Again another unarmed black man killed by the American police. The reverberations were going to be felt around the world and it was not protests and riots just in the USA. There have been killings from the days of slavery through the civil rights movement and up to now, and the list is too long to quote the names of the people who have been victims. But the difference this time is the demands to end systemic racism. The debate is being pushed further. We have had a black POTUS in Obama but there was not much he could have done even if he had wanted to. The institutions and the history of oppression were too ingrained in the system.
Switch to the UK where young black kids have taken up the struggle under the mantle of Black Lives Matter. Here the forms are different but the content is the same. The demand again is for the government to tackle systemic racism. France’s immigrant and ethnic minorities have similar situations to the UK but in Australia the protestors asked for an end to injustices suffered by the indigenous people, the Aborigenes, who had suffered a similar fate to the Native Americans in the US.
The main thread that runs through all the protests is linked to colonialism. In the USA and the former British and French colonies slavery was dominant as an economic and political system whereas in the UK and France immigration and the demand for cheap labour have led to injustices endemic to the system. Never before have the protestors made the link between colonialism and racism although in left-wing circles that was a prevalent idea.
In the case of slavery in the colonies labour in the form of African slaves was useful for the production of sugar and other commodities in hot countries which would produce the whole year round. Cruel systems of work and discipline were enforced and these have been well documented as well as the difficult journeys from Africa to America and the Caribbean during which sick and uncooperative slaves were thrown overboard. We should not forget to mention that there was collaboration between the slavers and certain powerful rulers in Africa.
As colonialism happened to be a system whereby Europeans dominated countries inhabited by brown and black people, the lines were already drawn. Two examples illustrate that colour became as important as economics. When the French Revolution took place in 1789 with the slogan ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’, the slaves in the French colonies thought that this applied to them too. But they were soon disillusioned as they were taken back into slavery. Another example is Haiti, then called Saint-Domingue, where the slaves, stirred by the French Revolution, took up arms and defeated the French. Ironically the latter were helped by their arch-enemies the British, who, one would expect, would help the enemies of the French who were also helped by the newly-independent Americans. The Haitians were made to compensate the French for the loss of their slaves and were still paying back until very recently, which might be one of the reasons why Haiti is the poorest nation on earth. To make matters worse, when European abolitionists passed legislation to end slavery, compensation was given to Europeans slave owners and ‘freed’ slaves were just dumped out of the estates. Again it was only recently the British taxpayer finished paying the debt for that compensation.
As we know, the colonies were there to serve the interests of the colonising powers and whatever system was in place, it was for the benefit of Britain or France or any other colonising powers. When after WW2 formal independence was given to the colonies, the economies of those countries which were defined by the interests of the colonising powers could not provide jobs for the people of those countries, and as Europe was in need of labour for reconstruction at the time, many people from the New Commonwealth went over to be able to earn a living and feed their families back home. But generally they got jobs that the local population did not want as they were low-paid jobs. Accommodation also became a problem and most of the immigrants lived in areas with poor housing conditions. This defined a social status and a lack of relationship with the indigenous population was a breeding ground for segregation and discrimination. While the first generation was only interested in earning a living, the children born of those parents considered themselves as citizens of those countries and would not accept fewer rights than their indigenous counterparts, which proved to be a breeding ground for protests. A similar situation occurred in France.
The genie is out of the bottle and already the agenda for change, which is also backed by a great part of the indigenous population, has to be taken seriously by the governments of those countries. It’s a conversation that is going to take place over the next few years. Mauritius should not be left out having this conversation. There is a significant part of the population here that has suffered historical injustices and I am sure they will want answers and solutions. As they are saying, there cannot be peace without justice.