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Of course Hermione Granger is black – she always has been

Growing up, I never thought that Hermione could be any colour other than black.

Of course Hermione Granger’s black.

Forget being surprised that Noma Dumezweni, who will play Granger in the forthcoming play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, is black – I still haven’t got over the fact that Emma Watson, who played Granger in the films, is white.

Granger – unlike Harry Potter himself, or Ron Weasley, his best friend and Granger’s love interest  - is never given a skin colour in the books: she has brown eyes, frizzy hair and I, at least, always imagined her as black, partly because, when she wows her fellow pupils at the Yule Ball in Goblet of Fire, she straightens her hair, which was, almost without exception, how in my part of East London, everyone’s older sister prepared for a night out.

So I was horrified a year later when Watson – exceptionally white, no frizzy hair, and without Granger’s prominent teeth – was cast in the role. How could Hermione be white?

But I think my horror wasn’t because I’d paid closer attention to what the characters looked like than the casting director of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, although I undoubtedly had, or because I felt a black female character had been erased from the story.

I think it was far more egotistical than that. As a child, I had brown eyes, frizzy hair, an overbite large enough for smaller children to shelter under during periods of heavy rain, was brighter than most of my classmates and was often obnoxious with it. I thought Hermione was black because she was the character I most closely identified with – I didn’t identify with her because I thought she was black.

My suspicion is that while among most Harry Potter readers there are plenty of people who identify with Harry, some with Ron, others with Fred and/or George, most of the diehard fans see themselves as a Hermione-type (this is why, although Harry Potter fans might worry about the longterm stability of the Harry/Ginny marriage, it doesn’t arouse strong feelings in the manner that the question of whether Hermionie should settle down with Harry, Ron, Draco, Snape, or if she should just go it alone and become Minister for Magic, already).

So my instinct is that – while some of the caterwauling about political correctness gone mad, and tokenism is undoubtedly racist – some of the surprise is that same sense of an unexpected difference between the series’ fans, and the character they see as closest to them.   

Now listen to the NS team discuss the Harry Potter series in our Harry Potter special.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?