Africa's Last Chance

May 06, 1994|By JONATHAN POWER

LONDON — It would be quite wrong to be cynical about Africa, even though, politically and economically, it has had one failure after another, and South Africa, say the old hands, has all the makings of another.

No people on earth are more prone to optimism, to making light out of life at its darkest, to offering the other cheek to any of the hardships that war, drought, poverty, discrimination or dictatorship can bring.

This is the remarkable attribute of the African peoples as I've observed them, both living in Africa and reporting on its affairs the last three and a half decades.

Yet I, too, cannot help worrying that President-elect Nelson Mandela may fail, as nearly all his predecessors and contemporaries in black Africa have done after taking power from white rule.

It's not that Mr. Mandela shows any of the signs of megalomania or paranoia that made such heroes of the independence struggle as Ahmed Sekou Toure, Kwame Nkrumah, Hastings Banda and Milton Obote become murderous tyrants.

Quite the contrary. This is a self-disciplined, even self-deprecating, leader who perceives that as South Africa came to this election by a hard-won consensus, so it must preserve consensus if it is to progress and prosper.

A somewhat similar modesty and sense of fair play adorned Julius Nyerere, who led Tanzania less as politician and more as the teacher he was before he entered politics. No vanity touched his personality. Abrasiveness was not his way. Tanzania's many ethnicities hardly came to tribal fist fights, much less killings or pogroms.

But Nyerere's Christian socialism was also his undoing. His ideal was ujamaa, an African village where the virtues of co-operation and self-help were amplified into a collective economic endeavor with communal fields and shared rewards.

But only a few of the farming people in Tanzania lived in villages; rather they inhabited individual, scattered homesteads. It was one thing to help out a neighbor in need; it was quite another to lose one's farming identity in a quasi-communist committee run by some urban-based apparatchik.

Tanzania's peasants disliked ujamaa and that, together with the wholesale nationalization of much of the country's industry and commerce, helped put Tanzania into a miserable economic decline from which only now, years after Nyerere's voluntary retirement, it is slowly beginning to recover.

There were other reasons too -- a poor market for Tanzania's agricultural exports, and a too-rapid pace of Africanization. The administrative abilities that were the strength of colonial society were lost. Decline affected not just economic and governmental skills, but also the quality of justice. Amnesty International cited Nyerere for holding political prisoners in appalling conditions.

Administration is delicate. Once standards start to decline, a morass of self-defeating corruption, malpractice and injustice can follow rapidly, leading to both financial and moral bankruptcy. In neighboring Zimbabwe, where everything in Robert Mugabe's new government once looked so very promising, this slide is clearly apparent.

Mr. Mandela inherits a reasonably efficient and effective governmental administrative machine. Its weakness is that it devoted its talents almost exclusively to making white life pleasant.

Mr. Mandela is lucky, too, in having a coterie of well-educated and experienced lieutenants, but he also inherited, when he stepped out of his prison cell after 27 years, an organization that tolerated in its ranks sadists and torturers who unscrupulously used their power in the days of the underground struggle to settle with their opponents in the movement. These elements Mr. Mandela must now expunge before they contaminate his new government.

The African personality is remarkably resilient under stress and deprivation. It will forgive and forget 70 times seven. But after so many failures, it deserves a success. Nelson Mandela is not just South Africa's best hope but is, perhaps, black Africa's last hope. If he makes it work, it may provide the catalyst that can mend the broken spirit of a whole continent.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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