African Renaissance?

Finding hope on a continent where many people see only despair

New News Out of Africa: Uncovering Africa’s Renaissance, by Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Oxford, $23

A friend of mine, an Italian neurobiologist, once told me about the year he spent in East Africa as a young research scientist. There was something about the place, he said, some mysterious attraction he couldn’t quite define. He was working near Olduvai at the time, not far from where the Leakeys had discovered H. habilis and other early hominids. I finally realized what it was, he said. I felt as if this was, in some way, my true home.

At the time this sounded like pure over-the-top romanticism. But later, when I myself was visiting the Masai Mara, I was struck by a similarly strange feeling. Behind me the rift valley escarpment loomed up, protective rather than threatening. In front, the high grass stretched out toward the river, dotted here and there by acacias. Herds of zebra and antelope grazed peacefully in the distance. A soft breeze brushed my cheek. I thought then of what my friend had said about coming home, that maybe there really is something in the African landscape that stirs buried memories of an ancestral birthplace.

For Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the African-American civil-rights pioneer and award-winning journalist, Africa was, and is, a great deal more than the place of a momentary encounter with the unexpected. Growing up in segregation-era Georgia, she had fantasized about the land and people who, she felt, constituted her heritage. Africa was where she had come from, and she yearned to be reconnected. “For years,” she writes in her new book, New News Out of Africa, “I had cherished and nurtured the memory of the jungle I had fantasized about . . . an ideal place where I felt in touch with nature, with myself, and with something lost but not forgotten in primal memory.” When she finally did get there she felt she was “walking in her dreams of yesterday.”

This is a somewhat poetic way of talking about the spiritual, cultural, and historic connections Hunter-Gault has with Africa and things African, connections she shares with many other African Americans who have wondered about and longed to find their roots. Hunter-Gault makes no bones about the fact that for her Africa is the motherland, the place that validates and inspires her sense of identity. And because it is, she is chagrined by the uninterrupted flow of terrible news coming out of the continent, news of corruption and drought, genocide and pestilence, which fix in the Western mind an image of Africa as a blasted and probably irredeemable place. Also because it is, Hunter-Gault is driven to find and convey the positives, which are also there but all too rarely reported. There’s a rule of thumb in her profession: “If it bleeds, it leads.” But where does that leave Africa’s good news, what she calls the “new news”? This brief book is her attempt to give some balance to the story.

It’s worth noting that Hunter-Gault is not the only journalist to address the problem. In 1999 Robert Press took a similar approach in The New Africa, and Ryszard Kapuscinski’s classic The Shadow of the Sun (2001) painted Africa’s extremes, its profound strengths as well as its relentless sorrows. Nevertheless, New News Out of Africa is a welcome, if somewhat attenuated, addition.

The book consists of three essays. The first focuses on South Africa, where Hunter-Gault now lives. The country is, she says “fast becoming the brightest jewel on the African continent.” And it is certainly true that the new news from South Africa has not nearly made the same impression in the West as President Thabo Mbeki’s confused and destructive skepticism about the connection between hiv and aids, this in the nation with the world’s largest number of infected citizens. But at the same time, there is indeed a substantial amount of good news about South Africa. Hunter-Gault describes the steadily improving investment climate, the fierce determination among the country’s young people for an education, the dramatic increase in the black middle class, and the decreasing crime rate—which will come as a surprise to many readers. And she presents all this without blinking at the country’s continuing monumental problems.

South Africa’s truly great accomplishment so far is, of course, a moral one. Nelson Mandela first and Mbeki after him have presided over a nation that has transitioned from a white supremacist state to an inclusive, democratic one. And it has done this in a more or less stable manner, without the overflow of rage and racial violence that so many feared. The linchpin here has been the Truth and Reconciliation process, which constitutes an extraordinary contribution to mankind’s search for nonviolent mechanisms to resolve egregious intercommunal injustices. Hunter-Gault’s moving descriptions of some of the horrors this process has sought to address attest to the immense challenge of transcending the desire of many for revenge and strict justice in favor of peace and the common good.

The book’s second essay is about the democratic changes happening in various parts of the continent. The big-man era, Hunter-Gault writes, might well be winding down. She cites a number of countries in addition to South Africa for which this is true: the Congo, Nigeria, Burundi. But actually the list is fairly long, and includes Rwanda, Liberia, Ghana, Kenya, Benin, and Tanzania. Even Uganda, whose recent presidential election was significantly marred, can’t be counted out as an essentially democratic country. While much of African democracy is new and fragile, Hunter-Gault’s description of an “African Renaissance” may, one hopes, not be too far off the mark.

The third essay is Hunter-Gault’s take on the state of African journalism, a veteran Western reporter’s status report on the emerging generation of African journalists, the still-perilous conditions they often work under, and their need to come of age if African democracy is to sustain itself. She sees this process, as she does so much else in this book, through the prism of her own experience, her “long historical perspective,” as she puts it, “of having grown up in and triumphed over a system of injustice and oppression.”

In her earlier years Hunter-Gault herself made history. She broke the racial barrier (along with Hamilton Holmes) at the University of Georgia in 1961 and emerged as a star national reporter—something no African-American woman before her had ever done.  Despite this book’s shortcomings, its brevity, its overuse of excerpts from previous articles, its sometimes defensive tone, Hunter-Gault in New News Out of Africa makes a key contribution to understanding today’s Africa. Because she is who she is, she sees the continent in history’s long view. As a black American, she knows that Africa’s slow and painful emergence is neither slower nor more painful than the struggle of black Americans to emerge from their own tortured past. America took 90 years to move from emancipation to full civil rights and still struggles today with the legacy of racism. That experience, she suggests, should give us an idea of the time frames involved in fundamental societal change. And if we understand that, we will understand better Africa’s two-steps-forward, one-step-back march toward modernity.

Basil Davidson, the prolific historian of Africa, makes the same point dif­­­fer­ently. Colonialism, he argues, buried traditional African political structures that were in flux even before Europeans arrived. It buried the old and built nothing enduring in its place. Europe turned 10,000 tribal communities into 50 countries, then left the scene. And when the imported façades of European-style government collapsed, as they did in place after place, the big men and warlords and kleptocrats rushed in to fill the void. Hunter-Gault’s book tells us to keep our eye on the new news, because that, she believes, is a harbinger of what to expect next.

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David Chanoff is the author of several books, including Only in America (with William Ungar). He has written about literary history, education, foreign policy, and other subjects for such publications as The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, and The New Republic.


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