Mbhazima Shilowa | Zille is entitled to her own opinions - but not to her own facts

DA federal council chairperson Helen Zille. (Jan Gerber, News24)
DA federal council chairperson Helen Zille. (Jan Gerber, News24)

Helen Zille may have written about racism as a journalist, but it does not appear she has an understanding of the myriad of racist laws that permeated our society, whose impact is still felt today, says Mbhazima Shilowa.


Helen Zille, the Federal Chairperson of the Democratic Alliance, has put her foot in her mouth again.

Yes, she of the "For those claiming legacy of colonialism was only negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, pipe water, etc" tweet that she apologised for. Or sort of apologised, as even today she still defends that statement. She apologised in case we felt hurt, not for the hurt caused. Even that she holds a view that to an extent that we are hurt it is because we like to play victimhood.

This time she has come back with a number of tweets. In the first one, responding to a comment on FW de Klerk, she claimed that "De Klerk decided to dismantle apartheid. If he hadn't, the ANC would still be bogged down in the mess of its so-called liberation camps and infighting. They had no viable armed struggle to speak of".

In the second one, again responding to a tweet, she claimed, "There are more racist laws today than there were under apartheid".

Zille is entitled to her own opinions - but not to her own facts.

Nowhere in his 2 February 1990 speech did De Klerk say he is dismantling apartheid. He instead said he is taking steps to create conditions conducive for negotiations.

Such steps included the unbanning of liberation movements, the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, lifting restrictions on the media and a number of organisations, such as the National Education Crisis Committees, the South African National Students Congress, the United Democratic Front, Cosatu and Die Blanke Bevrydingsbeweging van Suid-Afrika.

In fact, in that speech, he still held to the notion of the TBVC states remaining as entities unless the leadership and the people in those areas wanted to become part of the Republic again. Even at Codesa, the NP insisted on group rights being entrenched in the Constitution.

Zille knows that one of the cornerstones of apartheid was the Group Areas Act, that confined all blacks to bantustans unless they had permission to be in the cities. Even then, for many, it was a temporary sojourn. At the end of their contract, they had to return to their places of birth to renew their contract, otherwise known as (imvume). How could someone dismantle apartheid on the one hand, while on the other want to retain group rights and bantustans?

Any apartheid laws that were repealed between then and the 1994 elections were at the behest of Codesa or the Transitional Executive Council. She does not have to take my word for it. She can ask the representatives of the then DP who were in parliament.

In any case, even if he wanted to, it would not have been possible with repealing the entire apartheid constitution. Apartheid was not just a set of laws. Apartheid had been institutionalised. The repeal of some of the apartheid statutes did not change the fact that people who were moved from the Old Benoni location to Etwatwa and Daveyton spend a lot of money and travelling time to work everyday in the new democracy. The same for the people who were moved from the Old Roodepoort location to Dobsonvile. Or those who commute daily from Ekangala, a one hour trip per bus. By my calculations, when I was the Premier of Gauteng Province, it was cheaper to pay those people to stay at home, compared to the subsidy paid to Putco to ferry them to work every day.

The DA, itself, in its anti-racism pledge signed by public representatives and office bearers calls on them to "acknowledge that apartheid was evil and that its legacy remains reflected in the unequal structure of South African society".

As regards the ANC and its armed struggle, I leave that to the ANC - except to say that even the speech by De Klerk did not happen out of the goodness of his heart, but because of sanctions, the armed struggle (however limited she may think it was), changed international political landscape and internal mass mobilisation. For all intents and purposes, most of the parties that were banned or restricted had been unbanned by the masses.

History being a contested terrain, it may be that she is inserting her own narrative to the events. They, however, seem to disregard what those who were involved, including Van Zyl Slabbert, had to say about the stalemate and the steps they took to break it. It undermines the efforts by Steve Biko, whose death she reported on and often uses that to shore up her struggle credentials.

It is funny how she often says she was involved in the struggle for the new South Africa and yet regards efforts by others as "so called struggle".

 The narrative that De Klerk single-handedly ended apartheid is akin to saying the Cradock Four - Fort Calata, Sparrow Mkhonto, Mathew Goniwe and Sicelo Mhlawuli - died in vain.

This is not to take away from De Klerk the bold steps he took to cross the rubicon when PW had balked on 15 August 1985. In so doing, one shouldn't seek to exaggerate his role and elevate it to that of a messiah for the democracy we enjoy today. After all this is the same person who wanted a government of national unity to continue in perpetuity, hence the withdrawal from the GNU once the new Constitution was adopted in 1996.

More puzzling is her assertion that there are more racist laws today than there were under apartheid. We are given no examples, except the BBBEE and maybe the Employment Equity Act. Unlike under apartheid, where Parliament was supreme, the new Constitution is the supreme law of the land. To an extent that she was riled by the ruling of the high court, she could easily take the matter on appeal or approach the Constitutional Court directly, as has happened in other cases when she was the federal leader of the party.

Zille may have written about racism as a journalist, but it does not appear she has an understanding of the myriad of racist laws that permeated our society, whose impact is still felt today.

Most puzzling is the timid response of the party to her tweets. The DA often calls on President Cyril Ramaphosa to say whether he agrees with some of the comments by the ANC secretary-general. Yet, in her case, the interim leader, John Steenhuisen, has said very little. Even the little that he said was prompted by a question on twitter by Nickolaus Bauer. It is like the party agrees with her views or is afraid to call her to book.

What is wrong with John Steenhuisen saying: The DA distances itself from the tweets by Helen Zille, we find them unacceptable and not in line with DA policy. I have referred the matter to the Federal Legal Commission to investigate and, if necessary, to take action?

If there is anything that brings the party into disrepute, this is one of them. The DA is too important an institution in our democracy for it to self-mutilate in a corner, unprovoked, as Somadoda Fikeni is wont to say.

There is a Xirhonga saying that "A tihlo ja ndlopfu wa wupfuta". (There are times when one should interfere in matters that do not concern you).

This is one such occasion.

This is not just a DA matter. It is about defending the legacy of many South Africans who were incarcerated, killed, maimed and went into exile.

Also the DA is not just any other party. It is the second biggest party in Parliament, and a government in the Western Cape and in a number of municipalities. It should be held accountable for its actions in the same way we do to other parties. Above all, it seeks to become the government of the Republic.

According to her narrative, all of these were in vain.

In the end, our liberation came down to one person, De Klerk, who felt pity for us and decided to end apartheid. And the ANC government, that for many years preached non-racialism, has itself surpassed the apartheid government in enacting racist laws.

- Mbhazima Shilowa is a former Premier of the Gauteng Province, trade unionist and Cope leader.

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