Opinion: Why Helen Zille is wrong about colonialism

Posted on June 13, 2017


The first time I heard about Helen Zille was round about the year 2000. Working as a parliamentary correspondent at the time, I had little interest in the provincial politics of the Western Cape. But Zille's name came up too frequently not to notice. She was apparently someone who didn't practise the same politics as what the Democratic Party (DP) was known for.  

She was hands-on, learnt to speak isiXhosa, and as MEC for education she tried to resolve problems in all areas, not just the white suburbs. Reports about her suggested something different to the DP's insulting 1999 election campaign, with its 'Fight Back' message and Tony Leon as 'angry white man', upset about democracy.

The party became the Democratic Alliance (DA) and later, with Zille as leader, its outreach to black people became more meaningful and the leadership noticeably more diverse, also in terms of gender. A high point was probably the 2011 local government election campaign. Posters showed Zille alongside Lindiwe Mazibuko and Patricia de Lille, all smiles, with the message that the DA aimed to deliver services to 'all'.

The transfer of the position of party leader to Mmusi Maimane testified to a commitment to change, which contributed to the DA's victories in the metros last year. This commitment seemed strengthened by young black DA leaders stepping forward, such as the promising Solly Msimanga in Tshwane.

Zille can justifiably claim as legacy the racial transformation of the DA's leadership profile, together with the party's growing power and influence. This corresponds with how one reads her politics over the decades. As journalist, she uncovered the murder of Steve Biko, and she was active in the Black Sash and the End Conscription Campaign.

So why is she risking this legacy by defending colonialism? A look through the lens of South African liberalism can provide answers. Liberalism has a fraught history of being in cahoots with colonialism and it still has an unresolved relationship with race.

As late as the 1970s, the DA's predecessor, Helen Suzman's Progressive Party (PP), continued to believe that black people could not be full citizens with the vote if they did not possess property and a certain level of education. This policy had been carried over from the British imperialist Cape colony the century before. In contrast to the Liberal Party, which disbanded in 1968 rather than being forced by the National Party regime to become a white party, the PP got stuck in colonial whiteness.

As a 'Young Prog', Zille to her credit opposed the policy, as she explains in her autobiography, Not Without a Fight. But the PP's policy reflects thinking that is captured by one of her favourite words, the euphemism 'meritocracy'. In liberalism's make-believe universe of a level playing field, everybody can thrive as long as they have certain merits behind their name, such as education and property. Nevermind the reality of structural racism, patriarchy, poverty, and so forth.  

Liberalism differs from more critical theories in that it commits both dehistoricisation and decontextualisation, conveniently forgetting the reasons for actual, existing inequality. In the tweets for which Zille has to account, she specifically mentioned meritocracy as one of the reasons why Singapore is 'soaring' despite its colonial history. She took it further by raising another reason as the 'valuable aspects of the colonial heritage'. All the aspects that she then referenced have to do with modernity, for example transport infrastructure and specialised medical care. In a subsequent interview, she also mentioned universities.  

The error in this thinking is that Africa could never be part of modernity without colonialism. It suggests that no elements of modernity originated in Africa. Therefore, while Zille also mentioned 'globalism' in her tweets as a reason for Singapore's success, she does not take into account that people's natural processes of globalisation over the centuries mean that development isn't ever isolated in just one place. Africa was part of modernity from the start. However, the violence of colonialism forced Africans into a subjugated position in the global hierarchy, which is why today only some, instead of everybody on the continent, taste the benefits of modernisation (note, not colonialism).

Zille's position is therefore factually incorrect. Ensnared in liberalism's decontextualisation and dehistoricisation, she is apparently blind to the actual relationship between modernisation and colonialism. The question is always: What is the effect of an argument? In this case it is the justification of colonialism, a system that involved large-scale, barbaric slaughter of millions of people – a holocaust in its own right – and the destruction of unique philosophical and aesthetic ways of looking at the world, and of irreplaceable ecological systems.

The blindness exhibits a racial dimension. The cataclysm known as colonialism was at the time justified with racism. Zille's comments suggest that Africa is by its very nature primitive, backward and intellectually inferior, and that this situation could only be modified by colonialism. Implicitly the people who are associated with Africa – black people – are therefore also naturally backward and inferior, in contrast to the colonialists, who were white. This is nothing less than a warmed-up set of colonial stereotypes that Zille offered to us as though it were the freshest ideas. A more apt description would be nostalgic white revisionism.

Something that would, however, qualify as fresh in South African liberalism is Maimane's insistence, as described in S'thembiso Msomi's biography of him, that 'If you don't see that I'm black, then you don't see me'. Similarly refreshing was the DA's support for the Employment Equity Amendment Bill in 2013 in parliament, led by Mazibuko. As one black DA leader anonymously told the media at the time: 'There is no way that you can solve a problem caused by race without referring to race.' Mazibuko and her caucus were disciplined and she was eventually side-lined.

The DA faces a watershed moment. The upcoming generation of black leaders is breaking away from the liberal denial of the history and effects of race. People such as Maimane and Mazibuko are raising the possibility – albeit still embryonic – of a new form of African liberalism that is not blind to race, that is honest about colonialism, and that could even confront with a view to undoing the consequences of racism and colonialism. Given South Africa's history and the current reality of race-based inequality, Zille needs to decide if she wants to be one of the obstacles that trips up the DA and, ultimately, the political possibility of a new liberalism in South Africa.


Christi van der Westhuizen is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Pretoria and author of the forthcoming book Sitting Pretty – White Afrikaans Women in Postapartheid South Africa (2017, UKZN Press).

This article first appeared on Netwerk24 and in Beeld, Die Burger and Die Volksblad in Afrikaans.



- Author Prof Christi van der Westhuizen

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