Wednesday, November 16, 2011



On November 16, 1972 after 40 years of torture for a group of African Americans in Alabama, the US government brought a halt to the infamous syphilis experiment. This inhumane experiment using African American men, women and children as guinea pigs began in 1932 in Macon County, Alabama. The men involved thought they were receiving free health care from the US government instead they were treated as if they were laboratory animals. Some 600 African American farm workers and tenant farmers from Macon County, Alabama and their families were used in the Public Health Service syphilis study. For participating in the study, the men were given free medical care (actually kept under medical surveillance,) free meals on the days they met with the medical staff members of the study and burial insurance of up to 50 dollars each. However the wives and partners of these men also contracted the disease and many of their children were born with congenital syphilis. Children born with congenital syphilis suffer brain damage, blindness, deafness and several deformities. The families were never told they had syphilis, nor were they ever treated for it. In the 1940s the medical personnel involved in this horrific violation of human rights were well aware that penicillin was an effective cure for syphilis. By 1947 penicillin had become standard treatment for syphilis and was available to the medical staff involved with the study but penicillin was never offered to any of the men being “studied.” According to the Centers for Disease Control, the men were told they were being treated for "bad blood," a local term used to describe several illnesses, including anemia and fatigue. Even when the victims died of the disease, the families were not made aware of the cause. If these families had been white they would not have been victimised by such an experiment because the law in Alabama at the time required that physicians provide proper care for patients with communicable diseases. In 1927 the Alabama Legislature enacted a venereal disease law which stated in part: “The county health officer shall require persons infected with venereal disease to report for treatment to a reputable physician and continue treatment until such disease, in the judgement of the attending physician is no longer communicable” Not only did the architects of this study (Surgeon General Hugh Cumming and assistant surgeons general Taliaferro Clark and Raymond Aloysius Vonderlehr) withhold treatment from the unfortunate victims of the study they also prevented them from getting treatment elsewhere. In 1942 Vonderlehr was informed that some of the men were being called for medical examination prior to drafting into the Armed Forces and would receive treatment to cure them of syphilis. He ensured that they were excluded from the draft and that they did not receive treatment. In explaining why Macon County was chosen as the site for the experiment Taliaferro Clark wrote that the “rather low intelligence of the Negro population and the depressed economic conditions” made Macon County “a natural laboratory; a ready-made situation.”

On July 23rd 1973, eight months after the study ended, a $1.8 billion class action suit was filed by civil rights lawyer Fred Gray who demanded $3 million in damages for each survivor and the heirs of those deceased. In December 1974 an out of court settlement was reached. The government agreed to pay $10 million, where each survivor received $37,500 in damages and the heirs of the deceased received $15,000. In 1974 two years after the government was forced to end the study Congress passed the National Research Act and created a commission to study and write regulations governing studies involving human participants.

It took another 23 years for the victims to receive acknowledgement from the government that a wrong had been done. On May 16, 1997, President Bill Clinton formally apologized at the White House during a ceremony which 5 of the remaining 8 survivors attended. Clinton’s apology included acknowledgement that the study was racist: "What was done cannot be undone. But we can end the silence. We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye and finally say on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful, and I am sorry ... To our African American citizens, I am sorry that your federal government orchestrated a study so clearly racist." In his 1993 published book Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment James H. Jones wrote: “As a symbol of racism and medical malfeasance, the Tuskegee Study may never move the nation to action, but it can change the way Americans view illness. Hidden within the anger and anguish of those who decry the experiment is a plea for government authorities and medical officials to hear the fears of people whose faith has been damaged, to deal with their concerns directly, and to acknowledge the link between public health and community trust. Government Authorities and medical officials must strive to cleanse medicine of social infection by eliminating any type of racial or moral stereotypes of people or their illnesses. They must seek to build a health system that will make adequate health care available to all Americans. Anything less will leave some groups at risk, as it did the subjects of the Tuskegee Study”

Unfortunately, the Alabama experiment using African Americans as guinea pigs is just one of such cases. The story of Henrietta Lacks an African American woman whose cells have been used since 1951 is a case in point. Lacks was 31 years old when she was diagnosed with cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. Without her knowledge or permission medical staff took tissue from her body and used the tissue in various experiments. Although over the years the cells and tissue from this woman’s body have been used in countless experiments and medical research leading to groundbreaking medical advances (including polio vaccine and genetic mapping) and has led to fame/recognition for some and wealth for others, her descendants have lived in poverty and could barely afford medical coverage. In 2010 the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was published by Rebecca Skloot who is described by one reviewer as: “a young white, idealistic journalist with no connection to the Lackses apart from a fascination in the story instilled by a middle-school biology teacher, sought to right the wrongs of the past by telling the full story.”

In her 2006 published book Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present African American professor Harriet A. Washington has documented many of the horrendous experiments done by white medical personnel (including government agencies) who have used African Americans as guinea pigs. The Tuskegee experiment which is the most publicized did not bring an end to the practice. Washington documents in her book that Columbia University between 1992 and 1997 conducted research using African American boys from 6 to 10 years old to establish a link between genetics and violence. The 126 boys from New York City were given the drug fenfluramine (reported to cause heart valve disease) An article published in the New York Times dated April 15, 1998 quotes Vera Sharav, the director of the New York patient advocacy group Citizens for Responsible Care in Psychiatry and Research: ''What value does the President's apology for Tuskegee have when there are no safeguards to prevent such abuses now? These racist and morally offensive studies put minority children at risk of harm in order to prove they are generally predisposed to be violent in the future.”

The experience of African Americans used as guinea pigs in medical experiments and the subsequent exposure has served to change laws but people who live in poverty, especially racialised people need to be vigilant.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


King Mzilikazi Khumalo, founder of the Matabele Kingdom (Ndebele) was laid to rest in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe on November 4, 1868. Bulawayo was the capital of the Ndebele Kingdom. Mzilikazi established the Ndebele nation in the southwestern part of the Zimbabwean plateau in 1839-1840. Around 1821 Mzilikazi, who had been a leader of his people in Zululand, had a disagreement with the Zulu king, Shaka, when, according to Glen Lyndon Dodds in his 1998 book, The Zulus and Matabele: Warrior Nations, Mzilikazi declared to a group of King Shaka's messengers: "Messengers take these words to Shaka; say that Mzilikazi has no king. In peace he will meet Shaka as a brother, and in war he will find in him an enemy whom he cannot and will not despise. Depart! And tell your king it rests with him whether it be peace or war." Naturally, after sending those fighting words to the great Zulu king, Mzilikazi and his people left the area now known as South Africa and, crossing the uKhahlamba mountains (later named Drakensberg by Europeans), Mzilikazi and his people settled in the interior. Shaka and his warriors pursued and there were battles between the Matebele and the Zulu. However, Mzilikazi and his initial group had gathered strength and numbers as they travelled. Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni, author of the 2009 book, Ndebele nation: reflections on hegemony, memory and historiography, writes: "The Ndebele were a formidable nation in the nineteenth century, with unique institutions of governance, distinct political ideologies, and a worldview that was shaped by their specific historical experiences. The Ndebele nation was a multinational one comprised of Nguni, Sotho, Tswana, Kalanga, Shona, Venda and Tonga ethnic groups. The national language was IsiNdebele. Its founding father was Mzilikazi Khumalo, a charismatic leader and a competent nation-builder." This new Ndebele nation was able to withstand the Zulu attacks, however, they were pushed out of the area when they were attacked by the Dutch Boers on their "Great Trek" to occupy areas in southern Africa. The attacks by the Europeans on one hand and the Zulu on the other, helped to push Mzilikazi and his people across the Limpopo River to settle in Zimbabwe.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni continues: "The migration and eventual settlement of the Ndebele in Zimbabwe is also part of the historical drama that became intertwined with another dramatic event of the migration of the Boers from Cape Colony into the interior in what is generally referred to as the Great Trek, which began in 1835. It was military clashes with the Boers that forced Mzilikazi and his followers to migrate across the Limpopo River into Zimbabwe." Even in Zimbabwe, the Ndebele were not safe from the covetous Europeans bent on occupying African land. Where, in the first Ndebele settlement the European interlopers had been the Dutch, the Ndebele were confronted with British greed in Zimbabwe.

On November 4, 1893, exactly 25 years after November 4, 1868 when Mzilikazi was laid to rest, the British settlers gained possession of Bulawayo. This was set in motion when on November 14, 1889 the British monarch, Victoria, approved a "Royal Charter" creating the British South Africa Company (BSAC.) This "Royal Charter", in the eyes of the British, gave the BSAC and Cecil Rhodes (in whose name the charter was granted) carte blanche and legitimacy to exploit Africans and their land. Rhodes and his partners claimed a monopoly of all the metals and minerals in the Ndebele Kingdom and the right for their mining companies to exploit the land. The Ndebele either had to accept this state of affairs or fight to protect themselves from the European hordes that descended on them. This led to what has become known as the first Matabele War.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni sums this up in these words: "In the end, the British imperialists, together with their local agents like Cecil John Rhodes, Charles Rudd, John Smith Moffat, Charles Helm and many others, reached a consensus to use open violence on the Ndebele state so as to destroy it and replace it with a colonial state amenable to Western interests and the Christian religion. The invasion, conquest and colonization of the Ndebele became a tale of unprovoked violence and looting of Ndebele material wealth, particularly cattle, in the period 1893 to 1897. The Ndebele warriors did not go quietly, but they were no match for the brutal, ruthless British armed with weapons that outmatched theirs. The Maxim machine gun was used for the first time by the British in this unequal war with the Matabele people. The Maxim gun was the first self-powered machine gun invented by Hiram Maxim in 1884 and has the dubious distinction of being recognized as "the weapon most associated with (British) imperial conquest." With this weapon giving them a distinct advantage over the Ndebele warriors, it is not surprising that the British, on November 4, 1893, were able to capture Bulawayo. Although the British evicted the Ndebele from their land which was then occupied by White people, the Ndebele were not defeated.

In 1896 the Matabele rose up against the British who coveted everything owned by the nation. The history of any African nation/people, when told from the point of view of White people, in many cases contains rumours and innuendo, so when reading it is important to be cognizant of the bias of the writer. Some writers label the second Matabele War "The Matabele Rebellion." According to author Dodds, Cecil Rhodes thought the Ndebele were happy with their lot (being evicted from their land which was given to White settlers). How delusional was Rhodes? Maybe he was just blinded by his perceived superiority! Dodds also writes: "In June 1895, all Matabele cattle and their offspring were officially declared to belong to the company. Then, in November, the Land Commission's chairman, Judge Joseph Vincent, declared that according to the Native Department, the number of cattle still in African possession was 74,500, far short of the number estimated as belonging to the Matabele prior to the war (according to one reckoning as much as 280,000.) Ndlovu-Gatsheni writes of the British during that period: "They arrogantly alienated Ndebele land, appropriated Ndebele property such as cattle, abused the Ndebele as tenants and labourers, were ruthless, brutal and unfeeling, rude and insensitive, and enthusiastically resorted to violence whenever the Ndebele raised their heads. It is not surprising that the Matabele rose up in 1896; their land and their cattle had been stolen, they were forced to work for and pay taxes to the thieves, how much more insult piled on top of injury could they take? However, as Ndlovu-Gatsheni added: "Even the occupation of Bulawayo by the Whites did not mean the total defeat of the Ndebele."

The history of the Ndebele and Matabeleland is part of the history of the African struggle against European domination. African writers have documented the brutality of European colonization of Africans from the African point of view. In expressing that point of view Ndlovu-Gatsheni argues: "The Ndebele state became a direct victim of imperial violence and destruction in the period 1893-1896 as the advocates of Victorian aggrandizement beat the colonial drums to a crescendo, arguing that the independent Ndebele state was a barrier to the advances of 'Civilization, Commerce and Christianity'. The violent conduct of the colonial conquest itself made it abundantly clear how hypocritical these ideas were, as the ruthless destruction of human life left a legacy of bloodshed rather than peaceful western civilization." We still see that mindset exhibited in the 21st century with the greed of the western powers for oil in lands held by racialized people.


Two wrongs never make a right. Nor can you right a wrong by committing another wrong. You may be able to justify your actions politically or socially, but spiritually you will be held accountable for what you do - why you do it doesn’t count. The pendulum of life swings both ways and brings rewards at both ends of the spectrum. If you use your mind, time and energy to cause harm to anyone, the pendulum will sooner or later move in your direction. If your slate is clean, when it swings toward you, you will not have to worry about being knocked down.

From Acts of Faith: Daily Meditations for People of Color by Iyanla Vanzant published 1993

“We came, we saw, he died” are the words that American Secretary of State Hilary Clinton reportedly chuckled when she was informed that Muammar Qaddafi had been killed by his captors. The reports and images coming out of Libya of Qaddafi’s last minutes of life are no laughing matter. According to an article in the South African newspaper Mail and Guardian, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was moved to comment on Clinton’s behavior; saying that she could not be proud of calling for Gaddafi's killing. "Nor is killing a human being something to be celebrated." The Archbishop condemned the killing in this reported statement: "The manner of the killing of Muammar Gaddafi on Thursday totally detracts from the noble enterprise of instilling a culture of human rights and democracy in Libya,... the people of Libya should have demonstrated better values than those of their erstwhile oppressor." The Archbishop probably took part of his statement from Proverbs chapter 3, verse 31: Do not envy the oppressor, and choose none of his ways.

Gaddafi who was killed on Thursday, October 20 after being captured by a group of his compatriots was killed after a brutal beating that was proudly recorded and distributed online. Then came the dreadful, sickening images of his bloodied, half-naked body on display under lurid headlines such as: Moammar Gadhafi's body is stored in commercial freezer at shopping center as it awaits burial.

There are several articles in newspapers and posted on the internet about the murder of Gaddafi and some of his children. The articles are almost gleeful in reporting that a group of men captured, brutalized and killed another human being. Admittedly, many considered him a dictator, a tyrant and various other unsavoury names but he should have at least been given an opportunity to defend himself in a court of law. Maybe he did not give the same opportunity to some of his enemies but two wrongs do not make a right. Killing the man makes his killers just like him. They have committed the same acts of which he was accused. Gaddafi had his detractors and his supporters. Some considered the man a Pan-Africanist while others thought his plan was to eventually ensure the Arabization of the African continent. This is not to be confused with the colonization that the Europeans visited upon the continent where they eventually left and returned to Europe, but more like the European colonization and occupation of America, Australia, Canada and New Zealand where they in essence now own those countries.

Do the western powers that covet Libya’s oil really think that they will be able to easily control the group that paraded a wounded Gaddafi through the streets as they gleefully brutalized him? Do these western powers that turned a blind eye to the brutalization and murder of indigenous Africans in Libya ( in spite of human rights groups like Amnesty International raising the alarm really care about more than getting their greedy hands on the oil in Libya? In spite of the fact that these so-called rebels labeled Africans “mercenaries” and "immigrants/migrants," the fact remains that Libya is on the African continent and Africans lived there for millennia before the first Arab set foot on the African continent. In the fight between the Arab Gaddafi forces and the Arab National Transitional Council (NTC) it seems that the world has lost sight of the fact that this is an African country and Africans not involved in the conflict have been brutalized and killed because of the colour of their skin. In an article published in The Guardian on Tuesday, August 30, 2011, Richard Seymour wrote: A rebel slogan painted in Misrata during the fighting salutes "the brigade for purging slaves, black skin". A consequence of this racism has been mass arrests of black men, and gruesome killings – just some of the various atrocities that human rights organisations blame rebels for.

This is what the world is celebrating as a victory, liberation, democracy? There are various anonymous quotes like this one from a Toronto Sun article published Friday, October 21: Another NTC official, speaking to Reuters anonymously, gave another account of Gadhafi’s violent death: “They (NTC fighters) beat him very harshly and then they killed him. This is a war.” If the western powers think that this bunch will welcome them with open arms and open the oil wells for their pleasure and plunder they had better think again. The European and North American media for the most part has written about the downfall of Gaddafi as the removal of a tyrant. There are others who see this as a removal of Gaddafi to ensure that the oil companies from countries such as the USA, Britain, France and Italy could control Libya’s oil.

Gaddafi has been accused of atrocities, so have several American and European leaders. Gaddafi was once "big friends" with some American and European leaders. Even former American President George W. Bush, the “anti-terrorist activist” and seeker of non-existent weapons of mass destruction embraced Gaddafi as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle in an article with the headline: Bush embraces Libyan terrorist Gadhafi, and all is forgiven. (Did someone say, “Oil”?). Then Boris Johnson mayor of London wrote in an article entitled “Gaddafi: first we fete them, then we bomb them – but that’s politics” partly about former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s sycophantic relationship with Gaddafi, published in The Telegraph on September 5, 2011: “It was only a few years ago that Tony Blair himself came out to his tent, almost snogged the Mad Dog, and proclaimed a new era of cooperation between Britain and Libya.” At the time these men could not seem to get enough of Gaddafi so how did it go from being his Best Friends Forever (BFF) to being his mortal enemies? The hypocrisy of all the players in this farce (all with their own agendas) is astounding. Now they are hunting his children and grandchildren (any guesses why?)

Whatever wrong Gaddafi has been accused of, the brutality to which he was subjected when he was captured and the eventual brutal and undignified end to his life was wrong. Those involved in taking the life of Gaddafi should heed the words of Iyanla Vanzant: “Two wrongs never make a right. Nor can you right a wrong by committing another wrong. You may be able to justify your actions politically or socially, but spiritually you will be held accountable for what you do - why you do it doesn’t count.”