Africa Centre politics: microcosm of failed democracy

The Africa Centre in London has been a refuge and cultural beacon for four decades. After a secret deal to sell the building was leaked, a campaign was launched to save the Centre reaching across Africa and the diaspora. Yet the people are not being heard, reflecting the failures of democracy in the continent itself
Chipo Chung
18 May 2011

The Africa Centre was founded in 1962. Its home, at 38 King Street, Covent Garden, London, was gifted to the African people in perpetuity by the Catholic Church. Over four decades the building has been a refuge, a meeting place and cultural beacon for the likes of Desmond Tutu, Kenneth Kaunda, Wole Soyinka and Walter Rodney, and an iconic landmark for Africans in Britain. In March 2011, news leaked that the Africa Centre’s Board of Trustees were engaged in a secret deal to sell a 125 year lease of 38 King Street to Capco, a property developer. A campaign to save it quickly emerged, demanding a public consultation with the community on the sale of the centre and garnering the active support of Desmond Tutu, Mo Ibrahim and Youssou N’Dour amongst others, together with over 1,000 petitioners. Thus far, the Board refuse to meet with the community and the sale of the iconic landmark is imminent.

For me, as for most Africans in Britain, as soon as I walked down the stairs into the Africa Centre I had that feeling I was home. The disgruntled woman behind the bar cracked open a Castle lager; in the corner the red-eyed drunkards spouting Marxist theory were a friendly fixture, like spiders on a wall or another piece of ratty furniture. Its bar could be in downtown Nairobi, a cosy shebeen tucked in a forgotten corner of Harare, Addis or Lagos. Its darkness hid the mucked up carpet, the same upholstery that graced the tired feet of Athol Fugard, Ben Okri, Desmond Tutu, after many an event in the legendary Auction Hall. For decades its restaurant, The Calabash, was the only place in London where you could have your choice of a Pan-African menu.

It was in that same building that Herbert Chitepo, one of the founding fathers of my home-country Zimbabwe, made his address on Rhodesian Independence, in 1966. In the heart of London, this is a place where African history resonates. Back then it was a necessary hub for many living in exile as their countries tore off the shackles of colonialism. In the eighties, Jazzie B’s Soul II Soul created a vibe that reached beyond Africans to embrace a wide-ranging community of music lovers. With the millions of Africans who have immigrated to Britain since, it isn’t hard to imagine what the Africa Centre could be for my generation.

Yet in 2006, the restaurant and bar closed and the Africa Centre went dark. Rumours were that this was for refurbishment and we waited with baited breath for the great unveiling. But Desmond Tutu’s recent plea in the Times begging for reconsideration of the sale of 38 King Street internationally exposed that the plan to renovate had been chucked in the bin and replaced with a muddled ‘get-rich-quick’ option. The Board responded with a slogan, “Programmes not property!” claiming the deal to sell would provide funding for programming in a new building. There was no consultation on the decision or a detailed plan of how any proceeds would be used.

Black British theatre companies like Talawa have bewailed the fact that they lack the leverage to own a building, but the Africa Centre’s Board is letting go of prime real estate in Covent Garden and a history which makes 38 King Street priceless. Of course we know buildings in themselves are not important, but what goes on inside them. Many of the great schools in Africa started under trees. It’s the stories told in the circle, the dancing, the laughter, and the rituals of meeting and eating that keep places alive: its people. Year after year, young Africans have approached the Africa Centre’s Board declaring the benefit they would like to contribute, yet the Board has failed to harness this goodwill and create the necessary social capital that would make 38 King Street a viable, vibrant and income-generating cultural centre because of its programmes.

We don’t mind that the building is a dive - what interests us is if there is a vibe. The recent pop-up Double Club in Islington, which celebrated Congolese culture while raising funds for charity, is a model of social enterprise, of ‘happenings’ that could take place. There are more Africans in London and people interested in Africa now than at any time in the past. They are not only refugees and exiles, but are contributing to British society through their work, taxes, talents and creativity. The trustees should realise the Africa Centre will not be saved by a fund that could be mismanaged by poor business acumen. What will save the Africa Centre are its members and beneficiaries in Britain working together across sectors and cultures, building brick by brick the social capital that makes a movement and a market. 

So far the petition, from workers, playwrights, artists, entrepreneurs, actors, has been stonewalled. The Board claims a legal right to sell its asset, ignoring the social contract between themselves and the community they serve. As a diasporan from the young republic of Zimbabwe, I avidly study the practice of democracy both at home and in the city in which I now live, London. The drama unravelling at the Africa Centre reveals a management ignoring the new leadership theories that create effective social change: that is, consulting stakeholders, listening to and working with intended beneficiaries. Not only has the campaign been ignored, but the request from the Africa Centre Members’ Association, calling for an Extraordinary General Meeting, has been unjustifiably denied. Without the Members’ Association, some of whom are past trustees, the charity’s governance structure provides no checks or balances; the trustees become a self-selecting board with no accountability. According to a constitution which has hardly been revised in fifty years, a quorum of only 3 out of 21 trustees listed on the Charity Commission files are required to agree sale of assets. If the Centre ran a successful programme, the issue of sale would be secondary to the social capital they had developed by fulfilling their remit. Unfortunately, because the Board has failed to prioritize programming, the building on King Street is the only asset they have.

For Africans like myself, who are not members of the Board but engaged and willing to contribute, it’s frustrating to see the opportunities that have been missed in the charity’s building.  It’s the same frustration I feel for citizens in countries where being a member of the ruling party is the only way to contribute to government. Although we, as Africans in the diaspora, have an emotional attachment to the building and its heritage – the site of ANC meetings; the first home of writers like Ben Okri; the gigging venue of Angelique Kidjo – and a vision of what it could be, we have been given no voice in the decision to sell. And we are meant to be the beneficiaries.

When the 38 King Street building goes, the ethos and philosophy of the Africa Centre will go with it. And on the torn roots of our history in Britain, an up-market high-street store will be built. This is the state of democracy in our little Africa, in the heart of Covent Garden.


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