We are all Helen Zille. Or, why the West thinks that colonialism was not all bad.

In a series of tweets circulated earlier today, Helen Zille, who is Premier of the Western Cape (one of South Africa’s nine provinces) and the former leader of the country’s second largest political party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), asserted there are many positive aspects to colonialism.

Zille, who is white, governs the Western Cape, which has a violent history of slavery (her core base includes many descendants of slaves) and is scarred by migrant labor, an integral part of capitalism in South Africa.

It all started with Zille wondering aloud why Singapore, a country “colonised as long as SA [South Africa], and under brutal occupation in WW2 [World War Two]”, was so successful and what lessons can be drawn for South African democracy. She first listed a series of neoliberal platitudes such as “meritocracy, multiculturalism, work ethic, openness to globalism, English and future orientation” – all thinly disguised colonial tropes. But unlike most of her liberal peers in similar conversations, she went further and openly endorsed the virtues of colonialism:

This reply made her defense of colonialism stand out even more:

A Twitterstorm (mostly by young black South Africans) against Zille’s words, eventually forced her to apologize. But she did not retract her claims and, at the time of writing, the controversial tweets have not been taken down. This is certainly not the first time that she airs bigoted views.

This time however the DA leadership has been more decisive in condemning the former leader. The DA is trying hard to expand support from its traditional white voter base into black communities, and Zille’s comments are a major setback. The party leader Mmusi Maimane and spokesperson Phumzile van Damme — both black — promptly rejected Zille’s views. Maimane said that the Western Cape premier will face a disciplinary process. But one wonders whether the DA leadership really means business when it comes to fighting discrimination. Mayor of Johannesburg Herman Mashaba, also from the DA, was never called to account for his xenophobic remarks which helped fuel recent violence against foreigners in Johannesburg and Pretoria.

Amidst the national outcry against Zille, many white liberals were quick to express outrage. The public outpour on social media, however, does not quite match the fact that Zille’s views are widely shared among white South Africans.

This is not a class or education issue. It goes beyond the crude beliefs of Afrikaner groups like AfriForum, and runs all the way to the top of the white establishment. White scholars rarely condemn colonial conquest in its totality. Their views of a non-racial society are shaped by a certain brand of colonial liberalism that was opposed to apartheid, but saw the idea of European civilization spreading to Africa as a fundamentally good thing, and certainly a better outcome than letting Africans rule their own countries according to their own traditions and aspirations. For them, a non-racial world is one where some fictitious “European values” have spread to all racial groups, thus ensuring that the primacy of the West is maintained.

But white South African scholars are not alone in this belief. They are not academic “deplorables” in an otherwise respectable world, an unfortunate accident of Western liberalism. They are an integral part of the Western propaganda machinery that continues to uphold the same worldview. That colonialism was not all bad is the default position of most Western social science. What has changed over time is the degree of sophistication that we use to mask these views under acceptable politically correct language.

The end of colonialism, apartheid and Jim Crow have marked the global rise of liberal racism – what sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls “racism without racists”. Even when we do not openly endorse colonialism like Zille does, our works are filled with strategic silences, omissions and erasures that continue to sustain ideas of Western superiority.

Some scholars hint at the superiority of the political institutions of Western democracy. Others mention the “inevitable” rise of capitalism, seen always as a quintessentially Western achievement. Others still talk about the “advanced” cultural practices of “European modernity.” Even critical Western scholarship opposed to the neoliberal paradigm rarely acknowledges the persistence of whiteness and racial inequalities, often developing criticisms of the world of finance, the banks or the multinationals that underplay the role of race in these institutions. These coded forms of racism have contributed to consolidate white supremacy in the last few decades of neoliberal hegemony.

That edifice is now crumbling. The Zilles of the world are tired of beating around the bush. They want to speak openly about white superiority and do not want to feel uncomfortable for their views.

They believe that postcolonial countries have been given a chance but failed to assert their worth, denying the fact that neocolonial structures are just as sturdy as colonial ones. They are tired of “diversity talk,” it is all a sham in their opinion. They see a return to the “good old days” of fascism, colonialism, Jim Crow and apartheid as the way forward.

The shift from liberal racism to explicit white supremacy says more about the current political moment in Europe and the US, than the obsession with the ills of the “liberal establishment.” The latter is often evoked by white middle and working classes to highlight their loss of privilege — and only theirs — as unacceptable. Their discourse is now converging with the reactionary colonial conservatism common among white South Africans, as it did in the early days of colonial conquest.

Signaling the virtues of colonialism has a clear political purpose. In a world of increasingly scarce resources, and with Western economies in decline, the fascist frenzy of the UK and US governments can only be served by stepping up the ongoing massive exploitation of natural resources in the global South.

The aspiring guardians of “Western civilization” follow in the footsteps of their liberal predecessors. With the failures of the free market fully exposed, they once again need an overt colonial ideology to justify the pillage.

In Africa, southern African whites operate as a conveyor belt for Western interests, working closely with the army of Western migrants that occupy key positions of the economy and development industry across the continent. The tiny African elites they have co-opted are rapidly losing legitimacy, and are increasingly alienated from the vast majority of citizens. Helen Zille is one of the many hired guns offering their services to the likes of Donald Trump and Theresa May to help them strike favorable trade deals and wage wars to protect Western interests.

Vito Laterza

Anthropologist Vito Laterza is a research fellow at the University of Oslo, and a research associate of the University of Cape Town. He has contributed to Al Jazeera English and the Boston Review and edits the Human Economy blog.

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