By James N. Kariuki *
During the 2008 US presidential campaign, Barack Obama was asked for his thoughts on the issue of reparations. To him, the best that America could do to compensate its African-American citizens was to provide better inner city schools. This answer was a coded response that black Americans’ socio-economic ‘advancement’ had to be individually earned.
It was a soothing political response for an American audience. It was also an early warning that, Obama -considered himself an American first and foremost. Africa and Africans had no claim on him. When he was elected, Obama steadfastly adhered to that doctrine for his entire first term.
Now Obama is almost a week old into his second term. Yet, we still do not know for sure, his stand on the question of reparations for Global Africa, a claim made against historical abuse especially relative to slavery. Yet, in this broad sense, reparations are indeed both an American and a global issue.
In 1804 Haiti, the small island country, made history by undertaking a full-fledged slave revolt against the colonizing French. That revolution became the first successful strike against subjugation of Black people in the so-called the New World.
Haiti hit the world headlines again in 2003 by demanding that France paid $22 billion in restitutions for cash paid to French landowners in Haiti as a pre-condition for the island’s independence in 1825. This demand constituted the basis of major differences between the implicated slave-owning Western countries (especially the USA and France) and the incumbent President of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Aristide was accused of orchestrating the huge reparations demand and was ultimately banished out of his own country in 1994 by the same Western powers.
In 2004, South Africa celebrated its 10th anniversary of Black rule; in 1994 anti-apartheid forces had succeeded in dismantling ‘political’ racism in Africa. That revolution became the last successful strike against Blacks people’s overt subjugation worldwide. In racial terms, South Africa had finally concluded the racial liberation process launched by Haiti two hundred years earlier.
Affinity quickly solidified between the two ‘liberating’ nations. In January 2004, South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki, attended Haiti’s celebrations of its revolution, the only African Head of State to do so. Shortly thereafter, in March 2004, the Mbeki’s government granted political asylum to Aristide, the same President under whom Haiti had demanded a $20 billion payment of reparations from France in 2003. France was one of the world’s powers that had determined that Aristide had to leave his homeland in 2004 allegedly in the interest of Haiti’s political stability.
Critics have insisted that Aristide’s forced exile to South Africa was ultimately triggered by his stand on the issue of reparations. The US, and France in particular, were alarmed about the general political fall-out of such a public call. But the demand for French reparations had a ring of hollowness as we are tuned into thinking of Third World indebtedness. Was Aristide’s Haiti agitating for a re-visit to the fundamental question of who owes whom in the world?
South Africa was already caught in a storm of animated debate on this issue of debts owed. The persistent question was: should Black South Africans seek legal restitution from Western multinational companies that had benefited enormously from their exploitation during apartheid?
Opinions in South Africa on the issue varied vastly. One proposition, championed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, insisted that harmed Black South Africans were indeed entitled to seek legal restitution and, if found liable, the Western multinationals were duty-bound to make amends. Tutu was personally on record as a key witness in a case lodged in the USA in support of the injured black applicants.
However, Mbeki’s government differed urging that South Africans should let bygones be bygones. In particular, the Mbeki administration was averse to the notion of South African citizens seeking restitution by litigation in foreign countries. Indeed, that regime went as far as contacting the US Court that was preparing to hear the South Africans’ case, urging a dismissal. Jacob Zuma’s administration would reverse that position in the years to come.
For resisting the quest for restitution for apartheid’s victims during Mbeki’s era, the ANC government found itself in a collision course with Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Chairman of its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Further, the government’s attitude was antithetical to the cause of its national guest from Global Africa, Haiti’s President Aristide. As noted, astute observers are convinced that Aristide had been reduced to an ‘asylum seeker’ precisely because of his stand on the issue of reparations.
In the issue of reparations, history was on the side of Bishop Desmond Tutu. In situations where a definable group has absorbed ‘collective injury’ from another tradition has been to amend the wrongs by paying restitution. The most famous case is, of course, that of the Jews in the holocaust. Post-World War II Germany has faithfully and openly made enormous amends to the Jewish people and the state of Israel.
There have been other notable instances such as the Japanese wrongful relocation and internment by the Roosevelt administration during World War II. In December 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. US citizens feared another attack and war hysteria gripped the country. Pressure mounted on President Franklin Roosevelt to take pre-emptive action against Japanese descendants living in the US.
In February 1942, Roosevelt signed an Executive Order under which120, 000 people of Japanese descent living along the US Pacific coast were removed from their homes and placed in internment camps known as War Relocation Camps. The order was justified against the claim that people of Japanese extraction were likely to act as spies for Japan. Yet, during the entire war only ten people were ever convicted of spying for Japan, and these were all Caucasians.
Other considerations made the apartheid-like internments painfully unreasonable. More than two thirds of those interned were American citizens and half of them were children. None had been accused of disloyalty to USA. Finally, within the internment program, there were instances where family members were separated and put in different camps. For all practical purposes, these internment camps were tantamount to incarceration in ‘concentration camps.’
Forty three years after World War II, the US Government succumbed to domestic political pressure and concurred to pay restitutions in the amount of $1.2 billion to the affected Japanese families The 1988 American decision on restitution was accompanied by a moving statement and a pledge:
“In remembering, it is important to come to grips with the past. No nation can fully understand itself or find its place in the world if it does not look with clear eyes at all the glories and disgraces of its past. We in the United States acknowledge such an injustice in our history. The internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry was a great injustice, and it will never be repeated.”
Ten years after the American commendable decision, in February 2008, the Government of Australia officially and publicly extended full and unreserved apology to its Aborigine citizens for historical wrongful treatment, for “the “laws and policies that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.” The Australian Government did not mentioned reparations for the Aborigines by name, but amends for the purpose have been coming, albeit grudgingly.
Fair-minded people would agree that Blacks in Global Africa have endured greater ‘collective injury’ than all the other groups combined. Yet, no reparations have ever been paid to them. Legal experts insist that this failure is due to the enormity of the Blacks’ issue; it is too overwhelming. The case of apartheid victims is manageable and that makes it a bigger issue than just South Africa. As a legal and moral precedent, it embraces the entire Global Africa.
Even if he could, President Barack Obama is not obliged to rescue Africa; Americans voted him into power and he is answerable to them. However, slavery was an American sin and I remain convinced that Obama has a presidential and personal responsibility to apologize to global Africa for that wrongdoing. That issue alone is an opportunity to place the first Black American president in his rightful place in history. Hopefully, Obama will not let the moment slide by.
*James N. Kariuki is a Professor of International Relations and an independent Consultant based in South Africa. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author.