Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Enduring Colonialism?

Over the past year there have been a number of historical commentaries in the mainstream press that endeavour to explain the philosophical underpinnings of such movements as Black Lives Matter and Rhodes Must Fall. Some are more convincing than others. One account that caught my attention was Simukai Chigudu's 'Colonialism had never really ended': my life in the shadow of Cecil Rhodes', with much of which I had no quarrel but which at times suffered from the same Manichaean tendencies that inform commentary of this kind. A month ago I wrote to Dr. Chigudu, assuming that, as one scholar to another, a conversation might develop that would be mutually beneficial. Since no reply has been forthcoming I must assume that Dr. Chigudu sees nothing worthy of a response, so I am posting it here.

Sent: 16 February 2021 09:41
To: simukai.chigudu@qeh.ox.ac.uk <simukai.chigudu@qeh.ox.ac.uk>
Subject: My life in the shadow of Cecil Rhodes
Dear Dr. Chigudu,

I found the account that you provided to the Guardian most thought provoking. It has taken me a while to compose this, but, wearing my historian's hat, I thought I should articulate some of the concerns that it provoked in me.

One of the problems that I have with the narratives of institutional racism and white privilege that have arisen of late is the way in which they interrogate the past by the standards of the present and, at the same time, treat current mores as if they were indistinguishable from those of sixty years ago. The idea that some of my white working-class neighbours (I should note here that my background is certainly economically privileged) in the Northeast enjoy "white privilege" as compared with, for example, the present MP for Spelthorne (whose middle-class background is undoubtedly privileged) bears little relation to reality and I would further point out that in 1975 - when Kwasi Kwarteng was born - no Home Counties Conservative association would have considered adopting a candidate of colour, regardless of his or her political views. Does that mean that the UK is free from racism? Far from it, any more than it is free from ageism or prejudice against those with unpopular religious convictions (Muslims and traditionalist Christians alike), but that makes it no more institutionally racist than it is institutionally anti-religious.

Your thoughts on the situation in Zimbabwe inspire me to take the issue a little further. My understanding was that with the Lancaster House Agreement, Robert Mugabe reached an understanding with the white minority by which he secured to them their economically privileged status in exchange for a gentleman's agreement to stay out of politics and ensure that Zimbabwe remained the breadbasket of Africa, securing Zimbabwe against fifth columnists as it transitioned from an ally of South Africa to a frontline state. That state of affairs remained in effect until the 2000 referendum, which the MDC opposed less on the grounds of land reform than on the new powers assigned to the executive. You state at one point in your narrative that "Little to nothing was said (in the early 2000s), in the media or elsewhere, of Zimbabwe’s colonial legacy, or of the suffering of Black people under Mugabe’s regime." I can't speak with confidence to the first point, but reporting of the use of terror by the war veterans knew no colour bar and an event like Operation Murambatsvina did draw attention.

You also mention your learning for the first time of Gukurahundi. In recent years many negative aspects of postcolonial Africa (from the Rwanda genocide to Nigeria's Special Anti-Robbery Squad) have been explained with reference to colonial failings, and yet there are African states that have - for the most part - handled multi-party democracy well for most of their post-colonial history (Senegal and Botswana come to mind). Equally, the tradition of strongman politics seems to take a long time dying; I can remember in the early 1990s Frederick Chiluba vanquishing Kenneth Kaunda at the polls and almost immediately thereafter going after political opponents much as Kaunda had done in his political heyday - plus ca change. And then there are the tragedies like Gukurahundi that seem to defy easy explanations of a colonial legacy. I suppose one could argue that where colonial administrators played off one ethnic group against another, such animosities might subsequently spill over into violence, but was not Gukurahundi an attempt by Mugabe to eliminate the only alternative ethnic political power base (the Ndebele) in Zimbabwe? The fact that North Korean mercenaries were employed to do it speaks volumes. The remark of the Balliol academic that you quote was certainly obtuse (and unworthy of a scholar), particularly to someone whom they did not know, but I could have imagined saying much the same about the politics (and politicians) of Northern Ireland in the past (and even today). It doesn't have to be an expression of derision so much as one of despair. Look at the recent metamorphosis of Ahmed Abiy or the police state that is Eritrea. How do you fix that may not be the most delicate of questions, but one can surely not deny that something needs fixing? If the West tries to act (except in the case of apartheid, of course) it's denounced as colonialist, if it holds off, it's denounced as indifferent.   

I have never set much store by statues myself (except where the individual in question is of historical interest to me), but I can appreciate that some feel differently. The recent trend towards iconoclasm typified by Rhodes Must Fall, however, makes me uneasy. It seems to be driven by the same impulse to obliterate the past that you so eloquently document in discussing Rhodes's insistence that the Great Zimbabwe statues were not African in origin. Doubtless you would insist that the place for contextualizing such statues is in a museum not in the public square, but the truth is that iconoclasm rarely stops with the great offenders. We're already seeing a drive to eliminate public representations of many who have been found to offend against present-day orthodoxies of one sort or another and I see no signs of this trend relaxing. Far more efficacious is the erection of new statues that celebrate those previously excluded from the pantheon, and the introduction of suitable contextualization for those already on display. Human history is, ultimately, an exercise in documenting the interplay of darkness and light, of the demons and angels of human nature, as indeed your article makes very clear.

Sincerely,                  Jeremy Bonner            

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