African Nations at the Turn of an Era

Several seasoned author-observers shed light on the continent's lurching postcolonial transition to independence

AS power slips slowly away from Africa's aging dictators, a generation of African-studies experts are writing final chapters on their careers.

Trying to make sense of a continent's rolling social and political revolutions is a treacherous task. Yet that has been the consuming life's work of a number of academics and other observers, whose optimism (formed in the late 1950s and the '60s) has not been entirely dashed by the tragic economic and political failures of independence-era regimes.

Basil Davidson, a widely read historian and author of 25 books on Africa, has produced another volume to set forth his "conclusions of a lifetime."

The Black Man's Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State (Times Books/Random House, 355 pp., $24) blames much of the pain of post-independence years on political structures that "alienated" African peoples from their past. Alienation stemmed not simply from the fact that Africans had to live with colonial boundaries. To gain their freedom, Africans also had to organize themselves as nation-states.

"Africa would prosper upon condition of rejecting itself," Davidson writes. "The future was not to grow out of the past, organically and developmentally, but from an entirely alien dispensation."

He points to two alternative formulas that could have been pursued: In West Africa, delegates from French colonies met in 1946 to consider the creation of two large regional federations instead of 12 nation-states. In East Africa, nationalist organizations in 1958 launched a movement that aimed first for independence, then for federation of those countries. These impulses for regional cooperation and unification were discouraged by France and Britain.

Davidson concludes that if the alternative formulas had been encouraged, the spoils of liberation - the food, economic power, and prestige that elites had in abundance - might have made their way down to the average citizen.

As Africans prepared for independence, little loyalty or patriotism was felt toward "this or that colony-turned-nation. What the multitudes wanted, by all the evidence, was not a flag for the people ... nearly so much as they wanted bread ... health and schools."

During that same independence era, in 1967, native South African Noel Mostert, who now lives in Morocco, began research for what has become a monumental book about South Africa.

Mostert's 1974 book, "Supership," was unanimously chosen to receive the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. He was disqualified, however, because of his Canadian citizenship. His new book is a modern-day epic because of its proportions and because the current example of the book's protagonist-heroes - Nelson Mandela - is still playing an epoch-altering role in the life of South Africa.

Mandela's royal Xhosa lineage connects him to the book's primary protagonists, a long line of chiefs who fought wars with the British in South Africa's Cape region. Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa's Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People (Alfred A. Knopf, 1355 pp., $35) chronicles the Xhosa's uneasy pas de quatre with the Dutch, Portuguese, and French and then their headlong clash with British aspirations and maritime might.

When its North American colony won its war of liberation, Britain's attention turned to the African outpost on the Cape of Good Hope. There it hoped to accomplish the grand mercantilist and Christian designs it had for its possessions. The London Missionary Society (whose archives were plumbed for this book) sent out its stalwart crusaders to save souls and provide the moral force the colonial enterprise demanded. Mostert's portraits of the people involved and his blow-by-blow accounts of the frontier co nflicts reflect careful searches through archival material in both South Africa and Britain.

After an uneasy coexistence with the Dutch and other early settlers, the Xhosa (actually a group of connected tribes) fought nine wars with the British military, ultimately ceding much of their territory to the Cape Colony.

In the 1850s, a false prophet arose among the Xhosa, promising that, if the Xhosa killed all of their cattle (herds were their main repository of wealth) and destroyed their crops, at an appointed time a great storm would occur, the sun would rise in the West, untold numbers of cattle would appear, granaries would overflow, and ancestors would return alive. After the Xhosa carried out the demands of the prophet, thousands perished from starvation.

"The Xhosa, by their own hand, were a broken people," Mostert writes. Between January and December 1857, the Xhosa population in British-controlled areas declined from 105,000 to 37,500. About 40,000 died, and the rest became refugees. "It remains a unique event in the traumas that accompanied European expansion.... [Submitting to the prophecy] appeared to be the only course left for dealing with the political and economic control imposed upon [the Xhosa] by the colony."

In the last half of the 19th century, the Cape Colony evolved into a hopeful new example of coexistence. Any African living in the Cape was a British subject and "had as much right as any white colonist to buy or rent land, or share-crop. This many began to do. Xhosa began to buy back their land and to farm it successfully.... They also had the right to vote if they met the modest material requirements necessary to qualify."

By the 1870s, "the Xhosa-speaking peoples began to acquire their latent real power at the ballot box," Mostert writes. "The prospect of such an instrument of electoral power in the hands of the masses was still remote in Europe, and would remain so until the end of the century." Mostert follows events in South African history up to the defeat of the government of Jan Christian Smuts in the general election of 1948, which brought in the regime of Daniel Francois Malan's Nationalist Party. The new governme nt immediately started to abolish the parliamentary representation of nonwhite South Africans.

In his epilogue, Mostert writes that "It is impossible to avoid looking back wishfully. It was all in place, so very possible.... [The example laid out by the Cape Colony] represents one of the greatest of lost ideals...."

Just one decade later in West Africa, Ghana became the first African colony to break its colonial ties to become an independent nation. But the linkages could not be broken for Kwame Anthony Appiah, who was born to a Ghanaian father and English mother. In Appiah's In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (Oxford University Press, 225 pp., $29.95), he writes: "If my sisters and I were `children of two worlds,' no one bothered to tell us this; we lived in one world, in two `extended' famil ies divided by several thousand miles and an allegedly insuperable cultural distance that never, so far as I can recall, puzzled or perplexed us much."

Thus Appiah, a professor of African-American Studies at Harvard University, begins a probing expedition into the realms of African culture and identity. As a philosopher, his methods are tough going if a reader is looking for the standard personal reflections or dissection of political causes and remedies. Essay after essay scrapes away layered conceptions of Africa and African identity that have been imposed from outside.

Appiah's stance is not an Africa that is a hidden, Romantic subtext, but a conscious context for understanding literature and philosophy.

In exploring the intersection between African and Western world views, "If there is a lesson in ... this circulation of [African and Western] cultures," he writes, "it is surely that we are all already contaminated by each other, that there is no longer a fully autochthonous echt-African [authentic] culture awaiting salvage by our artists."

He offers an empowering vision of the formation of African identity: "What is required is not so much that we throw out falsehood but that we acknowledge first of all that race and history and metaphysics do not enforce an identity: that we can choose, within broad limits set by ecological, political, and economic realities what it will mean to be African in the coming years."

Like a stalk stretching inch by inch above the earth, chapters in this book stack one on top of another - each sturdy and necessary. When the reader reaches the epilogue, the story bursts into full bloom. The carefully built matrix of abstract philosophy is overlaid with a richly told story of the funeral of his father, Joe Appiah, who was a leading lawyer, a Ghanaian statesman, and the brother-in-law of the king. Even Flight-Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, Ghana's current head of state, showed up.

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