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Another Lesson from France: How to Maintain a Diverse, Pluralist Press

There’s a very interesting passage in Denis MacShane’s 1986 Fabian Society pamphlet, French Lessons for Labour, where he describes how the French have been able to create a diverse and pluralistic press. Apparently it’s the most diverse in Europe with the exception of Sweden. This has been achieved partly through legislation drafted at the country’s liberation during World War II, but which was never enforced, which would have removed newspapers from the ownership of Nazi supporters and collaborators, the nationalisation of the distributors and state subsidization.

In fact, France, partly by design, partly by chance, has the most pluralist press in Europe outside Sweden. The design lies in the laws passed at the liberation in 1944/45 which dispossessed the owners of the right-wing papers which had supported Hitler before 1939 and the Vichy regime after 1940. A right of reply law and, more important, one that nationalised the press distribution agency were also passed. The latter means that left-wing newspapers and magazines are on sale in the most remote parts of France and the distribution censorship which is exercised in Britain by the two main wholesale/retail companies does not exist in France. In addition, the Government subsidises the press with cheap postal tariffs, zero VAT rating and, on occasion, direct subsidy.

The chance lies in the willingness of businessmen or corporations to put up money on left-of-centre newspapers and to support them during periods of low or zero profits. Le Matin, Liberation and the left-wing weekly Le Nouvel Observateur (circulation 400,000) all provide a width of reporting and comments In addition, Le Monde, whose independence is assured by the right of journalists to elect its editor, maintains an objectivity and authority, and an influence because of those two values, which are not automatically hostile to a socialist government. (P. 17).

However, attempts to pass similar legislation to the 1944/5 laws in order to stop the Vichy collaborator Robert Hersant from owning 19 national and provincial papers in 1984 and 1986 was a failure, partly due to a press freedom campaign from the right.

This issue of media ownership and bias is acutely relevant on this side of the Channel as well. Since the 1980s, the press and media in Britain has been owned by a decreasing number of powerful individuals, who may also have other business interests. These individuals, like Rupert Murdoch, have been able to exert oligarchical control of the media, maintaining a strong Tory bias. Media and press bias against Labour was particularly acute during Thatcher’s administration and was certainly a factor in the 1987 general election. It has also been very much in evidence over the past five years, when even supposedly left-wing newspapers like the Mirror, the Guardian and the Observer, ran stories attacking Labour and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, as well as the radio and television networks.

Media bias has also partly been responsible for the right-ward movement of the Labour party itself under Tony Blair. Blair was backed by the Murdoch press, and former ministers have said that Murdoch was an invisible presence at every cabinet meeting as Blair worried how his policies would be viewed by the press magnate. He was also able to gain the support of other papers with the exception of the Heil, but continued to hope that he would eventually win over that rag. I think it’s likely that press ownership will become even more restricted if some papers go under due to the Coronavirus lockdown. Even before the lockdown, the Express changed owners as its former proprietor, the pornography Richard Desmond, sold it to the Mirror group.

The willingness of businessmen to support left-wing newspapers is a crucial factor. When the Daily Herald went bust in the 1960s, to be bought by Murdoch and relauched as the Scum, it actually had a higher circulation that many of the other papers. What brought it down was the fact that it was unable to attract advertising. And I’ve encountered censorship by the distributors myself. Way back in the 1980s during the period of glasnost and perestroika introduced by Gorbachev, an English edition of Pravda was briefly available in some British newsagents. This was an exciting time as Gorbachev signed arms limitation treaties with Reagan ending the Cold War, and introduced reforms in the Soviet Union intended to turn the country into a multi-party democracy. I tried ordering it from my local newsagent in Bristol, but was told it was impossible. It was only being carried by one of the two national distributors. The one that served my area simply wouldn’t carry it.

And the newsagent chains can also exercise their own censorship. When it started out, Private Eye was seen as very subversive and viewed with distaste by many people. Many newsagents wouldn’t stock it. And at least one of the newsagents in the ‘ 90s refused to put its edition satirising the public attitude at Princess Di’s funeral on their shelves. When I asked what had happened to it when it wasn’t on sale in my local newsagents, I was told that it hadn’t come in yet. Well, there seemed to be many other newsagents, who hadn’t had it delivered either. After it returned to the shelves a fortnight later, the Eye published a series of pieces, including letters from readers, who’d had similar problems finding a copy, revealing what had actually gone on. One of the newsagents, John Menzies, had objected to the issue and its cover, and so refused to sell it.

Britain would definitely benefit considerably from similar policies towards the press as that of our friends across Le Manche. But I think getting such legislation through would be almost impossible. There were demands for workers’ control of the press in the 1980s, partly as a reaction by journalists on papers bought by Murdoch as he expanded his noxious empire. They were also concerned about editorial control and bias as the press passed into the hands of fewer and fewer owners. Those demands were obviously unsuccessful. Any attempt to pass legislation providing for state subsidisation of left-wing papers would be howled down by the Tory press as interference in press freedom and the state bailing out failing companies in contravention of the Thatcherite doctrine that market forces should be allowed full reign and failing companies and industries should be allowed to go under.

And I can’t imagine any law to deprive former collaborators or supporters of Hitler of ownership of their papers going down at all well with the Daily Mail, which is notorious for its support of Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists and articles praising Hitler before the outbreak of the War. John Major in the last days of his administration wanted to pass legislation breaking up Murdoch’s empire, but by that time it was too late – Murdoch had already switched to Tony Blair and the Labour party and Major’s government was in no position to do anything about Murdoch’s pernicious control of the press.

This problem is likely to become more acute if some newspapers fold due to lack of sales during the lockdown and the impact of the internet. Media ownership is restricted enough as it is, without Murdoch trying to destroy the Beeb so that Sky and the other cable/satellite stations can take its place. It may not be too long before Murdoch’s hold on the media becomes a true monopoly. In that event, government action to break it up will become a necessity. But given the uniform opposition it would face from the press, it’s questionable if it would be successful.

Or as governments increasingly ingratiate themselves with the Murdoch press in return for its support, even be considered as an option.

‘I’ Report on Conviction of Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn as Criminal Gang

First a piece of good news. Yesterday’s I for 8th October 2020 reported that a Greek court had convicted the Golden Dawn of being a criminal organisation. This was the Golden Dawn that’s a neo-Nazi outfit responsible for violent attacks on immigrants, left-wing activists and the murder of rap singer, not the Golden Dawn, which was an early 20th century occult society. Although the latter did briefly have Aleister Crowley, the Beast 666 and the ‘wickedest man in the world’ as a member.

The ‘I’s report on page 25, by Derek Gatopoulos, runs

A Greek court has ruled that the far-right Golden Dawn party was operating as a criminal organisation, delivering a landmark verdict in a marathon five-year trial.

The court ruled that seven of the party’s 18 former legislators, including party leader Nikos Michaloliakos, were guilty of leading a criminal organisation, while the others were guilty of participating in one.

As news of the guilty verdicts broke, cheers and celebrations erupted among the crowd of more than 15,000 people gathered in an anti-fascist rally outside the Athens courthouse.

A small group among the crowd threw Molotov cocktails and stones and police responded with tear gas and water cannon.

The marathon trial had been assessing four cases rolled into one: the 2013 fatal stabbing of Greek rap singer Pavlos Fyssas, physical attacks on Egyptian fishermen in 2012, and on left-wing activists in 2013, and whether Golden Dawn was operating as a criminal organisation.

The 68 defendants included the 18 former legislators from the party that was founded in the 80s as a neo-Nazi organisation and rose to become Greece’s third-largest.

Prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the verdict “ends a traumatic cycle” in the country’s public life.

The three-member panel of judges also delivered a guilty verdict against Giorgos Roupakias for the murder of Mr Fyssas. prompting applause in the courtroom and among the crowd.

Roupakios had been accused of being a party supporter who delivered the fatal stab wound to Mr Fyssas. Another 15 defendants – none of them former legislators – were convicted as accomplices.

Outside the courthouse, Mr Fyssas’s mother, Magda, who had attended every session over five years, raised her arms and shouted: “Pavlos did it. My son!” All five people accused of attempted murder against the fishermen were also found guilty, while the four accused of attempted murder in athe attacks against left-wing activists were found guilty of the lesser charge of causing bodily harm.

“Today marks a huge victory for justice and respect for Greece and the entire world,” said Eva Cosse of Human Rights Watch. “It sends a strong message that hate crimes are not and should not, be tolerated in a democratic society.”

There was never any real doubt that the Golden Dawn were a neo-Nazi organisation, although they denied it. They took as their symbol the angular design used in ancient Greek friezes which resembles a series of interlinked swastikas. Whenever they were asked about it and its similarity to the Nazi symbol, they claimed instead, quite rightly but disingenuously, that it was an ancient Greek design. They also celebrated the ancient Spartans. They were the ruling Herrenvolk of the Greek city state of Sparta, a society geared to war. Babies were examined after their birth to make sure that they had no physical defects or malformities. Those who failed the test were brutally disposed of by being thrown into a nearby cavern. Archaeologists have chillingly discovered the bones of a large number of infants, presumably the victims of this cruel custom. Beneath the Spartans themselves were the Helots, the state slave class, the descendants of the city’s original inhabitants whom the Spartans had conquered and enslaved. One day each year normal laws were suspended to allow the Spartans to treat the Helots however they liked, up to and including murder. In its militarism, enslavement, eugenics and racism it very much resembles the Nazis and their horrific Third Reich.

One of the internet news organisations a few years ago made a documentary about the Golden Dawn. They interviewed the Egyptian fishermen and other extra-European immigrants, who’d been attacked by them. I don’t doubt that the austerity imposed on Greece by the EU contributed to the organisation’s rise. We were taught at in Geography at school, when we studied the Third World as part of the ‘A’ Level course, that extreme poverty leads to political extremism and racial and ethnic conflict as different groups fight over resources. Apart from attacking immigrants themselves, the Golden Dawn also attacked and tore down their stalls in the local markets. They also gave out food parcels, but only to ethnic Greeks. It’s excellent that the organisation and the murderous thugs running it have been successfully prosecuted.

Zelo Street put up a very good piece about the Golden Dawn’s conviction, pointing out that it poses something of an embarrassment for the Spectator, its editor, Fraser Nelson, and board chairman Andrew Neil. Because the magazine, itself heading rapidly towards the far right, published a piece by Greek playboy and jailbird, Taki, praising the Nazis. Way back in 2013 Takis had written in his column that

Golden Dawn came into being because of PC, poor Greeks at times getting fewer benefits than African illegal immigrants. Then GD became very popular with certain poor Greeks while it defended them from being mugged by Albanian criminals and drug dealers, and for safeguarding older folk after bank withdrawals”.

He also claimed that they weren’t Nazis, but just good, patriotic Greek boys who were just rough. No, I think it’s quite clear they really were Nazis. And murder and violent assault goes far beyond being a little rough.

When people complained about Taki’s article, Nelson responded by saying

Our readers like diversity and well-written pieces that they disagree with. We have no party line”. This prompted Sunny Hundal to ask if they had any limits at all. Could they write pieces praising Hitler? Well, they haven’t so far, but Taki did write another piece stating that the real heroes of D-Day were the German soldiers, who fought to the death against overwhelming numbers. This is particularly remarkable considering the brutality and atrocities committed by the Italian Fascists and the Nazis during their occupation of Greece. Nelson defended this piece by arguing that “People like reading well-argued pieces with which they might disagree”. Well, you wonder. You wonder if the problem is that actually, at least part of the Speccie’s readership do agree.

The Street wondered how Nelson can defend publishing such stuff praising the Golden Dawn and excusing their violence, while claiming any complaints about it simply came from the PC brigade and invoking free speech. The Street concluded

‘After the verdicts were handed down in Athens today, Fraser Nelson should have stopped and thought. And then he should have resigned his post. But he won’t.

Because that would require principle. And he hasn’t got any. I’ll just leave that one there.’

Well, yes. It should at least have given Nelson pause. But it won’t stop him. He’s been publishing Taki for years, despite frequent complaints about his anti-Semitism. And doubtless Nelson will continue printing pieces by him. The Spectator’s a Tory magazines, and the publication of such pieces by Taki suggests that many of the rag’s readers have the same attitude towards Blacks, Muslims and Jews as those the blogger Jacobsmates found on internet sites for supporters of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson.

But remember, there’s supposed to be no problem with racism and anti-Semitism in the Tory party, who deal with it promptly, unlike Labour.

'True Black music will be heard tonight': the life, music and politics of Rahsaan Roland Kirk

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 09/10/2020 - 7:31am in

The political activism of this talented jazz musician is often overlooked, but it's a legacy worth remembering, writes Dave Randall

A Political Paradox: Power, Fallibility, and the Twenty-Fifth Amendment

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 08/10/2020 - 4:52am in


history, Politics

President Trump’s hospitalization for COVID-19 has raised a flurry of concerns about the severity of his illness and what it...

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Book Review: Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? by Alexander Keyssar

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 07/10/2020 - 10:07pm in

In Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?Alexander Keyssar unpacks the history of the Electoral College and explains why it persists despite longstanding criticism of the system and efforts to reform or abolish it. Adeptly written and bringing to light untold stories, this book should be read by anyone interested in the upcoming US presidential election, recommends Kyle Scott.  

Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? Alexander Keyssar. Harvard University Press. 2020.

On 3 November 2020, voters in the US will go to the polls and cast a ballot for either President Donald Trump or his challenger, Joe Biden. The person who gets the most votes may not win the presidency. Four years ago, once all the votes were tallied on election night in 2016, Trump had lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton but won the electoral vote, thus making him the 45th President of the United States. Writing this review as an American voter, this peculiar mechanism by which we elect our president may once again produce a president who most voters do not want to win.

Alexander Keyssar’s book, Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?, is perfectly timed with the next presidential election less than four weeks away. Keyssar unpacks the history of the Electoral College and explains why it persists despite its lack of popularity and violation of democratic norms.

The Electoral College is the body which elects the President of the United States. It forms every four years to elect the president and then disbands. Electors are apportioned to states based upon the state’s representation in Congress. Texas has 38 electors (36 representatives in the House of Representatives plus two Senators) and Montana has three electors (one representative in the House of Representatives plus two Senators). Electors are chosen by each state’s legislature. The process of choosing who gets to be an elector varies per state. When casting a presidential ballot in the US, a voter is effectively casting a ballot for a slate of electors that represent the candidate’s party in the Electoral College. Whichever party wins the popular vote in the state wins all of that state’s electors — electors are not divided up proportionally to the candidates with the exception of Maine and Nebraska.

Keyssar tells a riveting and winding tale about attempts to reform the Electoral College and replace it with either a national popular vote or a distribution of electors in proportion to the state’s popular vote. The author is a captivating storyteller who brings to life events and individuals who might have otherwise been forgotten. For instance, he tells the story of the political odd couple, the Republican Henry Cabot Lodge and the Democrat Ed Lee Gossett, who together introduced a proposal that would effectively get rid of the Electoral College in 1948. Although ultimately unsuccessful, the Lodge-Gossett Resolution is an important story about two political opponents coming together for a common cause.

The book takes the reader through the history of reform efforts from the drafting of the constitution in 1787 until the present day. It does not follow a strict chronological order but is broken down by thematic epochs to help the reader understand the defining debates of various reform efforts. Part One discusses the early debates about the presidential election to show how the Electoral College was not unanimously supported during the constitutional convention nor during the ratification debates of the constitution. The chaos caused by the Electoral College threatened the stability of the nation in these early days which led to the ratification of the 12th Amendment in 1804. Part Two then goes through a set of reforms designed to eliminate the winner-take-all system and distribute electors based upon the proportion of the popular vote, covering the period 1870 to1960.

Part Three covers roughly the same timeframe (1800-1960), but focuses on efforts aimed at scrapping the Electoral College altogether and replacing it with a national popular vote. The concluding chapters in Part Four examine modern-day disruptions caused by the system and recent elections whose outcomes violated the democratic principle of majority rule, including the election of George W. Bush in 2000 and Trump in 2016. These last chapters bring into focus the importance of reform and how unsettling recent elections have been.

Throughout the book, Keyssar draws upon congressional testimony, third party research and news accounts to debunk common objections to electoral college reform. Supporters of the Electoral College argue that its reform would abandon the ideals of the US founders, disadvantage smaller states, create a rural/urban divide in the electorate, disadvantage minorities living in poor urban communities and violate the republican (as opposed to democratic) ideals embodied in the US Constitution. States’ rights and federalism would also be threatened by electoral college reforms. The author provides convincing counterexamples and enough evidence for the reader to conclude that, while reform would be a departure from the norm, it would be neither an unprecedented departure nor a stark break from the past.

Keyssar’s most powerful analysis occurs when he exposes the racial undertones regarding much of the opposition to reform. His confrontation with racism in the US as it relates to electoral reform — a topic that isn’t often viewed through this lens — is one of the strengths that make this book well worth the read. Keyssar provides original insight on how racism can be a motivating factor in preventing reform. After Keyssar pulls together the relevant evidence, he concludes that reform has threatened a political structure that keeps white males in power at the expense of Black people and other historically disadvantaged groups. The argument is most prominent in Chapter Four but it is a thread that runs throughout the book and is an important area of investigation.

One question raised by this narrative, which the author does not discuss, relates to the fact that there have been many successful reforms that were also opposed on racist grounds. Keyssar notes that barriers to representation have been lifted, and representation increased, with the ratification of other constitutional amendments. Seven of the seventeen amendments ratified after the Bill of Rights have increased representation and removed barriers between the populace and elected officials, and five of the seventeen have dealt directly with the office of the president. If we don’t count the 18th and 21st (concerning the prohibition of alcohol and its repeal, respectively), one-third of all amendments ratified after the Bill of Rights have dealt directly with the office of the president and more than a third have increased representation. The reader is left to wonder what is unique about the Electoral College that separates it from amendments like Women’s Suffrage (19th), Direct Election of Senators (17th), Presidential Tenure (22nd) or Abolition of the Poll Tax Qualification in Federal Elections (24th). All these amendments were controversial and had to overcome entrenched interests  —  including those with racially discriminatory motivations  —  in order to be ratified. Unfortunately, the author neither undertakes a comparative study nor uncovers unique aspects within the debate over the Electoral College that would set it apart from these other amendments.

Keyssar concedes that there has been a mosaic of issues standing in the way of electoral college reform that do not align along clear sectional, partisan or ideological lines. Lay on top of this a process that is designed to make reform difficult, and it’s unsurprising that the Electoral College has remained unchanged. The author explores a lot of the causes for stasis except two of the most obvious: no one cares enough to make it happen and there is not a compelling enough reason for change. These possible explanations are not addressed by the author.

The Electoral College captures the interest of the US public once every four years at most. And reforming it gets on the agenda even less frequently as reform efforts only follow a perceived crisis. In the intervening years, when its threat to democracy is not immediate, people forget about the Electoral College. Constituent pressure is not sustained through election cycles so officials have no incentive to pursue reform.

For the reader interested in US history, US political developments or elections, this book is well worth the read. Keyssar writes clearly enough for the general reader and brings to light untold stories that add value for the researcher or student of the Electoral College. Keyssar is an adept storyteller who incorporates new and relevant research that will inform an important discussion for years to come. Anyone interested in the upcoming US presidential election should read this book.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

Image Credit: Cropped image of Cleveland Portrait Advertising Card, circa 1892. Collection: Collection University Collection of Political Americana. Cornell University Library. Repository:Susan H. Douglas Political Americana Collection, #2214 Rare & Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library, Cornell University (Cornell University Library, No Known Copyright Restrictions).


The Great Barrington Declaration?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 07/10/2020 - 2:14am in

A group of senior medical scientists have gotten together to pen an open petition to governments and society, calling for a herd immunity approach to the coronavirus. Signatories already include over 3000 “Medical & Public Health Scientists”, 4000 “Medical Practitioners”, and 60,000 others not in those categories. That’s pretty good in these times of strong adverse media headwinds.

As I too have been here on Troppo, the organisers of that petition are deeply worried about the damage that the lockdowns and other anti-social measures are doing to children, students, the poor, the developing world, the elderly, and everyone else. Their key quotes on policy are

The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk. We call this Focused Protection.

where I want to heartily cheer the phrase “most compassionate approach”. It is exactly that. This approach means

Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal. Simple hygiene measures, such as hand washing and staying home when sick should be practiced by everyone to reduce the herd immunity threshold. Schools and universities should be open for in-person teaching. Extracurricular activities, such as sports, should be resumed. Young low-risk adults should work normally, rather than from home. Restaurants and other businesses should open. Arts, music, sport and other cultural activities should resume. People who are more at risk may participate if they wish, while society as a whole enjoys the protection conferred upon the vulnerable by those who have built up herd immunity.

which is pretty much what many Australian residents called for in our June letter to governments. There are small things I do not agree with in the letter, but on the general message I am in agreement so have signed it. The strong should accept the burden of gaining high degrees of immunity so that the vulnerable run less risk when leading a normal life. We should indeed encourage and celebrate high covid infection rates among the young and healthy.

Do sign the petition to show your support.

Live Event: Celebrating Tchaikovsky

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 07/10/2020 - 12:35am in


Music, history

TORCH Goes Digital! presents a series of weekly live events Big Tent - Live Events! Music Week Part of the Humanities Cultural Programme, one of the founding stones for the future Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities.
Thursday 7th May marks the 180th anniversary of the birth of Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky, Russia's most famous nineteenth-century composer, and one of the most popular classical composers of all time. Together, Leah Broad and Philip Ross Bullock will trace how Tchaikovsky became such a revered figure, ask what it means to talk about nationalism in music, and explore the challenges of writing musical biography.

Dr Leah Broad

Leah is a Junior Research Fellow at Christ Church, University of Oxford, and a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker. She specialises in Nordic and British twentieth century music, and has publications in Music & Letters, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, TEMPO, Music and the Moving Image and Nineteenth-Century Music Review.

Professor Philip Bullock, TORCH Director

Philip Ross Bullock is Professor of Russian Literature and Music at the University of Oxford, and Fellow and Tutor in Russian at Wadham College. His publications include Rosa Newmarch and Russian Music in Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century England (2009), The Correspondence of Jean Sibelius and Rosa Newmarch, 1906-1939 (2011) and, most recently, Pyotr Tchaikovsky (2016). Philip is also the current Director of TORCH.

Live Event: In Conversation with Maaza Mengiste

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 07/10/2020 - 12:32am in

TORCH Goes Digital! presents a series of weekly live events Big Tent - Live Events! Part of the Humanities Cultural Programme, one of the founding stones for the future Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities.

In conversation with Maaza Mengiste, author of The Shadow King.
This event is also part of the North-east Africa Forum at the African Studies Centre at the University of Oxford.

Hosted by Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literature in English (English Faculty, University of Oxford). Professor Boehmer is currently the Director for the Oxford Centre for Life Writing (OCLW) based at Wolfson College, and former Director of TORCH (2015-17), and also leads on the 'Writers Make Worlds' project - https://writersmakeworlds.com/


Maaza Mengiste is the author of the novels, Beneath the Lion's Gaze, selected by the Guardian as one of the 10 best contemporary African books; and The Shadow King, a finalist for the LA Times Books Prize, a New York Times' Notable Book of 2019 and one of TIME's Must-Read Books of 2019. She is the recipient of an American Academy of Arts and Letters award, the Premio il ponte, and fellowships from the Fulbright Scholar Program, the National Endowment for the Arts, Creative Capital, and LiteraturHaus Zurich. Her work can be found in The New Yorker, New York Review of Books, Granta, the Guardian, the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and BBC, amongst other publications.

In conversation with:

Birhanu T. Gessese
Birhanu was born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and is now studying Humanities at Kenyon College, USA. He is currently on a year abroad studying English Literature at Exeter University, UK. He likes to compose stories, work with the camera, and illustrate in ink pen. Along with Korranda Harris, he recently interviewed Maaza Mengiste for Africa in Words.

Professor Richard Reid (History Faculty, University of Oxford) is a historian of modern Africa, focusing on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. With a particular interest in the culture and practice of warfare in the modern period, part of Professor Reid's research interests includes the more recent armed insurgences, especially those between 1950s and the 1980s.

Professor Tsehai Berhane-Selassie
Tsehai Berhane-Selassie taught social-anthropology, gender, and development studies in Universities in Ethiopia, the USA, the UK, and Ireland. She has published on Ethiopian Warriorhood, and gender issues in Ethiopia.

'The Shadow King' Synopsis:

Published by Canon Gate.

'DEVASTATING' Marlon James, 'A MODERN CLASSIC' Andrew Sean Greer, 'INCREDIBLE' Lemn Sissay, 'BRILLIANT' Salman Rushdie, 'MAGNIFICIENT' Aminatta Forna, 'EPIC' Mary Morris, 'WONDERFUL' Laila Lalami, 'UNFORGETTABLE' The Times, 'REMARKABLE' New York Times


With the threat of Mussolini's army looming, recently orphaned Hirut struggles to adapt to her new life as a maid. Her new employer, Kidane, an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie's army, rushes to mobilise his strongest men before the Italians invade.

Hirut and the other women long to do more than care for the wounded and bury the dead. When Emperor Haile Selassie goes into exile and Ethiopia quickly loses hope, it is Hirut who offers a plan to maintain morale. She helps disguise a gentle peasant as the emperor and soon becomes his guard, inspiring other women to take up arms. But how could she have predicted her own personal war, still to come, as a prisoner of one of Italy's most vicious officers?

The Shadow King is a gorgeously crafted and unputdownable exploration of female power, and what it means to be a woman at war.

The Sharecroppers' Union: against landlord, sheriff and Klan

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 06/10/2020 - 1:15am in

The Alabama Sharecroppers' Union was one of the most impressive social movements in 20th century America, writes Reuben Bard-Rosenberg

Writing Women in Solitary: Shifting Narratives to Make Research Count by Shanthini Naidoo

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 05/10/2020 - 10:34pm in

Author Shanthini Naidoo reflects on her decision to change the focus of her Master’s dissertation in order to uncover the narratives of anti-apartheid women activists in South Africa. This research formed the basis of her recently published book Women in Solitary: Inside the Female Resistance to Apartheid, which focuses particularly on four women: Joyce Sikhakhane-Rankin, Shanthie Naidoo, Nondwe Mankahla and Rita Ndzanga. As the UK celebrates Black History Month in October, Naidoo reflects on the importance of uncovering stories that not only evidence bravery and courage, but also the power of love and friendship in daily life.

Writing Women in Solitary: Shifting Narratives to Make Research Count

The Journalism faculty at the University of the Witwatersrand is on the tenth floor of a tall tower, with a glass-walled spherical room at the top which resembles a spaceship. It gives a 360°, birds-eye view of the city of Johannesburg, where I live. It was always a pleasure to learn in that space because it served as a physical reminder that as students, we would need to rise to great heights to get through our Master’s studies. And it felt as if the journey I’d embarked on was meant for a higher purpose.

Initially convinced that I would produce a thesis heavily focused on research and analytics was also a lofty idea, my aim being to dissect the digitisation of print media and seek solutions for the demise of my craft in South Africa and abroad. The topic was wearying, despite the project being already in its tangible proposal phase, because I knew the answer would not make a dent in the work; it would simply highlight a dire problem.

Then, on 2 April 2018, a South African stalwart, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, died.

The obituaries and editorials in South Africa and abroad called her a philanderer, a militant, a rogue, Nelson’s wife. It was an unfair and biased account of a long and complicated life. What about her role as a country leader, the mother of two young girls who was thrown into prison then banished to a barren town for periods, an estranged wife for 27 years?

Reporting on her death, I decided to change my research topic in a hurry, with great encouragement from my supervisor, Professor Lesley Cowling. I wanted to look at how the narratives of female activists were recorded in South African and global history. It was research that was scarce. Yet, the detail it uncovered was so intriguing that two years later the thesis would be selected to be published as a book, once I’d expanded on the narrative. It became Women in Solitary: Inside the Female Resistance to Apartheid, published in 2020 by Tafelberg.

Finding the story

Researching Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s time in prison, I found that seven women were imprisoned in 1969 at the same time as her. They were political prisoners, activists for the African National Congress (ANC) who were kept in solitary confinement: invisible, tortured in conditions even worse than the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement experienced on the Robben Island prison, off the coast of Cape Town. Few knew of these women today: Joyce Sikhakhane-Rankin, Shanthie Naidoo, Nondwe Mankahla and Rita Ndzanga, who are still alive. And two others, Thoko Mngoma and Martha Dhlamini, who had passed on.

For two years, I captured the herstory, recording the experiences of four South African heroines that would have otherwise gone untold: journalist Sikhakhane-Rankin, trade unionists Ndzanga and Naidoo (no relation, but serendipitous coincidence) and activist Mankahla. The women were involved in the clandestine organising of the ANC in South Africa. Given freedom of movement as a journalist, Sikhakhane-Rankin served as a messenger for high-profile members of the movement who were not allowed to meet. She also wrote about the lives of ordinary South Africans who were impacted by apartheid, informing the international community about the human rights abuses inflicted on people by the government of the time.

Ma Ndzanga, as she was known, was involved in smuggling young people into exile and to the ANC training camps in other parts of Africa. For this, she was often detained and brutally beaten to reveal her network. Her husband, Lawrence, was killed in one of those detentions and she was not allowed to attend his funeral. Meanwhile, Naidoo and her family were involved in recruiting and harbouring banned comrades, planning protests and acts of defiance. Mankahla was also a messenger for ANC leaders, hiding secret messages in the newspapers and fruit she sold.

For these collective acts of maintaining a banned movement, the women were regarded as terrorists by the apartheid government. Along with Madikizela-Mandela, they were detained in solitary confinement for over a year, and interrogated (read: tortured physically and mentally) in an attempt to elicit statements against each other. They refused, and what was called the ‘Trial of 22’ in 1969 collapsed.

South Africans don’t readily recognise their names or the name of the trial, 50 years later. Our history was lost, in destroyed archives and suppressed narratives from the time. And it was a researched anomaly that in South Africa, men’s narratives of activism were always given precedence over those of women.

But the impact of the 1969 trial shaped South Africa’s democracy in many ways. If the women had given in to their captors, turning on each other, they would have been jailed for life. If Madikizela-Mandela had been imprisoned for decades like the Robben Island prisoners, who knows how the South African democracy story would have unfolded?

Healing through storytelling

The story in Women in Solitary centres on a single trial, but it is also about how these women picked up their lives and loves after solitary confinement, the thrilling tales of their escape to exile and their continued activism thereafter. Sikhakhane-Rankin was smuggled across borders to Germany and then Britain. She settled in Scotland with her husband, surgeon Ken Rankin (OBE), from where their work in the anti-apartheid movement continued. The pair returned to Africa to carry out operations for the movement, including gun smuggling as it became an armed struggle. Sikhakhane-Rankin went underground as a soldier for periods while a mother of five, including two children who were born in Scotland.

Accepted as a refugee by the British government, Naidoo was involved in the thriving anti-apartheid movement in the UK, which staged protests and often camped outside South Africa House in London to encourage the government to intervene and increase sanctions against South Africa, in an attempt to discourage apartheid laws. UK activists also helped to provide legal representation for political activists through the London-based International Defence and Aid Fund, where Naidoo worked for many years, having settled in Walmington Fold, London, until 1991 when South Africa was liberated.

The story in Women in Solitary is the detail of the four women’s lives, their activism, their mental wellbeing and how their children and grandchildren – who are our contemporaries and colleagues – were affected by their work.

The reason for recording this story now is that, like many global matters of significance, the most significant war in South Africa’s recent history was largely fought in the mind. It was a psychological, classist and racial battle from which we are yet to emerge. There are many parallels in the world right now. Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and more have shown us how much we need to connect to the strength of where we have come from in order to heal.

These women, and others around the world, are the way-finders in the struggles we face today and those yet to come. They taught us to stand on the side of the good, that each of us is a force, and that together we have immeasurable strength. As gender activist and special rapporteur for the United Nations Human Rights Council, Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, wrote for the blurb of Women in Solitary: ‘By elevating the many untold stories and lives of women in the struggle for democracy, we are stirred with visceral emotions because we are these women, and they are us.’ This applies even more in the framing of Black history.

When we remember those who came before us through simple storytelling, we have a tool for healing generational wounds which affect us today. Research has suggested that trauma may be carried through generations. But research has also suggested that we can tackle painful histories and experiences with storytelling. Storytelling promotes healing from the past, but also in the present, the need for which is so prevalent and heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

If not I, then who?

First, we have to know the stories. The detail of our history is valuable. To know about the positive, hopeful stories is important, not only for the bravery and courage shown, but for the love and friendship that can be found in lives and daily existence while the wheels of history turn. These stories give us hope and resilience.

It is why academic work of significance should make us strive for a higher purpose than simply adding to our personal achievements and carving pathways in our careers. They must be valuable with deep meaning, and when we take a bird’s-eye view at the end, we can see that we have made a difference.

Note: This feature essay gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.

Image Credit: Photograph of University Corner building, which houses the Journalism faculty at the University of the Witwatersrand. Image provided courtesy of © University of the Witwatersrand. Thank you to Shanthini Naidoo and the University of the Witwatersrand for their help in providing the image.