Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

The Colonial Project

A version of this article was published in Lakbima News.

 

In Lakbima News, Malinda Seneviratne took issue with Juliet Coombe about racism and imperialism. Malinda’s article set me thinking about the fate of individuals in an imperial situation and how distinctions between oppressors and oppressed are not always clear. It is a complex fate to be a human in an imperial context.

I was born in England but have chosen to be an Irish citizen and a Sri Lankan resident. How have I benefited from Empire? How has my family enjoyed the plunder? My English maternal grandfather and my Irish father both served in the British army when Britain had an Empire. Were they complicit in oppression and plunder?

Sam1

My own family were from the servant class. My mother’s father, Sam King, was a groom at Berkeley Castle (centuries ago,  Edward II had been horribly slain with a red-hot poker at the Castle). Sam  later drove the pony and trap for a doctor on Clarence Street in Gloucester. There he met my grandmother who was a maid, a country girl come to the city for employment, for another doctor. Sam’s service for the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie provided the experience to serve King and country in a cavalry regiment in Palestine during the First World War and during the British Mandate.

Sam2

I have a collection of postcards he sent home. Mostly he was pleading for tobacco. A few strange  photographs were among the postcards. One seems to show a number of Arabs hanging from a gibbet.

As a child I spent many hours in Sam’s company but he mostly sat silently chopping up his Mick McQuaid pipe tobacco or pottering about in his garden. Occasionally, he would say “Don’t despise your old granddad” but we never discussed what happened during his imperial service.

Sam3

Imperial service  certainly did not make him rich. He lived in a modest council house, an island of respectability in a sea of delinquency and squalor. I was scared to walk down his street. His youngest daughter said that he had tried to slit his throat with a razor while drunk on rough cider during the Great Depression.

 

My father also served in the British army. He was born in County Cork in 1916, the year of the Easter Rising, when a group of poets and intellectuals made a blood sacrifice against British imperialism. He taught me much about “800 years of British oppression”. Cromwell’s 1649-53 campaign remains notorious in Irish popular memory as it was responsible for a huge death toll among the Irish population (40%?). The reason for this was the counter-guerrilla tactics used such as the wholesale burning of crops, forced population movement (ethnic cleansing) and killing of civilians. In addition, the whole post-war Cromwellian settlement of Ireland has been characterized as “genocidal”, in that it sought to remove Irish Catholics from the eastern part of the country. Malinda quotes Lasantha David as saying he needs to get over the colonials for stealing his loot and making his great great grandfather cut sugar cane”. As well as stealing Irish land the British also sent, after Cromwell’s depredations, Irishmen to the West Indies to work on the sugar plantations as slaves.

My father instilled in me a love of Ireland and taught me about Irish history and culture. Despite his pride in the country of his birth and his hatred of what the British Empire had done to it, he did not hesitate to volunteer for the British army when it was facing the Nazi threat. He felt grateful to England for giving him work and a wife.

Some might argue that it was a history of British oppression which forced this intelligent and witty man to leave school at 12 and work for a butcher and then to leave his family to make his way in a strange land. The England he found in the 1930s would certainly have seemed strange to an Irishman in his twenties brought up as a devout Catholic with decent moral values. Signs saying “No dogs, no blacks, no Irish” were not uncommon. He met my mother when he was a labourer helping to build the council house (number 9 Stanway Road, Coney Hill, not far from the lunatic asylum) that her family were to move into. He struggled to gain acceptance from her family. “He’s Irish. He won’t stick with you”, they warned.

My father  made light of his war service in the Pioneer Corps. That was not one of the glamorous regiments. It was the stuff of music-hall humour and was portrayed as a motley collection of ineffectual blokes dredged into the army by the war’s insatiable hunger for bodies, any bodies – clerks, light labourers, intellectuals and incapables, unfit to fight, but fit to prepare the way for or clean up after the proper soldiers. Their job was to tidy up the war.

da1

Michael Young, in his influential book The Rise of the Meritocracy, (1958) took an unflattering view of the Pioneer Corps.  He claimed that the morale of these ‘hewers and drawers  … these dull-witted men’ was spectacularly increased ‘when the stupid were kept together… and they were no longer daunted by having superior people to compete with.’  In fairness to Young, it should be noted that his intent was satirical and his book was a prescient critique of how the cult of IQ measurement would create a dangerously smug ruling class and a profoundly demoralized lower class.

When I was a very small child my father took me to the gasworks where he was employed. I was terrified. It was like a Gustave Doré illustration for a sermon on hell, with huge roaring furnaces dwarfing the men stoking them, coughing in the fumes of coal and coke, stripped to the waist, straining with shovels, their bodies basted like meat.

There were men of all nations, the Irish, Poles and Ukrainians as black as the Jamaicans, men thrown up by the ebbing tide of war, stranded victims of dying empires and dictatorships. There was Jan the Pole who lost his home and his country, first to the Germans and then to the Russians, and walked across Europe to England, dodging the Nazis and the Red Army. Petrenko, the Ukrainian who hated the Russians so much he was proud to boast of being in the infamous Waffen SS. There was Henry, the Jamaican, whose ancestors had been torn from Africa and shipped as property to the Caribbean to make the fortunes of Bristol merchants.

The British oppressed and plundered close to home as well as globally. I struggle to accept that I gained much personally from the plundering oppression of the British Empire. True, I  was the recipient of free education and health care and was the first of my family to go to university.  Clement Attlee presided over the consolidation of the welfare state as well as the dismantling of the empire.

When I was born, the empire had entered its precipitous decline as a result of the effort of winning the war. Life was grey and grim in post-war Britain. In his book A World to Build, historian David Kynaston brilliantly evoked what life felt like then.

No supermarkets, no motorways, no teabags, no sliced bread, no frozen food, no flavoured crisps, no lager, no microwaves, no dishwashers, no Formica, no vinyl, no CDs, no computers, no mobiles, duvets, no Pill, no trainers, no hoodies, no Starbucks. Four Indian restaurants. Shops on every corner, pubs on every corner, cinemas in every street, red telephone boxes, Lyons Corner Houses, trams, trolley buses, steam trains. Woodbines, Craven ‘A’, Senior Service, smoke, smog, Vapex  inhalant. No launderettes, no automatic washing machines, wash every Monday, clothes boiled in a tub, scrubbed on the draining board, rinsed in the sink, put through a mangle hung out to dry. Central heating coke boilers, water geysers, the coal fire, the hearth, the home, chilblains common. Abortion illegal, homosexual relationships illegal, suicide illegal, capital punishment legal. White faces everywhere. Back-to-backs, narrow cobbled streets, Victorian terraces, no high-rises. Arterial roads, suburban semis, the march of the pylon. Austin Sevens, Ford Eights, no seat belts, and Triumph motorcycles with sidecars. A Bakelite wireless in the home, Housewives’ Choice or Workers’ Playtime or ITMA on the air, televisions almost unknown, no programmes to watch, the family eating together. ‘Milk of Magnesia’ Vick Vapour Rub, Friar’s Balsam, Fynnon Salts, Eno’s, Germolene. Suits and hats, dresses and hats, cloth Caps and mufflers, no leisurewear, no ‘teenagers’. Heavy Coins, heavy shoes, heavy suitcases, heavy tweed coats, heavy leather footballs, no unbearable lightness of being. Meat rationed, butter rationed, lard rationed, margarine rationed, sugar rationed, tea rationed, cheese rationed, am rationed, eggs rationed, sweets rationed, soap rationed, clothes rationed. Make do and mend.’

Food rationing continued until my eighth year. Some look back to the 50s with nostalgia, claiming that it was a gentler, more human time before the permissive society drove everyone demented. There may have been good things about that time but it would take a Dante to contrive a hell quite as awful as a dark wet Sunday afternoon in the outer suburbs of a provincial British town in the 1950s.

After the war, after the horrors they had witnessed, many men of my father’s generation opted for the quiet life, while the government tried to make a better job of making a land fit for heroes than had been done after the First World War. My parents were offered a home by the local council. It was a dilapidated Nissen hut that had seen much war service. In  the year of my birth, 40,000 people were living in a thousand disused service camps. My father, with characteristic stubbornness, refused it. He also stood his ground and refused a ‘prefab’. ‘Homes fit for heroes’ indeed! He continued to live with my mother’s family in the house that he had helped to build before the war.

In that house I was born.

The flamboyant Churchill jibed at Prime Minister Attlee’s dullness by saying. “An empty taxi pulled up and Mr Attlee got out”. But dullness was what the nation wanted. Dullness was good if it also meant security. The Attlee government provided monetary benefits for the poor, and health care free to all, regardless of circumstances. My parents lived through the austerity years and through to the “never had it so good” days of the MacMillan era. We baby-boomers came of age during those years of relative affluence.  We absorbed the optimism and creativity of the Beatles and the cynicism of the satirists. We were rebellious and arrogant, refusing to acknowledge that the fruits we were enjoying were paid for by the suffering of previous generations.

I did not come to Sri Lanka to make bucks. Some Sri Lankans did tell me I could have an easy life here but I find I am working harder than ever. That’s OK because I don’t have to commute to an office. I cringe when I see pink-faced Europeans throwing their considerable weight about. I become a little-pink-faced myself when I hear foreigners referring to “the locals”  and drooling about the quaintness of it all. I am eight hours away from Colombo’s fleshpots. I have little in the way of loot. I strive, on my modest resources, to help my local community through the local Buddhist temples. In my writing for a Sri Lankan audience I try to make a positive difference by sharing  helpful experience without arrogance. In my writing for a foreign audience I try to dispel misconceptions and to convey the subtle complexities of Sri Lankan reality. I hope that, now that I have chosen a former British colony as my permanent home, I do not come across as an imperialist plunderer.

 

South Africa after Mandela

This article was published in The Sunday Island on July 7 2013 but did not appear on the paper’s website.

It is sad to see Nelson Mandela’s family squabbling in an unseemly fashion around his death bed and shuffling around the bodies of his offspring. Is this a symbol of today’s South Africa?

Rainbow Nation

It would take a heart of stone not to feel  emotional about Nelson Mandela. In my more sprightly days, I took part in anti-apartheid marches, singing along to Jerry Dammers’s song “Free Nelson Mandela”. Walking along the South Bank past the Festival Hall, I would nod reverently to the sculpture by Ian Walters which was commissioned by Ken Livingstone when he was leader of the Greater London Council. It was unveiled in 1985 by ANC president Oliver Tambo. Livingstone said: “The commissioning of this statue was symbolic of the wide support that existed amongst Londoners for the struggle against apartheid at a time when many in the media and the British government regarded Nelson Mandela as a terrorist”.

Like many, I experienced tears of joy when a beatifically smiling Mandela embraced Francois Pienaar, the Springbok rugby captain, with both men wearing a number six captain’s jersey. Whoever could have thought that the evil fascist apartheid regime could fade away without bloodshed and that Mandela and de Klerk could work together?

Mandela’s Legacy

Bob Dylan sang: “Don’t follow leaders/Watch the parking meters”. It is dangerous to venerate any human being. Less than perfect civilians  like to see in leaders, or even mere celebrities,  qualities they would like have themselves. Mandela and  Aung San Suu Kyi are mere humans who have to operate in the real world of politics. The Economist feels it can write about her, “the halo slips” among foreign human-rights lobbyists, disappointed at her failure to make a clear stand on behalf of the Rohingya minority.

Mandela has himself tried to discourage people viewing him as a saint or a hero. “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”FW de Klerk last year described Mandela as “brutal and unfair” as a political opponent: “I do not subscribe to the general hagiography surrounding Mandela.  He was by no means the avuncular and saint-like figure so widely depicted today”.

Ethics of Violence

Mandela was one of the founders of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) – Spear of the Nation – the ANC’s armed wing,  which launched guerrilla attacks on the racist government, only disbanding in 1990. In his statement at the Rivonia Trial, Mandela said: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Those sound like noble words but Mandela did not die then and neither did the vile racists governing the country. MK’s main aim initially  was sabotage rather than murder. Mandela did not object to later attacks on burger bars and amusement arcades and refused to repudiate the armed struggle in 1985 when he was offered his freedom. As with  Provisional IRA, Hezbollah  and LTTE attacks, most victims were not politicians or military but  women and children. MK’s violence did not speed the dismantling of apartheid.

Mandela got a difficult job done with the tools at his disposal. His great achievement was that power was handed from the minority to the majority without a bloodbath. What kind of nation will he leave behind?

Truth and Reconciliation

Although apartheid had been defeated, its minions still dominated the police, army, and civil service. Transition had to be handled cautiously if civil war was to be avoided. The majority of whites refused to acknowledge the systemic nature of government brutality. In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “It’s very difficult to wake up someone who is pretending to be asleep.”

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) captured public attention and provided a model for other countries. The  TRC mandate was to go beyond truth-finding to promote national unity and reconciliation, to facilitate the granting of amnesty to those who made full factual disclosure, to restore the human and civil dignity of victims by providing them an opportunity to tell their own stories.

Steve Biko’s family described the TRC as a “vehicle for political expediency”, which “robbed” them of their right to justice. John Pilger criticised the TRC for allowing the easy transition from white exclusive capitalism to multiracial capitalism, and for avoiding trying criminals, including murderers.

Inequality

The transition from white exclusive capitalism to multiracial capitalism means that today  there are eight million black South Africans with an adequate income, and at least 20 million poor: one in four does not get enough to eat. An (OECD)   report says: “Despite considerable success on many economic and social policy fronts over the past 19 years, South Africa faces a number of long-standing economic problems that still reflect at least in part the long-lasting and harmful legacy of apartheid” .

A report by Statistics South Africa shows two-thirds of young  people live in  households with  a per capita income of less than 650 rand a month (around £47). The first census done in a decade indicates that white South Africans still take home six times more pay than blacks. The country’s black middle class is now the same size as the white South African middle class, helped by the country’s employment laws which were drawn up to redress decades of inequality and unfairness by previous white regimes.

Crime

A survey covering 1998–2000 compiled by the UN, ranked South Africa second for assault and murder per capita and first for rapes per capita in a data set of 60 countries. South Africa was tenth  out of the 60 countries in the dataset for total crime per capita.

A study commissioned by the government attributed this to a number of factors:

•    Normalisation of violence allows it  to be seen as a justifiable means of resolving conflict;
•    The criminal justice system  is seen as  inefficient and corrupt;
•    There is a thriving subculture of violence and criminality;
•    Poverty, unstable living arrangements, inconsistent and uncaring parenting, enhance the chances that children will become involved in criminality and violence;
•    High levels of inequality, poverty, unemployment, social exclusion and marginalisation.

Corruption

South Africa’s national budget is USD 167 billion. USD 103 million was lost to financial misconduct by workers in national and provincial governments in the fiscal year 2011-2012, up from USD 38.5 million in 2009-2010. Only 13 per cent of the money lost to corruption is recovered. While 88 per cent of people tried for financial misconduct are found guilty, only 19 per cent are dismissed. Forty-three per cent get final written warnings.  Many escape by resigning and getting another government job offering the opportunity to carry on stealing.
Financial forensics expert Peter Allwright,  author of a report called The Real State of the Nation, said: “Corruption is rampant. And the dedicated units that have been created to fight financial misconduct are in essence fighting a losing battle”.  An insufficient investigative capacity in the public service means nearly two-thirds of cases take more than 90 days to investigate. “You can give 30 days’ notice and leave, and the public service office then often abandons the investigation,” Allwright said.

President Zuma himself Zuma was charged with rape in 2005, but was acquitted. He  fought a long legal battle over allegations resulting from his financial advisor Schabir Shaik’s  conviction for corruption and fraud. On 6 April 2009, the National Prosecuting Authority decided to drop the charges against Zuma, citing political interference. Zuma still has allegations that he received 783 corrupt payments totalling Rand 4.1 million (nearly £300,000) hanging over his head and no-one has been prosecuted for that “political interference”. Mr Zuma’s popularity rating,  according to a recent poll , has dropped to an all-time low.

In his book, Zuma Exposed, investigative journalist Adriaan Basson forensically unpacks the charges against Zuma and “reveals a president whose first priority is to serve and protect his own, rather than the 50 million people he was elected to lead”.  Jackie Dugard, head of the Johannesburg-based Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa, which lobbies for access to social and economic rights in SA, claims that Zuma’s salary itself places him ahead of most world leaders: “It reflects a huge divide between himself, workers and poor unemployed people”. Jacob Zuma is a polygamist who has been married six times and has (at least) 20 children. Activists complained about the amount the state paid to support Zuma’s wives, especially in the context of the country’s widespread poverty. In 2009/10 Zuma received a budget of £1.2m for “spousal support”. Politicians’ families are a rich source of embarrassment. With such a large family the risk is exponentially exaggerated. One son in particular seems a liability. Nkwazi Mhango commented: “Like any prince in a corrupt Africa, Duduzane is a source of wealth for any con man that’s able to fix and use him.”

Human Rights

The number of police-related deaths last year totalled 797, more than double levels ten years ago, according to figures from the Independent Police Investigative Directorate. Deaths of police personnel on active service totalled 92.

On 16 August 2012, at  Marikana platinum mine, owned by the British-based company Lonmin, police opened fire on striking miners killing 44 and wounding 78. This was the worst of a series of violent incidents in the mining industry. The massacre represented “probably the lowest moment in the short history of a democratic South Africa”, wrote Cyril Ramaphosa, a senior figure in the African National Congress and a former mining union leader. Most of the victims were shot in the back,  many victims were shot far from police lines, suggesting summary execution.

In April 2013, MPs passed widely condemned protection of state information bill, dubbed the “secrecy bill” by its opponents. Lindiwe Mazibuko, parliamentary leader of the Democratic Alliance, argued that the proposed laws had been “tabled within the context of a revived securocrat state”, citing the secrecy surrounding the Marikana massacre and use of public funds on President Zuma’s homestead.

 

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