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The reparations talk

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There has recently been much talk about reparations. I refer to it as “talk” because there has really been no meaningful dialogue, since at play are a number of different assumptions and different points of departure. I have difficulty seeing any serious arguments against reparations. The arguments, for instance, that slavery was legal at the time and that there were African collaborators do not stand. In 1952, a reparations agreement was signed between West Germany and Israel. There were Jewish collaborators in the atrocities that were committed by Hitler’s Germany.{{more}}
 
The West Germans were to pay for slave labour, the persecution of Jews and for property stolen by the Nazis. One cannot also hide behind national laws. But the idea of reparations is not new and a different side of it surfaced in 1825 when a Royal Ordinance from France had imposed large indemnity payments on the new Haitian state and demanded discounts for commercial goods entering and leaving Haiti. Debates about reparations, in fact, have a global dimension and have been taking place elsewhere, including the United States of America.

This is not to suggest that the claims being made now are going to be recognised and honoured in the short run, for what is involved is in the final analysis a political battle. Moral arguments are not going to have front place, as happened in 1834 when the economic issue had the final say. In Haiti in 1825, there was no struggle, because the power of France prevailed and allowed it to make its imposition on its former colony. But this goes even further, because the overthrow of Jean Bertrand Aristide in the 2004 coup seemed to have had some links to the efforts of his government in 2003 to make calls for debt restitution. The Jews, of course, have a lot of economic and political muscle. Hilary Beckles was right when he said that weak and disorganised people do not get reparations.

Back Home

Now to centre the issue back home, it must be said that, like anything else, we cannot look at this matter in isolation. There is a context in which we have to look at it. While not side-stepping the issue, we have at the same time to deal with a number of other things over which we should have some measure of control. While we make demands on Britain for compensation for the barbaric treatment meted out to our ancestors and the fact that that country developed on the backs of the native peoples and slaves, we should not be tolerating and paying homage to the forces that oppress us today. We live in a country where many people are on the breadline because of their political colours. Many of our people in the public service and police service cannot get promotion because they are deemed to be singing a different tune. Just look at the names of some of those who have risen to the top.
 
They are likely to be friends or relatives of those already at the top. There is in reality serious inbreeding and inbreeding often leads to deformities. The plantation still exists, but it is constituted differently and has different parameters. The plantation culture has been embraced and used by those who hold power at all levels. They have at their feet some house slaves who, historically, have been known to have betrayed their own. They live on the crumbs that fall from their masters’ tables and feel happy about it. The battles that must be fought are part of continuing the post emancipation and post independence struggles. Have we been emancipated and consider ourselves citizens of an independent country to succumb to a modern day form of enslavement?

Britain became the first country to have benefitted from the Industrial Revolution. It owed a lot to the exploitation of slave labour and the theft of native land. When Eric Williams first produced his book, Capitalism and slavery, he helped to expose British hypocrisy and made the point that slavery was not abolished because of any moral outrage. It was abolished because it was no longer deemed to be profitable. Since he produced his work in 1944, poisoned arrows had been thrown at him as Eurocentric scholars tried to bury his thesis. The fact that the debate still goes on today is testimony to the strength of his arguments.

Hilary Beckles has in his many lectures and in his writings on reparations made the point that the major thing working against us is our powerlessness. About the 2001 UN Conference in Durban, South Africa, he noted, “The assertion of political power by the West, the US and the European Union especially, diminished and derailed the best intentions of the United Nations.” Our lack of political power is demonstrated by the political divisions within our countries and the ineptitude of CARICOM, which is at a stalemate in its implementation of the CSME and stands helpless in the face of political injustice in St Kitts. Beckles sees the core of the movement “within civil society organisations and the consciousness of the social majority.” This is part of our problem here. Where are our civil society organisations? Not to be found, so Government takes the lead, but a large section of our population does not trust the Government. Even some Governments, like Jamaica, appear to be bobbing and weaving on this issue.

We have a long and difficult road ahead on the reparations issue, but until we can bring our people together on a common issue, we will go nowhere. We should not shelve the issue, but see it as part of a broader agenda that needs to be put on the front burner. How you do that is the question. But it must be done.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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