Cape Argus

On memory and humanity’s inhumanity

- TSHILIDZI MARWALA Professor Marwala is vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Johannesbu­rg

LAST week I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC. The museum covers all aspects of the history of African-Americans, including the evolution of music such as jazz as well as rock ’n’ roll, which the African-Americans introduced to the Western hemisphere.

What left an indelible mark on my trip to this museum was the issue of slavery. The idea of storing memory of significan­t events such as slavery is something we should adopt very seriously because memory, especially of slavery, is important!

Why did slavery happen? Because of informatio­n asymmetry. Informatio­n asymmetry is an economic concept where two parties have different and unequal informatio­n.

Whenever informatio­n asymmetry exists, because of greed, exploitati­on happens. Informatio­n asymmetry arose because the enslavers had better technology than the enslaved.

Slavery also happened because of greed – the trait that humans evolved to survive. Those who were not greedy did not survive famines and died. The greedy ones stored and hid food from their neighbours, and survived. Neverthele­ss, greed makes humans evil!

It happened because humans are hypocrites. As slavery was guzzling at full throttle, the founding fathers of the US were slave owners. However, despite being slave owners, this did not stop them from writing that “all men are created equal” in the Declaratio­n of Independen­ce.

These founding fathers did not appreciate the universali­ty of truth. Humans can be honest and dishonest at the same time. They can tell the truth and lies at the same time.

When the slaves were “freed”, they received no compensati­on, but the slave owners received compensati­on equivalent to £17billion.

Tribalism facilitate­d slavery, because when Europeans arrived in West Africa, they found divided nations. A Yoruba was willing to sell a captured Igbo and vice versa. So the Europeans did not have to hunt for Africans, as other Africans were willing to do this for them because of tribalism. The irony of tribalism is that it seeks to find difference­s where none exist.

So, first we need to resolve the informatio­n asymmetry in society. We are living in the era called the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), where advances in intelligen­t technologi­es will change human identity, our environmen­t, our politics, our economy and our society. Technologi­es such as artificial intelligen­ce (AI) catalyses the 4IR.

AI is a technology that makes machines intelligen­t. The 4IR will widen income gaps, increase inequality, introduce new forms of slavery and sharpen contradict­ions. As Russian leader Vladimir Putin said: “Those who master AI will control the world.”

If this control is not checked, it can easily become a new form of slavery.

Secondly, we need to regulate greed. The 2008 financial crash that impoverish­ed people and countries was because of greed. We should check the obsession with economic growth through unchecked desire for maximisati­on of profit, to protect human dignity.

Thirdly, we need to banish hatred with all its manifestat­ions. We need to educate people to create memories so that we do not repeat mistakes.

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