South African President Thabo Mbeki is back in the news again. But
this time the focus is not on substantive issues such as Aids or
African peacemaking, rather it is the ghost of Winston Churchill.
a speech to the National Assembly in Sudan, Mbeki made reference
to the writings of Churchill noting that he felt the great leader
held racist views. This is evidenced for Mbeki in Churchill's book
entitled the The River War: An Account of the Reconquest of the
Soudan which chronicles the British campaign in Sudan.
to African Muslims, Churchill writes: Besides the fanatical
frenzy, which is dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there
is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many
countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture,
sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever
the followers of the Prophet rule or live.
as lazy, incompetent and fanatical . . . sounds fairly racist to
Mbeki's speech, headlines pronounced Mbeki slams Winston Churchill
and Mbeki blames British imperialism for Sudan's problems.
On the radio the British public took exception to Mbeki's approach
to their war hero. Newspapers such as the Telegraph criticised Mbeki's
extraordinary weakness at laying the present problems
at the door of the late 19th century.
incident is a curious one, though.
no one can take exception to the fact that Churchill, like many
contemporaries, looked upon Africans with views that by today's
standards were undeniably racist. His writing confirms this.
else is going on when people get worked up about a reference to
Britain's colonial past. Mention of the reality and legacy of colonialism
seems to immediately hit an emotive nerve.
those who wish to deny Britain's colonial history altogether, some
commentators seem to take from Mbeki's speech what they want to
Telegraph hears Mbeki blaming all current problems in Africa on
the past. Others hear an accusation that whites today still have
to pay for what their forefathers did even though that was generations
Mbeki's speech, if anyone takes the time to read it, is doing none
is not lambasting whites en masse. His target audience was not the
former colonial powers. He is not just taking a cheap shot at Churchill.
When reading his speech it is obvious that, given he was speaking
as a South African on an anniversary celebration of the 1956 Sudanese
independence, he is attempting to make a link between Sudanese and
South Africa history.
was the first African country to receive independence from its colonial
masters; South Africa was the last, in 1994. Mbeki's message is
simple. Both countries share a troubled history, sometimes linked
with the brutal exploits of the very same men, such as Kitchener,
who Churchill glorifies in his book, and this history means much
has to be done to set the present right.
the end the point I am making is that our shared colonial past left
both of us with a common and terrible legacy of countries deeply
divided on the basis of race, colour, culture and religion. But
surely, that shared colonial past must also tell us that we probably
need to work together to share the burden of building the post-colonial
future, Mbeki says.
message is forward looking. He does not hide from the responsibility
of African countries. He is not trying to divert attention from
Africa's failings by playing the race card as some commentators
seem to think.
not intend to write a defence of Mbeki. His approach to Zimbabwe,
Aids and a number of other issues are problematic. Mbeki could have
used the opportunity in Sudan to question the Sudanese government's
human rights record. But, interestingly, this is not what the mainstream
media seem to focus on either. Rather, it is his comments about
a dead Prime Minister that get them talking.
reaction to Mbeki's views on Churchill tells us more about those
that reacted to it than Mbeki. Sadly, these reactions are still
influenced by stereotypical views of Africa, as Mbeki implies.
journalists, not to mention certain politicians in South Africa,
seem to be obsessed with trying to look for a chink in Mbeki's armour
that is going to expose him as another African despot. Are they
looking for echoes of Mugabe in his comments? This seems to be what
they perversely want to hear.
take the time to listen, reflect and grapple with the reality that
colonialism does still affect the African continent, whether those
of us alive had anything to do with it or not. Would it have not
been more remarkable if Mbeki did not mention colonialism in a speech
on an occasion celebrating African independence?
I wonder if Mbeki's critics see him as politician with the strengths
and weaknesses as any other or if they are still struggling to see
past his skin colour.
a politician he has made mistakes. As an African leader, surely
he is correct in continually pointing out the failings past and
present of those that colonised the place and continue to exploit
made a massive contribution to history, but, like all people, Mbeki
included, he clearly has flaws. Being precious about Churchill's
legacy is hardly being true to the complexity of history. Treating
Africa as if it does not have a colonial past and that this does
not impact on the present is equally as myopic.
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, see http://www.polity.co.za/pol/opinion/brandon/.
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