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Boris Johnson is Bad News For Africa: Here's Why

5 examples of Britain's new Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson's disdain for Africa and black people.

Former Mayor of London Boris Johnson will be Britain’s next Foreign Secretary. That’s terrible news.


Johnson’s buffoonish media persona has often insulated his beliefs from serious scrutiny. But after his role in the campaign to leave the EU, which became associated with xenophobia and racism, people are beginning to dig a little deeper. And it’s not pretty. The times of dismissing ‘Bo Jo’ as a joke are officially over.

Tipped as a favourite to take over from referendum-loser David Cameron as Prime Minister (they were members of the same super-elite school, university and men-only dining club, yay for social mobility), many breathed a sigh of relief when Johnson dropped out of the race. But new PM Theresa May is not much better, with a track record on immigration and refugees which Voldemort would be proud of.

As Foreign Secretary, Johnson’s views on British colonialism and race should be of concern to the African continent in particular. We don’t know how these positions will play out in his new job—but from trade to terrorism, Africa will soon find out.

While Britain does not hold the power it once did on the international stage, it is not irrelevant either, particularly in Commonwealth countries—of which there are 18 in Africa.

We’ve compiled some of Johnson’s worst Africa-related statements in one easy list.

2000: He edited a magazine which said black people have lower IQs

When Johnson was editor of The Spectator, an article was written which stated that “Orientals...have larger brains and higher IQ scores. Blacks are at the other pole”. When this was brought up by his rival during the London Mayoral race of 2008, Johnson did apologise. But it feels like apologies or not, Johnson has made too many of these ‘blunders’ for them to be brushed aside. Particularly now that he is FOREIGN SECRETARY.

2002: He’s proud of colonialism and uses racist terminology

Yesterday, the same magazine re-published a piece written by Johnson himself in 2002 in which he wrote “The continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more.”

Johnson also uses a quote from a British colonial official to support his stance on “tribal conflict” in Uganda: ‘‘I’ve been in Africa for ages and there’s one thing I just don’t get. Why are they so brutal to each other? We may treat them like children, but it’s not because of us that they behave like the children in Lord of the Flies.”

The same year Johnson was quoted saying that “the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies" (racist caricatures of dark-skinned children of African descent). “No doubt the AK47s will fall silent, and the pangas will stop their hacking of human flesh, and the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down”, Johnson continued.

2013: Johnson doesn’t have a very high IQ himself

Just thought we’d throw this in there. When delivering the annual Margaret Thatcher Lecture (God help us all), Johnson implied that lower IQ is the reason poorer people struggle to get ahead - and called for more to be done to help the 2% of Brits who have an IQ above 130. On a radio show following this, Johnson incorrectly answered two IQ quiz questions and refused to answer a third. Damn.

2014: Winston Churchill and the benefit of British rule

Boris Johnson is the biographer of British wartime Prime Minister and colonialist Winston Churchill, who is still hailed a hero in the UK. Before publishing the biography, Johnson spoke of Churchill’s legacy and described countries which “haven’t had the benefit of British rule” as “less fortunate”.

2016: Barack Obama’s Kenyan heritage

On the day Obama visited the UK to make the case for Britain remaining in the EU, Johnson didn’t like it. He responded by alluding to the “part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire”.

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Collage by Ta'Ron Joyner

I Would Rather Breathe Than Think Outside the Box

South African artists were already working for little to no pay, but the pandemic has unleashed a flood of exploitative work requests right when we need money the most.

This essay is part of OkayAfrica's SA Reframed series, featuring personal writing from some of South Africa's best young writers edited by Verashni Pillay.

On the radio the other day, I heard a small business owner of a costume design company being interviewed and asked how they have managed to:

a. Reinvent themselves during this period, and

b. Think outside the box while doing so.

Their conversation made me think about how I have not managed to wrap my head around any sort of future, or reinvention outside any kind of box—beyond the one that wraps itself around my immediate reality. When the lockdown was announced, three friends and I withdrew to a remote area where internet access was dubious and, most times, simply not available. I would need to walk a bit of a distance to locate a spot under a tree or up a mountain to be connected for thirty minutes, or so.

Then I would do a basic comb through my emails and respond to work or requests that were already underway pre-lockdown. I only responded to new requests that either afforded me the opportunity to earn an income or those that allowed me to be productive on my own terms.

I was tired, lowkey grateful for the global pause, and no longer interested in the overly productive, overloaded nature of my previous normal. Something about the forced halt made me realise that I was on the edge of everything—myself included. I turned down anything that required me to join the endless online festivals, zoom panel discussions, Instagram takeovers and live readings. I refused all opportunities that needed me to grapple with any sort of forced normalcy. The ones that offered data or airtime or solidarity as compensation or assumed that I had gone pro bono. I needed a moment. I needed the space and time to re-bargain with the point of it all.

The pause was both useful and scary. It brought to the surface fears and revelations about the shortfalls of our industry and how creatives are positioned within the productivity machinery and economy of South Africa, or rather all the ways we fall outside of it.

As Minister of employment and labour Thulas Nxesi mentioned in a briefing two months ago, "On the issue of freelance workers—unfortunately with the current legislation they fall outside. Maybe what we are going to do is that after this we will have to re-look at it in terms of our legislative amendments and start a debate about that." Why are there laws that have gone unchallenged? Who should be challenging them? Why are artists hearing, out loud for the first time, of convenient loopholes that render us outside of an economy that taxes us like everyone else, and consumes us and our work. Yet, in times of crisis, this same economy engages with our art and our productivity and our products, but still deems us on the margin, outside, and non-essential. If we are not assisted financially, how can we be productive, how can we acquire the resources to produce? How can we apply our minds to anything else outside of survival and scrambling to stay afloat.

Pandemics do not mean that artists have gone pro bono

When you approach an artist with the assumption that they have gone pro bono during this time, when you draft an email to request a collaboration, a commission, a participation, a productivity of any kind, please bear in mind that artists are up against an unconcerned and corrupt government that has failed to provide aid and assistance to their sector during this time.

Theatre critic Sara Holdren says "Art is hard and most of it fails—either in small ways or catastrophic ones." In South Africa, the process of making art is hard, sure, but more than that, the conditions and the context in which we make work fails us in catastrophic ways that will require more than a debate and amended legislation. It will need, for starters, a minister who cares about the arts and understands its soul and mechanisms. This pause has brought about more questions and concerns for me than inspiration to reinvent or think outside the box. I have questions about the box itself and why I feel asphyxiated and trapped by its design.

I would rather breathe than think outside of the box

This pandemic has made me question what my career, livelihood and stability have been built on; what has been propping them up all this time, and what has been allowing me to appear valued and valuable in this economy? What does and will the spectrum of value look like in a normal that has been disrupted and now sits in a near distant future that may or may not be near?

Then I find myself vacillating between hope and concern. My hope is that when the pandemic is no longer with us, artists can have a come-to-jesus conversation about what has contributed and exacerbated this attitude and disrespect toward our practice and industry, I hope we can challenge the legislations that we have been dared to challenge, I hope we can be productive in ways that serve us and make sense for our well-being, that we will be paid our worth and that our society will realize that without the artist producing, there will be no art, or music, or films, or books and things that have kept people entertained and creatively nourished during this time.

My concern is that the "free"content artists are currently creating and the free access to art or performances, will not make this realisation possible, and that this kind of access, that was already undervalued and exploited, will be irreversible. The exploitation dialogue is tiring. Being treated as non-essential is tiring and terrifying too, and while most of the world can slowly start going back to work, most artists will probably have to hang tight until 2021, maybe even 2022.

While artists deal with a hoax of an arts and culture department that is dead to us and a minister who tweets more than he does his job, in an ideal world, I wish that artists could afford to indulge uncertainty, and fear, and pause, in ways that allow them to heed the call made by Nicholas Berger in his piece The Forgotten Art of Assembly [Or, Why Theatre Makers Should Stop Making] "We must lean into this pain. We must feel the grief. We must mourn. Mourn the loss of work, the loss of jobs, the loss of money, the loss of life. Mourn the temporary loss of an art form that demands assembly. Lean into the grief. Lean in. Lean in. Lean in. We must remind ourselves that mourning is a human act, not a digital one."

Koleka Putuma is an award-winning poet, playwright and theatre director. Her bestselling debut collection of poems Collective Amnesia is in its 10th print run and her play No Easter Sunday for Queers Sunday for Queers won several awards.

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