I READ an interview with the German Foreign Minister recently and, among other things, he revealed that Zorro was his childhood idol – that struck a cord with me. Not that the masked avenger was a particular favourite of mine, but, as long as I can remember, I have had a strong sense of justice, a sense of fair play, which has led me to support those disadvantaged or unable to defend themselves.
Injustice, whether directed at my person or at others, has, on many occasions throughout my life, caused me to seethe with rage. I do not walk over dead bodies to achieve my goals, I do not leave a trail of human misery and destruction in my wake – others do. That applies to ruthless individuals, callous nations and egocentric civilisations as a whole.
Take Africa, and try not to forget that we are in the 21st century. Here are some facts, or eye openers, to begin with: 900 million people like you and me inhabit the ‘Dark Continent’; 71 per cent of these are aged under 25; the average life expectancy is 46; millions die every year of Aids, the most common cause of death; 50 per cent of Africans live on less than one dollar a day and 102 out of every 1,000 children born do not see their first birthday.
I’m not going to take the Live8 line here, talk about aid or paint pictures of starving Ethiopian children, horrifying as these are. I want to look at the root of the problem. Europe, in particular, saw fit to enslave, repress and brutally subjugate an entire race, treating it as a commodity, a subculture, inferior beings to be hunted and kept with an appalling lack of humanity, flying in the face of the religious fervour prevailing at the time. Colour of skin and lack of education served as valid excuses to treat the black man infinitely worse than farm animals or household pets.
Britain’s colonial savagery is well publicised, as is America’s history of slavery, abolished in name only by Lincoln, intent on winning a civil war. Deeply ingrained prejudice and antipathy was to continue for a further 100 years, officially sanctioned segregation having today given way to tacit discrimination. In addition, shiploads of unwanted former slaves were repatriated to the artificially created state of Liberia, creating a dysfunctional society, embroiled in a seemingly never-ending bloody internal conflict of its own.
But others are just a guilty of exploitation, violence and subsequent abandonment. Togo, Cameroon, Namibia, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and parts of southern Kenya were all German colonies until 1919. The Kaiser’s officials there enjoyed unrestrained freedoms, while doling out torture and death at a whim. In 1893, the wives of an entire Cameroonian native regiment were publicly flogged because the German governor considered them lazy.
At the same time, huge profits were made trading badly cut brandy that quickly acquired the name “black death”. A complete tribe in Namibia was driven into the desert to certain death by morphine addicted officers in retribution for the killing of one of their number. The captain of that expeditionary fume was later decorated for gallantry.
Later, Italy massacred spear-wielding tribesmen using airplanes and machine-guns, and Belgium transformed the Congo into a bloodbath. France was still at war with its Algerian dependency in the 1950s, Portugal hung on to Angola and Mozambique by strength of arms until 1974, while the pressures of a changing world finally forced the descendants of British and Dutch settlers to abandon apartheid a decade later in South Africa.
Right up to this time, Africa had been systematically raped of its natural riches. For centuries, it not only furnished free manpower but also provided the European superpowers with anything from gold, diamonds and copper, to bananas, rubber and coffee – at no cost other than their extraction. Missionary zeal, or the portrayal of a benevolent father figure, was no more than a thinly disguised veil that justified economic avarice.
Today, only oil is left, and that is still being removed in huge quantities from Nigeria to the Indian Ocean, concessions having been gained by paying off the despotic regime at the expense of the people who get nothing. One billion dollars disappear annually in oil revenues in Angola, Zimbabwe has been turned into a poor house by Robert Mugabe, and the King of Swaziland has built a palace for each of his 11 brides, while 37 per cent of his subjects are Aids-infected. This gross inequality, endemic to the whole continent, is a form of post-independence colonialism by proxy.
Television makes everything worse. Almost everyone, however poor, has access to images showing wealth and excesses somewhere. The excluded and disenfranchised have their noses firmly glued to the screens, the shop windows to the Promised Land, or world.
Refugees have become symptomatic of Africa’s horror. These are mostly people not fleeing from terror, civil war or torture, but human beings running from slow starvation and death. The United Nations estimates that 18 million Africans are fugitives in other countries, constantly on the move. These are the lucky ones. Thousands make it no further than the concentration camps in Spain’s North African enclave, are washed up on the Andalusian coastline, or fail to evade capture by sophisticated night vision binoculars, barbed wire, or gunboats.
Italian fishermen are pulling more dead bodies out of the water than sardines, while their government helpfully provides Libya with life vests and body bags. Europe has built itself a fortress, turning a deaf ear to the cries of its former ‘children’, refusing to acknowledge the past and the debt it has accumulated beyond calculation.
A graphic consequence of this deliberate autism is the current revolts in France. While Germany imported Turks to provide the cheap labour required for its industrial re-birth, and Britain integrated its post-war colonial workforce, becoming largely a multi-cultural society, France did neither – it kept its Algerians, Tunisians, Senegalese and Togolese, but, assimilation there was not.
Over five million, mostly Muslim immigrants, many second generation, continue to be marginalised, at best ignored. Paris, Lille, Lyon and Marseilles, among many other urban centres, are surrounded by ghettos created by socioeconomic forces – breeding grounds for disaffection, envy, resentment and poverty. French society and politicians have done their best to look away, gifted athletes forming the exception – they can no longer afford to do so.
As the western world cannot continue to ignore its former colonies, paying nothing but lip service to the plight of the continent upon which its present elevated status was based, in Paris, only cars are burning. The Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, has called for the “scum” who perpetrated the uprising to be “cleaned away with a power-hose”. Ethnic cleansing is and never has been an option. Unless there is a radical and dramatic change in attitude and policy soon, seeing the beginning of an age of reparations and globalisation, the whole world will go up in flames.
What is happening around us, away from our short-term secure lives, has nothing to do with Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest. It is a form of Nazi-ism in Saville Row suits, based on greed, cloaked in meaningless political rhetoric. The time has come for our global society and its leaders to take a collective, long-term view and assume the responsibility of the past as well as the future.