22 October 2007

Playing God

Henry “The Navigator” (picture), prince of Portugal and nephew of the King of England, sent ships beyond Cape Bojador in 1434. Cape Bojador is in Western Sahara, which is still a colony, the last in Africa.

This event marked the beginning of European external seaborn colonial expansion. It took the Portuguese south of the Sahara for the first time, and the first slaves were taken almost immediately. These slaves were put to work on the Atlantic island of Madeira, which The Navigator’s ships happened also to have rediscovered.

Slavery had by that time long since passed into feudalism on the European continent, in a process that started with the decline of the Roman Empire nearly a thousand years before. Even when there was slavery under the Romans, it did not give rise to racism, and was not understood in racial terms. Most of the slaves in the Roman Empire were white, like their owners.

What the Portuguese did in 1434, then, was not only to re-invent slavery, but also to do so on a new colonial, commercial and racial basis. The consequences were terrible. They include the racism that survives today as part of the capitalist exploitation that later superseded both feudalism and slavery.

Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic to the West Indies in 1492 and touched the continent of South America in 1498, the same year that Vasco da Gama reached India. By 1502 the trans-Atlantic slave trade was in full flow, initially as a Portuguese monopoly. It was to carry millions of people away from Africa to bondage on American plantations, and usually to an early death, during the next three centuries. The profits of this evil trade made Europe and the USA rich and gave birth to capitalism. The memory of it plays out in strange ways, as we shall see.

The linked “codification” for the day is by the editor of the London Guardian, Alan Rusbridger. The general title for his whole series is: “It starts with a village” and the article says that the idea of calling the patronised village “14th Century” came from an “Oxford economist”.

But it is as clear as can be that what these editors and economists really crave is a new start with Africa, on a pure and charitable basis. “14th Century” can only be a deliberate reference to the relatively innocent time before the slave-capturing voyages sponsored by Henry the Navigator. The Guardian, the Kenyan NGO Amref, and Barclays Bank, want to kid themselves that they are starting with a clean slate.

As much as the Guardian’s attempt to help an African village is no doubt both a guilt-ridden and also a highly arrogant affair, South Africans need not feel too smug about it. What, after all, is the difference between this and the widespread “delivery” efforts in our own country?

Lubisi Dam project is one isolated example where a whole new world for the Eastern Cape was supposed to “start with a village” ten years ago, and which obviously failed. But in fact the entire “Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) was, in contradiction of its own declared intentions, turned over to this kind of top-down technicist and charitable basis very early on.

What all these “developmental” projects lack is acknowledgement of the people’s political economy. Instead, there is an evident and quite explicit desire to steer the people away from any politics. These projects exemplify the “banking” theory of development, which is identical to the “banking” theory of education as described by
Paulo Freire. A Freirean way forward would be totally different.

Click on this link:

The Guardian plays God in Uganda, Alan Rusbridger (2827 words)


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