Business Day column: Benefit deniers and credit takers cling to colonialism debate

Colonialism has benefits. There, I said it. I was not struck by lightning, but I might suffer eternal damnation at the behest of racists consumed by the real or fabricated racism of others. Does stating the obvious constitute racism? Will I lose my job?

Nelson Mandela, without mentioning race, observed that "much of what we have to build on [is] the result of what we could gain from [colonial] interaction and engagement with Britain".

Racism is often a paranoid delusion, the state of mind for those who accuse others of racism, an excuse for thought control. That is why racism is imputed to people who say colonialism has benefits.

When or where colonialism has net benefits for either side is unclear. Even where negatives exceed positives, both sides will benefit. The greatest economics insight is that "there is no such thing as a free lunch" — benefits have costs. Correspondingly, there is no such thing as a benefitless lunch — costs have benefits. Even at its horrific worst, colonialism has some cultural, social, economic, political, military, technological, linguistic, literary and other benefits.

Colonialism in all but name started when humans left the cradle of mankind. All races have colonised their race and other races. More accurately, places — not people — were colonised. The dominant motive has been territorial greed and the exploitation of human and nonhuman resources, rather than racial megalomania.

Europeans colonised each other before colonising others. Romans colonised most of Europe, with parts of Africa and Asia. Ottoman Turks colonised Arabic territories and parts of Europe. Africans colonised African and Arabic lands.

What "colonialism" means and whether it endures is unclear. Most definitions regard colonies as places "controlled from a separate entity" (Wikipedia). The UN’s list of "nonself-governing" territories regards modern Western Sahara as an African colony colonised by Africans.

Despite the presumed absence of colonial benefits, some of the world’s richest and freest countries — US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand — prospered as colonies. England was a prosperous Roman, then Viking, colony. Under Britain, Hong Kong was an "economic miracle". Now, like Tibet, it is effectively a Chinese colony.

Current fortunes are caused by current policies not former misfortunes.

Benefit denialists want us to believe that thousands of colonised places were left benefitless. Whatever the net effect, there are always benefits. That fact no more excuses colonial apologists than it debunks benefit denialists.

There is something particularly obnoxious about people who imply that everything introduced by colonisers would otherwise be absent and that they personally deserve credit for the supposed virtues of people of the same race. One of the most obnoxiously racist arguments is that precolonial Africa never had the wheel, the racist implication being that European colonisers invented and introduced it. The wheel was invented 5,000 years ago in Asia, when Europeans were savages in mud huts.

Similar spurious arguments claim colonial credit for all post-colonial virtues. The unknowable is whether those virtues would have been introduced more rapidly and substantially without colonisation.

Nonracialism implies the rejection of assumptions regarding things done by or to others of the same race. Even if people of my race invented the wheel or anything else, no credit would be mine.

  • Louw is executive director of the Free Market Foundation.
This article was first published in Business Day on 7 June 2017

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