12 June 2005

Toward an African Renaissance

Common Sense
John Maxwell

I have been invited to take part in a conference, mainly of scholars, to attempt to formulate a world view for Africa and the African Diaspora. The conference, being held in Tshwane, the city formerly known as Pretoria, is a project of the Centre for African Renaissance Studies at the University of South Africa.

To take part in this assemblage, for this purpose at this time is, for me, a transcendent honour. Four decades ago, as editor of Public Opinion I published Nelson Mandela's speech in his own defence to a charge of treason against Apartheid. I published it then in a forlorn hope that one day, some day, Mandela would be freed from prison and that one day, some day, the people of South Africa would regain their freedom and their dignity.

For a long time that did not seem remotely possible. I remember interviewing James Callaghan, then deputy to Britain's premier Harold Wilson, at the 1975 Commonwealth Heads of Government conference. Callaghan was positively rude when I asked him why Britain did not abrogate its Simonstown agreement with South Africa. Britain, I said, was aiding and abetting a crime against humanity.

Ten years later, President Reagan was still welcoming Jonas Savimbi of Angola to the White House and the Congress of the United States was refusing to join in sanctions against South Africa. The enemies of the regime were, according to American leaders, terrorists. Less than 10 years after that, Mandela was free and shortly thereafter the South African people recovered their human rights and their country.

Norman Manley did not live to see that day, but he was one of the first allies of Mandela, Luthuli and company when in 1958 he banned trade with South Africa. The British, then colonial landlords of this place, told Manley he could not do that. To which Manley's answer was the equivalent of the one-fingered salute.

So, now, the times have changed and people like me can freely enter South Africa and salute its liberty.

Many of us believe that African slaves were drawn only from West Africa. In fact, the slave trade was a war against all of Africa, and people were sucked into this voracious maelstrom of the Middle Passage from all over Africa. A few years ago, an English DNA researcher discovered that one of his secretaries, a Jamaican woman from St Elizabeth, owed her mitochrondial DNA to the Kikuyu at the other side of the continent.

Slavery was not simply a crime against Africa and Africans, it was the first crime against humanity. It devastated civilisations in Africa and in the 'New world', looted the history and the wealth of hundreds of nations, depraved and dehumanised people and left as its legacy the lasting libel that black people are unable to run their own affairs.

The now rampant neo-fascist apologists for so-called neo-liberalism are in direct line of moral descent from those who petitioned Pope Nicholas V in 1454 to sanction the slave trade between Portugal and Africa. Then, in 1493 Pope Alexander VI issued this bull: granting to Spain the same privileges his predecessor had to Portugal.

In the words of the Pope, Spain now received "full and free permission to invade, search out, capture and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities and other properties, and to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery".

In the generations following, learned discourses defended the system of slavery, particularly of blacks, because according to these early capitalists, blacks were not quite human and required leadership and instruction. Real humanity was the property of the Portuguese, the Spanish and later the English who the Iberians then considered pretty barbaric, if not actually barbarians.

Our slavery started with Columbus, who had been a slave trader in Africa and who wrote in his journal about the peaceful 'Indians' he had found in the Bahamas. According to him: "They are fit to be ordered about and made to work, to sow and everything else that may be needed. Nothing was lacking but to know the language and to give them orders."

In 1839, 300 years after Pope Nicholas, Pope Gregory XVI declared: "with profound sorrow - there were to be found. among the faithful men who, shamefully blinded by the desire of sordid gain, in lonely and distant countries, did not hesitate to reduce to slavery Indians, negroes and other wretched peoples, or else, by instituting or developing the trade in those who had been made slaves by others, to favour their unworthy practice."

The American fixation on the inferiority of blacks had its justification in greed - the desire for super profits from the plantations of cotton and rice and later sugar. The titration of humanity continued into the American Revolution, which after grave deliberation, decided that blacks were three-fifths human, or just 10 per cent away from apes.

But while the Americans were calculating how many capitalists could dance on the head of a peon, the slaves of Saint Domingue, the world's richest colony, rose up, abolished slavery and chased the slavemasters away.

Unfortunately for them, they did not chase all of the slavemasters away, and out of the spawn of those arose in Haiti a small group of rich, light-skinned people - the elites, whose interests have fitted perfectly into the interests of the racists in the United States.

Between them, last year, on the second centenary of the abolition of Slavery and the Independence of Haiti, those interests engineered the re-enslavement of Haiti, kidnapping and expelling the president and installing in his place a gang of murderous thugs, killers, rapists and con-men.

An American named Luigi Einaudi, deputy secretary-general of the OAS was pleased to declare a short time before that usurpation of democracy, that the only thing wrong with Haiti was that it was being run by Haitians.

It was the first time in nearly 100 years that this was the case, the Americans having occupied Haiti for 15 years to 1934, and leaving behind them puppets whose corruption and wickedness flowered into the Duvalier dictatorship of father and son. This arrangement suited the Americans quite well until the Haitians rose up and threw out 'Baby Doc' Duvalier in pursuit of freedom.

The Haitians did not get much of a chance to enjoy that freedom. The leader of their struggle, a priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was elected president only to be overthrown before halfway through his term.

He was restored with American troops, not before a black American leader had energised President Clinton by beginning a fast unto death. Randall Robinson, who undertook that fast, is one of the participants in the Tshwane conference. I look forward to meeting him.

Robinson is an American hero, driven from his native land by its hypocrisy, hysteria and greed combined with a dispassionate inhumanity. His book published earlier this year by Penguin is titled Quitting America. It is much more than about quitting America. It is also an elegiac appeal for us to recognise our common humanity and our duty to our brothers.

In America this week, the Senate, after 30 years of appeals by Afro-American interests, will formally apologise for taking so long to pass a law against lynching. That same Senate, after two years of bullying by the president and his claque, approved the elevation of Mrs Janice Rogers Brown, a judge of California's Supreme Court to the Federal Appeals Court in Washington, D C.

Mrs Brown is black and, in my view, typical of those who, like the African slave catchers in Africa, colluded with oppressors against their own real community interest in the hope that by feeding their friends to the crocodiles they will not be eaten.

"If we can invoke no ultimate limits on the power of government, a democracy is inevitably transformed into a kleptocracy - a license to steal, a warrant for oppression."

She seems blissfully unaware that she is in fact describing her own Government, led by people like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush, who have demonstrated no commitment to human rights and freedom but have instituted the rule of an oligarchy, by the oligarchy, for the oligarchy. How would Mrs Brown deal, one wonders, with someone described by the Bush Administration as that legal fiction an 'unlawful combatant'?

Mrs Brown is against such things as affirmative action, but she is for recognising commercial enterprises' right to free speech, as if they were human. "In the heyday of liberal democracy, all roads lead to slavery," she has warned.

In her speeches she has argued that society and the courts have turned away from the founders' emphasis on personal responsibility toward a culture of government regulation and dependency that threatens fundamental freedoms.

They are also turning away from the definition of blacks as part human, but that does not apparently concern Mrs Brown. In the gated democracy of which she is now a gatekeeper, it would be interesting to hear her views on what her own prospects would now be as a sharecropper's daughter without the protection of the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action.

This would be especially poignant in the new world created by the neo-liberal counter-revolution. In this world, the rights of workers and the poor are being taken away, they are getting poorer while the rich are getting richer and even less accountable.

According to the New York Times' interpretation of the latest American income statistics, after the Bush tax cuts, the only taxpayers whose tax liabilities declined were those in the top 0.1 per cent, that is, one-thousandth of the taxpaying cohort. According to the New York Times: "The average income for the top 0.1 per cent was $3 million in 2002, the latest year for which averages are available. That number is two-and-a-half times the $1.2 million, adjusted for inflation, that group reported in 1980. No other income group rose nearly as fast.

The share of the nation's income earned by those in this uppermost category has more than doubled since 1980, to 7.4 per cent in 2002. The share of income earned by the rest of the top 10 per cent rose far less, and the share earned by the bottom 90 per cent fell.

The Times analysis points to an increasing tendency for the state to operate quite specifically on behalf of the rich and to pauperise the poor. This is precisely the effect that globalisation is having on the rest of the world.

In Africa, that means that hundreds of children die every day from starvation or gastroenteritis because their governments cannot afford to train or pay doctors or to provide clean drinking water.

Yet Africa, according to the World Bank's 2003 Global Development Finance report, is the land of opportunity, offering "the highest returns on foreign direct investment of any region in the world".

One question I intend to pose is why Africans should not share in their own wealth and why the shares should be decided by people in boardrooms in New York, London and Zurich?


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