Where do I start on the saga of Helen Zille? WHERE? There is a plethora of views out there and I’m feeling like a fish out of water. It seems that very few people think about this matter the way I do and it makes me wonder if I’m swimming upstream in ignorant bliss.
Except that I’m not ignorant and I’m not feeling blissful. And as I’ve been right on previous occasions in going with my gut instincts (read principles and conscience) when all the other fish were going in the opposite direction, I’ve decided to stick to that approach now.
What has happened before, when I’ve chosen sides in a major debate, has happened again. I don’t even agree with the reasoning of many people who SUPPORT Zille in the current debacle! So, if you’re interested, sit back and really read what I’m saying while I try to unravel this for myself. I must warn you – this blog is more a series of questions, than answers. (And I have a penchant for using brackets and CAPS for emphasis).
First, a bit of background. I don’t profess to be an intellectual or academic when it comes to the liberal principles I espouse. I have been mentored and mired in the ideology for over 30 years, under the leadership of great South African thinkers, chief amongst them Tony Leon, former leader of the DP/DA. But others too, including Zille herself, various newspaper editors I’ve served under in another life, as well as past great statesmen of our time – through books, obviously – like Winston Churchill, Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Helen Suzman … the list goes on.
Added to that, the two guiding principles that I follow religiously and which have helped me most in my personal and professional life are: Play the ball, not the man. And, never generalise. They’ve stood me in good stead.
So, for starters, I don’t even know if I LIKE Helen Zille. I haven’t spent much time thinking about that – ever, not only now. We don’t have much of a relationship besides knowing each other and having served in the same (large) caucus for a time in Parliament. I have always admired her though, pretty much from afar, and respected her courage and her brain which are indisputably up there with the angels. My husband and I were once asked to pick her up at the airport and we had an entertaining chat in the car before we deposited her at a B&B with a tube of Corenza C or something similar to deal with a threatening cold. She was addressing an important rally the next day and couldn’t afford to be sick. All I remember about the trip is that by the time we said goodbye, we had only spoken about my work and my family, not of hers.
I didn’t vote for her for Leader, as she knows (because I told her). I voted for Athol Trollip because Helen proposed to be Leader while still holding down the job of Mayor of Cape Town, which was exceptionally challenging at the time, requiring her to juggle a hugely volatile and unstable coalition of six or seven parties. I thought she should be in Parliament as an MP and leader of the national caucus, taking on the President and the official opposition leadership role full-time. So I voted for Athol who is a good guy and has since proved his worth as Mayor of Nelson Mandela Bay, inter alia.
Zille, of course, won the contest for Leader and proved what she could and couldn’t manage. She continued Tony’s trajectory by gaining millions of votes for the party, held the coalition in Cape Town together and secured the City Council at the next local election with a clear majority. These are the facts.
I didn’t make it back into Parliament at the next general election in 2009. Ja, well, no fine. I’m a big girl.
So you can tell, I don’t hold a torch for Helen Zille. I’m not a Zille “groupie” by any stretch of the imagination. But then I wasn’t for Dianne Kohler-Barnard either. About two years ago, I was faced with the appalling spectre of my beloved party coming down on DKB (as she’s known for the sake of ease on the keyboard) for inadvertently sharing a post on Facebook, part of which (lower down in that post) was perceived by some to have praised PW Botha. To cut a long story (because most people who are reading this would be familiar with that ghastly event), my wretched conscience over the treatment of DKB did not allow me to make myself available for re-election as a city councillor in Ekurhuleni, where I’d led the caucus for a couple of years. Big deal to me, not so much to others. But life goes on, happily …
The principle then and now must be the deciding factor when the DA acts on matters such as these. Is Helen Zille allowed to express her opinions? That must surely come first and warrants much soul-searching on the part of the powers that be in the DA. Is she required to quell her honest views in the interest of political correctness? Is that what the public wants? Is it not true that most people think politicians are inherently dishonest? So shouldn’t we protect honesty and free speech in this age of public apathy towards politics and politicians?
Why would the party not take into account that Helen Zille could not POSSIBLY be defending colonialism in her remarks, given her unarguable and unblemished record of fighting oppression in all its forms at THE TIME it was happening, not when the battle was already fought.
It just doesn’t make SENSE.
Is she a closet racist then? Well, no. Mmusi Maimane says he doesn’t believe that himself. So then? Why is he leading the fray? Why is he pronouncing on her fate before she’s even faced a disciplinary panel, let alone baying for her immediate suspension without regard to DA procedures, as if she’s a common criminal?
So it’s about brand and votes then? Well, I’ve yet to see empirical numbers that show we’d win or lose more votes, depending on whether Zille stays or goes. People can speculate on that, of course. They’re allowed! But does anyone really KNOW if we’ll lose more white votes if we ditch her or more black votes if we don’t?
How has the DA fared in by-elections since Zille’s tweets on colonialism? (Well, the series of tweets were actually about Singapore, but have morphed into the notorious Colonialism Tweets). By-elections are probably the best interim test of a nation’s feelings. For example: last month, the DA won Ward 7 in Beaufort West with 1 724 votes against the ANC’s 1 251 and the EFF’s 52. Significantly, the DA’s result in 2016 was around 1 000 votes. Feel free to check out more results and answer the question for yourself. (It always makes me wonder if the “public opinion” that many in the media present as fact isn’t actually fake?)
Then we come to the money, honey. We always do. Are we going to lose those all-important donations from pissed-off businesses and well-wishers if she goes, or will the bucks flow in from all those people who believe so passionately that there is nothing at all about the colonial age to build upon?
I’ve left my deepest concern till last.
What about fairness inside the DA, a party which rightly reminds us all, every day of the week, about equal justice for all and the rule of law? What about this party that hauls the ANC over the hot coals and into the courts over every repulsive transgression of our Constitution?
I’ve written about this before, because I’ve detected that there is a very big problem with consistency, objectivity and even-handedness around the dispensing of discipline in the ranks – or even making the decision to apply it or not. I can – and probably will – write reams about this in the future, with all the gory details.
For now, I need to ask this: is the Zille case about her or the matter at hand? She stands accused of being arrogant, some say she’s a mini-dictator getting her just deserts, others that she regards herself as untouchable. Whatever. She is certainly not untouchable. But I’m beginning to suspect the opposite – that she’s become Royal Game. And that, my friends, is absolutely appalling. Because it means the saga playing out in front of us is about power and factions and punishment for past “sins”.
It means Zille is being targeted BECAUSE she’s Zille. I wrote two years ago that DKB was served up by the party as a sacrificial lamb. Maimane didn’t believe she was a racist either, but that she’d damaged the party. What do I think? I think in that case and this one, the DA’s Leader is more concerned about how the ANC will react to our internal dramas than getting to the truth of a matter. (Oh, by the way, I actually DO know that I like Mmusi Maimane).
The case of Zille is evolving into a similar fracas. There is no question that as Premier of the Western Cape, she and her team run the province very efficiently. She is a person who has earned much admiration and support. A person who knows her stuff and has been forced to correct certain party positions taken by the new leadership, which has undoubtedly stung those who stood to be corrected. And, judging from what I’ve heard, Zille wouldn’t have been tactful about doing the correcting.
Is this woman being hounded due to her personality, her position, her RACE? Much, much worse has been swept under the DA carpet over the years, the culprits and perpetrators still roaming the corridors of power. Some haven’t even faced “prosecution”, let alone the trauma of a disciplinary hearing, the threat of expensive court action, the public humiliation, stiff sentences … Some, who have appeared before disciplinary panels, received, on the face of it, lenient punishments and even protection by the party in the media, where “mitigating circumstances” were offered up as reasons for soft penalties.
So, you see, I don’t care and neither should anyone, about the WHO when it comes to party procedures which, in an organisation like the DA, must be based on, and implemented in line with, the party’s values and principles. It simply must be about the WHAT.
In this case, the WHAT is the charge against her, namely bringing the party into disrepute. And I have further questions. (Brace yourself).
Did Zille bring the party into disrepute? Or did the ANC? Or, indeed, did the DA, all by itself? Again, I return to the similarities to the DKB affair, in which a member of the DA – yes, the Democratic Alliance – brought the matter of the mistakenly-forwarded post to the attention of the ANC and hence the public. DKB had been alerted to the problematic post during the night in question and deleted it immediately once she realised the content of the parts she hadn’t read. And that should have been that. But it wasn’t, because a member of her OWN PARTY had taken a screenshot of it and used it a full two weeks later by sending it on to the ANC, salivating for any reason to embarrass the DA. (You must know the extent of the factions in KZN when you’re being stalked on social media during the wee hours …). The rest is history.
WHO brought the party into disrepute on that occasion? And who exactly is doing it now? Zille for writing a tweet that praised Singapore for making the most of an evil period in their history? Or Maimane and “the boys” for turning it into a media event, with all the bells and whistles of manufactured outrage and hurt feelings?
These are not conspiracy theories. These events are playing out in front of our eyes. The perpetrators in the DKB affair were identified. Their lives have continued undisrupted while DKB’s political career has been damaged for life, probably. Certainly, her impeccable liberal reputation has been. Certainly, the party has been damaged by losing an effective frontbencher who was a firebrand spokesperson on policing and crime before she was demoted to satisfy the ANC’s thirst for her blood … Certainly, her crucifixion removed a thorn from the ANC’s side …
I could go on about many other certainties.
And Zille faces the same fate. Will people really ensure that this woman – with her renowned track record in opposition AND in government – will forever be known as the person who glorified colonialism when she didn’t? Is her contribution to South Africa – from the time she exposed Steve Biko’s murder in 1977 by the apartheid regime, to the present, 40 years on, as an undeniably competent Premier of South Africa’s best run province – to be reduced to ashes by people who don’t LIKE her or are threatened by her excellence in her job?
To end this tirade against the party I love so much, I must compare the attitudes of two people who are known for not having much regard for Zille for similar reasons – Russel Crystal, who is Tony Leon’s friend and former DA Director of Operations; and Gareth van Onselen, journalist and columnist, who ran the party’s media office for a number of years. Both appear to believe Zille is a megalomaniac who has treated people badly in her quest for power and votes. The difference between them is that Crystal believes Zille should be judged solely on the charge against her, while van Onselen seemingly wants her tarred and feathered for just being HER, a person he despises beyond reason.
Zille criticised Crystal in her book, “Not Without a Fight” (as is her right), and I’m sure that didn’t endear her to him. But he’s fighting in her corner because he understands a principle when one hits him in the nose and he’s man enough to stand by it. It is this: The disciplinary panel must debate and consider the charge against her and only that. Did Zille, through her tweets on colonialism, bring the party into disrepute?
Then absolutely my last set of questions (that’s a promise to those of you who have made it thus far).
I pose them to DA Members of Parliament and MPLs and councillors in the provinces: if you are unable to summon up any sense of what is right or have absolutely no empathy for Zille, or just want to ignore all of this and hope it goes away, can you please just close your eyes and imagine that what is happening to her and did happen to DKB, happened to YOU?
And it could. You surely know that. When you next express your opinion on an issue or start a debate.
Or have you decided already to shut up for fear of triggering the umbrage of the Leader or his advisers? Or, worse, that of the ANC? If the answer to that is YES, then the only sensible conclusion to draw is that you are now part of a gagged opposition. Talk about capture.
So, I say to a party which is supposed to uphold truth and justice: Uphold it now. If you believe Zille should go for reasons OTHER than her bloody innocuous tweets – such as being an incompetent public representative or a bad Premier or a divisive leader or whatever – grow a pair and bring a Motion of No Confidence in her in the right forum, the Legislature of the Western Cape. Don’t be Chicken Little and pretend her tweet will make the sky fall in. Ditch the hypocrisy, boys, and take her on legitimately.
To supporters and friends of Zille who are beginning to wobble and are being persuaded in hushed tones that “yes, maybe it IS time for her to step down graciously”, I have only this to say to you: BALLS. She has rights and they are being trampled on.
Come ON, Democratic Alliance. Love her or loathe her, can we ALL stand up for what is RIGHT? (Please).
Image by Sunday Times