Helen Zille’s Track Record speaks louder than her words

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Although she did not use the word ‘devastating’ lightly, my mother in her lifetime fairly often resorted to it in describing adverse events that were deeply saddening or profoundly shocking.

I do not know how Western Cape Premier Helen Zille feels about the furore that broke loose after her now notorious colonialism tweet in March of this year, shortly after an official visit to Singapore. However, as rational and controlled as her responses may be, the various reactions may quite well for several reasons be devastating to her. One of them must surely be the fact that she has spent her entire adult life (from student days) fighting, writing and campaigning against political inequalities in this country. And notwithstanding this track record, she is being ostracized over this tweet: “For those claiming the legacy of colonialism was only negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport, infrastructure, piped water etc.”

CONTEXT

Sure, it is probably valid to say that it was somewhat irresponsible to share a thought of that nature with the world at large and more specifically her extremely jumpy and jittery fellow South Africans. But what about context? What about the courage to point out that we are, in fact, in various ways benefiting from some of the more harmless leftovers of an undesirable era.

I only once had a very brief personal encounter with Zille in the course of my five year term as a ward councillor between 2011 and 2016 – during which time she was the Federal Leader of the Party until succeeded by Mmusi Maimane in 2015. However, as a journalist myself by profession, I have for long taken a keen interest in her leadership style, her role in the Struggle and her approach to politics in South Africa; and I have coincidentally learned a great deal more about her background and history by reading her autobiography ‘Not Without a Fight’.

She is perfectly human, which is a relief to know, and far from perfect. But, as the case would have been even before the unfortunate tweet incident, I am of the opinion that Helen Zille has an almost unparalleled track record as a (white) champion for democracy in this country.

In my humble opinion as a professional person with a master’s degree, an above-average interest in politics as well as a coveted first-hand experience in politics during a crucial time in democratic South Africa, the public response to her tweet by her own party leadership could have been dealt with differently. I mean to say: Surely her actions over decades speak way louder than a loaded word taken out of context?!

DECADES OF DEDICATION

Have a heart. After fearlessly and tirelessly pioneering and spearheading in pursuit of a South Africa without oppression, racial divides and inequality for literally decades; after surrounding herself in the process with kindred spirits from all walks of life and mentoring, empowering those who could eventually take over the reins; and after stepping down at the best time possible to stand back – in favour of a new and equally dynamic leadership in the person of Mmusi Maimane, without however quitting the quest: was it the most suitable response from her inner circle, to declare that it was distancing itself from her and that she should be subjected to a disciplinary hearing?

On 6 April Times Live quoted her as saying:

“One of those lessons was that Singapore, having suffered centuries of colonial oppression, succeeded in re-purposing aspects of colonialism’s legacy to build an inclusive modern economy. This, among other things, has enabled its people to escape poverty within a generation.

“There is no question that colonialism was driven by greed and oppressive intent. The question for countries today is whether they are able, like Singapore, to leverage aspects of the legacy of an oppressive past to their advantage.” Mature minds, surely, could have processed and subsequently responded more wisely to the actual tweet, for example by requesting an explanation and clarification from her and by stating that further announcements would be made once the matter had been dealt with internally?

COLLEAGUES APPLAUDED

On 29 March 2017 IOL reported: “After a fiery speech in her own defence she received a standing ovation from DA colleagues.” “…Zille said on Tuesday that people who believed the price of colonialism was too high should not drive cars or visit places of worship, as these were leftover legacies of colonists in SA.

“I am talking about the motor car. Today in South Africa, this colonial leftover is not only a means of transport, but the ultimate status symbol,” she said.

“She defended her tweet as a ‘simple statement of fact’ and said it had sparked a ‘critical’ debate which was of ‘urgent national importance’.”

She had said her visit to Singapore and Japan had been eye-opening.

“It seemed to me that the colonised has overtaken the coloniser on the world stage and I thought it was worthwhile asking why,” she said.

She denied defending or praising colonialism and apologised to those offended by her tweets.

Earlier DA MPLs among whom Bonginkosi Madikizela, Masizole Mnqasela and Western Cape Education MEC Debbie Schäfer had defended Zille, with Mnqasela bringing up Zille’s struggle credentials, reminding MPs of when she had sheltered ANC activists such as Tony Yengeni and Mcebisi Skwatsha.

“NOTHING BUT HARM”

Ironically, in an interview with Alec Hogg for BizNews.com in November 2015, one of Helen Zille’s former critics from within her own ranks at the time, writer Bill (RW) Johnson’ had spoken out against the heavy penalty that MP Diane Kohler Barnard had incurred by tweeting irresponsibly, and prophetically made out a case in Zille’s favour:

“This nonsense with Diane Kohler Barnard… Look, I don’t do social media. I don’t waste my time with it but all these politicians seem to get into tremendous trouble by using it. I don’t know why they do either. It’s done nothing but harm to Helen Zille and now, it’s harmed Kohler Barnard. What she did was a sort of ridiculous thing, which anyone could do with a flick of the mouse. To throw her out of the party and ruin her career over that is an amazing piece of hypersensitivity.”

“Blah-blah-blah…” Is JZ taking strain?

presidentjacobzumaI was not personally present in the ‘House’. Thank goodness. But in the comfort of my own home with mercifully only a screen-sized image of the so-called ‘state of the nation address’, I was allowed ample opportunity to partake with much dismay in the scandalous proceedings  of Parliament yesterday, 9 February 2017.

Once the red and white chaos and turbulence of raucous EFF conduct and somewhat vehement security intervention had subsided on the screen and the other opposition parties had seemingly haphazardly voiced their points of order, concerns and objections or left the House in protest, the beleaguered president could commence his address more than an hour late. This was also after the speakers of the two houses had exerted themselves (pretty much in vain!) in an effort to exercise their powers and execute their duties for the sake of maintaining(?) / restoring (?) order in the House… Two stern women. But to no avail.

HE LAUGHED

And what was JZ’s first reaction when he ‘finally’ (his word) took the podium? He laughed. I would have cried. At least inwardly, which I seriously doubt he is even capable of doing. What a shame. What a shambles. I used the same word to describe the previous SONA, and I wish it were different this time.

The worst of the laughing bit is that he did it at least twice during the course of last night’s address. That hollow, nerve-grating sound that says ‘see the tear in my eye!’.

Did I want to hear what he had to say? Honestly, no. It was so much of the same old, same old. Interspersed with scarlet threads of threat upon (racial) threat. Yes! How is it in order for this individual to hammer on the black/white issue without anyone blinking an eye?! Twenty three years down the line! How much time do you need, sir? “Today we are starting a new chapter of radical social-economic transformation…” Oh my word: rewind, rewind, rewind?

I did not count how many times our president made references to race and to the measures in which – in his explicit opinion – inequality still prevailed in, among others, the business sector and the work-place… and how drastic measures were (according to him) to be put in place to rectify the situation. Oh boy. Just imagine if anyone else, from any other political or social grouping, had the audacity and took the liberty to speak so freely on sensitive issues in racially charged terms!

TIRED & LONELY?

The kitchen with unwashed dinner dishes has a strangely powerful attraction to me midway through his address. And from there, whilst performing mundane household duties, I hear this halting and monotonous drone that could/should surely not be an address  by a country’s number one citizen to his people?

The course of events inside  that Parliament building – whilst the angry tumult of the exiles continues on the streets surrounding it – sounds and appears to be like the lifeless rehearsal of a stage production doomed to failure: undramatic sentences… followed by uninspired applause. More of that. And yet more. Announcement. Applause. Repeat.

You look extremely tired, Mr President. And spent. You even appear lonely. Alone. Deserted? Abandoned?

Yet – you stay. How come? But seriously: don’t you get it? What will it take?