Sunday, 4 June 2017

Helen Zille Suspension: Maimane in a tight spot!

Helen Zille’s suspension [1] from the DA must come as a surprise to her echo chamber on twitter. Many of them hold her in such high regard that they have come to believe that she can do no wrong. Many of them readily lapped up her latest controversial outburst, which expounded on the infrastructural merits of colonialism. Notwithstanding the historical inaccuracies in the history lesson she delivered to the country her supporters were largely unmoved. Much like Donald Trump, they appear to have found a voice in Zille that expresses their deeply held beliefs, regularly espoused in the comfort of homes, but frowned upon out in society.

Some of Zille’s supporters’ views are based on deep-seated beliefs they have held for a long time. Under Apartheid, even liberals espoused them without pause for thought. But times have changed. There is a new language in society, one that identifies and critiques these views as symptomatic of systemic and structural racism. And it is this that has proved to be the tragic flaw that has undone Helen Zille’s political career; her statements, and her staunch defence of them, typify the casual systemic racism that underlies so many of the micro-interactions in South African society.

It is not simply that she doesn’t get it (she honestly doesn’t), it is also that she refuses to accommodate the view that any such thing as systemic and structural racism exists. In the current political climate – globally and locally – this is quite literally a conversation stopper. In the current political climate in South Africa it effectively serves as a block on any kind of reconciliation dialogue. It is one thing not to understand, it is quite another thing to refuse to understand. Indeed, she dismisses the discourse around systemic and structural racism as the purview of “critical race theorists”. As she once instructed @Lenz_Gavin on twitter, “The “Critical Race Theorists” who take issue with me are the polar opposite of DA supporters”. It is now quite clear that her reading of the current social and political context was markedly off target.

What is telling is that she refused – point blank – to accept, or even accommodate, the view that her remarks were not only historically inaccurateignorant of scholarship and revisionist, it was also deeply hurtful and condescending to the black majority in South Africa. The tone and blunt delivery of her remarks were thoughtlessly and needlessly crude. Very many people attempted to convince her to take a softer stance, to be more conciliatory in her approach; to understand why her comments were hurtful to the majority of people in this country.

Yet her response was to credit herself with initiating a ‘much needed debate’ on the issue. This notwithstanding that it was the student protests put the decolonisation debate on the public agenda two years ago in the first place (she has disparaged them at every turn on her twitter account). Later, she went on to suggest that pandering to victimhood, or even indulging in it personally, was not what she had been brought up to do. After all, in her view, as a woman and a descendant of Holocaust victims, she has had to endure a great deal to get where she is today, and she didn’t get there by feeling sorry for herself.

Yet it is precisely this ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps anti-victimhood’ narrative that has, for the past two decades, served as a formidable block against real reconciliation. It is a view that is typically espoused by white South Africans who enjoy all the privileges of a society characterised by a pervasive racist colonial and apartheid history that is undeniably mirrored in the features of the current system and its inherited structural inequality. It invokes the mythical narrative of the ‘resilient settler’ who endures against all odds to ‘tame’ the new territory and bring ‘civilisation’ to the natives.

This mythical narrative conveniently de-emphasises the fact that colonial and settler wealth and industry was built on the backs of slavery and the widespread theft of land and resources, and left a legacy of profound under-development in the colonies that persists to this day. As someone who has served on very many transformation action programmes and committees, since the late 1990’s, it is in my opinion the key stumbling block to transformation because it prevents white people from being able to put themselves in the shoes of black people.

This prescriptive narrative, which masquerades as a recipe for the emancipation of black people in South Africa, is in reality a defensive reaction on the part of many white South Africans. Historical guilt renders many white South Africans fragile; unable to adequately listen to the experiences and perspectives of black victims of an inherited system that robs them of their dignity and equality in everyday interactions. Black people experience this narrative as being talked down to, even chastised, without being listened to. It reinforces the structural and systemic inequality that they bear the burden of purely due to the colour of their skin and alienates them from white society.  

To most black people this ‘anti-victimhood’ narrative is a denial of the very real societal conditions they endure under a historically racist, exploitative system that was designed precisely to provide a rationale for the exploitation of black people and their resources. The impacts of history don’t stop when an election is held or a constitution is written, it takes a long time for society to outgrow its historical properties. To assert that because we now live in a democracy we are all magically substantively equal – whether socially, economically or before formal systems such as the law and the state – is simply delusional. It is a simple fact that our history remains with us.

Helen Zille’s preferences for a meritocratic South Africa are built on this tenuous narrative, and bear no relation to the reality that the majority of black and brown South Africans endure on a daily basis. South Africa has the highest inequality in the world, and that inequality delineates along racial and spatial lines. South Africa is still largely a divided country. Brokering reconciliation is an ongoing process; it did not end with the early presidency of Nelson Mandela. It is remarkably politically imperceptive to get this wrong in the current racially divisive climate in South Africa, where serious disgruntlements over the Apartheid settlement – made during the transition to democracy – have emerged.

Simply put, she has misread the broader current socio-political context in South Africa in this critical moment. In a time when she should be the ‘listening leader’, she has chosen to be the ‘instructive leader’. And when it comes to the black majority – which the DA’s new black leadership has targeted with such great effort – Helen Zille’s views constitute political suicide. It may resonate with her one-million strong echo-chamber on twitter, but it certainly does not resonate with the black majority in any measure except as antagonism. This is something that the new black leadership of the DA understand and have taken great pains to explain. This is part of the statement that DA leader Mmusi Maimane made regarding Helen Zille’s suspension today,

“It has become quite fundamentally clear that Premier Zille and I hold fundamentally different attitudes about the direction the Democratic Alliance needs to accomplish in 2019, and the goals and priorities that this flows from. Ms Zille’s views and statements on colonialism are views that I do not support and I believe, without doubt, undermine the reconciliation project. There is no question that (in) those original tweets, and in fact subsequent justifications, were some things that I found personally deeply offensive, and I believe were offensive to many South Africans, and are damaging to the respective project that we are trying to build. If we are going to achieve reconciliation we need to be able to ensure that when we build that dialogue that we understand the history and the context of certain issues.”

There is a lot in this statement that needs to be understood in terms of the current South African political context. On the surface, the issues around reconciliation are clear, but there is a deeper story here. It is that Helen Zille’s political beliefs run in a very different direction to the direction that the new leadership of the DA is taking. At its core, Zille’s political messaging threatens to split the old (mostly white) conservative core from the DA. Her twitter account has effectively served as an echo-chamber for an alternative vision for the DA’s politics. Quite literally, her twitter echo-chamber is very akin to a tea-party styled caucus within the DA, and her Trump-like antics have proven very effective in stirring them up. It is a potentially disastrous situation for the DA to end up in.

This is especially the case when one considers the current impacts of the very public fragmentation and dissolution of the ANC. In this context, an opposition party that is also in political distress is likely to prove a very unattractive option for voters in the 2019 election. South Africans are tired of political uncertainty and infighting; they want a stable government that they can trust to get on with their jobs. They don’t want another ruling party that is caught up in internal battles that paralyse the legislature and the economy. Yet this is precisely the problem with coalition governments in South Africa; historically, they have proved to be at great risk of lapsing into dysfunctionality.

Zille has remained defiant about her suspension. She immediately released a statement stating that a particular section of the DA’s constitution had been violated in suspending her, and that she had offered to apologise, and that the ‘truth’ would come out later down the line. Should she proceed down this path (which she is likely to), her refusal to back down may prove devastating for the DA and her political legacy. It shows a profound lack of political judgement for an ex-leader of a party to draw the new leadership into a divisive battle.

And make no mistake, this is not simply the matter of a few ill-advised tweets, it is about the political direction that the DA is taking. She is now contesting the new leadership’s political direction directly, she is no longer engaging in an indirect battle over twitter. She is engaging in a direct confrontation with the party leadership and its structures, and this confrontation serves as a proxy battle for control over the party’s core vision.

If it were merely the case that Helen Zille was committing political suicide to make a point then this matter would not be such a dangerous one. But she is the former leader of the party. Her challenge to the party leadership is potentially catastrophic for the DA. Under normal circumstances, most people would simply pass it off as her inability to accept that she was no longer in power, having enjoyed the position of number one so long, and missed being in the limelight. But the real danger lies in the potential for Zille to force the conflict into a space that forces a split within the DA or results in a significant loss of its core voting base, who are essentially social conservatives.

And she may very well proceed down that road. She simply cannot accept being wrong about anything, and has developed a Trump-like ability to bully and intimidate. She is a proud person who will not give an inch. It seems that to her, giving an inch would constitute a total and wholesale loss. She is, in this way, a person of extremes. And her support base is as well, for as it is with leaders of her ilk, the general public either loves or hates them, there is little in-between.

The current leader of the DA, Mmusi Maimane, is the polar opposite of Helen Zille in this respect. He is a natural consensus builder and unifier, he listens carefully to what the electorate are saying and feeling. He is empathetic rather than a brutal logician. He is reading more than what a simple statement says in legal terms; he is reading what it means in the minds and feelings of millions of people for whom it is a very difficult decision to vote for the DA ... he is connecting with the emotions and sentiments of the majority, something that Helen Zille just cannot do in the same way.

He has correctly discerned that Zille’s statements and arguments send out precisely the wrong kind of political messaging for the DA and after ignoring them for a long time he has been forced to act. Mmusi Maimane is a diplomat who does not enjoy this kind of confrontation. Indeed, he only really started taking the fight to Jacob Zuma after the EFF made their disruptive appearance in parliament and shook up South African politics. He then understood that he could throw some direct blows at the president, but yet, even in his most critical moments he still wears an aura of diplomacy. In a sense, he really is a gentle man, and he does not seem to relish the opportunity for confrontation the way others such as Julius Malema do. He’d rather maintain his dignity and that of chambers, but the winds of change have forced him to adapt his game, and he has done so admirably.

My feeling is that he was hoping that Helen Zille would fade gracefully into the background over time, but as the pressures of the current political moment have mounted her repeated intrusions into the political messaging of the DA has forced him to act. He seemed reluctant at the press conference yesterday. This is something he had to do; it was not what he preferred to do. It is simply not in Maimane’s character to thoughtlessly wade into a fight; for him that kind of behaviour is ill-advised. To Helen Zille, however, conflicts are opportunities to distinguish oneself. There is a gulf between them in terms of their qualities as leaders.

Zille may not get it, but her actions run the very real risk of painting Mmusi Maimane as a token black leader. Black South Africans – especially in the professional class – are keenly aware of fronting, where talented and capable black professionals (sometimes not that talented) are positioned at the head of white companies and organisations to give them legitimacy. Many of my generation have found ourselves being offered positions of leadership only to then discover upon taking the reins that the former white leadership works overtime to keep you in check, hovering over you as you take every decision, exhibiting a profound lack of trust in your ability to take the lead and see through the agenda that your role prescribes.  

Rendering Maimane vulnerable to being painted as nothing more than a ‘puppet’ or token leader, in the current political context is perhaps the most destructive potential outcome of Zille’s current political messaging. Should she succeed in dragging out this conflict, bringing about more acrimony and division in the process, it will matter little if her desire for a personal victory and vindication is satisfied. She will have delegitimized the party leader in the process, weakening him in the public perception, as well as from within the ranks of the party.

This is a ‘lose-lose’ situation that is all of Zille’s making. If she had, had the foresight and humility to back down earlier and make a sincere apology, Mmusi Maimane’s position as leader would have been strengthened, and her reputation would have suffered little permanent damage. Her intransigence, however, has proved to be a fatal flaw, one that could do permanent damage to herself and her party. Simply put, this is not about the semantics of her statements, or what is strictly correct in textbook or legal terms; it is about being able to read the current political mood and sentiment. This requires soft skills, a quality that is distinctly lacking – by all accounts – in Helen Zille’s leadership style. Her potentially disastrous miscalculation is proof that the DA required a change of leadership in order to make inroads into the black voter base and broaden its electoral base.

Political leadership requires a modicum of diplomacy and etiquette. This is especially the case when leadership of a political party is transferred. It is simply unacceptable for an old leader to engage in political messaging that serves to obstruct and sabotage the vision that the new leadership are building and implementing. The most recent leader simply holds too much political power with the party and its electoral base to be constantly engaging in conflicts that masquerade as ‘debate’. It has the ultimate effect of sending out mixed messages to the electorate. In the case of the DA in South Africa it sends out the potentially disastrous message the new black leader of the DA is simply a token leader that is too weak to see through a new vision for the party.

Helen Zille had a very long run at the helm of the DA and her leadership certainly had its highlights. But her leadership is now over, and she needs to give the new leadership space to lead the party as they see fit. That is what is required of her, but it will take a small miracle to get her to roll back her zeal and act in the interests of the party because she possesses a fundamental tragic flaw; her ego is too large to accommodate the perspectives of others. When she engages in debate one gets the impression that she is too busy preparing her own opinion to faithfully process the perspectives that are being put to her. This situation can only end badly. The question is whether Zille will pay the price for her miscalculation, or whether it will be the DA as a party that suffers in the run-up to the 2019 national election.


[1] It has since emerged that the DA leader may have jumped the gun by announcing Helen Zille's suspension as she was still entitled to a few more days before making submissions to the party why she should not be suspended. The party have hence revised their position to state that they were merely announcing a notice of intention to suspend her. She has 72 hours to make submissions. Zille has milked the opportunity, suggesting that Maimane may have misunderstood the DA's constitution, further weakening his position as leader of the party in the public eye.

Update: Helen Zille was suspended from all party activities by the DA's Federal Executive on 7 June 2017, and a disciplinary hearing will be held from Friday 9th June where she will answer to charges of bringing the party into disrepute. She is predictably defiant, and has defended her position. Time will tell what toll this will have on the DA, but it is already clear that the organisation and its leadership is undergoing considerable strain. Zille's legacy may ultimately be defined more by its unsavoury decline towards its end rather than its highlights.