Opinionista Xhanti Payi 20 March 2017

Africa needs to define its own postcolonial civilisation

We shouldn’t be surprised that we have Helen Zille types to troll us about colonial gifts to civilisation. We have done demonstrably little to define a postcolonial civilisation worthy of its characterisation.

Helen Zille, a shining star in South Africa’s liberal society, and a pioneer for the chattering classes, reminded us why freedom-loving Africans, and South Africans in particular, have their work cut out for them. When she charged out into the flammable ground of African worth, Zille dragged steel machetes sure to spark a blaze and to cut deep into our collective ego.

Certainly, it really isn’t that she didn’t know that she would. The issue is more about that she succeeded in such a dramatic way to distract us from important conversations. More important, if her ilk is to hand us any gift, it is that she may have inadvertently reminded us of the work we must do to build a civilisation quite far from what she thinks we must hold dear.

Why are we bothered that Zille believes that Africa is better for colonisation? What is it about her view that is so significant that it is so evidently wounding? The answer is simple. It is that we believe it. But more than that, it is that we want to engage her on that very petty ground as if her notions of the past and present were truly legitimate.

Indeed, in her latest venture into social media, the former leader of the official opposition sought to remind us of the advances we enjoy as a result of colonialism. She attributed the “transition into specialised healthcare and medication” to colonial influence. In her view, it was dishonest to disagree with the notion that even our independent judiciary was bequeathed to us by hundreds of years of oppressive and murderous rule. Instead of drinking from polluted rivers, she insists, we owe our access to piped water to the legacy of subjugation. What a thing, given this civilisation’s tension with environmental sustainability.

Moments after these scurrilous claims, social media had taken the bait, and our outrage was total. And by the day’s end, we were counting African achievement in the cause to prove African worth and civilisation.

But what is truth and what is fiction? Statistics tell us that the “specialised healthcare and medication” Zille speaks of isn’t even available to most Africans. It is the preserve of the rich, and mostly white. Given this, what kind of colonial civilisation is free Africa competing with? Why is it that we are not preoccupied with a better and more inclusive civilisation?

We all know that the most defining feature of colonialism and apartheid is exclusion. It is thus not surprising that the proud advances of colonialism are just as defined by exclusion. Indeed, Africa’s majority participation in the medical advances peddled by Zille are as test subjects.

Dr Marcia Angell, former editor of the pre-eminent New England Journal of Medicine and professor at the prestigious Harvard University, wrote about this phenomenon in a 2015 article titled Medical Research: The Dangers To Human Subjects. “In 1994,” Angell wrote, “research showed that administering an intensive regimen of zidovudine (also called AZT) could prevent pregnant women with HIV from transmitting the infection to their offspring; that regimen quickly became used throughout the US and other developed countries. But there was interest in knowing whether a less intensive (and cheaper) regimen of zidovudine would have the same effect, and some reason to believe it might. So the NIH and CDC sponsored a series of clinical trials in developing countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, of a less intensive regimen.

“But instead of comparing it with the intensive regimen, these trials employed placebos in the control groups. The researchers could have provided the intensive regimen to the control groups, but they believed they would get faster results by using placebos. Yet they knew that by using placebos instead of a known effective treatment, roughly one in six newborns in the control groups would develop HIV infection that could easily have been prevented. (The rate of transmission in untreated women was already fairly well established.) Moreover, the research would have been prohibited in the United States and Europe.”

This is the nature and brand of medical advance Zille brags about, and what Africa seeks to compete with. Something is wrong.

Well considered, the job of Africans is not to show that Africa too has science equal to this. It is something very different. Africans must get on with the business of creating a different kind of civilisation – a humane and accessible civilisation which benefits all of humanity. This is not just in the field of science, but everywhere where humanity is served, including politics.

Africans are often lectured on democracy, and told of how colonialists introduced democracy to Africa. But this is patently false. In Africa, as writer Chinua Achebe once put it:

“The colonial regime itself was not a democratic system. It was the most extreme form of totalitarianism. The colonial governor was not responsible to anyone in the territory. He might be responsible to a minister in Paris or London. But he certainly was not responsible to the people on the ground. And so there was no model of democracy.”

This means Africans under colonial rule had no experience or practice of democracy. So it is absolutely fallacious that the colonial system could have bestowed on Africa democracy, the rule of law or constitutionalism. The narrative of a fruitful colony is a spectacular fraud.

What this all means is that Africans, far from proving or listing their collection of equal achievements to colonialism, must chart a new path.

Zille’s notion of the world built on that bereft argument that only one civilisation is of any value, and it is the colonial civilisation because it has blood pressure machines. But we know that the majority of Africans can’t even access these machines. Of course, no reasonable person can argue that we should discard penicillin, for example. But we must recognise that given colonialism’s brutal exclusion and silencing of African potential, many inventions, including improvements on penicillin, were thwarted. We thus cannot be lucky, as humanity as a whole, that colonialism happened.

As we are now seeing, whether in politics, sports, science, culture, and indeed any field of human endeavour, freedom is unleashing exciting advances. Our preoccupation shouldn’t be to count Africa’s achievements before colonialism, but to focus on her contribution towards an improved and more inclusive civilisation. We can only do this when we value and defend freedom, which is the bedrock of human potential and advance, and which colonialism so limited. DM


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