The reverberations from the George Floyd murder and the toppling of statues of slavers which swept the world are symptoms of a vast reckoning of the role that people of Africa played in the wealth, power and prestige of the West. This belated realisation calls for a renegotiation of the relationship between people of African descent and the rest of the world. Essay by Onyekachi Wambu.
When the statue of Edward Colston, the notorious slaver, philanthropist, and British Tory MP was toppled into a river in the UK at the height of the George Floyd protests, many described the moment as the beginning of an ‘African Spring’.
Like the Arabs during their season of protests and uprisings, people of African descent instantly understood the reasons the protests spread so quickly across the Western world. The commonalities and tropes of social, economic, cultural, and legal oppressions were intimately understood, and resonated across the Atlantic ‘civilisational space’.
Unleashed by Columbus, this Atlantic civilisational space has been the most important geo-political reality of the last 500 years: the gold, land and free labour of the conquered and enslaved transformed the fortunes of the European world, turning small and medium-sized countries into superpowers.
People of African descent, of course played critical roles in co-creating this civilisational space over the last 400 years, but have rarely enjoyed the benefits, always having to fight for their rights and against marginalisation and second-class status.
George Floyd’s killing by the police was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. It was the moment fear evaporated, triggering the ‘Colston moment’ that now symbolises the massive reckoning with history which we are all engaged in.
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has thus initiated a global conversation about slavery and colonialism, structural racism and the ways the lives of those of African descent have been devalued and in extreme cases, even extinguished.
The discourse, previously at the margins, is now centre-stage, consuming individuals, organisations, and governments. More statues have toppled all over the Western world, streets and buildings named after enslavers are being challenged, restitution demands have been made to museums and other cultural institutions for the return of cultural artefacts and ancestral remains, the arguments for reparations from CARICOM and elsewhere have been sharpened, alongside actions to remove Queen Elizabeth II, as head of state in Barbados.
Beyond that there have been wholescale examinations of current interpersonal relations, social practices, institutional behaviour, and national and global policies that have produced inequalities and diminished the life chances of people of African descent (all the way up to the apex of the UN Security Council, the IMF and World Bank). At the end what is at stake is a major renegotiation of the status of people of African descent within the Atlantic space.
I can’t breathe
So why now? Frantz Fanon noted that: “Each generation must discover its mission, fulfil it or betray it, in relative opacity.” He also noted that: “We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.”
These actions have therefore come against the background of a 30-year generational struggle of quickening action that came at the collapse of the Apartheid regime, which brought to an end the codification of African inferiority within the Atlantic space.
In 1992, just short of 30 years after its formation, the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) finally called time on the last 500 years and the price that had been paid by Africans. The OAU took a gigantic step to pass a resolution on the Reparations of the Wrong Done to Africa through Exploitation and the Slave Trade.
An Eminent Persons Group on Reparations was established and people like the late UK MP Bernie Grant returned to their home countries to establish African Reparations Movements. Remembrance Days would also soon be launched to commemorate victims, and then the unified position adopted by the African world at the ‘2001 Durban World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance’, finally saw the trade in enslaved Africans declared a Crime Against Humanity.
A decade later, South Africa was again at the forefront when on 9 March 2015, students at the University of Cape Town launched the ‘Rhodes Must Fall Campaign’ campaign to topple the statue of arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes.
For the students it had become apparent how much items like the statue had been an integral part of the wider agreement that had ended the Apartheid regime. Not only had the agreement left in place the structures of the economic system (which meant that land reform and widespread redistribution were off the table), it had also put in place oppressive thresholds for the removal of statues and other cultural symbols.
The past and its relations were indeed frozen, with new African generations, though technically free, still trapped in the norms and economic structures of this earlier world of White supremacy. No wonder, alongside the chants of ‘Rhodes Must Fall’, the young South Africans were heard chanting ‘I can’t breathe’ – the same words George Floyd was heard pleading, as he lay dying.
The 10 Rs
All these actions since 1992 are thus dealing with what I am dubbing the 10 Rs, or the framework for dealing with the damaging impact and legacies of slavery over the last 400 years, and the quest for repair and for an African Renaissance. The 10 Rs reflect the mood for a radical African renegotiation and repair agenda of the Atlantic civilisational space and involve:
recognition of the crimes of enslavement, empire and colonisation;
remembrance of the victims;
restoration of dignity;
restitution of captured artefacts and ancestral remains;
reparations and compensation;
reconnections within the severed African world;
reconciliation between the continent and the diaspora,
return as achieved by groups like the Rastas;
reimagining the future;
reconstruction of African societies.
The 10 Rs have frequently developed organisations and movements of their own but also quite often work as a continuum of one broader movement: seeking change and renegotiation. These movements, in isolation or together, are likely to become more assertive, alongside Africa’s growing demographic importance.
This article began with the notion promoted by some people of an African Spring, but perhaps what is really being witnessed is an Atlantic Fall. Lenin reminded us that ‘there are weeks when decades happen’.
We are at a massive historical inflection point. The current war in Ukraine will consolidate the reordering of the world that has slowly been unfolding during the last 30 years, with the rise of Eurasia.
For two hundred years, trade in the Atlantic world between Europe and the Americas dominated global trade; then in 1985 the Pacific Ocean trade route between Asia and the Americas became dominant. It is anticipated that from 2030, trade within Eurasia will dominate the global economy – with China once more at the centre of human history. The falling statues of Rhodes and Colston are also symbols of a geopolitical moment in history, which calls for new thinking amongst Africans.
As people of African descent renegotiate their status within the Atlantic space, it is vital that Africa’s new role with the emerging Afro-Asiatic world is also tackled head-on. It would also only be able to do that from a position of strength, if its own internal integration, including payment systems, through the AU and the African Continental Free Trade Area, allows it to emerge as another pole in the global economy.
Finally, perhaps we should once again heed Fanon: “If the building of a bridge does not enrich the awareness of those who work on it, then the bridge ought not to be built.”