It’s no secret. I love South Africa and its peoples.

BBC Presenter, Michael Buerk
BBC Presenter, Michael Buerk

My early interest sharpened when news reports showed the townships exploding in revolt against apartheid during the 1980s, and as reporters peeled back the layers of lies that veiled a racist system that held so many parallels with the Canada I knew. I was impressed by reporters who went to South Africa at great risk to cover these stories. In print, one was Michael Valpy from Canada. From TV, Michael Buerk of the BBC. He let the camera do the talking; he filled in the blanks.

Buerk recently created buzz. On Moral Maze, his BBC radio program, Buerk called Indigenous peoples in western New Guinea “primitive,” “Stone Age,” and “savage.” The western part of the huge island is under Indonesian rule, while the eastern half is independent Papua New Guinea. Buerk said little was known about some of the Indigenous peoples in remote areas of this huge island because they were cannibals who killed outsiders on contact.

Buerk was being a jerk. He didn’t know what he was talking about. He was spewing old fairy tales that have existed for centuries and persist as convenient and even useful stereotypes to advance or maintain colonialism.

I find it interesting that Buerk must have realized that he was in the midst of a huge continent full of Indigenous peoples when he was in Africa. It certainly impressed me immediately. But I was also puzzled by the schizo roles of the English colonizers in planting apartheid in South Africa, then exploiting and profiting from apartheid even while Buerk was there and the townships were exploding. Yet Englishmen were also instrumental in dismantling apartheid.

It was – and is – this split personality in the English character about the rights of Indigenous peoples around the world that fascinates; the way so many cling to the myth that Indigenous peoples benefitted from their particular brand of colonialism, while some others are most active in defending Indigenous rights.

Flip sides: you have Buerk and his outdated but still common view of Indigenous peoples in western New Guinea; and Stephen Corry of Survival International, a group that promotes the rights of Indigenous peoples around the world.

What’s all the fuss about? Does calling tribal people “primitive”, or even “Stone Age” or “savage”, really matter? Isn’t this just another example of political correctness gone mad? In fact, it has nothing to do with political correctness at all. The reason the use of terms like “primitive” to describe tribal peoples is so important, and so dangerous, is because they lead directly to the destruction of tribal peoples.

Governments, corporations and assorted others regularly exploit the idea that tribal peoples are “primitive” in order to remove them from their land or open it up to outsiders, thereby freeing up access to the natural resources on or under their land. Often this is done in the name of “development”, justified on the grounds that the so-called “primitive” tribes are backward and out-of-date and need to “catch up” with the rest of us. But what are the consequences? For the tribes, they are almost always catastrophic: cultural and spiritual alienation, poverty, alcoholism, disease and death

Why does this incident fascinate? Because, for me, it raises questions about Canada, a country with a global reputation for respecting human rights, yet a country that is criticized by the United Nations and people such as former Archbishop Desmond Tutu for its system of internal colonialism and treatment of Indigenous peoples. In other words, a country that like Britain suffers from similar collective schizophrenia and selective amnesia.

Here’s a link to Corry’s organization:
Survival International

And links to Corry’s statement (excerpted here), followed by other stories:

The Independent (UK) – Feb 27, 2009
Stephen Corry: Don’t call these people primitive
Michael Buerk’s choice of words could not have been more unfortunate

The Telegraph (UK) – ‎Feb 25, 2009‎
Michael Buerk creates moral dilemma

Radio New Zealand (Aotearoa) International – ‎Feb 25, 2009‎
BBC Papua report labelled dangerously wrong