Our struggle for reparations is a just and righteous struggle, for it is a struggle borne out of the dehumanisation and subjugation of African peoples over the past 500 years. It is part of that long demand for justice by people from all corners of the world that arises from the brutal history, harm and human cost of enslavement and colonialism – whose legacies still influence the economic and political trajectory of countries across Africa and other territories. In engaging in this struggle for reparations, we are keeping alive memories of the people, cultures and nations that came before us – the seeds they tried to bury.
In this phase of the struggle for reparations, our generation is unapologetically pointing out historical facts and demanding reparative justice. As Milan Kundera reminds us, ‘the struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting’.
These reparations are specifically related to the epochs of slavery and colonialism, and clearly take on an economic form through elements that also comprise land reform and monetary compensation. But in as much as there exists a strong economic angle within the push for reparations, the overall struggle for reparations must be firmly anchored on its cultural, economic, and political basis. It must be wholesome.
At a future date, African people will again demand for reparations relating to the neo-colonial era.
In the neo-colonial epoch, however, our immediate task is to work towards ending this system of indirect control and domination which holds back meaningful development of our countries – the neo-colonial system. In this era, we must struggle against both internal oppression and external domination. In that scheme of action and organising, the Western world must be aware that one day after the collapse of the unipolar world order, African people and nations shall again raise their voices and fists to demand for substantive reparations relating to exploitation in the neo-colonial era and the conditions dictated by that exploitation.
Reparations do not emerge from a vacuum, or appear at the tail-end of a magical process. Reparations are the final part of a three-step process:
- A recognition and acknowledgement of the crime committed.
- An apology for the crime committed, to enable closure and healing processes.
- Payment of reparations
To this day, many of the countries that participated in slavery and colonialism neither acknowledge their harmful nature nor recognise them as crimes. But after years of demands and continued struggle by the movement for reparations, we have over the past few years seen a few ‘recognitions’.
But what exactly are these recognitions? Are they concrete recognitions, or bags of hot air?
In 2016, Robert Lambert, the speaker of Germany’s lower house, sparked a debate over the recognition of colonial era crimes committed by German troops in Namibia. Germany had for many years avoided this dark chapter of its history and defeated attempts to term the Herrero and Nama massacres a genocide – stressing that killings could only be termed as genocide if they occurred after the UN genocide convention of 1951. Germany’s reluctance to acknowledge these historical crimes arose from knowing that recognition comes with reparative and compensative responsibility.
Germany’s reluctance to acknowledge these historical crimes arose from knowing that recognition comes with reparative and compensative responsibility
Germany finally recognised the massacre of the Herrero and Nama peoples as genocide in 2021 and issued a public apology. What followed next was bizarre – Germany pretended to pay reparations, proposing to pay a sum of 1.1 billion euros through aid programmes over a period of 30 years. The deal was eventually rejected by the Namibian government after some back and forth, including the refusal of some traditional institutions to endorse the agreement.
The proposed mode of payment was not only racist, but also anchored on economic relations that have historically and presently engineered and perpetuated Africa’s dependency on Europe.
The framing of reparations is important. The word aid denotes help, not attempts at accessing and achieving justice. You do not give aid to people you massacred, you pay them reparations -which they then decide on how to put to their service and utilise based on solutions they have been part of prescribing.
The same Germany that played picky-pickey-ponkey with the people of Namibia had decades earlier paid reparations amounting to over $90 billion to the ‘Jews of Europe’ for atrocities committed against them during the genocide of WW2. It is indeed unfortunate that the question of reparations, which in the African context arises from a historical dimension based on economic and racial exploitation, can have its solutions prescribed using racial frames and logics based on colonial patterns of economics.
Dear Germany, Africa is not immune to reparations. Real reparations.
In Neocolonialism, the Last Stage of imperialism, Kwame Nkrumah reminds us that, “In fact neo-colonialism is the victim of its own contradictions. In order to make it attractive to those upon whom it is practised it must be shown as capable of raising their living standards, but the economic object of neo-colonialism is to keep those standards depressed in the interest of the developed countries. It is only when this contradiction is understood that the failure of innumerable ‘aid’ programmes, many of them well intentioned, can be explained.”
Germany has rejected calls for new negotiations, including calls from descendants of the victims of its genocide and from Namibian politicians. It insists on moving ahead with its earlier plan of a 1.1 billion Euros aid package, which Vekuli Rukoro, paramount chief of the Herrero, termed as “an insult” in 2021.
Perhaps of greater concern to Africans is the fact that throughout the process, Germany insisted on negotiating with the nation state of Namibia despite dissenting voices from traditional leaders who should naturally be at the heart of this process given that the genocides of the Herrero and Nama people were committed before the nation state of Namibia existed. These genocides were against specific peoples and nations.
How can one engage in a restitutive or reparative process using terms and frameworks set by those who committed the crime? Why would Germany insist on paying reparations through a framework that is certain to fail? Why would African people, the oppressed, be forced to accept reparations on terms determined by their oppressors, the colonisers? To engage in a struggle using terms set by the oppressor is to engage in a process that is neither beneficial nor restitutive to the historically oppressed, the forgotten humans in the slums, ghettoes, favelas and villages that define the landscape of the oppressed Global South.
Other European countries have also recently ‘recognised’ the brutal nature of their historical exploitation of Africa.
In June 2020, on the 60th anniversary of the independence of the Congo, King Fellipe of Belgium, who had denied Belgian atrocities for years, wrote a letter expressing his ‘deepest regrets for the wounds of the past’. He, however, did not apologise for Belgium’s colonial crimes. In June 2022, he again reiterated his deepest regrets while on a state visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Congolese people, in their multitudes, have been pushing and demanding for an apology from Belgium for decades. All they got was a ‘deepest regret’ from the king of a nation that to this date continues to benefit from the exploitation of the Congo.
Enough with the regrets. Where is the apology? And the reparations?
African people must remain vigilant, for it is this vigilance that enables us to arrive at the realisation that these recent events and pronouncements force the inevitable escalation of this struggle for reparations.
In October 2022, during the 51st regular session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Côte d’Ivoire introduced a motion against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance on behalf of African states.The British government, one of the largest beneficiaries of enslavement and colonialism, voted against the motion on xenophobia and racism because it was nervous that the motion would make Britain liable to pay reparations. Rita French, the UK Human Rights Ambassador soon after stated that her country voted against the call because “states are required to make reparations for the slave trade and colonialism, which caused great suffering to many but were not, at that time, violations of international law”, adding that “claims(for reparations) divert focus from the pressing challenges of tackling contemporary racism and global inequality, which are global challenges affecting all regions”.
Imagine the level of audacity it takes to talk such nonsense.
The USA, Ukraine, France, Germany, Netherlands, Poland, Czechia and Montenegro are the eight other countries that voted against the above motion alongside Britain.
Racism, a continued and living legacy of the epochs of slavery and colonialism, and everyday experienced by Africans and people of colour all across the world – whether through hostile economic architectures or through the brutal murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 – was dismissed on the basis of national liability.
But we African people, being continued bearers of the African intellectual tradition, know that legal and linguistic gymnastics do not absolve the guilty from culpability.
There are those who say we should forget the past. Or forgive. But how do you forgive a person, institution or system that doesn’t acknowledge having committed a crime – despite continuing to benefit from the initial crimes of slavery and colonialism, and despite the known presence of evidence that affirms the commitment of these crimes? On what moral basis do you ask African people to forgive the white world, yet the white world to date still benefits from structural racism and economic accumulation to the detriment of Africa and the rest of the third world?
How dare you?
With regard to recognitions, apologies and concrete steps, the Dutch government is a mile ahead of its European counterparts. The Dutch took a decisive step in December 2022 when Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte apologised “for the past actions of the Dutch State: to enslaved people in the past, everywhere in the world, who suffered as a consequence of those actions, as well as to their daughters and sons, and to all their descendants, up to the present day.”
The Dutch government has further committed €200 million to a fund aimed at raising awareness, fostering engagement and addressing the present-day effects of slavery. These funds are to be allocated to different areas after consultation with descendants and other relevant parties. Quite significantly, Rutte also announced that the Dutch government would “give the Netherlands’ role in the history of slavery a substantial place in education, as this is where young people come into contact with history”. Education on factual history is indeed important in an era where most education systems in the global North and South subject learners to a history devoid of the historical character and structure of their societies regarding relations with and exploitation of other parts of the world.
Apart from the amount which is a pittance, the recent steps by the Dutch are worthy of close observation and study over the coming years as they could potentially provide invaluable learnings to those involved in struggles for reparations. Their ‘success’ however, depends on our eternal vigilance and constant push.
Forget the Dutch. Shouldn’t Africa just focus on developing herself, as opposed to asking for reparations?
We everyday encounter those who argue that shouldn’t Africa just focus on developing herself and her people, as opposed to asking for reparations.
It is curious that these people and their grandparents neither posed such questions when it came to colonising Africa under the guise of the ‘civilising mission’, nor did they ask such questions when it came to paying reparations to the Jews or the Armenians. Their only tangible problem seems to arise from the fact that these reparations are due to Africa and African people.
This denial, in many instances, stems from a deep-seated racism and a psychological condition called cognitive dissonance. Frantz Fanon articulates that, “Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalise, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.”
Their denial of the claim of reparations arises from the fact that this particular round of reparations is being claimed by black people, the African people. They, on the other hand, rationalise themselves as descendants of the ‘civilised world’ that came here to liberate the African people from this ‘darkness’.The few Africans who parrot this stale phrase are mostly from, or descendants of, a social strata created by the colonial enterprise as salaried workers, traders and liberal professionals who Amilcar Cabral called ‘the fabricated bourgeoisie’. They either display a characteristically historical hesitation to upset the order of things, or act and speak on behalf of forces external to Africa – with the objective of protecting their class interests. The small faction within this class that has political clarity and which can be deemed as revolutionary supports our call for reparations.
A river does not stop because it has met another river, they converge. In that same flow, one struggle does not stop because another has erupted – they complement each other based on intersectionality predicated on concrete analysis of the concrete conditions. And so, we must continue the struggle to keep African countries free from both internal suppression and external domination, whilst concurrently demanding reparations.
It is very clear to this generation that our push for reparations does not mean that we are relieved of the responsibility of bettering our conditions. We must continually organise and work toward a better Africa, where we can live in peace and dignity. We must continually engage in relentless political struggle through the mass-based dimensions of our movements. We must continually organise to overthrow the economic system of capitalism that everyday exploits our people and motherland.
A Luta Continua!