South Africa flags

Here’s one of the weirder changes after apartheid: South Africa’s old flag was the (old) Dutch flag with 3 smaller flags (Britain’s plus 2 old Afrikaner countries) smooshed in the middle. The current flag is a combo of “black” colors with “white” ones. It’s definitely an improvement.

South Africa calls itself the “Rainbow Nation.” It’s a land of impressive diversity, with a medley of Bantu tribes coexisting with Khoisan food foragers and transplants from the Netherlands, Britain, India, Malaysia and China. It celebrates its rich cultural heritage — for example, with its anthem in 5 different languages and its flag seen above. It’s a vibrant democracy that enshrines equality for its people under the law. But these qualities don’t quite hide the severe racial inequalities that persist to this day, a legacy of a cruel system of institutionalized racial segregation.

South Africa’s earliest inhabitants were, of course, the blacks. They have lived there since… well, since the earliest days of humanity (prehistoric fossils of proto-humans have been discovered in South Africa). Most blacks are Bantus, a very, very broad racial grouping that makes up most of Africa and who first arrived in South Africa around 300 CE. They displaced the Khoisan, who lived (and still live) by hunting and gathering. Then came the Portuguese and Dutch, who set up a colony at the very, very southern tip of Africa to supply voyages passing between Europe and Asia. Thanks to this strategic position and South Africa’s nice weather, the Dutch sent colonists who took over the western part of the country. The British then took over that colony in the 1800s, displacing many of the Dutch (who had by then evolved into a pseudo-Dutch ethnic group, the Afrikaners) further east. The Brits imported labor from Asia and eventually took over the whole country in a series of wars known as the Boer Wars, famous for marking the beginning of the end for the British Empire.

1 of the reasons Britain became so interested in territorial expansion was the discovery of gold and diamonds in the northeast. It led to a mining rush there in the late 1800s, which fueled Africa’s biggest industrial boom by the early 1900s. Money poured into the country from overseas, and South Africa gained a modern transport network and an industrial capitalist society. But like other African colonies, the vast majority of the money flowed into white bank accounts, and the infrastructure and resources mostly benefited white landlords and capitalists. Blacks labored as low-paid field hands, miners or factory workers and got rotten education to keep them that way. They organized themselves into the African National Congress (ANC), a black empowerment movement along the lines of the Indian National Congress and other independence movements in the early 1900s, but it was ruthlessly repressed.

In the rest of Africa, a weakened imperial grip and rising black nationalism brought the end of colonialism after World War II. Not so in South Africa: here the imperial power was no longer an issue, having ceded control to native whites in 1910. It was the native whites who were determined to hold on to power. In 1948, the hardline National Party came to power and argued that only extreme measures could hold the country together. These measures were a system of pervasive institutionalized racism called apartheid (“apartness”).

Apartheid was based on separating blacks from whites as much as possible. Its architects reasoned that the best way to do this, in a kind of imitation of what was going on further north, was by granting them independence… within their tribal homelands. Weird, patchy “homelands” (or “Bantustans”) were created out of the areas where South Africa’s main tribes live (after the valuable farmland was excluded). These places were given self-rule, although in reality they were entirely dependent on the central government in Pretoria. Each tribal member was eligible for citizenship in the corresponding Bantustan. The problem was, 80% of South Africa is black — and the Bantustans only comprised 13% of South Africa’s land area. Also, the job opportunities weren’t in the Bantustans, but in the teeming urban areas benefiting from South Africa’s industrialization: Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban, Kimberley. Blacks were allowed to live outside of the Bantustans, but in theory it was only a temporary arrangement to provide labor for whites. They had to settle for living in vast, squalid “townships” (shantytowns) outside of the city centers.

Apartheid went further than this, though. South African society was entirely segregated by race. Blacks and whites were forced to use different hospitals, schools, playgrounds, parks, bathrooms, buses, and trains. Blacks were barred from voting, owning land outside of the Bantustans, marrying or having sex with other races, or even go to the movies. South Africa’s other races, Coloureds (a unique black-white hybrid group that speaks Afrikaans, the Afrikaners’ language) and Asians (mostly Indians and Malays) were slotted into the racial hierarchy in the middle, which meant that they enjoyed better facilities than blacks but lacked political or economic clout. The whole thing was reinforced by pervasive censorship and, at first, isolation from international media.

Blacks did not take this very well. The ANC became the leading voice of opposition to apartheid, joined in the 1950s by the more militant Pan-African Congress. At first they mostly opted for peaceful demonstrations and pass-burning protests. When these were met with violence on the part of the regime, black politicians escalated their movement to economic sabotage and acts of terrorism. But apartheid only hardened, as black politicians were jailed (like Nelson Mandela) or murdered (like Steve Biko). The National Party remained firmly in power, aided by a sense among Afrikaners that their culture and nation were under siege and had to be defended whatever the cost. Gerrymandering helped too.

By the ‘70s, South Africa had become a violent place. Riots and violent protests became commonplace in the townships and sometimes cities. Even with its leaders in jail or exile, the ANC and PAC continued their campaigns of terror-bombings, aided by Communist countries sympathetic to their cause. Crime was rampant. Politics became more and more militarized, with the security apparatus being given more and more power by the government to unleash torture and indiscriminate violence against dissidents. South Africa projected its military power internationally, intervening in its neighbors to stave off black rule there and punish opponents of its rule. A global campaign of boycotts and sanctions starved South Africa economically and made it a shameful international pariah. Everyday interactions were infused with paranoia, suspicion, and hatred.

It gradually became obvious to the South African leadership that ceding power to the blacks was inevitable. The white population was declining (it is today 10% of the total), businessmen were getting fed up with the incoherent pass system, and sanctions were biting deep. In 1990, a new prime minister, F.W. de Klerk, essentially gave up. In a historic event televised worldwide, Mandela was freed from jail. Elections were held in 1994 that wiped out the National Party and brought the ANC to power at last. Apartheid and the repressive apparatus that sustained it was dismantled. South Africa’s public disposition changed, seemingly overnight, from grouchy, stern and despicable to sunny, placid and “rainbow.”

Mandela is revered today as a hero and sub-Saharan Africa’s greatest leader mostly because he rejected the idea of seeking revenge for the injustices heaped upon himself and his people. Instead, he dedicated his time in office to bringing the country together again. He respected Afrikaner culture and tried to make white pastimes like rugby and braai (barbecue) national institutions. He set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to cajole the architects and enforcers of apartheid into confessing their crimes against humanity, but forgave them instead of punishing them. He served for only 1 5-year term, intent on providing an example of modest rule centered on popular sovereignty, not some personality cult.

South Africa did indeed follow his example, and it remains a much richer, more egalitarian, and more racially diverse and welcoming country than others in Africa. But the legacy of apartheid lives on.


Image source: Reuters

Although political power is now monopolized by the ANC (and will likely be so for some time, thanks to the firm allegiance of South Africa’s blacks), economic power remains disproportionately in white control. Only 9% of firms on Johannesburg’s stock exchange are directly black-owned. Although there were calls for the new government to forcibly transfer companies to blacks, like other African countries have done, the government opted for a more subtle, long-term approach: a policy of racial preference in education and employment, Black Economic Empowerment (although Coloureds and Asians are included too). The result has been the slow growth of a black upper class and the widening of a black middle class nurtured under apartheid. Many of South Africa’s most important companies — African Rainbow Minerals, Standard Bank, Telkom — are now black-owned, and staff is racially mixed.

This means little to the majority of South Africans, who remain poor, unskilled, and bereft of basics like power or running water. The vast townships that border South African cities have only expanded; Soweto, southwest of Johannesburg, is one of South Africa’s biggest cities on its own. Transport services remain limited and unreliable. Crime is still rampant; murder, rape, assault and robbery are daily headaches in South Africa, and cities can get eerily deserted at night. South Africa’s education system is a mess; very few schools even have textbooks, and 85-90% of kids fail basic literacy and math tests. About 40% of South Africans are unemployed.

The main culprit in this dire state of affairs — other than the enforced inequality of apartheid, of course — is the familiar scourge of sub-Saharan Africa: corruption. With the ANC dominant nationally, a position in the party usually translates to an important political post, which brings lucrative opportunities for milking it. Vital public services are neglected and starved of funds. Politicians are promoted through connections to more powerful figures, often greased with bribery. They reward other members of their own tribes regardless of their skills and qualifications (although South Africa, thanks ironically to apartheid, has avoided the bitter tribalism that infects other African countries). Its current president, Jacob Zuma, is involved in countless corruption scandals, which even predate his presidency. These range from billing the state over $18 million for improvements to his homestead to allowing the rich and powerful Gupta family to make cabinet appointments.

The ANC gets away with this (at least so far) because of the staunch loyalty of South Africa’s black majority. It earned its governing role through 4 decades of struggle against oppression, and its leaders bask in Mandela’s glow. Meanwhile, the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, has done a better job of governing the Western Cape, where whites and Coloureds are concentrated. But it is associated, with some justification, of being biased towards these races. Thus the ghost of apartheid lives on in the political sphere. Fringe parties on both sides — the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) for the blacks and the Freedom Front Plus for the whites — continue to appeal to their own narrow racial groups.

Whether South Africa has managed to get past apartheid in the cultural sense is open for debate. Over the centuries, a unified national culture cemented by the English language has emerged, and the different racial groups are mostly familiar with each other’s cultures. It has become normal for different races to socialize with each other. But obviously, European, African and Asian cultures are very different from each other, and the 2 decades since apartheid haven’t changed that. Black kids gravitate to soccer, while white ones prefer rugby. Racial segregation persists informally, even at the national level: east South Africa is much blacker than the west. Whites and Coloureds rarely learn black languages; blacks rarely learn Afrikaans. Opinion polling suggests that racist attitudes and general distrust persist, especially among blacks. EFF leader Julius Malema and sometimes even Zuma have insulted Afrikaners. The combination of Black Economic Empowerment, high crime and the sense of an official preference for black culture above others has led some Afrikaners to feel adrift and neglected in their country and prompted a brain drain to other English-speaking countries, which the government is hesitant to resist.

South Africa has made impressive strides since 1990. It is the richest country in Africa and a beacon of hope and opportunity for migrants from elsewhere (especially neighboring Zimbabwe). The situation could have been much worse, like a full-blown civil war, given the violence roiling its society in the ‘80s. The ANC’s Communist agenda has been moderated since taking power, although it is still in league with its longstanding pseudo-revolutionary allies abroad and occasionally takes interventionist strategies in the national economy. But the mentality of apartheid lingers: that of a society strongly divided by race, with its people distrustful of other races’ intentions and envious of their status.


Lula Tanzania

Lula visits Tanzania in 2010. Image source: AFP/Getty Images

The bond between the countries of North America (Canada and the USA) and Europe is one of the world’s strongest and most consequential. Historically, culturally, and linguistically, North Americans are intimately bound with their European kin. Since the beginning of European settlement there, North Americans have flocked to Europe on travel, study or work, and there is a continual fascination with the other side of the ocean. Through the institutional architecture of NATO, North America and Europe (which is most of what is called “the West”) generally move in lockstep on diplomatic issues.

This post, though, is not about that relationship. Instead, it’s about another key transatlantic bond, but one that’s been continually ignored: the one between Brazil and Africa.

Brazil and Africa have very strong ties. Start with geography: South America and Africa used to be one landmass, as evidenced by how far east Brazil bulges and the huge indent along Africa’s coast (the Gulf of Guinea). The sea between Natal (in Brazil) and Liberia (in West Africa) is still the narrowest part of the Atlantic except for the northernmost part where Greenland fills in the gap. There is a murky tradition in West Africa of the medieval Empire of Mali voyaging across the sea to trade with the opposite coast and maybe colonize it.


Gondwana, the super-continent also including modern India, Australia and Antarctica, broke apart in the age of the dinosaurs. Image source: U.S. Geological Survey

But as usual, it was Europe who bound the 2 regions together for good. Portugal sailed around Africa’s coast in the 1400s on its way to the riches of Asia, seeding it with trading posts along the way. Eventually an explorer found the part of Brazil that bulges out. Like its Spanish cohorts, Portugal vanquished the native Brazilians and seized the coastline for itself. Brazil turned out to be a rich and bountiful prize, loaded with lumber, gold and diamonds. Portugal needed lots of labor to work its colony, and the native peoples were dying out from imported diseases. And the Portuguese themselves didn’t want to do it.

… So they turned to Africa, where thousands and thousands of people were being captured and brought in chains across the ocean to work the sugarcane plantations of Brazil. The Caribbean may have been the main destination, but Brazil was the biggest single colony: over the 300+ years of the transatlantic slave trade, around 5 million Africans were brought to Brazil, or around 38.5% of the total. They stripped Atlantic Brazil of its jungles, mined its minerals, hacked its sugar, and later plucked its coffee. Any kind of manual labor, from unloading ships to housekeeping, became the province of black slaves. And because slaveowners were rarely hesitant about raping their property, Brazil grew into a mixed-race society united by the Portuguese language. (Not all of this traffic was one-way, by the way; Brazilian slaves could buy their freedom, and some of them returned to Africa afterwards, where they brought valuable technical skills and commercial expertise to an area mostly cut off from international trends.)

Slavery in Brazil was abolished in 1888, but it left a permanent mark on the country. Most obviously, it gave it a permanent black underclass and a social hierarchy that closely paralleled skin color. But the African influence on Brazil was profound. For example, feijoada, Brazil’s national dish, is a black bean stew strongly influenced by Portuguese tastes (it uses linguiça sausage) but incorporating weird cuts of meat like pork tails and feet, which were the scraps given to slaves. Brazil’s national music, the samba, is directly descended from African styles and was pioneered in the early 1900s by black musicians. African beliefs inspired a uniquely Brazilian religion, Candomblé, which worships personal deities and has its own rituals. The northeastern part of Brazil — the part that bulges out towards Africa — is predominantly black and has the strongest African cultural influences.

Despite this, Brazil’s elite snubbed Africa and links with it after abolition. In thrall to the racist ideology pervasive among whites in the early 1900s, they instead tried to whiten Brazil’s demographics by encouraging immigration from Europe and further race-mixing in the belief that future generations would be lighter-skinned than the current mix(the branqueamento policy). The first part of this policy succeeded, and Brazil now has large populations from Italy, Germany and Eastern Europe. Black people, however, never really went away.

By the 1960s, overt racist ideology was dying away, and African colonies were gaining independence. Brazil’s presidents began paying more attention to Africa and forging alliances with the new countries. But concerted outreach to Africa remained lacking for many decades; Brazilian dictators prioritized the relationships with Portugal and South Africa, that is, an intransigent colonial power and a racist regime. The dictators also embraced a generally conservative world outlook, which didn’t appeal to Africans, who prefer more revolutionary, left-wing stances.

These days, Brazil is experiencing a renaissance in its connections with Africa. It began under President “Lula” da Silva, who took a genuine interest in the continent. During his 8 years in office, he visited Africa 28 times, taking in 21 different countries there, and doubled Brazil’s embassies there from 18 to 37. His successor, Dilma Rousseff, carried on the momentum, albeit to a lesser extent.

As usual, the core of Brazil’s diplomacy with Africa is investment and technical cooperation. African countries are rich in minerals and oil, and Brazil has the mining companies to exploit them. Brazil also has a bevy of construction firms ready to build up African infrastructure — Odebrecht, Andrade Gutierrez, OAS, Camargo Corrêa — and well-educated engineers and scientists with the expertise to research new drugs, crop varieties, and other things of benefit to Africans. On the other hand, trade plays a growing role in the relationship; it’s shot up from $3 billion in 2000 to $26 billion in 2012, and Brazilian companies now use Africa as a market for their (cheaper) consumer goods. Brazilian telenovelas (soap operas), with their rags-to-riches stories and melodrama, are popular in Africa.

Brazilian TV is most popular in Angola and Mozambique, which are Brazil’s main partners in Africa. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: they were also Portugal’s main colonies in Africa (the other ones being Guinea-Bissau and the islands of Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe). Many Afro-Brazilians originally came from these lands, especially Angola. They are also struggling to rebuild from devastating civil wars and need sustained infrastructure investments. But Brazil is moving on to other countries that don’t speak Portuguese and importing Nigerian oil (which is better suited to Brazil’s refining processes), building roads in Kenya, and selling cluster bombs to Zimbabwe.

Brazil is far from alone in supporting African development, and it lags behind the West and China in the scope of its involvement, but it has several key advantages. For one, there’s its shared history and a certain sense of familiarity with African culture, but more importantly, it’s a tropical country. Its agricultural specialists figured out how to grow crops like cassava, soybeans, and cotton in the cerrado (Brazil’s parched savannah), so its techniques are relevant for other tropical countries searching for ways to grow new crops, create more farmland and increase their yields.

Brazil also represents sort of a development success story. It has long festered in poverty and underdevelopment, and its chronic hyperinflation made it depend on IMF bailouts to keep afloat. It is now a member of the BRICs, the most powerful and important emerging economies, and until recently had money to throw around overseas. It still has a huge, struggling underclass, but its welfare program, the Bolsa Família, has been a roaring success, lifting 40 million Brazilians out of poverty since its inauguration in 2003 at a cost of only .05% of GDP. Proud of its achievement, Brazil has held seminars on the program and other welfare initiatives for Africans grappling with much worse poverty and invites delegations over to see conditions for themselves.

Politically, Brazil isn’t the stern conservative oligarchy it once was. The ruling party, the Worker’s Party, is leftist and preaches Third World solidarity. For all of its close links with the West, Brazil still feels a lot of bitterness toward it as a result of being ignored, dismissed, and indebted for much of its history. It sees the “global South” as having a common bond: resistance to Northern oppression and a struggle to survive in a Northern-run economic system. And as by far the largest and most important country in the Southern Hemisphere, Brazil is in a natural position to lead — and increasingly knows it.

This is most likely the main reason for Brazil’s increased attention to its eastern neighbors. Consumer markets and natural resources are great, but other markets are much more lucrative and Brazil has plenty of resources of its own. Sentimental and cultural ties are also important and give Brazil an edge over some of its rivals, but it’s hard to tell how much this is the result of Lula’s personal feelings and whether it will endure after the Worker’s Party is swept out of office. But politically, Brazil needs Africa. It has ambitions to be a Great Power someday, and Latin America won’t be enough of a sphere of influence. Africa remains the most struggling part of the world and the area in most dire need of sustained investment and development, and it lacks a hegemonic power that could feasibly be a rival for Brazil, so it will remain the continent Brazil must win over if it wants to demonstrate Third World solidarity and maybe even a seat on the UN’s Security Council (the important part) someday.

So far, Brazil is doing well. The West remains tainted or at least a little suspect in African eyes; even if well-intentioned, Westerners rarely face the same crippling institutional problems and hurdles to development that Africans do. China and India are rising powers with development cred, but they are also seen as distant foreigners motivated primarily by self-interest and sometimes rapacious in their greed. Brazil actually hires Africans, builds urban housing for the poor, consults with locals, and trains them to manage their own enterprises. Most of the resources it extracts still flow out of Africa, and Brazilian companies are still corrupt and destructive like other Third World firms, but all in all Africans trust Brazilians more.

Back in Brazil, African heritage is becoming more and more widely accepted and celebrated. Capoeira, the dance form invented by slaves that doubled as martial training, is now considered Brazil’s most unique contribution to martial arts. Salvador’s heavily African-influenced Carnival celebrations rival Rio de Janeiro’s bigger, more famous ones. Black Brazilian artists and musicians incorporate more and more African influences into their work. Yet Brazil’s elite continues to value European culture over African, and the vast majority of blacks remain poor manual laborers. Whether Brazilian business will get more interested in Africa if more blacks go into the business class remains an open question.

Brazil continues to face enormous and daunting problems. The legacy of its slaveholding past has not gone away, and racism remains a fact of life there. It is also grappling with an economic slowdown that is forcing businesses and the government to cut back on all fronts; it may even have to seek funds from the IMF once again. (Africa is suffering from a similar slowdown, mostly caused by falling demand for commodities.) Many of Brazil’s biggest companies have been tarnished by a corruption scandal focusing on its state-owned oil company, Petrobras. But depressions don’t last forever, and Brazil remains a development success story and a natural leader for the Southern Hemisphere. Continued Brazilian engagement in sub-Saharan Africa should bring benefits to both sides.

One more for the road.


It’s Oscar night, and this year has more controversy swirling around the awards than usual. All of the nominees are white. It has prompted a boycott and a campaign to overhaul the voting process and the Academy’s membership. This post isn’t about that controversy, but it is about one of the movies that was noticeably snubbed this year: Beasts of No Nation. It’s not a movie for everyone. It’s one of those monumentally depressing movies you see because you feel you have to, not because you really want to. But it’s still an important and worthwhile movie that touches on a tough subject.

Beasts of No Nation follows Agu, a preteen boy in an African village. He lives a hard life, pretending a hollow TV is real and rustling up some money by blocking a road and shaking down the drivers. We see his country has had some civil turmoil, since Nigerian soldiers are occupying the village. But no one is prepared for the storm that bursts when rebels overrun the village, sending civilians fleeing in panic. Agu’s mother and sister manage to take a bus out in time, but the rest of his family are captured and killed by the rebels. Agu barely manages to escape into the hills.

There he’s caught by the rebels and their intimidating commandant. You might think Agu’s time is up, but no, instead the commandant sees potential in him. The commandant’s army is mostly made up of boys, orphaned or separated from their families and trained to be merciless and almost unthinking killers. Through a combination of strict training, military discipline, swaggering charisma, and a lack of other options, Agu joins the rebel army and becomes a hardened soldier.

We see the usual atrocities associated with African wars: massacres of innocent civilians, gang-rapes, rampant plundering, sadistic execution of prisoners through grenades in their mouths. Agu gets a little too close to the commandant. Besides the catharsis of sex and destruction, the boy soldiers are placated by the camaraderie of combat and some kind of drug. We also see a glimpse of the politics swirling in the background of the conflict: the commandant is summoned to rebel HQ by the Supreme Leader, but the leader keeps him at a distance, seemingly unnerved by the commandant’s success and popularity among his men. Instead, the leader gives priority to the Chinese businessman who has no qualms about meeting with a war criminal. (Whites aren’t really part of the narrative, by the way — we briefly glimpse some white faces through the windows of a UN van, and that’s it.)

As I wrote before, this story is not for everyone. Some viewers might just see it as another tale of tragedy and horror filmed to wring easy tears from a guilty audience. But it’s essential for getting an idea for how the phenomenon of child soldiery works. We get to see the story from Agu’s point of view. Yes, he does horrible things and commits crimes he should be way too young to be part of. But can we really blame him? What other choice does he have? He is surrounded by armed boys deep in the jungle, his family far away or murdered. For him it’s kill or be killed. We see he doesn’t really want to slaughter innocent people — he even knows what that must feel like — but it’s him or them. And if your country has fallen apart in civil war, why not join one of the armies and at least have a fighting chance of surviving?

That is not to say that Beasts doesn’t have its problematic aspects. An article in the Huffington Post points out that although, following the source novel, it doesn’t specify any African country in particular, it was filmed in Ghana, and the actors are Asante. Ghana is one of Africa’s success stories, with a peaceful history and no record of child soldiery. (The original novel was inspired primarily by Nigeria’s civil war; Cary Fukunaga, the director, mostly researched the wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia.) Non-Africans wouldn’t know the difference, of course, but imagine watching a movie about World War II with actors speaking Swedish. Professor Noah Tsika complains that the movie’s distribution on Netflix keeps it pretty much locked out of West Africa, and reminds us that it’s only one of a series of books and movies about the subject of child soldiers.

Perhaps most of all, Africans and those with an interest in Africa tend to get annoyed by movies like Beasts because it perpetuates a tired, deeply unflattering image of Africa as hopelessly corrupt, poor, violent, chaotic, and in need of help. Many of Africa’s worst stories are in the past, and the continent in general is trying hard to put frenzied wars like the ones seen here behind it. Countries like Nigeria, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Mozambique are moving forward and healing the rifts torn upon bloodily in past decades. And it’s true that Africa’s vibrant film industry is almost unknown overseas, with the result that normal stories about Africa are ignored in favor of traumatic, gut-wrenchingly bleak ones. But it’s also true that some parts of Africa are still mired in conflict and war crimes — including, interestingly, Nigeria (hey, it’s a big country). Child soldiers continue to get drafted into mass killings today in South Sudan and Somalia (and, outside of Africa, in Syria and Yemen too). Boko Haram’s mass kidnappings and the ethnic bloodshed in the Central African Republic are very recent memories.

In any case, Beasts of No Nation is worth watching just because of what it illuminates of the human experience, aside from any political or racial questions. (Do we snub movies like Schindler’s List because Germany doesn’t slaughter Jews anymore?) As the title suggests, this isn’t about 1 country in particular, or even a continent. It’s about what happens to humans, even young ones, when they are put into an extreme situation with bleak options, although one allows them to survive and thrive. It’s about what happens to societies when corruption and ill governance lead to a complete breakdown in government authority and cocky warlords take matters into their own hands. And it’s also, thankfully, about the potential for human redemption and rehabilitation. Despite the agonies that Agu goes through (and inflicts), I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the movie ends with a tone of hope that forgiveness and patience can save even the most seemingly hopeless cases.

Beasts of No Nation is not easy viewing. It’s understandable if its subject matter makes you pass it up or if the political context makes you uncomfortable. But it’s a vital story that tells an important part of the African experience, and I think it’s well worth taking on.