Vinoth Ramachandra

Beyond Victimhood

Posted on: March 18, 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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11 Responses to "Beyond Victimhood"

As a ‘white’ South South African I really enjoyed this read – not because of your defense of Zille but because it’s a very serious issue that is almost forbidden to talk about. However, I think we need to probe deeper and ask what is really going on here. I would argue that the western world (mostly represented by ‘whites’ in SA) and the African world (mostly represented by ‘blacks’ in SA) who interpret the world in two fundamentally different ways. ‘White’ South Africa is driven by a more individual worldview that applauds achievement and adherence to rules (over relationship) while ‘black’ South Africa is driven by a need to reclaim their identity and dignity in a world that continues to be dominated by western hegemonic thought. We see this through calls of ‘African solutions to African problems’ and more recently through the threat by African heads of state to withdraw from the ICC and the #Rhodesmustfall movement. So, was Zille’s tweet and the subsequent outcry a clash of cultural values and attempts from both groups to protect fragile identities that are perceived to be under threat? While this blog speaks a lot of sense and brings some objectivity to the context, are these ideals realistic given the histories of oppression and inequality. What this raises is the importance of worldview. I believe the only way we can begin to have these discussions is if we can begin to understand and speak to the values that inform the ‘others’ identity – the other options are to simply be silent or risk hardening intergroup boundaries as has happened in this scenario.

Cathy,

I appreciate your comment.

However, I don’t think worldviews are as tidy, coherent and self-contained as some writers (particularly in popular Christian apologetics/missiologies) depict them. But I agree with you that we have to “speak to the values that inform the other’s identity”. This often will involve showing up contradictions between what people profess and how they behave. With Western whites,for instance, helping them to see the hypocrisy/double standards of their espousal of individual human rights or the rule of law. In the case of cultures that talk much about the value of relationships, why do they tolerate dictators or the destruction of families by alcoholism, domestic violence, etc?

As for “histories of oppression and inequality”, one of the things I tried to say in my post is that such histories both pre-date and post-date the era of European colonialism. There are also different axes on which oppression occurs. So somebody who is oppressed on account of his ethnicity may be an oppressor of the women whom he employs.

Here is a link to a review by Indivar Kamtekar, a professor of history at JNU, New Delhi on a rather well received book written by Shashi Tharoor, An Era of Darkness (Aleph, 2016) that follows the rather simplistic narrative of binaries. I have seen many posts on social media that have naively lauded and congratulated Tharoor’s point of view in the book as well as at a much publicised Oxford Union debate. Indivar Kamtekar clearly points out the mistakes of such a view. Do read – http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/an-era-of-darkness-shashi-tharoor-british-rule-mughal-empire/1/801005.html

Thanks for the link, Joy. It’s an excellent review.

Thanks for the post and the discussion. As a white German currently living in South Africa I witnessed the public outcry after Zille’s tweets both in the media and first hand among people I met. While it may feel easy for a semi-outsider like me (not South African, but white) to take the “objective” stance and see also the weakness in the arguments of Zille’s critics, I wondered whether a reason for the different attitudes Cathy described could perhaps lie in the fact, that for whites colonialism is a thing of the past whereas for black people it may very much feel like a continuing evil which holds them down (hence the many calls for decolonisation). If that’s the case, Zille’s comments must have sounded rather cynical and indeed like a defense of colonialism. I suppose I and other people representing the West must learn to notice and acknowledge any sentiments that inform attitudes towards us. This includes other people’s perspectives on our way of dealing with the past and injustices that happened and which are in many ways perpetuated today. Perhaps it is only when we are granted spaces to express critical thoughts on those who were oppressed and maybe still feel disadvantaged, that such “objective” judgement of issues is appropriate.

Thanks for the link Joy, loved those lines … “Unlike life, history-writing allows us to choose our ancestors. Our choices are more arbitrary, more the products of indoctrination, predilection and convenience than we admit.” At the end of the day this should deter anybody from leaning too much towards one side.

Hi Vinoth I’ve only just come across your blog but like it a lot. The world is complex and inconsistent and in my opinion anybody that lives in simple generalisations will consistently experience distress as the world refuses to conform to their beliefs. I’ve recently been meeting Christians in the Balkans and the recent history defies simple narratives – which doesn’t stop political demagogues trying. And as most people identify in multiple ways (e.g. evangelical, female, Macedonian, mother, social worker) what I found inspiring was how they all could find aspects of Jesus’ teachings that related to them.

Hi Vinoth. Thanks for this post. As a Belgian who’s been living in Cape Town for over 3 years now, I’ve seen a lot of my black and coloured friends respond to Zille’s tweet and I can see at least two reasons why there was such a big outcry.

1. The method of influence. I don’t know how colonialism is defined in academic research, but in South Africa it has become the equivalent of the West coming in and taking possession. If Zille would have used “Western influence” instead of “colonialism”, it probably would have still caused an outcry, but her vocabulary would have at least been more nuanced.

As you yourself illustrate in the last chapter of Subverting Global Myths, India influenced the West in their cotton and steel production, but it did so without ever colonising the West. A lot of the responses I read to Zille point to this aspect specifically.

I saw several people compare Zille’s statements to a rapist saying to his rape victim: “Not all was bad; look at the beautiful baby I left you with.” While this may have been a too black-and-white comparison, it does draw attention to the method of Western influence and I’m under the impression that it is especially that method that is under fire.

Everywhere in Cape Town (and even more in Stellenbosch for that matter), evidence of South Africa’s colonial past is encountered. While the #RhodesMustFall movement successfully was able to take the statue of Rhodes down at UCT, his memorial still looks over the campus on government owned land a bit higher up the mountain. While Rhodes brought some good things with him, he brought them in a horrible fashion, and in the debate about Zille I do not think we can ignore the fact that she – as a white person – mentions colonialism as a method.

2. The person to deliver the message. While I agree that it is necessary that we try to engage in an objective evaluation of history, I do not think we can dismiss the emotions involved with recent history.

Helen Zille is a white politician and to a lot of black people in South Africa she represents the fact that the 8% white population of South Africa owns over 60% of the land, as Sharlene Swartz recently pointed out at The Justice Conference. Zille – as the premier of the Western Cape – has recently decided against offering the Tafelberg site up for affordable housing, even though the mayor of Cape Town (and party member of Zille) indicated that the city was interested in this.

This is just one example – albeit one that has dragged on for month and that came to a decision only last week – of how Zille has made it very difficult to be a credible voice in objectively addressing the colonial past.

Would it have made a difference if Zille wasn’t white? I have no idea. I’m sure that some people would have still been angry, but I’d like to think that raising these questions in the current climate should been done by the victims of colonialism, not its perpetrators.

Again, as you indicate in “Myths of Postcolonialism”, “third world” theologies are still identified as being part of a specific group (African, Indian, South American, etc.) and they are a much smaller recognised voice than the West still is. In South Africa, a country that is still so plagued by its recent history, I think white people should learn to be a bit more strategic in the public debate. I think waiting for people of colour to initiate discussion is a good thing. As white people, waiting to be invited to the discussion is so too.

The only time many white people came to the streets for one of the many …MustFall movements in the last two years was the #ZumaMustFall one. After the country had known protests related to taking down statues of Rhodes and the like, and desperate cries to make education accessible to all, both movements that white people were largely absent in, they jumped to the occasion to criticise the current black leader.

While that protest may have been well-intended (Zuma isn’t an exemplary leader), standing up and defending those who have suffered most from centuries of colonialism followed by the brutal years of Apartheid, should be a first response for whites to gain credibility.

Sorry that this has become such a long-winded post. I’m not sure if I’ve done justice to your argument or the response of my fellow black and coloured Christians here in South Africa.

Thanks, Job. This is very helpful in understanding the context. I agree that who says such things is important, and I was not aware of Zille’s history. My mistake.

Thank you for your swift reply, Vinoth. I finished your chapter on Postcolonialism yesterday and I have recommended to a lot of my South African friends that they read Subverting Global Myths. The book has been quite instrumental in my thinking the past months (I read it at a quite slow pace).

Thanks, Vinoth. Yes, the world is more nuanced than the one story recipes that people often use to justify selfish ends or to cover up inability or unwillingness to think about and through pertinent issues. One good thing about being to face all facts, is that if you do, you can more easily look at yourself in the mirror and accept yourself, warts and all. ……

I am reminded of an incident some years now, when while giving a lecture at Columbia University, Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem lamented the sorry condition of Africa’s post-Independence leadership. He remarked, “If an American ship docked at Lagos port today, with a huge banner reading “SLAVE SHIP TO AMERICA”, there would be a queue of millions of Nigerians wanting to get on that ship.” Honestly, and of course sadly, unless that is so true of the African condition today! Yet leaders like Museveni, Mugabe, and others put their heads in the sand and pretend that all is well and dandy on their watch.

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