Atoning for colonialism

The Herald

Reason Wafawarova on Monday
History is laden with wrongs inflicted by the conquest of the powerful, be it on colonial subjects, on slaves during the slave trade, or on the total hunt-down of Christians during the Roman Empire era.

We are very clear on the colonial wrongs inflicted by the British Empire on our ancestors, about the beheading of our early nationalists, like the hanging of Mbuya Nehanda, Sekuru Kaguvi and others.

A simple apology from Britain could go a long way, since no monetary compensation can atone for the egregious barbarity that befell our ancestors. Perhaps Britain could pay us a symbolic two pounds per year, one for Kaguvi and one for Nehanda; payable over 90 years to atone for the 90 years of our colonial subjugation.

But we know that when slavery was abolished it was not the slaves that were paid compensation by the British government. Rather it was the slave owners that were paid for their “loss of property”. Equally Lancaster House’s willing buyer willing seller agreement was about compensating the colonial land owners, not the people who were displaced from the land when colonialists brutally pushed then out.

We are often told that the benefits of colonialism to Africa far outweigh the atrocities that visited our ancestors. We were robbed of our land, our civilisation, our identity; and yet we are reminded that we owe the modernity of Western civilisation to those who colonised us, and for that we must forever be immensely grateful.

We aroused enough approbation against colonialism during the nationalist days that led us to take up arms to free ourselves from the yoke of the colonial masters. Now it is no longer time to arouse such universal animosity.

Zimbabwe has been independent for the past 38 years, and some among us have argued that our victory over colonialism has been mere empty political rhetoric, that our perceived post-colonial failings invalidate whatever attacks we may want to direct towards colonial cruelties. The argument here is that moral victory has eluded us for the past 38 years. Our alleged failings invalidate whatever iniquities Ian Smith and his colonial colleagues might stand accused of, even genuinely so.

However, one set of failings does not invalidate another. We cannot make righteous of colonialism because of post-colonial evils. Nor can 90 years of colonial oppression be undone in three decades. The record of Zanu-PF is in most respects vastly better than that of its colonial predecessors, especially on such indices as literacy, number of clinics, infrastructural development, land ownership, and so on and so forth.

History cannot be reduced to some sort of game of comparing misdeeds in different eras. Each period must be judged in itself and for its own successes and transgressions. We need to do that with colonialism, the liberation war era, the 1980s political disturbances, land reclamation, and so on and so forth.

We cannot, for example, go after Britain demanding reparations for the empire’s brutality on our ancestors. That would come across as some sense of insecurity and low self-esteem on our part. We believe we took arms to fight down the colonial empire the same way it had used guns to subjugate our ancestors.

So we are not going to be perceived as a people transferring responsibility to British colonialism for the subsequent failures of our own Zimbabwean rule.

Some have argued that Western aid is some kind of reparation for colonial injustices. So we want to be readmitted into the Commonwealth, where we will expect Britain to lead in giving aid to its former colonies — not by any means as an acceptance of guilt, but out of British generosity to their former colonial subjects.

Some politicians in Britain are convinced that the former colonies are their burden. Zimbabwe is their burden; we are the burden of the West, and any considerations to assist us are in fact some form of reparation.

Britain owes her former colonies a moral debt, not a financial one. There is no amount of money that can adequately compensate the genocide of 7 million aboriginal people in Australia. No amount of money can reunite the Zimbabwean families that were forcibly displaced to barren areas of the colonialist’s choice in the 1930s and 40s.

One can argue that compensation should always be paid to the victims, not to their grandchildren, and by the wrongdoers, not by their grandchildren.

That was Claire Short’s argument when she wrote that infamous letter refusing to fund land redistribution in Zimbabwe; except that she was reneging on an agreement arrived at by the Thatcher government of 1979 at Lancaster House. Claire Short was hardly a grandchild of Thatcher, who was still very much alive when that infamous letter was written.

However, we must always remember that exonerating offsprings of wrong doers from the misdeeds of their forebearers somehow elides the sense of national identity and responsibility that has been seen in many countries.

Willy Brandt of Germany sank to his knees at the Warsaw Ghetto in 1970 to apologise to Polish Jews for the Holocaust.

There were hardly any Polish Jews left in Poland at the time, and Brandt was completely innocent of the crimes of the Nazis — at whose hands he was also persecuted as a socialist. With his historic Kniefall von Warschau, Willy Brandt was recognising the moral responsibility of German people, whom he was leading at the time. This is atonement, not reparations, not financial aid.

In 2008, Kevin Rudd shed tears apologising to the Aboriginal people of Australia for the crimes of the Stolen Generation. His predecessor, John Howard, had flatly refused to apologise stating that he was “not going to wear the black armband of history”.

Rudd was completely innocent of the historical crime, but he realised that national healing for Australia could only be achieved if someone acknowledged the wrong that happened, and also recognised the moral responsibility of white Australians in the matter — them being the direct beneficiaries of Captain Cook’s colonial exploits.

To us colonialism is scarcely ancient history. This writer lived under colonial oppression for the first 13 years of his life, and there are millions of much older Zimbabweans who are still alive, and who were there in the 1930s and 40s when colonial oppression was at its evil worst. So we have millions of Zimbabweans with an intimate knowledge of the colonial period.

It might be getting late for atonement, but atonement of colonial injustice is due to us. Britain must do something symbolic to atone for the wrongs of colonialism.

I long for the day that a British prime minister will find the heart and spirit to get on his or her knees at Nyadzonia or Chomoio in Mozambique and beg for forgiveness from Zimbabweans in the name of his or her people for the unforgivable massacres that were perpetrated at these places during the liberation war. Or better still, come and kneel for forgiveness at the spot Nehanda was hanged by British colonisers.

I can only imagine the impact if the recent hilarious dance moves by Theresa May in Kenya were replaced by passionate kneeling apologies for the atrocities done by the British government to the Kikuyu people during the Mau Mau uprising.

The best form of atonement by the British could be an acknowledgement of what colonialism was really all about, throwing away the romanticised colonial history taught in British schools. The British public is woefully ignorant of the realities of the British Empire, and what it meant to its subject peoples.

We host British ambassadors that are schooled to believe that we owe their country our very lives because of how colonial masters “developed” our country. So we have this self-anointed authority to lecture us on what best to do with our independence, how best to practise our democracy, what economic benchmarks we must follow, and so on and so forth.

We stand to modern-day Britons as a reminder of their collective dreams of historical Englishness, “so glorious, so poignant, so bittersweet in the resentful seediness of contemporary little England”, to quote Dutch writer Ian Buruma.

A time must now come when British children must know that those dreams of historical Englishness turned out to be nightmares for our forebears here.

With that acknowledgement future generations would be able to relate in a more equitable manner, and foreign policy would cease to be a matter of one race showing supremacy to the other.

Zimbabwe we are one and together we will overcome. It is homeland or death!

Reason Wafawarova is a political writer based in Sydney, Australia.

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