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The dangers of nostalgia

I wish I was in Harare today! I visited the city a couple of years ago at the invitation of a Church leader and, despite the gross mismanagement of the government, there was still a huge reservoir of hope among the people. I expected to find a population worn down and worn out by hyperinflation, croneyism, state-sponsored violence and intimidation and the ravages of HIV/AIds. The Zimbabwean people have endured so much and yet retain a sense of humour second to none.

Why is it then that Robert Mugabe lasted so long and is still being fêted across Africa? The answer lies in colonialism and its continuing legacy. For Zimbabweans, this is still fresh in the memory, since independence and majority rule only arrived in 1980. Mugabe resisted the might of empire and the neo-imperialism of Western-run development policies, and so became a hero for Africa, an Africa that can still recite stories of repression, violence and humiliation heard at their parents' or grandparents' knees. The wounds inflicted by physical beatings may have healed, but the deep emotional and psychological scars inflicted by racist policies and an ideology of white supremacy run deep and are only slowly healing in Africa and are ignored by the former European colonists. Let me be clear - the damage inflicted by this ideology also affected the colonists, both those on the front-line and the population back home. Who can deny that the enduring racism that poisons British society is built on the foundation of a colonial policy that preached the inferiority of people of colour and their need of rescue and containment by civilised Europeans? Still for too many, especially those who feel at the bottom of the heap, their whiteness gives them the solace of superiority.

The trouble is, the British Empire is remembered very differently, depending on where you live. The stories of missionaries and colonial administrators braving the heat and disease to carve out a place for the Church and the Rule of Law give a rather rosy picture of British stiff upper lip and sense of duty. We marvel at their determination to maintain proper standards of dress and decorum, whatever the conditions. I recently visited the Bandarawela Hotel in Sri Lanka, established as a Tea Planters' Club in 1893. It retains its 'Colonial Charm' and trades on giving visitors a taste of life in the 1930s. It's only when you look more closely at the pictures on the wall does it become clear that no Sri Lankan was allowed to become a member until independence. This was a space for Whites Only. Dining with Sri Lankan friends, who might have been present a century ago but not as dinner guests and certainly not as equals, felt like an act of defiance, But the history of the place meant that. for me, the charm was lost. I was left to wonder whether the retention of a Whites Only Diner from segregation Alabama would be considered a 'charming' relic from a bygone era?

Those oppressed by European colonialism have shown amazing resilience and are slowly shaking off the burden of their past. It is now time for European countries like the UK to do the same.

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