Arthur Christopher

Zille's disciplinary will be a watershed moment for the DA

2017-03-23 08:28
(Amanda Khoza, News24)

(Amanda Khoza, News24)

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Helen Zille’s defence of colonialism on Twitter last week has elicited a justifiable storm of public criticism.

On the one hand the tweets, and Zille’s dogged refusal to concede that they were wrong (or at least that they were deeply insensitive), reflect how disconnected Zille is from the intellectual, emotional and psychological pulse of the country’s black majority. This alone is an extraordinary omission for a political leader of her stature. 

Yet, staggeringly, this is the kinder interpretation of Zille’s views. For years Zille has rested on her role in the struggle against apartheid, as well as on the DA’s stated commitment to non-racialism, to provide a blanket defence against accusations that she harbours views that are inherently prejudiced. Last week blew apart the final fragments of this argument.

For even if Zille believes her argument to be winnable, or if she believes that she is raising these debates in the public interest, it is impossible to ignore the fundamental premise of her claims: that had it not been for colonialism Africans would have been incapable of crafting the institutions, defining the “separation of powers”, and building the public infrastructure that she celebrates as the supposedly more benign legacies of colonial control. 

In this sense Zille’s comments on colonialism must be seen in the context of her tweet last year in which she sarcastically diminished the concerns of “woke” black students at UCT, claiming that they should be grateful for the assistance they are provided by the state; as well as her reported claim to have “made” former DA leader in Parliament Lindiwe Mazibuko, a sentiment which is stacked with racial condescension.

This is the power and risk of social media: those as active as Zille is on Twitter will, sooner or later, reveal their true opinions – the views on key issues that are typically suppressed by party communications structures and edited out of carefully-curated official speeches.

Here Zille is not dissimilar to Donald Trump: both the Republican Party and the DA are left to pick up the shards of public opinion that Zille and Trump’s social media verbosity create. 

Unsurprisingly, calls are mounting for Zille’s removal as Western Cape Premier. And most worryingly for the DA these demands are being made by the EFF as well, which calls into question the brittle agreement between the two parties that allows the DA control of both Johannesburg and Tshwane, and thus the opportunity to expand its enhanced delivery message out to the 2019 elections (though at least as long as Zuma remains president the EFF will not be willing to shift their votes to the ANC).

Zille will be now be subjected to an internal disciplinary committee which, if it repeats the type of sanction DA MP Dianne Kohler-Barnard suffered after her re-posting of a statement on Facebook which celebrated the rule of apartheid prime minister PW Botha, will see her fined and removed from her all elected positions in the DA (as well as being barred from standing for re-election).

Such an outcome would bring an ignominious end to Zille’s illustrious political career, and undermine her evident desire to avoid retirement when her term as premier comes to an end in 2019 and launch a new campaign for party and national office, which the release of her recent autobiography appears to suggest.

It is for this reason that Zille will robustly fight against this outcome, and will draw on substantial support from within the DA’s leadership structures to aid her efforts in this regard. This process will be a divisive one for the party, and will provide evidence to substantiate the suggestions of internal disunity that emerged following the recent resignation as DA leader in the Western Cape of Cape Town Mayor Patricia De Lille (with whom Zille has fallen out). 

Yet apart from the factional challenge that Zille poses to the DA, there is a larger dilemma for the party that her comments express. For there are many in the DA’s leadership structures, as well as across its roughly 4 million strong voter base, that would likely find little fault with the prejudices that underpinned her comments last week. A stern party response to Zille therefore threatens to alienate these leaders and supporters from the party’s embrace. And yet if the DA fails to act firmly against Zille the party will find its growth aspirations severely constrained out to the 2019 elections in areas of key electoral opportunity, such as amongst the black middle class in Gauteng in particular.

This is a necessary challenge for the DA. For too long the party has simply cruised on a wave of rising frustration with the ruling government, and the president in particular, avoiding the obvious inconsistencies that exist between much of its support base and its rhetorical defence of non-racialism and equal opportunity.

Indicatively, since Mazibuko left the party the DA has appeared to bury its internal conflict on employment equity (an issue which cuts to the heart of the DA’s dilemma), relying instead on vague national narratives and ANC decline to secure its evident electoral growth.

The DA must now choose between future electoral growth, which includes its capacity to build winning coalitions in Gauteng (and perhaps even nationally) as early as 2019, and Helen Zille. It cannot have both.

Of course, if the DA is serious about its future aspirations it must deal firmly and decisively with Zille. The party can afford to compromise some of its existing voter base – its majority in the Western Cape in particular is sufficient to provide a buffer that will cushion the effect of this potential loss. But it cannot afford to undermine its growth aspirations in Gauteng, upon which the party’s future relies.

Consider that, by 2020, one-quarter of the country’s population will reside in Gauteng alone; already the province accounts for almost 40% of national GDP. Further, it is in Gauteng that the ANC is now most vulnerable. If the DA were to be able to control Gauteng in 2019, as well as hold on to the Western Cape, it would effectively control the national economy. It cannot reach this outcome while still openly defending the kinds of views Zille holds.

This, therefore, is a watershed moment for the DA. A half-hearted response to Zille will have real and lasting consequences, playing directly into the hands of the party’s opposition and undermining the DA’s political future.

This is also a moment for Maimane specifically to genuinely hold to the sentiments on race and racism that he expressed in January last year at the Apartheid Museum in the wake of the Penny Sparrow debacle, in so doing beginning to meaningfully undermine the ANC’s tried and tested criticism of the DA – that its interests are narrowly focused on the country’s white minority.

And he will begin to emerge more fully from Zille’s political shadow too, leading the party and those progressive enough within it to understand how wildly unacceptable Zille’s comments last week truly were into a far more expansive future. 

- Arthur Christopher is a political analyst, a defiantly liberal corporate apparatchik and a part-time offensive midfielder.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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