Book: Which Way Africa? The Search for a New Society

By Basil Davidson | Sun 8 August 2010

Being an Africentric organisation it is not often that Ligali reviews works by non-Africans nor is it a habit we feel the need or desire to do so. Yet following the recent passing of Basil Davidson, the well known writer on historical Pan African affairs it seemed right we should mark his death with the reintroduction of one of his best if least known books.

Which Way Africa? is a brave works. In many ways it could only have been written by a european who had acquired the courage to expose himself to the barbarity of his own clan and as a result acquire the humanity to critique and appraise Pan African affairs through an informed and ‘active’ observatory lens.

Which Way Africa? The Search for a New Society by Basil Davidson

Davidson was a self taught writer whose willingness to take risk, travel to Africa and support revolutionary movements led to him being targeted by oppressive european governments and whitelisted as a ‘prohibited immigrant’ both in South Africa and other parts of Africa illegally invaded by British imperialism.

The British government sabotaged his career and vetoed his appointment as an editor at UNESCO, even today he is often portrayed by europeans as a ‘radical’ although his credentials as credible journalist, campaigner and meticulous historian who charted the history, death and subsequent transformation of colonialism in Africa is undeniable.

The opening chapters of Which way Africa? starts by establishing the political climate at the time the book was written. It describes a specific era of Maafa before then moves onto recognising the existence of advanced pre-colonial societies and systems of governance in Africa before opting to use ‘the balance sheet of history’ approach to honestly and accurately assess the nature of ‘The Foreign Contribution’ to Africa as a benevolent force of maldevelopment.

First published in 1964 and revised in 1967 this book attempts to document the spirit of African political thought by connecting first to the diverse, dynamic societal personality of Mama Africa and her children. It is a brave attempt which succeeds in many ways because the author has no qualms in using his ‘white privilege’ to share and hence disseminate the authentic African voice. It is definitely worth noting however that alongside the remarkable commentary made authoritative by Davidsons’ honest revelation of biases and preconceptions are a superb collection of quotes and cultural writings from some of the world’s preeminent revolutionary artists, thinkers and leaders across time.

Indeed, at no point does the author seek to explore the key libratory ideas moving across the continent without integrating the so called African personality that developed them into his analysis. His approach is holistic and not only considers the influence and genesis of Pan-Africanism and ‘negro’ nationalism but also the immense influence of cultural artists emanating from both the African Continent and its Diaspora that can be characterised in the political and spiritual naturalisation elements of Aime Cesaires’ Negritude movement of 1939. It is this attention to detail that makes Which Way Africa? feel like an academic journal written as the result of a collaborative effort by Africans with Davidson acting as narrator.

That is not to say that there are no flaws.

In describing African ideologies and revolutionary thought the book contains almost no reference to religion and little on African spirituality.

‘The dead are not under the earth:
They are in the fire that is dying,
they are in the grasses that weep,
they are in the whimpering rocks,
they are in the forests, they are in the house,
the dead are not dead...’

A Dogon poem on the Muntu (the nature of death and the Ancestors)

There is a small section summarising the rich philosophical metaphysical beliefs of the continent characterised by the Dogon but the failure to reflect on the role of european and arabic religions in perpetuating the subjugation of Africans and the role played by traditional African spirituality in resistance to that immoral savagery is a significant omission in this work. The diminution of the North African expansionist problem as mere ‘arab socialism’ is also problematic as is the thin assessment of transatlantic enslavement and its damaging impact on the landscape of Continent and psyche of the African.

Worse yet, Davidson’s’ description of colonial officials as ‘conscientious men of good will’ grates immensely. Thankfully much of the critism stops here as he is both robust and methodical in detailing the colonial war (ill-described as a ‘crisis’) on rural Africa that introduced famine through illegal land grabs to a Continent that had never known such frequency of mass starvation before contact with the europeans.

As such it can be safe to assume that these weaknesses are likely to have occurred due to the fact that Davidson is not an African (although seen by many as an honorary one) and this occasionally leads to some of his understanding being processed too clinically thereby whilst capable of accurately presenting African thought and opinion, he is simultaneously incapable of transmitting its meaning without missing some of the key cultural nuances that underpin them.

Thankfully this is rare and successfully counter balanced by the clear rejection of the spurious notion of imperialism as a ‘civilising’ tool of good mantra espoused by the racist revisionist narrative produced by inferior historians such as Niall Ferguson, Andrew Roberts and their contemporaneous ilk. Davidson is brave enough to admit that whilst the introduction of some european intrusions helped ‘fewer people [fall] victim to disease, because modern medical techniques protected them... more people suffered from malnutrition, because larger harvests failed to accompany larger populations’. In exposing the machinations of the colonial engine as the architect of the endemic social and economic crisis in Africa, the reader is led to understand the root cause behind the existing impoverishment faced by Africans lies in the legacy effects of forced labour for ‘wages insufficient to provide for [the African] basic, essential needs of health, decency, and hard working efficiency’.

Davidson later quotes President Nyerere of Tanzania;

“When a society is so organized that it cares about its individuals, then provided he is willing to work, no individual within that society should worry about what will happen to him tomorrow if he does not hoard wealth today. Society itself should look after him, or his widow or his orphans. This is exactly what traditional African society succeeded in doing. Both the ‘rich’ and the ‘poor’ individual were completely secure in African society... Nobody starved, either of food or of human dignity, because he lacked personal wealth: he could depend on the wealth possessed by the community of which he was a member.”

Without seeking to minimising the entirety of colonial apparatus during this period to ‘one of simple disintegration’, in balance, African people were being enslaved on their own soil. Alien foreign values were being forcibly imposed upon a Continent hugely resistant to the introduction of an ‘acquisitive society’. Davidson reveals how this mass resistance was tragically subjugated by the introduction of ‘floods of booze poured in from every side’ leading to a situation where revulsion towards capitalism became supplanted by a survival instinct where ‘everything is dominated by money’.

This book is for students of Africa and indeed european inhumanity seeking to understand the true political temperature on the motherland when revolutionary leaders like Kwame Nkrumah came into power. It describes the pre-colonial democracy in place and reveals ‘the notion that Britain brought democracy to West Africa is... quite erroneous. On the contrary, Britain did much to destroy the indigenous democracy. Neither is the idea of an opposition a new one. Alongside every chief [in Ashanti] was a mankrado or krontinhene of whom it was said... is opposed to the chief’.

Stagnant theories that continue to articulate that Pan African movements was just a ‘political reaction to colonial rule’ give way to evidence that proves the contrary, whilst with significant consideration of ideologies such as socialism and communism, Africanism developed as a return to a indigenous developed ‘movement of social regeneration’.

It shines light on the source of hostility between Nigeria which adopted a state policy of neutralism and Ghana vilified by the British for implementing African socialism whilst seeking Pan African unity. What was the continental backdrop behind the formation and dissolution of the Federation of Mali (17 January 1959 - 1 August 1960) and other such Pan African unions? How did the denigratory impact of imperialist ‘anti-communist’ propaganda succeed in undermining the progressive effects of African socialism? What was the ideological thought underpinning the revolutionary proponents of African resistance following the barbarism of european led enslavement, colonialism, apartheid and neo-colonialism through the instrument of balkanization. All these questions are answered with considered thought and depth.

Davidson has recorded some of the African groundwork that facilitated the progressive machinations of the so called independence era. It includes a full copy of the Charter of Unity made in Addis Ababa, 25 May 1963 and provides an excellent study into the deliberate maldevelopment of humanistic based societies by contrasting western and African interpretations and implementation of civil behaviour and advanced civilisation. Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Portugal are just a few of the nations that still maintain exploitative neo-colonial systems revealing their leaders and supportive people still need to take note.

Which way Africa? also explains how Africa today remains divided as a collection of impotent nation states artificially created as colonies designed to serve european needs perpetually by westernised neo-colonial administrators masquerading as sovereign leaders.

‘I feel ridiculous...
in their shoes, in their dinner jackets,
In their stiff shirts, their paper collars,
with their monocles and bowler hats
I feel ridiculous
with my toes that were not made
to sweat from morning to evening
in their swaddling clothes that weaken my limbs
and deprive my body of its beauty’

Sang by Leon Damas, Muntu, London 1961

In 1960 a european member of a Tanganyika legislative council wrote ‘Tanganyika is largely, condemned, through its colonial heritage to a plantation economy manned by labour at subsistence level’. It is therefore somewhat tragic that over fifty years later his analysis was proved to be correct. But this is not to mean it is right to adopt a fatalistic approach to Africa’s destiny. If civilisation is the product of civil behaviour by a group of peoples, then Davidson’s repeated revelation of the deliberate institutionalised barbarity perpetrated against Africans makes illegitimate all claims by europeans of being agents of progressive moral, emotional human development. But the book also provides balance in detailing the growth of ‘government by oligarchical elites whose members are sometimes bound together by traditional ties, but more often by a network of private interests...’

A penchant for corruption and profligacy by a new national bourgeoisie increased affecting not only Nigeria and Liberia under President Tubman but also Ghana leading to Nkrumah famously making a dawn broadcast condemning ‘luxury living, fulminated against the personal dissipation of national wealth, and appealed for higher standards of morality. But the get-rich-quick brigade paid little heed.’

Yet, the ultimate triumph of the book is not in detailing what was done to Africa, but instead in the revelation of the existence of true African leaders who possessed the ability, intellectual capacity and most important of all had the spirit and creativity of vision required to work towards fulfilling the aspirations of Africa’s mass populations. In doing this Davidson has provided a skeletal blueprint for an African renaissance that upon deeper examination reveals itself to be just as relevant today as when it was originally written.

“We have made a mistake [said the Arusha Declaration] to choose money, something which we do not have, to be our major instrument of development”

External Links
Guardian - Basil Davidson obituary
Times - Basil Davidson

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