From Fri Jan 9 08:45:11 2004
Date: Fri, 9 Jan 2004 06:55:38 -0600 (CST)
From: Bob Corbett <>
To: Haiti mailing list <>
Subject: 17785: Esser: Mbeki’s Haiti Visit Was Tribute to Freedom (fwd)

From: D. Esser

Mbeki’s Haiti Visit Was Tribute to Freedom

By Bryan Rostron, Johannesburg Business Day (Johannesburg), 7 January 2004

Much-criticised president seems intent on taking on vestiges of white prejudice

CONTINUING gripes about President Thabo Mbeki’s New Year visit to Haiti for the bicentenary of the world’s first black republic have entirely missed the most interesting point: that while Mbeki courts international respectability by cautious political and fiscal policies, he still identifies strongly with the only successful slave rebellion in history.

Some have carped about the price tag, an estimated R10m. This is actually less than the cost incurred recently by UK Prime Minister Tony Blair to fly US President George Bush for a couple of hours from London to his northern constituency for a photo opportunity , which cost the British taxpayer £1m not that we should measure ourselves against the debased standards of Bush or Blair.

Here, perhaps, is the potent attraction for black intellectuals of the 200-year-old slave rebellion in Haiti: it was, above all, a psychological break with the white slave masters.

In his great book, The Black Jacobins, the radical Trinidad-born writer CLR James eloquently writes : The transformation of slaves, trembling in hundreds before a single white man, into a people able to organise themselves and defeat the most powerful nations of their day, is one of the great epics of revolutionary struggle and achievement.

This was the 1791 slave rebellion in the French Caribbean colony of San Domingo, inspired by the French revolution two years before, and led by the extraordinary Toussaint L’Ouverture, himself a slave until the age of 45.

The Black Jacobins was first published in 1938, but in the preface to a 1980 edition James recalled meeting young black South Africans in Ghana in 1957, who told him how important the book was for them: typing out passages, mimeographing and circulating them secretly.

Thus commentators who decry Mbeki’s reasons for attending the Haiti celebrations mostly reveal their own bias ; the partiality of the Democratic Alliance, for example, which as Jeremy Cronin has pointed out, is not so much of the left or right, but of the west.

It is in our attitudes to such iconic events that underlying attitudes and enduring mutual incomprehension can most clearly be seen.

What, Seneca once asked, if the slaves were asked to count themselves? The answer, in San Domingo, was electrifying.

After a monumental 12-year struggle the independent black state of Haiti was founded. It had been the single biggest market for the European slave trade, and James recounts how they overthrew the shackles of their own minds: The slaves defeated in turn the local whites and the soldiers of the French monarchy, a Spanish invasion, a British expedition of some 60000 men, and a French expedition of similar size under Bonaparte’s brother-in-law.

It is one of the most astonishing military triumphs in history, against staggering odds. It was not, in short, a negotiated settlement as we have had here; it was a revolution.

So Mbeki’s fascination with this Haitian bicentenary probably says more about his own psychology, and past passions, than present politics. After all, it would be fair to say that our president today is altogether more Thatcher than Toussaint.

All the same, Mbeki has a clearer grasp than many critics that endemic poverty does not lead easily to orderly democracy. He was well aware of Haiti’s murky politics and violence. No wonder he had a South African destroyer waiting offshore.

Will he one day, like numerous leaders on this continent, have to rely on the military to protect him from his own restive, unemployed and despairing population?

Mbeki now seems trapped in an impossible paradox. It is said that humans are the only organisms that can think two entirely contradictory thoughts at the same time.

But nurturing revolutionary dreams of total liberation while doing business with the status quo?

Ironically, Mbeki has enthusiastically denounced his own allies as ultra-leftists, but then travelled halfway round the world to celebrate a genuine revolution.

Does such intellectual conflict explain Mbeki’s baffling contradictions?

From bizarre contortions over HIV/AIDS to defensive prevarication over Zimbabwe, the president frequently appears to be locked in phantom argument with what he perceives to be stereotyped projections of white bigotry, or oldstyle colonial prejudice.

Who knows? When most political experts are reduced to endlessly trying to read the presidential mind or speculating about his motives, psychology has displaced politics.

Perhaps Mbeki should re-read The Black Jacobins. It might clear up some of these confusions.

Describing a near catastrophic setback towards the end of that momentous slave rebellion, James concluded: Once more the masses had received a shattering blow not from the bullets of the enemy, but from where the masses most often receive it, from their own trembling leaders.