By Cheryllyn Dudley, ACDP MP, who says the thoughts she expresses in this article are her own and not necessarily the position of the ACDP.
Of all the comments I have seen relating to Helen Zille’s latest controversial tweet on colonialism (tweets which have led to her being charged by the DA since the writing of this article– Editor), it was the words of Dr Russell Ally, executive director of the Development and Alumni department at UCT that caught my eye: “Perhaps more interesting than what colonialism brought would be to hear what Zille thinks South Africa would be today if it was not so fortunate to have suffered this fate.”
Definitely thought provoking — and answered honestly, gives clues as to just how deep the prejudice of so many regarding Africa and all things African actually is.
Ignorance keeps prejudice alive
Ignorance surely does play a big role in keeping prejudice alive and my experience over many years — particularly the last 18 years as a Member of Parliament — has acquainted me with the lengths people go to to keep their preferred narrative intact — a narrative informed by either media, personal experience, culture, religion, political affiliation or a combination of all of these. So many people I have met do their utmost to avoid facts that contradict what they have decided is the truth and they become defensive or simply dismiss information that does not support their theory.
When I say in my experience, I include my own inclination in my early days in Parliament to reject anything that disturbed the neatly crafted story I had in my head. Conscious of this I purposely set out to place my understanding within the context of the bigger picture. I want to believe God does not need me to shield him or me from reality — I am sure the God I serve is bigger than that. I made a choice. Empathy was something I wasn’t seeing much of and I decided to hold my opinion on issues until I consider — not only the possible impact on others — but what the situation might look like through other people’s eyes and experiences, sound like through other people’s ears and feel like through other people’s circumstances and pain.
My blinkers did not fall off accidentally — I chose to remove them and applied myself to the task — I suspect I will always have to remind myself that I do not have the whole story. Growing up it was easy ‘not to see’, later it became easy to say ‘but we didn’t know’, now there is no excuse, it is my responsibility ‘to see’ — and my responsibility ‘not to remain ignorant’.
The elephant in the room
Colonialism and decolonisation have, it seems, been the elephant in the room for too many years and it is my guess that we are not going to be allowed to ignore or avoid it any longer. With this in mind why would we want to punish people for airing their view on the subject? In a democracy we don’t have to agree with that view but we do have to respect each other’s right to hold and express those views.
That is of course if the purpose of exploring what decolonisation would look like in a global 21st century context is to strengthen democracy. If it is just code for undermining democracy and creating animosity and chaos then I am simply naive to expect respect and tolerance should come into the picture.
Thinking about why linking colonialism with progress, technology and infrastructure could be offensive it only occurred to me as an afterthought that it does in a way imply that without colonialism, every colonised part of the world — including Africa — would not have progressed or developed and that without civilisation as we know it there would be no civilisation or democracy.
We will of course never know for sure what Africa would look like if colonisation never happened because we can’t go back — but going forward how does it make sense to assume that people, made in the image of God would only develop and progress in cold climates and somehow lack the same ability in warmer climates?
Dr Ally points out that “technological advances belong to all of humankind and are an expression of our inter-connectedness as a human species. Inventions have taken place in all parts of the world, from writing in Egypt and China to mathematics in Greece and India to the industrial revolution in Great Britain to the present global digital age. And it is hard for anyone to claim exclusive proprietorial right to any of these advances as they are all interconnected and often occurred in different parts of the world simultaneously.”
It is what it is
Colonisation is not a new concept and has been in operation since people on this earth first started appointing for themselves Kings. While colonisation is not the only actions of mankind throughout the ages that have resulted in abuse and dehumanisation, the abuse and dehumanisation that has gone hand in hand with colonisation cannot be condoned, ‘sugar coated’ or justified. It did however happen, it cannot be erased or wished away — and it is what it is!
Christians, like people of other beliefs, have always been eager to share their beliefs — and Christian and Islamic activity in Africa are unquestionably linked to colonisation. As Christians we believe that Christian values and a Christian lifestyle bring great blessing but we also know that many selfish acts have been done in the name of Christianity that have caused much harm. With this in mind it makes sense for us to take our share of responsibility — we may be forgiven but reparations are still called for — and yes the sins of the fathers are visited on their sons and daughters for generations to come.
Superiority and an air of entitlement may not be exclusive to ‘white’ people but it is the perception created by so many who are seen as ‘white’. Even if the truth is something different, the perception is nevertheless the result of something we are doing or saying as ‘white people’ to create this perception and we could choose to be perceived differently if we cared enough to make the effort. I must say — I do see many making that effort but the actions of a few seem to reflect badly on all of us.
Reclaiming and redefining Africa
In trying to get my head around the concept of decolonisation I am hearing many different things but generally it seems to be about reclaiming and redefining Africa — an attempt to separate Africa’s identity from that of its colonists and to stop allowing the perception that Africa is dependent on its former colonists for any progress. This is complex and further complicated by the fact that reparations — rightly expected — tend to strengthen the perception that former colonists still feature connected to progress in Africa. Genuine efforts by those seen as former colonial masters are then sadly received with a large degree of suspicion and opportunities are not maximised.
Dr Ally explains it like this: “Unlike the caricature of decolonisation which presents it as wanting to disconnect from the world, decolonisation is actually about reintegrating into the world as equal and free citizens and not as abject subjects who have to look towards colonialism for validation of their humanity.”
‘Equal’ being the key word. Helen Zille’s tweets have unfortunately even if unintentionally revealed the need for those of us with, ‘western thinking’ to look deep within and take time to reimagine an Africa that could and can stand apart from who and what it was, under colonial domination and recognise its right to reconnect on an equal footing.