28/12/2016 06:04 SAST | Updated 28/12/2016 12:55 SAST

One More Time: This Is Why Helen Zille Was Wrong About The '2 Blacks' Incident

Zille asked: “Why is it ok to racially classify people for jobs, but not to identify people at a table by their race?” Here's why.

Then Democratic Alliance leader, Helen Zille, arrives for the opening of Parliament in Cape Town in February 2015.
Schalk van Zuydam/AP
Then Democratic Alliance leader, Helen Zille, arrives for the opening of Parliament in Cape Town in February 2015.

It's been a week and some white South Africans are still echoing Helen Zille's question about the "2 blacks" incident.

On Wednesday last week Zille tweeted: "Why is it ok to racially classify people for jobs, but not to identify people at a table by their race?"

The former leader of the DA, who is known for her constant blunders on Twitter, was reacting to an article about The Bungalow restaurant following the racial profiling of two patrons as "2 blacks". Scott Maqetuka, one of the patrons, tweeted a picture of the bill in complaint.

She later replied to a tweet saying: "History tells us that Africans were the first colonialists. They went to Europe and wiped out the Neanderthals" and elsewhere saying "The ANC institutionalized race classification".

Let's leave aside the fact that, after a long struggle, Zille's party supports black economic empowerment and the need for redress given historical injustices around race. Her comments seem to indicate a scorn for racial redress, which contradicts the party's policies and the new image it is fighting hard to project as a pro-black party.

Besides that, Zille's heavy-handed handling of such a sensitive topic betrayed the worst of her prejudices but came as no surprise to black voters critical of the former leader and party. It also identified her with the most narrow-minded kind of South Africans, the sort of trolls who are normally best left avoided. The kind who thought they had landed on some sort of gotcha moment when they saw that the patron who had complained, Scott Maqetuka, had described himself as black on his Twitter bio. The kind of people who fail to see the difference between celebrating blackness and isolating it so that the weight of centuries of othering comes to weigh heavily upon you, undo you, and remind you that you still do not quite belong.

It seems almost pointless to explain that identifying people as black for empowerment purposes, to address the injustices of the past, is entirely different to the brutal and shaming classification of one as simply "black" in a white-owned, Cape Town restaurant space, where blackness is constantly othered or consciously excluded.

Cape Town restaurants have repeatedly been the centre of allegations of racism, with anecdotal evidence constantly surfacing of black people being denied tables that their white counterparts easily get.

Nor was Maqetuka's complaint somehow ridiculous just because the waiter responsible for the labelling, Mike Dzange, was black and had described other patrons as white.

That structural racism exists as a system that encompasses everyone, black and white, is par for the course in this country. For Zille to even question it exposes her hopeless lack of understanding of the privilege she enjoys. For her to fail to realise that being called white is entirely different to being called black is an indictment of her own understanding of how race functions for all of us.

When a black security guard stops another black person at a boom gate and makes them write down their details but waves the pretty white lady through, that's not somehow OK because he's black. The very action is an expression of a skewed culture where we associate blackness with something that needs to be policed. When Maqetuka saw himself described as simply "black" on that bill it is nowhere near the same as two blonde woman being described as such, according to reports of how other patrons were described.

But Zille does not get that. She thinks being called "mlungu" is absolutely on par with being called black, in a determined and incredible denial of how power structures work, or the history that informs it.

Of course when the black waiter was suspended, the Twitter trolls, including Zille, had a field day.

Again this is classic Zille: reducing racism to isolated incidents and failing to see how it is a system. The white owners of the restaurant did not have to go on national television to make a public apology with tears in their eyes, explaining why the system of racially classifying diners went on for as long as it did. That task was left to the working class black man who almost took the fall.

Thankfully another outcry from the public and a plea from Maqetuka that the waiter keep his job probably dissuaded the restaurant from making Dzange an example.

The waiter was later restored to his job. And just to be clear, this was not thanks to Zille's Twitter sarcasm.

Ironically, Zille later responded to more tweets saying: "Let us not trivialise the fight against racism by assuming that it is everywhere in every situation."

Here is where she gets it so, so wrong. If she took any time to understand racism as a phenomenon that has structured the very world we live in, she would know that's exactly what racism is. By virtue of the fact that we live in a world that is a result of millennia of white men in particular and white people in general being prioritised over others, racism is structural and inherent in most of the ways in which we live our lives. It takes active work to undo it and constant calling out, which is exactly what Maqetuka was doing.