In 2022, I had the privilege of traveling to other southern African countries outside my home country of South Africa, namely Botswana, Zambia, and Namibia. During these travels I had ample opportunity to reflect on and closely experience this continent to which my ancestors, as early as the 17th century, tied their fates.
As a young university student, while doing research for a political science essay on the topic of renewable energy in Africa, I stumbled upon a remarkable quote, which was of negligible value to my class assignment, but which has stubbornly stuck with me ever since. In a case study from somewhere in West Africa, which I have not been able to find again, it was documented how a local explained to Western engineers why the renewable energy project they meticulously set up there inevitably failed. He explained as follows: “You have to understand, the old gods still rule here [in Africa].” In the years that followed, my mind has frequently returned to this quote mentioned almost in passing in an otherwise unmemorable document.
For hundreds of years, but especially in the 20th century, Western societies have been laboratories for ideologies with grand visions. The goal of these great experiments or “projects” has been to shape human societies and—fundamentally—reality itself, through a process of perpetual, linear progress, towards a state of theoretical perfection made manifest. In his famous 1974 text Live Not by Lies, Soviet dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn equates ideology with a great lie. For Solzhenitsyn, ideology is based on the false assumption that society, and even human nature itself, can be reshaped, re-engineered, and perfected to predetermined utopian specifications. In The Psychology of Totalitarianism, Mattias Desmet observes that ideology seeks to “adapt reality to theory.” On the matter of ideology, Patrick Deneen argues in his book Why Liberalism Failed:
Ideology fails for two reasons—first, because it is based on falsehoods about human nature, and hence can’t help but fail; and second, because as those falsehoods become more evident, the gap grows between what the ideology claims and the lived experience of human beings under its domain until the regime loses legitimacy. Either it enforces conformity to a lie it struggles to defend, or it collapses when the gap between claim and reality finally results in wholesale loss of belief among the populace.
In few places do the new man-made gods of ideology clash more ruinously with hard reality than on the continent of Africa. In Africa, the foundational forces of human nature and nature itself—the “old gods”—which the West has systematically sought to conquer or domesticate in its own homelands and globally, still reign and remain largely undefeated and untamed. These powerful ancient forces are capable of destroying everything man-made, but especially ideas built on foundations of comforting lies and convenient misconceptions about human nature and natural reality—much like the way nature slowly and patiently reclaims an abandoned farmhouse in the South African countryside.
The new gods of ideology have had their way with Western civilization and sought to remodel countries to their idealistic, but ultimately unattainable, image. As long as the given reigning ideology appears to be consistent with reality and creates the illusion of perpetual progress, which it relies on, its foundations built on the sandy soil of deceptive illusions are effectively obscured and remain unchallenged. It is during these times of apparent success that some might boldly proclaim history as being concluded. However, when reality inevitably starts landing critical blows and proves too stubborn to conform, like a defiant immovable object, ideology’s fragile façade starts to crack and crumble, revealing how artificial, fake, and anomalous the so-called progressive, modern societies it created really are when faced with age-old challenges.
Far away from the grand experiments of the Western world, the African continent is in many regards still closer to natural reality and human nature as it really is, as opposed to how we would ideally want it to be. In Africa, as opposed to the modern West, everything is not precariously resting on a carefully crafted artificial foundation of half-truths and even some outright falsehoods. Africa, where the old gods have little patience for the self-delusions of man, is the ultimate ‘red pill.’ In Africa, fundamental facts and basic truths lying just under a thin surface of dusty terrain are easily laid bare because they are not hidden under thick concrete layers upon layers of distortions and lies repeated over and over.
The dark continent still substantially embodies man’s eternal struggle with his external as well as his internal nature. In Africa it is more difficult to take for granted many of the simple things that modern Western societies rely on, because here you are constantly confronted with the desolation and decay resulting from their frequent and widespread absence.
Africa is still relatively raw and unrefined, compared to the modern West, which has unrecognisably refined, examined, deconstructed, and doubted many of its foundational tenets and institutions into a debilitating state of uncertainty and relativity. In Africa’s frank, untamed, in-your-face environment, utopian visions hopelessly struggle to take root and grow at grassroots level. The merciless realities of Africa not only favour pragmatic solutions, but also expose those solutions which some only champion because they have the luxury of being able to believe them. Here, necessity is thus not only the mother of invention, but also the mother of revelation.
In Africa, where there is little room for luxury beliefs, an overreliance on untested Western assumptions could end up costing you dearly. Many utopian Western ideas are imported here like luxury cars, only to spectacularly crash and burn; their wrecks, stripped for parts and scrap metal, getting eaten alive by rust in the blazing sun. The old gods of intuition and instinct still prowl the African plains. The enticing modern myth that man is a being governed principally by reason falls ungracefully, like a dictator’s statue after a violent coup, when exposed to the inherent and often overriding irrationality baked into human nature. The futility of attempting to build a perfect system, using imperfect and imperfectible parts, is in few places more evident than here.
Whereas the West today, as it increasingly secularises, is gripped by an incapacitating and hysterical fear of death—as was exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic—in Africa, one is constantly confronted by the notion of mortality and the fragile nature of that which is man-made. Spending enough time in Africa will make most come to terms with the reality of their own mortality, and how nothing they build or create is guaranteed to last forever.
Many Western cultures have reinvented themselves through adaptation to Africa. The British, for example, became Rhodesians and the Germans, Dutch, and French became Afrikaners. Even in contemporary Africa, life is still dominated by existential struggles for survival through adaptation, to carve out a present and a future, in a very harsh and unforgiving environment. Western countries, on the other hand, are mostly haunted by more abstract crises in the domain of mental health or the struggle of finding meaning in monotonous modern life.
In Africa, with its multitude of challenges, it is easier to find your calling, even amongst the ever-present dangers and dysfunctionality. In the West, there is much less danger, as almost everything functions and people enjoy safety and abundance beyond their forefathers’ wildest dreams. At the same time, however, Westerners—especially the youth—struggle with fundamental issues of identity and battle the rampant, destructive, and encroaching forces of nihilism, atomisation, loneliness, and narcissism.
In Africa, we do not have the luxury of being able to endlessly debate solutions in the realm of theory—our circumstances necessitate that we work in the laboratory of pragmatism. Ideologies are premised on the notion that if they are applied perfectly in accordance with their theory, their promised outcomes are guaranteed. The disciples of ideology, without fail, argue that if their ideology’s promised outcomes are not delivered, it is because the theory was not correctly applied. When their rain dance does not produce precipitation, they mechanically fall back on blaming the dance’s execution.
An additional, significant problem with ideology is that it is often applied under radically different circumstances and contexts, in countries far from its origin. The scars and bitter fruit of this phenomenon lay scattered all across Africa. As former Prime Minister of Rhodesia, Ian Smith, said, “It is easy, when you live ten thousand kilometres away, to prescribe solutions, knowing that if the whole thing blows up and goes sour, you do not have to live with the consequences.”
Solution-building in Africa demands the jettisoning of that which has as yet proven itself to only work in the realm of theory, by cutting our coat according to our cloth. No matter how noble or lofty, ideas in the final instance succeed or fail based on their results rather than the intentions behind them. An example of where the nature of the design favoured the conditions and realities of Africa is the AK-47. Not a glamorous or top-of-the-range weapon, but reliable under the harshest of conditions, with a simplicity-first design and cheap to manufacture. Although the AK-47 was developed in Russia, it was made for Africa. In Africa, perfect is often the enemy of good, which is always better than nothing. Chasing utopia in Africa is as pointless as running towards a mirage of an oasis in the Kalahari Desert.
This does not mean that Africa is a place where you cannot or should not dream big. On the contrary, inspiration and space for ambitious, innovative ideas are in great supply here. It is difficult to find sustainable sources of meaning in pure pragmatism—you always have to be working towards an ideal. A foundational facet of human existence has always been the constant negotiation between the ideal and the real. It is when the ideal becomes a ruthless dictator over the minds of people that man-made horrors come into the world. The unfiltered view of reality and human nature and the high price of failure, which life in Africa so often provides, ensures that few serious solutions developed here are built on foundations that are blind to the realties and limitations of man’s nature.
When we refer to Africa as one of the last frontiers, we should not use this expression with the implication that Africa is a place which still needs to be conquered. The fact that Africa constitutes one of the last outposts that has not yet been overcome by the new man-made gods of the modern West, and has not been recreated in their image, should not cause despair. In Africa, where the ideologies that created the crises of the modern West still struggle to take root, we can contribute to the preservation and renewal of some of the things in the West’s heritage which are beautiful and good. In a strange twist of fate, Africa is full of pioneers once again.