Brief Reviews


The First Dance of Freedom: Black Africa in the Postwar Era, by Martin Meredith, New York: Harper & Row, 412 pp., $23.95.

For many of us, Africa conjures up images of starving Ethiopian children, apartheid in South Africa, and perhaps Cuban troops in Angola. Beyond these snippets of news that the national media have presented us, the rest of Africa is mysterious.

Yet Africa's history and current affairs are rich in content and highly relevant to the study of man, state, and economy. Journalist Martin Meredith's First Dance of Freedom provides a highly readable starting point from which to begin understanding Africa.

Meredith recounts, almost in the fashion of a novel, the story of black Africa under colonial rule through independence and up to the present. As his point of departure, he chronicles the activities of key leaders in the move toward African independence, bringing to life such eminent African figures as Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Hastings Banda, Patrice Lumumba, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, and Sekou Toure.

But First Dance of Freedom is more than a series of biographical sketches. The book details the colonial policies of England, France, Belgium, and Portugal. England's paternalism, France's nationalism, Belgium's efficient authoritarianism, and Portugal's miserliness formed different backdrops influencing each group of colonies' path to independence.

The march to independence itself was sometimes bloody, sometimes not. Postindependent black Africa, however, has been almost uniformly beset by chaos, bloodshed, political repression, and economic disaster. Black Africa's saga, as told by Meredith, illustrates the phenomenal difficulty of making nationstates out of territories whose boundaries were arbitrarily drawn by colonial powers who ignored tribal organization, religious groupings, and cultural heritage as they carved up Africa. The result has been three decades of turmoil.

The astute reader can draw a second lesson from the pages of Meredith's book. Africa has plunged deep into poverty where government economic meddling has prevailed. States such as Nkrumah's Ghana, endowed with resources and enjoying a fairly prosperous economy at the time of independence, have regressed economically. Only the handful of African states that have encouraged capitalism and trade, most notably Houphouet-Boigny's Ivory Coast, have prospered. Meredith himself does not articulate this conclusion, but readers can hardly fail to reach it themselves given the evidence presented.

The Emergence of African Capitalism, by John Iliffe, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 160 pp., $29.50/$10.95.

The conclusion to be drawn from Meredith's book, however, will not come naturally to all those who have thought that Africa's penchant for state agricultural collectives, state marketing boards, and nationalized industry is only a natural offshoot of its tribal heritage. The Emergence of Capitalism, by John Iliffe, should go a long way toward disabusing utopian socialists of this claim.

In this compact work, Iliffe investigates the emergence of capitalism in precolonial Africa and traces its path through colonial times to the present. He describes production and trading arrangements among African farmers, merchants, and manufacturers throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Wage labor was not uncommon. Free markets sprang up in various forms across Africa. Peasants produced and sold surplus food. These and other capitalist economic practices survived into the colonial era. It was the colonial rulers, and later Africa's own national leaders, who stopped African capitalism in its tracks, stunting it with widespread government controls on economic activity.

Iliffe's book is inspiring. It lifts the spirits both for the myths it demolishes and for the evidence of human ingenuity that it introduces. Free-trade arrangements are not unique to Western man, as some like to argue. They arise even in remote African jungles.