Cultural Caviar

Rule Reversal

September 02, 2017

Multiple Pages
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.

Besides, there is more to freedom than the ability without retribution to denounce the power, important as this ability is. And as the Parisian taxi drivers described their lives, they did not in the least feel free, rather hemmed in and almost straitjacketed by regulations, obligation, and taxation. And although France has a reputation for being an overregulated state, it is not really very different from any other Western country. And, paradoxically perhaps, markets, in the sense of places where you actually go to buy things, are much more important in France than in some more market-orientated economies that I could mention.

The lack of freedom in their daily existence of which the Parisian taxi drivers complained is, I think, the same lack of freedom that many other people increasingly feel in so-called free societies. And this is so whether or not the regulations and obligations that hem them in or straitjacket them make us richer or poorer, safer or less safe, healthier or less healthy. Freedom is freedom, and not another thing.

Of course, it was the capital that they had managed to amass in France—no doubt slight by European standards, but great by African—that would allow the Parisian taxi drivers to feel free in the Africa to which they would return, much freer than they now felt. They had already built their houses and started their businesses, such as cinemas, taxi services, and general stores in towns that did not have them. They would deal in local products and perhaps even export them. And in mounting their enterprises, they would be far freer than any person in a Western country. Perhaps they would have to pay off an official or two, but that done, they would suffer little bureaucratic interference. As for political power, it did not interest them within quite wide limits. What they demanded of politics was noninterference.

In short, their decision was well considered and not in the slightest absurd. They would, of course, keep their French passports just in case the conditions of Africa’s first dance of freedom recurred, so that they would always have a bolt-hole; but I nevertheless found what they had to say of interest. I have always found taxi drivers to be the canaries in societies’ mines.

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