The Emperor's new quote

Andrew Donaldson writes on Mogoeng Mogoeng's Lord Macauley porkie


SO, what’s the difference between a teabag and Germany? A teabag stays longer in the cup. 

Dreadful, I know, but there’s been a lot of that sort of thing about, what with all the footie upsets from Russia.

When it comes to disappointments, though, little tops the unfortunate Lord Macaulay porkie Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng routinely trots out whenever he’s called on to share a few words with a nobbish audience.

He did so last weekend, when he delivered the keynote address at the South African National Editors Forum banquet, where the Nat Nakasa award for editorial integrity and courage in journalism was announced.

Mogoeng also used it in March, when he spoke at the University of Cape Town’s 2018 African Law School leadership conference, and before that in his closing remarks at the Cape Town congress of the Conference of the Constitutional Jurisdictions of Africa in April last year.

Given the voguish clamour for social cohesion, it is perhaps understandable why he values the “loaded words” of the venerable Thomas Babington Macaulay when, on February 2, 1835, he supposedly told the British parliament:

“I have travelled across the length and breadth of Africa and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief, such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage and therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Africans think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation.”

With that, Mogoeng was off, telling the Sanef banquet that Africa’s inequality did not “just happen” and that the wealth of the African people was destroyed by colonial powers to entrench inequality and unemployment.

“The very backbone of their being and success,” he said, “had to be broken. Otherwise, Africa would never have been as poor, run down and despised as it is. 

“Lord Macaulay said Africans had to be made what colonial powers wanted them to be — people of low self-esteem, a truly defeated people who believe that everything about them was inferior and everything English or foreign was best and superior.”

Actually, Lord Macaulay said no such thing.

Politicsweb’s Ratcatcher column this week pointed out the quote is bogus and that, in 1835, Africa was certainly not some Wakanda, let alone a country, but a continent “riven at the time by the indescribable horrors, and devastating effects, of the intra-African slave trade”.

Furthermore, 20 years would pass before David Livingstone became the first European to traverse central Africa, and then 30 more before the colonial powers carved up the continent for themselves at the 1884-1885 Congress of Berlin.

It gets better — or worse. The “Macaulay quote” is a well-known internet meme, one that reportedly dates back to 2002, and originally applied to India. In Mogoeng’s version, the words “India” and “Indians” have merely been replaced by “Africa” and “Africans”.

Then there’s the fact that Macauley, a Whig, did not address the British parliament at any time in 1835. He was in Calcutta then, an advisor to the governor general. He took up the post in 1834 and did not return to England until 1838.

The media’s apparent reluctance in alerting Mogoeng to this fraud has raised eyebrows here at the Mahogany Ridge. Perhaps it would be rude to do so; after all, Mogoeng did generously praise the press for the bravery with which they exposed wrongdoing in government. Or maybe they’re just scared of him.

Elsewhere, Anirban Mitra, an economist at the University of Kent, has written of the enduring popularity of “this shoddy bluff” and suggested that it refuses to die “probably because it is in sync with the average netizen’s misunderstanding of the Indian history”.

Ditto African history. 

Mitra is no Macaulay apologist and states his lordship’s beliefs were undoubtedly racist. However, he certainly wasn’t the “cultural-Nazi” portrayed in the hoax, which, Mitra notes, is “often used in debates on prime-time television”.

It was also used by Durban psychologist Devi Rajab for a Cape Times opinion piece last year in which she attacked the premier, Helen Zille, for her comments on colonialism.

All of which strengthens Mitra’s assertion that this forgery has “acquired legitimacy by the Goebbels way of repeating a lie”. 

And you can tell that to the judge.

This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.