Should Arab countries pay reparations for the slave trade too?

Fourteen countries of the Caribbean are seeking reparations from three European nations for the slave trade. While the British responsibility for the Trans-Atlantic trade rightly remains high on the agenda, perhaps there are other countries which should b

The decision of the 14 countries of the Caribbean to engage British lawyers to seek reparations from three European nations for the slave trade has made the headlines. In June the Caricom leaders voted to pursue a claim against Britain, the Netherlands and France.

The firm they have engaged, Leigh Day and Company, had just won compensation for elderly Kenyans who were caught up in the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950’s. As the Guardian reported, Caribbean officials have not mentioned a compensation figure but they noted that at the time of emancipation in 1834 London paid £20m to British planters in the Caribbean, the equivalent of £200bn today.

"Our ancestors got nothing," Verene Shepherd, chairwoman of the national reparations commission in Jamaica said. "They got their freedom and they were told 'Go develop yourselves'." While it is still unclear what the legal claim involves, some are thinking in terms of very large settlements.

The pending action raises a number of questions. For a start one could ask why the United States is not included in the list, since the cotton plantations of the South clearly benefitted from the trade in human lives.

But the issue is far wider. Why is the proposed claim focussing only on the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and only on the past? The role of what is today the Arab world is of far greater antiquity and continues to this day.

In February 2003 a UNESCO Conference on “Arab-Led Slavery of Africans” was held in Johannesburg. The Conference’s final communiqué condemned slavery in all its forms, but went on to declare that “the Arab-led slave trade of African people predates the Trans-Atlantic slave trade by a millennium, and represents the largest and, in time, longest involuntary removal of any indigenous people in the history of humanity.” Since then a silence has descended on the debate.

Professor Robert O Collins, a historian at the University of California, presented a paper describing the transportation of Nubian slaves down the Nile to Egypt as early as 2900 BC.  He says that raids on African communities continued for the next five thousand years.

Leaving aside some of the deeds of antiquity, and drawing on the works of other scholars, Collins concludes that some 12,580,000 slaves were exported from Africa between 800 AD and 1900. This was the human traffic that was taken across the Sahara, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The Sultan of Zanzibar continued the trade until 1873, when the British navy intervened to end all slavery by sea, although the practice continued on the Sultan’s plantations in East Africa.

Collins points out that: “The historic obsession with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery in the Americas has often obscured the trade to Asia and slavery within Africa.” One look at the UNESCO website on slavery indicates that this bias has not diminished. 

What is far more worrying is the almost total silence from the African Union, the United Nations and almost all other international bodies about the continuing scandal of modern Africa slavery.

A report into the practice in Sudan carried out by Anti-Slavery International (established in 1839 and the world’s oldest human rights organisation) in 2001 spoke of “thousands” of Africans being held in conditions of servitude. The Sudanese authorities bridled at the term ‘slavery’ being applied to their condition. But the report contained interviews with men and women who had been abducted at gunpoint and forced to work for their masters for years on end in the most brutal conditions.

Anti-Slavery concluded by quoting from their statement to the United Nations in 2000. “When women and children have been abducted, whether in the course of civil war or as a result of longer term conflict between different communities, and subsequently forced to work, or forced to marry, in the community where they are held captive, their treatment constitutes an abuse under terms of the UN's conventions on slavery."

Nor is Sudan alone. In Niger, Mali and Mauritania, Anti-Slavery believes the condition is perpetuated as what it describes as ‘descent based slavery’. The organisation says that this is the result of strict caste systems, which place people at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. “Typically people born into slavery are not allowed to own land or inherit property, are denied an education and are not able to marry outside of the slave caste. Any children born are automatically considered ‘property’ of the masters and can be given away as gifts or wedding presents.”

In theory, Mauritania banned slavery in 2007 – the last country in the world to do so. Since then just one person has been successfully prosecuted for owning another human being. Attempts to campaign against the practice have met with repression and campaigners jailed.

Terrible as the consequences of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade have been, and heavy as the British responsibility undoubtedly remains to this day, they should not blind us to responsibility of the Arab community  - both for the past and for the present.

Shackles for slave children on display at the New York Historical Society. Photo: Getty

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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Welcome to South Africa’s new political landscape

The era of one-party rule is over.

Last night, after a whole day of drama, tedium and tragedy, Johannesburg had a new mayor. 

Opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) councillors, dressed in conventional suits, sat quietly throughout the mayoral election, looking very much like businessmen and women. Their sartorial code was completely at odds with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – supporters of the far-left’s Julius Malema. They came dressed in their trade-mark red overalls and matching miner’s helmets. 

Singing and dancing, the EFF held up the voting for hours, demanding that an ANC councillor against whom they had laid charges of corruption should be excluded from the election. Finally an ANC councillor collapsed and died in the chamber, having suffered a heart attack.

The proceedings had dragged on for eleven hours, with South Africans complaining on social media that they wanted to go to bed. But eventually the DA’s Herman Mashaba was sworn in as mayor. The 56-year-old businessman, who made his money in cosmetics, would not have been in post without EFF support.

It is a strange alliance. Malema refused to go into a formal alliance with the much larger DA. It was – as he put it – a question of choosing between the better of “two devils”.

It is difficult to see how the DA, whose policies are clearly free-market and capitalist, will work with the EFF. Malema has repeatedly called for nationalisation of the mines and the land, without compensation. But on one issue the DA, EFF and other opposition parties are united: their loathing for the ANC and the quagmire of corruption and nepotism that it has dragged the country into.

The ANC won the largest share of the 3 August local elections, taking 54.5 per cent of the vote – against the DA’s 27.0 per cent and the EFF’s  8.3 per cent. Yet it has found itself excluded from running most of South Africa’s key metropolitan areas.

The opposition holds Tshwane (which includes the administrative capital, Pretoria) Nelson Mandela Bay (including Port Elizabeth) and now Johannesburg itself, as well as Cape Town, which the ANC lost back in 2006.

The ANC has found itself largely relegated to rural towns and villages, with only the metropolitan area of Durban and cities like Kimberley and Bloemfontein in its control.

Transformation

What the election really marks is the end of one-party rule.

From 1948 the National Party ruled the country, imposing apartheid. After 1994 and the release of Nelson Mandela, the ANC governed, with little the opposition could do to challenge its hold on power.

The local government elections ushered in a new era of multi-party politics. Communities across the country are now run by coalitions.

Take Nelson Mandela Bay, as an example.

In the 3 August 2016 election, the ANC lost their majority. The DA gained 57 seats, 4 seats short of a majority. So the DA negotiated a coalition including the African Christian Democratic Party, the Congress of the People, and the United Democratic Movement.

Athol Trollip – the DA’s Xhosa-speaking mayor – has set about rebuilding the metro's reputation. Outlining his plans for his first 100 days in office with promises of jobs and a clean administrations, Trollip said: “Political instability in this metro has rendered this city moribund and unresponsive… It is time to lock the revolving doors of corruption‚ cadre deployment and cronyism and bring about a new model of administration by this multiparty government, that will eschew the blight of such practices and that ushers in a model of good government…".

Can the opposition deliver?

As the reality of their new responsibilities become apparent, the opposition may discover that winning the election was the easy part. The DA will have to show tact, skill and extraordinary diplomacy if it is to hold together its relationship with difficult parties like the EFF.

They have already faced challenges from trade unions allied to the ANC, with protests from South African Municipal Workers Union (Samwu). Journalist and commentator Stephen Grootes has warned that the going will get rough.

"Samwu is likely to try to bring administration in DA-led metros to a halt. But it also faces a risk. It has tended to get what it wants through illegal actions and political pressure in the ANC through Cosatu. This time, it could well find that Mashaba, Msimanga and Trollip are tougher nuts to crack."

The ANC and the president

Meanwhile, the ANC and President Jacob Zuma are not without resources.

They still run central government and have at their disposal the finances of the Treasury and the state’s highly politicised security apparatus.

Yet the ANC is struggling to react effectively.

Its first response was to deny that Jacob Zuma had lost the party votes – preferring instead to take collective responsibility for the defeats.

There are suggestions that the ANC is now so divided and ineffectual that they have almost ceased to govern.

Writing in Business Day, the South African equivalent of the Financial Times, columnist Carol Paton today suggested that: "No one runs SA. It is an aircraft in which the pilot has left the cockpit and locked the door behind him."

Paton accuses President Zuma of having: "Centralised power in his office, using his powers of appointment, in a way that is highly effective in achieving his personal goals, but has had chaotic consequences for the process of governing."

It is difficult to see how this can continue. There is a real loss of a sense of direction. Ordinary South Africans can only watch in anger and frustration as they attempt to muddle along.

But one fact seems certain: the era of one-party rule is over. South Africa has become a much more interesting, complex country.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?