Nuclear Africa

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July 25, 2012 by SCNCC

By Gabrielle Hecht

“Africa” has also been a fetish in Western imaginations, and for far longer than the atom bomb. Savage and starving, inferior and infantile, superstitious and corrupt—the list of pejoratives goes on and on.* The image of Africans as irrational took root in the Enlightenment and took off during the imperialism that followed. Europeans built political philosophies premised on the radical Otherness of Africans. Armed with Maxim guns and industrial goods, they saw artisanally produced African technologies as proof of a primitive existence. “Africa” became seen as a place without “technology.” Colonialism, the conquerors were convinced, would transform the continent through European science, technology, and medicine. During the decades of decolonization and Cold War, modernization theorists followed suit, updating the language and tools of the colonial “civilizing mission” but sticking to its core vision: humanity perched along a ladder of development, with well-meaning Westerners at the top and Africans at the bottom.

Such perceptions infused Cold War pop culture, which sometimes placed its atomic fixations and “savage Africa” in the same narrative frame. Uranium mines provided the most legitimate reason for setting atomic stories in Africa. In the 1953 film Beat the Devil, Humphrey Bogart and Gina Lollobrigida set off with a band of rogues to stake a uranium claim in British East Africa. An episode of the campy 1950s television series Sheena: Queen of the Jungle, set in Kenya, has the buxom heroine protecting “her natives” and a white-owned uranium mine from a nefarious prospector and his African sidekick, Leopard Man.

African jungles and feuding superpowers pervaded comic books too, merging again in stories about uranium mines found amid ignorant “natives” in loincloths. My favorite example comes from a 1954 Jungle Action comic featuring Lo-Zar, a blond, muscle-packed Tarzan clone. The lord of a remote African jungle inhabited by pygmies, Lo-Zar learns that “human beings from a red power” have invaded his “sanctuary.” “Behold, little men of the Matubi tribe,” he says after capturing a map from a red agent, “plans for the location of a new material for which rats like these invade our jungle and kill, scheme, and rob . . . Uranium!” Lo-Zar immediately knows what “uranium” means, even though the Matubi find the word “strange.” “In the world,” he intones, “there are two types of men . . . those on the side of democracies who would use it to protect their rights . . . and creatures called reds who seek destruction and terror with it!” Upon which he grabs a vine and swings off to defeat the Reds, along the way battling dinosaurs, “sentries from prehistoric ages” that signal the primitiveness of the place.

Black Africans had no agency in these narratives. Their homes were sites of Cold War struggle; white heroes protected them and their resources from falling into the wrong hands. Black superheroes didn’t achieve distinction until the Black Panther series in the 1970s, over a decade into decolonization. This time uranium was rendered as “vibranium,” which could “change the body structure of humans and transform them into living horrors.” The African kingdom of Wakanda guarded the mysterious metal. “Wakanda history is the history of vibranium,” explained T’Challa, the Black Panther’s alter ego. Wakandans “survive and prosper because they’ve never been abused.” Absent the depredations of colonial rule, they became a technologically advanced society dedicated to protecting the human race from vibranium’s harmful effects. Their goal was financed by the sale of the metal “to research laboratories for astronomical prices.” In this fantasy, Africans profited technologically and financially from their resource.

Americans might have been ready to imagine Africans as technological agents in the 1970s, but apartheid South Africa marched to a different historical rhythm. “Bantu education” sought to exclude black Africans from scientific and technological knowledge. Apartheid elites viewed their nation as the product of a dialectic: nature and geography made it African, industrialization made it part of Western civilization. Purple prose from the 1979 official history of the South African Atomic Energy Board, Chain Reaction, bore an eerie resemblance to comic book text—though the South African author was deadly serious:

In terms of human social advancement, much of the vast African continent is poor; the civilisation of today has not even reached the more remote areas and a subsistence existence is still the lot of millions of its inhabitants. But beneath the dripping jungles and the searing desert sands, in the hills and mountains and the far-reaching grassland and scrubland lie rich mineral deposits which are the envy of many nations—oil, coal, gold, uranium, diamonds, copper, chrome, cobalt and a myriad of other base, precious, and exotic minerals. . . . [T]he Republic of South Africa, with its advanced technology, is far ahead of the rest of the Continent in cataloguing and exploiting its mineral resources. . . . Although coal is believed to have been used by the Zulus several centuries ago when they exploited outcrops of it to replace charcoal for smelting iron ore, the mining of minerals really dates only from the last century; small-scale coal recovery started in the early 1800s, copper in the mid-century, diamonds nearly twenty years later and then, in 1886 came the opening up of the Witwatersrand gold fields.

After gold came uranium. In this rendition, precolonial Africa was a place without technology. Even Zulu coal use seemed a matter of conjecture, not “really” a part of the continent’s history. Only Europeans could fully appreciate the vast potential of African minerals. Mining, with its ability to generate wealth, thus figured as Africa’s historical destiny.

Scholars have fought vigorously against the fetishizing singularity of “Africa.” As historian Lynn Thomas observes, the academic field of African history “partly came into being [at the height of the Cold War] by challenging racist, teleological, and condescending presumptions embedded in . . . conceptions of the modern.” Countering stereotypes of Africa as static and tradition-bound, historians demonstrated the dynamism and diversity of precolonial polities. In the 1970s, scholars inspired by dependency theory argued that Europeans and Americans had achieved their supposedly exemplary industrialization thanks to slavery and imperialism. This exploitation, rather than any innate inferiority, explained the “lack” of technological development in Africa.

Other writers challenged conceptions of African manufacturing and agriculture as inefficient. Both before and after the arrival of Europeans, Africans made technological choices well adapted to their social and environmental contexts. West African textile industries may not have been mechanized, for example, but thanks to their materials and skills they matched or exceeded European cloth in quality. Evidence concerning early smelting and metalworking techniques demonstrates the sophistication of precolonial African innovations. Social scientists have recently begun to examine technological creativity in colonial and postcolonial times, portraying Africans as skilled in designing and re-purposing a full range of technological objects and systems, from guns to electricity meters.

Many of these insights have particular salience for the history of mining in Africa. Mineral extraction and metallurgy predated the arrival of Europeans by centuries, archeologists have shown, with gold, copper, and iron integral to political dynamics in many parts of precolonial Africa. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, however, Europeans dramatically increased the scale of mining, fundamentally transforming many African societies and landscapes. By the early twentieth century, some 200,000 men migrated annually to work in South African gold mines. Colonial states obligingly imposed taxes to facilitate recruitment, pushing millions of Africans into wage labor. Roads, railways, and ports served as symbols of the breadth of colonialism’s “civilizing mission,” but these sociotechnical systems were often designed to meet the narrow needs of mining and other colonial industries. The political, economic, and technological legacies of these infrastructures outlasted colonial rule.

The exploitation and violence accompanying these transformations are an inescapable part of Africa’s past and, all too often, its present. But Africans weren’t passive victims of mining capital. However constrained by colonial or postcolonial conditions, miners brought their own notions of collectivity and identity to their workplaces, making choices and fashioning their own lifestyles. The economic and cultural effervescence of life in the compounds enabled miners to escape total control by management, even under the repressive conditions of apartheid South Africa. Mineworkers generated new forms of gender and ethnic expression, new modes (and expectations) of modernity. In some places, the universalizing promise of “modernization” and “development” that accompanied the start of decolonization gave labor unions means of claiming political rights. All these forms of ferment varied by time and place, group and circumstance.

Demonstrating African historical, political, and technological dynamism is important for combating stereotypes about “Africa.” Yet, as anthropologist James Ferguson argues, the idea of “Africa” as a singular place persists, replete with pessimism about its technological future. Most writers on globalization omit or dismiss African places in constructing their theories of global connectivity, describing the continent as the “black hole” of the information age. Journalists follow suit, as do policy makers, financial investors, and others.

Responding to this relentless marginalization, Africanists have demonstrated how diverse places on the continent have long been connected to other parts of the world. Making such connections visible disrupts the illusion of smooth, flowing networks invoked by contemporary usage of the word “global.” Political scientist Jean-François Bayart uses the term “extraversion” to describe how Africans strategically seek international connections and resources in waging battles for sovereignty and survival. Historian Frederick Cooper cautions that appeals to “universal” values and supranational authority, though often powerful, also expose “the limits of the connecting mechanisms” and the “lumpiness” of power.

Fruitful as this scholarship has been, it has largely left unexplored the technological systems that are so often invoked by globalization theorists as the material channels for global power in the contemporary world. So while Africanists have examined technological creativity, mining’s complex history, the power of universals, and the continent’s uneven connections with the rest of the world, they have yet to put all these elements together.

Technology’s absence from analyses of African political agency, though doubtless not deliberate, makes it appear exogenous—a global force that buffets ordinary Africans and turns them into victims. Such a view makes it difficult to grasp how technological entanglements permeate industrial labor in postcolonial Africa, how these entanglements both open and close political possibilities, and how their contradictions sometimes serve as sources of hope. By exploring the political, technological, and medical life of nuclearity in Africa, this book offers purchase on such questions.

Along the way, we must also remember that discourse portraying “Africa” as a place without “technology”—a trope that says as much about perceptions of what counts as “technology” as it does about perceptions of “Africa”—has real political and economic effects. Although the continent contains more than fifty countries, “Africa” (like “the bomb”) retains its rhetorical singularity. However misleading it may be, this perception of singularity has concrete consequences for foreign investment, for diplomatic decisions, for how many Africans see themselves, and for a wide range of other things. Including some nuclear ones.

*The above piece was excerpted from Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade by Gabrielle Hecht, published in March 2012 by The MIT Press. Copyright 2012 Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All rights reserved.

Gabrielle Hecht is Associate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity after World War II (1998), Being Nuclear (2012) and co-editor of Technologies of Power (2001). Her recent radio interview “The Technopolitics of Uranium” can be listened to by clicking here.

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