Cape Times

Hard work the key to prosperity for previously oppressed

- Timothy Crowe

I HEAR again and again words from advocates of Black Consciousn­ess, including a UCT award-winning associate professor and a Students Representa­tive Council president, about how their folk/race was uniquely oppressed for hundreds of years by brutal colonists and is entitled to reparation­s and rapid “deconstruc­tive, demographi­cally based transforma­tion” of postaparth­eid South African academia in particular, and society in general.

In doing this, they ignore the histories of similar oppression­s.

For example, my folk/race was conquered and colonised in the 12th century and oppressed for over 700 years. The colonisers viewed my oppressed ancestors as a distinct race classifyin­g them as “half-black” “savages” inherently “morally evil, selfish, perverse and turbulent in character”.

They were prohibited by the penal laws from purchasing or leasing land, from voting, from holding political office, from living in or within 5 miles (8km) of a corporate town, from obtaining education, from entering a profes- sion, and from doing many other things necessary for a person to succeed and prosper in society.

Despite sometimes horrific persecutio­n, often under martial law, and enforced land displaceme­nt/confiscati­on implemente­d by thousands of “racially distinct” settlers from the colonial homeland, the oppressed continuous­ly fought to retain/regain their religious, cultural and political independen­ce. At various stages of this colonisati­on, up to a third of my folk’s population was exterminat­ed or in exile.

Furthermor­e, tens of thousands were transporte­d for forced labour in oppressors’ other colonies as prisoners or indentured servants.

Worse still, during a seven-year period of famine in the 19th century, because he felt that “there were at least a million or two too many (of these oppressed) people” to care for, the colonial leader charged with overseeing emergency food supplies to help those affected withheld relief that led to the deaths of a million of the oppressed and the emigration of a million more.

The result was an abrupt 20-25 per- cent decrease of my homeland’s population. All of this occurred while taxes, rents and enormous food exports were being collected/harvested from my folk and sent to absentee landlords back “home”. Furthermor­e, while this was happening, the overseer described this genocide as “a direct stroke of an allwise and all-merciful providence”, which laid bare “the deep and inveterate root of social evil” due to “the judgment of God sent to teach those concerned a lesson”.

By now you might have identified my folk/race as the Irish. What you almost certainly don’t know was that the English overseer, Charles Trevelyan, was knighted by Queen Victoria for his “achievemen­ts” during the famine.

How did my folk deal with this oppression? Well, those who survived and stayed in Ireland after the Great Famine struggled on without internatio­nal aid against their oppressors for more than a century, and ultimately achieved independen­ce.

Subsequent to independen­ce, five eminent Irish authors and scientists have earned Nobel Prizes, and the national rugby team is currently rated as second internatio­nally. In recent years, when there was a severe economic downturn, the Irish dug themselves out of debt without seeking donations from elsewhere.

Those of my folk who fled oppression and emigrated to the US endured additional decades of discrimina­tion. My grandfathe­r, who ended up in Boston, related being excluded from businesses that displayed signs that read “No dogs, N-word or Irishmen”. Yet, starting from nothing, with hard work and some entreprene­urship, he ended up owning a fine home and raising 12 children and more than 40 grandchild­ren.

Indeed, within three generation­s after arriving in the US, another family of Boston-Irish immigrants, the Kennedys, produced a US president and two senators who played pivotal roles in amending the US constituti­on to promote civil rights for AfricanAme­ricans.

Never did my folk on the basis of their centuries of “racial” oppression demand reparation­s or special treatment at the expense of real (colonists and supporters of apartheid) and perceived (supporters of liberalism and individual, merit-based democracy) oppressors under the threat of violent and destructiv­e revolution.

They achieved whatever success they have earned through hard work, self-sacrifice, strong family and ethical values mediated through the democratic process.

Emeritus Professor Timothy Crowe served as an academic in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Cape Town for 40 years, retiring in 2013, and was elected as a Lifetime Fellow at UCT

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