Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Event: Thoughts on Southern Africa.



Over the last several weeks, as part of my research for Urbantasm, I've been reading about countries in southern Africa. So far I've taken in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and presently, Mozambique.

I don't really have an argument or a bone of contention in this post... but it is one of those subjects where questions lead to more questions. The history courses I took in junior high and high school spent almost no time on the history of Africa which meant that for a long time I had only the popular images of blight and war, coup d'etats and apartheid. In college I quickly learned that most things that seem as though they ought to be complicated actually are, and realized that each tribe, each city, each country, each region had their own dilemmas, traditions, and histories. But that was as specific as I got. With the exception of a few articles I've read here and there and stories that friends have brought home from abroad, this is the first time I've taken a closer look at Africa.

One thing that immediately strikes me is the paradoxical relationship of South Africa to its neighbors since independence. In the early days, when apartheid was in full swing, South Africa's neighbors confronted it (often with the encouragement of the competing West and Soviet states)... while it's debatable what the upshot for the great powers would be, South Africa's retaliation was often devastating to its neighbors. For example, South African support of Mozambican insurgents led to that country's long civil war, which killed or displaced almost 25% of the population. Most South Africans are, themselves, very poor. But the economic engines of Cape Town and Johannesburg are forces to be reckoned with, and easily eclipse that of South Africa's neighbors. This would seem to be why apartheid, in addition to being a human rights nightmare by virtue of what it was, had an outsized impact on southern Africa as a whole. Of course, something that Wikipedia doesn't discuss in detail, but which I suspect is worth considering, is the fact that, as with most proxy wars, the West expressed concern for African states only as nebulously coherent allies. Our only investment was a military investment, and when we did engage in markets there it was in the most rapacious and predatory ways we could. So it's also Europe and America's fault that southern Africa is in the bind that it is today.

I know that these countries are often criticized as undemocratic and oligarchic. In the case of Zimbabwe, the worst observations would seem to hold, even as South Africa itself has come the furthest toward true democracy. But my attention is most held by the other two I've considered here: Zambia and Mozambique. Zambia is diversifying its economy, and Mozambique has joined just about every association from the Commonwealth of Nations to the Community of Portuguese Language Countries as a way to augment their post-civil war influence. Considering the Pandora's box of troubles these states have had to grapple with in living memory, it astonishes me that any sort of functioning state is possible... in some ways, this achievement is more audacious and commendable than the maintenance of the status quo in the relatively safe, powerful, and prosperous U.S.

But this opinion is largely limited and even hazardously uninformed. It is necessarily bookish. So please, comment on this!

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