Helen Zille, the ‘unrepentant closet racist colonialist” versus the Dependency Brigade

If you do a quick search of the internet using the words ‘Zille’ and ‘colonialism’ and ‘tweet’ your computer screen will explode with links to so many articles, that for a moment you will think that she put the social welfare payments to 17 Million poor South Africans at risk….. sorry I have got the wrong story but a story I nevertheless must come back to in a future blog post.

Most ostracised Zille for her now ‘infamous’ tweet that “for those claiming the legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc.” This tweet is often read in isolation from Zille’s other series of tweets on the matter which read as follows:

  • Much to learn from Singapore, colonised for as long as SA, and under brutal occupation in WW2. Can we apply the lessons in our democracy?
  • Singapore had no natural resources and 50 years ago, was poorer than most African countries. Now they soar. What are the lessons?
  • I think Singapore lessons are: 1) Meritocracy; 2) multiculturalism; 3) work ethic; 4) open to globalism; 4) English. 5) Future orientation.
  • Other reasons for Singapore’s success: Parents take responsibility for children, and build on valuable aspects of colonial heritage.
  • For those claiming the legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc. (My note – I only repeat this tweet again here for context).
  • Would we have had a transition into specialised health care and medication without colonial influence? Just be honest, please.
  • Getting onto an airplane now and won’t get onto the wi-fi so that I can cut off those who think EVERY aspect of colonial legacy was bad.

My issues with the multitudes that crucified Helen Zille is that they totally ignored that in the field of development studies, of which I’m a masters degree (cum laude) graduate, two of the most prominent theories of development is the modernization and dependency theories. Both these have their strong and weak points but are nevertheless accepted in academia as still valid (although mainly out of favour) theories of development that add value to the age-old questions of how desirable change in society is best achieved and why certain communities are in general more developed, and therefore better off than others. If her critics took some time out before shouting out ‘unrepentant closet racist colonialist’ to do some research they would have found the Helen Zille’s series of tweets lies at the heart of the debate of which of the modernization or dependency theories best answers these vexing questions.

For most African nationalist and those that criticised Helen Zille, they have an almost blind faith that the colonialists are to be blamed for all Africa’s misfortunes and are therefore in full support of the dependency theory of development unfortunately to the extent that anybody that questions it in any way, is called out as a heretic as Helen Zille found out.

Dependency theory is the notion that resources flow from a “periphery” of poor and underdeveloped states to a “core” of wealthy states, enriching the latter at the expense of the former. It is a central contention of dependency theory that poor states are impoverished and rich ones enriched by the way poor states are integrated into the “world system”.

Dependency theory states that poor nations provide natural resources and cheap labour for developed nations, without which the developed nations could not have the standard of living which they enjoy. When underdeveloped countries try to remove the core’s influence, the developed countries hinder their attempts to keep control. This means that poverty of developing nations is not the result of the disintegration of these countries in the world system, but because of the way in which they are integrated into this system.

The dependency theory arose as a reaction to modernization theory, an earlier theory of development which held that all societies progress through similar stages of development, that today’s underdeveloped areas are thus in a similar situation to that of today’s developed areas at some time in the past, and that, therefore, the task of helping the underdeveloped areas out of poverty is to accelerate them along this supposed common path of development, by various means such as investment, technology transfers, and closer integration into the world market.

Both theories have close historical links to colonialism. The dependency theory argues that the underdevelopment of poor nations in the Third World is solely derived from systematic imperial and colonial exploitation. The modernization theory, on the other hand, argues that colonialism aided the Third World to modernize their institutions of governance, infrastructure, and society.

These two main theories of development have been severely critiqued over the last five decades mainly in that both theories make the mistake of treating lesser-developed communities as homogeneous (i.e. as having the same characteristics). They fail to understand that value systems and institutions tend to be culture-specific. For example, Ethiopia and Somalia may be neighbouring lesser-developed communities but their cultures are quite different from one another and may each, therefore, require different development programmes.

Both theories also make the mistake of treating capitalist societies as homogeneous and consequently fail to acknowledge that there are different types of capitalism and reactions to it (for example, American capitalism based upon Fordism tends to have a different character to Japanese capitalism which tends to be more paternalistic). Both theories are also often accused of being over-deterministic in that they make little attempt to explore the interpretations of people in the lesser developed communities (failing to acknowledge that people in lesser developed countries might rationally choose to take a capitalist path, might rationally choose to hang on to their own culture or might rationally choose to combine elements of capitalism and their own cultures – as in Japan).

The main issue for me with these theories is that they both simplistically present the relationship between lesser development communities and the West in terms of conflict or ‘us versus them’, totally ignoring any other determinants of development. For example, modernization theory only sees lesser development communities such as ours as ‘backward’ societies that ‘need’ the West’s help to develop, whilst dependency theory only sees ‘us’ being exploited by ‘them’ for cheap labour and raw materials.

Because of the above shortcomings, both theories have largely fallen out of favour and have been replaced by theories that focus on sustainable and human development. Ironic then that those that so freely criticised Helen Zille, currently still hold on so dearly to the out of favour dependency theory, that they will call those that dare to questions its wisdom ‘unrepentant closet colonial racists’.

Helen Zille’s series of tweets asks some critical questions that sit squarely within the decade-long debate between the proponents of the dependency versus modernization theories without herself arguing that the one theory is 100% right and the other 100% wrong. She inter alia asked how Singapore given its history of colonial and oppression during World War 2 managed to overcome the negative effects of dependency to become a successful state and offers some suggestions on why she thinks this might have happened.  She then poses the valid question namely if they could do it why not Africa, in other words what can our continent perhaps learn from them and lastly reminded us that colonialism did not only have negative effects (for further illustration if you tell the absolutely cricket-mad Indian citizens that they have to forego the game because it’s part of the legacy of colonialism, which it is, they will politely tell you to take a hike!).

Lelouch Giard in his piece “Helen Zille: How politically correct must we be?” rightly puts her series of tweets into proper perspective:

“Not once did Zille say that colonialism was not negative. She did point out that it is more complex than just ‘all bad’ (as is often the case with a situation calling for a moral judgment). She was not defending or justifying colonialism, she was looking at it from an angle that is often ignored (an angle that exists and is quite valid).”

I personally take my hat off to Helen Zille in that, unlike most other politicians who hide behind populist slogans and calling serious issues facing our citizens ‘funny democracy’, she is willing to open herself up freely for important debates that we need as a society to ensure that one singular version of the truth (the dependency theory in this instance) is not forced down our throats blindly by the political elite and their social media watchdogs and those that are too scared to question these many truths in the name if being politically correct. Say what you want about Helen Zille or call her names to wits end but if you want to be taken seriously by her then you better take heed of what Gwen Ngwenya said about Helen Zille on Facebook namely that she “… will expect you to fight to be right through the merit of your argument and not the colour of your skin”.