This is very much a meditation on what it was like to grow
up Black in inner London during the rule of Margaret Thatcher. It is also very much a discussion of racism,
class and the decline of the Anglo-Saxon Empire. I use that term, although Akala does not, to
encompass both British and US imperialism.
It is not an attempt to let the Scots, Irish and Welsh who participated
in the imperialist project off the hook.
I approach this book from the perspective of a white man who
has just turned 70 and who has spent the last 50 or so years of his life deeply
involved in the anti-racist struggle and, especially, the Anti-Apartheid
Movement I did not grow up black in
Thatcher’s Britain. I grew up white and
Welsh In north-east London during the 1950s.
The racism was pervasive. The
milkman’s horse, being black, was called “nigger”. The term “Yid” was in common currency. And yet, when Dr Chaudhuri died, the streets
of Barkingside were lined by thousands of people wishing to pay their tribute
as his coffin passed. This was probably
because there was no significant Indian community in the area at the time. Yet, it is part of the contradiction that
Akala discusses at some length in this book.
British society is infinitely adaptable on the one hand, and on the
other it is profoundly racist. It does
seem that the areas of the country that are the most racist are also the areas
that are thoroughly white, although I do not have any empirical evidence on
which to base such a statement.
Each chapter of this book has something to say about the
racism that exists in our country and in the USA, and also in the Caribbean,
South Africa and elsewhere. Akala is
well aware that the lightness of his skin means that he will be treated better
in some countries, like Jamaica, Brazil and apartheid South Africa, than in
others where he is racialised as Black.
The chapter on his realisation that his mother is white is one that is
especially moving. He leads us through
his childhood, the confrontations with teachers who did not think that he
should be so intelligent because of the colour of his skin. There is one astonishing chapter about a
teacher who claimed that the Ku Klux Klan “stopped crime by killing black
people”. This was the point at which my
mind boggled. There is really no answer
to such stupidity. It is not even worth
attempting an answer because any answer my gives credence to the intellectual
aridity, the sheer unadulterated prejudice, of such a premise in the first
place. I asked myself “how could an
educated person even think this, and then I remembered that it was Thatcher’s
Britain and many people thought like this.
In fact, it was the kind of thinking that the Prime Minister, with her
“swamping” remark in a TV interview actually encouraged. It is the kind of thinking that Donald Trump
and the alt. right are encouraging now.
The chapter headed “Police, Peers and Teenage Years” had a
special resonance for me. I, of course
as I am a white man, have never been stopped and searched by the police. I was, on one occasion, heading back home
after having spoken at an anti-apartheid meeting in South London. I was waiting at a bus stop and a young black
man was also waiting there. It was
about 10.00pm. Suddenly, a police car
screamed up and three or four officers poured out. One of them shouted something like “What are
you doing here?” In my astonishment, I
blurted out “We are waiting for the bus.
What do you think we are doing?”
This took the officers by surprise.
They obviously assumed that we knew each other. One of them said “Let’s go” and they poured
back into their car and drove off. The
bus came and I never saw that young man again.
If I had not been there, I am sure that the young man may have been searched
and maybe arrested. I mention this tale
to illustrate Akala’s point that it was quite normal for young black men to be
stopped and searched by the police.
I was most interested in the chapter on Mandela and Castro,
partly because of Akala’s argument and partly because this was at the heart of
my own political life. Akala starts his
analysis with the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, in southern Angola, in
I think we need to go back to 1975 when Angola won its
independence by defeating the Portuguese fascist government and apartheid South
Africa invaded to prevent the installation of a government sympathetic to the
liberation of Namibia and South Africa.
The South African army drove north and were only halted by the arrival
of Cuban troops to assist the newly-independent government of Angola. The South African army retreated by
organised constant attacks on Angola from its base in apartheid occupied
The Reagan and Thatcher governments developed the policy
objective of pressurising the Angolan government into asking the Cuban armed
forces to leave Angola. In 1986, an
international non-governmental conference on Namibia was held in Brussels. I was one of the delegates. Inevitably, a motion was put forward calling
for the Cubans to withdraw from Angola and to be replaced by “an acceptable
international force” as a prelude to talks on Namibian independence. I asked if the implication of this motion
was that the Cubans were not an acceptable international force. This killed the motion stone dead.
Obviously, I am not saying that, but for my intervention,
the Cubans would not have been in Angola when the South African apartheid army
launched its attack on Cuito Cuanavale in 1987.
I think it helped. What is
important is that Reagan’s policy of “constructive engagement” did not work,
that the South African army was defeated at Cuito Cuanavale and that talks for
the independence of Namibia (which took place in 1990) started in circumstances
that were not favourable to the apartheid state. This achievement was recognised at Mandela’s
inauguration as President of South Africa in 1994 when the second longest cheer
was for Fidel Castro.
Akala asks why Mandela is loved by whites and Castro is
hated by conservatives. Mandela
embarked on a policy of reconciliation.
This was out of generosity of spirit, a realisation of the concept of “ubuntu”
which translates roughly as “I am who I am because of other people”. I think that it was more than that. Mandela was aware that die-hard white South
Africans had to be persuaded not to drown South Africa in a bloodbath, which
was a real threat. He was also aware
that the IMF and the World Bank had to be wooed into not pulling the plug on
the South African economy, which was at the point of bankruptcy because of the
sums that had been committed to the defence of apartheid. So, he gave what could have been an
Oscar-winning performance as the conciliator, the genial elder statesman.
In anti-apartheid circles there had been long discussions
about what would happen when the struggle for national liberation had been won
in Southern Africa. That was a slow
process that began with Angola and Mozambique (1975), Zimbabwe (1980), Namibia
(1990) and South Africa (1994). Some of
us argued that this was a two-stage process with stage one as national
liberation and stage two as economic empowerment for the majority. This is essentially Akala’s argument, and it
is right. Economic power had remained
for the overwhelmingly most part in the hands of the white population in South
Africa. That is the legacy that Cyril
Ramaphosa has to deal with.
Why is Castro hated.
Well, he has been the bogeyman of white, conservative US politicians
since he overthrew the Baptista regime in Cuba in the late 1950s. The fact that he transformed education and
healthcare in Cuba to make his country one of the best providers in the world
is not something that they are interested in.
The fact that he closed down Havana as a holiday ground for the Mafia
has no interest for them. Castro is
hated because he challenged the very basis of their politics. Akala makes this point very forcefully.
This is an inspirational book. It challenges all the ideas at the basis of
white supremacy. Donald Trump will not
want to read this book. That is the
very reason why you should.