MANDELA, MOBUTU, AND ME

A Newswoman's African Journey

By Lynne Duke

Doubleday. 294 pp. $24

Lynne Duke appears to have fallen into the hands of a bad marketing director at her publisher's, because her memoir of her years as The Washington Post's Johannesburg bureau chief is far better than its title makes it sound. Mandela, Mobutu, and Me is the sort of title that leads one to expect a soupy narrative of personal discovery built around encounters with celebrities -- perfect Oprah fodder. Instead, Duke's memoir is mainly a hardheaded analysis of events and developments in southern and central Africa between 1994 and 1998. She spices her tale with firsthand accounts of armed conflict and high-level diplomacy, and with convincing portraits of average people coping with social upheaval. And when she does turn to her sentimental education as an African-American woman living in Africa, she largely eschews bathetic epiphany, offering instead a series of nuanced and original observations that become the book's emotional core.

Africa is one of those "what is to be done?" places; it demands that the visitor not just experience it but adopt a moral stance toward it. After four years of working through the continent's issues, Duke has drawn some candid and interesting conclusions, and while one might read her book simply as a current-events primer, one would do well to read it for suggestions on how to think and feel about Africa, too.

As a current-events text, the strength of Mandela, Mobutu, and Me is its refusal to gloss over complexity. Duke's treatment of the politics of national reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa is excellent. She goes beyond the uplifting rhetoric of Desmond Tutu's "rainbow nation," chronicling blacks' muted resentment of Nelson Mandela's astute cultivation of the country's white minority. In a chapter called "Comrades and Capitalists," Duke begins with the black residents of a squatters' community called Orange Farm, who hope ANC rule will bring decent housing to replace their flimsy shacks. She then uses the derailment of the government's housing initiative as a way to chronicle the ANC's unavoidable tilt away from socialism and toward free-market capitalism, away from poor blacks and toward the white economic elite. She introduces the tiny but growing black bourgeoisie, including ex-ANC activists turned businessmen like Cyril Ramaphosa. And finally, she returns to the shacks of Orange Farm, where negligible progress on housing is slowly breeding a sense of betrayal.

Duke's account of the disintegration of Zaire is full of tales of journalistic derring-do. (In one foolhardy episode, she and a few other reporters chartered a 727 to war-torn Kisangani in search of refugees, but quickly abandoned all thoughts of journalism as they struggled to get back to Kinshasa in one piece.) But what sets her apart is the clarity with which she explains the chain of events that tore Zaire to bits. The ongoing war in Congo is too easily depicted as an impenetrable fog of tribalism, factionalism and corruption; Duke makes it seem no more difficult to grasp than World War I.

She pins the war's kickoff on Paul Kagame's Rwanda and the "postgenocidal survivalist instinct" that drove that nation to invade Zaire in pursuit of Hutu genocidaires. And she angrily punctures the Clinton administration myth that Kagame, Uganda's Yoweri Museveni, Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi and -- most incredibly -- Congo's brutal Laurent Kabila constituted a "new generation of African leader," committed to democracy and free markets. She convincingly argues that such feel-good distortions were yet another excuse for the United States to avoid taking action in Africa's continuing disasters.

Duke does consider that her ancestry and her experience of racism link her to Africa and oblige her to speak out on its behalf. Occasionally, her moral zeal drives her to bursts of naivete{acute}. She wonders why South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission could not have forced amnesty seekers to "articulate precisely what they felt about their crime." She perpetuates the weirdly tenacious hagiography of Patrice Lumumba, the erratic and inflammatory Congolese prime minister assassinated by Belgian spies and local separatists in 1961. And her prose is sometimes clumsily sentimental, especially on South Africa (though this is an occupational hazard in writing about the new South Africa, where the sight of black and white teenagers sharing a soda in a food court is liable to induce bouts of uncontrollable weeping).

But she is also alive to the complexities of her relationship to the continent, as a journalist and as an African American. Duke writes that she "cringed" at the thought that her urgent dispatches from the Zairean nightmare, meant to jolt Americans into action, might instead be encouraging the conviction that Africa is hopeless. She "cringed" again at an African-American management consultant, who wrote of his reasons for joining the wave of black Americans flocking to South Africa: "Where is the hope for us in America? We will never be in charge." "Be in charge?" responds Duke. "But it wasn't our fight, it wasn't our country. We could assist the fight [but] our color and culture did not give us the right to claim ownership of someone else's victory, of someone else's society."

That is one of the more interesting and sincere statements I have read on the relationship of African Americans to Africa. It goes far beyond Africa; it applies equally to the smugness of Americans in post-communist Prague, or even the self-righteousness of First World anti-globalization activists. It is about the complexity and danger of identifying with the struggles of other people, whether by virtue of ethnic kinship or of moral conviction. What Lynn Duke arrived at, after four years in Africa, was a certain humility -- a determination to continue supporting the claims of Africa's huddled masses, where justified, without pretending that she belonged to them, or they to her. "I am neither an Afro-pessimist nor an Afro-optimist," she writes. "Call me an Afro-realist." Duke has found herself a very suitable title; someone ought to find one for her rather good book, too. *

Matt Steinglass is a writer living in Togo.