Khaya Dlanga

Helen Zille is not racist, but...

2012-03-23 09:40

Khaya Dlanga

Helen Zille has Julius Malema tendencies. She just doesn't have a Limpopo accent and thus seems to be more acceptable to some. Twice this year, and we’re only in March, she has outraged the black community over careless statements she has made.

The outrage is not just restricted to blacks, but there have been white people too who found her statements unbecoming. And on both occasions, she saw nothing wrong with what she said and everything wrong with those who complained about what she said.

There was a term she used: “Professional black”. We got over that. A few days ago, she called people from the Eastern Cape refugees. Some of her defenders say that it was a poor choice of words. I would accept that if she had actually come out to say that and apologised for it. But she chose not to. Instead, she went down the meandering river of defending what should not be defended.

Being a typical politician, she chose the path of the ordinary politician, not the one that extraordinary men and women would choose. To be humble yet strong. To apologise yet make a point. The humility index is at an all time low in politics.

I was just as deeply offended by Jimmy Manyi’s comment last year when he said that there was an over-concentration of coloureds in the Western Cape. Helen Zille’s comment and Jimmy Manyi’s can be classified as one and the same thing. Mr Manyi tried some word gymnastics to justify what he had said and what he meant. Even aunt Helen went hard after uncle Jimmy for that statement. Yet today, she has also deployed the very same word gymnastics to justify and explain.

I have a great deal of respect for her but the more she defends and offends, the more suspicious of her I become. She is not racist, she is an ordinary politician. She offends and then defends the offence. Thus what should not have become controversial becomes controversial. What should have been a mere ripple becomes a wave. A small thing receives unnecessary attention.

She is not the first nor will she be last politician to defend a statement she knows she should not have made. Unfortunately when a politician is careless with words, the larger point that they are making is often always lost as people gleefully focus on the careless and not on the larger point. We have a flair for the dramatic and social networks are made for it.

I’m afraid that she may be descending towards a re-Tony Leon-isation of her party. The political sledgehammer who never backed down from any offence he made, today he is but a footnote in the annuls of South African history.

Our political discourse confuses criticism with attack and humility with weakness. She saw no need to apologise for her language, instead chose to sophisticate and go on the offense. She did not need to back down from her statement about the poor education that the Eastern Cape produces - whilst simultaneously apologising for using a denigrating word. Unfortunately the political handbook says never back down and never apologise.

She reminds me of Hilary Clinton when she was running against then candidate Barack Obama for the nomination of the Democratic Party. She made a statement during one of her campaign stops where she said that when she was first lady visiting Bosnia, her plane came under gunfire and had to run to safety.
Unfortunately for her, she forgot that there were journalists on the flight. They showed footage of then first lady Hilary Clinton being greeted by children and being handed flowers on the tarmac. No gunfight anywhere. Instead of apologising for the lie, Hilary said, “I misspoke.” She refused to apologise. On the other hand, Obama apologised for his mistakes while campaigning. Today, Barack Obama is president and Hilary Clinton his Secretary of State.

Helen Zille often speaks about the racialisation of South African politics; that the ANC wants to divide the country in black and white, and thus forever maintain a guaranteed majority. This fear probably leads her to react the way she does. That if she backs down, there will be continued racialisation and the ANC will continue to feel entitled to the black vote – which she also needs. Yet she risks alienating some of the very same people she wants to attract to her party. Of course she won’t think that what she is doing is wrong. Her party gains support with every election and makes inroads into the black community. Thus, to her mind, her strategy is working.

Although the DA should worry if Kgalema Montlathe gets the ANC presidency. But that’s a story for another day.

I don’t know what it is about Helen Zille. One day she makes good points and I find myself agreeing with her. I personally have no problem with agreeing with her simply because she is the leader of the opposition. I have always found it a little short-sighted and childish of those people who refuse to agree with anything she says simply because it comes from her party. But damn, she can be out of order!

Helen Zille is not racist, she’s just incredibly insensitive towards black people.

- Follow Khaya on Twitter.

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