You can’t pick and choose your colonialism – BizNews, 02 February 2017

Joshua Nott is damned either way. His former comrades call him a hypocrite and a sell-out. His detractors call him a hypocrite, and arrogant and self-righteous.


By Sara Gon 

Joshua Nott is damned either way. His former comrades call him a hypocrite and a sell-out. His detractors call him a hypocrite, and arrogant and self-righteous.

The reason? Nott is described as a key figure in the #RhodesMustFall movement which succeeded in having the statue of Cecil John Rhodes removed from the campus of the University of Cape Town. And yet Nott applied for and was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to study law at Oxford. Strangely his application did not refer to his principled stand against the legacy of Rhodes.

The scholarship is worth about R 668,000. Nott is trying to square his principles with the circle that comprises his opportunity.

Nott insists that he would ‘never toast Cecil John Rhodes’ and that he is against the ‘perverse’ statue of Rhodes outside Oxford’s Oriel College. But, he claims, that he would not join the #RhodesMustFall movement at Oxford. In trying to be all things to all men, he will irritate his former comrades for his cowardice and irritate his detractors by remaining arrogant and undeservedly entitled.

Demands to “decolonise” have been shrill, racist and violent. The public response has generally been one of revulsion. The unrelenting lack of clarity as to what exactly it is meant by “decolonise” just adds to the bewilderment.

This presents an opportunity to consider what colonialism is and why decolonisation is often not even desirable, let alone achievable. Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind (Harvill Secker 2014 & in Hebrew Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan, Dvir 2011) considers the role of colonialism and imperialism in history plainly and dispassionately, which assists us to regard it plainly.

Colonialism involves the assumption of control by the coloniser over the colonised. Imperialism refers to political or economic control, either formally or informally, over the colonised. The effect of either may be indistinguishable.

“Empire” suggests rule by one country over numerous other countries. An empire’s central role in history is cultural diversity and territorial flexibility with flexible borders that don’t change the structure or identity of the imperial power. Some empires are formed by military conquest, and sometimes by agreement between leaders. Sometimes the ruling power is a tyranny; sometimes a democracy.

Size is no indicator. The Athenian empire was smaller than present day Greece. The five largest geographical empires in history were, in descending order, the British (22.6% of world’s land mass by 1938), the Mongol (22.29% by 1279), the Russian (15.31% by 1913), the Soviet (15.01% by 1991) and the Spanish (13.03% by between 1783–1801).

Since the first known empire, the Akkadian Empire of Sargon the Great (+ 2250 BC) until the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1991, approximately 220 empires have existed across the world and at different times in history.

Empire building by its nature has reduced the amount of human diversity as the unique characteristics of many peoples were obliterated or changed as a result.

According to Harari the empire has been the world’s most common form of political organisation for the last 2,500 years. Empires are generally stable, toppled either by external invasion or by a split within the ruling elite.

Conversely, conquered peoples do not generally succeed in freeing themselves from their imperialist masters.

The current Middle East, which was reconfigured after World War I, last comprised independent political entities nearly 3,000 years ago.

There is no denying that building and maintaining an empire usually requires the vicious slaughter of large populations and the brutal oppression through wars, enslavement, deportation and sometimes genocide.

But to reject what empires offer of value is ‘to reject most of human culture’ according to Harari. A significant proportion of humanity’s cultural achievements owe their existence to the exploitation of conquered populations.

Most of us speak in colonial languages – the East Asians the language of the Han Chinese empire; the Americas in Spanish, Portuguese, French or English. Zulu is spoken by many who originally fought against the Zulu empire.

For the most part empires have created hybrid civilisations that absorbed much from their subject peoples. The process of assimilation has often been painful and traumatic. Inevitably, however, assimilation and acculturation broke down the barriers between rulers and the ruled.

Many anti-colonial struggles have occurred under the banners of self-determination, socialism and human rights which are all Western concepts. The Fallists probably fall into the category of seeking, as Harari says, to “purge human culture of imperialism, leaving behind what they claim is a pure, authentic civilsation, untainted by sin.”

Harari describes these ideologies as at best naive and at worst disingenuous window-dressing for crude nationalism and bigotry. All human cultures are at least in part the legacy of empires and imperial civilisation. No academic or political surgery can cut out the imperial legacies without killing the patient.

Each empire will have had its own characteristics. Although South Africa may have had certain unique characteristics, its “colonialism of a special kind” was an SA Communist Party construct (James Myburgh Who is the real ANC?) This construct may have contributed to our self-aggrandising sense of exceptionalism.

For all the harshness of British imperialism the African cultures of South Africa were not obliterated.

The infamous YouTube video of the UCT student who decried science in general and the science of Newton in particular, in a sad attempt to advance African science through “decolonising” science showed an ignorance of the universality of knowledge. A scientific theory becomes the domain of all those who seek to understand it, build on it or challenge it. It isn’t negated because of its origins; it can only be negated by being proved wrong. Knowledge is anyone’s to advance.

But who is to say which consequences of colonialism must go and which must stay? And how do you excise the colonial culture from indigenous culture when they have coalesced? The most successful and often most brutal act of colonialism was the conversion of indigenous peoples to Christianity. Most Africans consider themselves to be devout Christians, but have infused traditional belief with Christian belief. There is no embarrassment in this identity – it has been a classic fusion of the indigenous and the colonial.

The secular religion of communism is a white, middle-aged male construct that was advanced, and in many cases, imposed through the ideological and military domination of the Soviet Union from the October Revolution onwards. It doesn’t get much more empire-building than that!

The ANC has chosen to retain all the intensely colonial trappings of parliament and its processes. Our sports, including our most popular sport, soccer are inherited from our colonial masters. The Fallists would face a real challenge in that arena. Why would the colonial influences on tertiary education be subject to “decolonisation” and not the sport beloved of tens of millions of people?

Our clothes, many music trends, technology, banking, business, legal process came from the West. From the communist world came military, propagandistic and ideological support to the ANC and SACP. Thankfully we never became the recipients of Soviet vehicle manufacture, legal process or fashion.

So perhaps in his time at the Empire’s oldest and one of its most prestigious universities Mr. Nott will learn some history, appreciation and humility.

*Sara is a Policy Fellow at the IRR, a think tank that promotes economic and political liberty. Follow the IRR on Twitter @IRR_SouthAfrica.

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