THE recent hullabaloo surrounding a tweet from Western Cape premier and former DA leader, Helen Zille, on colonialism has been illustrative more of our political hysteria than anything else. No excuses for questionable viewpoints, of course, but personal mudslinging takes the debate away from the real issues – a lesson the anti-Zuma camp needs to learn too.
And whilst a lot of things have since flowed under the proverbial political bridge, there is – I feel – still a lot to discuss about the infamous Zille tweets that were posted in March.
The gist of Zille’s social media message, that colonialism hadn’t been all that bad and that it had brought us piped water, infrastructure and an independent judiciary, was sent while she was boarding a plane in Singapore. She’d been studying the trillion dollar halal market in the Far East related to a proposed R1-billion halal agri-processing food park in the Western Cape.
Veteran journalist and author, Zubeida Jaffer, challenged Zille on the website www.thejournalist.co.za in her Open Letter to Helen Zille:
“Your tweets finally clarify why you have not broken these colonial practices. It is because your philosophical position sees nothing innately wrong with the havoc of colonial governance. This thinking has easily flowed into the present,” wrote Jaffer.
“Your tweets confirm consistently repeated prejudice that feeds into the old apartheid consciousness: where whites rule, things are better: where blacks rule, things are a mess.”
I feel that Zille’s somewhat Freudian tweet has been correctly questioned, but all too often, without the pre-requisite context. We have to interrogate – and fully understand – this deeply-conditioned response to our history, one that conflates colonialism with setting positive standards.
Historically, as author Malcom Ray points out in his book Free Fall, what we are discussing here is witnessed by the British “liberal” policy of the early 19th century. It proposed that the “child-like” native had to be “educated” by the European to aspire to an imperial identity (at the cost of his own one), in which his traditions would be replaced by economic dependency.
Or as Cecil John Rhodes was to declare in 1894, “…we will teach them (the Africans) the dignity of labour,” a monstrous statement by a monstrous little man, his words echoed by the Eichmann of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoed, 70 years later.
And whilst grasping the fact that civic infrastructure was built to chiefly benefit the economic interests of the imperialist – in this case the British – we have to unveil Ms Liberty to see what really happened, and how we all have been affected by it – the so-called independent judiciary more responsible for enforcing colonial decree than real justice.
In the Cape, it was the London Missionary Society that started the rot when Dr John Philip arrived in Cape Town after 1818. The British political masters expediently saw the missionaries as an extension of British interests, and the missionaries – keen to Christianise the barbarians at the gates of the empire – were happy to play along.
Evangelically inspired – and supported by more sinister political motives – missionary liberalism became the cloak and missionary education the dagger to create a black working class in South Africa.
It would have an impact not only here, but also in India and even Palestine. Millions would die, and millions more would be uprooted in the name of empire. Ironically, it was this stream of evangelism – proposing an end-times Jewish homecoming – that inspired the Zionist discourse.
This happened well before its Jewish aspiration in 1898 by Theodore Herzl, a Viennese journalist. His Der Judenstat was predated by an Anglican chaplain, William Hechter, who wrote The Restoration of the Jews to Palestine in 1894.
Zionism – seen by some as neo-evangelical imperialism started by the British – had two significant actors in Lord Shaftesbury and Lord Oliphant. Shaftesbury would declare in 1853 that there was “a country without a nation” and that God in his wisdom had directed him to a nation without a country (historical Palestine).
An idea of how these imperialists blithely ignored the rights of others, based on their notions of superiority, is a book penned by Lord Oliphant in 1880 entitled The Land of Gilead. It reads like a handbook of the Palestinian Nakba.
Back in Africa Dr Philip, cut from the same cloth, had written home: “we have to become the masters, but rule as we do in India.” As Ray points out, “traditional social moorings” were cut, leaving the Governor of the Cape, Sir George Grey, to tellingly comment that African people had to become “useful servants, consumers of goods (and)…contributors to revenue.”
This, some would argue, is at the heart of neo-liberal policy, which they will argue entrenches historical privilege by throwing itself at the feet of market forces.
At this point, political debate aside, I’m sure it’s obvious that what 300 years of colonialism and 46 years of apartheid did was to put up a wall between South Africans. Or, to put it more bluntly, enforced class, economic and race distinctions based on a divide-and-rule policy of undermining traditional values and leadership.
This has been felt keenly in the Cape, encumbered not only by the rampant indignities of apartheid, but also by slavery and the demise of the indigenous Khoi and San – something that has been ignored when formulating policies of historical redress.
And up to 2017, our educational system has pandered to this status-quo of airbrushed history and neo-colonial syllabi. From this matrix has emerged a dangerous and divisive socio-economic polarity based on a distance from power created by privilege, despite democracy and some measurable progress.
I make no excuses for Zille – or any politician – but to believe that people can abandon decades of social conditioning at the drop of a hat, is not always realistic. If there is anything to learn from Zille’s tweet, it’s the fact that after 22 years of democracy, we still don’t know who we are, and have done very little about it.