Zille, colonialism and freedom of speech

Dave Steward says we urgently need honest conversations about our deeply divided past


The controversy over Helen Zille’s recent tweet on colonialism has far-reaching implications for the freedom of speech, the future of our national debate and important constitutional principles.

Following her recent visit to Singapore Zille identified Singapore’s retention of the best from its colonial past as one of the reasons for its phenomenal success. Zille amplified this in her controversial tweet: “For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc.”

The tweet elicited an avalanche of furious criticism – much of it from her own party:

Mmusi Maimane responded: “Let’s make this clear: Colonialism, like Apartheid, was a system of oppression and subjugation. It can never be justified.”

Gordon Mackay MP pitched in “I do not share @helenzille view that colonialism had “some benefits”. A system of racial supremacy can never be justified.”

Phumzile Van Damme, DA spokesperson, added “Colonialism was a crime against humanity. There isn’t a single aspect of it that can be said to be positive or beneficial to Africans.”

Zille quickly apologized to anyone who thought that she was defending colonialism. “…I understand the pain and I understand the evil, and I have spent my whole life fighting it…”

Her tweet has nevertheless confronted the DA with an impossible dilemma – of having to act against its bravest and most successful former leader (and perhaps against its own liberal principles) – or of having to placate its growing black constituency at a critical time in history.

European colonialism undoubtedly had a catastrophic impact on the indigenous peoples of the all but ten countries in the world that were colonized.

Colonialism also had a traumatic impact on the peoples of South Africa: between 1879 and 1902 the Xhosas, the Zulus and the Afrikaners were all subjugated by the British after bitter and devastating wars.

So, everyone – including Helen Zille – agrees that colonialism “should not be justified”.

However, as the great German historian Leopold von Ranke observed, history is “what actually happened” (wie es eigentlich gewesen). It is not a buffet from which we can pick and choose according to the ideological tastes of our own time. If we wish to learn from history we need to understand it in all its multidimensionality.

Whether we like it or not, invasions, conquests and the subjugation of peoples has been a constant theme of the human story.

This includes Africa. The southward migrating Bantu displaced the original San inhabitants. The Mfecane, unleashed by Shaka, caused more than a millions deaths and subjugated peoples throughout the eastern parts of South Africa. Mzilikazi overwhelmed the peoples then living on the high veld – and subsequently in present-day Zimbabwe.

However, it would be wrong to say that these historic developments had no positive aspects. The same is true of virtually all conquests – including those of the Romans, the Arabs and even the Europeans.

South Africa – like every other country on earth - is the product of its past. Despite the depredations of colonialism

- those criticizing Zille do so in a colonial language, English;

- many belong to religious denominations imported by colonialists;

- our constitutional institutions and values were influenced by the best aspects of Europe’s constitutional evolution; and

- South Africa, as constituted within its present borders, would simply not exist without colonialism.

Without colonialism there would be no Coloured or Indian communities. Are Zille’s critics really suggesting that their presence in South Africa is not “positive or beneficial…”?

And what about the whites – most of whom support the DA? Are there really no positive or beneficial aspects of their presence in South Africa since 1652? Or would South Africa have been a better place without them – as President Zuma suggested when he said that all South Africa’s problems have their roots in the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck?

Had Zille simply referred to Singapore’s retention of the best elements of its British heritage, nobody would have been too concerned. Her mistake was to use the “C” word – which has now become tripwire in South Africa’s emotionally explosive political discourse.

‘Colonialism’ is a central element in the very nasty racial mobilization that is currently being stoked by the ANC and radical students as a prelude to radical economic transformation. Whites are increasingly depicted as “colonialists” – as alien interlopers who ‘stole’ all the land they now own; whose wealth is ‘undeserved’ because it was derived from ‘black exploitation’; and who are ultimately responsible for continuing poverty, unemployment and inequality in South Africa.

These racial stereotypes are extremely dangerous because they are believed with all the passionate intensity of the Inquisition – and as with the Inquisition it has become heresy to question them.

We urgently need honest conversations about our deeply divided past – difficult and traumatic as they may be. We need to deepen and broaden this debate – and not foreclose discussion by the imposition of a mindless “black is good/white is evil” dogma. Sadly, such a discussion has become a minefield – even in the supposedly liberal DA - where anyone who takes a politically incorrect step is in danger of detonating a career-destroying explosion.

Last week the ANC took the threat to freedom of speech an Orwellian step further by calling for legislation to punish people like Helen Zille: “Where people refuse to be educated on their wrongs, they must be punished by the law. Such include opposition leaders who make utterances praising colonialism.”

What does the Constitution say about all this?

It guarantees freedom of expression which includes the freedom to receive or impart ideas – including differing views about our history;

It calls on us to heal the divisions of the past – but how can we do this if we are not permitted to have honest discussions about our history?

It says that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity – including those whose ancestors came from Europe;

It proclaims the equality of all South Africans – and protects their right to participate in their culture – including cultures associated with colonialism; and, importantly,

it calls on us to “respect those who have worked to build and develop our country” including people with roots in our colonial past.

One wonders whether Zille’s inquisitors will take these constitutional principles into account when they decide her fate – or whether they will be swayed by more mundane questions of political power and advantage?

We are all the products of our past – with all its injustices, traumas, achievements and sometime triumphs. If we do not understand our history in all its complexity, we stand little chance of understanding ourselves - and of moving forward together toward the racial harmony and prosperity of societies like Singapore.

If we cannot speak freely about the past, we cannot speak freely about anything – since the past permeates every nook and cranny of the present and the future.

Dave Steward is Chairman of the FW de Klerk Foundation.