Debate Magazine

Why It’s Unacceptable to Say Africans Don’t Know What a Toilet is

Posted on the 28 October 2014 by Lesterjholloway @brolezholloway

jedibeeftrix-screengrabTo most decent people the very idea that anyone would have to explain why it is unacceptable to say Africans “don’t know what a toilet is” appears farcical. But in the world of Liberal Democrats apparently that explanation is necessary.

Last night (27 Oct ’14) writing on the main Lib Dem website for grassroots members, Lib Dem Voice, a regular contributor to the discussion threads who writes under the name ‘jedibeeftrix’ claimed exactly that. You can see the thread here.

Apart from my condemnation of this outrageous comment, not a single Liberal Democrat saw fit to express a word of displeasure until I drew it to the attention of Baroness Meral Hussein-Ece, who wrote an excellent response.

Later this morning Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera also made some important points on the thread, but both he and Baroness Hussein-Ece are members of the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrat affiliated group.

One of LDV’s editors, Caron Lindsay, intervened to make it clear that racism will not be tolerated but stopped short of calling jedibeeftrix’s comment racist and left the offending remarks on the thread.

No other Lib Dem has reprimanded jedibeeftrix for his (I assume it’s a he) remarks. This is extremely depressing, especially for a political party whose commitment to equality is enshrined in the preamble to the constitution.

Aside from the fact that toilets and sewerage systems existed in ancient Egypt, and across the continent in medieval times, as documented by the historian Robin Walker in his book ‘When We Ruled’, the suggestion that Africans do not know what a toilet is, taps into a pernicious attitude about Africans being backward.

This is deeply racist. It seems to suggest that Europeans and possibly other civilisations are more advanced than Africans who are still living in the dark ages. Anyone who knows anything about world history outside Europe knows that is completely untrue.

The early European ‘explorers’ and traders to visit Africa before the onset of the slave trade noted the many great civilisations of Africa, including the rich kingdoms of West Africa not least in the ‘Golden Age’. However there is much evidence of civilisations across Africa at least as advanced as Europe at the time, from the great city of Carthage on the Mediterranean to the biggest university in Timbuktu, to the thriving and prosperous Great Zimbabwe in the south.

Hygiene, cleanliness, sanitation and use of perfumes are part of the history of African advances, along with many inventions, geometry, multi-storey buildings including the 12th century Great Mosque of Djenne in Mali, glass panes, the blending of metals for construction and much more – all before the first Europeans arrived.

African ships were sailing from the west coast all around the world to trade in medieval times, including to Cornwall, and there is evidence that a flotilla of ships crossed the Atlantic to the Americas centuries before Christopher Columbus.

Jedibeeftrix may be ignorant of this, but in this modern age where access to information and media is so readily available there is no excuse for the perpetration of the stereotype of backward Africa.

These are the stereotypes that justified the slave trade, in tandem with dehumanising Africans.

Jedibeeftrix also highlighted tribal hatred and disrespect of women, more negative portrayals of Africans that tap into a sense of white superiority over African peoples, in stark contrast to the respect of women, children and reverence to elders and ancestors, the earth and cosmos that date back from the earliest records of African culture.

His brand of stereotyping was the worst kind, which draws from images of Africa that were prompted to underpin exploitation, genocidal oppression of resistance to colonialism including British concentration camps in Kenya and German ones in Namibia.

It is the kind of stereotyping, so sneering and lacking in humanity, that would be completely unacceptable were it to be applied, for example, to Jewish people.

I am confident that all but the most hardened racists would agree that suggesting Africans did not know what a toilet was would be completely unacceptable, and many progressive websites would have driven out anyone who made such a comment.

The Liberal Democrats who run LibDemVoice, however, appear to think it is acceptable to let such comments stand. Lindsay made a case as to why she has not deleted the comment despite receiving a complaint, which I happen to know was from a senior figure in the party. But it is a case that I reject. If racism on the site is unacceptable, as she suggests, why not demonstrate that stance by removing it? To say one thing and do another simply gives a green light that such racism does not cross the line.

That is a decision made from the position of white privilege. There are many anti-racist white people, and I’m sure Lindsay is one of them, but if you are not personally the victim of racism how can you set yourself up as the arbiter of what does and does not cross the line while at the same time rejecting a complaint calling for the deleting of the comment from a person of color who does experience racism?

The fact that not a single white Liberal Democrat had any criticism to make of jedibeeftrix also speaks volumes. It indicates that at best white party members and supporters are oblivious to problematic remarks on race, and at worst they are complicit in failing to take a stand against them.

Of course the LibDemVoice threads are not representative of the membership at large. Some of the regular contributors to the threads are, in my view, more rightwing than the wider membership. Sometimes the contrast between progressive articles and the thread underneath reflects the difference between Guardian articles and Comment Is Free reader threads.

The fact is that last night I seriously considered resigning from the Liberal Democrats over jedibeeftrix’s comment. The key factor that have kept me as a party member was the very positive thread comments of Baroness Hussein-Ece and Uduwerage-Perera.

It is knowing people like Hussein-Ece, Uduwerage-Perera, Issan Ghazni and EMLD colleagues exist in the party that has kept me from throwing in the towel a long time ago. Indeed despite Borrowman’s tweet suggesting jedibeeftrix was not a member, had it not been for EMLD colleagues pitching in to the thread I can pretty much guarantee that I would be writing this morning as a former member of the Liberal Democrat Party.

Duncan Borrowman has pointed out that he doesn’t think jedibeeftrix is a party member. Jedibeeftrix is certainly a regular on the LDV threads but I accept me may not be a member. Nevertheless Borrowman, who is chair of the party’s conference committee, tweeted me to say “The person is not a Lib Dem. Check your facts before shooting from the hip.” I replied to say that I acknowledged jedibeeftrix may not be a member but he seemed more concerned with revelling in my error than the fact that the site contains a comment saying Africans do not know what a toilet seat is.

Borrowman also made a comment on the thread saying: “I’ve trained and helped parties from Latvia to Mongolia. Certainly when I have done it overseas I have left by bible, pistol and safari suit at home.” Sadly this kind of flippant remark underlines how some are not taking the issue seriously.

The fact that I am writing a blog on why it is unacceptable to say that Africans do not know what a toilet is, is pretty surreal. It shows how far some elements of the party have to go to catch up with modern Britain.

Indeed the discussion that provoked jedibeeftrix’s racist remark was itself a testament to how little knowledge, understanding and sympathy the LDV readership have on the issue of colonialism and the under-development of Africa.

I had raised the issue of the under-development of Africa in response to a comment by John Tilley asking whether I object to Britain tackling the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone. I responded that if it were not for the under-development of Africa during colonial times Sierra Leone may not need Britain’s help in the first place; indeed it may not even have Ebola at all. Simon McGrath then displayed a shocking lack of awareness that colonialism had in fact under-developed Africa.

The fact that presumably educated Liberal Democrats are unaware of the damage colonialism has wrecked is staggering. It is amazing that members of a progressive party need to be educated from scratch about the experience of the colonies and ongoing disadvantage – often called neo-colonialism – that exists to the present day.

And even more amazing that when presented with a case continue to reject or pick holes in it rather than recognising the bigger picture that colonial powers left the nations they ruled in poverty, without education, a health system or usable economic infrastructure suitable to their development, let alone the post-colonial afflictions of political interference such as coups and counter-coups and overlapping corporate corruption where Western business are equal culprits, protectionist trade tariff barriers and other trade mechanisms to keep the developed world producing raw rather than processed and packaged products, neo-colonial agribusiness and the domination of originally stolen arable land for foreign-owned large-scale farming while native farmers are related to the less arable margins, debt dependency and latter day vulture funds, aid for dependency and aid conditionality tied to imposing Western ‘values’ and much more.

The whole discussion began after I questioned why the Liberal Democrats were intervening in Botswana’s election in an attempt to presumably oust from office the president Ian Khama. I asked why Botswana, considering it is one of the continents’ most economically successful states? And had the Lib Dems consulted Africans before selecting which parties they are backing? (Paul Walter answered that by pointing out the selecting is done by Liberal International). And why was the story illustrated by a picture of an elephant? (This was later changed to the Botswana flag).

I’m not sure what processes Liberal International go through before deciding which African parties reflect British Lib Dem values enough to qualify for backing, but the Lib Dems don’t have an affiliated organisation representing African members. There is a group called the Lib Dem Forum for Africa, but they don’t represent ordinary African party members and despite meeting the leader, a white activist Ed Fordham, and liking their Facebook page I’ve never been invited to a meeting. I sent a couple of emails to Fordham on the matter but never heard back.

The Botswana Movement for Democracy, which the Lib Dems assisted, was presented as a ‘new’ party but it is just a breakaway group from the ruling Botswana Democratic Party. The ‘new’ party were given campaign literature designed just like Lib Dem material, in the same colours and fonts.

At the election, last weekend, the ‘new’ party didn’t even run under its’ own name but as part of an ‘umbrella alliance’ with the Botswana Congress Party, which was the main opposition. This new alliance secured 17 seats, up four from the previous election, but took only 30% of the popular vote, indicating that 70% favoured the ruling party.

What this shows is that the Lib Dem’s favoured ‘sister party’ in Botswana do not have mass popular support in the country.

Liberal International have similarly backed the South African Democratic Alliance, run by Otta Hellen Zille, a white South African. The DA are a diverse party with their stronghold in the Cape, the region with the highest number of Afrikaners, many of whom vote for DA instead of the ruling ANC who they resent for imposing affirmative action measures and quota on the public sector and business to equalise the racial unfairness of the Apartheid years.

The ANC have undoubtedly been afflicted by corruption and accusations that DA are ‘racist’ may in part be an attempt to deflect from those corruption claims. But nevertheless Zille has shown a tendency to get into hot water on race, most recently by suggesting that black South African students got higher grades than they should have, causing uproar as some took that to mean she was suggesting black students weren’t intelligent enough to earn their grades.

Zille has also previously accused a singer, Lindiwe Suttle, of being a “professional black” after Suttle complained about Cape Town being racist. Having spent time in Cape Town I can attest to the fact that the majority of prime seafront shops and restaurants remain white-owned despite the end of Apartheid. Complaints about this led to the building of a new inland retail center rather than dealing with the ownership of the most attractive units.

EFF leader Julian Malemba has branded Zille “the number one racist” in the country, and while that remark should be taken with a pinch of salt, I have to question the continued and enthusiastic backing of DA by the Lib Dems while Zille continues to get into these scrapes.

At home the Lib Dems have just two prospective parliamentary candidates of African or Caribbean background, with both running in the most hopeless seats. Surely the Lib Dems should improve this situation first before trying to overturn governments in Africa?

Both the ANC and Ian Khama’s father (also named Ian) were instrumental in the liberation struggles to attain black rule in South Africa and Botswana. Whatever the level of dissatisfaction with the ruling governments in both countries, it is necessary to first and foremost recognize their histories as freedom-winners from the oppression of Apartheid and colonial tyranny before intervening. Sadly I have not witnessed such sentiments from Liberal International or any white party member.

This silence is the flipside of the silence that greeted jedibeeftrix’s racist comment about Africans not knowing what a toilet was. Anti-racism is a doing verb. As a person of color hearing professed declarations of opposing racism are worthless if I cannot see this in action.

At the same time, members like Simon McGrath and John Tilley really do need to educate themselves on the history of colonialism and the severe damage it has caused and continues to suffer.

But the party itself must also reappraise its’ engagement with African ‘sister parties’. Organising against ruling parties in Africa who brought about the liberation of their countries from bloody colonial rule as problematic as selecting the sister parties according to which ones are most able to promote a British definition of Liberalism in order to spread British values like the missionaries spread Christianity.

Without first assessing whether British Liberal ideals are the most appropriate for African states we are riding roughshod over the histories of the Africans we profess to want to help. If Africans embrace British Liberal values let them do so of their own accord, not find agents for Liberalism in those countries and metaphorically arm them for a proxy-war so we can boast of having ‘our man’ in Gaberone, Pretoria or anywhere else on the continent of Africa.

By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway

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