________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 20 . . . . May 30, 2008

cover The Betrayal of Africa. (Groundwood Guides).

Gerald Caplan.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood/House of Anansi, 2008.
144 pp., pbk. & hc., $11.00 (pbk.), $18.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-0-88899-825-5 (pbk.), ISBN 978-0-88899-824-8 (hc.).

Subject Headings:
Africa-Foreign relations.

Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.

Review by Joanne Peters.

***½ /4

Reviewed from Advance Reader’s Edition.


Africa is both a continent and a universe, or, more accurately, many mini-universes. In the days when it was still considered a primitive backwater that the white world had the right to dominate, the map of the world showed Africa to be only slightly larger than Europe. This was an outright racially motivated distortion. In fact, all of Europe could fit into Africa three times over. Africa is the second-largest and second-most populous continent after Asia. It includes five time zones, at least seven climates and, despite the one-dimensional stereotypes, enormous geographical diversity. Divided into fifty-four independent countries, Africa is inhabited by some 900 million people with a wide variety of backgrounds, cultures, customs, religions, appearances, and ways of life. Even skin color varies strongly, from deep black to light brown. Countries differ wildly by size. Half of all Africans live in the four countries of Nigeria, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Africa, while many of the other half live in countries far too small to be economically viable on their own.


Clearly, there is more diversity to Africa than most of us have been led to believe. Nevertheless, most of sub-Saharan Africa (North Africa is quite a different place from the 48 countries south of the great desert) faces a number of common problems which are the legacy of its colonial past and which vex prospects for future development. Wars, food shortages, AIDS, substandard delivery of health and education services, and constant political turmoil continue to plague the greater portion of the continent, and it is the challenges faced by the sub-Saharan countries which Caplan explores in this book.

     Like other volumes in the “Groundwood Guides” series, The Betrayal of Africa presents a concise but comprehensive overview of its subject in seven highly-readable chapters. A former academic, as well as a social and political activist with a lifelong interest in and commitment to the cause of African development, Gerald Caplan is passionate about his subject and is highly convincing in advancing his argument that the western world, rather than being likely to provide a solution, is really the source of African’s problems. The chapter entitled “History Matters” provides an historical context for the challenges from which Africa has never really recovered: racist attitudes (which implicitly condoned cruel and exploitive behaviour), centuries of slave trade (which robbed Africa of an estimated 12 million people, and thus, the potential for further economic and cultural development), and colonialism (which exploited the remaining populace in a multitude of ways). Still, optimism flourished during the decades in which many former colonies sought independence from former imperial powers.

     However, in a later chapter, “The Great Conspiracy,” Caplan provides numerous examples of betrayal: “in country after country, an implicit bargain was struck between the new ruling elites and their old oppressors among Western governments, the corporate world, and the international financial institutions controlled by the West.” The new rulers, those described as the “Big Men” of Africa, typically celebrated their survival in the political arena through ostentatious displays of wealth and an overwhelmingly propensity for picking fights, either against other countries or within their own countries. As a result, the social conditions described in the chapter “Portrait of a Continent” continue unabated: urban and rural poverty remains the norm (even though western visitors stay in 5-star hotels and government officials live in luxury), girls and women are vulnerable to a variety of injustices, health and education services fail to deliver substantial improvement to the population, and AIDS is a plague which kills 44 000 weekly. 

     In Africa, it appears that, for better or for worse (and in Caplan’s view, it is definitely the latter), “ those with power and wealth determine how things will be for those without,” and currently the West continues to exert considerable influence through a variety of policies and arrangements.  China also has forged a more recent connection with Africa, although Caplan is careful to point out that his discussions as to China’s potential role in Africa’s future are somewhat speculative.

     The book ends with the author’s thoughts on “Changing Africa.” The abolition of apartheid has seen some significant changes in South Africa, and Caplan is cautiously optimistic that the gains experienced by that country can be emulated throughout the continent. However, in order for significant change to happen to the rest of the sub-Saharan nations, Western nations, and any other nation offering “help,” will have to change the way that they offer assistance, and indeed, accept some responsibility for having created Africa’s problems, as much as they have believed that they have offered solutions.

     Senior high school teachers of World Issues or Current History courses will find The Betrayal of Africa to be an excellent supplemental resource. Clearly drawn line maps, charts of statistical content, timelines of dates and events, and short reports on such topics as AIDS in Africa and the Rwandan Genocide all add to the book’s value and provide readily-accessible content to student readers. Yet another valuable addition to the “Groundwood Guides” series.

Highly Recommended.

Joanne Peters is a teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.