So, here is some wisdom from some of the world’s most famous racists. The first quote is from US rightwinger James Buchanan, who is the intellectual version of the Ku Klux Klan’s David Duke. “European colonialism was not an entirely negative phenomenon for the Third World areas that were occupied. Most of the Third World was run by brutal chieftains, sultans and kings, who did little to improve life for their subjects. Colonialism brought roads, railways, bridges, medicine, longrange trade and Christianity to backward Third World nations. Naturally, the European powers benefited most from colonialism, but the natives’ lives were often improved,” Buchanan wrote.
Then there is our very own Steve Hofmeyr, the most openly racist South African.
“You must appeal to base sentiment as Africa has yet to yield a single intellectual, a single thought school, a single intellectual thought not inspired by the very West you and [President Robert] Mugabe detest,” he said in an open letter to then ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema a few years ago.
There is Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who is part of the third generation of a right wing French political family. Responding to growing calls in Algeria for France’s brutal and murderous colonial rule to be declared a crime against humanity, the 27-year-old MP and niece of presidential candidate Marine Le Pen was caustically dismissive.
She tweeted: “If the French colonisation of Algeria is a crime, then why do many Algerians dream of coming to France?”
Clearly inspired by these intellectual heavyweights, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille this week decided to add her voice to the historical revisionism around colonialism in a series of unhinged tweets.
She tweeted: “For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc.”
She continued to ask if there would have been “a transition into specialised healthcare and medication without colonial influence...” and even added “just be honest, please”.
It was instructive that the first figure to come to her defence – after the whole country, including her party, had slated her – was the openly racist Hofmeyr.
“Could someone, ANYONE, prove @helenzille wrong before crucifying, trampling and feeding her to the dogs?” Hofmeyr tweeted.
It was also interesting that, in feigning contrition, Zille turned to the form book of those who hurt others with prejudiced comments.
“I apologise unreservedly for a tweet that may have come across as a defence of colonialism. It was not,” she said, in something that sounded much like Penny Sparrow’s, “I wish to make a public apology for my thoughtless behaviour. I have hurt the feelings of my fellow South Africans.”
Or that of Zimbabwean cricketer Mark Vermeulen, who, after calling black people apes, said: “I know my comments were over the top and I apologise to all that I have offended.”
The thing with Zille’s apology is that, as with all the other empty withdrawals of racist outbursts, it is meaningless. The victims may forgive and move on, but it does not take away the fact that the sentiment was expressed. When she typed those tweets – regardless of her state of mind – she was expressing her beliefs. These were beliefs that she had successfully concealed during her years of student activism, courageous journalistic career, involvement in civil society formations and her participation in the Convention for a Democratic SA, as well as her years in academia and in her formal political life.
It is pointless to call for politicians to “do the right thing” when faced with scandal and controversy. So it would be naive to expect Zille to voluntarily do what her party asked of many ANC politicians during her time as a senior member and later as leader of the DA. Although she has said things that violate the spirit of our Constitution and fly against South Africa’s quest for social cohesion and harmonious nationhood, she is unlikely to accept that her personal prejudiced views are in conflict with the office she occupies.
Zille will leave it up to the DA leadership to “do the right thing” about her. As long as Zille remains ensconced in her Wale Street office running the affairs of the Western Cape government on a DA mandate, the party will be in a deeply compromised position. All the epithets that have been thrown at it will stick to it like the toothbrush moustaches under the noses of Hitler and Mugabe.
It goes without saying that Zille has presented party leader Mmusi Maimane with the biggest headache since he took over two years ago. But she has also presented him with an opportunity to emerge from her shadow.
Since he entered politics in 2011, Maimane has been characterised as Zille’s protégé. Even as he asserted his authority in the party, he battled to shake off this patronising view of him. Even after delivering a significant milestone as a leader after last year’s elections – Tony Leon delivered the official opposition status and Zille won the Western Cape and Cape Town – his critics still insisted that he wasn’t his own man.
This week, in the weirdest of ironies, the person who is said to be his mentor and sponsor has given him the opportunity to prove his mettle by chopping off her head. He now has to show he has cojones. And big ones at that.