Cultural Caviar

Rule Reversal

September 02, 2017

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Rule Reversal

Recently two Parisian taxi drivers of African origin have told me that they wished to return to Africa, and had concrete plans actually to do so. Several of their friends had similar plans. I asked them why, and their answer surprised me.

“To be free,” they said.

Back to Africa from Europe for freedom’s sake? Here was a strange reversal indeed. Was not Africa par excellence the continent of rampant corruption, everyday oppression, and bizarre dictatorships? Well, yes and no: Such summaries rarely do justice to the complexity of human realities.

I have my own theory as to why Africa’s “first dance of freedom,” as Lord Byron called it and said he longed to see, was not exactly happy: I believe that the main harm of European colonialism in Africa, especially in its later phases, in the years before independence, was primarily psychological.

“I have always found taxi drivers to be the canaries in societies’ mines.”

The great Belgian, later Belgo-Australian, sinologist Pierre Ryckmans (better known as Simon Leys) traveled through what was then the Belgian Congo in the 1950s, a few years before independence. He was a very young man (his uncle had been the most distinguished governor-general of the colony), but he already showed the brilliance and acuity of his perception when he wrote in an article for a Belgian publication:

Schematically, one could say that [the Africans’] ambition pushes them simultaneously to reject and become Europe. (When I speak of Europe, I mean the Europe that they know, Europe as it is established in Africa.) They want to be like the people who humiliate them; they want to be like those whom they want to go away…. These tightly bound men cannot plan their escape other than by copying the only models of freedom and greatness that are presented to them.

When I worked briefly as a junior doctor in Rhodesia, as it then still was, under a settler or colonial regime, I noticed something else whose significance it took me years to appreciate, being far less an observer and thinker than Leys.

Black doctors were paid the same as white doctors, unlike in neighboring South Africa; but while I lived like a king on my salary, the black doctors on the same salary lived in penury and near-squalor. Why was that?

The answer was really rather obvious, though it took me a long time to realize it. While I had only myself to consider, the black doctors, being at the very peak of the African pyramid as far as employment was concerned, had to share their salary with their extended family and others: It was a profound social obligation for them to do so and was, in fact, morally attractive.

This, of course, did not prevent them from wishing as individuals to live at the European standard; but this was impossible so long as the colonial regime lasted. Once this elite had its hand on power, however, it had both the means and opportunity to outdo that standard to assuage its sense of humiliation, but the social obligations to look after the extended family and others remained. There was no legitimate way to satisfy these voracious demands other than by gaining and keeping control of political power over the country, which is why the struggle for such control was often so ruthless and bloody. When, in addition, the model of power they had in their minds was that of the colonial ruler, who were in effect salaried philosopher-kings whose prestige was maintained by a lot of ceremonial flimflam (white helmets with egret feathers, splendid uniforms, and the like), it was hardly surprising that the first dance of freedom was actually like a bestiary of bizarre rulers.

The first dance is now nearly over, and if Africa has not settled down to be a realm of political maturity and freedom exactly, there are many fewer bizarre dictators on the continent than there once were. If it is rarely advisable to oppose the political incumbent too openly or fiercely, there is nothing like the quasi-totalitarianism tempered by incompetence that was once so prevalent.


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