Africa: The Hard Truth

In the newspapers and on television, the tide of bad news from Africa rises again. Once more, the tiny butcher-bird of Rwanda is pecking at the eyes of the dying elephant which is the Congo. Once more, concerned white reporters crouch by emaciated babies, as the camera zooms in on the victims of the ethnic cleansing, massacre, and starvation which are obliterating the people of Darfur.

We in the rich world have grown used to these images, and now we are hooked on them. It is almost as if we require them. Since the first European contact, Africa has been mined for its gold, its diamonds, its oil and cash crops, its slaves and its wildlife, its copper and its hardwood. Now the raw material most demanded is fuel for the stoves that keep our shock and compassion warm: AIDS, famine, Ebola, mass murder, war, and again war. The old Kenyan intellectual Ali Mazrui once said to Howard French: “Where Africa is concerned, there is a constant search for tragedy with a new face; it’s like, what else is new in genocide?”

It is better to be angry than to be sorry. But angry with whom? With the appalling political leaders that Africa so often (but not always) throws up? With the governments of Europe and America which so often can be seen to have helped those leaders into their palaces, overlooking their cruelty and corruption for the sake of strategic or economic advantage? With the vanished colonial regimes, which left to the Africa frontiers that remain an invitation to ethnic cleansing? With the social engineering that cemented loose ethnic groupings into fiercely nationalistic “tribes”? With the examples of vast inequality in land and wealth that led to instant corruption in political elites?

It has to be said, though, that sustained political anger is still rare in Africa. Years ago, a white radical working to subvert the apartheid regime in South Africa said to me: “The most disastrous trait of ordinary African people is their infinite capacity for forgiveness, their sheer inability to keep up resentment.” He gave a wry smile. He knew what a European remark that was, and he loved that very characteristic which was making his struggle harder. Much later, the common people of his country awed the world when they overthrew their oppressors and then asked them only for repentance. At that time, a black girl working in a Cape Town restaurant complained to me that the local police would not admit which of them had murdered her brother. “If I don’t know who he is,” she went on, “how can I forgive him?”

Howard French lived in an Africa whose wrongs are not ripe for absolution. He would like the rest of us to share his anger at what is happening in Africa and what is being done to it. And he is right, especially in the swathe of the continent he knows best, which is West Africa and the Congo basin. For …

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