It has been two weeks since Western Cape Premier Helen Zille’s now infamous tweet on the benefits of colonialism and all eyes are now on the Democratic Alliance disciplinary process to see whether this will spell the end of Zille’s career.
Personally, I do not believe that the DA should be sanctioning her for the tweet. Why pretend the DA comes from an anti-colonial political tradition when it clearly does not?
Sanctioning Zille also ignores the reality of a strong conservative contingent that exists within the party. After all, the DA’s growth has also been to the loss of extreme right wing parties such as the Freedom Front Plus. But we must not characterise Zille’s views on colonialism as alien to its self-proclaimed liberal image.
The South African liberal tradition of the Progressive Party that the DA traces its roots back too, was frankly conservative even as it stood against the more extreme elements of the Nationalist Party at the height of apartheid.
We are all familiar with the critique of South African liberalism advanced by Black Consciousness activists such as Bantu Steve Biko.
Biko and other intellectuals convincingly demonstrated that within South African white liberalism was ambivalent about the true capacity of black people to be masters of their own destiny.
While overt white supremacy as espoused by the NP was morally abhorrent to liberals, these same liberals still held that black South Africans needed some kind of white guidance to fully realise freedom.
Biko stated, that “True to their image, the white liberals always knew what was good for the blacks and told them so.”
This is what Zille did when she asked how else African societies would have taken up “modern health” were it not for colonisation.
Ironically, for a self-proclaimed liberal, it seemed to have missed Zille that these technological advances could have been gradually acquired through the free exchange of ideas and the market.
While many liberals criticise Stalinism and communism for its restrictions on individual choice and its closing up of free markets, it seems that Zille feels that political and economic coercion is perfectly acceptable so long as it is called colonialism.
I found it deeply ironic, but not surprising, that as a white liberal, she would effectively prove Biko’s point – that white liberals in South Africa are disingenuous and patronising towards Africans..
Amongst the highest of Zille’s political credentials was her exposé of Biko’s brutal murder at the hands of the police, but his ideas evidently never quite affected her own political outlook.
For whatever reason, I used to assume that the act of reporting on his death could have somehow impacted Zille deeply in her political consciousness.
Not knowing her personally, I now assume that although the Biko exposé demonstrated her own internal political tenacity, she likely had no respect for the ideas that he died for.
I believe that Zille’s political life shows she is a patriot of some kind. But it is hard to see her as a patriot that wants to see black people returned to some sense of complete dignity in their ancestral land.
I believe she is a principled person and that her politics reflects a wish for a prosperous South Africa but she cannot discern her own deep conservativism that seems to lead her in the old liberal view that “white is right”.
How else can such a senior public figure, running a province situated on the landscape of the colonial genocide and enslavement of San and Khoi, so intransigently defend colonialism for its “benefits”?
She must honestly, to her core, believe European colonists were good for Africa.
There’s a deep irony about her association with Biko’s death. If she believes so deeply in her political destiny, perhaps she’s been blind to the clues all along – that it is the spirit of Biko that should have guided her politics the most.