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Africans Not Welcome: The Punitive US Visa Application Process

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After 9/11, the focus of US policy towards immigrants and visitors turned sharply against Africans even though to date no African has been implicated in a terrorist attack on US soil.

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Despite all its claims of being a nation that welcomes immigrants, a melting pot that embraces diversity, the United States has been anything but for the vast majority of non-white populations, especially Africans, who seek to enter the country either as visitors, students, temporary residents or as immigrants. I didn’t know just how unwelcoming the US was to Africans until I recently applied for a US visa. This was not the first time I had applied for this visa; I studied in the United States, and have been back several times since I graduated in the 1980s. I am not among those Kenyan students who went to the US and never came back home.  I have never been refused a US visa and am not a member of any terrorist or criminal organisation.

Even so, I was given an interview date of 21 March 2024, which is almost two years after I sent in my application online. This after I had already parted with a 19,200-shilling non-refundable visa application fee, which in itself is an abomination. (Note that US citizens simply have to apply and pay US$50 for a Kenyan visa online that they are assured of getting within five days.) You could say that this highly unequal relationship is because we are a poor country with little international clout while the US is a rich superpower. And we need their dollars more than they need anything from us. However, in foreign relations, reciprocity is an accepted tenet. Not any more, it would appear.

Money-making scam? 

It is estimated that the US embassy in Nairobi collects millions (if not billions) of shillings every year in visa fees from thousands of applicants who may never get a visa or who don’t need a visa anymore because the event they were supposed to attend in the US has already taken place. Basically, this means that Kenyans are subsidising the operating costs of US consular services. Why don’t they collect the fee when they are issuing the visa? This way, unsuccessful applicants would not feel cheated of their money. As one of my Twitter followers stated after I posted my frustration about my visa application, the process is a scam because it collects the money before any visa is issued or any interview date is scheduled, which means you cannot even change your mind about applying for the visa because the fee has already been paid in advance and there is no chance of getting it back. In fact, you have no chance of getting an interview date unless you have paid the fee. And even if you wait patiently for two years and do arrive at the US embassy for the interview on the scheduled date and time, you are not likely to get the visa because the interviewer will probably ask you why you need a visa to attend an event that has already taken place.

In its defence, the US Embassy posted on Twitter that these delays are occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic, which I find hard to believe because visa and travel restrictions during the first two years of the pandemic made it less, not more, likely for Kenyans to travel abroad. Kenya was the target of travel bans by many Western nations during the early months of the pandemic. Despite having the among the lowest infection rates in the world, Kenya was among a list of African countries whose citizens were denied entry into the UK and other European countries where infection rates were skyrocketing. You could say that at the time, an African travelling to European countries and the United States was more in danger of being infected with the coronavirus than if he or she had stayed home.

I didn’t apply for a US visa because I suddenly felt an urge to visit America. I have been officially invited to an academic conference on African cities in New York convened by an international organisation that has relations with a university in New York that has provided academic input to the conference’s various papers. The organisers have sent me a letter stating that that they will pay for my travel and accommodation. The conference was originally scheduled for June this year, but realising that many of the Kenyan participants would not get their visas on time, the organisers had to postpone the conference to sometime next year. But it looks likely that the conference will be postponed yet again or cancelled because it might take the majority of African participants at least two years to obtain a US visa.

Delegitimising African scholarship

When I tweeted about my predicament, some of my followers suggested that I attend the conference via Zoom. Others said I should not travel to the US at all, and should look for more Kenya-friendly places to visit. One follower even sent me a list of 70 countries where Kenyans do not require a visa or where they can apply for visas on arrival. (I have added Nepal to the list of countries I will be visiting.)

These sentiments have also been echoed by academics like Haythem Guesmi.  In an article titled “The gentrification of African studies”, he wondered why the African Studies Association’s annual meeting and the annual conference of the African Literature Association are routinely held in North American cities. Guesmi, who was a PhD candidate in English Studies at the University of Montreal when the article was published, was commenting on the absurdity of situations where conferences focusing on African issues are held in Europe or North America and have panellists exclusively from the Western world – people who by virtue of their skin colour or citizenship have easy access to these venues, a privilege that citizens of African, Asian or Latin American countries do not have.

But it looks likely that the conference will be postponed yet again or cancelled because it might take the majority of African participants at least two years to obtain a US visa.

“This reality,” wrote Guesmi, “has generated numerous difficulties for Africa-based academics and scholars who are now forced to pay exorbitant, non-refundable visa fees in foreign currencies not always available to them and struggle to secure international travel funding. The resulting displacement and exclusion of continent-based Africanists have undermined the true purpose and identity of African studies; a pathological process commonly identified as gentrification.”

The marginalisation, or what Guesmi calls “gentrification” of African scholars from the field of African studies has led to an absence of Africans from public discussions and intellectual debates. “In the news or in public venues, there is an embarrassing preference to invite white Africanists to comment on every single topic, ranging from women’s oral culture all the way to electoral violence, and anything in between,” noted Guesmi.

Guesmi made a valid point – why should a conference about Africa be held outside the continent? Wouldn’t it be preferable if the conference to which I have been invited was held in Kenya, which would ensure maximum participation of Kenyan and African academics and professionals? Moreover, by holding these events in the West, are we not contributing to delegitimising home-grown African scholarship? Do Africans have to travel to the West to gain acceptance in the world of academia?

But both Guesmi and my Twitter followers have missed an essential point, which is that travelling abroad has become almost impossible for Africans, and this is simply unfair. Why do we have to go through torturous visa application processes? Why are we being denied an opportunity to mingle and network in person with our peers from the West, a penalty that is not imposed on people with more “acceptable” passports? Why is Africans’ participation at these events viewed with such suspicion by visa-issuing authorities? Why are we being denied the right to travel to whichever country we want yet an American or a Brit can waltz into this country without ever experiencing the kind of humiliation that Kenyans and other Africans are subjected to?

9/11 and its aftermath 

How did we get to this ridiculous place? You could say that while the US has generally been hostile to non-white people entering its borders, this sentiment intensified after the September 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington that injected a feeling of paranoia and xenophobia among US citizens and the US administrations that became wary of foreigners on their soils. Yet even though the terrorists who blew up the World Trade Centre were Saudis, no visa penalties were placed on Saudi nationals wishing to visit the US. Instead, the focus of US policy towards immigrants and visitors turned sharply against Africans even though to date no African has been implicated in a terrorist attack on US soil. Yet citizens of Saudi Arabia, a key US ally, can travel freely to the United States.

Kenya, or rather, the US embassy in Nairobi, was the target of the first major terrorist attack by Al Qaeda in 1997, but instead of extending a hand of compassion to Kenyans, who bore the brunt of that attack, with some 200 Kenyans losing their lives, Kenya was punished. (Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, was a Saudi national.) Al Shabaab’s terror attacks on Kenyan soil made it even harder for Kenyans to travel, as radicalised Kenyans, both Somali and non-Somali, were viewed as a potential security threat.

Why are we being denied an opportunity to mingle and network in person with our peers from the West, a penalty that is not imposed on people with more “acceptable” passports?

Yet, Kenya does not produce refugees as do neighbouring countries like Somalia, South Sudan and Eritrea. The dinghies carrying migrants and refugees across the Mediterranean to Europe are not full of Kenyans. We tend to travel legally to other countries (even when we over-stay our visas). But with this punitive visa regime, is it surprising that an increasing number of Africans are using human traffickers to gain access to Western nations? There is no doubt that some Kenyans who travel to the US never come back to Kenya and choose to remain illegal immigrants, but the same could be said of many Americans who decide to make Kenya their home yet are not subjected to punitive visa requirements. On the contrary, I know of many Westerners who have lived in Kenya as “tourists” for decades. Yet, despite following the rules, Kenyans are heavily penalised.

How can we continue viewing the US as the land of the free when that freedom is only accorded to people of one race? Has America’s “caste system” (as author Isabel Wilkerson defines it in her book Caste) once again relegated Africans to the bottom of the pile, as it did for four centuries when African slaves were defined as cargo or property, not as humans? During the transatlantic slave trade, Africans were forcibly taken to the US against their will. Now Africans are denied access to a country that their ancestors built with their sweat and tears, and for no pay. The war In Ukraine has showed us that this caste system also extends to refugees. While African, Syrian, Afghan and other non-white refugees and asylum seekers trying to get to Europe are generally vilified, European countries have opened their arms to the white refugees fleeing Ukraine.

Now Africans are denied access to a country that their ancestors built with their sweat and tears, and for no pay.

President Donald Trump did not hide his contempt for immigrants and non-white people, so Africans could expect to be treated badly at US embassies during his administration’s tenure. But under the more tolerant Biden administration, this kind of attitude is not just counter-productive, but also reflects badly on a government that is trying to clean up the carnage that Trump left behind. America’s superpower status may make it feel like it can treat citizens of poor African countries badly without suffering any consequences. But in a world as polarised as ours, it would be prudent for the US to show a kinder, more welcoming face to the rest of the world.

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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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Philosophy for the People

For philosophy to be relevant in Africa, it must democratize and address contemporary social problems.

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In late September 2022, a consortium of universities hosted by the Universite’ Catholique d’Afrique Centrale in Yaounde, Cameroon held an “Ethicslab” to deliberate on the theme, “Justice, Democracy and Diversity.” The meeting brought together doctoral candidates in philosophy from Cameroon, Canada, Nigeria, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to be mentored by experts. Some of those experts included Dany Rondeau (Canada), Geert Demuijnck (France, based in the Netherlands), and Bernard Gagnon (Canada).

The driving force behind the event was Thierry Ngosso, a young Cameroonian philosopher based  at the University of St Gallen, Switzerland. Ngosso’s dream has been to deliver important philosophical lessons in a readily digestible way to younger African scholars while at the same time aiming for social transformation.

The study of philosophy in the continent is marked by all-too-familiar colonial linguistic and political divisions: the anglophone sector fastened to the thought of figures such as John Rawls and analytic philosophy, while francophone countries usually follow the dictates of continental philosophy. Ngosso thinks it is time to collapse these age-old colonial divisions. Also, philosophy seems removed from pressing issues, such as poverty. It can certainly be successfully re-energized by interrogating topics such as ethics and health, ethics and education, ethics and business, politics, the environment, and so on to broaden and deepen linkages between the discipline and urgent contemporary issues.

Nonetheless, philosophy has always been valued in Cameroon’s education system. As early as high school, students are introduced to the discipline. At postgraduate levels, there are various social media forums where students debate philosophical concerns of mutual interest. These debates are usually vibrant and engrossing.

Since its inception in 2019, the Ethicslab has been inviting two or three keynote speakers from disciplines such as sociology, political science and history to brainstorm about the intellectual concerns it seeks to tackle. The Ethicslab is concerned with issues of normativity and social change. Such an approach obviously grants philosophy an urgency, purpose and social transformational energy.

The Ethicslab is an intellectual experiment to identify the future stars of theoretical thought on the continent. During the 2022 edition of the event, quite a few promising upcoming scholars further etched their names;  Benjamin Olujohungbe (Nigeria), Charles Dine (Cameroon/Canada), Hammadou Yaya (Cameroon),  Opeyemi Gbadegesin (Nigeria), Elisanne Pellerin (Canada), Tatiana Nganti (Cameroon), Henri Gbadi Finimonga (DRC), Kakmeni Schaller (Cameroon), Eric Vernuy Suyru (Cameroon) and Ndedi Emma Maximine Ndjandjo (Cameroon). All these individuals are not only being trained in the rigors of theoretical reflection but also in the ethics of mutuality and reciprocity. Although they come from varied national, linguistic, and institutional backgrounds, the objective is to establish commonalities based on universally accepted cultural and human values.

Ultimately, Ngosso is interested in effecting meaningful social change in African communities through the study and use of philosophy. He plans to find funding for about ten doctoral students and thirty postdoctoral scholars in the discipline within the next five years. He also intends to shift the nodes of perception regarding the African continent from an ostensibly external locus to largely endogenous sources. To realize these grand aims, Ngosso has had to battle with numerous bureaucratic obstacles. The quest to change societies from within also entails transforming the traditional character and functions of academic institutions and establishments. This is no small task. What Ngosso has been able to do is wrest a degree of flexibility in how he operates within and amongst institutions. He is currently employed by the University of Maroua, Cameroon, holds an ongoing research fellowship at the University of St. Gallen, where he is based, and is a research associate of Universite’ Catholique d’Afrique Centrale. Within an African context, and perhaps any other setting in the world, such institutional flexibility and mobility are rare. But this is precisely the sort of liberty Ngosso requires in accomplishing his stated mission of social change.

Perhaps as part of ongoing efforts to demystify the study of philosophy, Ngosso arranged a trip to Kribi for all the participants of the 2022 Ethicslab. Kribi, a coastal town, is a perfect spot to unwind. Its coast is replete with tourist attractions such as the magisterial Lobe Falls, a pristine array of waterfalls nestled within Kribi beach. The Atlantic ocean is always enticingly open for a swim after intense brainstorming or away from the diurnal pressures of everyday life. There are also amazing seaside resorts and restaurants and the most delightful varieties of seafood to savor.

In 2024, Ngosso plans a grand event to mark the fifth anniversary of the Ethicslab. In this, he will have accomplished the entrenchment of modern philosophy in Africa, concomitant globalization of its multicultural potentials and tentacles, and finally, a re-configuration of the discipline for the myriad demands and expectations of the 21st century.

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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War of the Worlds: Africa’s Next Great War

The international community’s limited attention span is laser-focused on jihadism in the Sahel and the imploding Horn of Africa. But interstate war is potentially brewing in the eastern DRC.

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War of the Worlds: Africa’s Next Great War
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It’s happening again. A Rwandan-backed rebel force threatens the Congolese provincial capital of Goma while foreign intervention is cobbled together to bail out the struggling Congolese army. Unlike the last two or three times this happened, the conflict faces the prospect of horrific escalation into interstate war. Rwandan and Kenyan troops are racing headfirst into a confrontation. As Kenya airlifts troops into the east under the flag of the East Africa Community (EAC), the Rwandan soldiers embedded within the M23 rebellion show no signs of backing down. These two African states, each claiming to have the most professional force in the region, will soon trade blows.

Nearly thirty years of complex, multilayered, and tragic war in the Great Lakes have led to this latest escalation. The eastern DRC never recovered from the deadly inferno that was “Africa’s great war,” a bitter conflict that drew in nine countries and killed as many as five million. While peace was declared in 2003, the embers of war continued to burn in the eastern DRC, where the war had injected violence into local politics. Local violence continues to blend with national- and regional-level politics. Rwanda, which has complex and often competitive relationships with Uganda and Burundi, has a history of repeatedly creating and supporting rebellions in Congo. While this current M23 rebellion has many Congolese members with genuine grievances, the force is historically constructed and supported by the Rwandan state. While it is unclear what exactly motivated this offensive, some point to Rwandan concerns over the growing influence of rival Uganda in the DRC. The relationship between Uganda and Rwanda is not straightforward, and there are reports that Ugandan elements have supported M23. The regional tensions at play here are unclear, as the Ugandan and Congolese states are not unitary actors. According to leaked UN reports, Rwanda is directly assisting this latest iteration of M23 with infantry, artillery, and logistics. It has easily beat back the Congolese regulars and their militia allies and downed UN and Congolese military aircraft.

In response to the escalation, the regional EAC has announced the deployment of a military force at the invitation of the DRC, its newest member. Kenya seems to have been the power player behind this intervention and has begun deploying its forces into the fight. The international community has slowly lost interest in the region, writing off the turbulence in the Great Lakes as an endemic low-intensity conflict, ignoring the possibility of an explosion. Some in Kenya, the regional economic powerhouse, dream of an East African unified market where a pacified region ensures that Kenyan goods are supplied to Congolese consumers. Rwanda believes that it can only be secure if it has influence in Eastern Congo, where various rebel forces opposing the Rwandan regime have sheltered. When that influence wanes, Rwanda backs a rebellion to ensure that its influence continues.

Whether you believe that Rwandan meddling and Kenyan-backed EAC intervention are valid responses to the insecurity on their western flanks, the current escalatory track is dangerous. No one is backing down until blood is spilled. Both sides seem to underestimate the other’s will and ability.

The new kid on the block, Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi, demands a military solution and proclaims negotiations a failure. He is inviting foreign armies across the region into the country to bring him the peace he needs to salvage his falling popularity. All the while, the badly needed security sector reform remains stalled by the great Congolese patronage machine. Under the EAC regional force’s flag, Ugandan and Burundian forces are now in the DRC to pursue their own enemies on Congolese soil, raising the possibility of inciting countermobilization. The eastern Congolese conflict ecosystem often reacts to foreign bodies with a violent immune response that would further inflame the conflict.

The limited attention span that the international community reserves for Africa is laser-focused on jihadism in the Sahel and the imploding Horn of Africa. Former US National Security Council Africa lead Cameron Hudson pronounced on Twitter and to The Telegraph that the war in Tigray was “the new great war for Africa.” Unfortunately, the ashes of the last great war are being stoked yet again. Few players in the international game seem to realize the stakes.

The US did send its top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, to talk to both the Congolese and Rwandans. Blinken’s public statements were ripe with both-sidesisms and seemed to accept Rwandan behavior as a response to Congolese support to the genocidal Rwandan FDLR rebel group—a problematic assumption. The Congolese political elite, when being generous, complain that the US position is muddled and confused. This reasonable view is much less popular than theories that accuse the Americans of actively backing Rwandan president Kagame’s plots. Unfortunately, these conspiracy theories are grounded in real historical US blindness to—and occasional support for—destructive Rwandan interventionism in the late 1990s.

The apathetic international response to the crisis stands in marked contrast to the global response to the previous M23 rebellion nearly ten years ago, when the US publicly pressured Rwanda to withdraw support for the group. In 2013, a combination of the Southern African Development Community’s intervention under the UN flag, the rise of a capable Congolese army colonel, and US pressure led to successful negotiations with Rwanda and the defeat of M23. This time, attempts by the EAC to bring a diplomatic solution have failed thus far, and it seems that military pressure is the only effective tool the community can bring to bear.

This conflict is not doomed to descend into a larger interstate war, but the region as a whole will have to grapple with the consequences if it does. The international community must bring more diplomatic levers to bear, and the EAC must question the sweeping mandate of their current intervention. Regardless, the war is on an escalatory path, and the Congolese of North Kivu will suffer first as foreign forces battle over their home yet again.

Evan Nachtrieb graduated with an honors bachelor’s degree in political studies from Pitzer College last May, where he wrote his thesis on protest and insurgency trends south of the Sahara. He is currently in California.

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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Twitter: Let It Burn!

Whether or not Twitter survives should be irrelevant to those committed to building a democratic public sphere.

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Twitter: Let It Burn!
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Elon Musk finally bought Twitter. Although everyone expected the move to quickly prove foolhardy, the speed of the implosion has been impressive. The latest gaffe is a failed attempt to monetize verification by requiring paid subscriptions for them, which has led to all manner of comical impersonations (one macabre highlight was a “verified” George W. Bush account tweeting “I miss killing Iraqis. “Tony Blair” responded with “Same tbh”). Some are watching with shock and horror and wondering if Twitter can be saved. But, when sulfur and fire rains, it is best not to look back.

Africa Is a Country managing editor, Boima Tucker, put it best some years ago: “Contrary to the utopian dreams of the early internet, the idea of a more democratic communications space has given way to a system of capitalist exploitation.” The thing to reckon with is the extent to which we have exaggerated the emancipatory potential of networked communication and social media, partly owing to our own psychic overinvestments in it. Which is not to deny that it has never shown democratic and egalitarian potential, but that’s never been what Twitter is forThere can be no right platform in the wrong world.

What was Twitter for then? In the New York Review of Books, Ben Tarnoff describes it as a “network of influence.” In a world characterized by the economization of everything, social media is the place to commodify the self, to transform one’s unique traits and personality into a product for public display. The main imperative online is to “stay on brand,” to cultivate an appealing enough persona in the endless “production of new genres of being human.”

The key contradiction of social media use, of course, is that even though these platforms appear to us as complete products that we participate in and consume, we are the ones responsible for ensuring their possibility in the first place. As the media scholar Christian Fuchs notes, “Digital work is the organization of human experiences with the help of the human brain, digital media and speech in such a way that new products are created. These products can be online information, meanings, social relations, artifacts or social systems.” Thus, it is us who create the value of these platforms.

In a better world, these digital communications platforms would be democratically owned and operated. But one also wonders if in a better world they would be as necessary. Perhaps, when we are less socially disaffected, living in societies with social provision, an abundance of recreational public goods and less exploitative, dignifying work, then we would all have less reason to be online. For now, the question is: in a time when this ideal is nowhere close to being within view, how best can we use platforms like Twitter as tools to get us to that world?

The possible answers here are murky. Twitter seems like a critical piece of infrastructure for modern political life. Musk is not alone in thinking of it as a marketplace of ideas, as something like a digital town square. Yet, and especially in Africa, Twitter is not as popular a platform, and even on it, a minority of Twiteratti exert an outsized influence in terms of setting the discursive agenda. But setting aside the question of who is excluded from the digitalized public sphere of which Twitter is a cornerstone, the important question is whether the quality of political debate that takes place is healthy or desirable at all. Granted, it can be fun and cathartic, but at the best of times, amounts to hyper-politics. In Anton Jager’s explanation, this:

can only occur at a discursive level or within the prism of mediatic politics: every major event is scrutinized for its ideological character, this produces controversies which play out among increasingly clearly delineated camps on social media platforms and are then rebounded through each side’s preferred media outlets. Through this process much is politicized, but little is achieved.

We would lack critical self-awareness if we did not admit that Africa Is A Country is a venue whose existence greatly benefits from an online presence—so it goes for every media outlet. Tarnoff points out that “… if Twitter is not all that populous in absolute terms, it does exert considerable power over popular and elite discourses.” To lack an online presence is to reconcile oneself to irrelevance. Although, the news cycle itself is a disorienting vortex of one topic du jour to the next. It makes difficult the kind of long, slow, and sustained discourse-over-time that is the lifeblood of politics, and instead reduces everything into fleeting soundbites.

Nowhere is the modern phenomenon of what Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called “pointillist time” more apparent than on Twitter. For Bauman, pointillist time is the experience of temporality as a series of eternal instants, and the present moment’s connection to the past and future “turns into gaps—with no bridges, and hopefully unbridgeable.” The consequence of this, is that “there is no room for the idea of ‘progress.’” Living through a mode where everything seems to be happening all at once, is both to experience time as what Walter Benjamin called “a “time of possibilities, a random time, open at any moment to the unforeseeable irruption of the new,” but curiously, at the same time, for everything to feel inert, and for nothing to seem genuinely possible.

For a while, notions of historical progress have been passé on the left, associated with Eurocentric theories of modernity. Now, more than ever, the idea is worth reclaiming. The Right today is no longer straightforwardly conservative, but nihilistic and anti-social, thriving on sowing deeper communal mistrust and paranoia. These are pathologies that flourish on Twitter. The alternative to media-fuelled hyper-politics and anti-politics is not real politics per some ideal type. Politics, in the first instance, is not defined by content, but by form. The reason our politics are empty and shallow is not because today’s political subject lacks virtues possessed by the subjects of yore. It’s because today’s political subject is barely one in the first place, lacking rootedness in those institutions that would have ordinarily shaped an individual’s clear sense of values and commitments. The alternative to digitized human association, as noted by many, is mass politics: only when the majority of citizens are meaningfully mobilized through civic and political organizations can we create a vibrant and substantive public sphere.

AIAC editor Sean Jacobs observed in his book, Media In Post-apartheid South Africa: “the larger context for the growing role of media in political processes is the decline of mass political parties and social movements.” Whether Twitter dies or not, and if it does, whether we should mourn it or not, should be beside the point for those committed to building a world of three-dimensional solidarity and justice.

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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