Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
There’s no doubt the ramifications of Western colonialism are visible today. European nations that expanded their empires over the last few centuries have spread their languages, religion and technology to the what are now their former colonies. Yet we should not forget the human rights violations that consistently accompanied colonialism. So when Helen Zille, former leader of South Africa’s Democratic Alliance party, tweeted about the benefits of colonialism, she was ignorant of the real situation South Africa and many other countries face, even long after independence.
South Africa did not have its first multi-racial election until 1994. It took the dedication of the African National Congress to break the British and Dutch policy of apartheid. However, years of social and economic inequality were not magically repaired. Although South Africa is considered a middle-income nation, about 36 percent of the population lives in poverty. Issues such as government corruption, violent crime and HIV/AIDS plague South Africa as “millions of poor blacks have seen little or no improvement in their lives,” according to a May 2014 NPR article.
To say that South Africa’s socioeconomic problems are solely the result of European colonization would not be fair. However, the aftermath of decades of segregation and demoralization that sprung from European colonialism has far-reaching effects. Today, natural resources from the entire continent of Africa create less revenue for African nations than for the Western multinationals extracting them. For example, Zambia is among the poorest countries in the world, and the Swiss company Glencore rakes in billions from copper mining inside the country. Even the International Monetary Fund and World Bank played a role in advising Zambia to implement policies that would benefit Glencore at Zambia’s own expense. This tradition of Western powers exploiting African resources is long-established; the fact that it still happens today is clear evidence that colonialism is the root of modern-day socioeconomic issues in not just South Africa, but the entire continent.
Before its regions were colonized, Africa had a rich history of culture and prosperity. Civilizations based on commerce existed well before Europeans took over. The ancient Egyptians were pioneers in the fields of mathematics and astronomy. The Kingdom of Sheba was considered the first true African indigenous state. It was not established by foreign conquerors and was said to be the site of the enigmatic Ark of the Covenant. In present-day Mali, one of the wealthiest African empires thrived for more than 800 years. Valuable goods like gold and salt were mined and traded with merchants who hailed from faraway places including China and India. Although slavery was a product of intertribal warfare and existed before European settlers invaded, colonizers took an existing practice that was already immoral and dehumanizing and amplified it on a global scale to extract profit for themselves. The entire continent of Africa was drained of both its natural resources and its people.
So when Zille tweeted for us to “Just be honest” that without colonialism, South Africa would have never had specialized health care, a judicial system and modern infrastructure, she was largely ignoring the fact that African nations displayed socioeconomic capabilities on their own long before Europeans changed the course of their history. Colonization didn’t give countries like South Africa a chance to progress on their own. Instead, colonizers intruded on their land and exploited the naturally abundant wealth in Africa. In essence, colonization stunted the growth of countries that were controlled, and now that nations like South Africa have gained their independence, it is going to take time for them to catch up with the Western world. This is a travesty that cannot be overlooked. Politicians like Zille need to be more cautious of their messages because denying the misfortunes of colonialism is as dangerous as approving of the practice itself.
Asha Kodan is a freshman biology major. She can be reached at email@example.com.