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Response to Helen Zille’s, “there is a big difference between genocide and colonialism” remarks

Helen Zille’s comments that colonialism wasn’t all bad or negative brings up many questions about the legacy of colonialism and has made many remember the atrocities committed by Europeans on the continent.

South African politician, Helen Zille who’s the Premier of the Western Cape Provincial Government in a tweet declared that colonialism cannot be compared to holocaust. In an interview with Power Fm she said, “There is a big difference between genocide and colonialism. The holocaust was a deliberate attempt to murder 11-million people. There is a difference between colonialism and a deliberate genocidal project”

The Western Cape Premier essentially stood by her defence of her controversial comments on colonialism.

In previous tweets she’d said, “For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc.”

She went on to say, “Would we have had a transition into specialised health care and medication without colonial influence? Just be honest, please.”

Read: What 1960’s African poetry tells us about colonialism

I will be honest because first and foremost, comparing two atrocities is a new height of insincerity and ignorance that has to be corrected. That six million Jews were killed is bad enough and beyond understanding, which shows the shocking depths to which evil can reach, it is ghastly. To then say that colonialism wasn’t all bad because of the benefits it came with such as piped water, and independent judiciary is utterly disingenuous. It shows that her understanding of colonialism, which appears to sanitize the effects of colonial system is different from what many Africans who still bear the brunt of colonialism understand it. Her argument is akin to asserting that slavery wasn’t all that bad because it took some black people from the continent to America and other perceived positive remnants.

Colonialism was deliberate, as deliberate holocaust. Europeans in pursuit of expanding their economic interests looked for places to conquer drew up a plan to pillage a continent systematically to enrich their countries. The colonisers sent missionaries, and took punitive armies and came to a continent they labelled ‘dark,’ grabbed lands, dispossessed the owners of the land, killed those that resisted, raped their women, formed repressive governments only meant for the benefit of the colonialists. They physically and psychologically humiliated the people of these lands and used whatever justifiable means in their possession to control and subjugate these people. How does this not qualify as a deliberate and calculated project.

Belgian Congo

King Leopold’s crimes are in no way different from Hitler’s crimes, at least many Africans hold this view. The Congolese still suffer for these crimes till today. Leopold’s rubber farms became a place where forced labour was cruelly practiced. Those that refused to participate in these forced labour were killed and maimed. Whole villages were razed to the ground. Approximately 12 million people were killed in all sorts of cruel ways. Those unable to fulfil whatever quota that they were given in the rubber farms were beheaded and others including little children had their hands chopped off.

Just the same way Zille argues colonialism had a silver lining, that its brought major improvement in lives so did King Leopold, who beliefs were embedded in the Euro-centic civilisation discourse, that he was improving the lives of the Congolese. Leopold’s atrocities surpassed that of any European leader, including Hitler, and it was deliberate and systemic. Records of Leopold’s atrocities seem hidden because the obvious targets of his atrocities were Africans and people hardly bring up his terrible genocide against the Congolese. Indeed as the modern rallying point proclaims, all lives matter, but it seems some lives (read Black) do not matter as others (go figure).

German South West Africa

In what is currently known as Namibia, the genocide by the Germans is living proof of the cruelty of colonialism. All colonialists were guilty and still are guilty of crimes against humanity. The punishment of whole ethnic groups wasn’t an uncommon tactic that was used to plunder natural resources. In what is now known as the Herero and Nama Genocide, and basically considered one of the first genocides of the 20th century, the Herero people rebelled against the German colonial rule and subjugation. The Nama did the same and both ethnic groups were pushed to the Namib Desert and many of them were imprisoned in concentration camps, one of such camp was called Shark Island Concentration Camp. A culminated death of hundreds of thousands was the result of the German atrocities.

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The Herero/Nama genocide was a campaign of racial extermination the German Empire undertook in Namibia. Photo: Twitter/Normiegetout

But it’s not only in Namibia the Germans exemplified their brutality. Tanzania, which fell under German East Africa also experienced its share of brutality. The Maji Maji Rebellion which took place between 1905-1907 was heavily clamped down by the Germans. Here, the Germans forced the indigenes to pick cottons, and also levied them with heavy taxes. When the rebellion took place, the Germans engaged in scorched earth policy, where they burnt down everything edible and razed villages to the ground.

Read: South Africa: Helen Zille suspended over colonialism tweets

Italian North Africa

With the support of the Vatican under the leadership of Pope Pius XI, the Italian forces committed a great carnage against the people of Ethiopia. During the second Italo-Ethiopian War, the Italians made use of chemical weapons killing approximately one million people. In Emperor Haile Saleassie’s voice, he said while addressing the League of Nations on June 30, 1936:

“A mechanism spraying yperite liquid was installed in the aircraft and it was arranged that a fine rain bringing death should descend over vast tracts of country. At one time, nine, fifteen or eighteen Italian aeroplanes were going to and fro bringing down an unceasing rain of yperite”.

“From the end of January 1936 onwards, this death-dealing rain descended uninterruptedly upon our soldiers, upon women, children, cattle, streams, stagnant waters as well as pastures. The Italian army commander made the aeroplanes repeat this work of theirs, in order to extinguish completely all living creatures and to turn into poison the waters and grazing grounds”.

“He made this the principal means of warfare. This work of cruelty, carried out with some finesse, annihilated people in places far removed from the battlefield and made their country into a desert. The plan was to spread terror and death over the greater part of Ethiopia. This most deplorable scheme was eventually accomplished. Man and beast perished completely”.

“The deadly downpour that descended from the aircraft made anyone who touched it fly with torment. Those who drank the water upon which this poisonous rain had settled or ate the food which the poison had touched died in dreadful agony. The people who died as a result of the Italian yperite must be reckoned in many thousands. It was to make known to the civilized world the torment inflicted upon the Ethiopian people that I decided to come to Geneva.”

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Emperor Haile Selassie I brought to fore the atrocities the Italians committed against the people of Ethiopia. Photo: Twitter/KunjaloD

The statement by His Majesty was made in 1936 when the number of people that died was still rising. The Italians went on to put thousands of Ethiopians in concentration camps leading to more thousands of death. Asides all these, the Italians went on to bomb Red Cross hospitals, and in what is remembered as the Yekatit 12, when an attempted assassination on Rodolfo Graziani failed, the Italian commander ordered retribution, leaving over 30,000 Ethiopians dead.

Libya wasn’t left out in all these. Graziani built concentration and labour camps that left thousands of Libyans dead. Graziani, a fascist was known by his deeds as ‘the Butcher of Fezzan.’

All these heavy atrocities against humanity are what Zille says can’t be compared to the holocaust. The worst thing about colonialism, asides the physical brutality meted out, was the erasure of cultural identity. The French, using the process of assimilation capitalised on this. The effect of this is that till today, most Francophone countries continue to pay taxes to the French government.

South Africa was worse off during the colonial period and subsequent apartheid. Colonised by two white powers, both powers fighting over a black people’s land; the Anglo-Boer War. How does a nation, or a people forget such suffering. The tenacity of the South Africans is one that must be held high, and the massacres by the apartheid regime must be condemned and remembered always. The killings and beatings cannot be erased, and therefore comparing the desecration of humanity to pipe water is the height of disrespect to a people’s history and pain.

To say the least, it shows how Zille fails to understood the traditional systems in different parts of Africa. The Oyo Empire, the Mwene Mutapa Empire, The Bornu Empire, the Old Mali Empire, and many more had existing structures that were interrupted by the coming of the colonialists. Many Africans fail to critically look at these empires and see the merits in them. It is because most of our history is told from the position of colonialists or those apologetic and sympathetic to the system that we fail to also understand that we had a history before the white people came, our own vibrant and advanced social, political and economic systems, which should not be reduced by being compared to trivial benefits such as piped water or so-called independent judiciary.

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