The beginning: Négrologie

I live in Paris and for a long time I have reviewed French books for possible translation by British publishers. One of them was Stephen Smith’s Négrologie: pourquoi l’Afrique meurt for Polity Press in 2005. Smith’s book won public acclaim in France, as well as provoking an angry response in the form of the book Négrophobie, for example. Here are some excerpts from my report.

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Stephen Smith is a journalist who knows Africa very well, has worked of late for Le Monde and has published several books. His subject is nothing less than the death of Africa. We all know that much of Africa is in a terrible mess. But Smith feels that this is obscured by a conspiracy to celebrate the native qualities of black Africans. And, in order to gain attention for his thesis, he paints it in exaggerated terms – Africa is committing suicide with the assistance of those who perpetuate the myth of a black essentialism.

The main title is a pun. Nécrologie is the obituary section of a publication and négrologie has been coined by Smith for the work of professional Africa experts, both white and black, using a term for black that is currently abusive, but was once legitimate (as in négritude). He holds that Africa is dying literally and figuratively. The AIDS epidemic is the third great scourge of Africa after slavery and colonialism. Numerous wars and genocides, especially in the Congo area, are killing off millions. Famine and extreme poverty are also drastically reducing life expectancy. Half a century since independence has seen a marked deterioration of living standards, uniquely in the world. The continent is governed, if at all, by callous thieves and subject to predators from outside in what may amount to a new colonialism.

Which Africa is Smith writing about? There are two basic ways of defining Africa – in terms of race or as a continental territory. He rejects the racial definition and decides to carve out his own territory which is neither North nor Southern Africa, but rather the impoverished middle belt of West, Central and East Africa. Of this, he is mainly concerned with Francophone countries. Nor is he consistent in his own terms, since AIDS, one of his main topics, is most serious in South Africa which occupies the culminating chapter of the book. The other African giant, Nigeria, is almost totally ignored. Kenya gets a mention, but Uganda and Ghana are not considered directly (Museveni is described ironically as “the Bismarck of the Great Lakes”). Even fairly vigorous Francophone countries such as Senegal, Mali and Benin are neglected.

There is no systematic attempt to give an account of the role of the great powers in Africa – the USA, allied with South Africa and Museveni, France and Nigeria increasingly drawn together in opposition to these, China and Japan as aid donors. Britain’s remarkable eclipse as an influence is passed over. Smith’s aim is to show that Africa’s present has no future. Perhaps this is true of France and some of its former colonies; and Nigeria’s potential seems to be indefinitely on hold; but several other players are on a roll, with South African capital entertaining expansionist scenarios not seen since the days of Cecil Rhodes and Asian manufacturers tapping into Africa’s burgeoning market.

If Africa is dying, why has it moved in the space of a century from half of Europe’s population to more than double? In demographic terms it is surely Europe that is dying, not the other way round; and Africans and Muslims from the Mediterranean basin must replace Europeans who can no longer reproduce themselves. The African diaspora, whether the old one made by slavery or the new one made by postwar migration to the cities of the West, is largely missing from his account. Smith does talk about the migration to South Africa after apartheid. But there is much more to it. Ethnically divided countries have not yet formed effective nation-states, but national identity is prominent among the emigrants, just as it was for Europeans in the 19th century.

Even more damaging to this emphasis on a moribund Africa is the astonishing rise of cities in 20th-century Africa. A region which had hardly any urban population in 1900 is now half urbanized. The reality of African societies today is a very young population living in cities with a lot of time on their hands. There has been a cultural revolution in the modern arts as a result of this development, although you would not read about it in this book or in most of the mainstream western media. Rather Africa is portrayed as the unchecked playground of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. This is systematic and some writers have pointed out the continuity with earlier attempts to advocate genocide on grounds of imperialism. “Exterminate all the brutes”, were the last words of Kurz’s report in Heart of Darkness. (Another of Smith’s books is Africa without Africans!) It is hard to miss an apparently unconscious wish today that Africans would die out, instead of merely performing their role as congenital inferiors in world society. Smith’s relationship to this claim is ambiguous.

The author might say that my argument is typical of the lobby of négrologues who perpetuate the existing inequality by painting Africa in unduly amelioristic terms and who call critics like him racist. But I wrote a book of my own over twenty years ago (The Political Economy of West African Agriculture) putting the blame for their predicament on Africans themselves. The difference is that I tried to explain this failure with reference to the historical political economy of capitalism. In essence, this was that African societies had tried to build big modern states on the basis of small agriculture and it couldn’t work. Either some sector of their economies had to incorporate the machine revolution in a drive to higher productivity or their political forms would devolve to a level compatible with small agriculture. The latter has subsequently happened in many but not all parts of the continent.

Now I would say that Africa underwent Gordon Childe’s urban revolution in the 20th century, having started out, as Jack Goody says, with a sparse population and backward technology by the standards of pre-industrial Eurasia. A massive population explosion fuelled the growth of cities and the emergence of new state powers, colonial and post-colonial, creating new classes who lived off the surpluses of rural producers and the fruits of their own political monopolies. More intensive forms of agriculture were adopted without significant industrialization, except in certain enclaves, notably South Africa. Smith cites Fanon’s withering condemnation of the weak African bourgeoisie, but does not explaining why South Africa stands on the brink of continental dominance and the others remain stuck in predatory pre-industrial states or worse. It’s as if capitalism were not still the engine of world economy.

In general, Smith’s analysis is rather hit-and-miss. His descriptions are colourful but not strong on conceptualization. To take one example, the final chapter on South Africa sets out to show that the last decade has seen a miracle that could easily come unstuck in dangerous currents. He makes this contrast hinge symbolically on how the Cape of Storms was renamed the Cape of Good Hope in an early example of Portuguese monarchical spin. The reader is invited to contemplate which of these labels will describe South Africa in the near future. This really won’t do and the rest of the book does not redeem the weakness. It might have an audience, since the plight of Africa is a matter of general concern, as a guide to a current strand of thinking among French and Francophone African intellectuals.

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The response of John Thompson who runs Polity was unexpected. He said I should write my own book on Africa to refute Afro-pessimism. Since then I have drafted many starts and summaries, most of them posted eventually here under the category ‘The African revolution’. I signed up with Polity for three books: Africa’s Urban Revolution, The Human Economy and Economic Anthropology. But work on my Africa was always deferred. Now on this first day of 2011, I am determined to write it, hopefully with a little help from my friends.

Comments |2|

  • Hey Keith,

    I look forward to your book and am glad Polity gave you a nudge. I myself would like to see a really good look at today’s Africa. I think there are many threads that don’t fit the general afro-pessimism that pervades almost all Western writing and analysis.

    Good luck and I look forward to reading the book!


  • Thanks, Saul. We’ll be getting to one of your topics before long, mobile money. But I hope I will press the right buttons before then.