With what are you apologizing?

If slavery is the material and metaphysical womb of the modern world, reparations will require nothing less than the end of this world.

In this drawing of Greenmarket Square in Cape Town in 1764, a slave in chains appears to be driven by a master on the left side of the image. Some four decades later, slaves in the Cape rebelled. Drawing by the Danish painter Johannes Rach via Ground Up CC0.

You do not say sorry with your mouth. Our historical consciousness of African moral law demands that we ask the Dutch, the French, the British, the Portuguese, the Germans, and all our other enslavers and colonizers—“Nixolisa Ngani?” With what are you apologizing?

This is the core of our African restorative justice and jurisprudence.

As Black people we ask, “Nixolisa ngani?” (With what are you apologizing?) because it is understood, the material makes manifest the spirit of intent. Reparations enflesh the spirit of atonement in our material world.

“Nixolisa ngani?” is a question that demands that our enslavers and colonizers open their hands and show us the substance of their apologies.

We must be clear about what we are demanding—reparations will require nothing less than the end of this world, as we know it. To demand reparation is to demand remembrance. To repair is to re-member. It is to remember how we arrived here. It is to have a historical memory of the past, present, and future. And so, let us begin at the beginning:

Transatlantic slavery is the material and metaphysical womb of the modern world. 

Our former enslavers and colonizers know this all too well, and it is for this reason that they will refuse to open their hands, go beyond regrets and so-called apologies, and give reparations. To give reparations is to end the world, to turn upside down everything that this 600-year-old modern world system is built upon. To demand reparations is to confront the terrifying reality that everything in our material and metaphysical worlds will have to change.

Transatlantic slavery is the material and metaphysical womb of the modern world.

No less a figure than the father of modern capitalism, Adam Smith declared in The Wealth of Nations (1776), that “the discovery of America [in 1492], and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope [in 1498], are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind.” In the 19th century, Marx and Engels repeated Smith’s claim in The Communist Manifesto, declaring that these twin events—the discovery of the so-called New World and the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope—gave to navigation, commerce, and industry a monstrous impulse never before seen in the history of the world. And yet, what Smith, Marx and Engels neglect to name is the ghost in the wondrous machine of modernity: the transatlantic slave trade.

Slavery is the material womb of the modern world.

At the very center of the New Worlding that unworlded us as Black peoples, was the Dutch East India Company, the VOC. Less than a decade after the first Dutch slave ships rounded the Cape of Good Hope, the VOC was founded in 1602. This first multinational monstrosity was the first to link the East and the West, and pioneered the global slave trade. In so doing, the VOC became the 17th century’s richest and most powerful company. For most of the Dutch Golden Age the VOC monopolized the transatlantic slave trade, providing the finance and technology that enabled fellow English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese slavers to establish their own slave-based empires. As the world’s first multinational corporation, the accounting ledgers of the Dutch East India Company lay bare the fact that the term “racial capitalism” is in fact a tautology. Capitalism is always racializing. Racialization is always capitalizing. What is capitalism, if not a system sorting who is most fit for exploitation and extraction?

Slavery is the metaphysical womb of the modern world.

In 1637, the year the Dutch accelerated the global trade in African bodies by conquering the Portuguese slave markets of Elmina Castle, São Tomé and Luanda, Renee Descartes, the central Dutch Golden Age intellectual and father of modern Western philosophy pronounced its “first principle:” “I think therefore I am.”  Far from emerging in a historical vacuum, the Cartesian mind-body dualism was birthed alongside the rise of the transatlantic trade in African bodies, and constructed the precondition for reason and rationality in modern Western philosophy as “bodylessness.” From there on, Descartes’ dictum, “I think therefore I am,” constructed the reasoning and rational subject against the non-reasoning and irrational enslaved, embodied Black, who, according to the likes of Hegel, Kant, Hume, and even Nietzsche, was situated outside of history, moral law, and consciousness. Thus reason and rationality were structured by anti-Blackness from the very start. The white fathers declared in oppositional terms: “we think, because the other does not;”“we are because the other is not;” “the master is because the slave is not.” With the rupture of transatlantic trade, the European metaphysical world deemed all people of African descent as having no claims to bodily integrity, territory, or sovereignty because we have no claims to reason, rationality, morality, and ontological legitimacy that the master is bound to respect.

We see this in the Cape Dutch settlers’ dismissal of the moral and political arguments put forth by conquered Indigenous leaders in the aftermath of the 1659 Khoi-Dutch war—South Africa’s first major war of resistance to slaver-settler modernity. The Khoi leaders, several of whom, such as Nommoa, had traveled to other parts of the Dutch slave trading empire, objected to Dutch land conquest by invoking their Indigenous claims to sovereignty and territory based in African jurisprudence. They asked, “if [we Africans] were to come to Holland; would [we] be permitted to act in a similar manner as you act here?” The conquered Khoi leaders continued to try and reason with the settlers, demanding: “Who then, with the greatest degree of justice, can be required to give way—the natural owners, or the foreign invader?” Exasperated by their insistence on their sovereignty, Jan van Riebeeck, the Dutch East India Company official who established Cape Town as a refreshment station in 1652, responded that he was not bound to respect their laws and claims to territory because their land had been, in his words, “won by the sword.” Thus, claiming his European “right of conquest”—which had its genesis in the 1493 Papal Bull which authorized the Spanish Conquest of America—Van Riebeeck deemed all Indigenous land, no matter where it might be, “empty land” for theirs to take. The moral law and reasoning of the masters thus superseded those of the enslaved and colonized.

Centuries later, this world struggles to imagine itself outside of this master-slave dialectic. It is this struggle—to free ourselves from the material and metaphysical master-slave dialectic—that has propelled the history of modern struggle.

In many ways, South African history—from Vasco da Gama’s landing at the Cape of Good Hope in [1497], Cape Dutch slavery, indenture, land dispossession, the anti-Apartheid struggle to Apartheid’s fall in 1994—frames the history of modern social and political struggles between slaver and enslaved, colonizer and colonized, capital and labor. By virtue of its historical and geo-political constitution—among them, its strategic location as the midpoint between East and West, its vast concentration of minerals and its temperate climate—history’s extremities have coalesced at Africa’s southernmost end. It is no accident that South Africa is today’s most unequal society. Born in the womb of Cape Dutch slavery, South Africa’s history grew to embody more intensely than most the violent consequences of the benefits of a white settler minority linked to Europe and the misfortunes of a Black Indigenous majority linked to Africa. It is for this reason that Stuart Hall famously argued, South Africa is a world-historic “limit case” in the theoretical sense and a “test case” in the political sense.

With Apartheid, South Africa having staged the most compelling political drama of the 20th century, global whiteness held its breath in anticipation of a night of the long knives for white South Africa on the eve of Black majority rule. Instead, Mandela’s South Africa gave a world at the end of history a “miracle”—a rainbow bending towards justice. Mandela’s post-Apartheid “miracle” seemingly absolved global whiteness of its sins.

After 1994’s negotiated settlement secured Black political rights with the protection of white property rights, Mandela’s post-Apartheid government mandated the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). South Africa would not go the Nuremberg way. South Africa would go to church. Presided over by a purple-robed Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the world held the post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission as the exemplar of overcoming history, and achieving global racial reconciliation.

As he presided over the TRC, Archbishop Tutu thrust Ubuntu—the African philosophy best understood through the concept “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” (a person is a person through other people) into the global imagination. Describing the rationale for amnesty at the TRC as rooted in Ubuntu, Tutu said, “African jurisprudence is restorative rather than retributive.” And yet, Tutu’s theology of grace and forgiveness was grounded in what his former comrade and colleague Reverend Allan Boesak later critiqued as a “Christianised Ubuntu.” Tutu’s TRC was given the limited two-year mandate to hear allegations of “human rights abuses” between March 1 1960 (the month of the Sharpeville massacre), to May 10 1994 (the date of Mandela’s inauguration). This was a painfully inadequate 44-year time limit on injustice in a country where the Dutch conquest of the Cape in 1652 is the genesis of centuries of genocide, slavery, indenture and land dispossession. Cape Dutch slavery is the womb of 342 years of racial terror that nominally ended with the fall of Apartheid. We cannot begin to address Apartheid’s master-servant relations without addressing the master-slave relations of the Cape.

The TRC, nominally rooted in Ubuntu’s restorative justice, disregarded South Africa’s foundational centuries of racial terror, despite the fact that African jurisprudence declares: “Ityala aliboli” (A crime does not rot).” In other words, because Ubuntu operates across time and space—a person is a person through those who have come before us, those who come with us, and those who come after us—there is no time limit for injured persons to approach the court of law for justice, redress, and reparations. Ubuntu’s demand for restorative justice therefore holds no statute of limitations. And yet, by limiting the period of redress to 44 years, the TRC denied the specific centrality and historicity of slavery in the formation of South African society.

On March 28 1658, the Amersfoort arrived with the first shipment of slaves to the Cape of Good Hope; 147 Angolan children who, outnumbering the settlers, transformed the colony. With the enslaved outnumbering the settlers, Cape Dutch society began not just as a society with slaves, but as a slave society. The Hasselt arrived from Dahomey almost seven weeks later with 228 enslaved people. From 1652 until the British captured the Cape for the second time in 1805, the Dutch imported at least 63,000 souls from all over the Indian Ocean basin, from Africa’s South East coast right up to the Indonesian archipelago. Not included in this accounting is the number of Indigenous Africans conquered and enslaved by the Dutch. The enslavement of Indigenous Africans was illegal. However, as early as 1673, the VOC granted their Boers the right to form kommandos—the free burgher militia that waged wars of conquest with Indigenous Africans over land and conducted slave raids. By 1775 the enslavement of Indigenous Africans was formally legalized as inboekestel, the so-called “apprenticeship” of African children orphaned by wars of conquest or young adults between the ages of 18 and 25.

By disregarding South Africa’s centuries of foundational terror and circumscribing them 44 years, the TRC was in fact not bound by African jurisprudence, but, as Boesak rightly asserted, by a “Christianised Ubuntu.” Without the mandate to right the historic conquest of the land and its peoples, Tutu’s impossible task as the head of the TRC was to wield a Christianised Ubuntu to reconcile Black and white South Africa into a single nation he called “God’s Rainbow People.”

Apartheid’s victims wanted the truth. One million black viewers made the weekly “TRC: Special Report” the highest-rated public affairs broadcast at the time.

Apartheid’s beneficiaries refused to confront the truth. Few white South Africans watched “TRC: Special Report,” and the objection of white radio listeners to TRC broadcasts caused its rescheduling to a time after 8pm, “when most of the farmers are no longer listening.”

Apartheid’s architects refused to repent. Apartheid-era president PW Botha declared, “I only apologize for my sins before God.”

While white South Africa did not repent, or make themselves humble, they were surprised by and grateful for the lack of so-called “bitterness” and acts of “vengeance” shown toward them by black South Africa. Beyers Naudé, a Dutch Reformed minister who was one of the few Afrikaners to publicly oppose Apartheid, declared, “In some incredible way God has sown the seeds of a gracious attitude, of the spirit of Ubuntu, in the hearts and minds of the whole African community.”

Naudé’s awe at the seeming miraculousness of the transition revealed some of the ways in which even the more sincere, committed part of white South Africa has failed to truly reckon with what the radical ethical demands of Ubuntu require of them if they are to have meaningful reconciliation with Black people.

As Black people, we ask “nixolisa ngani?” (Withwhat are you apologizing?) Because it is understood, you do not say sorry with your mouth. The material makes manifest the spirit of intent. Reparations enfleshes the spirit of atonement in our material world.

Ubuntu holds that ukuhlawula (paying reparations for injuries caused to others) is indivisible from ukubuyisa (the restoration of injured relations). Ubuntu demands costly forgiveness; you cannot receive forgiveness without giving something up as an act of your contrition.

So we ask again, with what are you apologizing?

Reckoning with Ubuntu as the basis of African jurisprudence and restorative justice is to take seriously the centrality of ihlawulo yokubuyisa, reparations for the restitution of relations.

To be sure, the TRC recommended limited reparations to the victims and families who testified. Later, Tutu called for a wealth tax on all white South Africans. The government ignored both recommendations. White South Africa rejected Tutu’s wealth tax. Likewise, they have rejected Black people’s call for land restitution. Today, White South Africans, 9% of the population, hold 72% of the land, while we, Black people, 79% of the population, hold 1%. Just as they have appropriated our land, white South Africa has appropriated Ubuntu as no man’s land and emptied of its radical ethical demands for restoration through reparation.

In a world where the terms of reason, rationality, moral law, consciousness and history continue to be dictated by our former enslavers and colonizers, the Black demand for reparation and restoration remains unreasonable, irrational, and conflated with retribution and vengeance. In other words, the Black demand for reparations remains unthinkable in this world.

In the terms of this world, radical African restorative justice remains the law of the slaves, and we continue to be dictated by the law of the masters.

In light of these unequal terms of engagement, we consider the Dutch Prime Minister’s December 19  apology for the Netherlands’ historic role in the slave trade, and ask the Dutch state: Nixolisa Ngani? With what are you apologizing?

The Dutch apology for slavery is a sorry one. The Dutch apology for slavery is a sorry of the mouth. Hands empty except for the offer of a 200 million euro fund for museums and educational institutions to raise awareness about the legacy of slavery.

We ask what is 200 million euros for the centuries of economic, political, social, and spiritual crimes committed against our people? What is 200 million euros from the bloodied purse of the beneficiaries of the Dutch slave trading Golden Age? What is 200 million euros in an economy worth more than 894 billion euros? To be sure, 200 million euros accounts for less than 0.02% of the Dutch GDP. This insulting offer for reflections does not even account for 1% of the billions built on the blood of slaves.

Again we ask, with what are you apologizing?

We ask what is the meaning of an apology forced down the throats of the descendants of the enslaved and colonized? To start, the Dutch state ignored the request for an apology to be made by the Dutch King. That the Dutch Prime Minister then chose to make the apology on December 19 last year and to disregard the request for the apology to be made on Keti Koti, the 150th anniversary of the abolition of Dutch slavery on July 1 2023, is a grave insult. To add salt to the wound, the Prime Minister did not seek the organized input and support of the Caribbean. Nor did he acknowledge or seek the organized input of the many African countries who also suffered at their bloodied hands. Be it the West and Central African countries such as Ghana and Angola whose Atlantic coasts bear the scars of at least 10 Dutch slave forts. Nor Mozambique or Madagascar, whose kidnapped peoples were shipped all over the Indian Ocean basin. Nor South Africa, where the Dutch enslaved at least 63,000 people. We must view the unilateralism of the Dutch apology for slavery as a statement of intent—the former master will continue to dictate the terms of reconciliation to the former slave. Our former enslavers will discipline us into the regime of compulsory forgiveness and reconciliation without reparation. Without reparation, our enslavers will continue to inherit and benefit from their crime.

Again, Nixolisa ngani? With what are you apologizing?

We must remember that this former enslaver’s refusal to give reparations is not unique to the Dutch state or white South African settlers. Our British Caribbean counterparts have repeatedly suffered the insult of “regrets” for slavery, offered by former British Prime Minister David Cameron and Prince William on visits to Jamaica and King Charles on a visit to Barbados. On his 2005 trip to Jamaica, Cameron delivered his infamous “Let’s Move On” speech. In it, he announced that Britain would spend $38 million in foreign aid to build a prison in Jamaica. A prison, mind you, to be filled with Jamaicans who had committed crimes in Britain. Rightly, Jamaicans did not disgrace their ancestors, and roundly rejected the British insult. In 2010, French President Nicolas Sarkozy—infamous for his Hegelian remark that “the African has not fully entered into history”—offered an aid and debt-cancellation package to Haiti. This was just seven years after Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide demanded that France pay Haiti over $21 billion—the equivalent of the 90 million gold francs Haiti was forced to pay Paris after winning its freedom from enslavement. It is no mistake that Haiti, the first to stage a slave rebellion to successfully overthrow their masters, became the first and only nation to pay reparations to those same former masters and their descendants for generations. No sooner had Aristide demanded reparations than France and the US orchestrated a coup against him.

We must be clear: The Black demand for reparations is impossible within the terms of this world order. 

In August 2020 Namibia officially rejected the paltry 12 million dollars that Germany offered for executing the 20th century’s first holocaust during their 1904-1908 colonial war against the Nama and OvaHerero people. Namibia rejected the offer not only because the sum is insulting, but because post-Nazi Germany refused to name the genocide of close to 100,000 people a genocide. Further, they refused to name the reparations as reparations. Instead, they described the sum as healing the wounds. By 2021 the Namibian protest eventually compelled Germany to name it a genocide and offer an apology. However, Germany has still refused to offer reparations. Instead, it has offered financial aid of $1.34 billion.

What does it tell us when post-Nazi Germany, the world’s poster child for repentance and reparations in the aftermath of the Jewish Holocaust, cannot be compelled to pay reparations for its Black Holocaust of Nama and Herero people?

The ongoing refusal of post-Nazi Germany—the global exemplar for historical reckoning—to pay reparations for its sins against Black peoples forces us to confront a more terrifying revelation about the modern world, race, reparations, and anti-blackness.

As one German historian confessed, “Reparations payments to Namibia could set a precedent for Belgium and the Congo, France and Algeria or Great Britain and the history of the slave trade. Descendants of the Herero [and Nama] know that too.” And so does South Africa. And so does the Netherlands. And so does the world.

Again, we must be clear: Black reparations are impossible within the terms of this world. If slavery is the material and metaphysical womb of the modern world, reparations will require nothing less than the end of this world.

Our former enslavers and colonizers know this all too well. Undoubtedly, if a reparation agreement were to be reached for crimes against Black people in the mold of the 1952 agreement between Germany and Israel to compensate for the Holocaust, reparations would bankrupt and collapse the Western economy. We must therefore confront the terrifying fact that reparations cannot be offered within the terms of this world order.

A serious call for reparations demands that we liberate ourselves from the fiction that our Black radical traditions are at best derivative of Western historical consciousness, moral law, philosophy, political, epistemological and temporal systems such as the telos of international bourgeois-democratic revolution. When our ancestors waged wars of resistance they waged them based on their historical consciousness of African and Afro-derived political and epistemological paradigms. When, for example, the African National Congress (ANC), which had been nonviolent for nearly 50 years, held a meeting in the aftermath of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, Nelson Mandela declared his position on armed struggle to the Communist Party leader by invoking Tswana political philosophy which holds that “Sebatana hase bokwe ka diatla” (the attacks of the wild beast cannot be averted with bare hands alone). Raised in the royal AbaThembu household, Mandela understood that African political philosophy holds that the question of violence and nonviolence is not one of principle, but one of tactics. In that post-Sharpeville moment, Mandela’s historical consciousness of African political philosophy saw him argue that, in his words, “it was wrong and immoral to subject [the] people to armed attacks by the state without offering them some kind of alternative.” Importantly, Mandela came of political age alongside the Africanist generation of Anton Lembede. The Africanist generation radicalized the ANC in the mid-1940s through firebrand African nationalism, which took its inspiration from the history of nation-building and resistance of African sovereigns like King Moshoeshoe and Shaka and Sekhukhune in the 19th century. Emboldened by this consciousness of African armed resistance, Mandela became the leader of the ANC’s military wing—Umkhonto we Sizwe ( Spear of the Nation).

Importantly, our ancestors did not wage wars of resistance to slavery and colonization as liberal subjects striving for emancipation into the political condition of this world—that is, the 21st century Western bourgeoisie. To believe otherwise is a betrayal of the historical consciousness of our African ancestors. When, for example, the Asantes defeated their Dutch enslavers in Berbice (part of what is now known as Guyana) in their 1763 uprising, they enstooled their political leader, Kofi as the Asantehene of the first Afro-Caribbean kingdom. Freed from their masters, Asantes came together with other formerly enslaved Africans, such as the Creoles, to embed African political and cultural institutions within the kingdom’s governance model.

In other words, the historical consciousness of our Black Radical Traditions demands that the telos of our liberation struggle is not inclusion into this world order. Our ancestors did not die for a seat at the table. Rather, emerging from the underside of slaving-capitalist modernity, the historical consciousness of our Black Radical Traditions emanates from the thought that is “unthinkable” within the terms of this world.

Therefore, in this 21st century moment of so-called apologies and acknowledgements, we must think the “unthinkable” and demand the “impossible” of this world. We, therefore, ask our enslavers again: “With what are you apologizing?”

We ask this question of reparations, with the full knowledge that the question is unreasonable, the answer unthinkable, and the act impossible in a world birthed by transatlantic slavery.

The gift of our own historical memory and consciousness is the freedom from a teleology that dictates this is the only world possible, or even desirable. It gifts us with the understanding that the world that we have is not inevitable, or permanent — it is historically contingent and constructed. The historical consciousness of our ancestors gifts us with sight beyond our generation’s field of vision. Armed with ancestral memory, it is then up to us to participate in history and end this world.

When we call for the end of the world, we must remember the question posed by Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe at the first meeting of the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania in 1959; “Asazi ukuthi iyozala nkomoni?” (We don’t know what kind of creature will be birthed?). Sobukwe asked this question in relation to the freedom of Africans at home and abroad. Once we are free, what creature will we become? We must ask this question now: Iyozala nkomoni? (Once the world is free, what will we become?)

What our African historical imagination of the future does tell us is that the premise of the new world must be this—“feta kgomo, o tshware motho.” Directly translated, “let the cow pass, grab hold of the person.” In other words, uphold people over property. “People first.” This well-known Southern African political philosophy inspired resistance movements against Black economic and social subjugation and inspired the African socialist manifesto of Sobukwe’s Pan Africanist Congress. Based in Ubuntu’s radical ethics of personhood, “feta kgomo, o tshware motho”(let go of your cattle, uphold your people) asserts the primacy of the person as a social being and not merely an economic animal. Moreover, if cattle are the historic center of African material and metaphysical worlds, “feta kgomo, o tshware motho” demands, “Let go of the world, uphold your people.” Informed by this historical consciousness, “feta kgomo, o tshware motho” saw our people demand the end of a world birthed by the pursuit of profit so monstrous that it turned African people into property.

Today, we demand reparations with the full knowledge that it will be the end of Euro-American capitalist modernity.

We know that reparations for transatlantic slavery and colonization will bankrupt the West and collapse its economies, and to this, we say “feta kgomo, o tshware motho.” Let go of your ill-gotten property..

Let us uphold our people: We must love ourselves and our ancestors and our unborn enough to end this world.

We must continue to demand the impossible of this world and ask, nixolisa ngani?

With what are you apologizing?

This is the full text of the ZAM Nelson Mandela Lecture delivered by Panashe Chigumadzi on February 5, 2023, in the International Theatre Amsterdam. The program , including the speeches by Prince Claus Fund Director Marcus Tebogo Desando (South Africa) and antiracism activist Jerry Afriyie (Netherlands/Ghana) can be watched on Youtube.

About the Author

Panashe Chigumadzi is the author of Sweet Medicine (Blackbird Books, 2015; winner of the 2016 K. Sello Duiker Literary Award) and These Bones Will Rise Again (Indigo Press, 2018). She is a PhD candidate in African and African American Studies at Harvard University.

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