The mass looting and damage to infrastructure in South Africa in the past two weeks has once again illustrated the fragile nature of emerging democracies in Africa. This emphasizes that the simplistic solutions advocated by many Western Agencies to our problems is not only inappropriate but also dangerous.
When my forefathers arrived in this country in the latter part of the 19th Century, they came from mainly Western Nations that had been through 2000 years of turbulence and war accompanied by religious revival and reformation that had created the modern Nation State with its democratic traditions and the rule of law. Was this easy? Was it achieved in a short period of time? The answer is no, why then should we expect the process to be any less problematic in Africa?
The country my ancestors invaded was barely out of the Stone Age; they had not yet invented the wheel. They could not read or write and pursued animistic forms of religion that involved witchcraft and demon possession. They found a country where a tribal group known as the Ndebele had occupied the south west and terrorized the whole region with annual raids to capture cattle and other forms of wealth. In the rest of the country they found tribes that varied from the Xhoi Xhoi and the Tonga to the remnants of the Munomatapa Kingdom who had been trading with the East for centuries and produced gold and other metals.
All they had to defend themselves from our guns and explosives were spears and clubs and they quickly succumbed and became our serfs. We then imposed our religions, our languages, our culture, our law and our economic systems. We stretched fences across the land and called it “freehold title”, we built railways and roads and established a Civil Service and the armed forces of “law and order”. We paid little attention to the established customs and norms of the indigenous people.
Was it any different in the United States, Canada or Australia? Not really, except in those “civilized countries” they either wiped out the indigenous populations or tried to totally destroy their identity. Is that not what the clamor of the tribal groups in Canada is all about? Is what the Canadians did up to 1996 any worse than what the Chinese are doing to the Uighur today? The Australians did the same to their indigenous population and are trying hard today to remedy matters with little success. The difference in Africa is that we, the colonizers were always a minority and when change came were overwhelmed by the majority, almost always with the help of the “Western States”.
What was wrong in Africa, almost without exception, is that we failed in our most basic responsibility as colonizers – that of preparing for the inevitable changing of the guard and leadership.
So when the tide of Empire turned in Europe and the cost of maintaining colonies in Africa became too great, the colonial powers fled. The Congo in 1962, the Portuguese territories in 1975. Leaving behind countries totally unprepared for self-government. Two University graduates in the Congo, a country the size of Brazil. A tiny educated minority in Angola and Mozambique with Marxist liberation movements that simply drove out the white Portuguese settlers leaving with everything they could lay their hands on. I remember visiting Beira in Mozambique and seeing buildings where the doors and windows had been removed by the departing Portuguese.
The newly Independent countries created by this chaotic and poorly managed process were not only stripped of productive assets, they were stripped of the experience and knowledge of the colonial administration. What might have been left was quickly destroyed by the new administrations seeking to establish themselves and taking advantage of the situation. Is it a surprise that the tribes and cultures of the indigenous peoples involved re-emerged once the colonial elements abandoned ship?
After a century of terror and genocidal tribal conflict in Zimbabwe in the 19th Century, the majority tribes set about smashing the tribally based opposition in Zimbabwe – again committing genocide, but this time under the watchful eyes of the NGO movements created by the international Community as a sort of institutional conscience agency.
The culture of the Chief, he who was the man in charge and conducted the affairs of State on the basis of a feudal King, was integrated with the new “democratic systems” created during the hurried transition. The new “strong men” of Africa emerged. They thought a Constitution was a nuisance – just a “piece of paper” created by the colonizers. The rule of law, was what they thought was important. Judges just another colonial imposition to be manipulated and controlled.
They saw the Central Bank as their bank, its ability to create money just another form of tribute. Their inherited economies, a little understood complex of competing interests that had to be curtailed and managed to serve the interests of the new elite. As for freehold title – that was swept away in country after country in the aftermath of Independence leaving behind hunger and land degradation that is creating deserts out of the fragile savannah plains of the continent.
Don’t criticize Jacob Zuma or Robert Mugabe, we created them, they are the outcome of the mess we left behind when we scurried back to the safety of our Western enclaves.
Those of us who have chosen to make Africa our home, have to deal with this shambles. We have no choice but to clean up the mess after the mass looting of our stores and factories. To restock and go on in faith that things will get better. Feel sorry for those at the center of the maelstrom – like Ramaposa and Mnangagwa. They have to manage this transition from the past to the future.
The demands we make on them are impossible. I listen to the voices of Civil Society in South Africa as they berate the Government for not solving youth unemployment and poverty as if they had unlimited resources. South Africa has over 60 million people, 5 per cent are taxpayers, the rest, tax consumers. We cannot print our way out of trouble, Mugabe tried, and it destroyed what was left of the pre Independence economy. We cannot borrow the resources needed unless we commit our people to the kind of organised slavery that characterizes the economies of the Far East and create systems that service the needs of the rest of the world.
So what is the way forward? In my view we have little choice but to ride this river the way you ride white water on the Zambezi River. Each of us needs a decent life jacket that will bring us to the surface each time we are sucked down. We need to keep our raft pointed downstream and manage the process. We need to recognise that the best approach for all of us in Africa is to steer the ship of State and to facilitate the efforts of everyone as we seek the common good.
Create the conditions for self-preservation and progress and you will find that we can make the next bend in the river. Beyond that is for another day, another generation. We are created by our past, the future is for us to create and that is what makes life so rewarding and fulfilling. Leaving the river for the safety of the river bank is simply not an option. Not for me anyway.