The British Empire Library

Grasping Africa - A Tale of Tragedy and Achievement

by Stephen Chan

Courtesy of OSPA

Jonathan Lawley (Northern Rhodesia 1960-69)
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.

British Empire Book
Stephen Chan
I B Tauris
978 1 84511 285 1


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe