Defend Truth


From the Inside: A debate of urgent national importance

Helen Zille is Premier of the Western Cape. See her Wikipedia profile.

This is the text of Western Cape Premier Helen Zille’s speech delivered in the Western Cape legislature during a snap debate on her controversial tweets about colonialism.

I am glad we are having this debate today because South Africa needs it. Debate requires rational argument. I have no intention of settling scores, only setting out facts.

This debate is about a series of tweets relating to lessons learnt from my recent visit to Singapore and Japan.

None of them defended, justified or praised colonialism or apartheid. I can factually say that few in this house have put as much on the line to fight apartheid as I did.

Of course, colonialism had a diabolical impact worldwide, including South Africa. That was the very premise of my tweets. Anyone who read them without a personal or political agenda would have understood that. If you say the consequences of something were not ONLY negative, you are saying most WERE negative.

But if there was anyone who genuinely thought I was praising, defending or justifying colonialism, I apologised unreservedly and stressed that this was not so. I do so again.

In South Africa, colonialism and apartheid subjugated and oppressed a majority, and benefitted a minority, on the basis of race. This is indeed indefensible, and I have never supported, justified, praised or promoted it, as my life story attests.

My visit to Japan and Singapore, one a coloniser, the other colonised, was eye-opening. It seemed to me that the colonised has overtaken the coloniser on the world stage, and I thought it worthwhile asking why.

Let’s start with another question. If I were to state that a worldwide legacy of colonialism was causing on average 3,287 human deaths daily, people would justifiably be outraged if anyone suggested the benefits might outweigh the cost. I am talking about the motorcar. Today in South Africa, this colonial left-over is not only a means of transport but the ultimate status symbol.

Of course, you may argue that the intention of the motorcar was not conquest. It was convenience; People wanted cars.

Fair point.

So let me look at another example: if I said that zealots with a mission using colonialism’s methods of conflict and conquest had killed countless millions of people to impose their ideas on others, you would be appalled if anyone suggested the consequences were not only negative.

Of course, I am talking about most of the world’s dominant religions, Speaker.

To be consistent on the principle, if people believe the price was too high to acknowledge any advantage, then they mustn’t drive a car, or visit most houses of religious worship.

According to modern definitions, there are only 10 countries in the world that have never been colonised. And Africans have not only been the victims of conquest and genocide. They have also been its perpetrators.

Some countries that were brutally colonised in living memory have been spectacularly successful; many that have been free for decades, have not; the same can be said about the handful of countries that have never been colonised. Whether or not a country was colonised is not a predictor of success in the 21st century. In Singapore, they have discussed for decades what factors lead to their economic transformation. I wanted my series of tweets to initiate that debate here.

Many much more famous people have already expressed themselves on the subject and reached the same conclusions I did.

I have written before about how our own former President Nelson Mandela repeatedly discussed this issue. Today I quote from a speech he gave at Magdalene College, Cambridge, on 2 May 2001.

Britain,” he said, “was the main colonial power in our history, with all of the attendant problems and consequences of such a relationship.

Much of our traditional systems and institutions still carry the scars of the distortions inflicted by colonial rule.

At the same time, so much of what we have to build on in the competitive modern world is also the result of what we could gain from that interaction and engagement with Britain.

Our indigenous understanding of the rule of law, viz that not kings or chiefs but the institutions of law and democracy are supreme, was strengthened and enhanced by our reference to the British understanding of that concept.

If there were one single positive aspect that I had to identify from the history of colonial contact between our two countries, it would be that of the educational benefits our country derived from it.”

Time does not permit me to quote so many others. Nigerian Nobel laureate Chinua Achebe’s later work, Ali Mazrui, Godfrey Mwakikagile, Manmohan Singh. I could go on and on.

But more than that, Speaker: we continue to teach exactly the same lesson to our own schoolchildren every day.

I have brought to this house today, Speaker, a history textbook, written in the 21st Century, and used in our schools from 2004 to the present. Its lead author is prominent academic historian, Dr Maanda Mulaudzi. For 13 years, Speaker, many thousands of born free South Africans have studied from this book, maybe even some honourable members here today.

It devotes a significant section to the devastating effects of colonialism in Africa and South Africa. And rightly so.

And then, it asks an interesting question:

Did colonisation have any positive effects?”

And I quote:

Although most historians emphasise the negative effects that colonisation had on Africa, some also show that it did have some positive effects. For example, the colonisation of East Africa at last put an end to the slave trade there, which had continued to exist long after it had come to an end in West Africa.

Colonisation also brought with it Western education, medicine and technology as well as language, cultural, and sporting links that have enabled Africa to interact with the rest of the world. Part of the legacy of colonisation has been the development of Africa into a network of modern, independent states.” (In Search of History sixth impression 2005 page 182)

Why have we tolerated this textbook in our schools for so long? Will we demand that Dr Mulaudzi be fired?

Of course not. So why the political tsunami over what I said?

I leave it to members of this house, and the public, to draw their own conclusions.

If people believe that some South Africans may say things that others may not, the thought police must draw up schedules of exactly what can be said by whom, and make sure this is consistent with the Constitution. Of course we know this is both impossible and undesirable.

It is also inconsistent with the vision of the late Black Consciousness Leader, Steve Biko.

Biko’s approach stressed the importance of psychological liberation for black people to overcome centuries of humiliation under colonialism and apartheid.

I identify with this humiliation, not theoretically but personally.

My parents came to South Africa, not as colonists, but as penniless refugees, fleeing their home country where they would otherwise have been murdered because they were regarded as genetic Untermenschen – Leben unwertes Leben – life unworthy of life. Many of my direct relatives were not so lucky and were killed in the most cruel ways. This humiliation left deep psychological scars in my family, and many others, just like colonialism and apartheid did for black South Africans.

I am indebted to my parents for many things: but the greatest was their refusal, ever, to see themselves as victims. And always to stand up against the oppression of others.

Steve Biko stressed that his goal was “a non-racial, just and egalitarian society in which colour, creed and race shall form no point of reference”. (I write what I like Ravan Press 1996, p139)

It is the greatest tragedy that today, after 23 years of democracy, race has become South Africa’s pre-dominant reference point.

More than that: Julius Malema has generously reminded us that the EFF is not yet calling for whites to be slaughtered. There was a ripple of anger about this, but nothing like the response to my simple statement of fact.

There has been a lot of sophistry, even from some intelligent critics, drawing loony analogies between what I said and the autobahn’s relationship to Nazism.

There is one reference to Nazism, though, that is relevant. It is the statement of the Protestant Pastor Niemoller, who also ended up in a Nazi concentration camp, but unlike many others, managed to survive. He said:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and by then there was no one left to speak.

Make no mistake, Speaker, what we are seeing here is the escalation of a trend that is spreading its malignant tentacles throughout our country. Our ruling party is scapegoating minorities, in order to hide their own failure to govern this country honestly and efficiently, with disastrous consequences.

That is why they blame some mythical white monopoly capital for our stagnant growth and soaring unemployment; and why President Zuma wants to change the Constitution to take land away from the dwindling number of farmers feeding the nation, while ignoring vast tracts of fertile state-owned or communal land that is producing neither food nor jobs.

You can be sure that when the ruling party has milked every last drop from scapegoating whites, just like Robert Mugabe and Idi Amin, it will turn on coloured and Indian people as well; and the next target will be minority black ethnic groups. That is the slippery slope Pastor Niemoller warned us against. But as we know, those that will not learn from history are destined to repeat it.

Shutting down difficult debates is something I expected from the ANC. Back in the 1980s, when I was one of its ardent supporters, I realised that the ANC had two camps: one racial nationalist, the other Marxist. There was no space for people who believed in non-racialism, an open society, and a market economy. That is why I joined the DP and today am in the DA.

We can’t shut down this debate. It is one we need to have, so that we do not slip further down this scapegoating slope. I am glad my tweet brought it to the surface, because it is indeed of urgent national importance. DM


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