How Did the African Future Begin?


How did the African future begin? It began with machines and pictures of machines. For most of us, it began in childhood. For me, it began with cartoons and technology magazines, shipped three months late from the United Kingdom in a kind of cargo cult, not to mention the images of living and speaking machines on shows like Battlestar Galactica and Knight Rider that made it onto the government-run television channel.

A Spy in Time
Teaser Image Caption
From the cover of A Spy in Time.

Television itself made its first appearance in January 1976 with an electronic clock broadcast throughout the country. The single channel had been created against the wishes of former Minister for Posts and Telegraphs Dr Albert Hertzog, who foresaw that “South Africa would have to import films showing race mixing, and advertising would make Africans dissatisfied with their lot”. Hertzog, who had been removed from his post some years before, spoke for a grudging Calvinism, but his vision of satisfied Africans was out of date. 1976 was also the year of the Soweto uprising when police fought tens of thousands of schoolchildren.

Coincidence? Simultaneity? You can’t understand Afrofuturism without knowing that many futures and many pasts are always together on the continent – gunmen and mechanicals alongside atomic reactors in Zaire, massacres in Nigeria alongside internet whizzkids, colonial police in Johannesburg alongside an electronic clock at a time when nobody I knew had ever seen the mother-of-pearl images generated by a computer. Those virtual letters and shapes, which nobody today could see as remarkable, had an unearthly beauty in 1976.

As the above suggests, the African future has always involved a struggle over machines. In my family’s history alone: trams, cryptographic equipment, copying machines.

First, trams and trains. In 1893, as is well known, Gandhi was thrown off a Pietermaritzburg train, despite his first-class ticket, and began a life in politics which would end only with Indian independence. Decades later, Gandhi would come to condemn the railways altogether, but in South Africa he saw that access to modern transportation was essential to equality. At the time, Johannesburg was one of the most advanced cities in the world, thanks to an influx of mining capital, and had created a segregated tram system. Indians could only travel on the tram as the servants of European men.

In 1906, therefore, Gandhi arranged for a relative of mine, a Mr Ebrahim S. Coovadia, treasurer of the British Indian Association, to board an electric tram going from Fordsburg to Market Square. When the tram started moving, Ebrahim stood up, declared that he was no man’s servant, and was abruptly removed from the tram as Gandhi had been removed from the train. Gandhi contested the case through the legal system of what was then the government of the Transvaal. He won on a technicality, only to find the regulations reissued in a compliant form. But it was a new kind of politics Gandhi was creating – civil and yet confrontational, personal and yet legalistic – which within a matter of months would become satyagraha, his particular brand of nonviolent resistance.

Second, cryptographic equipment. In 1988, the African National Congress, banned for three decades while Nelson Mandela was exiled to Robben Island, prepared for a possible insurrection in South Africa. Operation Vula (“Open the road”) would see insurgents inside the country communicating on a real-time basis with their commanders in the frontline states. Above all, Vula required secure communications.

Unable or unwilling to rely on the Soviet bloc for equipment, the organisation asked its own inventors to put something together – which meant Tim Jenkin and Ronnie Press in London, who, along with the spy Ronnie Kasrils, experimented with acoustic modems and touch-tone phones. Jenkin, Press and Kasrils first tried to use electronic calculators, encoding messages with a classic one-time pad, as used by spies since the first decade of the twentieth century. They generated sequences of coded information that could be transmitted over pay telephones, although they soon switched to Toshiba laptops for their superior performance.

Perspectives Africa

Perspectives is a publication series of the Africa offices of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung. The series provides a platform for experts from Africa to express their views about issues pertinent to the democratic and sustainable development agenda in the region.

The latest edition of Perspectives was compiled with the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s North Africa offices and the Transform Africa project. It is dedicated to the emerging conversation of alternative approaches that challenge the historical bias towards the industrialisation of agriculture and the food system as the main strategy to address food insecurity while preparing for a +2°C world.

As far as I have been able to put together, it was a Toshiba T3100, with a strange red screen and a generous allotment of ten megabytes of memory, that a man called Pravin Gordhan – later to be the minister of finance and the face of resistance to Jacob Zuma’s corrupt regime – placed on my family’s dining-room table in July 1989. Many believed Mandela was soon to be released and yet the endgame was more brutal and frightening than ever.

One afternoon, not long after Gordhan’s visit, a number of security policemen came to our door. They were looking for documents that spelt out the views of the resistance on the possibilities of a negotiated peace. My father did have the papers but had my mother throw them through the window into the garden.

Before he left, the captain in charge asked after the point of the laptop. My thirteen-year-old sister, I explained to him dismissively, used the thing for video games. In 1989, a computer was not the first target of an investigation, at least not in South Africa. So the policemen left our house without finding out about Vula and its cryptographic equipment. (A year later, when Vula was discovered after Mandela’s release, it almost led to a breakdown in negotiations.)

Finally, photocopying machines. A short time after the police raid, the views of my family took a dark turn when an African National Congress operative, who had been printing illegal pamphlets, fled the country just ahead of another raid. He may have been forewarned by my mother who, as a doctor, treated many Indian policemen in the security apparatus.

Nevertheless, the agent left a good deal of material behind, including a secondhand photocopying machine. The unit’s serial number was followed back to a tiny organisation, the Community Research Unit, dependent on Scandinavian funds, which tracked the fate of the thousands of children taken into police detention. My father, a paediatrician, was the head of the organisation, a fact that led the police to believe he was also the head of a clandestine cell. (In fact, one of the employees of the unit had given the photocopying machine to the operative without my father’s knowledge.)

In December 1989, as part of the intensification of violence as negotiations approached, the security police put a limpet mine on the front door of my family home. They had wanted to place it on the back of the house, which would have been entirely destroyed, but had been discouraged by my sister’s dog, a mere toy Pomeranian. The mine went off in the early hours of the morning and destroyed the entire facade of the building but did not hurt anybody.

For many years afterwards, my mother would wake up in the middle of the night and find that the electronic clock in her bedroom read 3:02, the exact minute of the explosion.

More recently, the ultimate machine has arrived on our continent: the smartphone. Through its tiny five-centimetre window we can look and see an Afrofuture that is personal, weightless, ever-changing and, with any luck, as devoid of the tragic sense as smartphones everywhere else on the planet.



No man or woman could truly prophesy the future, as it turned out, no more than any living being or machine could truly foretell the past. But with a pang in my heart, I predicted that S Natanson stood no chance against our Soledad. Under the town of Kitwe in his copper mine laboratory, S Natanson might have heard that a woman who claimed to be his wife had been pleading with the United Nations to take action. He might even have connected her mission with the back-to-front tracks of certain particle trails in his detectors. But he could not be prepared for Soledad, or for the possibility that the doctrines he drew up ever so carefully to prevent the exploitation of time and history would in turn force the redemption of mankind at the hands of our machines.

Did I have a choice to obey? Could I disobey a holograph with the stamp of reality? Could I choose to refuse my part any more than the machines which had not been touched by my father’s magic? Everything had been prepared so this moment would come to pass, the future bending back to the past in the blaze of the supernova. The machines had done their duty and were silent, their thoughts indiscernible from the light patterns on their heads. They had sent the proof of my action back and, under their own constitution, according to their development, they could never lie. But they could deceive. The Gods gave us dreams to lead us astray. There was also a point to letting sleeping dogs lie. Maybe we could even allow their unchangeable sufferings, their unalterable Holocausts, to glorify their memory.

Everybody seemed to need my consent for the show to proceed. So I couldn’t have been more surprised when Dr Muller took a radiation pistol and placed it against my shoulder. I knew I was safe from his gun because I was alive on the hologram, a necessary cog in the machine devised by the machines who were disallowed by their programming from taking certain steps against the purity of time. I looked into Keswyn Muller’s bone-white face, with his wide-set grey eyes and a sprinkling of freckles, and I couldn’t find the poisoner there who had mocked and murdered us in Santa Teresa. I couldn’t find an enemy. I couldn’t find the heart of darkness – only a man, like the machines, who had followed each step of his own logic to a place beyond the range of the heart.

Muller shot me and I was sent violently backwards against the wall. He came after me, holding his pistol in front of him, and started to pull me into the corridor. There was no pain at first, only shock and dislocation and then the invidious odour of burnt meat. None of it belonged to me but to the situation.

I didn’t faint, although I expected to. I was dragged by the arm along the corridor and into the control room where Muller deposited me in front of the console. The others were arguing with him, but at first I was too confused to decipher a word. I couldn’t breathe for the shock. None of them paid attention to my condition. It was as if a murder had been committed and I was the murder victim, watching as people went on with their business.

Shanumi Six took charge of the situation.

‘Keswyn, you have never been an easy person to co-operate with. You are a creature of your time. You burn coldly all the time, as if your state of mind is a secret, and then you lash out. Our plan is coming to fruition after centuries and it depends, as we have always known, on the consent of this young man with whom I have a long acquaintance. How do you expect me to salvage it?’

‘He was not prepared to play his part. You heard him. He was delaying us out of hand.’

‘I am afraid to say that you are a fool. He has no choice but to play his part. None of us can do what he has been sent to do. You have seen and I have seen and he has seen the outcome. The writing has been on the wall all along. All you have done, with your rash action, is make sure that more people will die today than was strictly necessary.’

Muller was unrepentant. ‘Whatever number die, that will be the quantity that is strictly necessary.’

Muller had turned to face the corridor where the restrictionists had begun to establish themselves, in preparation for their testimony of the redemption, when Shanumi Six took hold of him and broke his neck. He fell, as if he had been suspended by a string, letting his pistol clatter across the floor.

My arm was singing with pain. I called to Shanumi Six, trying to retain my presence of mind.

‘No more need to kill. If you can have my question answered, Shanumi, I will play my part in your pantomime. I will push the levers you need to be pushed in the order you have seen me do it. I don’t expect you to honour my free will the way my father honoured it in his machines.’

‘I always knew you would see reason, Eleven. What do you need me to do? Anything. I will do anything today, wrestle with the infinite.’

I raised my arm with difficulty and pointed at the restrictionists. Their leader, his grey hair combed neatly to the shoulders, was listening intently. Their recording devices were entering the room and taking up stations around us.

‘Ask them, Shanumi, why the machines would choose you and me. They know our future. Why would an agent from the ranks of the machines send you a souvenir of today, of your supposed redemption day, and set your conspiracy in motion? The machines were programmed to protect our best interests. Don’t you think they knew you were the one person at the Agency who collected souvenirs, a harmless violation of protocol? Why did they choose me? Ask them why the two of us were the weakest links and what they are going to do about it. Ask them if it is in any way consistent with restrictionism to have the machines put them permanently out of existence and how their philosophy is going to come back from that?’

Imraan Coovadia's A Spy in Time was published in 2018 by Umuzi. All rights reserved.