Thursday 14 July 2022

Reparations for Belgian Colonialism in Africa

 On July 8, 2022, I testified (via Zoom) before a Belgian parliamentary committee investigating the question of reparations to Congo, Rwanda and Burundi for the establishment of the Congo Free State (so-called) ( and later colonialism in Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.  I was asked to summarize my research on reparations to Africa and to make recommendations for reparations.  Below is my verbatim testimony.

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for inviting me. My presentation is drawn from research I conducted for my book, Reparations to Africa, published in 2008; from related research on political apologies; and from my publications on reparations to African Americans and Canadians.

For Reparations to Africa, between 2002 and 2004 two research assistants and I interviewed 74 Africans in either English or French. Sixty-seven of the respondents lived permanently in Africa in 26 countries. Three were members of the Group of Eminent Persons appointed to investigate reparations by the Organization of Africa Unity in 1992; eight were ambassadors to the United States; twenty-two were academics; and forty-one were human rights activists or policy makers.

With the exception of the ambassadors, these individuals demonstrated a general sense of humiliation, betrayal, exploitation and abandonment by the West, covering the slave trade, colonialism, and even the post-colonial era. They objected to violent colonial conquest; to the division of their countries into competing ethnic groups; to the destruction of their traditional systems of authority; and to the theft of land, mineral resources, and other property. Colonialism was, to them, a system of organized looting.

Moreover, colonialism was an injury to the spirit. As one respondent from Central Africa said, “It hurts morally: it’s a moral subordination.” A scholar from Burundi said, “colonialism was brutal and did not recognize the value of the Other.” These quotations indicate the importance to their human dignity of recognition and acknowledgement of Africans’ historic and contemporary suffering.

Human dignity requires that all individuals have access to the truth about their and their ancestors’ suffering. Although the past cannot be undone, crimes (or what we would now call crimes) committed in the past must be acknowledged. It is important to recognize that Africans today live in conditions created in large part by the slave trade and colonialism. Western states are responsible for their part in creating current African underdevelopment, even if some Africans were and are also involved in causing it. It is impossible to undo these historic harms, but some symbolic recompense must be made.

First among these symbolic procedures are official apologies. For a Congolese activist we interviewed, it was imperative to recognize past events as wrong “because if it was not wrong that means that it might happen again.” For a South African lawyer, lack of apology meant that “black lives and black people are not…as important as white lives and white people.” Our respondents thought that acknowledgement of past harms and apologies for them could render relations between Africa and the West more equitable, and might also contribute to a psychological healing process both for offender and offended.

It might be advisable for the Belgian government to offer apologies for its colonial past separately to Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi. Such apologies must be sincere, and must not be merely statements of regret. The apologies should be drafted in consultation with the intended recipients and should acknowledge and enumerate the vast list of harms imposed on the Congo Free State and on Belgium’s African colonies. The apologies should be offered in a ceremonial venue with appropriate audiences of dignitaries, members of the diaspora, and individuals representing the people of the former colonies, as well as officials of the three African countries. The apologies should be widely publicized both in Belgium and its former colonies.

Normally, an apology should be offered by one head of state to another. However, official apologies offered to contemporary African heads of state might help to buttress illegitimate and authoritarian rule. Authoritarian rulers can manipulate the politics of resentment to distract their citizens from their own unjust, rights-abusive policies. Thus, another method of apology might be necessary.

Official apologies would have to be based upon the findings of a truth commission. The long, written report of the special commission charged with examining Congo Free State and Belgium’s colonial past might be considered sufficient evidence of the truth without the need for another commission. Both Belgian and African public opinion might accept the finding of the special commission on Belgium’s colonial past, knowing that both Belgian and African commissioners were involved in its design and research, and agreed with the commission’s findings.

The findings of this special commission would, however, have to be summarized and simplified, perhaps with the assistance of professional writers and journalists, before being publicized, using media accessible to both Belgians and Africans.

Nevertheless, even a combination of a truth commission and apologies would probably not satisfy politicians, opinion leaders, and ordinary citizens of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. The Africans my research assistants and I interviewed insisted that a verbal apology alone was unacceptable. In their own cultures, apologies always had to be followed by some material compensation.  As a Tanzanian university lecturer said, “I am not interested in a verbal apology. I am interested in the economic apology.”

Several different types of symbolic material reparations could be offered, of which you are already aware. With regard to archives, I suggest that private entities such as Belgian corporations be strongly encouraged, or if necessary even compelled, to open up their own archives to researchers. I note that Union Minière de Haut Katanga has not yet opened up all of its archives. I am the author of a book on Colonialism and Underdevelopment in Ghana, published in 1978, based on 15 months’ research in Ghanaian and British archives. I encountered some resistance from holders of private archives, even though my research period ended in 1938. Yet some of the most important material I found was from the archives of Unilever, the successor corporation to the United Africa Company. 

Similar to corporations, it might be wise to strongly encourage, if not compel, Roman Catholic entities to open their archives if they have not already done so. In Canada today, there is much controversy because the Catholic Church, which ran many of the residential “schools”, so-called, in which Indigenous children were incarcerated, has refused to fully open its archives to researchers. I note that Belgian Catholic entities have already agreed to open up their archives to researchers investigating the institutions in which Métis children kidnapped from Congo were held.

Another symbolic reparative measure could be an annual national day of remembrance, during which all government and non-government institutions, including churches, corporations, schools and universities, would commemorate the colonial period and those who suffered during it. This should not be a national holiday whose significance citizens could simply ignore, but a designated day for ceremonies of remembrance within all institutions.

In this context, a national year of reflection might also be useful. During this year, all Belgian institutions and all government agencies could reflect on their role, if any, in colonialism, and on how they could offer symbolic restitution to both members of the diaspora and citizens of former colonies. Restitution could include special employment and training schemes, targeted scholarships, or support for research chairs within Africa on Belgian colonialism. Belgian universities and corporations might also partner with African universities in long-term collaborations to improve training in disciplines other than colonial history. These disciplines could include medicine or engineering, on the principle that colonialism contributed to Africa underdevelopment, which might be remedied in part by such training.

Part of the national year of reflection might be a year-long project to educate citizens about colonialism, and to commemorate those who resisted colonization and those who suffered from it. In 2007, the 200th anniversary of the abolition of Britain’s slave trade, the British Heritage Lottery Fund paid for 280 projects in Britain and Africa supporting education about, and memorialization of, both Britain’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade and the movement to abolish it. Belgium could institute something similar. Within Belgium, historic plaques could commemorate resisters to colonization, and inform the public about colonizers. For example, markers could be put on all public and even private buildings built or owned by King Leopold II or by subsequent colonizers. Within Africa, Belgium could support museums, public education projects, and the creation and maintenance of memorial spaces. Plaques commemorating individuals who suffered from colonialism might be particularly meaningful, like the Solpersteine in Germany commemorating victims of the Holocaust.

One further note on symbolic reparations: All of these ideas risk backlash from Belgians who might not agree that their country is obliged to repair relations with its former colonies, especially since even symbolic measures impose a cost on the public purse. Such backlash has occurred in other Western countries. It might be wise in outreach projects and educational curricula to distinguish carefully between guilt, shame, and responsibility. In the United States, those who oppose teaching about the history of American race relations in schools appear to think that such teaching will make white children feel guilty about the past, or ashamed of their skin color. Yet no one is guilty of anything except their own actions, and no one should feel shame about their skin colour, which is something over which one has no control.

Some Belgians might complain that neither they themselves nor their ancestors had anything to do with colonialism, so they have no responsibility to repair past harms. One way to answer this concern is to stress that just as individuals enjoy the benefits of citizenship, so they must share in its responsibilities, regardless of how long they or their families have lived in Belgium and regardless of the role—or lack thereof—that their ancestors might have played in colonialism. All are responsible for their countries’ policies and for trying to remedy past harms that their countries committed.

Thank you for allowing me this opportunity to express my views.


Tuesday 15 March 2022

"Caste" by Isabel Wilkerson: Book Note


“Caste” by Isabel Wilkerson (Book Note)

Last week (March 2022) I read Isabel Wilkerson’s book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Random House, 2020)  Wilkerson is an African-American journalist. Caste compares race relations in the US with caste-based divisions in India and with the Nazi creation of Jews as a subordinate caste. It is not a systematic, scholarly comparison, rather a rumination that illuminates US race relations by looking at caste in these two other societies. To make her point, throughout the book Wilkerson refers to whites as “members of the dominant caste” and to Blacks as “members of the subordinate caste.”

Isabel Wilkerson


While some commentators on Caste whom I read in the media thought that Wilkerson’s use of the terminology of caste was quite original, it wasn’t to me. In my 1995 book, Human Rights and the Search for Community, I wrote “In modern Western society distinctions of caste have been rendered unclear and disreputable by the ideologies of equality and individual autonomy. Nevertheless, stratificatory practices based on unacknowledged notions of honor and shame persist” (p. 135). I then went on to argue that to be either Black or female was to be considered shameful. I drew heavily on Orlando Patterson’s 1982 book, Slavery and Social Death, in attempting this analysis; he spoke of timocracy, honor-based social gradations which accorded more honor to whites than Blacks.

While perhaps three people read my book, many thousands more have read Wilkerson’s, and rightly so. She has a way with words, referring, for example, to Southern agricultural plantations as forced labor camps (p. 47), to enslaved Africans as hostages (p. 43), and to lynching as ritual killings (p. 41). She also tells us that the image of the plump black Mammie, as portrayed by Hattie McDaniel in the 1939 movie, Gone with the Wind, was a fiction. Most if not all enslaved African women would have been very thin, because they were all malnourished, a deliberate choice of their owners (p. 138).

In India, Wilkerson tells us, some upper-caste teachers refuse to grade the papers of Dalit students, because they would actually have to touch the same paper as the students. A Dalit immigrant to the US tells Wilkerson of an upper-caste female office-worker who refused to pour her own water from a jug sitting near her desk, rather walking down the hall to get a Dalit to pour it for her (p. 176). In sociological terms, this is status anxiety.

Status anxiety is also the reason that police often stop and arrest Black people in fancy cars. Members of the lowest caste—in the US, Nazi Germany, and India—are “not permitted to bear the symbols of success and status reserved for the upper caste” (p. 160). The boundaries of caste must be very carefully monitored (p.216). So we can’t acknowledge, for example, that in Boston in 1721, the dominant caste minister, Cotton Mather, got the idea of inoculation for smallpox from an African slave named Onesimus (p. 231).

 Wilkerson has conducted very serious research but presents it in a very readable way. She especially notes the ways that privileged people bear themselves and assume that they will be listened to. At conferences about caste in India where all participants are supposed to be opposed to caste distinctions, she can nevertheless recognize which people come from the upper castes (the priestly Brahmin caste in particular) and which from the lower or out-caste (Dalits; literally meaning “broken people” [p. 26]). The former talk over the latter, or tell them what they should think.

Wilkerson intersperses her text with anecdotes from her own life as a member of the subordinate (African American) caste. She recounts an instance where she is in a restaurant with a member of the dominant (white) caste and the waiter ostentatiously ignores them, serving an entire meal to a table of dominant-caste people before he gets around to even giving them their bread. Her dominant-caste friend eventually stands up and accuses the waiter of racism in a loud voice that everyone in the restaurant can hear: Wilkerson herself would never have done such a thing (pp. 265-69).

Turning to contemporary politics, Wilkerson argues that to understand the 2016 election, we must understand that lower-class whites are willing to sacrifice their short-term economic welfare to preserve their long-term caste status (p. 324).

Wilkerson includes two interesting sections on Nazism in Caste. In her chapter on monuments and memorials, she points out that Germany is not infested with statues of Hitler and his cronies, as the US South is infested with statues of Robert E. Lee and his cronies. Presumably, there were such statues in Germany until the end of WWII, but they were taken down.

Wilkerson also discusses the archived minutes of a meeting in 1934 at which senior Nazis discussed a report on US racial laws that they hoped to use in drafting their own racial laws. One senior Nazi is horrified by the “one drop” rule in some US states, by which one drop of “Negro” blood is enough to render you a permanent member of the subordinate caste. Another Nazi wants to know if people can’t have the benefit of the doubt if they are half-Jewish and half “Aryan,” and be allowed to enjoy some Aryan privilege. Such would have been impossible for a person of mixed racial background in the US South, indeed even now anywhere in the US.

This book is well worth reading: very insightful, making one (at least me) think again about things one thinks one has known for many decades.


Monday 7 March 2022

Ideacide: Left_Wing Censorship in Canada


Below is the text of an editorial I published in The Hamilton Spectator, February 12, 2022, p. 17 “Ideacide: Left-wing Censorship a Danger “, February 12, p. A17. The link below is still operative as of today, March 7, 2022.

Ideacide: the Dangers of Left-wing Censorship in Canada

For the second time, Henry Giroux (Nov. 11, 2021; February 7, 2022) has argued in The Spectator that US Republican attempts to ban from schools books that refer to slavery or racism constitute  an extremely dangerous trend.  I agree with him: I am very worried that the US will soon become a fascist state.  

Sadly, however, although Republicans are the chief threat to freedom of thought and speech in the US, there is also another trend coming from the cultural left, in both the US and Canada.  It is ideacide, attempts to censor ideas put forward by people on the political right, or even people defending traditional liberal ideas.

Tomas Hudlicky, a distinguished professor of chemistry at Brock University, has been bullied and shunned for opposing equity efforts based on group membership, rather than equality of individual opportunity.  He has been vilified as an “old white male.”  In fact, he was a refugee from Communist persecution in (then) Czechoslovakia.

In 2019, a Coptic Christian immigrant from Egypt was expelled from the University of Manitoba medical school because of his pro-life and anti gun-control views. In August 2021 a judge ruled that the university had violated his Charter rights to freedom of expression.  I disagree very strongly with this student’s views, but it’s a dangerous precedent to expel someone from a public university for holding views that many Canadians share.

In May 2021, Professor Rima Azar of Mount Allison University was suspended and banned from campus for blog posts that questioned the existence of systemic racism in Canada and called the Black Lives Matter movement  “radical.” She said that she had immigrated to Canada because it protected freedom of expression.

In September 2020, Ottawa University suspended Verushka Lieutenant-Duval, a (white) francophone adjunct professor of linguistics. She had used the full “N-word” when explaining how minority groups sometimes “re-appropriate” slurs for their own ends, for example in the Netflix movie May Rainey’s Black Bottom. There was absolutely no racist intent in her stating the full word. Yet although she was later reinstated, she experience harassment and threats of violence on social media.

This last case made headlines in Quebec, resulting in a government commission to examine academic freedom and responsibilities.  Some of the witnesses were anglophone professors from Ontario, testifying anonymously because they were afraid of repercussions from their universities if they testified openly.

In January, the Waterloo school board shut down teacher Carolyn Burjoski because she was concerned that books for children about gender transition  made it seem too easy and “cool’ to transition. Many people, not only Burjoski, are concerned about the serious medical effects of gender transitioning. Yet she was told that her comments violated the Ontario human rights code.  They did not. The human rights code prohibits discriminatory acts, but does not prohibit any speech. 

None of the views expressed by the individuals I’ve mentioned is outside the range of permissible expression in Canada.  Equality of opportunity for individuals is still Canadian and Ontario law, despite exceptions for special programs for under-represented groups.  Not every use of the “N-word” is racist.  Canadians are not forbidden to question whether systemic racism exists.  Nor are they forbidden to oppose abortion or gun-control  laws.  Instead of permitting these individuals to express their views, their cowardly university and school board administrators capitulated to popular opinion advocating censorship.

Ideacide is a gift from the cultural left to the much more powerful political right.  Censorship and condemnation of anyone who proposes ideas that vary from the cultural left’s approved views make it much easier for the political right in turn to censor material that is important for scholars, students, and the public to discuss. This hasn’t happened in Canada yet, but we should certainly worry that it might. 

Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann lives in Hamilton. From 2003 to 2016, she held the Canada Research Chair in International Human Rights at Wilfrid Laurier University.



Thursday 3 March 2022

Sould the US Offer reparations to Africa for the transatlantic Slave Trade?

Here is the link to an article I've published on US reparations to Africa for the slave trade. Open access until May 24, 2022, I think. Also below the link is the abstract. 

2022. “Should the USA Offer Reparations to Africa for the Transatlantic Slave Trade?”, Society, Vol. 59, 2022.


This article begins with background information on the international social movement for reparations for the transatlantic slave trade. I then propose that the USA ought to offer reparations, including participation in and financing of a truth commission on the slave trade; apology for the harms caused by the trade; and symbolic financial assistance to establish monuments to the slave trade, museums exhibits, and educational programs. The article concludes with a discussion of whether the USA would have the political will to offer reparations to Africa