The only outcome of the Helen Zille Twitter saga that won’t seriously harm the DA is if she resigns from all her political positions as soon as possible and retires from politics.
It would be a tragic end to an illustrious political career, but the only worse option would be for her to fight back, see her white supporters mobilise around her and then get blamed for undermining her party’s possibilities to grow.
If she doesn’t resign and the DA’s disciplinary committee decides not to suspend her, Mmusi Maimane and all the other promising black leaders of the DA will in future struggle to counter accusations that they’re mere black pawns of a white power bloc.
If she does get suspended, the hysteria among many white DA voters will run high and it will divide the party even more along racial lines.
The best option would be for her to quit, not to wait for a disciplinary hearing.
But it’s about more than just the DA’s fortunes. Black South Africans should be forgiven if they have the impression that if a prominent “progressive” liberal white such as Zille has these views on colonialism, most white people do.
It was an astonishing judgement error on Zille’s part to think something as sensitive and complex as the legacy of colonialism could be discussed reasonably and sensibly on a medium like Twitter.
It’s not as if she’s new to Twitter. She has put her foot in it several times with her tweets and every time complained that she was misunderstood.
Why did she not wait to write about her experiences in Singapore in a thoughtful piece, as she did afterwards, using more than 140 words?
Secondly, the wording of her tweets was so thoughtless that one can hardly believe she’s a seasoned, sophisticated politician.
She started off well with her series of tweets by stating that we could learn lessons from Singapore, a country that had also been colonised and is now thriving.
But I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw Zille descend to the level where she mentioned piped water and transport infrastructure as examples of the positives of colonialism.
It’s the old crude technology argument: if white European colonialists didn’t arrive on the southern tip of Africa 360 years ago, the poor indigenous people would still be living in the Iron Age. So be grateful.
How did Zille think black South Africans, and black DA supporters, were going to react to that?
No wonder racial fundamentalists like Steve Hofmeyr and AfriForum’s Kallie Kriel jumped to her defence.
This was Kriel’s brain flash on Twitter: “To hypocrites that react hysterically re Helen Zille: If you use colonial infrastructure without acknowledging it, it’s called plagiarism!”
Kriel and Hofmeyr’s ilk loved this and embroidered: black people who use cell phones, drive cars, play soccer and watch television should thank colonialism.
As an Afrikaner I find it strange that others of my tribe, whose ancestors were themselves victims of British colonialism and who like to describe themselves as indigenous Africans, defend colonialist oppression with such enthusiasm.
I was wondering: what technological advancement did my (mostly poorly educated) Voortrekker ancestors deliver to the black people in the interior when they trekked there in the early 19th century, apart from firearms that is?
I get that Zille was trying to say South Africa could have, like Singapore, done more with what they had after colonial oppression ended.
But what point was she trying to make with her other tweets? It’s not as if it’s in dispute that technology and knowledge have over millennia been exchanged between civilisations and groups. Neither does anyone reasonably deny that colonial occupation has been part of the human condition since the earliest days of our species.
Any sensible discussion on colonialism should at least make mention of the fact that foreign occupation seriously interrupted the natural development of occupied societies; that indigenous knowledge systems got destroyed; that societies only develop technologies their circumstances demand for their survival.
Zille should visit countries like Ethiopia, where powerful and technologically advanced kingdoms arose from the 8th century onwards. They developed technologies like their own script, complex architecture and irrigation systems because they needed them.
I wanted to send Zille my books on the pre-colonial philosopher Mohlomi, a towering intellectual giant of his time who had never once met a European; and his protégé, King Moshoeshoe I, a leader of great wisdom and foresight who, among other things, had invented the concept of diplomatic immunity and was honoured for that by the king of France.
The legacy of colonialism and how its victims feel about it is too complex a topic for me to discuss even here, where I have 800 words.
But two reactions to her tweets that came very quickly from two of Zille’s black DA colleagues are worth mentioning.
Should a woman who was raped, asked one, declare that it wasn’t an altogether terrible experience because a child was born after the assault?
Another asked whether Namibians should thank South Africa for its brutal military occupation because the old SADF left behind good roads they can now use.
Do the honourable thing, Helen. For your own sake, for that of your party and for all our sakes, retire now.
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