But, for all her exposure of the deep hypocrisy of public debate, tweeting has been the Western Cape premier’s biggest mistake.
The uproar over Helen Zille’s tweets is both absurd and revealing. It exposes the deep hypocrisy of public debate in South Africa. Worse than that, it reveals the sinister reality that in South Africa today certain facts are banned and certain truths forbidden. Anyone who utters them will be shouted down as a racist and may face prosecution or dismissal. The biggest problem with Zille’s tweets about colonialism is that they are true, and everybody knows they are true. This is the main reason for their furious denunciation.
My criticism of her tweets is that she tweeted at all. She should never do so. Twitter is a way of ejaculating instantaneously to a lot of people. It reduces debate to grunts and insults. It is almost designed to be misunderstood by opponents. Whatever Zille tweets, however benign, is guaranteed to be interpreted by her enemies as the most diabolical racism, and likely to lead to disciplinary action by the purse-lipped prigs who seem to be taking over the DA.
Her first tweets, which started the fuss, said simply that not everything the European colonists brought to South Africa was bad. Let’s look at that proposition. The colonialists brought writing, the wheel, modern technology, modern maths and science, Christianity, soccer and cricket. They did not invent all these things, many of which originated in the Middle East and India, but they brought them here, where we didn’t have them before. Is there anybody in South Africa, black or white, who says that all of those things are bad? If not, everybody agrees with her. The problem is they know it, and it is this that makes them foam at the mouth with rage.
Some of the things the Europeans brought, such as writing and the wheel, are obviously better than what existed here before. But some are not; some are mere preferences or fashions. Yet the very people who condemn Zille’s tweets are the ones who enthusiastically embrace the English language, Christianity and soccer, none of which are obviously better than what Africans had before. If they think the English language is so bad, why don’t they set up schools and universities teaching in African languages and send their children there?
Here’s the explanation for the fury. South Africans grow up in a strange childlike world of myths about their origins. Ours is like a world where little children are taught that babies come from storks, and anybody who told them about sex and childbirth would be shouted down. In South Africa, we are not allowed to know the facts about our history. We are required to believe that everything bad in the country was caused by colonialism, and that whites are wicked and blacks innocent. We are not allowed to know what South Africa was like before the colonials came. (Actually, there was no South Africa before they came. South Africa itself, with its modern borders, is a colonial invention.) Anyone who points out that there was no writing or wheel in South Africa before 1500 will be denounced as a racist by all the mainstream media, which are converging into one soggy PC mess. We are not allowed to ask why militant black Africanists send their children to private schools to be taught in European languages with white teachers. We are not allowed honest, open, adult debate. Helen Zille made the mistake of using twitter to open adult debate.
In my view, colonialism is inherently wrong. Caesar’s conquest of Gaul* was wrong and so was European conquest of Africa. But the Europeans did bring good things here. They were more advanced than Africans at the time, for reasons of history and, more fundamentally, geography. It had nothing to do with race. These are the facts we are not allowed to know, let alone speak.
The latest Zille tweet said that there is some black privilege as well as white privilege. Again, furious denunciation. In the adult world, most whites are more privileged than most blacks, but a minority of blacks are far more privileged than most whites. In the childlike world, only whites are privileged. The correct attitude is not to see the small black elite, who are fabulously wealthy, who drive expensive European cars and send their children to schools like Bishops and Herschel. The correct attitude is to chant: ‘There is no such thing as black privilege!’
Helen Zille has done wonderful service for South Africa. She is an heroic liberal without an atom of racism in her. She was a superb mayor of Cape Town and has governed the Western Cape marvellously well for ten years (two full terms). She has been especially good at improving the lot of poor black people in the province. They know it. This is why black people flee from provinces ruled by the ANC into the Western Cape ruled by the DA under her. None move the other way.
Tweeting has been her biggest mistake.
*Caesar (Julius) is a particularly interesting example of the pros and cons of colonialism. He laid down the constitutional fabric of the world we all live in now; he brought a unified rule of law to the Western world; he advanced and consolidated Western civilisation. But he was also a blood-soaked, mass murderer of epic proportions, cruel beyond imagination. Caesar conquered Gaul because he needed the money; he treated his greatest enemy, Vercingetorix, a brave and noble defender of his homeland, with disgusting cruelty and callousness; he probably slaughtered 20% of the population of Gaul. He was a great and horrible man who laid down a foundation of our liberal Western world.
Andrew Kenny is a writer, engineer and classical liberal.
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