Skip to main content

The Lost Tribe of Africa

Johan is a marriage counsellor and evangelist with a BA from the University of South Africa and an MA from Abilene Christian University.

Poverty and the Disenfranchised in Africa

Three 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 1950s 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, American, 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 were found in African countries: the colonial rulers (or the new Black leadership that was given the position of rulers) and the local traditional leaders. Each had 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 in order to create 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 by Hlumelo Biko, which is described by the author as“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 South Africa (and perhaps all African countries) faces 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” (Biko, 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”(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. So there exists the new bourgeois, the political and traditional leaders, rooted in the past and desperately struggling to maintain their power. At the same time new political parties arise feeding off the needs of the population and looking for their share of the gravy train. These parties quite unashamedly make promises they cannot keep and unfortunately the desperate believe them.

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 of 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 nor really deliver. So the Economic Freedom Party at present in South Africa enjoys a growing following among these people, often the poorest of the poor. The trouble with political power it that it corrupts. The leaders, who once in power, are really only interested in holding onto that power and not following through with the often unrealistic promises that they made. To put political slogans into workable systems is not just difficult but often downright impossible.

The Lost Tribe

Here we find then what I call ”The Lost Tribe of Africa”. They all share a common poverty, and the same 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.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Soapboxie

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.

This problem of people being caught between two cultures is not only a Third World problem but also exists in the religious community in the USA and Europe and in society in general in Western Society. Here children are growing up who are caught between the culture of their parents and the culture of their peers, as experienced on a day to day basis.

In their book "Forming Multicultural Partnerships" Hardy and Yarnell refer to the problem of what they call 'Third Culture Children'. They also quote from references to "Third Culture Kids" in a book by Pollock and van Rieken with that name. These researchers have identified that many young people in Western Society are caught between the culture of their parents and the culture of the world that they spend most of their time in, namely their school and working environment. This creates a situation of insecurity and conflict that has important implications to their feeling of "who am I and where do I actually fit in?" Here, according to these writers is what could be called a lost tribe of young people who don't feel comfortable in the cultural environment where they have grown up and yet they continues to be part of their family. At the same time they live in the new multicultural environment where they spend most of their lives. Here they come into contact with and accept a new way of thinking and behaving that is very different from that of their parents. This can lead to a state of conflict and insecurity in their minds and conflict with their families. A movie that was popular on the circuit some time ago called "Bend it like Beckam" illustrated this reality very powerfully.

The Death of Despair

Sir Angus Deaton, the Nobel Prize winning economist, recently did research on death rate figures. He found to his amazement that while in most cases people were living longer in a particular group in the USA life expectancy was dropping. This group surprisingly was of white American's who did not have a college education. This lower life expectancy he ascribed to "death of despair". He argues that because many in this group had lost their reason for living due to factors such as lack of family support, religious belief and general prospects of a meaningful life, they were killing themselves through drug and alcohol abuse and even suicide. Another lost generation?

So we find this "lost tribe" floating in a no-mans land in both the Third World and also in Western Society. Obvious and very visible in the huge informal shack cities in the Third World, were people having lost the past hope and leadership that existed in the tribal areas and now live on the edge of a land of promise, but with little hope of sharing in that promise!

But also less obviously also in the many Western cities and towns where young people have rejected the culture of their parents and have adopted the one of the modern world where they find themselves and is in many ways foreign to their parents.

We all live in a world that presents new challenges and solutions. Makes one think!


Forming Multicultural Partnerships: Hardy and Yarnell.

The Great African Society-a plan for a country gone astray: Hlumelo Biko.

The Wretched of the Earth: Franz Fanon.

Third Culture Kids: Pollock and van Reken

Death of Despair - Sir Angus Deaton

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

Related Articles