After my frustrations with postcolonialism last week, I came across this interview with Thomas Sankara from June 1984, about a year after the coup which brought his revolutionary movement to power. The part which caught my attention was where Sankara talks about the need for a shift in mentality, to ‘decolonise’ attitudes.

On the international stage, Sankara’s public interventions were aimed at rejecting the subservient position of Africa established through debt and foreign aid. He emphasised self-reliance and building the economy internally. The reporter asks Sankara this question.

After all, a large power like France, the United States, or the Soviet Union. If they decide to withdraw a part of the aid they currently extend to you, they can place you in difficulty, grave interior difficulties.

Sankara replies.

But it’s true! This is the reason for which we are required to struggle against imperialism and its manifestations. Imperialism today, knows that it’s more important, it’s more useful to dominate us culturally, much more than militarily. Cultural domination is more flexible, less costly, more effective. And it’s for this reason we say that today, to overthrow the regime (in Burkina), it’s perhaps not necessary to bring heavily-armed mercenaries. It suffices only to prohibit the import of champagne, or lipstick, or I don’t know, nail polish. This will be enough to overthrow us, because the petit-bourgeoisie is convinced that it cannot live without such products. Eh well, we must work to decolonise the mentality. We work to recondition our people, to accept to live as they are, not to be ashamed of these realities. To content themselves with this, and even to glorify themselves of it. It’s good if others live like that, but it is normal that we live differently. We chose this, and we have not hesitated to tell other countries; for example the Soviet Union, from who we refused aid which was not, from our point of view, at the height of our attention. We explained ourselves, and I think we have understood ourselves.

I was wrong to dismiss the cultural or psychological aspect of coloniality. It is relevant. Nevertheless, the way he explains it is much less an individual choice, rather a social project, creating an environment in which the ideas of the revolution can take hold. Or, building a counter-hegemony. We can see a few things in that context: the renaming of the country, a new national anthem (composed by Sankara himself), a new flag, there’s a purpose behind all these things. If you read a bit more into it, I’d imagine Sankara was influenced by the theoretical ‘birth of the New Man (and woman)’ in Cuba.

There are loads of other little details in this film. For example the decision to close the nightclubs across the country. Sankara is aware that it looks very authoritarian and conservative, but he then goes on to explain how expensive the coca-cola is in the nightclubs, and these make the clubs exclusive to the bourgeoisie. Instead, the clubs are being replaced by ‘bals populaires’ - or popular balls, where the drinks are reasonably priced, and the entertainment is accessible to everyone.

bal populaire

He spends part of the interview talking about women’s liberation. This is a well-worn theme of the revolution in Burkina and Sankara is comfortable discussing it. There’s also a great moment where he resumes his call-repeat speech pattern with a crowd, shouting ‘bad husbands - down with them!

Overall it’s a rare insight into the practical realities of his radical austerity measures. He talks about cutting the salaries of government ministers, forcing them to fly second-class on international trips. When you read about them, these things are built around legends, such as the time he disbanded the government’s fleet of Mercedes cars and replaced them with boxy little Renault 5 autos.
Here’s one of those new government cars.

Renault R5

Here’s a government minister, wandering into a cabinet meeting with his assault rifle in hand.

Minister with AK

The docmentary also dedicates some time to the working processes of the popular tribunals. It shows a general being put on trial.
Here’s the judge.

judge in robes

And here’s the ‘maison du peuple’ (a sort of cultural centre/event venue) where the trial was held.

Maison du Peuple

We see that not only are these events public, and well-attended, they are also broadcast by radio around the country. The camera shows a man providing commentary for broadcast in local languages.