Rueful clergy wrong crowd – Debate over repentance mission

Some four decades ago, El-Hajj Malik al-Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X, expostulated that it was difficult to feel any kindred feeling towards liberals who made declarations of sympathy and comradeship with suffering Black people.

His exact words were: “When someone sticks a knife into my back nine inches and then pulls it out six inches they haven’t done me any favour. They should not have stabbed me in the first place.”

The revolutionary leader added that even if the oppressor pulled the knife out totally, there would remain a wound that would, with time, develop into a scar: a permanent reminder of the hurt and the injustice.

Recently, this statement came back to the fore when a visiting delegation of European and American Christians came to Zimbabwe to “apologise for slavery and colonialism in Africa”.

Chris Seaton, the chairperson of the European African Reconciliation Process and the director of Charity of

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Peace Works, made several impassioned pleas for the two continents to heal the wounds inflicted on the so-called Dark Continent over a period of centuries.

However, some observers pointed out that these pleas and prayers, while “psychologically and spiritually good do not contribute much to the re-development of Africa as they did not include the most important co-players in Africa’s under-development – the business and political leaders of Europe and America”.

Wrapped in a Union Jack – the British flag that for close to a century fluttered across Zimbabwean skies in total defiance of the basic creeds of peaceful co-existence and the right to self-determination – Seaton said: “We have come to Africa to apologise and to confess our sins and seek repentance and reconciliation to our African brothers.”

The ‘confessions’ were made before hundreds of delegates who included former Mozambican President Joachim Chissano, Zimbabwe’s Science and Technology Development Minister Dr Olivia Muchena and the President of the Chief’s Council Fortune Charumbira.

Also present at the occasion were 24 representatives of African countries.

It was a moving sight when the Christian leaders knelt before Chissano and asked for forgiveness, but questions as to the effectiveness of this event on international relations will still be raised.

Regardless, Seaton added: “Cecil John Rhodes came from my country and Zimbabwe was even named after him and he is buried here and we are saying sorry for what he has done to the country and the continent.

Rightly, Seaton and company noted that Africa’s present ills could be traced back to the 1884 Berlin Conference that partitioned the continent for Europe’s benefit.

Last year, a delegation representing 22 African nations was invited to Berlin to witness what he called the repentance of 14 European nations that were involved in what is now referred to as the Scramble for Africa in 1884.

The countries included colonial powers Britain, Germany, France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal and Italy as well as Sweden, Holland, Portugal, Austria, Turkey, Russia, Denmark and Norway.

Since then, a book entitled ‘Unscrambling Africa, Reconciliation Process, Europe and Africa’ emphasising the need for Europeans to atone for the sins of the forebears has been published.

However, observers pointed out, the efforts by the visiting delegation would not amount to much as they had little influence over the policy makers in Europe who had the power to ultimately determine a positive change in relations between the two continents.

Days after the “confessions and repentance”, there remains a gnawing feeling that this whole act – that the more acerbic have labelled a charade – is merely an act in pulling a part of the knife out of Africa’s back.

Nedson Pophiwa, a University of Zimbabwe-based academic said: “Seaton indicated that for the past seven years, his group had carried out consultations and conferences in Europe to educate their colleagues on the need to re-visit the Berlin Conference.

“The question to ask is: did they also meet with economic and political leaders who have the power to make real change? Furthermore, a discourse analysis points to the fact that these people may simply want to feel good about themselves through this initiative.

“They want to repent but after that what’s next? Are they going to go to people like (British Prime Minister) Tony Blair and the captains of industry and ask them to effect holistic debt cancellation and global trade reform or are they going to just give themselves a pat on the back?”

Writing in The Herald newspaper last week, Sifelani Tsiko said: “I, however, felt that their (the delegation’s) efforts should not be belittled and should not be measured by the delegation’s standing but by the symbolism of what they were trying to do, which I think both the Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury along with their entire Western leadership should emulate in spirit and deeds.”

Another observer disagreed with the entire notion of “reconciliation” with Europe saying the word was a misnomer and was one of the reasons why relations between with two continents still lacked the basic element of trust.

He said: “Reconciliation is a phenomenon that takes place between two or more entities that were once friends but went on different paths somewhere along the way and who now want to be friends again.

“To be honest, we were never friends with Europe for the simple reason that Europe never extended a hand of friendship. As a necessity, we must start from the point of first learning to become friends. Until then, there will always be the fear of further oppression at the back of the mind of Africans as a whole.”

The observer added that the outcome of the visit – intentionally or otherwise – might be an attempt “wipe the slate clean without actually dealing with the causes that made it dirty in the first place.”

“This might be another case of forgive and forget. Africa might be able to do the first but it cannot afford to do the latter as long as the political and economic leadership of the West is still promoting the underlying mechanisms that fuelled colonialism and slavery,” he said.

As one commentator put it in a Zimbabwean weekly, they may be saying: “Don’t be like us. Be forgiving like the Bible teaches, be good Christians.”

The local Church leadership has been more positive about this development with Fr. Frederick Chiromba, the executive secretary of the Heads of Christian Denominations in Zimbabwe saying: “It is a good beginning for the creation of a better understanding among people of different races and nations.”

Another sticking point others have noted is the general under-emphasis by the visiting delegation placed on the role of Christianity in the enslavement and colonisation of Africans.

A common contention in anti- and post-colonial African historiography is that the gun and the flag followed the Bible and hence it remained essential to never under-estimate the power of religion in political and economic affairs (Karl Marx called religion the opium of the people).

Amilcar Cabral, one of a generation of revolutionaries who vigorously fought colonialism, once remarked that the colonising State always drew ideological justification from the Bible: claiming to be on a civilising mission, to be spreading the Gospel and to be generally enlightening Joseph Conrad’s “heart of darkness”.

September 2006
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