Stubborn isolation

Last days in Cloud Cuckooland: Dispatches from White Africa

Graham Boynton <em>Random House Intern

Should Europeans recolonise Africa? As the world despairs at the continent's recurring woes - corruption, incompetence, ethnic strife, economic stagnation - and at the cynicism of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, this question acquires renewed resonance. Influential western voices have begun to wonder whether a new form of colonialism might even provide the cure-all for the troubled continent. That the question of recolonising Africa should even be floated is a tired reminder of the old dichromatic view of the continent: if the black Africans cannot run their countries then whites ought to take over.

This is arrant nonsense. The corruption, ethnic strife and multiple wars that are so much part of the African landscape are not the result of an intrinsic failure of black Africans but of the ineptitude and greed of the present ruling elites, who often come from a narrow segment of African society. As a result, many talented, upright Africans are sidelined from the structures of political and economic power.

Post-colonial African politicians themselves have promoted the notion that whites were the only alternative to their rule. As a child growing up in Zambia, I can still recall lines from a song we sang while waiting for President Kenneth Kaunda to drive past: "Ena akonda azungu; ise tukonda Kaunda" (Some want white people; we want Kaunda). It went without saying that anyone opposed to Kaunda was for the whites. And, in southern Africa, we then had whites in Rhodesia and South Africa determined to keep their privileges at any cost - at all costs.

Graham Boynton, raised in Bulawayo as a member of the ruling elite, was one of the white settlers we were taught to despise, even though he himself was never a white supremacist. Fearing enlistment into Ian Smith's army, which was fighting to keep white rule in Rhodesia, Boynton fled to South Africa. There he befriended anti-apartheid activists and worked as a journalist. Soon the authorities ordered him out of the country, and he fetched up first in London and then in the US. Last Days in Cloud Cuckooland is a lucid, humane account of his travels through Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Boynton's account of the divisions among the Afrikaners in the days leading up to the 1994 multi-party elections in South Africa is an example of reportage at its finest. He writes compassionately of the struggles of extreme Afrikaner nationalists. Raised on an ideology of religion and racial superiority, many Afrikaners were baffled by the new South Africa. A sketch of Alwyn Wolfaardt, one of the militiamen who followed Eugene Terre Blanche's AWB and was killed in the former homeland of Bophuthatswana, poignantly animates the insular world in which he was raised.

These evocations reminded me of Franz Fanon's study of the French in Algeria, The Wretched of the Earth. His central thesis was that both coloniser and colonised were prisoners of an ideology justifying their uneven relation. The end of apartheid did not only free blacks from an ideology of suppression; it delivered many whites from the burden of being herrenvolk.

In Zimbabwe, Boynton travels through the troubled white community, bemoaning the insularity of the people whom he meets. He talks to men who spend most of their lives running their businesses, drinking and complaining about the Mugabe government. In this they are no different from Ian Smith, the last white prime minister, who gloats as Mugabe reclaims land from white farmers, proclaiming that he was right after all.

Boynton shows how Mugabe has tolerated corruption among his ministers. The brave editor of a government-owned newspaper who published reports of their misdeeds was swiftly dismissed, while the corrupt ministers were left untouched. The public transport system in Zimbabwe had deteriorated so much, Boynton writes, that workers in the outlying shanties of Harare began queuing from three in the morning for what should have been a 30-minute ride to work. At some point, almost in despair, Boynton wonders whether Africa should be recolonised, and concludes that there ought perhaps to be a negotiated solution in which blacks would wield political power while European managers and bureaucrats ran businesses. This suggestion misses the point. There are many competent, decent African managers and bureaucrats at home and abroad who, given the chance, would bring about the African renaissance much championed by Nelson Mandela's successor, Thabo Mbeki.

Despite the dismal headlines, there is much in southern Africa to offer hope. Although Mugabe has worked hard to stifle opposition, many of his faithful former lieutenants have begun to question him. In South Africa itself, black intellectuals watch carefully for signs of autocracy and corruption among the newly empowered black politicians. In Namibia, there is a mounting public outcry against President Sam Nujoma's attempts to change the constitution to allow him to serve a third term. And Ben Ulenga, a former political prisoner at Robben Island and, until recently, Namibian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, took an unusual step in African politics: he resigned from his post in London in protest at Nujoma's duplicity.

The leaders of post-colonial Africa matured into autocrats because they were surrounded by devious sycophants. So rather than conjuring up dreams of recolonising Africa, European intellectuals should perhaps help competent, principled people such as Ben Ulenga to rise to positions of political and economic power. Then we might experience real change.

Sousa Jamba, an Angolan-born novelist, has just completed his third novel, provisionally titled "Le Feeling"

This article first appeared in the 11 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Plato rules, OK?