Official remedy needed over colonialism

It is one thing for the official representatives of a State to give an apology for something a State has done in the past, even though they themselves personally either had nothing to do with those reprehensible actions, or were actually opposed to them. They now represent that State, or church, and so claim a continuity with those who in the past committed evil deeds.

Thus formal apologies have been given by both the modern democratic governments of Germany and Japan for brutal actions committed by fascist warlords before and during the Second World War.

But individuals who claim no such continuity, and who have done no evil themselves, have nothing to apologise for. Thus the Archbishop of Canterbury, for example, could apologise for his Anglican church’s record on colonialism in the 19th century when British bishops, at best, tended to remain silent about what was happening in Africa or, at worst, positively backed the “civilising” mission of colonial conquerors like Cecil John Rhodes. But an ordinary modern British Christian can only apologise for what he has done, or not done.

What is more critical than apologies, which may or may not be sincere if they are given by political leaders, as a lot of recent argument in Japan highlights, is an awareness of an awful history and a determination to do something about it.

Some very clear thinking has been done on this subject in Germany, vis-‘-vis the Holocaust and the Second World War. No German under the age of 80 can bear any responsibility for either, and suicide, hangings and old age have taken away the principal leaders of the atrocities. But there is a mainstream realisation in Germany that the country has to be aware of its history, has to be sensitive to others’ feelings about that history, and has to show that the modern Germany is different and can be a decent country. This goes beyond mere talk. There are big things, like special aid programmes. And there are little things, like a law that permits any Jewish person, anywhere in the world, to settle in Germany if they so wish. And there is an attitude that such horrors must never happen again.

Some might say, and probably correctly, that Germany is more concerned with its Hitlerite past in Europe than its Imperial past in Africa, but we feel the approach is the correct one and simply needs to be extended, rather than reinvented.

What is required in Europe’s relationship with Africa is a change in attitude, along with recognition that the two continents share a history that was quite dreadful. The horror was not all one-sided. There were far too many Africans willing to collaborate with European slavers and colonisers, but in general Africa was the suffering continent and Europe the continent that imposed the suffering.

Any change in the relationship has to start from that point, and then move ahead. Most former European colonial powers have made a half-hearted attempt to change, hence the money pumped out in aid programmes.

What is needed instead is recognition that a more profound change is needed. Formal State apologies would be useful to show that there has indeed been a change, but these would be considered somewhat hypocritical without action.

The action has to be centred on a willingness to grant equality. This would involve major actions, such as opening closed markets to African goods and services; it would involve recognition that Africa is, indeed, entitled to veto-power seats on the UN Security Council; it would involve recognition that the descendants of those deprived of land or other resources were entitled to have that land back.

A new start can be made, but it cannot be made in a vacuum. The past will continue to intrude until there is a joint recognition that this history did happen and must not happen again.

September 2006
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