Last month, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille again defended her assertion that the legacy of colonialism wasn’t entirely evil. Committed to her interpretation of the rule of law (and her resulting right to ventilate her views for debate), she projected herself into a future that called her to martyr her party’s reputation for her version of intellectual honesty.
A corresponding commitment to historical honesty could compel someone to project himself into the future and from that vantage point, observe that the legacy of civil war won’t have been entirely evil for South Africa, either.
Some say that would be unwise and the whole discussion on civil war’s potential legacy is moot. But our hypothetical time-traveler could ask: Why does our generation argue for a wisdom that sees legacy as beyond pros-cons analysis when the question of civil war (in which white people would also suffer losses) is concerned, when we don’t apply that standard to the question of colonialism’s legacy? Exposed, then, would be a self-serving application of the distinction between intelligence (knowing how to split an atom) and wisdom (knowing why not to split it).
“Why” reasons bypass the clinical, taking into account the personal not as one of many things that matter but as something whose importance qualifies everything else.
A question like “how did the chicken cross the road?” can be answered by a biologist or an engineer whereas “why did the chicken cross the road?” leads to unanswerable questions like:
“Is the chicken a personal being? Are animals non-human persons? What distinguishes humans from animals?” The relevance of our ambiguity, where animal personhood is concerned, is racists who call black people “animals” to justify systemically undermining our power to make our own “why” decisions. Reopening the debate on colonialism’s legacy is not for the sake of intellectual honesty but for maintaining the economic status quo left by colonialism.
European imperialism never intended for Christian missionaries to prioritise the humanity of black people. Religion was used to mute intellect in the service of “wisdom” (docile acquiescence to the colony’s missionaries’ teachings) to advance the colony’s interests. Then surprise! When God’s body-count became a liability, the beneficiaries of colonialism ditched him for liberal secular atheism, advancing ahistorical starting points for measuring individual merit, elevating impersonal intellect above positionality and personhood without having to ditch the benefits accompanying their own positionality from birth.
The assertion (from classical liberalism) that race should not be seen as a legitimate proxy for poverty appears innocent, but its failure to weigh the intersectionality of oppressions as they play out when power is held by bigoted persons suggests the political parties that hold to these ideological stances have an agenda other than their stated policy positions.And right now, Zille is the de facto Christian-professed leader of the DA’s classical liberalism faction.
Compare her stance to Adriaan Vlok’s insistence, on CapeTalk Radio, that there was “no way” Magnus Malan could have molested black boys because “he was a wonderful person and he was not a guy attracted to men, particularly children”, and see how grievous accusations of violence against black bodies are answered by appealing to the humanity of the accused, shifting the goalposts so the sentiments of racist Christendom (and its implicit dismissal of heteronormative repression’s sins as just paedophilia) take the place of alibis and alternative explanations for evidence implicating Malan.
Could we try this nostalgic sentimentalism when debating “the legacy of colonialism” and the humanity of the colonised? If Malan is the benchmark, will we black people keep falling short unless we plumb history for proof we’re just as human as he was? If he was a bad example, then the legacy of the state he served ought to be undone; I’ll say as much at the University of Johannesburg’s LGBTI+ Summit hosted by its Transformation Unit.
And as explained, the Singaporean context of Zille’s initial tweets doesn’t warrant a good-faith reception of her views. At best, Singapore leaves us between the Scylla of authoritarian policy instruments to better leverage colonialism’s benefit, which is anti the DA’s liberal stance, and the Charybdis of asking what colonialism’s beneficiaries are prepared to give so more of us can leverage its legacy, which is anti the DA’s protectionism. At worst, Zille is dog-whistle baiting black people to academically perform their personhood whereas being human is like being a lady: once you’re baited into saying you are one, you’re not.
She’s fighting a proxy battle against Mmusi Maimane’s leadership and the change it foreshadows for the DA’s DNA. As Toni Morrison has observed, the function of racism is distraction:
“It keeps you explaining, over and over again” why you’re human, though once you’ve started explaining, the explanation itself acquires a commercial and political value for the beneficiaries of the status quo by inadvertently feeding a cycle in which there “will always be one more thing” to explain before substantive economic transformation is okayed.
And as other parties are content to tolerate their worst, the DA lets Zille arrest its (always ill-fated) adoption of a liberalism other than the type that serves its earliest constituency. These are its true colours. DM
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