We have grown accustomed to throwing the term ‘racist’ being thrown around in our country. Hardly surprising, when one considers our history. Too often, the term is used to try and silence voices in a debate. Such use of the term is opportunistic and devalues the true power of the definition of racism.
Helen Zille’s non-apology for her statement extolling what she regards as some of the virtues of colonialism is striking not for its racism, insensitivity or dishonesty - she clearly did not mean to say sorry, because she repeated the same claims in her legislature speech after first apologizing for her tweet-but for it’s unmasking of hers and others in the DA of their liberal masks.
It reveals their true colours-their il-liberalism or neo-conservativism-and their deep-rooted anti-communism and anti-socialism. Of course, this view is underpinned by the overt and subliminal racialism that festers in the unconscious and in many cases the consciousness, of the majority of White people and even among some Coloured, Indian and Black people. It assumes that to be White is to be good, clever, better and to be Black is at best, to be in need of education about morality, the world in general and about the virtues of White people in particular.
This terrible, backward thinking is hidden beneath a thin veneer of liberal-speak in the DA. This il-liberalism demands tolerance of their reactionary views, but a vicious critique of all other views, manifesting the true supremacist nature of their thought. It advances the constant stitching together of the failings and weaknesses of the current ANC leadership, with an attack on the ANCs non-racialism, its progressive programs and its democratic character.
But Zille has done us a favour by bringing this matter out in the open. It is usually discussed around the all-White dinner table, braai or in such bars. These utterances also reveal the true nature of the DA project. This is not to build a liberal, pluralist, democracy, as it claims in its documents. It is rather to roll back the advances of the national liberation movement.
The DA seeks to defeat the national democratic revolution and in its place establish a low-intensity democracy, in which White privilege, White economic dominance and ultimately White power create ideological equivalents of the high walls and electric fences that protect the wealth and privilege accumulated through colonial conquest, slavery, apartheid and a rapacious, brutal form of capitalism.
This powerful, backward ideological strand is but one in the DA but it reveals the true irony of Zille’s complex situation. For just as the ANC faces its crisis of post-colonialism, so does the DA. Lest this critique be seen as an attempt to deflect attention away from the state of affairs in the ANC, it should be understood that these tendencies that are at the root of these crises, crass White supremacy and narrow, chauvinist Africanism, are two sides of the same coin and they feed on each other.
Helen Zille can rightly claim struggle credentials. She fought against apartheid. She is not a crude or open racist, like some others in her party and those to its right. But that does not mean she has revolutionary consciousness, or that racialised thinking does not determine her ultimate world view.
In fact, racial thinking determines all of our world views in the colonies and in the former colonial centers. Racialism, racism and the emphasis of difference was key to the colonial project. It enabled the dehumanization of subjects that were to be conquered, murdered, dispossessed and sold into slavery. These subjects, in turn, had to racialise their own world view in response to colonialism, to define their enemy and defend their homes and families.
The issue that matters now, in our post-colonial context, is how this racialised thinking is deployed. Racial claims that express or articulate a historical injustice, such as ‘White people stole the land’ are not the same as ‘Blacks were uncivilized before colonialism’. The former statement is a historical fact. The military conquest and seizure of land was the purpose of colonialism.
Liberals have frequently sought to claim to want to ‘civilise’ natives so that they may ‘earn’ the rights that their colonial masters took for granted but withheld from them. In this view, ‘natives’ are like children in that they have rights, but only under the paternalistic command of their White ‘parents. That is racist thinking. It persists today and it permeates the thinking of many, mainly White, but even some Black liberals.
The awful consequence of this is that people like Helen Zille, but in her case with her particular arrogance, do not even begin to understand or feel the pain and suffering of their fellow, mainly Black, South Africans, unless its caused by what they regard as the failures of the ANC.
All the racism, exploitation and oppression that the Black majority experienced and in many instances still do, is just the whining of ‘victims’ in her supremacist mind. No amount of her laying out the statistics of the colonial genocide and oppression to feign sensitivity will mask the fact that, in the end, she thinks that colonialism was good for the ‘natives’. It’s obvious to her, because she claims it gave them cars, religion and democracy, things they would never have had unless White people brought them.
While there can be no doubt that there were no cars before colonialism, the idea that there was no religion or democracy is simply untrue. It is a recorded fact that colonial religious ideologues claimed that Africans had no religion. They regarded the ideology of the ‘natives’ as backward, magical thinking. Similarly, even though democracy as it was practiced in the mythical font of it, Greece, is not dissimilar to what was practiced by indigenous people before colonialism and even is today in some communities, Zille and her ilk claim that it is a generous gift of colonialism.
It’s just that, you see, it’s only a good idea if it came from White Europe. How can Zille and her comrades assume that people in Africa, America, Asia and all other colonies did not have or would not develop democratic institutions? Well, it’s obvious. They could never have done it without the wisdom and intelligence of the, in their view, ‘advanced’, White, ‘civilizations’ of Europe.
In fact, the warped, elitist type of democracy brought here had to be contested and made a true democracy by the struggle of the very natives she arrogantly claims were gifted it. By the way, the motor car is a collaboratively produced technology. It is not a benefit of colonialism. The teams of people who worked on the first motor vehicles included Black people who were the descendants of slaves. C.R. Patterson, a freed slave, built motor vehicles before Henry Ford!
Just because colonists ‘had them first’ does not mean that indigenous people in the colonies could not have developed them before these people if they had never been colonized, murdered, enslaved, prostituted, exploited and stolen from.
Suggesting that people may only drive cars if they accept that colonialism brought them this opportunity is absurd, callous and frankly speaking, idiotic. In any case, these ‘things’ could have been ‘brought’ by trade. Instead it was through conquest and the destruction of millions of people’s lives.
This is exactly what is wrong with Zille’s brand of il-liberalism. It does not acknowledge colonialism as an interruption of the history of development of the indigenous, colonized people. It assumes that any historical claim is a badge of victimhood. It assumes that a call to level the playing field is an injustice, when the real injustice is what Zille is arguing for, to ‘forget history, forget what was done to your ancestors, forget all the property that was stolen, stop whining and pull yourself up by your bootstraps’.
Her claims about religion assume that just because the colonial legacy lives on in people’s belief systems, for example in Christianity or Islam, that indigenous people had no better beliefs of their own. The descendants of colonial oppression did not chose Christianity or Islam. It was imposed on them. So to ask them to abandon it or admit it is for their own good is patronizing to say the least, not to mention, perverse.
Her interpretation of the quotation of Mandela is opportunistic. It is not evident in what our founding father said that he meant that democracy and education were benefits of colonialism. He says that they are consequences. In our complex, post-colonial context, we must understand that even though we now have ideas that may have originated in Europe, this was at the expense of indigenous knowledge.
Add to that that, colonialism created a hegemonic system of knowledge within which many of the colonial subjects themselves have accepted the values of their colonial masters. In other words, just as Zille would claim that she may speak on colonialism, colonial subjects can claim that there are Black people who act and speak for the colonial interests.
This ideological comprador intelligentsia can therefore not be a legitimate source of ‘evidence’ for her claims. A true pluralism, the freedom the ANC stands for, seeks to create a space for a debate about knowledge systems that recognizes the value of indigenous knowledge and does not seek to argue that this is somehow less valuable, less developed or less legitimate than that which was imposed through colonialism and then developed under the oppressive and exploitative conditions of colonialism, apartheid and capitalism.
An alarming claim Zille makes is that of the prediction of a race war. This is probably her own unconscious fear of Black people being expressed, but the reality is that if there is to be an escalation of higher levels of conflict in our society, it will be because of the poverty, inequality, unemployment, violence and racism that is being reproduced by our untransformed, post-colonial political economy.
It will be a class conflict, but because of our history it will necessarily be played out in racialised terms. The only way to avoid this scenario is not to deny race as a historical category. It is not to realistic to suggest that because race is a factor in competing economic claims it must be abandoned before our society can advance to a more united, non-racial future. This challenge requires that we all, Black, White, Colored, Indian as we were classified, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jew and African religion believers, acknowledge the reality of the post-colonial context we live in.
This means accepting the claims to land, wealth, opportunity of those people who were denied these under colonialism, slavery, apartheid and capitalism. Zille’s argument is one to maintain the status quo. It is to defend the current political economy.
We must debate the future of our country, openly. We do want a country in which skin color, religion, sexual preferences or any other differences, do not determine how people are treated. But this cannot be done in an ahistorical way that chooses to ignore the past. It can also not be a revisionist project that seeks to rewrite our history in such a manner that it waters down the scope of injustice and the historical claims of the dispossessed.
We must confront our post-colonial present through developing a critique of colonialism that recognizes the scale and the extent of the dispossession and even liquidation of the languages, beliefs and customs of the colonial subjects and gives the historical claims, including for property and wealth, their full status.
Faiez Jacobs is the Provincial Secretary of the ANC in the Western Cape. He writes in his personal capacity.