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24 Mar 2017 00:00
Balls-up: Helen Zille’s foot-in-mouth tweet about colonialism has put Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane in a jam. Photo: Paul Botes
Nothing good came out of colonialism. It was thoroughly evil.
Nothing good came out of apartheid.
The logic of those who imagine colonialism was mostly but not wholly evil runs as follows: Sure, colonialism involved the subjugation of people but that subjugation resulted in goodies such as an independent judiciary, transport infrastructure and piped water.
This logic is not compelling. In fact, it is deeply offensive, racist and typifies the arrogance of those imbued with white supremacist attitudes.
First, black lives were literally reduced to inputs in the making of products such as transport infrastructure and piped water.
Black people were not merely exploited with little or no labour rights. The exploitation was more graphic than those who benefit from colonialism’s history wish to recall. Black bodies, as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about so cogently and painfully in his brilliant book Between the World and Me, were treated as ingredients such as shovels, sand and water that went into the manufacturing processes that spewed out some infrastructure and other output. Black bodies were regarded and treated as things.
That is the true nature of colonialism and the heart of the colonial project. That is why colonialism is beyond redemption. Apartheid was an extension of this colonial project.
To look for complexity here by revising the history of the colonial project is to deliberately retraumatise black people who still live with the legacy and memory of colonialism, a legacy that is intertwined with the global history of white supremacy’s reach and violence.
Second, the idea that the outputs of colonialism means colonialism’s history is “complex” is utter rubbish. A few obvious truths militate against this view. For one thing, a positive value-laden term such as “good” is misplaced when talking about any product that comes out of a wicked system. It is not accurate to say anything along the lines of “some good came out of a wicked system”. Rape is not good even if you love your baby deeply.
At best you might say (and I will explain shortly why you should resist even this formulation) something along the lines of “A wicked system resulted in some functional products we now use.”
Frankly, this distinction itself is disingenuous. Let us cut to the chase. It is empirically false to say that colonialism gifted us such functional outputs. Take the examples that I mentioned earlier.
Colonialism did not result in an independent judiciary in the colonies. The opposite is true. Colonial penal codes were an integral part of how colonisers subjugated local peoples around the world.
Colonialism did not deliver transport, infrastructure and piped water to everyone. It delivered these to those regarded as morally superior to the subjugated. When the system became unfeasible and a slow global march towards freedom from colonial bondage became inevitable, some crumbs were thrown at local people in the hope of shutting down the inevitable overthrow of Empire.
In South Africa, for example, in our recent history, that offensive strategy saw the National Party trying to pretend that it was replacing apartheid with separate development based on a fake philosophical foundation that imagined all who live in the boundaries of the country could co-exist on an equal footing in separately demarcated geographies.
No one bought the logic but for the odd Bantustan leader drunk on self-enrichment. In the end, apartheid had to fall, because such evil is not sustainable across time.
Enter Helen Zille with foot in mouth. In this former leader of the Democratic Alliance we have a peddler precisely of the offensive view that colonialism is complex and nuanced and that there is no moral black and white here.
Except there is moral black and white here. Complexity should not be a smokescreen for selling us a romantic revision of colonialism’s inherent violence and thoroughgoing evil.
By pretending that colonialism can be opened up for debate, Zille is pretending that some positive remarks can be made about colonialism.
Is Zille ignorant? I do not think so. She is well read and educated. Her problem is not ignorance.
Zille was instead simply parading a deeply held belief that we should be grateful that we have infrastructure because of colonialism. This is nothing less than white supremacy revealing itself.
Who cares that she can speak isiXhosa or reported on the death of Steve Biko? We must stop pretending that if a white person was regarded as a friend of black people and if a white person was ostracised by other white people during the 1970s and 1980s because they were helping to expose apartheid evil that they are incapable of being racist. Not so.
The political question now facing the DA’s Mmusi Maimane is this: Will he grow a pair or will he pretend that Zille was misunderstood? Will she get a mere slap on the wrist or will there be a decisive break with the party’s fledgling record on questions of race and historicism?
2019 is around the corner.
Read more from Eusebius McKaiser
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