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Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Africa, Barbarism & Civilisation.

In the last installment of All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace we saw some of the horrors which Africa has been subjected to. The focus of the episode is on the Congo, which inevitably draws the focus to Rwanda, in the post-colonial era. Curtis shows us the way in which the Belgian documentarian Armand Denis explored Africa in the 1930s and made films to inform audiences in the West about Africa. In Rwanda he helped create the myth that the Tutsis were a noble race of people who originated in Egypt whilst the Hutus were a separate race of ignorant peasants. Actually the Tutsis were the dominant group, though the Hutus held some positions in government, but lived on the same land as the Hutus and neither saw the other as a different race. The myth was constructed to serve the colonial interests invested in Africa at the time. We may be reminded that in the trajectory of history, advances made in emancipation are also advances made in barbarism.

The Belgians brought scientists in to provide a defence of the myth. The scientists conducted some tests and concluded that the Tutsis (15% of the population) were the natural rulers, because they had larger brains and were more intelligent than the Hutus. The Tutsis and Hutus were made to carry racial identity cards to create a segregated system in which the Tutsis ruled. The arrangement was maintained for decades to benefit the Belgian Empire and white settlers in the country. In recent decades the Congo has become increasingly important in the age of globalisation, as corporations have flooded into the country to extract a wide range of resources. The Congo is particularly valuable because of its resources which include copper, uranium and coltan. It was Congolese uranium which was used to make the atom bombs, which were then used against Japan by the US, whilst copper became fundamental to running the Cold War. The value of coltan exploded in recent years because it is essential in the production of laptops, game consoles and mobile phones.

When the Congo first gained independence from Belgium in 1960, the country was ill-prepared for self-governance and Patrice Lumumba was elected. The country soon descended into chaos and Lumumba had to fight against rebel forces for control of the precious resources. The corporations active in the extraction of the valuable resources were unhindered by the chaos in the Congo, which left hundreds of thousands dead, terrorised and mutilated. The US feared Patrice Lumumba might side with the Soviet Union and with the help of the Belgians arranged a coup, he was kidnapped and killed before his body was dissolved in acid. Rwanda became independent in 1962, the Hutus fled massacre by the Tutsis after liberal Belgians had encouraged a Hutu rebellion against the Tutsis. Out of imperialist guilt the liberals called for rebellion in order to make amends. The only way to do so, for the liberals, was to ensure self-government for Rwanda and freedom for the individual over "racial divisions". To the horror of the liberals, the violence spun out of control as the Hutus looked upon the Tutsis as alien to them.

Mobutu Sese Seko emerged out of the violence as the dictator of the Congo in 1965 with the vital support of the CIA. Mobutu changed the name of the Congo to Zaire, he set about to loot millions of dollars from the country whilst the industrial infrastructure collapsed. To maintain his power Mobutu reverted to anti-Communism and anti-imperialist rhetoric, which functioned to marginalise some of the old links to Belgium and strengthen fresh ties to the US. It is significant that Mobutu was keen to stamp out all symbolic remnants of Belgian rule, while he strengthened the hold of the Americans over Zaire. All opposition was quickly killed off and at a much deeper level Mobutu killed the liberal dream of a democratic Africa. Zaire became a place where other dreams went to die. Nazi rocket scientists had taken America to the moon but their job was over, Mobutu brought them into Zaire to build a launch pad on a plateau in the jungle and build a space programme for the country. The German scientists only succeeded in crashing a few rockets into the countryside.

In 1967 Western mining conglomerates backed a campaign of violence in Zaire in a bid to create a separate state based on the concentration of minerals in the East of the country. The corporations sent in white mercenaries and the mission to build a new state soon turned into racist violence as the conflict spilled over into Rwanda. The forces loyal to Mobutu then crushed the rebellion and responded with violence against whites, with looting and violence. At the time Dian Fossey was in the mountains, she aimed to prove that there were deep connections between human beings and primates through evolution. Fossey was detained by the soldiers where she was imprisoned for a fortnight, it is not clear what happened in that time though she told some people she was gang-raped by the soldiers. Eventually she escaped to create a new camp at which she could continue to study gorillas. Fossey then retreated to a isolated existence and tried to protect the gorillas at all costs, which went as far as to kidnap Africans and to humiliate them. The local people began to hate her.

Over 30 years later the ruling Hutus set out to exterminate the Tutsis and the West resorted to the old racist line that the Hutus and the Tutsis were ancient races in conflict. So the massacres were a result of an incomprehensible antagonism, it was only incomprehensible because the Western media were unwilling to recognise the consequences of our actions. The racial identity cards then helped the Hutus wipe-out the Tutsis. As the Tutsis fought back, the Hutus fled into Zaire and Western aid agencies came to the rescue of the innocent victims but found themselves protecting mass-murderers. The Tutsis then invaded the camps and Mobutu then sent troops in to stop the fighting, but they just joined in the looting and Mobutu fell from power. The boom in the West fueled a rise in commodity prices throughout the world, the value of minerals in the Congo skyrocketed. Then troops from Zimbabwe, Angola, Uganda, Chad and Libya to seize the precious resources. Behind them Western companies and consumers were looking for new goods, whilst 4 million people were slaughtered between 1998 and 2003.

The idea of a democratic Africa had died in the Congo, but another liberal idea was born there. The idea that we are not different or superior to animals, we are linked to them in nature and we should recognise that fact. This was the idea which was born out of the research Fossey was committed to, which would further undermine the Enlightenment view of human beings as separate and distinct to animals. Fossey was murdered in 1985 she had become a part of the Western tradition of brutalising Africans for the sake of an ideal which is beyond the comprehension of such primitives. We might use the term post-traumatic subject to describe Dian Fossey, possibly even to excuse her brutality towards the Other as an expression of that trauma. If we are to do so we cannot help but note that there is a condition of permanent trauma in the Congo. In contrast to the Western notion of a post-traumatic condition where in a woman is raped and then may have some hope of moving on. In the Congo women are raped and then raped again, and again and so on, there is no hope.

We should bare in mind that the material conditions amassed through the exploited toil by the impoverished can provide the conditions for the development of civilisation. It is not that barbarism comes before civilisation, the relation between barbarism and civilisation is synchronous rather than sequential. Not every change will arrive peacefully, in fact change often arrives drenched in blood. The conditions created by slavery have enabled capitalism. In a sense it could be said that the horrors of slavery were necessary, though that is not to say that those horrors should just be forgotten. The tragic history of Africa in particular cannot be acknowledged with the great debt of Western civilisation to Africa being acknowledged also. The debt owed by liberalism to slavery and feudalism is hardly, just as the existence of class society is barely made today, if ever, recognised especially by liberals and conservatives. The view of history as Progress is much more popular among that crowd, because it avoids debts and leaves no room for interventions.


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