The r-word undermines our democracy - Helen Zille

The DA leader says we must put an end to the vile practice of crying racism

We must become a society where racism is accurately defined and universally condemned, where people are judged by their character, capacity and qualities; and where political parties are judged by their policies. We must become a society in which race is no longer the issue. The issues must become the issue.

Unless we can achieve this situation, South Africa cannot be a democracy.

It took the USA 232 years, from the Declaration of Independence in 1776 until the election of President Obama in 2008, for a majority of voters in the United States to transcend race.

At the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, epitomising the politics of race mobilisation -- is President Robert Mugabe. Mugabe has wrecked Zimbabwe more thoroughly than anyone would have thought possible. But the label "Mad Bob" misses the point. He is quite sane, and knows exactly what strategy to follow to stay in power. His sinister formula is: blame the "whites "and the "imperialists" for everything.

The sad irony is that Mugabe's victims are overwhelmingly black Zimbabweans. The 20,000 people he slaughtered in operation Gukurahundi in the 1980s were all black. The 700,000 people he drove out of their homes in Operation Murambatsvina in 2005 were all black. (Murambatsvina means, "Kick out the filth", which tells you what Mugabe thinks of ordinary black people.) The people beaten, tortured and killed during Zimbabwe elections are almost all black.

Mugabe knows he can commit any atrocity against black people because, as long as he denounces so-called "white imperialists", he will be guaranteed support by most African leaders. His latest outburst against the "bloody whites" will bring him a big round of applause. If Mugabe appeared at an ANC conference now, he would probably get a standing ovation.

It is very important to spot the trend of racial abuse in South Africa as well. It must be resisted immediately when it is detected, or otherwise it will shut down debate -- and democracy -- in South Africa as well.

In 1996, when Dennis Davis, the outspokenly anti-apartheid lawyer, was called a racist, there was outrage. I felt shocked in the same year, when I was called a racist because I supported Grove Primary School's right to appoint its own teachers. Since then we have almost become used to it. I have since been called a "racist longing for the apartheid past", a "wild whore" and a "fake racist girl". I am tempted to laugh it off.

But we must not get used it and I must not laugh it off. If any member of the DA had used these vile and untruthful racial slurs against any member of the ANC, I should immediately demand that he retracted it and make a public apology. Since the ANC leadership makes no such demands on its members, such as Julius Malema, who utter these slurs, we can only suppose they have the tacit support of the ANC and President Zuma. It was good that the President agreed with me about the dire risks of racial hate speech. I am now waiting for his follow through.

Look at the emerging pattern. Kenny Lekuma, a "political advisor" reacted to legitimate questions on state expenditure as follows: "I am honestly starting to hate white people. They are not in this country to build.  Honestly, I am starting to agree with those who feel the whites must leave South Africa and go to Europe or even Australia."

Julius Malema, the ANC Youth Leader, says of me: "We will never make up with Helen Zille - she is an enemy of the revolution  she's a racist and will remain a racist." Justice Nkola Motata, delivering judgment in 2004, said, "How long must we perpetuate the law which was thrown down our throats by whites. You can quote me."

Recently he was found guilty of drunken driving, and when his car had crashed through the walls of a house, his first instinct was to shout racial insults against the house-holder. When Siyabonga Gama of Transnet was suspended, allegedly because of serious breaches in two procurement contracts, the ANC Youth League declared this was racist and that "those in control of the economy (white males) refuse the integration of capable black people into key and strategic sectors of the economy".

Paul Ngobeni, the new legal advisor to Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, said "I believe the DA racist bastards are hiding behind the so-called parliamentary privilege to abuse my name". Sipho Seepe, a commentator, said of Judge Kriegler's challenge to the JSC over the decision not to have hearings against Judge Hlophe, "Kriegler's tirade against the JSC borders on white supremist ideas".

There are whites who employ similar methods. Brandon Huntley made successful application in Canada for refugee status on the grounds that he was being violently attacked because he was white - which is nonsense, since overwhelmingly the victims of violent crime are black.

Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister, boasted that he could turn a lie into the truth through constant repetition. It wears down dissent until there is mute acceptance of whatever nonsense is being propagated. A constant stream of racial invective in South Africa is making it impossible to build our democracy, and root out real racism where it exists.

The purpose of this abuse of race rhetoric is clear: It is a smokescreen behind which vested interests entrench their hegemony. The tragic failure of so many African countries in the last years since independence is largely because in these countries your chances of success in life depend not on your talent, ability and energy, not on your qualifications and experience but on your connections to the centre of political power. African elites use racial rhetoric to consolidate their power, entrench cronyism and corruption, and ruin their economies.

In South Africa, the rhetoric of racial transformation disguises the dangerous trajectory of cronyism and corruption; The ANC's version of "transformation" has nothing to do with equity and everything to do with power abuse.

Which brings me to the recent nominations by the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) for Constitutional Court judges. Ever since Minister Jeff Radebe manipulated an ANC majority on the JSC, its reputation has been in tatters. The JSC's decision not to continue the investigation of Judge Hlophe's alleged misconduct was a travesty. The content of several JSC interviews of judicial candidates has become the butt of ridicule and dismay in legal circles. Its decision not to nominate Hlophe to the Constitutional Court is an effective red herring to distract attention from the others left off the list.  Ken Owen was right when he said: "race trumps all else in a fight for jobs, status and power".

The Judicial Services Commission is a clear example of how cadre deployment destroys independent institutions and undermines democracy. The damage the ANC on the JSC is doing to our judicial system -- the central pillar of our democracy -- will be incalculable.

This article by Helen Zille first appeared in SA Today, the weekly online newsletter of the leader of the Democratic Alliance, September 25 2009

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