13 December 2013

Africa Must Call for Debt Cancellation


THE death of the first president of democratic South Africa Nelson Mandela has once again ignited the debate for the West to cancel Africa's debt, which over the years has crippled economic development on the continent. Never in the history of the world has death coalesced people across all classes.

But one wonders what the world leaders, especially those from the West, were reminiscing about as they disembarked on to the African soil on their way to the FNB Stadium.

Were these leaders conscious that this is the same soil that today bears the scars and pangs of horrendous pain inflicted by their ancestors?

Were these leaders even conscious of the fact that the debilitating economic status that Africa finds itself in can be traced back to the horrendous years of slavery and colonialism?

So ironic that these leaders must have misconstrued the celebratory mood that characterised the memorial service as evidence of Africans' being fickle-natured and so defamiliarised from history.

Nothing can be further from the truth. Africans are surely able to rationalise things. Although their ability to forgive is legendary, they surely know the roots of their current depressing status which among other factors is crippled by an ever ballooning debt.

More than a decade has passed since the World Council of Churches Assembly met in Zimbabwe and passed a resolution to campaign for the cancellation of debt owed by developing countries to the West.

While it is difficult to quantify the total debt owed by Africa to the West, the effects of slavery and colonialism transcend borders and it is through that shared history that Africa must be able to speak with one voice.

Many conscientious Africans argue that the cancellation of debt must not be taken as a humanitarian gesture but must be carried out within the context of the acknowledgement of the genocidal crimes committed by Western colonial powers during slavery, the scramble for Africa and colonialism.

In an article titled; The Question of Compensation: A Third World Perspective, Professor Norman Girvan, a lecturer in economics at the University of West Indies asks: "Who has compensated African peoples' for the millions seized and killed in the service of the European slave trade, or for the land, cattle and minerals expropriated by Europeans and the millions of people who died in the process."

Prof Given further asserts that the acts of genocide and property deprivation were the major causes of the current demoralizing economic impotence in the Third World. "It is true to say that by today's standards, the level of material and technological development of the Third World were low at the time of the European impact. But the poverty of the ghetto, the slum and general well-being of Africans is immeasurably worse, qualitatively, than the poverty of the self-sufficient and self-regulating communities of the past."

Walter Rodney agrees. In "How Europe Underdeveloped Africa", he argues that when measuring the effects of slave trade on the African continent, it is very essential to realise that one is in essence measuring the effect of social violence rather than trade in any normal sense of the word. Besides the loss of lives, a thriving agricultural and industrial base supporting at least 20 million people was also destroyed and plundered through the exploitative Leopoldian System. It is estimated that at least 10 million people perished in the Congo then as a result of the Belgian colonial wars, more than the number of Jews killed in Hitler's concentration camps, yet no compensation has ever been considered. The lack of consensus has been the major obstacle to an effective campaign for debt cancellation. There are those who say that such an exercise is futile given the mammoth task needed in compiling data for an effective lobby at the United Nations or such other relevant international body.

However, these arguments have no basis at law for international law clearly stipulates the paradigm within which such an exercise can be carried and is clear on what constitutes gross human abuse.

Examples abound of other races that have been compensated for crimes against humanity. Africans derive their moral standing for compensation from past historical examples. Germany paid reparations to the victorious Allies after the 1945 Second World War for the loss of lives and destruction of property.

Germany also paid Israel compensation for crimes inflicted on the Jewish race and as recent as 1998 Britain paid about $1,5 billion to the Maori people of New Zealand for the land confiscated during British colonial rule.

A more recent example is that of the Mau Mau freedom fighters in Kenya who received £19,9 million as compensation from Britain for the torture they were subjected to by colonial officials at the behest of the Crown in the 1950s.

The settlement follows a test case last year when the High Court ruled that three Kenyans could sue the Government for compensation for beatings and sexual assault suffered during their detention by British troops.

It is thus feasible for developed countries to cancel debt as a sign of goodwill and such a move will undoubtedly have far-reaching effects in improving the uneasy and unequal relations between the North and South.

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