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Sometime in Africa

Ghana At 60

On March 6, it’ll be 60 years since Ghana became independent; one of the first on the continent to go it alone. This diamond jubilee has drawn mixed feelings.

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At least the new president Nana Akufo-Addo is optimistic. In a press statement he called for reflection on what makes Ghanaians who they are. This year’s theme, according to him, is:  “Mobilizing for Ghana’s Future.” That is, a year for Ghanaians to understand their country’s shortcomings and look at ways to improve.

Good timing, when growth is falling. According to figures from the World Bank, Ghana’s economy grew by 4.9% during the first quarter of 2016. However, overall gross domestic product (GDP) growth for the whole of 2016 could be below the 3.9% achieved in 2015, due to production problems in oil.

Inflation is at 16.7%, made worse by the country’s erratic energy supply that sees businesses put prices up when they use generators.

Victor Ohene Oppong, Founder of Invest Hub, a financial advisory firm in Accra, is, like many of his countrymen, in no mood for jubilation.

Dr. Kwame Nkrumah of newly independent Ghana, Ghana, mid to late 1950s. The British crown colony of the Gold Coast, became its own country of Ghana on March 6, 1957, with Dr. Nkrumah as its first President. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

“Sixty years ago our founding father, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah famously opined, Ghana your beloved country is free forever, and we all thought managing our own resources would lead to prosperity for everyone but that has simply not been the case. We have issued our fifth Eurobond debt for $750 million and the oil crisis has led to a sharp contraction in oil exports. Businesses are fighting for survival because when there is no cash flow you die. So what is there to celebrate?” he says.

Economic hard times have hit Oppong in the pocket. Last year, he had to lay off five expatriates and close down one of his two branches because of low revenues.

“The debt to GDP ratio stands at about 70% and the last unemployment figures show at least 42% of people are still struggling to find jobs. I think the president is right when he calls this a time of reflection, we need to think very hard and carefully about the future of this country,” says Oppong.

Richmond Nartey, Managing Director of RN Shipping in Tema, agrees.

“Sixty years is a lifetime. For most people that is the age when they begin to think about retirement and enjoying life. But that is not the case for Ghana. The value of our currency is still very weak against the dollar and even though we decided to use our own local currency, many companies still charge in dollars. Foreign currency restrictions in Ghana are still a big issue for our kind of business. What happens to businesses that cannot get their hands on the much-needed dollars to be able to run their business?” says Nartey.

Following the end of decades of rule by former coup leader Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, Ghana has done its best to clean up its democratic act. Ghana’s two-party electoral system is earning the confidence of the world for its peaceful political transitions. For this reason alone, Mary Osei, Account Manager at HFC Bank, believes there is cause to celebrate.

“This is a time to remember all the things that make this country a wonderful place to live. Yes, there are several challenges we are facing, but which economy isn’t facing challenges? We have to continue to work together to build on the achievements we have and make this nation great,” says Osei.

“If there was ever a day to be proud of your Ghanaian heritage and to be patriotic, there is no better day than March 6, so I do not agree with the naysayers and people who believe there is no need for celebrations,” she says.

Yet the debate over how to celebrate Ghana’s 60th birthday has been fierce. Akufo-Addo set up a 30-member committee to plan the celebrations with a budget of GHc20 million ($4.57 million), which has proved controversial on the streets.

“If there is anywhere that money needs to be spent, it should be in the creative industry instead of throwing it away on branding buses with faces of old presidents or parties. There are failing sectors in the economy where that money could be put to much better use,” says Adamz, a hip-hop artist in Ghana.

The influence of Ghana’s independence over Africa cannot be underestimated. It was the first black African nation to cast off colonialism and inspired many others to follow suit.

“At long last, the battle has ended!  And thus, Ghana, your beloved country is free forever!” said Ghana’s first leader Kwame Nkrumah on independence night in 1957. The new leader wore his prison cap – a symbol of his incarceration by the British during his independence struggle – with the letters PG, for prison graduate, embroidered on the front.

Martin Luther King Jr. was with half a million Ghanaians at the ceremony and saw a parallel with Ghana’s freedom and his struggle for civil rights in the United States.

“Before I knew it, I started weeping. I was crying for joy. And I knew about all of the struggles, and all of the pain, and all of the agony that these people had gone through for this moment,” recalled King in an interview years later.

Nkrumah, the father of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which evolved into the African Union, drew many admirers in his first bold steps as a pan-Africanist leader. They included a young teacher by the name of Robert Mugabe who had been seconded to Ghana, by the then Rhodesian government, to a training college.

Mugabe was very taken by the sight of confident Africans in an independent nation and returned home determined to fight for an independent Zimbabwe.

Independence turned out to be bittersweet for Ghana – it was followed by assassination attempts and coups. The idealistic Nkrumah disappointed many when he declared himself president-for-life in 1964.

At least, in the 21st century, democracy in Ghana is closer than it probably ever has been to the shining ideals of 1957.

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Sometime in Africa

The Tableaux Of The Wild

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The beasts and the drama of the African bush, far from the harsh lights of big city Johannesburg. 


There is a mystique about the African bush that enchants visitors from all over the world. Some of them become so captivated they decide to stay on, or return time and again.

Even a born and bred African like me, albeit of European descent, cannot say no to a few days of “bundu bashing”. There is nothing quite like escaping the bumper-to-bumper traffic and constant hum of the big city, to experience a range of smells as you move through the bush. The scent of the long grass. The whiff from the marula trees. The odor of fresh dung.

And at night, when you look up to the canopy of the sky, you feel as though you could reach out and touch the stars. The Southern Cross. Orion’s Belt. The river of the Milky Way. Venus, the morning and the evening star. The red glint of Mars.

On the day our group arrives at the exclusive Sable Camp at MalaMala within the larger Sabi Sands Game Reserve, which shares a 19-kilometer open border with South Africa’s Kruger National Park, it is hot and humid.

Sabi Sands Game Reserve. Picture: Jill de Villiers

On this day in the country’s Mpumalanga province, it hits 39 degrees. We settle in and get ready for the first game drive of our stay.

We are here for the launch of a beautiful book by renowned wildlife photographers Gerald Hinde and Will Taylor – both men with a deep love for animals and African landscapes. We pile onto four game-viewing vehicles to find and photograph the heroes and heroines of their book – The Big Seven: Adventures in Search of Africa’s Iconic Species.

The roads are rough and rudimentary as we head into the bush, cameras with long lenses at hand. We drive along a river bed. As the sun moves slowly down towards the western horizon, its rays glint in the waves of green and yellow grass. The wheels skid in the white sand. We drive past a large bush and suddenly an elephant appears, tugging and tearing at the foliage. He looks at us and flaps his ears lazily.

READ MORE | In Search Of Africa’s Last Eden

A bit further on, after literally bashing through the bush, off-road, we see her. Slinky and quiet, her pelt shines in the setting sun. The lone female leopard looks at us with the disdain of a cat disturbed by bothersome humans. She slinks through the bush as we follow her. Then she sits perfectly still, slowly turning her head from side to side.

As darkness settles, the vehicle lights come on and we head back to the lodge. In an outdoor boma, tables are set up in the round, and a five-star dinner is served under the expanse of the night sky. We are treated like royalty by all of the staff of MalaMala. Most of them come from the community that now owns the reserve, after the conclusion of a successful land claim deal in 2014. 

The next day dawns. Overcast, with a soft, insistent rain. The temperature has dropped 14 degrees. Donning rain ponchos, the group of adventurers set forth on the morning game drive. The mission is to encounter every one of the Big Seven. The traditional Big Five tourists flock to game reserves to see are: elephant, lion, rhino, leopard and buffalo. Two more have been added, both on the endangered list – the wild dog and cheetah.

Elephant at Sabi Sands Game Reserve. Picture: Jill de Villiers

Just as humans are shy of rain, so are animals. They lie low in the grass or huddle under trees where they can’t be seen. An hour or so into the drive, the drizzle lifts and we see movement in the grass.

A lioness lifts her head and looks at us. Slowly, slowly, one lion after another stands up to look at the vehicles. There are, at least, eight of them. They lose interest in us again, and stretch out on the ground.

The time to leave comes far too soon. The quiet and beauty of the bush have soaked into my soul and I feel completely at peace and one with the sky and the grass and the trees and the animals and the river and the world. 

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Sometime in Africa

Zimbabwe: Two Realities In One Country

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The grandeur of the Victoria Falls is in stark contrast to the rest of Zimbabwe.


It is eight days before Christmas. We take the 1,300-kilometer drive from Johannesburg to Victoria Falls for a short vacation. As we arrive in Beitbridge, the border connecting South Africa and Zimbabwe, the sun is shining its warm golden light over the bridge. There are no birds chirping over the Limpopo River. It seems like a peaceful morning, until you get closer.   

There is pandemonium as hundreds of cars line up to be stripped and searched before proceeding into Zimbabwe. Most here are Zimbabwean nationals working in South Africa traveling home for the holidays. 

They are bringing with them many supplies like cooking oil, fuel, stationery, furniture, clothing, drinks, building material and even Christmas trees. These items are scarce and overpriced in Zimbabwe.

READ MORE | Zimbabwe Central Bank Borrows $985 Million From African Banks

Some want to sell them to hurried customers and others want to use them at home. The problem is, most of them require as much as 40% duty and others can’t be imported.

“Is your friend here today? I would like him to help me cross with my goods,” I overhear a man in the autumn of his life say over the phone.

He isn’t the only one trying to smuggle goods into Zimbabwe. According to local reports, the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA) loses over $1 billion due to smuggling each year. With hundreds trying to make their way across, a journey to Victoria Falls is delayed by at least five hours.

As we drive into Beitbridge, we can see and almost smell struggle. This place is seized by an oppressive gloom. Our first stop is an Engine Garage that now operates almost like a tuckshop. Here, fuel tanks are dry and the shop inside has only bread, water, cold drinks, biscuits and chips.

READ MORE | Zimbabwe: The State Of Crisis

Outside, it is filled by a crowd of people pushing, shoving, shouting, buying and selling. There is dirty water flowing down the street and litter fills the potholes. Yet, this grubby place is seeing more trade than Zimbabwe’s biggest banks. Here, the black market is king and the bond notes are pawns.

In 2016, the government introduced bond notes in hopes to ease the cash crisis that saw the US dollar become scarce. The Reserve Bank may say bond notes are 1:1 to the US dollar; the free market says no.  The black market traders are selling 1 US dollar for three bond notes. 

“I used to be an accountant with a good job but our company closed down and now I am jobless. I have to make a living somehow so I rather sell cash on the streets to put food on the table,” says Bongani Moyo.

 As we drive further into Zimbabwe, the situation gets worse. Stores are packed with imported goods; roads and buildings are dilapidated. One of the biggest problems is fuel.

READ MORE | Zimbabwe Drip-Feeds Dollars To Tackle Cash Crunch

“I just came out of a two-day fuel queue.  The situation is bad. People can’t go to work and sometimes people hire [other] people to spend the day queueing for them,” says Given Mwale, as he directs us to a garage that sells fuel in foreign currency so we can continue our journey to Victoria Falls.

“That is the only garage that doesn’t get many queues and doesn’t run out of fuel. It is a private garage. They import their fuel from Botswana and they only sell in forex,” he says.

Shocked by the scarcity of cash, we drive towards Victoria Falls. On the way, many businesses are boarded up, their paint peeling and doors closed. As we arrive in Victoria Falls, there are jaw-dropping scenes.

The place looks nothing like the rest of Zimbabwe. Fueled by the tourist economy, the streets are clean and the business district  buzzing. People are relaxed in summer clothing and look like they have no worry. It is a true holiday destination.

READ MORE | Explainer: The Cash Crunch Behind Zimbabwe’s Violent Protests

At Victoria Falls, the Zambezi River plummets over a cliff and into the boiling pot before flowing through a series of gorges. It has a width of 1,708 meters and a height of 108 meters, making it the world’s largest sheet of falling water.

As nature lovers, we experience the falls while walking through a rainforest and playing with monkeys. We also get to watch the sunset while drinking champagne in an open boat.

For a few hours, we forgot the troubles that belie Zimbabwe; until we drove out of Victoria Falls, back to Bulawayo. There may be laughter and foreign currency near the smoke that thunders but the rest of the country continues to cry for an economic breakthrough. 

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Sometime in Africa

The Class Of 1976 – Soweto Uprising

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It’s not often I find myself driving past the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum in Orlando West, in Soweto, an urban township in Johannesburg.

But come June every year, I inevitably steer my car to the site, mentally revisiting the carnage that happened here in 1976; the student protest and the police firing that led to an iconic photograph the world came to associate with South Africa’s brutal apartheid regime.

Two years ago, one of my assignments with FORBES AFRICA was to pursue a story on the ‘Soweto Uprising’. Thankfully, the museum gave me three vital leads to reconstruct the events of June 16, a day etched in blood in South African history.

It was a Tuesday when I met my first contact, Oupa Moloto, who then was a student at the Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto where it all started.

“On the day of the event, the school started a little earlier; the mood was different, the students were excited but the teachers couldn’t pick it up,” recalled Moloto of the first stirrings of the protest against the mandatory use of Afrikaans as a language of instruction in black secondary schools.

After the interview, I visited the school and walking around, could sense around me the nervous excitement of the students like it was 42 years ago. I could hear their voices, singing and chanting as we stood where the last assembly was held, before the shots were fired at them.

READ MORE: Soweto Burning: June 16 Remembered

I photographed Moloto at their then assembly point and his face was a picture of sorrow. The school has been renovated since but in the older building, are still some vestiges of that time – broken windows and furniture.

A few weeks later, I met with Barney Mokgatle at his home in Alexandra, another township. He was one of the students who went into exile after the tragic march.

“The police were hunting for us, we could not sleep in one place for two nights because there were people selling us out,” said Mokgatle.

Mokgatle was the right hand man to Tsietsi Mashinini who led the march and later died in exile.
He talked me through every detail; he also said Pieterson was not the first student shot at the march.

Perhaps more intriguing was his recounting of their escape and journey to Botswana through the bushes without fear of the wilderness, with their other friend Selby Semela.

He started singing, the masculine man had a voice of the angels; it was remarkable. As soon as the humming started, I almost shed a tear, I could feel their struggle and strength as they dodged bullets and teargas in the Soweto streets wearing blazers and ties, some running with missing shoes.

But at that moment, they were crossing serene bushes unaware of the hungry beasts around them lurking in the dark all the way to the borders of Botswana.

A few days later, we met again for a shoot where a statue of his friend Mashinini was erected not far from the Morris Isaacson school. He didn’t come to Soweto often but when he saw the statue, he paused, staring at it. He finally turned and we continued walking to a wall where he showed me a collage of his two friends and himself.

The story wouldn’t be complete without speaking to the ‘girl’ in the iconic photograph of Pieterson taken by Sam Nzima. Antoinette Pieterson, the older sister, who is 58 today.

READ MORE: A Soweto Boy In An Afrikaner Haven

“I saw Mbuyisa [Makhubu, the boy carrying Pieterson in the famous photograph] coming from nowhere; I didn’t know him at the time. He was running towards me, he passed me. I saw he was carrying a person and I could recognize Pieterson’s shoe, I ran with him,” she recounted.

Today, as I walk the streets of Orlando, I think of the privilege I enjoyed of choosing between either isiZulu or Afrikaans as a second language in school.

Thanks to the class of 1976, we had the freedom.

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