Our Language Is Either Dated or Inaccurate: Conversation with Ntone Edjabe

Matteo Lucchetti

Donna Kukama, Not Yet (And Nobody Knows Why Not), Uhuru Gardens, Nairobi, 2008. Photo courtesy of Justus Kyalo.
A Catalogue Without Pages (Volume 1 and Volume ), MAC Lyon & Sucriere, Lyon, 2013. Photo courtesy of Stephane Rambaud, for the Eleventh Lyon Biennale.

We begin this conversation by discussing stereotypical ways of defining freedom of speech and expression within the long-term cultural boycott that was in place during the South African apartheid. Ntone Edjabe, my interlocutor, is a journalist and writer and since 2002 he has been producing Chimurenga Magazine, a publication of arts, culture and politics from and about Africa and its diasporas. It is put together in the Pan African Market in Cape Town, South Africa, a vibrant place he co-founded back in 1997 when he moved to the country from Douala, Cameroon, via Lagos, Nigeria. He warns me about how he has always been reluctant about taking on the role of social commentator from South Africa and my questions try to move from the bigger picture of the boycott to specific cases, trying to capture a few glimpses of what it means to be an independent cultural producer today, in the wake of the twentieth anniversary of the end of apartheid.

We mention Paul Simon’s 1986 “Graceland,” a controversial music album that reveals tension because the position of the artist did not respect the polarization within the public sphere. The American singer at the time of the cultural boycott decided to work with South African musicians, paying homage to Juluka—the first integrated band in which Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu experimented with a genre that mixed Zulu folk sounds and Western pop music. Later, he refused to tour and perform in front of segregated audiences, therefore performing an atypical behavior within the conflict and respecting only halfway the anti-apartheid strategies. Retrospectively, having broken the rules in his own way, Simon involuntarily made clear a mute and non-productive antagonism. Ntone doesn’t hesitate to compare it to the current use of censorship from the government in the cultural field: “The people who are calling for censorship today are the ones who were calling for boycott yesterday.” The African National Congress (ANC), the party in power today and at the forefront of the resistance yesterday, is in fact exercising certain forms of censorship over particularly critical artists, thinkers and writers, thereby setting a tone that cries of new forms of discrimination in the eyes of many cultural producers. The most recent and best-known cases in this regard are to be found in the reactions to cartoonist Zapiro’s and artist Brett Murray’s depictions of the president, Jacob Zuma,1 as a figure who mirrors the corruption and scandals revolving around him and the major party of the country that he is leading. 

“Speaking from here, in the present, the line between boycott and censorship is very thin. My mind is floating back to a more sophisticated form of boycott, not one regulated by UN economic sanctions, but one that relates more to morality, in terms of what is morally good. I think that in this country there is this kind of nationalist call, in terms of occupying or at least controlling public language. That shouldn’t be surprising in any way, considering the ANC has been in power for twenty years, and intends to stay there. The response to this call from what could be considered the liberal front in South African cultural production is a sense of paranoia—and maybe I’m exaggerating here—which constantly compares the ANC to any typical African nationalist party by making repeated references to Mugabe and Zimbabwe.” The similarities in tone that Ntone is referring to are to be found in new reform policies that were approved in the parliament in 2012 on what can be considered “speakable” in the public domain, through the new protection of state information law.2 The paranoia he mentions is also retraceable in what Critical Whiteness Studies scholar Melissa Steyn has defined as “White Talk”, explained by Sharlene Khan as a “a persistent claim by White artists that they are not only being silenced, but victimized.”3

“How does one respond to this?” Ntone asks himself. “The response generally has been that we are going back into apartheid, just as if apartheid has become the sole reference for any form of politics that happens in this country. South Africa is the only reference for South Africa, and in my publishing activity I have tried to respond to that by opening up a discourse through pan-African lenses. Where I come from, in Cameroon, censorship laws are certainly a lot more stringent than in South Africa. However, artists, as well as writers and journalists, have been able to create parallel systems; they’ve been able to create other codes. Don’t get me wrong, most Cameroonian artists and journalists would rather work in an environment where they are constitutionally enabled to speak freely, and they fight for this every day. What I’m trying to refer to now is a kind of political imagination, which I find lacking. South African cultural producers seem to be caught in a discourse of oppressed and oppressor, yet the only thing they are grading is the level of oppression; the level to which people have been oppressed or are currently being oppressed. In Cameroon, Paul Biya—whose regime has been in place for the past thirty years—only allows for laughter; they allow this space to exist as a kind of buffer or release zone; a way to control of the energies of the people. At the same time, journalists have exploited that space as a space for freedom. Caricatures and comics became the form through which to put in the public domain different ideas and stories that we actually have no language for; for the unspeakable. Let’s not forget that journalism, in the main, across Africa is still a colonial tool: we are still emulating imported modes of reporting life, as well as reproducing pseudo-universalist notions of rights and wrongs or beauty and ugly—for instance most liberal English South African newspaper aim to speak like The Guardian, or some other high-circulation newspaper in the West. The boundaries of what is accurate or even legitimate are determined by what Radio France International or Le Monde report from Douala or Dakar. The storytellers who escape that territory create new spaces, something that isn’t quite recognizable as journalism, and therefore can circulate relatively free under the radar–this is the case of comics and political cartoons across West Africa. The experiment of the Chronic, the newspaper what we produce at Chimurenga, is to speak rigorously and imaginatively from this space below (and above) radars about contemporary life in Africa. Our aim is to produce language. One crucial phrase I learnt here and which you’ll find in the street lexicon across this continent, is what people often tell you when you ask for directions in the street: ‘Angazi, but am sure…’ Angazi is Zulu for ‘I don’t know’. So literally: ‘I don’t know but am sure that if you turn left, then right, you will get there.’ This seeming contradiction, “I don’t know but am sure”, is the space I am interested in. My sense is that much of the knowledge we produce from and about our societies is articulated in those intuitive terms; a full, decisive embrace of uncertainty. Now, we also know that newspapers do not generally speak from a place of decisive uncertainty. That’s our project.”

Donna Kukama, Mass Action Strike, Johannesburg Art Gallery, JHB 2009. Photo courtesy of Ivan Eftimovski.

Donna Kukama, 1000 Ways of Being (Museum Walkabout), South African National Gallery, Cape Town, 2010. Photo courtesy of Dorothee Kreutzfeldt.

“Long before the censorship laws of the ANC I was already quite critical of how newspapers report life in South Africa. I worked for newspapers for many years and I had always found that it was very difficult to speak from there, not because the State had laws in place—this was in the late 1990s—but because newspapers were very clear themselves about what is speakable and what isn’t. I’m discussing this because I’m interested in how spaces of freedom are negotiated. On one hand, you have this paranoia by many artists and journalists that are saying that South Africa is actually becoming a Banana Republic (this country is the kingdom of euphemisms!), with more and more State-controlled voices, and on the other hand, you have the possibility that cultural producers have not really exploited, re-interrogated what is public language here, what the stories are that newspapers could be reporting and how they could be reporting them. I constantly refer to newspapers and not necessarily to artistic practices because I’m very concerned about spaces that are not mediated by a language of expertise; and this is why we call ourselves a newspaper today with Chimurenga, in our attempt to perform a new sense of publicness.”

Donna Kukama, Treason II, Sierre (Switzerland)-Polokwane (South Africa) and online, 2007. Photo courtesy of Cristian Valenzula.

Donna Kukama, Treason II, Sierre (Switzerland)-Polokwane (South Africa) and online, 2007. Photo courtesy of Cristian Valenzula.

Donna Kukama, Let Go, 2006, Isle de Breyhat, France.


“The problem of representation in democratic South Africa, and more generally in Africa, requires a work through language, to find ways to not reinforce the existing terminology, and therefore dwell on the existing antagonisms that are in place, and that are just as deceiving as they are hard to get out of.”

“There is a big drive for black people to take ownership of publications and they have increasingly begun to do so, but again, in this neo-liberal paradigm, owners of the media will behave like the owners of the media. There might even be ideological differences but in practice this is just commerce. Of course because of the history of this country it makes a significant symbolic difference to have a black owner instead of a white one, but I’m really more interested in the kind of disagreeable movements that are emerging and some of them fall within the field of political organisations such as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a new party that recently gained seats in parliament, or activist movements that are more committed to remain ungovernable. What they have in common is the change they’re operating in language: verbal, visual and otherwise. When EFF activists call for transformation they’re not using the same terminology of the DA (Democratic Alliance, a white-peopled and led opposition party) or the ANC; they bring back questions that have been out of political discourse for some time, such as land redistribution and the nationalization of the mining complex.”

A Catalogue Without Pages (Volume 1 and Volume ), MAC Lyon and Sucriere, Lyon, 2013. Photo courtesy of Stephane Rambaud, for the Eleventh Lyon Biennale.

Donna Kukama, The Red Suitcase, Ghent, 2006. Photo courtesy of Oscar Martinez.

Donna Kukama, The Red Suitcase, Ghent, 2006. Photo courtesy of Oscar Martinez.

Ntone concludes that many African states are struggling to deal with the effects of the structural adjustments that occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and in this phase he feels the urgency that moves him to do what he is doing with Chimurenga. “The IMF template of electoral democracy, presented as catch-all solution, is now showing its limits,” he says, and finally, “the language we use to describe our lives is either completely dated or merely inaccurate.”