This is a book of desire denied, of what the pain of that impotence drives people to do, and how it makes them unwilling contortionists and even co-conspirators in their oppression. From ‘The Transformation of Harry’: “And there we all were; in an uncertain country, ourselves uncertain. A land with a sly heart; and ourselves ready to be deceived.” For if colonialism was any one thing it was denial: denial of land, denial of African culture, denial of any form of psychic nourishment—including hope—denial of black existence itself. And neocolonialism is the denial that any of that is still happening. First published in 1978, The House of Hunger speaks, or rather shouts, forward from its own time to 2017. Perhaps the most painful parts of the book to read are those that show how little has changed in thirty-nine years. For if colonialism was any one thing it was denial: denial of land, denial of African culture, denial of any form of psychic nourishment—including hope—denial of black existence itself. And neocolonialism is the denial that any of that is still happening.
“Sometimes stubbornness gets measured in blood, and sometimes the wounds of race are blinding.” So argues Roger Cohen, columnist for the New York Times, in a thought provoking column on President Thabo Mbeki’s failure regarding Zimbabwe. Money quote:
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This mess is Mugabe’s, but Mbeki has been his enabler. Why? The filial respect of a fellow African liberation fighter? Distaste for Tsvangirai, a former trade union leader, at a time when Mbeki’s own power has been undermined by South African trade unions and their man, Jacob Zuma? A loathing of Western interventionism?
No doubt the above play a part, but I think the real clue lies in Mbeki’s previous act of blind stubbornness, whose harvest was not the blood of neighbors but of his fellow citizens.
For more than three years, Mbeki indulged in a bout of AIDS denialism that stopped antiretroviral drugs from getting to millions infected with H.I.V. Hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths ensued.
Mbeki was never specific about the roots of his dissent, now sidelined if never disavowed. But when asked in Parliament in 2004 if he believed widespread rape played any role in spreading AIDS, he exploded:
“The disease of racism,” he said, led to blacks being portrayed as “lazy, liars, foul-smelling, diseased, corrupt, violent, amoral, sexually depraved, animalistic, savage and rapist.”
The link between H.I.V. and AIDS, in this angry vision, was a fabrication foisted on Africans by whites determined to distract the continent from real problems of racism and poverty, and accepted by blacks afflicted with the slave mentality engendered by apartheid.
Mbeki’s pseudoscience was death-propagating nonsense. But his theories of sexuality under apartheid were not.
I spent enough time under apartheid to see that the portrayal of blacks as sexual animals was integral to a white policy of dehumanizing them. More than once, I was asked with a boozy sneer by South African whites if I could ever imagine being attracted to a black woman.
So when Mugabe rails against the white colonialists, and expropriates white farmers, and portrays himself as the African fighting back white colonialism — when he resurrects the long struggle — I suspect he strikes a chord with Mbeki, whose own pragmatism is no Mandela-like conciliation.
“The racial petulance lives on in Mbeki,” said Peter Godwin, whose superb book, “When a Crocodile Eats the Sun,” chronicles how he and his sister Georgina saw their family’s life in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, destroyed. “He’s the black intellectual living with the fact that whites think they are better.”
Mbeki should read Godwin’s book. It might even inspire him to criticize Mugabe. But then, he’d say, it’s a white man’s work. And that’s the truth.
But what the disaster of Mugabe and of Mbeki’s nonmediation teaches us is that the wounds of a racist past, however deep, cannot justify a nation’s dismemberment. Mugabe must go, South Africa move on, and Mbeki must consider the blood that has flowed from his myopia and now tarnishes his legacy.