Helen Zille’s infamous tweet and follow-up article in the Daily Maverick about Singapore has exposed one unfortunate fact about her – that she’s not a smart politician. The reason why governments spend money on spin-doctors is because communication, or messaging, is a specialised art that involves not only the content part but also its delivery mechanism. She should have known that sending a tweet to sing praises about colonialism is a very “bad” idea because she, herself, is a beneficiary of the colonial system.
She should also know as a politician that the “good” and “bad” of things always go together with the “ugly” – and that the “ugly” in this case is that she has offended all African people, and our diaspora who were forcefully removed from this continent for enslavement in the “New World” where they created, through their blood and sweat, the “good” legacy of slavery (Zille’s roads and pipelines).
We cannot fully understand Africa’s present conditions without references to our colonial experience and its enduring legacy. In most of Africa, Zille’s roads and pipelines were all headed to the ports – not for infrastructure development of the country – because their core intention was not development but for plundering and looting. In many cases, these roads and pipelines were built with forced labour, and at a heavy human cost. History has countless examples of how a whole people would be forcefully cleared by colonialists through outright murder and genocide, to create space for building a railway line or road.
I expected Zille to understand that her “good” colonialism was not done for a good cause, but was rather a result of the internal logic of the colonial system itself, at the core of which was looting, exploitation and oppression. The colonisers needed roads to penetrate the hinterland of their colonial possessions. The ports were not intended as a “good” legacy, but for the shipment of the loot to the metropoles for investment in development. The north-south divide of today is directly and causally traceable to how slavery and colonialism underdeveloped our part of the world, while leading to industrialisation and opulence in the north.
South Africa’s “two nations” are the structural legacy of settler colonialism whereby our oppressors sought to create a better world for themselves, living side by side with the oppressed who were kept and restricted to the townships and the impoverished rural periphery. In most of Africa where the oppressor was resident far away in the metropolis, this painful legacy is visibly captured in the relative absence of Zille’s roads and pipelines on the continent.
Zille quotes Nelson Mandela’s reference to missionary education to support her case. What she fails to understand is that the white missionary education system was not intended to serve the “natives” in any positive way, but for winning the hearts and minds of the colonised. The missionaries were the “soft power” arm of the colonial system. However, their graduates like Mandela turned the game around and used their missionary education training to fight the system that their teachers served. Here, credit should go to African agency and resistance, and not to the colonial system like Zille wants us to do.
Thanks to her tweet, Zille has earned for herself platinum membership to a club of “New Colonialists” who spend their time reminiscing about the good old days of colonialism and how this system could help solve today’s problems. The New Colonialists, many of them found in the big, foreign affairs offices in some Western capitals, are the chief advocates and architects of “regime change” in our part of the world. They believe that our world has too many “collapsed ” or “failed states” which are a breeding ground for global terrorism, and that the solution to this is re-colonisation. This doctrine was tried with spectacular failure in Iraq, but this has not dented the New Colonialists’ faith in their belief that the world was a better and safer place during the colonial era.
I am afraid that the far right that is in such high spirits in the West could see in Zille a potential recruit who could excel in their commissariat department. Zille can’t help it! She just can’t forget she’s white; or as the refrain goes in her Daily Maverick article – “as a white person”. She seems to be subconsciously trapped in her whiteness – that there’s something special or superior about it.
She seems to be one of those people who, when asked to write the history of human civilisation, begin in Greece, then Rome, next the European Renaissance, and so on. The world according to such people revolves around the West, around white people.
She claims that the separation of powers and the audi alteram partem legal practice are a European creation. This cannot be further from the truth. The separation of powers as a form of checks and balance in a political system is an old human practice that can be found in many civilisations. In its origin, it was intended to control and curb absolute rule. A very common practice was for the king’s power to be checked by the spiritual realm. Africa has a practice whereby custom would compel a king with absolute power to commit suicide by taking poison.
As to the legal practice of listening to the two sides in a dispute, this is still being practiced in many of our villages across Africa. In other instances, this practice is even more profound than in Western-style courts, involving the extended family of the accused person in the resolution of the matter at hand.
The logic of doing a head count of the “good” and “bad” of colonialism can lead one to very “ugly” consequences. Colonialism was a terrible system. Period. Trying to enumerate the “good” legacies of this terrible and inhuman system is a very “ugly” thing to do – and the real “ugly” now is what Zille should see when standing in front of a mirror. DM
Eddy Maloka is Visiting Adjunct Professor at the Wits School of Governance
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