Absolute Beginners

Ambiguous Africa: Cultures in Collision

by Georges Balandier
Pantheon, 276 pp., $5.95

False Start in Africa

by René Dumont
Praeger, 320 pp., $7.00

Africa’s Search for Identity

by Victor C. Ferkiss
Braziller, 346 pp., $6.50

Here at last are English translations from the French of two of the most famous books on Africa published in recent years. Balandier is a sociologist, and his book is a very attractive, largely autobiographical by-product of his professional field notes. His investigations were pursued in Senegal and Guinea, Gabon and Congo Brazzaville, and among communities as various as the fishermen of the Atlantic beaches south of Dakar, the gold-washers and miners of the Upper Niger and its tributaries, the negrillo hunter-gatherers of the forests north of Stanley Pool, and the whitecollared intelligentsia of the Brazzaville suburbs. There are striking portraits of individuals, ranging from a pagan familyhead in the remotest depths of Guinea to the French doctor in Lambarene who ended his African career shooting at empty Perrier bottles balanced on the heads of his household servants.

English-speaking readers should bear in mind that Balandier’s experiences are between ten and twenty years old. The first French edition of Afrique ambigue was published in 1957. The travels on which it was based were undertaken from 1946 onwards. What Balandier was studying was the end of the colonial period in French Africa, not the beginnings of independence. The problems that mainly preoccupied him were those arising from the transformation of African societies by European rule. What he was chiefly questioning was “the civilizing mission of France,” about which he says “Certain material successes do not justify our inability to establish in Africa social relations and creative activities that surpass those we have destroyed by our domination.” While it was clearly abandoning its traditional institutions, it was no less clearly rejecting the Western models offered in their place. To Balandier this was the essential ambiguity. To him, the most typically ambiguous African of all was the independent religious leader, who on the one hand outdid the European missionary as a destroyer of traditional fetishes, and on the other hand spent his time denouncing the missionary and his doctrine as an imperialist manifestation.

AT THE TIME when they were made, Balandier’s observations had a dramatic relevance. The decision to decolonize had been taken, but the substance of power had not yet been transferred. This was the time when not only the colonial powers, but the whole of the Western world was infected by a euphoria about the experiment shortly to be made. At this time it was widely imagined that the transfer of power could be effected without crisis, that political leadership could pass into the hands of a westernized élite which could continue to draw on outside sources of administrative, military, managerial, and technical skills while indigenous sources were being further developed. The outside world knew only the élite, and it could not imagine the pressures to which it would be subject on the withdrawal of colonial power. Colonial administrators knew the back country, but were insulated by their power and privilege from sensing the real feelings of either the élite or the masses. Only the intimate, yet comparatively detached, fieldworker could see, as Balandier saw so clearly, that

if an agreement to fight white domination exists, this unanimity covers a multitude of differences as to the goals to be reached…Some want an accelerated advance, transforming the face of the Negro world; others dream of an Africa which would recover its former countenance. Some are trying to construct Negro nations within which particularisms would be abolished; others plan an ethnic majority that would re-establish inequalities that have been erased. Some foresee a collective action bringing greater prosperity to all; others imagine an assumption of power limited to a bourgeoisie which would reap the rewards with the responsibilities.

In 1962, five years after Balandier’s Afrique ambigue, came René Dumont’s L’Afrique noire est mal partie, now translated as False Start in Africa. By this time French-speaking black Africa had been self-governing for three or four years, and many of the ambiguities forecast by Balandier had become plain for all to see. However, Dumont, a distinguished agronomist of known left-wing and anti-colonialist sentiments, created a veritable sensation by declaring publicly that independence had got off on the wrong foot. He quoted peasants from Congo Brazzaville who had told him “Independence isn’t for us; it’s only for the city people,” and a Cameroonian politician who had said amid public applause in September 1961 that a return to French rule would receive the overwhelming support of the electorate. Colonial civil servants had traditionally seen themselves as the defenders of the peasantry against the townsmen. Dumont felt himself to be so too, but in a very different sense. To him the peasants of underdeveloped countries were “the true proletarians of modern times.” The colonial system had completely failed to break the vicious circle of low-yield agriculture, on unfertilized land, cultivated by underfed workers. Its schools had been devoted to the production of town-dwelling minor civil servants, who aspired only to succeed the Europeans in their luxurious villas, their large cars, and their air-conditioned offices. The principal industry of the new states, said Dumont, was administration. The fifteen governments of Frenchspeaking black Africa had a combined population smaller than that of France. Yet they had between them more than 150 ministers and several thousand members of parliament, each of whom earned in one-and-a-half months as much as a peasant could hope to earn in a working lifetime of thirty-six years. In 1961 the federal revenues of ex-British Nigeria amounted to 86 million pounds, of which no less than one million was spent on the salaries and allowances of eighty ministers.

So-called “African Socialism,” Dumont concluded, was a system just about as oppressive as that of France under Louis XVI, and it stood in need of a revolution at least as far-reaching as that of 1789. Of course in Africa such a revolution should be conducted by the peasants under the direction of left-wing agronomists. It would start by cutting back the salaries of bourgeois civil servants and eliminating the luxury imports on which those salaries were spent. It would proceed by a total reconstruction of the educational system, which would concentrate henceforward upon “farm schools” designed to produce “rural activists,” the most successful of whom would be promoted into the administration as sub-prefects. In all public employment technicians would be rewarded more highly than administrators. And the peasants, in whose interests all these reforms would be carried out, would themselves be subjected to wholly new degrees of discipline, including 50-60 days of unpaid work a year, and mass migrations from the overcrowded savannahs into collectivized plantations in the under-exploited forest regions. Industry, at least minor industry, would not be neglected in these agrotopias; and its development would require further mass conscription of surplus peasants from the over-crowded areas. Of course, on the technical level, Dumont talks a lot of sense. If the first consideration is that the animals should be healthy, the quickest way to achieve it is to plan their lives for them and see that they carry out instructions. But in these terms Dr. Vorster and his South African colleagues have a pretty good record of achievement too.

VICTOR FERKISS is a political scientist with Peace Corps experience, and his book, though written before the year of the military revolutions in Africa, is a good deal more up-to-date than those of Dumont and Balandier. It is in most respects a well-informed and level-headed piece of work, sensibly argued and easy to read. However, at a few points—and I am afraid that they are the key points for the author’s own thought and outlook—it seems to miss the main factors in the situation and to draw some very shallow conclusions.

Unlike Dumont, Ferkiss believes that most of Africa is treading the radical “Socialist” path rather than that of bourgeois traditionalism. He attributes this partly to the legacy of authoritarianism and economic planning bequeathed by the colonial powers, but mainly to a virulent racialism derived from the common experience of rule by outsiders of another color. He believes this racialism to be so fundamental that for a long time to come most Africans will instinctively oppose all Western initiatives, not only in Africa but in the world. He believes that the right course for the Western countries in the face of this attitude is to decrease rather than intensify their relations with Africa. They should aim to be correct and even helpful, but also cool. They should seek trust and respect, not love or gratitude. The United States, in particular, should disengage from many of its interests in black Africa and concentrate increasingly on the problem lands of the south, where Ferkiss believes that a deep impact could be made.

Personally, I think that this diagnosis is wrong in relation to black Africa, and wrong in relation to the south. Seeing that Ferkiss takes us through a lot of African history on his way to presentday problems, it seems to me strange that he has missed the supreme point, that pre-colonial Africa was divided into myriad societies, which colonialism in its brief day did all too little to consolidate into nations. Independent African governments were therefore faced first with a problem of control; and it was this, far more than racialism, which pushed them along the authoritarian path. Of course African leaders, even those with European wives, use xenophobia in their efforts at nation-building. Hence words like “imperialism” and “neo-colonialism,” in which even Peace Corps volunteers find themselves included. But the same leaders also use education, and the English and French languages, in the same cause; and they are prepared to allow large invasions of “imperialist” and “neo-colonialist” teachers into their schools and universities. While this is so, I think we need not worry too much about xenophobia.

ALSO, I think we must pause over Ferkiss’s easy suggestion that South Africa might prove, even under compelling American influence, a responsive agent for the regeneration of Africa on democratic and multi-racial lines. It is true that he wants the United States to go a long way to make its influence felt. He wants Washington actively to discourage investment in South Africa; to apply domestic Fair Employment Practices laws to the overseas operations of American firms; to forbid South African securities to be traded in the United States; and to apply the laws against the importation of goods produced by slave labor to products originating in South Africa. But is it realistic to suppose that “faced with a choice, not between resistance and national extinction, but between economic loss and inconvenience on the one hand and intrinsically minor—though cumulatively major—concessions on the other, South Africans might well choose to allow their economy and society to drift toward ‘creeping multi-racialism,’ since no one concession would seem insupportable?” In the light of South African history, I cannot think it is realistic.

Attractive as it undoubtedly sounds, I am afraid that I also class as wholly visionary Ferkiss’s picture of “a southern African community of nations, based on interracial co-operation, with a white capitalist element as its economic nucleus, politically dominated by black Africans who reject Negritude and traditionalism in all their forms and accept the idea of racial partnership in a modern technological society.” We heard all this before in 1953, when the British government was being persuaded to set up the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. That experiment failed because most of the people who believed in it lived outside Central Africa. The same would be a hundred times truer of South Africa. I am prepared to believe that great power intervention, if carried to the point of a nuclear count-down, could change the regime in South Africa. It could bring about a total capitulation of the white government, if that were the desired objective of the interveners. Or it could bring about a physical withdrawal of the white government, with all its defensive apparatus intact, within much narrower frontiers. What forceful intervention could not do, at least not without a prolonged period of outside, colonial government, is to bring about more harmonious relations between black and white within a single South African state. For history shows that deeply divided groups cannot share power unless they first heal their divisions. And that they must do for themselves.