Sign for a Cité Soleil women’s group, 2002. The sign translates, “Organization of Militant Women of Cité Soleil”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Jacques Depelchin challenges global citizens to make links between poverty across the world both historically and in the present day: From Cite Soleil in Haiti; to Abalhali in Durban, South Africa; Kibera, in Nairobi, Kenya; Maroko in Lagos, Nigeria; and Ndjili in Kinshasa, DRC.
In the age of globalisation why do we not see, on a world scale, cases of twinning in solidarity with cities such as Cité Soleil in Haiti; Abalhali in Durban, South Africa; Ndjili in Kinshasa, DRC? All are places, like favelas the world over, brimming with youth and creativity, but confronted with easily eradicable unhealthy conditions of living.
Why, given its namesake, does Sun City in South Africa not come out in solidarity with the poorest of the poorest in the alleged poorest country of the Western Hemisphere?It may sound childishly naïve, but would not such a move be immanently expected from a city in the country that got rid of apartheid thanks, in part, to the selfless work of millions around the world?
From the inhabitants of all these places, there seems to only be one call that could, should bring us all together: Fidelity to Haiti, 1804.Thought through, away from nation state ideologies, away and against the corporate models of accumulation, such a call has the potential for healing humanity, taking it to the level many dreamed of while battling apartheid in South Africa.
Sun City in South Africa is known as the capital of gambling, where fortunes are spent in hopes of making even bigger fortunes. To those who would rather visit Sun City in South Africa than Cité Soleil in Port-Au-Prince, poverty is something to be running away from, not something to embrace. Even if these same people will make sure that their admiration for the one who epitomised poverty, Francis of Assisi, is well advertised and known. Should not such ongoing contradictions lead one to ask why more and more people are getting poorer and poorer, while a few accumulate wealth?
Since the end of apartheid, South Africa now boasts black billionaires, just like other African countries. Is it not possible to ask what would happen if the mindset which drives gambling turned to eradicate the differences between the Cités Soleil and Sun City?
Cité Soleil means Sun City in French, and that is where President Jean-Bertrand Aristide trained himself, beyond the reach of the mindset of the Haitian elite and beyond the bureaucratized seminarian teachings of love which sterilize at the same time as the teachings are going on.
But it was through such tight embracing solidarity with the poor people of Haiti, and not just those of Cité Soleil that President Aristide broke the comforting and comfortable chains of charity. Which is also why politician theoreticians, theologians and ideologues of all stripes, and from opposite corners, do not, or pretend not to, know where he belongs. Why, one hears them thinking, does he side with losers?
Of the admirers of Francis of Assisi we may ask: if your idol were to come back to earth, say in Haiti, where would he most likely go to ask for hospitality? Isn’t condemning poverty from the confines of billions in wealth and property the surest way of intensifying poverty and increasing the ranks of the poor? Canonised, Francis must be good to have on one’s side.
The mindset, which has been in place among the owners of capital, which led them to treat human beings as a means of further accumulation, is still as entrenched as ever: capital reigns supreme, not only through its own corporate structures, but also through subservient nation states which have become so submissive that they willingly dissolve themselves in front of it; and not just in the countries where structural adjustment programmes of the World Bank and the IMF were pioneered, such as in Mobutu’s Zaïre.
Although invented by the military for military purposes, low intensity warfare against the poor can best be conducted using both economic, financial and real weapons, especially if, as is the case in Cité Soleil, it is done through hired soldiers from such places as Sri Lanka, Brazil, Jordan and Nigeria. Black on black violence has always been easier to defend and ignore ideologically than the white on black kind, especially in Haiti.
1. From Haiti to South Africa: 1804-1994-2004
For 13 years, 1791 to 1804, people from various parts in Africa, about 500,000 people, half of whom had been born in Africa, decided that slavery was inhuman. Rather than live under it, it was better to fight it, to death, if necessary. Without generals trained in military academies, without outside help of any kind. The Wretched of the Earth gave a 13 year long lesson in organisation, discipline, solidarity in order to bring about equality, fraternity and liberty. They did so without the help of human rights. Indeed, as will be argued below, this massive and successful trespassing played a crucial role in triggering human rightism as we know it today, a charitable way of helping, while preventing the kind of solidarity called for by the revolutionary slogan ‘equality, fraternity and liberty’.
The slaves went further than the enlightenment philosophers ever thought possible. They went further then the leaders of the French Revolution were prepared to go in 1789. It was not until 1792-94, during the period of the Convention (known as the Terror) that slavery was finally abolished. The slaves had done the improbable, the impossible, the forbidden. In short, they had surpassed themselves and, in the process, they also trespassed.
The overthrow of slavery is still difficult to comprehend today. It does not fit easily into the ideological narratives of the left or the right. Aside from CLR James’ The Black Jacobins, that feat was so exceptional, given the times and probability of success, that it has not received the attention it deserved from historians, philosophers, theoreticians. At the same time, it receives persistent negative attention from the powers that be in the form of imposition of debt repayments (so-called compensation for the slave and plantation owners), invasions, occupations, international kidnapping of an elected president, prison, torture, and collective punishment of people from all walks of life whose only crime was fidelity to 1804.
With president Jean-Bertrand Aristide currently in involuntary exile in South Africa, it is difficult not to examine the relationship between anti-slavery and anti-apartheid, two battles which unfolded at different times, under different conditions, both with the common objective of seeking freedom.
Given the quasi house arrest under which Aristide is held in South Africa, is it unreasonable to ask oneself how the South African political leadership sees its role in the battle to bring Haiti to where it should have been, in the first place, since 1804? Could it be that Mbeki sees his role as reasoning with Aristide to accommodate to the demands of those who are in charge of the world today? The question may sound unfair and unreasonable. But is it? After all, Mbeki was the lone African head of state at the 200th independence anniversary in January 2004. The entire South African white owned press was rabidly against it.
Too many questions which should be raised, are not being raised. Why such a deafening silence only after President Aristide was given asylum in South Africa? Could it be that the two centuries of punishment, which has been inflicted on Haiti, has dampened the enthusiasm of those who might be tempted to stand by in solidarity?
Final question, how can any country, let alone an African one, lend its services to a process which included the kidnapping of a democratically elected president? It bears striking similarity to what happened more than 200 years ago when Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution, was taken prisoner by the country which is known in history for its 1789 Revolution. By then, in 1802, everything was being done to quash what the Africans had done. Could it be that the leadership of South Africa has become so subservient to the powers that be (US, France, Canada, Vatican) as to allow itself to be seen as a willing participant in an operation more reminiscent of the times when Steve Biko was arrested?
From our collective histories, we might look at the role being performed by the South African leadership as similar to the one performed by Tshombe in Katanga, when the West needed to get rid of Lumumba.
2. From trespassing to collective, relentless, punishment (1825-1938/46)
With the rise of Napoléon, the process of collective punishment was initiated. Military attempts to reverse the victory of the Africans in Haiti failed. The Africans were able to repel the three best armies of the day: French, Spanish and English. By 1825 however, the Haitian government was forced by France, with the help of the US, Canada and the Vatican, to agree to pay compensation to the slave and plantation owners, in exchange for being accepted as a nation state. Repayments for the liberty of the former slaves were made until 1938, according to some, to 1946, according to others. Having lost militarily and politically, the former slave owners sought to reassert their authority, in the international arena, where their control was unchallengeable.
From the viewpoint of the former slave and plantation owners, they had to show that emancipation by the slaves, in their own terms, could not be acceptable, regardless of whether those terms (emancipation) replicated ideological tenets held by the slave and plantation masters.
The collective and severe punishment which followed 1804 is in line with the syndrome of discovery, which can be stated as follows: discoverers shall always be discoverers, and should discovered ones discover anything, especially something universally acceptable such as emancipation, they shall be put back in their place.
In the case of the slaves overthrowing slavery in Haiti, the virulent vengeance of the response has not abated, two centuries after the event. Indeed, the arsenal has grown bigger, multi-headed, more sophisticated.
Opponents of the eradication of slavery are still being corralled by the United States which has seen itself as guardian of the treasures and resources accumulated by and through their discoveries: USA, France, Canada, the Vatican; and they are not the only ones. The resort to the political and financial punitive measures mentioned above, combined with secular and religious ideological orthodoxies, were meant to divide the Haitian people.
As it has been observed in many post-colonial situations, a small privileged elite saw itself as the only worthy Haitians. The syndrome of discovery has remained as virulent as ever: slaves must not free themselves; the poor must not end poverty on their own terms. The poor of Sité Soley, by definition, according to the elite, must not have a voice, except as filtered or reframed by the media controlled by the elite.
3. From Full rights to human rights
The slaves wanted to be treated as full human beings with the same full rights available to the masters. In their battle, there was no plan B, no halfway to freedom. From the 1804 event, those who continue to suffer from injustices, structural and circumstantial, have been told the same message, over and over: only the discoverers can discover the solutions to injustices. Whereas the slaves battled for full rights, their descendants in Haiti and all over the planet are being told that their way out of oppression and exploitation can only take place through the charitable detours of Human Rights. The average person in the world can see for herself that the 1804 event has been followed by institutionalising processes aimed at sterilising all the possible consequences which could, and should, have led to more and more emancipation from the shackles born out of the capital accumulated through slavery, land theft in North America and colonial occupation.
Despite the pious mantras coming out of political, religious and financial centers of power, the majority of humanity continues to be enslaved by a dominant economic system which thrives on poverty. When US defence secretary McNamara left the Pentagon for the World Bank after the Vietnam debacle, he vowed to end poverty within a decade.
Having lost, the slave masters, the plantation owners and their allies did everything to ensure that the process of change should never be set by those who had suffered and been dehumanised the most.
The 100 plus years of repayments were about denying the Haitians the ability to invest in their future. And so it has been since: in the US, the abolition of slavery went hand in hand with measures aimed at ensuring that former slaves did not think they could just walk away from their masters. Angela Davis, in Are Prisons Obsolete?, highlighted what other writers before her had noticed: abolition gave way to the introduction of legislation aimed at keeping the former slaves in check, leading seamlessly to what has become known as the Prison Industrial Complex. In the south, the majority of the prison population turned, almost overnight, from white to black. It took a century for the former slaves to get the right to vote, but this voting has come with all kinds of institutionalised limits.
During colonial rule in the DRC, the end of colonial rule could only be envisioned as a series of half measures. The colonial subjects were forced or indoctrinated to think of themselves through the legal, administrative, social and political prism of the subjugators. By now, it should be clear: there must always be a sharp and unbridgeable gap between the rich and the poor, as there had to be between the coloniser and the colonised. Visible and non-visible ‘no trespassing’ signs are everywhere with the result that the poor keep getting poorer and the rich, richer.
4. From Kongo to Haiti to DRCongo: 1706-1757-2007
The way world history has been written by the victors had one prerequisite: make sure that the vanquished have no doubt about their vanquished status. It is not just that given episodes have different names (eg enlightenment, civilization, Cold War, development, globalisation). It is above all the erasure of the mindset of those who, against all odds, refused to submit to dehumanisation, not just in their own name, but in the name of the larger community, including those who were dehumanising them.
If the French government has finally passed a law acknowledging that slavery had been a crime against humanity, why then, have those who did fight it not been acknowledged as heroes, heroines, saints? Not just in France, but also in their own countries? Why hasn’t Kimpa Vita, (Dona Beatrix), burnt at the stake for denouncing the Kingdom of the Kongo’s King for allowing the slave trade and slavery to continue, not been considered for sainthood by the hierarchy of the Catholic church? What prevents the current Congolese government from declaring her, and explaining in detail why, she is a national heroine?
In 1757, in Haiti, a man known Makandal was caught and burned at the stake in 1758 because he had been accused of having killed, by poisoning, many slave owners. A generation later, in 1791, another slave, Boukman, played a crucial role in the ritual which is considered as the start of the uprising which led to the 1804 victory. These are the well known names, but over and above them, millions of anonymous people battled dehumanisation, often falling into dehumanizing violence, but holding on to the conviction that slavery was a crime against life, against humanity. Why do we not see schools, hospitals and research institutes, from Mozambique, around the Cape to Senegal bearing the above names, as a way of reintroducing the way they thought and fought into our collective consciousness?
Haitian elites, generally, with a few exceptions, have ended up siding with the descendants of the slave owners, and it is these elites who worked hard to comply with the repayments. Theoretically, Aristide was a bona fide promising member of the elite, but he veered away from the elite and the Catholic Church hierarchy to follow a course reminiscent of that of Reverend Beyers Naude in South Africa, when he refused to go along with the Dutch Reformed Church’s support of apartheid. The virulence with which some members of the Haitian elite have attacked Aristide makes one wonder whether it is less of a crime to discriminate against the poor in Haiti than to discriminate against the blacks in South Africa.
5. From Toussaint L’Ouverture to Patrice Lumumba to Samora Machel
These three leaders are national heroes in their own country. At the same time, it is not difficult to see that the current elites in those countries would rather maintain some distance from them. In all three cases, there has been reluctance on the part of those states responsible for their death to go beyond formal apology.
In the case of France and Toussaint, Louis Sala-Molin suggested that full recognition of responsibility and apology, say during the 1989 bicentenary of the French Revolution, could have been followed with placing Toussaint’s remains next to Napoleon’s sarcophagus in the Pantheon in Paris. Later on, the French state gave itself another opportunity to do exactly that by proclaiming slavery a crime against humanity. We are still waiting.
Following Ludo de Witte’s book The Assassination of Lumumba, coming after Adam Hochshild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, the Belgian state showed the same kind of cowardice. Again, it is not difficult to suspect the reasons: fear that people would seek revenge. This is the same mindset which prevented white South Africans from opening up for a long time: if they – the blacks – win, they will throw us into the sea. But, at the same time, just as in Haiti, a black South African elite has emerged which finds itself closer to those who have always vilified the likes of L’Ouverture, Lumumba or Machel. All the while, of course, singing the praises of Nelson Mandela.
The case of Samora Machel is the most interesting because it is the most recent. His figure is in the process of being erased from the historical conscience of Mozambique. Having died in a plane crash on 19 October 1986, the 20th anniversary was a low key celebration. And the reason why is obvious: 20 years after his death, things going on in Mozambique which would have been unacceptable to Samora Machel.
6. An open letter to world citizens
203 years since the slaves of Saint Domingue overthrew slavery, against the most formidable armies of the day, humanity, not just the descendants of slaves, should be celebrating that event. But instead of celebration, one sees almost the exact opposite. UN troops, in Haiti are carrying out regular killings of babies, women, old people in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Port-Au-Prince, Cité Soleil. We should do better than just to stand by, shaking our heads, protesting occasionally. Should we not change gear in our daily lives and vow not to stop till Haiti is completely free as it was meant to be in 1804?
Instead of outraged solidarity, there is a massive silence, aside from a few solitary voices expressing solidarity, in various cities around the world. Sadly, some of the most well known anti-apartheid leaders, outside and inside South Africa have been ingenious at explaining the apathy, which really boils down to refusing solidarity with the inhabitants of a small island.
Why? One well known and courageous anti-apartheid leader (non-South African) went for the generic, easy, comment: ‘until Haiti has an ANC type party which could be supported, it is not worth doing anything’.
Then there has been the vicious attacks against Jean-Bertrand Aristide, by members of the Haitian elite, who had no shame in publishing a letter in the white owned press of South Africa saying that Aristide is no Mandela. Well, thank God for that. Because even Mandela himself would hope that there are others from the continent and beyond, to carry on from the point reached in the battle against South African apartheid.
When looking in the rear mirror of history, from the surrounding extremes of wealth and poverty, of stupendous spending on weapons systems as against the avariciousness for caring for people, it is easy to ask oneself: whether slavery, or more precisely, the mind set unleashed by the system, was ever abolished? More and more, it appears that slavery was simply modernised to get rid of the aspects standing in the way of cheapening labour.
With Auschwitz and Hiroshima/Nagasaki, it is not just labour which became cheaper. Life lost its sacredness and became dispensable on a massive scale. Leading Einstein to say, right after Hiroshima/Nagasaki that with the splitting of the atom, everything changed completely – except the way we think. Surely, my friends, it is high time to change the way we think if we are going to move on from that mindset. The same preoccupation could be asked differently: ‘When did thinking as humans began to disappear?’
7. Who defines terror?
From the viewpoint of the discoverers, terror is only terror when it terrorises them, their descendants or their friends. Never, or so it seems, are they willing to imagine the terror which was experienced by the anonymous couple which, on any day in the 18th century, somewhere on one of those slave routes to the atlantic, armed mercenaries coming out of nowhere kidnapped them in the middle of the night and dragged them, screaming and crying at the same time.
Their terror can only be comparable to what would happen later during WW II, in Europe, when people would be dragged out of their houses to be put on cattle trains and sent to an unknown destination. The Africans were taken like cattle to waiting ships, packed like sardines. How would one document the terror they felt? Through their numbers, costs, bills of lading? Conceivably and imaginatively, the only archives where their terror could be found would be in the archives lying at the bottom of the Atlantic, and retrievable only through specially conducted healing ceremonies. Such terror, if it could be brought back to life for healing purposes, might help the monopolisers of terror and violence see for themselves the roots where it all begun.
Retaliating against terror with more terror can only mean the triumph of the terrorizing mindset, of terror as the best possible weapon. Fighting terror with terror is another way of taking us back to the mindset of the Cold War, which is but a continuation of the mindset which underlay slavery. It is a mindset which leads to death, not to life.
The anonymous couple was quickly separated: women on one side and men on another. Their peaceful lives had been violated, but what was to follow was beyond anything they thought other human beings could inflict onto others. Soon, their separation would be completed when she found herself on one ship; he, on another. Still, like any human being, she began to look on the positive side of things: she was still alive, in relatively good health, and, with a new life inside her womb, she had with her a bit of her husband: her duty was to protect this new life to the best of her ability. Being at peace in a context of violence is one of the most stressful tasks ever.
To summarise, it suffices to say that the ship captain had spotted her among the others, and informed the sailors to prepare her as one of his travel companions. The question is how, and who will ever tell the story of how she was raped repeatedly. How, she eventually decided to take her life by throwing herself off the ship.
More to the point, where and how to heal from such massive individual and collective indescribable wounds which are still rippling across the descendants, centuries later?
8. Who defines poverty?
Haiti, ‘the poorest country of the, so-called, “Western” hemisphere’ reads the lamentation billboards of the Western media. As if Haiti and its poverty is a stain on the image expected to be projected by the West. Or a tortuous way of warning those who might be interested in following the same route? You shall be crushed so badly that no one else would be tempted to think outside of the path traced by the discoverers and abolitionists.
The so-called poor of Cité Soleil do not see themselves as the poor framed by the crocodile tears shed by humanitarianists. The triumph of the slaves in 1804 happened because they did not dwell on being slaves; and so it is with the poor. The poor see themselves as being endowed with the capacity to overthrow the mindsets which keep insisting that they, the poor, can only be helped out of poverty by charitable gestures and structures.
Overthrowing poverty, like overthrowing slavery, can only be tackled, and succeed, as a political gesture. But because everything has been done and continues to be done by those who did not want the slaves to succeed, the battle over slavery, and its history, continues to this day. It extended into colonial rule, with the same message: do not ever trespass over the boundaries of power. If you do, expect the worse kind of punishment.
From 1804 to this day, the history of Haiti continues to unfold along two distinct paths: the one left by Toussaint and those who did overthrow the system; and the one which the slave owners, plantation owners and their allies could never ever let go, at the risk of losing more than their own possessions.
With globalisation, the stakes have not changed: on the one hand, there are those who state that the slaves were wrong. They did not know what to do with what they achieved, economically, politically. They inherited the economic jewel of the French colonial possessions, and ‘ruined’ it. Those who had lost that battle in Saint Domingue resorted to their allies to impose conditions on the new state which ensured that whatever economic gains the former slaves made would be siphoned off to those who had insisted on compensation.
In today’s world where everyone is being called to globalise or else in the wake of a system which has relentlessly modernised itself since the days of industrialised Atlantic slavery, should we not be proud to have amongst us people who are saying no to such a call? In these times of addiction to wealth seeking, is it not admirable to have people, known and unknown, who are refusing to be seduced by the promises of a system, the annihilating capacity of which, physical and spiritual, has reached incomensurable proportions?
We face today the same odds that the slaves in Haiti faced against the system, then in its infancy. Is it not true that we keep hearing that the only way to improve the lot of humanity is to forget our humanity in order to save ourselves later, by following the very mindset which has brought us to such a precarious point? Is it not true that, individually and collectively, we are being asked to stop exercising our capacity to think? Is it not true that we are being trained to look, with fear and mistrust at some of our best, non-violent life instincts?
The process of destroying humanity over the last 500 years never stopped. Now and then, it slowed down, but on the whole, from trespassing life to trespassing living, the system which emerged out of glorifying itself by attrition, against existing damning evidence, has now reached an unprecedented level of domination. By pretending that one suffering was worse than another, by pretending that comparing suffering was insulting to those who considered themselves the worse sufferers, that which was indivisible was cut to pieces.
Contemplating the disaster of Hiroshima/Nagasaki, Albert Einstein is alleged to have said: ‘With the splitting of the Atom, everything changed except the way we think’. Should we not change the way we think? Should we not trace back some of the thinking which was ignored?
From Hispaniola to Hiroshima, the splitting mindset did not just attack the atom. Long before the physicists got their turn, the process had proceeded, practically unopposed, against so-called savages and barbarians, with occasional defenders. The native Americans’ land was taken away from them, with it, a way of thinking diametrically opposed to splitting the atom. From Hispaniola to Saint Domingue, the Arawaks were wiped out and replaced with people stolen, highjacked, terrorised away from their homes, their land, their fields in Africa. And yet, in Saint Domingue, the spirit of refusing to be split from humanity rose again, and against all the odds, triumphed, briefly, before revenge and collective punishment started again.
9. Who is the enemy?
The arsenal in place to eradicate humanity is visible everywhere: the armament industry could wipe out life on the planet and the planet itself several times over. Yet still, it keeps growing and being modernised. Have we not heard the argument before: if we shut down this or that factory, we would be taking jobs away from working people? But is it right to have a mindset which is always looking for enemies, even though such enemies only exist in the mindset of warmongers seeking to make sure that their products shall always have buyers?
Do we not live in a world dominated by advertising and entertainment industries living off the by products of warfare? It has been shown that war fought with weapons has become obsolete. That it is possible to annihilate your enemy by just manipulating the market. Has the triumphant mindset, such as it is, left only one exit for those looking for freedom? Have we not realised that this exit, framed by such a lethal mindset shall take us to a variation of something we have already seen, but only this time, worse? Could it be that little by little, by attrition, humanity has completely given itself and its capacity to think, and its sense of balance between the spiritual and the material, over to the market?
10. Is there really any interest in wiping out poverty?
It is not difficult to see that the poor are the potential enemies of the global system, as run by the corporations and their crumbling nation state allies. A social, political and economic system which has prospered on the basis of dividing, discriminating to death and thriving on competition is wired to reproduce competition and discrimination. There will be conventions against poverty, just as there has been conventions against genocide. Charitable structures shall be used to spread some of the dispensable, tax reducing profits. The system’s growth has thrived on generating poverty. But, ideologically speaking, it must present itself as wanting to do something about poverty.
The abolitionist mode did not work with slavery. There is no reason why it would work in abolishing poverty, unless anchored in building greater social solidarity between all members of humanity. In short, fidelity to humanity as affirmed at turning points such as in 1804 in Haiti would be the way of seriously getting rid of poverty. Such fidelity will not happen overnight, but can grow out of healing processes initiated away from corporations and states, between members of humanity.
* Jacques Depelchin, Ota Benga Alliance for Peace, Healing and Dignity