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“Under pressure”: Negotiating Competing Demands in an Age of Uncertainty

7 min read.

The pressures young black un(der)employed men experience are at once economic and social given the pressure they face to not only “provide” for themselves and their families exists alongside a pressure to improve or “upgrade” their lives.



“Under pressure”: Negotiating Competing Demands in an Age of Uncertainty
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A few years ago, during a year of ethnographic fieldwork with young un(der)employed men in a poor shack settlement on the outskirts of Johannesburg, I found myself sitting in Senzo’s one-room shack on a foldout camping chair. It was a hot Wednesday afternoon. Popular R&B music was blaring into the air from the nearby tavern. Senzo sat on his double bed. Soon after I arrived, Senzo handed me an ornate invitation with gold foil on the sides and his name on it. It was an invitation to the wedding of his cousin that was set to take place the following weekend.

I asked Senzo if he planned to go. “I’m not going”, he told me, explaining that he had declined the invitation because, as he put it, “I don’t want to put more pressure on myself” describing the difficulties he already had paying rent, keeping up with outstanding debts, and supporting his girlfriend and children. Going to the wedding would require him to buy a fancy suit and a gift for the couple. This required money he didn’t have. The “pressure” Senzo described was not just the monetary cost of attending the wedding. It was also the feeling (what Senzo called “stress”) of being overburdened by competing demands on his money including buying consumer items, sending his children to good schools, and supporting family members.

To understand the continuous “pressure” young men like Senzo face requires we give attention to the changing nature of work and the changing world of families in contemporary South Africa. As I show below the pressures young black un(der)employed men experience are at once economic and social given the pressure they face to not only “provide” for themselves and their families exists alongside a pressure to improve or “upgrade” their lives. As such, I show how the   “income-demands gap” (a key catalyst of “pressure”) in young men’s lives is produced in and through specific (increasingly temporary rather than enduring) social relations and ties.

It is well known South Africa has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world, with 59% of young people between the ages of 15 and 24 years are currently unemployed. These figures pertain to the pre-lockdown phase (the first three months of 2020) and have only worsened due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, which I cannot consider here. In a context where wage work is not only increasingly unavailable but also precarious, my on-going research demonstrates that while young men use a diverse range of strategies to get by—with many combining formal wage labour with informal entrepreneurship while also leveraging distributional claims on others both inside and outside of their households— their income is, like many urban dwellers, sporadic and unpredictable.

One of the striking consequences of the decline of wage work in South Africa is the increase in the number of unmarried people in their twenties and thirties who live in multigenerational family units. In particular, unemployment delays the setting up of an independent household, in some cases by decades. Many young people “survive unemployment” by staying in multigenerational households, especially in rural areas, to access the employment income or state transfers of other household members. The situation in urban areas is quite different with a growing shift toward smaller and more numerous households. This trend is intensified in urban informal settlements like Zandspruit where a growing number of people, especially young men, are ‘living solo’. Of one hundred young people (between the ages of 18-34) I surveyed in Zandspruit, the vast majority (87%) were unmarried but just over half (52%) had one or more children. Over half (56%) of these same youth lived  in households of two or fewer with a further 25% ‘living solo’.

Further, in the majority of cases, young men did not live with their children. This reflects national trends that show 43% of all black children in the country live with their mother or maternal kin (often in rural areas) with little contact with their fathers (Hall and Sambu 2017). The shift to smaller households and ‘solo living’ (especially among young men) in urban areas must be seen in the context of mass unemployment, inadequate housing and low-marriage rates. It is these factors that also underpin the pervasive view in South Africa that young men are failing to support their families, and meet their obligations to their children.

Senzo was 27, single, and had been unemployed for four months at the time of the wedding he had been invited to. He had previously worked as a driver for butchery but quit during a disciplinary hearing that resulted from Senzo’s absence from work after a car accident. Senzo was living alone in a one-room rented shack that was not far from his grandmother’s yard where he had lived from the age of thirteen. Senzo had a new girlfriend at the time of this research and two daughters (age 8 and 3) who lived with their respective mothers. Senzo was staying afloat with support from his sister who worked as a receptionist, his grandmother who received a government pension, and some ad-hoc work with a local NGO.

Unlike some of the poorest people in Zandspruit, many of whom migrate to the area in search of work, Senzo had a long-established support network that allowed him to survive periods of unemployment. These relationships and forms of support allowed him to get by. They did not allow him to provide for his grandmother, girlfriend and daughters. Since losing his job, Senzo was no longer supporting his grandmother and sending money to the mother of his younger daughter every month. The pressure to support others was not necessarily lessened when Senzo had a more stable income. “Even though I’m working I’m always left with nothing”, he told me some months later when he found a part-time job as a soccer coach, describing how he often felt like he was “drowning” from the multiple claims to his limited earnings.

It is important to recognize that the experience of pressure is not static. It is constantly shifting in response to changing incomes, demands, obligations and desires. My on-going research shows that while many young un(der)employed men long for the temporal stability of a wage job (compared to the erratic and unpredictable nature of informal earnings) they also recognised the increased social burden that came with the predictability of a wage. Mandla, another of my interlocutors, put it like this: ‘Having a job, especially for men, carries a big weight, a big burden […] but when you’re hustling there is no fixed time [when people know] I have X amount of money in my bank account.’ ‘But’, he continued, ‘if you have a job, even the extended family, they will know that at the end of the month Mandla is going to get paid. […] But when you’re hustling there isn’t really a plan to say “Hey, listen – we know you’ve got money”’. Seen this way, the temporal stability of the wage was often seen as a burden rather than an advantage for the young men I spent time with. At the same time, the erratic and unpredictable nature of informal earnings allowed them to hold onto more of their limited resources and, in some cases, have more say over what they did with their money.

Throughout my research in Zandspruit I heard young men described as “run[ning] away from their responsibilities” and failing to “make a commitment” to their children. The lives of young men like Senzo reveal a more complicated picture than that offered by the dominant portrayal of young men as ‘stuck’ and ‘failing’. While most young men are severely constrained in their ability to meet their social obligations and attain the normative markers of adulthood—to build a home, get married, and reliably support a spouse and kids— they are not stuck in some kind of ‘limbo’ or extended state of non-adult. Instead, young men like Senzo are negotiating competing demands on their resources in a context of precarious and unpredictable earnings and fluid (often fraught) social relationships.

The “pressure” to provide for one’s children, partners and families is the site of both aspiration and resentment as well as pride and humiliation. Young men in Zandspruit understood their obligations to their families as one of the prime areas for them to acquire or maintain a sense of masculine respect or status while also resenting the economic pressure this placed on them. Senzo often criticised the mothers of his children for only contacting him to “demand” money. “They won’t phone me saying we miss you, come and visit us”, he told me, “No, no no.

The only time they give me a call is when there is a reason [like a] school trip or something”. Senzo’s relationship with his older daughter was limited to short meet-ups at shopping malls where, as he put it, he is expected to “buy nice ice-creams and shoes”. Senzo often expressed his frustration at only being able to spend time with his child if he could “spend” money. The situation with his younger daughter (who he lived with for the first year of her life) was slightly different. Her mother phoned him, sometimes daily, demanding financial support. “When I see the phone call I just switch off my phone”, Senzo told me, describing the endless requests for money for nappies, school fees and other expenses. Senzo’s decision to turn off his phone was an attempt to sidestep these economic claims but also the humiliation that came with being unable to offer financial support.

It was this burden and humiliation that lead some men to purposefully avoid seeing their children until they had money and, in some cases, being estranged from their children altogether. In a context where being a man remains inextricably tied up with financial provision, the stress of being unable to provide for others not only leads to feelings of failure but also contributes to increasing social atomization and gender-based violence (as highlighted in Nairobi).

The stress of being unable to provide for others was made worse by the tension young men experienced between using their money for immediate and more conspicuous purchases and forms of enjoyment and the obligation they felt towards their family and children. The tension between spending money on consumer goods versus meeting their social obligations was often felt most acutely by those in employment or with a more regular source of income. Having a job not only came with an expectation to support one’s family. It also involved the pressure to “show you are working”, as one of my interlocutors put it, that involved acquiring and displaying desirable goods—from clothes and cell phones through to cars—that earmarked you as a person whose life was improving.

This desire to consume not only underscores the inequalities that pervade South Africa but also shows how the lives of young people throughout the continent are not simply structured by their limited means but by their desires and aspirations to get ahead. While wearing expensive clothes, owning a car, or being seen to drink expensive brands of alcohol might increase young men’s social status it also made them vulnerable to accusations of misguided prioritisation of self over others and the present over the future. I heard this concern expressed most clearly in the phrase that someone was “forgetting where they come from”. The phrase was most commonly directed at someone who was seen to be engaged in conspicuous consumption (such as the purchase of alcohol or new shoes) without “taking responsibility” for others and was thus seen to be prioritising their individual status over their families.

Senzo’s reluctance to attend the wedding not only reflects the competing demands on his income but also the social and moral pressures that come from the tension young men face between improving their own lives and taking responsibility for others. The consequence of this tension is that young men have to tread a fine line between succumbing to the pressure to consume—in a context where not being able to wear nice clothes or getting take-outs signals a kind of social poverty—and looking after their social obligations to others. The feeling of being “under pressure” not only indexes the widespread feeling that comes from being overburdened by the multiplicity of economic demands young men experience but also the reality that certain aspirations to get head remain perpetually out of reach.

This article was first published in The Review of Africa Political Economy journal

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Hannah Dawson is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand. She tweets at @HannahJoburg.


SAPs – Season Two: Why Kenyans Fear Another IMF Loan

The Jubilee government would have us believe that the country is economically healthy but the reality is that the IMF has come in precisely because Kenya is in a financial crisis.



SAPs – Season Two: Why Kenyans Fear Another IMF Loan
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Never did I imagine that opposing an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan to Kenya would be viewed by the Kenyan authorities as a criminal act. But that is exactly what transpired last week when activist Mutemi Kiama was arrested and charged with “abuse of digital gadgets”, “hurting the presidency”, “creating public disorder” and other vaguely-worded offences. Mutemi’s arrest was prompted by his Twitter post of an image of President Uhuru Kenyatta with the following caption: “This is to notify the world . . . that the person whose photograph and names appear above is not authorised to act or transact on behalf of the citizens of the Republic of Kenya and that the nation and future generations shall not be held liable for any penalties of bad loans negotiated and/or borrowed by him.” He was released on a cash bail of KSh.500,000 with an order prohibiting him from using his social media accounts or speaking about COVID-19-related loans.

Mutemi is one among more than 200,000 Kenyans who have signed a petition to the IMF to halt a KSh257 billion (US$2.3 billion) loan to Kenya, which was ostensibly obtained to cushion the country against the negative economic impact of COVID-19.  Kenya is not the only country whose citizens have opposed an IMF loan. Protests against IMF loans have been taking place in many countries, including Argentina, where people took to the streets in 2018 when the country took a US$50 billion loan from the IMF. In 2016, Eqyptian authorities were forced to lower fuel prices following demonstrations against an IMF-backed decision to eliminate fuel subsidies. Similar protests have also taken place in Jordan, Lebanon and Ecuador in recent years.

Why would a country’s citizens be against a loan given by an international financial institution such as the IMF? Well, for those Kenyans who survived (or barely survived) the IMF-World Bank Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) of the 1980s and 90s, the answer is obvious. SAPs came with stringent conditions attached, which led to many layoffs in the civil service and removal of subsidies for essential services, such as health and education, which led to increasing levels of hardship and precarity, especially among middle- and low-income groups. African countries undergoing SAPs experienced what is often referred to as “a lost development decade” as belt-tightening measures stalled development programmes and stunted economic opportunities.

In addition, borrowing African countries lost their independence in matters related to economic policy. Since lenders, such as the World Bank and the IMF, decide national economic policy – for instance, by determining things like budget management, exchange rates and public sector involvement in the economy – they became the de facto policy and decision-making authorities in the countries that took their loans. This is why, in much of the 1980s and 1990s, the arrival of a World Bank or IMF delegation to Nairobi often got Kenyans very worried.

In those days (in the aftermath of a hike in oil prices in 1979 that saw most African countries experience a rise in import bills and a decline in export earnings), leaders of these international financial institutions were feared as much as the authoritarian Kenyan president, Daniel arap Moi, because with the stroke of a pen they could devalue the Kenyan currency overnight and get large chunks of the civil service fired. As Kenyan economist David Ndii pointed out recently at a press conference organised by the Linda Katiba campaign, when the IMF comes knocking, it essentially means the country is “under receivership”. It can no longer claim to determine its own economic policies. Countries essentially lose their sovereignty, a fact that seems to have eluded the technocrats who rushed to get this particular loan.

When he took office in 2002, President Mwai Kibaki kept the World Bank and the IMF at arm’s length, preferring to take no-strings-attached infrastructure loans from China. Kibaki’s “Look East” economic policy alarmed the Bretton Woods institutions and Western donors who had until then had a huge say in the country’s development trajectory, but it instilled a sense of pride and autonomy in Kenyans, which sadly, has been eroded by Uhuru and his inept cronies who have gone on loan fishing expeditions, including massive Eurobonds worth Sh692 billion (nearly $7 billion), which means that every Kenyan today has a debt of Sh137,000, more than three times what it was eight years ago when the Jubilee government came to power. By the end of last year, Kenya’s debt stood at nearly 70 per cent of GDP, up from 50 per cent at the end of 2015. This high level of debt can prove deadly for a country like Kenya that borrows in foreign currencies.

When the IMF comes knocking, it essentially means the country is “under receivership”.

The Jubilee government would have us believe that the fact that the IMF agreed to this loan is a sign that the country is economically healthy, but as Ndii noted, quite often the opposite is true: the IMF comes in precisely because a country is in a financial crisis. In Kenya’s case, this crisis has been precipitated by reckless borrowing by the Jubilee administration that has seen Kenya’s debt rise from KSh630 billion (about $6 billion at today’s exchange rate) when Kibaki took office in 2002, to a staggering KSh7.2 trillion (about US$70 billion) today, with not much to show for it, except a standard gauge railway (SGR) funded by Chinese loans that appears unable to pay for itself. As an article in a local daily pointed out, this is enough money to build 17 SGRs from Mombasa to Nairobi or 154 superhighways like the one from Nairobi to Thika. The tragedy is that many of these loans are unaccounted for; in fact, many Kenyans believe they are taken to line individual pockets. Uhuru Kenyatta has himself admitted that Kenya loses KSh2 billion a day to corruption in government. Some of these lost billions could actually be loans.

IMF loans with stringent conditions attached have often been presented as being the solution to a country’s economic woes – a belt-tightening measure that will instil fiscal discipline in a country’s economy by increasing revenue and decreasing expenditure. However, the real purpose of these loans, some argue, is to bring about major and fundamental policy changes at the national level – changes that reflect the neoliberal ethos of our time, complete with privatisation, free markets and deregulation.

The first ominous sign that the Kenyan government was about to embark on a perilous economic path was when the head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, made an official visit to Kenya shortly after President Uhuru was elected in 2013. At that time, I remember tweeting that this was not a good omen; it indicated that the IMF was preparing to bring Kenya back into the IMF fold.

Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine, shows how what she calls “disaster capitalism” has allowed the IMF, in particular, to administer “shock therapy” on nations reeling from natural or man-made disasters or high levels of external debt. This has led to unnecessary privatisation of state assets, government deregulation, massive layoffs of civil servants and reduction or elimination of subsidies, all of which can and do lead to increasing poverty and inequality. Klein is particularly critical of what is known as the Chicago School of Economics that she claims justifies greed, corruption, theft of public resources and personal enrichment as long as they advance the cause of free markets and neoliberalism. She shows how in nearly every country where the IMF “medicine” has been administered, inequality levels have escalated and poverty has become systemic.

Sometimes the IMF will create a pseudo-crisis in a country to force it to obtain an IMF bailout loan. Or, through carefully manipulated data, it will make the country look economically healthy so that it feels secure about applying for more loans. When that country can’t pay back the loans, which often happens, the IMF inflicts even more austerity measures (also known as “conditionalities”) on it, which lead to even more poverty and inequality.

IMF and World Bank loans for infrastructure projects also benefit Western corporations. Private companies hire experts to ensure that these companies secure government contracts for big infrastructure projects funded by these international financial institutions. Companies in rich countries like the United States often hire people who will do the bidding on their behalf. In his international “word-of-mouth bestseller”, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, John Perkins explains how in the 1970s when he worked for an international consulting firm, he was told that his job was to “funnel money from the World Bank, the US Agency for International Development and other foreign aid organisations into the coffers of huge corporations and the pockets of a few wealthy families who control the planet’s resources”.

Sometimes the IMF will create a pseudo-crisis in a country to force it to obtain an IMF bailout loan.

The tools to carry out this goal, his employer admitted unashamedly, could include “fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion, sex and murder”. Perkins showed how in the 1970s, he became instrumental in brokering deals with countries ranging from Panama to Saudi Arabia where he convinced leaders to accept projects that were detrimental to their own people but which enormously benefitted US corporate interests.

“In the end, those leaders become ensnared in a web of debt that ensures their loyalty. We can draw on them whenever we desire – to satisfy our political, economic or military needs. In turn, they bolster their political positions by bringing industrial parks, power plants, and airports to their people. The owners of US engineering/construction companies become fabulously wealthy,” a colleague told him when he asked why his job was so important.

Kenyans, who are already suffering financially due to the COVID-19 pandemic which saw nearly 2 million jobs in the formal sector disappear last year, will now be confronted with austerity measures at precisely the time when they need government subsidies and social safety nets. Season Two of SAPs is likely to make life for Kenyans even more miserable in the short and medium term.

We will have to wait and see whether overall dissatisfaction with the government will influence the outcome of the 2022 elections. However, whoever wins that election will still have to contend with rising debt and unsustainable repayments that have become President Uhuru Kenyatta’s most enduring legacy.

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Haiti: The Struggle for Democracy, Justice, Reparations and the Black Soul

Only the Haitian people can decide their own future. The dictatorship imposed by former president Jovenel Moïse and its imperialist enablers need to go – and make space for a people’s transition government.



Haiti: The Struggle for Democracy, Justice, Reparations and the Black Soul
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Haiti is once again going through a profound crisis. Central to this is the struggle against the dictatorship imposed by former president Jovenel Moïse. Since last year Mr. Moise, after decreeing the dismissal of Parliament, has been ruling through decrees, permanently violating Haiti’s constitution. He has refused to leave power after his mandate ended on February 7, 2021, claiming that it ends on February 7 of next year, without any legal basis.

This disregard of the constitution is taking place despite multiple statements by the country’s main judicial bodies, such as the CSPJ (Superior Council of Judicial Power) and the Association of Haitian Lawyers. Numerous religious groups and numerous institutions that are representative of society have also spoken. At this time, there is a strike by the judiciary, which leaves the country without any public body of political power.

At the same time, this institutional crisis is framed in the insecurity that affects practically all sectors of Haitian society. An insecurity expressed through savage repressions of popular mobilizations by the PNH (Haitian National Police), which at the service of the executive power. They have attacked journalists and committed various massacres in poor neighborhoods. Throughout the country, there have been assassinations and arbitrary arrests of opponents.

Most recently, a judge of the High Court was detained under the pretext of promoting an alleged plot against the security of the State and to assassinate the president leading to the illegal and arbitrary revocation of three judges of this Court. This last period has also seen the creation of hundreds of armed groups that spread terror over the entire country and that respond to power, transforming kidnapping into a fairly prosperous industry for these criminals.

The 13 years of military occupation by United Nations troops through MINUSTAH and the operations of prolongation of guardianship through MINUJUSTH and BINUH have aggravated the Haitian crisis. They supported retrograde and undemocratic sectors who, along with gangsters, committed serious crimes against the Haitian people and their fundamental rights.

For this, the people of Haiti deserve a process of justice and reparations. They have paid dearly for the intervention of MINUSTAH: 30 THOUSAND DEAD from cholera transmitted by the soldiers, thousands of women raped, who now raise orphaned children. Nothing has changed in 13 years, more social inequality, poverty, more difficulties for the people. The absence of democracy stays the same.

The poor’s living conditions have worsened dramatically as a result of more than 30 years of neoliberal policies imposed by the International Financial Institutions (IFIs), a severe exchange rate crisis, the freezing of the minimum wage, and inflation above 20% during the last three years.

It should be emphasized that, despite this dramatic situation, the Haitian people remain firm and are constantly mobilizing to prevent the consolidation of a dictatorship by demanding the immediate leave of office by former President Jovenel Moïse.

Taking into account the importance of this struggle and that this dictatorial regime still has the support of imperialist governments such as the United States of America, Canada, France, and international organizations such as the UN, the OAS, and the EU, the IPA calls its members to contribute their full and active solidarity to the struggle of the Haitian people, and to sign this Petition that demands the end of the dictatorship as well as respect for the sovereignty and self-determination of the Haitian people, the establishment of a transition government led by Haitians to launch a process of authentic national reconstruction.

In addition to expressing our solidarity with the Haitian people’s resistance, we call for our organisations to demonstrate in front of the embassies of the imperialist countries and before the United Nations. Only the Haitian people can decide their future. Down with Moise and yes to a people’s transition government, until a constituent is democratically elected.

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Deconstructing the Whiteness of Christ

While many African Christians can only imagine a white Jesus, others have actively promoted a vision of a brown or black Jesus, both in art and in ideology.



Deconstructing the Whiteness of Christ
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When images of a white preacher and actor going around Kenya playing Jesus turned up on social media in July 2019, people were rightly stunned by the white supremacist undertone of the images. They suggested that Africans were prone to seeing Jesus as white, promoting the white saviour narrative in the process. While it is true that the idea of a white Jesus has been prevalent in African Christianity even without a white actor, and many African Christians and churches still entertain images of Jesus as white because of the missionary legacy, many others have actively promoted a vision of Jesus as brown or black both in art an in ideology.

Images of a brown or black Jesus is as old as Christianity in Africa, especially finding a prominent place in Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which has been in existence for over sixteen hundred years. Eyob Derillo, a librarian at the British Library, recently brought up a steady diet of these images on Twitter. The image of Jesus as black has also been popularised through the artistic project known as Vie de Jesus Mafa (Life of Jesus Mafa) that was conducted in Cameroon.

The most radical expression of Jesus as a black person was however put forth by a young Kongolese woman called Kimpa Vita, who lived in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Through the missionary work of the Portuguese, Kimpa Vita, who was a nganga or medicine woman, became a Christian. She taught that Jesus and his apostles were black and were in fact born in São Salvador, which was the capital of the Kongo at the time. Not only was Jesus transposed from Palestine to São Salvador, Jerusalem, which is a holy site for Christians, was also transposed to São Salvador, so that São Salvador became a holy site. Kimpa Vita was accused of preaching heresy by Portuguese missionaries and burnt at the stake in 1706.

It was not until the 20th century that another movement similar to Vita’s emerged in the Kongo. This younger movement was led by Simon Kimbangu, a preacher who went about healing and raising the dead, portraying himself as an emissary of Jesus. His followers sometimes see him as the Holy Spirit who was to come after Jesus, as prophesied in John 14:16. Just as Kimpa Vita saw São Salvador as the new Jerusalem, Kimbangu’s village of Nkamba became, and still is known as, the new Jerusalem. His followers still flock there for pilgrimage. Kimbangu was accused of threatening Belgian colonial rule and thrown in jail, where he died. Some have complained that Kimbangu seems to have eclipsed Jesus in the imagination of his followers for he is said to have been resurrected from the dead, like Jesus.

Kimbangu’s status among his followers is however similar to that of some of the leaders of what has been described as African Independent Churches or African Initiated Churches (AICs). These churches include the Zionist churches of Southern Africa, among which is the amaNazaretha of Isaiah Shembe. Shembe’s followers see him as a divine figure, similar to Jesus, and rather than going to Jerusalem for pilgrimage, his followers go to the holy city of Ekuphakameni in South Africa. The Cameroonian theologian, Fabien Eboussi Boulaga, in his Christianity Without Fetish, see leaders like Kimbangu and Shembe as doing for their people in our own time what Jesus did for his people in their own time—providing means of healing and deliverance in contexts of grinding oppression. Thus, rather than replacing Jesus, as they are often accused of doing, they are making Jesus relevant to their people. For many Christians in Africa, therefore, Jesus is already brown or black. Other Christians still need to catch up with this development if we are to avoid painful spectacles like the one that took place Kenya.

This post is from a 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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