Amid all the tumult and taking offence at Western Cape Premier Helen Zille telling us to look on the bright side of colonialism, the reaction to it appears rather one-sided.
There’s the usual outcry from many of the regular people, but what to me is somewhat ironic is the fact that so many people who’d consider themselves either Afrikaans or Afrikaans-speaking have taken her side.
Interestingly, even the most outspoken Afrikaner activist of them all, Steve Hofmeyr, rushed to Auntie Helen’s defence and said that she had a point. Many others have also adopted his view, whether they like him or not. Obviously, I’m not speaking here about all Afrikaans people – just the many whose comments I’ve come across.
According to Hofmeyr, Zille was right to take the view that colonialism is somehow synonymous with civilisation – as if it’s impossible, as a society, to move from living in caves or huts to having running water, electricity, iPhones and rocket ships … unless at some point in your past someone speaking a different language to your own came into your country, subjugated your people and helped themselves to all the natural resources of your homeland.
A basic definition of colonialism, according to Collins Dictionary, holds that “colonialism is the practice by which a powerful country directly controls less powerful countries and uses their resources to increase its own power and wealth”.
Obviously when you look at that definition it’s clear that colonialism is nothing other than bullying on a global scale. And who likes a bully?
I’ve been reading the comments on Facebook, specifically pages and websites catering to the Afrikaans community – and even on our website – and it’s obvious that everyone many people believe that colonialism is only about race, and Zille’s tweet is merely a reflection of her racism. But it goes deeper than that and reveals an even more profound ignorance of our history and history in general.
I am half Afrikaans myself and always identified with the Boers in photographs and stories from the Anglo-Boer War. There was never any doubt in my mind that the people of the old Boer Republics were the good guys and the Boers the heroes. As a kid, I watched TV shows like Arende, about the brave resistance of the guerrilla fighters in khaki against the poncey English “rooinek” bastards and rooted for Sloet Steenkamp and his men.
I looked at photographs of emaciated Afrikaners in Lord Kitchener’s concentration camps and cursed the “soutpiele” for their inhumanity.
Have we forgotten that the British wars against the Boers were driven entirely by the forces of colonialism?
At the turn of the century, the British empire was at its height and looking to increase its stranglehold on Africa. It wanted the gold and diamond mines and was willing to kill as many of those who stood in its way as was required. And the Boers just wanted to be left alone, much like most of the unfortunate tribes throughout history who have found themselves on the sharp end of colonialism.
Let’s leave aside the fact that the Afrikaners, too, were colonists in their own right. But by the late 1800s they had entirely sworn off all allegiance to any European nation and redefined themselves as weird-looking Africans. You could argue that the Anglo-Boer War was a conflict between two different colonial powers, but that’s not the way the Boers themselves saw it. That discussion is not not the point here: it’s merely to remind people that the Afrikaners were themselves painfully introduced to exactly how cruel and barbaric colonialism really is.
And here we are in 2017, acting like we don’t remember.
It’s not a race thing. The Romans colonised vast swaths of Europe, and all those “barbarians” they conquered were white. Did it happen in a friendly way with them offering to bring their neighbours the beautiful gifts of straight roads, steam baths, togas and sandals? No. They brought swords and spears to create rivers of blood. They crushed all resistance with no compassion, raping and plundering as they went. Once the native populations were suppressed, they set about the systematic plunder of their wealth.
Germania managed to fight them off and was never colonised by Rome. And Germany doesn’t seem to be much worse off for it today.
So I don’t know if Zille is a racist or not. She might be. I’m pretty sure her tweet was aimed at black people who’ve annoyed her because there’s been so much talk of “decolonising” everything in South Africa, which may well be a totally different debate to whether colonialism was bad or not.
But it is bad, Helen. If you want to know how bad, you don’t need to ask a black person (although I’m sure they’d gladly tell you all about it). You could just ask an Afrikaner. And if they’re honest enough, they’ll tell you.
Or perhaps they have forgotten, or merely choose to act like they have, in the interests of that difficult racial solidarity white people have been trying so hard to foster since the advent of the Union of South Africa in 1910, and because of the uncomfortable truth that no matter how much the Afrikaners suffered under the British, black South Africans have had it immeasurably worse from all sides.
As a result, the debate about Zille’s tweet has created the false impression that this is about white people versus black people, when, really, it should be a debate about how ridiculous it is that someone as accomplished and experienced as Zille could still be so ignorant about history.