Today was a day of contrasts. I began it by considering the words of Godfrey Bloom, a Member of the European Parliament for the UK Independence Party (UKIP), who stated his displeasure that so much foreign aid was going to “bongo bongo land”. I continued my day by going to watch A Season In The Congo at The Young Vic, a superb production led by the dignity and magnificence of Chiwetel Ejiotor in the lead role. (The play, should you wish to see it, is the story of Congo’s independence; and of the horrifying death of Patrice Lumumba, that nation’s first Prime Minister, at the hands of Joseph Mobutu’s troops. ) And here I am now. It’s later than I would like, and so this post may be somewhat less coherent than I would wish. But, whilst these contrasts remain fresh, I feel that a few things must be noted.
The first thing is that I think that Godfrey Bloom’s comments, for which he subsequently expressed regret, are spectacularly racist. To dismiss Africa, a continent of over fifty nations, as “bongo bongo land”, is to conjure an image of several million generic dark-skinned beggars anxiously squeezing at the benevolent British teat. It implies an image of countless people, somewhere over there, unaccountably waiting for colonial charity. That image is both wrong and offensive (of which more later).
The second thing is that UKIP’s statement on Mr. Bloom’s comments is perhaps more revealing than the original comments themselves. Steve Crowther, the party’s chairman, stated that “it doesn’t sound like anyone banging drums. It sounds like a shorthand way of saying places around the world which are in receipt of foreign aid. It’s not in itself the right word and it could seem disparaging to people who come from foreign countries and that‘s why I’ve asked him not to do it again”.
Mr. Crowther’s words read as a reluctant, tactical retraction, and not as a heartfelt apology. They read as a partial apologia for the type of attitudes that endorsed Britain’s imperial adventures from a conveniently remote distance. Mr. Crowther – like his colleague Mr. Bloom – still seems happy to cast African countries as some sort of unwitting dependant, and in doing so blithely brushes over the oppressions to which these countries were once so brutally subjected.
Reflecting upon A Season In The Congo, I think that this is why I took issue with Mr. Bloom’s words. After all, it’s not as if Congo and other African countries begged to be tied to the master’s yoke. And if those countries did end up receiving aid from Britain and other colonial powers, that’s only because their economies were so shattered by enslavement and slaughter that they ended up needing loans – not mere no-strings handouts, as UKIP would have us believe – so that they could ostensibly sustain themselves as viable trading partners (or, more accurately, as supine pastures for exploitation). In fact, there’s an argument that whatever financial aid Britain provides to these countries, it can never truly be enough to compensate for the horror wrought on these lands in the name of civilisation. All the money in the world cannot wholly replace the generations that were lost to bloodletting and bondage.
So, if we can, let’s depart from this narrative of passive African dependency: because it is as false as it is offensive. And let’s continue to ask ourselves why the UK’s leading political parties are willing to let UKIP, a party playing so fast and loose with historical facts, dictate the terms of our increasingly poisonous immigration debate.