Helen Zille The Poster Girl For Colonialsm

Some weeks ago, the academic journal Third World Quarterly published an article that essentially said colonialism was pretty good for the colonised.

Titled “The Case for Colonisation”, the article was written by Bruce Gilley, a political science professor at Portland State University who argued that colonialism over the past 100 years had, unfairly, been given a bad name.

“Western colonialism was, as a general rule, both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate in most of the places where it was found the countries that embraced their colonial inheritance, by and large, did better than those that spurned it,” he wrote.

I initially spotted some outrage on social media about the piece, and then watched as the discussion quickly burnt into the journal’s reputation as a purveyor of alternate thought on development, politics and justice.

The fallout last week was even more spectacular. Fifteen members of the editorial board resigned. They accused the editor-in-chief of publishing the article without it getting the proper approval for publication.

The title of the piece, and subsequent outrage, reminded me of Western Cape Premier Helen Zille’s tweets months ago, in which she argued that colonialism was not only negative.

Before I added any of my cabbage to the conversation, I wanted to read what Gilley had written. Like so many hysterical responses on social media, opinions roll without substance, often without justification. Yes, colonialism was wrong, but what did the professor, educated at Princeton and Oxford, say? And, did his argument follow a similar trajectory to Zille’s?

Imagine my horror when I found the piece online, uploaded illegally on some site, an act of felicitous deviance I suppose, to find that Gilley opens his argument by describing how a certain South African politician “was vilified by the press, disciplined by her party, and put under investigation by the country’s human rights commission” for suggesting there were valuable aspects of colonial heritage. He claims that we must “re-evaluate this pejorative meaning” of colonialism.

By God, one of the biggest scandals in recent history in the Left academic circles, and our Zille is the centrepiece.

Gilley says anti-colonial ideas “weaponise the colonial past, as the gradually imploding post-colonial South African state’s persecution of Helen Zille shows”. Yes, he described Zille as “persecuted”.

There are scholars like Vijay Prashad who wanted the piece to be retracted. Others, like Noam Chomsky, have called for an apology from the editor for not following process, but asking for the article to stay. For Chomsky, Gilley’s essay is an opportunity for a re-education to take place.

Of course, within it all lies that inevitable debate of free speech versus the silencing of “ugly” ideas.

If someone thinks colonisation, or genocide or separate development is a good thing, then what? Should they be banned, ostracised, or excluded?

But to me, the question of free speech does not apply here. Freedom of speech means you have the ability to speak without causing harm. But this does not mean you are deserved of an audience, if, and especially when your viewpoints are harmful, or poisonous, or like in this case, based on falsities.

By all means, publish, air, acknowledge viewpoints opposite to mine, but there ought to be a standard and method to curating opinions of a certain weight.

Here, in 2017, Gilley says colonialism had perks, that the experiences of so many African countries today show that Western governance was better, that “recolonisation” might be a better option for most in the Third World. He even proposes three questions for policy makers to make this happen: “(1) How to make colonialism acceptable to the colonised. (2) How to motivate Western countries to become colonial again. (3) How to make colonialism achieve lasting results.”

This is remarkable, given that most colonisers have never truly left.

Under colonialism, Gilley argues, collaborators numbered more than dissidents, colonialism was welcomed more than it was detested. But these are ahistorical, and tenuous conclusions. Colonial powers did not give people options. You either joined and survived or faced extermination.

But then, the writer is also right: Colonialism was good. Apartheid for that matter was pure genius. What he omits is that it was only so for those in power, for those in control. If the colonised went to colonial schools, or clinics, or dressed with blazers and bayonets to school under the African sun, he interprets it as consent, and not consequence. Of course, there were good roads and hospitals and plush golf courses and game reserves, but these were not built for all. Apartheid was literally separate development: one for civilisation and one for sub-humans and savages.

It takes a terrific arrogance to suggest today’s travails in the developing world are created only by the failures of black and brown leaders. It is as if political independence came with economic independence, it is as if the soft, cultural supremacist tentacles of Western powers and institutions were ripped off the subalterns and wretched everywhere.

If anything, we are surrounded every day with reminders that whiteness, that is colonialism, is the standard. In this way, Gilley’s argument is white supremacy itself, which, for the longest time found scholarly and academic cover. It’s like we are in 1860 all over again.

For an American professor sitting in the US advancing the good of colonisation is one thing. Yes, he is probably surrounded by a wave of Black Lives Matter protests that calls for an end of the racial-colonial nexus of American white supremacy. He is in America after all, where white supremacy is as emboldened as ever.

But for Zille to be flirting with this colonial hangover at a time when it is precisely the incomplete project of decolonisation that is on the lips of the young in Ghana, South Africa, Kenya and Senegal is quite another. And for her to be informing the likes of Gilley and his ilk, is all the more troubling.

About the author

* Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founding editor at The Daily Vox.