Post-colonial African blues
June 25, 2003 1:27 AM   Subscribe

Getting The Hell Out Of Africa: An excellent article by R.W. Johnson describes the forces now driving out many African whites and quietly despairs. Post-colonial blues are sad and riddled with guilt and lost hopes. How far does collective guilt impinge on the individual? What if there is no guilt at all? What is the white man and woman's place in 21st Century Africa? I wonder whether it isn't still too early to think clearly about the many delicate issues involved. But then an all-black Africa wouldn't be Africa. Would it?
posted by MiguelCardoso (18 comments total)
I think it's probably too soon to say. But if such a thing were to occur, yes, it would be a shame...

It might be less likely for Afrikaners than English speakers, given their unique language, history and culture, which developed in Africa (whereas anglophone culture has stereotypically looked more to Europe). But it's probably too soon to say.
posted by plep at 3:43 AM on June 25, 2003

Good article, thanks Miguel.
posted by rory at 4:16 AM on June 25, 2003

But then an all-black Africa wouldn't be Africa. Would it?

Whether you mean South Africa, or Africa in toto, I think most Americans would reflexively answer "Yes". Both our early education and our popular culture tend to imprint an all-black representation of Africa pretty early on. Later, when we first discover South Africa, we accomodate it, but it feels false, somehow - like we are accomodating an unnatural and artificial curiosity - something slightly unreal, out of sync, and impermanent, a celluloid layer covering the 'real' Africa. (A cultural/educational prejudice, of course, and as always, interesting.)

As a child, I remember thinking of South Africa as a kind of wonderful, gigantic theme park.

Now, of course, I have a lot more data on which to base a perception, and my perception responds by complicating itself. But in the unsophisticated, childish, ahistorical parts of my mind, it still feels a little like the grand show is over, the tents are being struck, and the carnies are moving on.
posted by Opus Dark at 5:11 AM on June 25, 2003

But then an all-black Africa wouldn't be Africa.
It sure wouldn't Miguel: Native Libyan, native Moroccans.
Most North Africans are not "black" at all (as you well know). Why is it that North Africa never comes to mind when talking about "Africa". Is it that it is part of the meditteranean world? That it lacks a clear identity in the (false) dichotomy of black / white? Any suggestions?
posted by talos at 6:23 AM on June 25, 2003

I think, talos, that it's because the North is separated from the rest of Africa by desert, making its cultures physically and culturally distinct. Plus, the history of North Africa is caught up in the history of Europe and the Middle East. We think of it as 'our' history and more so than the rest of Africa they're 'our' people. To the Western world the rest of Africa is just some alien land mass we once colonised.
posted by Summer at 6:33 AM on June 25, 2003

I'd like to pass along a selection that the BBC had last year, "Diary of a Zimbabwean farmer". It's really interesting and goes along with the original link.
posted by mkelley at 6:35 AM on June 25, 2003

Thoughts, so many thoughts leap to mind in reaction. Forgive me if I free-associate.

I'll agree: "Africa" in the popular American imagination (at least) has only ever meant that reach beyond the Sahel. This tendency has always been strong, unavoidably so since the "African-American" tradition is of course one wrested from Gambia and Senegal and so forth.

The linked piece strikes me as gentle, far too gentle, almost reticent. The collapse is continental, and not limited to places where the exodus of the former colonial power is a factor. According to all my most knowledgable and experienced friends, the human suffering is on a scale beyond any we can frame comfortably in our imagination.

And yet, working daily against this chaos (as far as I who have never set foot there can tell) is an incredible and meaningful sense of what the Senegalese call boul falé, roughly meaning "to make do," even "to get over." Which people do - the otherwise risible Rem Koolhaas is brilliant on this, in his reportage on the various canny methods folks use to survive the slums of Lagos. This is not to sentimentalize the situation, merely to acknowledge the improvisational genius of people who have been given all too little to work with.

Finally. I got the saddest sense in reading that piece that the day is not far off when people will be making the same grief-stricken decisions about whether to remain in the United States or not. True, true: our kleptocracy is rather less advanced, rather less thorough than, say, President Moi's. But, oh, when I think of the shame and the horror an intelligent and proud South African of *any* race must feel at President Mbeki, I know it's it's a difference of degree and not of kind between those fellows and the ones currently pulling the strings in Washington.
posted by adamgreenfield at 7:05 AM on June 25, 2003

thinking of South Africa as a kind of wonderful, gigantic theme park.

no, thats just Cape Town
posted by carfilhiot at 7:49 AM on June 25, 2003

But then an all-black Africa wouldn't be Africa. Would it?

Umm... then what the hell would it be?

While I feel for everyone who's getting screwed over by the many varieties of vicious governments and non-governments now running most of Africa, it seems a bit... well, pick your own adjective... to focus on the sufferings of the whites and the terrible, irreplaceable gap that will supposedly be left if and when they depart for less chaotic climes. For one thing, most of them have gotten pretty good lives out of the place, which can't be said for the majority of its black inhabitants. For another, most of them have someplace else to go, which also can't be said for most black Africans. And there's nothing unique about the exodus of the whites, except to the extent that much of it is voluntary; the history of Africa (as of most continents) is chock-full of people being forcibly displaced from their homes and having to start over (the lucky ones, who survive the displacement) somewhere else. But of course they didn't have long, anguished articles about them in widely read periodicals. They just moved, suffered, and passed on some memories to their descendents.

Again, I'm not downplaying what the whites are going through, just trying to provide some perspective.
posted by languagehat at 7:51 AM on June 25, 2003

Being a white male South African myself, I can say that I have no desire whatsoever to live elsewhere. Europe and North America have little attraction to me. Sure I might go live overseas in the short term in search of some hard foreign currency (how else am I going to retire at 45 to my seaside house on the South Peninsula) but in the long term I see myself here.

And although this is a selfish viewpoint I say to those who want to leave to go. Because the more people who have my skills leave the country the more my skills will be in demand and the more I can charge for them. Fact is SA is an emerging economy and there is a SHITLOAD of money to be made.
posted by PenDevil at 8:08 AM on June 25, 2003

Yeah, there are no long, anguished articles about displaced blacks. They just moved, suffered, and shut the hell up about it, didn't they?
posted by techgnollogic at 8:11 AM on June 25, 2003

Mmm. I think you missed the point of the articles, which wasn't 'Gee, life is tough for white people in Africa' but more a statement that the destruction of diversity and the exodus of non-blacks and the educated middle and upper classes (of all races) will make the attempt to fix the horrendous problems of Africa that much harder.

The article really focused on how the movements to remove colonial rule have imploded into a kind of nationalism that is not based on the good of the nation but on an old opposition of non-black colonizers vs. black colonized. While I certainly agree that a strong argument can be made for land redistribution in Zimbabwe, the method of doing it has brought economic chaos - and it is part of the cause of the famine in the country (the other part being attempted murder/genocide of opposition to Mugabe).

As far as Africa black vs. multi-cultural, I think that the attempt to paint Africa black is just as silly as attempts to paint the US white - both nations have histories (horrible ones and wonderful ones) of different races intertwined.
posted by fluffy1984 at 8:25 AM on June 25, 2003

PenDevil, I was in S Africa for the first and only time recently for a CS conference thrown by (mostly) the U of Cape Town. The "convential wisdom" that I heard during my brief sojourn was that, for high tech at least, the job market would benefit from people staying and creating companies etc. It was a really beautiful place. Unfortunately the exchange rate (among other things) seems to promote working abroad.

I have a friend who's finishing up his Ph D and planning to move to India for mainly personal reasons, although India has lots of emerging (or emerged) high tech work. Maybe he'll live and die there, but it's depressing to think that if he came back to the US in 10 or 20 years his savings would be worth jack shit.
posted by Wood at 8:27 AM on June 25, 2003

Possibly interesting :-
BBC article on white and black stories in South Africa. And a brief Salon article on the Internet in Soweto. Also, more South African stories by R.W. Johnson (originally from the London Review of Books).
posted by plep at 8:51 AM on June 25, 2003

techgnollogic: If you're referring to blacks brought to America as slaves and are being sarcastic, that's pretty clearly not what I was talking about. If, on the other hand, you're being straightforward, good for you! It's so hard to tell these days.
posted by languagehat at 9:32 AM on June 25, 2003

Good article MC, I am not surprised to hear of pink communities encountering multiple problems in their 'places in the sun'.
posted by johnnyboy at 9:56 AM on June 25, 2003

Trying to imagine the situation, I recalled my fright as an employee when my company was faced with huge layoffs. Literally all the people I enjoyed working with were the first to go. The best people left when the going was good. Those who remained were generally in a state of shock. Companies try to keep the best people, but when the belt tightens the best people tend to leave. Brain Drain.

New opportunity exists only as much as the remaining people appreciate what you do. Otherwise you are forced to play on their terms for what they value. Christ-on-a-crutch, the aids epidemic is rampant and some people believe raping virgins is a cure! This is not like new economies of Aisa where they are emerging into western culture and are hungry for everything.
posted by xtian at 12:25 PM on June 25, 2003

...and believe that drinking from the gallbladder of a soon-to-be-dead bear will give you better erections, and so forth.
posted by adamgreenfield at 7:28 PM on June 25, 2003

« Older superweeds   |   Only if the marionettes are anatomically correct..... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments