On memory of humans

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Last week I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC. The museum covers all aspects of the history of African Americans including the evolution of music such as Jazz as well as Rock and Roll, which the African-Americans introduced to the Western hemisphere. However, what left an indelible mark in my trip to this museum was the issue of slavery. The idea of storing memory of significant events such as slavery is something that we should adopt very seriously.

Human beings are not the only species that has memory. Even our planet has memory. If we pollute our planet and increase greenhouse gases, it never forgets. Thousands of years from today it will remember what we have done to it through the residual greenhouse gases. Geological memory allows us to use techniques such as carbon dating, to know what happened a million years ago. Because of geological memory, we now know that Africa is the cradle of humankind, where human beings originated. Therefore, memory, especially of slavery, is important!

Why did slavery happen? It happened because of information asymmetry. Information asymmetry is an economic concept where two parties have different and unequal information. Information asymmetry won Stiglitz, Akerlof and Sanger a Nobel Prize. Whenever, information asymmetry exists and because of greed, exploitation happens. Information asymmetry arose because the enslavers had better technology than the enslaved. Information asymmetry explains many historical events. It explains the colonisation of India by Britain. It explains the Berlin Conference that divided the African continent into small colonies of Europe. The resulting boundaries, from this conference, exist up to today and make no geographical sense. Let us collapse these colonial borders!

It happened because of greed – that trait that humans evolved to survive. Those people, who were not greedy, did not survive famines and they died. The greedy ones stored and hid food from their neighbours and they survived. Nevertheless, greed makes humans evil! On justifying slavery, slave owner William Snelgrave in 1734 said: “Tho’ to traffic in human creatures may at first appear barbarous, the advantage of it far outweighs the inconvenience”. On justifying slavery, William Cowper also said: “I admit I am sickened at the purchase of slaves… but I must be mum, for how could we do without sugar or rum?”

It happened because humans are hypocrites. As slavery was guzzling at full throttle, the founding fathers of the United States were slave owners. The founding fathers George Washington owned 123 slaves and Thomas Jefferson owned 600 slaves. Thomas Jefferson even enslaved his own children. However, despite the fact that they owned slaves, this did not stop them from writing that “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence. These founding fathers did not appreciate the universality of truth. Humans can be honest and dishonest at the same time. They can tell the truth and lies at the same time. Humans are creatures of contradictions and are hopelessly irrational! Great men and women are those people that every day attempt to resolve their contradictions and irrationality.

Slavery happened because of Portugal, Britain, France, Netherlands and Denmark. Because of slavery, these countries became so wealthy that the resulting wealth persists up to today. Portugal moved 5.8 million, Britain 3.3 million, France 1.4 million, Netherlands 555,300 and Denmark 85,000 African people into slavery. When the slaves were “freed”, they received no compensation but the slave owners received compensation of the equivalence of 17 billion British pounds. Slaves built the White House, but none of their descendants has ever occupied that house as the President of the United States. Barack Obama does not count because his father was from Kenya!

Slavery happened because of the principle of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is the concept that states that rational human beings maximise their utility or their own selfish desires. One of the reasons why utilitarianism is problematic is because many times rational human beings, on maximising their utility, often destroy other important assets. For example, the mining companies on maximising profit in South Africa exploited the workers and left dangerous radioactive yellow mountains like those that are located next to Soweto. These mountains are so dangerous that we still have not quantified how many people they kill through diseases every year.

Tribalism facilitated slavery. When the Europeans arrived in West Africa, they found divided nations. A Yoruba was willing to sell a captured Igbo and vice versa. Because of this reason, the Europeans did not have to hunt for Africans, as other Africans were willing to do this for them because of tribalism. The irony of tribalism is that it seeks to find differences where none exists. In the 1994 Rwanda Genocide, the Hutus killed a million Tutsis because they considered them different. What is the difference between the Hutus and Tutsis? They speak the same language and the Belgians created the Tutsi ethnicity, through using the height of cheekbones and number of cattle owned. Tribalism is dangerous and can lead to slavery!

Karl Marx once said: “history repeats itself first as a tragedy and second as a farce”. We should not take lightly of the idea that history repeats itself. After Nelson Mandela said “never again”, genocide happened again in Rwanda and now in Libya. Therefore, we need to be vigilant in defence of human dignity and liberty!

Slavery happened because evil is more aggressive than good. Adolf Hitler was more aggressive than Mahatma Gandhi was. In her classic book Eichmann in Jerusalem, the philosopher Hannah Arendt studied how such an ordinary man Eichmann ended up a Nazi and killing hundreds of thousands of people. To make sense of this, she coined the term the “banality of evil” which demonstrates the passiveness of evil. I think Arendt was wrong, evil is very aggressive and, therefore, she could have appropriately used the term the “aggression of evil” to describe Eichmann. Eichmann voluntarily joined the Nazis and aggressively did everything to ascend through the Nazi hierarchy. This seemingly passiveness of evil is nothing but a deception to pacify those who have good intentions.     

What is to be done? Firstly, we need to resolve the information asymmetry that exists in society. We are leaving in the era called the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), where advances in intelligent technologies will change human identity, our environment, our politics, our economy and our society. Technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) catalyses the 4IR. AI is a technology that makes machines intelligent. The 4IR will widen income gaps, increase inequality, introduce new forms of slavery and sharpen the contradictions. In Marxist thinking, sharpening the contradictions naturally leads to violent revolution. Countries that understand and harness advances in the 4IR will become so powerful that if this is not checked can lead to another form of slavery. 

As the President of Russia Vladimir Putin said: “those who master AI will control the world”. If this control is not checked, it can easily become a new form of slavery. Secondly, we need to regulate greed. The 2008 financial crash that impoverished many people and countries was because of greed. We should check the obsession with economic growth through the unchecked desire for the maximisation of profit to protect human dignity. Thirdly, we need to banish hatred with all its manifestations. We need to educate people to create memories so that we do not repeat mistakes. As the former President of the United States J.F. Kennedy once said: “forgive your enemies but never forget their names”. To remember their names we need to memorise these names!

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He deputises President Cyril Ramaphosa on the South African Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.