By Didas Gasana
When Nelson Mandela was freed from jail in South Africa in February 1990, hope for Africa was ignited. A few months later in July, Cameroon became the first African country to reach the quarterfinals of Soccer’s World Cup. In 1992 the Democrats fronted by Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton came to power in the United States, in an administration more sympathetic to Blacks than any since independence in 1776. In the 1990s Black Governors, Black Senators, Black mayors of major American cities became so common as to no longer make news. Ghana’s Kofi Annan became the head of the United Nations (1996-2006), while Nigeria’s Chief Eleazar Emeka Anyaoku became Commonwealth Secretary General (1990-2000) and Tanzania’s Salim Ahmed Salim was the OAU Secretary General (1989-2001).
Never in history had the three largest world bodies been headed by Black Africans. General Colin Luther Powell, the first Black National Security Advisor, the first Black chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff also became the first Black Secretary of State. Later, a black man (BO) became the world’s most powerful man. As with continental Africa, the 1990s appeared to usher in the dawn of a new era for Black America.
And yet as with Africa, there were, under the surface, signs that indicated that Black America was, in fact, going backward in the area that matters the most: the family. Reported Newsweek magazine in its August 30, 1993 edition as it tried to put this Black American dysfunction into perspective: “For blacks, the institution of marriage has been devastated in the last generation: 2 out of 3 first births to black women under 35 are now out of wedlock. In 1960, the number was 2 out of 5. And it’s not likely to improve any time soon. Many black leaders rush to portray out-of-wedlock births as solely a problem of an entrenched underclass. It’s not. [Even] even among the well-to-do, the differences are striking: 22 percent of never-married black women with incomes above $75,000 have children, almost 10 times as many as whites.” In a 2004 risk assessment document titled “African Security Review”, the Institute of Strategic Studies in Johannesburg, South Africa commented this way: “Although the period 1966–1970 had the highest rate of successful coups, what is particularly significant is that despite the demise of the Cold War in the late 1980s and the onset of sustained liberal democracy, there has not been the marked reduction in the incidences of coups [in Africa] one would have expected. The increase in instances of military coups between 1995 and 2001 challenges the general expectation that democratisation brings about a more stable socio-political environment.”
So there we are. We appear to advance, only to take enough steps backward to reverse all gains made. In 1977, the Jamaican reggae singer-songwriter Bob Marley took a wider interest in Africa but realized the problem was bigger than he had ever imagined and he appeared to give up hope about the Black man ever gaining any form of viable position on the world stage. In a bitter and fatalistic song Natural Mystic on side A of the 1977 album Exodus by Bob Marley and The Wailers, Bob Marley sang gloomily of what he saw befalling Africa: “Many more will have to suffer/Many more will have to die/Don’t ask me why/There’s a natural mystic blowing in the air.”
But could it be that the blacks have a certain peculiar dysfunction? Look at this: On May 30 and 31, 2006, the American television broadcaster, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) aired a special two-part series titled “The Age Of AIDS”, a look back at 25 years of one of the deadliest medical epidemics in mankind’s history. In the second part of this excellent documentary programme Frontline, aired on Tuesday May 31, the series reported on South Africa, the country with the highest number of HIV-positive people in the world. An HIV-positive South African High Court judge and AIDS activist, Edwin Cameron, told PBS of the frustration that the AIDS activists of South Africa went through in trying desperately to get the then South African President Nelson Mandela to get involved in the fight against AIDS.
“At the time I chaired the National Convention on AIDS, my co-chair and I made every effort we could to get an audience with President Mandela and we didn’t succeed. We got an audience instead with deputy President de Klerk…Our efforts which were sustained and determined and insistent to get President Mandela to involve himself personally in the epidemic were unsuccessful.” (Frontline, PBS, May 31, 2006).
Many people around the world generally have an image of Nelson Mandela as a likeable, gentlemanly heroic freedom fighter who helped end apartheid and restore dignity to the oppressed Black people. Most do not know the troubling side to Mandela and the damage — the extreme damage — that Mandela did to his country by his indifference to the AIDS crisis in his country, and how this indifference has and will continue to bring much more suffering to the Black South Africans than what they suffered during apartheid. Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki, was no different from Mandela.
Well-educated, a President who uses a personal laptop computer and corresponds by email, Mbeki has consistently denied any link between AIDS and the HIV virus that is said to cause it. To make matters worse, Mbeki’s government had stubbornly refused to give antiretroviral drugs to the millions who begged for them, because of this belief that AIDS is caused by poverty, not HIV. At the 13th World AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa — the first ever held in a developing country — Mbeki repeated his views on AIDS to a stunned audience. Reacting to Mbeki, an Indian-South African AIDS activist, Zackie Achmat, was almost speechless on the May 31, 2006 PBS Frontline programme. “There’s nothing in the world that can explain it,” he said, before repeating, “There is nothing in the world that can explain it: to find out that a government does not care about the lives of poor people and the lives of Black people, and are prepared to consign us to the graveyard, was actually quite shocking.” That is the part of Africa that has confounded and puzzled even those who care about Africa the most — things so irrational and whose consequences are so severe, but done by their leaders and “There’s nothing in the world that can explain it.” If AIDS — the greatest threat to Africa’s survival since the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the sixteenth century — can be treated so indifferently by Africa’s leaders, with no apparent concern at the consequences, what more can be said about the future of the continent? Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki,educated African leaders who fought oppression and know what injustice feels like, but whose actions or indifference leads their people to greater suffering than any that Africans experienced under colonial rule.
As the AIDS activist Achmat said on PBS, there is nothing in the world that can explain this. What is the cause of this puzzling trait? Might it be in our minds? A study by the Institute of Psychiatry by King’s College, London remarked: “We found remarkably high rates for schizophrenia and mania in both African-Caribbeans. For example, schizophrenia was 9 times more common in African Caribbeans and 6 times more common in Black Africans than in white British people. Moreover, manic psychosis was 8 times more common in African-Caribbeans and 6 times more common in Black Africans than in white British. These findings held true for both men and women and were evident across all age groups.” (Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, 2006) Go through any African village and you will notice strange things. Africans, by most accounts, are some of the friendliest, most easy-going, and warm people in the world. It is hard to argue against that. And yet, we also do some of the most cruel and irrational things to each other. Mothers beating their small children so badly over something as small as having tipped over a pot or left food on a plate. Think about the way most Africans treat animals. Could this explain the way Africans seem to suffer much more at the hands of fellow Africans than at the hands of anybody else? Has it something to do with mental sanity?
Hundreds of academics, journalists, social workers and politicians have tried to analyse Africa, and black communities around the world but the continent defies all models and analysis that seem to apply in most other parts and situations in the world. A financial crisis struck through Asia’s leading economies in 1997 and it was termed the “Asian flu.” Economists and governments quickly set to work and within a year, the crisis had been resolved and Asia’s economies were back on track and in fact even enter a boom period headed by China. In the late 1990s, Latin America’s economies also experienced a meltdown and Argentina in particular saw its national currency wiped out in value. A year or two later, the crisis in Latin America was over and out of the news. Africa is the only continent where the crises not only remain around for decades on end; they seem to get worse.
And what is most important is that it is the same case to other black communities world over. A BBC World Service radio programme “Outlook” on July 20, 2006, reported on a major social crisis among the indigenous Black people of Australia, the Aborigines. The documentary reported that rape and domestic violence are endemic among the Aborigines and Aborigines experience almost 50 times more domestic and marital violence than the rest of the predominantly White Australian society. In South Africa- Africa’s richest and most developed country- over 60,000 Black South Africans have died violently on the streets, in the townships, or in their homes since the new Black majority ANC government came into power in April 1994 — more than ten times the number of all the Blacks who died under White apartheid rule. Haiti, the oldest Black republic in the world won independence in 1804 but 200 years later, the Caribbean nation is at about the same level of instability and crisis as Congo. In the board game called “Snakes and Ladders”, players toss a die and progress from the number 1 to 100. But chance and luck govern Snakes and Ladders and Africa seems to be in the grip of similar forces of fate. It is a continent where most things seem to be at the mercy of this fatalistic snakes and ladders: an economy in West Africa starts recovering, only for a coup to suddenly take place in a corner of East Africa; a country makes some progress (as is in the case of Botswana), only by some horrible coincidence to be hit by the highest per capita AIDS infection rates in the world. We perhaps need to try something new, look somewhere else, not tomorrow, but NOW.