The rough and tumble of South Africa's current election season has renewed questions about the fading high hopes of the rainbow nation. But few deny that 20 years after apartheid, tumultuous South Africa exemplifies the immense power of truth-finding when a society comes to rebuild amid the ruins of history. It is this notion of a face-off with the past that appears to inform 15 Caribbean nations' new demand for reparatory justice for genocide, slavery, slave trading and racial apartheid.
It is an ambitious attempt by any standards, seeking to range over the broad contours of long-ago horrors. Three-hundred years of misery for at least 11 million Africans forced across the Atlantic to the New World from the 16th century. But those harrowing centuries and the ones that followed enabled Europeans to flourish. The Caribbean Reparations Committee says European governments have a case to answer because they owned and traded enslaved Africans, they instructed genocidal actions upon indigenous communities and created the legal, financial and fiscal policies necessary for enslavement.
Furthermore, they defined and enforced enslavement and native genocide as being in their national interests, they refused to pay compensation after slavery ended and imposed a further 100 years of apartheid upon the emancipated.
Last but not least, says the Commission, European governments “have refused to acknowledge such crimes or to compensate victims and their descendants.”
This lengthy, if somewhat loose laundry list and two further factors, make it more diffuse than the agenda before almost any Truth and Reconciliation Commission in history, notably the ones in Chile, El Salvador, Argentina, Uganda and most memorably, South Africa.
First, reparatory justice is sought on behalf of the “Caribbean region’s indigenous and African descendant communities”, which is to say people across an enormous area and far removed in time from the actual crime. Second, the alleged crimes against humanity were perpetrated by a wide swathe of European nations, making it harder to fix degrees of responsibility. It is telling that only Sweden has so far expressed any “respect for the process” on reparations emerging from the Caribbean. In February, the British Foreign Office expressed scepticism about the value of reparations saying it did not see these “as the answer”. Instead, it suggested, “We should concentrate on identifying ways forward”.
Might the Caribbean claim be the very way to move forward? For a start, the process envisaged by the Caribbean nations does not appear to begin and end with the dollar value of the injustice of slavery. Though they do want European governments to pay off their debt, large sums of money do not seem to be the substance of the case.
Instead, they want to discuss their anguished history with former slave trade nations. This is a need Desmond Tutu, who led South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, would recognise. “There is something therapeutic about telling your story,” he said after the Commission received more than 21,000 victim statements. “It’s that you are being acknowledged ... it contributed to the freedom we are now enjoying.”
A Truth and Reconciliation Commission on slavery would arguably do just that. The Caribbean people could, for instance, lay bare their deep sense of grievance at the dehumanisation and victimisation of their ancestors. They could explain the psychological trauma of being descended from people who were classified as goods and chattels.
They could legitimately seize upon their ancestors’ forced separation from their homeland as the reason for the region-wide cultural and social alienation that remains troublingly apparent in the Caribbean even today.
They could justifiably lay other real and current problems at the Europeans’ door, not least widespread illiteracy, chronic disease and technological and scientific backwardness. As the Caribbean Reparations Committee says: “For 400 years the trade and production policies of Europe could be summed up in the British slogan: ‘not a nail is to be made in the colonies’.”
This venting has produced a relatively modest and well-judged Caribbean wishlist, which includes diplomatic help to persuade countries such as Ghana and Ethiopia to offer citizenship to the children of people from the Caribbean who want to “return” to Africa; development advice; help with cultural exchanges between the Caribbean and west Africa to help Caribbean people rebuild their sense of history and identity; European backing for literacy drives and medical assistance. Most importantly, and contentiously, though, they want a full public apology as a necessary part of the process of closure.
Whether or not the Caribbean claim ever moves forward, the process enshrines a bold and innovative way to heal the wounds of history. It was well said that truth commissions can only reduce the number of lies that can be circulated unchallenged in public discourse. When a society is founded on a lie, the truth assumes particular importance and a Truth Commission for slavery would undoubtedly affect both the Caribbean and European view of the past. As well as the history books.
South Africa’s Commission connected truth with reconciliation and truth and exoneration. Its hearings – revealing bombings, assassinations, tortures, kidnappings and mutilations – did not tell South Africans anything new, but as philosopher Thomas Nagel once said, they transformed knowledge into acknowledgement. It is this fragile nirvana that the Caribbean region seeks.
Rashmee Roshan Lall, the former editor of The Sunday Times of India, is now a freelance writer based in Haiti
On Twitter: @rashmeerl