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Tuesday, November 4, 1997 Published at 15:04 GMT




A Farewell To Africa


In a special edition of From Our Own Correspondent in October, the BBC Southern Africa correspondent Allan Little bade farewell to the continent. Allan left Johannesburg after a two-and-a-half year stint which had seen him travel throughout Africa covering stories such as the fall of President Mobutu, the outbreak of the Ebola virus in Zaire, the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda, civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa. Allan reflected on the memories he would take away with him:

"Early summer has come to the South African high veldt and the air is soft and warm and the jacaranda trees are in bud and it is a bittersweet sadness that accompanies the leaving of this place at this time. My mind returns to a day in 1984, in Saint Paul's cathedral in London. Bishop Desmond Tutu tells a packed congregation: "Last month I was in the woods in northern California, in a remote religious retreat, and at dawn I went for a walk and met an old woman. She was the widow of a woodcutter and she said "Each morning when I wake, I include you in my prayers." And then the Bishop bellowed from the pulpit "You see - I am being prayed for at dawn in a forest in northern California - what chance does P W Botha stand!"

When I went to see the Archbishop in Cape Town twelve years later, I asked him why black South Africans wanted reconciliation and not revenge, or even justice.

"I am me because you are you", he said. "We two are connected". And echoing Martin Luther King, "I can never be rich while you are poor; I can never be free while you are enslaved; I can never be fully me until you are fully you."

I came to Africa in the hold of a cargo plane, windowless and freezing in the night air and as we descended the old bones of the fuselage shuddered and creaked and behind my seat a mobile cholera hospital still in its packing cases rattled and shook until we thudded heavily onto the uneven surface of an airstrip in eastern Zaire.

It was the summer of 1994, and my first encounter with Africa was the mass exodus, on foot, of more than a million Rwandan Hutu refugees and the deaths of many thousands of them on the treacherous march that they had chosen. As close as the perimeter fence of the airport the dying began, and each morning as the sun came up there was a new harvest of the dead, many wrapped in reed mats or blankets, anonymous, still, unmourned, waiting to be collected like garbage.

And it was not even possible to feel unqualified sympathy; the humanitarian impulse was deadened by the knowledge that these were people fleeing not genocide, or some natural catastrophe; these were people who were fleeing justice, for among them were the guilty men of the Rwandan genocide who, defeated, had then led their wretched people into a hopeless, punishing wilderness in order to avoid facing the consequences of their own unspeakable evil.

So this was the first Africa of my experience, an Africa where you could not get the smell of death out of your nostrils, to the very pores of your skin it seemed to cling. An Africa it was that chimed with so much of Europe's sense of what Africa is.

But you must resist. For our ill-informed early impressions and emotional responses are conditioned by centuries of thinking about Africa in a peculiar and malign way.

There is a map above the fireplace in my Johannesburg home entitled "A New Description of Africa, 1631" by Willem Janszoon Blaeu, the Amsterdam cartographer and it is remarkable for two things. The first is that the outline - the shape of the coast - is instantly recognisable as accurate in almost every respect. The second is that the interior - everything beyond a mile or two from the coastal perimeter of the continent - is inaccurate in almost every respect. The landscape is etched with lakes and rivers that never existed, but which were for centuries presumed to be - hidden from the eye of adventurous Europe - and which for hundreds of years map-makers drew in the most unlikely places. There is something called Lake Zaire - a huge inland mass of fresh water which was popularly supposed to be the source of both the Nile and the Congo Rivers and which map-makers positioned roughly where northern Angola meets western Zambia today. The real source of the Nile - Africa's greatest Lake, Lake Victoria - does not feature. Elsewhere on his map, Willem Blaeu paints wild animals and strangely clothed human figures to represent terra incognita, and the humorist Jonathan Swift remarked of this that:

Geographers in Afric-Maps

With Savage-Pictures fill their gaps

And o'er inhabitable Downs

Place Elephants for want of Towns.

In the map of Africa which hangs in our European imagination we are still placing elephants for want of towns.

Two and a half years after that first visit to Africa I was on the outskirts of Goma again. This time I was stuck on the wrong side of the border, in Rwanda, trying unsuccessfully, to cross into Zaire. But Zaire was collapsing. The existence of so many refugees - in their midst an army and government still hell-bent on completing their genocide - fed, watered, clothed and housed by the deeply complicit international community - had so destabilised the region that civil war had begun. We stared in disbelief across the forty-yard no man's land. A group of about eight men with machetes and AK 47s were manning the barricade absolutely naked. They goaded us with taunts that those Bazungu - the white men - with cameras and microphones - would soon be dead. We could do them no harm because they were anointed by the sacred oils of the forest and our bullets would turn to water in the air and bounce off their impenetrable skins. On our side of the frontier, sub-Saharan Africa's most disciplined fighting force - the Rwandan Patriotic Army - was also watching, and preparing. Within hours artillery rounds were screaming low and menacing over our heads. The naked men of the anointing oils lay dead. Rwanda invaded eastern Zaire and began the seven month march that toppled the most venal and brutal dictatorship in contemporary Africa, Mobutu Sese Seko's days were numbered.

In May - seven months and thousands of miles later - I walked with that same rebel army - the men and boys of Laurent Kabila's Rwandan backed uprising - to Mobutu's hill top palace at Camp Tshatshi in Kinshasa. Tired boys on weary legs and bare feet - a flip flop army that had fired barely a shot - stormed the citadel in a disciplined, quiet single file that snaked behind us to the heart of the city.

It was an epoch-making moment, the end of an old Africa. No-one personified the bad old post-colonial age like Mobutu, with his CIA backing and his personal fortune salted away in foreign bank accounts and his fairytale palaces built on hubris and his state controlled television station which depicted him for thirty years floating down from heaven to earth on a cloud. No-one was so reviled. No-one so out of touch for so long with the reality that, in the end, was closing in on him. Even with the rebels at his gate, and in control of 95 per cent of his country, he still could not bring himself to believe that it was over.

But it is over. And Mobutu's passing, which began with that terrible exodus of Rwandan Hutus and ended with tired boys from the shores of Lake Tanganyika marching on Camp Tshatshi also marks a passing of a different sort - the passing of that Africa which so betrayed its own people and so disappointed an expectant world.

A new model Africa is emerging from the ruin of the Mobutus and the Idi Amins and the Jean-Bedel Bokassas. President Yoweri Museveni is its guiding light, but he is not alone. Across the continent Africa is turning away from leaders who blamed the past, blamed colonialism, blamed neo-colonialism, blamed the west, for all the ills of the continent. Twenty years ago, the Uganda of Idi Amin was despised and ridiculed abroad, while Amin himself - an absurd figure of fun to western eyes - was reviled and feared by his own people. He turned out to be the dictator with human skulls in his refrigerator at home. Now Uganda has - except in the far north of the country - peace, stability, and - year on year - consistent economic growth of 6 or 7 per cent.

The new model is self-confident, aspires to self-reliance, disdains western notions of what constitutes democracy. The western world pressurises Museveni to introduce multi-party elections soon. "It is not serious" he says. Ugandans know what multi-party elections produce - they produce a tribalised political culture and they produce Idi Amin. Ugandans do not want to go back to that.

By the time of its independence Uganda was 95% peasant. The diverse and stratified class society that had existed under the traditional African kingdoms had been dismantled by colonialism; the artisan class, the ruling class, the iron-smiths and copper smiths and gold miners and itinerant traders had disappeared too, supplanted by colonial administrators with superior technology. And when they - in turn - disappeared, what was left but an illiterate, uniform peasant society which was then invited by the departing colonial authority to partake in a parliamentary democracy based on the Westminster model.

"It is not serious" Museveni repeated. "When you have no socio-economic classes in your society, what will people vote for?" In post-independence Africa the loudest cry was the cry of the tribe. "It is not serious" Museveni repeats. "The conditions were not - and still are not - in place for multi-party politics. You cannot grow rice in the desert. You must create the conditions."

For once, I am in sympathy with the last great, white supremacist to lead South Africa, P W Botha, in sympathy, at least, with one cartoon depiction of him that was prominent during the last days of his ill-fated regime. He is drawn standing on the balcony at his official residence, Union Buildings, and, as far as the eye can see in every direction, stretching towards each distant horizon, there is a great sea of little faces, black faces, pressing around him.

"What's all that?" P W asks his aide.

"It's the people, sir," says the aide. "They've come to say goodbye."

"Why?" says the bewildered P W. "Where are they going?"

P W did not feel the earthquake until it was too late. The ground moved beneath him, and Africa - including South Africa - changed beyond his understanding.

The ground is still moving. I don't know whether the Museveni model - the attempt to modernise and industrialise, educate and urbanise peasant Africa - will work. But I know that there is a new spirit at work on this continent. The removal of Mobutu was Africa's achievement, the work of this new spirit; the rise of Museveni, and of others in his wake, is the work of this new spirit.

And I have seen it here, in South Africa. One brief recollection. Soweto Cricket Oval. England play the opening match of their South African tour. It is the first time black South Africa has been allowed to host first class cricket. The pride is palpable. Mandela visits unannounced. He meets the players. He greets one spectator in a wheel chair, who says to him "Madiba, I want to thank you for what has happened to our country, for our freedom." And Mandela replies "And do you know who won that freedom? You did. I want to thank you."

Eighteen months after Mandela's election as president, I was again in Soweto looking, cynically, for the embittered, impatient voice of disappointed expectation. South Africans were voting in their first non-racial local municipal elections, and they were again queuing down the street and round the corner. What had a year and a half of black rule really achieved I asked. An old lady perched upon a rock gave me the answer I will not forget. "When a child is born you do not expect it to walk on its first day. First it must take its new world in. Then it will learn to sit by itself. Soon it will crawl, and finally it will walk. Our democracy is a new-born child. One day it will walk tall, but for now it needs care."

And you can draw a line from Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu through Martin Luther King and back through the centuries to John Donne and No Man is an Island. There is a bittersweet sadness in the leaving of this place at this time, but we have lived through and witnessed the birth and early days of a brave new hope. And I will take Desmond Tutu's lesson with me forever now for it is my own personal homage to this remarkable, turbulent, yearning continent. "I am me, because you are you; I can never be free, while you are still enslaved. I can never be fully me until you are fully you." "





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