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What The Legacy Of Apartheid Could Teach The British About The Perils Of Brexit

A recent Twitter-storm aimed at Kassam challenged him to address, in the current climate of Trump, Brexit and the rise of the far-right in Europe.

23/02/2017 04:56 SAST | Updated 01/03/2017 09:21 SAST
Neil Hall / Reuters
United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) leadership candidate Raheem Kassam poses as he arrives at a media conference.

Raheem Kassam is a 32 year old, UK-born second generation Muslim from London. Witty, sharp and well spoken, he is a regular Twitter user and commentator on politics, taking on opponents of his views with vociferous non-sequiturs. But his views aren't what you might expect. His employer is far-right sensationalist tribune Breitbart News. His political hero and mentor is Nigel Farage, the flatulent, tobacco-stained foghorn of shire-minded Little Englanders who founded the UK independence Party. And Hassam's own views? That Islam is wrong, all immigrants are probably terrorists and standing up for minority rights means you are a despicable liberal snowflake.

So how could it be that someone so close to - so deeply, personally connected with - the Story of the Immigrant could become so opposed to their own near and dear cultural roots and family history? A recent Twitter-storm aimed at Kassam challenged him to address, in the current climate of Trump, Brexit and the rise of the far-right in Europe, how far he would let the movement go towards outright fascism before he decided he'd had enough.

As far-fetched as it may seem now, if the US Muslim immigration ban did escalate towards the dystopian nightmare (that has surely entered the heads of many liberals across the world since Trump's rise to power) of a violent culture of Islamophobia leading to the banning of Islam altogether, internment camps, and mass summary executions across the Western world, would he let his family go the wall? Would he himself be exempt, or would he be dragged kicking and screaming to the gas chamber, still shrieking his loyalty to Prime Minister Farage's final solution for 'getting his country back'? Which country, we might reasonably ask, is it that they want back? And where from?

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in England, the shadow of war and glory of a life in the armed services hovered over our childhoods like a kingdom in the clouds. After all, our grandparents fought for Europe, fought for King and country, and even greater grandparents fought for the Empire too. The Great British Empire, the largest empire ever created. When Britannia ruled the waves and a third of the globe was coloured pink and Johnny Foreigner would never dare challenge our sovereignty. Where heroes like Baden-Powell found ways to think about militarising even the recreational time of little boys who might be future colonial officers, protectors of His or Her Majesty's suzerainty, and a humble yet firm queller of the pesky natives when they started to carry on in a rather uncivilised fashion.

We joined the Scouts. We played with toy soldiers. We sang Land of Hope and Glory at school and God Save the Queen at sports matches. We read comic books about the SAS and the paratroop regiment. We coveted movies about lone wolf soldiers prevailing against the odds. And all because the army was sacrosanct: the firewall between home and Empire, keeping us safe, and forged in the fires of wars where millions of souls sacrificed themselves on foreign battlefields. The first line of protection and aggression in the never-ending conflicts fought to keep Britain Great.

South Africa knows all too well what keeping Britain great means. Living here in 2017 among the ghosts of the coloniser and the colonised, the aftershocks of Empire still rumble. Today's South Africa is the epilogue to the tale of aspirational British Empire, who in the race for the Spice Route, drove the Dutch settlers of the Cape Colony inland and did so much to spawn the formation of the Nationalist Afrikaner identity. Later, the 19th century moonshot espoused by David Livingstone and his plucky band of devotee adventurers - to create a corridor from Cairo to the Cape - led to brutal wars with both the Zulus and the Boers. Politicians in London idly moved disposable figures across their global political chessboard and meanwhile in distant lands lives were lost, land was stolen, treasure was discovered, dissent was oppressed with force.

Brexit meant a backward step: away from pursuing a compassionate, forward-thinking society, towards a selfish, 'me first' nativism that suggests that, if by the unfortunate accident of your birth place you are not from 'here', then you are not welcome.

The rod was not spared. The result? The brutality of the Boer and Zulu wars, scorched earth policies, the invention of concentration camps, and the constant, relentless subjugation and oppression of Black Africans everywhere. This is not the narrative told in the tales of hope and glory that those of us who grew up in the UK were fed as children as we read our Military annuals, watched endless TV movies about our brave conquerors, and pantomimed our battles in the streets.

This is the carefully edited fairytale Britain that Nigel Farage and his legion of pub-bore bigots, angry young alt-right devotees and supportive Russian Twitter bots yearn for. Their historical amnesia (or ignorance) doesn't pause to factor in what the boundless spoils of the British Empire left in its wake, or the duty of care that this might impose on us as a nation towards the lands we plundered. Reparations won't be made with money, but the British could at the very least stay just a tiny bit woke. The tale of the victor is too often the only tale told.

They could recognise that their Empire was created by white men for white men. That Empire was an age where adventure, pluck and plunder trumped all human life. The black man was an 'other' species to be respected, sometimes admired and feared, but ultimately subjugated and utilised for the advancement of the Crown's interests. Where the beneficent and kind glow of British values was presumed to have the power to civilise even the most savage society. Where Empire was everything, and the scramble for Africa became a bun-fight between the big men of Europe to secure bragging rights for their subjects.

While the British Empire is long since deceased, these grandiose attitudes are not altogether dead. Great Britain lives on in the nostalgic hearts of many who grew up on those rainy little islands that once punched way above their weight. We are still meant to be Great, aren't we? In 2017, Brits still feel obliged to pay reverence to a Crown that in those faded, sepia-tinged, glory-days of the past, dispatched legions to gobble up far-flung countries so that people in Hampshire could enjoy comfortable rations of sugar and silk, and the proletariat peering through iron gates in London could marvel at all the imported treasure adorning the houses and bodies of their feudal overlords.

Waking up at home on June 24th 2016 in Johannesburg to hear the shocking news about Brexit, I wasn't sure whether to be distraught or delighted when I realised I was on the wrong side of the world to be on the wrong side of history. I felt a chill. Brexit meant a backward step: away from pursuing a compassionate, forward-thinking society, towards a selfish, 'me first' nativism that suggests that, if by the unfortunate accident of your birth place you are not from 'here', then you are not welcome. Towards a sensibility that ignores the millennia of immigration that forged modern Britain. Towards a complete denial of Britain's colonial past, or its role in aggressive neoliberalism and crusading global conflicts. So what do we say to activists like Raheem Kassam who shake off their identities as immigrants and Muslims to stoke the fires of nationalism and collude in this yearning for a glorious lost past?

The modern version of these turncoats – immigrants (or their children) who deny the rights of other new immigrants – are the most acute symptom of the historical amnesia sweeping Europe and the US. Trump supporters and Brexiteers draw an arbitrary line in the sand of history and say: I am indigenous and you are not. Like many they are victims of global economic turmoil and their justifiable ire needs to be directed somewhere. But by focusing that ire on the needy and vulnerable seeking refuge from turmoil they encourage a dangerous 'othering' of different races and cultures, and usher autocratic leaders towards a diabolical end point that in past eras has produced cataclysms like the Holocaust or abominations like apartheid. And all because we seem genetically pre-disposed to forgetting that we were all immigrants once, from the time we crawled out of the sea onto the land.