Why I raised the subject of colonialism on Twitter: Helen Zille

It would be too time-consuming to respond to every distortion, misrepresentation or falsehood that has been published relating to my series of 12 tweets on lessons learned from my recent visit to Singapore.

One of those lessons was that Singapore, having suffered centuries of colonial oppression, succeeded in re-purposing aspects of colonialism’s legacy to build an inclusive modern economy. This, among other things, has enabled its people to escape poverty within a generation.


There is no question that colonialism was driven by greed and oppressive intent. The question for countries today is whether they are able, like Singapore, to leverage aspects of the legacy of an oppressive past to their advantage.

In online conversations I wanted to raise this question in a South African context. As we all now know, this caused a volcanic political eruption.

In the process many untruths and fabrications were disseminated including:

– False allegations that I defended, justified or praised colonialism or apartheid;

– Failure to distinguish between an evil system and the question of what can be re-purposed from its legacy;

– Outright fabrications that I have been charged “over racism”; no such charge exists.

If anyone genuinely (ie, without animus or a private agenda) thought I was actually defending, justifying or praising colonialism, I apologised unreservedly and stressed that this was not so.

Many prominent people have repeatedly made the same point as I, including Nelson Mandela, Chinua Achebe, Ali Mazrui, Godfrey Mwakikagile and even a current matric history text book.

So why the mass hysteria when I made exactly the same point?

Of course, colonialism should never have happened. But we cannot undo the fact that it did. It is also unhelpful to get stuck in speculation about what the world would have been like if it hadn’t.

This is not a debate about the past. It is an essential debate about the future, especially how to build an inclusive economy and beat mass poverty.

But our corrupt ruling elite wants to avoid this debate at all costs. It desperately needs to fan the narrative of past pain to avoid accountability for its current failures. It has found scapegoats in “whiteness” in general, and “white monopoly capital” in particular.

Without this bogeyman we might be able to have the discussion that Singapore had with such success when it gained independence in 1965.

Helen Zille is the Premier of the Western Cape and former Leader of the Democratic Alliance.


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