The pitiful hypocrisy of the Zille head-hunters

Mike Berger notes that certain of the WCape Premier's loudest critics are also proud beneficiaries of that which they claim to abhor

Oliver Dickson (News24, 5 June 2017) claims that Helen Zille's suspension from the DA is simply cosmetic, meaningless, and designed to 'manage the DA brand'. Secondly, he advocates not only her dismissal from the party but, if possible, removal from her position as Premier of the Western Cape. He justifies these assertions on the grounds that she is an apologist for Apartheid and colonialism. At the very least, he suggests, the DA has reached its maximum as far as white voters are concerned and for reasons of expediency Zille needs to be sacrificed to capture floating black votes.

The kindest thing to be said for Dickson's article is that although wrong in almost every respect at least it is intelligible; no small matter in South Africa journalism nowadays. But more accurately it is ahistorical, factually false, morally shallow and misses the essential issues highlighted by this affair. But it serves to make some important points.

Oliver Dickson was born roughly around the time of South Africa's first democratic election in 1994. That is, just in time to inherit the new democratic South Africa created, at least in part, through the idealism and unflinching anti-Apartheid activism of Zille and others like her. Mr Dickson was also fortunate enough to enter a Model C school, Randfontein High School, where he distinguished himself as a debater which he has used as a foundation for his subsequent career as a 'professional speaker' and 'skills and leadership development practitioner'. Commendable indeed.

The history of Randfontein High School is also instructive because of Mr Dickson's political stance. It was formed in 1960 according to its official history as the only English speaking school in the area. In other words it was inescapably an Apartheid project and, by extension, a product of the European entry into the Southern African landmass. Did this lead Mr Dickson to repudiate his debating skills and command of the English language in disgust and repugnance at its tainted origins?

No, I thought not. He has rather used those 'colonial' gifts to advance himself and, directly and indirectly, to inspire others to do the same. In fact, the school despite its origins has transformed itself into an instrument for the advancement of all races in its district.

Those were precisely the points being made by Mrs Zille: that South Africa (like Singapore and Randfontein High School) should use the 'tainted' products of colonialism to build a viable future for themselves and their children. That indeed is precisely what Mr Dickson did for himself. In the light of his own personal history I cannot believe that Mr Dickson can put his name to the hypocritical rubbish contained in his article.

I am a Jew and well acquainted with the horrors of the Holocaust and the unspeakable misery and devastation it inflicted on the Jews of Europe, not to mention the terrible impact the Nazi racial doctrines had on the whole world. Yet the reality is that this monstrous bloodletting was the precursor to the democratic, prosperous and peaceful Europe of the past 6 decades.

The historian Walter Scheidel has recently written a book entitled "The Great Leveller: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century". In it he argues that history seems to point to the reality that major reductions in human inequality have all been preceded by severe catastrophes, mostly manmade.

Scheidel was not advocating oppression and genocide as a means of advancing human progress but hoping rather that humanity would learn to order their affairs better. Nevertheless, both academic scholars and much more credible spokesmen for the cause of black liberation than young Mr Dickson, have acknowledged that the evils of colonialism also brought potential 'goods' which could be leveraged to the advantage of the previously dispossessed. I cannot imagine anything more pitiful than using those resources for one's own benefit, then pillorying someone who acknowledges that same painful reality.

But even more important than Mr Dickson's hypocrisy, is the fact that he misses the critical issue staring him in the face. The ANC-inspired campaign against Mrs Zille has nothing to do with her alleged racism but rather the reverse.

What the ANC and Zille's critics cannot forgive is the quite remarkable foresight, creativity and focussed energy she displayed in transforming the white-dominated DA into the only truly non-racial political party in South Africa. This was the unforgiveable sin for the ANC who, by the time Zille was elected as head of the DA, was well into its Africanist phase.

The ANC as a party has no significant problem with ethnic politics per se. The pejorative 'racist' label is purely utilitarian to maintain and sharpen racial divisions within South Africa in order to consolidate its hold on power. It had no problem absorbing into its hallowed ranks the remnants of their erstwhile oppressors, the National Party, for the small price of a ministerial post for Kortbroek van Schalkwyk himself. The common coinage of both parties was ethnic politics, expediency and the perks of power.

Not only through her charismatic and courageous leadership did Zille transform the image of the DA into a facsimile of the full South African demographic spectrum, but she introduced into South Africa for the first time the politics of principled pragmatism and financial integrity. In so doing, she transformed Cape Town and then the Western Cape into the one and only true success story of post-liberation South Africa.

These successes were achieved against factionalism and criticism within her own party and an intractably obstructive ANC opposition which frequently crossed the threshold into frank sabotage. But despite their frantic efforts to build a firewall between Zille and the black community, black voters, especially within the urban centres, began to vote against their ethnic base and the once revered party of liberation.

Thus it's not Zille's non-existent sin of racism which has so inflamed passions of the ANC - inspired mob. It is her honesty, her ingrained non-racism and above all the unforgivable success of her program. The ANC, thrashing about in its self-inflicted injuries, will stop at nothing to hang onto power and Zille's impulsive tweets have been amplified into a blood libel for the purpose.

That, finally, brings us to the response of the DA and Mmusi Maimane's leadership. This post is not written to praise Zille at the expense of Maimane. He had huge shoes to fill and had to battle against perceptions that his appointment was intended to project the image of a transformed DA while behind the scenes Whites, notably Zille, pulled the strings.

He was thus caught in a classic Catch 22: signals of undue racial favouritism and he risked alienating his liberal (and illiberal) white voters and, possibly, also losing coloured support, while not fully reassuring wavering black opinion being assailed by a constant stream of racial propaganda. But sticking firmly to the non-racial core of the DA policies makes it easier for the propaganda arm of the ANC politburo to paint him as a collaborator and black puppet in a white-controlled party.

Into that classic dilemma Zille's tweets came as a much welcome opportunity for the governing alliance and its fellow-travellers to exploit. Eagerly seized on by the social media mob around race (and gender, colonialism, you-name-it), her tweets were distorted out of recognition to imply personal racism or, at a minimum, concealed sympathy for colonialism.

Most people who wouldn't have given the tweets a second thought left to their own devices, were assured that they had every obligation to be mortally offended and that failure to demonstrate the necessary indignation could only mean that their own racial loyalty and self-respect was suspect. There is nothing new under the sun when it comes to political manipulation.

It is not my intention to dissect out the dynamics and details of the subsequent events nor to tell Maimane and Zille what to do. Damage has been done and the question is what is now the best way forward. This is especially important since our politics is at an unusually fluid and critical phase. Everyone concerned with the affair - especially Zille and Maimane - need to bear in mind the basic asymmetry between success and failure: the former is invariably prolonged and difficult whereas the latter can be precipitous and irreversible.

At the risk of sermonising I would also point out that the value of the DA and the foundations of its support by the electorate is decisive leadership, its commitment to the founding ideals of constitutionalism and non-racialism (which Zille did much to translate into tangible reality), its financial probity, its relatively successful subjugation of individual ambition to the needs of the country and its future focus.

Undermine these principles and the party simply becomes another bickering tribal group squabbling over the carcass of what South Africa could have been.

But politics is not a formula and the politics of principled pragmatism pioneered by the DA leaves many grey areas to be traversed. In particular, the line between principle and pragmatism is always contextual and subtle. On my part I hope Zille demonstrates the clarity of thought and confidence in herself and her many supporters to put our collective future first and help bring this theatre of the absurd to a quick end.

There are green fields outside party politics for someone with energy, reputation and vision. Zille will know better than anyone that, in politics, theatre can become reality and that if this tragi-farce is allowed to drag on there is a danger we will flush our future down the drain on a flood of mass delusion.

It wouldn't be the first time in the history of South Africa.

PS. Since writing the above I have had the opportunity of reading James Myburgh's dissection of this affair and his conclusion that for Zille to resign would encourage more of the same and prolong the feeding frenzy. I cannot agree more that mistakes were made in the early stages by Maimane (and, in my view, Zille) which opened the door to the current sinister theatrics.

Some deep soul searching needs to be done especially by Maimane. Political integrity may have immediate costs but generally has longer-term pay-offs. At the same sensible politics may require pragmatism within the limits of principle. Zille and Maimane need to stitch together a value-driven solution to this dangerous 'storm-in-a-teacup' and get on with the business of setting South Africa on the path of self-respect and transformation. That stops well short of appeasing racial bigots, whatever their disguise and where-ever they come from, or throwing sops to the social media pop-up mob.

Mike Berger