SLAVERY AND ITS LEGACY – North Africa

Despite guarantees of equality, black citizens still face barriers to equitable employment

Silvia Quattrini

Although each country in North Africa has its own unique context, similar patterns in terms of racial discrimination can be observed throughout the region, particularly when it comes to access to work. Observers see in the increased presence and visibility of sub-Saharan migrants, as well as the space created by the 2011 uprisings, the main drivers pushing countries such as Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia to reassess their relationships with their own black populations and with internalized concepts of ‘otherness’ when it comes to blackness and Africanity. Although sub-Saharan migrants also face severe challenges in terms of access to work in these countries, this case study focuses specifically on the experiences of black citizens. 

Governments do not collect official statistics on their black citizens (or any other minorities) in any North African country. Unofficial figures suggest that between 10 and 15 per cent of Tunisians and between 10 and 30 per cent of Algerians and Moroccans are black, and black people may amount to as much as one third of the population in Libya, although many have been stripped of their citizenship for political reasons, and it is not clear whether recent migrants are included in these estimates. What these countries have in common, despite their many differences, is the ongoing legacy of slavery and colonialism. However, while the debate around the latter is relatively open, the former remains taboo and limited to certain circles, mostly among activists for racial justice and equality. For them, this hidden history of slavery and servitude is what shapes the continued racism and exclusion that black populations in North Africa contend with today. With the trans-Saharan slave trade having lasted some 1,300 years, from the seventh to the twentieth centuries, North Africa not only contributed to the transit of slaves elsewhere but also relied on slavery internally for fieldwork, domestic work and concubinage. Although some black communities are indigenous to the region (such as Saharan communities in southern Algeria and Tuareg and Tebu in Libya), or had migrated to study in the region’s Islamic institutions, most black citizens are believed to be the descendants of slaves. Even though white people were also enslaved in the Ottoman period (although usually occupying prestigious positions), it is still black communities in North Africa that are most widely associated with slavery. 

Today, most black citizens in North Africa remain in a situation of social immobility, relegated to lowly occupations or, in the most extreme cases, to servitude and economic exploitation. Even after slavery was abolished, the wala system (similar to patronage) allowed for descendants of slaves to remain tied to their former masters: often, those ex-slaves added ‘abid’ (Arabic for ‘slave’) or other prefixes such as ’Atik’ (‘freed by’) to the latter’s name. Often undocumented, these black families occupied the lands of the lighter-skinned ‘white’ elite, where they either worked for free or would still be required to do free housework for the previous owners. Hamdane Dali – a black Tunisian previously known as Atik Dali, before he successfully sued, with the help of MRG and Mnemty, to become the first person in the region to change his surname – described the exploitation that khammes (agricultural workers) typically faced. ‘Before, it was only the black people who had to work the land for free or just in exchange for the crop; the “free” people did not work, they could exploit us as they wanted.’ 

This hidden history of slavery and servitude is what shapes the continued racism and exclusion that black populations in North Africa contend with today.

Similar cases of unpaid (or poorly paid) work can be found in the domestic sector. Another role often associated with black populations is that of entertainers and performers. For instance, in southern Tunisia, playing music to celebrate weddings and ceremonies has always been considered as ‘black’ work. While offering monetary compensation as well as a sense of honour, prestige and pride for skills that have been transmitted for generations, the segregation of this work also strengthens social categories of division between the ‘white’ people who pay for the service and the black people who provide it. 

To this day, access to socio-economic opportunities remains limited to certain sub-groups, mainly living in the bigger cities. Those who have overcome the significant barriers to education to succeed in their studies often find themselves confronted with direct or indirect racism at job interviews. With a few exceptions, black people remain excluded from key positions in government and public services, are largely invisible in the media and are severely underrepresented in other positions that may be perceived as prestigious, such as lawyers, judges and doctors. 

This has partially improved since the 2011 uprisings thanks to the efforts of civil society organizations and black activists who have been claiming their rightful place in the society. A law criminalizing racial discrimination was finally passed in Tunisia in October 2018 (organic law no.50-2018) thanks to the advocacy of several human rights groups, including Mnemty. Elsewhere in the region, countries are still catching up. In Algeria, although a Law on Preventing and Combating Discrimination and Hate Speech was passed in April 2020, the government has been severely criticized by human rights groups for seemingly aiming to control public speech rather than fight any form of discrimination. In Morocco, a draft law against racial discrimination was presented in 2014 by a political party and re-launched in 2022, but at the time of writing it has yet to see the light. Libya also does not have a law criminalizing racial discrimination, although equality is in theory guaranteed by its Constitution. 

Despite the fact that the right to equality is formally enshrined in law, and racial discrimination has even been directly criminalized in some instances, in practice it remains a widespread societal issue across North Africa. Even when clear legal protections are in place, it is hard to bring cases of indirect discrimination to court or to prove the endemic nature of racial discrimination when it comes to equal opportunities in access to work. What is needed are positive measures that would ensure real equal socio-economic opportunities, as well as human rights education to eradicate conscious and unconscious societal racism, so that black citizens can finally enjoy the same job opportunities as their fellow citizens.

Photo: Hamdane Dali and his daughter Hedia, Djerba, Tunisia. Credit: Slim Kacem / Roots