Yonela Diko: Zille’s tipping point: Colonial Creatures and the concealing of Black History
On Thursday, Mmusi Maimane, usually silent on a racial diatribe by Helen Zille, was forced to respond. Looking at him muttering something about colonialism but not about its praiser, he grew small before my eyes, weak and very sad. Yes, there may be mutual respect, there may have been mutual sacrifices for each other, there may even be affection, but as long as one group can occasionally say the rawest things about people who could easily be your brothers, about you, only shows that we remain strangers in their eyes, sojourners, as were all our fathers.
It’s not merely the cruelty in Helen Zille’s statement. It’s the idea that she does not seem to know she is being cruel in the first place. Even worse, that maybe she thinks we are deserving of her scorn. The DA is a white man’s court. If Zille wanted to spit on Maimane’s face, she could, because she has power and Maimane does not. If Zille decided to show Maimane respect and came to his defence, it’s because she knows the words the DA leadership speaks, the financial muscle the party has, the goals and ambitions of the party, are already hers. Ultimately, Maimane will realise, after Zille is not touched for this cruelty, that the only thing a black person in the DA can be sure of is his/her powerlessness, his/her defeat.
What black leaders in the DA will realise is that there is no redemptive power for white racists who remain in charge of the DA, and if these black leaders continue to stay, they will develop a weary heart, they will get exhausted, they will be bitter and it will be too late to be taken seriously by the black community.
We remember history differently. Helen Zille does not know us. She does not know the humiliation of our fathers, the desecration of our mothers. That is why she can remember well paved streets, running water, and a judiciary of her peers. But we remember our mothers having no choice but to pick up after spoilt white teenagers (like her) as domestic workers, leaving their own children motherless, we remember forced removals from our own homes, a union of 1910 we were not a part of, a land act of 1913 that dispossessed us, and we remember that jury that crippled many of our people.
Helen Zille’s praise of colonialism reminded us just why seeing Maimane or Madikizela, Van Damme or Ntuli as the face of this white establishment always leaves one feeling uncomfortable, as though one is witnessing a complicated transaction, a transaction that does not fully make sense. The presence of black people in the DA feels forced, like you could tell them, whatever it is you are after, whatever it is that you need, it surely must come from some other place other than the Democratic Alliance.
The ANC, a turf where being black could never be a disadvantage, where being white is to break completely with the ugly past, is where we have made our closest white friends. There can never be true friendship and partnerships between blacks and whites where whites are still holding on to their privileges and blacks are fed a series of neoliberal platitudes such as “meritocracy, multiculturalism, work ethic, openness to globalism, english and future orientation” – all thinly disguised colonial tropes.
According to Vito Laterza, Zille’s views on colonialism are widely shared among white South Africans. According to her, white scholars rarely condemn colonial conquest in its totality. For them, a non-racial world is one where some fictitious “European values” have spread to all racial groups, thus ensuring that the primacy of the West is maintained. Our academic works are filled with strategic silences, omissions and erasures that continue to sustain ideas of Western superiority, Vito says. now the problem with this thinking is that it puts colonialism as the beginning and end of history.
President Mbeki worked most of his life trying to punch holes in this white fallacy, following in the footsteps of African leaders before him, Kwame Nkrumah, WEB du Bois, Africans who know that Africa has a stake in history that can never be wished away. History tells us that before the Chinese’s empires and dynasties were even known to the outside world, before the cities of Greece were even formed, Rome was still a millennium away, ancient Egypt was already the beacon of the world. When we speak of this lost heritage, we refer also to the architectural monuments represented by the giant sculptured stones of Aksum in Ethiopia, the Egyptian sphinxes and pyramids, the Tunisian city of Carthage, and the Zimbabwe ruins, as well as the legacy of the ancient universities of Alexandria of Egypt, Fez of Morocco and Timbuktu of Mali.
The genius of black people however was even more pronounced during colonialism but such records would be hidden for the longest of time to sustain Zille’s narrative. For too long we did not know that Elijah McCoy, a black man (born in Colchester, Ontario, Canada on May 2, 1844) who in 1872, to improve efficiency and eliminate the frequent stopping necessary for lubrication of the train, developed a “lubricating cup” that could automatically drip oil when and where needed. He received a patent for the device later that year. The “lubricating cup” met with enormous success and orders for it came in from railroad companies all over the country. Other inventors attempted to sell their own versions of the device but most companies wanted the authentic device, requesting “the Real McCoy”.
What about Sarah Breedlove (December 23, 1867-May 25, 1919), known as Madam C. J. Walker, an African-American entrepreneur, philanthropist, and a political and social activist. The first female self-made millionaire in America of any race, she became one of the wealthiest African-American women in the United States. After suffering from a scalp ailment that resulted in her own hair loss, she invented a line of African-American hair care products in 1905.
And then there is Frederick McKinley Jones, born May 17, 1893, an African-American inventor, entrepreneur, winner of the National Medal of Technology, and inductee of the National Inventors Hall of Fame. His innovations in refrigeration brought great improvement to the long-haul transportation of perishable goods. He cofounded Thermo King.
Lewis Howard Latimer, born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on September 4, 1848, who in 1874 co-patented (with Charles W. Brown) an improved toilet system for railroad cars called the Water Closet for Railroad Cars (U.S. Patent 147,363). In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell, in his white glory, forgot to mention Latimer, a young black man who contributed greatly to the first telephone invention, and who in January 1881 got a patent for the “Process of Manufacturing Carbons”, an improved method for the production of carbon filaments used in lightbulbs. Each day there is great evidence that all the claimed white inventions seemed to have had a black brain behind them, the now so called “hidden figures”.
Here, on the African continent, when we speak of Africa we speak of African works of art in South Africa that are 1,000 years old. We speak of the continuum in the fine arts that encompasses the varied artistic creations of the Nubians and the Egyptians, the Benin bronzes of Nigeria and the intricate sculptures of the Makonde of Tanzania and Mozambique. We speak of the centuries-old contributions to the evolution of religious thought made by the Christians of Ethiopia and the Muslims of Nigeria. When we survey all this and much more, we find nothing to sustain the long-held dogma of African exceptionalism, according to which the colour black becomes a symbol of poverty, primitiveness and lack of progress.
It is more important now than ever to correct the history books, in the story of Africa that is told. The British government, as is now told by respectable historians like Henry Kissinger and Chinese historians about China, I believe, also addressed African Kings on equal terms, while Africa just saw insubordinate insolence. I believe the first British trip to Africa was to seek trade and presence in the bountiful that is Africa. The first British envoy had intended to demonstrate the benefits of industrialisation to Africa, but all that they brought, our Kings understood them as gifts. The British expected us to recognise that we had been left behind by progress of technological civilisation and to seek a special relationship with Africa to rectify our backwardness. And here, I believe our kings simply treated the British as arrogant and uninformed barbarians seeking special favours from our divine kings.
I will state it clearly here, contrary to what has been said about Africa concerning the first encounter with Europe, that the technological wonders of Europe left no visible impression on Africans. None of what Britain brought to Africa were novelties. I believe our kings brushed all these things aside with polite condescension. As for the supposed benefits of British trade to Africa, our kings would have found the British mistaken. Strange and costly objects did not interest our kings. If our kings accepted any of the British gifts, this was solely in consideration for the spirit our kings believed prompted Britain to dispatch them from afar. As the first British envoy would have noticed, we possessed all things.
Considering our size, and our self-sufficiency, our GDP may have been 4-5 times that of Great Britain. We would be justified to think it was Britain that needed us and not the other way round.
I believe that it is in fact our own kings that wanted to bestow gifts to the first British envoy for King George III and not the history that is told of an Africa that has perpetually been a basket case for the world.
Our kings, however, unfamiliar with the capacity of Western leaders for violent rapaciousness, were playing with fire, and that would be evident soon thereafter.
If we must look at who we are now, a royal priesthood, the inconquerable people of the universe, we must tell the real story of Africa, the real story about our first encounter with Europe, and ask ourselves, why did they work so hard to conceal African history? DM