Berkeley on Africa: cause and effect

April 01, 2001|By Paul Taylor | By Paul Taylor,Special to the Sun

"The Graves Are Not Yet Full: Race, Tribe and Power in the Heart of Africa," by Bill Berkeley. Basic Books. 309 pages. $27.50.

Any American journalist who takes on the subject of Africa is writing into a stiff headwind. It's not a place where the United States has significant commercial or strategic interests. There's not much shared history, either -- except, of course, for the slave trade, which still haunts us on this side of the ocean as America's original sin, but which by design never left behind a living bridge between continents.

The usual way around this challenge has been to frame the story of Africa for the American audience around the "otherness" of its people. They're primitive, they're tribal, they're barbaric and they're the sick man of the modern era -- ravaged by wars, hatreds, famines and plagues.

Bill Berkeley has set out to knock down this stereotype. He doesn't deny Africa's problems -- to the contrary, his book is a guided tour of the worst African horrors of the past two decades: its genocides, its tyrants, its kleptocracies, its gang-raping teen-age warriors. But he argues that the tribalism at the center of these conflicts is not some exotic, indigenous flaw. It's largely an import, he writes: a defense mechanism constructed by Africans to protect themselves against what outsiders have done there, be they slave traders, colonizers or superpowers fighting proxy wars. "We are the enablers," he writes -- "we" being non-Africans.

This is a large point, and unfortunately Berkeley overdraws it. There is no denying that through the centuries outsiders have set tribe against tribe in Africa as a classic divide-and-conquer tool of control. But to suggest that tribal, ethnic and racial divisions don't also have roots in African soil -- just as they do in the soil of every other corner of the globe -- is to ignore not just history but the human condition.

Happily, Berkeley's reporting is much sharper and more nuanced than his argument. He spent a decade from the early 1980s to the early 1990s covering the continent as a journalist and a human rights investigator. His "beat" took him to the continent's most dysfunctional places: Liberia, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan and the Congo.

Berkeley's writing is vivid and his portraits of peasants and tyrants ring true. My only complaint with the tour is that it feels dated. The chapter on South Africa, for example, dissects how the apartheid government stoked black-on-black, tribal violence during the 1980s and 1990s. It's a story that's been told many times before. Berkeley offers nothing new, and worse, devotes not a word to the more contemporary plague filling the graves of South Africa -- AIDS.

The best chapter of the book is on Rwanda. Berkeley draws a chilling portrait of the 1994 genocide there and provides an equally compelling account of a 1998 United Nations trial in which a mid-level Hutu bureaucrat is found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to life in prison. Berkeley finds hope and redemption in that criminal proceeding. What Africa needs more than anything, he concludes, is a culture of justice and rule of law that holds individuals accountable for monstrous acts of inhumanity. Hard to argue with that.

Paul Taylor was a journalist for 25 years, including 15 at the Washington Post during which he served as South Africa bureau chief in the mid 1990s. He is currently the founder and director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns. His book, "See How They Run," was published by Knopf in 1990.

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