Monday, 3 April 2017

The Helen Zille Labyrinth: Revisionism and The Politics of Discontent

Journalist: “What do you think of Western Civilisation?”

Gandhi: “I think it would be a good idea.”

Helen Zille’s recent comments on the benefits of colonialism predictably resulted in a national outcry. Unsurprisingly, she was roundly chastised by her own party leader and other members of the DA leadership, while some pleaded for calm and a more measured and generous interpretation of her statements. Some, like Ghaleb Cachalia, offered his own, far more nuanced interpretation of her comments than she had the good sense to provide. She has been called to appear before a disciplinary committee, who will give her the “fair hearing” that she proclaims only the DA is capable of, a trait that she erroneously attributes to its colonial heritage (colonial jurisprudence was undoubtedly exploitative and unfair to the majorities they ruled over; to claim otherwise is to propose such drastic revisionism as to claim the Holocaust was a fabrication).

Parliament recently debated the issue, and she provided a considerably more careful version of her views in her speech to Parliament. Yet the speech itself was not without its deeper contradictions. The first of these is that she conflated colonialism with Western Civilisation. This is a problematic conflation, and one that frankly goes a mile too far in respect of logic and reason. The second is that Helen Zille is a self-proclaimed “non-racialist” who “does not see race” but “sees people”. That, however, does not translate in her view of history, for her history is patently delineated along racial lines. There are clear reasons on her part for both the conflation between colonialism and Western Civilisation, as well as the racial delineation of it. In Helen Zille’s version of history, Western Civilisation equates to “white” civilisation, is hence indivisible from that of the white settler of the colonies. This is nothing new, and settler identities in South Africa have historically embodied this mythical conflation and delineation in order to justify holding disproportionate power.

But here’s the rub, if Helen Zille truly was a non-racialist, her view of history would be far more nuanced. It would acknowledge that civilisations have interacted in time, as well as across space, and each successive civilisation builds upon the knowledge it inherits from its predecessors. No civilisation that has interacted with others can lay claim that its knowledge can be regarded as the exclusive preserve of its civilisation. Only in cases where civilisations have developed in relative isolation from others can this claim be made. This is clearly not the case where Western Civilisation is concerned.

Moreover, human knowledge and invention, and the roles of different peoples in the projects of civilisation, cannot easily be discounted. So, to proclaim the genius of Egyptian architects who constructed the pyramids without acknowledging the highly skilled Hebrew slaves that made their constructions possible, is to assume that the underclasses in these projects were merely labour, the kind akin to animal labour. Historically, the idea that slaves and other workers were insignificant in the technological and other ‘progress’ of civilisation is erroneous at best and there are plenty examples to draw on. 

A brilliant articulation of this can be drawn from I.B. Thabatha’s 1952 “The Boycott”.

"... there is no such thing as 'Western Civilization' ... There is only human civilization, which is the sum total of knowledge and techniques slowly acquired by man in the course of his development throughout the ages. Peoples in different parts of the world have come into contact with one another, mainly through trade and conquest, and have communicated their techniques from one to the other.... Once the peoples of Europe became civilized, they in turn made their contribution to the body of knowledge accumulated through the ages. Civilization as we know it to-day is thus the property of mankind. It is the heritage of all men. As we, the Non-Europeans of South Africa, are part of humanity, we claim this civilization as our natural heritage ... No-one can deny that every day of our lives since the advent of capitalism in this country, we have been creating civilization.... the whole edifice of the South African state with all its wealth and well-being, could not have been built without our labour. In every field of South African life a Black man's labour is indispensable... How monstrous, then, is this idea of the Black man's ingratitude!"

This, single paragraph is astonishingly relevant today, and a careful reading of it exposes the clear reasons for the deep discontent that Helen Zille’s comments raised amongst black South Africans in particular. The tone of her tweets was offensive and provocative in that it gave black people the impression that they were being chastised for their ungratefulness for the benefits that colonialism brought them. It is clear from her speech, and other preceding statements, that she attributes this to a sense of victimhood – i.e. a victim mentality – that prevents them from taking ownership of their inherited condition, laying constant blame on history and white settler-hood. Hence she casts dire warnings against the rise of “African racial-nationalist propaganda”, which can lead to the targeting of “minorities” in South Africa.

The notion that despite slavery, forced labour, forced removals, forced labour, theft of land and resources, and a legacy of chronic under-development, colonialism nonetheless brought benefits to the colonies, gives the impression that the civilising mission of colonialism was a necessary evil. Indeed, this is how Helen Zille’s defenders and supporters on twitter interpret her statements, which a cursory inspection of their responses reveals. This perspective negates the fact that countries that were never colonised – such as Ethiopia and Thailand – have nonetheless modernised along with the rest of the world. There was no necessity in colonialism other than the scramble for resources; there was no justification in colonialism except in the racist superiority complex that Western civilisation afforded itself, especially in the Victorian era.

In contrast, and perhaps because she was now in the spotlight (something she enjoys, to the detriment of the actual black party leader Mmusi Maimane), the tone in Helen Zille’s speech to Parliament was far more guarded and careful. She took great care to roll out quotes from black leaders, black writers and a black history textbook author to justify her position. Yet there was a patent sleight of hand in all of this; she moved from the tone of “Please, just be honest …” to one that was far more apologist, claiming that her comments were opportunistically exploited as all she really meant to state was that despite its diabolical nature some benefits did derive from colonialism.

If that was the case, why has Helen Zille not focused her efforts on the profoundly destructive intergenerational impacts that colonialism and Apartheid wreaked upon South African society? Why has she disparaged the emerging discourse on “decolonisation” and the student movement that has elevated it into the public realm? Why does she propose a “meritocracy” for the country with the highest inequality in the world (i.e. according to the World Bank) instead of looking at mechanisms for redress and equity? Why does she label these attempts at transformation as “bribe-based black enrichment masquerading as black economic empowerment”? Indeed, Helen Zille is long on criticism of any attempts at redress of the horrors of our past, but extremely short on reasonable propositions on how to do things better. There is absolutely no empirical evidence for meritocracy as a solution – it is merely an ideological prop deployed by conservatives who distrust any form of social democracy as ‘socialist’.

Moreover, she apologised “unreservedly” for her comments, yet has gone on to justify them with long-winded articles and speeches. Something is amiss here, when you apologise you withdraw your statements as ill-founded and/or offensive. You do not continue to harp on the same chord having apologised for sounding it out in the first place. That is what an apology is. South African politicians are masters at sowing silk purses out of sows’ ears. They have many years of experience in the spin and bamboozle dirty tricks campaigns that characterises our politics, and Helen Zille is no stranger to these tactics. Indeed, they have fueled her populist campaign to the right of centre for many years now.

This cognitive dissonance – holding contradictory stances and ideas in play at the same time without acknowledging it – locates Helen Zille on the mirror end of the spectrum to the “African nationalists” she warns against. In reality her actions mirror theirs in unmistakeable ways. When one looks to Jimmy Manyi, Julius Malema, and even the president Jacob Zuma, they make use of a different tone when addressing the nation than when they address their followers directly. When addressing the nation they are more measured and articulate, taking the time to build their arguments into some semblance of a logical chain of thought. However, when they address their followers directly they pull no punches and descend into the politics of discontent. There is an unmistakeable change of tone and they make outrageous statements to their base. This is classic populism, where a politician panders directly to their base in order to buoy up discontent.

She goes further, claiming to be glad of her tweets, as they have opened up – in her opinion – an important national debate on the issue. The reality, however, is that the public debate on colonialism was brought to the fore by the student movement over two years ago. Yet she has – at every turn – disparaged and attempted to shut down that debate. It is clearly not a debate that she wants to have. She wants to have her say, but she does not want others to have theirs. This is not made up. Last year, just as the polls to the municipal elections closed, she tweeted that black students who had written a newspaper article describing their feelings of being mere “drops in the ocean” at the University of Cape Town should leave if they didn’t like it, and that they should have their funding withdrawn. These are hardly the statements of someone who is open to debating the issues of colonial inheritance and the challenge of transformation today. These are simply the statements of someone who wants to shut down the debate entirely.

It is reminiscent of Jimmy Many’s outlandish statements and comments on twitter, which he rationalises on television in more detail, knowing that there is a particular audience he is speaking to (e.g. the denial of the ‘Zupta’ controversy as an agenda of “white monopoly capital”). Helen Zille does exactly the same; her alarmist bleating about an attack on minorities is all about white middle class fragility in the new South Africa. If she really cared about minorities who are under attack then why has she not been more vocal about xenophobic attacks on African migrants and refugees, and why has she not spoken out when her own party leaders, such as Herman Mashaba, have made statements to the effect that foreign Africans are engaged in criminality. Well, it is because she shares these views. When my wife, an expert on migration, had a meeting with her on the issue, she pulled out a list of foreign Africans who had been charged with crimes as justification of her suspicion of them. If she was really interested in protecting minorities, why not start with those who are actually being targeted by unfair competition laws, and who are stabbed, shot and burnt to death on the streets and in their informal shops? Perhaps some minorities are ‘more equal’ than others?

In the ultimate exercise in selective and tautological reasoning, Helen Zille invoked the words within a school history textbook that was written by a black historian, which made mention of some of the tangential benefits of colonialism [1]. She then asked parliament if he should be fired for these views, triumphantly proclaiming that perhaps the only reason she is being singled out is because of the colour of her skin. And there, in flash, she tacitly gave credence to the main claim that her white conservative base holds dear i.e. that they are victims of ‘reverse racism’ in the new South Africa. From a position of relative privilege she can proclaim not to lapse into victimhood while expressing a clear case for it at the same time.

But contradictions are the new substance of politics, not just in South Africa, but across the globe, as the conservative right mount an offensive on the liberal consensus. Helen Zille may once have been a liberal, but she moved with her base, and is no longer a classic liberal. She is an arch neoconservative, engaging in revisionism and reactionary politics of a kind that appeals to that base. She has become their mascot, replacing the Tony Leon of old, who would cut a far more fitting figure in this new era of politics. At least with him, you knew where you stood. His positions were unequivocal and clear, but they did not win the DA any black votes.

Helen Zille is a far more crafty character than Tony Leon. She plays in the grey areas, where her messaging can be taken one way or another, but her core conservative base knows exactly what she is insinuating. It is an infuriating game, and while some black voters (i.e. especially minorities such as Indians and Coloureds) may be inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt, black voters who have endured post-Apartheid duplicitous racism will more likely be put off considerably.

Her transition from carelessly chosen words on twitter, to carefully chosen ones in her speeches, her contradictory claims and statements, her un-scholarly historical conflations, and conspiratorial retreats serve to create a great deal of noise out of which anyone can read whatever they wish to. In contrast to the clear messaging of her black party leader, Mmusi Maimane, who is a unifier and grand ‘rhetoritician’, Helen Zille’s political messaging can only be understood in terms of a labyrinth; by the time you’ve made your way out the end of it you’ve forgotten where it started. Like Donald Trump, she creates her own version of history and current events with careless disregard for facts and context, leaving it to all and sundry to undo while she moves on to her next outrageous outburst. It’s a game of catch-up, and like Trump, she appears to be winning when she is in fact doing irreparable damage, damage that others will have to work desperately hard to undo. And that, for her – unfortunately – is how the game is played!

Yet, as the saying goes, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me!” It remains to be seen for how long the South African electorate will continue to be fooled by the DA ex-leader’s antics before they gang up on her and hold her to account.


[1] Incidentally, my Apartheid era standard three school history textbook (10 years old) claimed that Indian indentured labourers were brought to KwaZulu-Natal because Zulu's were "lazy". This fabrication ignored the fact that Indian indentured labourers had specialised skills in growing sugar cane in particular, and that Zulu traditional homesteads were sustainable and self-subsistent, so they did not have to work on the plantations in order to survive. Eventually they were driven into labour by the introduction of taxes such as the poll tax and hut tax.  I'm simplifying here to make a point, that Zille erroneously invokes school textbook excerpts as proof of history; in reality, history is always written subjectively.

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