Stephen Chan is an eminent Africanist and in Grasping Africa he gives us some
fascinating insights on the continent which generally represent modern thinking and
attitudes. He has travelled widely and worked at the University of Zambia.
His preoccupations include corruption, AIDS, the G8 and help to Africa, and the
involvement of Bob Geldof. There is the consequent implication that Africa's future is to
a great extent in our hands rather than its own. While acknowledging that nobody has all
the answers of Africa's problems he does tend to blame them on the 'West's atrocious
history towards Africa'. I am not sure whether this includes premature independence
coupled with inadequate preparation for it.
When he says 'They have no economic strategy but the anticipation of relief' he may
be right, but whose fault is that in the face of the West's relentless determination to pile
aid and debt-forgiveness on the continent? In that situation how can a local public
opinion develop or local policies arise to address local needs and priorities? There is
scant consideration in the book of the impact of cultural and historical factors, and their
bearing on how countries are governed. They are amongst the problems that only
Africans themselves can grasp.
One basic error includes Chan's supposition that the two Congo's (Kinshasa and
Brazzaville) arose from a single country and many people would say that his statement
that 'there were seldom entities such as African tribes except that they were creations of
the colonial administration' is simply not true. Most people who know the continent
would disagree too with his view that 'we have nothing to learn from Africa'.
Grasping Africa is quite right to emphasize the need to understand Africa but in this it
seems to me to fall short in three basic areas including the impact of history and the
colonial heritage. For instance in Zambia there was no corruption at all before
independence and this position was sustained for several years. Also it is part of the
Zimbabwean tragedy that Robert Mugabe did not fully appreciate and value the huge
strengths on many levels he had inherited from his country’s brand of colonisation.
Secondly I wonder whether Chan is asking the right questions on what is holding
Africa back. Factors such as the impact of past racism on culture, confidence and selfstereotyping
and consequently on local leadership and the ability to get things done, are
surely more important than what Geldof, Bono, Brown or Blair do or did.
Thirdly and finally there is little acknowledgement in the book of African strengths
such as generosity of spirit and the ability to learn and adapt quickly and to put up with
uncertainty. These and other strengths surely give more reason for hope for the future
than the author is prepared to acknowledge.