White Zimbabweans used to tell a joke—what is the difference between a tourist and a racist? The answer—about a week.
Few seem to joke any more. Indeed, the last time anyone laughed out there was over the memorable headline “BANANA CHARGED WITH SODOMY” (relating to the Reverend Canaan Banana and his alleged proclivities). Zimbabwe was just the latest African state to squander its potential, to swap civil society for civil strife and pile high its corpses. Then the wrecking virus moves on and a fresh spasm of violence erupts elsewhere. Congo, Ivory Coast, Sudan, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, even Kenya. Take your pick, for it is the essence of Africa, the recurring A-Z of horror. And as surely as Nelson Mandela took those steps from captivity to freedom, his own country will doubtless shuffle into chaos and ruin.
Mark my words. One day it will be the turn of South Africa to revert to type, its farms that lie wasted and its towns that are battle zones, its dreams and expectations that lie rotting on the veldt. That is the way of things. Africa rarely surprises, it simply continues to appal.
When interviewed on BBC Radio, the legendary South African jazz musician Hugh Masekela spoke of the 350-year struggle for freedom by blacks in South Africa. The man might play his trumpet like a dream, but he talks arrant nonsense. What he has bought into is a false narrative that rewrites history and plays upon post-colonial liberal angst. The construct is as follows: white, inglorious and bad; black, noble and good; empire, bad; independence, good; the west, bad; the African, good. Forgotten in all this is that while Europeans were settling and spreading from the Cape, the psychopathic Shaka Zulu was employing his impi to crush everyone—including the Xhosa—in his path, and the Xhosa were themselves busy slaughtering Bushmen and Hottentots. Yet it is the whites who take the rap, for it was they who won the skirmishes along the Fish and Blood Rivers and who eventually gained the prize.
What suffers is the truth, and—of course—Africa. We are so cowed by the moist-eyed mantras of the left and the oath-laden platitudes of Bono and Geldof, we are forced to accept collective responsibility for the bloody mess that is now Africa. It paralyses us while excusing the black continent and its rulers.
Whenever I hear people agitate for the freezing of Third World debt, I want to shout aloud for the freezing of those myriad overseas bank accounts held by black African leaders (President Mobutu of Zaire alone is believed to have squirreled away well over $10 billion). Whenever apartheid is held up as a blueprint for evil, I want to mention Bokassa snacking on human remains, Amin clogging a hydro-electric dam with floating corpses, the President of Equatorial Guinea crucifying victims along the roadway from his airport. Whenever slavery is dredged up, I want to remind everyone the Arabs were there before us, the native Ashanti and others were no slouches at the game, and it remains extant in places like the Ivory Coast. Whenever I hear the Aids pandemic somehow blamed on western indifference, I want to point to the African native practice of dry sex, the hobby-like prevalence of rape and the clumps of despotic black leaders who deny a link between the disease and HIV and who block the provision of antiretrovirals. And whenever Africans bleat of imperialism and colonialism, I want to campaign for the demolition of every road, college, and hospital we ever built to let them start again. It is time they governed themselves. Yet few play the victim card quite so expertly as black Africans; few are quite so gullible as the white liberal-left.
So Britain had an empire and Britain did slavery. Boo hoo. Deal with it. Move on. Slavery ended here over two hundred years ago. More recently, there were tens of millions of innocents enslaved or killed in Europe by the twin industrialised evils of Nazism and Stalinism. My own first cousins—twin brothers aged sixteen—died down a Soviet salt mine. I need no lecture on eggplants and neck-irons. Most of us are descendents of both oppressors and oppressed; most of us get over it. Mind you, I am tempted by thoughts of compensation from Scandinavia for the wickedness of its Viking raids and its slaving-hub on the Liffe. As for the 1066 invasion of England by William the Bastard…
The white man’s burden is guilt over Africa (the black man’s is sentimentality), and we are blind for it. We have tipped hundreds of billions of aid-dollars into Africa without first ensuring proper governance. We encourage NGOs and food-parcels and have built a culture of dependency. We shy away from making criticism, tiptoe around the crassness of the African Union and flinch at every anti-western jibe. The result is a free-for-all for every syphilitic black despot and his coterie of family functionaries.
Africa casts a long and toxic shadow across our consciousness. It is patronised and allowed to underperform, so too its distant black diaspora. A black London pupil is excluded from his school, not because he is lazy, stupid or disruptive, but because that school is apparently racist; a black youth is pulled over by the police, not because black males commit over eighty percent of street crime, but because the authorities are somehow corrupted by prejudice. Thus the tale continues. Excuse is everywhere and a sense of responsibility nowhere. You will rarely find either a black national leader in Africa or a black community leader in the west prepared to put up his hands and say It is our problem, our fault. Those who look to Africa for their roots, role-models and inspiration are worshipping false gods. And like all false gods, the feet are of clay, the snouts long and designed for the trough, and the torture-cells generally well-equipped.
I once met the son of a Liberian government minister and asked if he had seen video-footage of his former president Samuel Doe being tortured to death. ‘Of course’, he replied with a smile. ‘Everyone has’. They cut off the ears of Doe and force-fed them to him. His successor, the warlord Charles Taylor, was elected in a landslide result using the campaign slogan He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him. Nice people. Liberia was founded and colonised by black Americans to demonstrate what slave stock could achieve. They certainly showed us. Forgive my heretical belief that had a black instead of a white tribe earlier come to dominate South Africa, its opponents would not have been banished to Robben island. They would have been butchered and buried there.
When asked about the problem of Africa, Harold Macmillan suggested building a high wall around the continent and every century or so removing a brick to check on progress. I suspect that over entire millennia, the view would prove bleak and unvarying.
On the eve of this millennium, Nelson Mandela and friends lit candles mapping the shape of their continent and declared the Twenty-first Century would belong to Africa. Whatever. Meantime, the vast natural resources have been frittered and agricultural production since independence has halved. A pity that for every one Mandela there are over a hundred Robert Mugabes.
Visiting a state in west Africa a few years ago, I wandered onto a beach and marvelled at the golden sands and at the sunlight catching on the Atlantic surf. It allowed me to forget for a moment the local news that day of soldiers seizing a schoolboy and pitching him head-first into an operating cement-machine. Almost forget. Then I spotted a group of villagers beating a stray dog to death for their sport. A metaphor of sorts for all that is wrong, another link in a word-association chain that goes something like Famine… Drought… Overpopulation… Deforestation… Conflict… Barbarism… Cruelty… Machetes… Child Soldiers… Massacres… Diamonds… Warlords…Tyranny… Corruption… Despair… Disease… Aids… Africa.
Africa remains the heart of darkness. Africa is hell.