Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 26 February 2014

Zille vs. Du Plessis: The utter and heart-breaking stupidity of words

This past Sunday, Helen Zille, the leader of the DA, launched a bizarre racist attack on City Press political reporter Carien du Plessis. In tweet after tweet that evening, Zille suggested that Du Plessis was biased against the DA because of her race. It was breath-taking to watch. It also raised serious questions in the minds of many observers about whether Helen Zille isn’t the DA’s biggest liability.

Throughout it all, Du Plessis maintained a caustic and dignified silence, breathing new life into William Faulker’s famous words, “Talk, talk, talk: the utter and heartbreaking stupidity of words.”

What she said

Zille tweeted many things. She suggested for example, that Du Plessis “is so scared that she would (sic) be doomed by her own skin colour that she is bending over backwards to prove her political correctness.” She added, “She is so terrified that she will be damned by her own complexion that she has to bend over backwards to prove her political correctness.”

She tweeted herself into a frenzy, and then, slipped in a seemingly innocuous piece of gossip. Zille tweeted that Du Plessis “once told me she was planning to vote EFF, and that is quite obvious in her writing.” The meaning of this statement can only be fully grasped by those who understand that Julius Malema and the EFF have come to symbolize ZANU-PF and the ‘horror’ of Mugabe in the minds of many white South Africans.

Race baiting and the spectre of the EFF

In Zille’s mind, not only is Du Plessis biased against the DA; but her insecurity about her whiteness has made her crazy enough to consider voting for the EFF. In letting the country in on a juicy little secret about Du Plessis, which if it is true, surely betrays even the loose ethical codes that regulate politico-journo disclosures, Zille deploys the EFF as the bogeyman. The EFF is the symbol of the black masses run amok. Her ‘reveal’ about Du Plessis’ intention to vote EFF bears all the hallmarks of race baiting.

Using the cloak of challenging Du Plessis’ ‘bias’ towards the EFF, Zille is really just undermining her opponent by stating the obvious, which is that only a white fool would believe in black nonsense (i.e. the rhetoric of the EFF). A black fool, presumably, can be forgiven for believing black nonsense. Du Plessis’ major crime seems to be that she is a white fool who doesn’t believe in white nonsense (i.e. the rhetoric of the DA).

Undermining ‘transformation’

The DA has worked hard to convince South Africans that it is sensitive to the modern-day struggles of black people. With Zille at the helm, the party has done a solid job marketing the idea of a post-racial South Africa, particularly to the black middle class. But with her try-hard Xhosa, her frequent gaffes on matters of race (including the recent Mamphele drama and the Employment Equality Amendment Act flip-flop) and her stubborn belief that the only reason black people don’t vote for the DA is that it doesn’t have a black leaders, it has become clear that the party has a serious race problem, and its name is Helen.

Stuck between the past and the present

Somehow, Zille seems stuck between the past and the present, between the generation of RW Johnson and their scorched-earth liberalism, and the generation of Mmusi Maimane, Mbali Ntuli, and Mabine Seane, and their cool but proud professionalism. The blacks who are on the ascent in the DA echo Tito Mboweni in his Reserve Bank days: they are hard-working and professional, undeniably erudite, and unashamedly black without being too hung up about it.

Similarly, Du Plessis represents the kind of white young person that Zille can’t fully wrap her head around. She and her cohorts relate to politics in ways that are fundamentally different from Zille and her generation of journalists and women and whites. Du Plessis has the freedom to live with her whiteness differently from how Zille has lived with her white identity. Zille’s insistence that Du Plessis’ political and personal choices are the result of her feeling guilty about being white seem oddly old-school, the product of a time when there were only a set number of ways one could feel about being white and privileged in a racist South Africa.

On the ropes

For some time now, Zille has been on the ropes. She has mis-stepped badly on a number of occasions. Her hectoring tone, her harking back to old ways of understanding the world (progressive for then but hopelessly out of touch now), her mastery of new technology, seem desperate rather than relevant.

In the end, then it is clear to anyone watching Zille’s spiral that her fight is not with Du Plessis, but with herself.

On Sunday night, as Zille lobbed tweet after tweet at Du Plessis, it was like watching a bully pummel the skinny kid in the schoolyard. After a while though, those who were watching on Twitter realised that the skinny kid had slipped away. The bully seemed not to have noticed. She was still punching, squawking, “Geddit! Geddit?” like a giant angry hadeda. A few spellbound bystanders remained. They looked on, worried and dismayed. They pitied the bully and wondered if she would be okay when she got home.

Elbert Green Hubbard, a late 19th century American writer and philosopher, suggested that “he who does not understand your silence will probably not understand your words.”

Du Plessis watched the bully in wary silence. Throughout the attack she refused to dignify the insults with words that were unlikely to be understood. Zille lurched violently into the next day, still flailing, still unaware that she was punching at shadows. Unaware even of the great silence around her noise. DM


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