As Martin Plaut leaves the BBC, having have been working on Africa since the 1970s, he looks at the continent of his birth and says he sees a brighter future than at any time he can remember.
Johannesburg, June 1976. I was a student at university when the first reports came through of black school children clashing with police in Soweto. As the number of dead mounted we marched into town – only 50 or 60 of us at first, but joined by men and women, who poured out of offices and building sites. Within an hour we had thousands behind us.The real clashes were in Soweto itself – miles from the calm streets of downtown Johannesburg. Back at the university residence, friends were being issued with army rifles. ‘Would you shoot me?’ I asked. They didn’t answer.It is easy – looking back – to forget just how much has changed. Apartheid was still strong – very strong – back in the late 1970s. The Portuguese empire had only just collapsed. Zimbabwe was still Rhodesia. South Africans were fighting in bush wars all across the region. Friends were ‘up on the border’ as they used to say, doing military service. It seemed that the killing would never end.I left for London, working on Africa, first for the Labour Party and then the BBC. Decolonisation was still very much a live issue.Most of independent Africa was little more than a decade old. But already optimism was ebbing away.
Men like Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seku and Nigeria’s Sani Abacha stripped their countries bare. There were dangerous buffoons like Uganda’s Idi Amin and Bokassa of the ludicrous Central African Empire. We laughed, but they were killers. The shine had come off the brave hopes at independence.
But moving swiftly on, we find a new era at hand – and a much brighter outlook. The old deference for African leaders has been stripped away. The Organisation of African Unity is now the African Union – still weak, still shambolic, but struggling to reform itself.
It’s a long hard road and it has only just begun. But apartheid is over, colonialism is a memory and morale and optimism are on the rise. Africa has come a long way in the last 36 years.