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When hopes were high

Dons don’t usually appear to much advantage in fiction.

13 May 2009

12:00 AM

13 May 2009

12:00 AM

We Have Tomorrow: Stirrings in Africa 1959-1967 Peter Mackay

Michael Russell, pp.355, 20

Dons don’t usually appear to much advantage in fiction.

For those who follow African affairs, these are not happy times. Once regarded as passé, the military coup is enjoying something of a come- back. Men formerly hailed as Renaissance leaders seem bent on being crowned presidents-for-life. From Sudan to Kenya, Somalia to Zimbabwe, carefully negotiated peace deals and coalition governments have either already foundered or quiver on the brink of collapse.

So this book possesses a terrible poignancy. The years it covers — a time when black nationalists in the territories that went on to become today’s Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia campaigned to shrug off white rule — are still comparatively recent history. Yet the hopes of that era were so bright, the belief that an independent Africa would prove a better place than its colonial predecessor so unquenchable, this story almost seems to hail from a different century, or perhaps a parallel universe.

Like many demobilised British soldiers, Peter Mackay — a former captain in the Brigade of Guards — migrated to Southern Rhodesia in the 1950s, planning a new life as a farmer. That appears to be just about the only characteristic he shared with his fellow whites, whose racism and small-minded, money-grabbing ways he quickly found repellent. Disgusted by his own, Mackay was steadily drawn into the campaigns of a generation of idealistic would-be revolutionaries working to dismantle the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, and with it the system of settler rule.

He comes across as a thoroughly decent man, possessed of vast reservoirs of compassion, blessed with an instinctive understanding of his fellow man and tireless energy. Having decided early on that it would be inappropriate for someone of his ‘pinkness’, as he puts it, to play a prominent public role in the independence movements, Mackay proved the most valuable of backroom assistants to the likes of Hastings Banda, Dunduzu and Yatuta Chisiza, Sketchley Samkange, Masauko Chipembere, Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe.

As these future presidents, prime ministers and ministers were systematically restricted, deported or thrown in jail, Mackay ran the newspapers which kept their cause alive, publishing in defiance of censorship, advertising boycotts and CID snooping. A loyal prison visitor, he made sure these most intellectual of detainees received the academic books and goodwill messages needed to keep their brains working and morale high.

When the authorities in Southern Rhodesia tried to conscript him, he went to jail himself rather than do military service. Forced to rebase in neighbouring Zambia, he transformed himself into a benign form of human trafficker, ferrying refugees fleeing Portuguese rule and South Africa’s apartheid system to new lives in ‘Africa-free’ in a dodgy Land Rover. The same battered vehicle later served a more sinister purpose, dropping off weapons for Rhodesia’s budding guerrilla movements.

Such an eventful life history should, in theory, make for a swift, pacey read. The fact that this book is no such thing is, in part, a reflection of the 80-year-old author’s somewhat idiosyncratic writing style. While Mackay undoubtedly has a newsman’s feel for the vivid image and the nature-lover’s eye for the beauties of the African landscape, his phrasing can be frustratingly circumlocutory.

He has also been poorly served by his editors, who should have made a concerted effort to contextualise the story for a modern audience which will struggle to place immediately the likes of ‘Bechuanaland’, ‘Nyasaland’, ‘Northern Rhodesia’ and many more. I found myself constantly flipping to the appendix of ‘New Place Names’ provided at the back to establish where, exactly, Mackay’s wanderings took him. My growing irritation was not assuaged by a map which — in a book which features many perilous border crossings and extraordinary road trips — omits cities, key roads, rivers and major landmarks.

This is a shame, for We Have Tomorrow deserves a wider audience than it is likely to win. The dew-fresh period upon which Mackay focuses his gaze — a time when Hastings Banda had not yet fallen prey to full-throttle megalomania, Robert Mugabe was no more than a skinny stripling and UDI was in its infancy — is one that cries out for excavation. With delicacy and sympathy, Mackay traces the well-meaning errors and all-too-understandable mistakes that would eventually lead to oppressive white regimes being replaced with equally stifling black equivalents. And as we are reminded of this moment of great, unrealised promise, we also register — contrary to what our own press too often implies — that dictatorship and social ruin in Africa are neither necessary nor inevitable.

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