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Podcast / March 31 2021

Reparations: Can we right historical wrongs?

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This is a Course Correction, a podcast from Doha Debates. I’m Nelufar Hedayat, and in season two, we’re focusing on polarization. In each episode, I’ll explore a topic that’s dividing us. I’ll talk to people to get multiple perspectives on an issue, and I’ll try to challenge myself to understand positions that aren’t necessarily comfortable for me. But before we get into all of that, let’s start today’s episode with one thing that we can all agree on: Interacting remotely is getting pretty old. 

NELUFAR: Your mic is off. Yeah. Can you, can you turn your camera? Yeah. No, it’s my internet connection that’s bad. Hold on. Hold on. 

OK, so, mic check, mic check. OK, I think we’re good. Glenda, introduce yourself.

GLENDA: Hi, my name is Glenda Caesar.

NELUFAR: Yes, Zoom calls can be annoying, especially today when my guest, Glenda, is in the U.K., just like me. In normal times, we’d be fumbling around in a studio together with a nice cup of tea and a biscuit. But this last year has been anything but normal. But despite these limitations, I feel an instant connection to Glenda. It may at first seem that on the surface, Glenda and I are nothing alike. But it turns out we have a lot in common: We’re both born in different countries. She’s from a small Caribbean island of Dominica. Me, I’m from Afghanistan. And we were both brought over at a young age and grew up in a very British way: learning to keep our heads down and our spirits high.

GLENDA: My dad was a tailor. My mum was a machinist. So any bits of material was always used to, to clothe us.

And we was always up to date in fashion because, like I said, they were in the rag trade. So, yeah, we were a happy family. I was always British, as far as I was concerned — once we moved to Hackney, I was a Hackney girl and a Cockney girl, so I knew nothing else.

NELUFAR: Glenda got a great British education, going through university and eventually landing a good government job in the National Health Service. But things weren’t always easy for Glenda. She was a young mother, but she had her family to support her, and the support of her country as well. That is until…

GLENDA: On the first of January 1998, my mother passed away in Dominica. And I think that’s when I realized I wasn’t British, because I wanted to get over there with her. And when I made an application for a British passport, they said to me, “You’re not British.” I was like, “Yeah, but I’ve been here all my life.” And they said no.

NELUFAR: What appeared to have been a clerical error was actually something much worse. Her country was now turning its back on her. And it wasn’t just Glenda. 


NELUFAR: Glenda is a member of what’s known as the Windrush generation. Caribbean people from former British colonies that were invited over to the U.K. between 1948 and 1971, most arriving on the ship HMT Empire Windrush, which is how they got their name. They’d been encouraged to come and help fill a labor shortage following World War II. They were lured by the promise of great jobs and the right to permanently stay in the country that would become their home.

But things changed when a shift in immigration law mandated official paperwork to prove citizenship and — get this — the Windrush generation faced deportation or other legal issues. This is precisely what happened to Glenda. Her mother didn’t bother to keep any paperwork. And some of those the government had were misplaced, deleted or shredded.

People. Deleted. Things began to spiral for Glenda. After learning she couldn’t travel to her mother’s funeral, things got even worse. And a quick note before we go any further, just a warning to my listeners: Some of the things Glenda is about to describe about her mental state may be difficult to listen to, and there is a reference to suicide in her story.

Glenda says she was denied unemployment benefits as well as health benefits. Her son was ostracized and felt as if his identity was stolen from him. At times, she wanted to end it all.

GLENDA: I just contemplated suicide and I thought, well, if I go, then it may be easier for him, because then the truth might come out. That’s what was going on in my head.

NELUFAR: But then in April of 2018, a reversal from the British government. Here’s the then-prime minister, Theresa May, speaking during a session of parliament:

I want to say — to apologize to them. And I want to say sorry to anyone who has been  caused — has confusion or anxiety felt as a result of this.

NELUFAR: But Glenda says those words weren’t enough. The British government needed to do more to right these wrongs, to make proper amends.

GLENDA: I’d love the government to come and apologize to me personally instead of saying it on television, because they all, they all knew about this. They all knew.

NELUFAR: The apologies were later followed by a compensation scheme established for the Windrush community. Though a step in the right direction, receiving funds proved complex and the delivery was slow. For many like Glenda, the compensation offered was far from adequate.

GLENDA: They’re trying to take the mickey out of us, they must think we’re peasants. And we’re really hungry and they’re just throwing breadcrumbs at us.

NELUFAR: Glenda is still waiting for a fair compensation offer, but she’s not sitting idly by. She’s part of the Windrush Action Network, an advocacy group that supports fellow victims of the Windrush scandal.


NELUFAR: So I thought Glenda’s story would be a good start to this episode. I’m looking at race, identity and grave historic injustices, and asking if the wounds and divisions they created can and should be healed with reparations. Glenda had her entire world turned upside down with the stroke of a pen, then a typewriter and a keyboard. She deserves recognition of the wrong done. She wants justice. 

GLENDA: Not asking for millions of pounds. No, no, no. I’m asking to be validated and put back to where I was, that’s what I’m asking for. Reparation at this time now is to ensure that the government pays everybody and validates every person of color who they’ve put in this position.

NELUFAR: Strictly speaking, a reparation is defined as “the making of amends for a wrong one has done by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged.” But admitting guilt and deciding what constitutes fair retribution has always been a sensitive issue. And it’s not just something that affects people living in the U.K., but all over the world. So what happens when, rather than being told you don’t belong to a country you migrated to, it’s your land that gets taken away by colonizers? 

This is precisely the question I wanted to ask for today’s challenging interview. For these interviews, my goal is to have a constructive conversation with someone who, at the outset, I don’t agree with. I’m going to ask frank questions. But what I ask for my guests, I’ll also be prepared to share in return, in terms of being open and honest. And for today, I’ve reached out to Masimba Musodza, who’s a native of Zimbabwe currently living in the U.K. He’s a science fiction author and a screenwriter, but also an outspoken critic of reparations for Black Zimbabweans as a way to make amends for Zimbabwe’s colonial era.

What’s that song by The Who, “Won’t Get Fooled Again”? You know the last line, “Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss.” That’s pretty much been the story of nearly all the African countries. Someone comes in and promises to do all these things. And then when he’s there, he says, “Well, in order to do all these things, I need to have all these powers, and I need to kill all my enemies,” and still nothing gets done.

NELUFAR: But to really understand how Masimba came to this conclusion, it’s good to get a reminder of the history of Zimbabwe.


NELUFAR: Beginning in the late 1880s, the southern African nation was known as the British colony of Rhodesia. It was named after Cecil Rhodes, a racist with a prominent mining empire who had come to extract minerals but was also interested in colonizing the land. He decided that the best way for the country to grow would be to encourage white settlers to come and build farms on colonized land. And that’s just what happened.

Pioneers who followed Rhodes here were lured with promises of gold and land. Their dream was to turn this part of Africa into a little England.

NELUFAR: Then, in 1930, something known as the Land Appropriations Act restricted Black ownership of land to certain areas of the country. White residents were offered large tracts of farms. This further widened the racial divide. It helped solidify the white colonizers as the ruling class. The game was rigged from the get-go. Now let’s skip ahead to the 1980s, to when Zimbabwe wins independence.

The Union Jack was lowered for the last time in Rhodesia to mark the end of British rule in Africa.

NELUFAR: Robert Mugabe, a Black Zimbabwean and a hard-line Marxist, became the leader and took power. He promised to return Zimbabwe back to Black Zimbabweans by putting them in government and redistributing land. He quickly undid Cecil Rhodes’ colonialist dream of creating a “little England.” At first, he instituted a law where any land sold by a white farmer would then get redistributed to a Black Zimbabwean. Zimbabwe’s cash-for-land program worked for a while, but once the program ran out of money, Mugabe decided on a different tactic. Instead of buying land back, it was repatriated and handed over to Black Zimbabweans — whether they were ready or not.

I don’t believe that the way that it is being done is fair at all. The government has taken us to court over the farm. We won the case, but they are still adamant that they’re going to throw us out.

NELUFAR: The situation is complex and painful to talk about, because it involves hardship and loss for both Black and white Zimbabweans. We often assume that when it comes to racial issues, everyone will take the side of their own race. So when you go against your own, you become an outlier. 

This is what happened to Masimba Musodza when he said out loud what he claims many in Zimbabwe believe in silence: That the country was worse off under Mugabe’s policies.

MASIMBA: Yes, on — in principle, it’s right to take the land back. But this is the thing: It’s — you’re basically — someone who didn’t own land is claiming land from someone who didn’t take it from him. Do you see where the problem is now?

NELUFAR: No, try me again, try me again. I’m really listening here.

MASIMBA: Take, for instance, the land reform program. This is the thing: A lot of the land in Zimbabwe — it wasn’t, it wasn’t grabbed. There was individual concessions, you know — could have some rich or — not even rich, you know — British trader, he turns up, and is bringing all these nice things from abroad. And the chief says, “OK, you can have a piece of land.” You know, he’s negotiated on his own. It’s as if there wasn’t a government involved. So if you look at that particular story, what right does a government minister have to come in and say, ”We’re taking that land and giving it back”? They don’t even give it back to its owner, they just give it back to a crony of theirs. So that’s not fair either, is it? 

NELUFAR: No, I don’t think it is. 

MASIMBA: Yeah, because, OK, how far back do we have to go when it comes to land ownership?

NELUFAR: Because here’s the thing: In that case, you’re just doing the exact same thing, but the colors are reversed. What you’re saying is —

MASIMBA: Exactly.

NELUFAR: “I’m going to take this land from a white person and give it to anybody who isn’t white,” because —

MASIMBA: Yeah. And then these are the consequences now. You’re taking a farm that’s well run, that’s bringing in money into the country. This is the thing: What the white farmers used to do for the country was, they grew the cash crops, which were sold, and brought in the foreign currency that the government needed for the things that we needed foreign currency for.

NELUFAR: This was my first taste of what is going to turn out to be quite a mind-changing conversation with Masimba. He was adding a nuance to the side of the argument I disagreed with. I was working hard to listen, to hear — not to reply.

NELUFAR: So let me ask you a very direct question. 


NELUFAR: I can come to you and agree with you and say, “Yes, replacing a white person with anybody who isn’t white isn’t the right thing to do,” especially when the costs were so egregious. You know, food shortages, hyperinflation, unimaginable disorganization, cronyism, corruption, all —

MASIMBA: And violence, there was a lot of violence.

NELUFAR: And violence! Murder and killing. But then answer me this: How do we right the wrongs of colonialism in a way that is equitable, in a way that there’s some, you know, restitution? How do we do reparation correctly?

MASIMBA: But that that depends on — can you quantify? I mean, take for instance, the Holocaust reparations. There was talks, you know, like Germany would give Israel. And a lot of the opposition to that, Jewish opposition, was based on the perception that this is a kind of payoff. You know, this is the equivalent of — this is something that used to happen in Zimbabwean society. I’m sure it happens in a lot of societies. That if you raped a young girl, all you had to do was pay the family some money, and then they wouldn’t report you and you wouldn’t go to jail. 


MASIMBA: One could argue and say, “Well, you know, she’s been raped. She can use the money for college, or to start a business, and she can fix her life.” That’s one way of looking at it. But another would be, well, basically, you’ve dishonored this girl and now you’re just paying her off.

NELUFAR: But there are those that I’ve spoken to who would say her pain, and the fact that she has been violated in the most extreme manner humanly possible, can’t be quantified in a sum. 

MASIMBA: Exactly. 

NELUFAR: Maybe, though, that money can go some ways into helping her realize a different future. And that’s the point of reparation. That’s the point. So the colonial crimes of Cecil Rhodes will never be washed out of the histories of Zimbabwe. But how do we do reparation in a way that’s equitable?

MASIMBA: Well, how do we, who do we do the reparations to? I mean, obviously, it’s shown that giving it to the government of Zimbabwe doesn’t actually do anything to the ordinary people.

NELUFAR: So then how do we do it right? Why don’t you tell me.

MASIMBA: This is the thing. Why should we do it? 

NELUFAR: Because it’s the right thing to do. 

MASIMBA: A lot of things are the right thing to do. But it’s the doing, the doing that just is so complicated and so convoluted, that — no, because you look at it and you say, look, stealing other people’s countries, at that time, that was considered quite normal. It was done. 

NELUFAR: It’s like no one wins. 

MASIMBA: No one wins. Exactly.

NELUFAR: Very recently, I think it’s three-point-something billion U.S. dollars was set aside in order to pay white farmers for the crimes done to them in Zimbabwe during the land redistribution. What do you make of that?

MASIMBA: I make of that as the government admitting that it was not a very clever move. Now they need to coax these white people to come back, because these people are creating an economy.

NELUFAR: You think that paying that is justifiable, but redistributing land isn’t justifiable. I’m just up in my head.

MASIMBA: I explained why it’s justifiable. It wasn’t the government saying, “We’re sorry.” It’s the government actually saying, “Look, we need you guys, because the country’s going down the toilet.”

You know, I know there’s this idea of always painting Black people as some kind of innocent victims and you know, in life, that’s — that’s not true at all. There’s a lot of things that Black people do. There’s a lot of things that are not helpful, that are actually quite destructive. And unfortunately the world where we live — and again, it’s not a discussion that people are allowed to have, which I don’t understand, if, if I was to delve into, you know, the cultural issues that I think have held the country back, probably, you know, that would see me banned for life, wouldn’t it?

NELUFAR: I wouldn’t cancel you, Masimba. I quite like talking to you, I —


NELUFAR: I — What? Why are you shocked by that?

MASIMBA: Well, because we live in an age where it’s easier to, you know, just shoot down a dissenting view. Like for me, being a Black person, it’s easy just to say, “Oh, you are a sellout.”

NELUFAR: People say that you?

MASIMBA: I’ve been, I’ve been banned in a lot of circles. Not exactly a favorite person for a lot of people, but… 

NELUFAR: Wow. Thank you for sharing that with me, I appreciate that a lot.

MASIMBA: Well, yeah… I’m glad you appreciate it because a lot of people don’t.

NELUFAR: No, I do.


NELUFAR: OK, I admit this whole situation in Zimbabwe is making me rethink my feelings on reparations, but of course, reparations are most often talked about in the context of the United States of America and the centuries-long struggle for racial equality, the great racial divide that still exists. At the end of 2020, the U.S. Congress revived a debate over whether to create a reparations commission to look at what can be done to atone for what’s been called “America’s original sin” of slavery.

We must answer the call of institutional racism. We have got to make sure that the social, economic, psychological, scientific and educational government-sanctioned institutional racism stops right now.

NELUFAR: Helping to lead the charge is Dr. Ron Daniels. Daniels has had a long career advocating for civil rights. He worked for years with the Reverend Jesse Jackson to bring attention to institutional racism in America. Among his many current titles, Dr. Daniels serves as the administrator for the National African American Reparations Commission.

NELUFAR: Can you outline for me why reparations is the just thing to pursue?

Well, simply because reparations is about repairing the damages that have been inflicted upon a group of people, and — Africans in America. And I say Africans in America, because we are of African origin, are the victims of the greatest holocaust in human history, where millions upon millions were snatched from the African continent and brought to the United States, enslaved, and never received compensation for that. Not only that, the wealth, really, of the United States of America in its early stages — the commercial industrial revolution — was on the backs of extracted free labor. So we’re talking about questions of spiritual destruction, physical destruction, cultural destruction, identity, generations of trauma. In addition to enslavement itself, there was a promise at one point of like some compensation, 40 acres and a mule and whatever. Ironically, it was the slave masters who were compensated for the loss of their property. Right? As opposed to the Africans who had built this country by their free labor. But it’s not just enslavement. Some people get the idea that it’s just — that’s big enough, but it’s all of the derivative post-emancipation, racially exclusionary policies.

For example, in this country, there was something called a Homestead Act. This Homestead Act provided that pioneers moving to the West could get free land to build on. We were excluded from that. We fought in the First World War, fought in the Second World War. Second World War, there was something called a GI bill. White GIs were able to use that to go get an education and build their families. We were denied that. Similarly, there was something called the Fair Housing Authority, which gave people an opportunity to build they home, which is the basis for wealth generation in the United States. We were denied that. So it is all of those policies where reparations is due.

Now, the reality is, you see it in the consequence of what has happened. So the wealth gap, this huge wealth gap.


RON: The wealth gap has really not budged, the loss of land over the years that Black people tilled and was stolen from them and taken away from them. So reparations is the ultimate policy. We see a similar debate going down in Australia now. They’re now beginning to talk about how to allocate literally billions of dollars in order to attempt to atone, if you will, for the tragedy of the dispossession of Indigenous people. And so we in the United States joined [MUMBLES].

Now, there have been other policies that have taken place. You know, we’ve gotten voting rights. We had to fight to get that. There’s now equity policies, which are good. Going forward, the question is, how do we prepare for the damages that were done historically? And that’s why reparations is the solution. Let me just finally end on this quote. We’re talking about a racialized capitalist system that was built on the back of free labor. The only way the United States of America can achieve its dream, its professed notion of a more perfect union, is to root out structural institutional racism. And so the actual enslavement of Africans, you know, was a part of embedding this notion of white supremacy and structural institutional racism in the very fabric of the society. Reparations will be a major step towards eradicating structural institutional racism.

NELUFAR: What are the limitations of reparations?

RON: Well, I don’t know that they’re — I mean, there is a limitation, the limitation is you can never, ever pay — ever. There’s no amount of money, no amount of land, no amount of anything that can pay for the loss of life of millions of people, or the damages, the absence of opportunity for generations. So that’s the limitation. But in terms of how we who are now living and future generations, there is no limit in the sense that it is a part of building a new kind of humanity. I mean, that’s the essence of what —

NELUFAR: “A part of building a new kind of humanity.” Please go on.

RON: Absolutely. I mean, because what we’re really addressing in many regards is the underdevelopment of the world, the northern nations who underdeveloped the southern nations, and who built their wealth off of them. It must atone. It must, in fact, reckon with its past. Reparations, as Professor Sir Hilary Beckles has put it, is the human rights issue of the 21st century. 

NELUFAR: Can you paint me a picture of the day after in the United States, when reparations have been agreed upon? 

RON: What we’re likely to see in its ultimate form is land, which has been allocated for African Americans for economic development, for the development of health systems and communications infrastructure and whatnot. But what you will also see are efforts to deal with the apportionment of political power in a way that makes sure that groups who historically were excluded are never excluded again. What I would envision is a much more democratic economy, one in which there are far less extremes of wealth and poverty, or if indeed there is poverty at all. I mean, that’s a relative term to some degree, but it is a place where there is an inclusive, multiracial, multiethnic society. That’s what we would envision for the future — much different than what we see now, where there are still, you know, not just Black people, but people of color, and then even working-class people in this country, who are oppressed. We want to end oppression of all human beings. 

And by — as you see, because what happens in American society because of racism, there’s a zero-sum game. There was this notion by people who are white that because Black people gain, that somehow they lose. On the contrary, it’s the other way around. Keeping Black lay people confined — really limits. It’s like the same thing with women, you know? I mean, keeping women confined really — it limits the growth of your society, the unleashing of women out of this patriarchy. And it’s not finished by any stretch of the imagination. It contributes to the growth and health of your society. So I would envision a society that is certainly not without problems, because we are human beings, but a society which is far richer in terms of its humanity and in terms of the ability of human beings to relate to each other and safe and sustainable communities.

NELUFAR: Reparations is something that is capturing the hearts and the will of communities in Europe, in Africa, in the Americas and all over the world. Can you give me examples of when reparations have worked? 

RON: Well, I guess — I guess the most the most notable one is the reparations that were awarded, and justifiably so, to the descendants of Jews who were victims of the, you know, this horrific Holocaust that took place under Nazi Germany, where some 6 million Jews, you know — ruthlessly liquidated. Their descendants were — there was an effort to make them whole. There was an effort to at least apologize, to acknowledge and to provide restitution. That has worked. It is still working. So that is a classic example. 

There are efforts underway that have been successful, but are still being developed in terms of Canada with the Aleuts. Now, though — that’s ongoing, even now. They are now adding to those. In the United States of America, one of the most shameful chapters that occurred was during World War II, when Japanese American citizens were rounded up and put in camps, I mean, which was a very racist act for fear that somehow their allegiance was more to Japan. And so one of the inspirations for H.R. 40, which is the bill that will, has been rewritten to provide reparations for proposals for African Americans, was inspired by Japanese reparations. So Japanese received — hundreds of them, if not thousands — were awarded compensation. 

So reparations is not an idea that has not been tried and has not also worked. It can work. But let me just say this: Even if there had never ever been a successful example, our job is to take that which seems improbable and make it possible. I mean, so it can be done and it will be done in these United States of America.

NELUFAR: I actually want to have a — tell you what I’ve learnt on this on this journey, doctor. I started off from a very, like TikTok-liberal perspective. You know, I was like, “Yeah, of course, reparations! Yeah, go on! Yeah, give people money!”

And now I speak to you, doctor, and I understand so much more about reparation. That reparation is not a single day or a single act or a single moment. It is a generational struggle to get it, and it’s a generational struggle to change with it. That it isn’t just about passing a bill, it is about correcting a course and making sure that the new one is equitable for all. This is what I’ve learnt: that it is not as simple as doing reparations, but accepting it into your heart and into your mind and into yourself. And that involves every citizen of a nation.

RON: Yeah, I think that’s correct, and that’s, that’s why at the end of the day, this journey is one that not only liberates the oppressed. At the end of the day, it also liberates the oppressor, where we can now interact as human beings on an equal level. And that’s been the great tragedy of American society, quite frankly. Back in the day, there used to be a phrase called “Black and white: Unite and fight.” Of course, I’m a, I’m a product of the Rainbow Coalition. So it’s about pulling that rainbow together, really to fight for a more equitable society. And it’s like Martin Luther King said, the moral arc of the universe is long. But it bends towards justice.

NELUFAR: Dr. Ron Daniels, thank you so much for talking to me.

RON: Well thank you. I really appreciate it.

NELUFAR: That was Dr. Ron Daniels, administrator for the National African American Reparations Commission. 

OK, if you would’ve asked the Nelufar from season one of Course Correction what she would tell you in her concluding thoughts, you’d get a flat answer: Nothing. Because she couldn’t have even had these conversations in this way. I wasn’t ready — not as a journalist, not even as a person. But I feel like in the past year, so much of what I consume and create has had to live in this highly toxic, polarized world that we’re living in, that I’ve had to change. We all do. The most shocking part of anything that I’ve learned in this episode wasn’t the horrible negligence of the British government or the brutality of Mugabe’s race-baiting or the poignant words of Dr. Daniels. It was this:

MASIMBA: A country like Zimbabwe, there are laws against talking about certain things. But here it’s just happening on its own. 


MASIMBA: Which is frightening because for me, I always believe that we shouldn’t be afraid of ideas. Ideas ought to be challenged.


NELUFAR: In this tiny moment, I got to see where collectively, we all are as people of Earth in 2020. It’s as though we believe that for others to be smart, to be listened to, to have a value, they have to agree with everything we believe. And that’s simply not true. Masimba and I have very, very different views. But by the end of that call, I think our respect and understanding for one another grew. I want — no, no, I need — more conversations like this, because when it comes to reparations, it feels like the bottom line is respect, not just expecting justice for a wrong that was done, but respecting that wrongs still exist, in inequalities that people face today.

It’s important that we not only hold ourselves accountable for our histories, but our presence. As we’ve seen, making amends for injustice isn’t always an easy solution as cutting a check. Sometimes you can make things worse, but it seems to me at least acknowledging the wrong is a good first step.

In the coming weeks, we’re going to tackle more issues that divide us, more that challenge our beliefs of what’s right and wrong and what policies are the best for society and best for ourselves and our families. It’s my hope that as you take this journey with us on the season, you too keep an open mind. 

I also hope that hearing my conversations with people I don’t necessarily agree with will encourage you to try and do the same, because the problems we as a world face today are enormous. And if we all hide in our own little bubbles, we’ll never get anywhere.


That’s our episode. What did you think? 


Tweet us at @DohaDebates, or me — I’m at @Nelufar and I always love hearing from you. If you like what you hear, write a review of the show. It really helps spread the word about what we’re trying to do.

Course Correction is written and produced by me, Nelufar Hedayat. The show is brought to you by Doha Debates, which is a production of Qatar Foundation. Our executive producers are Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta.

Editorial and production assistance comes from Foreign Policy with producers Sarah Kendal, Sofia Sanchez and Rosie Julin. The managing director of FP Studios is Rob Sachs. Join us for the next episode of Course Correction wherever you get your podcasts.