Reflections on Schweizer Reneke

Helen Zille writes on the DA's dismal showing in the Mamusa municipality by-elections

In the wake of the DA’s disastrous election result in Mamusa municipality, (that includes the town of Schweizer Reneke), I have encountered two main responses.

The first is: Whatever you do, do NOT become a party for minorities again!

The second is: Go back to focussing on minority voters. You will never win black votes. Your attempt to do so merely alienated minorities.

Both responses are profoundly misguided, for the same reason.

We have never been, nor tried to be, a party for minorities only. We have sought to be a party for every South African who shares our belief that individuals have a right to determine their own identity, not have it imposed on them by others (least of all, the State) on the basis of their biological attributes such as race and sex.

We are a party for everyone who believes in constitutionalism, particularly free speech and freedom of association, which includes the right to advance your interests with others who share them.

We are a party for everyone who believes in a market economy with sustainable safety nets for the vulnerable.

And we also believe that past injustices must be addressed in ways that broaden opportunity, not manipulate outcomes in favour of the politically connected.

We are a party for everyone who believes in a culture of accountability and the crucial importance of a capable independent state to uphold democratic institutions that defend people’s rights.

People who value these things come in all colours, cultures and belief systems. They speak many languages, and are free to define their sexuality. At root our philosophy is one of: Live, and let live within the framework of the law.

One of our greatest challenges is that many human beings find it difficult to think outside of their personal and “tribal” boxes. The world-wide backlash to integrating societies demonstrates this. But we have to face the fact that, in the long term, with increasing global migration and a shrinking planet, we are going to have to find ways of doing living peacefully with each other in common societies. In South Africa we have no alternative.

It is possible to live in an open society while, at the same time, forming strong organisations to advance language, cultural and other personal and group rights, defended by strong institutions of state. That is precisely what South Africa’s constitution seeks to do. And it is one of the reasons why the DA, the only party that unconditionally defends this framework, has grown in every election until our setback of 2019.

Schweizer Reneke and other by-election results show we have not yet dealt with the issues that caused our decline.

We need to diagnose the reasons properly. It would be a grave mistake to dismiss those who turned their backs on us in the 2019 election and subsequent by-elections, as a bunch of racists.

Instead, I believe, they lost faith in us because we abandoned our principles under pressure. Instead of standing firm, the DA in 2019 focused almost exclusively on expedient short-cuts to electoral gain. We broke faith with the people who, in 2016 had voted overwhelmingly for us (under a black leader) in the belief that they could rely on us to stand firmly behind our principles.


I am not denying my own role in planting the seeds of this strategy, and I have written on this subject previously. But I am also acknowledging that the strategy failed.

And Schweizer Reneke was our Ground Zero. Last week the voters of Mamusa let us know, in no uncertain terms, that there is no cheap grace. It will take much more than an apology to re-gain their confidence.

The Schweizer back-story is (superficially) well known. In brief, on the first day of the new school term last year, a teacher sent a series of photographs of a school classroom to the children’s parents, to put their minds at rest.

One of the photographs in the series angered a parent, who posted it on social media. It then went viral.

The photo showed a large table, at which sat a group of white children, and a much smaller table, at the back near the door, with a few black children around it.

The optics were dismal, and it certainly appeared as if pupils had been separated on the basis of race (rather than, as it turned out, on the basis of language, to enable non-Afrikaans speaking children to get the dedicated support required to understand what was being said in an Afrikaans-medium classroom).

The DA youth leader, Luyolo Mpithi, spotted the photograph four hours after it had been posted and commented: “This is why I won’t stop until we have an equal society. This. It breaks me.”

Things unfolded rapidly from there. Politicians of all stripes, accompanied by the news media, descended on the school, along with protestors, who had drawn the conclusion, from the photograph, that a form of apartheid was being practised at the school, and fingered a young Grade R teacher who had taken the photograph. She was subsequently suspended by the Provincial MEC amid a flurry of political statements, often based on the wrong assumptions. The suspension was subsequently over-turned.

It was a pre-election feeding frenzy (in which the DA participated) and in which vulnerable people were trampled underfoot.

So, looking back, how should the DA have responded to a photograph -- the optics of which were admittedly deeply concerning?

We should have learnt by then, that it is snapshot-optics such as this, that make social media such a dangerous place. All other relevant context is obliterated in a single photograph and 280 characters on Twitter. Add to the mix, millions of people hiding behind anonymity, many of them fake, and driven by agendas, and you have the equivalent of a political Hiroshima.

We should have established the context in which the photograph was taken, heard all sides of the story, evaluated the evidence, and issued a reasoned response. That is how best we would have translated our principles into practice in an explosive situation. But this kind of rationality is swept away in the hurricane of a social media.

We are not the only people grappling to find ways of dealing with the consequences, world-wide.

We have learnt a hard lesson and we need to set things right.

To be consistent in our fairness, we must ask whether it is right to place the blame on Luyolo Mpithi, the DA’s youth leader who was one of the DA representatives in whose name statements were issued and who spoke to the media. This is what our political opponents have done, without themselves assessing the context of the situation and weighing the facts.

In doing so, they are potentially guilty of the same violation of which they (correctly) accuse us.

The DA has commissioned a full report on the debacle, which has been completed and will be submitted to the Party’s Federal Executive this week.

Then we will be able to evaluate Mpithi’s role -- or whether those that are demonising him are just as guilty as so many commentators were in relation to Elana Barkhuizen during this upheaval following the posting of the photograph last year.

Everyone must seek to understand the complexity of the issue. This applies not only to the context in which the photograph was taken, but the context of the response.

There is still hard work to be done on this matter, because it is symptomatic of so much more than merely what happened in Schweizer Reneke on January 8 2019.

Nation building faces many setbacks and requires perseverance and endurance. The DA will not shrink from the challenge because there is no other option for South Africa.