The Worst Thing That Colonialism Did Was To Cloud Our View of the Past


“No other continent has endured such an unspeakably bizarre combination of foreign thievery and foreign goodwill.” Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood


Have you ever wondered who invented glass? Somewhere in Mesopotamia, thousands of years before Christ, craftsmen made a little discovery that we now use for thousands of things. What I find most fascinating about glass is what my mother calls its “flowy state”. Although glass looks like a solid, it is in fact a liquid. It flows and changes.

History becomes much like glass when placed in human hands. It appears fixed and solid but in fact over time it evolves: a fact twisted here, a half lie printed there; the version that suits the majority and sometimes, the minority.

By now you have probably come to some conclusion about what this post is about and whose side I am taking. You might have realised that this is a follow up to my previous post The liberation struggle was about land.

I want you to imagine that you are sitting in a discussion about land reform in South Africa (specifically The Big Debate on eNCA), when someone stands up and declares:

“We are the rightful owners of this land!”

Give that person a body, clothes, a voice. Let’s play for points, who do you see?

Five points for you if you pictured a middle aged, khaki clad white man who describes himself as a Boer. For those of you who saw an angry black person with a foaming mouth and a raised fist, try again in the next round! I did a quick check to see if the speaker was Leon Schuster in disguise; the rightful owners of this land?! You must be joking!

A cloudy colonial past

“The worst thing that colonialism did was to cloud our view of our past.”

Barack Obama

Many of you would not be able to read this but for the invention of glass. Some really smart people out there (no one knows when or where for sure) figured out that glass could be used to refract light into a defective eye in such a way that it corrected and improved your ability to see objects from a distance.

The further we move away from a certain point in history, the blurrier it appears. But perception is not reality and the Boer man who stood up at that debate stands corrected by history’s testimony.

I struggle to remember what I read of my continent’s history from the textbook when I was 13 years old. I know a tiny bit about the events leading to the wars of independence and even less about what life was like before colonialism, before “the men without knees” came; referring to the trousers wearing strangers.

And even with my family history, I can only squint into the past and imagine. I see my great-great-great grandmother walking down a dusty road, first as a little girl at her mother’s side and then an old woman, with many grandchildren underfoot. And then my great-great grandfather on the day he was born, the pride of his parents, I wonder: where was he laid to rest?

I ask myself what dreams they had, what prayers they prayed, the hidden desires of their hearts. I construct kraals and walls and cities breached by enemy clans. I see kings and queens, festivals and funerals. But none of it is real, it is all imagined. We lost our cultural legacy to colonialism.

The reality is that that my grandparents live in a little house on the outskirts of the city, a tiny two bedroomed unit, with a toilet and bathroom outside. I wonder how gogo must have felt when she walked through the pretty houses in the white suburbs that she worked in. And whether she wondered how “Fambeki” (Van Beek?) came to own his farmland. Could she conceive of the a day when her children could venture beyond the boundaries of the township, past the curfew, into the suburbs and buy houses of their own?

Wrongs don’t make a right

In a recent discussion about land reform one of the issues that came up was the unlawful occupation of farms and the violation of private property rights. The argument was something along these lines:

My grandfather bought the land X years ago for a fair price. We hold the title deed to the land and have held and farmed on it it lawfully for years. The invasion of our farm was illegal and unfair.

Firstly, as a matter of principle, I believe that anyone who can prove ownership of land today is entitled to protection of their ownership rights. In practice what that means is that issues of compensation become relevant when a government is implementing a land reform policy. That is the just thing to do. But before you wave your title deed around, you must ask yourself the question:

In a country where most of the people are black, how did so much land end up in the hands of white people?

After 1994 in South Africa “so much” amounts to just under 90% of the land. Do bear in mind that white people made up about 10% of the population. Various legislation was passed by the government, restricting ownership of land by black people and allocating the majority of the land and the best of the land to white people. Today, given the failure of South Africa’s land reform programme, the majority of land remains white owned.

In Zimbabwe too, most of the land was in the hands of white people. Decades after independence, the land invasions began which became the catalyst for the land reform policy.

Obama was right when he said that colonialism clouded our view our past. Because white people fail to see that their position of privilege today is the fruit of a seed of injustice that was planted generations ago. And because black people have adopted the means of their colonisers, forgetting that racism is a powerful weapon; but one that will ultimately destroy anyone who raises it against another, no matter what colour.

Africa’s past is distant, but not too distant for us to have gained the right forget that the rightful owners of this land were forced out of it by a law written in a language that they did not understand and by a people that they did not know.

There are many wrongs that must still be made right, including the issue of land. God says that those who sow in tears will reap in joy (Psalm 126:5) and in my imagination I see every tear cried by Africa’s people being counted by God and kept in a multicoloured bottle made of glass.

Thanks for reading.

This is not an academic article, it is a collection of my opinions on certain issues. If you are looking for a credible academic source of African history or current issues, this is not it.