This is the first of a series by Clive Samvura on the case for reparations and compensation for slavery and colonialism. Clive discusses how African States can bring a collective action and finality to their just claims for reparations and compensation for slavery and colonialism, and more importantly how much is due.
History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.
I WOULD like to start an open and frank discussion on an issue which I firmly believe needs final closure for once and for all, which is reparations and compensation due to Africans for slavery and colonialism. With Africa on a slow economic growth path, I believe this can be accelerated by investing much-needed capital in industrialisation and injecting capital into the highly labour productive sectors. One obvious source of capital is through the reclamation of reparations.
Under the international laws of today, crimes against humanity have neither statute nor limitations. Slavery and colonialism are by far the greatest crimes against humanity ever committed and under today’s “International Laws” would undoubtedly tick all the boxes for what falls under the legal definition of genocide or holocaust. Not only did slavery and colonialism dehumanize and disenfranchise a whole continent and race of people, but they resulted in the current unjust enrichment of some at the expense and unjust impoverishment of others.
Contemporary racists will ostensibly and articulately argue that slavery and colonialism occurred hundreds of years ago and that they cannot be held accountable for the sins of their forefathers. Of course you can understand their point of view as for many of today’s people of European descent slavery and colonialism is little more than an unpleasant memory of a bygone and distant era; largely remembered more for the glory of empires lost and faded dreams of conquest and exploration.
For many Africans (and African Americans), however, the opposite is true as slavery and colonialism remain an unhealed wound that is frequently, if not constantly, reopened by feelings of continued oppression, manipulation, and discrimination. These disparate views were first brought to the fore at the U.N. World Conference against Racism (WCAR), held in Durban, South Africa in September of 2001. The conference was expected to be a celebration of global tolerance and diversity and was intended to showcase a new global community, characterized by a sweeping moral commonality on human rights issues and a condemnation of the now supposedly universally-recognized reprehensibility of slavery and colonialism. Delegates from the Western states expected to revel in the moral progress that the international community had made since the earliest days of the League of Nations.Advertisement
They had a rude awakening. What they found, instead, was an atmosphere of divisiveness that threatened to undermine the entire Conference. European delegates were dismayed by lingering resentment over slavery and colonialism. Rather than easily passing a resolution against race and gender discrimination, the delegates were faced with the possibility of being condemned for centuries of slave trading and colonialism. Ultimately, the WCAR served not as a shining example of global unity, but as a reminder of the deep-rooted divisions that continue to plague the international community, because hatred has been the inevitable aftermath of slavery and colonialism.
The question therefore should not be “Is there a case for reparations and compensation for slavery and colonialism?” as it is self-evident that from a moral point of view, there is a case to answer. The question should be “How can African States bring a collective action and finality to their just claims for reparations and compensation for slavery and colonialism, and more importantly how much is due?”
Pick a number
In 1999, the African World Reparations and Repatriation Truth Commission called for “the West” to pay $777 trillion to Africa within five years for slavery and colonialism. The world’s GDP is $70 trillion today, so this would take a quite few years to pay off and hence the reluctance to an admission of guilt by the US and European countries involved.
But my question is “Where is the unity of purpose amongst our African leaders in uniting and calling for these due payments of reparations and compensation for slavery and colonialism”? Whilst most of the heads of most African States may be the most corrupt, greedy and indifferent leadership you could ever wish upon any continent, surely this is not a hard case to argue which, even they, should be able to manage. This issue cannot be taken up by private commissions or civil society, it needs to be taken up by the heads of African States in a collective case and brought before the UN General Assembly for discussion and an eventual resolution. They need to forward the relative motion.
The most obvious reason as to why this may not have been previously raised is of course because there is no political will and a general disinterest from the powers that be in most African States. They are more interested in retaining power at all costs and in their own general self-preservation. The other reason is that the perpetrators still hold all the cards, and have now put laws in place on a national and international level (mainly through the UN) to ensure that they could never be held legally liable for reparations and compensation, or so they think.
Slavery and Colonialism the twin evils
As I highlighted in my previous article https://www.newzimbabwe.com/columns-14474-Refocussing+tourism+Great+Zimbabwe/columns.aspx western civilisation was invented by black Africans in ancient Egypt and Africa has driven global economic growth for centuries. African natural resources, labour, land, slavery and skilled émigré – as any decent economic historian will tell you – have fuelled the world’s economy for many, many decades. To this day, Africa is the world’s engine-room for growth. That Africans know that there are immense riches just beneath their feet as well as just above their heads in High Office, only adds to our burden.
Under slavery and colonialism, Africans were stripped of absolutely everything and forced down gold mines and onto rubber plantations. The naked theft of African resources continued ravenously throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and still continues today through the under-pricing of our commodities on the global market. The theft of African resources culminated from the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884, where Europe gleefully divided up Africa and formalised the “Scramble for Africa”.
There is a very clever argument made by contemporary racists, which seems to have gained ground and taken a foothold. They argue that Africans were complicit in the slave trade and should therefore be equally held to account. Let’s analyze this hypothesis for a second and see if it holds up under closer scrutiny, as parallels can be drawn from the slave trade system as it was then, and how Africa is being exploited today. Under the Atlantic slave trade it was the king and a few noblemen who would benefit from the slave trade in their respective kingdoms whilst the majority of the Africans would be subjected to civil wars, disease, famine, social disintegration and economic decline, with the added bonus of being sold into slavery.
How little has changed since then. The irony is blatantly obvious in that some Africans will now risk life and limb to travel to those same foreign lands that we were previously shipped to, after being kidnapped and sold into slavery. Despite the historical injustices suffered under the evil twins of slavery and colonialism we are still treated with contempt till this day. Almost every African country has a kleptocratic government, with a few degrees of separation between them, where only a handful of well-connected individuals enjoy the wealth whilst the majority of the masses continue to wallow in unrelenting, grinding, abject poverty; “nhamo ine nharo zveshuwa”.
So the argument that Africans in general were complicit should be seen in its real perspective, and trying to apportion blame to Africans in general is being insincere and simply trying to divert attention from the real issues at hand. The slave trade benefitted a handful of Africans, whereas it had the opposite effect of benefitting the entire economies of the USA and Europe. It underdeveloped Africa and fuelled the USA and Europe’s industrial revolution, these are the disparate realities of the matter so this argument should be treated with the contempt it deserves and shoved down the throats from whence it came. If these unAfrican kings and nobles who sold off their fellow Africans were alive today they would have been indicted by the ICC and we would be baying for their blood.
Then we have the feeble nonsensical argument that colonialism in fact provided Africans with infrastructure and development, and that without this we would never have developed. Really?! Europe and Africa were on par development wise when slavery began in the late 1400s, so why did some develop whilst others were deliberately underdeveloped? These kinds of arguments are believed by the intellectually challenged. Are some African countries not using their resources and exchanging these for infrastructure projects with China in this day and age? Why was this not possible then? Some would argue that current deals are heavily tilted to the Chinese; I agree but I’m making an argument for how our infrastructure could have been developed had we all treated each other as equal partners. And those intellectually challenged Africans also probably believe that the infrastructure was built for the benefit of Africans under colonialism?
Keep your Britain and I’ll keep my Zimbabwe … Tony Blair with Robert Mugabe