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Africans don't owe our civilisation to the white world

Opinion
Open Letter to Helen Zille

Dear Madam Helen, I trust this letter finds you well after a tumultuous and excruciating few days. I am pained to write to you as one of those who suffered and still suffer the effects of colonialism and apartheid. Issues that you just don’t seem to understand.

In the concurring opinion of Judge Chris Jafta in the Constitutional Court judgment on the case of the City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality v AfriForum and Another, Judge Jafta says “ I am troubled by the statement in which is implied that a cultural tradition founded in history rooted in oppression may find recognition in the constitution. And it cannot be gainsaid that the oppression we are talking about here was based on race and therefore was racist to the core. Its central and yet false pillar was that the white race was superior to other races. As many authorities show the constitution creates a clean break from our ugly past of racial oppression by emphatically rejecting discrimination based on race and the humiliation and indignity suffered by black people at the hands of their white compatriots.”

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Zizi Kodwa ia an ANC spokesperson

This case decided in 2016 concerned a temporary interdict against the city over the changing of mostly Afrikaans street names (what Zille now loosely calls the repurposing of our ugly past).

Judge Mohamed J, In the very first case to be heard by the ConCourt said, “How can our unquestionably transformative constitution be expected to recognise cultural traditions rooted in the racist past? The answer must be, if there is such expectation, that it is misplaced. The fact that the oppressive racist history exists at the level of fact does not mean that it deserves any recognition in the constitution.”

Both Judge Jafta and Judge Mohamed J make a similar but critical point. The new South Africa creates a clean break from our ugly past giving birth to a new nation with new prescripts.

South Africa is not an improved version of the past or a case of taking our better past forward, South Africa is a new nation.

The core and yet false pillar that was, for 400 years, a guiding narrative of everything that happened in this country’s past was not only that the white race was superior to the non-white race, but the tenet everything would be built upon. Everything that Zille sees, her roads, her piped water, her rail roads, her justice system were built, albeit falsely, on the false pillar of superiority of white people.

In a speech to the Sudanese National Assembly on January 6, 2005, former president Thabo Mbeki said, “When these eminent representatives of British colonialism were not in Sudan, they were in South Africa, and vice versa, doing terrible things wherever they went, justifying what they did by defining the native peoples of Africa as savages that had to be civilised even against their will”.

In Zille’s world, we owe our civilisation to the white world.

Ignorance of the black world and the suppression of its genius cannot in itself be paraded as truth. In other parts of the world, the history of Africans and their contribution to civilisation is being discovered every day, rendering white history circumspect at best.

Elijah McCoy, a black man, in 1872 developed a “lubricating cup” that could automatically drip oil when and where needed to improve efficiency and eliminate the frequent stopping necessary for lubrication of the train.

He received a patent for the device later that year. The “lubricating cup” met with enormous success and orders for it came in from rail road companies all over the country.

There goes Zille’s trains.

When everything is built on assumed (and false) race superiority the people who actually make things are never recognised until the conscience of their past oppressors gives in.

There is every reason to be circumspect of everything given our ugly history built on false premises, but we have decided to create a clean break from the past.

The much celebrated Alexander Graham Bell employed Lewis Howard Latimer, a black man born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on September 4, 1848.

In 1876, Latimer, then a draftsman at Bell’s patent law firm, drafted the drawings required to receive a patent for Bell’s telephone. There is again a reason to be circumspect on this story because black people’s contribution ended up feeding white people’s false pillar of race superiority.

In South Africa we are left to only take satisfaction that the manpower that built the white world was black power. This is true but it is not, and cannot be the whole story.

As Mbeki said, again dealing with this false history that has a white face in Africa, “Here, in the African continent, when we speak of Africa we speak of African works of art in South Africa that are a thousand years old. We speak of the continuum in the fine arts that encompasses the varied artistic creations of the Nubians and the Egyptians, the Benin bronzes of Nigeria and the intricate sculptures of the Makonde of Tanzania and Mozambique. We speak of the centuries-old contributions to the evolution of religious thought made by the Christians of Ethiopia and the Muslims of Nigeria. When we survey all this and much more, we find nothing to sustain the long-held dogma of African exceptionalism, according to which the colour black becomes a symbol of poverty, primitiveness and lack of progress”.

We built our world a thousand years before we encountered Europe.

One day, all history will be told.

* Zizi Kodwa is an ANC spokesperson.

The Star

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