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Who’s Laughing Now? Satire as a Form of Social Protest

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Those of you who are my age or older might remember when the musician Eric Wainaina came onto the scene in the late nineties with his song “Nchi ya kitu kidogo.” For those of you who might not know the song, it was an attack against corruption in the civil service and a lament about the lack of public social services for ordinary wananchi. The song was a play on Kenyan code words for theft of public resources, namely “chai” (tea) and “kitu kidogo” (something small). In the song, the singer tells a woman, “Ukitaka chai ewe mama, nunua Ketepa (If you want tea, buy Ketepa [a famous local tea brand]), and tells someone else, “Ukitaka chai ewe ndungu, nenda Limuru” (If you want tea, go to Limuru [one of the tea-growing areas in Kenya]). The singer also boldly says to a policeman, “Ukitaka soda ewe inskpekta, burudika na Fanta” (If you want soda, refresh yourself with Fanta).

The song was fun to sing, because of its benga beat, and the fact that its theme was close to Kenyans’ hearts. The rhyming in Kiswahili (mama/Ketepa, ndungu/Limuru, inspekta/Fanta), made the song even more enjoyable. Not surprisingly, while the song was a popular hit among the people, it was not popular among politicians. In 2001, the BBC reported that Eric was almost prevented from performing the song at an event attended by the then vice president George Saitoti, but the public prevailed.

Later, I read an interview in which Eric recounted a true story about the impact of his song. There was a bus with high school students that was stopped on the road by the police, and the students began to sing “Ukitaka soda ewe inspekta, burudika na Fanta.” The police officers were infuriated, and promptly arrested the students who spent the night at the local police station.

Great satire often arises during times of great repression or moral decadence. The satirist is said to be disturbed by the contradictions between ideals and morality, on the one hand, and the reality of political and moral decadence, on the other.

The second funny element of Eric Wainana’s song that I’d like to mention is the comedy group Redykyulass, which performed some pieces in Eric’s album “Sawa Sawa” in which the song “Nchi ya kitu kidogo” appeared. I will never forgot what an impression Redykyulass made on us when it burst onto the scene in the nineties, with comedian Walter “Nyambane” Mongare doing his classical performance of President Daniel arap Moi, with lines like “na hiyo, ni maendeleo” (and this, is development).

Nyambane’s imitation of Moi has remained as fresh as ever. He is so good at parodying Moi that even less than a year ago, the Churchill and Jeff Koinange TV shows in Kenya and even government officials in charge of entertainment for the national celebrations, pulled him out of his posh Nairobi County communication director’s job to perform parodies of Moi, who has been out of power for almost fifteen years.

For me, these opportunities for Nyambane to still perform his Moi routine are interesting, not least because there is now a generation of Kenyans that does not remember, or has not experienced, the significance of Moi in Kenya’s public consciousness. And yet, Nyambane’s parody still has appeal.

Moi has been succeeded by two presidents. During their tenure, we have gone through major pleasant and unpleasant landmarks. We have had post-election violence and a government with a prime minister. We have had a new constitution that has given us counties and devolution, with a president who is still trying to run a tight hold on governors the way his mentor, Moi, held a tight grip on MPs and politicians. Many of the children who were born in the last decade of Moi’s rule are now over twenty. Laughing at a Nyambane routine today is like Americans laughing at Bill Clinton when there’s Donald Trump today, and George W. Bush and Obama in-between.

…while the catharsis of satire can soothe the pain of the audience, it often runs the danger of just providing catharsis without spurring the politicians or society to change their ways.

So why does Nyambane’s Moi routine still have a soft spot in our hearts? Why do we have no memorable equivalent today for Uhuru Kenyatta, for example? The answer to this question is tied to the nature of politics and satire. Before I get to that, I’d just like to go over a few basics about satire.

Basics of satire

Satire is a very delicate genre. What may make people laugh today may not make them laugh tomorrow if the social living conditions have changed. In fact, scholarship avoids discussing satire because the genre is very difficult to pin down.

Satire tells a story as an analogy, and through that analogy, the audience is supposed to understand that the satirist is referring to a particular element in real life. For instance, when all the NASA politicians portrayed on the XYZ show decide in which rooms of the house they will sleep, the analogy becomes a reflection of the intricate agreements that the principals negotiated to come up with a flag bearer. Because of its component of analogy, satire often doesn’t appeal to people outside the community who may not be familiar with the analogy.

Great satire often arises during times of great repression or moral decadence. The satirist is said to be disturbed by the contradictions between ideals and morality, on the one hand, and the reality of political and moral decadence, on the other. The satirist who uses humour to ridicule and criticise society or those in power is holding up a mirror to society to provoke it to change the situation. This means that the satirist must experience a level of indignation and moral impatience with the subject he or she chooses to satirise. We see this especially in Patrick Gathara’s and Godfrey Mwampembwa (better known as Gado)’s cartoons.

By laughing at parodies of Moi, we were able to distance ourselves from the man who had imposed himself on our lives.

Because satire attacks indirectly, the humour provoked by satire provides a way out for both the audience and the artist. When the audience laughs, it experiences relief, otherwise known as catharsis, which gives it a break from the pain of the absurdity of the oppression it deals with in real life. For the artists, satire provides a convenient cover in case they are attacked by the real-life targets of their ridicule. The artist can say to the target: “It was not about you; it was just a story.”

But the escape route that satire provides is a double edged sword; while the catharsis of satire can soothe the pain of the audience, it often runs the danger of just providing catharsis without spurring the politicians or society to change their ways. In other words, people can take refuge in satire to avoid demanding social change. When they laugh, they feel better, but they go straight back into the lion’s den for another bashing before they seek the next shot of relief through satire.

Although satire often does not provoke social change, politicians still fear it. For example, in the case of Ezekiel Mutua’s evident pain about being satirised in his fight to install a censorship bill, we have seen that the political class is definitely uncomfortable about satire. And people in power do have a reason to fear satire, because satire warns people of social rot or impending danger, keeps the people vigilant about those in power, and makes people ask questions. Satire also provides a sense of moral superiority, because those who laugh at satire feel morally superior to the leaders who oppress them.

We need to understand these elements of satire to grasp why the satire about the Moi era (or error) is still quite funny for us older folk.

Why satirising Moi was funny

Moi was our president for 24 years, so he left an indelible mark on an entire generation. More importantly, Moi was omnipresent in Kenyans’ lives. He was on the news every day; every news bulletin began with “Mtukufu, rais Daniel arap Moi, leo ….” (Today President Daniel arap Moi…”). Moi’s inescapable presence in our lives also meant that we had time to master his accent, his famous phrases and his mannerisms. So when Nyambane performed, there was an element of familiarity with the subject, and most of all, a shared communal experience. Nyambane’s routine provided us with an opportunity to reminisce collectively about a difficult period in Kenya’s history. But our laughter was also full sadness for the people who suffered under Moi’s regime.

Kenyan artists need to be wary about comedy that purports to fulfil the functions of satire. In fact, the expanded freedoms we earned from the struggles of the nineties have resulted in less sophisticated forms of satire. But does this limited form of satire mean that there is no repression, no exploitation, and no one to mock and ridicule?

As I’ve already indicated, the media contributed to Moi’s notoriety. It was not simply that Moi dominated the news bulletin on VoK (Voice of Kenya, which later became Kenya Broadcasting Corporation or KBC), but also that for most of the time that he was president, we had only one media channel. Unlike my generation, children today have not experienced a time when there was only one broadcast channel that went on air from 4pm to 11 pm during the week, and from 2pm to midnight over the weekends, with a brief shutdown in the afternoon. Moi was in our faces and ears all the time. We not only heard about him, we also sang songs about him like “Tawala Kenya tawala” (“Rule Kenya rule”). By laughing at parodies of Moi, we were able to distance ourselves from the man who had imposed himself on our lives.

Most important of all, making fun of Moi gave us a break from the repression of his regime, which was tangible. When Nyambane performed in the nineties, our laughter was more nervous than it is today. We knew that for having an opinion other than what Moi allowed, people could be assassinated, detained, tortured in the Nyayo House chambers or sent into exile.

One of the victims of that regime included columnist Wahome Mutahi, also known as Whispers, who was picked up from the Nation newspaper’s offices and detained for “whispering too loudly”. Laughing at Moi was a cardinal sin with life and death repercussions. So when we laughed at Redykyulass, or when we sang “Nchi ya kitu kidogo,” we were releasing decades of repression. It was relief, or catharsis, for us. And even now when I watch Redykyulass, I still feel that catharsis. Because the memory of that oppression remains very fresh for me.

Changing times

The Redykyulass model of humour, which even Daniel “Churchill” Ndambuki admits is the model adopted by Kenya’s comedy performances today, arose in specific times that have now radically changed. We now have the Internet and access to literally limitless media. We have a new constitution and more freedoms. We can criticise the president in public, and even to his face, and still go home and eat and drink with our families the same evening. And most of all, we don’t have a president for longer than ten years, so thankfully, we will never be as familiar with another Kenyan president as we were with Moi.

And yet Kenyan satire, for the most part, hasn’t changed. We are still mimicking politicians and the quirkiness of Kenyan society. Thankfully, comedians are now working on using less ethnic stereotypes than they did ten years ago, but there is still too much reliance on ethnic particularities for humour. And today, politicians are no longer as present on the live comedy stage. Even when they do appear, the comedy is based on mere imitation of the political personalities, but without an analogy of real, complex and disturbing socio-political issues.

I must admit that my knowledge of Kenyan comedy is scanty, but I have not seen, for example, good satire on marginalisation or gender discrimination in Kenya. I’m thinking of, for example, a skit on “mansplaining” that was done by Jimmy Kimmel and then presidential candidate Hillary Clinton that mocked the condescending attitudes towards women. Kimmel’s enactment of sexism impressively captured the impossible standards that women are subjected to. But that kind of performance requires an intricate understanding of the issues that women face.

“Incredulously, while we cartoonists struggled to bash politicians in the Kanu era, we’ve found criticising today’s political leaders tricky because they always rush to court. It’s a bit like they are the ones who are supposed to be the sole beneficiaries of today’s freedoms. They have discovered that they can sue.”

In the Kenyan context, for example, we do not have enough comic performances that capture intricate social issues that require commentary, partly because dominant public discourses in Kenya reduce artistic skill to raw talent. An exception is the XYZ show, which performed a brilliant skit satirising the racial politics of conservation by presenting a Maasai who settles in the UK to save British wildlife.

Without similar insights into the intricacy of social issues, the comedy that is now dominant in Kenyan entertainment will inevitably equate stupidity with ethnic peculiarities. And the comedy will rarely be satire, because the goal of the performance is simply to entertain and make people laugh, rather than to point out our moral weaknesses or political mistakes.

In other words, Kenyan artists need to be wary about comedy that purports to fulfil the functions of satire. In fact, the expanded freedoms we earned from the struggles of the nineties have resulted in less sophisticated forms of satire. But does this limited form of satire mean that there is no repression, no exploitation, and no one to mock and ridicule?

This question has actually become more prominent in the United States, especially with the election of Donald Trump. The comedy programmes mocking Trump have increased, and now America is experiencing the threat of comedy overthrowing authentic political discussion and engagement. And yet, comedy is part of what got Trump into power in the first place A few years ago, John Oliver thought that the idea of Trump running for president was so ridiculous that he offered to campaign for Trump. The media gave Trump free airtime because he was funny and entertaining. By the time the media and comedians realised what they’d done, Trump was on his way to becoming president.

And in the shock and despair, the American media has raised the amount of comedy on the airwaves. Even respectable channels like CNN have resorted to drama – bantering between the left and the right – as a form of political commentary. The problem is that comedy and melodrama do not engage citizens in authentic political discussions about their country.

For this reason, observers have started to ask whether mimicking and mocking Trump serves the social good any more. A few months ago, Emma Burnell wrote a piece in the British newspaper, The Independent, titled “Traditional political satire is dead – the people, not politicians, should be the butt of our jokes now.” She argued that political satire no longer challenges the establishment. Like in the case of Kenya, mocking politicians no longer has the shock effect it used to. Politicians are now more attentive to the people because they can be fired by the vote. Burnell argues that maybe it’s the people, not their leaders, who need to be mocked.

From Trump to Uhuru to Sonko, politicians tell us that they are the victims of oppression by the media, the international community or the government, and because we used to be the victims of the same, we believe we’re in the same boat as these politicians. But in reality, they’re screwing our hospitals and schools as they seek treatment abroad and send their kids to private schools.

I disagree with Burnell because I believe that satire should be reserved for those in power. Nevertheless, I concede her point that we the people are complicit in the current decay in our countries. But in Kenya, wananchi are complicit in this decay as victims, not as perpetrators. More than that, the fact remains that oppression has not disappeared; it has simply morphed. We have a president who is privatising our health care and education, who is destroying institutions by underfunding them and making professionalism almost impossible, and who is sustaining criminal impunity by subverting judicial processes and by allowing thieves of public funds to run for public office. The national debt has shot through the roof over a project whose value to Kenya is not evident. Surely satire should have something to say about these serious issues.

However, satirising these issues is not so easy because the oppression has become more subtle, even though it is more viscous. Oppression is now embedded in law and policy, while, ironically, politicians speak freedom using the metaphors of the poor. Take, for instance, politician Mike Sonko, who talks as if he is more oppressed than the regular Kenyan, and who takes his fight for the people to the streets through personalised rescue missions, rather than to through the corridors of legislature where he was elected to represent the people’s interests.

In an interview with Kimani wa Wanjiru a few years ago, the cartoonist Paul Kelemba, popularly known as Maddo, captured the irony of the powerful claiming the position of the oppressed and explaind its direct implication for satirists. Despite the increased liberties, said Kelemba, satirising is actually more difficult today for Kenyan artists than it was during Moi’s days. “Incredulously, while we cartoonists struggled to bash politicians in the Kanu era, we’ve found criticising today’s political leaders tricky because they always rush to court. It’s a bit like they are the ones who are supposed to be the sole beneficiaries of today’s freedoms. They have discovered that they can sue.”

Maddo highlights an interesting phenomenon of this neoliberal era: the politicians have now become the oppressed fighting for freedom. They join us on the streets, they come to hospitals to pay for the treatment of our wounds caused by the government, they intervene in distress, and they complain that the government is oppressing them. From Trump to Uhuru to Sonko, politicians tell us that they are the victims of oppression by the media, the international community or the government, and because we used to be the victims of the same, we believe we’re in the same boat as these politicians. But in reality, they’re screwing our hospitals and schools as they seek treatment abroad and send their kids to private schools.

Another example is that of the current reforms in education, which are so problematic. Until recently, the education cabinet secretary Fred Matiang’i could do no wrong because of his yet-to-be-explained purge of cheating in national examinations. It is, therefore, very difficult for Kenyans to complain about the education reforms, and it does not help that every time he speaks, he seems to be enforcing efficiency in the education system. However, listening to him, it’s very difficult to notice that actually, the cabinet secretary does not say much that is substantial. For instance, at the launch of the piloting of the new school curriculum, he used all the necessary buzz words about supporting schools and holding consultations on the reforms, but in fact, he never got to actually spell out what the reforms were. It is very difficult to point out these gaps without having to deal with accusations of being so “negative” and of refusing to support a hardworking minister. But in the midst of my struggles to explain why the reforms must be opposed, Gado, in a single cartoon, explained everything I had been trying to say.

It is clear that oppression has not reduced; it is simply wrapped in a new garment. This reality suggests that we must change the way we satirise. We can no longer rely on just mimicking politicians. So in these changing times, how can we satirise? How do we make fun of policy, or expose political wolves in sheepskin? How do we: 1) warn the people; 2) keep the people always vigilant against those in power; 3) make people ask questions; and 4) give people a sense of encouragement? These are the questions that satirists today have a difficult job answering, especially because they can no longer answer these questions in the same way that Nyambane did.

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Wandia Njoya is a scholar, social and political commentator and blogger based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Ideas

The Imperialist Soul of Social Democrats

Alfie Hancox writes how the apparently progressive post-war government in the UK which delivered unprecedented social security simultaneously undermined progressive political futures in the Global South – national liberation movements for land and resource sovereignty were thwarted. Hancox reveals Labour’s Aneurin Bevan’s role in deepening British imperialism.

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The Imperialist Soul of Social Democrats
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The working-class vision of socialism during this period may be blurred by the corruption of the ‘welfare state’—Kwame Nkrumah

As the popular national story goes, after the Second World War the British working class, seeking a just reward for their sacrifices, came together to win a fairer society by voting in the Labour government which built the welfare state. At the heart of this reputed ‘Spirit of ‘45’ was the architect of the National Health Service (NHS), Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan (1897–1960). Bevan has pride of place in the romanticised pantheon of the Labour left, and he is widely held to epitomise the party’s ‘socialist soul’. While often memorialised as a class warrior who once called for ‘the complete political extinction of the Tory Party’, behind ‘the myth of the miner prophet’ there lies a much more complex and contradictory picture of Bevan the statesman.

Britain’s post-war welfare settlement emerged against the backdrop of negotiated decolonisation – which was by no means a peaceful or straightforward process – and class compromise within the bounds of the capitalist nation-state was mediated by an enduring relationship with Empire. For Bevan, socialism was above all a ‘language of priorities’, and a critical overview of his parliamentary career reveals that colonised peoples in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean were often a subordinate element in his considerations, despite his long-standing friendship with Indian independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru.

It is also often forgotten that the welfare state was serviced by a migrant workforce extracted from Britain’s colonial ‘dependencies’, who were greeted upon arrival with racial-exclusionary impulses which were at times reinforced by Bevan himself. Similar ‘nativist’ tendencies remained present in the recent social democratic revival, demonstrating the need for an interrogation of the traditional Labour movement’s entanglement with imperialism.

The welfare state as neocolonial compact

Social welfare reforms delivered by the state have a contradictory class character. On the one hand, they constitute immediate gains for workers, but at the same time they assist in the reproduction of a value-creating labour force and represent concessions which may boost the legitimacy of capitalism. Welfare measures thus play a mediatory function in the push and pull of class struggle, the surge forward and the reactive containment. Interwar Britain was not wholly immunised from the social convulsions that shook continental Europe, and one wartime Conservative Member of Parliament warned in a famous speech: ‘If you do not give the people social reform, they are going to give you social revolution.’

The reforming Labour government of 1945–51 adopted a carrot and stick approach to class compromise, as the expansion of social housing and public education, and advent of free healthcare, was accompanied with a consolidation of workplace discipline. Bevan claimed to have received his political training in Marxism, but his true faith was in parliamentary democracy, and he believed that national industrial management laid the foundations for the construction of socialism ‘from above’. As a member of Clement Attlee’s Ministerial Emergencies Committee, the erstwhile trade union militant helped defeat a strike wave in the newly nationalised industries (a response to efficiency drives), using the Supply and Transport Organisation which two decades earlier helped beat back the General Strike of 1926.

Britain’s post-war welfare settlement emerged against the backdrop of negotiated decolonisation – which was by no means a peaceful or straightforward process – and class compromise within the bounds of the capitalist nation-state was mediated by an enduring relationship with Empire

While welfare concessions reflect the domestic class balance of forces, this is only one part of the story. As the British New Left historian John Saville identified in 1957, ‘the flexibility and manoeuvrability of the ruling class’ in charting a new social consensus had ‘been derived from the possession of the world’s largest Empire.’ It was this situation which enabled the Labour government to square the circle of maintaining (relative) class peace at home, without eliminating capitalist exploitation. The Pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah, in his seminal 1965 study Neo-Colonialism, explained how the governing elite in Europe and North America found a means to deal with social demands at home after the war:

A deliberate attempt was made to divert colonial earnings from the wealthy class and use them instead generally to finance the ‘Welfare State’ … this was the method consciously adopted even by those working-class leaders who had before the war regarded the colonial peoples as their natural allies against their capitalist enemies at home.

Immediately following the war, Britain was facing a currency balances crisis that called Labour’s social plans into question. Bevan was not explicit about where the money for Attlee’s ‘New Jerusalem’ would come from, but his colleague Evelyn John Strachey, a former Marxist and Labour’s Minister of Food, was more forthright. During a parliamentary debate on a Colonial Development bill in 1948, the year of the NHS’s founding, Strachey concluded that ‘by hook or by crook, the development of primary production of all sorts, in the Colonial areas, Colonial territories and dependent areas in the Commonwealth … is, it is hardly too much to say, a life and death matter for the economy of this country.’

A deliberate attempt was made to divert colonial earnings from the wealthy class and use them instead generally to finance the ‘Welfare State’ … this was the method consciously adopted even by those working-class leaders who had before the war regarded the colonial peoples as their natural allies against their capitalist enemies at home.

The Attlee government essentially pursued a policy of issuing ‘IOUs’ to the colonies in return for the dollars earned from key exports such as rubber and tin from Malaya and cocoa from Ghana. Britain’s post-war reconstruction employed ‘a more systematic exploitation of colonies than at any previous time in imperial history’ – with the active support of the labour bureaucracy. The trade union leader, Ernest Bevin, declared: ‘I am not prepared to sacrifice the British empire [because] it would mean that the standard of life of our constituents would fall considerably.’ As the Trinidadian Marxist George Padmore put it, these labour lieutenants of imperialism wanted to turn the British working class into collective ‘shareholders of the Empire.’

British socialism’s civilising mission

Writing in the socialist newspaper Morning Starthe trade unionist and historian Graham Stevenson has attempted to defend the legacy of the welfare state, and detach it from Attlee’s imperialist adventures in Korea, Malaya and Iran, by arguing that ‘foreign policy was not in Nye Bevan’s remit’. It is well known, however, that Bevan had wanted the Colonial Office, and he was an influential voice in international affairs as the charismatic leader of the ‘soft left’ Tribune faction.

Though Bevan’s rejection of the pre-war colonial status quo did put him at variance with the Labour right, he nevertheless stressed he was ‘against any proposal for complete self-government’ until the colonised countries had endured sufficient tutelage under British parliamentary democracy. He believed in the civilising mission of the ‘Socialist Commonwealth’, and in 1948 declared that with the advent of the National Health Service Britain had achieved ‘the moral leadership of the world’. This paternalistic mindset, which smacked of the ‘white man’s burden’, was typical of the ethical socialist tradition in Labour, and distanced Bevan from the approach of the Comintern-affiliated League Against Imperialism and the Manchester Pan-African Congress, which both rejected the ‘Enlightened’ colonial doctrine of trusteeship.

Bevan never challenged the unequal economic relationship with the ‘dependencies’ which characterised Britain’s free trade imperialism, or what he preferred to call ‘the legitimate claims of world commerce’. The superior British capacity for ethicizing self-interest was shared by Bevan’s wife and fellow MP Jennie Lee, who said at Labour’s annual conference in 1956, without a hint of irony: ‘We have to work for the day when there will be a higher standard of living here, a higher standard of living in the colonies, and when as free and friendly nations they will want us to be their bankers.’

It was in his attitudes to the Middle East that Bevan’s more overtly imperialist leanings came to the fore. While opposing the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt, Bevan nonetheless expressed his outrage when President Gamel Abdel Nasser, who he racistly dubbed ‘Ali Baba’, nationalised the Suez Canal used to transport ‘our oil’. In justifying the Zionist colonial project that violently displaced 700,000 Palestinians, Bevan also argued in the Cabinet that ‘it was not necessarily true that we must avoid estranging Arab states. A friendly Jewish state would be a safer military base than any we should find in any Arab state’. He thought that Europeanised Jewish settlers could shake up the ‘semi-medieval institutions’ of the Arab world and prepare the grounds for socialist democracy, betraying a racialised view of civilisational development.

Bevan’s wavering stance on colonial liberation didn’t make him an outlier on the Labour left. For example, it was the former treasurer of the Movement for Colonial Freedom, Anthony Greenwood, who as Labour’s Colonial Secretary oversaw the ousting of British Guinea (Guyana)’s socialist Premier Cheddi Jagan. The Communist Party theoretician Rajani Palme Dutt identified this tried and test pattern of western social democracy, whereby ostensibly left-wing spokespersons are ‘given positions in the imperialist machine such as would not only gag them from expressing anti-imperialist sentiments but compel them to undertake the official duty of defending imperialist policies’.

As the British New Left historian John Saville identified in 1957, ‘the flexibility and manoeuvrability of the ruling class’ in charting a new social consensus had ‘been derived from the possession of the world’s largest Empire

Ultimately, the government that delivered unprecedented social security at home simultaneously thwarted progressive political futures in the Global South – national liberation movements for land and resource sovereignty, and regionalist aspirations like those fleetingly concretised in Nkrumah’s Union of African States. Labour’s inglorious colonial record came up one time when Bevan was lecturing the Conservatives on their imperial policy. When he mentioned the imprisonment of Nkrumah, Tory members opposite reminded him that the Attlee government he served in as Health Minister was responsible! Bevan brushed this off, replying: ‘Well, we shoved him in gaol. If honourable members will restrain their hilarity for a moment, I said that this is part of the classic story of these struggles.’ This glib response omitted the killing of unarmed protestors in Ghana, which took place months before the arrest of Nkrumah. The West African Students’ Union, of which Dr. Nkrumah was a former member, noted that US imperialism often appeared a lesser threat to colonial independence than ‘British Socialism’.

An additional pillar of Attlee’s foreign policy was the backing of Western Europe’s remilitarisation under the US Marshall Plan, enabling the British Communist Party to declare that Labour’s welfare state was really a ‘warfare state’. Before WWII, Bevan had alienated the Labour leadership by calling for a United Front with communists against the fascist threat in Europe. However, his sympathies had changed with the onset of the Cold War, as anti-colonial movements supported by the Soviet Union destabilised the hegemony of the western imperial powers; and the Bevanites became enmeshed in an ideological struggle pitting Occidental social democracy against Marxism-Leninism. Bevan’s 1951 ‘rebellion’ against Labour’s militarism was not a protest against the genocidal proportions of the Korean War – he had in fact fully supported the Anglo-American invasion of the Peninsula – but because bloated defence spending was now cutting into his health service.

Empire and the National Health

The welfare state also carried the imprint of Empire domestically. While healthcare is a basic social necessity, historically the state provisioning of medical services has been framed in terms of labour productivity and, from the late-nineteenth century, imperialist ideologies of racial hygiene. The Liberal economist William Beveridge’s 1942 blueprint for the welfare settlement recommended that ‘good stock should be allowed to breed while bad stock would be ameliorated through state intervention’, and similar eugenics-influenced sentiments permeated the Labour movement through the Fabian Society.

The nationalisation policies in 1945–51 were not in any meaningful sense socialist, being administered from above by the capitalist state. While Bevan described the National Health Service as ‘pure socialism’, it was compromised from the start by the continued existence of independent contractors and retention of private practice. Nevertheless, the post-war reforms were a step forward in terms of collective social security, and they boosted loyalty to the nation-state that administered them: welfare came ‘wrapped in the Union Jack’. The language of socialism was co-opted and degraded by what Tom Nairn termed Labour’s ‘nationalization of class’, and lost in the process of the patriotic social compact were the Marxist values of working class self-empowerment.

Notions of national belonging and entitlement in Britain became increasingly racialised after the war, and as Satnam Virdee reminds us, the apogee of British social democracy ‘was also the golden age of white supremacy [and] legal racist discrimination’. When migrant workers from the non-white ‘New Commonwealth’ were induced to bolster Britain’s public services and stagnating industries, they were met with a racist ‘colour bar’ in employment and housing, often reinforced by the white-dominated trade unions. In 1948, a year that saw violent attacks on Black residents in Liverpool, Bevan wrote that if ‘colonial subjects come here on their own responsibility’ they ‘cannot complain if it is not all plain sailing’.

An informal caste system was built into the NHS itself, with workers of colour restricted to the lowest-paid employment grades, regardless of their level of training. A Brixton-based Black feminist group described how the health service was like a colony in the way it was run: ‘in the head of the black nurse from the Caribbean is the echo of slavery; in the head of the Asian nurse is the servitude to Sahib and Memsahib.’ Britain was simultaneously draining skilled medical labour from developing countries, the effects of which were described in Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. The hyper-exploited labour of Black and Brown women was unacknowledged by Bevan, who ascribed the NHS’s success to ‘the vitality and genius of the British people’.

Healthcare was quickly propelled to the centre of popular anti-immigrant discourses, and only a year after the NHS’s inception Bevan succumbed to nativist pressures by assuring voters that he’d ‘arranged for immigration officers to turn back aliens who were coming to this country to secure benefits off the Health Service’. The image of non-British ‘foreigners’ exploiting the NHS was a trope later deployed to great effect by Conservative MP Enoch Powell in his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.

The welfare state also carried the imprint of Empire domestically. While healthcare is a basic social necessity, historically the state provisioning of medical services has been framed in terms of labour productivity and, from the late-nineteenth century, imperialist ideologies of racial hygiene.

Bevan’s capitulation reflected a failure to offer a principled counter to anti-immigration rhetoric. His celebrated essay ‘In Place of Fear: A Free Health Service’ was riven by a tension between the defence of ‘the collective principle’ in terms of socialist universalism, and a cost-benefit approach that stressed immigrants’ contributions to ‘national revenues’, and the expenses that would be incurred by passport checks at hospitals. When Bevan rebuked the Trades Union Congress’s call for immigration restrictions after the 1958 racist riot in Notting Hill, this was not on grounds of proletarian internationalism, but the potential damage it would do to the image of the Commonwealth as ‘the greatest constitutional experiment in the history of nations’.

The legacy of Empire persists in the health service today, as demonstrated by the revival of medical racism in the Coronavirus context. The NHS is also still dependent on the labour of precarious migrant workers, now extracted from developing countries such as the Philippines and Nigeria. The present struggle to defend healthcare services in Britain thus needs to be coupled with a historical awareness of the inherent dangers of seeking social reform within the confines of the imperialist nation-state. We should look beyond the elitist parliamentary socialism of Bevan, to the alternative politics of metropolitan anti-colonialists like Dutt and Padmore who sought not a class settlement within the parameters of capitalist competition, but the levelling of wages and conditions across national and racial boundaries. The experiences of the 1970s–1980s further demonstrated that rank-and-file struggles in the health sector, often instigated by low-paid Black ancillary workers, can galvanise the labour movement in a profoundly progressive manner. We can draw on these lessons, and reconnect with more radical, worker and patient-driven visions of socialist healthcare which target the social roots of ill-health intrinsic to capitalist exploitation.

This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy Journal.

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Neocolonial Components of Algorithmic Capitalism in Africa Today

More than half a century after Kwame Nkrumah first articulated his magisterial critique of neocolonialism, Scott Timcke argues his critique remains just as relevant in the analysis of present-day developments of capitalism in Africa.

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The present convergence of finance and wireless technology has generated considerable enthusiasm in development circles about the promise of connectivity and FinTech to improve quality of life and create wealth on the African continent. The prototypical example that proponents point to is M-Pesa, a service run in Kenya by Safaricom. Launched in 2007, M-Pesa is a form of mobile banking which uses cellphone accounts as a financial service, permitting transfers and credit extension facilities. Initially funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), the service was commercialized through a joint venture by Vodafone and Safaricom.

By 2018 there were 30 million customers and 6 billion yearly transactions. By most assessments, the service is a success. This blogpost revisits that conclusion by asking how these kinds of FinTech technologies, in their current configuration, perpetuate neocolonial relations. Replacing direct military rule, neocolonial relations can be understood as the coordinated exploitation of developing countries by advanced capitalist ones through their clout in international political economy. If such a claim at first appears like a stretch because it appears conspiratorial, it is worth recalling how European imperial and colonial practices were naturalized and normalized for most of modernity.

While ‘the methods of neo-colonialists are subtle and varied’ let us begin with the obvious. Desires to ‘bring Africa online’ in the 2000s had to confront stark realities born from both (i) the legacies of colonial infrastructure planned primarily to support resource extraction or settler communities, and (ii) the IMF imposed structural adjustment policies that slashed state maintenance budgets and social, economic, and political infrastructure. So, when digital neo-modernization advocates maintained that without access to the internet people in the Global South would face a digital divide which would exacerbate poverty that stemmed from the already asymmetrical relations in the global system, they overlooked the very history that gave rise to those inequalities and deficiencies in the first place. But this rhetoric of digital inclusion tended to overlook the historical materialist method at the heart of discussions about digital inequalities. Indeed the ‘connectivity paradigm’ currently promoted by the World Economic Forum and Facebook focuses on building infrastructure to create markets and customers, which will bridge the digital divide. However, this conceptualization ignores the insights of the scholarship around uneven and combined development or the research on the spatial fix required by capitalism to stall social problems in metropoles. In other words, for all the discussion about connectivity when digital neo-modernizers deny the connections of history; they deny how some polities are rich because others are poor.

Take the case of rising household over-indebtedness mediated by micro-lending platforms like M-Pesa. Sociological studies of the working-class in Kenya, like that by Kevin Donovan and Emma Park, demonstrate how these digitally mediated financial markets create debt traps for this class. In effect their earnings are used to pay off debts and more loans are taken against future earnings to service existing debts. This digitally mediated indebtedness of the working class is facilitated by the combination of the increase in the volume of rents extracted in the modern financial economy as well as, crucially, analysis of user generated data to assess their creditworthiness. In short, social reproduction is articulated through the logic of this financial system in turn causing severe maldistribution. Through this employment of FinTech ‘poverty is understood as a new frontier for profit-making and accumulation.’ These are the kinds of processes that Dan Kotliar and Abeba Birhane have in mind when they write about data orientalism and the algorithmic colonization of Africa respectively.

While the excellent critical literature on FinTech in Africa is growing, too often this work is lost in the analytical (and political) noise of neo-modernization. As the connectivity paradigm illustrates, this ideology has a naïve comprehension of technology as a social form. By contrast, when approached from a critical perspective, FinTech is not confined to reconfiguring or extending new services. Rather it involves creating new markets, introducing new machinery to reduce labor costs and more generally aiding inter-sector competition. But most importantly, FinTech is concerned with enclosing and capturing the value in existing informal lending practices the African working class has already built themselves. For example, South African informal saving networks are estimated to hold US$3 billion. To put it another way, the purpose of FinTech is to readjust the balance of power between capital and labor. This means that the central issue is not about the outcomes this technology produces, nor is it even a matter of access. The fundamental question is about how control rights of this technology reside with a minority of shareholders and how their interests are adjacent to the interests of their firms’ customers. And through indebtedness, FinTech is effectively creating a ‘digital-creditor-debtor-divide’ in Africa.

There is considerable value in revisiting Kwame Nkrumah’s Neo-Colonialism, the Last Stage of Imperialism to understand the neocolonial components of algorithmic capitalism (informational or cybernetic capitalism). Published in 1965 and written in the wake of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s 1960s Wind of Change speech in the Parliament of South Africa in which the Conservative British government signaled that is would no longer actively oppose independence movements, neocolonialism as Nkrumah described it, was a technique of indirect rule kept in place through a combination of economic arrangements and treaties, innovations in communication technology, and with the assistance of local sympathetic agents. In short, Nkrumah argued that European politicians like Macmillan and Charles de Gaulle offered disingenuous statements about the formal end of colonial rule, in part because newer mechanisms of colonial exploitation were possible to implement.

As a quick illustration of the durability of neocolonialism as a form of imperial rule, consider how, sixty years after formal political independence, the CFA franc has kept former French colonies under the influence of France monetary policy and structuring the economic relationship between France and these former colonies. Fanny Pigeaud and Ndongo Samba Sylla’s recently published Africa’s Last Colonial Currency concretely shows how 162 million people in 15 states have France mediate their monetary policy. When paired with the frequent military interventions that still take place, as Nkrumah accounted for, African populations continue to be subjects of scientific and financial experimentation by global powers.

Even reviewing Nkrumah’s sequence of chapters gives an early indication of the larger argumentation and stakes of his thesis. “Exercised through economic or monetary means” and “by a consortium of financial interests” imperialist finance and its currencies enable capitalists to establish corporations dedicated to extracting raw materials from concessions. By pressing labor—whose wages are artificially depressed through monopoly in economic sectors and the monopsony of labor (a market situation in which there is only one buyer) like in many African extractive economies—the profits of which are repatriated to metropoles through monetary zones and foreign banks. Indeed, at the time the book even caught the eye of the CIA in November of 1965. Nkrumah’s government would not last even four more months. It was deposed in February 1966 by a military coup. While it is difficult to adequately discuss Ghanaian politics in the 1960s in this venue (and more generally we must resist mono-causal explanations) it is nevertheless telling that Nkrumah’s removal set in motion a ‘diplomatic realignment’ that benefited the West.

Indeed, it is this kind of protracted material struggle between oppressor and oppressed that gave rise to the neocolonial critique. In the 1989 edition of The Black Jacobins, CLR James included an appendix ‘From Toussaint L’Ouverture to Fidel Castro’ in which he writes that about the intellectual encounter between the West Indians like Marcus Garvey and George Padmore and Africans like Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah. Calling this “one of the strangest stories in any period of history”, James described how encounters between sets of migrants in European cities led to the formation of groups like the International African Service Bureau, as Theo Williams has previously discussed on roape.net. Being in metropoles these Pan-Africanists had front row seats to witness the transition from ‘the old colonial system’  that had stood since the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference to ‘neocolonialism’ that emerged after World War Two. Through their ‘criticism of the weapon’—to employ a line from Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right—the Pan-Africans made their theory ‘a material force.’

While there are several tendencies in African studies, neocolonialism and neo-modernization represent two divergent conceptualizations of actions occurring on the continent. Despite protestations otherwise, neo-modernization is institutionally, philanthropically, and academically entrenched. It provides the initial frame of reference for design of empirical studies. And it is precisely “because they have already established a near monopoly of what is written on the subject” to enroll some of Walter Rodney’s remarks, that space is made for the neocolonial critique. This critique can, for example, show how local intermediaries facilitate neocolonial rule. Walter Rodney called these local agents’ allegiance to, or cynical cooperation with neocolonial powers, part of the ‘elementary conditions’ of neocolonial rule. For example, as it applies to algorithmic capitalism, the Kenyan government owns 35% of Safaricom. This means that the state gains revenues from the indebtedness of its citizens and the commodification of their data that Donovan and Park describe. But here arises a contradiction, because these revenues may be offset by costs spent to address the social consequences of indebtedness like homeless and mental illness. Indeed, depending upon their mandate, parts of the Kenyan bureaucracy are likely working at cross purposes from one another. This adds conflicting interests to any intra-governmental discussions on how (or if) to regulate lending apps like M-Pesa.

To recap, aside from the skews and parameters that arise from internal properties, it is true that there is nothing intrinsically exploitative about digital technology. That said, due to the global supremacy of the private property regime, the meaning and operation of these digital infrastructures is overdetermined by capitalist values. Accordingly, using neocolonialism in studies of digital sociology can help us focus less on the mechanisms of this or that platform, and more on how platforms are part of the basic forms of a society that shape social relations. In this vein, neocolonialism provides a different methodology—a counter-narrative that foregrounds the experience of the oppressed—that comes to vastly different conclusions to the neo-modernization perpetuated in the elite ‘fintech-philanthropy-development complex’.

This complex promotes platforms to advance economic liberalization and skirting existing regulations believing that such policy courses can nominally improve material conditions for Africans. However, in practice due to platform mediated financialization setting up conditions of perpetual insolvency, the lived-experience of the African working class is delimited by the interests of metropolitan capital, an arrangement that is reminiscent of the same kinds of subordination that Nkrumah described in the latter half of the 20th century. Much like in the 20th century this most recent iteration of neocolonialism will have long reverberations.

This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy Journal.

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Germany’s Namibia Genocide Apology and the Limits of Decolonizing the Past

Heike Becker writes about the recent agreement between the German and Namibian governments for special “reconciliation and reconstruction” projects to benefit the Ovaherero and Nama communities that were directly affected by colonial genocide. Becker asks what are the possible international ramifications of the Namibian-German agreement? Will the deal possibly turn the tide more broadly for reparation claims from ex-colonies of the empires of European colonialism?

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Germany’s Namibia Genocide Apology and the Limits of Decolonizing the Past
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“Words cannot be found to relate what happened; it was too terrible.” This is how Jan Kubas, an eyewitness of the events that followed the battle of Ohamakari in what was then called German South West Africa, now Namibia, in 1904, articulated his struggle to express his memories of the German pursuit of the Ovaherero into the parched Omaheke desert. Kubas was a member of the racially-mixed Griqua people who lived at Grootfontein near the area where following the extermination order by German general Lothar von Trotha, thousands were driven into the barren Omaheke.

In 1904 and 1905 the Ovaherero and Nama people of central and southern Namibia rose up against colonial rule and dispossession. The revolt was brutally crushed. By 1908, 80% of the Ovaherero and 50% of the Nama had succumbed to starvation and thirst, overwork and exposure to harsh climates. Thousands perished in the desert; many more died in the German concentration camps in places such as Windhoek, Swakopmund, and Shark Island.

A century after Jan Kubas struggled to articulate the horrors he witnessed in 1904, the German government has, at long last, officially acknowledged the colonial genocide. An agreement between the German and Namibian governments was recently concluded. According to the agreement, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will soon travel to Windhoek and offer a formal apology for the first genocide of the 20th century; the deal also stipulates additional German development aid for Namibia. These funds, to the amount of 1.3 Billion Euro, will be paid over the next thirty years. They will be earmarked for special “reconciliation and reconstruction” projects to benefit the Ovaherero and Nama communities that were directly affected by the genocide.

There are many open questions, however: What are possible international ramifications of the Namibian-German agreement? Will the deal possibly turn the tide more broadly for reparation claims from ex-colonies of the empires of European colonialism?

Penetrating questions need to be asked also about the extent to which Germany is committed to “working through” its violent colonial past. Has it, following decades of avoidance, truly committed to addressing its painful colonial past? Can the restitution of looted cultural objects and human remains from the postcolonial metropole’s museums and academic collections be considered a serious and sufficient effort at decolonization? What are the limitations of recent challenges to the historical staging of former colonial empires in the public space, such as monuments, and the renaming of streets, which were named after colonial despots?

And in national as well as transnational perspectives: What could be the next steps in going beyond dealing with the colonial past in purely symbolic terms? What kind of new solidarities are being forged in moves towards decolonization, racial justice and re-distribution?

Reactions

When the announcement that after almost six years of bi-lateral negotiations an agreement had been initialled by the Namibian envoy, Zedekia Ngavirue, and his German counterpart, Ruprecht Polenz, the German government and mainstream media celebrated this as a political and moral triumph: “Germany recognises Genocide” broadcast the main news bulletin of the state television ARD on 28 May 2021. The deal was quickly dubbed the “reconciliation agreement” in German discourse. The leader of the German delegation, Polenz remarked confidently that with the promise of special aid Germany would ensure that the acknowledgment and apology did not remain lip service.

The Namibian government’s announcement was much more subdued. President Hage Geingob’s spokesperson cautiously expressed that the agreement was a “first step in the right direction”. However, associations of the affected communities, the Ovaherero and Nama, whose ancestors had been victims of the genocide, were a whole lot more critical. They criticized the agreement on substantial as well as procedural grounds: For one, the German government had succeeded to enforce its stated principle not to pay reparations for the crimes committed during German colonial rule. And, as they had done for years, descendants of the victims protested that they had not been properly involved in the process. Ovaherero traditional leader Vekuii Rukoro, who sadly succumbed on the 18 June to the terrible Covid surge currently haunting Namibia, called the agreement “an insult“; a statement, which made front page headline news on the The Namibian newspaper.

Members of the victim associations took to the streets of Windhoek. Even those representatives of the affected communities, who had in the past been more amenable to the negotiation process, expressed their concerns in growing numbers. They particularly questioned the amount of the payment package, which was far lower than what had been expected by the Namibian government, who had rejected, in 2020, the earlier German offer of 10 million Euro compensation. While the amount offered now is an improvement on last year’s, it still falls short of Namibian expectations, as even Namibian Vice-President Nangolo Mbumba admitted although he officially accepted the German offer on behalf of his government.

For Namibians, and the descendants of the genocide victims in particular, it is not all about the amount of money though. Activist and politician Esther Muinjangue, the former Chairperson of the Ovaherero Genocide Foundation, now an opposition MP, and also Namibia’s Deputy Minister of Health and Social Services, cut to the chase when she unequivocally stated that “development aid can never replace reparations”.

The Namibian government’s official response on 4 June 2021 clearly attempted some damage control and referred to the agreed “reconstruction and reconciliation” payments as a “reparations package”. This is in distinct contradiction to the official language of the agreement that these payments were decidedly not reparations but an additional set of development aid. Three weeks after the announcement of the agreement, and what the German government had obviously hoped would bring closure to a painful past, there’s only one phrase to describe the situation: it’s a total mess.

Reparations

When former German Foreign Minister Joseph ‘Joschka’ Fischer visited Windhoek in October 2003 he went on record to say that there would be no apology that might give grounds for reparations for the genocide, which was committed by German colonial troops in Namibia. Fischer’s rather undiplomatic words are indicative of the intense and heated, historical and present relations that are at stake.

There is an underlying conjecture of the German-Namibian negotiations: what are the potential international ramifications of accepting legal, political and moral responsibility of reparations for colonial violence and genocide. Colonial Germany may have committed genocide, according to the UN definition, “with intent to destroy, …, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” only in Namibia; but it certainly carried out atrocities and mass killings also in other colonial territories. Esther Muinjangue nailed it when she said: “We know that the German Government is guilty equally when it comes to the people of Tanzania or when it comes to the people of Cameroon. So, they want to safeguard themselves.” The German government fears more claims from ex-colonies; it also fears claims from European countries such as Greece, which have never received compensation for World War Two war crimes.

Then there are the shared postcolonial anxieties among the former colonial empires. Would Germany’s acceptance of its colonial past open the floodgates to a surge of claims by formerly colonized nations, in Africa as elsewhere, against their erstwhile colonizers? Muinjangue thinks this a likelihood: “all countries that were present at the Berlin Conference of 1884 and divided up the African continent are guilty: France, Britain, Belgium, and many others. They all have blood on their hands – and they all fear that one day they will have to pay reparations for their crimes.” The fears of former empires, such as Britain, France and Belgium, have been the proverbial elephant in the room.

Not without us…

If any agreement between a former colonizing power and the formerly colonized should stand a chance of bringing about justice and reconciliation, the descendants of those affected must be closely listened to. This means that they should be appropriately included in the negotiations. This has been the vocal  persistent demand of genocide victim groups for an inclusive process under the slogan “not without us” ever since the negotiations between Namibia and Germany began in 2015. In January 2017 representatives of Ovaherero and Nama traditional authorities filed a lawsuit in New York, which although ultimately unsuccessful, sent a strong message to Germany and the Namibian government that negotiations “without us” remained unacceptable for those whose ancestors were killed in the genocide.

A common grievance, often expressed in Namibia, questions Germany’s pronounced difference of responding to different victims of genocide. Ever since 1990, descendants of those who suffered under the colonial genocide have often asked me, why did Germany pay generous and easily negotiated reparations to Israel after the reparations programme, which was created when Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of West Germany and Israel signed the Luxembourg Agreement in 1952, but has been so recalcitrant regarding Namibians? Why did the German government readily include the Jewish Claims Conference as representatives of Jewish non-governmental organisations but insisted on government-to-government only talks with Namibia? Is it “because we are Africans”, with these words Namibians regularly express suspected racism.

Restitutions: Symbolic reparations, not quite…

Symbolic commemorations of Germany’s African genocide have taken place over the past few years. If not without controversy, human remains of genocide victims were repatriated from Germany to Namibia in 2011, 2014 and 2018. These had been shipped to academic and medical institutions in Germany, and had remained there until recently.

In 2019 some significant items of cultural memory, which had been stolen during colonial conquest, were returned to Namibia from the Linden Museum in Stuttgart. These included the slain Nama leader Hendrik Witbooi’s Bible and his riding whip.

Other former German colonies have also begun to claim restitution. In 2018 Tanzania’s ambassador to Berlin requested the repatriation of human remains, which are being stored in German museums and academic institutions. In Berlin alone the remains of 250 individuals were identified, and more are suspected to be in Bremen, Leipzig, Dresden, Freiburg, and Göttingen. Provenance research on the human remains from former German East Africa also include about 900 remains of colonized people from Rwanda, which together with today’s Tanzania and Burundi formed colonial German East Africa. Also, in 2018, the President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation promised funding for future provenance research in transnational collaborations on collections of human remains with the perspective of repatriation to Cameroon, Togo and Papua New Guinea.

Yet, the debacle of the Namibian-German “reconciliation” agreement points out that the attempts at addressing the German colonial past, including, but not restricted to the shared-divided history of Germany and Namibia, have thus far been at best half-hearted.

Bronzes, a boat & street names

At the same moment that the “reconciliation agreement” was presented in Germany with some fanfare, controversy erupted once again around the Humboldt-Forum. Berlin’s ambitious new museum is housed in the royal Prussian palace in central Berlin; the reconstructed Baroque structure that was built over the past decade at a cost of over 680 Million Euro. In this space in the historical centre of imperial Germany, controversially, ethnographic collections will be exhibited. The Humboldt-Forum has been at the centre of highly critical responses from anti-colonial and black community civil society organisations, cultural workers, as well as historians and anthropologists. Its claim to decolonization has been highly contradictory.

Just before news broke about the Namibian-German agreement, high-profile German politicians loudly congratulated each other for their decision to return some of the hundreds of Benin bronzes kept in German museum collections to Nigeria. Until recently Benin bronzes were meant to occupy pride of place in the new museum in central Berlin, where Germany wants to demonstrates its cosmopolitanism; now German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas celebrated the “turning point in our way of dealing with [our] colonial history”. Quite ironically, just a week later the next prominent scandal of colonial loot hit the news. A new book by the historian Götz Aly revealed the dark history of an artistically stunning vessel looted from former German-New Guinea in 1903.

Berlin’s leading museum officials displayed an astonishing level of ignorance. Even more astounding was the suggestion to continue exhibiting the beautifully decorated 16 metres long boat, that was built by residents of Luf Island in the Western part of the Hermit Group, and who fell victim to German colonial atrocities in the new museum by declaring it “a memorial to the horrors of the German colonial past”. This arrogance is indeed astounding since there is still no memorial in Berlin to honour the victims of German colonialism and genocide in the central Berlin space, near the Reichstag, where Germany honours the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and belatedly, now also the victims of the Porajmos (genocide of the Roma and Sinti), and the Nazis’ persecution of homosexuals.

A tongue-in-cheek suggestion came from a leading historian of German colonialism and genocide. In a column in die tageszeitung Jürgen Zimmerer, Professor of Global History at Hamburg University, asked why not turn the reconstructed Prussian Palace itself into a fitting memorial. His proposition: fill-up its centre courtyard with sand from the Omaheke desert, or break up the castle’s fake Baroque façade with barbed wire in remembrance of the concentration camps in colonial Namibia.

Then there is street renaming, the most noticeable form of postcolonial activism in the German public space. A well-known dispute over street names comes from Berlin’s Afrikanisches Viertel (‘African Quarter’), where from 2004 civil society activist groups have been calling for the renaming of streets, which are currently named after German colonial despots. The members of the long-standing activist group Berlin Postkolonial and other initiatives, now active in cities and towns across Germany, have employed decolonial guided walking tours as a main tool of intervention. Recently, one of Berlin’s oldest campaigns gained success when the former Wissmannstrasse in the borough of Neukölln was renamed Lucy-Lameck-Strasse. The infamous German colonial officer and administrator was thus supplanted with the Tanzanian liberation fighter and politician, who after her country’s independence campaigned for gender justice.

Entangled memory: from violent pasts to new solidarities

The question remains, how much real change can come from the symbolic engagement with the colonial past. A future-oriented trajectory will point out that, beyond symbolic action, Germany’s culture of remembrance has to face challenges for the country to understand its own history within European colonialism.

Public debates in Germany have frequently posited colonialism and Holocaust memory against each other; it is alleged that an expansion of “working through the past” to include the colonial era, would ‘relativize’ the Holocaust. In contrast to this supposed competition of memory, Michael Rothberg’s concept of Multidirectional Memory has recently garnered some interesting, though at times controversial attention in public debate. Rothberg’s intervention, translated into German only twelve years after the original publication of the book in 2009, has become a catalyst for productive dialogues. In a nutshell, Rothberg suggests that memory works productively through negotiation and cross-referencing with the result of more, not less memory.

 Berlin-based Ovaherero activist Israel Kaunatjike

An interesting case to explore new ways of thinking about colonial memory, social change and solidarities relates to the historical legacies of racial science and eugenics, which were developed by the anthropologist Eugen Fischer on the basis of research in Namibia in 1908. Fischer’s research was mainly used in the European colonial empires. From 1927 it was further developed under his leadership at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics (KWI-A) in Berlin-Dahlem. From 1933 it became the basis of the Nazi race laws that targeted Jews and other racially and socially ‘undesirables’. Today the colonial roots of racism and inequality, as well as the systematization of racial studies and eugenics in Nazi Germany, continue to raise questions about the politics of remembrance and decolonization.

During excavations on the grounds of the Free University, which now occupies the site of the former KWI-A, hastily buried human remains were discovered. In 2015 and 2016 the University commissioned archaeological expertise on these finds. The KWI-A entertained close connections to the Auschwitz camp. Thus the initial suspicion was that the excavated bones may have belonged to people murdered during the Nazi era. However, when the archaeological report was presented during a well-attended online meeting in February 2021, it turned out that the situation was more complex. Some of the remains seem to have originated indeed in crimes against humanity that were perpetrated during the Nazi terror. Others, however, are more likely to originate in anthropological collections from the colonial era. It appeared impossible to ascertain the regional origins of the remains of the about 250 individuals. This gave rise to new solidarities that originated in entangled forms of remembering the atrocities of the colonial and Nazi eras. Representatives of Jewish, Black, and Sinti and Roma communities now work together to ensure that these human remains are treated with dignity.

Such new forms of solidarity are already practiced in civil society and transnationally in the global anti-racist movement. When the global Black Lives Matter movement formed a year ago, young activists got involved in Germany as well as in Namibia. In Windhoek, the movement was directed primarily against the statue of the German colonial officer and alleged city founder Curt von François. Not only the Nama and Ovaherero communities, but also young Namibians from all sections of the population are confronting colonial legacies. Over the past year the young Namibian activists who campaigned against the offensive monument and who support the claims of the descendants of the genocide survivors, have clinched a number of social justice issues as part of their decolonizing activism, and have been calling for an end to sexism, patriarchy, and racism.

In Germany too, civil society activists have played a big role and the “reconciliation agreement” is owed, more than anything else, to their post-colonial remembrance work. Campaigning started around 2004, i.e., the time of the centenary of the genocide. In October 2016, for instance, an international civil society congress, “Restorative Justice after Genocide”, brought together over 50 Herero and Nama delegates and German solidarity activists in Berlin. The participants staged public protests and Ovaherero and Nama delegates held a press conference in the German Bundestag.  And now that the, unsatisfactory, agreement is on the table, activists in Germany are again campaigning vibrantly in solidarity with the affected Namibian communities and have taken to the streets of Berlin. The current Namibia solidarity alliance brings together civil society outlets of long-standing, and young groups, who have come together during the past year’s surge of radical anti-racist activism.

The agreement that has been concluded falls short of expectations in many ways. However, it can be an impetus for the former colonial rulers and the formerly colonized to finally begin a meaningful conversation about the difficult divided history. The question arises as to whether the civil society decolonization movements in both Germany and Namibia can influence the future politics of remembrance in both their countries in a way that makes a solidarity-based post-colonial policy of reconciliation and justice possible.

This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy Journal.

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