Our task so many centuries later is to read all of history, and to begin to ask ourselves why we believe what we do, why we act on certain beliefs and not others, and why we fear people we are told to fear, writes DR YUNUS OMAR.
WHAT we do in our own lives at present cannot be seen in isolation from our past. As a few recent articles have tried to show, our beliefs, likes and dislikes, tastes in music and art, and our views of the world (what we sometimes call ‘political views’) come from somewhere. We are not born with these views.
One of the key factors in this matter is our relationship with what is generally called ‘history’. For a country such as South Africa, ‘history’ as a topic most often produces heated discussions. It is no exaggeration to state that a discussion of the past can infuriate people. It can also bring nostalgia, a longing for an imagined ‘better past’, in which the world as we knew it was kinder to us.
Let’s stick with South Africa for a while before we broaden the discussion slightly to include some thoughts about the rest of the continent and areas beyond Africa. South Africa is in trouble. It is common cause that South African society is far from what it should be. The destruction of lives because of joblessness, homelessness, hunger, child and adult malnutrition, and abuses of all kinds are written and spoken about in multiple media platforms, including digital media platforms such as Twitter etc.
The issues of joblessness, homelessness and hunger should concern us all. Perhaps they do but they concern us in very different ways. ‘Joblessness’ very often translates into discussions about ‘lazy people sitting on corners in our areas’, or a more generally racialised set of conversations that are filled with talk of the colour of a person’s skin. As a quick check, just look at what kinds of messages come across WhatsApp screens in community-watch chats.
Very, very often, we are warned that ‘unidentified (insert skin-colour description) men are in the street’, and we should be careful. What this implies is that if there is someone in the streets where we live that we don’t know, they are to be regarded as ‘dangerous’, and we add the colour of their skins, and the apartheid classification of these men, in what is clearly a call to a heightened state of alert. In short, this type of reasoning is nothing less than ‘Black’ men we do not know are potential criminals.
This is what apartheid taught. It is exactly what apartheid taught. Apartheid taught, through parliamentary speeches, government legislation, through its army and police forces, its judges and magistrates, its jail cells and its chambers of torture and murder, that ‘Black’ men were dangerous.
‘Black’ men were a danger to the apartheid state and its perverse ideology of a ‘chosen nation’, an idea that ‘white’ skin was the skin chosen by God to be a ‘master race’.
The point here is simple. The carry-over from Apartheid South Africa to a post-apartheid, democratic South Africa has been virtually uninterrupted at a very basic level. We have taken as our benchmark, as our standard of what it means to be ‘successful’, the living standards of what was ‘white’ society under apartheid.
This society was modelled directly and loudly on parts of the world whose political elites and wealthy elites went to war on us. By ‘us’ I mean the Global South. Africa was brutalised under various European colonial regimes, including Britain, Germany, France, Belgium and Portugal. They stole us. They stole our men, women and children to work stolen lands elsewhere to make fortunes.
Those readers who own businesses: imagine being able to employ as many people as you want to work in your business, and not having to pay them anything, except enough food and pitiful housing. You would be wealthy beyond your wildest dreams.
Every time you read about ‘the wage or salary bill’ that is so large, remember slavery. We are not generally taught about slavery in this way. What this results in when we read or talk about slavery is a tale of sadness, even anger, but not a tale that arouses any discussion about a return of the wealth that was generated through the stolen bodies of our African, Indian, Arabian and other dark-skinned peoples across the planet.
Joblessness? Homelessness? Hunger? It is a sorry story. It is a story of history (and, of course, very bad decisions in the present), and it is a story that must include the demand for the return of our stolen wealth.
In case those thieves who stole our wealth dare to tell us that they’ll think of giving back the equivalent of what they stole (they actually refuse to give anything back), let’s remind them that the profits of stolen wealth are not theirs. It’s ours. The accumulated profits made from stolen wealth belong to the poor of the world.
That sounds good, I think.
So why, then, do we still regard unknown ‘Black’ men as dangerous?
One of the reasons is that we have not, in any sense, tackled the implications of history. We have not read the past as deeply as we should.
Yet, as Muslims, our core texts are over 1 400 years old. Our human exemplar is buried in Madinah. We circumnavigate a stone cubed building because of a command issued thousands of years ago to Nabi Ibrahim (AS). History matters to Muslims.
Our task so many centuries later is to read all of history, and to begin to ask ourselves why we believe what we do, why we act on certain beliefs and not others, and why we fear people we are told to fear.
If we do not engage with history, we will continue to believe, as billions of people do, that black-skinned Africans could not have built the pyramids in what is now modern Egypt. No, aliens built the pyramids, we are told.
Happily, people from the Global South know that aliens did not colonise us. We know where the wealth is. We know who stole it. We know who sits with our wealth. And we therefore know that one of the ways (not the only way) in which we can achieve the global goal of an end to hunger, homelessness, joblessness, and preventable injury and death, is to produce politicians who don’t fight for the right to waste our taxes but who spend their lives fighting for the rights and dignity of those they rule. On international platforms, they need to demand the return of our wealth, not just a few artefacts, as important as these are.
Imagine that coming through as a WhatsApp message each night…
- Yunus Omar (PhD) lectures in the School of Education at the University of Cape Town. He writes in his personal capacity.