I was involved in a discussion with one of my friends on Facebook, about South African politics. The discussion quite quickly turned to the question of race, and eventually moved over to the subject of colonialism, and redress for the past.
Certainly, I’m not surprised that it eventually got there, since these are very hot topics in South Africa at the moment, and people on all sides have some very strong feelings about it.
Still, it got me thinking about the subject of colonialism (or “conquest”, if you prefer a less clinical term) throughout history.
Before I begin, I should warn you that I haven’t done any particular research for this article. This is just based on the things I have grown up learning and hearing, and hence it might also come across as overly simplistic or romanticised. I think I have the gist of it down, though.
The way I see it, human beings are an expansionist bunch. It’s in our nature. Starting in Antiquity, the Aztecs and the Mayans were conquering the Americas. Over in Europe, the Romans and the Greeks (and for a brief period, the Egyptians) were doing the same thing with Europe, Central Asia, and North Africa. In sub-equatorial Africa, various tribes were vying to extend their territories.
I’m not familiar with ancient East Asia and Australasia, but I’m willing to bet similar things were happening there, too.
Throughout history, the rules have been the same: he who had the better technology, the better strategies, and the better tactics, won.
Fast forward to the Dark Ages – we had the Anglos and the Saxons fighting for dominance, which led to the establishment of the country that would eventually become Great Britain.
Fast forward a little more. The Europeans were the first people to develop technology that allowed them to cross the open ocean. So, as is in our human nature, they set sail in search of new land masses to claim as their own… to colonise. And they didn’t care who lived on those land masses, either. It was like, “Ooh, there’s land over there. I’m going to claim it for my country!”
One of the continents that was “discovered” in this way was Africa, and one of the countries that were founded in this way (by Dutch colonists) was South Africa. Jan van Riebeeck had a mandate from his sovereign to found new colonies on newly discovered land. This he did. Unfortunately, he, like Columbus, De Gama, and lots of others, didn’t particularly care who was occupying the land at the time – although some might say that he treated the natives of his new found land pretty well, relatively speaking.
Right now, we’re considering a mission to colonise Mars, one on which we’re hoping to embark within the next twenty years, if I remember correctly. Once again, this is evidence of the undeniable human desire to expand – our influence, our territory, our control, by whatever means necessary. We can’t fight it. It’s in our nature. I don’t know if there is intelligent life on Mars, but I know this: if there is life, if we find it, and if they’re less technologically advanced than us, we will conquer and colonise them. It’s who we are.
But I digress.
Now, suppose African people had been the first to develop this open-water-travel technology. If this had happened, I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that they would have handled it the same way as the Europeans did. We’d be having the same discussion now, but we’d be on opposite sides. We’d probably be on European soil, and we’d definitely not be speaking English; we’d probably be speaking an African language, or perhaps a completely different language derived from an African language (think Afrikaans, which was derived from Dutch). Africa would be the dominant culture on the planet, and unless my ancestors were slaves, I definitely would not have been born in Africa!
If Africa had never been colonised, I don’t know if they would have borders and infrastructure, like they do today. I’m fairly sure that they would, but they’d be very different borders, and things would probably look very different, technologically speaking, as well.
It’s fun to explore and fantasise about alternate histories and timelines, but that’s all they are – fantasies about alternate timelines.
Now, to the question of whether the people who were colonised should be entitled to an apology, or redress in some way, from the countries that colonised them.
Personally, I think not, for the simple reason that the shoe could very easily have been on the other foot, and without a doubt, would have been if history and luck had played out just slightly differently.
Besides, I freely admit that I exist, and I was born in Africa, because Africa was colonised by Europeans, and I really don’t think I need to apologise for my very existence. Should Italy apologise to Britain for the actions of the Caesars? Should it give back land? You can be sure that some of Italy was once under the control of the people who would eventually become Britons. Should the average Italian, living in Italy, apologise to British natives, and offer to give up his house? He certainly didn’t have anything to do with taking it from them.
Now, of course, we went through Apartheid in this country, which was a terrible time in our history. But we’re not the only people who went through a time like that. Think of the Americans, and what they did to their Natives, to say nothing about how they treated Africans, whom they brought over as slaves.
What about the Australians, with the Aborigines?
The thing is, most people who are alive today in those countries had nothing personally to do with those policies. Many benefited, yes – I benefited from Apartheid… but I didn’t know it at the time. Nobody whose great grandfather stole someone else’s land should be expected to give that land away to someone else’s great grandson. No-one who is lucky enough to have a job should be expected to give it up to someone whose grandfather was never given the opportunity to have a job.
I feel sad about those things, and at times I feel a twinge of guilt. My heritage is a bit marred, let’s be honest. But I don’t feel the need to apologise for any of it, because first of all, I don’t feel personally responsible for it, and secondly, because I know how easily it could have turned out that I would’ve been the one with the oppressed past… and I sure as anything don’t think I would have a right to expect an apology or redress from the descendants of those oppressors.
What’s done is done. The past is in the past. Racism is a terrible thing (as is discrimination based on anything the other person can’t control), and should never happen again. People learn racism, and the only way our children are going to learn racism, is if we teach them. Which is exactly what we’re doing, every time we base a discussion on which political party to vote for, or whom to give a job to, or who the biggest criminals are in this country, on race.
Let’s teach our children that the colour of their skin really doesn’t matter. What matters is their ethics, their morals, their entrepreneurial spirits, and their willingness to work to achieve greatness. Only then, I believe, can we truly rebuild this country!
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