Monday, 23 November 2015

Democracy in Africa – successes, failures and the struggle for political reform (one of a series: New Approaches to Africa)
Nic Cheeseman
Cambridge University Press
Pbck. £17.99

In the wake of the anti-colonial liberation movements that mushroomed in Africa from the 1960s onwards, it has been saddening and sobering to witness how almost all of the newly independent countries quickly devolved into authoritarian or military regimes. This book is an attempt to look at how and why that has happened.
            While Cheeseman gives a useful and informative overview of the changes that have taken place since independence for many African nations, he is reticent when it comes to offering a deeper analysis of why the attempts to establish effective democracy have largely failed.
            The former colonial nations, notably Britain, Belgium, Portugal and France simply drew arbitrary borders to coincide with their own commercial interests but with no justification in terms of ethnic, tribal or cultural logic. This in itself laid the foundation for future incompatibility and strife. The post-colonial rush by Western nations to exploit the recently discovered wealth in raw materials has also compounded the stifling of democracy and encouraged widespread corruption.
            Where Cheeseman is particularly superficial is in his treatment of the impact of Western and Soviet policies on Africa. He appears to suggest an equivalence in their policies; that both simply played out their ideological battles on the African continent. This is a travesty of the truth. One doesn’t have to be a defender of, or apologist for, the Soviet Union to recognise that it, together with the German Democratic Republic and other Eastern bloc countries, gave unstinting support, right from the outset, to anti-colonial and liberation movements. At that time there was little prospect of reward in terms of access to raw materials or other commercial advantage. Support was given largely for ideological reasons. On the other hand, the West – largely the USA – supported the most reactionary elements in Africa and made concerted efforts to destroy any burgeoning liberation movements which were seen as precursors of a communist take-over of Africa. Not to recognise this fundamental difference and its impact on post colonial development is to ignore a central factor that determined the processes that unfolded. It should also be noted that Western interference has continued long after the demise of the East European socialist world. The author also ignores the more recent but highly significant impact of China on Africa.
In his conclusion he examines African democratic choices as if these countries existed in a global vacuum and are largely uninfluenced by determining economic factors.
            With these important caveats, Cheeseman’s book is nevertheless a useful and important contribution to our understanding of  post colonial African developments.

About Women – photographs by Dorothy Bohm
Dewi lewis Publishing
Hdbck £30.00

Dorothy Bohm, came to Britain from Lithuania as a 15 year-old refugee from Nazi persecution. After studying photography in Manchester, then opening her own portrait studio, she went on to become one of Britain’s leading photographers and one of the founders and then associate director of the London Photographers’ Gallery.
This is a powerful selection of her photographs only of women, taken around the world – the earlier ones in black and white and then colour. She once described her work thus: The photograph fulfils my deep need to stop things from disappearing. It makes transience less painful and retains some of the special magic, which I have looked for and found. I have tried to create order out of chaos, to find stability in flux and beauty in the most unlikely places.’ What better statement of intent could there be for a true artist? And this selection demonstrates perfectly that outlook.
As an emigre I always wanted to belong, yet I felt I had to use my eyes as an outsider’, she wrote. In this collection we have photos from our own doorstep in London’s Soho and East End to Moscow in Soviet times, to the USA, Mexico, Spain and France. And the large format of the book does full justice to Bohm’s prints. It contains many memorable images of women carefully observed in their everyday lives, working, looking after children, shopping and, when they have the time, even relaxing. She is as adept using black and white or colour, in the latter loving the contrast of strong primary colours to frame the women she chooses to portray. Many of her black and white photos are reminiscent of photographers like Cartier Bresson, Georg Kertesz or Bill Brandt, but they are not imitations but always reflect Bohm’s own vision. A photography book to cherish and peruse at leisure for uplift, humour, aesthetic pleasure and hope.
            Amanda Hopkinson in her excellent introduction describes Bohm’s work succinctly: ‘she has consistently kept her eye on women, friendship and solitude; family and hard work; realism and fantasy; the effects of time and place on women’s lives are there for us all to see. In this book Dorothy reveals what we might not otherwise observe and, in sharing her vision, we look again’.  I couldn’t sum it up any better.