POLITICS

The Chastening Of Helen Zille: How She Was Convinced To Apologise

Shuttle diplomacy between Mmusi Maimane and Helen Zille's offices brokered a deal between the two. But it wasn't easy and only finalised late on Monday.

14/06/2017 06:10 SAST | Updated 14/06/2017 06:13 SAST
Pieter du Toit
Helen Zille answers questions during a press conference in Johannesburg on Tuesday, 13 June 2017, while DA leader Mmusi Maimaine listens intently. The tension between the two was palpable.

Mmusi Maimane and Helen Zille never once made eye-contact during Tuesday's media conference at the Holiday Inn Rosebank in Johannesburg.

Not when they entered the cramped, stuffy conference room, nor while they were seated next to each other, or when they escaped – separately – from the throng of journalists.

The leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA) and his predecessor, also the premier of the Western Cape, entered the room to a battery of cameras and proceeded to do what needed to be done. Both carried out their responsibilities through clenched teeth: Maimane with his left fist enveloped by his right hand, at his chin; Zille with a worn-out tissue in her right hand, seated deep in her chair, red lips pursed together.

After a period of debate and reflection, I recognise the offence caused by my tweet on the 16th of March 2017 with regards to the legacy of colonialism . . .Helen Zille

"I've never seen such a press scrum ever before," she said uneasily when Maimane gave her the microphone after he read his statement.

Zille proceeded to read the apology for her tweets about colonialism, which HuffPost South Africa has learnt was the product of hours upon hours of argument and debate, crafted to Maimane's satisfaction and only finalised late the previous night. While she was reading, Maimane stared ahead, sometimes glancing in her direction, and then only at the text in front of her or the bank of microphones separating them.

"After a period of debate and reflection, I recognise the offence caused by my tweet on the 16th of March 2017 with regards to the legacy of colonialism," Zille read. "I therefore apologise unreservedly to the South African public who were offended by this tweet and my subsequent explanation of it.

"In South Africa colonialism and apartheid subjugated and oppressed the majority and benefited a minority on the basis of race. This is indeed indefensible and I do not support, justify, praise or promote it in any way. I realise the wounds of history that my tweet and subsequent defence of it has opened up. In particular I recognise that my actions were insensitive to South Africans who suffered under colonial oppression. For this, I am genuinely sorry.

"During this period, I have made public utterances that have had the effect of undermining the leader of the Democratic Alliance and the project that he is leading. I greatly regret this too. Mmusi Maimane is the democratically elected leader of the DA and we must all get behind his leadership. My intention now is to do everything I can to restore public trust that has been eroded. Now, more than ever, we need to unite behind a shared vision of one nation with one future."

It took one minute and 58 seconds for Zille to read the apology of 212 words. But it took four days of shuttle diplomacy to broker the truce which led to the chastening of Zille.

When she finished, Zille reminded of Thabo Mbeki during the first few moments after Jacob Zuma bested him at Polokwane almost a decade ago: spent, defeated and fragile.

She looked up at the cameras: "And that's what I have to say."

It took one minute and 58 seconds for Zille to read the apology of 212 words. But it took four days of shuttle diplomacy between the Marks Building in Cape Town, where Maimane has his parliamentary office, and Wale Street, where the provincial seat of government lies, to broker the truce which led to the chastening of Zille.

Concerted efforts to come to an acceptable agreement were relaunched midway through last week, after Zille was suspended by the party's federal executive committee and she had made representations to the leadership, in which she described the process as "a sham" and her as the target of a "vindictive and personal campaign".

Pieter du Toit
Helen Zille and Mmusi Maimane at the Holiday Inn Rosebank, Johannesburg. Behind them (from left to right) Geordin Hill-Lewis MP, chief of staff in Maimane's office, Ivan Meyer, a member of Zille's provincial cabinet in the Western Cape and John Moodey, DA leader in Gauteng.

Maimane tried to reason with Zille shortly before the suspension was announced on Wednesday 7 June, but was rebuffed. The DA leader's attitude hardened considerably after that and he became determined to force Zille out of the party and the premiership, if need be. The "nuclear option" -- a recall from the office of the premier -- was even floated.

By then it was clear Zille was determined not to abandon her position, either in regards to her tweets or to the procedural flaws in the process as she had identified them.

She was also well served by an ace legal team, who had helped her dig in for a battle which could have extended all the way to the Constitutional Court. Lawyers' letters were fired off at regular intervals. There was no way that a settlement could be reached if the debate was going to be conducted through letters of demand drafted by senior counsel and lawyers who were only thinking one thing: "How will this play in court?"

"What was that book by Frank Chikane called again? 'Eight Days in September'? This could be called 'Four Days in June'," a DA staffer remarked sardonically after both Maimane and Zille had left the press conference on Tuesday.

Renewed efforts at convincing Zille started in earnest last Friday, with emissaries shuttling between the Marks Building and Wale Street. It was also the same day that Zille appeared before the disciplinary panel for the first time.

Zille remained steadfast that her tweets were taken out of context and that it could be academically and analytically deconstructed. Colonialism was a detestable political system, yes, but it did have side-effects that have proven to be beneficial to the whole of society, was the message from the top of Adderley Street.

Meetings were held, tempers flared and potential exit points closed off. An offer was starting to crystalise whereby Zille would remain as premier if she apologises. But by late Saturday there was still no deal.

Maimane was even more adamant: it simply does not matter whether or not an academic analysis holds up to scrutiny. The emotional impact of a view like that, espoused by a leader of the DA, is hugely damaging and is interpreted as racist, was the rebuttal from the corner office on the second floor of the Marks Building.

Friday's abortive efforts segued into Saturday. Maimane and Zille did not speak and communicated through advisers, confidantes and trusted officials. Meetings were held, tempers flared and potential exit points closed off. An offer was starting to crystalise whereby Zille would remain as premier if she apologises. But by late Saturday there was still no deal.

The tide however turned the following day when the Sunday Times published a report citing internal polling showing the DA's support among black South Africans had almost halved in the two months since the impasse began.

I suppose my first instinct is to fight back. And my second instinct is to consider my methods. My third instinct is to think what would be the best course into the future.Zille

Zille, according to insiders, was shocked and distraught. The raw data showing the impact her tweets and her defence of it had on the DA's efforts to take advantage of the African National Congress' internal crises opened the door to an emotive argument: the tweets had hurt people.

"I suppose my first instinct is to fight back," she said on Tuesday. "And my second instinct is to consider my methods. My third instinct is to think what would be the best course into the future . . . I had to think, what would, in 15 years' time, have been the best course of action?"

After the anger had subsided and she was able to consider all the repercussions, she was able to think clearer and deeper, she explained. "Firstly, I believe that I did hurt a lot of people. I also believe that I am an empathetic person and that I don't want to hurt anybody. Secondly, we have a big project to run in this country, and if it fails, South Africa fails and I don't to be the cause of that. I want to help it succeed."

Zille agreed to deliver the apology Maimane demanded late on Sunday afternoon. The first drafts were circulated for consideration the same evening and work on the text continued for more than 24 hours until it was finalised just after 22:00 on Monday night. It was decided she will retain her premiership, but will cease to sit on all DA executive bodies. She will also be barred from making public statements about the party or its policies.

The apology was comprehensive. It dismissed the academic argument Zille tried to advance on social media and it acknowledged the pain caused without any caveats.

But, more importantly, she submitted herself to Maimane and dispelled any doubts of who the leader of the party is. Every reference to him during the press conference was either prefaced or appended by "the leader" and she emphasised repeatedly that Maimane was driving the DA's "project".

Zille, some close to Maimane say, moved the party of Tony Leon away from the condescending brand of liberalism of the past and was able to see the big picture when she helped get Maimane elected as the party's leader in 2015. She however allowed herself to lose sight of where the DA was headed and got side tracked into ideological fights.

But, they add, once she changed her mind on Sunday she again started to focus on the big picture and was an active participant in looking for a solution.

Zille's political career is drawing to a close. She has submitted to Maimane. It was the pragmatic thing to do.