No Promises Left

No Promises Left - Heinrich Bohmke

At the bottom of my street every Monday, on the nursery school drive, a phalanx of ragged beggars rummage through green wheelie bins outside a Tudor-style housing complex.  I slow down at the stop sign and press the requisite button on the car’s console.  Bent at the hips, African men rummage for calories and chucked-out crap to add to their swag before the garbage truck arrives.  The guy with the dark-glasses is a pro.  You see him everywhere, neat and bustling.  Most of the others come from the children’s park they’ve taken over.  It’s hand to mouth for them and whoonga1 in between.  Like a conjurer, a young man finesses an improbably long pole from the bin.  Rationally, it’s hard to begrudge them their messy survival.  One or two, though, fail to avert their eyes.  Like the one producing the wooden pole.  He hears the locks knocking shut.  This offal is not enough.  I’m pretty sure he doesn’t only scavenge.  He wants more.  I rev away. (more…)

Evaluating the Credibility of a Source: Consistency as a False Positive

Rolling-Stone-cover - A Rape On CampusIn December 2014, Sean Woods received the call editors dread the most. A Rolling Stone reporter told him she no longer stood by her story of a horrible rape supposedly committed by frat boys at the University of Virginia. The feature, published a few weeks earlier, broke readership records at the iconic magazine. It caused a national uproar. It is not hard to see why. The story recounts the dramatic allegations of a young woman, lured by her date to a fraternity house, there to be gang-raped on broken glass by seven young initiates. The line the story took was that the victim’s experience was emblematic of a ‘culture’ female students faced on campuses across the US. This heinous crime was further compounded by the defensive, almost dismissive, response of University authorities.


From Red to Blue- Abahlali, Survival and Ideology

This article first appeared in Africa Report

amb-da-0In May 2014, news broke that a radical shack dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, had thrown their weight behind the centre-right Democratic Alliance in Kwa Zulu Natal. This was a shock to most in the South African left. The shock reverberated in all the places this remnant finds itself; that is to say, twitter, facebook, social science faculties and on listservs anticipating revolution.

At face value it is shocking. Abahlali was the poster child of total autonomy in social movements, giving their voice to no one but themselves. Scholars of the movement told us that, at the movement’s core, not only as strategy but as principle, was their celebrated slogan “No Land, No House, No Vote”. (more…)

Canal and Control

This article first appeared in Africa Report

It’s 21 years to the day that the MK unit in which I dabbled assembled to discuss what to do about Chris Hani’s assassination.

Chris Hani - Photo Credit: SABC
Chris Hani – Photo Credit: SABC

It was obvious that it was not a hit by the state. There was going to be groot kak raining down that did not suit the Nats. This left two options, rogue cops or the white right. The climate for Hani’s assassination was just right. With election talks stalled, the ANC needed a bad cop to whip up the spectre of insurrection again. Hani and Winnie were rumoured to have resuscitated some sort of military capacity across the border in Zim. Someone might just have believed that propaganda. (more…)

The valleys of broken thongs

This piece appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique, March 2014

valley churchI’ve just returned from the Eastern Cape, from dirt roads that dwindle into two spur tracks and then just impressions in the grass, around clefts in mountains that open into sublime valleys, each with a few foregone sandstone farmhouses, with stoeps and overgrown gardens and subsiding kraals. Among the dilapidation, one can still see the farmstead and the footpaths of work that took place within it. And for me, I imagine I can still see the places where lovers pressed into each other, by the leaking dam with the cool moss, in that outbuilding whose thick, warped glass slants light through the motes. And there, far by the river, where willows hang and a spinney makes a yonic circle of silver and green. On an autumn blanket. Definitely there.

Just beyond the house, the windpumps of a previous generation lean and miss rusty pieces. The voice of these metal creatures is the thing most gone. Not only their own whirring murmurs but the sounds they roused from unliveable plains: flapping crops, yapping dogs and watered furrows.


Marrying for the mob: What the DA can learn from Numsa

This article first appeared in the Africa Report. February 2014

Helen and Mamphele (Photo credit: Times Live)
Helen and Mamphele (Photo credit: Times Live)

Politically it was an audacious attempt by the Democratic Alliance to rebrand itself ahead of elections. In each poll since 1994, the DA has essentially stood for what is good for old suburbia. But this secure constituency is also a low ceiling. South Africa’s electorate is 80% Black. To grow, the DA needs more Blacks to vote for them. Many Blacks, however, are wary of white intention and largely still appreciative of the steep moral, social and cultural elevation brought by national liberation. I suppose one could call it BSC – Black self-consciousness. Even if the economic dividends are meager and even as the ANC subsides in a fire-pool of sleaze, to switch to the “Madam” is yet a ballot too far.  (more…)


Every two years or so this really nice training gig comes up. I grab two boxes of files and some charge sheetbranded pens, get on two planes and head to Kimberley in the Northern Cape.

I’m hired to train a unit within the South African Police Service how to fire those within their ranks who contravene Regulation 20 (z) of their disciplinary code.

Regulation 20 (z) is reserved for murderers, armed robbers, rapists, fraudsters and, mostly, extortionists. Owing to a useful quirk in our law of evidence, it is easier and faster to dismiss cops who commit criminal offences than it is to put them behind bars; the latter hardly ever happening. The idea behind Regulation 20 (z) is that, even if a rogue cop demanding R300 from an illegal immigrant is never convicted of this crime, he will at least lose his badge and gun.

I should quickly admit that contributing to this high-minded mission is not why I enjoy the SAPS training so much. Mine are perverse reasons. (more…)

Van der Walt

originally published in Le Monde Diplomatique, October 2013

lillian ngoyi pic

I stood on the side of a street with a new name.  Van der Walt has become Lillian Ngoyi; a veldkornet erased for a comrade.  Sleek busses drone by.  A taxi double-parks without couth. Dark-green shade-cloth ripples up and down in puffs of air over scaffolding twenty stories high.  Below, pedestrians politely side-step each other. The Soil’s song Inkomo, clogs

the intersection.  Winter hurries everyone up just a little bit.

Inner city Pretoria has a pleasant human press about it at home time. Office-workers, soldiers and shoppers scurry past fruit and vegetable stalls, past take-aways, weave and dread salons, curtain and linen shops, mini-meds and stores selling ‘fashion’ in the form of Italian shoes or light-wood furniture. (more…)

PW Botha was defeated, Thatcher lives on

16 April, 2013    (in Le Monde Diplomatique)

Photo: Popperphoto / Getty Images
Photo: Popperphoto / Getty Images

Street parties thumped in Brixton and Edinburgh the night she died. Hundreds gathered.  Anarchists, Old Labour, miners, students. People carried signs, saying “Gotcha” and “Rot in Hell”. A riot was planned at Trafalgar Square during the funeral. There was a campaign to get Judy Garland’s song “Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead” to number one on the UK pop charts (It narrowly missed, placed at number two).

I don’t get the joy in celebrating the death of the witch. The air of victory is puzzling.  Granted, I did not live with her overbitten monologues on telly as PM every night. Nor did I have a dad turfed out of work by a pit closure or have her wrongly blame supporters of my soccer team for their own death. But the look-at-me-whooping from comrades in England at the passing of their erstwhile nemesis, Margaret Thatcher, sounds tinny to my ear.

The Social Movement Hustle

Originally published in New Frank Talk 13, March 2013


PrintOn 8 January 2013, Harvard International Review published an article by Heinrich Böhmke, the Social Movement Hustle, on its online journal.  Within hours, John Comaroff, a Harvard Professor of Anthropology mailed the editor opposing the publication.  The article was removed within a day.  The correspondence below, between Böhmke, Comaroff, editors of the Review and even Harvard’s security department makes for a fascinating study in censorship and a lively expose of academic hypocrisy.  

  1. Download that edition of New Frank Talk 13 (NFT 13 cover image)
  2. Correspondence between Prof John Comaroff and Heinrich Böhmke
  3. Correspondence between Harvard International Review and Heinrich Böhmke
  4. The Social Movement Hustle
  5. Introduction – Athi Mongezeleli Joja and Andile Mngxitama
  6. Abahlali base Mjondolo Press Statement regarding Mzonke Poni