What Helen Zille is getting wrong about colonialism

Helen Zille

This weekend Helen Zille took to Twitter once again to defend colonialism. In the tweet she says that although colonialism was “terrible,” its legacy is not only negative. This is a reassertion of the opinion she expressed on Twitter in 2017, that without colonialism South Africa would not have had an independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water, specialised health care, the Constitution, formal education institutions and the English language. Her point is that these are all things that are good, and because colonialism gave them to us, we should grant it some credit.

Zille’s defence of the legacy of white domination in South Africa is not only problematic because it disregards the pain of black people, but also because it logically relies on and perpetuates the very racist assumptions that justified colonialism in the first place.

One of the founding narratives of colonialism is that the West is somehow ahead in time, speeding into the future, leading the way. Other societies, with alternative belief systems and ways of organising the world are argued to be “primitive,” always lagging behind and needing to catch up with the West. Colonialism is then represented as the project of spreading the light of Western “civilization” to colonised places, so that they too can move out of a barbaric and archaic past, into an enlightened and modern present. 

Part of the reason why this ideological structuring of the world is so powerful, resilient and destructive, is because it works to erase or distort any knowledge systems, practices or cosmologies that compete with those of the West. In other words, the coloniser could simply dismiss knowledges of non-Western people that contradict Western understandings, on account of the claim that such knowledges are primitive, that if sufficiently developed, they will inevitably “arrive” at the Western “truths.”

When Zille asserts that the Western legal system, languages, education, and societal configurations are crucial things that South Africa needed to get from the coloniser (even if African people were killed, tortured and oppressed in the process), she is assuming that Africans could not have come up with alternative structures, knowledges and institutions that would have worked just as well, or possibly even better.  

Contrary to this, postcolonial scholars are showing how precolonial African societies had highly sophisticated ways of structuring society, even if they were radically different from those of the West. For example, Oyèrónké Oyěwùmí describes the nuanced egalitarian gender norms of precolonial Yoruba society in Nigeria, and Mueni wa Muiu explores the strengths and subtleties of various forms of “state” of certain precolonial African societies.

More generally, Western philosophers are increasingly becoming interested in relational conceptions of human subjectivity, something that African thinkers have been developing for centuries. Similarly, Western environmentalists today are looking at African, Asian and South American understandings of the relation between human life and nature, in attempts to address the shortcomings of Western approaches. Based on shifts like this, thinkers like Jean and John Comaroff argue that Africa is not lagging behind the West, but is in many important ways, far ahead.

The other point is of course that there are many ways and routes of knowledge exchange that are were possible outside of the violent and coercive framework of colonialism. People have always been travelling to and from Africa as migrants, traders, and explorers among many other things. Zille fails to consider what the world could have looked like today if knowledge exchange between different peoples happened in free and mutually beneficial ways.

The second major problem in Zille’s thinking is that she disregards the fact that these Western institutions do not operate in neutral ways in colonised societies like South Africa. Postcolonial scholars show for example how the missionary education system was specifically employed to establish and maintain racial hierarchies, to erode indigenous ways of being in the world and to secure the power of Empire. It is well known how, during apartheid the education system was used to enforce racial hierarchy. Today in post-apartheid South Africa the #feesmustfall and #rhodesmustfall movements powerfully showed how the Western formal education system still works to marginalise black students in so far as it is permeated with racism and works to erase the histories and thought of black people.

The same can be said for the legal system, which has for centuries been used against black people, and still functions to serve mainly the white, middleclass man. Even the human rights framework of the Constitution is sometimes convincingly criticised because its focus on individual rights is anchored in Western liberalism that is out of step with the relational ethos and understanding of human life that is indigenous to South Africa.

It is unclear why Zille wants us to be so grateful for the English language, which remains a vehicle for white power and Westerncentric capitalism; and operates as a marker of privilege that often works to marginalise people who are not white, not rich and not sufficiently educated according to Western norms.

When Zille is defending the legacy of colonialism, she is therefore speaking squarely from within the racist, Westerncentric colonial paradigm, which assumes that the West is leading the way, that everything of value comes from the West, and that without its guidance, Africa would forever be stuck in some dark and degenerate past.

Dr Azille Coetzee is a postdoctoral fellow at the South African Research Chair in Gender Politics at Stellenbosch University. She is the author of the forthcoming book In my Vel: ‘n Reis to be published by Tafelberg Publishers.