By Jack Mapanje (University of Botswana)
Who Killed Hammarskjold? The UN, The Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa. Susan Williams. Hurst & Company, London, 2011. Pp. 241. ISBN. 978-1-84904-158-4 (hb). £20.
The death of any world figure is bound to be an unforgettable event almost by definition. It is not surprising, therefore, that the death of UN secretary-general Dag Hammarskjold in September 1961 should still be talked about in the twenty first century, 50 years after the occasion. And the death of such a UN secretary-general, who supports the process of European decolonization when some European powers within the UN are reluctant to abandon their rich African colonies, can be expected to raise suspicion and controversy.
Dag Hammarskjold’s death had reverberations everywhere in Africa. In Nyasaland (Malawi) he was mourned by the nationalists who followed closely the politics of the Congo as they fought for self rule from Britain in their own country. I was a secondary school student when I heard that Hammarskjold had died. Almost everyone knew that Hammarskjold was sympathetic to the African struggle for independence not only in the Congo but throughout Africa and the rest of the third world. Rumours had it that Europeans did not want the civil war in the Congo to end because of the wealth that they would lose. So they eliminated Hammarskjold through an accident that they carefully planned.
The rumours, speculations and controversies surrounding his death have been unraveled by Susan Williams in her brilliant book. I find four aspects of Williams’ book fascinating. First, it is thoroughly researched. Second, it boldly takes cognizance of African oral testimonies which have always been neglected in such studies. Thirdly, the book is readable; the story is told in the most accessible language possible. Finally, the maps and photographs which the writer has included tell their own story of the personalities involved in the struggle for Congo’s liberation; if you know how to decipher photographs you will easily discern the truths, falsehoods, despairs or desperations on the faces of the people in the photographs.
Methodologically Susan Williams challenges scholars in African historiography who have relied on the evidence provided by white settlers and written documents in their studies. The African respondents that Williams interviewed in Zambia became prominent politicians after Zambia’s independence. They had no reason to tell lies about what they saw, heard or knew about the death of an important man with the noble intention of wanting to liberate the Congo from civil strife and colonial rule.
The reactions to Williams’ book are predictable. By December 2011 and January 2012 London Review of Books was already carrying objections and counter objections to what her research considers the causes of Hammarskjold’s death. Based on her father’s findings, Suzy Nelson (LRB 15 December, 2011) effectively asserts that her father, who was one of the technical advisers to the Rhodesian Commission of Inquiry on the death, had concluded that the crash in which Hammarskjold died ‘was the result of pilot error’. But this position does not invalidate Williams’ principle argument that this decision was reached without taking into account the oral testimonies of Africans who saw or heard the airplane crash.
When Kenyan Mau Mau fighters today are claiming compensation for the wrongs that the British inflicted on them during the colonial period, it is right that British researchers be honest and question the credence that has always been given to official documents based on European testimonies in matters that involved Africans. Williams’ inclusion of African oral testimony is, therefore, a courageous and welcome aspect of the search for truth that modern African historiography is looking to establish.
I believe that the ‘conspiracy theories’ which commentators have invoked to try and dismiss Williams’ conclusions are neither necessary nor relevant to her claims. Think of the conspiracy theories that have been provided for the airplane crash suffered by Mozambican President Samora Machel, where the truth of who did what is almost palpable. Susan Williams has done remarkable research and taken great pains to gallantly demonstrate that the UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa, directly or indirectly, caused Hammarskjold’s crash. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested of the history of the Congo and decolonization; it is very well researched, lucidly written and provides an alternative point of view to a subject that Europe refuses to claim responsibility for, when it should. The price will count for nothing if you are engrossed, as I was, in this absorbing book.
Reviewed by: Jack Mapanje, University of Botswana.
[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 74 (December 2012), pp. 91-93]