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Editorial – The Empire Strikes Back

The rise of nationalistic, far right, and extremist groups across Europe makes for uneasy watching by those of non-European cultural heritage. ‘Claiming our country back’, ‘preserving our individuality’ and ‘protecting our national values’ are all variations of the coded message of ‘if you don’t look, sound and behave like us, you are not welcome here.’

In the UK, the mother of the commonwealth of nations is feeling distinctly less maternal for her former colonial offspring and their descendants who came to visit and sometimes stayed. The British Empire that once straddled the world and enjoyed the fruits of its conscripted citizens’ labours and used their commodities of gold, diamonds, sugar, cotton, and cocoa to build an industrialised and progressive country, is now dealing with legacy issues.

But surely gate-crashing the party when you bought the drinks is not an unreasonable position to adopt? And wanting to play in the game when you helped to buy the ball is surely only fair?

Lest We Forget

The recent D-Day commemorations were a reminder of the infrequently acknowledged contributions of the brave fighters from around the Empire who sacrificed their lives to save Britain, and the African troops who helped the allied powers defeat Germany, Italy, and Japan. My late great-uncle, affectionately known as ‘Old Soldier’, was one of more than one million African troops that fought for Britain and would often recount tales of leaving Ghana (or the Gold Coast, as it was then) and his tours of duty in Burma and India during the war.

Today, we are far from the days of the post-war call from the motherland to the Empire to come and build Britain. The message now is ‘Come only if you have skills we can use; otherwise, stay home.’

No one would deny that social change can be overwhelming, particularly when combined with squeezed incomes and spiralling living costs. But anxieties harnessed and used by those with sinister motives mean that sentiments that might once have been only fleeting emotions become manipulated and hardened into division and policy. Feeling powerlessness and frustrated at being left behind in the prosperity stakes can generate so much fear that even the most confused rhetoric sounds plausible, and the same ‘foreigners’ accused of ‘taking our jobs’ are, at the same time, accused of ‘not wanting to work and taking our benefits’. Go figure.

Sometimes the double-standards can be hard to ignore. Ignoring the hordes of linguistically challenged Brits living abroad and often congregating in ‘expat’ (the word ‘immigrant’ only applies selectively) cliques, supporting their British sporting heroes, teams, and traditions, and eschewing any need to integrate, the rallying cry to those over here is ‘speak our language, know our history, forget your culture and be like us or be gone.’

Today, we are far from the days of the post-war call to come and build Britain. The message today is ‘Come only if you have skills we can use; otherwise, stay home.’

I sometimes wonder what would happen if the Empire did strike back, or at least strike? Because the contributions of ethnic minorities are not just historical. Take the UK’s National Health Service, a beloved institution functioning only with the support of medical personnel of multicultural origins. Can you imagine if everyone of non-English ancestry decided to down tools for even 24 hours?

In London alone, such a strike would bring services to a screeching halt. Without the descendants of Britain’s former empire and other foreign-born residents, London’s underground would not run, London’s buses would not operate, London’s hospitals would have to close, London’s schools would stop teaching, London’s streets would go unswept, London’s parking tickets would be suspended (okay, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing) and London’s restaurants, bars, coffee shops, supermarkets, and football pitches would be emptied.

Time for some Global ‘ubuntu’

This nationalism and aggressive sense of grievance isn’t confined to the UK and Europe. Whether it’s against Mexicans and Asians in the United States, Algerians and North Africans in France, Nigerians (and almost everyone else) in South Africa or Muslims in what seems like everywhere, negative xenophobic attitudes are increasingly cloaked in political discourse designed to sound reasonable and justified. All the while forgetting the contributions of these groups to the liberation and economic successes enjoyed today.

The truth is that no country, no community, and no individual has ever succeeded solely by their own efforts. We all get to where we are through the efforts of those who came before us and the support of those around us. Business tycoons wouldn’t have made their money without the taxpayer provided infrastructure taking their goods to market; tech billionaires wouldn’t have succeeded without those that invented those platforms; successful professionals needed the financial support of others and strong networks to achieve their standing.

The South African term ubuntu best describes the universal truth of our common humanity and the understanding of the shared bond that connects us. We exist only because of others and our interconnectedness is far greater than our fears. Attacking each other distracts us from the real causes of our problems and from finding workable solutions. This isn’t about tolerance (after all, which of us is happy simply to be tolerated?) but about acceptance and inclusion. We occupy this planet for but a short space of time, and we can assure our mutual destruction or our mutual benefit.

Selective memories don’t change facts. We have all helped to build the countries and communities in which we live. And everyone enjoys the party better when the guests feel welcome.


Founder & Managing Editor, ReConnect Africa

‘Imperfect Arrangements’ ‘From Pasta to Pigfoot’ and ‘From Pasta to Pigfoot: Second Helpings’ and the books I Want to Work in… Africa: How to Move Your Career to the World’s Most Exciting Continent’ and ‘Everyday Heroes – Learning from the Careers of Successful Black Professionals’

* This article has been updated from an earlier version

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