Here’s a quote from the Berlin Conference of 1885, in which the European powers set out their goals for Africa:
“… all the powers bind themselves to watch over the preservation of the native tribes, and to care for the improvement of the conditions of their moral and material well-being.”
If an African read that today, she’d die laughing. By “preservation of the native tribes”, what the European powers really meant was “the rape of the land and resources.” By “care for the improvement of the conditions …” they meant “murder the natives if they resist.”
Quite besides the appalling presumption of superiority which led these powers to such paternalistic views, it became quite clear early on what Europe’s incursions into Africa really stood for. King Leopold of Belgium massacred millions of Congolese to gain his fortune. Germany launched a genocidal campaign against the Herero and Namaqua peoples in what is now Namibia. Britain tortured and murdered tens of thousands of the Mau Mau people, in Kenya, for attempting to resist British dominance. And the list goes on …
Lee Wengraf documents all of this and takes a look, through a Marxist lens, at the state of things now. There isn’t much good news. Besides the usual suspects – Europe and the United States – China is now in on the game. With its recent economic boom fueling a need for resources and new commercial markets, China has become the number one “foreign investor” in Africa. For investor, read pillager.
In her Introduction, Wengraf provides a potted history of imperialism in Africa and the damage it did/does. She also debunks a number of myths about the continent: that African poverty is inevitable; that the West’s debt to the continent has now been paid; that there’s a “resource curse” which has disabled Africa; that African countries are ungovernable sites of war and endemic violence; and that ordinary Africans are passive victims of authoritarian rulers or their dysfunction is fueled by ancient ethnic divides.
The fact is, most of Africa’s problems have their root causes in imperialism – the original Scramble for Africa that took place in the nineteenth century. That such a resource-rich continent should contain the world’s most impoverished peoples speaks volumes for how those resources have been handled. Who has profited from Africa’s minerals? Where does the money from all that mining and harvesting end up?
Wengraf writes superbly about the disgraceful history of European and North American meddling in Africa’s affairs. She marshals her facts and reminds us of her forbears in the telling of this tale: Frantz Fanon, Walter Rodney, Eric Williams and many others.
There’s an excellent chapter on “aid” to Africa. Much of it isn’t aid – it’s loans – and much of it goes missing or into the hands of European contractors. Over forty years ago, on finally acknowledging the injustices caused by colonialism, “developed countries” pledged to give 0.7% of their GDP to Africa. Barely a handful have even come close.
Other fine chapters look at The New Scramble for Africa, resource wars, militarism, and class struggle.
It’s a dire tale told brilliantly, with useful embedded mini-essays, graphs, diagrams and interviews. The quotes alone, which begin each chapter and slot seamlessly into the narrative, are a treasure trove. Coming from the mouths of western politicians, they are, generally speaking, a litany of hypocrisy and lies.
This isn’t a cheerful book, but it’s an essential one for anybody interested in this most beautiful and troubled of continents.