Helen Zille and “valuable aspects of colonial heritage”.

Readers will know that I’m not partial to shaming others, and that I try to avoid polarised viewpoints. I also try to apply the principle of charity – in other words, try to understand what someone was trying to say, rather than simply judging their statements based on surface-level meaning.

And while it’s fairly easy to imagine what Helen Zille thought we should take from her tweets yesterday, it’s very difficult to comprehend how someone with so much experience and knowledge of South African politics could be so naive – or ignorant – as to tweet what she did.

But this post is not for the haters, or those who want to see her immediately dismissed. It’s also not for those who think she’s done nothing wrong, and that those criticising her are “virtue-signalling”. My intention is to try and illustrate, for those who are perplexed by the furore, why the tweets were idiotic.

Here’s what she said, following a trip to Singapore:

  1. Much to learn from Singapore, colonised for as long as SA, and under brutal occupation in WW2. Can we apply the lessons in our democracy?
  2. Singapore had no natural resources and 50 years ago was poorer than most African countries. Now they soar. What are the lessons?
  3. I think Singapore lessons are: 1) Meritocracy; 2) multiculturalism; 3) work ethic; 4) open to globalism; 4) English. 5) Future orientation.
  4. Other reasons for Singapore’s success: Parents take responsibility for children, and build on valuable aspects of colonial heritage.
  5. For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc.
  6. Would we have had a transition into specialised health care and medication without colonial influence? Just be honest, please.
  7. Getting onto an aeroplane now and won’t get onto the wi-fi so that I can cut off those who think EVERY aspect of colonial legacy was bad.

The first three tweets are unproblematic (to me – some of you might have issues with aspects of #3). Things start getting sticky with “valuable aspects of colonial heritage”, and then only get worse from there.

The basic issues, as far as I’m concerned, are these:

To describe anything good that might have originated during colonialism as an “aspect of colonial heritage” foregrounds colonialism, and makes it appear to be a necessary cause for that thing’s existence.

(The distinction here is between a cause without which something wouldn’t have happened – a necessary cause – and a cause which (perhaps) results in something happening, but where it might have happened in any case – a sufficient cause.)

But these goods are arguably achieved despite colonialism, rather than thanks to it, in South Africa at least. Colonialism was a project of asset-stripping, set up to enhance the welfare of one race, ultimately at the expense of the vast majority of the population, who are still underprivileged because of colonialism, and who will continue to be for generations to come.

And, you can achieve those goods without colonialism too. As a friend put it on Facebook:

Countries and societies develop in large part as a consequence of exchange and interaction with outsiders, and that’s a good thing. The point is it is possible to have that exchange and interaction without invasion and subjugation.

You could of course ask questions about the historical accuracy of Zille’s view too. Consider tweet #5, and whether it’s sensible to credit colonialism with our “independent judiciary”, given that we only got that under an ANC government. But I’ll leave questions regarding history to others, except for linking you to this piece on the Empire’s “gifts” to India, which has obvious parallels to our situation.

The other (but related) issue to highlight is something I tried to capture in this tweet in response to her tweet #6 (“would we have had X without colonialism”):


Counterfactual conditional statements are a complicated issue in philosophy, rather than being Kellyanne Conway-style “alternative facts”. Basically, it’s incredibly difficult to evaluate their truth or falsity. We’ve got very little idea of how much better or worse one country, like ours, might have been in an entirely different world.

But if colonialism was on the whole destructive for the majority of our population – in fact, for all of us, even though some of us ended up being asymmetrically advantaged – choosing to highlight benefits achieved despite colonialism is easy to interpret as a defence of colonialism.

The complications of counterfactuals also come into play if you retort with examples of countries that appear to be failures and were never colonised. They are possibly (and more likely) failures (if they are) not because of an absence of colonialism, but because of an absence of trade and intellectual partnerships, which you can get without subjugation.

But we can’t know this either way, and you reveal your hand if you give the credit to colonialism, as that simply supports the narrative of Western superiority and African incompetence.

The point is that one issue is that we’ve ended up with some good things, and a second is what a speech act like Zille’s conveys, namely that we should be (at least partly) grateful for colonialism. It’s clumsy at best, but given the context of her political standing, her party’s image problems, and South Africa’s history, it becomes an idiotic and offensive thing to say.

Speaking of idiotic things to say, I’m seeing lots of “Malema has said X, and got away with it”, and “Zuma has said/done Y, and he’s still President”. I’m not sure if the citizens of social media and talk radio will ever get this point, but things can be independently wrong, and also be wrong to different degrees, at the same time.

So, whatever you think should be done about Zille, or Zuma, or Malema, we can at least stick to the topic.

In conclusion, Zille did eventually apologise, saying

In context, and as I’ve tried to indicate above, I think it was. She almost certainly didn’t mean for it to be, but that’s perhaps only because she’s as oblivious to the political concerns of South Africa, outside of a quasi-liberal bubble, as critics say she is. I’ve written before about the idea of “unintentional racism“, and this seems to be another good example of that.

Comments to this post are undoubtedly going to be dreadful, so please anticipate that yours won’t be published, given that most people who might want to comment will think I’ve been too kind to Zille, or that my post is an example of “the politics of outrage”. If you’re one of those, go visit PoliticsWeb instead.

The last word, to Tom Eaton via Facebook, on the political implications of this:

The incredible callousness of Zille’s tweets aside, they also reveal a profound incompetence. Her job is to bolster the opposition and yet within a few minutes she managed to a) confirm the suspicions of hundreds of thousands of black voters that the DA harbours diabolical ambitions should it ever come to power and b) completely remove the national spotlight from the SASSA debacle. If I were that crap at my job I’d be fired in a heartbeat.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.