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The White Man's Legacy : THE BLACK MAN'S BURDEN: Africa and the Curse of the Nation State, By Basil Davidson (Times Books: $24; 355 pp.)

June 28, 1992|Christopher Hope | Hope is a journalist and novelist whose most recent novel, "White Boy Running" (Farrar Straus & Giroux), satirized his homeland of South Africa

It is notable that Europe, at the end of the 20th Century, is again full of 19th-Century nationalists. From this fact, African scholar Basil Davidson draws instructive and alarming parallels, for nationalism has been the great engine of change in Africa. It has also proved a calamity, from the Cape to Cairo.

"The Black Man's Burden" is a scholarly yet passionate and provocative examination of this paradox. It is also essential reading for anyone interested in the burgeoning, murderous national movements, not only in Africa but also in eastern and central Europe, which, if they are not dealt with, may very well deal with us.

From the giant African state of Zaire, with its feverish pillaging of state coffers by its piratical leader Mobutu Sese Seko (once described as a safe-deposit box in a fur hat) to the long, lethal rule of white Afrikaner nationalists in South Africa (the men who invented apartheid), nationalism has been the political religion of modern Africa.

The great imperial powers that plundered the African continent for slaves, and later divided Africa between them, left behind a good deal of political baggage. Its burden has been breaking backs and heads and hearts ever since. For Africans to be free, went the received wisdom of the Western empire- builders, they should form themselves into nation-states on the European model. There were to be armies, anthems, customs posts. There was to be a rash of new currencies (minted abroad). There were to be flags for everyone. At its best, the model was the romantic nationalism of Garibaldi, maker of modern Italy. At its worst, it was a mirror image of the murderous European tribalism which led, says Davidson, to Hitler and the Holocaust.

The birth of nation-states throughout the African continent, after the withdrawal of the imperial powers in the middle of this century, may be traced to an unlikely source. Slavery was to become the mother of nationalism. Britain banned the slave trade in the early years of the 19th Century and mounted a naval blockade against the slave ships. British brigantines plied the waters off the west coast of Africa. Slave ships were boarded and their prisoners returned to the mainland. Captured twice over, first by slavers and then by their liberators, these prisoners became known as "recaptives." Some were settled in places like Freedom in Sierra Leone. Liberated slaves returning from the United States settled in Liberia, the American black state founded on the principles of enlightened liberty.

It was these "recaptives," says Davidson, African to their marrow but now settled far from the homes where the slavers had seized them, who were to form a bridge between African yearnings for freedom and the seductive European ideas of a "proper" national identity. "In the tragic melodrama of post-colonial Africa," writes Davidson, "they were to portray the missing prince of Denmark."

These new dissenters, who saw themselves as first in the struggle for African independence, had inherited from their teachers a fatal toxin: Determined to lead their benighted brothers and sisters out of darkness into the light, they disparaged home-grown African politics, tribal roots, oral traditions, indigenous religion. The "recaptives" thus inspired the movement toward independence. But it was a Faustian bargain they struck. Western education was, they believed, the road to freedom. Yet as Davidson ruefully remarks: "Above the entrance to every school there was an invisible but always insistent directive to those who passed within the magic gate to the 'white man's world'--ABANDON AFRICA ALL WHO ENTER HERE."

Davidson's comparison of African "nation-statism" with the lethal nationalism newly emerged in the former federation of Yugoslavia is wonderfully apt. One thinks of Serbian aggression against Bosnia, and Davidson supplies an exact parallel by citing examples of the ethnic havoc familiar in Burundi between Tutsi and Hutu.

Yugoslavia is a country he knows well, and no disintegrating European state today provides more striking examples of nationalism run amok. Again, in the incapacity of the "new" Romania to accommodate its "old" Hungarian minority, he sees future strife as bitter as anything Africa has to offer. Something similar may lie in wait in the Serbian province of Kosovo, with its large Muslim Albanian minority.

Less convincing is Davidson's suggestion that had Africa not been ruled and ruined by colonizers and their black intellectual clones, it might have prospered as Japan has done. But the European powers, however baffled, saw Japan as existing in its own right. No such respect was accorded to Africa. It was a place to be fashioned according to Western images and superstitions, to be bought and sold. To a great extent it still is. Its maps were drawn by others, its destiny constructed abroad.

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