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West should understand African mindset

By Charles Frizell

THE current attention that Africa is receiving is very welcome, but I fear that all the most well-meaning efforts will come to nothing and end in bitterness and recriminations from both si


This is because there is no understanding whatsoever in the West of African values and mindset. The values in Africa are fundamentally different from those of the West, or the east for that matter.

The West is puzzled and angry that South African president Thabo Mbeki and other leaders do not roundly condemn the Mugabe dictatorship. Yet to an African it is very obvious. When one member of a family is criticised by an outsider, the family sticks together. All Africans share a bitter memory of discrimination and oppression by the colonial powers.

What is most hurtful is the arrogance of the Europeans who automatically assume their superiority. This is so automatic that it is often unconscious. We in Africa are considered to be no more than another species of animal in a vast game reserve.

For centuries Africans have been put down and humiliated. It is naïve to think that this can be forgotten in a handful of years.

Most Africans feel emotionally insecure due to the way they have been treated in the past. This applies just as much to presidents and prime ministers as it does to the common man. This may seem illogical to Europeans because these men and women have power and success. However, there is always the suspicion that they are being sniggered at behind their backs. And this is true a lot of the time.

To be the recipient of aid brings shame, to need aid at all is equally shameful. In Africa it is also well-known that nearly all the aid benefits the donor country far more than the recipient. Ailing industries are given hidden subsidies disguised as aid. We know that when the “project” ends, so will all back-up. Spare parts will only be available at enormous cost and local industry will have been crippled or destroyed.

The aid workers look down on the local people and consider their postings as nothing more than a paid holiday – fun in the sun. It is not possible to give meaningful aid without an intimate knowledge of the country, and the “we know best what is good for you” attitude is both arrogant and ignorant.

Africans are also very cynical about the good intentions of Europeans. We have learned to our cost that expediency and self-interest have always ruled paramount. We wonder why there is all this talk of aid, which diminishes us instead of fair trade that would empower us. The greatest affronts to Africa are trade barriers and subsidies such as the Common Agricultural Policy.

We do not believe that Europe or America will make the sacrifice of giving up these protectionist practices, but until they do so, all the protestations of goodwill will fall on deaf ears. They will simply not be believed as anything more than patronising condescension.

Public criticism of African leaders is very unlikely to bring any positive results. However, that does not preclude behind the scenes persuasion of the standard carrot and stick type.

The carrot is there in the form of the financial muscle of the West that can ensure markets for African products and investments in African countries. The stick is also there. But many in Africa considers Britain as a toothless bulldog; nothing has changed in decades.

Britain and Europe are ridiculed because of their hand-wringing and indecisiveness when push comes to shove. In Africa, we respect power and resolution; we do not respect weakness and those who simply cry in their beer.

I sincerely hope that the new focus on Africa will encourage people in Britain and Europe to try and understand Africa and Africans, and not only understand us, but treat us as valid human beings.

Many of the dictators we suffer under were in fact installed by Britain and the other European powers, yet now these countries distance themselves and say that they are our own problems.

* Charles Frizell is a Zimbabwean who writes from the UK.

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