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Criticising the failed policies of black African leaders does not mean one is a racist. Western solutions have not worked well in Africa. To move Africa forwards requires a new paradigm. At the centre of this model must be the African people and how they view and analyse their own situation and problems. Ultimately, it is they who must save their own continent, not Westerners or Easterners.

Rewriting national constitutions to try to improve democratic governance in some countries has also not made much difference.

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This path has been pursued from a paradigm that ignores the differences in culture, social relations, relations of production and property relations between Africa and northern countries. The most important thing for them is security and peace, and they also want to be able to improve their standard of living. They want to lift themselves out of poverty, and they want to make the effort themselves.

For far too long in the past there have been all sorts of charlatans, governments and leaders who have promised to do things for them and have betrayed them. Dambisa Moyo, who was a student of mine at American University in Washington DC, represents a growing chorus of Africans who regard the Western foreign aid-driven development model — or the Washington consensus — to be an abysmal failure.

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Moyo argues that foreign aid actually made Africans poorer by creating a dependency on aid, depreciating their pride and dignity, and preventing them from crafting their own development models. All aid to Africa should be halted in five years, she urges. Firstly, foreign aid has become a huge industry replete with its own lobbyists. I doubt if foreign aid can be stopped.

Instead, we should try to improve its effectiveness.

Secondly, Africa should look neither West nor East but inwards. With chopsticks dexterity, it can pick platinum in Zimbabwe, bauxite in Guinea, oil in Sudan, timber in Gabon and so on. China is also engaged in a vast array of infrastructural projects across the continent. To be sure, Chinese investments — in infrastructure in particular — should be welcome. They are opaque, secured through bribery — building presidential palaces in Sudan and Zimbabwe and soccer stadiums in DR Congo, Guinea and Nigeria, and there is outright corruption.

A Chinese firm, NuTech, was indicted in Namibia for [allegedly giving] kickbacks to officials in securing a contract for an airport security system. Also, China brings its own workers to work on contracts in Africa, generating little local employment. What do you mean when you say Africa should look within for culturally appropriate solutions? Why is culture important in development? The basic reason why things went so wrong in Africa is because after independence, the leadership — with few exceptions — rejected their own cultural heritage, went abroad and copied all sorts of alien and unworkable systems to impose on their people.

The continent is littered with the putrid carcasses of these failed imported systems. The most pernicious were the political and the economic systems. The economic systems were marked by statism or dirigisme [heavy state interventionism] under-girded by socialism or Marxism. None of these systems can be justified or defended on the basis of African tradition.

He wrote about black African civilisation before colonialism. How blacks governed themselves, ran their economies and so on. Traditional rulers — chiefs and kings — are surrounded by councils, without which they are powerless.


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And these rulers can be recalled or removed for dereliction of duty. The larger polities in traditional Africa — empires Ghana, Mali, Songhai, Great Zimbabwe and kingdoms the Ashanti Kingdom, the Ga Kingdom — were all confederacies, characterised by decentralisation of power and a great deal of devolution of authority.

The modern political systems — military dictatorships and one-party-state systems — are alien to Africa. The relevance of culture in development is increasingly being espoused by Africans. Markets were ubiquitous in Africa before the colonialists set foot in Africa. In West Africa, for example, market activity has been dominated by women for centuries. Free-trade routes criss-crossed the continent, along which people and goods moved freely — the most famous example was the Trans-Saharan trade route.

In short, there was much economic freedom in the traditional economic system of free enterprise, free markets and free trade. State interventionism was the exception rather than the rule. Again, the economic systems of socialism and dirigisme imposed on Africa by post-colonial leaders bore little affinity with the traditional system. All that the leadership had to do after independence was to build upon them.

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Only Botswana did, and it is doing remarkably well. These institutions — in particular social, political, economic and legal — define African culture. Let me give you just two examples where such knowledge is important. The cultivation of food crops has always been the avocation of women, while men preoccupied themselves with hunting, fishing and other dangerous tasks. Women use farm harvests to feed their families, and sell the surplus on village markets. As a result, market activity, especially in West Africa, is dominated by women.

Thus, one cannot start an agricultural revolution in Africa using male-driven agricultural machinery. The second example comes from conflict resolution. In Western jurisprudence, the emphasis is on punishing the guilty. How accurate is what we think we know about the Romans? Tom Holland , the author of Rubicon, tells us about the exercise of power, the staging of ceremony and the influence of religion in ancient Rome.

The thing about adapting the texts is that the framework is there for you. Essentially, all that you are doing is a glorified cutting job. But you have to cut it in such a way that preserves both the structure of the narrative and those episodes within it that will give the listener, who may not be familiar with the text, some sense of the reason why it is so powerful and the reason why it has had the impact not just over the centuries but also over the millennia.

Obviously it is harder to adapt a classical text than it is, say, a 19th century novel, simply because we are further removed from the Roman world. With all the upheavals in the world do you think there are things that we can still learn from Roman times? I think that the quality of great literature is that it contains timeless truths. It is like a kaleidoscope — our understanding of the text will change according to the way that we ourselves change.


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  • In terms of the lessons to be drawn from Roman history, of course it will always hold a mirror up to the present, for the simple reason that what is distinctive about Western civilisation, particularly compared with the other great civilisations like China or India or even the Middle East, is that in the West we have had two cracks at it. We had the first starting in BC and lasting up until the collapse of the Roman Empire and then the second, building on the ruins left by classical civilisation, continuing into the present.

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    And all the way through our attempts to construct civilisation we are always overshadowed by the previous attempt, so we will find in Roman history what I guess we find in science fiction — that there are points of resemblance heightened and made strange by the way that they are also completely different. I thought that if I was going to choose five books on Roman history I really had to choose a Roman historian because, for modern historians, Roman historians have always been the great model. Because the classics are classics.

    Throughout the Middle Ages when people wanted to have a model they would look back to great Roman historians. I was thinking I should possibly have chosen the man who I think is the greatest Roman historian, Tacitus , who is a sort of pathologist of vice, particularly the vice of autocracy. I think he is one of the all-time great historians. But I decided against that because my next two choices are very infused with the spirit of Tacitus. And it really had a crucial sense of shaping our understanding of Imperial Rome as a place of vice and savagery and sexual depravity and violent, brutal, bawdy splendour.

    I think that what would leap out would be the shenanigans of Caligula, who indulged in incest, forced prostitution — lunacies that would put…. And that is simply because he has exerted such a magnetic appeal on future generations. His influence is so clearly massive and he is seen by many people as a very attractive figure. My own feeling is that he is actually much darker, verging on psychopathic, but it is that tension between the man who in his correspondence is witty and charming set against the record of someone who brought unbelievable slaughter and mayhem to Gaul and then to his own people.

    And it is that combination of creativity and destruction within him that I think makes him one of the all-time magnetic figures in world history. Next up is The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, which is considered a classic by many, but also somewhat of a heavy read. I think it is regarded as a heavy read simply because it is physically heavy. The most accessible version is the Penguin one which comes in three large volumes.

    But the truth is that it remains incredibly readable. As I said before, it takes Tacitus as its model, who was famous for his waspish style, and a careful balancing and modulating of the sentences so that irony would be generated.

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    This is what Gibbon does as well, and it means that not only is it an incredible work of scholarship but it is also compulsively entertaining. Made my first day of a happy, happy dance day! Major kudos to Ms. An excellent choice on your part as one of your top five. I am hoping he will write a sequel. The end of the book left me wanting more!

    I havent read any of these — will have to put them on my to-read list for the year! You are commenting using your WordPress. You are commenting using your Google account. You are commenting using your Twitter account. You are commenting using your Facebook account.

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