Colonialism Critic’s Views Evaluated

Muhammad Omar, whose views are usually sensible, catalogues the failings of colonialism in a fashion which ticks the box of political correctness but otherwise takes a rather select view of history (Daily News, June 13).

His opening statement is particularly problematic. “Civilisation,” he asserts, “would have existed in South Africa and progressed with or without the British Empire.”  His assertion depends on how “civilisation” is defined.

Before the minuscule nucleus of a  British presence was established in Natal in 1843, the hegemony of Shaka and Dingane prevailed. Militarily impressive and brutally efficient, nonetheless, it could not be compared with the material aspects of life which followed the wake of British settlement: the wheel, pen and paper, bricks and mortar, spinning and weaving, literacy and Christianity. – all the accrual of many centuries of development.

In time, it is possible that those material benefits may have evolved in Natal without the British presence but that is speculation. The reality is that since the beginning of recorded history, no part of the world has escaped outside or foreign influences. And while those influences have invariably had harsh consequences, they have also had beneficial legacies. (Significantly, Omar does not list the USA  as having progressed  despite British imperialism.)

For Omar to contend that “colonialism brought nothing less than misery to Africa,” is extravagant. In the first place, the British ended the scourge of slavery which had wrought havoc and suffering among Africans for centuries. British authority brought a measure of stability and order to areas under the Union Jack. Of course, there were dreadful blunders such as the Anglo-Zulu war and the brutal crushing of the Bhambatha uprising of 1906.

Omar’s likening of colonialism to the holocaust is a sad departure from his usual informed logic. Despite its limitations, the Natal colonial Blue Book of statistics for 1908 shows that the African population grew from an estimated 113,000 in 1852 to nearly 1 million by 1908. Clearly, holocaust genocide did not feature here. In Rhodesia, the black population increased 12 fold between 1890 and 1980. Certainly, colonialism, as practised in the Congo under King Leopold of Belgium, was fraught with human suffering and rightly ranks as a dark period in that region.

Overall, what appears missing from Omar’s view is that Africa was subject to bouts of invasion and conquest long before European colonialism. It is an established fact that the southward migration of Africans from the equatorial regions was the result of slave raiding and trading and internecine conflict which amounted to black-on-black colonisation. It would be interesting for him to account for the benefits of that experience for the San people, the original inhabitants of southern Africa.

Sent into The Mercury and published, 20 June 2017.

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