Why Helen Zille Should Not Be Fired

"Kill thoughts and you kill our ability to prove wrong the many values and beliefs that are out of kilter with our Constitution."

22/03/2017 08:12 SAST | Updated 22/03/2017 11:10 SAST
Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images

Western Cape Premier and former DA leader Helen Zille's colonial tweets were one of the most stupid things I've read from a politician (and the competition's tough), but I don't think she should be fired for them.

I'll argue that point in a bit. But first: the only people who ever say there were good things about apartheid and its predecessor, colonialism, are people who benefited from those systems. They benefit inter-generationally through better education, land, inheritance, networks and the swagger of privilege. And when apartheid ended, it was these beneficiaries who stood at the front of the line as the country was opened up to the world.

And so Cape Town, with its apartheid spatial structure largely intact, has benefited greatly from apartheid's end. The city consistently grows faster than the rest of the country because it is the greatest beneficiary of the sterling tourism numbers that buoys South Africa. Those people would not have visited the apartheid pariah state, so freedom's given Zille's city a cool that colonialism never blessed it with. Likewise with foreign investors who are revving up the Western Cape's green economy and also its business process outsourcing (call-centres) sectors. Business faced sanctions if they invested in apartheid South Africa.

I've yet to find a black person espousing the surprisingly common view that apartheid and colonialism had their good sides, and this is because the physical, economic, spiritual and psychological experience of apartheid and of colonialism was only devastating. Yes, our government could have worked faster and better in 24 years of democracy to better ameliorate the impacts of these two evil systems. But to not know the twin and lingering impacts of apartheid and colonialism on people is to stick your tongue out at history.

Zille, among other attributes, is an astute student of history who chronicled so well the murder of Bantu Steve Biko, so her Twitter hissy fit last week surprised me. And the call for her axing has come from far and wide as a nation eggs on the Obamaesque DA leader Mmusi Maimane to get rid of her already.

Certainly, Zille is in violation of party policy and, arguably, in deeper violation thereof than Member of Parliament Dianne Kohler Barnard who got a steep smack-down from the party for sharing a post that lauded former apartheid prime minister PW Botha.

Maimane has been set his next big political test-by-tweet.

We are all agog. And here's why I think Zille should not be fired.

In this week, I've noticed an instinct to censor speech, opinion and expression in our land that, as a journalist, I find deeply troubling. Our Constitution has set clear parameters for when free speech can be curtailed.

These are on hate speech (Penny Sparrow's Facebook rant was a clear example), incitement to war and violence. The limitation clause states: "The right in subsection (1) (to free expression) does not extend to propaganda for war; incitement of imminent violence; or advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm."

Sentimentalism about a system as devastating as colonialism is stupid, especially for a party that suffers a huge and existential apartheid hangover. But did the tweets qualify as hate speech? Or the incitement to war (Not twar –- which is a Twitter war and indeed that happened)? That decision belongs in the courts and not on Twitter or in other public lynch spots where the instinct to censor is sometimes overwhelming.

In a new generation of leaders in politics, the media and in government, I see an inability or unwillingness to debate into the ground ideas with which you differ. It is as if the idea or the thought itself must die.

All that will do is have an increasingly silencing effect and take the huge discussions about the past and the future that we have into the confines of our different echo chambers when what our society needs is the ambient ventilation of those sentiments.

I bet my bottom dollar that Zille has drastically revised her thinking after she dropped her C-bomb and that can only have happened because she used her freedom of speech to state those views in the first place. Society has pushed back and argued coherently and insistently on why she was wrong.

Kill thoughts and you kill our ability to prove wrong the many values and beliefs that are out of kilter with our Constitution and the country we are trying so hard to make.