Retelling Africa’s Past: cooperation, complexity and Coetzee
Africa’s colonial past is both conflicted and complex. At first glance, aspects of its history even seem improbable. Understanding Africa’s history is not about retelling a straightforward story of oppressors and the oppressed. Co-operation, and likewise conflict, are found in the unlikeliest of places. I’m no colonial apologist, but in my academic work on colonial African diamonds and soccer – topics which typically generate narratives of indigenous exploitation and victimization – I have encountered groups of allegedly antagonistic people engaging in patterns of genuinely cooperative behavior. Even though some historians have declared these groups to be unwaveringly hostile, I tell a more complex story that challenges or complicates these actual or perceived social divides.
The work of South African author J.M. Coetzee inspires me because he understands human relationships in a similar way. Many of Coetzee’s protagonists, regardless of their particular station, are typically conflicted, resourceful, insignificant, resilient, multi-dimensional, self-destructive, and in many ways flawed. He has inspired me as a writer and influenced the ways that, as an historian of Africa, I understand human dynamics in the continent’s past.
I believe I’ve read every book he has written and Waiting for the Barbarians, my favorite, is one of the few books I’ve read multiple times. It’s rather easy to identify with Coetzee’s flawed characters because, of course, one could easily settle on a good portion or even all of the traits listed above to describe much of humanity. Meanwhile, the worlds in which these characters operate are typically relentless, unforgiving, bleak, inequitable, often absurd. In these settings, social hierarchies clearly exist, though the geneses of these formations are not always clear. As a South Africa writer, Coetzee often appears to be alluding to race as a key factor in these formulations, but only implicitly, which is part of his artistic genius. We’re tempted to assume that unless patently set elsewhere, such as in his adopted home of Australia, his fiction is allegorical and constitutes a condemnation of apartheid South Africa, yet I don’t recall a single passage that explicitly articulates this disapproval, or even confirms by name an engagement with this system or even the country. Coetzee’s incomparable prose and ingenuity notwithstanding, it’s the series of human interactions and the harsh milieus in which his characters operate that informs my own work on African history and, in particular, the colonial period on the continent.
Just as in Coetzee’s settings, the worlds that the European powers molded for roughly eighty years, from the 1880s to 1960s, were unjust, exploitative, and exacting for the millions of Africans unfortunate enough to be subject to these imperial impositions. But like Coetzee’s characters who operate in challenging conditions, ordinary Africans devised creative ways to negotiate these punishing colonial worlds, carefully or at least situationally disregarding an array of norms in order to enhance their lives, or, at times, simply to survive. Yet, Coetzee does much more than craft narratives of victimization, in which underdogs employ guile and intellect to overcome their brutish overlords. Nor are his works reducible to binaries, pitting opposites – good/bad, imperial/indigenous – against one another either physically or in an arena of morality.
Yet, it would be impossible to read, for example, Waiting for the Barbarians, and not interpret the antagonistic relations between “The Empire” and the “Barbarians” as anything but a censure of the violence and absurdities of imperialism and its close relative, colonialism. But, Coetzee’s characters ensure that in many respects, on alternative levels, the power dynamics embedded in these stories are much more complex, often featuring, for example, individuals from “the same side” engaged in dramatically divergent behavior, harboring dramatically divergent sentiments. As such, there’s a social and intellectual uncertainty, or messiness, to Coetzee’s narratives that mirrors the messiness that is human history. In Coetzee’s works, I’d like to think that these types of seemingly unlikely human unions, even if they’re only fleeting, inform and resonate with my historical reconstructions. Of course, I’m bound by the evidence I amass and my interpretations of it, while Coetzee has considerably more license to masterfully build these intricate webs of human dynamics in his fiction. And, well, that’s probably a good thing, as great writing really ought to be left in the hands of the great writers; I’m just fortunate that I get to read it.
recent book is Stones of Contention: A History of Africa’s Diamonds (Ohio University Press, 2014). His next book Diamonds in the Rough: Corporate Paternalism and African Professionalism on the Mines of Colonial Angola, 1917–1975, which explores the lives of African laborers on Angola’s diamond mines, publishes with Ohio University Press in July 2015.
The image featured at the beginning of this post is by US Army Africa.