Between Rwanda and Mandela

When it comes to Africa, as Wole Soyinka recently wrote in his book "Of Africa," the West is constantly careening between hope and despair, Rwanda and Mandela

A film about Nelson Mandela shown during Mandela International Day, July 2013, at the UN. Image credit Jean-Marc Ferré via UN Geneva Flickr (CC).

I recently reread “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,”  the famous lecture given by the late Chinua Achebe in 1975 and later published in the Massachusetts Review in 1977 (now published by Penguin as one of its Penguin Great Ideas series). It is an excoriating critique of Conrad’s autobiographical novel. Achebe treats Conrad like an overt racist who rendered his African characters as unspeaking brutes, and the African landscape as possessing a virgin innocence as well as an unspeakable darkness. In this way Conrad is shown to be a conventional Victorian racist, and relatedly of deploying some fairly crude gendered tropes to the supposedly African “character.”

Achebe goes on to reflect on the broader European imagination of Africa which Conrad represented. Two excerpts are particularly resonant:

Th[ere is a] desire – one might indeed say the need – in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest…


The West seems to suffer deep anxieties about the precariousness of its civilization and to have a need for constant reassurance by comparison with Africa. If Europe, advancing in civilization, could cast a backward glance periodically at Africa trapped in primordial barbarity, it could say with faith and feeling: There go I but for the grace of God. Africa is to Europe as the picture is to Dorian Gray – a carrier on to whom the master unloads his physical and moral deformities so that he may go forward, erect and immaculate.

Then there’s this quote which opens the historian Helen Tilly’s recent book Africa as a Living Laboratory. It was written by Keith Hancock, author of the Survey of British Commonwealth Affairs in 1937, but it could just as easily have been written by any number of critical postcolonial scholars addressing trends in contemporary representations of Africa:

Africa’s modern empire-builders had the habit of thinking in continental dimensions. The historian, by following them in this habit, may find the clue not only to their achievements, but also to their illusions and extravagances.

What Achebe is saying may sound overly generalizing, but that is only because mainstream political and cultural representations of Africa tend to be so generalizing, flitting from pessimism to optimism, in turn revealing something about metropolitan illusions and extravagances.

As Wole Soyinka has recently written in his book Of Africa, the West is constantly careening between hope and despair, Rwanda and Mandela. It is in this constant flitting that Achebe’s analysis, and that of many others who have critiqued the reductive and racist nature of the ‘dark continent’ Africa discourse, needs extending. For whilst the West’s ideas about Africa can be seen as always having been a process of narcissistic projection, if such a projection is periodically pessimistic and then optimistic, this must involve both the successful transference of deep-seated Western insecurities about its own short-comings onto Africa, thus cleansing them from the Western social psyche (as Achebe argues), as well as the projection of Western insecurities which construct an image of Africa as containing the solution to the West’s problems.

This helps explains why the Western reproduction of Africa swings so wildly between optimism and pessimism. When pessimistic, Africa is constructed as a place of violence, religious conflict, disease and despair, all features of Europe’s not so distant past, but which get emptied out of Europe as a current issue of concern and projected onto Africa. But what of Afro-optimism? We are, indeed, in a time when Africa’s stock in the West has rarely been so high. Celebrations of African culture proliferate (film festivals, literary festivals, and so on), whilst a whole industry of policy and investment guides proclaim Africa’s ‘rise’ as an economic, political and demographic powerhouse.

For those who can cast their minds back 20 years, to the coverage of Somalia, Rwanda, and the breaking of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, such proclamations seem curious. Indeed, whilst current commentators celebrate the ‘demographic dividend’ of Africa’s population boom, in 1994 Robert Kaplan could uncontroversially argue in his infamous piece in the Atlantic Monthly that Africa’s coming anarchy was in danger of not simply engulfing just the African continent, but the whole world, based in large part on yes, Africa’s population boom. More famously still are these two front covers from the Economist Magazine. The first, from a 2000 edition, the second, from 2011. Beyond the colonial imagery in which both covers are embedded (dark continent in the former, childlike and unspoilt in the other), what is striking about these front covers is the absolute about-face they represent in a period of little more than a decade.

Time Magazine pulled a similar stunt albeit over a near 20 year period: First, in January 1984 (“Africa’s Woes”) and the second in December 2012 (“Africa Rising”).

And yet this turnaround is not a straightforward acceptance of Africa’s internal diversity, and sameness vis-à-vis anywhere else in the world, but is in fact yet another staging post in the narcissism which has historically informed Western and specifically metropolitan representations of Africa. Indeed, optimism about certain aspects of African culture, history or politics (when such things were ascribed to Africans, an admittedly rare occurrence) have always accompanied and constituted the imperial encounter with Africa. To claim that imperial imaginations of Africa have been straightforwardly derogatory is to miss the huge optimism about Africans with which 19th century missionaries and humanitarians approached the continent. Once we recognise this we have two options: one, to accept such attitudes as reflecting a perspective on Africa distinct from more mainstream perspectives of the period, or two, to delve into these perspectives and explore their relationship to conventional forms of racism and paternalism. For whilst missionaries were hugely optimistic about African morality, this was only because they expected Africans they encountered to appreciate God in ways which the European Christian ‘flocks’ from whence the missions were sent, with their drinking, gambling and fornicating, seemed increasingly immune to. Missionary optimism about Africans then was almost solely based on a collective narcissism regarding moral decay in Europe, and disappeared pretty quickly once Africans turned out to be quite fond of their own belief systems, and not so different from anyone else in the attention some of them paid to, well, drinking, gambling and fornicating.

What this means for now is that we need to question contemporary narratives about Africa’s economic rise, which have emerged in the context of a Euro-American economic crisis, or about Africa’s ‘demographic dividend’, which have emerged in the context an aging European population with under-funded social welfare provision. This is not to say that (some of) the things these narratives are describing aren’t true, but to question the timing of these analyses, and relate them to a longer history of quite violent swings between optimism and pessimism which have characterised the imperial relationship to and representation of Africa. Over the next couple of years then I hope to be able to return to Africa is a Country with more detailed commentary on particular episodes of Western optimism about Africa, exploring the degree to which the emergence of various movements optimistic about the continent, or certain parts or agents of it, were embedded in metropolitan anxieties which revealed very little about continental Africa, and far more about both Western realities and mythologies. These episodes will include the early 19th Century missionary project in Southern Africa, early 20th century campaigns for African rights, and liberal settler campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s for inter-racialism. By exploring the narcissism of these moments it should be possible to highlight the degree to which contemporary debates around Africa’s ‘rise’ are similarly embedded in Western anxieties about the vitality of state, society and economy.

Is Africa rising? This is a bit of a silly question for a continent which spawned the human race, but by contemporary socio-economic measures, a hugely qualified yes, for some people, in some parts of the continent, depending on who you ask, and when. Was Africa on a precipice of barbarism 20 years ago? Of course not. It is the narcissism of a metropolitan commentariat which has changed in the meantime, far more so than conditions for many of the people living in Africa.

  • This is the first in, hopefully, a series of occasional posts by Gabay for his UK Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project, “‘Africa Rising’ in historical perspective,” which we will publish here.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.