Sunday, June 24, 2007

Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Paradise Lost or Pragmatism?

The recent journal of Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 13(1) has just been published. It contains a number of articles on the theme of forgiveness. I wrote a commentary on the various pieces entitled Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Paradise Lost or Pragmatism?. Click here to download it.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Apology over the slave trade two centuries overdue

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain, in 1807. As a result, debates are raging about what should be done and, specifically, whether the government should offer an apology.

Tony Blair has expressed "deep sorrow" for Britain's role in the slave trade and called it "profoundly shameful", but has stopped short of an official apology. Campaigners demand he goes further and that reparations are paid. But, needless to say, debates about what is to be done about slavery, especially two centuries afterwards, are complicated and emotive.

No one knows the exact number of Africans who were shipped overseas as part of the slave trade. Research puts the figures somewhere between 10-million and 28-million.

The system too was linked with wars which served as a recruiting ground for slaves, and it included deadly cross-country marches, as those captured were corralled towards harbours for export. Some estimate that a minimum of four-million people died in this way.

About 12-million slaves crossed the Atlantic or Middle Passage from Europe in slave ships alone, with a high percentage dying in dreadful conditions on the way. About 17-million slaves were exported to the Indian Ocean coast, the Middle East, and North Africa by Muslim traders too. There were also African middlemen who served as capturers and initial salespersons of slaves. This highlights the global and complex nature of the phenomena that lasted from the 1500s to the early 1900s in some countries.

That said, there is little doubt who got rich from the system, namely the Europeans. The slave trade allowed new markets to be developed, and slaves were integral to processing raw materials abroad and sparked the industrial revolution.

Cities such as London and Amsterdam were substantially built on wealth generated through trading human beings. This cumulatively created a wealth gap that persists to this day, and some argue a snowballing skills gap caused by the systematic removal of generations of the strongest and healthiest citizens from certain African countries.

But does this justify present day reparations and an apology? The main problem with reparations is the question of who should be making reparations to whom, considering all those linked directly with the system are long buried. Should the present generation of Europeans pay for the sins of their fathers' fathers' fathers? Also, not all European families were implicated in the system.

Irrespective of the slave trade, what is obvious is that structural injustice exists in the world, and this remains racialised. The enormous gap between rich and poor needs attention through debt relief and allowing better market access to developing countries, no matter how the situation came about. Where reparations and apologies are important in that they can force those who like to pretend history never happened to acknowledge it, and be a rallying point to address current social injustice.

More importantly, it is a truism that fundamental distrust exists between the haves and have-nots. This has a racial dimension too that is evident in how quickly Africans turn to issues such as slavery and colonialism to explain their current problems, and how swiftly many Europeans blame Africa’s problems on present inadequacies, such as leadership, rather than looking at historical legacies.

Apologies can be a way of building trust, a way of creating reconnection and, thus, can be instrumental in generating cooperation to overcome present inequalities.

So, as a first step, an apology is necessary because the impact of slavery remains, at the very least, in the mindsets of Africans and Europeans. The fact a debate is happening about slavery two centuries later is proof in itself of this. All means necessary are needed to shift these mindsets. So it is time those with the most power in the relationship, such as the British State and the monarchy, bite the bullet and, at a bare minimum, make an official statement.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, February 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on13 April 2007.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Time flies in a coma

Nineteen years ago, a Polish railway worker, Jan Grzewski, was hit by a train and fell into a coma. Recently, he woke from what doctors cruelly call a “permanent vegetative state”. It is remarkable to think that someone could have been asleep for nearly 20 years. Before his coma, in 1988, Poland was still communist and the Berlin Wall was its imposing iron curtain self. When Grzewski woke, he found the changes astonishing. He is quoted as saying that shops filled with food compared to communist rationing, and the excessive number of people speaking on cellphones in the street made his head spin. But he also observed that, although life seemed better, people complained just as much as before. Clearly, singer Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy, Song of the Year when Grzewski passed into his coma, had little lasting impact. In Northern Ireland and South Africa, I am constantly struck by persistent complaining.

In South Africa, I often hear people, from all different race groups, say that things were better in the past. Do people remember the past? Do you remember 1988? Let me refresh your memory – there were at least 25 major bombs that went off in 1988 in South Africa, most notably at Wits Command, killing 12 people. It was also the year the Hyde Park shopping centre, and several Wimpy bars and police stations went up in smoke. The South African Defence Force continually crossed borders that year, killing African National Congress activists in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. One such attack severely injured anti-apartheid lawyer and now Constitutional Court Judge Albie Sachs. The police detained, tortured and killed a plethora of people, too, including children. The so-called ‘Wit Wolf’, Barend Strydom, killed eight black passers-by in Strijdom Square, in Pretoria. So, 1988 was not exactly stress free.

Put in context, it is hard to argue that South Africa is now a worse place than before. South Africa, obviously, still has its problems, including ongoing violent crime and poverty. Equally, for many Poles and people in Northern Ireland, life can be harsh. But Grzewski’s observation that people complain despite positive changes is more profound than it first appears. The key to successful complaining, according to the website, (no seriously), is to be clear as to why you are dissatisfied. Grzewski is observing a general trend towards complaining for the sake of complaining, when it is unjustified and seldom specific.

So why do people complain? The answer may well depend on your socioeconomic standing and where you live, and your complaints may well be warranted if you are living on skidrow and in constant fear. Some complaining, as is often the case in South Africa, can also be politically motivated. But incessant complaining can also be the product of the forgetfulness brought on by the relentless drive towards the future, more money and being better off than the person next door. This makes us neglect the past. Most of us complain because, unlike Grzewski, who only has memories of the distant past, our most recent memories are of the present. We forget the bad old days and hone in on the problems of today. But we should spend more time remembering how appalling things were and how far we have come. In South Africa and Northern Ireland, this would make us more grateful and a lot more positive.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 15 June 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, June 1, 2007

The war and peace legacy

Being a columnist can be taxing. The relentless search for interesting topics to waffle on about is never ending. However, now and then, a week comes along where so much happens that it is difficult to decide where to start. The week starting May 7 was one such week.

In that week, the Northern Ireland peace process reached a decisive climax. Ian Paisley, of the DUP, and Martin McGuinness, of Sinn Fein, were sworn in as First and Deputy First Ministers of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The DUP, which had said that it would never sit down with Sinn Fein because it considers Sinn Fein a terrorist organisation because of its links with the Irish Republican Army, agreed to share power. In turn, Sinn Fein set aside the likelihood of a united Ireland, at least in the foreseeable future, and agreed to participate in a devolved administration within the UK.

If that was not enough, in the same week, Tony Blair took the plunge, which had been pending for months, and announced his resignation date – June 27. Of course, the two events are related. Blair chose the date for announcing his departure because it was close to the Northern Ireland deal. With his legacy literally bombed to pieces in Iraq, Blair was desperate to link his exit with something positive.

This is not to say he simply jumped on the Northern Ireland peace train at the last minute. He had played a significant role in it. He kept the peace process high on his agenda, more so than any other British Prime Minister. Shortly after coming to office, he agreed to face-to-face talks with Republicans in 1997. The last British Prime Minister to do that was Lloyd George, some time after World War I.

While Blair was waging war in the rest of the world, he visited Northern Ireland a remarkable 37 times to help ensure the peace. McGuinness, who, no doubt, still feels the British have a lot to answer for in Northern Ireland, was quoted in the Guardian earlier this year, saying: “Tony Blair and Iraq is almost like a total contradiction of Tony Blair and Ireland.”

So why the split personality? And why did he become Bush’s lackey over Iraq?

My theory is that, after nearly a decade in power, he became more concerned with his global legacy than bottom-up change. I am not sure if he even saw the full significance of Northern Ireland in his own backyard until it was all he had left.

The destruction of the Twin Towers gave him an opportunity to cement his place in history. He felt this was his Churchillian moment to be heralded a saviour of the so-called free world. He misguidedly backed the wrong horse.

In Africa, his record is mixed. He showed concern, calling the continent a “scar on the conscience of the world”. He set up the African Commission and pushed debt relief. This has had an impact; for example, debt relief in Mozambique meant half a million children were immunised.

Yet, as much as things moved under his premiership, they have also fallen short and poverty certainly ain’t history. The G8 committed itself under his leadership to a $5,4-billion increase in support to sub-Saharan Africa; since 2004, it has increased by $2,3-billion.

This is no small contribution, but it typifies his leadership style – a style emblematic of many politicians. He came to power with a populist mandate, but, over time, he lost the common touch. Blair is about vision over capability and rhetoric over delivery, and his biggest weakness is that he believes his own hype. Sometimes this pays off, as it did in Northern Ireland but, mostly, over time, it belly-flops. If you don’t believe me, just ask the average Iraqi, or next time you are in the Middle East, try to find your way with the so-called road map he helped broker.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 1 June 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.