And all month long the noise of battle rolled in Oxford, don against don, laptops to the left, laptops to the right. Calumny and detraction stalked the quads. An international brigade of scholars joined the fray. The Great Colonialism Controversy had been started by, of all people, not a Rees-Mogg grade eccentric, but an unassuming and thoughtful Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, Nigel Biggar. He had expressed some thoughts about the history of colonialism and pointed out that it had some positive aspects. The proximate cause of this modest proposal was the five year study of Ethics and Empire that he had been conducting.
I had better admit to some skin in this game. Nigel Biggar gave some lectures on Truth and Reconciliation at my invitation some years back. I’ve written books about the colonial history of Africa. I do not feel personally guilty about British colonialism – I learnt about the pink bits on my geography atlas as a child and was too young to be attacked for being uncritical. Nor would I today want to deny that colonial rule brought about some positive changes as well as perpetrating dreadful atrocities on some subject populations who showed the remotest sign of not enjoying being colonised, and even when they didn’t, sometimes criminally culpable indifference to their welfare. It is just that I am allergic to simplistic binary oppositions, all good versus all bad.
I started studying African history in the late 1960s shortly after it had taken off academically as the new nations began to retrieve their past. In those days you could get books called Catholics, Peasants and Chewa Resistance in Nyasaland [Malawi] published with old photographs, an index and a publisher who seemed to want to market it. The student body of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London was just beginning to switch its top career choice from colonial service to spooks, linguists and anthropologists. In no time some African academics were describing the pre-colonial past as a patchwork of Gardens of Eden, with colonialism as the snake and European ways the apple. But when you discover the number of different Chewa words for jealousy, and you encounter the pervasive fear of witchcraft, you begin to wonder if village life was all that idyllic. And, frankly, it would not have been much fun being a Hutu in pre-colonial Rwanda under the dynastic rule of the dominant Tutsi clans, or being a woman much anywhere.
It is a given of historiography that the perspective of the writer is strongly influenced by the present, by political pressures, and individual bias and interest. Romantic African historians were not bucking a trend. But what is going on when someone cannot express analytically any view without unqualified condemnation or approval? This not simply a question of asking what is wrong with expressing a complex account of motivations, behaviours and their consequences. Nor is it always idle to contemplate counterfactual history, what would have happened if such-and-such hadn’t happened. It is a deeper problem of what makes so attractive turning the past into a binary moral story and “asking the wrong questions, using the wrong terms, and for the wrong purposes” a definition of “bad history”.
The more important question is what is it in the present conjuncture that requires something akin to what psychologists call splitting, the need to present the expression of complexity as “bad history” and oneself, the custodian presumably of “good history” understood as a story about good versus evil; or a balance sheet of good acts versus bad acts, minus ten for some brutal torture or massacre, plus ten for ending the slave trade, five for divorce laws that liberate women. Or plus five for the manner of pulling out of Bechuanaland and the Gold Coast, minus 10 for the massive tragedy of the partition of India. Yes, this calibration is repugnant.
Put in another way why should the expression of complexity in the makings of the past turn the perpetrator into an apologist for one side of the argument or another? After the Rwandan genocide for example it has become impossible to write about its antecedents without readers striving to find “what side are you on?”
Orwell said in 1984:“He who controls the past controls the future, he who controls the present controls the past”. But we are not living in a Stalinist tyranny and the Great Colonialism Controversy does not look like a struggle between the dispossessed and wretched of the earth against the rich and powerful. Rather it seems to be an expression of the contemporary powerlessness to control the future felt by almost everyone in a semi-moribund European political culture of populism and failing democracies. The one thing available is to re-moralise the past as a conflict between good and evil and, because nothing else seems under control, to attempt to control language and discourse. Perhaps there is also a touch of guilt at work but guilt without a firm intention of amendment is not a constructive emotion.
Language, of course, matters. It is our way of being human. It is the texture of civility. But this does not mean that right language can be substituted for meaningful action in moral endeavour. It is an academic conceit to forget that the pen is only mightier than the sword if it inspires and mobilises people around a vision of the future, has an ability to contextualise the errors and horrors of the past, and can integrate both into a meaningful present.
He came out suddenly from behind a bush. We were in a garden in Harare, then Salisbury, in the mid-1980s. I was with Frank Chikane, the new general-secretary of the South African Council of Churches. We had just met Frank’s younger brother who was in the Intelligence Department of the ANC in exile. Frank had come at his request. Hugs all round.
There was something threatening about the way the man appeared and about the man himself. I did not like the cut of his jib, made my excuses and left. I learnt later that it was Jacob Zuma and that his Zulu second name was appropriately gedleyihlekisa, “the one who laughs while he endangers you”. He had just become head of ANC Intelligence at the time. He is now about to be the former President of South Africa.
Harare wasn’t safe then though it was significantly safer than South Africa when the apartheid system’s security apparatus had you on their books. ANC leaders were assassinated in Rhodesia as they were in all the surrounding countries. Some like the Anglican priest Rev. Michael Lapsley survived the letter and parcel bombs courtesy of the Orwellian-named Civil Cooperation Bureau but lost an arm and an eye. Frank was also to become another survivor, victim of organophosphate poisoning while he was in Namibia, ordered by Adriaan Vlok, South African Minister of – ill-named - Law and Order. He survived thanks to being taken into a US hospital and getting intensive treatment after a later attack.
The South African security state conducted an extensive programme of infiltration of the ANC and anti-apartheid movement. The head of the London ANC turned out to be in the pay of the Bureau of State Security (BOSS). You could be forgiven for believing most of the pay went on drink. The ANC military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) was a prime target that generated, unsurprisingly, a high level of paranoia in ANC cadres in Angola and Zambia. As witch-finder general Zuma presided over the deaths of young South Africans who fell under suspicion in the exile camps.
Frank Chikane went on to become chef de cabinet for President Thabo Mbeki, a remarkable transformation for a Church leader, and wrote a fascinating insider account of how Zuma became the 4th. President of South Africa which presented the process as both unconstitutional and a de facto coup d’ėtat. Mbeki, urbane, a subtle political strategist, fond of his Black Label whisky, often in English tweeds when I met him in the back of London pubs, was in personality the antithesis of Zuma. As President he quickly dropped an economic prospectus that was radical and pro-poor under pressure from the monetarist Chicago boys and the US. He refused to put pressure on Robert Mugabe, and to everyone’s surprise was discovered to hold bizarre views of the causes of the AIDS pandemic that swept South Africa, with the tragic result that effective national responses to HIV were delayed. This all left wide open a gaping populist, left flank, for Zuma to occupy. Backed by the powerful trades union movement, COSATU, and an electorate loyal to the ANC yet disappointed that the black economic mountains left to climb after apartheid had barely been tackled, skillful in the internal politics of the ANC, he had a strong political base.
The rest, charges of corruption, rampant cronyism, a repellent lifestyle, is history. Cyril Ramaphosa who cut his political teeth in the mineworkers’ union, went on to become a multi-millionaire businessman displaced him as President of the ANC on 18 December 2017. The men in grey suits have been visiting Zuma in ever increasing numbers. A particularly damaging decade in South Africa’s political history is coming to an end. Like Mugabe’s retirement, loyalty to the leaders of the generation that risked their lives in the liberation struggle will mean Zuma gets away with it.
You wonder why all the sacrifice and idealism of the struggle against apartheid, within a lifetime, threw up someone like Zuma. More so after the extraordinary example of Mandela. I suspect it is the same answer to the question of how the USA got a Trump after an Obama.