article, much of which I agree with. My comments are intended as observations more than anything. You will fail, utterly, to change Western people’s dearly held perceptions of Africa that you describe. They need it, they are uplifted by it and it justifies the pathetic, charity minded simplicity with which they approach Africa. Let them have their Bongo Ball and wallow in their stereotypes – just like you would let children play at a ridiculous game and enjoy the spectacle of their naivety. Unfortunately, African leaders and many of it’s people too frequently affirm these stereotypes and as much as I reject the fetishisation of Africa, it fetishises itself with depressing regularity. The call for removal of statues (not by the author – I mean generally in postcolonial Africa) is a cynical and naive attempt to erase history and to construct just the stereotypes which Africa itself (if Africa itself even exists) wants the West to move away from. A full portrayal of history serves as the best way to build a tapestry of African experience, allowing the world to engage with complexity rather than stereotypical simplicity.

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