Conquest of India

It is strange that one tweet can destroy an entire career. But that appears to be the fate that some of Helen Zille’s critics – both inside and outside the Democratic Alliance – would wish upon her.

Before I continue, a brief disclaimer: I am an old friend of Helen’s. She is someone whom I admire and like. Her achievements in fighting apartheid and developing her party are immense. Having said that I don’t think all her tweets have been wise.

That tweet

Let us begin with what she actually said in her now famous (notorious?) tweet: “For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc.”

Helen later apologised for any offence caused by the statement. Her spokesman made her position clear. “[She has apologised] To anyone who may have taken the tweet to be offensive. But it’s also important for us to clarify that she was in no way defending colonialism, she was referring to the Singaporean people and how they had rebuilt their nation and built a successful economy. She will be responding in detail in the coming days.”

But the damage was done – as far as her critics were concerned. There was nothing for it but for the DA to initiate a disciplinary process, which is now under way.

The underlying issue

Let us look at the question Helen raised: that the legacy of colonialism is ONLY negative.

Here the evidence is clearly on her side. Two points are self-evident from any objective analysis.

Firstly, that until very recently colonialism and imperialism were the normal course of human history. There was nothing uniquely different about the British empire of the nineteenth century or American imperialism of the twentieth. It was only with the invention of those imperfect universal bodies – the League of Nations and the United Nations – that the world community really attempted to stand by existing borders. Even then (as the example of South Sudan makes plain) this position can be changed if the pressure is sufficient. Somaliland could well be the next state to be born in Africa…but I digress.

This is not to argue – please note! – that colonialism is to be encouraged or welcomed in any way. But, as I have said, it was clearly the normal course of events for most of human history.

This point is eloquently made by the foremost scholar of the British empire, Professor John Darwin, in his book “Unfinished Empire: the Global Expansion of Britain.”  As he puts it:

“We live in a world that empires have made. Indeed, most of the modern world is a relic of empires: colonial and pre-colonial, African, Asian, European and American. Its history and culture is riddled with the memories, aspirations, institutions and grievances left behind by these empires.” (p. 1)

Secondly, empires have clearly been transmitters of ideas and innovation. To quote John Darwin again: “empires cannot be seen as the inveterate enemies of cultural and material advance among those that they ruled over. Indeed, historians of pre-modern or non-European empires show few qualms in conceding that, whatever their shortfall in political freedom, they were often culturally creative and materially beneficial.” (see a lengthy extract below)

One only need think of the innovations the Mughal brought to India. This is from the Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website. As the author notes, the Mughals “hailed from murderous, invading ancestors” but they are also credited with bringing about extraordinary developments. “The Mughal Emperors attained great power in India from 1526 to 1757. They lived surrounded by incredible opulence, created magnificent Architecture and developed Arts and Culture.”

Much the same can be said of the creative genius Arabs brought to Catholic Spain.

Let me quote from just one source: “‘The Arab contribution to human progress—astronomy, mathematics, cosmology, the variety and magnificent wealth of architectural form—is a remarkable legacy of a people who entered the land as conquerors and became peaceful masters. From the establishment of the first mosque in Cordova in 785 until the time of their expulsion by the Catholic kings in 1492, the Moors dominated the intellectual life of the area and had a profound impact on European civilization, which assimilated many of their ideas.’

These points are incontestable and much the same can be said of southern Africa.

Its people – who have now lived together for many centuries – need to come to terms with what took place. Yes, contemporary South Africa was brought about by “murderous, invading ancestors” just like as modern India or Spain, but the invaders also brought development, innovation and cultural change.

In any case, the past cannot be undone. Whites cannot return to Europe any more than the Ndebele can be asked to leave Zimbabwe, or the Normans called on to return to France.

Crucifying Helen Zille for one tweet will solve nothing. It will only obfuscate the past.

The time has come for reconciliation: to live critically with our history (or histories) and celebrate our diversity. South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white. 

Quote from John Darwin: “Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain,” Allen Lane, London, 2012

Darwin does not attempt to either defend or attack the claims that imperialism was either good or bad. Instead he attacks the idea that it was uniquely European and uniquely modern.
The underlying assumption, on which almost all else hangs, is that empires are abnormal, a monstrous intrusion in a usually empire-free world. No error could be more basic, or perhaps more revealing of an unconscious Eurocentricism. Empire – as the assertion of mastery (by influence or rule) by one ethnic group, or its rulers, over a number of others – has been the political rule of the road over much of the world and over much of world history: the default mode of state organisation. Nor was it just the modern world that was created by empire. This suggests that the conditions that give rise to empires are neither modern, nor peculiarly rooted in European behaviour, technology or values. It also suggests – unless we dispense with our view of historical change as a whole – that empires cannot be seen as the inveterate enemies of cultural and material advance among those that they ruled over. Indeed, historians of pre-modern or non-European empires show few qualms in conceding that, whatever their shortfall in political freedom, they were often culturally creative and materially beneficial. It seems strange to withhold this more balanced approach from the European empires as a matter of doctrine (of course an empirical finding might turn out to be negative. It leads (an additional problem) to a history of stereotypes; to a cut-and-dried narrative in which the interests of rulers and ruled are posed as stark opposites, without the ambiguity and uncertainty which define most human behaviour. It denies to the actors whose thoughts and deeds we trace more than the barest autonomy, since they are trapped in a thought-world that determines their motives and rules their behaviour. It treats the subjects of empire as passive victims of fate, without freedom of action or the cultural space in which to preserve or enhance their own rituals, belief-systems or customary practices. It imagines the contact between the rulers and ruled as a closed bilateral encounter, sealed off from the influence of regional, continental or global exchange.” (p. 6 – 7 Emphasis added)