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.”
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?
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.”