Populist advances 'African solutions'

March 28, 1994|By Antero Pietila | Antero Pietila,Sun Staff Writer

Africa has become the great passion of Basil Davidson.

It is somewhat surprising. Mr. Davidson did not rise to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the British army as a colonial swashbuckler but as a World War II handler of guerrillas in Yugoslavia and Northern Italy.

He first took up the study of Africa in 1950. In nearly two dozen books since, he has become a leading popularizer of that continent's history. Because he is often a revisionist, he is one of the few European historians popular in Africa.

This collection of essays covers such varied topics as the historic development of Pan-Africanism, Africa and the invention racism, roots of the anti-apartheid movement, the ambiguities of nationalism and rescuing African history.

It comes at an opportune moment: South Africa is about to have elections and a new government dominated by the African National Congress, the continent's oldest surviving liberation movement. This is a time when a clearer understanding of Africa's complexities is needed.

The study of Africa is hampered by the absence of written records on which much conventional historical research is based. Since the earliest written records -- after Egyptian, Roman and Greek sources -- appear in the eighth century, after Islamic literature traversed the Sahara, Mr. Davidson uses archaeology and tradition in charting the development of African societies.

He finds the Muslim state of Andalusia, which existed in what today is southern Spain, a particularly rewarding source. He argues that Andalusia was essentially an African kingdom. Since it kept copious written records of contacts with other kingdoms in Africa, some of the earliest mentions of Ghana, for example, come from Andalusian sources.

The European view of Africa as a continent of savages was a relatively late development. Mr. Davidson writes that the first European explorers in the 16th century "believed they had found forms of civilization which were often comparable with their own, however differently and variously dressed and mannered."

When Europe became increasingly interested in Africa economically -- first because of slave trade and then as a colonizer -- politicians had a reason to justify their actions and portray the continent as consisting of nothing but jungles and untamed savages.

By 1830, as the great power scramble for colonies was about to begin, the German philosopher Hegel expressed the Zeitgeist: "Africa is no historical part of the world, having no movement or development to exhibit, and still involved in the condition of mere nature."

Pan-Africanism developed as an antidote to such thinking through a series of conferences between 1900 and 1945. A passage written by W. E. B. Du Bois became its theme: "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line, the question of how far differences of race . . . will hereafter be made the basis of denying to over half the world the right of sharing to their utmost ability the opportunities and privileges of modern civilization."

While the Pan-Africanist movement provided the ideological framework for such fighters as Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah and Kenya's Jomo Kenyatta, the road to independence took decades.

Meanwhile, colonial powers -- aided by European-educated local elites -- replaced traditional societies with political and economic models that proved ill-suited for Africa, Mr. Davidson wrote in his 1992 book, "The Black Man's Burden." That explains many of the continent's current difficulties, he argued, advocating "African solutions."

The problem is that a snappy slogan like "African solution" produces a relatively empty argument.

Certainly such modern leaders as Tanzania's Julius Nyerere and Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda thought they were advancing their countries through indigenous policies. Instead, they wrecked the former colonies through disastrous one-party control and economic centralization under the guise of "African socialism."

Similarly, it is quite silly to think that the men and women about to take over South Africa, whether educated locally or in the universities of the West or the East, might miraculously produce an "African solution."

The transition to come in South Africa offers the African National Congress an opportunity to right the political and economic wrongs of the past. It has the choice of succumbing to the dogmatic temptations of untried utopianism or to proceed through the trials and errors of gradual and considered transformation.

The choice will not be easy. But, then, Africa's choices have never been easy, whether dictated by outsiders or by indigenous rulers.

Mr. Pietila is an editorial writer for The Sun and the paper's former correspondent in Africa.


Title: "The Search for Africa"

Author: Basil Davidson

Publisher: Random House

Length, price: 373 pages, $25

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