Polygonic

That weren't no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive

Out of Africa

It’s interesting seeing how Canada’s “principled leadership on the world stage” takes shape. One new angle is our apparent diplomatic abandonment of Africa.

From Ze Globe:

If it happens, the closing of the embassies in Africa could be coupled with the opening of new embassies or trade offices in higher-priority regions such as Asia and Latin America. The Harper government has focused much of its attention on the emerging middle-income countries in those two regions, which are seen as more logical trading partners for Canada.

As it is, we don’t even have a consulate in Cape Town – arguably Africa’s most international city, with a thriving blend of cultures, a booming economy, and the most favourable investment climate you could hope for. Canada just isn’t there. It’s like skipping the opening ceremonies at the Olympics. “Well, we thought our athletes might perform better with a bit of shut-eye.”

I’m in Africa three or four times a year with work (so, lemme tell ya, folks), and it seems to me that Cannon’s logic to focus on priority countries in Asia and Latin America comes across like a tragic love triangle. Chasing those who are chasing others.

What does he make of the fact that Asian and Latin American countries themselves are busy increasing their presence in Africa? The Brazilian presence there is extending well beyond the lusophone countries, and Chinese goods, employers, food and even language crop up in the most surprising places. In northern Ghana. In Cape Town. In big places like Nigeria and small places like Lesotho.

Cameroon, for instance. A bilingual country with franco and anglophone sides. Stable, peaceful, well resourced, and a window into francophone Central Africa (where we might have had a peacekeeping role in the DRC if we weren’t wintering in Kandahar and sole-sourcing unusuable fighter jets). It’s a perfectly natural place for Canada to want to engage closely. If we close our embassy there, though, we are closing so many doors it isn’t funny. China’s foreign policy is smart, if ruthlessly so, as evidenced by their heavy and growing presence there.

The Chinese and Brazilians are increasing their muscle in Africa because they see huge opportunities for growth – both economically and diplomatically. Africa’s economic growth in 2011 is pegged for 5%, which actually compares favourably against forecasts for Latin America and G20-hosting Asian tigers like South Korea.

There remains huge gaps in Brazil’s or China’s or other BRICS ability to couple investment with humanitarian and development aid, but they will work towards it to gain influence – all the easier for them when countries like Canada make way.

Ottawa’s recently one-dimensional strategy to “engage the BRICS powers” has merits. It’s very Ignatieffien, actually. But if you want clues as to how and why the amazing, incredible Brazils, Chinas, and Indias of the world are increasing their global influence, you see it in their steady engagement across Africa. Does Cannon think they’re stupid? Or maybe they’re onto something?

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Filed under: Africa, Canada, International, Politics, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Lesotho: State of Mind

There are few terms more evocative in describing a place than “Mountain Kingdom.” I mean, really! Two words is all it takes to conjure enigmatic visions of canyons shaded by endless rows of razor-sharp peaks, fortifying an ancient culture against the relentless globalising whitewash that surrounds. I am a rock – I am an island – I am the Mountain Kingdom.

Yet news comes of rising sentiment within Africa’s tiny Mountain Kingdom, Lesotho, that it should forego its independence and merge into South Africa.

Amazing stuff – our first reaction may be damp-squibbism. Why would any nation of people choose to submerge themselves into the gargantuan state of their neighbours? Why this opposite approach to the romantic militarism of liberation struggles worldwide?

I love Lesotho, and love it more for the complex discussion they’re embarking on: this disentanglement of the hyphen in “nation-state,” unravelling the term into two distinct things. So comes the question: what is it that a nation needs to survive?

Bit of background
Lesotho is a small, landlocked country, completely surrounded by regional giant South Africa, yet utterly distinct, and not through accident. The late 19th C saw widespread scattering of Southern African peoples during what was called the Difaqane – something of a multi-front, multi-participant tumbling-domino-trail of invasion and counter-invasion – resulting in part from the exploits of an expansionist, maize-fuelled, water-needy Zulu army.

The Basotho, once plain-dwelling herders, retreated into a patch of the Maluti Mountains under the leadership of clan chief, and eventual king, Moshoeshoe, and from this forbidding mountain fortress, successfully fended off the Zulu and other competing nations from getting at them. The British helped too by giving the Basotho special protectorate status as Basutholand, which would become the independent state of Lesotho in 1966.

A century spent together in the mountains, surrounded by an apartheid South African regime, bred unique cross-community distinctions in Lesotho. They developed a national dress: peaked wicker hats with broad, sun-shading brims, and colourful blankets bound with a sash. They developed a national folklore around the heroic exploits of Moshoeshoe. They developed national dishes from what they could prepare in the dry valley beds: maize porridge and corn meal at the heart of it.

So what came first – the nation or the state? Political autonomy secured the Basotho people during a time of widespread unrest, and allowed them to forge a common identity and develop a lasting sense of nationhood which isn’t going away. But today, is the state required, or instead could it be actually detrimental, in helping this nation to survive?

Lesotho suffers from the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS in the world, where one in three people live with the disease. This has led to huge numbers of AIDS orphans – as it is, 75% of Basotho people are either under 15 years old or over 65. Waged labour is out of sight, and opportunities to work in South African mines have dwindled since the 1990s. A Guardian article featuring Lesotho notes that:

Valleys have been flooded to produce dams to feed Johannesburg, 250 miles away, with water. Yet a third of the country’s wells are dry. Its highly mechanised new diamond plant has failed to absorb tens of thousands of labourers laid off by South African mines. Even its textile industry – which at its height employed 50,000 people – has collapsed. Salaries are low. A factory worker in Bloemfontein earns around 2,400 rands (£213) a month against 700 maloti (£63) in the constantly retrenching Chinese–owned textile plants of Lesotho. The impact of Aids – brought in by the migrant workforce – has ruined the economy. Uniquely in the developing world, Lesotho’s deaths are close to outnumbering its births. A third of the population is HIV positive.

The greatest threat to nationhood isn’t the absence of a state, I’d argue: much worse is death, more death, and diaspora, which is what the Lesotho people face in great number now. This is what threatens to dissolve the bonds of nationhood that have been forged through so much struggle. A hull of a state, as invigourating as its anthem may be, can’t turn this tide around alone.

It seems important to “unpack” (sorry) terms like freedom and independence if they’re going to be actually achieved. Surely real freedom for a people has to be the freedom to live and work together and live the way they aspire to live. Liberty’s in the living…..

An impoverished statelet is hardly the surest route to providing a nation with that liberty – now less so than ever, as global forces conspire in all kinds of ways. Too often, statelets are only ceremonially independent: they rely on bigger neighbours who place demands on trade conditions; they rely on transnational firms with their own prescription for your labour policy; they rely on donor agencies with their own five-year plans to save your souls…. and none of those powers are democratically accountable to the nation.

This de jure sovereignty in the face of de facto dependence is a tricky and uncomfortable question, I suspect, for those who’ve struggled to defend their nation against a neighbouring oppressor. But what do you do when protecting the nation isn’t best done through building archaic state institutions in a world that’s got different kinds of oppressors? I can’t help but think that, if the neighbouring environment has stopped being hostile, then joining up with a boring old broad-based, civic-minded, democratic federation that can support itself might do more in the aim of nation-building than any flag-raising ceremony.

Filed under: Africa, International, Politics, , ,

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