Helen Zille’s latest twitter comments, and her subsequent Daily Maverick article, both waxed lyrical about the ‘benefits’ of colonial infrastructure and services (e.g. medicine) to the colonies. Predictably, her comments have invoked widespread outrage in South Africa, a country that is still grappling with its colonial and Apartheid past that saw white supremacy entrenched in every aspect of daily life.
Notwithstanding that her comments were historically inaccurate, in that the legacy of colonialism is overwhelmingly one of legalised dispossession, theft, extraction and slavery, the legacy of colonialism that is with us today is the legacy of profound underdevelopment. It has left us with extractive economies that have not industrialised or diversified because the colonies were not included in the industrial revolution except as sources of raw materials and markets for cheap goods. It has left us with the far-reaching intergenerational impacts of slavery and forced labour, under-education and illiteracy. It left many colonies so poor that they were easy targets for outsourced cheap labour in the global neoliberal economy.
Colonialism left most postcolonial dispensations with a desperate lack of infrastructure and commensurate service provisions. That is because infrastructures such as roads and rail were only put in place to aid extraction of raw materials, and the transportation of raw materials and labour. The legacy of slums and informal settlements in urban settlements across the Global South is testament to this. Colonialism is solely responsible for pervasive dual formal and informal systems (i.e. such as economies, land, service provision and housing). It engaged in the wholesale theft of children and separation from their parents (such as the aboriginal children in Australia). It forced indigenous peoples off their land into labour on farms, mines and in industries, obliterating traditional family life and society in the process. In many places it all but destroyed local customs, traditions and cultures.
Simply put, the extent of colonial damage runs so deep in the postcolonial dispensations that it is patently ridiculously naïve to invoke examples of the benefits or benevolence of colonialism against the backdrop of these impacts, which would be regarded as crimes against humanity today.
Postcolonial interference in the colonies – for the express purpose of ensuring supply of raw materials to the industrialised world – created monstrous dictatorships, propped up with Western support, hampered development and denied many countries of their preferred and elected leaders. Today, postcolonial African debt and land grabs across Africa threaten to ensure the continued underdevelopment of African economies, and their express over-dependence on their ex-colonial masters. The legacy of colonialism is a patently and undeniably destructive one for those who have suffered for over 400 years under the jackboot of colonial empires.
Within this context, a short anecdote is instructive of why Helen Zille’s comments are nonsensical at best. Imagine that you owned a double storey house, and kept all your valuables on the top floor so that it would be more difficult to steal. Along comes a thief who ingeniously nails a rope-ladder to the side of your house, climbs up, steals all your valuables and disappears down the rope-ladder into the night. You call the police, they manage to apprehend the thief a few months later, but he has already spent his ill-gotten gains from the theft on himself. When you confront him in court, he says to you, “at least you now have a rope-ladder that reaches up to your window that can double as a fire escape”. That is the extent of the hypocrisy and ludicrous logic of Helen Zille’s comments. It denies the theft. It denies that your rights were violated. It does not seek to make reparations and neither does it seek to apologise. It infers that you should actually be grateful for the minor gain you made amidst major losses.
To understand why Helen Zille has largely gone unchallenged by the current leadership of the DA, one has to acknowledge the extraordinary power she wields over the DA’s membership and support base. She grew the party from single to double digit percentages during her leadership, and it is now the official opposition in South Africa. She has an unprecedentedly large following on twitter, boasting 1 million followers and 55 thousand tweets. By comparison, the current black leader of the DA has 500 thousand followers and 12 thousand tweets. The president Jacob Zuma has 420 thousand followers (100 tweets) and the ruling party’s twitter account @myANC has 360k followers.
Helen Zille’s twitter account has had the effect of building a personality cult around her, and by her own admission she finds it both empowering and useful. She enjoys it, and despite many calls for her to abandon it entirely, she persists in her social media activities; which have morphed into a parallel campaign of sorts, one that distracts significantly from the core messaging of the new DA leadership simply because her echo-chamber (much like Donald Trump’s) is so much larger and self-reinforcing. As an experiment for the reader, try to confront her on her opinions on twitter. Not only will she deny the validity of your views, her followers will descend upon you and troll you out of the space. Her twitter-verse is not a diverse one; it largely consists of like-minded conservatives who really believe that she is representing their views accurately and consistently. That is, her most recent statements were not a mistake. Rather it is consistent with the narrative that she is putting out.
This would be okay if she were the leader of the DA. However, having passed the reigns on to a new black leader and his leadership, it creates confusion and an unnecessary distraction from the party’s core message. It has come to represent a “good-cop, bad-cop” act, with Mmusi Maimane presenting a unifying vision for the country, one that is more social democratic in orientation, and Helen Zille feeding the very polarisation in the South African polis that Maimane’s leadership is seeking to overcome. Simply put, his efforts seem focused on bringing South Africans together in a manner that they can better understand each other and celebrate their diversity and address their historical injustices, while her statements are simply divisive and feed into the narrative that the EFF, BLF and the ANC leadership (who are under immense threat) are putting out.
In short, this is potentially disastrous for the DA. The DA now looks like when push comes to shove it is equally incapable as the ANC is of acting decisively on bad leadership involving questionable statements and actions. Her constant intrusions overwhelm the DA’s messaging to black South Africans, whose votes they desperately require in order to come close to governing. And it is a wholly unnecessary distraction that is all Helen Zille’s making. It is not accidental. There is an agenda and definite purpose behind her statements.
It is clear – or it should be clear – that Helen Zille’s twitter statements are not aimed at the broad majority of South Africans. Rather, they target the conservative core of the DA that was inherited from the collapse of the National Party. She is not a liberal. She is a classic neoconservative. She is anti-BEE and pro free market styled “meritocracy”. In a country with the highest inequality in the world, and history of dispossession, forced removals, labour exploitation and disenfranchisement talk of meritocracy is simply ideological lunacy. Yet she is desperately trying to keep the conservative political caucus alive and thriving within the DA’s ranks and South African society.
She has a very large echo-chamber on twitter. By repeatedly sending out and reinforcing the same messages she ensures that her leadership priorities for the DA are kept alive and amplified. The danger is that the more she reinforces this effect, the more likely the potential for that echo-chamber to begin to resonate strongly and destabilise the DA from within. That is, her constant drumming out of the same message threatens to serve as a potent agitation within the DA, one that could lead to conflict and division as a leadership gap emerges within the party.
One only has to look to Brexit, or to Donald Trump’s victory, to realise what pandering to extreme conservative, right wing tea-party styled caucus’ can result in. Zille is playing with fire. She is feeding the very identity politics that she claims to refute, and in doing so it can destabilise and polarise society. Her constant pandering to ultra-conservative sentiment may blow things out of control; she may not expect or foresee it, but it can happen, much as it has happened now. Yet she proceeds regardless, impervious to all criticism and advice, along a path of destruction that may leave the DA floundering in its wake.
Since last year, Helen Zille has dismissed all criticism of her twitter outbursts as “manufactured outrage”. The sad truth is that she alone has created all the noise that has served as a profound distraction from the messaging of the DA leadership. Due to her immense popularity amongst her followers, and the fascination with her personality as archetypal and representative of themselves, her messaging has significantly overshadowed that of the new black leadership of the party. As a thought experiment, the reader should try to remember what the last message the leader of the DA put out. Most likely, it is his reaction to her tweets on colonialism. Instead of getting insight into how the DA plans to create employment, rid government of corruption, transform and diversify the economy, reduce poverty, reduce crime and so forth, the DA has been drawn into a whirlpool of Zille’s making.
As a seasoned politician and journalist she should know better. She is not Donald Trump, who has no experience of politics or governance. Rather, she has governed and led the DA from relative insignificance to being the main opposition. She simply must have a political agenda; her actions are not mistakes, they are deliberate. That is why there should be consequences for her actions. Her comments were not misconstrued, and neither were they mistaken. There is a clear pattern of such outbursts from Helen Zille that goes back all the way to the change of leadership of the DA from Tony Leon to Helen Zille. She may have underestimated how badly wrong it can go, but it is indisputable that there is an agenda behind her proclamations. She has been consistent in her statements, and that should constitute sufficient proof that her most recent foray into the public sphere is no exception.
By far, the most apt way of characterising Helen Zille’s agenda is that it draws on “white fragility” in the post-Apartheid dispensation. After twenty odd years of democracy, the white minority no longer have automatic authority in this society. They can be challenged vociferously, shouted down and held to account as much as anyone else. No longer are their opinions elevated above that of others purely because they are assumed to be better educated, more knowledge-able and capable. They are no longer awarded the mantle of superior judgement and objective insight. Rather, what lies behind their opinions is being confronted and challenged both within her party and without.
So when Helen Zille feigns objectivity, when she berates “critical race theorists”, the student movement and those who support the decolonisation agenda, she is being called out on the patent subjectivity of her views. That is, she is not an historian, and neither is she an objective scientist or social scientist who observes and analyses a topic dispassionately before making a judgement upon it. Rather, she is a politician who seeks to influence the political discourse, one who is neither objective nor expert in her opinions. In reality, her statements pander to the identity crisis that conservative white South Africa is undergoing. She is feeding the unacknowledged politics of post-Apartheid white identity that wracks conservative white South Africans in particular. She has, in this way, come to mirror the very “African racial-nationalist propaganda” that she disparages. It is profoundly ironic, but no surprise. Good leadership rises above its opposition, it does not mirror it; and her inability to take the high road has, in the end, proved to be Helen Zille’s most telling failure as a politician and leader.