Opinionista Ghaleb Cachalia 28 March 2017

Let’s give Helen Zille the benefit of the doubt

Let’s not lambast those whose intentions were good but whose communication was less than optimal. Let’s demonstrate some understanding if Helen Zille, whose credentials as a journalist, activist and politician speak volumes, was moved to compare our static growth with Singapore’s stellar achievement.

I have been exercised by the reaction to Helen Zille’s tweets, the reaction to them and to the broader issue around the impact and legacy of colonialism.

I know that this is an emotive issue – not least because of my family history. My grandparents came to South Africa within 20 years of the 1857 mutiny or great patriotic uprising in India and my family’s political background can be traced back to those heady days in history.

During this episode, my Indian family hid and shielded a patriot and leader of the mutiny who was hunted by the British authorities in the wake of the uprising. Shortly after arriving in South Africa – their passage made possible because of the spread of the British empire – both my grandfathers, who were close associates of Gandhi, soon became active against the iniquities visited on Indians in the (then) Transvaal. The first passive resistance protest, initiated by Gandhi, was launched from my paternal grandfather’s home. Both grandparents went to jail in the course of their political opposition to colonial oppression. They dedicated their entire lives to the struggle for freedom and dignity.

My father, mother, paternal uncle, maternal aunt and many other close family members spanning successive generations were banned, house arrested, imprisoned and exiled during the course of more than a century. Many held high office in the anti-apartheid organisations and their precursors. The history of anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggle is deeply embedded in our DNA.

It should come as no surprise therefore that I view colonialism and apartheid, its successor in title, with considerable disdain. I am acutely aware, via first-hand, familial experience, and historical study of the privations visited by these systems on people, their psyches, material prospects, dignity and more.

There isn’t a bone in my body that will uphold any part of these systems as having any redeeming qualities.

That said, I do not feel slighted when anyone recognises productive assets inherited from previous dispensations – much of which was undeniably built on the blood and sweat of local labour. I even recognise certain beneficial consequences.

What we need to do is to come to terms with the various contributions to our history, to understand the intended and unintended consequences of systems and individuals who made their mark on society – often in a complex and contradictory way.

To balk at any enquiring attempt at discourse around this – which, by its very nature, is often uncomfortable – represents a failing. It represents a failing because in our divided society, only honest and respectful interrogation represents the road to understanding.

We cannot pander to taboos. If there is a boil, it has to be lanced lest it infect the very body of our society. Misunderstandings cannot be allowed to fester under the surface while we gloss and paper over important, if sensitive, issues.

What is required is scholarly engagement, a searching view of the past – one that is rooted in evidentiary enquiry and not in populist paradigms. Much has been written about the negative impact of colonialism – how it underdeveloped countries and left them in a parlous position globally. This line of enquiry has been valuable and has explained the structural impediments many postcolonial nations have faced.

In the course of history and the passage of empire, tribute was exacted and people subjugated. Since the Second World War we have sought to discourage and limit this practice, but still, we live with the legacy of the past. What we should frown upon is the trumpeting of perceived superiority, but this should not involve the denial of aspects which have enabled us to progress.

This nation pioneered the Truth and Reconcilliation Commission. We averted a bloodbath and forged what people across the globe referred to as a miracle. We need to draw on these strengths in our common discourse. We need to heal and build this nation again.

Our common aim should be the eradication of corruption and the growth of the economy that builds on the legacy of the past, in order to deliver on the economic growth our people sorely need.

Let’s not lambast those whose intentions were good but whose communication was less than optimal. Let’s demonstrate some understanding if Helen Zille, whose credentials as a journalist, activist and politician speak volumes, was moved to compare our static growth with Singapore’s stellar achievement. Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt if, in doing so, she made reference to the infrastructural and other legacies that enabled and gave a head start to Singapore’s quest for development.

Helen is intelligent and forthright but should have known better than to use an inadequate and inherently problematic medium for the transmission of serious analysis. The DA’s internal mechanisms are dealing procedurally with these lapses. What we need to do, I believe, is to give her and others a chance to engage responsibly and respectfully on these and other issues of importance to our nation – that’s how we all learn and grow.

I’ll end this note with reference to two views – one from the internationally respected member of the Indian Congress and former prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh, and another from Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist, poet, professor, and critic. These references speak to sage views that resonate with my dual Indian and African heritage. They speak to the complexity of the issue. We could all do worse than learn from their experience and wisdom.

Bruce Gilley, in the Journal of African Affairs (2016), describes Achebe as:

… a key figure in the rise and persistence of anticolonial ideology in Africa. Yet in his final work, Achebe made a clear statement about the positive legacies of colonialism, praising the British project of state formation and nation building … Achebe was never the simple anti-colonial figure that most assumed, and … his seeming reversal could be read as the culmination of a lifetime’s meditation on African history and politics. Achebe’s final views have significant paradigmatic implications for the knowledge relevant to national identity formation and state building in Africa today.”

Manmohan Singh said the following at Oxford University in 2005:

Today, with the balance and perspective offered by the passage of time and the benefit of hindsight, it is possible for an Indian Prime Minister to assert that India’s experience with Britain had its beneficial consequences too. Our notions of the rule of law, of a constitutional government, of a free press, of a professional civil service, of modern universities and research laboratories have all been fashioned in the crucible where an age-old civilisation met the dominant Empire of the day.

These are all elements which we still value and cherish. Our judiciary, our legal system, our bureaucracy and our police are all great institutions, derived from British-Indian administration and they have served the country well.

The idea of India as enshrined in our constitution, with its emphasis on the principles of secularism, democracy, the rule of law and, above all, the equality of all human beings irrespective of caste, community, language or ethnicity, has deep roots in India’s ancient civilisation.

However, it is undeniable that the founding fathers of our republic were also greatly influenced by the ideas associated with the age of enlightenment in Europe.

It used to be said that the sun never sets on the British Empire. I am afraid we were partly responsible for sending that adage out of fashion! But, if there is one phenomenon on which the sun cannot set, it is the world of the English-speaking people, in which the people of Indian origin are the single largest component. Of all the legacies of the Raj, none is more important than the English language and the modern school system. That is, if you leave out cricket!”

We, in South Africa, are well placed to rejig our economic interactions and build on an infrastructural legacy, on linguistic mobility, on scientific and technological capital and more, to deliver similarly impressive results that Singapore, for example, has evinced. We can also rejig our propensity to react without careful thought.

Let’s do it! Let’s grow and build our country together. DM


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