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A Question of Power: Why Ethiopia’s Economic Transformation Is a Cautionary African Tale

9 min read.

The arrival of reformist Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed Ali, may have only given the ruling EPRDF a stay of execution. At the heart of the political crisis is an old problem: a command economy reluctant to liberalise. State-led infrastructure expansion fuelled a decade of miraculous growth, producing five times more electricity than the country requires. The returns on this investment are not forthcoming. Exports are falling, the Birr has been devalued; a severe forex shortage is underway. Is Ethiopia’s future as Africa’s premier power exporter viable? By DAVID NDII.



A Question of Power: Why Ethiopia’s Economic Transformation Is a Cautionary African Tale
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Something is stirring in Ethiopia. It began with the abrupt resignation of former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn on February 15. After weeks of backroom dealmaking the EPRDF coalition which has governed Ethiopia with an iron fist since ousting the Derg, Mengistu Haire Mariam’s Marxist dictatorship in 1991, elevated youthful Abiy Ahmed Ali as prime minister. The new prime minister hit the ground running with a raft of political reforms.

Three years ago, students in the town of Ambo started a protest to oppose a metropolitan development plan that would have incorporated their town and seven others into the capital, Addis Ababa. Ambo is 120 kilometres west of Addis in the Oromia region. They accused the federal government of a top-down land grab that would deprive them of livelihoods and destabilize their communities and culture.

After the overthrow of the Derg, Ethiopia adopted an ethno-federalist constitution that even provides for orderly secession. But the EPRDF has sought to run a command-and-control developmental state. The Addis Ababa expansion plan was a head-on-collision between the two—the constitution’s federalist ethno-regional political bargain and the centralizing ideology and power politics of the EPDRF. While the EPRDF is a consociational coalition, it’s the late strongman Meles Zenawi’s Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which led the liberation war, that wields most of the power in the coalition (and gets most of the spoils). The Tigrayans are a relatively small tribe (six percent of the population) from the north of the country.

The Addis expansion plan, which affected the Oromo and Amhara regions, ignited discontent whose depth the EPDRF clearly underestimated. The Oromo are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, accounting for a third of Ethiopia’s 100 million-strong population, with strong grievances of historic marginalization. The Amhara, who constitute just over a quarter of the population, are the erstwhile politically dominant ethnic group. Both Emperor Haile Selassie and Mengistu were Amhara (his father, originally Oromo, was adopted by an Amhara nobleman). Repression, including massacres, mass incarcerations and a state of emergency, a feature of both Emperor Selassie’s late rule and Mengistu’s Red Terror, returned under a beleaguered EPRDF.

Though unexpected, Desalegn’s resignation was preceded by a softening of the regime, including the release of political prisoners, which Desalegn said was meant to “foster national reconciliation”. The new prime minister is Oromo. His elevation was no doubt intended as an olive branch to the restive region.

The Addis Expansion Plan, which affected the Oromo and Amhara regions, ignited discontent whose depth the EPDRF had clearly underestimated…Repression, including massacres, mass incarcerations and a state of emergency, a feature of both Emperor Selassie’s late rule and Mengistu’s Red Terror, returned under a beleaguered EPRDF.

Hot on the heels of the tectonic shift in the politics have come equally momentous economic pronouncements. State owned Ethiopian Airlines and telecommunications and power utilities and other state corporations are to be partially privatized.

What exactly is cooking in Addis?

In his pronouncement speech, the Prime Minister Abiy spoke of a hard currency crisis. He is quoted in the media castigating his audience, Ethiopian businesspeople, for keeping their hard currency in Dubai and China and asking for their cooperation to resolve the crisis while also threatening unspecified actions on the hoarders of foreign exchange. Instructively, he also disclosed that the political crisis has dented diaspora remittances. Diaspora remittances are Ethiopia’s single largest source of foreign exchange, bringing in US$ 5.5 billion last year, almost double the country’s US$ 3 billion dollar export earnings.

The foreign exchange crisis is not new. In October last year, Ethiopia devalued the currency by 15 percent. While the recent government data shows foreign currency reserves equivalent to 2.3 months import requirements in December 2017, precarious but not dire (3-4 months requirements is the norm), some analysts say the reserves could have fallen below one month’s requirement, which is dire. Last week, the government announced that it had secured a US$1 billion foreign currency lifeline from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), part of a US$3billion aid and investment package. The UAE deal looks like a quid pro quo for Prime Minister Abiy’s de-escalation of tensions with Egypt over Ethiopia’s damming of the Blue Nile. The UAE is a strong ally of Egypt. This sequence of events begins to suggest that the foreign currency crunch is behind the softening of the EPDRF regime.

Prime Minister Abiy spoke of a hard currency crisis. [He castigated] his audience, Ethiopian businesspeople, for keeping their hard currency in Dubai and China and asked for their cooperation to resolve the crisis while also threatening unspecified actions on the hoarders of foreign exchange. Instructively, he also disclosed that the political crisis has dented diaspora remittances. Diaspora remittances are Ethiopia’s single largest source of foreign exchange, bringing in US$ 5.5 billion last year, almost double the country’s US$ 3 billion dollar export earnings.

Ethiopia has run into an old, mostly forgotten, economic development problem: the foreign exchange constraint. In the old days, it was caused by import substitution industrialisation. Import substitution industrialisation, the dominant development strategy for many sub-Saharan African states until the mid-seventies, entailed setting up industries to produce finished goods the country was importing, and protecting them from import competition with trade barriers, import and foreign exchange controls.

The new import substituting industries imported virtually everything from machinery, intermediate inputs, spare parts, technology and even management. The import substituting industry’s foreign exchange requirements ended up exceeding what the country was using to import the finished goods. Most of the import substitution industrializers relied on a few primary commodity exports. They soon found that their export earnings were insufficient to finance the industries.

Foreign exchange became scarce, and self-reinforcing. To circumvent foreign exchange rationing, businesses would hoard foreign exchange abroad through transfer pricing (over-invoicing imports and under-invoicing exports), compounding the primary motive for transfer pricing— tax evasion. One such scheme came to light not too long ago during the unravelling of the Nairobi Securities Exchange-listed corporate icon, CMC, which has since been delisted. It was revealed that the company had maintained a secret account in Jersey to which proceeds of over-invoicing were deposited and paid to its directors offshore. Remarkably, many of the beneficiaries of the scheme were the same bureaucrats who were responsible for enforcing foreign exchange controls.

The 1973 oil-shock and declining primary commodity prices in the ‘70s compounded the external imbalance that import substitution industrialization started. By the early ‘80s, most import substituting countries were on their knees. In some, Tanzania for example, manufacturing ground to a halt.

Ethiopia’s external imbalance and attendant foreign exchange crises emanate from over-investment in infrastructure. Ethiopia adopted an infrastructure-led growth strategy known as the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP) in 2010. It has since doubled electricity generation from 1800 to 4200 MW, against peak power requirement of 2000 MW. There is close to 7,000MW of new power projects under construction. The Ethiopia Grand Renaissance dam alone has a capacity of 6450 MW. When these are completed, Ethiopia’s generation capacity will be more than four times domestic demand. The road network has been expanded two-and-a-half fold, from 44 km to 110 km of road per 1000 square kilometres. And there is of course the 670-km Addis-Djibouti railway, and a light rail system for Addis Ababa, operational since late 2015 .

The infrastructure building boom, described in a recent World Bank report as “one of the highest rates of public investment in the world”, turbocharged Ethiopia’s economic growth rate from a respectable 5-6 percent to an exceptional 10 percent per year. But close to a decade on, the anticipated private investment that would enable Ethiopia to pay for it has not materialised. Ethiopia was banking on export processing zones investment, and has built several industrial parks around the country.

Besides failing to attract investment, building booms of this magnitude have the effect of shifting incentives against “tradable” sectors of the economy. This phenomenon is more commonly associated with natural resource booms that economists call Dutch Disease. This is reflected in the decline of Ethiopia’s export to GDP ratio, from 17 percent to eight percent of GDP compared to Sub-Saharan average of 27 percent. Its export to GDP ratio is now the second lowest on the sub-continent after Burundi (6.2%).

Ethiopia has compounded its infrastructure-driven external imbalance with classic import substitution—a massive state-drivend sugar industry expansion. The state-owned Ethiopia Sugar Corporation is currently developing ten large-scale sugar projects that will put a million acres of land under sugarcane production. A capital intensive, low value product with distorted markets and a permanent global glut floating in the high seas, sugar is as bad as import substitution industries get. Yet there is no shortage of export-oriented agriculture investments Ethiopia could have chosen. Oilseeds are Ethiopia’s second largest export earner after coffee. It has a promising livestock and leather apparel industry. Maize even.

The Bretton Woods institutions spent the ‘80s and ‘90s preaching the free market economic orthodoxy known as the Washington Consensus. Ethiopia has done the complete opposite. But the World Bank has been nothing but effusive. In a 2016 report, Ethiopia’s Great Run: The Growth Acceleration and How to Pace it, the World Bank asserts confidently that Ethiopia was on course to become a middle income country by 2025. Astoundingly the World Bank goes ahead to give a thumbs up to the policy regime that its structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) dismantled:

“Heterodox financing arrangements supported one of the highest public investment rates in the world. Three less conventional mechanisms stand out: first, a model of financial repression that kept interest rates low and directed the bulk of credit towards public infrastructure. Second, an overvalued exchange rate that cheapened public capital imports. Third, monetary expansion, including direct Central Bank budget financing, which earned the government seignorage revenues.”

Ethiopia has compounded its infrastructure-driven external imbalance with classic import substitution—a massive state-driven sugar industry expansion. The state-owned Ethiopia Sugar Corporation is currently developing ten large-scale sugar projects that will put a million acres of land under sugarcane production. A capital intensive, low value product with distorted markets and a permanent global glut floating in the high seas, sugar is as bad as import substitution industries get.

Heterodox means unorthodox or unconventional. In plain English, it means distorting credit markets, overvaluing the currency and printing money.

 After all the cheerleading, the Bretton Woods sisters now find themselves in an awkward situation. In its most recent debt sustainability report, the IMF acknowledges that Ethiopia is now staring at a debt crisis. It has no advice to give. Ethiopia’s hopes, it writes, now rest on exporting electricity. The IMF posits that Ethiopia has the potential to earn US$ 1 billion a year from selling electricity.

In reality, Ethiopia is selling a little power to Sudan and Djibouti, and has signed power purchase agreements with Kenya and Tanzania. But these countries are ramping up their own generation capacity. Kenya’s installed capacity is presently 35 percent above peak generation requirements excluding the 340 MW Turkana wind power which is awaiting completion of a transmission line, 55 percent when it is included. There are several other projects underway, and Kenya’s government seems dead set on proceeding with a controversial 1000MW coal plant in Lamu. Ditto Tanzania.

After all the cheerleading, the Bretton Woods sisters now find themselves in an awkward situation. In its most recent debt sustainability report, the IMF acknowledges that Ethiopia is now staring at a debt crisis. It has no advice to give. Ethiopia’s hopes, it writes, now rest on exporting electricity. The IMF posits that Ethiopia has the potential to earn US$ 1 billion a year from selling electricity.

Ethiopia’s biggest electricity customer potentially is Egypt. This may begin to explain the reason for the olive branch. Prime Minister Abiy also made a quick visit to Somalia last week. He might be hoping to sell some electricity there. To flog a billion dollars worth of power, Ethiopia will need to make peace with all her neighbours, and then some. If truth be told, the electricity export bonanza is a fig leaf.

There is a cold reality that the Ethiopian government seems to be still in denial about. Its heterodox macroeconomic regime is now untenable Investors do not like putting their money in places where it is difficult to get out. And now that people know how precarious the situation is, hard currency hoarding and capital flight will get worse, not better.

The competing destinations for the export processing investment that Ethiopia is building industrial parks for do not have exchange controls. And Ethiopia has many disadvantages to overcome, not least, being landlocked, not to mention its byzantine bureaucracy and anti-capitalist instinct. Financial liberalisation is inevitable, a matter of when and how, not if. The Prime Minister talked of the foreign exchange problem being a long term problem. He is dead wrong. He has eighteen months—best case scenario. His options boil down to whether to do big bang or gradual – rather like choosing whether to do your root canals all at once or every other week.

The announced fire sale of family silver will not do it either. Deregulation should precede privatisation otherwise it substitutes public monopolies for private ones. In the case of the telecom monopoly in particular, deregulation will kill a whole flock of birds with one stone—bring in hard currency from license fees, investment, access (at 40% Ethiopia’s mobile penetration is the lowest in the region) and quality of services. The sugar factories I would sell right away on an “as-is-where-is” basis. A stitch in time saves nine.

Ethiopia is by no means the only country floundering on infrastructure-led growth. It is a foolish idea. Monuments, delusions of grandeur, cargo cults—this columnist has all but run out of metaphors. Last year, Zambia’s President called a national day of prayer for the Kwacha. Last week he suspended borrowing and instituted an austerity programme that includes freezing projects that are less than 80 percent complete. Kenya is surviving on speculative capital inflows and juggling debt as it negotiates an IMF bailout.

Ethiopia’s unravelling is a reflection of its macroeconomic policy regime. When demand and supply don’t balance, something must give. In a liberal regime it is prices that adjust (exchange rate, interest, and inflation). If prices are controlled then demand or supply must give, in this case, the supply of foreign exchange. Still, the crisis has provided an opportunity for transformational political and economic change. To quote economist Paul Romer, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

David Ndii

David Ndii is a leading Kenyan economist and public intellectual.


Why Physical Distancing Should Not Become the New (Ab)Normal

Working from home (WFH) certainly has its advantages, but studies have shown that prolonged isolation can have dire mental health consequences. As societies change their behaviour to adjust to COVID-19, they must take into consideration the innate human need for physical interaction.



Why Physical Distancing Should Not Become the New (Ab)Normal
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Many office workers are celebrating working from home (WFH), which has become the “new normal” in the age of coronavirus and lockdowns. Introverts who hate the prospect of making small talk with colleagues they secretly loathe have welcomed the idea of working remotely from home in their pajamas and setting their own work schedules. Those whose working experience was considerably diminished by office politics find that it is much easier to ignore these politics on Zoom.

WFH certainly has its advantages. Time spent commuting to work (which in Nairobi can be as long as two hours due to the city’s horrific traffic jams) can now be spent working. This is good for the environment, which is already choking from vehicular fumes, and for productivity. I have worked from home for several years and find that I am more productive at home because I spend less time getting dressed for work, travelling to work, and conducting idle chitchat with colleagues, time that is essentially wasted. Twitter has already told its employees that they can work from home for the rest of their working life at the company if they choose to do so.

With the advent of WFH, it has also become evident that showing up at work is not the same as working. Many of us have worked in places where it is not clear what work people actually do or why they were hired. Their output appears negligible or insignificant, but because they show up at work, it is assumed that they are working. With WFH, managers might be more diligent about monitoring “deliverables” (NGO-ese for outputs) by employees. After all, if you say you are working from home, and cannot show what you did, then it becomes clear that you are not actually working.

However, before we throw out our office suits and slip permanently into our comfortable bedroom slippers, we might consider this: the majority of essential workers in this world still have to go to work and make physical contact with human beings to earn a living. Doctors, nurses, retail store managers, food vendors, hawkers, need to physically interact with the people they serve. No WFH for them.

For those of us who were already working from home before the pandemic and lockdowns started, the new normal might appear like the old normal, but it is not for one simple reason – this lockdown is enforced; it is not voluntary. People working from home can decide when to go out and socialise to recharge their batteries or to make human contact; now that option no longer exists or is restricted.

Studies have also shown that while many women prefer the flexibility of working from home, a majority find that leaving the house to go to work is actually therapeutic. A survey by Gallup, for instance, found that two-thirds of working women liked the “social aspect” of their jobs. Working from home alone doesn’t provide the social contact and camaraderie that an office can provide.

There are other disadvantages of WFH and using online platforms to communicate with colleagues. As Jennifer Senior wrote in the New York Times recently, “Remote work leaves a terrible feedback vacuum. Communication with colleagues is no longer casual but effortful; no matter how hard you try, you’re going to have less contact – particularly of the casual variety – and with fewer people”.

Senior says that it would also be a mistake to assume that toxic office politics will not find its way into the WFH space. “They [office politics] are much easier to navigate if you can actually see your colleagues – and therefore discern where the power resides, how business gets done and who the kind people are”, she wrote.

When the home becomes a battlefield

The lockdowns around the globe are also testing marriages and giving rise to mental health problems that are breaking up families and leading to increased domestic violence. As the war against the coronavirus pandemic accelerates, another kind of pandemic is raging across the world. Reports indicate that violence against women has increased since lockdowns have been enforced in various countries, and that women are bearing a disproportionate burden of taking care of their families.

United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, raised the alarm recently when he stated: “Over the past weeks as economic and social pressures and fear have grown, we have seen a horrifying global surge in domestic violence”. He noted that “violence is not confined to the battlefield”.

According to a recent UNWomen report, “COVID-19 and Ending Violence against Women”, in France reports of domestic violence increased by 30 per cent since the lockdown on 17 March. In Argentina, emergency calls on domestic violence cases increased by 25 per cent after the lockdown on 20 March. In Cyprus and Singapore, helplines registered an increase in calls by 30 per cent and 33 per cent, respectively. Demands for emergency shelter for domestic violence victims have also been reported in Canada, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

“As stay-at-home orders expand to contain the spread of the virus, women with violent partners increasingly find themselves isolated from the people and resources that can help them”, says the report. “The surge in COVID-19 cases is straining even the most advanced and best-resourced health systems to the breaking point, including those at the front line in violence response”.

“It’s a perfect storm”, said the CEO of one British charity. “Lockdowns will lead to a surge in domestic abuse, but also severely limit the ability of services to help”.

In many countries where there are few services for victims of domestic violence, or where reporting physical abuse, especially by an intimate partner, is difficult, women are trapped in a vicious cycle. In situations where healthcare services are already over-stretched, women victims of domestic violence are also less likely to seek medical attention.

The closure of schools has also placed enormous pressure on women, who tend to be the main caregivers in families. For women who are poor, and who live in cramped housing, the pressures can be overwhelming. With stay-at-home children and a spouse who has either been let go at work, or who cannot work because of the lockdown, the home can become a pressure cooker ready to explode. Men who feel more insecure due to their unemployment status are likely to take out their frustrations on their wives. Sometimes this can result in physical violence, even murder, as has been reported in Kenya, where there appears to be a surge in intimate partner violence, sometimes resulting in death.

The looming mental health crisis

In my view, the idea that self-isolation and working remotely from home should be accepted as the new normal is terribly misplaced for one simple reason: human beings are wired to be social animals, and depriving them of social contact has dire psychological consequences. WFH advocates fail to consider that humans have an innate need to physically interact with other humans.

There is a famous experiment conducted by the American psychologist Harry Harlow that is often cited to underscore the above point. Harlow’s work with primates, particularly infant rhesus monkeys, showed why isolation can be detrimental to human development. His experiments showed that when baby monkeys are taken away from their mothers and raised in a laboratory setting, they start engaging in disturbing behaviour, including self-mutilation. It didn’t matter how well fed the monkeys were, their need for maternal comfort and love proved more critical to their development than their need for sustenance. The infant monkeys placed in cages did not thrive; some held in prolonged captivity even died. The experiment highlighted the importance of maternal care and touch in infant development. Those who believe that hugs, cuddles and handshakes are gestures that will no longer be tolerated in a post-COVID world might want to refer to Harlow’s groundbreaking work.

Johann Hari also highlights the importance of social contact in his book, Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope. Hari, a journalist who had been on anti-depressants for years (without much success) embarked on a journey to find out why depressed people remained depressed even after years of taking drugs or undergoing therapy.

He found that depression is not so much a clinical condition that can managed with the right medicine, but essentially a social disorder whose cure lies in connecting with other like-minded people. He found that depressed people are not only more likely to feel lonely, but also tend to feel insecure. They have few friends and little social interaction.

Despite the proliferation of social media and the billions of “friends” on Facebook, an alarming number of people around the world are reporting being both lonely and depressed. Hari found that social media cannot compensate for the psychological loss of social life. He quotes the biologist E.O Wilson, who said that “people must belong to a tribe” to thrive. People must feel a sense of community and have friends they can count on. This involves physical interaction.

Unfortunately, our modern world has made connection and a sense of community harder to achieve. Social media has replaced physical contact; online shopping has replaced the pleasure of physically touching an object before buying it; the neoliberal capitalist world order has made it much harder for people to form relationships that have nothing to do with money. This has severely impacted the mental health of societies.

The social cost of rising inequality

The world has also become far more unequal, with a handful of people and corporations owning most of the world’s wealth, and a large majority eking out a living from paycheck to paycheck, and with few prospects of owning a home. An Oxfam report released last year showed that in 2018, the 26 richest people in the world had the same net worth as the poorest half of the world’s population, or 3.8 billion people. In addition, the wealth of 2,200 billionaires increased by 12 per cent in 2018 while the wealth of the poorest half decreased by 11 per cent.

Studies have found that millennials are less likely to own their own homes during their lifetime than their parents and grandparents. This is partly the result of the “gig economy”, which has become the new normal, with young people taking on short-term contractual jobs rather than more secure long-term employment that can provide things like health insurance and pension schemes. While the gig economy has been lauded by some for offering people more flexibility and variety in the kinds of jobs they do, it also has several disadvantages, the primary one being lack of financial security, which has led to mounting uncertainty, particularly among people approaching middle age.

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent global recession is likely to increase inequality in an already highly unequal world. With more people losing their jobs or earning less, the gap between rich and poor is likely to widen. This has mental health and social consequences.

In their groundbreaking book on inequality, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Picket show a strong relationship between inequality and mental illness. The researchers found that highly unequal societies tend to have a higher incidence of depression, obesity, drug addiction, and violent crime than societies that are more equal. One reason for this is that in societies that place a high value on having money and possessions, people who judge themselves through this value system are more at risk of depression and anxiety.

Highly unequal societies also tend to value competition more than cooperation. They tend to be individualistic and materialistic. Hence, they tend not to take care of the “public good”, and so are less likely to invest in good quality and affordable healthcare and education, or in things that have no commercial value, but which are essential for the well-being of societies, such as public parks and social security systems. This affects the overall mental health of people living in these societies.

Human beings need other human beings to survive and thrive. They need to cooperate and make physical contact with others. WFH and self-isolation are already impacting the mental health of people. If physical distancing and self-isolation become the norm in the long term, then hospitals might reduce the number of coronavirus patients, but mental asylums and counselling services will become overwhelmed. In poor countries, where psychological counselling is a luxury, expect more violent crime, suicides and drug and alcohol addiction. The new normal will, in fact, become the new abnormal.

While there is no doubt that social behaviour will be impacted by the pandemic in the short term, it would be a tragedy if human beings shut themselves off permanently from other human beings in the long term. As I have tried to show, long-term self-isolation is neither healthy nor desirable. The emotional and social costs are simply too high.

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My Black Is (Not) Beautiful: The Complex History of Skin Lighteners in Africa

As in other parts of the world colonised by European powers, the politics of skin colour in South Africa have been importantly shaped by the history of white supremacy and institutions of racial slavery, colonialism, and segregation.



My Black Is (Not) Beautiful: The Complex History of Skin Lighteners in Africa
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Somali-American activists recently scored a victory against Amazon and against colorism, which is prejudice based on preference for people with lighter skin tones. Members of the non-profit The Beautywell Project teamed up with the Sierra Club to convince the online retail giant to stop selling skin lightening products that contain mercury.

After more than a year of protests, this coalition of anti-racism, health, and environmental activists persuaded Amazon to remove some 15 products containing toxic levels of mercury from its website. This puts a small but noteworthy dent in the global trade in skin lighteners, estimated to reach US$31.2 billion by 2024.

What are the roots of this sizeable trade? And how might its most toxic elements be curtailed?

The online sale of skin lighteners is relatively new, but the in-person traffic is very old. My book Beneath the Surface: A Transnational History of Skin Lighteners explores this layered history from the vantage point of South Africa.

As in other parts of the world colonized by European powers, the politics of skin color in South Africa have been significantly shaped by the history of white supremacy and institutions of racial slavery, colonialism, and segregation. My book examines that history.

Yet, racism alone cannot explain skin lightening practices. My book also attends to intersecting dynamics of class and gender, changing beauty ideals and the expansion of consumer capitalism.

A deep history of skin whitening and skin lightening

For centuries and even millennia, elites in some parts of the world used paints and powders to create smoother, paler appearances, unblemished by illness and the sun’s darkening and roughening effects.

Cosmetic users in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome created dramatic appearances by pairing skin whiteners containing lead or chalk with black eye makeup and red lip colorants. In China and Japan too, elite women and some men used white lead preparations and rice powder to achieve complexions resembling white jade or fresh lychee.

Melanin is the biochemical compound that makes skin colorful. It serves as the body’s natural sunscreen. Skin lighteners generate a less painted look than skin whiteners by removing rather than concealing blemished or melanin-rich skin.

Active ingredients in skin lighteners have ranged from acidic compounds like lemon juice and milk to harsher chemicals like sulfur, arsenic, and mercury. In parts of precolonial Southern Africa, some people used mineral and botanical preparations to brighten—rather than whiten or lighten—their hair and skin.

During the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, skin color and associated physical differences were used to distinguish enslaved people from the free, and to justify the former’s oppression. Colonizers paired pale skin color with beauty, intelligence, and power while casting melanin-rich hues as the embodiment of ugliness and inferiority. Within this racist political order, where small differences carried great significance, some people sought to whiten and lighten their complexions.

By the twentieth century, mass-produced skin lightening creams ranked among the world’s most popular cosmetics. Consumers of commercial skin lighteners included white, black, and brown women.

In the 1920s and 1930s, many white consumers swapped skin lighteners for tanning lotions as time spent sunbathing and playing outdoors became a sign of a healthy and leisured lifestyle. Seasonal tanning embodied new forms of white privilege.

Skin lighteners became cosmetics primarily associated with people of color. For black and brown consumers, living in places like the United States and South Africa where racism and colorism have flourished, even slight differences in skin color could have substantial social and political consequences.

The mercury effect

Skin lighteners can be physically harmful. Mercury, one of the most common active ingredients, lightens skin in two ways. It inhibits the formation of melanin by rendering inactive the enzyme tyrosinase; and it exfoliates the tanned, outer layers of the skin through the production of hydrochloric acid.

By the early twentieth century, pharmaceutical and medical textbooks recommended mercury—usually in the form of ammoniated mercury—for treating skin infections and dark spots while often warning of its harmful effects. Cosmetic manufacturers marketed creams containing ammoniated mercury as “freckle removers” or “skin bleaches.”

When the US Congress passed the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act in 1938, such creams were among the first to be regulated.

After World War II, the negative environmental and health consequences of mercury became more apparent. The devastating case of mercury poisoning caused by industrial wastewater in Minamata, Japan prompted the Food and Drug Administration to take a closer look at mercury’s toxicity, including in cosmetics. Here was a visceral instance of what environmentalist Rachel Carson meant about small, domestic choices making the world uninhabitable.

In 1973, the FDA banned all but trace amounts of mercury from cosmetics. Other countries followed suit. South Africa banned mercurial cosmetics in 1975, the European Economic Union in 1976, and Nigeria in 1982. The trade in skin lighteners, nonetheless, continued as other active ingredients—most notably hydroquinone—replaced ammoniated mercury.

Meanwhile in South Africa

In apartheid South Africa, the trade was especially robust. Skin lighteners ranked among the most commonly used personal products in black urban households. During the 1980s, activists inspired by Black Consciousness and the “Black is Beautiful” sentiment teamed up to make opposition to skin lighteners a part of the anti-apartheid movement.

In the early 1990s, activists convinced the government to ban all cosmetic skin lighteners containing known depigmenting agents—and to prohibit cosmetic advertisements from making any claims to “bleach,” “lighten” or “whiten” the skin. This prohibition was the first of its kind and the regulations immediately shuttered the in-country manufacture of skin lighteners.

South Africa’s regulations testify to the broader anti-racist political movement from which they emerged. Thirty years on, South Africa again possesses a robust—if now illicit—trade in skin lighteners. An especially disturbing element of the trade is the resurgence of mercurial products.

South African researchers have found that over 40 percent of skin lighteners sold in Durban and Cape Town contain mercury. Mercurial skin lighteners tend to surface in places where regulations are lax and consumers are poor.

The activists’ recent victory against Amazon suggests one way forward. They took out a full-page ad in a local newspaper denouncing Amazon’s sale of mercurial skin lighteners as “dangerous, racist, and illegal.” A petition with 23,000 signatures was hand-delivered to the company’s Minnesota office.

By combining anti-racist, health, and environmentalist arguments, activists held one of the world’s most powerful companies accountable. They also brought the toxic presence of mercurial skin lighteners to public awareness and made them more difficult to purchase.

This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Not Yet Uhuru: Why Postcolonialism Doesn’t Exist in France

It is no longer shocking to witness the prejudice among French institutions and intelligentsia against Africa and Africans.



Not Yet Uhuru: Why Postcolonialism Doesn’t Exist in France
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Racism and exclusion have always been at the heart of France’s neocolonial project in Africa. What is new, however, is the pervasive and active discursive process of making invisible, and therefore containment, of the violent reality of France’s policies and its devastating consequences for France’s racialised citizens as well as the African populations on the other side of the Mediterranean. Today it is important to consider what France has become: to slightly stretch the words of philosopher Herbert Marcuse, a one-dimensional society where repressive and exploitative forces of domination and injustice that have been at the heart of France’s national consciousness challenge any possibility of a genuine vision of change.

It is no longer shocking to witness the prejudice among French institutions and intelligentsia against Africa and Africans. The state, the media, and the academy in France actively embody the role of new agents of state neocolonialism to reject any resistance against racism and Islamophobia through complex methods of containment and abstraction.

Race blindness for instance becomes an effective tool to safeguard the neocolonialist foundation of France’s state apparatus and contain any possible threats to its national consciousness. As writer Lauren Collins observes, “There is a common belief that there cannot be racism in France because in France there is, officially, no such thing as race. The state, operating under a policy of “absolute equality,” does not collect any statistics on race or ethnicity.” By doing so, the state apparatus in France ignores its racialised and ethnic citizens and represses their rights to be fully acknowledged.

State neocolonialism in France has been impregnated in its national consciousness to the extent that its networks of domination and dehumanization have blurred the traditional distinctions that are made on the basis of colour and between racialised and ethnic citizens emigrating from Africa. In France, to draw upon Fanon’s analysis that racism is fundamental to the economic structures of capitalism, the political infrastructure is also a superstructure: you are French because you embody France’s state neocolonialism, you embody France’s state neocolonialism because you are French. The French state no longer presupposes certain racial and aesthetic characteristics of the ideal citizen: Black African intellectuals and brown Maghrebi media pundits can also be incorporated as new agents of state neocolonialism. In contemporary France, Africans are not othered and excluded on the basis of race, ethnicity, or colour, but rather on the basis of their politics, culture, and religion.

When Emmanuel Macron, the French president, decided in October 2019 to share his views on immigration and Islamophobia, he chose the far-right magazine Valeurs Actuellesdeclaring that “the failure of our (economic) model coincides with the crisis of Islam” and adding that this crisis leads to the emergence of more radical forms of political Islam. Macron criticized a demonstration in support of the right to wear veils as “non-aligned Third-Worldism with Marxist tendencies” (he used the word “relents,” which can be translated to hint or trace, but also to stink or stench). This interview was published a few days after a mosque shooting in Bayonne, in south-west France. No terrorism offenses were brought by the French government against the white shooter.

The media’s complicity overwhelms any possibility of a meaningful public debate. At its basic form, the process of invisibilisation in a one-dimensional society involves the dispersal of productive energies through diversion and abstraction so to ensure that a revolutionary momentum is as unattainable as the end of capitalism itself.

This complicit relationship between the media and the state in France is carefully exposed in Serge Halimi’s Les Nouveaux Chiens de Garde (translated to The New Watch Dogs, 1997-2005). Halimi, the chief editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, lays down a seething critique of a “capitalist” press and media in France that are heavily influenced by the elite interests of politicians and powerful corporations and likely to manufacture propaganda to serve their agenda.

This is exemplified by the controversial debate in France around returning works of African art, stolen during colonial times, to the continent after the publication of the report by the French historian Bénédicte Savoy and the Senegalese economist and writer Felwine Sarr, and commissioned by Macron, which recommends to cancel the project of long-term loan of items to African museums and to support the full and unconditional restitution of the looted heritage back to Africa. The glaring discrepancies in reporting the ambivalent position of the French Minister of Culture, Franck Riester, a right wing politician, regarding the return of the stolen artifacts to Africa highlight the dangerous complicity between state institutions and the media in France. There were two opposing reports of this event: on the one hand, major French media outlets celebrated the efforts of the French government to return 26 works of art to Benin. Radio France International, for example, chose the title: “Restitution of works of art in Benin: France goes a step further” while Libération opted for: “Restitution of works in Benin: Paris says it works for a quick return.” But once we dive into these articles, we are faced with the many approximations and “possible scenarios” under which France will actually return the art. The conditional supplants the affirmative, and what remains is the strong belief that much has been left unsaid.

On the other hand, The Art Newspaper, a leading global art magazine, commented differently on the same event: “France retreats from report recommending automatic restitutions of looted African artefacts” ran the article. Here, what is emphasized is the strong opposition of France’s powerful gallery owners and art collectors against any form of permanent restitution and the pressure they put to change the “restoration without delay” decision into a “temporary return.” The new scenario, according to the minister’s comments, refers now to a temporary “exhibition dedicated to the diversity, complexity and aesthetic richness of these works” that will be held, not in Africa, but across France this summer as part of Macron’s highly publicized event entitled “Africa 2020.”

While most news outlets in France continue to briefly comment on the ongoing debate between supporters and critics of Savoy-Sarr report on the restitution of African art, The Art Newspaper insisted that “the report made international headlines, recommending the restitution of African artifacts in French museums, but the country has not returned a single item to Africa.” A year after the publication of Savoy-Sarr recommendations and Macron’s promise for a quick return, “neither the 26 pieces from Benin nor indeed the 90,000 other Sub-Saharan artifacts in French museums” have been returned to Africa.

What is often dismissed from the debate on the restitution of African heritage is the capacity of the French president to secure political and economic gains while asserting the hegemonic power of France over its neo-colonies. Macron accepted to temporarily return El Hadj Omar Tall’s sword to Senegal for a period of five years during another highly publicized ceremony, and at the same time he persuaded Macky Sall, the Senegalese President, to sign a new, multi-hundred million euro contract “for the construction of three offshore patrol vessels for the Senegalese Navy.” Again, there is nothing new here: as Sally Price reports, “[R]estitution is part of a two-way interaction, based on inequality and demanding something in return.” However, Macron successfully manages to obscure this inequality through a highly-calculated, affective, and Africa-friendly communicative strategy.

In France, as the old world is dying and the new is waiting to be born again, a specific breed of pseudo-intellectuals highjacks the public discourse to further promote a republicanism of inequality and exclusion. Among white French intellectuals, the complexity of the postcolonial field is often reduced to a corrupt discursive technology of deceptive arguments, false readings, and deliberate confusion. It is unconceivable to think of a public debate about, say, the case for reparations.

Whenever I am faced with the abysmal state of postcolonialism in France, I remember how Carina Ray, associate professor at Brandeis University, at a panel on the racial politics of knowledge production in November 2018, described the state of African studies in Europe: There are still issues that are “so 1940s and 1950s.” “White Europeness” has made it difficult to bring new perspectives on the postcolonial question. As she put it blatantly: it is a disaster.

The dangerous pseudo-intellectualism of Bernard-Henri Lévy, Alain Finkielkraut, Éric Zemmour, Raphaël Enthoven, Michel Houellebecq, Renaud Camus, Robert Ménard, and others – the list is absurdly long – has caused a permanent damage to any possibility of a qualitative change. There is no pause here: these figures have always been central to France’s neocolonial project of domination and exploitation.

As Marcuse writes, “The most effective and enduring form of warfare against liberation is the implanting of material and intellectual needs that perpetuate obsolete forms of the struggle for existence.” The omnipresence of Lévy, Finkielkraut, and Zemmour in public discourse in France is meant to turn meaningful propositions of liberation into obsolete forms of insignificant punditry.

In an infamous manifesto signed by 80 figures of the French intelligentsia such as the reactionary Alain Finkielkraut and published in 2018 postcolonialism was deemed “a hegemonic strategy” that attacks the ideals of republican universalism, and it involves “the use of methods of intellectual terrorism reminiscent and far exceeds what Stalinism once did to European intellectuals.”

What is often recurring in these incendiary attacks on postcolonialism among the white French elite is this amalgam of postcolonialism with the North American scholarship. There is the tendency to believe that postcolonial studies, an interdisciplinary field of inquiry and activism, is due above all to the contributions of the American and Anglo-Saxon schools to the developments of its theories and practices. When the existing tensions between France (and Europe) and the United States on issues of knowledge production and cultural superiority is taken into consideration, one is inclined to consider that their attacks against postcolonialism are a deep and irrational fear of hegemonic American interventionism.

The view of postcolonial thought as a universal, progressive praxis that has been forged by the struggles of the peoples of the South is dismissed. The fundamental thrust of postcolonialism as moving beyond racial and identity issues to rethink also political, cultural, and utopian ideals is attacked. While the Americans and others have grasped that, in a world in flux, we cannot afford not to be postcolonial, France’s established networks of neocolonial power continue to dismiss postcolonialism as unpatriotic and as a homogeneous threat.

Faced with Finkielkraut’s racist and misogynist attacks during a televised debate, Maboula Soumahoro, the activist and chair of the Black History Month in France, was succinct in her reply: “Your world is ending! You can be panic struck as long as you want, it’s over!”

Meanwhile, the complicity between the political, media and cultural institutions in France continues to silently enforce the state neocolonialism against the African diaspora. The death of Zineb Redouane, the islamophobic attack against a French Muslim women by a white far-right politician during a school trip with her son and other children to the regional parliament in eastern France, the outrageous and ignorant falsehoods made-up by a white French writer about slavery, the racist mural of Hervé Di Rosa in the National Assembly, the decision of the French government to backtrack on the full and permanent restitution of stolen works of African art, and France’s murky role in Libya’s ongoing civil war are all visible signs of a pervasive state of neocolonialism that dictates the violent relationship between France and Africa.

This post is from a new partnership between the African website Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site every week.
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