Review: The Fate of Africa

Fate of AfricaThe Fate of Africaby Martin Meredith, New York: PublicAffairs, 2006.

Summary: Meredith, a foreign correspondent who has made a lifelong study of Africa, chronicles the last 50 years of African history from the hopes of independence from colonial rule and promising beginnings through the heartbreaking instances of corruption, economic pillaging, and various slaughters and genocides including that of AIDS.

Ex Africa semper aliquid novi–“Out of Africa always something new.” Pliny the Elder

This epigraph at the beginning of this work is indeed apt. As a young man in the sixties, I learned of the independence from colonial rule achieved by various African states. In the seventies, I read of the brutal regime of Idi Amin. In the 80s, we listened to Paul Simon’s Graceland and its songs speaking of the beauties of Africa and the longings for freedom from apartheid. Our hearts were stirred by the transition from apartheid to black rule under Nelson Mandela in the 1990s. And then there were the heartbreaks of genocide in Rwanda and South Sudan, the brutal and corrupt regime of Robert Mugabe, and the devastation of HIV/AIDS throughout Africa.

While Africa emerges again and again in our news and collective consciousness, I am like many others in understanding relatively little about this huge continent and so I picked up this history to begin to redress that lack. What I found filled out my understanding while chronicling a largely heart-breaking history that left me with many questions.

Meredith begins by summarizing the colonial history and its arbitrary dividing up of Africa into colonial entities, often throwing together tribal groups significantly at odds with each other. Ethiopia alone succeeded in avoiding colonial rule. Western commercial enterprises harvested the wealth of Africa while, in sub-Saharan Africa Christian missions promoted education, health care, as well as the faith.

He then chronicles the beginnings of independence first with Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah in 1957, and the high hopes he promoted of Pan-Africanism and African leaders leading independent nations. He then follows independence movements from country to country–Egypt, French-speaking Africa, other English colonies. With variations, the account is one of national institutions set up on Western models that gradually are dominated by single party rule, a strong man, with significant resources channeled into the pockets of corrupt politicians while depleting national economies and increasing international debt.

The book seems to from bad to worse until the final chapters on South Africa. We see the descent into the maelstrom of Somalia and Rwanda and the aftermath of bloody tribal war that led to the fall of Mobutu in Zaire. We read of the rampant spread of AIDS and the often inadequate responses of governmental figures and health officials to this generation-killing epidemic.

Meredith concludes the book with the miracle of South Africa, the ascent of Nelson Mandela, the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission the succession of Thabo Mbeki, at once skilled in fostering economic transition and yet paranoid of western science in dealing with HIV/AIDS.

The book leaves me with many questions, even though its accessible narrative enlarged my historical understanding. One is how tribal rivalries and national identities can be reconciled, a question at the heart of so many of the tragic conflicts on this continent. Another is, what can be done to develop the rule of law and leadership with integrity? A third question is how can the rest of the world community constructively engage with Africa without promoting new forms of colonialism or dependencies that thwart the indigenous development throughout this continent? As a Christian, I also found myself wondering whether there is a greater role for the church throughout Africa in promoting reconciliation and ethical practice, along the line of Desmond Tutu’s work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. Sadly, there was evidence in the book that the church often divided along lines of tribal rivalries rather than functioning as a reconciling force.

The final thing I found myself curious about is whether there are good indigenous works of African history, rather than those written by westerners, which seem to dominate the book lists in this area? While I found Meredith both helpful and well informed, I still felt I was reading the work of an outside observer and feel the need to complement that with the work of someone writing from within the African context.

The Strange Act of Forgiveness

The passing of Nelson Mandela and memorials remembering his life have caused me to reflect upon the strange act of forgiveness. Why strange? Mandela is a case in point–oppressed and imprisoned because he advocated a better life for black Africans–the last thing you might expect such a one to do upon gaining power would be to create a process of forgiveness and reconciliation for a nation torn apart by apartheid. What would have been expected, and was feared, would be a paroxysm of violence avenging the violence of apartheid.  Miraculously, South Africa escaped the brutal civil wars that have torn apart so many of our countries. All because of the strange act of forgiveness.

What makes forgiveness so hard is that it is necessary when we have been truly, and sometimes deeply, hurt by another. Oftentimes, the only compensating satisfaction is to try the offender in our minds, to exact judgment upon them at least mentally, and to dream of that judgment being applied upon them. Sometimes, the hurt begins to so distort us that we dream of the hurt we would do if we have the opportunity, or even act out those dream in acts of verbal or physical violence. As the old saying goes, “revenge is a dish best served cold.” To live in this place is to become cold, become hard, become cruel–and yet we often feel ourselves incapable of escaping going down this path.

Forgiveness, it seems, begins with deciding to forgo this judgment and revenge “loop” we keep replaying in our minds. That’s what Mandela did in leading South Africa. It didn’t mean pretending that all the evils of apartheid never existed. It meant saying, “this happened and we will not give you what you deserve.” It meant, through creating truth and reconciliation commissions that wrongs could be acknowledged, forgiveness extended, and the fabric of relationships healed. It did mean deciding to turn away from the path of revenge, of wreaking some form of psychic or physical punishment on the other. It didn’t mean everything was suddenly wonderful. It did mean the possibility of a new beginning.

So often I hear protests against God’s allowance of so much evil in the world. Yet I wonder if it could be the case that God could remove evil without removing us. Paul Little, a former leader in the organization I work with once remarked, “if God were to wipe out all the evil in the world at midnight tonight, who of us would be around at 12:01?” And truthfully, in my most honest moments, I recognize that I am capable of, and at times have dreamed and perhaps done evil, that at very least is monstrous in the eyes of God, even if I keep up good appearances.

The wonder for me, that we celebrate in the season of Advent and Christmas is the coming of One through whom God extended forgiveness to the world. Given what we have done to the beautiful world God made and to our fellow human beings as well as other creatures, that’s not what we deserve. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Forgiveness is never deserved. It is a costly gift. It is a strange act indeed. What a gift to the world it is when people like Mandela choose to act so strangely!