South Africa

Op-Ed: What the textbooks did not tell you about racism

By Ismail Lagardien 20 January 2016

Everything that has been taught at universities in South Africa across the 20th century was based on European perspectives of society and the world. The social sciences – including Economics – were brought to Africa on the back of, and as part of European colonialism’s “civilising missions” and, for the most part, were driven, methodologically, along a “direct, narrow and straight path”. By ISMAIL LAGARDIEN.

Racism is like an incurable and debilitating disease. It is not terminal; it just sits in the body, stirs from time to time, causing rushes of blood to head, shortness of breath, bouts of unbridled excitement, chauvinism and self-righteousness (especially at sporting occasions – hence my dislike of nationalism and patriotism) and then, at some point, it breaks out in a messy and disgusting carbuncle, oozing blood and puss. But enough with the Spencerian analyses. I don’t particularly care for Spencer’s brand of Darwinism that much…

Allow me some didacticism, however. There is a generation of people in South Africa, who have large gaps in their education. Beside the actual gaps, or absences, there are also blindspots and the preference of some perspectives over others.

I have not written extensively, or even specifically about racism in South Africa for several reasons. One of these reasons is that there are better informed, better educated and more courageous people in the country who, whether you agree with them or not, can do a much better job. But, with all the talk about racism, so early in this, what may turn out to be an epoch-defining period, there are a few lessons, old lessons, that may need to be learned by the generation with the largest gaps in their education. Now, then:

Racism is a social and historical problem. In the social sciences we have come to accept its origins in European colonialism, especially European attitudes towards dark-skinned others. There is no denying that, nor getting away from it.

Let us look, briefly, to the extent that it is possible, at the normative theoretical and historical origins of racism; just so we are clear about its traditional origins. I should make the point, at this stage, that what follows draws on respected literature on the subject (notably the passages in quotation marks). These perspectives, I would venture a guess, did not make it into the textbooks of schools between 1652 and 1994.

Masters of the World

For most of the colonial period, at least until the Second World War, the colonial powers of Europe (expressly) conceived of themselves as “masters of the world” and had an image of Africans as savages or as living in a dark, “empty” space devoid of its own history, and the people of the continent as lacking in “consciousness”.

This is not to say that racist or racism disappeared after end of formal empires. In 1963 the British historian, Hugh Trevor Roper, proclaimed that Africans had no history. Seriously, he did. “Perhaps in the future,” he said, “there will be some history to teach. But at the present, there is none; there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness… and darkness is not the subject of History.”

A people without a history are easy to vanquish.

The Victorians, “suffused with a vivid sense of superiority and self-righteousness” established a racial structure of power, dominance, exploitation and accumulation which placed Europeans at the top and Africans, at the bottom of a hierarchy of races. This attitude towards Africans was predicated on more than a simple reading of history or a narrow unidirectional conception of the subject/object of history. It had deep moorings in liberal political economy. (Sit down at the back!)

Indeed, the Victorians considered themselves to be in possession of a moral authority to conquer and control dark-skinned people around the world on the basis, in part, at least, that Africans were “savages” and people without “consciousness” dwelling in a dark empty space locked in “primitive barbarity”

The Political Economy of Historical Racism

Whatever opinion one may have about liberal capitalism, today, its global reach was achieved through empire. European, especially Victorian attitudes were driven by purposeful intervention to implement free market capitalism in dark-skinned societies, especially in Africa, on the basis that it was a necessary condition and a moral necessity. The expressed objectives of Victorian domination and control was, in part, then, a “civilising mission”, and, in part, to implement, promote and propagate the value and benefit of free markets and Christianity as natural and necessary – and to do so without ceding power to Africans. There is a vast literature on this that, conveniently, I suspect, never made it into school textbooks, at least until 1994.

Whatever imputed values may have been ascribed to free markets by the Victorians, the main objective was to retain power and control over Africans, and for the British to benefit maximally from the (free market) model they sought to implement in Africa. As Benjamin Disraeli, the British Prime Minister (1870 – 1880), explained at the time: ‘There may be grave questions as to the best mode of obtaining wealth… but there can be no question… that the best mode of preserving wealth is power.”

It is worth recalling the expressed objectives of Lord TB Macaulay in his Minute on Education: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”

This provides us an opportunity to make the point that the Europeans also suppressed Islamic political economic systems. By the late 1900s, almost 90% of Muslim societies were colonised by Europeans. By the time decolonisation gained pace in the 1950s, the world was presented, as it were, with two competing models for organising society: capitalism and communism. The work of leading Islamic thinkers like Sayd Abdul Maududi and Baqir Al-Sadr, which offered a third political economic alternative as an option for newly-liberated Muslim countries, was simply swept aside by the tide of liberal European capitalist orthodoxy. The Muslim scholars argued, rightfully or wrongfully, that Islam had its own distinct economic system which was superior to both capitalism and communism. We can leave this particular issue, suffice to say that the European world precluded any and all alternatives to their own social ordering of society, and perpetuated a self-image of superiority over dark-skinned others.

This drive by the Europeans resulted in clear ascent of the European world, and the decline, or “economic backwardness”, of regions like Africa, Western Asia, and Latin America. Europe went from having income levels that were lower than Asia and parts of North Africa in 1000 CE, to having twice as high levels of income and production by 1820, and more than six times that of the rest of the world by the start of the First World War. This latter set of claims were based on evidence accumulated one of the finer European economists, Angus Maddison, whose work can be found on the website, The World Economy. In his work, Maddison made the point that the dominance of the European world – which is more than the cartographic entity – was helped along by destruction of indigenous political economic systems in Africa, Asia and the Americas, before the arrival of the settler colonialists. The British historian, JM Roberts was more forthright. He described colonialism as “Europe’s assault on the world”.

Injustice Ignored

So, more intellectually honest intellectuals, have made firm references to injustices, expediency, exploitation, abuse and dominance. In an exchange with Francis Fukuyama on early US development and industrialisation, I asked about the period before the Europeans arrived, to which he replied: “Yes of course, there was a period of injustice”. (I raise Fukuyama, because his views may get the attention of more conservative elements of society.) What then, does all this have to do with the racism that continues to beset South African society? The short answer is: A lot.

I will enter this discussion with a very contemporary matter, the calls to “decolonise” universities, curricula and disciplines that are taught on campuses around the country. I will not address these issues, specifically. I will, also, not deny that I was educated in the European tradition. In the current climate, that would amount to post-hoc glory-seeking and the most expedient of sanctimony. What I will say is that everything that has been taught at universities in South Africa across the 20th century has been based on European perspectives of society and the world. The social sciences – including Economics – were brought to Africa on the back of, and as part of European colonialism’s “civilising missions” and, for the most part, were driven, methodologically, along a “direct, narrow and straight path”.

In mainstream scholarship, and in the education systems of colonialism and settler colonialism – like that we had until 1994 – there were no contending perspectives. Extrapolating from my exchange with Fukuyama, we can study the creation of national parks in the US, even discuss how early European settlers were “corrupt”, but you never ask the questions of organic dominance; the presence and necessity of racial superiority, and the pre-eminence of European thought and organisation of society.

We should not single out the Victorians. The great settler-colony in north America, the one just below Canada, once considered violence against indigenous people as appropriate. It was justified as the most ‘righteous of all wars’ by US President Theodore Roosevelt. These were wars against humans considered to be “savages” standing in the way of white settler-colonial expansion. Consider the following passage by a US lawmaker:

“God has marked the American people as his chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world. This is the divine mission of America, and it holds for us all the profit, all the glory, all the happiness possible to man. We are trustees of the world’s progress, guardians of its righteous peace.’ United States Senator, Albert Jeremiah Beveridge (1862 – 1927)

We, Africans, Asians, indigenous peoples of the Americas, the Pacific and the Antipodes, were expected to accept everything that was taught in our schools – and THAT became the measure of achievement. That was what made us acceptable to the Europeans. Whether we call them assimilados in the Portuguese colonies, or Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire. The measure of being “civilised” was based on the expectations of Europeans.

Can we speak for ourselves?

In all of this lies the deep social and historical origins of racism; the belief that we, Europe’s “others”, have to (always) live up to the expectations of Europeans, but we cannot, really, meet their expectations because we are inherently savages, violent, lustful, alcoholic, lazy, criminal and, well, we just have senses of entitlement embedded in our DNA. Just incidentally, we are entitled to a better life; a life that is not contingent on approval of those who have dominated us for centuries. As a deontological egalitarian (I believe we should treat people as ends in themselves and never as means to an end, and that we have to treat everyone with kindness, decency, respect and grace, regardless of outcomes) who believes in a non-identitarian common humanity, I should extend this entitlement to everyone, regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender, religion or geographic origin. Is that not, actually, what Ubuntu means?

As far as I’m concerned, I am not, really, aggrieved that we’re referred to as “boesmanne” “k***s” “coolies”; or “bitches” or “chicks” or “hos”, for that matter. Personally, I am angry that there is a vast body of history and scholarship that did not make it into textbooks and instruction at schools between 1652 and 1994, and that most people just don’t get the point. If, then, these matters were placed in the textbooks of European settlers and their offspring over four centuries, they may understand why we are standing up, and asking: Can the sub-altern speak? DM

Photo: The racism of European imperialism in Africa: “The submission of King Prempeh: The final act of humiliation, 1896.” (From the collection of Cynthia Brantley)


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