Apologies to the Africans
Politicians say sorry only when it suits themBy John Ryle • 13 April 1998 • City of Words • The Guardian (“A Sorry Apology from Clinton”) • Posted 2016 • 997 words
The English are famous for saying sorry, for apologising at the drop of a hat (or even when we drop a hat). It doesn’t mean we feel guilty, or that we accept responsibility. “Sorry” is ambiguous. It may signify condolence without remorse. Less often, it means we are really sorry, that is, repentant as well as regretful. It’s not so much that sorry is the hardest word. The hardest part is knowing what it means.
It’s not just us. Look at the recent spate of public apologies by world leaders. Tony Blair has apologised for the Irish famine; the Japanese Prime Minister upped the ante by apologising for World War II. The Pope has apologised for the behaviour of the Catholic Church during the holocaust. And the President of the United States has apologised, in Africa, for slavery. It’s not always clear, though, who, exactly, is saying sorry to who. Or on whose behalf. Or how sorry they really are.
During his tour of Africa President Clinton apologised not once but twice: in Uganda he apologised for the slave trade; in Rwanda he apologised for western inaction in the face of the Rwanda genocide. (One person who didn’t get an apology from him, as a number of US commentators remarked, was Paula Jones, with whom he is accused of having conducted an extra-marital affair.)
Back at home Clinton was attacked by the right for “grovelling and pandering” during his African tour. They pointed out that the slaves who were shipped to North America came not from Uganda but, with a few exceptions, from West Africa, that on both sides of the continent Africans themselves were also involved, historically, in the slave trade—President Museveni of Uganda himself acknowledged this—and that slavery still exists today in Africa, in Sudan and Mauretania. From the left it was argued that if there was to be an apology it should be directed not at Africans but at African-Americans, as descendants of the victims of the slave trade, some of whom have long been demanding national reparations for slavery.
Forty acres and a mule
It was odd that Clinton chose Uganda for his statement, rather than Senegal, where he went a week later, making a special visit to the eighteenth-century slave depot on Gorée Island. On Gorée he could have taken a look at the museum of slavery, an exemplary exhibit that pulls no punches on the participation of some Arabs and Africans in the slave trade—as well as slave-traders from Britain, Holland, France and other European nations.
Clearly, to demand a simultaneous collective apology from the governments of all countries whose present-day citizens may have had ancestors involved in, or benefiting from, the slave trade would be impractical. If an apology is what is required then there is nothing wrong with one successor government leading the way. But the awkward phrasing of Clinton’s apology reveals the political contortions this entails.
What he said was the following: “Going back to the time before we were even a nation, European Americans received the fruits of the slave trade. And we were wrong in that.”
To say that slavery was wrong is hardly contentious. But to conflate the “European Americans” of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with a contemporary presidential “we” is problematic. On the one hand there is the significant degree of subsequent genetic mixing between blacks and whites in the United States, and the fact that a large proportion of European immigration occurred well after the end of slavery, and not all from countries whose inhabitants had been involved in the slave trade. On the other hand there is the oddity of the idea of inherited moral responsibility, of the visiting of the sins of the fathers on the sons.
It can be argued that if contemporary US citizens of soi-disant European descent are “wrong” it is not because the ancestors of some of them benefited from the slave trade, but because they are all currently benefiting from the historical advantage this has given them as white people in the dichotomous racial system perpetuated, above all, in the United States. This, though, would raise once again the prospect of financial reparations: the forty acres and a mule that General Sherman promised to each emancipated slave after the American Civil War (but which were, of course, never delivered). In Africa, too, debt relief would be more useful than expressions of regret. But both of these are areas with actual financial implications that President Clinton would doubtless prefer not to get into.
In the case of Rwanda, Clinton is on even stickier ground. Here, it seems, he was moved to apologise on behalf of the entire world. “The international community,” he announced,
together with nations in Africa, must bear its share of the responsibility for this tragedy… We did not act quickly enough after the killing began. We should not have allowed the refugee camps to become safe havens for the killers. We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide.
Clinton’s acknowledgment of western ineptitude in the face of this tragedy is welcome, but the apology is disingenuous. By the time of the genocide non-intervention was US policy; it wasn’t an oversight. The US had learned a lesson in Somalia. And Clinton neglected to mention something else: the more recent massacres of Rwandan Hutu, soldiers and civilians, in the Congo. This time the killings were perpetrated mainly by units of the Rwandan army, the army of a new government that enjoys direct US support and has now been favoured with a presidential visit. The US government knew about these massacres. It helped suppress a UN report on them. And—again—did nothing.
The apologies Clinton made in Africa were not evidently insincere, but they were selective, and clearly subordinate to political interests. The politics of the soundbite, it is clear, means saying sorry. ★