Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation
Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation
Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation
Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation
Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation

The need of deconstructing erroneous thinking about colonisation

La Libre 19.04.2023 Emmanuel Tshimanga Translated by: Jpic-jp.org

Decolonisation is fundamentally about questioning and deconstructing our thoughts, reasoning and imaginations in order to overcome the foundations of injustice and inequality. Here is an example of this deconstruction.

For several months now, Belgium has been shaken by the term decolonisation. We can see it both in public debate and in discussions between friends and family: this issue is becoming a hot topic in our society.

The Justice & Peace Commission, working on issues of reconciliation and memory, has identified decolonisation as a work of memory focused on the colonial question. One of the aims of decolonisation is to question the mutual relations between human beings in all areas and all sectors.

Decolonisation aims to highlight the injustices and inequalities that have been perpetuated for years against formerly colonised populations, with a view to putting an end to them. To question and re-evaluate the social constructs with which we have all grown up, but which are fundamentally unbalanced and maintain representations locking certain human beings into a position of subordinate otherness. This re-evaluation requires us all to question ourselves, or in other words, to deconstruct our thinking and reasoning.

This analysis will attempt to exemplify this approach by deconstructing three key arguments that can be deployed or even thought about when the destructive foundations of colonisation are evoked or when colonisation is strongly criticised.

Many former colonisers had good intentions

The various colonising countries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries justified their colonial projects differently depending on their context, but one constant persisted in the justifications: "the desire to raise the colonised peoples to the necessary level of civilisation" (la volonté d’élever les peuples colonisés au niveau nécessaire de civilisation), in the knowledge that the standard of this civilisation corresponded to the model of Western European societies (education, health care, urban development, etc.).

Based on this principle, the European countries saw themselves as being dedicated to showing the way to the other peoples of the world, "so that they would tend to become like them, willingly or by force", -pour que ceux-ci tendent à devenir comme eux, de gré ou de force- ("La colonisation belge en Afrique centrale", BELvue, 2020, p. 8).

This justification for colonial powers is known as the civilising mission. Many citizens of European countries, including Belgians, set off around the world to take part in the conquest and the colonial enterprise, convinced of the validity of their actions. However, Jan Vansina, the Belgian professor emeritus, historian and anthropologist of Africa, asserted that, in this mission, « la violence était la norme. L’État indépendant du Congo (EIC), cela signifiait pillages de territoires, saccages, domination et oppression des indigènes » (violence was the norm. The independent state of Congo meant plundering, pillaging, domination and oppression of the natives).

It is clear that many of those who took part in the colonial enterprise had good intentions and were motivated by candid motives, but despite this, we can affirm, thanks to objective analysis and a certain amount of hindsight, that they consciously or unconsciously contributed to an appalling system. This is how the Belgian writer and international activist Ludo De Witte argued that "the civilising mission, regardless of the good intentions of certain individuals, was often no more than a justification, sometimes a happy by-product" ("La mission civilisatrice, indépendamment des bonnes intentions de certains individus, n’était souvent pas plus qu’une justification, parfois un sous-produit heureux” - Impérialisme nouveau, colonialisme ancien, négationnisme renaissant." Les Cahiers Marxistes. Vol.23, 2007, pp. 143-144).

This was another era; we cannot judge them with today's values.

This argument is often used to absolve the colonial period of the many evils it caused. By this argument, we have to understand that historical action must be placed in its time and context (understand the moral context of the period in which it took place) in order to be properly understood. Quite often, those who present this type of argument seem to want to legitimise the violence of that dark era by asserting that "colonial policy and violence conformed to the political, ethical and legal norms in force at the time" (la politique et la violence coloniales étaient conformes aux normes politiques, éthiques et juridiques en vigueur à cette époque)*. There are two limitations of this argument:

1)-. "It ignores the criticisms already levelled at the colonial project during the colonial period." Even then, many voices opposed to at the time the colonial project of EIC (The French acronym for État indépendant du Congo) or at the time when the Belgian Congo were heard in Belgium and elsewhere in the world. We can mention a few Belgian names among many others, such as the Jesuit Arthur Vermeersch, the socialist Emile Vandervelde and the French-speaking liberal MP Georges Lorand, as well as some international names such as the Congolese Paul Panda Farnana, Albert Einstein and Jawharlal Nahru. This clearly shows that "colonial policy was not at all considered to be universally legitimate from a political and ethical point of view" (la politique coloniale n’était donc pas du tout considérée comme universellement légitime d’un point de vue politique et éthique).

2)-. It enshrines "a Eurocentric and colonial vision of history." Quite often, the proponents of this argument also invoke the international legal system which, at the time, did not condemn colonialism. Yet it is clear that "this international legal system was a reflection and a pillar of the imperial power relations that prevailed at the time; moreover, within this framework, the colonised peoples had no right to speak" (ce système juridique international était un reflet et un pilier des rapports de force impériaux qui prévalaient à l’époque – et, dans ce cadre, les peuples colonisés n’avaient pas droit à la parole). We can then refer to the various types of resistance outside the legal system that colonised peoples have tried to seize upon, such as revolts and other forms of opposition in the Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and many other territories. This clearly shows that colonialism as a system has always been contested.

What about the positive aspects of colonisation?

The balance-sheet approach is an approach in which "the alleged 'benefits' of colonialism are weighed against its perceived negative consequences. This approach is often promoted as a way of dealing with colonialism in a more 'nuanced' way" (les ‘bienfaits’ présumés que le colonialisme aurait apportés sont mis en balance avec ses conséquences considérées comme négativesCette approche est souvent promue comme un moyen d’aborder le colonialisme d'une manière plus ‘nuancée’).

However, according to Professors Gillian Mathys and Sarah Van Beurden, this approach is an unproductive way of thinking about colonialism and is methodologically problematic. They argue that "the bilateralism approach is based on the assumption that 'progress' was only possible because of colonisation. It is therefore based on a very negative - racist - image of Africa and on the superiority of Europe. It also often implies that the negative consequences - notably violence - would have occurred anyway, even without colonisation, and that they were even mitigated by colonisation" (l'approche bilantaire repose sur l'hypothèse que le ‘progrès’ n'a été possible que grâce à la colonisation. Elle est donc fondée sur une image très négative – raciste – de l'Afrique et sur la supériorité de l'Europe. Elle sous-entend également souvent que les conséquences négatives – notamment la violence – se seraient de toute façon produites, même sans la colonisation, et qu'elles ont même été atténuées par la colonisation). There are four limitations to this approach:

- A misrepresentation of colonialism

Mathys and Van Beurden demonstrate that "the supposed benefits of colonialism, for example, were very unevenly distributed, and not at all structurally developed. They were often (sometimes unintentionally) by-products of colonial policies designed to protect the interests of the metropolis and not the result of altruistic actions" (les bénéfices supposés du colonialisme, par exemple, étaient très inégalement répartis, et pas du tout structurellement développés. Ils étaient souvent (parfois involontairement) des sous-produits des politiques coloniales destinées à protéger les intérêts de la métropole et non le résultat d'actions altruistes). For example, the construction of the road network or health care; in the case of the former, the roads were built primarily for Belgian economic interests and not for those of the natives, who had to toil to build them; in the case of the latter, they remind us that "medical interventions were very specific and often carried out more with a view to maintaining a productive population than to ensuring the well-being of the Congolese" (les interventions médicales étaient très spécifiques et souvent davantage effectuées en vue de maintenir une population productive que d’assurer le bien-être des Congolais). 

- Negative aspects as exceptions

However, as the above-mentioned researchers argue, these negative aspects were much more structural than the balance sheet approach would suggest, because this approach minimises the atrocities committed during this period.

- Too much emphasis on the measurable

The balance sheet approach pays too much attention to the measurable aspects of colonisation, i.e., the economic and financial aspects, and "neglects its cultural, social and psychological repercussions - which are more difficult to weigh up -, which is akin to reductionism" (néglige ses répercussions culturelles, sociales et psychologiques – plus difficiles à soupeser –, ce qui s’apparente à du réductionnisme).

- Neglects post-independence elements

The balance sheet approach also "limits the consequences of colonialism to the colonial period. However, the 'balance sheet' does not end in 1960 [with independences]. The presumed 'peace' of the colonial period is often contrasted with the 'chaos' that followed, without taking into account the Belgian interventions that undermined this stability, and without looking at the dynamics that were at work during the colonial period and contributed to the emergence of 'chaos' after independence" (limite aussi les conséquences du colonialisme à la période coloniale. Or, son ‘bilan’ ne s’arrête pas en 1960 [lors des indépendances]. On oppose souvent la ‘paix’ présumée de la période coloniale au ‘chaos’ qui l’a suivie sans tenir compte des interventions belges qui ont sapé cette stabilité et sans s’intéresser aux dynamiques qui étaient à l’œuvre durant la période coloniale et ont contribué à l’apparition du ‘chaos’ après l’indépendance).

As a conclusion, we would like to make it clear that in stressing that the legacies of colonialism have mortgaged the future of the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, we are not seeking to deny the responsibility of post-colonial African leaders, but rather to qualify what is being said in the public debate, which tends to "pathologise" or [to reduce] African states “to 'failed' states without taking into account the colonial period and the neo-colonial relations that resulted from it."

Secondly, this analysis is not intended to make anyone feel guilty, but rather to encourage us to dare to reflect, to question, or in other words, to decolonise. Indeed, we can see that this questioning often leads us to deconstruct our fallacious reasoning, such as the arguments mentioned. But this is just the beginning, and we are all urged to continue the work of decolonisation by reading authors such as Frantz Fanon, Mireille-Tsheusi Robert and Jérémie Piolat, by watching the many media sources on the subject and by discussing the issue with friends and family. This work requires a great deal of patience and humility, but it is incredibly rich in what is eminently constitutive of the living-together to which we aspire!

See, Il faut déconstruire les raisonnements erronés au sujet de la colonisation

*All the following quotations are taken from « Commission Spéciale chargée d'examiner l'État Indépendant du Congo et le passé colonial de la Belgique au Congo, au Rwanda et au Burundi, ses conséquences et les suites qu'il convient d'y réserver. 2021. Experts' report », p. 21-2  

Leave a comment

The comments from our readers (3)

Paul Attard 24.08.2023 As for the subject of colonialism, it happened. It is history. Good and bad things were done. Especially in the Congo. Some people today might want Europe to pay money as compensation. I disagree. Some might argue today that even the “white fathers” or Comboni missionaries were a form of colonialisation. I would disagree. How many African states today are without their serious problems? Very few. Today we have Niger. More military men wanting power. The Sahel much the same. Even Tunisia, where so many migrant boats leave from for their new life in Europe. And Sisi of Egypt. Wanting to build a new capital. Perhaps he’ll call it Sisiville. Nothing changes. Except people like missionaries who give up their lives here in order to improve the lives of those poor Africans.
Dario 02.09.2023 I think that the colonialism went, built ,exploit , destroy and left..yet still wants to control..yes somehow gave their own imprint of languages study etc.. History is history and should be kept that way..compensation is tricky ..because corruption is compensating few people..so this young generation this so called progressive should really look carefully using spirit not stupidity..
Margaret Henderson 26.09.2023 Whenever I read your newsletter, I’m always especially interested in learning more about the Congo partly because you are there and also because I am generally so concerned about its many problems, having spent a little bit of time there and having met so many Congolese asylum seekers here. Africa as a whole I feel in on with and very much want to keep up to date with, so the article on the Sahel was very timely, when the former French colonies are so much in the news. Of course I agree with Paul Attard’s comment, that whatever might be written about the motivation of some colonialists, most priests there gave a huge part of their lives to help Africans in every way they could.