On Negrologie

By | January 1, 2011

Keith Hart, the economic anthropologist who, from his research with urban slum dwellers in 1960s Ghana, coined the term ‘informal economy’, announced his intention a couple of days ago to kick-start the writing of a book, Africa’s Urban Revolution, with a series of blog posts.

The first in the series appears today, and it is an excerpt of a review he wrote of Stephen Smith’s Négrologie: pourquoi l’Afrique meurt. The following two paragraphs are typical of his take on the book:

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 the 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.


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.

I am pretty sure that the series of posts will be excellent, and you should definitely join the discussion. Even if for you, an interest in Africa is nothing more than just a smart career move.

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