I remember my words, if not quite what led up to them. It was two years ago and I was in the Western Cape, in South Africa, attending this rather fancy conference, UKUZA, that linked British politicians, writers and other cultural players with their South African counterparts. It was late and I was coming back from somewhere in a cab with a co-visitor. I know I was in a good mood – for a while, I had felt more optimistic about South Africa than any other sub-Saharan country, and we’d already had two great days of inspiring, humbling conversations with locals, grand and common, who had done something truly significant with their lives, and bore the scars from Pollsmoor Prison to prove it. But I remember my contentment being tinged with a sadness, a puzzlement: how could such a strong, switched-on, political people have let that situation go on for so long, when there were so many of them, and so few of the other? As I say, I forget the trigger, but I turned to my friend, a British Caribbean poet, as it happens, and shook my head and said: “God, if they’d had, say, thirty million Jamaicans down here instead of thirty million Swazis and Sothos, they would have dealt with that apartheid nonsense in a week!”
Perhaps the trigger was a moment earlier that day. I had gone to this arts and crafts market in Cape Town, and was just walking around it, enjoying the anonymity you can have as a black visitor to a black country, and all the banter and exchanges between the stallholders. And then, as soon as I opened my mouth, the confident banter stopped. Everyone was now aware that a westerner was in their midst and the stallholders lapsed into a servile, meek mode. It upset me. Serving is one thing, but servility is another.
Meekness is a charge often laid at the door of Africans by other black peoples. I know there are many British Caribbean folk, for example, who feel that the reason why so many Africans over here are employed in the lowly-paid, small-hours industries – office-cleaning, Tube maintenance and so on – is that they won’t stand up for themselves like Caribbean people and complain about conditions. Now I don’t believe that meekness has got anything to do with such employment choices, but I do accept that there is a soft, pacific something in most African people I know, be they Ugandans, Rwandans, Southern Africans, even the loud and argumentative Yorubas (my crew). I have a friend, Brother Nye, who is wont to leave the Tube or the bus if there’s too much noise or general aggravation in it. It disturbs his spirits – very African. Or check out African music – so different from western rock or even classical. There’s no anger in it.
This is a bit of a chicken-and-egg conundrum: it is hard to say which came first. Perhaps it was there in our spirits already, but certainly some things – I suspect much more upbringing, combined with the facts of life in Africa – have conspired to produce a psyche that is ill-suited to our getting rid of bad rulers, be they Afrikaners or others, as quickly as we should.
A plea for forgiveness is already, I think, in order. I am aware that any even cursory examination will throw up plenty of good reasons for why apartheid lasted the 47 years that it did: one side had a lot more guns than the other, et cetera, et cetera. I am aware, too, that continental Africa can say that it endured gross racial injustice for a considerably shorter period – fewer than a hundred years of direct colonial rule – than its dispersed cousins in the Americas, and that both “Africas” can lay claim to great fighting traditions, from the Maroons in Jamaica and Toussaint l’Ouverture in Haiti to the Zulus in South Africa and the Ashantis in Ghana, with their anti-British warrior queen Yaa Asantewa. Moreover, I fear that I may be extrapolating too crudely from a current personal preoccupation. I’ve hit that mid-thirties age now where it really starts becoming clear to yourself what you are, and why you might be what you are. And like most, I am increasingly aware of the hand of my parents in what I have become (hell, my mouth even smells now like my father’s used to, before I brush my teeth of a morning). So, for all these reasons, I submit tentatively, but please bear with me, these thoughts-in-progress . . .
Africa came to me in the shape of my parents, and what we children understood then to be an orthodox Nigerian domestic regime, albeit of an extreme kind and albeit in north London. The home had the feel of an army camp – all of us with our round-the-clock duties, all mindful of the ultimate sanctions that could be imposed by the absolute ruler at the top of the chain of command, our father. Great emphasis was placed on discipline, obedience and respect for elders. I associated Africa with love, certainly, no matter how mangled its expression seemed to me, but mainly I associated it with negativity, with things you could not do. Being an African child meant that I could not study what I wanted to study at university, but would have to read law or medicine, on Father’s orders. Being an African wife meant that my mother never went to the cinema in all the years I was growing up, never took time off until the day she died. Being an African meant you weren’t allowed to be free. The self was subsidiary.
Travelling to Africa, the natural pull towards such values, over and above cultural traditions, is clear. Life remains such a serious, fundamental business for so many Africans, with its vicissitudes – a high rate of premature death, job fragility in countries with underperforming economies and no social security – so much in your face, that one quickly internalises the knowledge that the self is not enough. So many traits and expressions that I and my diasporic friends think of as characteristically African are survival-related, survival-friendly: stoicism, fortitude, religious belief. But such a mindset can slide so easily into passivity, into resignation, into too meek an acceptance of one’s fate.
I was in Nigeria a few years ago and went with a friend to pay a visit to his family, which lived in a nearby town. A lot of excitement attended our arrival, not principally, as I imagined, for him, but, as it soon turned out, because of me. I was the “rich” westerner, you see, who might bring them all that they lacked. The uncle needed a truck for his business, the cousins needed letters of invitation to England and what have you, and for the first time I got angry. Short a bit with my peers, but more at the uncle. It upset me oddly, I who had been brought up to respect hierarchy and elders, to see the uncle lose his dignity so, to see the deference to age so easily replaced by deference to power. And angry, too, with this oil-rich and human resources-rich country, which has so let down its citizens. Which has got a only tiny middle class, and mostly just rich and poor. Where generations of young people have studied and done all the things they are supposed to do, to no avail. I wanted my friends to have more “Me” in them. Not “me” as in “what can you do for me?”, “Me” as in, “I’m not gonna stand for this any more.”
The west, naturally, is all about “Me”. Young ones grow up with a huge sense of entitlement. “I’m gonna (and I have a right to) live my dream.” Or “You’ve offended me, I deserve an apology, I want this and this and, to be sure, I’m gonna study what I want.” If, as I believe, Africans, be they continental or diasporic, tend to be deeply non-western in a way that African Caribbeans and African Americans are not, then it is a lot to do with this lack of “Me”. But though I feel this non-westernness has generally stood us in good stead in western societies, by making us more obedient to authority (good for school results) and less likely to fall for the short-termism of self-gratification, we need a little bit of that western self-assertiveness, self-maximisation, in Africa. We diasporic Africans have been good at knuckling down, keeping the pain in and getting on with it, but if it wasn’t for our Caribbean cousins, I doubt black people would have made the political, the activist breakthroughs that we have in this country.
We need more mutant, transgressive spirits in Africa. We need a critical mass, a tipping-point number of people in a generation who are not respectful, not obedient, not deferential, who are more about “Me”, and will march against power. And if I feel more optimistic about South Africa than other countries then it is partly because, I’m someway embarrassed to say, there is more than a touch of the west in that country. In its history and culture, and in the higher expectations among the people, its women just as much as its men. But most of all, 47 years or no, they have turned it round once already. We need that people-power gene to spread and infect the whole sub-Saharan body politic.