South Africa has been thrown into a debate on a “truism” of colonialism by a tweet from Western Cape Premiere and former leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, Helen Zille:
For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc.
— Helen Zille (@helenzille) March 16, 2017
The debate around this quote has revealed a pillar of white supremacy that has been upheld for generations, even by liberals. It is bizarrely impervious to reason. People repeatedly state that this is an obvious fact, while it is, in fact, pure nonsense. Here are the assumptions underpinning it:
(1) Without the domination by force of European powers, countries could either never have been exposed to technological and institutional developments in Europe, or would never have seen the value of adopting them.
(2) Without European wealth and power, it would have taken far longer for the ‘primitive’ societies to adopt these useful developments.
Both of these assumptions through which people assert this myth are totally false. This can be shown by the only example of a country that categorically was not colonised*. This nation was able to defeat a major European industrial power in a sea war as early as 1905. It was able to strongly contest domination of the Pacific with the two greatest technological super-powers of the ’30s and ’40s. Now it builds robots in glass towers. The two assumptions I listed would have predicted Japan to still be fighting feudal wars out of peasant hovels–which was the state they were in before the European voyages of discovery.
Now we can debate the extent to which Japan would have been a typical case if other nations had remained uncolonised. But the fact that the only example on record does not even remotely match the assumption that, without colonialism, peoples would have remained stuck in the state in which Europeans found them, immediately debunks the so-called, “truth,” of these assumptions.
The overwhelmingly likely outcome is that there would have been vast variation between nations had they never been colonised. Some may have reached the 21st century in poverty and disaster due to vagaries of history. But many that are now struggling to catch up with European prosperity would very likely be way ahead of where they find themselves today. Why can I say that?
Because colonialism extracted resources, labour and materials, from colonised countries to feed the economies of the colonial nations. Without colonialism, cultures could have used those resources for themselves–whether for their élites or in more egalitarian ways, it matters little. The point is that they would have had more resources for self-development, and greater incentive to spread the use of technology internally instead of using it only for the extraction of resources to foreign states, and the comfort of a colonial minority.
Japan was an aristocratic oligopoly. But those oligarchs could see the benefit of enriching their commoners to become fit soldiers and consumers of the industrial products they made. The only reason many assume that this would not have been the case more commonly in the absence of colonialism is a species of racism that suggests that brown people do not recognise their own self-interest. The failures of slow development of post-colonial states is blamed, in this racist narrative, on the ‘nature’ of the post-colonial inhabitants, rather than the well-recorded history of exploitation, declining terms of trade, and cold-war manipulation of leadership by the world’s big economies (most of which were developed through colonial extraction in the first place).
Every time one of these post-independence nations begins to succeed, one gets the impression of the racist narrative shifting slightly to accommodate the contradiction to the ‘nature,’ based argument–where Indians, Chinese, and Koreans are now natural business people rather than indolent degenerates. Will the rapid growth in West Africa cause people to argue that West Africans are somehow inherently more productive than the ‘ignorant savages’ in the rest of the continent? I doubt those espousing these views will consider the fact that, for example, fast-growing Ghana was the first African nation to gain independence and has thus had more time to overcome its colonial legacy than some others.
What’s particularly dismaying is how people who consider themselves liberal or progressive fail to examine these assumptions. Because technology appeared in these countries while they were colonised, they assume that colonisation was necessary to its appearance, rather than seeing that these technologies became available while those countries were colonised, so naturally their introduction was through that channel. But there is no reason whatever to assume that there would have been any great barrier to that technology in the absence of colonialism. It assumes technological transfer was a benefit of colonialism, when it, in fact, only accompanied colonialism–a force that caused such economic and cultural devastation that even the two nations that were the economic powerhouses throughout civilisation, India and China, are still struggling to catch up.
Europeans did not take to the great oceans to colonise. They took to them to trade. That would have brought their technologies around the world even had they not found opportunities to seize control of their trading partners by force. Japan demonstrates what happened when Europeans found no such opportunity. Trade and technology transfer with Japan did not cease as Zille’s claim would predict, but was vastly accelerated compared to the countries that received their technologies through European domination.
Not everyone would have wound up as successful as Japan. And technological and institutional development would not have helped to make benevolent societies (as Japan proved by itself embarking on a programme of colonisation). But colonialism reduced, rather than increased, opportunities to develop technologically and institutionally.
I should make it clear that I have read Zille’s full series of tweets and she was not taken out of context. She was praising autocratic Singapore which she suggests as a model for South Africa with its paradox of anti-worker, free-trade libertarianism, and harsh authoritarianism which, she argues, embraced rather than lamented colonial institutions. This makes her not only ahistorical on colonialism but actually anti-democratic too. She does not, for example, suggest the Nordic countries as a model with their magnificent standards of living due to embracing democracy, and worker and human rights, rather than suppressing them.
*Some nations that were nominally not colonised (Thailand, Liberia) were very much unable to make policies that in any way contradicted the wishes of great, Western powers and were effectively under their sway.