Whether it be famine, hunger, pestilence, tribal wars, destruction of the environment
or extinction of species, many members of the former Colonial Service find it
frustrating to see so many commentaries in the media (even Government inspired
documentaries) putting over a variety of causes and explanations; anything other than
the true cause - the removal from the scene of dedicated Officers of the Colonial
I wonder how long it will be before even South Africa becomes a semi-desert like most of
the rest of Africa where Imperial rule has been removed? Will environmental degradation see South Africa a few years hence
holding out its begging-bowl for overseas aid like much of the rest of the contintent.
Critics will not unnaturally demand that we justify our view that the rot set in with
the phasing out of Colonialism. What indeed were those features of our administration,
the absence of which, we might argue, have led to the present (and
continuing) desolation of Africa?
The only way I can see of answering these critics in a way which is comprehensible
without being vague or too generalised, is to give a thumb-nail sketch (a vignette in
fact) of how it worked on the ground. Only a few days ago I came across some of my
old District Note-Books and what emerges from them will serve the purpose. This is
the way we handled things - subject heading by subject heading.
1. Arms. (Potentially the most important single heading).
A visitor to any African village might be intrigued by the display of spears or bows and
arrows he might see. I once saw a villager take aim at a Gaboon Viper (one of the most
poisonous snakes on earth) with a bow and arrow from a distance of not less than 20
yards. He skewered it straight through the head - a remarkable shot, which I do not for
one moment suggest was the norm. Villagers were, even so, remarkably skilful with
their spears, on which they relied heavily to obtain the inyama (meat, usually from a
wild buck) to supplement their diet of maize or cassava.
Guns were virtually unknown among villagers. The procurement of a 12 bore shot
gun by one resident of a village made him what would virtually be a television
personality in our society. In most villages there would be no firearms at all. This was
not for want of asking. District Commissioners operated one of the most rigid regimes
imaginable so far as shotgun licence applications were concerned. I did it myself. I
remember being posted to a Government outpost and inheriting there a whole pile of
box files from my predecessor containing hundreds of shotgun applications going
back over 30 years in some cases. Every application was expected to be supported by
many testimonials from a variety of directions - and would in any case stand no chance
of success without the endorsement of the applicant’s tribal chief. Even the District
Commissioner did not have the last word; each year, out of the hundreds submitted, I
would forward to the Provincial Commissioner my recommended list of 20 shotgun
licences for the year; he would send back the 12 new approved together with the 8
rejects (which would go into the pool for the next year; I have known such applications
to be shunted on for 10 years). What a celebration there was for one greybeard who at last received his approved application after waiting since he had been a young man!
Today there is virtually no limitation on the possession of arms of all sorts; not only
do those villages have arms, but almost every house has a gun. Res ipsa loquitur ("the thing speaks for itself"). You
don’t have to resort to myths about the ivory trade or outside poachers to find out why
the numbers of elephants have decreased. Elephant meat is tasty - I know, I have
During the period I was in Africa, far from species being rare, the
Government officially offered bounties for shooting them. Anyone who could
produce a lion’s tail to the appropriate Government office received 2 pounds in cash. A
similar sum was paid for the head of a wild dog, while a jackal head produced only 50p.
In fact, there was considerable correspondence from Government to District
Commissioners telling them it was suspected that some villagers were doing a roaring
trade in actually breeding wild dogs and then cutting their heads off to claim the
The picture was slightly different with crocodiles. There were many thousands in
every river, but a fact which rendered bounties unnecessary was that the crocodile skin
was valuable and could be sold. Not all the skin, mind you; just the soft underbelly
and that was where the problem arose. If crocodile hunters did a night’s shoot they
would be interested only in the underskins, and this meant that anything up to a dozen
fetid corpses would be left to rot in the wild. For this reason we had to issue crocodile
hunting licences, making it a condition of each licence that any corpse remains must be
disposed of by fire.
And tbe picture today? No more need be said than that 25 years ago if you took a
landrover across the Kafue plain you went through massive herds of buffalo,
wildebeest, zebra, eland and kudu. Today I am told you will see nothing apart from a
To judge by continuing horror stories, one would imagine that drought
was something new in Africa. Western governments pour money into a so-called relief
situation, which in fact has always been there and has always been surmounted
without any great difficulty so long as the instructions of the local District
Commissioners were properly followed. One has always had to cope too with such
things as deforestation and overgrazing; increasing urbanisation has not helped.
It has always been a fact of life that the Zambezi river is 50 miles wide in places
during the rainy season; 100 yards wide during the dry season. One of the glorious
features of life is to see the first rains after the long dry season; we used to go out and
stand in it fully clothed and get drenched to the skin. But of course if one does not
follow the rules, then disaster may well follow.
One example of such a rule is always to plough on the contour; I wonder how many
do it now? But the matter with which I was most directly concerned was keeping cattle
alive during those long dry months. Now along the Zambezi valley, there grows a type
of tall lush reed which is well known for its enduring properties as cattle-food. There is
no scarcity - it is in plentiful supply. What has to be done, however, is that cattleowners
must cut it in large quantities when it is wet and stack it rather in the shape of a
haystack. It is so rich that it can be used as cattle-food right through the dry season and
keep the cattle alive until the rains come again. We used to run propaganda campaigns
among owners of some 80,000 cattle in my District telling them to cut this grass for their own use. No expense was involved - just the effort of making the stacks. Never
did Nature provide a more accessible solution to a problem. Do you think the locals
would cut the grass of their own accord? Never in a thousand years!
Instead, after a month or two without rain, they would come to complain that their
cattle were dying and that the Government should help them. I suppose today some
relief agency will be throwing dollars at them.
Officers of the Colonial Service have so often been vilified (sometimes with
justification); the tragedy is that they are not normally given credit where credit is due.
In due course the world is going to learn the hard way that famine, pestilence, hunger
and extinction of species go to make up the price of dispensing with Colonialism.