Haiti and the New Africa

by Iswamo Kapalu

As we come to the end of Africa month, we look forward to the African Union Summit next month. At this this summit due to be held in Malawi, something of great importance for the future of Africa is due to happen; Haiti will become a full member of the African Union.

Haiti was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in December 1492. Until then it was populated by Native Taino people who lived there for almost 700 years prior to its “discovery” by Europeans. The Taino people called the island Ayiti.

In the 299 years that followed, Haiti was colonised by the Spanish, the Dutch and the French at several times. During this time Haiti became a hub for the production of coffee, sugar and human suffering. At its height, Haiti produced 40% of all the sugar and 60% of all the coffee consumed in Europe. This was done with the help of about 800 000 slaves who were brought to the island at the rate of about 40 000 a year. Each slave had the average life expectancy of 21 because of the brutal conditions under which they laboured.

These conditions created a social structure in which white, wealthy, plantation owners occupied the top, the free children of plantation owners and raped slaves occupied the position bellow them, poor landless whites bellow them and the slaves, who made up about 90% of Haiti’s population, were at the very bottom.

Eventually and expectedly, in August 1791 a slave rebellion broke out, starting in Haiti’s northern plains and sweeping across the country until 12 years later. On 1st January 1804, Haiti declared its independence from France. In so doing, Haiti became the second republic in the western hemisphere and the first, self-governing black republic in the world.

Haiti’s beautiful birth came at a cost however – about 150m Francs in gold to be exact. That was the price France demanded, and Haiti was forced to pay in “reparations”. Even though this amount was reduced in 1830, the financial burden was unbearable. The destruction of the Haiti’s infrastructure during the revolution and the need to wean from its dependence on slavery, an economy that had for nearly 300 years been nursed on human suffering, didn’t make things any easier. So crippling were the “reparations” that by 1900, 96 years and more than three full generations after it was born, 80% of Haiti’s spending went towards these “reparations”.

Haiti’s problems were not helped by the fact that leader after leader committed themselves to looting what little of Haiti’s money wasn’t already going to France’s coffers. A second revolution, an occupation by the United States of America, and the Great Depression further deepened the suffering of Hattians.

In 1957 a populist Black Nationalist leader François Duvalier was elected leader. François Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, ruled Haiti in a dictatorship that lasted 28 years. The Duvalier dynasty is known as one of the most corrupt, repressive and cruel regimes in history. Together, the father and son looted the country, driving it further into debt, taking as their personal property huge portions of the loans and foreign aid that came to Haiti. At a point it was estimated that 80% of the foreign aid in Haiti was going directly to the Duvaliers. Together they were responsible for the deaths of up to 60 000 Hattians and Haiti, even today is paying for the debts they incurred.

So, the Haitian constitution of 1987 found a land that had been decimated by colonialism, neo- colonialism, repressive and corrupt leadership, poor infrastructure and widespread poverty. All this is compounded by the fact that Haiti lies on Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault system and is in the region’s hurricane track. These factors have combined to make Haiti susceptible to natural disasters, the most recent of which was the earthquake in 2010.

Now, with full AU membership looming, Haiti stands as an emblem of Africa’s past, present and future. Having dealt with slavery, colonialism, neo-colonialism, an economy that needed to be restructured, questions on racial and cultural identity born in its violent past, corrupt and repressive regimes, poverty and natural disasters, Haiti is a mirror that simultaneously reflects what we are and where we have come from. Its challenges are ours, as are its dreams, disappointments, fears and ambitions.

At the same time Haiti is an expression of the new Africa. An Africa trying to balance productivity and justice and trying to break the bonds of poverty, corruption, and civil strife. An Africa that is wrestling with defining what it means to be African and trying to find its place in the world. An Africa in the middle of an Afro-reconstruction where culture, history, and identity are all in the air. A post- continental Africa, where those whose history marooned them on a Caribbean island 12 000 km away, can come to our table to share and build, with us, a new Africa.

Mr Iswamo Kapalu

Iswamo Kapalu is a young South African of Zambian origin. He holds an LLB from the University of the Witwatersrand and currently works as a researcher, writer and social justice advocate at the Jesuit Institute.

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