Helen Zille's Flawed Logic Makes Colonialism A Requirement For Progress -- Which It Is Not

South Africa could've and would've had a transition into specialised healthcare and medication without colonial influence.

12/06/2017 03:59 SAST | Updated 12/06/2017 06:34 SAST
Mark Wessells/ Reuters
Helen Zille.

I think we can all agree that democracy is an idea. I also think we can agree that ideas are best communicated by appealing to people's reason. You don't have to beat an idea into someone. In fact, any amount of violence can only result in resistance. For instance, Einstein did not convince other scientists that general relativity describes our physical world better than Newtonian physics by physically assaulting them. He convinced his detractors through reason.

For centuries, countries have traded ideas, technologies and goods through mutual agreement. At no point did South Korea have to invade South Africa and subjugate us to introduce Samsung to us. Americans didn't have to colonise us to convince us to buy Ford bakkies or Apple iPads. On March 16, 2017, Helen Zille tweeted: "Would we have had a transition into specialised health care and medication without colonial influence? Just be honest, please."

She later followed this up with: "For those claiming the legacy of colonialism was only negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water, etc." The short, simple and honest answer to her question is yes. South Africa could've and would've had a transition into specialised health care and medication without colonial influence. We could've and would've also had an independent judiciary, transport infrastructure and piped water. Fair trade was always an option.

Without her realising it, Helen Zille's logic presupposes colonialism as the only way that white people might have been able to share ideas and technologies with other continents at the time. Her logic makes colonialism a requirement for progress. It is the same logic that certain countries use to this day when they invade other countries to "bring them democracy".

Yet countries and people have shared ideas and technologies since the beginning of recorded history without necessarily colonising or subjugating each other. For instance, I'm now sharing my ideas with you, the reader, without kicking in your door, raiding your kitchen, punching you in the face and kicking you while you're down. I don't have to write these words and shove it in your bloodied mouth for you to understand my message. No force is required; only humility and friendship.

We have now reached a crossroads where we have to ask ourselves if Zille is correct in her assertion. Would it have been possible for our European ancestors to share ideas with Africa without subjugating and oppressing its people? Was it at all necessary to have all that conflict? Is it necessary today? Do we need to defend the violence that some of our European ancestors used to reach the point where we are today? Where would we have been without the violence and oppression? Would we have had specialised health care, medication, our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water, etc?

The moral option was always there to share ideas and technologies without invading people's countries and enslaving them.

My answer is yes. We could've had all of that and even more than we have today. You never need to invade a country and oppress its people to introduce an idea to them. Subjugation and oppression, in fact, slow down progress. Our ancestors were wrong. There were always other ways, better ways.

When Emily Hobhouse brought the deprived conditions of British concentration camps to the attention of the British public during the Anglo-Boer war, she was not acting as a colonialist but as a human being. Pipes with running water and the western judicial system was not the legacy of colonialism. Colonialism was merely one of the possible vehicles that brought these western ideas to Africa. Exactly the same progress could've been made through trade agreements. But at the time, Europeans did not deem Africans to be their equals. Colonialists had no intention to build anything for Africa.

Emily Hobhouse wrote, "Above all one would hope that the good sense, if not the mercy, of the English people, will cry out against the further development of this cruel system which falls with crushing effect upon the old, the weak, and the children. May they stay the order to bring in more and yet more. Since Old Testament days was ever a whole nation carried captive?" So, to come back to Zille's question: would Africa have made the same progress without the influence of colonialism? To answer that, just imagine boatloads of people like Emily Hobhouse instead of boatloads of British soldiers. What do you think?

The moral option was always there to share ideas and technologies without invading people's countries and enslaving them. Never was violence and enslavement a necessity. Our ancestors chose the route of subjugation because they could and because they cared only for their empire. That was what colonialism was about and nothing else. It was about subjecting other countries to an empire and exploiting them.

I speak for myself when I say I am a South African; not a coloniser. I have no desire to subjugate anyone nor do I think it's a good idea to ascribe anything positive to such a violent and oppressive ideology. On the contrary, I would argue that we as South Africans, black and white, made progress and freed ourselves from an oppressive system, and somehow still have everything we have today, despite colonialism. That is the story we should tell. That should be our narrative.

The truth always has two faces. There is the truth of the self, and there is the truth of the other. We need a story we can share; not one that divides us. Let us make our own story. Let us tell our own truth and not the truth of an oppressive system we managed to free ourselves from. We are South Africans. We are not a colony of anyone and we have no colonisers. We are free.