In his classic work “Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”, published in 1841, Charles Mackay observed:
“In reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.”
In our time social media allows for the rapid transmission of critical information (such as the latest leaks on corruption), but it also creates conditions whereby mob psychoses, such as that described by Mackay, can rapidly develop and then expend themselves.
In South Africa the failure of the ANC’s racial nationalist project, which has brought us to the brink of a kleptocratic dictatorship, has acutely sharpened racial sensitivities, particularly amongst the primary beneficiaries of that project. There is a repeated pattern now whereby the latest outrage from the Zuma-Gupta cabal, over and above the ongoing failure of the ANC to deliver growth and good governance, leads to a building up of simmering nationalist anger and resentment. An emotional release for this is then found in online racial mobbing of someone or other - usually goaded on by the same narrow group of race-ultras – amid strident demands for punishment.
This can be for a genuinely anti-black comment or action - such as that by the poor, old and pathetic non-entity Penny Sparrow who made a crass racial comment shortly after Nenegate– but as often as not the preferred target is some prominent white person (or institution) seen to have done something that could be construed as racially insensitive or impertinent. Zelda la Grange, Allister Sparks, Chris Hart, Dan Retief, Gareth Cliff, Dianne Kohler Barnard, the Koeitjies & Kalfies crèche, Pretoria High School for Girls (PHSG), among others, have all been victims of this pathology of our time.
Once the storm has passed, however, it is often difficult to reconcile the intense outrage of the moment with the often trivial offence that provoked it (if there was an offence at all.) Institutions which get swept up in this mob hysteria and forget their principles, or fail to stand by their people, end up disgracing themselves and looking ridiculous in hindsight.
Unfortunately, it now seems that the Democratic Alliance leadership too has, as a result of one of these passing storms, lost its senses and moral bearings and fixed itself upon the object of driving Western Cape Premier and former party leader, Helen Zille, out of her elected office.
On Saturday DA leader Mmusi Maimane announced that the party’s Federal Executive had decided that it would be moving to suspend Zille from party activities, though she would continue as Premier. An insider informed City Press that move was a “a warning shot to her that we are still in control and Mmusi is tired of being seen as not taking action when it [was] the processes and Helen herself holding him back from doing what he wants to do, which is to fire her.”
In persisting with this endeavour the DA seems oblivious to the extreme and unnecessary self-harm that it is busy inflicting on itself. The only recent parallel that comes to mind is President Thabo Mbeki’s decision in early 2000 to publicly challenge the Western science of HIV/AIDS (which was also, incidentally, excused and applauded at the time by many in the media).
The basic facts of the original incident are as follows:
In early March 2017 Zille visited Singapore for the first time. By her own account she was hugely impressed by what she saw in the South East Asian city state – as China’s Deng Xiaoping had been when he visited in 1978 - which has been ruled uninterruptedly by Lee Kuan Yew’s People’s Action Party since 1959.
In a series of early morning tweets on her return to South Africa on 16th of March, while in transit at OR Tambo Airport, Zille asked what lessons could be learnt from this former British colony. She suggested that some of these were: “1) Meritocracy; 2) multiculturalism; 3) work ethic; 4) open to globalism; 4) English. 5) Future orientation. Other reasons for Singapore's success: Parents take responsibility for children, and build on valuable aspects of colonial heritage.”
The reference to valuable aspects of the “colonial heritage” in Singapore provoked an angry response from some of her followers on Twitter. One commented: “South Africa would be better if all your people left and we drive forward Africa instead of embracing colonialism heritage.” Another that “There was nothing valuable in the colonisation of South Africa... NOTHING!”
In reply to such responses Zille then replied: “For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc.” When she realised that this and other Tweets were being misread – including by a number of DA public representatives who were wildly condemning what she said on Twitter - she commented, just before 9 am: “I apologise unreservedly for a tweet that may have come across as a defence of colonialism. It was not.”
A few minutes after this Mmusi Maimane himself responded: “Let's make this clear: Colonialism, like Apartheid, was a system of oppression and subjugation. It can never be justified.” This triggered a series of further denunciations of Zille by DA MPs on social media.
A couple of hours later Maimane took some time off from the DA’s parliamentary caucus meeting to go on Eusebius McKaiser’s Radio 702 talk show and announced that disciplinary action would be taken against Zille for her “completely unacceptable” sentiments. This was given effect to a short while later.
On this show Maimane again suggested, despite her clarification that this was not her intention, that Zille was trying to justify past oppression (for what reason she would want to do this is unclear) by arguing the case for development. “I think systems like colonialism, apartheid were fundamentally evil. And at their core can never in any ways be praised or justified.”
Over the course of the interview McKaiser repeatedly pressed Maimane to declare that he agreed that Zille’s remarks made her a “bigot”. Maimane refused to go this far but he did declare them “unacceptable and indefensible, without doubt”, “ahistorical”, “completely unacceptable, indefensible”, and “completely unacceptable, and indefensible.” McKaiser then put it to him, in the context of the DA’s social media policy, that “if someone tweets about colonialism’s legacy having some positive elements is such a tweet insulting?” “It is”, he replied.
Despite Maimane’s protestations in the interview that the DA’s internal disciplinary processes should now be allowed to run their course – one of the party’s founding values being “fairness” - he had very publicly prejudged the entire matter. He had moreover done this on the basis of a misreading of what Zille had been trying to convey.
The following weekend the Sunday Times reported too that Maimane wanted Zille out as Western Cape Premier. The week after that Maimane announced that the party’s Federal Executive had “decided to institute formal disciplinary action against Ms Helen Zille, following recommendations presented by the Party’s Federal Legal Commission.”
Due process in the DA now apparently entails: verdict first, then sentence, and then trial.
It is worth noting here what Maimane could and perhaps should have done. Before announcing anything he should have called in Zille, heard her out, then severely carpeted her for complicating his work and the party’s electoral project. The DA should then have crafted a strategy for putting the controversy behind it as quickly as possible. This would require inter alia all DA leaders not to give it any further oxygen, after which the outrage would soon enough burn itself out. A social media policy requiring ALL DA public representatives to clear their Tweets with someone else before posting – as would be routine with a press statement they issued – would also have been a useful innovation.
Instead Maimane committed himself to a course of action, on the hoof, without having given himself time and space to properly apply his mind, take counsel, or weigh up the long term consequences, or let the temperature cool down. By going the disciplinary route Maimane has ensured that the controversy will last months. By publicly condemning and attacking Zille he put her in a position where she had little choice but to defend herself publicly. And by trying to use this incident to drive Zille out of office in disgrace, he gave her no choice but to stand her ground and take him on.
Here Zille would have been remiss not to learn from the experience of Kohler Barnard. In 2015 the then DA Shadow Minister of Police went the abject-apology, no-public-defence-of-herself, plea-agreement route - now being demanded of Zille by those with very short memories – and for her pains was treated horrendously unfairly, escaping expulsion only by the skin of her teeth. Given that under Zille’s leadership the DA drifted away from its liberal ideological moorings, in its as yet unrewarded efforts to win over African nationalist voters, it is also morally incumbent on her to stand and defend the non-racial and liberal soul of the party from internal assault.
The party itself, and prominent party loyalists who should know better, are now in a position where they are under considerable pressure to support the DA leader’s course of action for fear that if he doesn’t triumph in this battle he’ll be made to look ‘weak’ and not ‘in charge’ and this will affect the party’s prospects in 2019. Those currently enabling Maimane in this regard are not doing him any favours however.
In his rush to show how strong and decisive he is, the DA leader is breaking every rule of political leadership in the book. He is displaying real weakness by bending to the demands of the race-ultras, failing to show loyalty to those who were loyal to him, and, in moving to trash his predecessor’s reputation, is undermining the underlying authority and legitimacy of the party he now leads.
Moreover, in politics as in war, if you don’t want a fight to the death then you must leave open a path of retreat for your opponent. Or to put it slightly differently, if you back someone into a corner and pull a knife on them then you and your allies shouldn’t go on a massive whinge-a-thon after you then get punched in the nose.
At the time the controversy broke, and the social media outrage burned white-hot with all its distorting effects on people’s sense and reason, Zille’s Tweets may have seemed providing cause enough to effect her removal from office. But as this outrage has faded this becomes a more-and-more untenable position, given the potential repercussions.
It is significant that in all the numerous DA communications dealing with this matter, directly or indirectly, the party has yet to either quote or accurately summarise Zille’s offending statement, logically explain what is wrong with it (beyond clumsy phrasing), or set out how it contravenes the values of the DA. Maimane and the DA have also failed to explain how the converse position is compatible with either reconciliation, non-racialism, the party’s values, or indeed the Constitution of South Africa. This requires that we:
Recognise the injustices of our past;
Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;
Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and
Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity. (My emphasis)
There is no contradiction or even tension between any of these. But it is impossible to comply with the third requirement if you claim that the economy, infrastructure and institutions inherited by the democratic state in 1994 – the collective product of the skills, capital, enterprise and labour of generations of South Africans of all races – are too tainted by the ‘colonial’ past to have any value; or, the fourth, if one persists in peddling the dangerous claim that one racial minority is the cause of all a particular majority’s misfortunes.
Zille is the democratically elected Premier of the Western Cape. She was re-elected for another five year term in 2014 with a 59% majority. By all accounts her administration continues to perform with distinction. Most of the voters who put her into office are unlikely to have a profound principled objection to her comments, though they may have thought them ill-advised, given that their very existence is but one of many ‘legacies’ of the colonial past.
It is only the result of South Africa’s PR electoral system, which gives party bosses ultimate control over all their public representatives, that the DA even has the option of pushing her out of her position as Premier. This is the same pernicious system that has, thus far, prevented ANC MPs from rebelling to save their party by voting President Jacob Zuma out of office in parliament. It was adopted and retained by the ANC precisely in order to ensure that the party’s top leadership could exercise the same type of Soviet-style command and control over its cadres that it had once wielded in exile.
Though the DA can use the system for the same purposes – once it has jumped through some hoops internally – does not mean it should, given its values. The party’s own constitution states that “The government must reflect the will of the people and our elected representatives must be directly accountable to the people.”
If the DA leadership fails to step down from the effort to “fire” Zille – rather than provide her with a dignified path to retirement in two years - they are going to cause severe and enduring harm to the party. It will result in internal fracturing from top to bottom, just at the moment when internal unity and cohesion is critical, and release a Pandora’s Box of hatreds and resentments. It will also destabilise the Western Cape government, the primary showcase of what the DA can do in government. The basis on which this is being done – namely her failure to pay proper obeisance to a narrow Africanist view of our past – may delight the race-ultras but it will shock and disturb many of the party’s loyal supporters.
There is still significant momentum propelling the party forward into 2019, especially as the ANC continues to implode, but the DA will now be in the precarious position of the monocycle rider who falls over the moment he stops moving forward. The DA leadership would also be foolish too to rely on the fact that there is as of yet no real alternative to it among its core minority support-base. There was also no credible alternative to the National Party for (non-ANC supporting) minority voters post-1994, until there was.