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24 May 2002 00:00
Africans must find their own solutions to their problems rather than pointing fingers.
To many people whose societies have suffered under the colonial yoke, Dinesh D’Souza’s two cheers for colonialism (May 10) must look exceptionally preposterous.
Yet if I were John Matshikiza—an African like myself—I wouldn’t have reacted to the essay as furiously as he did [See A colonised intellect].
Many, even in D’Souza’s native India, would be far from happy with his take on colonialism—cheering as he does one of the great crimes against humanity.
But the man is on solid ground, however flawed his reasoning might appear.
After India became free in 1947 the country was able to pick up and run with the ball the British oppressor had set rolling. In the context of its highly diversified culture, it internalised, adapted and more or less succeeded in harnessing for its own development the interaction of the three Western institutions D’Souza praises—science, democracy and capitalism.
Of course, today we define development as the West defines it, for the clock cannot be turned back, and we all have to go along with the order of things.
I would be the first to agree that India is no prosperous, Western country, dogged as most Indians are by grinding poverty and the primitive conditions they live in. To what extent colonialism is responsible for this I cannot tell.
However, the signs are many that it is a country with a sense of direction, that is providing for its people, and that it can no longer be regarded as a Third World backwater. It has a first-class education system whose bright young products are among the most-sought after scientists in the world today; and a free-market economy that is slowly catching up with the developed world.
As Matshikiza rightly points out, human development is an intertwined sequence of relationships that causes some societies to grow and some to wane at different times in history. Which is why he should not have ignored a small subtext in D’Souza’s argument: if India had been left alone to develop at its own pace, what then?
Would D’Souza have enjoyed the benefits of scientific progress, democratic freedoms and capitalist productivity—introduced under no matter what level of duress to his ancestors?
In any case it is not a debate Africans should waste their energy on, which brings me to the second reason why Matshikiza should have kept out of it.
The whole thrust of his article was to reassert: “Yes, colonialism is the principal source of the biggest problems facing the World’s non-white peoples.”
Although understandable coming from a black South African, or any other black person for that matter, he falls into the old trap of apportioning blame whenever the bitter issue of past interaction with whites comes up. The underlying fallacy is that white races have a monopoly on oppressing other peoples.
Even a basic knowledge of human history shows the often bloody, violent struggles for territory, resources and trade (including the trade in slaves) have not always been instigated by whites against peoples of other colours. From any perspective, the inherent evil looks the same.
Also, history has taught us that it is the better prepared, better armed and better organised that win these struggles. We can see the present-day manifestation of such power balances in the Western-imposed “new world order”, globalisation and in the policies of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organisation.
It is the responsibility of educated Africans to face up to these realities, to propose, suggest or find out ways for Africans to survive under this order of things.
Colonial boundaries are blamed for Africa’s many ethnic conflicts, including those of the Great Lakes region. But one finds little discussion among Africans about whether such intractable problems could be solved if the boundaries were redrawn.
In my native Rwanda, any scholar knows, one of the main causes of the 1994 genocide was a competition for meagre resources. But other than a change of political power from one ethnic group to another, the problems remain the same.
Forty years after independence, the African state remains a distant, abstract concept—a vehicle for the chiefs to fatten their bank balances, rather than for the general good. There is much wailing (and “political” activity) against such leaders, but in the more than seven African countries I’ve lived in or visited , there are few focused struggles for higher ideals. The buying off of the opposition is the norm almost everywhere.
The energies of Africa’s intellectuals must be relentlessly directed at attacking problems like these, rather than dissipated by pointing fingers.
Shyaka Kanuma is last year’s recipient of the CNN/Free Press Africa Award, and has been awarded a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University
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