Zille is the bigots’ new poster girl
In journalist circles, Helen Zille has at times been unfairly compared to Essop Pahad. Unfair to both of them, that is. They would definitely both be deeply offended to be likened to each other and would probably strangle you for making the comparison. The one is a hard-boiled liberal who considers the other a backward Stalinist, and the other is a socialist son of the liberation movement who considers the other a reactionary.
When they were both still at the peak of public life, there was no love lost between them.
But those who compared them were not too far off. They share a gene.
Pahad, an ANC luminary and former senior minister, struck fear into many hearts as erstwhile president Thabo Mbeki’s enforcer. When Premier Zille held both political office and the leadership of the DA, she was the closest thing the party and its preceding incarnations had to a strongman.
The bond that Pahad and Zille shared was an intolerable degree of intolerance. This was felt equally by their party colleagues, staffers and their political foes. Of course, the poor tribe called journalists got the sharpest end of their irascible personalities. This lowly journalist won’t go into details here but, if you happen to bump into a member of our tribe, take them to their nearest watering hole and buy them a quality single malt and they will download their tales.
Not to totally absolve him, but Pahad can be excused for his tendencies. He grew up in an SA Communist Party environment that had been heavily infected by the culture of Stalinism. His university days were those in which the idealistic hard left believed it had all the answers and everybody else was ignorant or mad. Zille is a former journalist and therefore once belonged to the most tolerant and open-minded bunch of people in the world.
The two find themselves in very different circumstances today. Pahad is one of the 100-odd struggle veterans who are trying to save the ANC from a kleptocratic clique that is certain to sacrifice a legacy of more than a century to a family that does not give a hoot about South Africa’s past, present and future.
Zille is waging her own determined struggle to destroy whatever chances her party has of contributing to the altering of the country’s political landscape. While Pahad fights to save democracy, she is fighting to save the prestige of the colonialism project.
Since those infamous early-morning tweets after a long, tiring and obviously emotional flight from the Far East, Zille has been on a mission of destruction. The obvious first target of destruction is herself and her reputation. That’s okay. We all have the right to mess ourselves up.
The other target is DA leader Mmusi Maimane, who was never supposed to grow out of her shadow and outshine her. He was always supposed to acknowledge under whose leadership he grew to be a national figure. That’s okay, too. He is a big boy who went through puberty when Whitney Houston could still sing.
Zille is also aiming her poisoned arrow at the party she once led, unable to accept that her phone doesn’t ring every five minutes any more.
The party will suffer huge setbacks as a result of her actions and gains made will be reversed. An internal war is already raging as her loyalists dig trenches to defend the last credible defender of colonialism. The work that was done to reposition the DA in the minds of black people – a lot of it by her – is being undone. Strategic alliances are being dissolved, threatening the DA’s hold on the local governments it gained last year through coalitions. But that is the DA’s problem.
Zille’s greatest crime is undermining the South African project. She is now positioning herself as the leader of white South Africans who are supposedly the victims of a new apartheid ideology that is taking root. Her self-serving noises of late have sounded more like those of a whingeing wanna-leave than someone who claims a struggle background. She has become the educated bigots’ Steve Hofmeyr, the Kallie Kriel of the posh suburbs. The online right wing trolls she used to abhor now love her. She is the legitimate leader who is standing up for the marginalised whitey. Her argument that some black people have acknowledged some benefits of colonialism sounds like one of those “I’m not racist, some of my best friends are black” refrains.
Zille is doing this at a time when South Africa desperately needs to return to the ideal of nonracialism. The current ANC leadership has jettisoned the building of a nonracial South Africa in favour of short-term populism that is meant to shore up corrupt practices.
Demagogues and bigots have replaced thinking intellectuals as the driver of the ANC truck. Nationbuilding has taken the back seat to greedy accumulation disguised as empowerment and radical economic transformation.
Those in the ANC with a conscience (the majority, we hope) are being clubbed into submission by an aggressive mafia. But they continue to fight, not only for a corrupt-averse ANC, but also for an ANC that believes in higher ideals such as a nonracist, nonracial country.
By her actions, Zille is moving the conversation to the extreme margins, the space occupied by the Hofmeyrs and Jimmy Manyis.
It is an easy space to occupy. You just need to sound angry and aggrieved, and amplify the sentiments of bigots. Populism 101.
Zille could well win her case and cause Maimane and his leadership embarrassment. And South Africa’s racist corps will celebrate with her.