THE sign “American Mail Today” hanging in the door of the Central News Agency in any African city draws crowds to the magazine racks. American movies predominate wherever there is a theater, at least in English-speaking areas. In March, the coming of Around the World in 80 Days was being advertised in Johannesburg while The Seven Hills of Rome and Peyton Place were drawing crowds. Africans cheer westerns and they love American popular music. In Lusaka, Northern Rhodesia, the Broadcasting Corporation features American music for Africans, and it comes over the air from the Congo.
Afrikaners frequently characterize themselves as similar to Americans; free and easy, friendly, full of energy. But their comparison becomes embarrassing when it is followed — as it is too often — by jibes at their English-speaking compatriots. “You’re not stiff and formal and snobbish like the English,” they add. Then, the next day, an English-speaking South African may say, “We get along with you, we speak the same language. But I hate Afrikaners! They’re so rude.” One is tempted to retort, “A plague on both your houses,” but one must remember that the Boer War still smolders.
Repercussions from America
The first question asked of Americans this year was, “What about the depression?” The concern was intense, the fear very real that the United States might carry the whole Western alliance into a dark era of business stagnation. During the month of February, when unemployment soared in the United States, most African dailies carried the figures and story in a dismal tone. A visiting American naturally wondered if his country were falling to pieces.
So did South Africans. They have not forgotten the 1930s, when mines closed down and white men worked on the roads for fifty cents a day to keep themselves alive. A sharp drop in exports to the United States of chrome, copper, manganese, wool, tobacco, and other raw materials would cripple industries on the high plateau of the Transvaal, South-West Africa, Mashonaland, Northern Rhodesia, the Congo, and other places in Africa.
In fact the recent drop in copper prices and exports had closed one mine on the Copper Belt and curtailed all operations; put miners out of work, cut family budgets, hurt merchants, and sent hundreds of Africans back to their villages. The mines were even paying for the workers’ transportation back to their homes. There the government took over the task of trying to rehabilitate them on the land, and this despite the fact that government revenue from taxes had suffered severely and all public services were being curtailed. When American industry tightens its belt or an American housewife decides to do without a copper-bottomed frying pan, the effect is felt in Northern Rhodesia.
Sputnik also was an embarrassment to Americans, and the jibes were not always good-natured. People were genuinely dismayed at our failures, but equally impatient and scornful of the jittery American response to the Russian satellites. There was little subtlety to the implication, “That should teach the smug, overconfident Americans.” As for the publicity attending each failure at Cape Canaveral, it seemed kindest to say we were out of our minds. A sigh of relief went up when Explorer II soared into space.
Segregation, African style
The fear that Europeans may be overtaken by non-Europeans is endemic in areas of white settlement, and South Africans always are ready to back an American into a corner and try to win his approval for apartheid. “You don’t understand” is a national wail as they turn an injured face to the world to defend white supremacy under the various names they call it.
The riots at Little Rock still are ammunition for those who challenge our sincerity toward nonwhite peoples. When they occurred, the riots were interpreted in the Union on political party lines. Opposition newspapers pointed out that the United States Constitution “protects the rights of all, regardless of race or creed or color.” But Little Rock was a comfort to Nationalists, as witness Die Transvaler, which commented: “The event should have a sobering influence on the selfrighteousness and the loquacity of world opinion — and American opinion — which so readily sits in judgment on especially the Union and the Federation.” A dig at the “self-righteousness” of American opinion is irresistible south of the Limpopo.
Even intelligent South Africans seem to confuse criticism with misrepresentation, and it comes as a shock to hear the leading Afrikaans publisher state that the American press is so prejudiced against South Africa that no paper would publish a factual explanation of apartheid. It has been done, of course. And fair-minded Americans recognize some of the constructive fruits of apartheid, such as new housing, even though they do not condone the underlying philosophy.
Heated defenders of apartheid seldom realize that their own statements often make the best copy for critical journalists. In spite of Little Rock, an American can hold his own with a Nationalist who blurts out, “I’d rather go Communist than integrate”; then, almost in the next breath, admits that fear warps a man’s thinking and that white South Africa may be “finished.”
There is no escape from the endless argument, whether one is in a taxi, at a dinner party, or even sitting alone in a restaurant. Inevitably an American is spotted and challenged to understand “poor South Africa.” Not that the blight is confined to the Union. It taints every society where the relationship of white and nonwhite is unresolved.
The plea for understanding
Any American who seems to care will be asked, “Can’t your people do something for mine?” or “Does the United States care more for the two or three million whites in Africa than for two hundred million Africans?” They simply cannot understand why, year after year, the United States ignores Africa, except as a minor investment area. Nor can they understand why we loan millions to South Africa for railways, harbors, and other industries controlled by the white men and ignore native African needs. We cannot expect the few African students in the United States to impress Africans with America — although Prime Minister Nkrumah of Ghana, who was educated at American universities, is a notable exception.
Besides native leaders, British civil servants, who are struggling to train Africans for selfgovernment under a democratic system, also ask for our understanding — and sometimes challenge our wisdom. The Colonial Service is a proud one under the Union Jack, and the colonial concepts of 1776 are as dead as the dodo, though district and provincial commissioners often doubt that we realize it. “Just give us time,” pleaded a provincial commissioner who had spent twentyfive years in the service in Northern Rhodesia. “You people don’t understand. Merely handing out the vote won’t solve all problems.”
If one has just fingered witch doctors’ regalia collected in a recent roundup; checked cases of current cannibalism and ritual murder; listened to tales of slavery within one’s lifetime; gone through hospitals where doctors and nurses are working over babies whose stomachs are bloated from malnutrition or who are dying of cerebral malaria, one has a clue to the job the commissioner is trying to do. And one begins to understand — though one does not sympathize with them — the arrogant settlers who snort, “They’ve just come down from the trees.” It is a Herculean task to harmonize the needs and desires of civilized, educated Africans who have spent a lifetime creating wealth from raw bush and other Africans who have not yet emerged from the Iron Age.
The fact is that the United States has not yet any great impact on Africans except indirectly and through individuals. Through our government we have not implemented any policy or taken any stand on the issues and problems, and there is no yardstick by which the people can measure our aims, competence, or sincerity.
It is hardly surprising that no matter where he goes, an inquiring American is attacked for voicing high-sounding generalities which stir unrest where the United States has no responsibility. From Africa, Americans appear nebulous, sometimes troublesome. Yet collectively we are the goose that lays the golden eggs — with emphasis on “the goose.” So until we develop a policy and are a helpful force in Africa, we may as well resign ourselves to parrying pointed questions from Africans, settlers, and officials of the governments.
The State Department’s new Division for African Affairs also faces a Herculean task, and one may hope that it will be successful in creating in Africa a true image of an American.