New ideas on Africa’s inequality

There was a moment in Angola’s history when the Angolan army, supported by Cuban troops, was locked in battle with the South African army and the guerrilla fighters of Jonas Savimbi’s Unita in the country’s southeastern regions. At the same time, its offshore oil wells were being protected by private American security and its oil was being shipped to the United States.

A self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist regime was calling on the solidarity of its communist allies (and they spilt their blood and halted the South African advance), even as it privatised the country’s national resources and enriched itself by deals with corporate capitalism.

Indeed, as Ricardo Soares de Oliveira shows in his excellent book, Magnificent and Beggar Land: Angola since the Civil War (Jacana), Angola’s ruling elite behaves exactly like a private corporation, amassing power and money at a furious rate, whereas as much as 90% of the population lives in abject poverty. President José Eduardo dos Santos, in office for 35 years, is one of the richest men in Africa, yet only lip service is paid to the poor or to the general development of the country. That is, unless there’s money to be made by government middlemen – hence the ghost cities, built by the Chinese, that stand empty in the wasteland.

And a wasteland is what most of Angola is, still suffering from the three-decade civil war the regime allowed to continue for its own convenience, its overall public policy being very much that of “war communism”: a perpetual crisis that allows the state to delay democratisation and use the most repressive ways in the name of survival and “the revolution”. Little of that wasteland was under government control until recently, when it had to be essentially reconquered. Luanda, the most expensive city in Africa, is an enclave of wealth and progress in an otherwise “beggar land”.

The background to the situation described by Soares de Oliviera is given in Richard Dowden’s Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles (Portobello), first published in 2008 but updated for its 2015 paperback edition. Dowden traces the earliest encounters between Portuguese explorers and slave traders on the Angolan coast, showing how the present rulers are the descendants of a mestiço or mixed-race group who arose when those combative slavers indigenised themselves in coastal enclaves and resisted even the Portuguese state’s attempts to discipline them and to formalise Angola’s status as a colony.

The mestiço class hung on to its elite status all the way. Key members of that class were educated in Portugal, acquiring the support and formative influence of the Portuguese communist party. They returned to Angola as guerrillas fighting for independence and, after some factionalisation and internal bloodletting, took power. Now this “Marxist-Leninist” Angolan elite, made rich by oil, go to Portugal to invest their millions and spend it in lavish shopping sprees.

Dowden, an African correspondent for The Independent and The Economist for 30 years, does a country per chapter, more or less (HIV gets its own), and his book is a very readable mix of first-person observation and broader historical and political analysis. Personally, I nearly put the book down when I encountered the first of many massacres, but something kept me reading. Dowden’s combination of on-the-ground reportage and bird’s-eye view is compelling.

One may wonder at how he keeps the cliché of happy, welcoming, warm-hearted Africans afloat amid all the massacres, never mind the ongoing despotism, but perhaps that’s an optimism of the will – or an overriding humanism.

One may be irked, too, at what often comes across as a high British style of condescending compassion (and Dowden’s updates to the South African chapter, in particular, seem rushed, generating small inaccuracies), but the stories he tells grab the reader’s attention and hold it for all the book’s 600 pages.

More of the African story, especially its economic development (or lack of), is told in The Fortunes of Africa by Martin Meredith, published in paperback early this year by Jonathan Ball. For the even wider context of world history, Sampie Terreblanche’s opus Western Empires, Christianity, and the Inequalities between the West and the Rest (Penguin) is jammed with information and analysis going back to the 16th century, but is rather textbooky to read. It came out late in 2014 but was on my reading agenda well into 2015.

Just out from Penguin is a collection of Breyten Breytenbach’s speeches, titled Parole/Parool because it’s in both English and Afrikaans, sometimes both in the same speech. The most radical (poetically and politically) writer of his generation and now probably Afrikaans’s Greatest Living Poet, Breytenbach takes a provocative stance in his utterances on a public platform.

Among those here are early talks challenging white South Africa’s beliefs, his famous speech from the dock when he was tried for terrorism, musings on the future of Afrikaans, and some dark thoughts on the occasion of a tribute to his late comrade, André Brink. He is as willing to excoriate the ANC’s predatory elite as he was to damn apartheid and its supporters.

In keeping with his commitment to the word and to the imagination (Africa must be reimagined, he says), Breytenbach’s poetic sensibility infuses his speeches, enlivening them a great deal even as it adds a little creative confusion. He’s willing, likewise, to play with quasi-fictional characters and selves, speaking as Bitterbrak Buiteboer, subjecting himself to a question-and-answer session, or finding the voice of the mythic dog, goat or bird within.

Also a painter, Breytenbach admires Leonardo da Vinci for “painting backwards to the unknowable I as if to light” as much as he admires William Faulkner for “going down into the thickets of language”. As in his poetry, in his speeches he is keen on wordplay in an almost Joycean mode, which is effective in the agglomerative bastertaal or bastard tongue of Afrikaans and less so in English. But there can be few writers able to bring as wide a range of ideas, from Zen to deconstruction, to bear on a consideration of the situation – and lives lived – here in Moermekaarland.

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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