The creation of black victims to feed the white saviour industrial complex relies on destroying notions of African self-worth, self-determination and dignity. African states and NGOs are complicit in this practice, but Thomas Sankara
demonstrated that there is another route. Firoze Manji explains.
On 31 October 2014, Blaise Compaoré, the ruler of Burkina Faso, was overthrown by mass uprisings almost exactly 27 years after he had seized power after the assassination of his predecessor Thomas Sankara.
Burkina Faso provides an excellent case study for understanding the conditions under which the white saviour industry thrives or dies.
The République de Haute-Volta (or Upper Volta), as it was once known, obtained independence from France in 1960. This country was grossly underdeveloped, with high rates of illiteracy, infant mortality and inadequate basic social services. Highly indebted, its people had been rendered into the perfect image that nourishes the white saviour complex. As Walter Rodney described it: “A black child with a transparent rib-case, huge head, bloated stomach, protruding eyes and twigs as arms and legs was the favourite poster of the large British charitable operation known as Oxfam.”
Following a series of coups and counter-coups, Sankara and his comrades came to power in 1983, launching an extraordinary revolution. In the space of just four years, the country became self-sufficient in basic food, its infant mortality rate halved, school attendance doubled, 10 million trees were planted to halt desertification, and wheat production doubled. Land and mineral resources were nationalised, railways and infrastructure constructed, and 2.5 million children immunised against meningitis, yellow fever and measles. Furthermore, nearly 350 medical dispensaries and schools were built across the country by communities; FGM, forced marriages and polygamy were outlawed; and women were actively involved in decision-making at all levels.
In order to achieve all this, Sankara did not ask for aid. In fact, he shunned it. Moreover, he argued that the debt owed by the country was odious and should not be paid. Cotton production therefore was not directed to export but was used to support the Burkinabé textile industry. The country was notable by the almost complete absence of foreign aid agencies and their local counterparts, the development NGOs. Sankara’s assassination, supported and celebrated by France and other Western powers, brought about a reversal of all the gains of that short period.
In contrast to Sankara, Compaoré’s rule was characterised by the growth in the involvement of the transnational development NGOs and an exponential growth in the number of their local Burkinabé counterparts. The number of Burkinabé NGOs is thought to be in the hundreds, most depending on foreign aid. The government actively encouraged this growth of NGOs supported by international aid.
Heroes and victims
For saviours to exist, there must be those in need of saving – saviours require victims – and turning other humans into victims is therefore a fundamental requirement of a saviour complex. When it comes to the white saviour complex, the victim is the African, the black body. Thus, it has become conventional in the West to describe Africans only in terms of what they are not. As I co-wrote previously:
“[Africans] are considered chaotic not ordered, traditional not modern, tribal not democratic, corrupt not honest, underdeveloped not developed, irrational not rational, lacking in all of those things the West presumes itself to be. White Westerners are still today represented as the bearers of ‘civilisation’, the brokers and arbiters of development, while black, post-colonial ‘others’ are still seen as uncivilised and unenlightened, destined to be development’s exclusive objects.”
Fulfilling this image of Africa requires the complicity of the African state and African NGOs. It requires destroying the emergence of self-worth, self-determination and dignity that was the achievement of the short-lived revolution led by Sankara.
The local NGOs, whose survival is dependent on handouts from the white saviour industry, are complicit in nurturing the image of the subservient, incapable, primitive African, the victim that needs saving. The complicity of African NGOs, and indeed of some African leaders, in perpetuating a form of self-hate of the African identity, a modern manifestation of Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, is a painful and too often unacknowledged form of colonisation.
Saviours cannot thrive where a people retake control of their destinies, assert their dignity and humanity, create the structures for self-determination, organise to make collective decisions, take pride in their own cultures, and seek neither aid nor charity.
That Compaoré was deposed through mass mobilisations against his attempt to prolong his rule should not have come as a surprise; the set of conditions that has so enraged the Burkinabé are similar to those that led to the removal of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. And in none of those to date, and I would venture, in none that are to come, will we witness banners proclaiming “We want more aid” or “We want to be rescued”. What these uprisings, in Africa or beyond, require is neither rescue nor aid, but rather solidarity. Speaking to popular movements recently, Pope Francis described the act of solidarity thus: “It is to confront the destructive effects of the empire of money: forced displacements and migrations, human and drug trafficking, war, violence, and all these realities that many of you suffer and that we are called to transform. Solidarity, understood in its most profound sense, is a way of making history.”
And in that, everyone everywhere can participate.