Beggars’ banquet symbolized by new headquarters of African Union. By Richard Poplak


Beggars’ banquet symbolized by new headquarters of African Union.
By Richard Poplak.

Special to,  the USAfrica-powered e-groups of  Nigeria360,  UNNalumni,  and CLASSmagazine Houston.

When one walks into the new building of a major institution, be it a bank or a government office or a multi-lateral body, one parses the structure for a narrative. Very often, the architect will have that narrative at the ready, brandishing it in interviews, in dry PBS documentaries or on a website created by a Swiss think tank.


The building will be loaded with symbols, its form reflected by its function. In an era of star-chitects like Frank Gehry and Daniel Liebeskind, this can all feel like a little much. Shut up and build, we think.
How refreshing it is, then, to go for a stroll around the new African Union headquarters in dusty Addis Ababa. Here is a structure in which form perfectly marries function – the building means nothing, and nothing will ever get done inside it.

Or, looked at from another perspective, the building doesn’t need to symbolize anything further than its existence, wherein it becomes a staggeringly articulate representation of Africa’s greatest skill: begging.
Yup, the new African Union headquarters are a 52,000 sq. meter ode to the art of the ask.

The first thing we notice is the tiled silver dome that acts as the building’s centerpiece. This reminds us of nothing so much as an overturned beggar’s bowl, left in the street after a solid day of mewling at the feet of passers by. The dome reaches the height of 99.9m, which is a reference to the great day in multilateralism’s history, when the OAU dropped a letter and became the AU. One gets misty-eyed just thinking about it.

Then there’s the tower. Stretching up 20 storeys to tickle God’s chin, what does it resemble? A beggar’s outstretched hand – the über-beggar who’s such an adept that his entreaties reach heaven.
Or, in this case, China.

The building is, of course, the result of a massive Chinese handout, to the tune of about $200-million – but really, who knows how much it cost? (One does not get straight answers from this bunch.) On inauguration day, we heard how thankful Africans are for this largesse, along with all the technical skills and materials and engineers and expertise that were similarly imported. The continent that brought you the pyramids and Great Zimbabwe is now reduced to begging for help to erect a complex that would be routine anywhere in the mildly developed world.

All of that help came from China. Even the furniture. Chairman Jean Ping told us yesterday that although chairs and desks were not included in the original provision, they were later added so that the complex would be “functional immediately”. The Chinese know us well – had they not given us what to sit on, we would have sat on the floor. We’ve fallen so far that we can’t even go to Game and stock up on some trimmings. The credit card would bounce.

The idea for the compound took shape at the Forum on Africa China Cooperation, or Focac, in 2006. Chinese president Hu Jintao loved the concept so much that he decided to “donate” the building, and “assist” in its design and construction. The land was offered up by the government of Ethiopia, along with tax exemptions on all the materials imported from China, and a willingness to look the other way when it came to hiring locals to help out with all the “assistance”.
Work started in January 2009, and it was completed late last year. The building now replaces the old headquarters, 40 years in the making, completed by the Germans and inaugurated in 2003 by South Africa’s own Thabo Mbeki. That space, in which less than nothing got done, could use a lick of paint. It’s crowded and grubby and very 1987. We needed a new one. All we had to do was ask.
Mission accomplished.

One thing that must be said about the new spot – it’s shiny. It looks like something you’d find in one of China’s second cities, like Chongqing. It is simultaneously flashy and banal, easy to notice and even easier to ignore. There are strange decisions – an outdoor amphitheatre that suggests openness even though we know there won’t be any. Doors that feel a little shaky on their hinges. A helipad, in case any of our martinets should have to suffer through Addis’s traffic. A large outdoor screen emblazoned with the Xinhua news service logo.
None of this could we have achieved by ourselves. Instead, in order to raise this fine structure – this symbol of continental unity – from the bare African earth, we used the one skill that unites us all. We stretched out our collective hands, batted our eyelashes, looked simultaneously cute and hungry.
And we begged.
•Richard, reporter and novelist, is the author of the highly acclaimed book titled Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa (Penguin, 2007). He was born in Johannesburg, South Africa and moved to Canada in the 1990s. He has won South Africa’s Media-24 Best Feature Writing Award.


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  1. Luckily we don't need the diaspora, including the white South Africans such as Richard, to return. We've got the Chinese. We can roll up our sleeves til we're blue in the face, but without any interested leadership working towards anything is akin to farting in the wind. We're going to spend the next 20 or so years bending over while the Chinese or whoever comes after them have their way with us. Defending our turf has never been a strong point and there's no reason to believe that will change in the foreseeable future. But thanks, anyway, Richard, for pointing it out.

    1. The good news is…farting in the wind is better than doing it in a closed room.

      We're always shouting 'Leader leader'…we have a responsibility as followers too. How many of us stand up and do something about what's irking us, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem?

      We are the masters of sweeping it under the carpet while we wait for a change of guard. There are never any consequences for all the wrongs and so why should our so-called leaders feel culpable?

      I think we need to stop passing the buck so the Chinese et al can stop exploiting the buck-passing.

  2. While I take Richard's point, I can't help but think he might be one of those bitter white South Africans who had a magic carpet yanked from beneath them, relegating them to the lowly position of mere mortal, upon which they took flight to countries where at least they would not be despised for the colour of their skin, from whence they now pontificate about how awful things are and what Africa could do better.

    This goes for all Africans sitting pretty in the diaspora, black, white, or purple with pink polkadots:

    Shaddap and get your behinds back here and help with clearing up the mess and building the future, or who do you think is going to do it for us? If you want to see a better Africa, then come and participate in creating one. Surely you're not waiting for us to do it for you before you decide to grace us with your return?

    What we need is less sourpuss mouthpieces and more sleeve-rolling visionaries on the continent. As long as all Richard does is bleat about the state of things, he cannot expect anything to change. So dear diasporan African sisters and brothers, come home and muck in, or stay away (for good) and shut up!

    1. It was funny tho! Heh “cute n hungry” hahahaha

    2. I wondewr which home you talking about. Home infested by torturers and looters, that is exactly what africa is today to me. Open your eyes man, look at the country where the AU head quarer is. How meny people are being inprisoned and tortured just for criticising the regimes policies, how meny are forced in to exile.
      I think you must be a direct benificier of this absolute corrupt regimes run by mass murderers. Good luck with your clearing up the mess, no doubt there will be much more mess to clear up for you.

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