A Critical Discussion of Africa: A Voyage of Discovery – Episode 7 – The Rise of Nationalism in Relation to Academic Debates Over Nationalism in the African Context

James Halnan


Africa: A Voyage of Discovery is a series of documentaries written and presented by Basil Davidson that aired on Channel 4 (British Television) in 1984. This essay will focus on the seventh episode – The Rise of Nationalism – and evaluate its representation of nationalism and violence in several liberation struggles within Africa, and more specifically, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. This documentary is not a classic western representation of Africa. It is not essentialist of Africa and one can attribute this largely to Basil Davidson himself. Also, a decorated WWII secret agent, the journalist spent many years travelling Africa, gaining first-hand experience of liberation struggles in various African countries. Edward Said described him as one of a few western intellectuals who had “crossed to the other side” due to his comprehension of other cultures (Brittain, 2010). This essay will not, therefore, aim to find western bias in the views of Davidson but rather unravel some of the complex situations the scholar presents in this interesting and informative documentary. That is not to say that this documentary is without bias; the lack of content about divisions within nationalist movements is obvious, as is an assessment on nationalism itself. The documentary does not question the concept of nationalism, how it is created and used for a specific means. This essay will instead aim to cover areas that the documentary missed out in its somewhat narrow depiction of nationalism.

The film opens with video of African troops in WWII and Davidson talking about the war and the Atlantic Charter. The joint statement from Churchill and Roosevelt in the Atlantic Charter stated, “they respect the rights of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them” (The United Nations, 1947: 2). This would seem to set the precedent for the process of decolonisation, and a willing process at that from the viewpoint of the colonisers. The film goes on to show several different independence processes, starting in Ghana. It follows a similar trend of presentation in each country, Davidson narrating with himself on screen in the various countries. Then, interviews with different relevant people regarding their respective experiences and views on the independence struggles. It is not clear whether these interviews were conducted by the production team or have been borrowed from other sources. Included also are video and audio of what appears to be pre-WWII British television productions, talking about “men and women from the British colonies, working with us, learning from us”. These are perhaps news clips, included in the documentary to give the viewer a particular point of view, one that the British government wanted the British public to have about the colonies.

Robert Mugabe is featured twice in the film, both seemingly from the same interview. First, he appears talking about Ghana, as he worked there during independence in the 1950s. He then later appears again to talk about his own nation, Zimbabwe, and the independence struggle. Ian Smith, the then leader of Rhodesia Front (RF), enacted the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in late 1965 in an effort to ensure political control for the white minority. He appears in the documentary in an interview where he is questioned when Rhodesia will have a “one man, one vote” system. He replies, “I hope we never . . . we never degenerate to that sort of thing [one man, one vote]”. Mugabe appears again directly after this interview, justifying the need for an armed reaction to the Universal Declaration of Independence. Smith’s intransigence to allow equal voting rights is in clear juxtaposition to Mugabe’s position, forced into an armed struggle to protect their rights. It is reasonable to assume the film intends for this sequence to gain the audience’s support for Mugabe’s cause, by showing a clear and rational response to the racist and exclusionary actions of Ian Smith. However, at the time of the documentary’s release, 1984, an army unit directly accountable to Mugabe himself, the 5th Brigade, were terrorising and massacring Ndebele civilians in Matabeleland in west Zimbabwe (Eppel, 2005).

Why would the man who led his nation to independence from vicious colonisers be now terrorising his own people? To hold on to power. His position was under threat from the opposition party, Zapu. The 5th Brigade told “victims that they were being punished because they were Ndebele – that all Ndebele support Zapu” (Eppel, 2005: 45). This raises the question of how much the documentary producers knew of the then current situation in Zimbabwe. Did Basil Davidson himself, revered for his knowledge and comprehension of African societies, know and choose to leave it out? An argument the producers might make is that for every country (apart from South Africa as it was still under white rule) the focus is just on the liberation period. What one can conclude is that, like all media, the film is born out of a particular time and place. This was a time, as the film reminds us, when Nelson Mandela was in prison and had growing popular support among the British public. This perhaps shows Davidson’s personal support for liberation struggles also. Painting Mugabe as a liberator hero, a man who had no choice but to take arms against the white colonial settlers, fits very nicely into a certain narrative. Davidson says himself in The Black Man’s Burden (1992) that “African nationalism . . . has since led to plenty of horrors and miseries” (Davidson, 1992: 165). However, this was nearly a whole decade after the documentary aired. Does this show a change in Davidson’s opinion? Alternatively, perhaps the producer really did just want to show the liberation period. Another possibility is that Mugabe’s actions were just not known about yet. The only point that one can reasonably assume is Davidson’s support for independence fights.

The episode in the series of documentaries of which this essay is discussing is called The Rise of Nationalism, but the concept of nationalism is not a topic of the documentary. One needs to evaluate the concept to understand how it’s represented in the film. Crawford Young describes nationalism here:

Nationalism, as I understand it, asserts that a historically constituted human collectivity exists which has a natural claim to sovereignty and self-rule (Young, 2001: 165).

Working off this definition of nationalism, of which there are many variations, one can apply this to African nationalisms. A “natural claim to sovereignty and self-rule”  (Young, 2001: 165) can easily been seen as a major component of African nationalisms. Issa Shivji argues that indeed, “[c]entral to the early African nationalist project, as we have seen, was the right of the people to self-determination” (Shivji, 2003: 9). Colonialism subjugated the continent, and throughout the 20th century anti-colonial nationalist independence movements won African people their independence. In the film these nationalisms are represented as very strong, the leaders as liberation heroes. However, academics such as Antony Smith (1983) argue African nationalisms are weak. He maintains that African nationalisms lack the ethnic background to be strong (ibid). This is a common criticism of African nationalisms, which draws upon the fact that the borders drawn up around most of Africa were decided by colonial powers with their own motives.

One can take the Caprivi Strip in Namibia for example. Namibia resembles a rectangle (an already abstract shape for a nation) hugging the coast bar one aspect, the Caprivi Strip in the north east of the country. Its inclusion in Namibia’s territory is due to the German’s will to have access to the Zambezi river. Successfully negotiating with Britain in the late 19th century, they gained the land for their colony, German South West Africa (Jackson, 2013). What this tells us is that African nationalisms had to draw different ethnic groups together who were grouped homogenously because of colonial motivation. Different ethnic groups, many of which experienced the common colonial tactic of ‘divide-and-rule’.

To understand Smith’s (1983) criticism of why nationalisms need an ‘ethnic background’ to be strong one must address the relationship between ethnicity and nationalism. Young believes the two are “intertangled concepts” (Young, 2004: 7), which share similarities in ancestry, kinship and cultural practices. The two terms are separate, Eriksen argues, because ethnicity refers to “relationships between groups whose members consider themselves distinctive, and these groups may be ranked hierarchically within a society” (Eriksen, 2002: 7). Therefore, within a nation, and a nationalism, there could be multiple ethnicities. There could also be nationalisms within the same ethnicity also, but that is another essay topic altogether. So, if there can be multiple ethnicities within a nationalism, is it a fair criticism of African nationalisms that they lack the ethnic background? For every African independence, there must have been a nationalist movement strong enough to overthrow or convince colonial authorities to cede power. And that is what this film presents, strong nationalist sentiment and action in response to colonial dominance, with victory. So, is Smith’s argument that the lack of an ethnic grouping is a problem here valid? When one looks to the documentary for answers, it seems not. Nevertheless, one can delve deeper into the concept of nationalism and its supporting literature.

Imagine nationalism not as a group of people in the same territory with similar sentiment, but as a part of individual identity. Identities are not fixed, day to day and place to place. They are, as John Sharp (1988) argues, ‘situational’. He cites a study conducted in what was then Northern Rhodesia in 1956 about identity. The study found that although tribal divisions were important on a social basis within various towns, once people were at work they did not recognise these differences. This is because when faced with the employer, the upper white ruling class, they united against them. At home or in their social life, they identified as Bemba or Lozi, but at work, they identified as African. One can apply this mechanism of identification to African liberation struggles. United against a common enemy, colonial powers, many groups were able to overcome differences and work together to liberate themselves and their nation. Does the film represent this mechanism also?

The answer to this can be found when the film moves on to Mozambique, where Davidson was the only European to attend a congress held by the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO). The congress was called because, as Davidson says, “[l]ike other national movements in periods of great tension, FRELIMO had to overcome internal divisions in the leadership”.  Davidson tells the viewer that after days of debate, a majority ruled against any sort of compromise with the Portuguese, while a minority voted for a compromise. It is presented as somewhat straightforward, however, it still resulted in the assassination of the leader Dr Mondlane and his subsequent replacement, Samora Machel. Divisions are represented but not in detail. However, with further examination one can uncover how additional internal factionalism took place.

A man called Uria Simango had expected to be the next leader after Mondlane, but instead he was placed on the presidential council where he found himself being outvoted two to one by the other two members (Favet, 1984). He wrote an article in 1968 titled Gloomy Situation in FRELIMO that led to his expulsion from FRELIMO in 1970. The article spoke of accusations levelled against FRELIMO, which consisted of “giving instructions to kill as they please” (Simango, 1969: 128). He talks also of “a very strong feeling of sectarianism, regionalism and tribalism” (Simango, 1969: 132). These regional divisions are still relevant and alive today. Justin Pearce (2016) conducted interviews in Sofala, in the centre of Mozambique, and found people still felt strongly about Machel’s outmanoeuvring of Simango, which was “part of a pattern of southern domination over the rest of Mozambique.” (Pearce, 2016). The film simply does not represent these divisions in their entirety. That is, as the producers would argue, a harsh criticism and a difficult target to aim for when covering several countries.

Nevertheless, the fact is that the film does skip over important details. Without much prior knowledge on the subject matter of the film, one could come away after watching it and feel that the liberation wars were colonised against colonisers, or good against evil. This point is not made to try to lessen the evil of colonialism, but instead highlight the generalisation made in the film about the liberators, i.e. that they are largely united in their views. Generalisation seeps into much of western media when it comes to Africa. An article in the magazine Granta written by Binyavanga Wainaina called How to write about Africa is a great, and funny, attack on representations of Africa written throughout in sarcastic prose:

Treat Africa as if it were one country . . . . Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs, and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular (Wainaina, 2005: 92).

If one applies these ‘rules’ to the documentary one can conclude the documentary is not a perpetrator of these commons stereotypes. This is not surprising considering Davidson’s time spent on the continent and his comprehension and support for African liberation struggles. One could even contemplate that Davidson has so much support for these movements that he fails to evaluate them fully and present a fair view of them. This could be found in the positive representation of Mugabe, a known abuser of his citizens’ human rights, and the lack of representation of the factionalism within FRELIMO.

The film shows violence on multiple occasions. Violence of the coloniser and colonised alike. Referring back to Zimbabwe, where Mugabe justifies their right to arm themselves in response to the UDI, the violence of the colonised is represented to be rational and necessary for their freedom. On the other hand, the coloniser violence is represented as unprecedented and merciless. Starting in Ghana, the interviewees describe being shot at during a peaceful protest attended by veterans of the Second World War. “A soldier fell, another fell, and the third one. The fourth one, was a schoolboy”. Seconds later Davidson describes this as “a rather small colonial killing”. In Mozambique, civilians killed and injured by Portuguese troops are shown being carried between vehicles. The next scene shows the destruction of Wiriyamu, Mozambique, a town of four hundred wiped out by Portuguese air strikes. This was, Davidson argues, “a vain attempt to stop the advance of the FRELIMO’s liberation fighters”. This, in combination with the audio and brief visual of a baby crying amongst settling dust, makes these scenes easy for the viewer to sympathise with the liberation fighters.

The question is, is violence justifiable in the face of extreme violence? Martin Luther King Jr., perhaps the most famous advocate of nonviolent resistance, believed his method to be about being “nonaggressive physically but strongly aggressive spiritually” (King Jr., 1957: 1). One might be tempted to argue, what good is spiritual aggressiveness when your town is being bombed to the ground? On the other end of the spectrum is Frantz Fanon. His argument sums up the fact that colonialism itself was so devastating and so violent that an equally violent detachment from it is needed:

The violence which has ruled over the ordering of the colonial world, which has ceaselessly drummed the rhythm for the destruction of native social forms and broken up without reserve the systems of reference of the economy, the customs of dress and external life, that same violence will be claimed and taken over by the native (Fanon, 1963: 39).

It is difficult to disagree when one considers the violence shown in the documentary alone. One who does disagree though is Hannah Arendt (1970). She dismisses Fanon’s use of a biblical quote to describe the decolonisation process, “[t]he last shall be first and the first last” (Fanon, 1963: 36), saying that “[t]he point, as Marx saw it, is that dreams never come true” (Arendt, 1970: 21). No one can argue Fanon was offering an extremely simple definition or guideline for decolonisation, but for Arendt to further simplify it into a dream is unfounded. Given the way the film is presented, one can assume that Davidson, if Arendt and Fanon are on a spectrum of opinion, would be positioned much closer to Fanon than Arendt. An interview with a teacher fighting in the Zimbabwean liberation war gives the same impression that Mugabe’s interview regarding UDI does:

What can we do? . . .[Our leaders] have even gone to the United Nations . . . . They have sought all means of solving the problem . . . . No one bothered to care about it . . . . We can’t be men as we are . . . . We have to correct it . . . . That’s why we are in the forest (45: 37).

The film does not endorse violence in anyway. It shows violence from each side of the war but in such a way that one is somehow justified.

Africa: A Voyage of Discovery – Episode 7 – The Rise of Nationalism is an informative and well put together documentary. It has interviews with many relevant and important people from the period of African independence that do give real insight into events. But as this essay has shown, it comes up somewhat short due to some certain aspects. To include a concept in a title of a piece of work and not to deconstruct it is disappointing, especially a concept as interesting as nationalism. There is no challenge to the idea of nationalism, not even a brief description of what it entails. It is far too simplistic in its representation of certain events, and people, also. These criticisms aside, it raises many good points to think and argue about. To what extent is violence acceptable, particularly in the face of extreme violence? And is it even necessary and/or inevitable? And most of all it exposes, just a small part admittedly, of the absolute horror that colonialism entailed. A recent YouGov poll found that 59% of British people in their sample were proud of Britain’s imperial past, whilst 49% believed Britain’s former colonies were better off after being colonised (YouGov, 2014). Therefore, one can argue that any piece of media exposing colonial atrocities should be welcomed, to redress the balance of such views.



Eriksen, T. (2002). What is Ethnicity?. In: T. Eriksen (ed.) Ethnicity and Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives. London: Pluto Press, pp. 1 – 18.

Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.

Favet, P. (1984). Roots of counter-revolution: The Mozambique national resistance. Review of African Political Economy, 11(29), pp. 108 – 121.

Jackson, A. (2013). Bechuanaland, the Caprivi Strip and the First World. War & Society, 19(2), pp. 109 – 142.

King Jr., M. L. (1957). The Power of non-violence. [online]
Available at: http://occonline.occ.cccd.edu/online/cmcgaughey/The%20Power%20of%20Non-violence%20by%20Martin%20Luther%20King,%20Jr..pdf [Accessed: May 3. 2017].

Pearce, J. (2016). Old soldiers, old divisions are central in new Mozambique conflict. [online]. Available at: http://theconversation.com/old-soldiers-old-divisions-are-central-in-new-mozambique-conflict-62130 [Accessed: May 3. 2017].

Sharp, J. (1988). Ethnic Group and Nation: The apartheid vision in South Africa. In: J. Sharp (ed.) South African Keywords. Cape Town: David Phillip, pp. 79 – 99.

Shivji, I. G. (2003). The Rise, the Fall, and the Insurrection of Nationalism in Africa. Addis Ababa, CODESRIA East African Regional Conference.

Simango, U. (1969). Gloomy Situation in FRELIMO. Mozambique Revolution, 41, pp. 125 – 141.

Smith, A. (1983). State and Nation in the Third World: The Western State and African Nationalism. 1 ed. Brighton: Wheatsheaf Books.

The United Nations (1947). The Yearbook of the United Nations 1946-7. New York: s.n.

Wainaina, B. (2005). How to write about Africa. Granta, 92(1), pp. 92 – 95.

YouGov (2014). YouGov Survey Results. [Online]  Available at: http://cdn.yougov.com/cumulus_uploads/document/6quatmbimd/Internal_Results_140725_Commonwealth_Empire-W.pdf [Accessed: May 4. 2017].

Young, C. (2001). Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict in Africa. In: C. Young (ed.) Understanding Nationalism. Cambridge: Polity Press, pp. 164 – 181.

Young, C. (2004). Revisiting Nationalism and Ethnicity in Africa. James S. Coleman African Studies Center., 7(12), pp. 1 – 18.






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