South Africa’s gifted Rian Malan is a peerless writer. And the bestselling author’s contribution to the debate around Helen Zille’s controversial colonialism tweet is up to his world-class standards. He reminds us that socially-inflicted wounds take generations to heal, especially when they were violently enforced. Such was the antagonism even three quarters of a century after the Boer War that it was one of our Matric class’s proudest achievements that the two language groups mixed socially. Malan reminds us of an unfortunate kink in the human condition: that we bear grudges inherited from our forefathers long after those involved have died. Appreciating this reality helps accelerate the time it takes to heal, but can never totally overcome it. Helen Zille is paying dearly for raising the holy cow of colonialism. Doing so wasn’t in itself wrong, but as Malan explains so brilliantly, for most of South Africa the conversation is premature. Have a read of his piece, which was first published on James Myburgh’s superb Politicsweb site. You won’t find a better assessment of South Africa’s hottest topic of the moment. – Alec Hogg
By Rian Malan*
A day or two after Helen Zille published her ill-fated “colonialism” tweet, I turned on the radio to hear talk show host Eusebius McKaiser squealing with delight at the prospect of harpooning a really big white whale. DA leader Mmusi Maimane had agreed to come on the show to express his disagreement with Zille’s views and announce that disciplinary steps would be taken against her, but this wasn’t enough for Eusebius, who was determined to goad Maimane into admitting that anyone who says colonialism was not entirely evil is a racist bigot.
Like others, I was reminded of Monty Python’s skit about a secret meeting of revolutionaries plotting to overthrow the Roman rulers of ancient Judea. A character named Stan is ranting about the evils of Roman colonialism when a comrade rudely interrupts him. “All right, Stan,” he says. “Don’t labour the point. What have the Romans given us in return?”
Someone says, “The aqueduct.” Someone else suggests, “Sanitation.” A third says, “The roads.” Stan’s faction is in danger of losing control, so one of his allies says, “Well, yes, obviously, the roads go without saying,” but he is shouted down by voices crying, “Irrigation! Sanitation! Medicine! Education! Health!” And so on.
I was initially planning to inflict some Monty Python jokes on the self-righteous Eusebius, but I was persuaded to refrain by the civilising influence of Helene Lewis Opperman, a Cape Town psychologist who consulted me about the writing of her new book, Britain’s Bastard Child.
Helene is an adherent of psycho-history, a discipline that applies Freudian analysis to the behaviour of nations in search of an answer to a great riddle: why does history repeat itself? The key factors, according to psycho-historians, are trauma and humiliation: when weak tribes or nations are conquered and subjugated by stronger ones, the humiliation festers and curdles and eventually leads to new wars in which the losers act out their pain by taking vengeance on their former oppressors.
Humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles, Germans rally behind Hitler and start another war. Humiliated for centuries by their Tutsi overlords, the Hutu of Rwanda rise up and butcher their neighbours. And so on.
Helene takes the view that the Afrikaner psyche was similarly disfigured by its humiliating encounter with the British empire, and she makes an interesting case. According to her research, the British looked down their noses at Boers from the day they landed in Cape Town, mocking them for their uncouth manners, stunted intellects and abysmal lack of sophistication.
This mockery reached a crescendo in the run-up to the Anglo-Boer War with Afrikaners routinely disparaged as sub-human in Jingo newspapers. After that came scorched earth, concentration camps and the volk’s devastation at the hands of the largest army yet seen on the planet.
Foreigners often ask why my late father joined the National Party and Ossewa Brandwag in 1939, expecting to hear stories of anti-Semitism and anti-black bigotry. No ways. My father grew up barefooted in a small town. In his childhood, Afrikaners were objects of ridicule for their English-speaking betters. They were ill-educated and often poor, earning around 60 percent of the average English wage, a statistic that put Afrikaners in much the same socio-economic position as blacks in white America in that period.
My father wasn’t even remotely obsessed with race. His politics were driven by humiliation. What he wanted, above all, was vengeance, or at least a chance to prove to the sneering English that he was their equal. This translated into lifelong support for a political party that put Afrikaners first, pumping money into Afrikaans education, building Afrikaans industries and creating civil service jobs for poor whites. Like most Afrikaners, he deliberately blinded himself to the humiliation this inflicted on blacks, and by the time he wised up, it was too late.
So now we sit with a bad situation: millions of black people psychically disfigured by humiliation at our hands. According to Helene Lewis, science can now detect humiliation’s impact on the human brain and even trace its acid etchings on our genes. “Humiliation is the fuse of the time bomb on which South Africa is sitting,” she says. There is no pill to cure it. We just have to work through it. Which is why it is good that Zille started this conversation about colonialism.
Let’s continue by taking another look at the Britons who created the wicked Monty Python skit described above. At least some must be descendants of the Picts that the Romans encountered on their first voyage up the River Thames in 55 BC.
In the eyes of Romans, those Picts were savages, half-naked, with skins daubed blue and bones through their noses. The Romans whacked them with ease and then enslaved them, forcing them to build roads and aqueducts and bath houses as part of what Romans saw as their civilising mission – introducing barbarians to the higher refinements.
At the time, it would have been impossible for humiliated Picts to acknowledge that Romans were a higher life form, but for their descendants, it’s easy. Why? Because time and pride has healed the British psyche, enabling the Pythons to laugh about Roman colonisation and recognise its at least partially beneficial legacy.
We saw something similar in a Facebook posting from Max du Preez this week. He starts by observing that his maternal ouma came from a family that lost all its possessions in the British scorched earth campaign of 1900, along with several relatives who perished in the concentration camps. Max goes on to say, “I wish I could talk to her now. I would say, ‘Ouma, be grateful, the British taught you more sophisticated table manners and how to speak English. What you thought was democracy as practiced by the two Boer Republics was primitive stuff, and then the British brought you the Westminster model. God save the Queen, Ouma!’”
That line would have got Max’s nose broken in almost any platteland bar as late as 1980. How can an Afrikaner joke about such a thing? Again, the answers lie in the past. Max was born around the time Afrikaner Nationalists came to power, and benefitted from a good education and a university degree. By the time he reached adulthood, Afrikaners were drawing level with the English in terms of income and education. Freed of ancient humiliations and resentments, Max was at last able to become a liberal internationalist and view the British Empire with a degree of objectivity.
Objectivity? I’m afraid so. Give me a glass or two of wine and I can rant for hours about the British and the way they mocked me at my English school for being a Dutchman or hairyback and blamed Afrikaners for apartheid, even though it was Cecil John Rhodes who invented its worst aspects. The British were hypocrites and scoundrels, utterly ruthless when it served their interests, but there is no point denying that they came from a superior civilisation.
They had more resources than the Boers, better organisation, more discipline. That’s why they were able to beat us in the war of 1899, steal our gold and laugh at us in the aftermath, while at the same time enriching our lives with clever British inventions like steam engines, Marmite and Cornish pies.
Okay, sorry, that’s a joke, and this is no laughing matter. For Afrikaners, Alfred Milner was the worst of all British shits, but he had at least one sound idea: “All good government is good administration, all the rest is rot.” Appointed to rule the conquered Boer republics in 1901, Milner introduced proper tax collection, municipalities and a professional, independent civil service. As Afrikaner historian Hermann Giliomee concedes in his autobiography, this laid the foundation for a massive expansion of infrastructure and industry that eventually propelled South Africa into the modern era.
(Interesting aside: Karl Marx took a similar view of British India, observing that the colonists were “laying the material foundations of Western society in Asia” by introducing alien ideas like free speech and alien inventions like railways and steam ships. Marx thought imperialism was a brutal affair, but even he conceded that it was bringing progress to a previously “stagnant” society).
So let me repeat Zille’s heresy: much as we hate to admit it, both Boers and blacks benefitted in some ways from the British occupation and its legacy. It is of course an insult to expect black South Africans to agree at this point, but they will eventually, because that is a law of history.
In his best-seller Sapiens, bio-historian Yuval Noah Harari observes that almost everyone alive today comes from a tribe or nation that has at some point experienced both ends of the stick – the humiliations of conquest as well as the joys of empire.
Harari also notes that expired empires invariably leave a legacy that lives on in the culture of their former vassals. Nineteen countries conquered by Arabs more than a thousand years ago still speak Arabic and practice Islam today.
Latin Americans use Spanish, another relic of a fallen empire. In former British colonies, political elites conduct their business in English, wearing suits identical to those sported in the old imperial capital and pursuing similar policies.
When I first sat down to write this piece, it threatened to be a diatribe reminding blacks of all the goodies left behind when the tide of colonialism and white supremacy started receding in 1990 – hospitals, soccer, business suits, freeways suitable for waBenzi and single-malt whiskeys for the ruling elite. Forgive me; that was petty and racist.
The single most important legacy of colonialism is our constitution, commissioned by Mandela but heavily influenced by acolytes of the old imperial order, including Communists (for Communism is a European invention) and white liberals of an approximately British strain.
Aside from some clauses about economic rights, SA’s constitution is in perfect concord with late imperial thinking — human rights, free elections, independent judiciary, rule of law and critically, property rights. Its coded subtext says, “We are now free, but we will continue to follow the course recommended by the empire.” Which is precisely why the EFF and the Fallists are clamouring for its annihilation, with president Zuma in qualified support.
Which brings us at last to the painful heart of the matter. Why this furor about Zille’s tweets? Because she’s posing a question South Africans are terrified to talk about. The constitution has come to mark the great divide in our society. On one side we have amorphous forces ranged behind Pravin Gordhan, including the SACP, the DA and the old stalwarts in Save South Africa, all trying to follow some variant of the course charted in our empire-influenced constitution. And on the other, Zuma and his primitive accumulationists, who’d prefer to gut the constitution, cut the judiciary down to size and annihilate mechanisms that prevent them from looting the treasury.
The most powerful weapon in the hands of Zuma’s faction is the idea that the present order is a relic of colonialism and white supremacy and must thus be transformed out of existence. The most powerful weapon in the hands of the Gordhan-related forces is one they’re too scared to use– like Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, they believe that at least some of the colonial inheritance is good and should be carried forward — and not for the sake of whites; for the sake of the long-suffering masses, still yearning in every opinion poll for job creation and prosperity on the scale achieved by Singapore. The alternative is to follow Idi Amin and Mugabe into the abyss.
The Gordhan forces know this but can’t say it openly because it’s too dangerous, too controversial, and for blacks, too humiliating. We need to make it easier for them, and there’s only one way — ignore the slings and arrows, and pursue this forbidden conversation.