There’s no doubt that Zambia’s interim president has caused something of a stir.
“Zambia’s Guy Scott makes history as white president in sub-Saharan Africa,” was CNN’s headline. “I am Africa’s first white democratic leader, says Zambian vice-president,” was the Telegraph’s take on the story. Scott apparently told the Telegraph that he was the first white head of a democratic government in Africa “since the Venetians”.
Scott will not be standing as a presidential candidate in 90 days time, when the post is contested. The constitution dictates that only a Zambian with both parents born in the country can hold the presidency and although Scott himself was born in Zambia, his ancestry was Scottish. “I won’t run for the presidency at the election because constitutionally, I can’t,” he explained.
The fuss about the origins of Scott’s parents smacks of the campaign to declare Barack Obama ineligible for the American presidency because he was allegedly not born in the US. The claims were utterly spurious, but the White House was forced to publish a full copy of the Obama birth certificate before they finally subsided.
Behind these legalistic objections lies one common thread: racism. Who really believed that the far right’s objections to Obama were more than a front for an opposition to his race? The apparent astonishment that a white person can also hold office in an African state (even if his hold on power is temporary) has a similar ring about it.
White Africans (of whom I am one) have, of course, done themselves no favours. As the recent Kenyan Mau Mau case underlined, colonialism was not a shining example of good governance. It took a payout of £20m by William Hague to finally heal some of the wounds. Apartheid ravaged South Africa for more than four decades and was based on a much deeper racism. The history of slavery is etched into the continent.
But this is only one half of the story. For every white officer who oversaw the torture of Kenyan women there was a colonial official who died of malaria attempting to bring better roads and elementary education to remote rural areas. While the majority of white South Africans supported, or at least tolerated, apartheid, men and women like Bram Fischer, Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Helen Joseph and a host of others worked against it. It is deeply depressing to see how little effort the African National Congress has made to recruit their replacements. The upper echelons of the ANC are today almost exclusively black, despite the movement’s apparent commitment to non-racialism.
The reality is that white people have lived in Africa for more than three centuries. They have put down deep roots and have contributed to the continent for good as well as evil. Yet they are still frequently treated as “colonisers”.
The racist outpourings of men like Julius Malema go largely unremarked outside of South Africa. “LAND MUST BE RETURNED BECAUSE IT BELONGS TO BLACK PEOPLE! That’s the first principle,” declares the manifesto of Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters. “What we would do with the land is none of the business of the land thieves. We want back because it’s ours!”
There’s no denying white people did take much of the land at the point of a gun, but they were not alone. No similar demand is made by Malema of the Zulu people, who deprived many others of their lands during the Mfecane. Nor does he call for Zimbabwe’s Ndebele to be thrown off their farms by the Shona. White people are targeted primarily because of the colour of their skins.
Yet the question of colonial conquest is by no means restricted to the white population or to southern Africa. Consider, for a moment, the expansion into highland Ethiopia under Emperor Menelik II, who doubled the size of his kingdom in the nineteenth century. The majority community, the Oromo, were termed “Galla” and many were treated as slaves. The resentment resulting from these conquests lingers to this day with the Oromo continuing to suffer torture and ruthless repression.
Guy Scott is not the first democratic white African leader in the post-colonial era. That honour went to Paul Bérenger, Prime Minister of Mauritius between 2003 and 2005. Nor is President Scott likely to be the last. Zambians seem to have taken his rise to power in their stride – the rest of the world should follow suit.