Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Taking Control

After some success with the Confederation of states in Canada, Britain wanted to do the same thing in Southern Africa. The problem was there were multiple states that didn't want to join together. A series of Anglo-somebody wars followed. Cecil Rhodes was Prime Minister of the Cape Colony and his British South Africa Company created the state of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia). After the 1885 Conference in Berlin, there was a sudden scramble for control. A bunch of crusty old white dudes sat around a table with some rulers and divided Africa up. Colonialism up till that point had been about the coasts, ports and trade routes. Now dominance mattered. Rhodes famously dreamed of British Control from Cape to Cairo.

The problem was the British didn't find taking control very easy. In 1879, they were hammered by the Zulus at Isandlwana. In 1880/1881, they were defeated by the Boers. This farming community didn't play by the normal rules of warfare. They wore khaki and disappeared into the bushes. They used the red coats for target practice. They didn't need supply lines because they would just visit the various farms. The community was largely made of people who had left Europe because of persecution, and then had left the Cape Colony because of again feeling they had lost control. The Cape Colony had originally been Dutch, but after the Napoleonic Wars the British had sent settlers in 1820 to avoid the French taking control. The Boers weren't keen on British rule at all.

In order to win the second time round, the British Army used two new tools. Concentration Camps and a Scorched Earth policy. Women and children were taken from the farms and put into tented camps as prisoners of war. The farms were then burnt. 26,000 of those POWs died.  I had family on both sides of that war. My 96 year old great aunt told me recently that her grandparents had owned one of the first farms that were burnt. She is losing her sight and her hearing, so she re-runs stories from the past. The stories from people with wrinkles do add perspective to our troubles of today.

One of the interesting things about having moved to London, but going back to South Africa as often as I can is comparing the conversations that are had. There is talk here about Germany and how they deal with collective guilt about the Second World War. There is talk about South Africa and how we deal with getting over Apartheid. There isn't a lot of talk at all in Britain about Colonialism. Concentration Camps are associated with Germany, not Britain. There is collective amnesia about the the horrible bits of history, but great pride in the good bits.

In South Africa, there is a very raw ongoing conversation about race relations. There are 11 official languages and a wide variety of cultures and norms. There is no hiding from the tensions this creates and the attempt to create a common story. In the UK, there are also deep tensions. Every election is followed by people defriending those who disagree. Every discussion becomes a further entrenchment of ways of seeing the world. Accents matter. The school you went to matters. The work you do matters. 

Brexit has thrown everything up in the air. The parties don't seem to represent the people who voted them in. The problem with building false walls between people is that they don't make sense. The people who voted leave for completely different reasons suddenly look around them and see who they are standing next to. They may agree on a single answer, but their reasons and dreams are completely different.

I will be the first to put my hand up and say I don't know enough people with lives very different to my own. The vast majority of my friends and I have a lot in common. If history tells us anything, it is that trying to take control doesn't work. We have to find a way to build community with the hard work of seeing people. The hard work of developing relationships. I have family from all over. Scottish, British, Dutch, German and many I have no idea about. Many of these people hated each other bitterly. Catholic and Protestant. Red coat and Khaki. Capitalist and Communist. 

At some stage we have to stop trying to take control, and start trying to listen.

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