Is there another way?

It is too easy to put all the blame on invaders, whether the whites or the Ndebele, for the first. It is too easy to put all the blame for the second on Robert Mugabe or ZANU.

A more important question is “When we are threatened, do we reply in a violent way?”

If an opponent isn’t entirely unreasonable, why don’t we try reason?

If the opponent is a nation, do they all support what their leaders do? For example, when Europe was expanding its imperial power in the 19th century, the ordinary people were pushing for democracy. As more citizens got the vote, they were less likely to support dictatorial behaviour by their leaders, especially if that led to wars in which they would have to fight. Leaders had to persuade them that imperialism was good for all the people it governed. Europe, they were told, stood for democracy and human rights. It was bringing these to savages ruled by bloodthirsty tyrants. That was “the white man’s burden”, a civilizing mission.

Even Cecil Rhodes, the arch-imperialist, spoke of British values as meaning “equal rights for all civilized men”. He didn’t treat people with darker skins than his own as civilized, but he didn’t dare say that in Britain.

Many protested when they saw the slaughter and theft involved in Rhodes’ “civilizing mission”. British people here, like the missionary Arthur Shirley Cripps, used contacts in Britain to publicise the injustices of colonial rule in Rhodesia. Cripps’ answer was to protest to the British government and the press that colonial peoples deserved the same rights that British people enjoyed at home.

Thanks to such missionaries and some teachers in mission schools, like Garfield Todd, their converts learned a version of British history which portrayed it as a steady progress from savagery via Roman and Norman tyranny towards democracy and human rights. They wanted a share in that progress.

Maybe few of the missionaries, teachers or administrators realized how clearly people could see that the District Commissioner’s court was a lot less democratic than the chief’s dare. The people could not be convinced that hanging Kaguvi, Nehanda and all their relatives who could be caught was the best way Rhodes’ “civilized men” could lead them into a new world where all citizens of the British Empire would be equal.

But that was the story schoolchildren in Britain were taught. If an empire could ever be just and democratic, with respect for all, there would not be any reason to rebel against it.

If any empire was ever like that, I’ve not heard of it. Empires usually survive by telling different groups of subjects different stories. If you can keep those groups apart, the trick might work for quite a long time.

The answer is to uncover the lie. One of our earliest trade union leaders, Charles Mzingeli, talked a lot about “workers’ citizenship of the Empire”, turning some of the imperialists’ slogans against them. That was a powerful non-violent challenge in the 1930s and 1940s. He won many small victories for people’s rights. Some later politicians have called him a sellout because he wasn’t “militant”. He didn’t have guns. He didn’t organize a party which would obey his orders, but those times were different.

The time had not come for big victories, but the small ones paved the way for more advances. Would we be better now if his way had been continued? More on that next week.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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