Former judge takes on “colonialism” political correctness head-on

Former Supreme Court Judge Rex van Schalkwyk tackles South Africa’s insidious and debilitating political correctness around colonialism head on, taking us on a global history tour that exposes the shallow current dominant discourse for what it is – errant nonsense. The more frightening prospect is that, in the midst of the official opposition’s turmoil over Western Cape Premier Helen Zille’s tweet about colonialism having conferred benefits on this country, we are establishing a new (and twisted), norm for acceptable free speech. That van Schalkwyk’s voice is almost drowned out in the current media discourse shows just how far we’ve drifted into what is now almost mainstream thinking about what is acceptable and what is not when it comes to expressing your opinion publicly. Adapting to a new Constitutionally-protected and legislatively-equal society is both appropriate and pragmatic. However, what is now evolving is akin to the headmaster, teachers, prefects and classroom bullies colluding to brutally and mercilessly shame and/or silence anyone who differs from them, creating a dysfunctional and fearful behavioural ethic. Some commentators are even claiming (contrary to all of history) that if colonisation, or something similar, had not occurred, the indigenous peoples would have made all the scientific, engineering, medical and other discoveries without outside influence. Pure fantasy, says Van Schalkwyk, who then goes on to show us exactly why. – Chris Bateman

By Rex van Schalkwyk*

There is something seriously wrong with a society in which it becomes impossible to express an honest opinion. Helen ZIlle’s tweet (never a good idea) contained, essentially, the truth but in the collective hullabaloo that followed, that fact has almost entirely been lost.

Former Supreme Court Judge Rex van Schalkwyk

Whatever her critics may say, she never “defended” or “praised” colonialism in any of the opinions that she expressed; she was careful only to have said that colonialism was not all bad. Any disagreement upon this issue (apart from the political inappropriateness of the comment) means, by necessary implication, that colonialism was all bad. Factually, that is demonstrably false.

Apart from the oft-repeated examples of mechanised transport, roads, electricity, water-borne sewerage and the rest, the one colonial manifestation that cannot be escaped is the written, English language. Even an avowed anti-colonialist and sometime hater of all things English (excepting perhaps the game of cricket) like Robert Mugabe, speaks the language with the accent of an Eton graduate.

It is said by some of the Zille critics that all the apparent benefits of the colonial system were initiated for the benefit of the colonisers. Well, of course, that is true; people do things for their own benefit. It is the impulse that has driven creativity throughout the ages. The contention that there was no residual benefit for the victims of colonialism would seek to disprove the most significant force of development and change throughout history. Colonialism or, more accurately, invasions, constitute much of the history of the world, and it all started millennia before the Dutch settlers “colonised” the Cape of Good Hope.

Civilization may have started with the ancient culture of the Babylonians, located in the fertile valley of the Tigris and Euphrates; they were the first to have devolved a written language. This occurred even before the Aryans invaded Europe from the north and spread their influence as far south as North Africa and east into India. Fortunately for the Aryans, their adventures put their illiterate hordes into contact with the people of Babylon from whence came their literacy.

Helen Zille’s Twitter storm. More magic available at

The ancient written word of Sanskrit, said by some etymologists to have been the first writing, was imported, according to some historians, from the expansionist impulses of the (by now) literate Aryans. The historical accounts vary but need not detain us. The point is simply that migrations, invasions and what has come latterly to be described as colonialism and/or imperialism has occurred throughout history and has invariably imparted, at least, some benefit.

The famed Library at Alexandria, about which many Africans express a glowing pride, was established in the wake of the invasion of North Africa, by Alexander the Great, a Macedonian. The eponymous name of that great institution was derived from the title of the invader.

The Romans introduced the territories that they invaded to a formidable array of skills including engineering, architecture, water reticulation, art and culture and even personal hygiene.

Much the same can be said in the case of South Africa, but if all else is ignored then the English language has conferred great benefits in communication, literacy, literature, culture, science and commerce.

Read also: Stop playing the ANC’s game; get off Zille and do your job – Wilf Nussey

It is true, of course, that if the Dutch colonisers had not arrived, and the English thereafter, as some anti-colonists would wish, that these and perhaps greater benefits may have been derived from some other source. It is uncertain however that any alternative would necessarily have been more benign. The Belgians would almost surely have been worse, if the invasion had occurred during the time of King Leopold.

If the Chinese naval marvel built by the redoubtable Admiral Zheng He in the 15th century AD had not been destroyed upon the command of the isolationist Emperor Hongxi, the peoples of Southern Africa might today be speaking Cantonese.

Some forms of colonialism were undoubtedly far worse than others. If the Dutch settlement at the Cape can be called a colonisation, it was certainly of the more benign kind. The Cape sea route was seen as nothing more than a half-way stop on the long voyage to India, where the real riches were to be found. By comparison the whole of unexplored Southern Africa was seen as no more than a backward and impoverished region with few attractions apart from the strategic one.

The real colonisation occurred when the British might took on the two Boer Republics in an imperial war of aggression. Even that tragic event produced a significant dividend in terms of commercial, banking and other related expertise that had previously been absent.

If an example is sought of pernicious exploitation it is found in the brutal abuse of the people of Vietnam, whose land was occupied, first by the Chinese, for 1000 years, then by the Mongols, then by the French and finally, by the Japanese. But that was not all. The Americans chose that beleaguered land to fight their war of containment against Communist expansion, with a brutality unrivalled in warfare until that time.

Some of the bedraggled survivors chose a refuge by way of a seaborne migration in what has come to be known as the phenomenon of the “boat people”. Those who survived the treacherous voyage, as well as the hostile immigration officials of California, set up their survivalist enterprises in what was sometimes an antagonistic environment. The offspring of these indomitable people are today out-performing their privileged American counterparts at the Ivy League Universities of their adoptive land. And Vietnam is now approaching a First World status similar to that of many of its Asian counterparts.

Collectively, their success lies in the fact that they have left the past behind.

Read also: Rian Malan on Zille tweet: SA wounds too raw for colonial truth. Brilliant.

The anti-colonist obsession that has overtaken our dialogue will do nothing to advance the cause of progress. Judging by the reaction of the anti Zille shills it will, however, have the effect of stilling the voice of dissention. What is then to become of the sacred right of the freedom of expression, if even thought processes are now to be controlled?

We have already reached the stage where the accusation of racialism is cast about so indiscriminately that it has become meaningless to any thoughtful observer. However it has had the effect that individuals have become so apprehensive of the prospect of this unjustified slur that they have begun to censor, not only their speech, but even their own thoughts. Indeed I had wondered about the wisdom of putting these ideas in writing.

In a collective quest to be politically correct, is South Africa in danger of becoming a nation of dissemblers? Is this perchance because the thought police have taken control?

  • Rex van Schalkwyk is a former judge of the Supreme Court of South Africa and is the Chairman of the Free Market Foundation’s Rule of Law Board of Advisers.