You Ignorant (Hard-Working) African

There is an interesting anecdote doing the rounds at the moment, written by Field Ruwe, a Zambian novelist and journalist currently based in California. It tells the story of a chance meeting on a plane between Ruwe and ‘Walter’, a former IMF official now working in a similar capacity for another organisation.  On realising that Ruwe is from a country with which Walter has had some connection, a conversation is struck up.  Walter starts by boasting of the pleasant time he had in Zambia, when he came as part of an IMF delegation to “rip you guys off”, and that he is about to repeat the scam under the auspices of a different organisation; of the theft of native American land and of the exploitation that the Bwana (masters, often used to denote whites) reap from the spoils of their trickery.   Rowe silently reacts and on noticing his reaction, Walter aknowledges the fundamental similarity of people of differing pigmentations. Then goes on to assert:

And yet I feel superior…  . The white guy who picks up garbage, the homeless white trash on drugs, feels superior to you no matter his status or education. I can pick up a nincompoop from the New York streets, clean him up, and take him to Lusaka and you all be crowding around him chanting muzungu, muzungu and yet he’s a riffraff.

He goes on to explain why he believes that is.  That while the working class of Africa break their backs, the educated middle class are content to accept cushy jobs and an indolent lifestyle that they now have access to, while Africans in the diaspora use their credentials not for the benefit of their homeland, but to feather their own nests.  He ends by recommending Ruwe reads “The Lords of Poverty” by Graham Hancock, which extends the analysis of Nkrumah, to give a damning indictment of the international aid industry, an industry which exploits the working class through the pretect of “help”, offloading unsalable goods; buying off officials; providing a cushy lifestyle and income for “international development consultants”, paid for by the Western working class, partly through taxation, and partly through guilt-ridden charitable donations. Whether the above story is an account of a true event, or a fictional tale is neither here nor there.  The story has been well received by middle class Africans, resolving  that they had now seen the error of their ways and that they would now work as though in the early days of a better nation.  Walter’s ideas are not new though; anyone with a passing reference to Fanon will be aware of this criticism of the post-colonial middle-class. Writing in the early 60s, right at the start of post-colonial Africa, Fanon noted the paucity of the African bourgoise, who called for nationalisation, not as a method of running the continent for the benefit of its people but to secure their own place as the middlemen between the exploited working class and their European exploiters. Schooled by the colonialist and absorbing their values, they seek to appropriate the unfair advantages which they have observed in the hands of the colonialists and appropriate a sliver of it from themselves, using nationalism and racism where required to perpetuate the system gifted.

The native bourgoise which comes to power uses its class aggressiveness to corner the positions formerly kept for foreigners.

Fanon – an Algerian revolutionary, said essentially the same things that Walter said in greater depth and much more eloquently.  Why then has this story told by an ex-pat African (with three university degrees no less), about a white financier’s opinions that he met on a plane travelling between two US cities have more resonance with Africa intellectuals than what is essentiallly the same diagnosis from one of their own, who saw it first hand as the revolutionary rather than the neo-colonialiser? Perhaps because Fanon went on to explore solutions which went beyond the “work harder; exploit more” favoured by the Bwantu.  The development model of the Asian economies, based on near-slave labour and the development of markets for export benefits the bourgoise of those countries, giving their native enriched respect and even deference on the worldwide stage in a way that no mere-middleman, no matter how great the value of the raw materials to which he is gatekeeper, can command.  If the African bourgoise is to be taken seriously by the Bwantu he needs to become an exploiter in his own right, not just a facilitator for exploitation by others. Instead Fanon advocated that rather than the intellectual worked harder; the hard-working were intellectualised.  That a process of revolutionary education was instigated – aimed not at indocrinating the masses with imported schemes of Western thought, but of an education rooted in the circumstances in which they found themselves, basing it on their native understanding of their circumstances.  To some extent this is “de-education” – ridding the people of the notions continually taught to them that rich people are rich because they work hard, they deserve it, and land ownership is located in bits of paper – liberating their native intelligence to realise that the fruits of their labour which they do not enjoy is because of theft, that there is nothing virtuous in living off the labour of others, and that land belongs to those who till it.  For university degrees may buy you entry to the club, but true intellect is not measured in pieces of paper.

Field Rowe, in recanting this tale, demonstrates his ignorance by totally ignoring one of the greatest African intellectuals who 50 years ago said much the same things, but also showed the way forward.  His ignorance is on prominent display at the end of the article where he lists his Western credentials. Scotland will soon be entering its own post-colonial period.  While the damage done to us is nothing to the atrocities wreaked on Black Africa,  atrocities, in which our countrymen were complicit, our people were burned from their homes and left to die of exposure; our lands have been sold off to disinterested speculators and, most recently, our coastline stolen in a stunning act of legal trickery.  While we are working as tho we were in the early days of a better nation, we must learn the lessons of Fanon and remember to build that better nation to work in.

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