A storm has erupted around Helen Zille, former leader of the DA and Western Cape Premier, over a Tweet about colonialism and an article stating her position on the matter. Some believe she has exposed herself as ultimately racist in suggesting there were any plus points to colonialism. David Everatt, Head of Wits School of Governance, has joined the debate. He says Zille has a large ego and hints that she has been ‘stupid’ in a piece penned for The Conversation. Everatt delivers the message that Zille’s tweeting and inanity has serious costs for many in South Africa, in an article headlined that the saga ultimately provides “more reasons for white South Africans to shut up”. As Everatt notes, it is remarkable how much of a controversy Twitter can spark. Zille is an experienced Twitter user, adept until now at getting messages across through this social media channel. One spontaneous Tweet has the potential to derail her reputation and risks losing all-important support for the DA from black voters. This is a reminder to us all to think very carefully before we post 140 characters for the world to see, as it is not easy to turn back the clock or erase clumsy comments. Twitter is a hungry, and often merciless, medium. – Jackie Cameron
By David Everatt*
It’s remarkable how much of a shitstorm Twitter creates when in the hands of politicians – with serious costs for the rest of us.
Helen Zille, premier of the Western Cape province and former leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance’s (DA), is – according to her acolytes in the press and most of white South African Facebook followers – irredeemably insightful, strong, lover of truth, seeker after justice, Biko champion and barely a whisker away from being canonised.
Championed by luminaries ranging from ostensible liberals and outright righwingers, how could she possibly go wrong?
Well, by making utterly stupid arguments, for starters. And then going on to defend her own stupidity in a piece of breathtaking solipsism. And tweeting all the way down.
Let’s apply some (very basic) logic to what she actually wrote. What should have been Zille’s starting point (somehow, she ended with this), is one we all recognise: that at the end of colonialism, about to elect a strong man leader for 30 years and throw human rights out the window, Singapore was (in her own words) a
dirt-poor country [with] mass unemployment, lack of education, almost non-existent sanitation, a dearth of natural resources (not even sufficient water), squalid shack settlements prone to major fires, opium addiction, the absence of a sense of nationhood and national pride among people with myriad languages, “races”, cultures, religions.
Why not stop there? All that anyone can say for colonialism is that it was barbaric. Zille seems to have an awareness of that fact, and every colonial subject can recognise it.
Defending the indefensible
I presume that Zille would agree that there can never be a defence of one country claiming to own another. The function of colonialism was theft – of resources, labour, rights, freedom, culture, practice, history, bread – everything. It was not a magnanimous sharing of education and culture and sipping tea. It was brutal, violent and murderous.
Bodies – black and brown bodies – were a colonial commodity. Colonies provided the slaves that built much of the vaunted “first world infrastructure” of large swathes of the world. The families of those slaves live with us today. That is already a massive, global psycho-social rent in the social fabric that beneficiaries refuse to recognise. The wealth generated by slave ownership still shapes the power structure of present-day Britain.
Colonial powers have in recent times tried to paint themselves as more or less benevolent – but the truth is that all colonialism is destructive, rapine and hideous. The British populace disagree – over 40% believe Empire was “a good thing”. Old Etonian David Cameron claimed:
I think there is an enormous amount to be proud of in what the British Empire did and was responsible for. But of course there were bad events as well as good events. The bad events we should learn from and the good events we should celebrate.
Some “bad events” like the slave trade, the murder of indigenous people, combined with theft of the natural resources from millions, the simultaneous impoverishment of millions more, and the destruction of local custom and culture that got in the way of “progress”.
Conflating colonialism with post-colonialism
I don’t for a moment assume Zille agrees with this nonsense – so why the fuss? Because she conflates a post-colonial narrative, and of a modernising global economy, with colonialism. Surely even Zille can see that colonialism doesn’t equate with post-colonialism?
I fear not, since her follow-up self-aggrandising piece on “what I learned in Singapore” uses the personal pronoun a remarkable 108 times, suggesting an ego that may do with some of the Buddhism that is the main religion in Singapore. But even with the glaring limitations on human rights in Singapore, surely it is apparent that a post-colonial nation can trade its way to cellphones and microsurgery – it’s not a gift of colonialism, it is how a country manages its affairs after colonialism.
So we hopefully agree – Singapore was stuffed up by colonialism. As was most of Africa and most of Asia. Singaporeans don’t go around lauding colonialism and the gifts it bestowed, and no-one else should either. They talk about what they did after Empire sidled out of the picture. The post-colonial path is what is in fact being discussed.
Zille got it completely wrong, then continued arguing how right she was.
South Africa’s independent judiciary isn’t because of colonialism, which sent black freedom fighters to the gallows. It’s guaranteed by the country’s post-colonial constitution, drawn up in large part by the African National Congress.
The country’s transport infrastructure was a great colonial inheritance – it ensured that white South Africans had buses and trains and tarred roads and traffic lights – and black South Africans had none. Entrepreneurial black South Africans created the minibus taxi industry because blacks felt they may want to go – well, anywhere they wanted – while the authorities felt they only needed to go to work, and then back home.
So, wrong again – South Africa’s post-colonial transport infrastructure created linkages between spatially and racially separate communities, introduced sustainable mass transit systems, the Gautrain, and the rest.
The country’s piped water is a miracle – of post-apartheid delivery.
(In 1995) only 33% of African households, compared with 72% of coloured, and 97% of both Indian and white ones, have the use of running tap water inside the dwelling for drinking purposes.
Yup, that’s colonialism for you. So what did the new South African government do? It made access to clean water a right in the constitution, and since then has connected virtually all urban dwellings to piped water, though rural lags some way behind.
In the examples cited by Zille, not one stands up to her own test.
Through whites-only glasses
So when Zille tells black people how stupid they are for electing the corrupt ANC and for not following the Singaporean path, she’s quintessentially white: rights don’t matter, money does. When you’ve always had rights, you don’t value them or understand why others coo about them so much. You can’t eat or trade them, right? Surely you’d rather have a job now, and not waste time on those pesky freedoms? Much rather be arrested for littering the streets of Singapore, secure in the knowledge that your country has modernised at the expense of human rights – the perfect neo-liberal trade-off.
It takes a spectacularly blind set of whites-only glasses to make this argument. And there seems to be a whole horde of white South Africans ready to support her – to agree that all modern technology in the country is the “gift” of the whites, for which blacks should be grateful.
The justification for this argument? The usual – just look at the ANC.
Be clear, dear reader, this article is not a defence of the ANC. It’s a defence of the right of indigenous people to their own freedom, and to use it however they choose – exactly what colonialism denied. Many used those freedoms to vote DA. I wonder if they will think twice next time, knowing that their glorious former leader seems to feel that colonialism was the white man’s burden, and modernity is the white man’s gift.
Why don’t they thank the whites for it?
- David Everatt, Head of Wits School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand. This article was originally published on The Conversation.