Three prophets who put reparations for slavery in the spotlight

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation. He recently penned an opinion article published in the Business Day on 28 June 2020.

In light of the recent global anti-slavery and anti-colonial protests, a burning issue that has not been prominently addressed is that of reparations for the victims of these two evil scourges in the Americas, the Caribbean, and Africa. How can Western nations who enslaved and colonised black people over five centuries repair this pernicious damage that has left these regions with the triple burdens of a lack of development, diseases, and deadly conflicts? This remains a festering wound that needs to be urgently addressed. Three Prophets have been at the forefront of these debates: African-American lawyer, Randall Robinson, and the Barbadian and Nigerian historians, Hilary Beckles and the late Ade Ajayi.

As the 400th anniversary of American slavery was commemorated last year, calls for reparations for descendants of this exploitative system have once more been heard. Rather perversely, it was slave-owners who were compensated for the loss of their “property”: the British government paid the contemporary equivalent of £200 billion to slave-owners after it abolished slavery in 1833. Democrats in the US legislature have now belatedly embraced the cause of reparations, while institutions like Brown, Harvard and Yale universities that benefited from the slave trade have initiated programmes of restitution.

The most articulate American crusader of reparations has been the former anti-apartheid activist, Randall Robinson. He has consistently argued for reparations in order to close the 250-year gap between white and black Americans created by plantation slavery. He noted that Germany paid Jews reparations for the devastating but much shorter Holocaust (1933–45) – estimated at $60 billion – while Japanese Americans interned in concentration camps by President Franklin Roosevelt during the Second World War (1939-1945) were also compensated with a $1.2 million payment. He further observed that indigenous populations received land and money for the Australian government’s genocidal campaign against them, while members of Canada’s Inuit indigenous group also received $700 million in compensation from their government for similar atrocities.

In the Caribbean, Hilary Beckles has led the reparations debate, noting that “slavery and genocide in the Caribbean are lived experiences despite over a century of emancipation. Everywhere their legacies shape the lives of the majority and harm their capacity for advancement.” Modern ailments common among Caribbean citizens like diabetes and hypertension can be traced directly to the era of European slavery and colonialism. Beckles thus argued that European slaving nations including the British state, its banks, merchant houses, insurances companies and the Church of England pay compensation. A 2004 estimate of the cost of the slave trade to the Caribbean put the figure at £7.5 trillion.

In Africa, the late Ade Ajayi was a member of the Organisation of African Unity’s Eminent Persons Group on Reparations in 1992-1993, which demanded that the West recognise its moral debt to Africa and its diaspora for slavery and colonialism, and pay these populations full monetary compensation. Ajayi noted that discussions about the contributions of the slave trade to the West’s industrialisation have been neglected, and also criticised the ambiguous or indifferent attitude of African scholars to this issue. He thus called for four measures: domestic education and mobilisation in African societies; documentation and research on the costs of slavery and colonialism; making a cogent case for reparations; and agreeing on the strategy, manner, and mode of reparations, having placed the issue on the UN agenda. Ajayi further argued that reparations should seek to “understand the African condition in depth, to educate the African and the non-African about it, [and] seek an acknowledgment of wrongs which have impaired the political and socio-economic fabric of Africa.

Reparations are an emotive issue that all progressive activists across the globe should embrace. One can not acknowledge the pernicious impact of five centuries of Western slavery and colonialism without supporting the necessary measures to repair these glaring historical crimes against humanity.

*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg

prof adekeye adebajo
Professor Adekeye Adebajo:Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.
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