“There is something so terrible in watching a Black man trying at all points to be the dark ghost of a European” – Ayi Kwei Armah in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born.
Elsewhere in this issue, we are taking an in-depth look at South Africa as it goes through one of its most critical phases since the ending of apartheid (see cover story, page 14). By coincidence, or happenstance, or perhaps inadvertently, one of the country’s major political players touched on an issue that seems to be gaining currency in many capitals, especially of the Western world.
Helen Zille, the Premier of South Africa’s Western Cape province, stirred the hornet’s nest by saying something that people of European stock have been saying for aeons and which I want us to interrogate.
According to Zille, who was seen as a “progressive” during the days of Apartheid for her stance against that evil system, colonialism “was not all bad” for Africa because it bequeathed to the African a legacy of roads, motor cars, education, piped water, judicial systems, etc.
“For those claiming [the] legacy of colonialism was only negative‚ think of our independent judiciary‚ transport infrastructure‚ piped water etc‚” Zille tweeted on 16 March, and was met by a flurry of Black African fury that forced her to reluctantly apologise after many hours of futile self-defence.
A pugnacious journalist before she became a politician, she felt the need to spar with her critics before the enforced apology came. “Would we have had a transition into specialised health care and medication without colonial influence? Just be honest‚ please‚” she wrote in a second tweet as all hell broke loose around her.
Feeling swamped, she shot back: “I am talking about the motor car. Today in South Africa, this colonial leftover is not only a means of transport, but the ultimate status symbol.”
Her response aroused the wrath of a South African, calling himself simply NomalangaSA, who tweeted back: “I’m sure next you’ll tell Jews to look at the positive side of Nazi Germany… we can’t trust you ma’am.”
The controversy brought in Zille’s fellow Democratic Alliance (DA) party colleague, Mbali Ntuli, who attacked her, saying in a tweet: “It was ONLY negative!! Colonialism = development argument is trash as those subjugated can attest to. It’s like saying Nazism was good for German democracy and their advancement in technology.”
This forced Zille to counter-attack, saying: “I do not know what positive Hitler produced. He stoked up nationalism and authoritarianism and genocide‚ and destruction.”
Here, the DA’s current leader, Mmusi Maimane, felt obliged to step in and call his former party leader to attention: “Let’s make this clear,” Maimane tweeted, “colonialism, like apartheid, was a system of oppression and subjugation. It can never be justified.”
It was a view shared by another South African, Phumzile van Damme, who said: “Colonialism was a crime against humanity. There isn’t a single aspect of it that can be said to be positive or beneficial to Africans.”
More South Africans joined in. One tweeting under the name “Kobbibrwn” was more colourful in his response: “That’s f*ck*d up Helen. What’s good infrastructure going do for me when I’m oppressed?” Zille hit back: “Do you think life would be better without infrastructure?”
In the end, Zille had to back down, in the Western Cape provincial parliament: “I apologise unreservedly for a tweet that may have come across as a defence of colonialism. It was not,” she told her fellow provincial legislators in Cape Town.
Challenge the universal white view
But if what she had been doing all along, replying cheekily to her critics, was not “a defence of colonialism”, then clearly that Madam needs a new dictionary. In fact, Zille was echoing what her white predecessors and contemporaries in Africa, Europe and elsewhere had said, or have been saying, for years! Witness Ian Smith, writing the following in his 1997 memoirs, which I quoted in my April column:
“The starry-eyed liberals [of Britain] were trying to atone for the guilt complex associated with their country’s past history. They have allowed themselves to be brainwashed by communist propaganda which besmirched colonialism as suppression and exploitation… In reality colonialism was the spread of Western Christian civilisation, with its commitment to education, health, justice, and economic advancement, into areas which were truly ‘darkest Africa’ …
“So I say to the people of Europe that if their countries were involved in the colonisation of sub-Sahara Africa, they should hold their heads high, be proud of that historical association with forces that brought light to the dark continent, helping its peoples to emerge into modern civilisation.”
If you were to close your eyes and get Ian Smith’s words read to you, would you not hear Helen Zille prattling on? That is the universal white view. But let’s interrogate it from the African point of view.
First – and I put my hands up – we do irreparable damage to the African viewpoint by adopting a blanket rejection of the White view (however obnoxious it is) that “colonialism was not all bad”.
It may be unpalatable to concede, but as Africans, we shouldn’t behave as crudely like the Whites who came to Africa and saw everything African as bad and went on to destroy it. We should show them that we are bigger human beings and not as small minded as they were – or are.
Therefore, as Africans, we should be frank with ourselves and be able to admit that part of the legacy bequeathed by colonialism has been useful to modern African life. And I mean the legacy, not colonialism itself. The two are not the same. Therefore, we shouldn’t conflate the evils of colonialism with the legacy it left behind.
Now let’s look at the deeper implications of colonialism. For those who are Christians, they will know about Jesus’ teaching on life: “A man’s life does not consist of the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). Are you listening, Madam Zille? “What good,” Jesus went on, “will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, but forfeits [or loses] his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26).
Helen Zille and her white folk keep banging the line that colonialism left the African with an “independent judiciary‚ transport infrastructure‚ piped water, the motor car, specialised health care, etc”. Which is all true! But, as Jesus says above, what profit, and I mean real profit, does the African get from all that infrastructure if colonialism killed his soul? You see, whites are not Africans even though some may call themselves ‘White Africans’, so they don’t really know how it feels to be an African beaten by colonialism.
While bringing the motor car and piped water, colonialism completely destroyed the humanity of the African and reduced us to a caricature of the White man. We lost our names. We lost our tongues. We lost our history. We lost our education. We lost our borders. We lost our land (in parts of Africa). We lost our culture. We lost our worldview. We lost our dignity. We lost our democracy and governance systems. We were reduced not exactly to the level of animals but almost. We lost our very soul. We were left with only a shell of ourselves wandering rootless on our own continent.
Ironically, one man who noticed not only what Africa, but in fact the world lost, was of all people, Ian Smith. He wrote: “I know of no method which gives more honest and genuine representation, stemming from the ‘grassroots’ and ensuring that the people’s feelings are accurately submitted and explained … The system is devoid of corruption, nepotism, intimidation, propaganda and brainwashing, all those evil and undesirable ingredients which play such an important part in modern government.”
This was his description of the traditional system of African government before he and his ilk set about destroying it from the roots upwards.
This is the crux of the matter, Madam Zille! It is why some Africans totally reject the notion that “colonialism was not all bad”. So please, don’t rub it in, Madam – because as Ayi Kwei Armah succinctly put it in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born: “The Black man who has spent his life fleeing from himself into Whiteness has no power if the White master gives him none.” In South Africa, this is even more profound!