Hellen Zille, Times Live, April 30, 2017
Last week, in the Sunday Times’s most prominently placed opinion piece, Professor Charles Ngwena offers “brotherly advice” and asks me to respond frankly to two questions.
Today I answer them in good faith, then pose a few questions of my own.
Professor Ngwena asks what Sharpeville means to me.
The massacre of 69 people protesting the pass laws, in March 1960 (shortly after I turned nine), is among my earliest political memories.
It revealed the brutal force required to keep people in subjugation, and was one of the reasons I have spent my entire life opposing injustice and working for an open and equal democracy.
Then Professor Ngwena asks whether I want to become South Africa’s Donald Trump.
The answer is an unequivocal no.
My political philosophy is the polar opposite of Donald Trump’s – and everything I have done and said in my political career underscores this. My social media commentary on the recent US election proves this and a comparison of our Twitter timelines illustrates it.
Now, may I ask Professor Ngwena to help resolve some questions that are puzzling me?
Given the fact that a wide range of liberation leaders, from Nelson Mandela to Kenneth Kaunda, have spoken publicly about the mixed legacy of colonialism, both positive and negative, why was there such an eruption when I made a much milder point, stating that the legacy of colonialism was not only negative?
Why was this comment (one of a series about lessons learnt in Singapore) twisted and distorted in every possible way to justify accusations of racism against me?
And if it is racist to talk about colonialism’s mixed legacy, why do we allow this discussion in an official history textbook, whose chief author is renowned historian Dr Maanda Mulaudzi?
On page 182 of the matric history textbook, In Search of History (Oxford University Press), one finds a prominent question: “Did colonisation have any positive effects?”
Its answer, in brief, is yes, and the section ends with this paragraph: “Colonisation also brought with it Western education, medicine and technology, as well as language, cultural and sporting links that have enabled Africa to interact with the rest of the world. Part of the legacy of colonisation has been the development of Africa into a network of modern, independent states.”
Many thousands of children must have studied from this book, which has been in our schools for about 14 years. And, as far as I am aware, its authors have not yet been reported to the Human Rights Commission, as I have.
Of course colonialism was driven by greed and oppressive intent. It had devastating consequences that extended far beyond the material to the cultural, spiritual and psychological realms, which continue to reverberate today.
Colonialism can never be defended, let alone justified.
We can spend much time debating what the world might have looked like had colonialism never happened, but it won’t help us to create an inclusive future.
Depending on the definition of colonialism, only 10 countries in the world have never been colonised.
Some former colonies have become inclusive, spectacularly successful societies; others are divided, dismal failures.
We need to understand why.
Two questions are particularly relevant to South Africa today: how can we overcome the devastating psychological legacy of colonialism?
And how can we emulate the example of those countries that have managed to repurpose aspects of colonialism’s legacy to build strong, inclusive economies?
Singapore (among other countries) has been particularly successful in this quest, and has taken its diverse population out of poverty in a single generation. During my recent visit, I spent a lot of time analysing why and how.
Apart from reports and articles, I also wrote a series of reflective tweets on the subject. To my utter amazement, one of these tweets was decontextualised and distorted, to the point that it became the focus of a major controversy.
There is clearly something more to this than meets the eye. I think I am beginning to understand what is really at work here.
Over the past few years, a tectonic shift has occurred in South African politics. The Mandela era has come to an end. Emerging, from the epicentre of our universities, is a new set of ideas rooted in Frantz Fanon’s writings and codified in “critical race theory” that regards “whiteness” and “whites” as the key obstacle to the progress of black people in South Africa.
The virus of anti-whiteness (rooted in the negative legacy of colonialism) has spread rapidly through South Africa’s born-free generation, especially the young, educated elite.
It is an attractive philosophy, partly because it romanticises revolution, and partly because it turns “whites” into an easy target, a scapegoat to avoid facing the real issues that prevent progress and economic inclusion in South Africa.
The buzzword “transformation” has been replaced by “decolonisation”. Stripped of its academic veneer, this means all whites are colonisers and have no place in the new South Africa unless they retreat into guilty self-flagellation.
Whites who meekly accept this role, among other attributes, are described as “woke”.
The condemnation of a whole category of people because of their (white) race is the new face of racism in South Africa, and it has taken us a long time to wake up to it.
Like all populist, blame-shifting philosophies, it is catching on fast, and it has potentially perilous consequences for South Africa’s future.
Bell Pottinger, the London PR company hired by the Guptas to turn the tide in their favour, did not pluck the phrase “white monopoly capital” from the air. They tapped into a pumping vein of vitriolic race invective currently flowing through South Africa’s body politic.
We ignore it at our peril.
There is a genuine risk that it will reverse the progress of our decades-long struggle for a nonracial, inclusive democracy.
Among the (minor) consequences is the idea that black people can express opinions that whites cannot. Those who think that the healing passage of time will eventually widen the space for the debate we need to have, are living in a fool’s paradise. As the benefits of scapegoating grow, the space for debate will shrink.
Let’s make no mistake, critical race theory (including its interpretation of decolonisation) is just the most recent manifestation in a long line of academic fig leafs to justify legally codified racism. I have fought these in the past, and I will continue to fight them today.
The “old Helen” you say you miss, Professor Ngwena, is very much alive and well and fighting for a nonracial democracy today, just as I was 40 years ago.