Oompa-Loompas, slavery and racial supremacy

Saturday, November 08, 2008 - 10:59, by Khadija Sharife

Willy Wonka’s labour machinery composed of Oompa-Loompas – short little dudes from the cocoa heaven of Loompaland — were originally described by author Roald Dahl as dark pygmies “from the very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle where no white man had been before”. Their primary enemy was the whangdoodle, interpreted by some as white dudes.

But this is at odds with Dahl’s statement that “no white man” had penetrated that specific part of the continent, which leaves me with the conclusion that perhaps said whangdoodle was either of Arabian, Chinese or other ethnicity.

[Ibn Battuta trekked India from North Africa long before De Gama; Ahmed Ibn Majid guided both De Gama and Columbus, Zheng He and other Chinese explorers hit South America and Africa prior to the “discoveries of the new world” as the Vikings and Irish did North America. There was a thriving slave trade e.g. the Egyptians, pre-existing those initially assumed to be whangdoodles.]

Now the Loompas were presumed to live free and fair with no bondage, slavery or forced labour involved; indeed, the Loompas had a nasty little streak, encouraged by Wonka who turned quite a little bitter after competitors stole his ingenious chocolaty designs.

Yet so much ire was directed at Dahl that he acquiesced, changing the description to fair skin.

Given the fact that the US and USSR were upping the velocity in their game of war-by-proxy amongst other dastardly policies, that should have been the least of the “establishments” and the public’s concern.

Perhaps the PC response was deliberately encouraged; a way for the public to let off steam without actually effecting reality. PC is a wonderful way to stifle discussion, manufacture consent and dissent and eliminate the imagination – because without imagination, without original, unique and brave thoughts, we lose our ability to dream, to think beyond industry/government/authority big-box decisions and policies.

Mankind is then reduced to the pejorative man-mass state, like faceless cogs in the wheel of a mechanised civilisation, similar to the type of mass-produced goods the global middle-class consumes on an everyday basis, irrespective of issues such as origin, verification, methods of production and growth, and ecological impact.

And our goods are very often the primary cause of bondage in the real world, where many a Loompa are trafficked from one corner, one country, one continent to the next, living in the never-was, that strange existence most of us consider to be outdated, a thing of the past.

We do not believe much of it to be true and our disbelief suspends that reality, insulating it.

The UN estimates that there over 27-million people in bondage, with another 50-million slaving in Export Processing Zones (EPZ), corporate cut-and-paste dictatorship that are usually self-regulated, tax-free havens.

And whilst South Africa is one of the world’s leading transit and destination points for external trafficking, the business of internal trafficking is flourishing. Even our airports are not secure, as the Agglioti/ Selebi/ Kebble triangle revealed.

Laura Bermudez of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) recently completed a report, solely focused on SA, titled “No Experience Necessary: The Internal Trafficking of Persons in South Africa.” iom.org.za/site/index.php?option=com_docman&task=cat_view&gid=21&Itemid=50

The report delves into the various components such as demographics, recruitment, routes, exploitation, legal framework, transportation and demands as well as the health risks and other twined issues.

An excerpt from the report reveals the testimony of an informant from Gauteng, who said that 80% of prostitutes were treated like criminals irrespective of the underlying causes, the norm as it relates to the methodologies implemented by law enforcers.

“Many (officers) don’t look beyond the surface. They don’t look at the core of the problem. ‘We don’t have time. It is prostitution. It is drugs. Period.’ However, there is a handful of highly trained officers that know how to ask the right questions. We need more of them.

“There was a woman whom I assisted that had been linked up with a Nigerian and was beaten up very badly. She reported her story to me and said that the man had recently bought two girls, ages nine and twelve, and transported them from Pretoria to Port Elizabeth. The girls were given to an older lady that was teaching them what they need to do. I reported the information to the police but nothing happened.”

On recruitment:

“The girls were recruited from country towns. One came from Ceres and the other from Beaufort West. Recruiters told them that they would get employment as domestic workers in Cape Town and their parents were told that their daughters would send money to them. They were transported in the recruiter’s cars to suburbs in Cape Town. The young women were used in prostitution.

“In one case, the woman described a night that she was drugged and used in pornography. She said they made her have sex with different men and they took pictures and videos. They were given no money and they did not know how to use public transportation. They were taken to the street to work at night and slept at the pimp’s house all day. They told us that the pimp sometimes beat them if they did not bring in enough money.”

And of course, whilst “spiriting away” is quite common, very often there is an uncle, an aunt or a family friend involved. The report details the case of a girl held in bondage by a Nigerian pimp, with the help of a relative. Another family sold their kids for a set of lounge furniture.

According to the International Labour Organisation, there were 211-million economically active children spanning the globe in 2000, from the Burmese kids working on the railroads (for the benefit of Chevron, Total and other oil multinationals), to those slaving away for Nike in Indonesia, to the coltan and diamonds in the DRC.

Why does it occur? Why does the host government not life a damn finger? The answer is telling indeed and reveals that nature of selective and imposed/ approved democracy/ regimes in Africa and other “developing” governments.

As the regime of Cote d’Ivoire stated, “If we use real labour, the price of cocoa goes up”.

The immediate history of slavery is quite interesting and results in a more balanced and just interpretation of the colonial project, delinked as it actually (and initially) was from race.

William Petty, noted as the first political economist of the age, was said to have created the market-labour theory reducing humans to the state of commodities in an age of expanding capitalism built on slavery. This slavery was initially composed of the British and the Irish who were made homeless by privatisation of indigenous land, categorised as the commons. Petty stated that, “the labour is always of the nature of an exported commodity,” — commodification of the living – whether plant or human, is a fundamental tool used to dispossess and disenfranchise people, allowing the indigenous ecology to be perceived as an unfinished product. The idyllic English countryside is one example.

How often do we question how such lands were emptied (enclosures), or even the way in which history was transcribed, not in terms of bias but simple factual accuracy? By 1617, it was the established policy of the ruling class in Britain to ship the enslaved millions expelled from their lands in Britain, criminalised by The Beggars Act amongst others. By 1661, laws were codified concerning the enslavement of white and other people in Britain and the distant colonies.

Barbados historian Hilary Beckles writes, “Parliament felt there no longer was a need for white ‘labour’. Black slavery, fully established, proved to be very profitable.” And the ever flammable instrument of ethnicity as a divisive and mobilising political vehicle proved to be quite blinding indeed, for the slaver and the enslaved. White Supremacy was thus a commercial and ideological solution to the slave trade, inundated by large quantities of non-white labour.

But this reality has been deliberately distorted and removed from its pretext in order that the world misunderstands the root of colonialism, and so remain divided and easy to manipulate in our divisions. As mentioned in my last post, myriad native skins, cloaked in immunity as such, have inherited and endorsed the methodologies of colonialism on their populations.

Select rationales of racial discord are particularly flammable as mobilisers given that certain races were the ultimate beneficiaries, and that inherited poverty has yet to be accorded restorative and/or recoverable justice.

This compounds the canvas of developing worlds, arrested in the grips of structural adjustment programmes; loans that sometimes suck up to 60% of GDP, diluted human and environmental rights; superimposed macroeconomic privatisation, with an emphasis on export of raw produce, alongside drastic cuts to social spending that deprives entire nations of health and education …

These governments are deniably disallowed from expanding social spending as it would constitute a violation of their bilateral and multilateral agreements with institutions such as the World Bank, who require social spending to be at a minimum. In order to spur the economy on, they say.

Who would agree to such shit? The government of Angola is a good example; less than 56% of the population makes it to primary school, mostly males. Poverty, it has been proven, further entrenches male patriarchy as women have no access to alternatives via tools such as education.

[Over $4-billion in oil revenue is siphoned by the government; indigenous wealth is expropriated and developed for extraction by oil companies such as Chevron, Total and BP with the consent of the government. The US spends over 40% of their budget on “securing energy resources” through military bases, official and unofficial e.g. by way of Chevron. The environment, ranging from fisheries to farming and water sources have been exploited and decimated, poisoning the primary means of sustenance for the nation at large. These factors – health, education, pollution — are never monitored by the government, just the companies who implement self-regulated standards. Angola’s oil production is predominantly offshore, and so containment of oil spillage — during the extraction and transportation process – is rarely handled.]

In poor resource-rich countries like Angola, child soldiers, prostitutes and miners are common.

Now the thought of the Loompas as children did indeed raise its ugly head, but I have worked viciously to remove it as the very concept would forever taint Johnny Depp’s Wonka as a child-slaver in my mind.

In reality, many kids are trafficked and enslaved in what might have been the cocoa heaven of Loompaland — Cote d’Ivoire, to work on the cocoa farms, some as young as nine. The country produces 40% of global cocoa, with West Africa on the whole producing 70%. They don’t live long. They don’t have a chance.

The Harkins-Engel protocol of 2001 attempted to address the estimated 280 000 little people working on the cocoa farms; many of the cocoa and commodity corporations were signatories, eager to dispel assumptions that the $26-billion cocoa industry violated basic human rights. But that is a different post, another long story — one that is actually improving due to awareness of Fair Trade and people like Harkins and Engel in the US.

In the meantime, I’m about to watch Depp’s Wonka with my sister whom we shall call Gummybird, so I have written this to get those thoughts out of my system. Hopefully I won’t be spoiling the movie for her with my insane jabbering.


Khadija Sharife

She likes to blog about politics, human rights and the environment in Africa, specifically relating to the nexus between conflict and exploitation of natural resources.

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