Thursday, November 3, 2011

You Can Pay for This Camel by Visa, Mastercard, or Sheep

In the 1950s, when it was clear that the British Empire was winding down and would take their country with it if they weren’t careful, the white Rhodesian government decided on a policy of not being South Africa. The reactionaries on their southern border had different pay scales for each race, but Rhodesia would have equal pay for equal work. Blacks could vote in Rhodesia, if they met the education or salary requirements. When journalist Denis Boyles went to Zimbabwe in the ’80s and asked a white old-timer what he’d thought of apartheid, the man said, “Whose apartheid? There’s apartheid in South Africa. We have never had apartheid here.” An all-white government and de facto segregation — sure. But the idea was to stay three ticks more progressive than South Africa, try to build up a black middle class, and pray that England would trust the white government’s good faith and leave them alone. “Equal rights for all civilized men” was the plan. For a number of reasons, it didn’t work.

Anthony Daniels (a.k.a. Theodore Dalrymple), who worked in a Rhodesian hospital in the ’70s, can think of at least one reason that equal pay failed to yield much of a black middle class:
The young black doctors who earned the same salary as we whites could not achieve the same standard of living for a very simple reason: they had an immense number of social obligations to fulfill. They were expected to provide for an ever expanding circle of family members (some of whom may have invested in their education) and people from their village, tribe, and province. An income that allowed a white to live like a lord because of a lack of such obligations scarcely raised a black above the level of his family. Mere equality of salary, therefore, was quite insufficient to procure for them the standard of living that they saw the whites had and that it was only human nature for them to desire—and believe themselves entitled to, on account of the superior talent that had allowed them to raise themselves above their fellows. In fact, a salary a thousand times as great would hardly have been sufficient to procure it: for their social obligations increased pari passu with their incomes.
As long as a black professional felt obliged to split his salary with his extended family, his standard of living would not improve. And without a black middle class that preferred stability to violent revolution, Rhodesia was bound to fall to black nationalism. Of all the problems facing Rhodesian politicians who wanted to preserve their country, this was one of the most urgent. 

I bring up Daniels’s observation to introduce this story from a biography of Lord Delamere, the man who invented Kenya. Delamere is trying to buy camels from some tribesmen who are very particular about the form of their payment:
The Rendile, a Somali tribe driven far west at some distant date by fiercer clans, were reluctant to part with their camels at all, and would in no case exchange them directly for cloth. Sheep had to be traded for cloth, and then a suitable number of sheep exchanged for a camel. They would not hear of doing the deal in one. 
When Delamere pressed for an explanation, the Rendile said that if a man received the quantity of cloth which would be paid for a camel, he would have a considerable surplus over his own wants and he would be forced to share this out among a large body of friends and relations. Thus he would have lost his camel and only retain about a sheep’s worth of cloth. But if sheep were bought separately from different men, and the owner of the camel received in payment a dozen ewes, no one would attempt to take his sheep. 
For livestock came into quite a different category from trade goods in the native mind. They were wealth — with wives, the only real form of personal wealth — and were sacred, but luxuries such as cloth and beads were, so to speak, windfalls and, within limits, must be shared.
Pay a man in beads, cloth, or some other luxury — “so to speak, windfalls” — and he has to share with everyone, even if you were buying his own camel and no one else’s. But certain forms of wealth can be accumulated without any social penalty. 

Obviously, Rhodesia was two thousand miles from the nearest Rendile tribesman, and I am not even sure that this principle could have had any real applications. (Paying black doctors in non-transferable perks like housing, club memberships, and discounts at the tailor’s?) But it’s worth thinking about the next time you try coming up with counterfactual scenarios where African colonialism survives to the present day. You know, at parties.

By the way, I mentioned Denis Boyles earlier — it was his book African Lives that got me beguiled by Rhodesia in the first place. I will always remember the Nadine Gordimer quotation he cites in that chapter: “One of the most stupid things whites ever did in Africa was to make the bar the first place where they would mix with blacks socially, and drinking the first pleasure to be openly shared by black and white. Almost without exception, the scattered incidents of violence that are occurring in the new state . . . happen in the vicinity of bars.”

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