Having overheard some disgruntled comments made to JKIA bookstore assistants, I know I am by no means the only person who wants to read something about Africa besides another expat memoir. Is there really no market, are there really no writers? Or is just that publishers are unwilling to back anything besides more of the same tried, tested and tired old formula?
More here titled If I come across another book written by a white expat about his or her African childhood …
Take a look at this picture. Do you know who it is?
Most people haven’t heard of him.
But you should have. When you see his face or hear his name you should get as sick in your stomach as when you read about Mussolini or Hitler or see one of their pictures. You see, he killed over 10 million people in the Congo.
His name is King Leopold II of Belgium.
He “owned” the Congo during his reign as the constitutional monarch of Belgium. After several failed colonial attempts in Asia and Africa, he settled on the Congo. He “bought” it and enslaved its people, turning the entire country into his own personal slave plantation. He disguised his business transactions as “philanthropic” and “scientific” efforts under the banner of the International African Society. He used their enslaved labor to extract Congolese resources and services. His reign was enforced through work camps, body mutilations, executions, torture, and his private army.
Most of us – I don’t yet know an approximate percentage but I fear its extremely high – aren’t taught about him in school. We don’t hear about him in the media. He’s not part of the widely repeated narrative of oppression (which includes things like the Holocaust during World War II). He’s part of a long history of colonialism, imperialism, slavery and genocide in Africa that would clash with the social construction of the white supremacist narrative in our schools. It doesn’t fit neatly into a capitalist curriculum. Making overtly racist remarks is (sometimes) frowned upon in polite society, but it’s quite fine not to talk about genocides in Africa perpetrated by European capitalist monarchs.
Mark Twain wrote a satire about Leopold called “King Leopold’s soliloquy; a defense of his Congo rule“, where he mocked the King’s defense of his reign of terror, largely through Leopold’s own words. It’s 49 pages long. Mark Twain is a popular author for American public schools. But like most political authors, we will often read some of their least political writings or read them without learning why the author wrote them (Orwell’s Animal Farm for example serves to re-inforce American anti-Socialist propaganda, but Orwell was an anti-capitalist revolutionary of a different kind – this is never pointed out). We can read about Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, but King Leopold’s Soliloquy isn’t on the reading list. This isn’t by accident. Reading lists are created by boards of education in order to prepare students to follow orders and endure boredom well. From the point of view of the Education Department, Africans have no history.
When we learn about Africa, we learn about a caricaturized Egypt, about the HIV epidemic (but never its causes), about the surface level effects of the slave trade, and maybe about South African Apartheid (which of course now is long, long over). We also see lots of pictures of starving children on Christian Ministry commercials, we see safaris on animal shows, and we see pictures of deserts in films and movies. But we don’t learn about the Great African War or Leopold’s Reign of Terror during the Congolese Genocide. Nor do we learn about what the United States has done in Iraq and Afghanistan, potentially killing in upwards of 5-7 million people from bombs, sanctions, disease and starvation. Body counts are important. And we don’t count Afghans, Iraqis, or Congolese.
There’s a Wikipedia page called “Genocides in History”. The Congolese Genocide isn’t included. The Congo is mentioned though. What’s now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo is listed in reference to the Second Congo War (also called Africa’s World War and the Great War of Africa), where both sides of the multinational conflict hunted down Bambenga and ate them. Cannibalism and slavery are horrendous evils which must be entered into history and talked about for sure, but I couldn’t help thinking whose interests were served when the only mention of the Congo on the page was in reference to multi-national incidents where a tiny minority of people were eating each other (completely devoid of the conditions which created the conflict no less). Stories which support the white supremacist narrative about the subhumanness of people in Africa are allowed to be entered into the records of history. The white guy who turned the Congo into his own personal part-plantation, part-concentration camp, part-Christian ministry and killed 10 to 15 million Conglese people in the process doesn’t make the cut.
You see, when you kill ten million Africans, you aren’t called ‘Hitler’. That is, your name doesn’t come to symbolize the living incarnation of evil. Your name and your picture don’t produce fear, hatred, and sorrow. Your victims aren’t talked about and your name isn’t remembered.
Leopold was just one part of thousands of things that helped construct white supremacy as both an ideological narrative and material reality. Of course I don’t want to pretend that in the Congo he was the source of all evil. He had generals, and foot soldiers, and managers who did his bidding and enforced his laws. It was a system. But that doesn’t negate the need to talk about the individuals who are symbolic of the system. But we don’t even get that. And since it isn’t talked about, what capitalism did to Africa, all the privileges that rich white people gained from the Congolese genocide are hidden. The victims of imperialism are made, like they usually are, invisible.
The above seems to have solicited a lot of criticsm. Especially on the reddit link below. However, among the many posts reacting to ntsikimazwai, the one which I think takes a more mature line is this one. Which reads:
Dear white South Africans who were born after apartheid & white South Africans born before democracy who did not directly contruct a racist state,
You do not inherit the sins of your fathers and mothers and friends.
Certainly I think you should not.
You are not them. You were not them. And why should you be directly responsible for their moral, legal and political sins?
I’m especially sympathetic to you, 16 year old Kobus Verwoerd who never even met evil Oupa Hendrik who trampled on the dignity of most people in our country based only on their skin colour being different to his.
You cannot be responsible for what Hendrik did. You were but a future foetus then still.
But guys – and ladies – I’m afraid moral and social obligations do not just arise when we did things wrong ourselves.
We also have duties when we benefit wrongly.
Hendrik, the pizza you ate yesterday, bought with the trust fund from Oupa, which Xolani, 6 years old in Langa, will never eat, is a benefit you did not choose but which wrongly came your way BECAUSE OF Oupa Hendrik’s sins.
And yes I know 23 year old unemployed Charlize Vermeulen you don’t have a trust fund. But you don’t get assumed to be dumb when you walk into an interview, unlike Siphokazi. Why? Because white skin signals talent till proven otherwise. Black skin, laziness till proven otherwise. Cool huh?
You must see this stuff. Or choose not to?
And you must see that you have a moral conscience and an ability to reflect on this injustice of benefiting wrongly from someone else’s moral sins.
So in conclusion: you did not sin. I grant you that. Unreservedly.
But you benefit from sin. And you have a duty to make amends.
Please acknowledge this?
Unless and until you do we can’t get on with the next question: How can I make amends as a white person, young or old, for benefiting arbitrarily and so unjustly from the past, still?
Yours in non-EFF rhetoric,
Plenty of food for thought, I think.
Anyhow, other similar views on this matter are as follows:
“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” ― Gloria Steinem
“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” ― Oscar Wilde
While I can’t see anything wrong with her statements, what surprises me is the hostility she seems to have ignitied / received online, with others clearly taking it personally, as can be seen below?? What a scary world… no wonder racism continues.
Before you think about reacting to this video / me, please watch and listen to what the lady has to say:
I’ve heard a similar story in slightly different circumstances. It was in Trafford, Manchester where some domestic violence had taken place between a man and his wife, both white. The wife rang the police, as her husband run out of the house. For some reason, he decided to hide in a garden of a neighbour, a few yards away. The wife had not seen where his husband had gone, but another neighbour, an Arab muslim man had seen the husband ran from the house, after the commotion, including hiding in the garden.
When the police arrived 5 minutes later, they talked to the woman to ascertain what had happened. She told them that they’d had a fight but the man had ran out of the house. By this time, the Arab muslim man, the neighbour was standing outside his house, and he approached the police and told them that he’d seen the man. That he was hiding in a garden, a few yards away from where they stood.
They ignored him.
It was at this point that my former housemate, a white Irish male, who had been in his living room, and had witnessed the commotion, came out of his house, and told the police exactly what the Arab man had told them.
Only then did they approach this other neighbour’s garden, and lo and behold the man was there!