Monday, April 27, 2009

African Politics

When one spends time in a place like this, one doesn't generally have much opportunity to think about the social difficulties which confront the civilized world. In fact, many of the considerations that decide elections and ruin cocktail parties in the States are simply non-issues here. Universal health care, the stimulus package and racism are guaranteed to start a debate in the US, but they simply don't show up on the radar in Afghanistan.

*There is a a home-grown version of racism, tribalism, that is an integral and important part of life and politics here, but that is less a question of perceived racial superiority and more a manifestation of collective identity politics.**
**Which, admittedly, is what racism is, but here it has less racial and more cultural overtones.

The glaring exception to the above can be found among the South Africans, some of whom work for me. These guys are veterans of all of SA's ugly little wars in Namibia, Angola and Mozambique (and a few from Rhodesia/Zimbabwe). They have years of experience working with black Africans* across the continent.

*Don't make the mistake of referring to only blacks as Africans when you're around Safers. They are adamantly and vociferously proud of being African themselves, in some cases more than black Africans.

Most of them have put their lives in the hands of blacks multiple times in combat situations. All of them will tell you how effective they were, operating in small mixed groups of whites and blacks, with the whites providing the leadership and expertise, and the blacks providing the firepower and local knowledge. They are definitely proud of their service and their military accomplishments and praise their "kaffirs"* without reservation.

*Kaffir is generally considered a disparaging term. Use it carefully, if at all.

Having said that, the Safers are also openly and shockingly racist, at least by American standards. There are plenty of people in the US and Europe who are racists, either openly or secretly. But few would be so casual or public about it as the Safers routinely are. I'm used to redneck Americans and I've seen my share of reactionary, nationalist Europeans*, but the boldness of the Safers always surprises me.

*To me, it's never been a question as to whether the Americans or the Europeans were the more racist. Europeans like to talk about the history of slavery and the supression of civil rights and the continuing absence of blacks/hispanics/asians in the American elite. All of that is true. However, anyone who has ever heard the Dutch talk about Moroccans, the Germas rail against the Turks, the British moan about Asians or the French slander the Algerians has to wonder if America is really the home of modern racism.** Besides, we have a black President now, so shut up already.

**In addition to their local peculiarities, a substantial percentage of Europeans are still quietly, subtlely and adamantly anti-Semitic. Don't let them tell you otherwise.

Anyway, back to the Safers. Their racism is so casual, so open, so unabashed, that I'm almost tempted to......respect them for it. I know that sounds odd (and disturbing). Their feelings are (partly) informed by their experiences, which I can only guess at, but it's still stupid and primitive and ill-conceived. Often, I find myself very uncomfortable around them when they start talking about Africa or blacks in general.*

*Don't even get them started of Jacob Zuma. That takes it to a whole new level.

Still, disagreeing with them at a fundamental level, I find it hard to argue the point. In fact, I rarely try. First off, it would be pointless to argue. I'm not going to change their minds on this. Second, I would find it much more offensive if they talked like that and still claimed not to be racists. They don't. They are, they know it, and they think they're right for it. But mostly, I have to live and work with these guys, possibly in some very dodgy circumstances. They're my last line of defense if something goes wrong, and I don't want to piss them off.

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