Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for March 2017

Last Thursday, Helen Zille, the former leader of South Africa’s main opposition party and the current premier of the Western Cape, wrote on Twitter : “For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water.” In another post she included “specialised healthcare and medication” as one of the benefits brought by colonial rule.

The comments provoked a public outcry in social media as well as among other politicians. She has apologised unreservedly, but will face a disciplinary process by her political party.

I am puzzled by the outcry and believe that Zille should not have apologised.

If we cannot engage in an objective, nuanced and morally responsible evaluation of our national histories, including the legacy of colonialism, then we condemn ourselves to intellectual obscurantism and the emotionally-charged political polarization that we now see sweeping the United States and Europe. Is this what we in Africa and Asia really want?

I could understand the outcry if Zille had justified apartheid. Or if she spoke of colonialism as nothing but a blessing and had not emphasized (in upper case) the word “ONLY”. But she clearly was not identifying colonialism with apartheid or slavery- which are absolute evils. And her immediate apology stands in marked contrast to those post-apartheid leaders who refuse to own up to corruption and other criminal acts.

It is only those who see the world in black-and-white (😏) who refuse to acknowledge anything good in their enemies. Even the early Christians could acknowledge some of the benefits of the pax Romana even as they proclaimed as the Lord of Caesar one who was an innocent victim of that oppressive pax. One need not be whitewashing (😉) European colonialism by simply recognizing that we who live in post-colonial societies have benefited from some aspects of colonial rule. Why does revulsion towards the British empire not translate into the rejection of sports such as cricket and rugby? And I would add to Zille’s list of post-colonial goods modern science and technology, parliamentary democracy, and universities (of which South Africa still boasts the best in Africa).

That these were all practised hypocritically, patronisingly and were biased towards ruling elites (and outside of South Africa, the latter included many native people), should be openly acknowledged by Europeans. But just as apportioning blame for slavery should also include those African chiefs who sold their own people to Arab and European slave traders, so apportioning blame for, say, Britain’s “divide and rule” colonial policies should include those native elites who welcomed those policies because they aligned with their own political and commercial interests. (The American historian Robert Frykenberg has pointed out that the British Raj in India was often a Hindu Raj because it served the interests of upper-caste Hindus who desired a Western education in English for their offspring and the state patronage of Hindu temples and institutions).

Is racism only to be named as such when it involves white people? Are we forbidden to call “racist” the black tribalisms in South Africa, or the treatment of Dalits and other dark-skinned peoples in India by Brahmins, or the brutality of the Japanese in China and Korea in the 1930s, or the Chinese government’s current treatment of Uighurs, or the constitutionally-approved discrimination against non-Malays in Malaysia, or the apartheid system that flourishes in Dubai and other Gulf states and to which many Indians as well as Europeans flock? The list is endless.

And are we, in the guise of “political correctness” refusing to discuss in our universities or mass media the many “internal colonialisms” in Asia and Africa that were- and continue to be- no less horrific than the worst expressions of Western colonialism? On a visit to Kenya last year, I was shocked to learn that most of the land is owned by just ten families. European settlers continue to enjoy privileges that the vast majority of Kenyans are denied. But most of those super-rich families are black Kenyans, and the income inequality and lopsided “development” in the country must be laid at the feet of the post-colonial state. The dispossession of peoples from their lands, whether in Africa or Asia, happened in the pre-colonial era and continues unabated today.

If what I have written is taken, like Zille’s tweets, as a defence of European colonialism, then put it down to my failure in communication. But I do believe it is a fundamental Biblical notion that moral outrage should begin with self-examination before it moves out to confront others.

The eminent Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield once observed that the history of the Hebrew people in the Old Testament was “the only national history I ever remembered reading which proclaimed the sinfulness of the nation- proclaimed its own nation even to be worse than the pagan nations around them.”

When there is so much jingoism around that parades itself as “Christian”, and everybody wants to adopt a “victim mentality” by blaming their national ills on foreigners (white or black, it hardly matters), it is good to be reminded of what makes Christian faith truly universal and counter-cultural.


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