As soon as I qualified as a doctor, I went to Rhodesia, which was to transform itself into Zimbabwe five years or so later. In the next decade, I worked and traveled a great deal in Africa and couldn’t help but reflect upon such matters as the clash of cultures, the legacy of colonialism, and the practical effects of good intentions unadulterated by any grasp of reality. I gradually came to the conclusion that the rich and powerful can indeed have an effect upon the poor and powerless—perhaps can even remake them—but not necessarily (in fact, necessarily not) in the way they wanted or anticipated. The law of unintended consequences is stronger than the most absolute power.
I went to Rhodesia because I wanted to see the last true outpost of colonialism in Africa, the final gasp of the British Empire that had done so much to shape the modern world. True, it had now rebelled against the mother country and was a pariah state: but it was still recognizably British in all but name. As Sir Roy Welensky, the prime minister of the short-lived and ill-fated Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, once described himself, he was “half-Polish, half-Jewish, one hundred percent British.”
Until my arrival at Bulawayo Airport, the British Empire had been for me principally a philatelic phenomenon. When I was young, Britain’s still-astonishing assortment of far-flung territories—from British Honduras and British Guiana to British North Borneo, Basutoland, Bechuanaland, and Swaziland—each issued beautiful engraved stamps, with the queen’s profile in the right upper corner, looking serenely down upon exotic creatures such as orangutans or frigate birds, or upon natives (as we still called and thought of them) going about their natively tasks, tapping rubber or climbing coconut palms. To my childish mind, any political entity that issued such desirable stamps must have been a power for good. And my father—a communist by conviction—also encouraged me to read the works of G. A. Henty, late-nineteenth-century adventure stories, extolling the exploits of empire builders, who by bravery, sterling character, superior intelligence, and force majeure overcame the resistance of such spirited but doomed peoples as the Zulu and the Fuzzy-Wuzzies. Henty might seem an odd choice for a communist to give his son, but Marx himself was an imperialist of a kind, believing that European colonialism was an instrument of progress toward History’s happy denouement; only at a later stage, after it had performed its progressive work, was empire to be condemned.
And condemned Rhodesia most certainly was, loudly and insistently, as if it were the greatest threat to world peace and the security of the planet. By the time I arrived, it had no friends, only enemies. Even South Africa, the regional colossus, with which Rhodesia shared a long border and which might have been expected to be sympathetic, was highly ambivalent toward it: for South Africa sought to ingratiate itself with other nations by being less than wholehearted in its economic cooperation with the government of Ian Smith.
I expected to find on my arrival, therefore, a country in crisis and decay. Instead, I found a country that was, to all appearances, thriving: its roads were well maintained, its transport system functioning, its towns and cities clean and manifesting a municipal pride long gone from England. There were no electricity cuts or shortages of basic food commodities. The large hospital in which I was to work, while stark and somewhat lacking in comforts, was extremely clean and ran with exemplary efficiency. The staff, mostly black except for its most senior members, had a vibrant esprit de corps, and the hospital, as I discovered, had a reputation for miles around for the best of medical care. The rural poor would make immense and touching efforts to reach it: they arrived covered in the dust of their long journeys. The African nationalist leader and foe of the government, Joshua Nkomo, was a patient there and trusted the care implicitly: for medical ethics transcended all political antagonisms.
The surgeon for whom I worked, who came from England, was the best I have ever known and a man of exemplary character. Devoting his enormous technical accomplishment to the humblest of patients, he seemed not only capable of every surgical procedure, but he was a brilliant diagnostician, his clinical intuition honed by a relative lack of high-tech aids: so much so that others in the hospital regarded him as the final court of appeal. I never knew him to be mistaken, though like every other doctor he must have made errors in his time. He saved the lives of hundreds every year and inspired the most absolute trust and confidence in his patients. He never panicked, even in the direst emergency; and he knew what to do when a man had been half eaten by a crocodile or mauled by a leopard, when a child had been bitten in the leg by a puff adder, or when a man appeared with a spear driven through his skull. When called in the early hours of the morning, as he frequently was, he was as even-tempered as if attending a social event. Greater love hath no man. . . .
He was not a missionary, however; he was infused by nothing resembling a religious spirit, only by a profound medical ethic and an enthusiasm for his art and science. He wanted a varied and interesting surgical practice, and he wanted to save human life; and the Rhodesia of the time offered him ideal conditions for using his skills to maximum benefit (even the best of surgeons relies on a well-organized hospital to achieve results). Within a short time of the political handover in 1980, however, he returned to England—not because of any racial feeling or political antagonism but simply because the swift degeneration of standards in the hospital made the high-level practice of surgery impossible. The institution that had seemed to me on my arrival to be so solid and well founded fell apart in the historical twinkling of an eye.
In leaving Zimbabwe and returning to England, he accepted a much reduced standard of living, whatever the nominal value of his income. Talleyrand said that he who had not experienced the ancien régime (as an aristocrat, of course) knew nothing of the sweetness of life. The same might be said of him who had not experienced life as a colonial in Africa. I, whose salary was by other standards small, lived at a level that I have scarcely equaled since. It is true that Rhodesia lacked many consumer goods at that time, due to the economic sanctions imposed upon it: but what I learned from this lack is how little consumer goods add to the quality of life, at least in an equable climate such as Rhodesia’s. Life was no poorer for being lived without them.
The real luxuries were space and beauty—and the time to enjoy them. With three other junior doctors, I rented a large and elegant colonial house, old by the standards of a country settled by whites only 80 years previously, set in beautiful grounds tended by a garden “boy” called Moses (the “boy” in garden boy or houseboy implied no youth: once, in East Africa, I was served by a houseboy who was 94, who had lived in the same family for 70 years, and would have seen the suggestion of retirement as insulting). Surrounding the house was a red flagstone veranda, where breakfast was served on linen in the cool of the morning, the soft light of the sunrise spreading through the foliage of the flame and jacaranda trees; even the harsh cry of the go-away bird seemed grateful on the ear. It was the only time in my life when I have arisen from bed without a tinge of regret.
We worked hard: I have never worked harder, and I can still conjure up the heavy feeling in my head, as if it were full of lead-shot and could snap off my neck under its own weight, brought about by weekends on duty, when from Friday morning to Monday evening I would get not more than three hours’ sleep. The luxury of our life was this: that, our work once done, we never had to perform a single chore for ourselves. The rest of our time, in our most beautiful surroundings, was given over to friendship, sport, study, hunting—whatever we wished.
Of course, our leisure rested upon a pyramid of startling inequality and social difference. The staff who freed us of life’s little inconveniences lived an existence that was opaque to us, though they had quarters only a few yards from where we lived. Their hopes, wishes, fears, and aspirations were not ours; their beliefs, tastes, and customs were alien to us.
Our very distance, socially and psychologically, made our relations with them unproblematical and easy. We studiously avoided that tone of spoiled and bored querulousness for which colonials were infamous. We never resorted to that supposed staple of colonial conversation, the servant problem, but were properly grateful. Like most of the people I met in Rhodesia, we tried to treat our staff well, providing extra help for them for the frequent emergencies of African life—for example illness among relatives. In return, they treated us with genuine solicitude. We assuaged our conscience by telling ourselves—what was no doubt true—that they would be worse off without our employ, but we couldn’t help feeling uneasy about the vast gulf between us and our fellow human beings.
By contrast, our relations with our African medical colleagues were harder-edged, because the social, intellectual, and cultural distance between us was far reduced. Rhodesia was still a white-dominated society, but for reasons of practical necessity, and in a vain attempt to convince the world that it was not as monstrous as made out, it had produced a growing cadre of educated Africans, doctors prominent among them. Unsurprisingly, they were not content to remain subalterns under the permanent tutelage of whites, so that our relations with them were superficially polite and collegial, but human warmth was difficult or impossible. Many belonged secretly to the African nationalist movement that was soon to take power; and two were to serve (if that is the word to describe their depredations) as ministers of health.
Unlike in South Africa, where salaries were paid according to a racial hierarchy (whites first, Indians and coloured second, Africans last), salaries in Rhodesia were equal for blacks and whites doing the same job, so that a black junior doctor received the same salary as mine. But there remained a vast gulf in our standards of living, the significance of which at first escaped me; but it was crucial in explaining the disasters that befell the newly independent countries that enjoyed what Byron called, and eagerly anticipated as, the first dance of freedom.
The young black doctors who earned the same salary as we whites could not achieve the same standard of living for a very simple reason: they had an immense number of social obligations to fulfill. They were expected to provide for an ever expanding circle of family members (some of whom may have invested in their education) and people from their village, tribe, and province. An income that allowed a white to live like a lord because of a lack of such obligations scarcely raised a black above the level of his family. Mere equality of salary, therefore, was quite insufficient to procure for them the standard of living that they saw the whites had and that it was only human nature for them to desire—and believe themselves entitled to, on account of the superior talent that had allowed them to raise themselves above their fellows. In fact, a salary a thousand times as great would hardly have been sufficient to procure it: for their social obligations increased pari passu with their incomes.
These obligations also explain the fact, often disdainfully remarked upon by former colonials, that when Africans moved into the beautiful and well-appointed villas of their former colonial masters, the houses swiftly degenerated into a species of superior, more spacious slum. Just as African doctors were perfectly equal to their medical tasks, technically speaking, so the degeneration of colonial villas had nothing to do with the intellectual inability of Africans to maintain them. Rather, the fortunate inheritor of such a villa was soon overwhelmed by relatives and others who had a social claim upon him. They brought even their goats with them; and one goat can undo in an afternoon what it has taken decades to establish.
It is easy to see why a civil service, controlled and manned in its upper reaches by whites, could remain efficient and uncorrupt but could not long do so when manned by Africans who were supposed to follow the same rules and procedures. The same is true, of course, for every other administrative activity, public or private. The thick network of social obligations explains why, while it would have been out of the question to bribe most Rhodesian bureaucrats, yet in only a few years it would have been out of the question not to try to bribe most Zimbabwean ones, whose relatives would have condemned them for failing to obtain on their behalf all the advantages their official opportunities might provide. Thus do the very same tasks in the very same offices carried out by people of different cultural and social backgrounds result in very different outcomes.
Viewed in this light, African nationalism was a struggle as much for power and privilege as it was for freedom, though it co-opted the language of freedom for obvious political advantage. In the matter of freedom, even Rhodesia—certainly no haven of free speech—was superior to its successor state, Zimbabwe. I still have in my library the oppositionist pamphlets and Marxist analyses of the vexed land question in Rhodesia that I bought there when Ian Smith was premier. Such thoroughgoing criticism of the rule of Mr. Mugabe would be inconceivable—or else fraught with much greater dangers than opposition authors experienced under Ian Smith. And indeed, in all but one or two African states, the accession to independence brought no advance in intellectual freedom but rather, in many cases, a tyranny incomparably worse than the preceding colonial regimes.
Of course, the solidarity and inescapable social obligations that corrupted public and private administration in Africa also gave a unique charm and humanity to life there and served to protect people from the worst consequences of the misfortunes that buffeted them. There were always relatives whose unquestioned duty it was to help and protect them if they could, so that no one had to face the world entirely alone. Africans tend to find our lack of such obligations puzzling and unfeeling—and they are not entirely wrong.
These considerations help to explain the paradox that strikes so many visitors to Africa: the evident decency, kindness, and dignity of the ordinary people, and the fathomless iniquity, dishonesty, and ruthlessness of the politicians and administrators. This contrast recently struck me anew when a lawyer asked me to prepare a report on a Zimbabwean woman who had stayed illegally in England.
She was in her forties and clearly in a disturbed state of mind. Mostly she looked down at the floor, avoiding all eye contact. When she looked up, her eyes seemed focused on infinity, or at least upon another world. She spoke hardly a word: her story was told me by her niece, a nurse who had come (or fled) to England some years before, and with whom she now stayed.
During the war of “liberation,” her brother had enlisted in the Rhodesian army. One day the nationalist guerrillas came to her village and commanded her parents to tell them where he was, that they might kill him as a traitor to the African cause. But not knowing his whereabouts, her parents could not answer: and so, in front of her eyes, and making her watch (she was 17 years old at the time), they tied her parents to trees, doused them in gasoline, and burned them to death. (At this point in the story, I could not help but recall the argument, common among radicals at the time, that those African countries that liberated themselves by force of arms faced a better, brighter future than those that had been handed independence on a plate, because the war of liberation would forge genuine leadership and national unity. Algeria? Mozambique? Angola?)
Whether or not it was witnessing this terrible scene that turned her mind, she was never able thereafter to lead a normal life. She did not marry, a social catastrophe for a woman in Zimbabwe. She was taken in and looked after by a cousin who worked for a white farmer, and she spent her life staring into space. Then the “war veterans” arrived, those who had allegedly fought for Zimbabwe’s freedom—in reality, groups of party thugs intent upon dispossessing white farmers of their land in fulfillment of Mr. Mugabe’s demagogic and economically disastrous instructions. The white farmer and his black manager were killed and all the workers whom the farm had supported driven off the land. Hearing of her aunt’s plight, her niece in England sent her a ticket.
This story illustrates both the ruthless appetite for power and control unleashed in Africa by the colonial experience—an appetite made all the nastier by some of the technological appurtenances of the colonialists’ civilization—and the generosity of the great majority of Africans. The niece would look after her aunt uncomplainingly for the rest of her life, demanding nothing in return and regarding it as her plain duty to do so, also asking nothing from the British state. Her kindness toward her aunt, who could contribute nothing, was moving to behold.
My Zimbabwean experiences sensitized me to the chaos I later witnessed throughout Africa. The contrast between kindness on the one hand and rapacity on the other was everywhere evident: and I learned that there is no more heartless saying than that the people get the government they deserve. Who, en masse, could deserve an Idi Amin or a Julius Nyerere? Certainly not the African peasants I encountered. The fact that such monsters could quite explicably emerge from the people by no means meant that the people deserved them.
The explanations usually given for Africa’s post-colonial travails seemed to me facile. It was often said, for example, that African states were artificial, created by a stroke of a European’s pen that took no notice of social realities; that boundaries were either drawn with a ruler in straight lines or at a natural feature such as a river, despite the fact that people of the same ethnic group lived on both sides.
This notion overlooks two salient facts: that the countries in Africa that do actually correspond to social, historical, and ethnic realities—for example Burundi, Rwanda, and Somalia—have not fared noticeably better than those that do not. Moreover in Africa, social realities are so complex that no system of boundaries could correspond to them. For example, there are said to be up to 300 ethnic groups in Nigeria alone, often deeply intermixed geographically: only extreme balkanization followed by profound ethnic cleansing could have resulted in the kind of boundaries that would have avoided this particular criticism of the European mapmakers. On the other hand, pan-Africanism was not feasible: for the kind of integration that could not be achieved on a small national scale could hardly be achieved on a vastly bigger international one.
In fact, it was the imposition of the European model of the nation-state upon Africa, for which it was peculiarly unsuited, that caused so many disasters. With no loyalty to the nation, but only to the tribe or family, those who control the state can see it only as an object and instrument of exploitation. Gaining political power is the only way ambitious people see to achieving the immeasurably higher standard of living that the colonialists dangled in front of their faces for so long. Given the natural wickedness of human beings, the lengths to which they are prepared to go to achieve power—along with their followers, who expect to share in the spoils—are limitless. The winner-take-all aspect of Africa’s political life is what makes it more than usually vicious.
But it is important to understand why another explanation commonly touted for Africa’s post-colonial turmoil is mistaken—the view that the dearth of trained people in Africa at the time of independence is to blame. No history of the modern Congo catastrophe is complete without reference to the paucity of college graduates at the time of the Belgian withdrawal, as if things would have been better had there been more of them. And therefore the solution was obvious: train more people. Education in Africa became a secular shibboleth that it was impious to question.
The expansion of education in Tanzania, where I lived for three years, was indeed impressive. The literacy rate had improved dramatically, so that it was better than that of the former colonizing power, and it was inspiring to see the sacrifices villagers were willing to make to enable at least one of their children to continue his schooling. School fees took precedence over every other expenditure. If anyone doubted the capacity of the poor to make investments in their own future, the conduct of the Tanzanians should have been sufficient to persuade him otherwise. (I used to lend money to villagers to pay the fees, and—poor as they were—they never failed to repay me.)
Unfortunately, there was a less laudable, indeed positively harmful, side to this effort. The aim of education was, in almost every case, that at least one family member should escape what Marx contemptuously called the idiocy of rural life and get into government service, from which he would be in a position to extort from the only productive people in the country—namely, the peasants from whom he had sprung. The son in government service was social security, old-age pension, and secure income rolled into one. Farming, the country’s indispensable economic base, was viewed as the occupation of dullards and failures, and so it was hardly surprising that the education of an ever larger number of government servants went hand in hand with an ever contracting economy. It also explains why there is no correlation between a country’s number of college graduates at independence and its subsequent economic success.
The naive supposition on which the argument for education rests is that training counteracts and overpowers a cultural worldview. A trained man is but a clone of his trainer, on this theory, sharing his every attitude and worldview. But in fact what results is a curious hybrid, whose fundamental beliefs may be impervious to the education he has received.
I had a striking example of this phenomenon recently, when I had a Congolese patient who had taken refuge in this country from the terrible war in Central Africa that has so far claimed up to 3 million lives. He was an intelligent man and had that easy charm that I remember well from the days when I traversed—not without difficulty or discomfort—the Zaire of Marshal Mobutu Sese Seko. He had two degrees in agronomy and had trained in Toulouse in the interpretation of satellite pictures for agronomic purposes. He recognized the power of modern science, therefore, and had worked for the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, and was used to dealing with Western aid donors and investors, as well as academics.
The examination over, we chatted about the Congo: he was delighted to meet someone who knew his country, by no means easily found in England. I asked him about Mobutu, whom he had known personally.
“He was very powerful,” he said. “He collected the best witch doctors from every part of Zaire. Of course, he could make himself invisible; that was how he knew everything about us. And he could turn himself into a leopard when he wanted.”
This was said with perfect seriousness. For him the magical powers of Mobutu were more impressive and important than the photographic power of satellites. Magic trumped science. In this he was not at all abnormal, it being as difficult or impossible for a sub-Saharan African to deny the power of magic as for an inhabitant of the Arabian peninsula to deny the power of Allah. My Congolese patient was perfectly relaxed: usually, Africans feel constrained to disguise from Europeans their most visceral beliefs, for which they know the Europeans usually feel contempt, as primitive and superstitious. And so, in dealing with outsiders, Africans feel obliged to play an elaborate charade, denying their deepest beliefs in an attempt to obtain the outsider’s minimal respect. In deceiving others about their innermost beliefs, often very easily, and in keeping their inner selves hidden from them, they are equalizing the disparity of power. The weak are not powerless: they have the power, for instance, to gull the outsider.
Perhaps the most baleful legacy of British and other colonials in Africa was the idea of the philosopher-king, to whose role colonial officials aspired, and which they often actually played, bequeathing it to their African successors. Many colonial officials made great sacrifices for the sake of their territories, to whose welfare they were devoted, and they attempted to govern them wisely, dispensing justice evenhandedly. But they left for the nationalists the instruments needed to erect the tyrannies and kleptocracies that marked post-independence Africa. They bequeathed a legacy of treating ordinary uneducated Africans as children, incapable of making decisions for themselves. No attitude is more grateful to the aspiring despot.
Take one example: the marketing boards of West Africa. Throughout West Africa, millions of African peasants under British rule set up small plantations for crops such as palm oil and cocoa. (Since cocoa trees mature only after five years, this is another instance of the African peasant’s ability both to think ahead and delay gratification by investment, despite great poverty.) Then the British colonial governments had the idea, benignly intended, of protecting the peasant growers from the fluctuations of the marketplace. They set up a stabilization fund, under the direction of a marketing board. In good years, the marketing board would withhold from the peasants some of the money their crops produced; in bad years, it would use the money earned in the good years to increase their incomes. With stable incomes, they could plan ahead.
Of course, for the system to work, the marketing boards would have to have monopoly purchasing powers. And it takes little imagination to see how such marketing boards would tempt an aspiring despot with grandiose ideas such as Dr. Nkrumah: he could use them in effect to tax Ghana’s producers in order to fund his insane projects and to subsidize the urban population that was the source of his power, as well as to amass a personal fortune. A continent away, in Tanzania, Nyerere used precisely the same means to expropriate the peasant coffee growers: in the end causing them to pull up their coffee bushes and plant a little corn instead, which at least they could eat, to the great and further impoverishment of the country.
The idea behind the marketing boards was a paternalist colonial one: that peasant farmers were too simple to cope with fluctuating prices and that the colonial philosopher-kings had therefore to protect them from such fluctuations—this despite the fact that it was the simple peasants who grew the commodities in the first place.
After several years in Africa, I concluded that the colonial enterprise had been fundamentally wrong and mistaken, even when, as was often the case in its final stages, it was benevolently intended. The good it did was ephemeral; the harm, lasting. The powerful can change the powerless, it is true; but not in any way they choose. The unpredictability of humans is the revenge of the powerless. What emerges politically from the colonial enterprise is often something worse, or at least more vicious because better equipped, than what existed before. Good intentions are certainly no guarantee of good results.