Africans and Anarchism

HENRY DOWA, born in Lagos, 1935, is now at the Polytechnic, London.

Submitted by Reddebrek on July 15, 2016

I MUST ADMIT THAT IT WAS AS FOOLISH TO AGREE to write under such a title as it would be to write on Europeans and anarchism, in which case I would certainly be asked "What kind of Europeans?" For in Europe, besides people who live in comfort and luxury you will find. if you look, people who live in poverty, people who are virtually slaves, people who are nomadic or who live in holes in the ground. And in Africa you will find, if you look, people who can pay £3,000 for a bed, as well as people who have three or four Cadillacs and fifty slaves. Even in political terms you can find freedom and slavery side by side in both continents.

No, it is better to write about a person than about people. Not a typical person, but can there, except as a statistical fiction, be a typical person? (There are assuredly not any typical people and the typical African is as mythical as the typical European). My non-typical person is Mr. Ezekiel Mphahlele, who took a one-way ticket from South Africa to Nigeria in 1957, having been banned from teaching his own people in his own land. "I had to get out or shrivel up with bitterness," he says, and he now lives with his wife and three children in Nigeria, having first taught at a school in Lagos and more recently become an extra-mural lecturer of the University College, Ibadan.

Whether Mr. Mphahlele is an anarchist by your definition I do not know, but I think he is according to his own: "All my life, people have been at my soul, tugging at it in different directions. I have chafed under unrelenting controls, enthusiastic evangelizing, ruthless police watchfulness. So many other hands have been reaching out for mine, and so many voices have been babbling about my ears like the idiotic rattling of wheels of a moving train and I must scream, leave me alone. Downright anarchy, downright individualism, you may say. I enjoy a fair amount of both, at any rate in my thought-life."

The first fruits of his residence in Nigeria was his book Down Second Avenue, (Faber 1959), where he tells first of his early childhood as a tribal herd boy and then describes his boyhood and youth in a city slum: "Marabastad, like most locations, was an organised rubble of tin cans", and his experiences at a secondary school and at Adams College, and his young married life at Orlando. Being a teacher, he could not help being a rebel for the "Code of Syllabuses in Native Primary Schools" prescribed text books of history which glorified white colonization and the defeat of African tribes, grammar books full of examples like "the Kaffir has stolen a knife; that is a lazy Kaffir", and Afrikaans verse "which was either lyrical vapourings about natural phenomena or fighting talk inspired by the Great Trek." Whenever he applied for a job, the Security Branch hounded him out of it, telling employers how he had been dismissed for subversive activities. Finally he went to teach at his own old school, then supervised by Father Trevor Huddleston, where he could be paid from school funds and not from the government. The school, like the college he had attended was closed by government decree in 1956, and then he went to work for the magazine Drum, though his outlook resisted Drum's "arbitrary standard of what the urban African wants to read: sex, crime and love stories". His wife too had quit teaching when Verwoerd, then Minister for African Affairs "made it clear that African teachers were going to be used for training children as slaves."

When he arrived in Nigeria, Mr. Mphahlele found a glorious sense of release. This Nigerian sun, he says, "will burn up at least such prejudice and bitterness and hate of thirty-seven years as haven't grown into my system like kikuyu grass." That was several years ago. Since then Mr. Mphahlele has visited Britain, the United States and Paris and, back in Nigeria has "been chafing and trying to readjust my underdog mentality — in short, to live with freedom."

Partly to clear his own mind he has written a new book on The African Image (Faber and Faber 1962, 21s.). Half of this book is a literary excursion into "The White Man's Image of the Non-White in Fiction" and into "The Black Man's Literary Image of Himself". He is critical of the bulk of the former literature, finding the best writers to be those who have a disinclination to recognize boundaries in human character and whose characterization "follows no prescriptions usually determined by the "race problem".

On the latter literature his comments of special interest are on the flowering of West African literature which he finds to be very different from that of his own country. "There are not, in West Africa the anger, impatience, restlessness, moodiness, romantic violence and the self-assertive laughter which hit the various planes of South African expression." In West Africa, he believes, because of the large communities of illiterate and unsophisticated folk, "and the resultant wide gulf between the educated man and the uneducated, the clash between the old and the new is much sharper than you can ever see in the South. And the artist in West Africa is preoccupied with this clash." His special praise is for the Ghanaian poet Efua Sutherland,. and the Nigerian poets Gabriel Okara and Wole Soyinka, and for the powerful Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, whose great book Things Fall Apart (which has just been reprinted by Heinemann's in a five shilling edition) tells of the historical clash between the old life and the new in an Ibo clan. The story is told with that detachment which is Mr. Mphahlele's own literary aim: the struggle, as he puts it "to express the larger irony which is the meeting point between acceptance and rejection, once he has felt the impact of Western civilisation."

In his chapter on "The African Personality" Mr. Mphahlele discusses whether or not this "charming phrase" really means anything at all; "Négritude" he finds to be little more than a cult among returning exiles who had the misfortune to be educated in France, and about African Nationalism in Southern Africa he declares that "If nationalism is the antithesis of tribalism, then I am a nationalist. But if, in a multi-racial society, a nationalist's object is to replace a white dictatorship with black fascism, to replace, say, Afrikaner tribalism with black chauvinism, then I can't go along with him." This is his faith in the future of South Africa: "I personally cannot think of the future of my people in South Africa as something in which the white man does not feature. Whether he likes it or not, our destinies are inseparable … The white man has detribalised me. He had better go the whole hog. He must know that I'm the personification of the African paradox, detribalised, Westernised, but still African — minus the conflicts."

Capitalist economy, he points out to the reader, has for a long time been battening on African traditions. "Our traditional forms of communism and communal responsibility in which the land belongs, to the people under the chief's trusteeship, co-operative farming, and so on, are fast going. Private enterprise is setting in. Africans have amassed capital and have enormous interests in property, for all the talk of Socialism in certain parts of West Africa. Programmes for redistribution of land and other social reforms do not exist in such parts."

The saddest thing in Mr. Mphahlele's book is his comparative assessment of the position of the "educated African" in both South and West Africa. In the South, "It is a lonely man who is not taken seriously by his own people yet cannot keep aloof from them and their daily miseries." On the other hand, in the former colonies, "The educated African in a colonial context has thus merely stepped into the colonial administrator's shoes. In certain cases he will not like too many enlightened people near him and will like to keep the masses in the dark. Will he have the moral courage to resist this temptation to entrench himself?"

This writer is as bitterly critical of the set-up in his adopted country as of his native land:

Two things stand out uppermost in this colonial pattern. First, is the fact that the British administration has a quiet way of according such special treatment to the educated African as to cut him off from the masses. And then there is the terrible legacy of the British class system. The second results from the first; this distance between the enlightened and the unenlightened makes it virtually impossible for the ignorant to remedy any defection among the ruling classes, whom they idolise with the same reverence that they accord the chief.

The class distinction I intimate is felt subtly among the educated class. Occupational rank and income seem to determine this class consciousness. Since coming to Nigeria two years ago, I have sensed this, tried to ignore or excuse it. But it has kept imposing itself on me. Then I came to realise that the main concern of the average educated African in Nigeria is to get into Government service, which affords him civil servants' quarters, a car, at least two servants and a comfortable living …

Cultural activity becomes the business mainly of those in the lower strata who find their lives empty without some ritual or other. Extra-mural lectures and week-end schools organised by the university college had a bias for studies in government and economics … In contrast to this, the Negro in Southern Africa, who is denied a share in government, finds an escape and self-expression in intensive cultural interest — music festivals, choral activity, jive sessions, jazz bands and troupes, writing.

These charges are exaggerated and they could easily be answered, but their value is as an antidote to complacency. They show how freedom cannot tame him any more than oppression could defeat him. He remains the most anarchic voice in African literature, and not a completely lonely one.

In South Africa, we non-whites are fashioning a proletarian culture that is a compromise between the traditional and the modern. What would be the point of moaning about "our traditional culture," much of which has been knocked about as a result of military conquest, economic and industrial activity, the migrant labour system which destroys communal and family life, the removal of whole communities from place to place by government decree, the conscious efforts of old-fashioned missionaries, etc.? To fight a rearguard action by trying to revive a pure traditional culture among 5,000,000 urbanised non-whites, 3,000,000 detribalised labour tenants on white people's farms or to arrest the situation among the remaining 3,000,000 unsettled Africans in the rural reserves, would be unrealistic — and even fatal — for our efforts to break down the present political structure.