The Partisan

Jeremy Harding

  • The Search for Africa: A History in the Making by Basil Davidson
    Currey, 373 pp, £25.00, March 1994, ISBN 0 85255 719 1

Travelling in West Africa a little over forty years ago, Basil Davidson was shown around the chamber of the new territorial assembly in Bamako, built by the French as a concession to the growing demand for independence in Mali. The chairman of the assembly ‘pointed with a cautious smile to the plaster-white figure of the French state symbol on the chamber wall above his ceremonial chair. “There is Marianne,” said he with another cautious smile but with an echo of laughter in his voice, “and here are we. She so white, and we so black.” ’

From the outset of his career as a journalist in Africa, Davidson has found much to say about the inappropriateness of European political forms to the continent on which they have been imposed. He has been taken at his word and his word has carried, in more than twenty books about Africa and a far larger number of articles and lectures, some reprinted here. He has an extraordinary following in the US, a significant readership in Britain, and his name is familiar in many parts of Africa, even if his books, like most, are hard to obtain. Since the early Fifties, when he began reporting on Africa and researching its precolonial past, Davidson has argued passionately for the moral and historical imperative of independence – from colonialism, white minority rule, exploitation by neo-colonial or imperial African regimes, ‘free world’ or Soviet bloc patronage and, in the aftermath of the Cold War, from the stultifying institutions which all of these have bequeathed to Africa.

Despite its terrible difficulties, Davidson’s Africa is a continent of hope. In both the customary and the more fashionable sense, his work is affirmative – often stubbornly so. He believes in the possibility of a peaceful and productive continent, beyond the rival images of a ‘good Africa’ – South Africa, for example, where a dismal story can end improbably well – and a ‘bad’ one – for the moment Rwanda, although three months ago it was Natal and the East Rand. While he relishes the first image he suspects that the second is never far away, with its dreary insistence on some natural order of things to which Africa is eternally bound. Davidson has fended off this bullying invocation of nature for most of his life. His writings have earned him what he calls ‘a comfortable condescension of the orthodox: “He’s an idealist, he’s well meaning, but you needn’t really take him seriously.” ’ They have also made him enemies. He was banned from South Africa in 1952 and, by 1956, debarred from a further seven territories, all of them British.

By the end of that decade, however, he had published his first book of African history. Half a dozen more have followed. Davidson’s interest in this vast, protean subject has evolved naturally from his preoccupations as a journalist and from his politics, crystallised by his wartime experience as a British Liaison Officer with the Yugoslav resistance. ‘If Africans were going to achieve independence,’ he reflected during his early post-war travels on the continent, ‘they would have to be treated as people. Where, in that case, had they come from? What had they done, or not done, before the colonial invasions of the 1850s and later? What, in a word, had been their history?’ The greater part of Davidson’s life has been given up to answering these questions. The result has been to counteract the colonial foreshortening of Africa’s history, according to which it was a timeless pasture without civilisation or development until the arrival of outsiders.

Throughout the forty years that he has been working in and on the continent, Davidson has also kept up a regular output of journalism. For this, no less than the history, he is likely to be remembered. His sense of the late colonial years and the advent of independence is very much that of the eye witness, but his journalism is underpinned by a historian’s sensibility, which lends force to his claim that Africa’s contemporary distress can, in fair measure, be ascribed to its colonial past. More recently, Davidson has expressed a deep scepticism about the European model of the democratic nation-state proposed to Africa, chiefly by France and Britain, and adopted by Africans, at times with a painful ambivalence, at others with unqualified enthusiasm, but nearly always as the only means of self-determination at their disposal.

In The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State, published in 1992, Davidson spoke of the ‘spiny contradictions’ beneath the rhetoric of nationalism: ‘If nationalism has been and can be a liberating force, why then has it so often become the reverse?’ The problem is taken up again in the preface to this collection of reports, essays, papers and reflections, written between 1950 and the present. Davidson insists on the dangers of nationalism in Europe, yet ‘in Africa, after the Second World War, the banners of nationalism not only seemed, but really were, the only ones that could promise an end to colonial subjection.’ They did end it; some fifty African nations have now thrown off colonial or white settler rule – South Africa being the most recent. Today the only outstanding African business before the UN’s Fourth Committee, which deals with decolonisation, is the Western Sahara. Everywhere else in Africa, the flawed project of national sovereignty is more or less complete.

In The Search for Africa Davidson looks back at some of his early journalism on the continent, his later historical writing and the political debates in which he has taken an active part. More immediately, and more uneasily, he alludes to the problems of the present, to which he once envisaged solutions emerging with the demise of colonialism, but which have been aggravated or replaced by others, no less daunting.

In a conference paper delivered in Senegal two years ago, and published here in emended form, Davidson gives a candid summary of the difficulties that he, and all those who have absorbed his work, have had to face in the Nineties: ‘Generally, since independence from foreign rule, Africa’s politics has been a politics of failure. And now we are asked to explain why this has been, and what should be a politics of success.’ To this he adds: ‘Your lecturer today does not have the answer; moreover, if the answer can be found, it will not in any case be found except by Africans. Development comes from within or it does not come at all; the essential failure is above all a failure of non-African legacies of dispossession ... Dispossession has been the culprit.’

This is not so much to exculpate Africans – ‘their part and hand in failure has been pervasive and persistent’ – as to reiterate the extraordinary force of the colonial episode. It preoccupies many young African intellectuals today, while the work of an older generation of writers – Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe and the novelist and film director, Sembène Ousmane – is never without some strong descriptive trace of the dispossession Davidson has in mind. And though there are problems with this sense of a disabling legacy – for instance Ethiopia, invaded but never colonised – its most obvious weakness is merely that, beyond Africa and African diaspora communities, its appeal has diminished over the years. It is scarcely Davidson’s fault if Europeans wish to take up another position in the hope that we will no longer see ourselves so readily in Africa.

As time has passed, the shadow of Davidson’s own concerns has fallen at a different angle, but his basic position has held fast. In a new preamble to a series of articles on the anti-colonial movements in Portuguese Africa, he spells it out:

Looking back on those years ... I have not the slightest doubt that the project of regained African sovereignty was right and necessary not only in its own terms, but in any historical terms. Unless the humanity of this whole continent could restore to itself its own identity and self-respect, it was bound to perish in degradation. That was the inner sense of every genuine anti-colonial movement ... It was for the reversal and undoing of the dispossessions.

   This seems often to have become forgotten, or written down in its sovereign importance, during the dim years of the 1990s.

Often enough, this book speaks candidly about the failed promises of independence; elsewhere it simply assumes them, but being a retrospective work by a historian, it looks to the past more readily, and with a keener eye, than the future.

When Davidson does undertake some prescriptive sketch of Africa’s recovery, he envisages a return to the virtues of an old or muffled ‘historical African political practice’, something more than ‘pious hope and a libation to the ancestors’. What he detects in the way of hopeful signs can, however, be very tenuous – for instance, ‘the perception ... that the strongly centralised state systems of the colonial legacy have failed to prosper’ because they were not counterbalanced by devolution of power to rural areas. Decentralisation, local government, effective popular participation along traditional African lines: this is the direction in which one or two countries ‘have turned or appear increasingly to mean to turn’.

For very many Africans, at the mercy of kleptocracies, dictatorships and derailed liberation movements – sometimes of all three – there is not much solace here. For intellectuals, in Africa and the West, on whom Davidson has had such an impact, there may also be a sense of the heroic project he has worked at for so long – ‘a history in the making’, as his book is subtitled, and one with striking repercussions on the present – having reached its outer limits. This is less a matter of Davidson dodging the questions posed by contemporary Africa than of the continent itself eluding any certifiable definition by journalists, historians, scholars, aid and lending experts, camp followers, demographers, catastrophists and optimists, or by individuals of very different persuasions who happen to inhabit it. In a long moment of desperation, Davidson’s remains the least peremptory evaluation on offer – and by far the most generous, to his subject-matter and his readers.

The last twenty years, from the April 1974 coup in Lisbon to the historic compromise in South Africa in April 1994, have reaffirmed many of the faiths, both latent and declared, that Davidson’s work evinces. The possibility of a history of African peoples, recovered by means of archaeology, leached from ethnography, disengaged from Islamic and colonial records or inferred on the basis of oral transmission, is now widely accepted. The sources of Davidson’s ‘antipathies’ – one section of The Search for Africa carries this title – are undoubtedly fewer: white settler rule, which withstood the wind of change in Rhodesia, Namibia and South Africa, has given way; the old Ethiopian empire, which Davidson consistently opposed, even in the guise of a ‘progressive’ regime, has foundered. Yet the cost of these struggles must have been higher than he had hoped, while in Portuguese Africa, whose anti-colonial wars he brought to the attention of the British public, independence was a catastrophe. In Mozambique and Angola, South Africa was largely responsible, but by the start of the Nineties it was clear to Davidson that their respective liberation movements, and the leaders of Guinea-Bissau, all of whom had tried to impose policies ‘that Stalinism carried to ruinous extremes in the Soviet Union’, were not as blameless as he would have wanted – not least because he had known and loved the people who fought in the bush for a cause that made perfect sense.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in