Black History Month series: Understanding empire, decolonising our movements

Black History Month series: Understanding empire, decolonising our movements


By: Nonhlanhla Makuyana
Date: 11 October 2019

This Black History Month we’re focusing on black-led movements and resistance throughout history. How have they shaped our understanding of politics and activism, how do they continue to inspire social movements and activists today? From the Black Jacobins to Black Lives Matter there is a thread of rebellious connection that, as a movement, we must learn from. We must learn the histories that were never taught to us in school, learn about the reality of our own histories and truly understand what solidarity looks like, not just this month but everyday.

This blog is second installment on our series this month. Nonhlanhla Makuyana writes about how many of the racial, economic and social injustices we see today are rooted in empire’s legacy. It’s only through decolonising our minds, our institutions and our movements that we’ll be able to create a truly just and equal world.

I am a migrant woman from Zimbabwe, a country which formed part of the British Empire until its independence in 1980. A country whose natural resources were plundered, land and people stolen and where tyrannical neo-colonial leaders continue to deny Zimbabweans justice after colonialism. There are over a million displaced Zimbabweans across the world today, fleeing a country caught in the continuing legacies of colonialism and empire.

Decolonising is a movement. It helps make sense of stories, like mine, that are all too often erased from our shared understanding of the atrocities of empire. It is vital for transformative social change today. In reclaiming silenced narratives, we’re able to tackle systemic and structural problems with a historical understanding of empire. Rather than maintaining power imbalances that continue to exist because of the legacy of empire, our movements must push for transformational change. Decolonising can be a tool to achieve this.

Independence isn’t enough

Slavery may have been abolished and countries in the global south may have been made independent between the 1950s and 1980s, but the colonial mindset has not ended with empire. Leaders and thinkers from the global south such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o didn’t see independence as enough to end the oppressive systems left in place by colonialism. They emphasised the continuity of colonial legacies and the need to dismantle them across all spheres of life in an effort to ensure justice for all. This led to a worldwide movement to decolonise; to challenge the colonial mindset and the continued legitimisation of institutional racism in our universities, workplaces and institutions at large.

We live in a country in which our own government tells warped stories of Britain’s empire and involvement in slavery, tweeting in 2018: ‘surprising #FridayFact. Millions of you helped end the slave trade through your taxes’. Yet when slavery was abolished, it was slave owners who were compensated with taxpayers’ money, while at the centre of abolition were black radicals who fought for their freedom. By decolonising just this tweet, we can begin to examine the institutions that enable inequality in the UK today. We learn, for example, that the economy is racist – predicated on historic systems of the oppression of black people.

Colonial legacies continue to uphold white privilege whilst maintaining the structural disadvantage of black people in our economy. This harsh and unequal system is further emphasised with the reality of racial disadvantage today where BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) families earn nearly £9,000 a year less than their white British counterparts. Slavery and empire built the British economy, yet that economy is designed to disadvantage them. The behaviour of institutions is structural and rooted in Britain’s imperial past: rooted in white supremacy, elitism and patriarchy. By contextualising institutions within the history of empire, we are able to see the intersecting nature of structural disadvantage for many people of colour today.

What does decolonising look like?

The movement to decolonise is a global one. It has many different faces and tactics for change, down to the differing ways that colonialism has left its footprint across the world.

In South Africa the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are fighting for land expropriation without compensation. Colonial legacies have meant that 72% of the nation’s private farmland is owned by white people who make up 9% of the population. EFF are decolonising land ownership by pointing out that white farmers should not be compensated for stolen land during colonialism, stating that would be “rewarding murderers”.

In the US, Black Americans are organising against the harsh economic exclusion faced by black people – a legacy of slavery characterised by a lack of jobs, living wages and workers’ rights. Initiatives like Cooperation Jackson are looking to the long history of cooperatives and other forms of worker-owned enterprises from the African community to create communityowned cooperatives. They have created jobs to build communities previously neglected by the state, in doing so continuing the struggle for self-determination, economic justice and democratic rights for the marginalised.

In the UK, students are decolonising the education system, pointing to the absence of stories from the global south in curricula. Last December Reroot.ED, the youth-led campaign to decolonise secondary school education, occupied Parliament Square to deliver a teach-out. Young people brought their stories to the session in order to address racial injustice in England.

A lot can be gained through decolonising the lasting effects of empire in all aspects of British society. Through a collective confrontation of Britain’s colonial past, we can learn a lot about the ways in which structural racism is written into institutions and how this racism is legitimised by the colonial mindset and its centring of white privilege. In fighting for a just world, decolonising should be our primary tool as it gets to the core of inequality in the UK and internationally, making sure justice is for all and not just those who’ve structurally benefited from the legacies of colonialism.

Image: Rhodes Must Fall Cape Town 2015 Desmond Bowles/ Flickr