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Africa In The New Century 0

Writing about Africa in 1830-1831, this is what Georg Hegel, the great German philosopher, had to say: “The peculiarly African character is difficult to comprehend, for the very reason that in reference to it, we must quite give up the principle which naturally accompanies all our ideas—the category of Universality. In Negro life, the characteristic point is the fact that consciousness has not yet attained to the realization of any substantial objective existence—as for example, God, or Law—in which the interest of man’s volition is involved and in which he realizes his own being.”

Originally presented in a lecture series and later compiled in The Philosophy of History (Germany, 1837), Hegel adds: “The Negro … exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality—all that we call feeling—if we would rightly comprehend him. There is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character.” Hegel then promises himself not to ever mention Africa again, for “it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit.” What we properly understand by Africa, he concludes, “is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature.”

More than a century after Hegel’s ruminations, Robert D. Kaplan, a US journalist and policy pundit, published “The Coming Anarchy,” a devastating portrayal of West Africa in the February 1994 issue of the US-monthly magazine, The Atlantic. The Cold War had just ended and most of the western world was triumphantly riding on the crest of a wave of optimism. Celebrating this triumph—of the west and of what he called the western idea—Francis Fukuyama, writing in a 1989 issue ofThe National Interest, an American bi-monthly international affairs magazine, suggested, “what we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such.” By “the end of history as such,” Fukuyama did not simply mean the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution. More fundamentally, he meant the reconciliation of the market principle and the idea of freedom, and “the universalization of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

But, projecting himself to the day and times after history had ended, Fukuyama could only see melancholia and sadness, a profound nostalgia for the Hegelian world: “The end of history will be a very sad time.

The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual care-taking of the museum of human history.”

As Fukuyama wrote his epitaph to history, Africa was in the midst of a spectacular collision. Apartheid and white minority rule were coming to a formal end in South Africa while a genocide of cataclysmic proportions was unfolding in Rwanda. Liberation and apotheosis of long years of struggle on the one hand, self-destruction on the other. Declining per capita incomes and production, low levels of savings and investment, slow growth in agricultural production, failing export earnings, strangled imports and unserviceable foreign debt burdens—all plagued most of sub-Saharan Africa.

Continue reading on Africa is a country

By Achille Mbembe

This article originally appeared in City Scapes, the publication of the African Center for Cities.

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