Cape Town - “The question I keep going back to, and which really gets to me, is this: What were the leaders of African countries thinking when they got their independence in the 1960s?
“They must have had such big dreams of what was possible in a post-colonial era. I think so often of all the people I got to know during apartheid who were involved with the anti-apartheid movement… What were they all hoping for when South Africa was finally liberated? And why has that dream been shattered? What kind of people have allowed this to happen?”
Professor Kole Omotoso speaks animatedly into the phone when asked what he makes of Africa – the continent he writes about – today. “Take Nigeria, for instance,” he says of the country of his youth. “It’s a country with incredible human and material resources, and see what has been done with it. Rather than crying, I do my best to place on record some of the issues that make these failures possible. I do that with a view to helping develop a new generation of leadership.”
We know him as the Yebo Gogo man alongside Michael de Pinna in Vodacom’s television advertising campaign flighted 20 years ago. Earlier this year, the duo joined forces in a revived campaign. “People still recognise me wherever I go in South Africa… even though I don’t have such a big beard these days. I will walk into a place and the person dealing with me will pause politely and say, ‘excuse me, are you the person in the cellphone advert?’ It happens often.”
Omotoso, who lives in Centurion, Gauteng, writes books and opinion columns and is a sought-after lecturer at universities around the world. “My latest book is a political biography of Olusegun Mimiko, the governor of Ondo state in Nigeria, who has made a huge difference to the lives of people through the programmes he runs. He is a medical doctor, committed to medical services, and has provided free hospital services for pregnant women. I admire him hugely.”
Omotoso writes columns in newspapers around the world, most notably his Trouble Travels in Nigeria column in the country’s Sunday Guardian. “I’ve been writing this column since January. I even did a piece called Trouble in South Africa. Mr Trouble is a Caribbean man devoted to Africa and determined to ensure only good happens to Africa and Africans. I started the column simply to be able to laugh a bit about some of the problems which face Nigeria and Africa in general. Trouble, my character, arrives basically to learn – but of course, also to point out absurdities. I really enjoy doing it.”
When we talk, Omotoso is writing a piece in which Mr Trouble is trying to prevent Corruption being granted Nigerian citizenship. “Imagine what would happen if Corruption became a Nigerian! I have just done a column on Trouble in Lesotho – I taught at the National University of Lesotho some years ago – and one called Trouble in Cairo. I was a post-graduate student at the American University in Cairo. I find it really interesting to see how the Muslim Brotherhood were kept out of power by the military and then got voted into power, but have no notion of sharing power. So, again, the military has taken over and we are effectively back to where we were in 1952. So we will have another 40 years of no development in Egypt. I have also written one called Trouble in Scotland – having studied in Edinburgh, I found the recent referendum there fascinating.”
Omotoso travels the world as a guest lecturer on subjects from humanity and technology to Nollywood and superstition. “The offers and invitations come in all the time: I have to read a great deal to keep up with literary, political and economic developments in the world, particularly in Africa.”
Omotoso was delighted when contacted by Vodacom to revive the Yebo Gogo advert. “I was in Nigeria when the people from Vodacom phoned me and said it had been 20 years since the adverts. They said they wanted to revisit the ads. So I returned to SA to do the shoot.”
De Pinna and Omotoso did the first Yebo Gogo ad in 1994 in a campaign that ran for years. Omotoso became one of the faces of the fast-arriving new South Africa.
In the new ad, De Pinna returns as the man in leopard print tights and Omotoso as the tin windmill salesman. They meet on a remote road amid a gruelling cycling race. An exhausted De Pinna pulls off for a refreshment break to find himself at a hawker’s shop. The woman running the stall demands payment and Omotoso comes to De Pinna’s rescue by lending him a cellphone.
“We filmed the ad in May and it was such fun. The people from the advertising agency were kids when we made the first ads. Michael and I are still friends and have remained so through the years. Making this advertisement has been a real coming back together.”
Omotoso was born in April 1943 into a Yoruba family in Akure, Ondo state, Nigeria. His father died when he was young, and he was brought up by his mother and grandparents. He attended King’s College, Lagos, and the University of Ibadan, completing a doctoral thesis on the Arabic writer Ahmad Ba Kathir at the University of Edinburgh. He grew up during the rise of nationalism in Nigeria, a theme reflected in his fiction. He lectured in Arabic studies in the 1970s at Ibadan before moving to the University of Ife from 1976 to 1988. In the 1970s he started writing for magazines and became known for his work on a range of topics, including the Biafran-Nigerian conflict, and relationships between the Yoruba and Igbo people.
In 1988 his novel Just Before Dawn was met with controversy and he left Nigeria for visiting professorships in English at the University of Stirling, National University of Lesotho and London’s Talawa Theatre Company. Between 1991 and 2000 he was a professor of English at the University of Western Cape, and lectured in the Drama department at Stellenbosch University. His fiction includes The Edifice (1971), Fela’s Choice (1974), To Borrow a Wandering Leaf (1978) and Memories of Our Recent Boom (1982). He also writes non-fiction.
Although based in South Africa, Omotoso visits Nigeria regularly. “It is a real tax on the senses. It is so good to be back in a country where you don’t have as much hassles to deal with on a very basic everyday existence – like roads, lack of electricity, and running water. It’s good to be back,” he said.
Nigeria has been crippled by corruption. “Take the steel industry for example. The government awarded a contract to a company to build steel factories in 1979. When it was 90 percent completed, it was abandoned, then re-awarded to the same company for another amount of money, and then abandoned again. When each government comes in, they award the same project. Nigeria is a country that talks about industrialisation but hasn’t produced a nail. There are no municipal services, so every house is a local government on its own. In Nigeria you could not ask to see a domestic municipal bill… there is nothing like that. So you walk down the street, and you will see and hear one generator plant after the other, from house to house. The noise is unbearable.
“There is also no meaningful provision of electricity or water. Everybody has their own generator or water supply. So that is why my character Trouble goes right to the president and tells him that although the president is in power, Corruption is in control. Corruption is the decisionmaker.”
Omotoso had a warning for South Africa: “We might get to a point where the ANC is in power but corruption is the decisionmaker.”
Is South Africa heading towards being crippled by corruption? “Yes, I think so, and it’s happening fast. Take the arms deal… It’s a case of those in power going out and buying something the country does not need because of a huge kickback. What was the deciding factor in going for that deal? Was it security needs or corruption? You can reduce the arms deal down to what is happening on a local government level, where projects become ‘ATMs’ for governments in power as they keep awarding contracts at inflated costs to society.
“What is particularly disturbing is the way people accept corruption in South Africa.
“They have not experienced living in a country that’s been brought to its knees by corruption, where corruption is in power. Nigeria has reached that point. We in SA have not.”