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Impressions of Black Africa in 1995


Five months might seem a long time to be on the road but it is in fact a very short period considering all the places I have visited: Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, Eritrea, Yemen, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Israel, Cyprus and Morocco. I did not spend enough time in any one place to really get to know it well but I did get a general, although superficial, overview of the eastern and southern half of the African continent. (I had previously visited several of the northern and western African countries, mostly on business.)

Of course, no two places were quite the same. Each presented it's own specific features, it's attractions and it's problems. The advantage of the rapid over view I indulged in is that it does allow one to make superficial generalisations as to the features that appear to be common in three distinct groups of countries in the continent; the importance of Islam in the north, of the white man in the south and of tribalism in between. I'll deal with tribalism and skip the problem of Islamic fundamentalism in the north as it is part of a larger problem and not only African.

I came back here with a strong conviction that the most damaging legacy of the colonial era is the arbitrary partition of the continent into political entities (countries) without regard for the ethnic and demographic realities of their inhabitants. I feel that this has irrevocably condemned black Africa to tribalism and it's negative consequences. I'm putting this in writing so as to clarify in my own mind the basis for my presently very pessimistic feelings about the future of social and economic development in Africa and also to attempt to learn from what I have seen in an effort to understand our own Canadian contradictions.

It was indicated to me time and time again in conversations with black people that the foremost factor in African politics has been, is presently and will probably remain, the ethnic and tribal origin of the politicians rather than their ideology or their programmes of legislation for improving the community's well being. I have come to think that this is the fundamental cause of social and economic stagnation in Africa. Indeed, how could the common weal be primordial in countries where there is no real community sharing the same culture, values, and origins. In lands where people identify more closely with their tribe than with the country, it is natural that the object of achieving political power is to further the interests of one's own ethnic or tribal group at the expense of the other groups rather than to ensure the maximum social and economic development for all the people. This context leads quite naturally to tribal favouritism, to intolerance of political opposition (which is generally tribal rather than ideological), to arbitrary rule and disregard for human rights and finally, to the widespread nepotism and corruption which are the major operational obstacles to economic and social development in most black African states.

The same would obtain, if world war two had artificially reorganized European borders by partitioning the existing nations into new territories, each comprising parts of the previously existing countries. For example, in a country carved out of part of Spain, part of France and part of Italy, the struggle for power would take place between the Spanish party, the French party and the Italian party rather than on an ideological or a programme basis. The same "tribal" considerations would in all likelihood dominate politics in an hypothetical country artificially created out of Denmark, part of Germany, Holland, Belgium and part of France. The violence and "ethnic cleansing" in ex-Yugoslavia today demonstrates that Europeans are not immune to "tribalism" even now in 1995.

It also shows how important the existence of a coherent ethnic and cultural community is as a prerequisite to the lasting establishment of effectively democratic political practices and of the impartial rule of Law in a given territory. Internal coherence is also a prerequisite to stable and lasting international relationships. Today's European Community, which works not too badly, is possible only because of negotiated agreements between a succession of several governments speaking for sovereign nation-states, each one democratically elected to represent the interests of coherent and complete demographic entities. It works because no one "tribe" dominates the others.

This is not what I have observed in black Africa where most political territorial entities, (so called countries), are dominated by one tribe at the expense of the other tribes in the territory. This might explain the presence of fear I have perceived in almost all the political conversations I have had with ordinary black Africans. It appeared to me that, for the man on the street, the fear of the consequences for him that his tribe not be in power was a more potent political motive than the pride or ambition of being part of the ruling tribe. This again indicates the lack of coherence or the absence of a community of interests between the various tribes making up most African states. These "countries" are not nation-states, not only are they not coherent in their make-up, but they are not complete because the original ethnic and cultural communities, (which could have eventually formed nation-states), have been partitioned by the colonial powers between several "countries". That is the terrible legacy of the colonial period; two dozen states lacking the coherence and unity of purpose required for stable development and two dozen or more major tribes dispersed into several "countries" like the Kurds are partitioned between Turkey, Iraq and Iran.

The problem of ethnic cohabitation exists in various other places in the world but nowhere does it appear to be as generalised and acute as in black Africa. What will happen to South Africa, now that the power is in black hands? I doubt that the proud warrior Zulu nation will accept to be ruled by the Xhosa dominated African National Congress. I also doubt that the presently being drafted new constitution, intended to protect minority rights, will be applied impartially enough to prevent eventual intertribal strife. A new constitution might guarantee minority rights on paper in order to reduce the risk of tribal warfare but it will never create a coherent community out of the historically opposed Xhosa and Zulu tribes.

I hold the opinion that a structural solution is to be preferred to a constitutional remedy because the basic problem is structural (absence of a coherent nation-state). In other words, I feel that it would be in the long term interest of all parties that the Zulu nation be granted the independence some Zulus have called for. A structural solution can hardly be applied without considerable suffering where the potentially conflicting tribes occupy the same territory (Bosnia, India-Pakistan), but it is feasible here for the Zulus hold a clear majority in the Natal province (Zululand). An independent Zululand with an overwhelming Zulu majority would naturally transcend tribal politics (for there would be no competing other tribe in the territory). An independent Zululand would gradually discover "issue politics" as the Tigray people are presently doing in Eritrea, recently independent from Ethiopia. Obviously, the present cooperation between Eritrea and Ethiopia is a thousand times better for all concerned than the wasteful civil war that impoverished them for so many years before Eritrea broke off. Similarly, I feel that a free trade and mutual defence treaty leading to an effective economic cooperation between South Africa and an independent Zululand (and also with Lesotho and Swaziland (which are already nation-states), would a better model for development (both social and economic), than is the present uncomfortable cohabitation of these two potentially conflicting major tribes in South Africa.

I think that the way the black people of South Africa deal with the newly acquired responsibility of holding power will be crucial not only for their own welfare but also for that of neighbouring countries. If black South Africa gets rid of the Zulu problem in the way suggested above, and succeeds in impartially implementing a generous and fair constitution capable of allaying the fears of the whites and of other minority tribes which cannot aspire to independence because of their lack of an identifiable home territory where they hold a clear majority or for lack of the critical mass required to "do it alone", then it becomes possible for "issue politics" and a real multi-party democracy to replace tribal politics and one party rule in South Africa as a real community of interests develops over time. In that fortunate event, South Africa could become a model for the other African countries. Moreover, with it's ample natural resources, well developed infrastructure and industrial base and with it's considerable wealth, South Africa could be a locomotive capable of dragging several other African countries into development.

If however South Africa falls into the trap of tribal politics, then, it's house will be divided, it's energies will be expended wastefully in inter-tribal conflicts, capital and qualified whites will gradually leave the country, one party rule, nepotism and widespread corruption will become inevitable and the country's economy will take a downward turn as have those of most black African countries since their independence. The failure of South Africa to break out of this negative "African" scenario in spite of all the advantages it presently holds will probably seal the fate of the other African countries as basket-cases with little hope of getting off the dole of international aid and initiating their own development. I think that, one way or the other, what happens in South Africa will have a profound influence on all black Africa.

I don't know the all details of the situation in South Africa now that it is black hands but I am convinced that a positive outcome there, will be beneficial to democracy and rule of Law in all the neighbouring countries. I feel that the first step would be to transcend tribalism by granting independence to Zululand and perhaps of other tribes (if any others meet the conditions of territory and critical mass mentioned above), in order to give the Xhosa the overwhelming majority required for them to build a nation-state sufficiently secure to evade tribal politics while guaranteeing the rights of the remaining minorities. I think that this first step will be a prerequisite for black South Africa to discover the advantages of "issue politics" and multi-party democracy.

The tragedy of Africa is that three centuries of overwhelming colonial interference have left most countries a medley of tribes foreign one to another with only a few cases of ethnic territorial concentration where coherent communities could possibly meet the conditions for creating nation-states (identifiable territory, critical mass and distinct ethnic and cultural identity). Had Africa been left alone, it would in all likelihood, have sorted itself out in natural ethnic and cultural political entities, or nation-states as Europe and South East Asia have.


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