17/03/2017 11:05 SAST | Updated 17/03/2017 11:18 SAST

Helen Zille's Comments Are A Setback To The DA's Efforts To Erase The 'Party Of Racism Denialists' Label

Her frequent outbursts, and playing fast-and-loose with history when it suits her, undermine Mmusi Maimane's party rejuvenation efforts launched last year.

Helen Zille in 2009, as party leader of the Democratic Alliance.
Mark Wessells / Reuters
Helen Zille in 2009, as party leader of the Democratic Alliance.

One of the books I am currently reading is Western Cape Premier Helen Zille's memoir, "Not Without A Fight." It's a beautifully written autobiography that has reinforced my long-held view that she is smart and erudite.

I suppose the title of the book is apt for a politician who is known for not shying away from fights. In fact, you could say she actively picks up fights, especially on the social medium Twitter.

But she has outdone herself in her latest Twitter post, where she tried to put a positive spin on colonialism. The tweet read: "Would we have had a transition into specialised health care and medication without colonial influence? Just be honest please."

She backtracked in the ensuing outcry, saying: "I apologised unreservedly for a tweet that may have come across as a defence for colonialism. It was not."

Now I must declare that I was one of the people who got irritated by her post and sarcastically suggested that she thought historical progress is linear—in other words, I was suggesting that she perpetuates the ahistorical idea that Africa would never have exchanged ideas, technology or goods with the rest of the world were it not for colonialism. It's as though precolonial African contact with the world and existence of the likes of Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe or the Benin Empire were just a figment of some historian's imagination

(Here is my verbatim response: "So racism and colonialism are the grease that oil[s] the wheels of our linear machine of social progress.")

True to form, Zille accused me of distorting her meaning and pleaded struggle credentials. It's not the first time she's played semantics when she's called out for making bigoted utterances (more about that later). My retort was to remind her that she's downplaying genocide. Her feigned amnesia is typical of how English liberals treat colonialism. To quote the words of George Monbiot, there's a tendency to treat the colonial enterprise as if it was just about teaching "the natives English, table manners and double-entry bookkeeping".

The colonial Empire was about the plunder of resources and genocide as a cursory reading of our own history and that of the Herero of Namibia, the Belgian Congo and the Arawaks in the Caribbean clearly shows. A smart public figure like Zille should know that there is no way you could put a positive spin on such a crime against humanity.

I suspect as a society we correctly emphasize the evils of apartheid because it is too recent in our collective memory, but tend to ignore the evils of British colonialism. In fact, some of the laws that led to the dispossession of the African majority and the undue enrichment of the white minority under apartheid are the spawn of colonialism and its "civilising mission".

But I digress. Let's talk about Zille's clever strategy to deflect attention from her hurtful comments by playing a game of semantics. It's something she does from time to time in her legendary "twars". Remember when she called the people who migrate from the impoverished Eastern Cape to the Western Cape "education refugees"?

Naturally, she pretended that she was misunderstood and even invoked the literal meaning of the word "refugees" to shrug off her critics. People took offence not because they didn't understand how the Oxford English Dictionary defines the word, but because of the history of being excluded from the citizenship of this country.

If you want to offend Zille on Twitter, refer to her as "madam" like some of her rival politicians are wont to do from time to time. (Incidentally, my online OED defines "madam" as "a term of respectful or polite address used for a woman".) That's because she knows that the term "madam" carries a certain baggage in the context of our country's fraught racial history. So she mustn't play cute with history when it suits her.

Last year, DA leader Mmusi Maimane embarked on a series of initiatives to change lingering perceptions that the DA is a party of white privilege or racism denialists. Utterances like Zille's are a setback to the efforts Maimane started at the Apartheid Museum last year and will undoubtedly be seen some as a challenge to his authority. The litmus test for him will be whether or not he acts against his mentor and former leader who is still seen as the de facto leader of the DA.