by Boniface Mabanza
Since the assassination of the African-American George Floyd in Minneapolis, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is experiencing a renaissance and is spreading worldwide. This article attempts to outline the links between this movement and the “Plough Back the Fruits” (PBF) campaign.
Racism in our country too?
There is much talk of (structural) racism these days, in response to the worldwide protests against racism and police brutality that flared up after the brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. In the meantime, the conflict has also reached Germany. In several German cities, including Hamburg, Munich, Berlin, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, numerous people united under the motto “The lives of black people count” are demonstrating. The discussion has now also reached political circles in Germany. Mrs. Merkel’s sentence that there is “something like racism” in Germany, too, was perceived as trivializing and hurtful by all black people who are exposed to racist experiences every day. Even if the situation in the USA cannot be transferred one-to-one to Germany, such a formulation testifies to a dangerous trivialisation, because racism is a phenomenon that has become globally effective since colonialism, to whose supposedly scientific justification German thinkers (Kant, Hegel, Ernst Haeckel etc…) and to whose spread German emigrants have contributed significantly.
Another dimension of the political discussion around this issue currently here in Germany concerns the amendment initiated by the Green Group in the German Parliament to delete the term “race” in the German Basic Law and replace it with another appropriate wording. The German Institute for Human Rights had already spoken out in favour of the adjective “racist” instead of using the term “race”.
Symbolically this would be important, because it is now established that any division of people into races is arbitrary and does not stand up to scientific knowledge, as the Jena Declaration makes clear: “The primarily biological justification of groups of people as races – for example, on the basis of skin colour, eye or skull shape – has led to the persecution, enslavement and murder of millions upon millions of people. Even today the term race is still widely used in connection with human groups. However, there is no biological justification for this and in fact there never has been. The concept of race is the result of racism and not its precondition.” Although the Jena Declaration also pleads for the “non-use of the term race” in scientific language, it also formulates a warning that must be taken seriously:
“Merely deleting the word ‘race’ from our language will not prevent intolerance and racism. A characteristic of today’s forms of racism is already the avoidance of the term “race”, especially in radical right-wing and xenophobic milieus. Racist thinking is perpetuated with terms such as selection, keeping pure or ethnopluralism.” This continuation of racist thinking and acting under other terms shows that it takes much more than a mere deletion of the term race from the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany. Much more effort is needed to heal self-perception and the perception of others and to build healthy relationships. This begins with the admission that racism exists in Germany today and that it is reflected in many areas of life. It is not only everyday racism expressed in pejorative looks at street crossings, on buses and trains, in rejection at the disco door, in micro-aggressions, in depictions in newspapers, books, films and posters of aid organisations, but also structural racism. Structural racism does not mean that all people working in institutions that reproduce disadvantages based on racist characteristics are racists, but that the institutions are not equipped to prevent racist acts by individuals. This can be seen, for example, in the allocation of school grades, access to education and training opportunities, access to the labour and housing market and treatment by authorities such as the police. The problem becomes particularly clear when the security forces are able to permanently reproduce racist prejudices by means of legal so-called “non-suspected persons” checks, as it has been proven that they are particularly likely to suspect “people who look different” and especially black people.
It is not surprising that the mention of structural racism in Germany reflexively evokes rejection and justification. Structural racism is more difficult to identify and deal with than individual forms of racial discrimination. This applies both to the national level and to the international level.
Colonial structures persist
Former colonial powers in Europe find it difficult to deal critically and consistently with their colonial past. As long as this does not happen, racism and colonialism will continue to have an effect and their overcoming will remain a chimera. In his article “Facing our colonial and slave-owning past, confronting racism, repairing history”, Thomas Piketty writes: “The wave of mobilization against racism and discrimination raises a crucial question: that of reparation in the face of a colonial and slavery past that will definitely not pass. However, complex the issue ist, it cannot be avoided forever, neither in the United States nor in Europe”. The wave of mobilization in recent weeks has shown how present this past is through the culture of remembrance and the street names that still characterize some cities. It is all these symbols that need to be overcome. But dealing with racism is also about changing the prevailing “economic system, with the reduction of inequalities as the basis.“
Black Lives Matter and Plough Back the Fruits
What both campaigns initially have in common is that they are due to events that both took place in 2012: the shooting of the African-American teenager Trayvon Martin in February 2012 for the BLM movement and the massacre of Marikana in South Africa on August 16, 2012 for the PBF campaign. The catalyst for the BLM movement, which began in 2013 with the use of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter in social media, was the acquittal of security guard George Zimmerman, the murderer of Trayvon Martin. This acquittal confirmed a trend in the US judicial system, which all too often allows members of the security forces who abuse their power and commit crimes against African Americans to go unpunished. The movement intensified with the assassinations of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in 2014, and protests were organized whenever African Americans were further murdered by police violence or civilian “White Supremacists”. Finally, the assassination of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 made the movement global. Also, in South America, in Canada, in Europe, in Asian and in many African countries, people are protesting against police violence and in general against the injustices that African Americans and people of African descent have experienced since the conquests of the Europeans. At the launch of the UN Decade for People of African Origin in 2014 (2015-2024), the UN had also noted that people of African descent in particular are still frequently exposed to racism, prejudice and discrimination.
The “Plough back the fruits” campaign only started three years after the Marikana massacre in South Africa, after the long-standing business relations between the British-South African platinum producer Lonmin and the German chemical company BASF became known. The campaign is fighting for compensations for the survivors of the Marikana massacre in South Africa, the widows and unjustly arrested mine workers, and for the improvement of the working and living conditions in South Africa’s platinum mines. As in the case of BLM, police violence is at the centre of the Marikana massacre. Parallels between the militarisation of the police in the history of the USA and in South Africa during apartheid are striking. In South Africa, the militarisation of the police continued even after the so-called democratic turnaround of 1994 and it is significant that the Marikana massacre took place under a government of the former liberation movement African National Congress. The brutality of the event recalls similar massacres in Soweto (1976) and Sharpville (1960) during apartheid. As in the USA, police violence in South Africa shows an alarming continuity. It is directed against the poor and excluded blacks in the townships, but also against the farm and mine workers, every time they raise their voices to assert their right to live (in dignity).
The Marikana massacre was documented in the documentary “Miners Shot Down”. In this film one of the workers describes “how cheap the life of black people in South Africa is”. He wonders what the lives of black people in Africa are worth. Another miner, Mzoxolo Magidwana, who was hit by a bullet nine times during the massacre but miraculously survived, and who spoke for the PBF campaign at BASF’s Annual Meetings on May 12, 2017, recalls in the film how history repeats itself in South Africa: For generations, black families have been working in the mines, and not much has changed in terms of living and working conditions. On the side of the employers are also several generations of white families. The logic of exploitation has remained the same. The transfer of symbols of power to black elites since 1994 has not changed this structural injustice. The injustices are so internalized that they are reproduced even where black people have become the faces of the business world, as was the case with Lonmin. Seen in this light, the Marikana massacre, like the murders of African Americans in the USA, is more than a story of police violence:
“America doesn’t just have a problem of police brutality. It is a society that has never dealt adequately with its heritage of slavery. Presenting this disgrace as a police problem allows ordinary Americans to escape the hard work that an entire society must do to question the myriad ways in which the history of slavery reaches into the here and now. It is no different from here in South Africa when the Marikana massacre is presented merely as an example of police brutality (like the Farlan commission did). That’s just too generous. The whole truth is uglier. Marikana revealed the violent foundations of our entire society. And a clearly formal political equality, whether here or in the USA, does not guarantee effective respect for black live. The world must face this shame instead of imagining a linear story of moral progress,” commented South African author and radio presenter Eusebius Mckaiser.
He is not alone with this analysis. Following the death of George Floyd in a brutal police operation in the USA, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet also denounced the current racist violence as the “legacy of the slave trade and colonialism”: “Behind today’s racist violence, systemic racism and discriminatory policing lies the failure to recognise and confront the legacy of the slave trade and colonialism. ” Michelle Bachelet, former President of Chile, has formulated these strong words at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council on racism and police violence requested by African countries. She has spoken out in favour of “reparations in various forms”. The piquant thing about this demand for reparations is that the official end of the enslavement of people of African origin, to take up this example, has always been accompanied by reparations, but not for the benefit of the victims, but for the previous perpetrators: “In both the UK and France, the abolition of slavery has always been accompanied by compensation for the owners by the state. (…) Thus, for the abolition of slavery in 1833, the equivalent of 5% of the British national income (now 120 billion euros) was paid to 4,000 owners, with an average compensation of 30 million euros, which is the origin of many of the assets still visible today.” In the same context, it is worth mentioning the high debt that the French state imposed on Haiti in 1825 after its independence in 1824 to compensate the French owners for the loss of their “slave property”. This considerable sum corresponded to 300% of Haiti’s GDP at the time. Haiti paid these “debts” until 1950 and is now demanding 30 billion euros in reparations from France. What the BLM and PBF have in common is that both campaigns refer to a history of humiliation and exploitation that is by no means finished or worked through. Manifestations of this are police violence, but also the actions of companies that still today accept “the objectification of the black man” (Achille Mbembe) for their profits.
Many would say: We can we not be responsible for the fact that our grandfathers enslaved, colonized, exploited and dehumanized other people to justify their practices. These grandfathers, however, established exploitative structures that still exist today. They can be observed in the trading system, in the financial architecture, in debt policy, in the culture of memory. Some of the institutions that were founded when most African countries were still colonies (IMF, World Bank) still exist. Others such as the World Trade Organization have been added, but they also reflect the old power relations. The current generations in the former colonial powers and in the USA benefit from such structures. You can make it different. Our past is a terrible thing, but it can be changed. We can influence current and future conditions. This begins by overcoming the mental and institutional infrastructure of racism. Anyone who is committed to anti-racism must work for a fundamental transformation of the framework conditions in order to build a just society. In other words, anti-racism work is not a culturalistic affair, but a confrontation with privileges on the one hand and with the psychological consequences of intergenerational racism traumas and the continuing lack of resources and opportunities on the other. This is exactly what the BLM and Plough Back the Fruits show us.