Mandonga theatrics and Tanzania’s soft power

Soft power is cultural power — the ability to influence without coercion. Joseph Nye, the American political scientist writing in the aftermath of the Cold War observed that the future of power lay in a nation’s cultural influence, its political values and foreign policy. The triumph of liberal democracy in what Francis Fukuyama declared as the End of History, made the US the sole superpower after the Cold War. Historians called it the unipolar moment. The US cultural values became the embodiment of its power. It was the era of the globalization of American values. Hard power such as military arsenal, economic and technological advancement oftentimes produce soft power.

The production of soft power is both implicit and explicit. Public diplomacy is now at the center of many nations foreign policy. The aim is to image and reimage their nations abroad. Emerging powers such as China, Turkey and South Korea and many others are tacitly using soft power bargaining in areas such as infrastructural diplomacy (China), religious diplomacy (Turkey), K drama and K pop (South Korea). While these countries have understood the power of soft power and the influence it wields internationally, Tanzania is yet to appreciate its potential as an exporter of culture.

Tanzania has historically pursued a traditional foreign policy which is state led. Recent changes in the early 2000s saw the addition of economic diplomacy as a key pillar in its diplomacy. But Tanzania’s biggest foreign policy potential lies in its cultural attraction. While touring the St. Paul’s Chapel in New York in 2019, a security officer saw my Tanzanian wrist band and immediately told me that he knows Diamond Platnumz. St. Paul’s Chapel, which sits directly across the street from the World Trade Center site, suffered no physical damage after the 911 attacks. Diamond Platnumz is the face of Tanzanian popular entertainment. In 2020, he made history as the first sub-Saharan music artist to get one billion views on YouTube — not a mean feat. Tanzania’s Bongo Flava music, a hip hop genre has become one of the country’s greatest exports.

Entertainment joints across the continent and far afield play Bongo Flava. Purely sang in Kiswahili, Tanzania’s national language, the music reverberates and universally entertains. In Kenyan popular public transport, the matatu, Bongo Flava music dominates the airwaves. Tanzania Gospel choirs are also very popular in Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, and DR Congo. During the nervy moments at the Kenya’s national election tallying center in Bomas, Mtakatifu Kizito choir from Tanzania entertained the guests. Tanzania’s film industry, as nascent and undeveloped as it was, became popular in the region before the sudden death of film superstar Steven Kanumba. The longevity of Tanzania’s ruling party CCM has also become an interesting subject in academic and social discourse in the region. The persona of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, the country’s first president and the ideas he espoused gained immense global recognition. Tanzania has modeled itself with a distinct cultural identity through the deliberate national building project of language homogeneity. The music, the film, the art, the culture is conceived and produced in Kiswahili. The aggregate of this is what British anthropologist Karin Barber calls popular arts and cultures — the product of everyday life.

It is therefore not surprising to see Karim Mandonga, a novice and inexperienced boxer gain popularity in Kenya and the region. Mandonga’s meteoric rise and popular international acclaim is an extension of Tanzania’s cultural attraction in the region. Mandonga, popularly known as Mtukazi gained massive publicity in Tanzania in 2022. His verbal antics before and after fights has become a source of entertainment. Mandonga biggest talent is not boxing but the gift of the tongue and boisterous bravado aimed at scaring off his opponents. The lyricisms and vocalization have become his brand and with it attracting media attention. After media hype in Tanzania, he announced that he was going to have an international fight in Kenya. In his promotion video, Mandonga wielded confidence and grace. He was clever not to begrudge Kenya as a country. He taunted his opponent Daniel Wanyonyi something that amused Kenyans who came to adore his excellent use of Swahili language.

Before the much-hyped event some contended that he had singlehandedly resurrected boxing in Kenya. The Mandonga-Wanyonyi duel was moved from being a curtain raiser to the main event of the day. Even the petty rivalry between Tanzania and Kenya was forgotten with Mandonga’s genial personality. Another Tanzanian, Pierre “Konki” Liquid, a self-proclaimed drunkard, gained similar media attention in 2019 to a point of being invited to Kenya for promotional activities.

It is high time that Tanzania maximizes on its unique cultural soft power and diplomacy to leverage its international standing as Mandonga has shown.

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Nico Minde

God Given | Faith | Hope | Love | Academic | Interested; International Relations | Politics and Culture | Tanzania | Foreign Policy | Music and Performance