JOHANNESBURG // They may lie on opposite sides of a vast ocean, but the ties that bind Haiti and Africa run deep. Not only is the former largely populated by the descendants of slaves from the latter - so much so that Senegal's president, Abdoulaye Wade, offered dispossessed Haitians a right of return and a province to settle - in 1804 Haiti was the first black country in the world to overthrow the colonial yoke and set up its own republic.
It went on to play a key role in the campaigns of Simon Bolivar to establish free states in South America and provided an example to many of Africa's independence movements. With Haiti undergoing one of its periodic political crises six years ago, the then South African president Thabo Mbeki was the only foreign head of state to attend the bicentenary celebrations of the revolution. The same year he offered sanctuary to Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the democratically elected president who resigned and fled the country - he claimed it was a US "kidnapping" - in the face of a popular uprising, installing him in a government-provided mansion in Pretoria, with a cabinet minister's benefits to boot.
Writing in the third person, as he often does, Mr Mbeki said in the Times of Johannesburg yesterday: "The fact of our birth in the South Africa that was, placed Haiti in a special place in our hearts and minds." Its past was, he said, an "indestructible distinction" and "the history of the extraordinary uprising which led to this outcome - could not but serve as an unequalled inspiration to those engaged in struggle to achieve their own liberation".
Now Africans at all levels are being asked to donate to the rebuilding of the country following the ruin wrought by the earthquake this month, with the launch of the Africa for Haiti campaign. It is endorsed by some of the most respected figures on the continent - Graca Machel gave it the imprimatur of her husband's Nelson Mandela Foundation by hosting its first press conference there, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel laureate, said: "We were supported wonderfully by the international community when we struggled against the vicious policy of apartheid. Today the people of Haiti, struck twice by the earthquake, are in a worse predicament than we were. As South Africans, we especially cannot but want to do our bit to alleviate the immense suffering of our sisters and brothers in Haiti."
But this carries with it a certain incongruity: although Haiti is the poorest nation in the Americas, almost all the 30-odd countries below it in global GDP per capita lists are in Africa, the poorest continent in the world and seen far more as a recipient of aid than a donor. Ordinary Africans "from all walks of life" across the continent are being asked to contribute, said Buhle Mpofu-Makamanzi, spokesman for African Monitor, a development group helping to organise the campaign, "even in the smallest possible way".
"In Africa we appreciate the fact that Haiti is one of the poorest countries," she said. "We know how poverty is devastating, we identify with that." Kelvin Glen, of the South African Red Cross, said: "It's been proven worldwide that even those who are not that fortunate can give a bit. It's a call to action to say every person needs to help and you can't only depend on traditional donors and the corporate sector.
"Just because we are African, just because we ourselves are beneficiaries of aid, doesn't mean we can't help." But in an age where trade and aid policies are seen in some quarters as drivers of neo-colonialism, the sentiments that Haiti's history engenders are reflected in other ways, too. The chaos following the earthquake has prompted a number of commentators to blame the West for Haiti's poverty, despite the fact that all the evidence from the past 200 years, the credit crunch notwithstanding, suggests that liberal capitalism is the greatest wealth-creating device for the greatest number ever invented.
According to the Africa for Haiti campaign organisers, the continent can offer the benefit of its own experiences on the receiving end of enormous quantities of aid, which have not always had the intended results and sometimes left the beneficiaries feeling that they were not properly consulted. "Some of the multilateral and bilateral agreements are premised on the northern donor telling the southern recipient what to do and how to account for those funds," said Mbizo Sibanda, a senior investment manager for the Charities Aid Foundation Southern Africa.
He cited the International Monetary Fund's structural adjustment programmes, requiring governmental and economic reforms as part of lending packages, as a particular example. "It comes with strings and conditionalities that people have to succumb to," he said. "We have found that people come already with pre-packaged programmes looking for someone to endorse them. That's the reality of development and I'm sure that's what's going to happen in Haiti."