Editorial staff
 Table of Contents
 The crisis of cultural memory in...
 The truth and reconciliation commission...
 The land of Jilali: Travels through...
 The state and economic reform in...
 Justice and morality in South...
 Book reviews

Title: African studies quarterly
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Title: African studies quarterly
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Language: English
Creator: University of Florida -- Center for African Studies
Publisher: University of Florida, Center for African Studies,
University of Florida, Center for African Studies
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Publication Date: Fall 2000
Copyright Date: 2010
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Table of Contents
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    Editorial staff
        Page ii
        Page iii
    Table of Contents
        Page iv
        Page v
    The crisis of cultural memory in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart
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    The truth and reconciliation commission (TRC): Human rights and state transitions -- The South Africa model
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    The land of Jilali: Travels through Kenya's drought-stricken north
        Page 65
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        Page 68
        Page 69
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    The state and economic reform in Africa
        Page 71
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        Page 74
        Page 75
        Page 76
    Justice and morality in South Africa
        Page 77
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    Book reviews
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Full Text

African Studies Quarterly

Volume 4, Issue 3
Fall 2000

Published by the Center for African Studies, University of Florida

ISSN: 2152-2448

African Studies Quarterly

Editorial Staff

Elizabeth Beaver
Michael Chege
Maria Grosz-Ngate
Parakh Hoon
Alice Jones-Nelson
Brian King
Rebecca Klein
Carol Lauriault
Todd Leedy
Steve Marr

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

University of Florida Board of Trustees, a public corporation of the State of Florida; permission is hereby granted for
individuals to download articles for their own personal use. Published by the Center for African Studies, University of Florida.

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

Table of Contents

The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart
F. Abiola Irele (1-40)

Human Rights and State Transitions: The South Africa Model
Patricia J. Campbell (41-63)

At Issue

The Land of Jilali: Travels Through Kenya's Drought-Stricken North
Paul Goldsmith (65-70)

Review Articles

The State and Economic Reform in Africa
Michael Chege (71-75)

Justice and Morality in South Africa
David R. Penna (77-80)

Book Reviews

Africa's New Leaders: Democracy or State Reconstruction?
Marina Ottaway. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1999.
Olufemi A. Akinola (81-84)

North Africa in Transition: State, Society, and Economic Transformation in the 1990s.
Yahia H. Zoubir (ed.). Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999.
Amandeep Sandhu (84-85)

Success and Failures of Microbusiness Owners in Africa: A Psychological Approach.
Michael Frese (ed.). Westport: Quorum Books, 2000.
Nimi Wariboko (86-87)

Free Speech in Traditional Society: The Cultural Foundations of Communication in
Contemporary Ghana.
Kwesi Yankah. Accra: Ghana Universities Press (distributed by ABC Ltd, Oxford, UK), 1998.
Joseph L. Mbele (87-88)

Traditional African Names.
Jonathan Musere. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2000.
S.B. Isabirye (88-89)

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation.
John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Samantha Manchester Earley (89-91)

Video Reviews

Women of the Sahel. 1995. Directed by Paolo Quaregna and Mahamane Souleymane, 52
minutes. Distributor: First Run/Icarus Films.
Maria Grosz-Ngate (91-92)

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall



If there is any single work that can be considered central to the evolving canon of modern
African literature, it is, without question, Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. The novel owes
this distinction to the innovative significance it assumed as soon as it was published, a
significance that was manifested in at least two respects. In the first place, the novel provided an
image of an African society, reconstituted as a living entity and in its historic circumstance: an
image of a coherent social structure forming the institutional fabric of a universe of meanings
and values. Because this image of Africa was quite unprecedented in literature, it also carried
considerable ideological weight in the specific context of the novel's writing and reception. For
it cannot be doubted that the comprehensive scope of Achebe's depiction of a particularized
African community engaged in its own social processes, carried out entirely on its own terms,
with all the internal tensions this entailed, challenged the simplified representation that the
West offered itself of Africa as a formless area of life, as "an area of darkness" devoid of human
significance.' Thus, beyond what might be considered its ethnographic interest, which gave the
work an immediate and ambiguous appeal--a point to which we shall return--Achebe's novel
articulated a new vision of the African world and gave expression to a new sense of the African
experience that was more penetrating than what had been available before its appearance.
The second factor contributing to the esteem in which Achebe's novel is held has to do with
the quality of his manner of presentation, in which the cultural reference governs not merely the
constitution of the novel's fictional universe but also the expressive means by which the
collective existence, the very human experience framed within this universe, comes to be
conveyed. For the novel testifies to an aesthetic project which consists in fashioning a new
language appropriate to its setting, serving therefore to give life and substance to the narrative
content and thus to enforce the novelist's initial gesture of cultural reclamation. As a
consequence, the manner of presentation became integral to the narrative development to a
degree that must be considered unusual in the normal run of novelistic writing. As Emmanuel
Obiechina has remarked, "the integrative technique in which background and atmosphere are
interlaced with the action of the narrative must be regarded as Achebe's greatest achievement"

Professor F. Abiola Irele, formerly Professor of French and Head of the Department of Modern Languages at the
University of Ibadan, Nigeria, is currently Professor of African, French and Comparative Literature at the Ohio State
University. Professor Irele's publications include an edition of selected poems by the Senegalese writer and
statesman, L6opold S6dar Senghor, a collection of critical essays, The African Experience in Literature and Ideology, and
an edition of Aime C6saire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal. He is the author of numerous articles on African
literature in English and French, and has also written extensively on francophone African philosophy, on which he
has contributed an entry in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. A new collection of his essays entitled The
African Imagination: Literature in Africa and the Black Diaspora was published by Oxford University Press in 2001.
http:/ /www.africa.ufl.edu/asq/v4/v4i3al.pdf

University of Florida Board of Trustees, a public corporation of the State of Florida; permission is hereby granted for individuals
to download articles for their own personal use. Published by the Center for African Studies, University of Florida.
ISSN: 2152-2448

2 I Irele

[Obiechina, 1975, 142]. It is especially with regard to this close imbrication of language and
theme that Things Fall Apart can be said to have defined a new mode of African imaginative
expression, hence Kwame Appiah's description of the work as "the archetypal modern African
novel in English" [Appiah, 1992, ix].2
The work has acquired the status of a classic, then, by reason of its character as a
counterfiction of Africa, in specific relation to the discourse of Western colonial domination, and
its creative deployment of the language of the imperium; it has on this account been celebrated
as the prototype of what Barbara Harlow has called "resistance literature" [Harlow, 1987].3The
ideological project involved in its writing comes fully to the fore in the ironic ending in which
we see the colonial officer, after the suicide of the main character, Okonkwo, contemplating a
monograph on the "pacification" of the Lower Niger. Okonkwo, we are told, will get the briefest
of mentions in the monograph, but we know as readers that the novel to which this episode
serves as conclusion has centered all along upon this character who, as the figure of the
historical African, the work endeavours to re-endow with a voice and a visage, allowing him to
emerge in his full historicity, tragic though this turns out to be in the circumstances.
Yet, despite the novel's contestation of the colonial enterprise, clearly formulated in the
closing chapters and highlighted by its ironic ending, readers have always been struck by the
veil of moral ambiguity with which Achebe surrounds his principal character, Okonkwo, and
by the dissonances that this sets up in the narrative development; as Emmanuel Obiechina
remarked in the course of an oral presentation I had the privilege of attending, the novel is
constituted by what he calls "a tangle of ironies." For it soon becomes apparent that Achebe's
novel is not by any means an unequivocal celebration of tribal culture; indeed, the specific
human world depicted in this novel is far from representing a universe of pure perfection. We
are presented rather with a corner of human endeavor that is marked by the web of
contradictions within which individual and collective destinies have everywhere and at all
times been enmeshed. A crucial factor, therefore, in any reading of Achebe's novel, given the
particular circumstances of its composition, is its deeply reflective engagement with the
particular order of life that provides a reference for its narrative scheme and development. In
this respect, one cannot fail to discern a thematic undercurrent that produces a disjunction in
the novel between its overt ideological statement, its contradiction of the discourse of the
colonial ideology, on one hand, and, on the other, its dispassionate and even uncompromising
focus on an African community in its moment of historical crisis.
I would like to examine here the nature of this disjunction, not only as it emerges from the
novel's thematic development but also as inscribed, quite literally, within the formal structures
of the work, in the belief that by undertaking a closer examination of these two dimensions of
the work and relating them to each other we are enabled to fully discern its purport. For the
moral significance of the work seems to me to outweigh the ideological burden that has so often
been laid upon it. I believe the implications of the work extend much further than the
anticolonial stance that, admittedly, provides its point of departure, but which, as we shall see,
eventually yields ground to issues of far greater import concerning the African becoming.
It is well to begin this examination with an observation that situates Achebe's work in the
general perspective of literary creation and cultural production in contemporary Africa. This is
to make the point that the most significant effect of modern African literature in the European

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart I 3

languages is perhaps the sense it registers of the immediacy of history as a sphere of existence,
as a felt dimension of being and consciousness. Achebe's work is exemplary in this regard, in
the way he captures in his fiction the inner movement of transition on the continent from an
antecedent order of life to a new and problematic collective existence, this new existence
contemplated as the outcome of an implacable historical development. Beginning with Things
Fall Apart, his entire work seeks to measure, in its full range and import for Africa, what Molly
Mahood has called, in her study of the same title, "the colonial encounter" [Mahood, 1977].
Achebe's explicit concern with the cultural dislocations, provoked by the harsh circumstances of
this encounter, and their far-reaching consequences in human terms suggests at first sight a
limited point of view that appears to emphasize the primacy of an original identity owed to
cultural and ethnic affiliations.
We cannot but observe however that, as a writer, Achebe is in fact situated at the point of
intersection between two world orders, the precolonial African and the Western, or more
specifically, Euro-Christian, that impinge upon his creative consciousness. It is important to
recall this defining factor of the total cultural situation by which Achebe's inspiration is
conditioned, and to stress the directing influence of his Western education and its sensibility
upon his fictional reconstruction of the collective traumas enacted by his novels, and the
comprehensive process of self-reflection they imply. Thus, an attention to its various inflections
indicates that the narrative voice adopted by Achebe in his first novel has to be imputed in large
part to his status as a Westernized African, the product of Christian education. This is a voice
that speaks often, perhaps even primarily, from the margins of the traditional culture, as is
evident in this passage, which occurs early in the novel:
The night was very quiet. It was always quiet except on moonlight nights. Darkness held a
vague terror for these people, even the bravest among them. Children were warned not to
whistle at night for fear of evil spirits....And so on this particular night as the crier's voice was
gradually swallowed up in the distance, silence returned to the world, a vibrant silence made
more intense by the universal trill of a million forest insects [7]. 4
The passage suggests that the perspective that Achebe projects upon the traditional world
is that of an external observer, a perspective that implies a cultural distance from the
background of life -- of thought and manners -- that provides the concrete reference of his
fiction. We encounter the same stance in another passage where the narrator observes of the
community to which the work relates: "Fortunately among these people a man was judged
according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father" [6]. Of these and similar
passages, the Nigerian scholar David Ker has commented: "Umuofia is simultaneously 'they'
and 'we' and this subtle combination of detachment and participation helps Achebe to
manipulate point of view" [Ker, 1997, 136].
This is a plausible reading that brings the novel's content into functional relation with its
narrative codes, except that the personal testimony Achebe provides of his own education in a
Christian household indicates clearly that his identification with the indigenous heritage was a
later and conscious development. In other words, Achebe can be said to have undertaken the
writing of Things Fall Apart out of an awareness of a primary disconnection from the indigenous
background that he seeks to recover and to explore in the novel.

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

4 I rele

The point can be made from another perspective by observing that, as a modern African
novelist, Achebe is hardly in the same position as the traditional storyteller, creating his stories
unselfconsciously, out of a full sense of coincidence with the culture within which he practices
his art, and which provides objective support for his imaginative projections. Moreover, Achebe
is obliged to employ a newly acquired tongue, one that is at a considerable structural and
expressive remove from the speech modes, habits of thought, and cultural codes of the
historical community whose experience he undertakes to record in his fiction. Contrary to the
claim by Romanus Egudu that Achebe's art in the novel is continuous with an Igbo narrative
tradition [Egudu, 1981], the whole imaginative effort manifested in Things Fall Apart was called
into play and given direction by a willed movement back to what the novelist regards as the
sources of the collective self, which he has had to reconstitute both as a function of the
ideological objectives of his novel evoked above and also, and much more importantly, as an
imperative of the narrative process itself, a point to which we shall return.
We might observe, then, that the impression of the writer's familiarity with his material
and the quality of authentic life registered by his language are in fact effects of this reinvestment
of the self on Achebe's part, thrown into relief by the consummate art of the novelist. It is well to
bear in mind these factors that are attendant upon the very process of creation from which
Achebe's novel proceeds, for they are not without important consequences for its narrative
development and, ultimately, for its aesthetic and moral significance, as these are not merely
entailed by the ostensible content of the work, its propositionall" ground, to echo Gerald Graff
[1980], but are also inherent in its formal organization and language. It is to the relation between
these various aspects of the work that we now turn.
Commenting upon his own work nearly forty years after its appearance, Achebe has
declared, "The story of Okonkwo is almost inevitable; if I hadn't written about him, certainly
someone else would have, because it really is the beginning of our story" [Achebe, 1991].5
Achebe's observation concerning his fictional creation draws attention to the allegorical
significance that Okonkwo has assumed for the African imagination: he is not merely a
character in a novel but the representative figure of African historicity. A determining element
of the novel's structure and development is thus the way in which his story is embedded within
an elaborate reconstruction of forms of life in the traditional, precolonial culture, specifically,
that of Achebe's own people, the Igbo of Southeastern Nigeria.
The very tenor and warmth of Achebe's presentation of the traditional world, especially in
the thirteen chapters that form the first part of the novel, with their elaborate representation of
setting, involving in the process an insistence in positive terms upon the cultural context within
which his fictional characters have their being, leaves us in no doubt that a polemical intent
informs his reconstruction. The Igbo tribal world emerges here in all its specificity, its daily
routines and seasonal rituals attuned to the natural rhythms of its living environment. The
language of daily intercourse that Achebe lends his characters endows with a special force the
mobilization of minds and sensibilities within the society, animating with its poetic resonance
its modes of social organization and cultural expression. The even cadence that marks the
collective life in its normal course is summed up at one point in a simple but telling way with
"In this way, the moons and the seasons passed" [p.39].

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart I 5

The elaborate account of the New Yam Festival that opens Chapter 5 [26] takes on added
meaning in the light of this declaration of a natural order of the communal existence. We are
made to understand that the extraordinary coherence that the organic rooting of the tribe
guarantees to the social order in its natural environment is an immediate function of an
established system of values which regulates collective life. What is more, Achebe's depiction of
the prescribed pattern of social gestures and modes of comportment creates an overwhelming
impression of a collective existence that unfolds in ceremonial terms, punctuated as it is by a
train of activities that enhance the ordinary course of life, serving therefore as privileged
moments in a more or less unending celebration of a social compact that is remarkably potent
and is in any case fully functional on its own terms.
It is this intense quality of life that is conveyed symbolically by the drum, which functions
so obviously as a leitmotif in the novel that it generates a singular connotative stream within the
narrative. The omnipresence of the drum in Achebe's image of Igbo tribal life seems at times on
the verge of betraying him into the kind of unmediated stereotyping of the African by Western
writers to which he himself has vehemently objected. The intrusion into his own writing of the
demeaning idiom of colonial discourse is recognizable in a sentence like this: "Drums beat
violently, and men leaped up and down in a frenzy" [86]. But such a drop in narrative tone
serves ultimately to enforce the larger vision he offers of the community he is presenting, for we
soon come to grasp the true significance of the drum as manifesting a vitalism inherent in and
interwoven with the community's organic mode of existence:
The drums were still beating, persistent and unchanging. Their sound was no longer a
separate thing from the living village. It was like the pulse of its heart. It throbbed in the air, in
the sunshine, and even in the trees, and filled the village with excitement [31].
Achebe presents us, then, with a dynamic framework of social interactions and
interpersonal relations that lay the affective foundation for what, in the language of Durkheim,
we might call a collective consciousness, one that is properly commensurate with a sphere of
existence and an order of experience that, by the very fact of their being rigorously
circumscribed, conduce to its institutional strength. It is instructive in this respect to remark
upon the narrow range of the physical setting reproduced in Achebe's novel. This is established
in what seems a deliberate manner in the novel's opening sentence, and is associated by
implication with the destiny of the central character who makes his appearance at the very
outset of the narrative devoted to him:
Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages, and even beyond [3].
The vagueness with which the narrator indicates the outer limits of Okonkwo's fame
reflects the tribe's limited awareness of its location in space, of its specific place in the world.
This accords with the curious indefiniteness of its name, Umuofia, or "people of the forest," a
name that also doubles as that of the novel's locale, designating a community firmly situated
within the natural world. The reduced spatial dimension of the tribe's sphere of existence
enables a narrative focus on a world whose very intimacy appears at first sight as a source of
strength, the operative factor of an intensity of social experience that underlies an achieved state
of equilibrium.
It should be noted that the contraction of the tribe's apprehension of space is closely
associated with its bounded experience of time. The same opening paragraph of the novel in

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

6 I rele

which we are introduced to Okonkwo provides us with a passing view of the tribe's myth of
origin. It is not without interest to observe that this myth, in its evocation of a wrestling contest
between the eponymous founder of the town and "a spirit of the wild," parallels the Old
Testament story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, an encounter that, we are told, leaves him
forever lame. The parallel suggests the way Achebe's mind is working through elements of his
double cultural experience towards a unified conception of human destiny.
The tribe's myth of origin sets the keynote of its entire mode of self-apprehension and
structure of knowledge, what Gikandi has called "the Igbo epistemology" [Gikandi, 1991, 31-38;
see also, Nwoga, 1981]. The prominence assumed by rituals of life in the culture, the tribe's
periodic enactments of the various facets of its collective imagination, its constant recall of
foundations--all this ensures that time is experienced not as a static category but lived
continuously and intensely, in the mode of duration. This consciousness of time permeates the
collective life, so that the worldview involves a ceaseless procession of a principle of life, in an
interpenetration of time and space that is ensured by the eternal presence of the ancestors:
The land of the living was not far removed from the domain of the ancestors. There was
coming and going between them, especially when an old man died, because an old man was
very close to the ancestors. A man's life from birth to death was a series of transition rites which
brought him nearer and nearer to his ancestors [86].
The culture of Umuofia as depicted by Achebe functions through an immanence of its
foundational myth in the collective life and consciousness. The immediate and practical
implications of this myth and the system of belief derived from it are experienced at every level
of the collective existence, for the mythic time of the ancestors serves as the measure of social
control, as demonstrated by the role of the egwuwus, incarnations of the ancestors, in the
administration of justice, a role that endows the laws and customs of the land with a sacred
sanction. At the same time, the dialogue that elders such as Ezeudu, Ezenwa, and Obierika
engage in with their own culture throughout the novel points to the process by which the
principles governing the world concept and value system of the tribe are constantly debated, re-
examined, and in this way, retrospectively rationalized. Thus, as represented by Chinua
Achebe, and contrary to the discourse of colonial anthropology, Umuofia, the primordial Igbo
village, emerges as a locus of reflective civility. 6
Achebe's attentive recreation of the processes of everyday living in the tribal society that he
depicts in Things Fall Apart has led to the work being labeled an "ethnographic novel." The term
may be appropriate, but only in the limited sense in which it serves to indicate a conscious
effort of demonstration, aimed at presenting a particular society and its culture to an audience
unfamiliar with its ways of doing and feeling, with its beliefs about the world, and its strategies
of response to the imperatives of human existence. The novel endeavors in this sense to create
what Hochbruck (1990) has called the illusion of "cultural proximity" for the non-Igbo reader,
confronted by the otherness, so to speak, of the human world that its cultural references are
intended to designate, or at the very least evoke.
We need to attend carefully to Achebe's handling of the ethnographic element of his novel
in order to distinguish the varying modes of its integration into the narrative, for while several
instances of authorial intervention intended to enlighten the reader on matters of cultural
interest seem merely to provide orchestration for the bare outline of the plot, and thus to lend it

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart I 7

the richness of detail, others are indispensable for a proper comprehension of the narrative
development itself, and thus form an integral element of the novel's thematic unfolding. This is
notably the case with the banishment of Okonkwo after his accidental killing of a clansman. The
narrator points us deliberately to an understanding of the cultural implications of this episode:
The only course open to Okonkwo was to flee from the clan. It was a crime against the
earth goddess to kill a clansman, and a man who committed it must flee from the land [88].
Further along, describing the organized destruction of Okonkwo's compound by the
villagers after his departure, the narrator provides this insight into the mores of the land: "They
had no hatred in their hearts against Okonkwo. His greatest friend Obierika was among them.
They were merely cleansing the land which Okonkwo had polluted with the blood of a
clansman" [88].
This last quotation illustrates the function that the novel's ethnographic content has usually
been held to perform, its project of revaluation consisting in a comprehensive readjustment of
viewpoint on a culture that had previously served as an object of Western deprecation. Achebe's
conscious effort to project a new light upon the precolonial Igbo world is evident at many
points in the novel; there is clearly at work here a resolve to promote an alternative image to its
earlier representations in Western discourse, one that affords an inside view not merely of its
uncoordinated details as lived in the immediacy of everyday experience, but also of its overall,
functional coherence. Thus, the narrative process amounts to a reformulation, in the mode of
fiction, of the "scientific" discourse of the ethnographic literature on the Igbo, a process by
which Achebe seeks to reclaim a pre-existing Western discourse on his personal background for
a new and different ideological purpose.
But we must go beyond the documentary aspect of Achebe's novel to consider the relation it
bears to a serious artistic purpose. We need to observe the way in which the language of the
novel, the whole bent of its narrative development, gives expression to an imaginative impulse
that functions in its shaping, beyond the explicit revisionist intent that we may suppose to
spring from its ideological conditioning that we have so far dwelt upon. It needs to be
emphasized that this impulse derives in the first place from the formal requirements that
Achebe as a writer knew he had to satisfy, those conducing to the quality of verisimilitude that
have come to be associated with the rise and development of the conventional western novel. In
other words, Achebe's fictional reproduction of Igbo life must be seen in its immediate relation
to the diegetic purpose and mimetic function of the novel as a genre.7 For the necessity to
reproduce in his novel the context of life appropriate to its theme and external reference comes
to govern the process of cultural reclamation to which his work bears witness. We can thus
restate the connection between the two impulses at work in the novel by observing that it
develops as a redirection inward of Western anthropological discourse, toward the true springs
of life and expression in the African world obliterated by this discourse.
But it is evidently the primacy of art that predominates in Achebe's construction of his
novel; this has a consequence for grasping its moral import that we shall come to presently. For
the moment, we may note that Achebe's novel is distinguished by an economy of style and a
marvelous restraint in the presentation that endow it with a certain austerity. The novel's
ethnographic freight is never allowed to weigh down upon its human interest or to obscure its
aesthetic significance. Every scene is vividly imagined and realized, and the more expansive

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moments of the narration offer us those powerful descriptions, as of the entrance of the
egwugwus or "masked spirits" at the trial and the subsequent proceedings [Chapter Ten, 62-66]
which give the novel its dramatic lift at strategic moments. It is this process by which Achebe
naturalizess" his subject matter, to borrow Jonathan Culler's term [Culler, 1975], enabling him to
situate the narrative development, and especially the cruel turn taken by Okonkwo's fate,
wholly and convincingly within the framework of the Igbo system of belief:
His life had been ruled by a great passion to become one of the lords of the clan. That had
been his life-spring. And he had all but achieved it. Then everything had been broken. He had
been cast out of his clan like a fish on to a dry, sandy beach, panting. Clearly his personal god or
chi was not made for great things. A man could not rise beyond the destiny of his chi. The
saying of the elders was not true that if a man said yea, his chi also affirmed. Here was a man
whose chi said nay despite his own affirmation [92].
The passage hardly serves to inform us about the nature of the chi, a task that Achebe
undertakes in a famous essay [Achebe, 1975]; rather, it illuminates the ambiguous relation of
Okonkwo to his personal god, a relation that exemplifies, in the specific terms of Igbo
apprehension of the world, the grounded insecurity of the human condition that is the
mainspring of what Unamuno has called "the tragic sense of life." The novel's imaginative scope
thus extends beyond mere documentation to convey, through the careful reproduction of its
marking details, the distinctive character of Igbo tribal life as experienced by its subjects, the felt
texture from which it derives its universal significance. It is this that gives Things Fall Apart its
power of conviction and validates the project of cultural memory attested by the novel.
But the effort of recall and recreation, linked as it is to the purpose of the novelist's
deployment of form, also involves, as a necessary implication of the fictional process, a critical
engagement with the internal dynamics and value system of the very world that he presents,
one that, in the event, goes beyond its placid exterior to focus directly upon its deeper tensions,
to explore its cleavages and uncover its fault lines. It is at this level of enunciation that the novel
enacts what seems to me a veritable crisis of cultural memory.
We are alerted to this crisis primarily by the correlation that the novel suggests between the
conditions of existence in the tribal society and the mental universe that prevails within it.
Despite its admirable qualities in some important areas of human experience, the world that
Achebe presents is one that is closed in upon itself, limited in its capacities and hobbled in
certain crucial respects by its vision of the world. We have already remarked upon the way in
which Achebe's Western education and Christian background determine a narrative point of
view marked by a certain detachment, so that his narrator stands back sufficiently to indicate an
external regard upon this world, for it is not seldom that he adopts an angle of vision that lifts a
veil upon the grave disabilities by which tribal life is afflicted.
For the image that Chinua Achebe presents in his novel is that of a primary society, one
whose low level of technicity leaves it with few resources beyond the purely muscular for
dealing with the exigencies of the natural world. Because it is confronted with what is nothing
less than a precarious material situation, it has perforce to accord primacy to manliness, as a
manifestation of being at its most physical, elevated into a norm of personal worth and social
value. The valuation of physical prowess, in play as in war, the emphasis on individual
achievement, considered as instrumental to social solidarity, appear then as strategies intended

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to ensure the security and permanence of the group. For, like most early societies, this is a
society that is dominated by a passion for survival. On this point, Umuofia resembles these
earlier societies, alike in their cultivation of the heroic ideal based on physical prowess, an ideal
necessitated by their dependence on outstanding individuals for group survival.8
This defining feature of the tribe is highlighted by the centrality of the yam to the culture,
the symbolic value with which it is invested, over and above its utility as a source of
nourishment: a feature that provides a graphic illustration of the continuum from material
existence to the collective vision and ethos. Because of the intense muscular effort required for
its cultivation, the yam crop comes to represent an annual triumph wrested from nature, the
sign of the rigorous dialectic between the human world and the natural environment that
governs the communal life and conditions what one might call the social aesthetic--the festivals,
the rituals and other forms of public ceremonial--that infuses the tribe's collective
representations with feeling and endows them with meaning for each consciousness within the
community. Thus, the image of the yam gathers up as it were the force fields of the culture and
functions as a metonymic representation of the tribe's mode of relation to the world [Echeruo,
1979]. The organic-ism that we have observed as a fundamental feature of the tribal community
is thus related to the fact that it has its being essentially within the realm of necessity.
If then, from a certain idealizing point of view, we come to appreciate the values of
intimacy and intensity of living denoted by the closed universe of the novel, such as Gerard
Genette postulates for the Cambrai of Marcel Proust [Genette, 1972], the critical current that
runs through the narrative soon reveals this universe as one marked by a profound
contradiction between the powerful constraints of the social ideal, which privileges the interests
of the group, and the truths of individual human yearnings and desires as embraced by a
modern sensibility.
It is on this basis that Achebe develops the theme of Okonkwo's struggle for recognition
and the larger existential implications of this theme in its evocation of the universal human
predicament. This theme, we ought to note, is framed by the triadic structure of the novel
involving Okonkwo's rise to prominence at Umuofia, interrupted by his banishment and life in
exile at his maternal village Mbanta, and his disastrous return to the scene of his early triumphs.
The parallel between the story of Okonkwo and that of his society is thus made central to the
narrative development, predicated as this is upon the interrelation between the rise and fall of
Okonkwo, on one hand, and on the other, the fortunes of the society and way of life he
represents and its unraveling by the forces of history.
It is useful at this point to consider the salient details of Okonkwo's story as recounted by
Achebe, and its bearing on the underlying theme of his novel. This story really begins with that
of Okonkwo's father, Unoka; indeed, the elements of the singular dialectic that links Okonkwo
with Unoka, on one hand, and with his own son, Nwoye, on the other, determine the temporal
axis of the novel, indicating the succession of generations concerned by the action. This dialectic
relates in a fundamental way to the structure of images and moral propositions contained by
the novel. Unoka plays a double role here: not only does his fate and its effect upon his son
provide the key to the latter's psychology, he also embodies the countervalues that stand in
opposition to the inflexible social ideal of the tribe. For there is a real sense in which Unoka can
be considered a rebel against the rigidities of tribal society. His unorthodox style of living is a

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conscious subversion of the manly ideal, to which he opposes the values of art, along with a
playful irony and an amorality that accords with his relaxed disposition to the world. It is true
that his improvidence turns him into an object of general contempt, and that he comes to a
particularly disagreeable end that seems at first sight to vindicate the severe reprobation of the
tribe. But even his end in the Evil Forest constitutes a triumph of sorts, a form of defiance that
the narrator emphasizes with this significant detail: "When they carried him away, he took with
him his flute" [13]. In the end, he attracts the reader's sympathy by his unprepossessing attitude
and by a certain humane simplicity that is associated with his type, for the portrait we have of
Unoka is that of a folk hero whose insouciance stands as a constant rebuke to the vanities of the
great and powerful of this world.9
In the immediate context of the novel, Unoka's refusal to conform to the prevailing ethos of
the tribe is of course considered in wholly negative terms. More important, its subversive
significance is forcefully repudiated by his son, Okonkwo, who wills himself into becoming the
antithesis of all that Unoka represents, so that he comes to assume what can only be judged a
fearful aspect:
He was a man of action, a man of war. Unlike his father he could stand the look of blood. In
Umuofia's war he was the first to bring home a human head. That was his fifth head, and he
was not an old man yet. On great occasions, such as the funeral of a village celebrity he drank
his palm-wine from his first human head [8].
It is this portrayal of Okonkwo that prompted Thomas Melone to propose, in his
pioneering study devoted to the first four novels of Chinua Achebe, an evaluation that both
captures the essence of the character and exaggerates its import, when he describes him as a
"complex and unsettling personality" ("une multiple et deroutante personnalite") [ Melone,
1973, 64]. Unsettling Okonkwo certainly is, but not exactly complex; given his delineation in
Things Fall Apart one would be inclined rather to consider him as a "flat" character, to use E. M.
Forster's term. It is true that, in the particular context in which we encounter the character, the
novelist nudges us to the edge of what could have been a powerful psychological portrait:
considering his problematic relation to his father, who throws a long shadow over his life,
Okonkwo's inordinate obsession with self has all the makings of a deep neurosis generated by a
tenacious and consuming existential project, that of self-realization.
Things Fall Apart can be summed up as largely the narrative of the process of self-fashioning by
which Okonkwo is transformed into the somber inversion of his father. But the mental
condition into which he falls as a result is not really explored, so that we are not led into the
inner workings of his mind as a fully realized individual. Even at his moment of greatest mental
turmoil (in the immediate aftermath of his killing of Ikemefuna), we are provided with hardly
any insight into the happenings within his troubled soul. The point here is that, despite the
occasional glimpses the narrative affords into states of mind that are also occasions for
introspection on the part of the character, the narrative narrows our gaze, to focus upon what is
presented as essential to his make-up: "Okonkwo was a man of action, not of thought" [48].
It is not, therefore, the psychological depth of his portrayal that lends Okonkwo his power
of fascination, but rather his very physicality, all projected outward ("he was tall and huge," the
narrator informs us [3]) in such a way as to constitute him as the incarnation of his society's
ideal of manhood. This is the ideal that Okonkwo translates in his attitude and manners into an

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The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart I 11

overbearing masculinity. Even then, we cannot but respond, at least in the beginning, to what
we perceive as his immense vitality,10 made all the more intriguing by its sexual undercurrent,
an element of his total personality clearly indicated through the seductive power this exerts
upon Ekwefi.
The allusion to Okonkwo's sexuality raises the issue of gender and its narrative
implications, for it is this element that seems to have inspired the most inattentive reading of
Achebe's novel, especially by some feminists, who object to what they perceive as the work's
undue focus on the masculine principle and a corresponding depreciation of the feminine. The
feminist view is exemplified by Florence Stratton's negative interpretation of what she calls the
novel's focus on "gender ideology" [Stratton, 1994, 164-70]. More pertinent is the critique by
Susan Z. Andrade, who remarks upon "the category of the masculine" in Achebe's novel, which,
as she says, "attempts to avoid the representation of colonial relations in gendered terms by
inscribing an excessively masculine Igbo man." She goes on to observe:
In the Manichean allegory of anti-colonial struggle...the colonial /European side is
characterized as masculine, while the weak and disorderly native/African is necessarily
feminine. ...Paradoxically, Achebe's preoccupation with the implicitly gendered pattern of
colonial relations means that he can only imagine a negative masculinity; he has no room for a
celebratory feminism [Andrade, 1996, 255-256].
It is plain that these readings and others of the same stripe ignore the evidence of the novel
itself, which foregrounds the distortion of the communal ideal by Okonkwo in such a way as to
suggest a narrative commentary upon the social and moral implications of this ideal. Far from
endorsing what might be termed a cult of Igbo masculinity, Achebe's novel offers ample
evidence of a narrative preoccupation with the less than reassuring features of what may be
considered a "basic personality type" 11 fostered presumably by the work's reference culture and
exemplified so forcefully by the character of Okonkwo.
We are more than once alerted to the fact that Okonkwo's adoption of the manly ideal is
excessive and even wrongheaded, as when Obierika emphatically expresses to Okonkwo
himself his lack of enthusiasm for the prowess in wrestling demonstrated by his own son,
Maduka. Obierika seems to have been conceived as a foil to Okonkwo, serving as a kind of
Menenius Agrippa to his Coriolanus, so that his attitude indicates the possibility of an
alternative stance. This opposition enables us to discern a disavowal of Okonkwo at the level of
the novel's system of connotations, a level at which we sense the imaginative direction of
Achebe's novel and the moral sense it carries working towards a confounding of Okonkwo's
exaggerated sense of self.
This critical focus is gathered up in the folktale that functions both as an interlude and as a
narrative commentary upon Okonkwo's egoism, a device that is fully in line with the
convention of storytelling in the African oral tradition. In this sense, it serves Achebe in formal
terms as an intertextual resource in the construction of his novel, within which it is deployed,
through a process of mise en abime, both as a supplement to its ludic function, and as
metafiction, in a redoubling of its narrative code [Obiechina, 1993]. As a direct comment upon
Okonkwo's hubris, it points beyond the immediate action to the moral problem involved in the
tense dialectic between collectivity and individual. We must recall in this connection the
function of the imagination as what may be termed the preconceptual foundation of the

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"lifeworld" in traditional society, a function that gave to the art of storytelling its significance in
the deepest sense, as a mode of critical reflection upon the vicissitudes of human existence
[Towa, 1980].
The relevance of the folktale interlude to the imaginative discourse elaborated by the novel
is that it affords a clear pointer to a critical preoccupation manifested explicitly as a distinct
thematic cluster centred upon the issue of gender in the novel. As Solomon Iyasere has pointed
out, Okonkwo is confronted at every turn by the female principle as it informs the organization
of collective life and the communal consciousness of Umuofia [Iyasere, 1978]. The female
principle functions indeed as a major trope in Things Fall Apart and constitutes a significant
dimension of its system of ironies.
A striking instance of this is provided by one of the most dramatic episodes in the novel,
the abduction of Okonkwo's daughter, Ezimna, by Chielo, the priestess of the Earth goddess
Agbala [70-77]. Chielo retains the girl an entire night in her cave while the great warrior
Okonkwo is obliged to wait outside, unable to intervene to recover his daughter until the
priestess is ready to return her to him in the morning. When we consider Okonkwo's affective
investment in Ezinma, in whom he discerns the male qualities whose absence he bemoans in his
son, Nwoye, Chielo's act, in its very challenge to Okonkwo's manhood ("Beware Okonkwo!
Beware of exchanging words with Agbala. Does a man speak when a god speaks?" [71])
presents itself as a pointed recall to his attention of the gender category to which Ezinma
properly belongs, and the possible calls upon her that the distribution of gender roles
determines within the culture. More concretely, it is Chielo's way of designating Ezinma as her
successor, of reclaiming the girl and restoring her to a realm of feminine mysticism from which
she is beginning to be separated by Okonkwo's projection upon her of a male essence.
The reaffirmation of the female principle signified by the Chielo episode is reinforced by other
indications that suggest a consistent undermining in symbolic terms of Okonkwo's masculinity
throughout the novel. As Carole Boyce Davis has rightly observed:
The Chielo-Ezinma episode is an important sub-plot of the novel and actually reads like a
suppressed larger story circumscribed by the exploration of Okonkwo's/man's struggle with
and for his people. In the troubled world of Things Fall Apart, motherhood and femininity are
the unifying mitigating principles [Davis, 1986, 245; see also Jeyifo, 1993].
The second part of the novel, devoted entirely to Okonkwo's life in exile in his mother's
village after his accidental killing of a clansman, can be read as an extended development of this
secondary theme that subtends the narrative at its primary level of development. For
Okonkwo's refusal to reconcile himself to the turn of events that leads to his exile provides an
occasion for another reminder of the significance of the female principle, when he is instructed
by Uchendu, his maternal uncle, in the culture's veneration of the mother as source of life, its
association of femininity with the vital principle, enunciated in resolute terms in the dictum
"Nneka" ("Mother is supreme").
Okonkwo's glum acquiescence contrasts with the enthusiasm that accompanies his return
to Umuofia, where his loss of social standing soon reveals itself as irreparable, and a tragic fate
awaits him. The irony that attends Okonkwo's embodiment of manhood is that, pursued by the
feminine principle as if by the Furies, he is finally vanquished by a destiny that culminates in

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The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart I 13

his committing what we are pointedly informed is a "female" fault that leads first to his exile
and finally to his downfall.
In its "deconstruction" of Okonkwo's masculinity, the novel also draws directly upon a
significant feature of its reference culture for validation. For while it reflects, in its account of
individual behavior and group attitudes within its fictional world, the reality of male
dominance as an empirical fact of the social system--the order or precedence denoted by the
seating arrangement at the trial scene provides a graphic visual demonstration of this point--the
novel also directs our attention to the ways in which this fact is controverted in other spheres of
the collective life and imagination, especially at the level of religious belief and experience. For,
although the society upholds the notion of manliness as a fundamental social norm, it is also
compelled to recognize the controlling effect of biology upon its life processes and the obvious
bearing of this factor upon group survival. If the social dominance of the men is unequivocally
asserted, the parallel valorization of women in the symbolic sphere, demonstrated by the cult of
Ala, emerges as a presiding topos of "the social imaginary," one that sets up a countervailing
cultural and moral force to the massive investment of the social sphere by the men. The male-
female dialectic thus serves to maintain an affective and ideological balance of the group; in
this, it corresponds to a certain primary perception of a felt duality of the cosmic order as a
principle of the universal imaginary.12
This conceptual scheme is crucial for an understanding of Okonkwo's psychology as
depicted in Achebe's novel, for it is against the feminine term of the gender dialectic, as
understood and expressed in the culture--the nurturing instinct as opposed to the destructive,
the tender as opposed to the violent, the aesthetic as opposed to the practical, in a word, the
diurnal as opposed to the nocturnal--it is against these values associated with the female
principle that Okonkwo has resolutely turned his face. The terms in which his cutting down of
Ikemefuna is narrated suggest that behind the gesture of confident affirmation of male resolve
that he intends his act to represent lies a profound discomfort in the presence of feminity. We
are told that he is "dazed" with fear at the moment of the boy's appeal to him, but it is a fear that
has been bred in his unreflecting mind by the image of his father, one of having to reckon with
the nuanced reformulation of established social meanings by the symbolic values associated
with the female principle. Indeed, for Okonkwo to be reminded anew of his father's image by
Ikemefuna's artistic endowments and lively temperament is to be impelled toward a violent act
of repression.
As Keith Booker has remarked, the killing of Ikemefuna represents a pivotal episode in the
novel [Booker, 1998, 70] not only as a reflection of Okonkwo's disturbed mental state, but in its
reverberation through the novel, as a result of its effect upon his son, Nwoye. It marks the
beginning of the boy's disaffection toward his father and ultimately his alienation from the
community that Okonkwo has come to represent for him. We hardly need to ponder the
cleavage between father and son to realize that it provides the most potent sign of the
disintegration of Umuofia society, provoked by the introduction within it of the Christian
religion. Over the three years of their companionship in Okonkwo's household, Ikemefuna has
come to embody for Nwoye the poetry of the tribal society, which is erased for him forever by
the young boy's ritual killing, an act against nature in which his father participates. The fate of
Ikemefuna, its stark revelation of the grim underside of the tribal ethos, engenders the

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emptiness in his heart that predisposes Nwoye to Christian conversion. The terms in which his
conversion is described make clear the conjunction between social and moral issues as the
determining factor in this conversion. It is not without significance that the conversion itself is
presented as an inner drama of sensibility, in which a new poetry takes the place of the ancient,
filling a spiritual and affective void and thus coming to satisfy a need to which the traditional
order is no longer capable of responding:
It was not the mad logic of the Trinity that captivated him. He did not understand it. It was
the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow. The hymn about brothers who sat
in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague persistent question that haunted his young
soul the question of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was
killed. He felt a relief within as the hymn poured into his parched soul. The words of the hymn
were like the drops of frozen rain melting on the dry plate of the panting earth. Nwoye's callow
mind was greatly puzzled [104].
The purple prose is integral to the language of Christian evangelism that Achebe adopts in
the passage, setting in relief the last sentence that arrests its lyrical flight with its abrupt
reference to Nwoye's "callow mind." The effect of the juxtaposition verges on bathos, but its
purport is unmistakable, for we are left in no doubt that this phrase describes a condition for
which Nwoye's tribal background is responsible. His conversion thus represents the prelude to
the refinement of mind and sensibility that the new religion promises.
Nwoye's adoption of a new name, Isaac, with the significance it carries of a rebirth,
consolidates his sense of allegiance to the new religion. But the particular name he takes
suggests an import beyond its immediate meaning of individual salvation, for the name recalls
the Biblical story of the patriarch Abraham and his substitution of an animal for the sacrifice of
his son, Isaac, an act that inaugurates a new dispensation in which we are made to understand
that fathers are no longer required to sacrifice their sons to a demanding and vengeful deity.
Nwoye's adoption of this name in effect enacts a symbolic reversal of the killing of Ikemefuna,
and gives its full meaning to his conversion, as primarily the sign of his release from the
constraints of the ancestral universe.
Nwoye's story closes a family history that revolves around the troubled relationships
between fathers and sons. 13 Centered as it is on the personality and tragic fate of Okonkwo, this
family history constitutes the novel's narrative framework and functions as an allegory of the
very destiny of the society they inhabit, and to which they relate in diverse ways. What this
allegory signifies, in the particular historical and cultural context of Achebe's novel, is the state
of internal crisis into which this society is plunged, a crisis that we have come to appreciate as
intrinsic to its presiding ethos. This crisis is only rendered especially acute by the arrival of the
white man, so that a major irony of the novel is that it is this historic event provides a
resolution, an outcome that we sense as highly ambiguous, insofar as it marks the harsh
intrusion of the outer world upon the tribal universe, leading to the loss of its autonomy as a
sphere of existence and expression.
Achebe's understanding of the epochal significance of this turn of events represents the
conceptual foundation of the novel's narrative development. Its burden of historical truth
derives from its external reference, the large correspondence of the events it narrates to the
internal history of the society and culture with which it deals, the profound upheaval in the

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The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart I 15

Igbo world and indeed the entire region of what is now Southeastern Nigeria that culminated in
the imposition of British colonial rule.14 The formal working-out of this understanding consists
of the way it determines a double perspective of point of view that is reflected in the narrative
devices through which the drama of events unfolds in the novel and by which its moral import
is clarified. This is evident in what we have called the novel's diegetic function, which relates to
the explicit realism associated with the genre, the imperative of representation to which it
responds. On one hand, it enables a positive image of tribal society to emerge, with its
coherence and especially the distinctive poetry of its forms of life. On the other hand, we are
made aware that this coherence is a precarious and even factitious one, deriving from an
inflexibility of social norms that places an enormous psychological and moral burden on
individuals caught up within its institutional constraints, imprisoned by its logic of social
organization, and inhibited by its structure of social conformities. The split that this occasions
within the writer's creative consciousness makes for a profound ambivalence that translates as a
productive tension in the novel's connotative substratum.
We come to some idea of this deeper layer of meaning in the novel by considering the
complex of images through which it develops.15 At the risk of a certain reductionism, it can be
observed that the structure of images in the novel revolves around the theme of contradiction,
which functions as its organizing principle, amplified through the structure of ironic reversals
by which the narrative is propelled. This feature is well illustrated by the contradictory
meanings assumed by the image of the locusts on the two occasions it occurs in the text. The
first, which recounts an actual invasion of the village by locusts, provides what may be
considered the high point of the novel: contrary to expectations, the normal association of this
pest with agricultural disaster is reversed as the entire population goes into a festive mood
collecting locusts and feasting on them.
The irony of this episode is deepened by the fact that it immediately precedes the account
of the consultations among the elders regarding the disposal of Ikemefuna and the narration of
his ritual killing. It is not without significance for the narrative scheme that Okonkwo's
participation in this ritual marks the precise moment at which his fortunes commence their
downward spiral. The connection is directly established between his reverses and the fall of the
clan in the second occurrence of the image of the locust, which reinforces the dark irony
intimated by this narrative scheme by returning us to the conventional meaning of the image of
the locusts in Obierika's designation of the white men, whose appearance on the scene he
interprets as the ominous event it turns out to be:
I forgot to tell you another thing which the Oracle said. It said that other white men were
on their way. They were locusts, it said, and the first man was their harbinger sent to explore
the terrain [97-8].16
Within this scheme, the progression of events in the novel is organized around a system of
dichotomies and their transformations. We move in particular from the pre?established
hierarchy of values implied in the opposition between the village of Umuofia and the "Evil
Forest" 17 to a dramatic reversal of this hierarchy. The binaries by which the unfolding of events
is plotted in the novel, and the ironies entailed by the process, is especially marked here, for it is
in the Evil Forest, which starts out as the negative marker of social space in the community
depicted by the novel, that the Christians establish their new religion, destined to triumph over

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the ancestral religion. It is here that they succeed in creating a new community cemented as
much by the enthusiasm called forth in them by the new faith as by its rhetoric of liberation
[112]. It is pertinent to remark here that the pattern of reversals itself draws upon an eminently
Christian trope, encapsulated in the Biblical sayings about the last coming to be the first, and
the meek inheriting the earth, a trope that, we may recall, prompted Nietzsche's repudiation of
Christianity as the religion of the weak and powerless in the world.
With these reversals as they occur in Things Fall Apart, the Evil Forest gradually becomes
invested with moral authority, thus acquiring a new and positive significance. Furthermore, the
historical connection between the Christian mission and the incipient colonial administration
and their collaboration in the overthrow of the tribal system constitutes this new space as the
domain within which a new social order is to be elaborated. The account of this connection in
the latter part of Things Fall Apart propels the Evil Forest to a position of centrality in the novel's
system of meanings, so that, in its association with Christianity, it comes to represent the source
of new humanizing values and, in this sense, simultaneously, as an image of a transformation
that prefigures a new future. In short, the Evil Forest comes to signify a new and developing
realm of being.
The future to which this transformation is projected is clearly intimated in Mr. Brown's
exhortations to his wards, exhortations that provide a temporal complement to the spiritual
justification of his missionary activity: "Mr Brown begged and argued and prophesied. He said
that the leaders of the land in the future would be men and women who had learnt to read and
write" [128]. The remarkable prescience ascribed here to Mr. Brown is of course the product of
narrative hindsight, propounded ex post facto, as it were, and thus prospective to the historical
moment of the events depicted in the novel. It is an imaginative anticipation of the modernity
that rises on the horizon, determined by the nexus between literacy and the new cash economy,
and destined to flow out of the veritable process of social reconstruction set in train by the
advent and diffusion of Christianity:
Mr Brown's school produced quick results. A few months in it were enough to make one a
court messenger or even a court clerk. Those who stayed longer became teachers; and from
Umuofia, labourers went forth into the Lord's vineyard. New churches were established in the
surrounding villages and a few schools with them. From the very beginning religion and
education went hand in hand [128].
Achebe's novel looks forward self-consciously here to the formation of a new Westernized
elite and the emergence of a new national identity enabled by literacy and predicated on an
ideology of modernization. The nationalist project that in the general consensus would devolve
upon the Westernized elite finds a discreet echo here within Achebe's novel, giving it a thematic
resonance that, as we shall see, extends its range into the field of utopia.18
Thus, by a strange and unpredictable turn of events, the Evil Forest comes to gather to itself
these various intimations, so that it functions as the marker of the historical consciousness that
underlies the narrative development of the novel. The peculiar imbrication of theme and
imagery here enlarges the novel's field of reference and suggestion, in such a way as to point up
the deep intuition it expresses of the compelling force of history.
But it is especially at the level of language that the double movement of Achebe's
imagination in Things Fall Apart is fully manifested. It is revealing of the novel's thematic

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The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart I 17

direction to observe and follow the course charted by the language, which proceeds from the
vigorous rhetoric of traditional life that infuses its early chapters with their peculiar energy, to
the bare discursiveness that predominates in the later chapters. It is primarily the language of
the early chapters that endows Achebe's novel with an epic resonance. The impulse to a
revaluation of Igbo culture is clearly discernible here, for we are left in no doubt that the
language of Achebe's characters is one that is constitutive of the culture, woven into the fabric
of social experience. This language, in which social life is "objectified," becomes expressive of its
seamless whole, of its tensions as well as strategies for their resolution, a language that may be
said to found a whole register of the collective being. It is to this interrelation of speech mode to
communal life that Bernth Lindfors draws attention when he describes the language of Achebe's
world as "a grammar of values" [Lindfors, 1973, 77].
We sense then, behind Achebe's handling of language, an ideological parti-pris, which is
not without its aesthetic pay off, as it were. There is an obvious delectation in language in the
early chapters that betrays a large measure of complicity with his subject matter on the part of
the novelist. It is this that conditions that felicity of style that has so often been remarked upon
as a distinctive quality of Achebe's writing.19 And it is indeed this aesthetic dimension-as
distinct from the novel's documentary or ethnographic interest-that qualifies it as creative
endeavour, as a notable instance of poiesis.
But alongside what one might call the performative style reflective of oral discourse, and as
counterpoint to its expressivity, Achebe adopts the tone of objective narrative, a tone derived
from the western convention of literate discourse, whose impassibility reflects the distance that
he is obliged to take with regard to his subject. This tone is evident in the direct accounts of
customs and of beliefs and other notations related to the tribal way of life, passages in which the
skepticism natural to the rational viewpoint is barely held in check, masked only by the neutral
tone of the narrative voice. We sense the way in which this skepticism is held back in the long
description of the search for Ezinma's iyi-nwa [53-61], but reaffirmed in the matter-of-fact
account of Okonkwo going into the bush to collect herbs that he will administer to Ezinma to
combat her fever. This report of an eminently pragmatic behavior serves as a coda to the
exuberance of the story of Ezinma's stone, dispelling the air of verisimilitude that seems to
attach to this story with a sober notation of fact. Similarly, Ekwefi's reminiscence of her
encounter with an evil spirit is juxtaposed with a realistic, almost banal explanation of her
She had prayed for the moon to rise. But now she found the half light of the incipient moon
more terrifying than the darkness. The world was now peopled with vague fantastic figures
that dissolved under her steady gaze and then formed again in new shapes [75].
These juxtapositions reflect the workings of the novelist's mind as it hovers between
fascination and unbelief, between an impulse toward an embrace of the cultural values
suggested by his imaginative exploration of setting and narrative elaboration of context, and a
positivist outlook inseparable from a liberated consciousness. We have no better evidence of
this ambiguous subtext than the wry report of the egwugwu who is rooted to the spot for two
days for daring to cross the path of the one-handed masquerade [86]. And Obierika's expression
of awe at the potency of a neighboring village's "medicine" indicates that even the intelligence of
a wise elder like him can be preyed upon by the superstitions of the tribe. Thus, while it is

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18 I Irele

evident that the passages in which Achebe reports these beliefs and the practices associated
with them imply a certain measure of understanding of their ways, it would be clearly absurd
to suggest that he identifies with them at any level of his intellectual make-up.
It is especially instructive in this regard to note the way in which the bewilderment of the
villagers at the survival of the Christians in the Evil Forest affords Achebe scope for an
indulgent satire upon their conceptual naivete, as determined by the collective belief system.
This naivete takes on a more ominous character in Obierika's account of the killing of the white
man by the people of Abame, who tie up his "iron horse" to prevent it from running away to call
his friends [97]. It is significant that later in the novel, as a demonstration of the inadequacy of
the traditional world view, we are informed of the test of efficacy passed by the new medicine
introduced by the missionaries: "And it was not long before the people began to say that the
white man's medicine was quick in working" [128]. The term "medicine" is now employed in the
sense of a technology of healing grounded in verifiable science, in other words in association
with an objectifying, "instrumental" rationality.20
The insistence of the narrative voice on the fundamental weakness of the traditional
cognitive system is thus unmistakable and it raises the issue of the skeptical distance that, as
novelist, Achebe is obliged to maintain from this system, and indeed the intellectual
detachment from the world he presents, despite his deep sense of cultural involvement in and
affective engagement with his material. The shifting perspectives we encounter in the novel and
the varied tones of the narrative voice afford pointers to the fact that Things Fall Apart is written
out of a consciousness that is no longer at one with the indigenous order of apprehension. We
are constantly made aware that the traditional background functions for Achebe not as a
reference for an objective structure of knowledge but rather for the novelist's narrative
construction and imaginative purpose, as touchstone of an aesthetic, as a stock of imaginative
symbols endowed with an affective value that does not depend on belief or devotional
commitment for force of appeal. The relation of Achebe to his material is thus comparable in
some important respects to that of the Western writer to pagan mythology, and even to aspects
of Christian belief that are no longer capable of commanding the writer's intellectual assent or
even emotional identification.
The fact that Achebe's second, objective style is often marked by irony does not detract
from its value as the instrument appropriate to the function of chronicler that, as novelist, he
assumes in those passages when he turns to this style, moments when he is concerned above all
with registering the facts as they present themselves to his consciousness as a dispassionate
observer of history. The interaction between the evocative parts of his novel and the realistic
mode of its thematic progression is thus expressive of the interface between the oral and the
written that is central to his double cultural awareness. In formal terms, this interaction marks
the transition from the epic to the novel to which Bakhtin has drawn attention as distinctive of
the evolution of narrative [Bakhtin, 1981; see also Ong, 1982; and Goody, 1987].
The significant point about this interaction is the tension produced in the novel between
what one might call a romanticism of its oral style, which derives from a personal attachment of
the writer to his African antecedents, and the realism of the western style, which corresponds to
his awareness of their supersession in a new dispensation. The deep "mechanisms" at work in
the novel thus come to the surface in the language, enabling us to grasp the full connotative

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The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart I 19

weight and rhetorical direction of the narrative. This is a story that begins in the register of
myth and ends on a note of chronicle, a transformation that is reflected in its narrative style,
which becomes progressively "de-poetized," as Thomas Melone has rightly pointed out
[Melone, 1973, 65].21
The "downward" progression of Achebe's expression thus charts the course of the depletion
of language, brought on by events, in the community to which the novel refers, a process that is
registered within the work by the transition from a textualised orality through which the
characters and the world of the novel are not so much represented as evoked, called forth into
being, to the passive record of events imposed by the conventions of literate discourse. For the
interaction between styles, the play of language on which the narrative development turns,
forms part of the movement of history traced in the novel. As the story advances, we witness a
linguistic process that culminates in the triumph of the culture of literacy, a process that also
signals the engulfing of the indigenous voice, carried exclusively through the oral medium, by
the discourse of colonialism.
It is this latter discourse that finally calls attention to itself, at the very end of the novel, in
the total coincidence of the linguistic vehicle of the text with the actual language in which the
thoughts of the colonial officer are formulated. The passage is remarkable in many respects, not
least for the way it draws attention to the differentiated use in Achebe's novel of the device of
indirect speech. For in its bare matter-of-factness, it stands in marked contrast to the remarkable
stream of interior monologue through which, as he is led to his death, Ikemefuna's forebodings
are translated, in a dramatic counterpoint between an immediate sense of personal danger,
rendered through indirect speech, and the reassuring formulations of communal lore. The loss
of the vivid quality of Ikemefuna's monologue in the colonial officer's reported speech indicates
that we now have to do with the disembodied voice of history, manifested through this faceless,
nondescript character. The historic turning signified by the end of Okonkwo's personal story is
thus registered at the very level of language: from being subjects of their own discourse,
Okonkwo and his people have now become the objects of the discourse of another, elaborated
in a language foreign to them.
There is a sense, then, in which the advent of the imperial moment is developed in
Achebe's novel as a linguistic experience, as more or less a misadventure of language that
unfolds through the discursive modes of its narration. In line with this development, the
temporal scheme of the novel appropriately shifts from the cyclic plane, associated with a rich
organicism and an intense vitalism, to the strictly linear, the precipitation of events in the third
part of the novel contrasting markedly with the unhurried pace of the telling in the earlier parts.
At the same time, the spatial scheme itself becomes transformed, enlarged and, in the process,
impoverished: from the effectively charged compactness of the nine villages to the impersonal
perspectives of the Lower Niger, evoked in the ruminations of the colonial officer that bring the
narrative to its close.
Things Fall Apart displays in its own peculiar way what Frank Kermode has called "the
ambiguous innocence of the classic text" [Kermode, 1983, 74]. Kermode's phrase itself is a
suggestive one, for we might conceive of the classic text in terms of its centrality to a tradition,
either one that is fully established but must still accommodate new works for its reinvigoration-
-the sense of T.S. Eliot's celebrated essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent"--or one that is

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20 I Irele

emerging, advertising itself by its novelty, as is generally held to be the case with modern
African literature in the European languages. The poetics of Things Fall Apart seem in a curious
way to unite both these senses of the classic text. On one hand, its economy of style derives
from what seems like a complete adherence to the norms of the conventional novel, exemplified
by its strictly linear structure with a beginning, a middle and an end, leading inexorably to the
final catastrophe, the progression clearly marked by the novel's triadic structure. Moreover, it
achieves its effects by means that refuse to call attention to themselves. This makes for an
austerity that places it alongside that other classic of the African canon, Cheikh Hamidou Kane's
Ambiguous Adventure. At the same time, it has claims to a uniqueness that derives from its
departure from the western model in fundamental ways. For, as the discussion above indicates,
a tension exists between the surface fluency that distinguishes Achebe's text and the resonances
set up within it by its hidden places of signification. For although Things Fall Apart presents
itself at first sight as what Roland Barthes has called a "readerly" rather than a writerlyy" text
[Barthes, 1970], the indications I have provided of key elements of its internal features indicate
that there is more to its transparent texture than is at first sight perceptible. These deeper
promptings of the text indicate that its apparent simplicity is belied by the complexities of
reference and suggestion that lie beneath its directness of enunciation.22
The tension that these complexities generate in the text proceeds largely from the fraught
relation that obtains between theme and form, reflecting an ambivalence that informs the
fictional inspiration and therefore structures its formal expression. Simon Gikandi has
endeavored to address this issue by claiming that this feature of the work derives from the
writer's cultural background, which recognizes a plurality of discourse and admits different
points of view, varying formulations of the truth of experience or reality [Gikandi, 1991, 44-50].
But the ambivalence in the novel is so profound as to carry much more weight than Gikandi
seems willing to allow. Rather than a function of cultural habit, it seems to me that this
ambivalence stems from the critical consciousness inherent in Achebe's recourse to the novel as
a narrative genre. The point can be made directly by observing that Achebe presents Igbo
society "steadily and whole," to borrow Matthew Arnold's expression. For while this society is
indeed marked by an internal coherence of its organization and a poetry of its expressive
modes, it also betrays profound inadequacies and grave internal contradictions that account for
the disintegration that the novel records. Thus, Things Fall Apart does not merely embody a
willed recall of cultural memory, but develops also as an exploration of the specificities of life
within the universe of experience it unveils, an exploration that amounts ultimately to a
reassessment of its nature and presiding ethos. In other words, Achebe brings to his task of
historical recollection a moral intelligence.
The moral issue in Things Fall Apart seems to hinge upon how far Okonkwo can be
considered representative of his society, how far he can be held to be its embodiment. For
William Walsh, the centrality of Okonkwo to the issue is clear, as he says, 'because of the way in
which the fundamental predicament of the society is lived through his life" [Walsh, 1970, 52].
But any categorical answer one way or the other skirts the questions, since in fact, in real
societies, individuals only partially embody the values of the community even when these are
presumed to have been fully internalized, for in the very process of acting out these values, they
can also be found to strain against them. It is this dialectic between the individual and the

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The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart I 21

society, inherent in what Durkheim termed "social constraint" (la contrainte social) that is so
well mirrored in Achebe's novel in its depiction of Okonwo's relation to his society.
This is a dialectic that is of course very much within the province of the novel. Indeed, as
Sunday Anozie has pointed out, Okonkwo as a character corresponds in some respects to
Lucien Goldmann's concept of the "problematic hero"; in Anozie's reading, Okonwo emerges as
something of a romantic hero, the bearer of a cult of the self [Anozie, 1970, 00-00]. It is easy to
see how this attribute can constitute a menace to the kind of society that Achebe constructs, a
potential factor of disaggregation in a tribal community. For the assiduous cultivation of
individual self can only disturb the system of obligations and solidarities on which the sense of
community is founded.
Okonkwo's personal attitude and social conduct as we encounter them in the novel amount
in fact to an idiosyncratic interpretation of social rules and lead irresistibly to a state of moral
irresponsibility, despite his apparent conformity to norms. His self-absorption is of such a
magnitude as to test the limits of the dominant ideology and thus to reveal its points of
weakness. It is this paradox of his situation that is dramatized by his exile, which can be read as
a symbolic expression of the necessity to rein in his passionate individuality by its exclusion
from the social sphere. This aspect of his character is presented as directly related to the
simplified and totally unreflective approach to the world by which he lives and acts, in striking
contrast to his friend Obierika. The same unreflective commitment to the communal ethos in his
killing of Ikemefuna is manifested in his cutting down of the court messenger. Okonkwo's
blinding passion leads him to a final act of egoism that finally marks him with a tragic solitude,
rendered tersely in the line in which we finally glimpse him: "He wiped his machete on the
sand and went away" [145].
Contrary, then, to Gikandi's contention, the ambivalence by which the novel is governed
inheres in the text itself, emerging clearly in the portrayal of Okonkwo. We must go further to
observe that the largely negative thrust of this portrayal comes close to undermining the
polemical intent of the novel. For if Okonkwo's tragic fate marks him as a symbol of the passion
of the African in modern times, the ironic devaluation of the character and the ethos he
embodies suggests a profound sense of unease on the part of his creator regarding many issues
of moral import raised by the habits of mind and social practices that define the traditional
universe of life and expression. There is thus a sense in which the sustained imaginative
reflection upon Igbo society in Achebe's novel begins to tend toward a subversion of its
ideological premises. It is as if Achebe's intellect and sensibility and his sense of artistic integrity
had entered into contention with his primary affections for his cultural antecedents, thus
bringing into peril his conscious project of bearing witness to the poetic quality of the universe
in which they are rooted. For although it would be extreme to read Achebe's novel as the
expression of a repudiation of the tribal ethos, as a form of recoil from the tribal universe, to
consider the text in light of its ambivalence is to recognize it for what it is: nothing less than an
uncompromising reappraisal of the tribal world. 23
It is important to stress that this revaluation has nothing to do with the diminished
conception of African humanity and capacities constitutive of colonial ideology but arises as an
immediate factor of the historical process represented in the novel. We appreciate the intense
feeling of insecurity of the Umuofia elders as they sense the world with which they are familiar

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22 I Irele

going out from under them. We sympathize, therefore, with the claim to cultural integrity
defended by Okonkwo and others, more so as the novel establishes a parallel between their
attitude and that of Mr. Smith, whose intransigence on behalf of the Christian cause mirrors that
of Okonkwo on behalf of the traditional world. They are the true protagonists, embodying each
in his own way the logic of the cultural conflict enacted in the novel, the logic involved in the
drama of the colonial encounter. Moreover, this conflict is situated within the perspective of a
cultural pluralism that is at first rehearsed in a good humored way in the theological
disputations between the Umuofians and Mr. Brown, but which soon assumes an agonistic
character in the confrontation with his successor, Mr. Smith; it is this later development that is
voiced by one of the elders, Ajofia:
We cannot leave the matter in his hands because he does not understand our customs, just
as we do not understand his. We say he is foolish, because he does not know our ways, and
perhaps he says we are foolish because we do not know his [134-5].
But this balanced view of cultural relativism hardly represents the level of the novel's
groundwork of ideas or the resting place of its ideological or narrative progression. Things Fall
Apart complicates singularly the issues so often raised in the context of debate within which it is
usually situated, that of the Tradition/Modernity framework. It goes beyond the series of
dichotomies so regularly invoked in this debate as to have become platitudes: established
custom versus change; cultural loss versus reproduction; accommodation versus revolt;
acculturation versus cultural nationalism, and the like. These issues are obviously implicated in
the total discursive range of the novel's narrative development, but they do not in the end, it
seems to me, constitute the real heart of the matter. For it is not enough to see Things Fall Apart
as simply a statement of cultural and racial retrieval, as a novel that embodies a discourse of
nativism. Rather than a unilateral revaluation of the past, the central preoccupation of this
novel, as indeed of Achebe's entire work, revolves around the deeply problematic nature of the
relationship of past to present in Africa. What is at issue here, in the most fundamental way, is
the bearing of that past upon the present, fraught as this is with implications for the future
perspectives of the continent.
Kwame Anthony Appiah's summing up of the novel is pertinent to this question when he
remarks that, in Things Fall Apart, "Achebe's accounting includes columns both for profit and
loss" [Appiah, 1992, xii). Given what we have seen as its ironic stances and the key of
ambivalence on which the narrative is rung, it seems to me that if the novel translates a sense of
loss, this cannot be overwhelming. Things Fall Apart can hardly be read as a wistful lingering
over an elusive past: nostalgia is not a determining or even constitutive element of its
atmosphere. The intellectual disposition of the writer, if not his imaginative consciousness,
operating at a level deeper than any ideological conception of his function, seems here to
apprehend a decided lack of congruence between the past of the novel's reconstruction,
reanimated as a function of cultural memory, and the imperatives of the present, even as the
claims of that past to aesthetic significance are upheld, and its psychological value in countering
the debilitation of the colonial situation is activated.
We are made aware of the inadequacy of the overarching ethos by which the past was
regulated, its limitations as embodied in historical forms, the inadequacy of this ethos and of
these forms arising precisely from their mode of insertion in the world. Moreover, as Pierre

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The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart I 23

Nora has pointed out, the phenomenon of memory exceeds the purview of history [Nora, 1989].
In this particular context perhaps more than in any other, the dynamics of cultural memory
involve much more than reaching into a past; they also engage the present, insofar as the
traditional culture upon which they are focused remains a vibrant contemporary reality. But
while it continues to exert its force upon minds, the question remains how far the past can be
invoked to legitimize the present, how far it is capable of functioning as a practical reference in
the contemporary circumstances of African endeavor.
These, then, are some of the issues raised by Achebe's work. The point is that the novel
genre serves Achebe as a mode of reflection upon the nature and significance of the African
past, and its relevance to the African present. In Things Fall Apart, this reflective tone is made
evident in the conversations and dialogues he attributes to the elders of the tribe, who are
thereby presented through the course of the narrative as minds engaged in a sustained
deliberative process. The novel takes on a discursive character as it stages a running debate on
customs and practices, on institutions and values, on systems of belief: a debate that is in reality
conducted as an interrogation of the human possibilities offered by the material world and
mental landscape that together compose the tribal culture and stamp it with a distinctive
But although this interrogation is presented as internal, it amounts ultimately to an
objective scrutiny, in the light of an alternative set of values that, in the nature of things, were
not available to the subjects themselves. This scrutiny forms part of the implicit ideology of the
novel, of the system of ideas presiding upon its organization, for which the Euro-Christian
system of values begins to function as touchstone and measure. This is not to imply that the
emphasis on Christianity as a factor of liberation authorizes us to read the work as a
justification of the new religion, much less of colonial imposition, but rather as a mirror held up
to African society, enabling a process of self-apprehension. In other words, a new African
consciousness emerges through the mediation of the Christian/Western vision of the world.
The tension generated by the fundamental ambivalence of the novel's propositionall"
content can be grasped at its most intense at this level, for the process of self-reflection
manifested in the novel is traversed by what one might call a deep cultural anxiety. This is
nothing like the self-contempt displayed Yambo Ouologuem's Bound to Violence, but it testifies
to the way in which the need to validate the tribal culture in some emotionally satisfactory way
runs up against the question of value, a question that is central to the order of meaning
proposed by the novel. It is in this light that Obierika, who stands as the manifest antithesis of
Okonkwo, can be said to function as the moral center of the novel. He comes closest among the
novel's characters to a representation of what Valdez Moses has called a "modern sensibility"
[Valdez Moses, 1995, 113].24 It is perhaps not far-fetched to suggest that we have in Obierika not
merely the one character with which, as Jeyifo points out, the novelist seems to identify, but
rather a subtle projection of the critical consciousness that Achebe himself brings to the
imaginative conception of the novel [Jeyifo, 1990]. The evidence of the novel lends such weight
to this view as to make it a matter of more than mere speculation.
Whatever the case, the debate enacted within the novel gives the work an analytical bent to
which its initial ideological inspiration is ultimately subordinated, for Things Fall Apart testifies
to a clear recognition of a decisive break in the African experience of history occasioned by the

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24 I Irele

colonial fact. It hardly needs to be stressed that this recognition is far from committing Achebe
to an acquiescence in the methods of subjugation employed by colonial agents, whether white
or black, exemplified by the deception and humiliation described in the latter pages of the
novel, in which the historical grievance of Africa is vividly represented, dramatized in the
martyrdom of Okonkwo and the Umuofia elders. The pathos of their situation resonates
through the entire society, takes on wider meaning as nothing less than the suspension of the
entire culture, the arrest of those activities that gave both energy and poetry to everyday life in
Umuofia. All this portends the stifling of the tribe's spirit by a collective trauma: "Umuofia was
like a startled animal with ears erect, sniffing the silent, ominous air, and not knowing which
way to run" [139].
The anti-colonial thrust of the novel is unmistakable here, but it becomes evident as we
reflect upon the novel as a whole that this is not all there is to the story of Okonkwo and
Umuofia, as recounted by Chinua Achebe. The novel ends with the hero's suicide, but there is
no real closure, for we are intimated by the white colonial officer's musings with the fact that it
opens onto a new and unpredictable future for the Umuofians and for the continent of which
they form an integral and indeed representative part. The import of the novel arises from this
intimation, for what Things Fall Apart registers ultimately is an acute consciousness of historical
and cultural discontinuity occasioned by the colonial encounter in Africa, and of its ontological
implications: the necessity for a new mode of being, of relating to the world.
It is one of the of the novel's peculiar traits that the historical realism that directs the
narrative progression harmonizes readily with the elegiac mood that serves as its groundbase, a
conjunction that is registered in one of the most remarkable passages in the novel:
That night the mother of the spirits walked the length and breadth of the clan, weeping for her
murdered son. It was a terrible night. Not even the oldest man in Umuofia had ever heard such
a strange and fearful sound, and it was never to be heard again. It seemed as if the very soul of
the tribe wept for a great evil that was coming its own death. [132 ].
The epochal significance of the passage is intensified, assumes cosmic resonance, in the
lament that pours out of one of the characters, Okika, at the final meeting of the clan: "All our
gods are weeping. Idemili is weeping. Ogwugwu is weeping. Agbala is weeping, and all the
others..." [143]. Okika's lament directs us to the heart of Achebe's novel: it is as an elegy that
incorporates a tragic vision of history that Things Fall Apart elicits the strongest and deepest
Things Fall Apart inaugurates the imaginative reliving in Achebe's work of those significant
moments of the African experience traced in his five novels to date. Given this comprehensive
perspective of inspiration and reference within which they are situated, these novels compose a
historical vision. Consequently, they pose the general theoretical question of the formal relation
of the novel as a genre to the substantive fact of history, a relation within which the purport of
Achebe's work can be said to inhere. Because of its unique place in Achebe's corpus and in the
African canon, Things Fall Apart presents itself as the indispensable point of departure for an
examination of this question.
The transition of Achebe's style from an epic mode to one associated with the novel
provides an indication of the changing modes of this relation. This stylistic evolution of the
novel may be interpreted as the scriptural sign of a corresponding adjustment of the writer's

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The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart I 25

vision, reflecting his sense, as the narrative develops, of the pressure of history as it begins to
exert itself upon the community that is the subject of the novel. This seems to accord with a
Hegelian conception of history as the unfolding saga of modernity, with the modern novel as its
imaginative equivalent. The received opinion stemming from these sources has tended to
understand modernity as a historical phenomenon arising primarily from the Western
experience and as the paradigm that commands the writing of scientific history, and, as a
consequence, the emergence of the novel, the literary genre that is thought to be most closely
associated with modern culture. In this view, the novel as a specific modern genre affords a new
medium for the construction in aesthetic and moral terms of a vision of a totality no longer
immediately available to consciousness in the fragmented, reified world of modern civilization
[Lukacs, 1977]. 25
For the conception of history that underwrites the status of the novel alluded to above, the
society depicted in Achebe's novel, along with the culture it sustains, appears as prehistoric,
subsisting, as far as the record of its existence is concerned, on mythical narrative orally
transmitted, and therefore unworthy of attention of serious historical scholarship.
Consequently, it seems hardly appropriate as the subject of a novel in the normal
understanding of the term.26 Things Fall Apart challenges this conception, for the whole purpose
of Achebe's novel is to bring the existence of this culture into view as a historical reality, one
that bears witness to the human world realized within it. The narrative mode, in both its epic
aspect and at the novelistic level of articulation, affords Achebe the means of restating the
grounded historicity of the African experience, in a creative reconstruction of stages of the
collective being.
It is of course true that the sequence of events narrated, and the society and culture
represented, are products of an individual imagination, detached from any function of pure
predication; the narrative unfolding of events conducted along a definite plot line is thus
sustained by an aesthetic faculty that is fully engaged in Achebe's reconstruction. It is evident
therefore that, despite their historical focus, Things Fall Apart, as well as Arrow of God--the two
novels need to be considered together on this point--are not only not histories in any ordinary
sense of the word, they cannot be considered historical novels either, in the conventional or
narrow sense of their dealing with real events in the past, featuring real historical personalities
as characters.27 But this sense is hardly satisfactory for an understanding of the narrative
function, hence the need for a more inclusive conception, such as the one propounded by
Hayden White, which posits a fundamental relationship between fiction and history as
modalities of the narrative activity and process. The point is well clarified in the following
observation regarding the significance of narrative as a universal phenomenon:
The affiliation of narrative historiography with literature and myth should provide no
reason for embarrassment.. .because the systems of meaning production shared by all three are
distillates of the historical experience of a people, a group, a culture [White, 1987, 44-45].28
This suggests that the assimilation of fiction to history is authorized not merely in formal
terms--what Hayden White calls "emplotment"--but also of content, insofar as in both cases, the
real world of concrete experience features as referent of the narrative. But here, we work with a
special notion of referentiality peculiar to fiction, deriving from its enhanced value as symbolic
representation of experience. To quote Hayden White again: "Thus envisaged, the narrative

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26 I Irele

figurates the body of events that serves as its primary referent and transforms these events into
intimations of patterns of meaning that any literal representation of them as facts could never
produce" [45].
These remarks bear directly on Achebe's two novels, for they present themselves as acts of
remembrance that entail an intense engagement of mind and sensibility upon a collective
experience and thus move towards what, to quote him once more, Hayden White calls "an order
of meaning." In specific terms, the two novels manifest an understanding of the essence of
history as being bound up with momentous events which alter the collective destiny in ways
that are unpredictable but prove ultimately definitive. These novels are informed in other
words by a profound sense of the radical contigency of history.
It is this deep intuition of history that, it seems to me, distinguishes Achebe's work from
that of every other African writer. This distinction emerges clearly when we contrast the tone of
Things Fall Apart with that of francophone African writing roughly contemporaneous with it,
especially in the works of Camara Laye, Leopold Senghor, and Cheikh Hamidou Kane, all of
whom have created in obedience to a paradigm of the self that privileges the ideal of wholeness.
This accounts for the nostalgia for the past that pervades their work, an impossible longing for
an earlier state of being, denoted by Senghor's "le royaume de 1'enfance," a nostalgia further
deepened by the religious cum theological dimension it assumes in Kane's Ambiguous
Adventure. It is not without interest to observe that a similar aspiration for an enhanced quality
of being animates Soyinka's mythical evocations of origins [David, 1995].
Achebe's work registers on the other hand a severe recognition of the compulsions upon
the human estate of the historical process itself--what he has called "the power of events"--a
compulsion that admits of only narrow margins for the play of human agency. It is this that I
have called elsewhere the "humane pessimism" that I believe Achebe shares with Joseph
Conrad [Irele, 1988]. 29 It must be understood, however, that this pessimism is not by any means
a disabling one, for it does not imply a resignation born out of a passive suffering of events. It
calls rather for a purposive adjustment to those great shifts in the structure of the world that
destabilize established constellations of thought, initiating a new historical process and
enforcing therefore a new adventure of mind.
This seems to me the direction of meaning in Achebe's fiction, which, in its immediate
reference, represents an imaginative remapping of the African experience within the space of
history, the literary mode deployed as a means of shaping consciousness for the confrontation
of the new realities on the horizon of African being. The ironies and the ambivalence that
underscore the drama of cultural memory in his first novel emerge in a new light from this
perspective, attesting to a sombre consciousness but one resolutely oriented towards a future
envisioned as pregnant with new possibilities. In other words, a utopian component underlies
the expressive modalities and encompassing vision in Things Fall Apart.
In a limited sense, the utopianism of the novel is inseparable from the nationalist vein that,
as I have suggested, informs the narrative and the project of modernity that is its concomitant.
This is not to imply that Achebe's nationalism in this or his other works advertises itself as a
programmatic fixation upon an ideal future. However, the understanding of history that, as we
have seen, underlies its system of ideas implies, as its necessary complement, a vision of African
renewal. Thus, a tacit correlation exists between Achebe's imaginative discourse in its utopian

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The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart I 27

implications and what Arjun Appadurai has called "the mega-rhetoric of developmental
modernization" of African and Asian anti-colonial nationalism [Appadurai, 1996, 22]. It is well
to remember that Achebe continues to sustain in his fiction right up to the present moment this
vision of new beginnings in Africa, as demonstrated by the conclusion of Anthills of the
But the utopianism of Achebe's fiction, as it begins to declare itself in Things Fall Apart, has
a broader scope than is suggested by the materialist and utilitarian preoccupations of
nationalism. It involves what the Manuels have called "an idealizing capacity" as a defining
property of the utopian imagination [Manuel, 1979, 5]. In this respect, it accords fully with the
universalist interpretation of the utopian function of literature propounded by Fredric Jameson,
whose reformulation of Lukacs's categories of "conservative" and "progressive" expands their
meaning in a new dichotomy between "ideology" and "utopia." In this reformulation, intended
to refurbish the terms earlier proposed by Karl Mannheim for historical and sociological
understanding, the term "utopian" comes to designate the way in which literature, as a socially
symbolic act, envisions the realm of freedom as a human possibility [Jameson, 1981].31
We might conclude then with the observation that what cultural memory delivers in
Achebe's first novel is not so much a revalued past, recollected in a spirit of untroubled
celebration, as, ultimately, the opening out of the African consciousness to the possibility of its
transcendence, to the historic chance of a new collective being and existential project. The sense
of the tragic clings nonetheless to this consciousness, for Achebe is aware that this historic
chance, if real, is at best limited and fragile. His vision is probably best expressed by the voice of
the "Oracle" in his poem "Dereliction" (in the volume Beware Soul Brother) inviting his questing
worshippers to a form of action, perhaps a collective affirmation, in the precarious space
constituted by the strip of dry land between sea and shore at the ebbing of the tide:

Let them try the land
Where the sea retreats
Let them try the land
Where the sea retreats

Achebe's tragic vision of history is presented in these lines in tension with his utopianism.
But to invoke the tragic dimension of Achebe's first novel is not merely to seek to uncover the
full scope of its statement of the colonial encounter in Africa, but also to reach for its
contemplative character, the sense it contains of the general human condition.32 It is this sense
that is conveyed by Roland Barthes's summation of the tragedies of Racine as "the aesthetics of
defeat" ("'art de l'6chec") [Barthes, 1963, 61]. The description applies equally to all the great
tragedies of world literature, among which Things Fall Apart must now be seen to occupy a
distinctive place. Beyond its reference to the personal dilemmas of Racine's characters, Barthes's
phrase points to the apprehension by the tragic imagination of the essential fragility of our
human condition. The deep insight that tragedy provides into this condition may well shake
our being with fear and trembling, but it is the illumination and psychic release it generates that
enable humanity to keep going. As a necessary component of its exploration of the African
experience, Things Fall Apart embodies this fundamental truth of the imaginative vision.

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28 I Irele


1. The phrase is of course an echo of V. S. Naipaul's title for the first of his three books on
India. For a comprehensive discussion of the image of Africa in the western imagination,
see Fanoudh-Siefer, 1968.
2. Achebe's example spawned a cluster of novels in anglophone Africa focused on the
theme of revaluation and cultural conflict. This is especially the case in the work of a
group of Igbo writers who may be said to constitute a school deriving its inspiration and
method from his work. Among these may be cited, as the most prominent, the names of
writers like Flora Nwapa, John Munonye, Onuora Nzekwu and Elechi Amadi; Buchi
Emecheta's work bears an indirect relation to this "school." [See Emenyonu, 1974] The
long shadow cast by Achebe over these writers is best illustrated by the insufficient and
even scant attention that has been paid to Elechi Amadi's powerful novel, The Great
Ponds, in my view one of the masterpieces of modern African literature. Further afield,
we may cite the case of Ngugi wa Thiongo who has acknowledged his debt to Achebe.
To recognize the innovative significance of Things Fall Apart to which its wide influence
on other African writers testifies is, however, far from stating that Achebe "invented"
African literature, as Gikandi claims in his 1991 study of Achebe, a point he repeats in
the introduction to the annotated edition of the novel published in 1996. Unless the
anglophone area is to be taken as representing the whole field, and the novel as the
privileged medium, African literature cannot be said to have begun with the publication
of Achebe's novel in 1958. To do so would be to discount the whole area of African
literature in the indigenous languages, beginning with the oral tradition itself, and
extending to the written literature in the vernaculars, with the work of Thomas Mfolo
and D. O. Fagunwa, for example, as major landmarks. Moreover, as regards African
literature in the European languages, even if we set aside the work of African writers of
European extraction (considered in my 1990 essay "The African Imagination"), the
francophone writers had established a new tradition of African literary expression
before the publication of the significant texts in English. It is of course possible to
consider such figures as Ren6 Maran and Paul Hazoum6 as precursors, but not Leopold
Sedar Senghor, whose first volume of poems, Chants d'ombre, was published in 1945.
The volume itself testifies to a conscious project of African literature, explicitly stated in
the poem "Lettre a un Poete" dedicated to Aim6 Cesaire, a poem that presents itself as a
veritable manifesto for the creation of a new literature expressive of the African
environment, a point Senghor later elaborates in the essay "Comme les Lamantins vont
boire a la source" which serves as postface to his 1960 volume, Ethiopiques. Indeed, if
we seek a precise reference for the "invention" of African literature, this can only be the
historic Anthologie de la nouvelle po6sie negre et malgache, compiled by Senghor and
published in 1948. The point is that African literature in the European languages had
been constituted as a distinct area of modern African expression well before Achebe
came on the scene.

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The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart I 29

3. Achebe himself has sought to clarify this ideological project by presenting it as a
vindication, in the face of persistent western denigration, of the African claim to human
achievement. According to him, the novel was motivated by the desire to demonstrate
that the precolonial order in Africa was not "one long night of savagery" ["The Novelist
as Teacher." Hopes and Impediments, 45]. Furthermore, he has indicated that, in its
elaboration as a work of fiction, Things Fall Apart represents his corrective response to
the portrayal of Africa in Joyce Cary's Mister Johnson and Joseph Conrad's Heart of
Darkness ["Named for Victoria, Queen of England" and "An Image of Africa," in the
same volume, and Achebe's Preface to An African Trilogy]. To these names must be
added H.Rider Haggard, Edgar Wallace, and John Buchan, whose works were staples of
the colonial literature in Nigeria and other African territories in the former British
4. Things Fall Apart, 1996, p.7 All further references will be indicated in the text by page
5. We might note that Achebe's observation about Okonkwo applies equally to Ezeulu, the
focus of his third novel, Arrow of God; both function as characters in what Biodun Jeyifo
[1993] has described as "fictional genealogies of colonialism" in Africa.
6. Colin Turnbull's The Forest People, 1962, provides a prime example of this discourse of
anthropology by which the colonial ideology was sustained. It is intriguing to observe
the parallel between Turnbull's title and the name given by Achebe to the community
described in Things Fall Apart. For an extensive discussion of the relation between
Achebe's recreation of Igbo culture in his novels, and the ethnographic literature on the
Igbo by Western anthropologists (Basden, Talbot, Meek and others), see Robert Wren,
1980. Talbot's Among the Ibos of Nigeria has been the standard work on the subject.
7. I have in mind here Ian Watt's thesis concerning the association between a realist
convention and the modern novel in its genesis, this convention arising from the
diversified forms of experiences ushered in by the change from an agrarian to an
industrial mode of production [Watt, 1957]. According to Watt, this made it imperative
for the novelist to provide the reader with background information (down to the baking
of bread) related to the context of the narrative. The example he cites of the build-up of
detail in Robinson Crusoe is especially illuminating, insofar as the economic rationale
for realism is disguised in this tale of a fantastic, exotic appearance. The same propensity
towards realism is also evident in the novels of Jane Austen, in which it serves a critical
purpose:despite a homogenous public (or because of it?) the reproduction of everyday
life and manners as part of the fabric of social experience in her time was intended to
foster immediate recognition by the reader, a response conducive to the creation by the
novelist of an ironic distance necessary for her critical reflection on the characters and
situations she presents. The apogee of this realism was attained in the nineteeth century
French novel, which combined the same ironic function with a "documentary" character.
For, despite the scorn poured by Roland Barthes in Le Degr6 z6ro de l'6criture upon the
French realistic novel, its immediate connection to history and to the social
transformations of the age constituted it into a powerful channel of social criticism,
providing, according to Richard Terdiman a challenge to the repressive institutions of an

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30 I Irele

ascendant bourgeoisie [Terdiman, 1985]. As a genre, the novel has of course moved
beyond this convention of formal realism, toward the modernist reflexive model in
which we witness a reciprocal relation between its narrative content and a critical
reflection on the art by which this is constituted [Boyd, 1983].
8. Arnold Toynbee's observations regarding what he calls "military virtues" are relevant to
a consideration of Achebe's world: "If we wish to understand either the value of the
military virtues or the sincerity of the admiration which they win, we must take care to
look at them in their native social setting....The military virtues are cultivated and
admired in a milieu in which social forces are not sharply distinguished in people's
minds from the non-human natural forces, and in which it is at the same time taken for
granted that natural forces are not amenable to human control" [Toynbee, 1950, 15].
9. The type as represented in Igbo culture reappears in the character of Danda in Nkem
Nwakwo's novel of that name; the closest parallel in Western literature would be
perhaps the good soldier Svejk, in Jaroslav Hasek's famous antiwar novel.
10. Francois Mauriac has remarked upon the procedure he terms "hypertrophie" by which
novelists and dramatists tend to exaggerate specific moral or psychological traits in their
characters at the expense of others, so that each one of these characters (a lago, a Goriot,
a Raskolnikov) strikes us as representative of a singular aspect of life or experience. We
observe a similar process in the creation by Achebe of Okonkwo as an "outsize"
11. The expression served as methodological focus for the investigations in social
psychology undertaken by Kardiner and Ovesey [Kardiner, 1945; see also Dufrenne,
12. It is in this light that Claude Levi-Strauss has interpreted the Story of Asdiwal as a
dramatization of the tension between the masculine and the feminine principle; the
myth thus reflects, according to him, a perception of the dualism of the natural order
and its resonances within the imagination [LUvi-Strauss, in Leach, 1977]. The
contradiction between the symbolic representation of women and their social position is
of course a feature of most traditional cultures; for a discussion as this applies to India,
see Kumari, 2000.
13. As a matter of comparative interest, we might note the parallel between Achebe's
treatment of the father-son conflict in Things Fall Apart and Samuel Butler's treatment of
the same theme in The Way of All Flesh. The family story in Things Fall Apart is taken up
again in the sequel, No Longer At Ease. We now know that Achebe's original plan was
to write a trilogy based upon a family saga, a plan that he abandoned with the writing of
Arrow of God, the work that is, without question, his masterpiece. The irony of history
is explored more fully in this work, in a fictional register that incorporates a religious
element, and is focused on a hero, Ezeulu, who assumes the dimension of a world
historical figure, and whose tragic stature is underlined by the intertextual resonance of
his bitter return, like Shakespeare's Lear, in a raging storm, accompanied by a character
who functions as his shadow.

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The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart I 31

14. For this historical background (not directly considered in Achebe's novel) see K.
Onwuka Dike's classic work, Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta; also, Wren, already
15. For a preliminary approach to an explication of the structure of imagery in Things Fall
Apart, suggestive of the possibility of a Bachelardian analysis, see Muoneke, 1994, 101-
16. The first title of the Italian translation is based on the imagery in this passage: Le locuste
bianche. Tr G. De Carlo. Milan: Mondadori, 1962. The title has since been changed in a
more recent translation: II crollo. Tr S.A.Cameroni. Milan: Jaca Book, 1994.
17. The notion of "Evil Forest" is not unknown in English, in which the equivalent is "Devil's
18. The implications of the historic connection between Christianity and education form the
subject of J.F. Ade Ajayi's study, Christian Missions in Nigeria, 1841-1891: The Making of
a New Elite. 1966. As indicated by its subtitle, the study is not merely a historical
account of the Christian evangelical effort in Nigeria, but also a sociological analysis of
its major consequence, the formation of a new Westernized elite in the country. A
concrete testimony of this connection is provided by Wole Soyinka's biography of his
father in Isara. As with similar elites in other parts of the world, it is to this social group
that we owe the national idea in Nigeria. It should be noted that for this group, an
ideology of modernity is inseparable from its anti-colonial stance. [Geeetz, ed, 1963]; the
tension between this stance, and the movement for cultural revival is discussed in my
"Dimensions of African Discourse" [Irele, 19). Despite the particular circumstances of its
rise in the context of British colonial rule and within a multi-ethnic framework, Nigerian
nationalism illustrates the determining influence highlighted by Ernest Gellner [1983]
and Benedict Anderson [1983] of literacy and the role of intellectuals for the emergence
of ideas of national identity. [For Nigeria, see in particular Coleman, 1958; Echeruo,
1977; and Zachernuk, 2000].
19. For an extended analysis of Achebe's style and its effect upon the organization of the
novel, see Cook, 1977, 75-79. Kwame Appiah for his part remarks on Achebe's "mastery
of form and language" [ix], while Margaret Lawrence comments in these terms upon his
prose: "a prose plain and spare, informed by his keen sense of irony" [Lawrence, 1968,
20. The logic that underlies the reference here to the potency of the white man's medicine is
of a piece with the argument of efficacy advanced by Charles Taylor [1982] and others,
in favour of the superior epistemological status of western rationality. See also Wilson,
1970, and the three essays in Lukes, 1977, Part 2, "Rationality and Relativism." 121-174.
21. Marjorie Winter's analysis [1981] in which she discerns an evolution of Achebe's style
towards the dry prose of official documents, calls to mind Max Weber's observation on
the development of institutional bureaucracy and its impersonal character as a sign of
the "disenchanted world" of modern society.
22. Barthes associates the "readerly" text expressly with the established classic, requiring
hardly any strenuous engagement on the part of the reader, whereas Kermode's phrase
draws attention to the inherent complexity of such texts. We might observe here that the

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32 I Irele

recourse to orality gives Achebe's novel what, following Gates, one might call a
"speakerly" quality [Gates, 1989].
23. It is well to place Achebe's appraisal of his own society's less flattering aspects against
his now celebrated critique of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness in his essay "An Image
of Africa" [Achebe, 1988, 1-20]. Achebe assails Conrad's work as a "racist novel" though
he is far from calling for its elimination from the canon of the Western canon, as David
Denby asserts in his 1995 article, "Jungle Fever." While Achebe does not altogether
ignore the anti-imperialist thesis of the novella, he seems to equate Conrad's compassion
for the Africans of his story to the kind promoted by the RSPCA on behalf of domestic
animals. This seems hardly fair to Conrad, but Achebe is not alone in missing the serious
moral import of the novella as registered in the epigram to the first edition. It is
regrettable that this epigram is not always reproduced in current editions of the work,
the notable exception being the Norton edition edited by Robert Kimbrough, which also
contains Achebe's essay as well as responses to it. On this question, see Robert Hamner,
1990. See also Cedric Watts's Introduction to the Oxford edition of Heart of Darkness,
and more recently, Peter Edgerly Firchow, 1999.
24. It is instructive in this regard to consider the comparison suggested by Valdez Moses
between the world depicted in Achebe's novel and the image of early Greek society that
emerges from the great classical epics of the western literary tradition. Valdez Moses
speaks of the "strikingly Homeric quality of Things Fall Apart" and discerns certain
similarities between particular Greek and African civilizations in a way that breaks
down the Manichean dualism of the West and its Other." He adds: In fact, the
differences between the ethos of Homer's Mycenaean heroes and that of their Igbo
counterparts in Achebe's novels are far less striking than those between either of them
and the moral standards and political norms that prevail among contemporary
European, American and African intellectuals." [Moses, 1995, 113]. Valdez Moses might
have added that in both Homer's Iliad and Achebe's Things Fall Apart, we witness a
distancing of the narrator from the hero, amounting to a questioning of the dominant
ethos. In both, we sense a marked distaste for the violence accepted in earlier societies
and reflected in epic narratives, carried to remarkable heights in the wanton violence
and atrocities of the Norse sagas. This narrative distance in the Iliad reduces somewhat
the analytical value of the distinction so often proposed between epic and novel in terms
of the degree of the narrator's investment not only in the action and atmosphere of the
narrative, but in the moral values of the world it represents.
25. Fredric Jameson has sought to get beyond this privileging of the novel on the part of
Georg Lucaks by recovering for critical practice a sense of wholeness for all forms of
literary expression: "Indeed, no working model of the functioning of language, the
nature of communication or of the speech act, and the dynamics of formal and stylistic
change is conceivable which does not imply a whole philosophy of history" [Jameson,
1981, 59].
26. This conforms with Hegel's contemptuous dismissal of the literature of earlier societies
as creditable historical material, a view given expression at the very outset of his
Philosophy of History: "The historian binds together the fleeting rush of events and

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The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart I 33

deposits it in the temple of Mnemosyne. Myths, folk songs, traditions are not part of
original history; they are still obscure modes and peculiar to obscure peoples. Observed
and observable reality is a more solid foundation for history than the transience of
myths and epics. Once a people has reached firm individuality, such forms cease to be
its historical essence" [Hegel, tr Hartman, 1953, 3-4.]
27. The conception summarized here is that of David Daiches [1965].
28. The point is made even more succinctly and more pointedly by Michel Z6raffa with
regard to the novel: Sont en cause, dans le roman, notre historicit6 et son sens" [Z6raffa,
1971, 15].
29. For a discussion of the mental landscape that forms the background to Conrad's
pessimism, see Jameson, 1981, 251 ff.
30. It is always a hazardous move from reading the work of fiction to speculating about the
author's options in the real world. However, Achebe's nonfictional works confirm his
embrace of modernity as a necessary dimension of African renewal. And as his own
novels relating to post independence demonstrate, he takes full cognizance of the
problems and dilemmas involved in the process of Africa's accession to modernity.
Nevertheless, his commitment has remained firm, despite the frustrations and
disappointments that seem indeed to have given an even sharper edge to sense of
commitment; the title of his 1988 collection of essays, Hopes and Impediments, is
sufficiently eloquent to indicate this direction of his sentiments. It seems therefore safe to
say that for Achebe, the African personality is not incompatible with a modern scientific
culture. Thus he asks rhetorically, "Why should I start waging war as a Nigerian
newspaper editor was doing the other day against 'the soulless efficiency' of Europe's
industrial and technological civilization when the very thing my society needs may well
be a little technical efficiency" ("The Novelist as Teacher" Hopes and Impediments, 43).
Add to this the lament at the end of The Trouble with Nigeria, about Nigeria having lost
the twentieth century and running the risk of losing the twenty-first as well.
31. In a fine passage written shortly before his death, Irving Howe expands on Jameson's
notion when he defines utopianism as "a necessity of the moral imagination." He
continues: "It doesn't necessarily entail a particular politics; it doesn't ensure wisdom in
current affairs. What it does provide is a guiding principle, a belief or hope for the
future, an understanding that nothing is more mistaken than the common notion that
what exists today will continue to exist tomorrow. This kind of utopianism is really
another way of appreciating the variety and surprise that history makes possible-
possible, nothing more. It is a testimony to the resourcefulness that humanity now and
then displays (together with other, far less attractive characteristics). It is a claim for the
value of desire, the practicality of yearning-as against the deadliness of acquiescing in
the given, simply because it is there" [Howe, 1993, 133].
32. The idea of Things Fall Apart as a tragedy in the classical sense was broached in an early
essay of mine [Irele, 1965; see also Alastair Niven, 1990]. Jean S6verac discusses various
responses to my classification of Achebe's novel as a tragedy [S6verac, 1997, 506-507].

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34 I Irele


Works by Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart. London: William Heinemann, 1958. Heinemann Educational Books, 1962.
Italian. Tr. Le locuste blanche. Tr G. De Carlo. Milan: Mondadori, 1962. (The title has since been
changed in a more recent translation: Il crollo. Tr S.A.Cameroni. Milan: Jaca Book, 1994.)

No Longer At Ease. London: Heinemann, 1960.

Arrow of God. London: Heinemann, 1964.

"Conversation with Chinua Achebe." Interview with Lewis Nkosi and Wole Soyinka. Africa
Report, July 1964, 19-21. Reprinted in Bernth Lindfors, (ed.), 1997 Conversations with Chinua
Achebe. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1997.

Beware Soul Brother. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1972.

Morning Yet on Creation Day. London: Heinemann, 1975.

The Trouble with Nigeria. Enugu: Fourth Dimension, 1983.

Anthills of the Savannah. London: Heinemann, 1987.

Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays, 1965-87. London: Heinemann, 1988.

Preface, The African Trilogy. London: Picador, 1988.

Interview, America, June 29, 1991.

Criticism and General

J.F. Ade Ajayi. Christian Missions in Nigeria, 1841-1891: The Making of a New Elite. London:
Longman, 1966.

Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism.
London: Verso, 1983.

Susan Z. Andrade. "The Joys of Daughterhood: Gender, Nationalism and the Making of Literary
Tradition (s)." Cultural Institutions of the Novel. Deidre Lynch and William B. Warner, eds.,
Durham: Duke University Press, 1996. Pp. 249-75.

Sunday O. Anozie. Sociologie du roman africain. Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1970.

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The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart I 35

Arjun Appadurai. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minnesota: University
of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Kwame Anthony Appiah. Introduction to Things Fall Apart. New York: Knopf, 1992,
(Everyman's Library).

Mikhail Bakhtin. "Epic and Novel." In The Dialogical Imagination. Austin,TX: University of Texas
Press, 1981. 3-40.

Roland Barthes. Le Degre zero de l'ecriture. Paris: Editions de Seuil, 1953. English Tr. Ann Lavers
and Colin Smith. Writing Degree Zero. New York: Hill and Wang, 1968.

--- --------- Sur Racine. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1963 (Collection Pierres vives)

------------------- S/Z. Paris: Editions du Seuil 1970. (Collection Points). English Tr Richard Miller.
New York: Hill and Wang, 1986.

Keith Booker. The African Novel in English: An Introduction. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann
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Michael Boyd. The Reflexive Novel. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1983.

James S. Coleman. Nigeria: Background to Nationalism. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of
California Press, 1971.

Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness. Edited by Robert Kimbrough. New York: W.W. Norton, 1988.

David Cook, African Literature: A Critical View. London: Longman, 1977.

Jonathan Culler. Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature. London:
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975.

David Daiches, Critical Approaches to Literature. Englewood Cliffs, N.J. Prentice-Hall, 1956.

Mary David. Wole Soyinka: A Quest for Renewal. Madras: BI Publications, 1995.

Carole Boyce Davis. "Motherhood in the Works of Male and Female Igbo Writers: Achebe,
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Davis and Ann Adams Graves, eds.. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1986, 241-56.

David Denby. "Jungle Fever." The New Yorker. November 6, 1995, 118-29.

K. Onwuka Dike. Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta, 1830-1885. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956.

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

36 I Irele

Michel Dufrenne. La Personnalite de base. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1953.

M. J. C. Echeruo. Victorian Lagos. London: Macmillan, 1977.

--------------- Ahamefula: A Matter of Identity. Owerri: Imo State Ministry of Information, 1979.

Romanus Egudu. "Achebe and the Igbo Narrative Tradition." Research in African Literatures. Vol
12, No 1, Spring, 1981, 43-54.

Ernest Emenyonu. The Rise of the Igbo Novel. Ibadan: Oxford University Press, 1974

T.S. Eliot. "Tradition and the Individual Talent." In Selected Essays. London: Faber and Faber,

L. Fanoudh-Siefer. Le Mythe du negre et l'Afrique noire dans la litteraturefranqaise de 1800 a la
deuxinme guerre mondiale. Paris: Klincksieck, 1968.

Peter Edgerly Firchow. Envisioning Africa: Racism and Imperialism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2000.

Henry Louis Gates. The Signifying Monkey. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Clifford Geertz, ed. Old Societies and New States. The Quest for Modernity in Asia and Africa. New
York: Free Press, 1963.

Ernest Gellner. Nations and Nationalism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983.

Gerard Genette. Figures III. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1972 (Collection Po6tique).

Simon Gikandi. Reading the African Novel. London: James Currey, 1987.

-------------------Reading Chinua Achebe: Language and Ideology in Fiction. London: James Currey,

------------------- "Chinua Achebe and the Invention of African Literature." Introduction to Things
Fall Apart. Oxford and New Hampshire: Heinemann Educational Books, 1996.

Jack Goody. The interface between the Written and the Oral. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1987

Gerald Graff. Poetic Statement and Critical Dogma. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Robert Hamner, ed. Joseph Conrad: Third World Perspectives. Washington, D. C.: Three Continents
Press, 1990.

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart I 37

Barbara Harlow. Resistance Literature. London: Methuen, 1987.

G. F. Hegel. Reason in History. Tr Robert S. Hartman. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1953.

Wolfgang Hochbruk. 'I Have Spoken': Fictional 'Orality' in Indigenous Fiction." College
Literature. 23.2, June 1996. 132-42.

Irving Howe: "The Spirit of the Times." Dissent, Spring, 1993. 133.

Abiola Irele. "The Tragic Conflict in Achebe's Novels." Black Orpheus, 17, Ibadan, 1965, 24-32.
Rpt in Ulli Beier, ed., Introduction to African Literature: An Anthology of Critical Writing from "Black
Orpheus." London: Longman, 1967. 167?78; and. C.L. Innes & Bernth Lindfors, eds., Critical
Perspectives on Chinua Achebe, Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1978. 10?21.

-----------"The African Imagination." Research in African Literatures. 21.1: 1990. 47-68.

------------ "Dimensions of African Discourse." College Literature, 19.3/20.1, 1992/1993. 45-59.

Solomon Iyasere,. "Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart." In Innes and Lindfors, eds,.
Critical Perspectives on Chinua Achebe. Washington, D.C. : Three Continents Press, 1978.

Fredrick Jameson. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca, NY:
Cornell University Press, 1981.

Biodun Jeyifo. "The Resilience and The Predicament of Obierika" In Petersen and Rutherford,
eds., Chinua Achebe: A Celebration. Oxford: Heinemann, 1990. pp. 51-70.

--------------"Okonkwo and His Mother: Things Fall Apart and Issues of Gender in the
Constitution of African Postcolonial Discourse." Callaloo, 16.4, 1993. 847-58.

---------------"Determinations of Remembering: Postcolonial Fictional Genealogies of Colonialism
in Africa." Stanford Literature Review, 10, 1-2, Spring-Fall, 1993. 99-116.

A. Kardiner. The Psychological Frontiers of Society. New York: Columbia University Press, 1945.

David Ker, The African Novel and the Modernist Tradition. New York: Peter Lang,

Frank Kermode, The Art of Telling. Cambridge:Harvard University Press, 1983.

Vinaya Kumari: Woman Centred Plays: A Feminist Reading of Selected Plays of Rabindranath
Tagore, Girish Karnad and Vijay Tendulkar." (Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, Department of
English, Mother Teresa Women's University, Kodaikanal. 2000).

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

38 I Irele

Margaret Lawrence. Long Drums and Canons. London: Macmillan, 1968.

Claude Levi-Strauss. "The Story of Asdiwal." In Edmund Leach, ed., The Structural Study of Myth
and Totemism. London: Tavistock Publications, 1967. 1-39.

Bernth Lindfors. "The Palm Oil with which Words are Eaten." African LiteratureToday, No 1,

Georg Lukacs. The Theory of the Novel. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977.

Steven Lukes. Essays in Social Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.

Molly Mahood. The Colonial Encounter. London: Rex Collings, 1977.

Frank E. and Fritzie P. Manuel. Utopian Thought in the Western World. Cambridge,MA: Harvard
University Press, 1979.

Thomas Melone, Chinua Achebe et la tragedie de l'histoire. Paris: Pr6sence Africaine, 1973.

Michael Valdez Moses. The Novel and the Globalization of Culture. New York: Oxford University
Press, 1995.

Romanus Okey Muoneke. Art, Rebellion and Redemption: A Reading of the Novels of Chinua Achebe.
New York: Peter Lang, 1994.

V.S. Naipaul. An Area of Darkness. London: Andr6 Deutsch, 1964.

Alastair Niven. "Chinua Achebe and the Possibility of Modern Tragedy." In Petersen and
Rutherford, eds., 41-50.

Pierre Nora. "Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de M6moire." Representations, Vol. 26,
1989. 7-24.

Nkem Nwakwo. Danda. London: Heinemann, 1964.

Donatus Nwoga. "The Igbo World of Achebe's Arrow of God." Research in African Literatures, 12,
1, Spring, 1981. 14-42.

Emmanuel Obiechina. Culture, Society and the West African Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1975.

---------------- "Narrative Proverbs in the African Novel." Research in African Literatures. 24,4. 1993.

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The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart I 39

Walter Ong. Literacy and Orality: The Technologizing of the Word. London and New York:
Methuen, 1982.

Kirsten Hoist Petersen and Anna Rutherford, eds. Chinua Achebe: A Celebration. Oxford:
Heinemann Educational Books, 1990.

Alain S6verac. Les Romans de Chinua Achebe: De l'ordre au chaos. Villeneuve d'Ascq: Presses
Universitaires du Septentrion, 1997.

Wole Soyinka. Isara. New York: Random House, 1988.

Florence Stratton. Contemporary African Literature and the Politics of Gender. London and New
York: Routledge, 1994.

G. T.Talbot. Among the Ibos of Nigeria. London, 19XX. Reprinted Frank Cass, 1966.

Charles Taylor.. "Rationality," in Rationality and Relativism, Martin Hollis and Steven Lukes, eds.
Oxford: Blackwell, 1982. 87-105.

Richard Terdiman. Discourse/Counter Discourse. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Marcien Towa. L'Idee d'une philosophies africaine. Yaound6: Editions CLE, 1980.

Arnold Toynbee, "Militarism and the Military Virtues," Chapter II of War and Civilization. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1950. 12-25.

Colin Turnbull. The Forest People. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962.

William Walsh. A Manifold Voice: Studies in Commonwealth Literature. New York: Barnes and
Noble, 1970.

Ian Watt. The Rise of The Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. 1957. Reprint,
London: The Hogarth Press, 1987.

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University Press, 1998. (Oxford World's Classics)

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Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

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1, spring, 1981. 55-68.

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40 I Irele

Robert Wren. Achebe's World: The Historical and Cultural Context of the Novels. Washington D.C.:
Three Continents Press, 1980.

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Reference Style: The following is the suggested format for referencing this article: Irele, F.
Abiola 2000. "The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart 4(3): 1.
[online] URL: http://web.africa.ufl.edu/asq/v4/v4i3al.htm

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC): Human

Rights and State Transitions--The South Africa Model


Abstract: Post-authoritarian regimes have struggled with the most appropriate way to
deal with the former regimes' human rights abuses.Several schools of though have
emerged as to how this should be accomplished.Into this framework the South Africa
model, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), is discussed.The TRC has
completed its charge and the results vary according to one's perception of that charge.An
assessment of South Africa's attempt at truth and reconciliation and the TRC's viability
as a model for other transitioning societies are discussed.

"Injustice is like having an eye gouged out, but looking away is losing both eyes."--Russian


In 20 October 1998, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) published
its final report.With the exception of a relatively small minority of supporters, the TRC and its
subsequent report have been widely criticized.Many in both the former ruling white elite as
well as the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) have called the TRC a witch hunt.Many of
apartheid's victims believe the process failed them by both granting amnesties and failing to
pay reparations.The minority of TRC supporters, led by Desmond Tutu, former Chairperson of
the TRC, argue that the process has been both healing and necessary for the future of a South
African society based on human rights. The idea of bringing to justice those within an
authoritarian regime who committed human rights abuses during their tenure is not new. The
evolution of a human rights paradigm and the development of mechanisms necessary for
pursuing justice for the survivors of human rights abuses emerged at the end of World War II
with both the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals. These tribunals have become the standard by
which all others are measured. Duplications have been impossible, in large part due to the
nature of the majority of transitions. As a result many varieties have emerged.
With roughly twenty commissions in more than fifteen countries over the past twenty-five
years, it is evident that the "commission" has become an important transition tool. There are as

Patricia J. Campbell is currently Associate Professor of Comparative and African Politics at the State University of
West Georgia and Coordinator of the Global Studies Program. She has written several articles on human rights,
refugee issues and gender, appearing in journals such as Third World Quarterly, Africa Today, and has several chapters
in various books. She is co-editor of Democratization and the Protection of Human Rights: Challenges and Contradictions,
Greenwood Publishers, 1998.
http: //www.africa.ufl.edu/asq/v4/v4i3a2.pdf

University of Florida Board of Trustees, a public corporation of the State of Florida; permission is hereby granted for individuals
to download articles for their own personal use. Published by the Center for African Studies, University of Florida.
ISSN: 2152-2448

42 I Campbell

many types of commissions as there are types of transitions. Each commission has its own
limitations. The South African TRC is but one recent variation, albeit a variation that many
viewed with high expectations. The TRC in its inception sought to alleviate the various
problems and obstacles encountered by many of the recent commissions, particularly those in
Latin America. Because South Africa's TRC has been seen as an improvement over other
experiments, it is legitimate to assess whether or not the goals of the TRC have been met and if
this hybrid model has anything to offer other transitioning societies. Thus, two questions are
addressed here. Is South Africa's TRC a viable model for justice and reconciliation in a post-
authoritarian society? What advantages and disadvantages does this model present?


The apartheid regime stepped aside in South Africa as part of a negotiated settlement.
During the negotiations for the transition, it became clear that de Klerk's National Party (NP)
was unwilling to compromise over the issue of amnesty. In fact, it had tried to tie the issue of
amnesty to the release of political prisoners. The first step in the development of the TRC model
was the Indemnity Act, passed in November 1990. It was seen as a necessary step before any
type of talks could get underway. The Act allowed the return of some exiles and the release of
some political prisoners.2
By October of 1992, the NP was trying to expand the amnesty to cover members of its
government. Over ANC objections, the regime attempted to push through a special law that
would have given the president the power of indemnity. Although it passed in the House of
Assembly, the bill failed. Not satisfied, de Klerk took the measure to the president's council, a
parliamentary body designed to resolve conflicts over legislative issues. The NP dominated
here and, as a result, the Further Indemnity Act was passed.
After negotiations and an intense public relations campaign (see below), the ANC
indicated that it understood the need for a general amnesty for some who may have been in a
position to obstruct the transition process. 3According to Keightley's analysis (1993) of the
struggle during the negotiations to define political offenses, the resulting indemnity process
was arbitrary and very confusing for the citizenry. This cast a pall over the negotiation process
as many South Africans were left feeling suspicious and angry.
As calls for some kind of commission of inquiry to investigate government abuses
mounted, the NP, along with other minority parties, began a public relations campaign
designed to cast aspersions on the ANC and to force them into agreement over the Further
Indemnity Act. The attacks on the ANC focused on alleged abuses within its camps and for
abuses allegedly committed by some in high-ranking positions within the ANC.
To the ANCs credit, and led by Nelson Mandala, the ANC held two commissions of its
own to investigate those allegations. While admitting some abuses took place, the ANC was
careful to point out that the abuses were not part of an official policy, but rather isolated
incidents. Additionally, the ANC refused to allow the equation of abuses perpetrated by it or its
supporters with those of the apartheid regime. The ANC argued that because it operated as a
resistance movement, or was engaged in a "just war" attempting to bring an end to the crime of

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

Human Rights and State Transitions I 43

apartheid, abuses committed by its members could not be equated with those of the apartheid
Critics of the two ANC reports charged the first commission with bias because two of the
three members were part of the ANC. The second, they argued, did not go far enough in
unearthing abuses within ANC camps and further charged that abuses are abuses and,
therefore, the ANC should not be able to skirt responsibility by hiding behind the "resistance"
label. Independent observers praised the self evaluation of the ANC, noting that it was one of
the few times in modern history when ruling powers allowed their organization and its actions
to be so scrutinized.5 Self evaluation, however was all the Commission was designed to do.
The initial response of both major players--the ANC and the NP--to protect their own,
turned out to be a good indicator of the obstacles to come as South Africa began its journey to

Lessons Learned

Various points of view exist with regard to how best to handle abuses of the past. Broadly
speaking, these can be divided into three camps--the minimalists, the pragmatics, and the
maximalists._The minimalists are those who put forth a series of arguments delineating the need
for a society to move forward and not dwell on its past. Focusing on the past will only dredge
up unpleasant and painful memories and will not allow the society as a whole to focus its
energy on building a new society in which abuses of the past will be just that. This line of
argument suggests that amnesty provides the best solution for moving ahead. Prosecutions, it is
argued, would only endanger budding democracies that have already undergone the pain of
transition. Additionally, minimalists raise a variety of questions. If the prosecutions begin,
where do they end? Should only the leadership be brought to justice? Should bureaucrats,
judiciary personnel, members of police and security forces, members of the media, the medical
profession, all of whom are often duplicitous in authoritarian regimes, be eligible for
prosecution? Can a state finance such an endeavor? Will these various members of the elite
allow themselves to be dragged through a criminal or civil proceeding? Will prosecutions
ensure that future leaders do a better job covering up abuses so as not be subject to the same?
How will these prosecutions help a society move forward when a system is consumed with the
past? How does a society prevent witch hunts and the guarantee of due process for those under
If it is the military which is the target of prosecutions, then there exists the threat of a coup
in order for military leaders to protect themselves. Also, if only the top leaders, those who gave
the orders, are prosecuted, then the junior officers, those who carried out the bloody orders, will
move into top military positions. Thus, the future will be jeopardized by having such folks in
Typically, those who put this argument forward can be found within the framework of
supporters of the former authoritarian regimes, the NP in South Africa, and the military in both
Argentina and Chile, for example. One striking example of this line of thinking was expressed
in Margaret Thatcher's recent, stirring defense of Augusto Pinochet. She argued that Britain
should not allow him to be extradited because he had been a friend to Britain during the

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

44 I Campbell

Falklands/Malvinas war. But, more importantly, the former British Prime Minister argued, it is
against common sense to hold a head of state responsible for the abuses committed under
his/her rule. He was, she argued, a victim of his ideology and was being sought because he had
defeated communism and not because of human rights abuses, although she did admit some
abuses had taken place under his rule.6
The maximalists are those who think anything less than full prosecution of all involved is
unacceptable.7 They argue that authoritarian regimes are at their weakest during the transition,
hence the transition. During this period, the values and ideals that will set the course for the
new governing apparatuses are being set. Therefore, granting indemnities may prove, in the
long run, more dangerous than dealing with the past. According to Parker:

"[i]demnities by definition involve the suspension of the rule of law. They
demand acceptance of the paradox that lawlessness might be a necessary
condition for lawfulness, and of the humbling admission that a state weakened
by such a pact might be better than the alternative ... victims are to respect the
law their violators did not . ."8

The resentment among victims who watched perpetrators escape justice may result, and
may foster, a notion of lawlessness, thus endangering the unconsolidated democracy.
In O'Donnell and Schmitter's study of transitions from authoritarian rule, they address the
question of how far to go in pursuit of justice while trying to consolidate democracy. In
particular, they address the minimalist argument of an impending coup should a society try to
move too far or too fast this way:

but how can those who want to push the transition avoid a coup without becoming so
paralyzed by fear of it that they will disillusion their supporters and diminish their
ability to press for further steps in the transition? Indeed, if they pursue this anticipated
reaction too far, the promoters of the coup will have achieved their objectives without
having acted: the transition will remain limited to a precarious liberalization, and the
regime opponents will end up divided and deluded.9

The threat of a coup, they argue, is more of a bluff and further they suggest that when a
country is going through a transition and has a recent history of gross violations of human
rights, it is better to impose judgment on those charged and to do it through due process.
Otherwise, burying the past simply buries with it the very values and ideals upon which you
hope to build the new society.'1
Asmal, also arguing from this stand point with regard to South Africa, outlines ten reasons
why the past cannot be buried. The arguments can be condensed as follows. First, without
thoroughly understanding the past, future problems will be unexplainable and thus roots of
violence unexplored will perpetuate future violence, including the acceptance of structural
violence. Second, supporters of the former regime can continue believing the unchallenged
myths of the regime; thus their neglect of history will breed resentment and potential attempts
at revenge. Third, there is a need for a society that emerges from such an authoritarian regime
to have an outlet for its emotion. This outlet should be based on truth and justice, with justice

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

Human Rights and State Transitions I 45

not taking a backseat to the consolidation of democracy because a stable democracy "is not built
by granting concessions to the military on issues pertaining to its violent intrusion into civilian
Orentlicher takes the argument further when suggesting that not only may criminal
punishment be "effective insurance against future repression ... by demonstrating that no
sector is above the law" and thereby fostering "respect for democratic institutions," she also
suggests where governments may be reluctant to forego prosecutions due to domestic concerns,
international law and international pressure to comply with that law may be the effective way
to go about securing justice.12
In addition to Orentlicher, there are others who suggest that international law requires the
punishment of violators of various international human rights treaties. (For a discussion of this,
please see Roht-Arriaza 1995, Weschler 1997 and Henkin 1989). Amnesty International and
Human Rights Watch Follow in this line. Both human rights organizations have issued policy
statements calling for complete justice in post-authoritarian societies.13 Does amnesty at the
expense of justice promote reconciliation? Or will prosecutions threaten democracy by bringing
back the old guard? Both Neier and Hayner question the correlation either way.14 Thus far,
there is no convincing evidence to support either proposition.
Somewhere in between the minimalists and the maximalists are the pragmatists--those
who argue that the pursuit of truth and justice must be tempered with recognition of the
political reality of a given society. The vast majority of those writing on commissions of inquiry
most comfortably find a home here, where the focus is often on the nature of the transition. If,
as in the case of Nuremburg and Tokoyo, there is an unconditional surrender of one
government, bringing them to justice presents far fewer problems than if the transition was one
of negotiated settlement where one regime agrees to step aside, but often only with guarantees
of impunity. Proponents of this school argue that the most one can hope for is truth and, even
then, sometimes a limited version of it. Here the case of justice becomes problematic as the
threat of a recidivist coup looms large. A leading advocate for this approach is Zalaquett who
argues that "two considerations... must be balanced-the ethical principles that ought to be
pursued, and actual political opportunities and constraints that ought to be taken into
account."15 Additionally, he argues that "according to the rule of law the victims cannot hold a
veto power or decide on the general rules of society."16 Thus, the overall stability of society
prevails over the needs of the victims.
Also advocating such an approach as well is Huntington who offers guidelines for
"democratizers ... dealing with authoritarian regimes."17 He suggests that the nature of the
transition is key and that if the transition was a transformation or a transplacement "do not
attempt to prosecute" and, even when prosecuting, such as in a replacement situation, do not go
after the middle and lower-ranking officials.
Huyse offers several alternatives for dealing with the past which all conform to this
approach: criminal prosecution, but only when acceptable and not risky to society; lustration-
the barring of former regime officials from future office positions; amnesty, and truth
commissions. Which to choose is dependent upon the particularities of a given society and the
nature of the transition.18

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

46 I Campbell

Since Nuremburg and Tokyo, the majority of commissions have opted for combinations of
Huyse's alternatives with most pursuing limited truth, while generously granting amnesties.

Previous Examples

In choosing its path, South Africa had several other examples to draw upon from other
transitional societies.19 Three are discussed here: Chile, Argentina, and El Salvador.
One possible variant for South Africa was the Chilean model. The Rettig Commission was
set up only to investigate murders and disappearances. It, therefore, did notinvestigate cases of
torture, exile, forced detention, or censorship. The final report found that 2,279 people died for
"political reasons", and of those, 95 percent of the murders were carried out by official forces.20
The Chilean Comision Nacional para la Verdad y Reconciliacion, led by Jose Zalaquett, strongly
rejected the publishing of the names of the accused perpetrators in the report because the
members of the Commission felt that publicizing names without giving them a chance to
respond failed to provide them with due process.21 Without being able to publish names and
with only being able to investigate a very limited scope of abuses, the Commission operated
under a very limited mandate. Despite this, the Commission was able to conduct quite
thorough investigations. The report was praised by many in the human rights field.22 Shortly
after its release, however, several incidents of violence, including an assassination of the
opposition leader, brought discussion of the report to a halt.
In Chile, there was the Pinochet factor. In stepping aside, Chile's former military dictator,
Augusto Pinochet, ensured that he and his accomplices would never be brought to justice. The
settlement which ushered Pinochet from power ensured that Pinochet would remain de facto
commander of the armed forces, and he and his cronies would constitutionally retain enough
power in the Senate, as life-senators, to veto any attempts at true justice for the crimes
committed during his regime. As a result, in Chile a minimum of truth was recovered, but no
Part of the continuing work in Chile revolving around its past is carried out by the
National Corporation for Reparation and Reconciliation, whose job it is to promote the
recommendations of the Rettig Report and to deal with the issue of financial reparations for the
victims. Cases left unresolved by the Report were to be followed up on by the Corporation.
While the Corporation has been heralded as an "excellent model for continuing the work of the
truth commission and providing a mechanism for implementation of a commission's
recommendations," the Chilean victims were left without justice.23
In contrast to Chile, Zalaquett has argued Argentina went too far in trying to secure justice
for the abuses which occurred as part of its "dirty war." The military, after a humiliating defeat
in the war against Britain in the Malvinas/Falklands islands, was forced out of office. The
succeeding President, Alfonsin, attempted to both discover the truth and to bring several
military leaders to justice by abolishing the military's self amnesty law. The Argentinian
government set up the Comision Nacional para la Desaparcion de Personas, CONADEP (the
National Commission on the Disappeared). As a result, several military leaders were
imprisoned. Zalaquett argued that abolishing the law forced the military into a corner and, as a
result, they felt vulnerable and less willing to come forward with the truth about what had

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

Human Rights and State Transitions I 47

happened to the thousands of disappeared in Argentina.24 Argentina's next president, Carlos
Menem, pardoned those in prison and stopped any attempt to bring the military to justice,
arguing that this was best, given Argentina's fragile democracy. Thus, getting the truth in
Argentina has been almost impossible. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo continue to march in
search of the truth about their loved ones, but thus far their efforts go unrewarded.
One military leader, General Seilingo, did come forward on his own accord and shed some
light on the fate of the disappeared. He described the flights, several per week, which flew out
over the ocean, from which drugged and naked detainees would be pushed to their death.
Shortly after his admission, he was arrested on "business related" fraud charges.
The silence of the military and, as a result, the lack of thorough investigations, have
allowed those so inclined in Argentinian society to be able to deny the allegations of the victims.
Additionally, as illustrated by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the victims' families are left
with little or no idea of the exact fate of their loved ones. Some of the women who were
incarcerated had children while in custody before they were presumably killed. The fate of
those "born in captivity" remains one of the most difficult issues for the families of the victims.
As in Chile, reparations were to be paid to victims, but those applying in Argentina had to
produce documents indicating the dates of detention of the victims. This has been almost
impossible to secure for many of the victims because of the military's refusal to produce the
necessary information. The majority of Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo have refused reparations
and are demanding truth with some justice instead.
El Salvador's process of coming to terms with its past was quite different because the
international community, in the form of the United Nations, sponsored, financed, and staffed
the truth commission for that country. The El Salvadorian report included names of the alleged
perpetrators and the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador was empowered to remove
members of the military who were named in the report. Civilians however, were not so
threatened and the government of El Salvador did not follow up by ensuring that those
removed would not be reinstated.
The government went even further, and within five days of the report's publication, the
legislature passed a general amnesty. The report was also critical of the military, paramilitary,
intelligence and security forces, and those who allowed the abuses or covered them up,
including the judiciary. The commission also recommended the removal of supreme court
justices because they were considered to be corrupt and inefficient. Strikingly, the report also
criticized those that funded the military, including the United States and business leaders in
Many have argued that El Salvador's Commission could have acted more boldly with its
recommendations and publishing of names because it was an international commission.
Conversely, since the Commission was not organic, this may have led to the El Salvadorian
government's reluctance to carry those recommendations forward. Reparations were to be
given to victims and their families with the bulk of the money coming from one percent of all
foreign aid given to the country. Thus far very few victims have seen any money.

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48 I Campbell

South Africa

The South African model sought to put together a commission which would replicate the
positive aspects of the earlier commissions while avoiding some of their pitfalls. Thus it would
appear that South Africa had chosen the middle path, the pragmatic approach, utilizing the
truth commission and amnesty approach.
The groundwork was laid during the transition negotiations which provided, in the post-
amble to the interim constitution, for the establishment of the TRC. The following provisions
were contained therein: 1) the establishment of the TRC; 2) a specific time limit for the TRC to
consider cases from 1 March 1960 to 6 December 1993 (later extended to 11 May 1994); 3) an
amnesty for those involved in abuses, provided the abuses were politically motivated, not
personal in nature, proportional, and provided the perpetrator came forward and confessed the
deed(s). Only gross violations of human rights were covered by the agreement; thus other
human rights violations including detention without trial, jailing of people for pass law
offences, and forcible removal were excluded.26
In addition to the TRC, three other committees were set up to carry out the mandate of the
TRC. The first was the Human Rights Violations Committee (HRV) whose purpose was to
investigate human rights abuses between 1960 and 1994. It was to use statements made to the
TRC to find victims and then to refer the victims of gross human rights violations to the second
committee, the Reparation and Rehabilitation (R&R) Committee, whose job it was to provide
support for victims in an effort to restore the victim's dignity. This committee was also assigned
the task of formulating policy proposals and recommendations on how to promote the
rehabilitation and healing of the survivors, their families, and the community at large. The goal
was to develop affective ways to prevent such abuses in the future. Finally, the Amnesty
Committee's (AC) duty was to ensure that applications for amnesty would be carried out in
accordance with the act which established the process. If granted an amnesty, the applicant
would not be subject to future prosecution. Each amnesty application had to be granted final
approval by the president, which was expected to be Nelson Mandela. Once granted amnesty,
the recipient would no longer be eligible for future prosecution in either criminal or civil court.
Those who did not come forward continued to be eligible for future criminal prosecution.
Supporters of this approach have called it restorative rather than retributive justice.
More than 7,000 applied for amnesty, 3,031 were thrown out as their actions) was/were
determined to be of a personal rather than a political nature, with still others thrown out
because the action did not fit within the time frame guidelines of the Commission, or because
the applicant refused to admit guilt. More than 200 were granted amnesty. For eighteen months,
hearings were held throughout South Africa and the Commission received more than 15,000
statements from victims.27 Hundreds of witnesses came forth to testify.
How well has the pragmatist approach worked?


The set up of the TRC offered several advantages. First, many believed that the amnesty
provision was the key negotiating plank of the NP without which a relatively peaceful

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Human Rights and State Transitions I 49

settlement would not have been possible. Thus, the end of apartheid may have prevented future
human rights abuses.
Second, the TRC had asked for anyone involved in gross human rights violations which
included "the killing, abduction, torture or severe ill-treatment of any person," to step forward
and confess.28 Those included ranged from the NP leaders to Chief Buthelezi to the ANC
leadership to local police authorities and minor players in township liberation organizations.
This approach diminished arguments of opponents who sought to characterize the process as
revenge by the new government and gave credence to supporters' arguments that one key goal
of the TRC process was the establishment of a human rights culture in South Africa.
Third, through the process, the truth and the true nature of South Africa's apartheid system
would become public knowledge, thus the creation of a national memory. No longer could
anyone in South Africa pretend that the abuses perpetrated under apartheid did not happen or
were not as bad as many of its victims had been alleging. The process ensured that those who
refused to believe the full extent of South Africa's crimes and who had dismissed the stories as
ANC "communist" lies would be forced to hear the truth, and not from the ANC, but from the
perpetrators themselves.
In almost all of the literature on truth commissions, the importance of allowing the truth to
be heard is described as critical to the country's ability to move forward. Reconciliation is
impossible if a segment of society wants to remain conveniently ignorant about its past while
another segment has never had its suffering acknowledged.29 According to Hamber, "when
countries are attempting to overcome a violent past, it is better to deal with the past through
investigations, truth recovery, justice, and support for victims and survivors of violence than to
ignore it."30 To ignore it breeds resentment and has the potential to engender revenge violence.
The importance of truth has another purpose. The power of truth to release the victims has
been central to the TRC process. The power of the torturer over the victim is in part the
psychological torment of the victim believing that no one will ever know the abuses that he or
she has suffered. Thus the ability of victims to come forward is a central step toward healing. As
Hamber notes, "past traumas do not simply pass or disappear with the passage of time.
Psychological restoration and healing can only occur through providing the space for survivors
to feel heard and for every detail of the traumatic event to be re-experienced in a safe
Fourth, this truth allowed many families to finally discover what happened to their loved
ones and in some cases find their remains and give them a proper burial. This closure, it is
hoped, will enable reconciliation. Television coverage of perpetrators and victims hugging at
the close of hearings is a testament to the power of truth for reconciliation. Desmond Tutu,
Chairperson of the TRC, has noted that a 1998 opinion poll on public attitudes toward TRC
hearings indicated that "80 percent of the victims of apartheid say they believe reconciliation is
possible." He went on to say "[n]ow these are the people who should be saying we want
revenge, but they're saying 'we feel it [reconciliation] is possible.'"32
Fifth, the TRC forum allowed South Africa to present itself in the world arena as a nation of
law and order where vigilante type justice would not prevail. The new government had to be
cognizant of the need to prevent foreign investors, both current and future, from fearing a
government bent on retribution. In addition, the government was cautious about "white flight"-

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50 I Campbell

the fear that many white South Africans, in whose hands enormous economic power lay, would
flee the country. With South Africa's reputation protected internationally, after a few rough
years, its economy now appears to be growing and foreign investment is on the rise.
Sixth, as in many post-authoritarian societies, the TRC was seen as a way to find out about
the past without too vigorously pursuing those who were responsible for the abuses, thus not
jeopardizing the fragile new democracy. This way South Africans could learn about the past
while continuing to move forward--the essence of Tutu's restorative justice. The danger of a
violent civil war, or the break down of the South African state, has been a long-standing fear
both inside and out of the country. One visit to the U.S embassy in South Africa and it is easy to
see that the design of this fortress was meant to withstand what many anticipated would end
apartheid-mass violence. Instead, South Africa has seen two relatively peaceful elections.
Finally, it must be said that the example and the stature of both Nelson Mandela and
Desmond Tutu made the transition possible and the TRC palatable for many South Africans.
Without Mandela's example of forgiving his perpetrators after twenty-seven years at the hands
of the apartheid state, many would have found reconciliation a hollow notion. The hearings,
too, could have proven a spectacle had it not been for Tutu's moral leadership. He made the
process very much about human beings. With religious zealotry he demanded truth, absolution,
and reconciliation.
No process is without its imperfections and such is the case of the TRC. Criticism of the
TRC procedures and of the final report has come from many quarters.
Was a promise of amnesty necessary in order to dismantle apartheid? This is debatable.
According to de Klerk, in his submission to the TRC, the South African government was on a
course for change brought about by the fall of the Soviet Union and the worsening economic
situation of the country. De Klerk also argued in that same submission that sanctions had
nothing to do with the changes that took place in South Africa. While this too is debatable,
given the country's worsening economic situation as sanctions tightened, what is clear is that
some type of change was inevitable. The degree to which it would have been peaceful, however,
is open to debate.
From the beginning, both the NP and the IFP have argued that the commission was ANC
biased and as a result both participated in the process reluctantly, and defiantly, providing as
little information as possible. The Commission was made up of members of the human rights
community from all races. The Chairman, a Nobel laureate, Desmond Tutu, was widely
regarded as a man of integrity and honesty. However, it may be argued that neither the IFP nor
the National Party would have been happy with any commission that was not dominated by
those who shared their version of the past. The Commission, however, didface charges that its
make-up favored the ANC and came in for criticism both domestically and internationally.
Both the NP and IFP argued that their suspicions were well-founded when a blanket
amnesty was offered to the ANC leadership even though amnesty applications were supposed
to be done on an individual basis. Criticism of the blanket amnesty also came from victims'
families. Critics charged various ANC members with kidnapping, torture, and with either using
or encouraging the use of necklacing. These acts, they argued, many of which took place within
ANC camps, were only given a passing glance by the TRC. One victim's brother, the current
Chief Land Claims Commissioner, Wetsho-Otsile "Joe" Seremane, to say: "I cannot help feeling

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Human Rights and State Transitions I 51

that our TRC has betrayed a partisan inclination, accommodating so-called high-profile people
or adherents to the 'popular party', relegating the relative unknowns to the periphery of TRC
experiences and services."33 The Economist opined what many others had suggested, that
evidence of preferential treatment could also be found if the treatment of Botha and Winnie
Madikizela-Mandela was compared. Additionally, it queried why Mangosuthu Buthelezi and
the IFP were not forced to come forward, given the connection between the IFP and the
apartheid regime in fermenting township violence.34 Implicit in The Economists' editorials is that
the TRC was designed to only go after whites from the former regime.
Truth, of a kind, did emerge. But there were several areas beyond the TRC's reach which
limited the amount and extent of truth revealed about South Africa's past. Since the
Commission was limited to "gross violations of human rights," it was unable to take into
consideration other abuses, such as forced removals, pass laws, or atrocities in neighboring
More than 3.5 million people were forcibly relocated between 1960 and 1982.35 One goal of
the pass laws and the homeland systems was to provide cheap labor for mines. The treatment of
workers in the mines was reprehensible. The living conditions in single-sexed hostels bred
diseases, such as AIDS, and dysfunction, both for the individual miners and for their families.
Specific laws impacting this situation included the use of hut and poll taxes which had to be
paid in cash, thus forcing previously agricultural peasants to the mining industry in search of
currency, the Masters and Servants Act which allowed for strict penalties for miners breaking
their "contract" and "deserting" mines, and the 1913 Native Lands Act which allocated 8.8
percent of the country's land to 87 percent of the population.36 The economic benefits of the
mines and the cheap pools of labor trickled through South African society, benefitting many
whites. As Mamdani has argued, using the Latin American analogy for South Africa does not
work because it misses "the link between conquest and dispossession, between racialised power
and racialised privilege, between perpetrator and beneficiary.37
Since the South African government had no respect for the sovereignty of its neighboring
nations, its destablization policies were particularly harsh on them. Damage done beyond South
Africa's borders was also not part of the TRC mandate. This also, then, excludes abuses
committed in ANC camps.
The results of several studies conducted by the South African Centre for the Study of
Violence and Reconciliation reveal that the victims of apartheid, who risked much and
demonstrated enormous courage to come forth and testify, (in fact, many of the victims have
expressed fear of repercussions for having given testimony to the Commission) have also been
critical of it. Those who testified have complained that after giving their testimony, the
Commission did nothing to follow up with them. Once the hearings were over, the TRC left
town and the victims never heard from it again. The victims have expressed a desire to see
follow up by the Commission, including providing the victims with accessible medical and
psychological services. Many feel that there has been no attempt by the TRC to deal with the
process of reliving the past which the Commission has brought up. According to Hamber, one
of the authors of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation's study, the TRC
should not unearth these feelings and events without providing support for the victims after
they come forward, otherwise "[i]t is far more likely that the TRC will lead to feelings of

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52 I Campbell

revenge, bitterness and anger if peoples who come into contact with it do not receive
appropriate counseling and adequate support and service."3840 Most victims feel that they
should have been permanently removed from office. According to Gibson and Gouws, only
those who received amnesty were happy with the process.41 The victims were not happy with
the process because they wanted retributive justice. Truth, many of the victims argued, was a
precondition for reconciliation. But that was only the beginning. Justice equals reconciliation
and justice with punishment was favored over amnesties. Many of the victims stated that
reparations were a necessary component of reconciliation.
Finally, most in the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation's study believed
that the whites benefitted from the system and yet were largely absent from the TRC process.
And whites continue to benefit from the system, they argue, via amnesties and economic
advantages such as pensions. The result has been a false reconciliation with many of the victims
feeling that they were expected to forgive and reconcile.42 Mamdani warns that if, in the TRC
process, the beneficiaries of the system are not perceived as taking the process seriously and
seem uninterested in being forgiven, the victims are more likely to demand exactly what the
TRC seeks to prevent: justice.43 Very few members of the security forces came forward to
request amnesty and the behavior of former president PW Botha toward the Commission
suggests there were many perpetrators of apartheid who refused to take the Commission
seriously. Even though de Klerk submitted a series of statements to the TRC on behalf of the
NP, he never accepted full responsibility for the abuses committed under both the party and his
If one was seeking evidence to support victims' perceptions regarding the lack of true
remorse by the perpetrators of apartheid's violence, one need look no further then de Klerk's
submission to the TRC on behalf of the NP. In the document he refers to apartheid and the
escalation of violence in the 1980s as "the conflict" or "our conflict," he suggests that not one
side alone was responsible for the violence in South Africa, and that not one side alone brought
about the transformation. He, like many other former apartheid supporters, seems to suggest
that apartheid, as a policy, simply proved unworkable. De Klerk has stated that it was not the
policy of the government to rape or kill. Yet there were no investigations when murder, rape
and other human rights violations occurred. There has been no attempt by the NP to take
responsibility for the structural and long-lasting impact of its apartheid polices.
The role of the media in helping prop up and disseminate apartheid propaganda has not
been fully explored. In Bird and Garda's study regarding the role of the media in the
reconciliation process, the authors found that the media have been playing a positive role in
informing people about the TRC process both through newspapers, although literacy levels are
low with only 15-20 percent of the population reached this way, and through radio, where
hearings were played until the funding ran out. Special bulletins and Sunday broadcasts
regarding TRC hearings followed. The authors, however, were quite critical of the ways in
which the victims were described. Rarely were they called survivors, and instead their suffering
was covered in graphic detail. Thus they concluded that, "what [was] evident from media
reports is a failure to explain the meaning of many of the horrific events ... [thus] the moral
distinctions between those who fought against apartheid and those who enforced it were often
blurred by the lack of context and depth in media reporting."44 This may be a contributing

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Human Rights and State Transitions I 53

factor to the results of Gibson and Gouws' study regarding attitudes toward the TRC.45 They
found that whites were much more willing to forgive whites, for example the security forces,
and less likely to forgive ANC activists, and that blacks were more willing to forgive blacks, and
the ANC, and less willing to forgive whites.
Women were disproportionally affected by laws regarding pass arrests, forced removals,
and loss of jobs when associated with a male member of the resistance, and yet none of this, nor
the economic effects of apartheid, which disproportionally affected women are considered
"gross violations of human rights." Women, when arrested, and twelve percent of the state of
emergency detainees in 1986-87 were women, suffered torture and other human rights abuses,
but also suffered from gender specific abuses such as rapes, sexual assaults, and torture
techniques such as flooding their fallopian tubes with water to make them unable to conceive.
Violence against women happened at the hands of the government within both the ANC
camps and within townships. Women were forced to act as sex slaves in hostels and were the
subject of attacks by such groups as the South African Rapist Association (SARA). This group
sought to punish women for not acting appropriately, including, for example, not observing a
boycott of a white owned shop. Women also suffered sexual harassment in ANC camps. While
there was a special "women's hearing in 1997 in Johannesburg, many brushed aside women's
concerns as "special circumstances." Yet pressing questions remain. Should rapists qualify for
amnesty? Is rape a political act?46 Can the failure of the process to acknowledge and take
seriously the abuses women suffered be tied to the current epidemic of violence against women
in South Africa?
Finally, victims have complained that they have not had input regarding the amnesties.
One prominent human rights activist in South Africa, Rhoda Kadalie, draws the correlation
between amnesties and future crime. She suggests that there has been an indiscriminate
granting of amnesties and that this has had a negative effect on the country's crime rate.47 The
crime rate has exploded in South Africa and of particular concern is the escalating violence
against women. South Africa now holds the dubious title "rape capital of the world." Estimates
are that one of every three women in South Africa has been the victim of violent sexual assault.
Further study needs to be done with regard to this correlation, if in fact there is one. However, it
is not a far intellectual leap to raise the question of immunity here. If, as Valdez suggests, "the
best way of ensuring that an emerging democracy breaks fully with an atrocious past is to
accord complete respect to national and international human rights law," then perhaps the
knowledge that the perpetrators of apartheid have gone unpunished has prompted others not
to take the law seriously.48
Several issues are still left unresolved at this point. One is that of those who perpetrated
abuses, but never came forward to tell the truth. According to the process, these folks are
eligible for prosecution. Will they be? To highlight the problem let us look at the case of de
Kock. He worked as an assassin for the South Africa government. His trial cost the state more
than five million rand and prosecutors were tied up for more than two years preparing his
defense. De Kock was a low level complicitor of the regime. It is safe to assume that going after
bigger fish would prove even more costly. As judge Goldstone stated in a speech before the
1994 elections:

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54 I Campbell

theree would be too many accused and adequate punishment would be too costly in
human, political, as well as financial terms. Even if we had the human and financial resources, it
would not be a sensible or practical route to follow. Criminal trials are unpleasant both for the
accused and accusers. The technicalities and time necessary to ensure a fair trial are themselves
a source of tremendous frustration. To compel the victims to be subjected to long and difficult
cross-examination in many cases would be an additional punishment.49
This type of argument leaves many victims of apartheid cold. To suggest that trials would
be costly is correct but how relevant? The TRC process itself was very expensive. No one would
make such an argument about a thief or a murderer, so why is it acceptable when the thief or
the murderer worked for a state? One should hope a trial would be unpleasant for the accused.
For the accuser, perhaps they should be consulted before they are dismissed as not needing to
face unpleasantness or "additional punishment." What of the relief of knowing justice has been
done, or of knowing that criminals are behind bars? The Centre for the Study of Violence and
Reconciliation's study indicates that apartheid victims do not share Goldstone's views
regarding this.
Another issued still to be worked out is how reparations will be made. Where will the
money come from? The issue of implementing reparations is left to the government, not the
TRC, although it is likely that victims who do not receive anything for their troubles in
appearing before the TRC will likely blame it for the lack of follow up. The TRC also may take
the brunt of criticism when reparations are not forthcoming.


"It would be impossible for the world to be happy ... [if] the innocent were not allowed to
teach the guilty a lesson."50
If Vitoria was right, what has been South Africa's lesson and does it offer promise as a
model for other societies? Like so many other questions, the answer seems to depend upon
where you sit. If one takes a minimalist position, while entirely unsatisfactory, the process is not
without its redeeming qualities. Tell the truth and be granted absolution. Likewise, a pragmatist
may also find the TRC process acceptable because it sought to find the middle road between
amnesia and justice. For the maximalist, however, the TRC is probably little more than a "get
out of jail free card."
The history of dealing with post-authoritarian regimes demonstrates that a variety of
mechanism have been used to varying degrees of success. Of course the central question must
be: what is success?
The standard has been the tribunals of both Nuremburg and Tokyo which provided
examples of some types of justice, albeit a victor's justice. These were unique because they were
an international effort. Currently there are two such efforts underway to deal with the former
Yugoslavia and with Rwanda. Both are ongoing and, as a result, it is too early to fully assess
their impact, but several themes have emerged which are relevant to our discussion. Since the
vast majority of authoritarian regimes of late have negotiated their own departure, bringing the
leaders to justice is much more difficult then it was in the post World War II setting where
unconditional surrender made indictment of the former leaders much easier. Additionally, the

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Human Rights and State Transitions I 55

legacy of Nuremburg, which tried leaders using their own government documents has ensured
that future authoritarian leaders won't make the same mistake. The apartheid state destroyed
thousands of documents upon realizing Mandela's ascent to office was immanent. Thus, given
the nature of transitions today, it is unlikely that we will see the duplication of Nuremburg.
Even with the first two international attempts, we must question how successful they have
been. Their success should be measured, in part, on what the victims had hoped to gain from
the process. Certainly, the demand from the Holocaust was "Never Again" and yet, while not in
either Germany or Japan, genocide has been repeated many times since. Germany has
apologized for its actions in WWII, while Japan has not. And, while Germany and Japan have
been peaceful, democratic societies since the end of WWII, we have not yet seen the end of
So, if the question we seek to address with regard to the first set of international tribunals is
"success at prevention of such abuses," the answer is clear. While genocide of the Jews has not
again happened, genocide has indeed happened. While totalitarian regimes have not re-
emerged in Germany or Japan, they have indeed wrought their terror upon other societies.
Perhaps instead all we can hope for is that the types of abuses perpetrated in one society will
not reappear within that society. In evaluating South Africa's transition and its attempt to deal
with its past, perhaps the only acceptable measurement is whether or not an "apartheid-like"
regime re-emerges. Reconciliation may not be possible there or anywhere.
What is insidious about state oppression and repression is the ease with which citizens in
whose names these abuses are carried out can walk away from the past without accepting
responsibility for it. We have in the U.S. "Daughters" of the American Republic, for example,
which seek to demonstrate familial pride at helping found this country. Yet there is no
"daughters of slave holders" or "sons of Native American slaughterers" simply because we
accept no responsibility for those actions the state carries out in our name. We seek only credit
for that which is perceived as a societal good.
As a collective society we were unable to apologize to the Japanese for interment camps
until the 1980s and we still have not apologized for slavery or the treatment of Native
Americans. South Africa will likely be no different. Those who were abused will continue to feel
so and those who did it or in whose name it was done will continue to seek to distance
themselves from their responsibility. The recipe that South Africa has formulated for dealing
with its past may in fact produce more ghosts then it hoped to lay to rest. As Simpson warns:

Apartheid rendered it noble for most South Africans to be on the wrong side of the law
and it must be acknowledged that there is a grave risk that a sense of impunity based on
the granting of amnesty to confessed killers, may actually compound the problems of
non-existent popular confidence in the rule of law or in 'politically polluted' institutions
of criminal justice in South Africa. The result is sustained or growing levels of violent
crime or anti-social violence which presents as if it is a new phenomenon associated
with the transition to democracy, but which is in fact rooted in the very same
experiences of social marginalisation, political exclusion and economic exploitation
which are slow to change in the transition to democracy and which previously gave rise

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to the more socially functional violence of resistance politics. The criminalisation of
politics and the politicalisation of crime are really flip sides of the same coin.51

Simpson also warns that one must beware of show trials which, while accommodating the
principles of international law, do little to restore faith in domestic criminal justice institutions.
Motala shores up this point in his 1995 study of the constitution, which set up the Promotion of
National Unity and Reconciliation Act. His conclusion suggests that the act is constitutionally
suspect. In addition, Motala argues that by giving "amnesty for individuals engaged in crimes
against war, crimes against humanity, and crimes against peace, violates peremptory norms of
international law, which call for mandatory prosecution for these offences."52
So restoring law and order requires extra-legal measures. This may be acceptable in
societies, such as those of O'Donnell and Schmitters's study, where people have felt comforted
by being outside the realm of politics,53 but in South African society, where every act of daily
living has had political consequences, the reverse is proving to be the problem. South African
society is far from apathetic and is in fact incredibly political.
South Africa is a model, like the Chilean, Argentinian and El Salvadorian examples before
it, from which other transitioning societies may draw in dealing with a post-authoritarian
regime. It should be used as a format from which to garner that which seemed to work. What is
clear from the South African case, and certainly is also true of the other cases discussed here, is
that reconciliation is a personal endeavor that no state alone can deliver. No state mechanism
will satisfy the victims or the perpetrators. The best interests of the victims will never be the top
priority, because they will remain objects in the process where elites secure their own egress
and protect their own, all in the name of furthering the transition or some polluted sense of
democracy. Because without justice, democracy is shallowed and attempts at consolidation may
prove fruitless. The epidemic of violence in South Africa suggests that many refuse to accept the
parameters of the transition and instead are taking it upon themselves to continue to operate
outside the law to further their selfish aims. That is one of the legacies of the TRC.
Valdez suggests that a state which wishes to deal with its authoritarian past must include
four components in its efforts: "to investigate and make the facts known (truth); to put on trial
and punish the guilty (justice); to redress the moral and physical damage caused (reparation);
and to eradicate from the security forces those known to have committed, ordered or tolerated
the commission of abuses."54 South Africa was somewhat successful at achieving truth, but
much less successful at the other three components. At this point, the main goal of the TRC--to
promote reconciliation--appears to be faltering.


1. Breyten Breytenbach as quoted in Boraine, et. al.
2. Parker, Peter. "The Politics of Indemnities, Truth Telling and Reconciliation in South
Africa Ending Apartheid Without Forgetting." Human Rights Law Journal, Vol. 17, #1/2,
1996, pp. 1-13.

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3. Berat, Lynn. "South Africa: Negotiating Change?" in Impunity and Human Rights in
International Law and Practice. Naomi Roht-Arriaza, ed. New York, NY: Oxford
University Press, 1995, pp. 267-304.
4. Hayner, Priscilla B. "Fifteen Truth Commissions-1974-1993: A Comparative Study" in
Transitional Justice How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes, Vol. I General
Considerations, Neil J. Kritz, ed. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press,
1995, pp. 225-261.
5. For further discussion regarding the maximalist position, please see Nino 1995.
6. National Public Radio, 7 October 1999.
7. Nino, Carlos S. "Response: The Duty to Punish Past Abuses of Human Rights Put into
Context: The Case of Argentina" in Transitional Justice How Emerging Democracies Reckon
with Former Regimes, Vol. I. General Considerations, Neil J. Kritz, ed. Washington, D.C.:
United States Institute of Peace Press, 1995, pp. 417-436.
8. Parker, "The Politics of Indemnities," p.12.
9. O'Donnell, Guillermo and Philippe C. Schmitter. Transitions from Authoritarian Rule:
Tentative Conclusions. Baltimore, MY: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986, p. 24.
10. Ibid, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule, p. 30.
11. Asmal, Kader. "Victims, Survivors and Citizens-Human Rights, Reparations and
Reconciliation." South African Journal on Human Rights, Vol. 8, #4, 1992, p. 498.
12. Orentlicher, Diane F. "Settling Accounts: The Duty to Prosecute Human Rights
Violations of a Prior Regime" in Transitional Justice How Emerging Democracies Reckon
with Former Regimes, Vol. I General Considerations, Neil J. Kritz, ed. Washington, D.C.:
United States Institute of Peace Press, 1995, pp. 380-81.
13. Amnesty International. "Policy Statement on Impunity" in Transitional Justice How
Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes, Vol. I General Considerations, Neil J.
Kritz, ed. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1995, pp. 219-220 and
Human Rights Watch. "Policy Statement on Accountability for Past Abuses" in
Transitional Justice How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes, Vol. I General
Considerations, Neil J. Kritz, ed. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press,
1995, pp. 217-218.
14. Neier, Aryeh. in Dealing with the Past Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa 2nd Edition.
Alex Boraine, Janey Levy and Ronel Scheffer, eds. Cape Town: Institute for Democracy
in South Africa, 1997. Hayner, Priscilla B. "Fifteen Truth Commissions-1974-1993.
15. Zalaquett, Jose. "The Dilemma of New Democracies Confronting Past Human Rights
Violations." Transitional Justice How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes,
Vol. I General Considerations, Neil J. Kritz, ed. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of
Peace Press, 1995, p. 206.
16. Ibid, in Dealing with the Past Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa, 2nd ed. Alex Boraine,
Janet Levy and Ronel Scheffer, ed. Cape Town: Institute for Democracy in South
Africa.1997, p. 103.
17. Huntington, Samuel. "The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century"
in Transitional Justice How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes, Vol. I General

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

58 I Campbell

Considerations, Neil J. Kritz, ed. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press,
1995, p. 81.
18. Huyse, Luc. "Justice After Transition: On the Choices Successor Elites Make in Dealing
with the Past" in Transitional Justice How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former
Regimes, Vol. I General Considerations, Neil J. Kritz, ed. Washington, D.C.: United States
Institute of Peace Press, 1995, pp. 337-349.
19. In addition to those discussed below, commissions of inquiry have also occurred in The
Philippines, Chad, Uruguay, Uganda, Bolivia, Germany, Rwanda, Honduras, and
20. Brown, Cynthia. Reviews Report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and
Reconciliation 2 Vols." American Journal of International Law, 90, 1996, pp.182-83.
21. Kaye, Michael. "The Role of Truth Commissions in the Search for Justice Reconciliation
and Democratisation: The Salvadorean and Honduran Cases." Journal of Latin American
Studies, Vol. 29, #3, 1997, pp.693-716.
22. Hayner, Priscilla B. "Fifteen Truth Commissions-1974-1993," p. 236.
23. Ibid., "Fifteen Truth Commissions-1974-1993," p. 237. Pinochet has found himself subject
to a different kind of justice, that of the international community. At this writing,
Pinochet's return from Britain without having to face charges appears immanent, but
precedent set in his case offers yet another possible route for dealing with authoritarian
24. Boraine, Alex. Dealing with the Past Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa 2nd Edition.
Alex Boraine, Janey Levy and Ronel Scheffer, eds. Cape Town: Institute for Democracy
in South Africa, 1997.
25. Kaye, Michael. "The Role of Truth Commissions," p. 709.
26. Sarkin, Jeremy. "The Trials and Tribulations of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation
Commission." South African Journal on Human Rights, Vol. 12, #4, 1996, p. 622.
27. Gibson, James L. and Amanda Gouws. "Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa:
Attributions of Blame and the Struggle over Apartheid" American Political Science Review,
Vol. 93, #3, 1999, pp. 501-517.
28. Goldblatt, Beth and Shiela Meintjes. "Gender and the Truth and Reconciliation
Commission: A Submission to the Truth an Reconciliation Commission" May, found at
http://sunsit.wits.ac.za/csrv/papkhul.htm, 1996.
29. For the importance of truth as critical to a nations' healing, please see Asmal 1992;
Boraine, Levy, and Scheffer 1994; Hamber 1995 and Zalaquett 1993.
30. Hamber, Brandon. "How Should We Remember? Issues to Consider when Establishing
Commissions and Structures for Dealing with the Past." Found at
http://www.incore.ulst.ac.uk/publications/conference/thepast/hamber.html, 1999.
31. Ibid., "Dealing with thePast and the Psychology of Reconciliation" Public address
presented at the 4th International Symposium on the Contributions of Psychology of
Peace, Cape Town, 27 June, found at .,1995
32. Ndebele, Njabulo. "Moral Anchor" Siyaya! Spring, #3, 1998, p. 16.
33. Seremane, Wetsho-Otsile "Joe". "Where Lies my Brother?" Siyaya! Spring, #3, 1998, p. 47.
34. The Economist. "International: How Imparial?" 346, 8052, 24 January 1998, p. 44.

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

Human Rights and State Transitions I 59

35. Mamdani, Mahmood. "A Diminished Truth" Siyaya! Spring, #3, 1998, pp. 38-41.
36. Pillay, Devan. "Mineworkers Shafted" Siyaya! Spring, #3, 1998, pp. 48-51.
37. Mamdani, "A Diminished Truth," p. 40.
38. Hamber, "Dealing with the Past and the Psychology of Reconciliation at
39. Arde, Greg. "Empty Chairs, Silent Voices" Siyaya! Spring, #3, 1998, p. 29.
40. Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and the Khulumani Support Group.
"Survivors' Perceptions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Suggestions
for the Final Report," found at 1998.
41. Gibson and Gouws, "Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa."
42. Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
43. Ibid, 1998, p. 40.
44. Bird, Edward and Zureida Garda. 1997. "Reporting the Truth Commission: Analysis of
Media Coverage of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa." Gazette,
Vol. 59, #4-5, 1997, p. 341.
45. Gibson and Gouws, "Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa."
46. Goldblatt and Meintjes, "Gender and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission."
47. Ngidi, Sandile. "Bitter Pill of Amnesty" Siyaya! Spring, #3, 1998, p. 25.
48. Valdez, Patricia. 1998. "Must the Victims Always Wait?" Siyaya! Spring, #3, 1998, p. 55.
49. Parker, P. "The Politics of Indemnities, Truth Telling and Reconciliation in South
Africa." p. 9.
50. Vitoria. "Humanitarian Intervention and Just War" quoted in Mona Fixdal and Dan
Smith in Mershon International Studies Review. Vol. 42 #2 1998, p. 298.
51. Simpson, Graeme. "A Brief Evaluation of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation
Commission: Some lessons for Societies in Transition." found at
http://sunsite.wits.ac.za/csvr/paptrce2.htm, 1998.
52. Motala, Ziyad.. "The Promotion of National. Unity and Reconciliation Act, the
Constitution and International Law." The Comparative and International Law Journal of
Southern Africa, Vol. 28, #2, 1995, p. 362.
53. O'Donnell and Schmitter, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule.
54. Valdez, P. "Must the Victims Always Wait?" p. 53.

References al prisoners.

Amnesty International. 1995. "Policy Statement on Impunity" in Transitional Justice How
Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes, Vol. I General Considerations, Neil J. Kritz, ed.
Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 219-220.

Arde, Greg. 1998. "Empty Chairs, Silent Voices" Siyaya! Spring, 3:26-29.

Asmal, Kader. 1992. "Victims, Survivors and Citizens-Human Rights, Reparations and
Reconciliation." South African Journal on Human Rights, 8, 4:491-511.

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

60 I Campbell

Berat, Lynn. 1995. "South Africa: Negotiating Change?" in Impunity and Human Rights in
International Law and Practice. Naomi Roht-Arriaza, ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press,

Bird, Edward and Zureida Garda. 1997. "Reporting the Truth Commission: Analysis of Media
Coverage of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa." Gazette, 59, 4- 5:331-343.

Boraine, Alex. 1997. Dealing with the Past Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa 2nd Edition. Alex
Boraine, Janey Levy and Ronel Scheffer, eds. Cape Town: Institute for Democracy in South

Brown, Cynthia. 1996. Reviews Report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and
Reconciliation 2 Vols." American Journal of International Law, 90, 182-83.

Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and the Khulumani Support Group. 1998.
"Survivors' Perceptions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Suggestions for the
Final Report," found at http://sunsit.wits.ac.za/csrv/papkhul.htm.

Gibson, James L. and Amanda Gouws. 1999. "Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa:
Attributions of Blame and the Struggle over Apartheid" American Political Science Review, 93,

Goldblatt, Beth and Shiela Meintjes. 1996. "Gender and the Truth and Reconciliation
Commission: A Submission to the Truth an Reconciliation Commission" May, found at

Hamber, Brandon. 1995. "Dealing with thePast and the Psychology of Reconciliation" Public
address presented at the 4th International Symposium on the Contributions of Psychology of
Peace, Cape Town, 27 June, found at http://sunsite.wits.ac.za/csvr/papdlpst.htm.

Hamber, Brandon. 1999. "How Should We Remember? Issues to Consider when Establishing
Commissions and Structures for Dealing with the Past." Found at:

Hayner, Priscilla B. 1995. "Fifteen Truth Commissions-1974-1993: A Comparative Study" in
Transitional Justice How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes, Vol. I General
Considerations, Neil J. Kritz, ed. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 225-

Henkin, Alice. 1989. State Crimes Punishment or Pardon Papers and Report of the Conference,
November 4-6, 1988, Wye Center, MY. Queenstown, MY: The Aspen Institute.

Human Rights Watch. 1995. "Policy Statement on Accountability for Past Abuses" in
Transitional Justice How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes, Vol. I General

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

Human Rights and State Transitions I 61

Considerations, Neil J. Kritz, ed. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 217-

Huntington, Samuel. 1995. "The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century"
inTransitional Justice How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes, Vol. I General
Considerations, Neil J. Kritz, ed. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 65-81.

Huyse, Luc. 1995. "Justice After Transition: On the Choices Successor Elites Make in Dealing
with the Past" in Transitional Justice How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes, Vol. I
General Considerations, Neil J. Kritz, ed. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press,

Kaye, Michael. 1997. "The Role of Truth Commissions in the Search for Justice Reconciliation
and Democratisation: The Salvadorean and Honduran Cases." Journal of Latin American Studies,
29, 3:693-716.

Keightley, Raylene. 1993. "Political Offences and Indemnity in South Africa." South African
Journal on Human Rights, 9, 3:334-357.

Mamdani, Mahmood. 1998. "A Diminished Truth" Siyaya! Spring, 3:38-41.

Motala, Ziyad. 1995. "The Promotion of National. Unity and Reconciliation Act, the
Constitution and International Law." The Comparative and International Law Journal of Southern
Africa, 28, 2:338-362.

National Public Radio, 7 October 1999.

Ndebele, Njabulo. 1998. "Moral Anchor" Siyaya! Spring, 3:13-16.

Neier, Aryeh. 1997. Dealing with the Past Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa 2nd Edition. Alex
Boraine, Janey Levy and Ronel Scheffer, eds. Cape Town: Institute for Democracy in South

Ngidi, Sandile. 1998. "Bitter Pill of Amnesty" Siyaya! Spring, 3:24-25.

Nino, Carlos S. 1995. "Response: The Duty to Punish Past Abuses of Human Rights Put into
Context: The Case of Argentina" in Transitional Justice How Emerging Democracies Reckon with
Former Regimes, Vol. I General Considerations, Neil J. Kritz, ed. Washington, D.C.: United States
Institute of Peace Press, 417-436.

O'Donnell, Guillermo and Philippe C. Schmitter. 1986. Transitions from Authoritarian Rule:
Tentative Conclusions. Baltimore, MY: Johns Hopkins University Press.

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

62 I Campbell

Orentlicher, Diane F. 1995. "Settling Accounts: The Duty to Prosecute Human Rights Violations
of a Prior Regime" in Transitional Justice How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes,
Vol. I General Considerations, Neil J. Kritz, ed. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace
Press, 375-416.

Parker, Peter. 1996. "The Politics of Indemnities, Truth Telling and Reconciliation in South
Africa Ending Apartheid Without Forgetting." Human Rights Law Journal, 17, 1/2:1-13.

Pillay, Devan. 1998. "Mineworkers Shafted" Siyaya! Spring, 3:48-51.

Roht-Arriaza. 1995. Impunity and Human Rights in International Law and Practice. Naomi Roht-
Arriaza, ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Sarkin, Jeremy. 1996. "The Trials and Tribulations of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation
Commission." South African Journal on Human Rights, 12, 4:617-640.

Seremane, Wetsho-Otsile "Joe". 1998. "Where Lies my Brother?" Siyaya! Spring, 3:46-47.

Simpson, Graeme. 1998. "A Brief Evaluation of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation
Commission: Some lessons for Societies in Transition." found at

Thatcher, Margaret. 7 October 1999. All Things Considered. National Public Radio.

The Economist. 1998. "International: How Imparial?" 346, 8052, 24 January, 44.

Valdez, Patricia. 1998. "Must the Victims Always Wait?" 1998 Siyaya! Spring, 3:52-55.

Vitoria 1557 [1991]. "Humanitarian Intervention and Just War" quoted in Mona Fixdal and Dan
Smith in Mershon International Studies Review. Vol. 42 #2 1998, p. 283-312.

Weschler, Lawrence. 1997. Dealing with the Past Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa 2nd
Edition. Alex Boraine, Janey Levy and Ronel Scheffer, eds. Cape Town: Institute for Democracy
in South Africa.

Zalaquett, Jose. 1993. "Introduction to the Report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth

and Reconciliation." The Report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation,
Volume 1. London: University of Notre Dame Press.

Zalaquett, Jose. 1995. "The Dilemma of New Democracies Confronting Past Human Rights
Violations." Transitional Justice How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes, Vol. I
General Considerations, Neil J. Kritz, ed. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press,

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

Human Rights and State Transitions I 63

Zalaquett, Jose. 1997. in Dealing with the Past Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa, 2nd ed. Alex
Boraine, Janet Levy and Ronel Scheffer, ed. Cape Town: Institute for Democracy in South

Reference Style: The following is the suggested format for referencing this article:
Campbell, Patricia J. 2000. "The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC): Human Rights
and State Transitions--The South African Model," African Studies Quarterly. 4(3): 2 [online] URL:

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

The Land Of Jilali: Travels Through Kenya's Drought-Stricken



This is the journal of the journeys of a Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) team
studying natural resource management in Marsabit District. Our mission--to assess
environmental degradation, and how sedentarisation may be contributing to desertification
around settlements and on the range.
As we zoom across the flat hardpan of the Chalbi desert, the sun is spreading its soft,
brilliant blanket over the silhouette of Mt. Kulal. We pass small Rendille camels from the fora
satellite camps, grazing in the twilight, unfazed by our speed. We are in no hurry, and on a
twilight break we inspect the Chalbi's crusty, salt-impregnated surface. When precipitation
exceeds evaporation, insoluble minerals and salts are leached out of the soil. Eons of rainfall
have concentrated soda in the wind-scoured floor of this former inland sea. Once upon a time,
this was a very lush land.
It is early June, 2000. Kenya is hurtling toward a
massive combined crisis of power shortfalls, water
rationing, and shrinking informal sector employment. The 7.-
drought-crippled economy is fueling new and unique .
expressions of social tension: rioting school children in
Nairobi capture a Tusker beer truck, and drink it dry.
But we are far from Nairobi. Out of the desert we
suddenly enter glades of stunted doum palm. We have
arrived in Maikona, a small collection of houses that in the glimmer of early starlight seem to
have sprouted mushroom-like out of the Chalbi's sun-baked mud. A small crowd gathers. Over
a plate of leathery meat I ask, "Habari ya Maikona?" "Jilali tu", is the reply. (What news of
Maikona? .... Drought, only.) A hyena crosses our path on its way out of town.
On our way here we passed through Isiolo, immediately after the clashes there between the
Waso Borana and the Degodia Somali. These cattle people were fighting over land rights; others
are invading Laikipia ranches in search of grass. Here, in the distant north, the camel herding
populations tread the thin line between survival and jilali-induced disaster.
lilali describes the conditions in the rangeland of Marsabit after the rains have failed for the
third straight season. Isiolo and Laikipia look lush in comparison. "Since El Nino," people tell
us, "it has only rained once, for a few hours." Pressing on, we re-enter the Chalbi and proceed to
Kalacha. As I discover during the coming days, the landscape appears far less bleak in the cool,
muted light of night.

http:/ /www.africa.ufl.edu/asq/v4/v4i3a3.pdf

University of Florida Board of Trustees, a public corporation of the State of Florida; permission is hereby granted for individuals
to download articles for their own personal use. Published by the Center for African Studies, University of Florida.
ISSN: 2152-2448

66 I Goldsmith


The Gabra people range into Ethiopia, but their main settlements are located on the edge of
the Chalbi for the simple reason that this is where the most permanent water sources are found.
Since 1971, each successive jilali has forced more nomads to settle around these springs.
Pastoral dropouts are swelling the size of Kenya's desert towns. Relief food provides the
pull; loss of their herds exerts the push. This demographic shift is presumed to be driving
environmental degradation. Fuelwood consumption is depleting tree cover around settlements;
the herds of the settled degrade forage resources beyond the zone of naked plain. Actually,
things have been going downhill since Homo sapiens crawled out of a local hole 1.8 million years
Downtown Kalacha is a wide avenue of desert separating lines of modest houses and
shops, giving way to tiny suburbs of traditional huts interspersed with the occasional block of
more modern "maisonettes". Kalacha is sandwiched between the Chalbi and a barren expanse of
lava rock that we will later cross on the way to Badhahurri. Decapitated stumps of Acacia tortillas
along the roadside appear to confirm the human-impact hypothesis.
A mother and daughter talk to us as they make final adjustments on their load camels. The
men have headed north in search of grazing. KARI research officer Godana Jilo Doyo remarks
that the Gabra art of packing one's worldly possessions on a camel--a scene reproduced on
Kenya's fifty shilling notes--is a disappearing tradition. The two camel, two women caravan sets
off, perhaps for good, for Kalacha, forty kilometers of rocks and boulders away.
We continue on toward Badhahurri. Outrageously spindled Acacia seyal trees mark the
approach to the Hurri Hills. The track rising from the desert pavement transits a series of small
valleys. The hills on either side are tapered cones with uniformly scalloped windward slopes.
Gravel and boulders segue into a dirty carpet of cropped brown grass as we pass through
overlapping ecologies.
A few cows lounge inside a copse of Erythrina burtii, gnarled and deeply grooved trees
closely related to E. africana, whose bright red-orange flowers add a dash of color across Kenya's
central highlands. On the high plateau of Badhahurri, the area's dusty rain catchment, naked
plots attest to the severity of the drought.
Several hundred Borana and Konso agropastoralists, immigrants here from the escarpment
beyond Ferole, occupy scattered human settlements. Kulal, the sacred mountain of the Gabra, is
a jagged silhouette marking the Kenya-Ethiopia border. This fairy-tale landscape is otherwise
protected by its total absence of water; there is nothing here to fight over.


Ubiquitous rocks and boulders are the principle feature distinguishing Gabrastan from
Rendille country, whose sands and intermittent stretches of gravel support significantly more
bush and trees. North Horr, however, is the reckless and sandy exception; shifting dunes
threaten to engulf the town. North Horr's periphery is devoid of trees and grass except for
patches of the evergreen Sueada monica, which form a barrier of sorts against the Chalbi.

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

The Land of Jilali I 67

Average rainfall here is 150 mm per year, compared with 800 mm for Nairobi in a very dry
year, and the soil is extremely alkaline, with a pH between 9.5 and 10.5. Not ideal tree-planting
conditions, but this is what a local women's group is doing. One fenced-in enclosure protects a
few dry sticks. But another boma shows off a mix of Salvadora persica (the mswaki or toothbrush
tree), Acacia tortillis, and Azidirachta indica (neem)-most of which are flourishing. Women arrive
during the late afternoon, each carrying a pair of one litre containers of precious water to share
with their personal plants. Why did the plot next door fail? "Improper organisation." Will their
twice-daily devotion make a difference? It's hard to say. On the other side of town another
enclosure houses a small community of coconut palms. They are several feet high, and if they
make it to maturity it may mark the start of a new agro-industry.
We depart. The vegetation begins to improve on the track south. One of our riders tells us
about his life with the Dassenech, who snatched him from his Gabra manyatta at a tender age.
He escaped back to his people many years later, and now runs a shop in the small oasis of Gas,
on the southern fringe of Gabrastan.


I last visited Loyangelani in 1976. During the interim, Loyangelani has evolved from a
hamlet of drought refugees into a tourist town on the shores of the Jade Sea. Now it is a
cosmopolitan community of Rendille, Samburu, El Molo, and growing numbers of Turkana
taking the place of the Luo fishermen who have shifted to the Lake's west coast. This port could
support a lucrative fishing industry.
A tan and slender European, escorted by several uncircumcised boys, walks his heavily
panniered mountain bike up the main drag. He is Dutch. He began his journey in India; South
Africa is his destination. Asia was easy, he says, but the heat nearly killed him in Sudan, and
Ethiopia tested his limits. "It's good to be back in civilisation" (defined as food, water, and a
common language) he tells us.


On a landscape otherwise devoid of vegetation a Turkana boy tends a large herd of goats
feeding on invisible shoots of Spirobolus, a spiky grass growing in the cracks between rocks. We
leave the fortress-like walls of the Turkana escarpment behind and turn onto the road to Mt.
Kulal, which passes through richer country dotted with trees and grass cover, undisturbed due
to insecurity.
In the past, raiding was rare during droughts; basic survival is an all-consuming task.
Driving weakened livestock across waterless countryside is a low percentage gambit; raiding
after the onset of rain a conventional re-stocking technique. But the world is no longer normal; a
Turkana raiding party successfully attacked a group of Samburu in this area several days ago.
The bandits came from distant Lokorio, perhaps the inhabitants of a recently abandoned
Turkana manyatta we passed on our way.
At the Kenya Telkom relay station above the small plateau which is home to Gatab, Kulal's
only permanent settlement, we listen to the President's Madaraka day speech, in which he tells

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

68 I Goldsmith

the nation, "Moi si mvua" (Moi is not rain.) In the land of famine relief, rainmakers are


The Rendille are the true wenyewe of Marsabit District, by virtue of never having lived
anywhere else. Their tenure in this exceedingly austere environment is the product of a resilient
techno-cultural adaptation personified in the Rendille camel, a small but highly drought-and
disease-resistant animal also herded by the Gabra. Though not prolific milkers, they boast
attractive anti-jilali features, such as a narrow body profile
designed to reduce radiation absorption in the absence of
Marsabit's camel-centric communities'
demographically-conservative strategy includes delayed.
age-set initiation, primogeniture favouring the first son, and
a high canon of reles and centralised rituals. The cultural
matrix makes for late marriage, smaller households, and in
the case of the Rendille, a steady spin-off of individuals and '.- .
groups responsible for the replication of their clans among the Gabra, Sakuye, and Somali
Garre, Ajuran, and Degodia.
The Arial embody the transitional dynamic. Rendille by origin, they have adopted
Samburu ways and cattle, while living in symbiosis with both groups. The Gabra are allied to
the Borana; the Turkana are allied to no one.
Modern change had overtaken traditional cultural strategies. The settlements of Korr and Kargi
reveal the most advanced environmental degradation we have yet seen. Korr enjoys the
dubious distinction of being one of the most widely cited examples of the process of
desertification. Over a decade ago, Herlocker and Dierk noted in The Marsabit Range
Management Handbook that in many places erosion had worn soils down to the bare underlying
rock. There is a point where environmental degradation is irreversible.
The concept of non-equilibrium environments is the new orthodoxy in African range
management. Simply stated, it holds that the vegetation change and erosion formerly attributed
to pastoralists and their herds is actually insignificant over time, that ecological changes are
more the product of long-term rainfall patterns.
Empirical studies of range conditions and stocking rates in this region support the thesis.
But permanent settlement is another phenomenon: the pressure on forage and fuelwood has
now extended the naked perimeter around Korr to a radius of ten kilometers.


Mobility has always been an important coping strategy in the face of environmental crisis.
In Kalacha, I came across the following passage while rereading Gunther Schlee's brilliant work
on proto-Rendille Somali clans, Identities on the Move.

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

The Land of Jilali I 69

"One group [of the Garre] moved to Giumbo, near the mouth of the river Juba, but after
being repeatedly attacked were forced to cross the river and eventually moved north to Merca.
A second group of Garre moved to the coast and then crossed to the Dendas Islands where they
sought the protection of the Bajuni and were eventually absorbed by them."
On the same page, Schlee quotes a document from the Kenya National Archives which says
that these "refugees" came from the Banna sections of the Garre, lending support to Jim Allen's
interpretation of the Shungwaya legend.
Allen hypothesizes that Shungwaya, the homeland once shared by the Bajuni, Miji Kenda,
and Segeju, was not the capital of an ancient multi-ethnic kingdom as depicted in oral history.
Rather, he marshals archaeological and linguistic evidence showing that Shungwaya was
actually the hub of a trade network linking early Swahili settlements to areas of the interior as
far inland as Lake Turkana. Artifacts not found anywhere else connect the distant interior to
ancient Baghdad and Cairo. Satellite photography shows that the Uaso Nyiro river once
reached the coast, entering the sea through the channels of Mongoni and Dodori. Have water,
will travel.
The people of Lamu town used to perform an annual ritual of purification called
kuzungusha ng'ombe. A cow is led through the town's streets, prayers are recited, the animal is
sacrificed and the meat roasted for a public feast. During a visit to Lamu last year, we were
discussing the petty political infighting responsible for the community's disunity when I
commented that perhaps the kuzungusha ng'ombe ceremony should be revived. A Bajuni friend
responded that they had in fact performed a sorio only a few weeks before.
I double-check to make sure he really used this proto-Rendille cultural term for the
important ritual in which dispersed herders gather at a central location and sacrifice an animal
to invoke blessings for the community. Different communities now associated with the Borana
and Somali still perform it, albeit cloaked in Islamic garb. The Bajuni-Shungwaya-Proto Rendille
Somali link is just one variation on the precolonial pattern: almost every Kenyan tribe is
composed of multi-cultural clans on the move.


In late June, the team returns to Kalacha for the KARI/Marsabit field station annual review.
We stay in several tourist bandas gracefully nestled among the doum palms that mark the
spring. The ruffling (racket to some) of the palms I have come to associate with the oasis at
night is interrupted by the yipping of a hyena, a voice that can agitate penned-up animals until
they stampede.
Blustery wind and an overcast sky above the white sands give the following early morning
landscape an oddly wintry cast. Could even the most brilliant of team scientists, operating with
unlimited resources, devise technological alternatives approaching the complex of finely tuned
resource management and cultural systems of the pastoralists who have survived and
flourished in this impossible environment? No, they can only expand on it.
The traditional system included critical mechanisms for keeping population inline with
carrying capacity. Though the more expansionary proclivities of cattle people contrast with the
conservative strategies of the Rendille and Gabra, in the end the result was roughly the same:

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

70 I Goldsmith

small populations. But in modern Kenya, small populations mean social exclusion, the
continuing post-Uhuru marginalisation of many northern and coastal communities.
Large-scale famine relief first appeared during the drought of 1971, and each successive
jilali has quickened the rate of change and the number of pastoralists dropping out of the
livestock economy. This time around, even the husky local camels are already dying, and the
worst is yet to come.
Kenya's poorest districts are the ones where today's indigenous peoples were confined to
ghettoes by laissezfaire colonial policy. Our verdict: the problem is not so much environmental
degradation as a lack of economic diversification. There are untapped resources in these remote
regions, including nutrient-rich salt from the Chalbi, gum arabic, stunning landscapes for the
high-end adventure tourist. But exploiting them has been constrained by a combination of poor
infrastructure, restrictive laws, a lack of services, and the social prejudice engendered by
separation. Isolation has bred war parties that roam the land with the unpredictability of rain-
bearing clouds.
The trajectory of modernisation-for farmer, forager, fisherman, and herder alike-involves
migration, settlement, and diversification of livelihood. As towns grow, degradation of the peri-
urban fringe paves the way for expansion. Tree cover improves within the new pastoralist
settlements even as it is denuded without. Tree planting, unless for generating future income, is
unlikely to solve the environmental crisis.
The Borana recall two famines of decades past by the blueflies that swarmed over the
cattle, both dead and alive. Perhaps the system-level impact of the jilali, underscoring the
national crisis of planning and resource management, will be reforms that promote the
comparative advantage of cultural diversity, like the Shungwayan example. Kenyans, despite
some parties' best efforts to prove otherwise, are poor tribalists simply because, over the long-
run, the environment selects against it. The drought has exposed the futility of petty local
Our landrover dies in the Chalbi night. A jury-rigged repair gets us moving again. A hyena
slinks across the track as we approach Kargi, where we diagnose the problem-a faulty wire to
the fuel pump. Two cheetah streak across the desert rocks as we approach Marsabit mountain
in the early morning light. I see my first bluefly.


1. This article originally appeared in: East African Environment and Development
Magazine: Ecoforum, Volume 24, Number 3, Cold Season, 2000.

Reference Style: The following is the suggested format for referencing this article:
Goldsmith, Paul. 2000. "The Land of Jilali: Travels through Kenya's Drought Stricken North."
African Studies Quarterly [online] 4(3). URL: http://web.africa.ufl.edu/asq/v4/v4i3a3.htm

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000


The State and Economic Reform in Africa


Carol Lancaster, 1999. Aid to Africa: So Much To Do, So Little Done. University of Chicago Press.
303pp. paper $22.00.

David L. Bevan, Paul Collier, Jan Willem Gunning, 1999. The Political Economy of Poverty, Equity,
and Growth: Nigeria and Indonesia. 464pp. Oxford University Press. Out of Stock

Thandika Mkandawire and Charles Soludo, Our Continent, Our Future : African Perspectives on
Structural Adjustment. Council for the Development of Social Research in Africa. 176pp.
Hardcover $79.95

To go by the press, and according to many objective observers in Africa, the African
continent is in deep, self-made trouble in multiple dimensions-mass poverty, wars, famines,
corruption, ethno-linguistic fragmentation, the AIDS pandemic, dictators, even inability to
utilize external donor money to cure itself.1 The press is right but its explanations are often
wrong and tendentious. So is a growing number of academic publications on the subject.
In a recent cover story of this genre, The Economist, often well-informed and judicious in its
coverage of the region, declared Africa "the hopeless continent", at a level below the deplorable
standards of "the dark continent" which was customarily entitled to the hope of light, at the
very least. It traced the root source of the continent's chronic problems to a perverse all-African
culture, a servile lack of self-confidence among Africans on which tyranny, disorder and
corruption perpetually thrive. It would be fair to remind ourselves that there are forty six
countries in Africa south of the Sahara, a region with the largest diversity of languages,
cultures, and national economic performance in the whole world. If the sweeping
generalizations now in vogue about Africans as a people were made about all Asians in
continental Asia, the Jews, or the Americans, there would be a global outcry of unprecedented
proportions. According to conventional wisdom in the new discipline of all-Africa catastrophe
studies, however, the shocking human mutilations and senseless carnage of the Sierra Leone
and Liberian warlords become symptomatic of "Africa" in a way the violence in Sri Lanka or the
Khmer Rouge could never be typecast as an "Asian" political affliction. Yet so widely publicized
and accepted has the notion of a pitifully homogenous, lachrymose Africa become that a vocal
squad of African intellectuals has now thrown its weight behind it, the better to give an
authentic native voice to the cultural perversity theories of their own societies. Their school of
thought should recall, however, that whether in Africa or elsewhere, the sweeping cultural
model has historically been a weak weapon in solving the intractable social and economic

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University of Florida Board of Trustees, a public corporation of the State of Florida; permission is hereby granted for individuals
to download articles for their own personal use. Published by the Center for African Studies, University of Florida.
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72 I Chege

problems of the sort Africa now faces. On the contrary it has often served as a handy tool for
aggravating them, if not inventing them in the first place.
We owe to the late Thomas Kuhn the observation that the most spectacular breakthroughs
in scientific knowledge originate from accumulating anomalies, starting always with a few, that
are observed between conditions normally assumed to behave identically. Contradictions to the
norm stimulate the formulation of superior paradigms that enable us to transcend a problematic
present. The all-Africa catastrophe tradition, in contrast, denigrates any anomalies in the shape
of African success which it encounters as trivial, few, foreign-made and inconsequential. But
given the demonstrated potential of anomalies in advancing both scientific and social
transformation, it would be as foolhardy to ignore them as it would be to deny African
culpability in the continent's well-rehearsed litany of disasters--a favourite tactic of the "white
imperialists" baiting African left. Thank heavens then for these three newly published books
which deal with the vicissitudes of development policy-making and implementation in Africa.
Not only are they exceedingly well-documented and authoritative in their analyses, they also
courageously take on board the norm of failure, the successes, and the gray zone in-between.
Our Continent, Our Future in particular deserves a special accolade. A truly refreshing product
from two of Africa's most outstanding economists, it draws heavily from the research efforts of
their African colleagues, a group seldom heard from in Africa's raging debates. Each in its own
way, the books provide uncommonly fresh and persuasive explanations of variations in African
economic performance between countries and over time. They also deal with the problematic
relations between African development initiatives and external donors--yet another
controversial headline story relevant to the elusive search for the cure of Africa's multiple
By most informed accounts on the subject, the seeds of the mushrooming official
development aid movement in the second half of the past century were planted unwittingly by
the British Colonial Development Welfare Act of 1940. Designed to alleviate mass poverty and
modernize economies in the then colonial world, the movement's administrative framework of
choice was government-to-government financial assistance, complemented by the efforts of
official multilateral institutions like the United Nations' specialized agencies, the World Bank,
and the International Monetary Fund. Although, in their infancy, these efforts earned a stern
rebuke from a few critics like Lord Peter Bauer, an advocate of free enterprise and local
initiatives as the ideal path out of third world poverty, aid programs multiplied through the
years under the benign indifference of Western voters and a grudging acceptance by their third
world beneficiaries. But after six decades of chequered expansion, that uneasy honeymoon is all
but over.
In mid-April, over 10,000 demonstrators converged on the mecca of the global
development business-the World Bank and the IMF in Washington DC-determined to shut
down their normally sedate annual gathering of the world' finance ministers and central banks
governors. Fired by the their successful routing of the World Trade Organization meeting in
Seattle in November 1999, the demonstrators berated the IMF and the World Bank for
pandering to multinational corporations at the expanse of workers, funding environmentally
disastrous projects, aggravating world poverty, and consorting with third world dictators. With
specific reference to Africa, western finance ministries and the multilateral agencies were

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

The State and Economic Reform in Africa I 73

accused of saddling the countries with huge debts whose repayment now made it impossible
for African states to vaccinate and educate the sickly children, and to feed the hungry-an
outcome the protesters have compared to slavery. Pope John Paul II, the Archbishop of
Canterbury, and a coalition of chief rabbis have demanded a debt moratorium for Africa. In
fairness though, it should be pointed out that nobody forced the African governments to take
the external loans at gunpoint. More than anybody else, they should take responsibility for the
fact that despite receiving the highest amount of foreign grants and loans per capital of any
region in the world--$26 in 1997, as compared to just $3 for South Asia and $13 for Latin
America-Africa's quality of life on average has deteriorated whilst it shows guarded promise in
other parts of the third world. Even then, donor agencies still need to be put in the dock to
explain why they kept the financial spigots wide open, long after it had become clear that the
gushing dollars mostly ended up in the African quicksand or in numbered Swiss accounts.
What went wrong? Anybody who is curios about the internal functioning of the multiple
official aid agencies working in Africa should be directed immediately to Carol Lancaster's Aid
to Africa, a thorough compendium and evaluation of who is who among Africa's external
donors. Invoking Tennyson's In Memoriam, it concedes at the outset that the aid fraternity has a
case to answer since there has been "so little done, such things to be." A former deputy head of
the United States Agency of International Development, Lancaster ploughs through a vast
amount of published sources and unpublished government documents, supplemented with
oral interviews, to provide detailed portraits of the aid bureaucracies of Africa's top bilateral
donors (the USA, France, Britain, Sweden, Italy and Japan), before turning the analytical
spotlight to the leading multilateral agencies (the World Bank, the European Commission). In a
rhythmic, if sometimes tedious pattern, the structure of each one of these institutions is laid out,
followed by its goals, levels of its funding over time, a list of the target African states,
concluding with lucid evaluations of the organizational capacity to deliver aid effectively and
the reasons behind it. Overall, she finds that "aid itself has been relatively ineffective in Africa."
The principal reason, she argues, can be traced to the inchoate nature of the aid bureaux, and
their mission creep into all aspects of African societies, combined with insufficient
understanding of the latter. Compared to their counterparts in Italy, the US and elsewhere, the
denizens of Britain's Department of International Development should be pleased with the top
ranking they receive for combining professionalism and effectiveness with intellect, give or take
a few scandals like the Malaysia's Pergau dam in the Thatcher years. Lancaster attributes aid's
failure primarily to political interference by Western governments as they seek to promote "non-
development" goals like culture in case of France, the welfare state by Sweden, and cold war
strategic interests by the US. Predictably, Aid to Africa makes a spirited case for politically-
insulated, technically-oriented aid agencies dispensing funds-under mutual consultation--to the
best achievers on the basis of merit. However, growing doubts about aid in Western
legislatures, more open political systems in Africa, the massed ranks of street demonstrators
and dissenting non-governmental organizations, and mistrust of the donors' mecca by religious
leaders, will all ensure that the opposite happens: more, not less political involvement in aid
policy-making and implementation.
In that regard, it is a pity that Lancaster omitted the shadowy and unaccountable IMF in
her study-"a law unto itself" according to Harvard's Jeffrey Sachs. Though technically not a

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74 I Chege

donor, its economic "stabilization" programs in Africa are now blamed, among other things, for
aggravating poverty, dissipating good projects, and undermining democracy. Mkandawire and
Soludo share these sentiments, while Nigeria and Indonesia is a little kinder. Though censored for
incapacity to formulate workable national economic programs, African states get off far too
lightly, even as the three books demonstrate how quickly they gave the game away to the
donors. Strikingly, Lancaster arrived independently at a conclusion similar to those of the
much-praised 1998 World Bank study, Assessing Aid: What Works, What Doesn't and Why: since
aid is "fungible" (usable anywhere), it should aim not just at promoting sound macro-economic
policies and projects, but also at wall-to-wall institutional reforms from the rule of law, secure
property rights, participatory decision-making and accountability-a solution which resembles
democratic rule. This root and branch approach, much beloved of revolutionaries in human
history, is but the latest unwitting admission of how central political reform is to economic
development. As the new "comprehensive" reform paradigm now attempts to refine its practical
strategy from the divine oracles of mathematical economics, African policy-makers and
intellectuals should weigh the doubtful prospects of a democratic capitalist revolution by
Fortunately, there are compelling options on the policy menu, more inspiring than
mathematics. Nigeria and Indonesia breaks from the econometric pack to provide a truly
outstanding account of the anomaly between economic regress in Nigeria, and Indonesia's
faster and more equitable growth between 1973 and 1990, using the comparative case study
method which has largely disappeared from economics. In fact the book is part of a new World
Bank publications series, intended to discover what reform policy lessons can be gained from
the divergent national economic experiences between states which otherwise share broad
similarities. Nigeria and Indonesia are large, multiethnic, agricultural yet oil-rich economies
with long traditions of military rule. Until the 1997 Asian financial crisis, ribald, jokes were
made comparing Indonesia's "functional" corruption with the self-destructive variety pursued
by Nigerians. This book should disabuse anyone who believed in them. In highly intricate
detail, it shows that although the initial economic conditions slightly favoured Indonesia, both
states were for years prey to corrupt elites, wrong-headed economic nationalism, faltering
commitment to liberalization, and sterile domestic factional conflicts. But while successive
Nigerian governments failed to learn lessons from this, Indonesia made a clean break with the
past between the 1973 oil boom and Mexico's default in 1982, courtesy of an unprecedented
alliance between enlightened technocrats, the army, foreign investors, and powerful civilians.
That almost accidental constellation of events, the authors hint, shows that large scale social
transformation is subject to human choice, and that given current levels of technical knowledge
it can occur in relatively short periods-in the case of Indonesia a mere twenty years. This should
open a window of opportunity to the now problem-ridden Olusegun Obasanjo government in
Nigeria. Whatever happens there, this book-a product of threes scholars associated with Oxford
University's Center for the Study of African Economies--should be required reading for the
Nigerian government, and for anyone else desirous of turning Africa's most populous country
around at this, its greatest hour of need.
Part of the now controversial debts to Africa were incurred to finance the most expensive
external "technical advice" per loan dollar ever given, and of the type Nigeria may be told it

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The State and Economic Reform in Africa I 75

now needs, given Indonesia's experience. But the research output of the twenty five African
economists which informed Our Continent, Our Future should be cited as evidence that plenty of
the technocratic talent for turning African economies around may be already at hand. Nigeria
and Indonesia considers that true of Nigeria. Mkandawire and Soludo deplore any
"paternalistic and contemptuous" attitudes to African technocratic talent, and proceed to
demonstrate the need for case-specific remedies for a continent as diverse as Africa, without
once shying away from the catastrophic conditions that afflict large parts of the region. While
fully acknowledging the domestic origins of Africa's economic regress after the 1980 oil crisis,
the book juxtaposes that experience with the more positive one between 1965 and 1975. Though
not problem free, the earlier phase witnessed rapid growth, more local savings, and an
expansion of education and health services under the tutelage of more effective African
governments than we observe now. The book contains a stinging rebuttal of the World Bank's
now defunct structural adjustment programs, an accessory to the regress that befell Africa after
the 1980s, and concludes with a clarion call for African elites to begin the reconstruction of
effective and broadly legitimate states, which an African market-led recovery now so
desperately needs.
That of course will be easier said than done. The ideas of a state accountable to the
governed, based on separation of powers and the respect of private property are essentially
Lockean in origin. In practice they take diverse institutional forms. How to match them to
specific African conditions is now the key challenge. Indonesia's current political problems
ought to serve as a salutary warning that tolerating a fragile political constitution of dubious
legitimacy can ruin the best results of any economic "miracle". Throughout the pages of these
three remarkable books, the ideals of governmental reforms for Africa are presented primarily
in formulaic and narrow technical terms. In line with that, the World Bank office in Kenya (and
elsewhere) was in mid-2000 underwriting "governance" reforms for accountability, corruption
prevention, better commercial laws, and an efficient executive branch---all this with an
autocratic ruling party which would not countenance growing public pressure for a broad-
based constitutional review. As they watch all this, the ghosts of the 1940 Colonial Welfare Act
must surely feel tickled, knowing all too well how an anti-Lockean nationalism in the 1950s
ruined their best laid plans and ultimately led to the havoc which the press is now reporting on

Reference Style: The following is the suggested format for referencing this article:
Chege, Michael 2000. "The State and Economic Reform in Africa: A Review Article," African
Studies Quarterly. 4(3): 3. [online] URL: http://web.africa.ufl.edu/asq/v4/v4i3a3.htm

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000


Justice and Morality in South Africa


James Cochrane, John de Gruchy and Stephen Martin, eds. 1999. Facing the Truth: South African
Faith Communities and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Athens:Ohio University Press.
238pp. paper $18.95.

Kenneth S. Broun. 2000. Black Lawyers, White Courts: The Soul of South African Law. Athens: Ohio
University Press. 286pp. cloth $45.00; paper $19.95.

Almost a decade after apartheid began its death throes, South Africans are still considering
the perversion of values and, at least implicitly, the consequences that survivors must pay
almost daily at the turn of the millennium. Disparities in wealth, unequal ownership of land, and
a rising tide of crime are the most visible and policy-related impacts of apartheid. The books
under review, while touching upon some aspects of policy, address much more directly (and
quirkily) the psychological and intellectual legacy of the South African past.
Facing the Truth confronts the role of "faith communities" during the apartheid era. The
book's point of departure is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's (TRC) hearings on this
subject. The Introduction, written by the editors, a short historical and intellectual background
to the issue and to the hearings, provides a rich summary of many of the themes to follow. Next
comes the Research Institute on Christianity in South Africa's "Faith Communities and
Apartheid." The Institute's report (largely written by one of the editors), which is the largest and
most comprehensive contribution in the volume, is evidently intended to provoke reflection by
the rest of the contributors. The report defines, describes, and attempts to evaluate the role of
faith communities under apartheid. The report contends that faith communities should have
been "prophetic" in denouncing apartheid and should have taken positive actions to resist
apartheid. It evaluates the actions, omission, and reports of the various faith communities to the
TRC very critically. The report itself is copiously documented with more than 300 footnotes and
is written from a critical perspective that does not attempt to exonerate any faith community.
The rest of the contributions come from a variety of analytical perspectives, and most
consider the roles of differing religious traditions. Most contributions assume the reader
possesses a fairly thorough background in South Africa's constellation of religious traditions
and organizations. But if one is not familiar with the Dutch Reformed Church, the Zion
Christian Church, African Initiated Churches, the South African Council of Churches or the

David R. Penna is Associate Professor of Government at Gallaudet University.
http:/ /www.africa.ufl.edu/asq/v4/v4i3a5.pdf

University of Florida Board of Trustees, a public corporation of the State of Florida; permission is hereby granted for individuals
to download articles for their own personal use. Published by the Center for African Studies, University of Florida.
ISSN: 2152-2448

78 I Penna

Study Project on Christianity in Apartheid Society, one should not choose this volume-it does
not waste time giving background on these organizations.
Most of the contributions struggle with a similar set of issues-how to understand or
evaluate the role of specific faith traditions during the apartheid era; how to evaluate the
submissions (or lack thereof) by various faith communities to the TRC; how to achieve
reconciliation in a post-apartheid society. While many of the contributions are necessarily
abstract, a few ably illustrate the relevance of this debate for individuals. Striking is Carl
Niehaus' description of meeting his torturer in post-apartheid society. An evidently genuinely
sorrowful policeman called Niehaus out of the blue and asked to meet him to ask for
forgiveness. Niehaus realizes that the torturer was also a victim of apartheid, taken in by an evil
ideology and indoctrinated by a church that seemed to accept such actions as moral since they
were done in defense of "Christian civilization." Niehaus admits that he has not yet forgiven the
man, although he is trying. This, among other things, leads Niehaus to wonder if religion has
much to offer to the reconciliation process in South Africa.
Other interesting contributions include Tinyiko Sam Maluleke's critical evaluation of the
TRC from the perspective of a black theologian. This might strike one as initially confusing,
since the TRC is headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Further, the absence of the majority of
the victims from the process threatens to result in their silencing if the TRC production of its
narrative report is effectively equated with reconciliation. According to Maluleke, the
experiences of the majority of apartheid's victims will become devalued if this is allowed to
Equally interesting is Robin M. Petersen's consideration of African Initiated Churches such
as the Zion Christian Church (ZCC). During the anti-apartheid struggle, many people within
the movement looked down on churches such as the ZCC because they refused to engage in
political resistance or criticism of the government. The churches professed an apolitical stance
but were seen as giving aid and comfort to the apartheid state by interacting with various
government structures and leaders. Petersen explains that criticism of the ZCC's refusal to
admit any guilt to the TRC comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the ZCC's
theological perspective. Petersen suggests that the ZCC's focus on creating self-reliant
individuals who would "refuse to be hurt" was a profound act of resistance. What mainstream
churches and activists saw as disengagement and neutrality toward government, the ZCC saw
as an act of empowerment.
While this book draws no conclusions about the role of faith communities in apartheid or
in the reconciliation process, it issues a call for reflection and dialogue. It successfully presents a
variety of perspectives and benefit those who have an interest in the reconciliation process in
South Africa; however, it will not be very accessible to those lacking a prior understanding of
the South African faith communities.
In contrast, Kenneth Broun's Black Lawyers, White Courts is accessible to both those
outside of the legal profession and those with only a passing familiarity with South African
events. At times, those with some background in the history of South Africa may feel that Broun
includes too much basic information throughout the excerpts. In the early chapters this
sometimes disrupted the flow of the interviews, but by the second half of the book the

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Justice and Morality in South Africa I 79

intrusions are more limited. Overall, the book reads very well although Broun could have more
clearly delineated the format in his Preface.
This interesting volume is based on interviews with twenty-seven prominent non-white
lawyers who practiced law under the apartheid regime. Many of them were significant actors in
the anti-apartheid movement and several are government officials in the post-apartheid
government. The arrangement of the book is very unorthodox: two chapters, Chapters 1 and 12,
are complete interviews with two lawyers; chapters 2 through 11 are organized around themes
(Bantu education; university; starting practice, etc.) and contain excerpts of interviews with the
other 25 lawyers. Broun provides background information about the interviewees and weaves
the various excerpts together by providing perspective on the experiences of the lawyers and
making comparisons to other interviewees.
Broun's book provides a rich description of the indignities imposed by both petty and
grand apartheid: separate tables for non-white counsel in the courtroom; the inability to
officially share office space among barristers from different racial backgrounds; the lack of a
"colored" break room forcing a non-white barrister to eat a packed lunch rather than enjoying
tea with his colleagues; the difficulty of meeting clients or investigating cases when contacts
needed to cross racial lines; the attempt of a white secretary to force an African female lawyer to
stop using the "white" ladies room. There were the unofficial attitudinal barriers as well: clients,
judges, and colleagues who did not think non-white lawyers could be as competent as white
ones; the difficulty of becoming an apprentice in exclusively white firms; the psychological
impact of being the only non-white in an otherwise all-white firm. Of course, there are also
stories of how all of these lawyers overcame the everyday challenges faced by all non-white
South Africans during apartheid: an inferior educational system; poverty (at least in most
cases); lack of housing; arbitrary arrest and imprisonment.
While the structure of the book seems unconventional, one of its effects is to more
emotionally involve the reader in the last few chapters, where one discovers the experiences of
the interviewees in post-apartheid South Africa. Several have served in political or judicial
positions, and others have established profitable practices, suggesting that the tribulations of
the early years have been recompensed-at least almost. Broun uses this as a nice transition to the
chapter on Dullah Ohmar, who became Minister of Justice and is in charge of the process of
creating a non-racial system of justice for the new South Africa. Broun and several interviewees
note that the apartheid system had fostered an unusual respect for law, allowing black lawyers
to win important cases even when police or the government had not followed the letter of the
law. This respect for law, along with the introduction of constitutionalism, suggests that there
may be some basis for hope in the new South Africa. On the other hand, there are many judges
and lawyers who benefited from (and continue to benefit from) the old system of apartheid.
Additionally, there is the problem of equalizing access to justice. The new South African legal
system must provide representation for what is still a mostly poor black majority.
Broun draws upon these experiences to offer a few observations. He notes, for example,
that one characteristic most of these lawyers shared was coming from families where education
was valued. Indeed, many of these lawyers had at least one parent who was a teacher. Further,
most lawyers saw the legal profession as a way not simply of bettering their own lives, but the
lives of all non-whites in South Africa. Broun notes that all the interviewees were people of

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80 I Penna

extraordinary intelligence, but it is clear from the interviews that they were also people of
extraordinary courage.
Both of the books under review here offer us glimmers of hope for the new South Africa,
yet both are sobering. Both contain astonishingly frank accounts of the injustice and immorality
of the old system. Yet both books recognize that there are significant obstacles on the road
ahead. How can faith communities who abdicated or misused their prophetic role under
apartheid be seen as moral authorities after apartheid? How can a justice system that
countenanced the unjust brutalization of the majority of the population be seen as an
instrument of justice in a new millennium? Of course, control of these institutions is changing,
even if slowly, and that will help. But the bigger question remains: can these societal institutions
help contribute to the genuine reconciliation that South Africa needs to emerge from the
shadow of apartheid? Niehaus, at the end of his contribution entitled "Reconciliation in South
Africa: Is Religion Relevant?" suggests that perhaps the best that can be hoped for is individuals
"struggling sympathetically" rather than any institution offering answers. It is also certainly true
that law alone will not lead to reconciliation in South Africa. Any law, for example, that ratifies
economic inequalities built up under apartheid is likely to be seen as unjust by the majority of
the population. Any law that attempts to abruptly equalize wealth is likely to be seen as
oppression of the minority. All such attempts (and there certainly must be attempts) can only
succeed if they are understood by every sector of the population. Such understanding can only
be the by-product of a genuine reconciliation which has yet to occur. Both of these books
suggest that we might only be at the beginning of such a process of achieving justice in South

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000


Africa's New Leaders: Democracy or State Reconstruction? Marina Ottaway. Washington,
DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1999. viii + 138 pp. paper: $10.95.

Africa's New Leaders is almost certainly the most authoritative study yet published on this
subject. It is also far more significant than its brevity suggests. A critique of the politics of rising
expectations, regime survival, and structural change in the 1990s, its analytic frame rests on two
main pillars. One is modernization theory, at least its still-fashionable assumptions in US policy
and NGO circles regarding the promotion of Western-style democracy in different climes. The
other concerns structural spin-offs from Cold War's end, in particular opportunities for
autonomous initiatives by new-generation state elites in Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda,
and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). The study's focal puzzles are no less
clear. How did five of Africa's most prominent new "elites of means" seek to reconcile their
regimes' military antecedents and weak social institutionalization with heightened expectations
for government openness, political accountability, and economic reform? Are these leaders
veritable agents of social transformation, or pragmatic tacticians seeking to reinvent and put
their own imprints on the respective states? How had fundamental principles and incremental
process blended under these regimes, and how did this effect state-society relations?
Ottaway's answers are expressed in original, accessible language, although few will fail to
notice pointed similarities with modernization discourse of the 1950s and 1960s. New-
generation leaders, she argues, are not politically chaste or ideologically naive. Rather they are
well-honed tacticians who rejected the "failed policies of their predecessors" and are willing to
challenge the global order, promote new identities and interests, and "devise new strategies to
overcome old problems" (pp. 1, 10, 83, 106, 110, 126). No exemplars of transformation (p. 5), all
except Kabila have had the institutional landscape "unusually" inclined in their favor (p. 14).
They also symbolize some craving for change best understood through a combination of
empirical and interpretive methods. Hence, Africa's New Leaders does straddle policy and
academic analysis. It probably will not excite readers seeking elegant engagement with theory,
detailed documentation of sources, or an index. Surely, however, it offers down-to-earth lessons
to Africa watchers policy experts, aid managers, democracy activists, scholars.
The leaders' collective record, Ottaway concludes, has been mixed. In real terms "new-
generation" rhetoric and praxis had differed very little from the founding fathers' (pp. 8-9). Yet
the cases have varied significantly: Uganda, Ethiopia, and Eritrea stand far above Rwanda and
the Congo in attainment. Ottaway herself doubts whether Laurent Kabila fits in the group elan
(p. 13, 92-3) as others have doubted Ugandan President Museveni's putative grandfather status.
Factors shaping differentiation within the bloc have included the character of domestic social

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forces, the leader's personal r6le and regime leverage, and how the mix has shaped
constructions of political and economic reform on domestic and international levels.
As the 1990s dawned, several African dictators saw power slip through their fingers. With
local pressure for change reaching new heights, some of Africa's tyrants lost their once-gilded
thrones. Successor regimes in turn courted groups and 1lites less beholden to foreign powers
and more inclined to unorthodox methods, including force (pp. 10-2, 112, 126). Thus there was
the emergence of "African solutions to African problems," a troubleshooting quasi-strategy that
has met the leaders' propensity for forceful self-assertion without undermining the West's
interests (pp. 115-6). For example, military intervention in the Sudan and in Zaire not only
showed how resolute the new regimes could be, but both adventures also hinted at some pro
qui pro with US interests in the region and an all-too-easy blurring of principle and exigency in
their policy processes (pp. 108-13).
The domestic arenas have been more convoluted still. All five societies were in some
"protracted turmoil" (p. 10) through the 1980s. The leaders' bequests were institutionally
bankrupt estates with high ratios of liabilities to assets. Little surprise then that the first
overriding public priority was to restore or establish minimum conditions of collective existence
- productive infrastructure, traditions of civil life, effective authority structures, and
mechanisms for conciliation and participation. All this Ottaway calls "democratic capital,"
incorporating Putman's social capital (p. 13). Without plentiful supplies of it, she argues,
periodic elections, competing political parties, independent media, free market economy, the
attributes of democracy beloved of US policy and Western NGOs, are likely to accentuate pre-
existing ethnic, religious, and social divisions in society, at least in the short term (p. 124). Better
an unfashionable transition agenda then perdition by indiscretion!
Here lies the case for "sequencing of reforms" (p. 133), a re-affirmation of conventional
wisdom on the "crisis of adaptation" in Africa. Such discourse had peaked coincidentally with
"political order" in the 1970s, prompting the debate as to whether economic development and
political liberalization should be pursued (and achieved?) one at a time before or after each
other, hardly in tandem. In theory, a phased transition does offer a promising, "steady as she
goes" process. In the hands of politically insecure state 1eites, however, it has long helped to
reinforce self-serving experiments from colonial indirect rule to Uhuru and Ujamaa. Such
paradigms proliferated in Africa through the 1970s, occasioning neither political liberalization
nor economic development but near-total collapse that necessitated the structural adjustment
programs during the 1980s. In this circumstance, the either-or format of the study's sub-themes,
Democracy or State Reconstruction, may have, in effect, lent scholarly credence to the leaders'
self-legitimizing platforms. At this stage some might ask what is new about the new leaders -
apart from the delusions of lite cycles and vitriolic criticism of international actors. Others
simply will murmur deja vu in cynical resignation!
Ottaway's goal, it seems, is not so much to advance the leaders' claims. It is rather to show
how unrealistic and insensitive to sub-optimal African conditions US policymakers and NGOs
have been in pushing democratic reforms (p. 105). The "development first, democracy later"
strategy is fraught with risks; Uganda, Ethiopia, and Eritrea's leaders, Ottaway asserts,
admitted that, "if their present policies are successful, they will have to be modified radically in
the future" (p. 9). This need not make them closet despots in the eyes of donors and opposition
figures. But progress on the transient frame is not democracy either, only further confirmation

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000


that the transition to democracy cannot begin in these societies until after "basic problems... are
resolved to some degree" (pp. 12, 130). What constitutes "some degree" is open to interpretation.
It is also open to abuse by wily rulers; but so too is precipitate unleashing of competitive
elections and market forces on societies just emerging from long-running conflict. In this frame,
Ottaway's innocuous realpolitik meets scholarly endeavor. Western donors and activists need to
rethink their paradigms lest they become irrelevant (p. 5); leaders who had shown "much less
concern for the final outcome" of their policies (p. 9) deserve the benefit of the doubt
nonetheless (p. 9). Yet, because arbitrary reversals and even re-traditionalization are real
possibilities, today's incremental choices might well be building blocks for tomorrow's personal
or small-group empires (p. 130). So where are the new-generation regimes headed?
There are no definitive answers, only pointers. Economic restructuring was high on the
agenda; production had improved dramatically in all cases except the Congo. Policy reform,
including deregulation, decentralization, and privatization had proceeded apace, more
intensely in Uganda and Ethiopia than in Rwanda and Eritrea. Some pluralism has emerged in
Uganda and Ethiopia (pp. 120-1); moreover, Ugandan NGOs have been more receptive to
incremental change than opposition parties (pp. 40, 44). Etatism has remained Eritrea's favored
strategy (pp. 57-8), while Rwanda has prevaricated, and Kabila's Congo has slipped into virtual
paralysis. In all cases, a ghoulish fear of the recent past has dominated popular imaginations
nonetheless, fueled in part by official discourse (pp. 89, 128-9). As a result, domestic opposition
has been ineffectual, or driven to embrace self-defeating measures, from obdurate insistence on
principles through election boycotts to armed attacks on regime symbols (p. 120). The populace
also seemed quiescent, keeping (or kept) well away from matters substantive as state-led
mobilization subsumed popular participation (pp. 26, 43-5, 53, 79, 88) and rulers tried out new
and not-so-new mechanisms constructed in their personal or small-group images (pp. 27, 118,
Africa's New Leaders is strongly recommended, as much for its authoritative analysis as
for its wider import. The study bears out several general lessons. First, to the extent that gaps
between expectations and social reality are proverbial in institution-building the world over, the
euphoria of the 1990s most certainly reflected dissatisfaction with ousted regimes rather than
with the potential of the new. Second, new leaders' seeming rejection of institutional
perspectives in favor of "everyday approaches" is far from realistic. While institutions
themselves do not make social change any more feasible, change is not sustainable at all
without institutions. Progress has been slow in these cases partly because of the leaders' high
personal stakes in possible outcomes. If developmental states are almost always ruler-friendly,
then opportunities to construct new mechanisms in situations of near-zero institutionalization
must promise abundant payoffs, including variants of gerrymandering. Africa's new state 1lites
have yet to face the challenge of creating an environment that includes all publics and
encourages the growth of productive debate and countervailing viewpoints. The well-worn
game of doing one thing at a time, although convenient, has merely postponed doomsday time
and again, providing justification for sit-tight leaders of all hues. It is far too costly in the long

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000


Olufemi A. Akinola
W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research
Harvard University

North Africa in Transition: State, Society, and Economic Transformation in the 1990s. Yahia
H. Zoubir (ed.). Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999. 299pp. Cloth: $ 59.95.

Yahia H. Zoubir has compiled a fine collection of essays about developments in North
Africa in the 1990s. Although this collection of essays represents a variety of viewpoints, some
even contradicting the others, the stress is always on the social, political, and economic
explanations for developments in North Africa. In the Anglo-American academy, North Africa
has not received much attention and, as such, the literature on the region lacks depth. By
making use of his personal connections, Zoubir has elicited contributions for this book from the
well-known scholars of Maghreb, adding to literature on this underrepresented region. While
the focus of this book is North Africa, Algeria gets more coverage than other countries of the
region, perhaps due to the Algerian focus of the editor himself.
The book is divided into three parts. The first five chapters in part one address economic
and political developments in the Maghreb. In particular, the authors try to account for the
failure of the "development phenomenon" in the Maghreb. Pointing to constant political
instability in Maghrebi states, the authors place the reason for this failure at the feet of a weak
civil society with constant repression from above. While Henry Clement's chapter involves a
dialectical exposition on the development of civil society in the Maghreb as a whole, Zoubir,
Layachi, King, and Deeb focus on the development of civil society in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia,
and Libya, respectively. Both Zoubir and Layachi deal with the changes arising out of economic
liberalization, and predict a bright future for civil society. With a comparative focus on East
Asian cases, King attempts to account for the failure of Tunisia in fulfilling "Western
expectations" (p. 61). In the case of Libya, Deeb advances a well-rounded argument that the
health of the Libyan economy, in spite of oil revenues, remains fragile. All this is set to lead
towards a conflict-filled transition if and when Qadaffi's rule comes to an end.
The second part of the book deals with more specific issues in the Maghreb. Claire Spencer
cautions policy-oriented researchers to pay more heed to the history and diversity of Maghreb
in their research, which she argues is focused heavily on Islam at the expense of other socio-
cultural explanations. In the following two chapters, Mohammad Azzi and Yocef Bounandel
deal with the topics of youth and human rights in the Maghreb, respectively. Azzi examines the
prevalence of alienation among the youth, who form the majority-approaching seventy to
eighty percent-of the unemployed in the Maghrebian countries. A worsening socioeconomic
situation, according to Azzi, leaves the Maghrebian youths with violence as the only medium of
expression. According to Bounandel, the worsening socioeconomic conditions over the last
decade are also responsible for the worsening human rights situation in the Maghreb, although
Morocco is an exception to this secular trend.
International pressure has proven especially important in bringing about improvement in
the human rights situation in Maghreb. Francophone intellectuals in Maghreb, who have raised

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000


human rights issues repeatedly, have not fared well in their own societies. This, according to
Geesay, could be accounted for by the colonial baggage of the French language, which is
viewed with mistrust by the Maghrebians. Nora Colton examines the emerging markets in
Maghreb, and prescribes cautious liberalization because of the unpredictable political
ramifications of speedy liberalization. Robert Mortimer rounds off the second part of the book
by examining the rise and eventual decline of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), which he
blames on the tensions between Algeria and Morocco over the Western Sahara.
The last four chapters are more or less in the field of security policy studies, with the first
two-by Youbir and Volman-tackling the issue at the Maghrebian level, while the rest
concentrate on the international level beyond the shores of the Mediterranean. Youbir's chapter
on the geopolitics of the Saharan conflict, which has been a bone of contention between Algeria
and Morocco, reveals that although France and the United States support the Moroccan
position, Spain still supports the Saharawi people because of its historic guilt over not
addressing demands for Saharawi self-determination. Following this, Volman looks at the
military expenditure in Maghreb, which at this moment favors Algeria over Morocco, because
of its oil and gas revenue receipts.
In the last two chapters, the authors deal with US policy in the Maghreb (Zoubir and
Zunes) and the European Union's policy toward the Maghreb (Joffe). Zoubir and Zunes
examination of the US policy orientation toward different members of the Maghreb finds a
policy that, although mindful of the longtime friendship with Morocco, singularly emphasizes
economic liberalization. They also notice that the US is moving to lessen the hegemony of
France in the region. Lastly, George Joffe provides a well-rounded chapter on European Union
policy toward the Maghreb, focused on economic issues at the expense of political and security
issues. Although the EU agenda toward the Maghreb is mainly driven by Spain and France, of
late Germany and Britain have started making their presence felt.
Although this is a fine collection and the editor has received significant participation of
authors from the Maghreb, there is a paucity of references to Arabic sources. There is also a
neglect of the cultural issues in explaining the events of the last ten years, which have been
fostered mainly by the Islamic opposition challenge. Although the authors do address the issue
of the international dimensions of the Maghrebian issues, there is no systemic treatment of how
the Maghreb fits into global capitalism. Finally, even though women authored four of the
chapters, there is no specific piece devoted to the roles of women in the Maghreb.
This being said, I would not hesitate to recommend this book to a wide variety of
audiences. There is something here for all interested parties.

Amandeep Sandhu
Department of Sociology
University of Victoria, B.C.

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000


Success and Failures of Microbusiness Owners in Africa: A Psychological Approach. Michael
Frese (ed.). Westport: Quorum Books, 2000. Pp. 203. Cloth $59.95.

Which factors make for entrepreneurial success or failure in Africa's microbusinesses? Who
do you ask and where do you go for answers? The authors of Success and Failures went into
African cities to observe and interview microbusiness owners. They talked to real people
enmeshed in the daily grind of survival, impregnated with the uncertainty of success and
failure in a precarious business environment. Altogether five studies were conducted in
Zambia, Uganda, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.
The studies focused on two broad sets of factors that influence microbusiness success:
psychological and socio-demographic factors. Psychological factors include entrepreneurial
orientation, personal initiatives, innovativeness, proactiveness, planning strategies, and
motivation of employees. Some of the socio-demographic factors include the age of the
business, unemployment as the reason for start-up, employment of family members, and
education. By investigating both of these aspects, the authors show that psychological variables
are the better predictors of microbusiness performance. Frese and his collaborators challenge
many stereotypes about microbusiness owners in Africa. For instance, they discovered that
employing family members does not necessarily decrease success. The authors advise policy
makers and researchers alike to pay more attention to psychological factors than the typical
socio-demographic factors that have usually received more attention from governments,
donors, and researchers.
The psychological factors identified in this book really amount to plain old management.
This reveals a basic and commonly made observation: microenterprise owners in Africa need
management skills. The authors are simply saying that owners who have applied some
management principles (planning, goal setting, employee motivation, competitive analysis,
etc.,) are more likely to succeed than their counterparts who have not recognized that
management works. The researchers examine how thoughts, ideas, and attitudes regulate and
control management actions. Their investigations reveal that psychological strategies (i.e.,
management techniques) are used when they are compatible with the personality characteristics
of the owner and environmental constraints (resources and restrictions).
From this finding the authors argue that it is possible to find people with the "right"
personality who are likely to succeed in entrepreneurial ventures. They advocate that training,
selection, and support systems ought to be put in place to ensure that persons with the
identified psychological factors are nurtured to success from adolescence. There are serious
problems with this view. Advising African states to go beyond setting up proper economic and
legal frameworks to selecting the "right" persons to succeed seems very unpalatable. Second,
administering a test to ferret out who will succeed or fail is not in the spirit of competitive
capitalism. This idea admittedly comes from the failed policies of communism. The authors
state that "Many countries, particularly the early socialist ones (even poor ones), have used an
early selection approach of high potentials in the areas of sports and music. Thus, often four-or-
five-year-old children were selected in competitions and offered unique training opportunities
in special schools. We think a similar model can be used in the areas of entrepreneurship" (p.
187). It is important to identify teenagers with high potentials in entrepreneurship, but this

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000


should be left to parents and the market. Government and public institutions should not use
taxpayer money to give privileged access to resources and skills.
There is yet another problem with the advice offered here. These scholars unfortunately
psychologiste" the whole development process in Africa. No doubt it is important to
understand the actions and motivations of entrepreneurs, but it is more important to
understand the historicity, institutional framework, and dynamics of social forces in Africa. To
sever entrepreneurs from the specificities of Africa's colonial and postcolonial experience places
undue weight on psychological matters instead of the concrete socio-political conditions that
have primarily fueled development efforts.
At this point, what is needed in Africa is a balanced approach to tackling the recalcitrant
problem of underdevelopment, not another scholarly perspective or tantalizing tool.
Psychology can help us formulate policies for the ubiquitous informal sector, but it is wrong to
over-emphasize this in defiance of the logic and dynamics of social forces.

Nimi Wariboko
Baldwin, NY

Free Speech in Traditional Society: The Cultural Foundations of Communication in
Contemporary Ghana. Kwesi Yankah. Accra: Ghana Universities Press (distributed by ABC
Ltd, Oxford, UK), 1998. Pp 46. Paper $8.50.

Kwesi Yankah's 1997 inaugural lecture at the University of Ghana raises the question of how
African structures and norms of communication have coped with European intervention. He

"Are modern notions of free speech, free press, free expression which are already operative
in our post-colonial regulative institutions, compatible with communicative norms and social
structures in traditional society?"(p. 3).
Yankah identifies and describes the norms, modes, and functions of speech in pre-colonial
Akan society, from instruments connected with speech (such as talking drums and the linguistic
staff carried by the chief's orator) to forms and modalities (verbal taboo, silence, indirection, and
open critique). All of these, according to Yankah, demonstrate the existence of a wide latitude
for expressive freedom in pre-colonial Akan and other African societies.
Against this background, Yankah discusses the consequences of colonial intervention and
new media such as print and radio which arose from and reflected the socio-economic system of
capitalism. When introduced into Akan and other societies, these new media complicated the
relationship between free speech and appropriate cultural behaviour. Although Africans were
capable of both adopting and resisting the foreign systems, genuine tensions emerged, which
remain today.
To illustrate his point, Yankah cites conflicts between leaders and the media in
contemporary Ghana and, by extension, other parts of Africa. He highlights the problems of
keeping inherited cultural communicative norms in the face of these new developments
African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000


resulting from European intervention. In pre-colonial African society, norms and parameters
guided free speech, but European institutions and media forms destabilized these parameters.
As a solution, Yankah suggests that the indigenous cultural norms need to recognize and adapt
to certain exigencies of contemporary reality, such as electronic media and radio. Those
involved in contemporary media and its institutions need to study and pay attention to the
indigenous cultural norms.
In terms of identifying and describing the resources and modalities of speech in pre-
colonial Africa, Yankah's book is very useful. His theoretical framework, however, is rather
conventional, if not unhelpful. He sees Africa in terms of a dualism between "traditional" and
"modern" and associates "modernity" with "western." This framework, well-entrenched in
African studies, is very problematic, to say the least. Do we need this Eurocentric perspective,
which categorizes pre-colonial African societies as traditional and equates modernization with
"western" influence? Is there no African modernity? Did Africans sit still for millennia waiting
for Europeans to come and modernize them? There must be a better way of theorizing the
notions of tradition, traditional, modern, and modernity.
Each cultural institution, object, and practice must be seen as the result of many forces and
processes. In every society, there were rebels and critics who challenged the norms; there were
people who disobeyed, questioned, mocked, or ignored tradition; there were also pioneers. All
these were the forces of change from within. Even such a "traditional" figure as the chief's
orator, whose office and paraphernalia Yankah considers as having been there from time
immemorial, has not been static (p. 9).
Another common error in African studies which also appears in Yankah's book is
generalizing about Africa on the basis of a specific African society. Again and again, scholars of
Africa study a culture -- Yoruba for example -- and then write as if Yoruba and African were
synonymous. Since his study focuses on Akan society, Yankah needs to maintain that focus
consistently and never confuse Akan with African, as he does occasionally.
The failure to theorize afresh the notions of traditional and modern, or at least to realize the
essentially neo-colonial ways in which these terms are used in relation to Africa, is the chief
weakness of Yankah's book. This problem runs throughout the book to the very end. This
problem aside, Yankah's book is very informative. It covers a broad range of issues and has a
bibliography valuable for further study. This book is suitable for any library.

Joseph L. Mbele
Department of English
St. Olaf College

Traditional African Names. Jonathan Musere. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2000. 400 pp. Cloth

Until the publication of this book, it was extremely difficult to find any volume that collects
and defines the meanings of African names in English. Africa is a diverse continent with many
cultures, traditions, and languages. Names are part and parcel of all African traditions, and

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000


virtually every African indigenous name has a distinct meaning or connotation. While it would
be next to impossible to compile a comprehensive thesaurus of all African names, let alone their
synonyms, this book compiles about 6,000 names from central, eastern, and southern African
countries, such as Burundi, Congo-Kinshasa, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda,
Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
Although the compilation of African names is not entirely a new phenomenon, what
distinguishes this book from previous ones is its simplicity in name descriptions and
definitions. This volume looks at the in-depth meanings of indigenous as well as adopted
African names. African personal names have multitudinous functions such as the association of
one's occupation, habits, or personality. Many African names emanate from one's ancestry
through clan, ethnic/tribal, or religious affiliation. Names can also be commemorative of ancient
wars and conquests. Since most of these names emanate from the "Bantuphone" region of east,
central and southern Africa, it is not uncommon for many of them to have a similar meaning,
albeit different pronunciations. A word such as Muntu connotes a person, but actually it is
derived from the common linguistic descent of people in this region. It is therefore not
surprising that the word "ntu" is common among most ethnic groups in this region and carries
the same meaning. For example, a word such as "Gahungu," which denotes a small or young
boy, has a similar connotation amongst the Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa ethnic groups of Rwanda and
The author also includes new African words that have been adopted from Western political
and cultural contexts. For example, the word "Democracy" in most African contexts is
pronounced as "Demokrasi." Like other African names given to people during a certain
historical phenomenon, this word has been given to some newborns during the current
democratic struggle on the continent.
The alphabetical listings of these names as well as the book's well-prepared index will be
very helpful to those that are not familiar with African appellations. This book is highly
recommended for scholars and students of African anthropology, linguistics, literature, history,
and politics, as well as anyone interested in learning more about an important aspect of African

S.B. Isabirye
Flagstaff, AZ

Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Pp. 455. Cloth: $35.00.

Runaway Slaves addresses the still widely held belief that, in the slave system of the United
States of America, "slaves were generally content, that racial violence on the plantation was an
aberration, and that the few who ran away struck out for the Promised Land in the North or
Canada" (p. xv). Throughout Runaway Slaves, John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger stress
that the majority of slaves in the United States fought the system and their white oppressors.
Moreover, they lived under constant threats of physical and mental violence and were
African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000


conditioned to respond in kind. Furthermore, slaves ran away in great numbers, and when they
ran they did not necessarily go North. In fact, they more often ran to places where they had
relatives or loved ones.
The book is well-organized, with chapters describing everyday acts of rebellion, reasons for
running, how they tried to keep their families together, their reasons for becoming violent, how
they planned escapes, and where and how they hid. Moreover, the book details how the
slaveholders hunted fugitives, what happened to the slaves once they were taken back into
bondage, and how the slaveholders attempted to manage their human property. The authors
attach seven appendices, including advertisements, petitions, tables of locations and
destinations of runaways, and examples of correspondence. Almost one hundred pages of notes
detail the sources.
Franklin and Schweninger undertake a detailed analysis of hundreds of newspaper articles,
advertisements, and court documents in order to establish many of the "facts" of life in slavery,
as well as a foundation for the tenor of relations between blacks and whites. Their analysis of
these documents addresses a gap in contemporary scholarship on slavery, which has focused on
slave narratives, diaries of slave planters, and plantation records. In fact, the authors assert that
newspapers and court documents have their own "unique strengths" as primary source
materials. For instance, masters advertising for the return of their runaways "had little reason to
misinform their readers and every reason to be as precise as possible" (p. 295). They gave
graphic physical descriptions of the runaways and their known connections around the
country. Moreover, court petitioners suing for release from slavery "realized that it behooved
them to be as forthright and candid as possible" (p. 295). These petitioners often had nothing to
hide, because all the community knew their circumstances; furthermore, presenting the facts in
graphic detail could possibly sway the verdict their way. Therefore, contemporary white
notions of slaves and black resistance to slavery are well-represented in these documents.
The bits and pieces of stories that the authors put together from the fragments of
newspaper clippings and runaway notices are remarkable. This technique, however, can be a bit
confusing when several different notices or runaways are mentioned in the same paragraph.
Moreover, the reader may become intrigued by the ways a particular slave rebelled and wish to
know more about that particular individual. The downfall of writing from advertisements is
that, in most cases, one never does know what happened to the person in question. This
narrative angst, of course, only replicates to a small degree the terrible anxiety that the friends
and family of the slave must have felt. For as Franklin and Schweninger make clear, slave
families often did not know where their loved ones had fled. They also understood very well
the penalties inflicted upon captured runaways. For example, slave owners often contracted
professional slave catchers with dogs to chase their runaways. One plantation owner admitted
to using such methods: the catcher's dogs treed the man and pulled him out of the tree. The
owner then had the dogs bite "him badly, think[ing] he will stay home a while" (p. 161).
In addition to detailing the reasons and the methods of those who ran, the authors "seek to
analyze the motives and responses of the slaveholding class and other whites" (p. xv). To this
end, they have detailed the owners' announcements about runaways, their rewards for
apprehending the slaves, and their discussions of the tribulations that pursuing the runaways
caused. The results of this analysis are telling. Masters were often incensed that trusted slaves

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000


ran away without "any unjust or injurious treatment" and they would pursue those slaves until
the time and expense became overwhelming (p. 169).
Franklin and Schweninger have done a thorough job reading runaway advertisements and
court cases "against the grain" to determine the possible reasons why the slaves ran away and
committed other crimes. For instance, they claim that "fear, anxiety, retaliation, frustration,
anger, and hatred propelled slaves toward violence" (p. 79). When slaves ran, they often took
more of their owner's property than just themselves. The owners described every item stolen.
One runaway called Jerry took with him "a 'considerable quantity' of clothes, 'an aged sorrel
horse,' a pistol, and eighty dollars in cash" (p. 145). A slave named Sam left wearing "a green
frock coat with a black velvet collar, blue pants, a high-crown black hat; he carried with him a
black leather trunk containing a variety of other clothing, including a reddish frock coat with a
velvet collar, a green cloth coat and a white hat" (p. 80). What this detailing makes clear is the
slaves' understanding that anything preventing them from acquiring material and intellectual
resources was the basis of their continued enslavement. When they absconded, they took some
of the materials that could help make them free.
Runaway Slaves does well in discounting the popular myth that slaves were docile and
cowered in the face of white oppression. In fact, as Franklin and Schweninger show, a great deal
of violence was inflicted upon slaves, and the slaves reacted in kind. The authors establish that
"most of the violence was spontaneous, and most of it was directed against whites-owners,
members of the owner's family, overseers" (p. 77). In nearly every Southern state, slaves were
indicted for killing their owners or members of their owner's family. For this reason in
particular, Runaway Slaves is a valuable resource for undergraduate courses dealing with
slavery, as undergraduates often come to this subject with "romantic, Gone with the Wind"
notions of the peculiar institution. Moreover, the authors cite all the primary sources they use,
making this book a valuable resource for those interested in archival research on slave
narratives, slave codes, and African American history.

Samantha Manchester Earley
Department of English
Indiana University Southeast

Women of the Sahel. 1995. Directed by Paolo Quaregna and Mahamane Souleymane, 52
minutes. Distributor: First Run/Icarus Films. 52 minutes / Color / Sale/video: $390;
Rental/video: $75

This documentary presents women of Niger and the range of activities in which they
engage to make a living. The video's title evokes Niger's geographical location, namely the
Sahel region of West Africa. Niger's economy is based on herding, agriculture, and mining. The
industrial sector is extremely small and people in salaried employment counted only about
150,000 out of a population of eight million when the film was made in 1995. As a result,
women -- as well as men -- look to the so-called "informal sector" to generate cash. In the course
of the film, its directors take the viewer on a journey across Niger, demonstrating the vital roles
African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000


women play in supporting themselves and their families. They do not dwell on the fact that
most, if not all, of the women presented are Muslims, but it is noteworthy in light of the popular
images of Islam in the United States. The women in the video provide a good counterpoint to
prevailing stereotypes.
The journey begins in Gaya, a town on the banks of the Niger river close to the border with
Benin and Nigeria. The narrator introduces "Mamou", who heads a busy household while her
husband works as a truck driver. The filmmakers show how she takes advantage of available
opportunities. In a peanut-producing area, but with no field of her own, she buys groundnuts in
the market and turns them into oil and snacks; she purchases fish and fries them for sale; and
she occasionally travels to Benin to buy goods for resale locally.
For enjoyment, Mamou still participates in rehearsals of the local dance troupe, although
she has stopped going on tour with it as a singer. The narrator's explanations in English
language voice-over are interspersed with Mamou's own commentary on what she is doing.
Her words, spoken in Hausa, appear as subtitles in English. In like manner, the viewer
encounters women in other parts of the country who extract and process salt from the soil; dig
up gypsum and transform it into plaster; weave brightly-colored mats, or make pottery to sell to
traders or leather products to sell at the local craft center.
The emphasis throughout is on women's activities, but ethnicity also is highlighted in the
last segment dealing with Tuareg women. The comparison that is drawn here between "Tuareg
women [that] are not exhausted by hard physical work ... [and] other women in the Sahel"
implicitly resurrects colonial distinctions between the "noble" nomads and sedentary folk dulled
by hard labor. It also ties labor to ethnicity rather than to class or social hierarchy. The statement
that "[for Tuareg women] there is a great freedom of expression [in] celebrating births and
marriages" reinforces this impression and glosses over the fact that women of nearly all ethnic
backgrounds also celebrate life cycle events through dance and other forms of artistic
Placed in the context of Women's Studies, the video uses a "women's roles" approach to the
subject matter. This means that women's activities are presented and their contributions
highlighted with no more than passing reference to gender relations and the wider political
economy of which they are a part. Cooperatives are mentioned in several instances but their
benefits and problems, the impetus behind their creation, or their relationships to local
household and community structures are never seriously discussed. In spite of these criticisms,
the video is suitable for use in a range of classrooms (e.g. women's studies, introduction to
Africa, economic anthropology) at the secondary school and college levels and is a welcome
addition to the available audiovisual resources on the subregion.
Instructors and students interested in complimentary readings may wish to consult:
Marriage in Maradi: Gender and Culture in a Hausa Society in Niger, 1900-1989 by Barbara
Cooper (1997); The Poetics and Politics of Tuareg Aging: Life Course and Personal Destiny in
Niger by Susan J. Rasmussen (1997); Historical Dictionary of Niger by Samuel Decalo (1997).

Maria Grosz-Ngate
Center for African Studies
University of Florida

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 4, Issue 3 I Fall 2000

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