2019 PEOPLE OF THE YEAR
The Saboteurs (2) — Helen Zille: Honey, I shrunk the DA
By the end of 2019, reformers are struggling; State Capture and the fightback seemingly have the upper hand. Rolling and national blackouts symbolised a bigger malaise as the presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa lost momentum. Who were the saboteurs and who fought in the frontlines of reform? In this series, we profile the 2019 SA People of the Year Winners: Saboteurs and the 2019 SA People of the Year runners-up: The Fixers.
It is one of the political images of the year: DA leader Mmusi Maimane is announcing his resignation. So is the party’s federal chairperson, Athol Trollip. The newly elected chairperson of the party’s federal executive, Helen Zille, stands behind them.
Stress is drawn across her face. She stands with her arms behind her, like a school pupil sent to the naughty corner. Pugnacious Zille is gone; replaced by a politician who looks uncertain and weighed down.
“I was devastated,” she says when asked about the meaning of that photograph. “I didn’t see the resignation coming. I had spoken to Mmusi several times that week and spoke to him at 8am that morning to discuss the agenda [of the federal executive meeting]. It was a complete surprise. I got such a fright.”
Maimane, too, had got a fright when Zille announced a comeback to politics from retirement and when she then proceeded to win the position by a convincing majority. In interviews after her win, she announced that she was standing against “racial nationalists”.
A review report by party strategist Ryan Coetzee, former leader Tony Leon and businessman Michiel le Roux had devastated Maimane. In 200 submissions, DA members painted a picture of a party in disarray with a head office divided and fearful.
“It is of course true that what the DA seeks to do is hard and that the environment in which it operates is tough. But it won’t do to blame the rise of racial populism, a hostile media, the election of Cyril Ramaphosa, the Twitter mob or the legacy of ANC mismanagement of the councils we run. And it’s true that the DA has suffered indiscipline and factionalism of late, but it won’t do to blame others without taking a long hard look at oneself first,” the hard-hitting report read.
The “oneself” was the party, but the report recommended that some leaders step down. Top of the list was Maimane’s name. He resigned.
“I had said to Mmusi, ‘I will have your back and you can believe it. When we get to federal congress next year, you must stand again. Six months is a long time and we can turn this around,’” recounts Zille, thinking they had a deal to ride together.
But with her comments about “racial nationalism” and the new politics it indicated, he walked, thrusting a dagger in the DA. The party has continued to haemorrhage support in by-elections as the Freedom Front Plus has benefited from its disarray. The review committee was scathing of a common view in the party that it summarised as “whites have nowhere to go”.
In fact, they did and walked over to the FF-Plus in droves in national polls and in by-elections.
“The critical thing is to recognise something early. Tony Leon likes to quote Tolstoy’s, ‘The leaves of a tree delight us more than the roots.’ You don’t see when the roots are rotting. The review committee really dug to the roots,” says Zille.
Now pruner-in-chief, Zille has led an aggressive and fast campaign against the naming of race as a problem to be solved in South Africa. She is lead advocate of a new race-blind politics parroted by the party’s new establishment but clearly her brainchild.
“Another thing polling shows… even if you have a black leader and eight of nine other leaders are black and the head of Dawn [(the DA Women’s Network], and Daso [the DA Students Organisation], you will still be called a white party.”
Zille refers me to what she calls two seminal articles on the non-racial vision by Politicsweb founder and editor James Myburgh. In those, Myburgh expounds on what he calls a liberal vision of non-racialism versus what he sees as the ANC’s “transformational” politics. It is a profoundly conservative argument in the South African context in how it advocates not seeing race as a definition and appropriation of non-racialism. The term transformational, as coined by the early congress movements, relates to understanding the role of race in South Africa, understanding the moral requirement of black (and African) leadership while holding true to a vision of overcoming race as a fundamental identity in a socially just country.
That is the vision in the Constitution, but Zille and the DA will now cleave to Myburgh’s race-blind assertions of a new non-racialism. It is anything but. And therein lies the rub. The most hopeful realignment of politics in South Africa was once between the progressive and non-racial wings of the ANC and the DA which both had firm principles against corruption and for constitutionalism.
Zille’s new anchoring of the DA is in a libertarian direction that is at odds with the non-racial definitions in the Constitution. She disagrees.
“I am the same person I was as young reporter on the Rand Daily Mail – then they were progressive, now they are seen as conservative. Now non-racialism is seen as conservative. When I started speaking about the realignment of politics [it meant] an alignment of the non-racial constitutionalists in the DA with non-racial constitutionalists of the ANC.”
That vision of realignment is gone now. By December, the DA stood to lose almost all the gains it had made in its watershed 2016 local government election. But Zille believes that to grow again the DA must first consolidate.
“Cyril Ramaphosa is on a hiding to nothing trying to salvage the ANC,” says Zille.
Over a pavement café breakfast, many people come over to greet her, from the waitrons to local DA members. She shifts easily from isiXhosa to English and then some isiZulu. As I leave, the car park attendant whose turf is outside the café shouts over to me, “Ferial, was that Helen Zille? Why didn’t you bring her here for a selfie?” She is a popular and warm politician, liked across colour and class.
But what was also clear is Zille now speaks in the hardened and embattled tones of a conservative South African politician.
“I am not against affirmative action. [But] we need means tests, not pencil tests [referring to how apartheid bureaucrats put pencils into people’s hair to determine race. A pencil won’t stay in white locks].” She repeats that. “We need means tests, not pencil tests.” Then she says, “The racism of a majority is a very dangerous thing.”
It sounds like swart gevaar to me. DM
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