In Durban, a black woman peer did the white man's dirty work

The anti-racism conference held in Durban, South Africa, collapsed in recrimination against Israel, against calls for an apology from Europeans for the Atlantic slave trade, against calls for reparations for one of the most horrible, barbaric, evil, vicious, corrupt moments in the history of humanity.

Nothing else has surpassed slavery and its justification that we who were captured in Africa, and put to work on plantations in America and the Caribbean, were less than human and deserved to be treated that way. It was in this context, backed by the rationale that we were half man/half beast, that racism was born.

Millions of us demand that apology. Those leaders in Africa, the blacks, speak for us. Except the black emissaries of Tony Blair. A hundred years ago, Marcus Garvey led the largest movement in history against racism, against the domination of blacks by whites everywhere. We had made a little progress from the idea of half man/half beast to the new idea that we were simpletons with the underdeveloped minds of children; wholly human, but an inferior species. That still persists in the minds of whites today.

The Marcus Garvey movement demanded reparations for this monumental injustice. "Back to Africa" was the slogan, and millions of blacks warmed to the idea that there should be a wholesale physical shift back to Africa. We saw no future in the Caribbean and none in the United States. But the White House and the leaders of British colonialism needed their negroes and they undermined the movement at every turn. Garvey was imprisoned and died in penury.

Bob Marley immortalised Garvey's manifesto in popular song; he sang it on the night of Zimbabwe's independence. Every single black person knows of that song of freedom, that unbroken link between the plantations of the new world and the continent of Africa.

Simple human respect required that the British government reflect the views of those British citizens who are descended from slaves. Democracy required that we be consulted on at least our general attitude to the idea of an apology and reparations. Nothing of the kind took place. In the eyes of Blair and his Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, we are still the simpletons, mere children of the white man.

They made up our minds for us. They declared that there would be no apology. Reparations are a non-starter. And whom did they send to Durban to represent the slave masters' views, to do their dirty work for them? One Baroness Amos, an under-secretary of state at the Foreign Office, a woman of Caribbean origin and consequently a descendent of Caribbean slaves. She had to tell all of Africa that she was against apology, against reparations.

The black intellectual elite equates the call for reparations with us being carried away by consumerism. I find this amazing. In the past five years, millions of Africans have been displaced; they have had to walk thousands of miles to find somewhere to live and farm. Disease, national disasters and tribal conflicts have laid waste to rural Africa. The accumulation of capital from African labour and raw materials, the development of technology, have all been transferred to the west. The African elite has collaborated in this from the days of slavery.

What we need is a huge transfer of capital, technological know-how and medical expertise back to Africa. And in America, the need is to redevelop the deep south and the inner cities, and to let black talents blossom. This is how reparations would be used, I think, not to allow private black individuals to buy washing machines or DVD players. We need a shift of capital on an epic scale to construct a new world.

The confusion in Durban was a blow, and the clever manipulation of blacks such as Amos was an enormous setback. But the movement for reparations is strong. It will emerge again, with greater strength and conviction.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The love of a robot