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Mbeki stirs the ghost of Churchill

Brandon Hamber

"Look South" Column published on Polity, 28 January 2005

So South African President Thabo Mbeki is back in the news again. But this time the focus is not on substantive issues such as Aids or African peacemaking, rather it is the ghost of Winston Churchill.

In a speech to the National Assembly in Sudan, Mbeki made reference to the writings of Churchill noting that he felt the great leader held racist views. This is evidenced for Mbeki in Churchill's book entitled the The River War: An Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan which chronicles the British campaign in Sudan.

Referring to African Muslims, Churchill writes: “Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live”.

Africans as lazy, incompetent and fanatical . . . sounds fairly racist to me.

Following Mbeki's speech, headlines pronounced “Mbeki slams Winston Churchill” and “Mbeki blames British imperialism for Sudan's problems”. On the radio the British public took exception to Mbeki's approach to their war hero. Newspapers such as the Telegraph criticised Mbeki's “extraordinary weakness” at laying the “present problems at the door of the late 19th century”.

The incident is a curious one, though.

Surely, no one can take exception to the fact that Churchill, like many contemporaries, looked upon Africans with views that by today's standards were undeniably racist. His writing confirms this.

Something else is going on when people get worked up about a reference to Britain's colonial past. Mention of the reality and legacy of colonialism seems to immediately hit an emotive nerve.

Besides those who wish to deny Britain's colonial history altogether, some commentators seem to take from Mbeki's speech what they want to hear.

The Telegraph hears Mbeki blaming all current problems in Africa on the past. Others hear an accusation that whites today still have to pay for what their forefathers did even though that was generations ago.

But Mbeki's speech, if anyone takes the time to read it, is doing none of this.

He is not lambasting whites en masse. His target audience was not the former colonial powers. He is not just taking a cheap shot at Churchill. When reading his speech it is obvious that, given he was speaking as a South African on an anniversary celebration of the 1956 Sudanese independence, he is attempting to make a link between Sudanese and South Africa history.

Sudan was the first African country to receive independence from its colonial masters; South Africa was the last, in 1994. Mbeki's message is simple. Both countries share a troubled history, sometimes linked with the brutal exploits of the very same men, such as Kitchener, who Churchill glorifies in his book, and this history means much has to be done to set the present right.

“In the end the point I am making is that our shared colonial past left both of us with a common and terrible legacy of countries deeply divided on the basis of race, colour, culture and religion. But surely, that shared colonial past must also tell us that we probably need to work together to share the burden of building the post-colonial future,” Mbeki says.

His message is forward looking. He does not hide from the responsibility of African countries. He is not trying to divert attention from Africa's failings by playing the race card as some commentators seem to think.

I do not intend to write a defence of Mbeki. His approach to Zimbabwe, Aids and a number of other issues are problematic. Mbeki could have used the opportunity in Sudan to question the Sudanese government's human rights record. But, interestingly, this is not what the mainstream media seem to focus on either. Rather, it is his comments about a dead Prime Minister that get them talking.

The reaction to Mbeki's views on Churchill tells us more about those that reacted to it than Mbeki. Sadly, these reactions are still influenced by stereotypical views of Africa, as Mbeki implies.

Some journalists, not to mention certain politicians in South Africa, seem to be obsessed with trying to look for a chink in Mbeki's armour that is going to expose him as another African despot. Are they looking for echoes of Mugabe in his comments? This seems to be what they perversely want to hear.

Few take the time to listen, reflect and grapple with the reality that colonialism does still affect the African continent, whether those of us alive had anything to do with it or not. Would it have not been more remarkable if Mbeki did not mention colonialism in a speech on an occasion celebrating African independence?

Sometimes I wonder if Mbeki's critics see him as politician with the strengths and weaknesses as any other or if they are still struggling to see past his skin colour.

As a politician he has made mistakes. As an African leader, surely he is correct in continually pointing out the failings past and present of those that colonised the place and continue to exploit it.

Churchill made a massive contribution to history, but, like all people, Mbeki included, he clearly has flaws. Being precious about Churchill's legacy is hardly being true to the complexity of history. Treating Africa as if it does not have a colonial past and that this does not impact on the present is equally as myopic.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity, see http://www.polity.co.za/pol/opinion/brandon/.

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