“The Big Read: It was difficult to hold back the tears as a deluge of news told of the catastrophe visited on the people of Haiti by the earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince on January 12.
After the tragedies in Asia resulting from the Indonesia tsunami in 2004 and from Hurricane Katrina in the US city of New Orleans in 2005, it was possible to imagine that we could respond to future natural calamities with a certain degree of stoicism.
But when the full picture began to emerge about the destruction in Haiti, this proved to be little more than a delusion born of the wish to limit the pain all of us feel when merciless nature strikes suddenly, brutally claiming the lives of many helpless fellow human beings.
It was not necessary for us to see the human limbs protruding from under the rubble or to see lifeless bodies lying in the streets to know the terrible cost the earthquake had imposed on thousands of Haitians.
The heaps of bricks and mortar that had been houses necessarily invoked in the mind’s eye terrifying images of crushed bodies, of people still alive under the walls that had collapsed, but condemned to die slowly because help would not reach them on time, of human blood flowing into the canyons that had opened when the earth itself became an enemy of the Haitian humanity.
Those images in the mind, even without confirmation by the graphic television footage, were enough to produce the tears that are impossible to hold back.
But the tears also came because this tragedy engulfed this particular country – Haiti!
The fact of our birth into the South Africa that was, placed Haiti in a special place in our hearts and minds. This is because it has the indestructible distinction that 206 years ago, in 1804, it emerged as the very First Black Republic in the world.
More than the mere fact of this was the history of the extraordinary uprising which led to this outcome, which could not but serve as an unequalled inspiration to those engaged in struggle to achieve their own liberation.
During a sustained military and political struggle, which ended with the birth of their Republic, the African slaves of Haiti, with many free mulattos as their allies, defeated the armies of the most powerful European powers of the day – Spain, Great Britain and France.
From this titanic struggle emerged true heroes of all oppressed peoples, including Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe and Alexander Pétion, who together out-smarted some of the best Generals that Europe could produce.
When, in 1803, their armies defeated the French forces, which were first led by Napoleon’s brother-in-law, General Leclerc, they saved the United States of America from occupation by France.
Because the African slaves of Haiti annihilated the French army, this army could not proceed to occupy the US territory known as Louisiana, as ordered by Napoleon. Ultimately France had to sell this territory to the US, which is celebrated in the US as the Louisiana Purchase.
Free Haiti also provided the outstanding Latin American liberator, Simon Bolivar, with the war materials he needed to defeat the Spanish forces, secure independence for Venezuela and therefore guarantee the liberation of Latin America from Spanish occupation.
The Haitian Revolution was organically linked to the American and French Revolutions and should have taken its place alongside these in the construction of the new world order of the day. Sadly, this was not to be.
One important reason for this was explained by the US newspaper, the Wall Street Journal, in its January 2 2004 edition, in an article by José de Côrdoba headed “Impoverished Haiti pins hopes for future on a very old debt”.
The article said, “More than two decades after rebellious former slaves vanquished troops from Napoleon’s army here (in Haiti) in 1803, France’s King Charles X made the fledgling republic of Haiti an offer it couldn’t refuse.
“In 1825, as the king’s warships cruised just over the horizon from the Haitian capital, a French emissary demanded 150 million gold francs in exchange for recognising the new republic. The implicit alternative was invasion and re-enslavement.
“It was a huge sum, about five times Haiti’s annual export revenue. Haiti’s then-president reluctantly agreed, taking on a crushing debt.
“Today, as Haiti celebrates the 200th anniversary of its independence amid growing political unrest and a collapsing economy, one of its few glimmers of hope is that long-ago deal.
“Haiti wants its money back – with interest.
“Aided by US and French lawyers, the Haitian government is preparing a legal brief demanding nearly $22-billion in ‘restitution’ for what it regards as an act of gunboat diplomacy.”
After its defeat, France refused to recognise the Republic of Haiti. Frightened by the example it had set, the slave-owning US imposed economic sanctions against the young Republic.
France demanded that the Republic of Haiti must pay compensation for the losses sustained by French property-owners in what had been its wealthiest colony. The most valuable property for which the French claimed compensation was the slaves themselves!
The France of Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité sent a new expeditionary force to enforce its demand that the liberated slaves had to pay money to guarantee their freedom.
Haiti felt that it had no choice but to pay the compensation demanded by France. Remarkably, it took Haiti 122 years to settle this debt, with the final payment being made in 1947 to the US, after the latter had bought this debt from the French!
To indicate how heavy the burden of this debt was, in 1900 fully 80% of Haiti’s national budget had to be set aside to service the debt imposed on the country by France in 1825, which continued to expand because of the interest it carried.
What the poor of Haiti paid during 122 years, expressed in 2004 US dollars, was conservatively estimated to amount to $22-billion! In 2004, a French government commission established to assess Haiti’s demand for restitution said this demand was “not pertinent in both legal and historical terms”.
It is probably true that Haiti today is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It is, however, also true that as their forebears did, the people of Haiti continue to stand out today as an inspiring example of human resilience and dedication to the cause of freedom.
The urgent task all humanity faces today is to come to the aid of the Haitians, to confront and overcome the consequences of the deadly earthquake which has claimed the lives of thousands and wiped out the little wealth they had accumulated in the protracted struggle of many centuries merely to survive.
It was indeed truly inspiring to hear the international media reports about the efforts of fellow South Africans, working side by side with other foreign teams, to rescue Haitians from beneath the mounds of rubble in Port-au-Prince. It is this that makes it possible for one to say – I am proudly South African, and proudly human!
The time will come when other truths will have to be told about Haiti, to allow this country once again to set an example, this time to speak about what should be done and not done if, indeed, we are true to the humanist view that umuntu ngumuntu ngabanye – I am because you are!
When those truths are told, we will have the possibility to salute the people of South Africa that, during the year that Haiti celebrated its Liberation Bicentenary, they had the courage to welcome into their midst a distinguished Haitian family – the family of Jean Bertrand and Mildred Aristide and their two daughters.
Then we will tell of the bond of friendship that has developed between us and the poor of Haiti, including those who have resided in Cité Soleil, the biggest slum in Port-au-Prince, to which has been added the enormous destruction imposed by the January 12 earthquake.
We will also have the possibility fully to absorb the story told in Peter Hallward’s book, Damming the Flood, about what happened in 2004, as Haiti celebrated its Bicentenary and as it saw its elected president forcibly transported into exile in Africa, the ancestral home of the 1804 liberators of Haiti.
For now, we must convey our sympathy, condolences and solidarity to the Haitians who live among us, as well as the rest of the sister people of Haiti.
To give meaning to our words, we must join the rest of the world to do everything that has to be done to help ensure that tomorrow we shed tears of joy, as we see the people of Haiti realise the dreams which inspired the African slaves of Haiti to do what they did over two centuries ago, which affirmed the dignity of all Africans and all human beings, regardless of race, colour, gender or belief.”