July 15, 2011 10:06 pm

Battle for London’s African heart

The Africa Centre in Covent Garden was, according to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a ‘home from home’ for a generation involved in the struggle for liberation. Can high-profile campaigners stop the building’s sale and restore it as a symbol of 21st-century Africa?

If you wished to savour the full extent of black culture in London today, you might head east to Dalston to eat Ghanaian kenke, south to Brixton market to fill your fridge with ingredients for an egusi sauce, then north again to Walthamstow for a dose of fire and brimstone at a Nigerian church that boasts the single largest congregation in London. Or you might sink a quick Primus beer in Tottenham at the Congolese dive Papa Mapasa, before heading south to hear visiting African politicians at the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House. With luck, you might catch an African band performing at the Barbican, in the City, before close of play.

You would, in short, have to spend a lot of hours on the Tube or bus. Nowhere in the former capital of empire, home to more than a million Africans or people of African descent, is there a central venue showcasing the creative strides that contemporary Africa and diaspora Africans are making in business, literature and the arts. Nor is there an obvious meeting place where Ethiopians can rub shoulders with Zimbabweans, or black artists and activists mix with black bankers and lawyers. Africa in 21st-century London is as scattered as your day would be trying to locate its many parts.

For generations of people from – or engaged with – Africa, things were once different. From its opening by Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s first president, in 1964, until the turn of the century, the Africa Centre at 38 King Street, Covent Garden, was a place where anyone could eat, drink, dance, read and talk all things Africa under one (increasingly leaky) roof.

Leading African politicians, heads of state, writers, musicians and artists were regular visitors to the centre, as well as thousands of punters black and white alike. It was a rare venue where races mixed in the 1960s, where Marxists eyeballed capitalists at the height of the cold war and where all could celebrate black music and culture at its cutting edge.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu described it as a “home from home” for a generation of Africans who cut their teeth in the turbulent era of liberation struggles. As Farai Sevenzo, a Zimbabwean filmmaker puts it, the centre is a place where “the great milestones of our short history, as well as the political upheavals our continent has faced since independence, have been debated”.

But the building has also been beset by controversies. The latest of these has put its very existence at risk. Earlier this year, news leaked from a whistleblower trustee that fellow members of the charity board entrusted with the centre’s upkeep and ethos were secretly planning to sell the building to Capco, a property developer with South African family roots. Capco, which declined to comment on any such plans, has transformed Covent Garden into a hub for high-end retail outlets and restaurants and has long had 38 King Street in its sights, according to trustees.

A small group from within the board handled the negotiations, in confidence at the developer’s request and without consultation. The board is self-appointed by invitation and, since the membership list lapsed, effectively unaccountable to anyone but itself.

The Africa Centre has been in decline for years; it is no longer the place people go to celebrate African culture. Yet news of the building’s proposed sale provoked outrage among those for whom it remained a kind of symbol of Africa in the wider world.

Chipo Chung, a social activist and actress of Zimbabwean origin, whose mother’s university education in the 1960s was financed by a trust housed at the Africa Centre, is among those who have led a campaign to save the site, organising a petition that has gathered about 3,000 signatures (including mine before I began to research this article). More strikingly, it has helped galvanise a consortium of African business luminaries, architects, musicians and continental leaders into a last-minute rescue mission.

Those lending their support include Tutu, Jean Ping, chairman of the commission of the African Union, Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese philanthropist and telecoms billionaire, Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian Nobel literature laureate and Youssou N’Dour, the Senegalese singer. But at the core of the effort is a team led by David Adjaye, the Ghanaian British architect, Hadeel Ibrahim, Mo Ibrahim’s British-born daughter, and another Ghanaian Brit, Ekow Eshun, cultural commentator and former director of London’s Institute of Contemporary Art. The campaign is as much about a younger, diaspora generation appreciation of the building’s potential (and belief that moving the Africa Centre from King Street would be tantamount to moving Parliament out of Westminster) as it is about the nostalgia of older members of the African community for the building’s past.

David Adjaye

Architect David Adjaye

“For too long Africa’s assets – land, commodities and even people – have been sold to others who value them more highly,” says Hadeel Ibrahim. “Previous generations have failed to safeguard the future of this African landmark. Now is the moment for us to come together to create something more representative of Africa this century: young, dynamic and better-governed.”

The board of trustees, together with 14 recently appointed new members, voted almost unanimously to endorse the sale last month at an extraordinary general meeting called as a result of pressure from the campaign. But they have granted a stay of execution, apparently realising that it would be a public relations disaster to dismiss the moral authority of Tutu, and the credentials of Ibrahim and Adjaye, who believe the building can be saved. The rescue team was given six weeks to raise millions of pounds to rehabilitate the building and to provide a plan that would solve the centre’s chronic financing problems.

For Chung, success is essential, not only to save a piece of the African community’s London heritage but to demonstrate how African leadership can work. “We can either present our community as poor and helpless and unable to make things work,” she says. “Or we can prove that we have gained the social capital and vision for what Africa could be in the next century.”

It is not the first time 38 King Street has been held up as something of a mirror to Africa’s fortunes. The building began life in the 18th century as a banana warehouse – where, folklore has it, slaves were sold. It later became an auction house and, among other things, sold Benin bronzes from Nigeria. It was bought by the Catholic Church and, in 1962, gifted to the African community in its broadest sense. The idea was to provide a social, political and cultural platform at the heart of London for Africans and people interested in the continent during a period of tumultuous change. When it opened, the nearby piazza in Covent Garden was still a vegetable market, its environs a scruffy home to artisans, second-hand clothes stores and family-owned cafés. There wasn’t a Burberry bag in sight.

Over the years, the centre shed its Catholic skin to become a hotbed of liberation movements and anti-apartheid intrigue. In the 1980s and early 1990s it is best remembered as a venue where Jazzie B of Soul II Soul held club sessions on Sundays and where break-dancers scaled the walls.

It remained a place where you could buy any contemporary book in English on Africa. You could then read it at the Calabash restaurant, having chosen from a pan-African menu, and discuss it later at the basement bar, dubbed “Soweto”, which made up for dingy décor with raucous atmospherics and political debate.

By the turn of the millennium, however, the centre was becoming a shabby anachronism in deep financial trouble. In increasingly smart surroundings, it was more a reflection of Africa’s decline than of the continental revival under way.

As Westminster Council closed down sections, enforcing health and safety regulations, the centre’s income from events, rent and sales dwindled and the management borrowed to pay the staff. It was virtually bankrupt when, in 2006, the Arts Council – in the role of a cultural International Monetary Fund – earmarked £3m in loans and grants.

Before releasing the funds, the Arts Council insisted on a change of direction and imposed conditions akin to the belt-tightening enforced on indebted African countries by multilateral lenders. Staff were laid off, debts paid and the finances gradually sanitised. Today, there has been a significant turnround; the centre has roughly half a million sterling in the bank and runs at a negligible loss each month.

It was a place where you could buy any contemporary book in English on Africa then discuss it in a bar dubbed ‘Soweto’

Still, it is a shadow of its former self. Refurbishment of some front upper floors has allowed the charity to draw rent from NGOs, a shop and consultancies. But the core auction hall and rear of the building continue to decay. The glass lectern roof, which once beamed light down past an elegant mezzanine floor, has long been boarded up. In a warren of back rooms, valuable art works collect dust, archives lie jumbled in boxes and mould is spreading across the walls. There is one employee running a skeleton programme of events.

By the time Capco approached the trustees with a £10.5m offer, many were already convinced that the only way to save the charity was to sell the building. They were frustrated that an ambitious plan to revitalise it (costed at £10m- £12m) never got off the ground. (It was completed just as world markets tumbled in 2008.)

They had concluded that the building was, according to chairman Oliver Tunde Andrews, a Lagos-based banker, “not fit for purpose”. And it would be prohibitively expensive to make it so because of its Grade II listed status. With the proceeds of a sale they would buy a more manageable space, and create an endowment fund with the difference – perhaps £5m. With this, Andrews tells me, they would place the centre on a sound financial footing for the first time and relaunch with a programme of events relevant to a new generation of Africans in the UK.

Graeme Jennings, a consultant brought in by the Arts Council to run the centre, elaborates. He explains that the putative new venue, also in central London, would be smaller, big enough to host a book launch or corporate seminar, but not a ­concert or a club. There would be an ­information centre but not necessarily a bar or café. The focus would be on using the endowment to leverage further financing, to bring African talent to London and to host events at bigger, world-class venues around the city. The demise of 38 King Street is “tragic”, he tells me, but he fears that if the Africa Centre stayed there the building would bring down the organisation again.

Where Andrews and pro-sale board members see dry rot, wet rot, asbestos and prohibitive bills, others who visit 38 King Street see great potential. For them the building is a priceless asset that, with the right vision and support, could be dragged into the 21st century to showcase Africa and Africans again, to fulfil, as they see it, the centre’s proper purpose.

As Adjaye puts it: “The centre has the history and it would be a shame not to reinvent it for another generation. It has lasted through the most difficult times. Now there is an affluent African class that can support it. This is the moment we should be galvanising that support, not giving up.”

Broadly, what Adjaye and others will propose is the complete refurbishment of the building. The ground floor and central venue would remain a public space for cultural events, the restaurant and bar would be restored and possibly given to a high-end franchise such as Momo, which has expressed interest in the past. The top floors would become a private members’ club, income from which would – together with the restaurant and bar – subsidise the rest.

Ekow Eshun, who is working out the programming side to the rescue plan, points to the success of the Double Club, a temporary nightclub-restaurant with a Congolese theme that enjoyed success in Islington a couple of years ago: “This is a hard-nosed proposition, one that is not just about holding on to the legacy of the building.”

Jazzie B, who breathed new cultural life into the centre in the 1980s, believes a turnround is in sight: “This is the generation that can do it,” he told me. “In such a short time all these people have come together – they know how to run a business and they have a clear vision of what the centre’s about.”

For the plan to work, however, the board of trustees must agree to shelve their own ambitions – something they have exhibited little inclination to do so far. Various trustees I spoke to dismissed the many offers of advice and assistance they have received including the most recent. The Ibrahims are “unreliable”, I was told. Adjaye, Britain’s most distinguished black architect, “offered a poor submission in the past”. And, Desmond Tutu is not in possession of the facts. He has been “manipulated” into backing the campaign.

There’s the rub. Before anyone sensible puts their money into the building, whether in the form of loans or grants, they will first need to persuade the board to put the sale on hold. And then they will almost certainly want to gain control of the board and change the governance structures. These have been described by Andy Gregg, an expert in charitable foundations, as “blatantly oligarchic”.

“If the centre is an anachronism in its current state then so is the way it is run,” agrees Chipo Chung. Unless that changes too, it is likely that to experience anything comparable to what 38 King Street once offered, you will continue to spend long hours on the Tube.

William Wallis is the FT’s Africa editor

Related Topics

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

LIFE AND ARTS ON TWITTER

More FT Twitter accounts
SHARE THIS QUOTE