Africa needs help – from blacks and whites


By RW Johnson

“I HAD a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong hills. The equator runs across these highlands,” Karen Blixen begins Out of Africa.



erdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif”>For Karen – and other whites who came to live in Kenya – the key was the altitude of 6 000 feet and the cool air. “Up in this high air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart. In the highlands you woke in the morning and thought: here I am, where I ought to be.”


It seems slightly odd to be celebrating her book and her life as a key piece of Africana. A nearby shop prominently displays a picture of Meryl Streep during the filming of Out of Africa. It is as if Karen Blixen’s real achievement was that, long after her death, Robert Redford and Ms Streep were in a film about her.


As you drive around Karen, the name boards at the gates tell their own story – Harney, Griffiths, Koch, Bulloch, Mbwa Kali, Pelizzioli, Dobie, Fryer, Ballantyne Evans, Cross – but the houses are invisible, for the properties here all have several acres and long drives, populated with tall trees and thick multi-coloured bushes.


But there is more than a touch of sadness even here.


“Lots of people are leaving,” I’m told, a fact borne out by the forest of “For Sale” signs. “Not just whites and Asians, but many black professionals.

Some of the blacks go to South Africa but otherwise they go to the same places as the others, the US, Canada, Britain and so forth. They’ve just given up on Kenya.”


You can see why they might. The arrival in power of the reforming Mwai Kibaki government has been the most heartening thing to happen in decades, but the problems are such – and the government’s naiveté so obvious – that it is hard to believe it can quickly reverse the banditry and vigilantism, the ubiquitous power cuts, potholes, vanishing services, sky-high prices, and the Aids orphans in the streets.


I’ve spent a good deal of the last three years in Zimbabwe and the feeling of déja vu is strong. But not complete: after all, the Zimbabwe crisis is about the death frenzy of the liberation culture, of President Mugabe pulling down the pillars of the building rather than be survived by his old enemies, the white farmers. Far worse, Mugabe is deliberately trying to starve out the half and more of Zimbabweans who support the opposition against him.


Nothing remotely like that is going on in Kenya to explain the same despairing emigration. The only thing in common, and perhaps the only thing that matters, is that both countries have for too long endured an African elite in power which knew no bounds of law, patriotism or even of rationality in its enjoyment of power and its kleptomania.


I think of a white Zimbabwean couple I know, their Harare house a beautiful refuge I cannot pass without a surge of warmth. As a young lawyer, Morris abandoned his practice in the Cape after a client was re-classified from white to coloured.


Morris set himself to fight this ruling but the client, overwhelmed by the collapse of his marriage, the dispatch of his children to inferior schools and the need to relocate to a slum, hung himself. Morris and his wife Sandra, atheist Jews both, had found the incident Hitlerist and had decamped to the more liberal world of Southern Rhodesia. Morris became a leading lawyer; Sandra devoted herself to human rights work and, later, to helping Aids victims.


In the end, as Mugabe destroyed the country, I helped them pack for Sydney. Australia was a country where the pillars would not fall down. That, rather than any sense of bitterness, was what they talked about as they packed to leave the country they loved, which they had intended never to leave. I remember one evening after helping them pack, lying in a bedroom full of boxes, wondering: perhaps all whites who stay in Africa long enough will leave as refugees.


Too many whites have behaved badly in Africa for their emigration to arouse much sympathy. In any case, it is beside the point, which is simply that Africa’s crisis deepens by the year. If that crisis is ever to bottom out, if recovery is ever to happen, Africa will need all the hard-working, humane professional people it can find – countries which drive away people like Morris and Sandra are committing suicide.


Many of the professionals who leave Africa today are Africans or Asians but often, still, they’re white. Many black professionals were brought on by whites like Morris and Sandra; theirs was the innovating liberal impulse, the first drive, the original model. It is this, rather than their skin colour, which makes their leaving so significant and so sad.


It had always been hoped that the coming of democracy would see a return of the South African diaspora, for the country had leaked talent throughout the apartheid period. In the event, not one tenth of the white émigrés returned. I was one of the few white returnees of the diaspora. Many, even of those who did return, did not stay long. Everyone welcomed democracy but none could welcome the hugely higher crime rate, the anti-white, anti-Asian and anti-coloured discrimination in the job market and the speed with which Nelson Mandela’s rhetoric of national reconciliation gave way to Thabo Mbeki’s black nationalism.


Young whites flooded abroad in numbers – there are said to be some 300 000 in London alone – and the exodus continues. It is mainly the older age groups who stay, which means that natural mortality will produce a huge shrinkage in the white population in the decade or two ahead.


As the Aids debate has revealed, Thabo Mbeki feels a particular fury over the image (which he feels to be immanent in many discussions of Aids) of black males as sexually irresponsible “disease-carriers” and the depiction in JM Coetzee’s award-winning novel Disgrace of a gang rape had predictably set him roaring. Disgrace was savaged by the ruling party as the epitome of white racism and pretty clearly by the president himself. Coetzee, who has always avoided public statements, said nothing but it was not very surprising when, a few months later, news of his emigration slipped out.

It is a good index of how fearful and ideologically bullied the South African intelligentsia has become that no single word of protest or even regret was uttered at this treatment of the country’s greatest writer. Much as I admire

Disgrace, its message is surely wrong. Given that the doctrine of collective guilt is nonsense, it follows that whites in Africa should only feel guilty if they have individually deserved to do so.


All this must have seemed very obvious in Karen Blixen’s day. What happened in between was the great convulsion of Mau Mau, the ascent and now the collapse of African nationalism. Even Kenyans refer disparagingly to the group which took over in the 1960s as “the nationalists”, for nationalism turned out mainly to be a cover for theft.


It has been the same story elsewhere in Africa. The nationalist determination to get rid of Asians and whites is a key part of this irrational convulsion. What makes it irrational is that these are nationalists devoid of patriotism. Moi is now reputedly the tenth richest man in the world but Kenya’s hospitals, schools and physical infrastructure lie in ruins: everywhere the national patrimony has been plundered. Similarly, Mugabe has cut Zimbabwe’s GDP by 30% in three years and is starving half his countrymen to death, actions justified in the name of the same strange “nationalism” which has no regard for the national interest. – Sunday Times.

l RW Johnson, a former South African Rhodes scholar, was fellow in politics at Magdalen College, Oxford, for 26 years before he returned to South Africa in 1995.

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