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Zille’s political grave

Premier of the Western Cape Helen Zille tweeting that colonialism wasn’t all bad goes to the heart of what apartheid remains deeply to blame for – a nation that has been unable to forge a common understanding and a shared vision for South Africa



In the past 10 days, much ink – certain people might have preferred it to be blood – has been spilled over tweets by Western Cape Premier Helen Zille that colonialism wasn’t “only negative”. It started with her saying there were lessons to be learned from Singapore which had built on its colonial legacy. Within hours of that original tweet, she had apologised “unreservedly” if it appeared she was defending colonialism. But in between she had sent stubborn and defensive tweets that colonialism had a beneficial legacy. Those tweets dug the hole which might turn out to be her political grave.

Her party, the Democratic Alliance, may yet institute disciplinary charges and at least one organisation has laid criminal charges at a police station.

Irrational debate

But a debate on the merits of an argument about whether some outcome of colonialism was “good” is an emotional debate and not a rational one.


Read: Social media uproar over Helen Zille’s comments saying colonialism wasn’t all bad

It is irrational, firstly, because it revolves around an abstract concept of “good”, a value judgment which is near meaningless in this context. Colonialism is simply indefensible.

File picture: New mayor of Tshwani, Solly Msimanga (C) of the DA (Democratic Alliance) together with national leader, Mmusi Maimane (R) arrive at a victory rally held at Freedom Park, Pretoria, South Africa, 09 August 2016 Photo: ANP,EPA/Kim Ludbrook

On the other hand, to argue that colonialism was all “bad” seems to me to be just as stubborn and futile. Colonialism was unjustifiable. It is like saying “communism was all bad” or “the nineteenth century was bad” or “the last hundred years have been good”.

Counterfactual arguments that Africa could have “developed” the same infrastructure through trade and under its own powers – had Africa been given a fair deal instead of being raped and pillaged – may be true, but only in the sense that such arguments can ever be true. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen that way, and the whole sorry history of mankind is littered with war after war followed by the sad lament, “When shall we ever learn?”

File picture. DA members during the launch of the party’s election manifesto at Polokwane Showgrounds on February 23, 2014 in Polokwane, South Africa. Helen Zille promised to create six million permanent jobs if the DA won this year’s general elections. However, the party is seen by many as racist. Picture: Gallo Images /Foto24 / Alet Pretorius

It is also quite likely that such a style of development would have been through the formation of African empires instead of Western colonial ones, which brings me to the second point on why this debate makes little rational sense. Whether arguing that there were positive aspects to colonialism or counterfactually arguing that those benefits could have arisen without colonialism, both arguing parties make the huge presumption that “progress” and our current expression of civilisation is a positive outcome for humanity.

Read: Ngugi wa Thiong’o calls for preservation and inclusion of African languages in learning institutions

I don’t believe there has ever been “paradise” on earth, but on a set of basic criteria – health, happiness, social cohesion, hours spent labouring – it is far from obvious to me that indigenous nations are better off today than they were in the pre-colonial era. It is also not apparent that agrarian societies were better off than pastoral ones, or pastoral ones better off than the stone age societies that preceded them.


Security forces with dogs hold back a crowd protesting against Minister Piet Koornhof being given the “Freedom of Soweto. Photo: Noel Watson

Did colonialism bring a meaningfully independent judiciary as Zille tweeted? Not really, our constitutional state did that. It is a better system than the courts under apartheid, which were arguably worse than the courts under the Union, which were probably better than those under the British rule, which were not as terrible at the Dutch colonial courts, which were monstrous in comparison to the indigenous African customary law. One can go on in this manner ad nauseum. It goes nowhere.

Addressing the legacy

Rather, it is the responsibility of politicians of Zille’s stature to address (or at very least not ignore) the emotional legacy of colonialism. Apartheid was colonialism of a special type that extended the colonial yoke in South Africa right into the 1990s. The pain is still raw and in such an inequitable society palpable every day.

The past cannot be changed, but we can think about it in a way that is helpful to redress that past. Cherry picking the “good” in the colonial legacy is not to have learned any lessons at all. Justifying current policy decisions by appealing to the colonial legacy is political suicide.

Opposition party EFF also criticised Zille’s controversial comments on colonisation File picture. Julius Malema, leader of the opposition party Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), addresses supporters at the launch of the party’s local election manifesto in Soweto, near Johannesburg, South Africa, 30 April 2016 Photo: ANP/EPA Cornell Tukiri

It would have been far better for Zille to have said, as French presidential favourite Emmanuel Macron stated on Algerian TV last month, that colonialism was a crime against humanity. Instead, Zille echoed the far right in France who reacted to Macron with tweets such as: ‘Are roads, hospitals, French language and French culture crimes against humanity?’

Zille’s Singapore tweets left black DA politicians out on a limb and potential black DA voters wondering what kind of constituency they would be getting into bed with. And in the week of damage control, Zille’s Western Cape cabinet ruled against a social housing project in Sea Point that would have made a tiny but significant symbolic stab at redressing apartheid spatial planning.

What the Zille tweet gaffe has revealed, yet again, is that there is not a shared understanding of the past among South Africans, and without that there is no shared vision of the future. That lack of sensitivity to the feelings about the past and what it provokes in the present day can be squarely laid at the door of apartheid and the colonial triumphalism of the current economic system.