/ 27 February 2003

Representatives of the righteous rich are on the march again

Like some evangelical missionaries of the 19th century, who strode forth in alien lands to convert the heathen with Bible in one hand and rifle in the other, the righteous representatives of the rich are on the march again. But while some prepare to smite, with massive technological might, others serenely now offer poor, ignorant Africans the comfort of the good word — in this case, the de luxe blessings of British journalism.

The Spectator, the famous British conservative weekly (founded 1828), has launched an appeal to send copies of the magazine to Africa, in order to offer spiritual and intellectual sustenance to the benighted citizens of this poor continent. In December the magazine’s editorial said: ”If there is one commodity in which Africa has not, alas, been lacking in the past 40 years, it is bad ideas.”

It addressed readers, earnestly: ”In the spirit of Sir Bob Geldof, we urge them to think of Africa this Christmas. But we do not ask them to send cash, to be squandered by governments and NGOs. We do not ask for food aid, or milk-bottle tops. Help us, instead, to send The Spectator to Africa, as readers helped 15 years ago to send it to Eastern Europe.”

An Australian friend recently sent me this editorial with the scribbled (satirical) comment: ”So you see, you and the Trib readers were entirely on the wrong track!”

He was referring to an appeal I launched in Tribune, a left-wing weekly, to help rebuild a poor school near Cape Town. Our readers responded generously to kick-start this fund, and the school now has seven new classrooms. But perhaps we should, instead, have asked our readers to sponsor copies of Tribune to be mailed to the unemployed parents of these children, who live in an overcrowded shack settlement. For what they need, evidently, is not more classrooms, but the wisdom of British political journals.

Yet that, it seems, would have compounded the problem; for the lefty Tribune is contaminated by those very ideas which, apparently, are the root cause of Africa’s woes.

Archly, The Spectator admits that ”the writings of, say, Taki will be a puzzle to, say, the Bushmen of the Kalahari”, but continues: ”The intention is not to provide an answer; it is simply to provide a choice. It is also, of course, our modest hope to provide entertainment to those whose lives may sometimes be bleak.”

You can almost hear those jowls wobbling as the port is passed on at the vicarage. This combination of turgid pomposity and sanctimonious self-righteousness, mixed with dripping self-satisfaction and self-aggrandisement would be hard to parody.

The sermon goes on: ”We cannot rule out the possibility that The Spectator might open the minds of intelligent African readers to a whole way of thinking that has been diligently suppressed on the continent, and which they will not find in the politically correct pap distributed by the UN [United Nations] and the NGOs … For far too long, Africans have been schooled by European and American intellectuals in the art of excusing themselves for their own plight.”

Curiously, this act of intellectual charity is to be accomplished ”with the enthusiastic help of the British Council”. So in the name of promoting British culture, a Labour government is, in the 21st century, still keen to export elevating literature — if not the good word, then a free market gospel — to those wretched and improvident natives.

You do wonder sometimes (when you live here, at the southern tip of Africa) if those highly educated chaps who pen this stuff actually read what they’ve written. Or if they’ve ventured out of their offices at Doughty Street, WC1, in the past decade or so?

Those in power — in these parts, at least — now defer and genuflect to the market gospel. The Spectator, in some myopic time warp, seems unable to distinguish between the fact that, today, new elites in Africa no longer tend to object so much to free market ideology as to the cloying, colonial-era arrogance that is still frequently dispensed — like milk-bottle tops — along with such prescriptions (and condescending subscriptions).