The Lost Tribe of Africa
Poverty and the disenfranchised in Africa
The Lost tribe of Africa.
Two books that I read recently made a great impact on me. The first is ‘The Wretched of the Earth” written by Franz Fanon and published in 1961. This is a must read for any student who is interested in African history. Fanon is a Frenchman and describes the Africa of his day with the problems that it faced as colonial times came to an end. The book could just as well be written today. As we look at Africa 50 years later it reflects the same problems that Fanon identified in the 1950’s and seems to be following the route he predicted.
Fanon’s basic observation is that in Africa as in other parts of the world there are compartmentalized groups that exist together in a country and that they each have their own ideology and interests. He points out that the rich and the poor co-exist, always have and always will. He coins phrases like ‘lumpenproletariate’ and ‘bourgeois of the bourgeois’ to describe groups in society using, British, USA and French examples. Remember, he writes in a time when Russian expansionism was taking place in Africa.
As Fanon looks at his world he asks the question how things can change and a more equitable distribution of wealth can be achieved? During colonial times two groups are found in African countries. Either the Colonial rulers (or the new Black leadership that was given the position of rulers), and the local traditional leaders. Each has its own agenda, its own need to maintain its power. The only way that he sees this impasse being broken is by destroying everything and starting all over again. In his opinion neither of these groups will give up their power and so change into a better, more equitable situation. So the poor rise up and destroy the country and out of the ashes a new better society evolves. This is obviously a very brief and perhaps simplistic understanding of Fanon’s view.
The second book is ‘The Great African Society’ written by Hlumelo Biko and is called by the author “A plan for a nation gone astray”. Hlumelo is a son of the human rights activist Steve Biko who was killed by the security police under the apartheid government in 1977. Hlumelo is very critical of what has happened in South Africa over the last twenty years since the apartheid leadership handed over rule to the new ANC leadership. He sees corruption, lack of meaningful growth of the economy and a poor education system as some of the problems that face South Africa (and perhaps all African countries) today.
The amazing thing about Biko’s book is that with great insight he outlines clearly a plan that can divert “a society headed into peril” into “a great society”.(pg.247) Some of the steps that he sees as vital are; a need for increased personal security for all, private enterprise adopting failing schools to fast track education, increased funding in housing to get rid of shack dwelling, a huge increase by the private sector in technical skills training and a so called “re-engineering fund” to “make available loan guarantee instruments to facilitate expansion capital for small and medium businesses in order to spur sustainable job creation on a national scale”.(pg.252)
Biko also outlines clearly steps that need to be taken in education and small scale farming to turn the country around.
The scary fact is that in South Africa we see clearly Fanon’s compartmentalization of society. Each group trying to hold on to their power, be they economic or political. The bourgeois, both old and new, the politicians and the traditional leaders.
One of the situations that Fanon looks at in his book is the problem in Kenya where mostly young people left their traditional homes and moved into the cities to look for a better life. In the South African situation this has been very much the pattern and the same has occurred in most, if not all, African countries.
Here, living in shacks, we find a 'lost generation' who have left the life their fore fathers lived, in search ot the “better life” that they saw in the colonial western style cities. Slow economic growth in these cities failed to produce job opportunities for most of these regional migrants, and so the “better life” remains just a dream. For the political leaders this disenfranchised group makes a great target in promising them what they dreamed of. Something that all politicians can promise but not deliver. So the Economic Freedom Party in South Africa enjoys a great following among these people, often the poor of the poor.
Here we find then what I call ”The Lost Tribe of Africa”. All they share is their poverty, need and dreams. They come from every country, nation and tribal affiliation. As they look back at the tribal areas that they came from they do not want to return. After all what is on offer there? Poverty, hunger in time of drought, poor schooling to say the least and certainly no job prospects. When they look forward in the 'informal settlement' that they now live in they share the hope of a better life. This perhaps seems possible if countries could follow the seemingly simple steps that Hlumelo Biko so clearly outlines in his book. Then many of them could enjoy a better life.
The trouble is, that as Fanon points out as far back as 1961, the power groups in society are each obsessed with holding on to what they have, and so in the end will probably lose both power and possessions; all because of their greed.
History has shown that this has been the route that all countries and empires have followed in the past. Why would we expect it to be any different in our time?
The Great African Society-a plan for a country gone astray: Hlumelo Biko.
The Wretched of the Earth: Franz Fanon.