Being uninformed is so last season
18 August 2017 16:17 (South Africa)
Opinionista Richard Poplak

She’s been gone so long, but Twit-Zille is mounting a comeback

  • Richard Poplak
    HEADSHOT_Rich-Poplak_orange.jpg
    Richard Poplak

    Richard Poplak was born and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He trained as a filmmaker and fine artist at Montreal’s Concordia University and has produced and directed numerous short films, music videos and commercials. Now a full-time writer, Richard is a senior contributor at South Africa’s leading news site, Daily Maverick, and a frequent contributor to publications all over the world. He is a member of Deca Stories, the international long-form non-fiction collective.

    His first book was the highly acclaimed Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa (Penguin, 2007); his follow-up was entitled The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop-Culture in the Muslim World (Soft Skull, 2010). Poplak has also written the experimental journalistic graphic novel Kenk: A Graphic Portrait (Pop Sandbox, 2010). His election coverage from South Africa’s 2014 election, written under the nom de plume Hannibal Elector, was collected as Until Julius Comes: Adventures in the Political Jungle (Tafelberg, 2014).  Ja, No, Man was longlisted for the Alan Paton Non-Fiction prize, shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Literary Award and voted one of the Top-10 books of 2007 by Now Magazine. Richard has won South Africa’s Media-24 Best Feature Writing Award and a National Magazine Award in Canada.

    Since 2010, Poplak has been travelling across Africa, seeking out the catalysts and characters behind the continent’s 21stcentury metamorphosis. The coming book, co-authored with Kevin Bloom, is called The Shift

An hour after voting booths around the country closed shop, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille was unleashed on Twitter by whomever forbade her from Tweeting Zille-isms in the first place. She took the moment to deride university students, and undermine the goodwill acquired by her party after four months of hard campaigning. Is the lady just a garden-variety racist moron? Or is something else at work here?

Like some massive, prehistoric slug trawled up by a canoe full of cargo-cultists tripping on mutant ibogo, Helen Zille is back! The Premier of the Western Cape, with her brushed steel forehead and serial killer eyes, had been relatively well behaved on social media for the duration of the Democratic Alliance’s make-it-or-break-it local election campaign. She made no unprompted lunatic declarations. She trolled not a single journalist. She micro-blogged zero divisive aphorisms. (This stellar record was interrupted by a T-war with Charlize Theron, but no one is perfect.) Twitter meltdowns had become a Zille hallmark, and her lack of impulse control, combined with her vast entitlement issues, time and again marred her career as the DA’s Blackberry-toting Führer.

Indeed, give the lady a smartphone, and she’ll hack Russia’s nuclear codes and blow up the nearest crèche.

So consider South Africa surprised when barely an hour after the last ballot was cast, Zille was allowed off her leash. She used the freedom to take an enormous dump on the spirit of inclusiveness her party shills in its slickly produced infomercials. Over a picture of a Cape Argus article depicting four disgruntled black and brown University of Cape Town students, Zille took the time to Tweet: “If this woke bunch hate being UCT students so much, pls help them out of their misery and withdraw their funding.”

Think about it: the first notion that bubbled up in Zille’s lizard brain following the campaign was to mount an attack four black kids who think UCT is a bit of a dive. The use of the term “woke” was, of course, intended as a direct and derisive reference to a word that has centered Rhodes Must Fall, Fees Must Fall, and other pro-black leftist movements. Was this Tweet really racist, asked Zille’s backers, incredulous that their blue-clad storm trooper could be labelled with such an epithet?

In the age-old tradition of dog-whistle tribal politicking, you bet it was.

Much like a zombified Maggie Thatcher, but with a shittier handbag collection, Helen Zille used her Twitter re-entry to put the natives in their place. It’s almost impossible to quantify how churlish and how cowardly a move was this. Zille had held off from Tweeting in order not to damage the chances of her party, until it was safe for her to come out and satisfy her craving for scorched earth idiocy. Her base sniggered in knowing agreement, understanding that this message was a reward for their own good behaviour, a little e-handjob for time well served.

When the coast was clear, Zille took to her phone to prove President Jacob Zuma’s declarations about the DA entirely correct. That sound you hear is DA president Mmusi Maimane screaming at Silicon Valley.

* * *

We are, it seems, living in the Age of the Asshole.

In the United States of America, Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, Tweets as if he’s studied Zille’s TL with Talmudic concentration. (Zille has been a politician for 4,000 long years, while Trump is a relative newbie.) Consider a recent Trump Tweet regarding his verbal tangle with the Muslim American Khan family:

This story is not about Mr. Khan, who is all over the place doing interviews, but rather RADICAL ISLAMIC TERRORISM and the U.S. Get smart!”

Classic Trump. But check this out: “They also never let the facts get in the way of the outrage generation machine. Sad really,” Tweeted Zille today, using the same kindergarten syntax that Trump has turned into a political art form. “The election shows that no matter how much the media love EFF and the wokus pokus brigade, the DA is the ONLY alternative govt. #KhulaDA”, wrote she, appending appropriated vernacular onto her racially charged musings. “Where is the twitter outrage about this RACIST tweet,” Tweeted Zille today, quoting a racist Tweet, thereby implying that her Tweets, while vaguely racist, are never explicitly racist.

Sad really.

I’m willing to concede that Zille is merely a garden-variety asshole. But I think there’s some value in exploring the relationship between power—or the pursuit thereof—and mental illness. Is the woman sick? Is she off her meds? This species of enquiry has recently entered the American political discourse with regard to Trump’s erratic behaviour, but the question has larger implications even when the subject is not as clearly sociopathic as Zille or Trump. Hasn’t Hillary Clinton been sickened by power? What about David Cameron, or Tony Blair?

What about Jacob Zuma?

“Because it imagines power,” wrote Roy Porter in A Social History of Madness, “madness is both impotence and omnipotence. It requires power to control it. Threatening the normal structures of authority, insanity is engaged in an endless dialogue—a monomaniacal monologue sometimes—about power.

Porter’s thesis isn’t that power causes insanity, but that power is insanity.

Ja, but isn’t all of this meaningless in the context of a highly contested (and still unresolved) election-fest. No, it’s actually the other way round—the election is meaningless in the face of the unaccountable and execrable behaviour of our politicians. Zille should have been publicly sanctioned by the DA leadership for her social media flameouts; if she were the CEO of an organisation that was actually beholden to its stakeholders, she’d have been fired long ago. No one in the DA has the balls to rein her in—even its ostensible leader, Mmusi Maimane—because they know that Zille actually holds the reins. (After all, she’s a primary fundraiser.) Zille is entirely unaccountable, which is why she and Jacob Zuma are interchangeable: just because madame is better at covering her tracks, doesn’t mean she doesn’t have tracks to cover.

The Republic of the Western Cape keeps its secrets well.

Why do we keep voting for all these A-grade assholes? Asked another way, Why does Helen Zille feel entitled to behave like an A-grade asshole? She feels this way because she knows that we have no pull. Even as we vote—even as we flounce around an IEC tent pantomiming our fake power—she composes a Tweet in her head that she knows will highlight her power over our powerlessness.

Jump monkeys, says she. And jump we do. DM

  • Richard Poplak
    HEADSHOT_Rich-Poplak_orange.jpg
    Richard Poplak

    Richard Poplak was born and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He trained as a filmmaker and fine artist at Montreal’s Concordia University and has produced and directed numerous short films, music videos and commercials. Now a full-time writer, Richard is a senior contributor at South Africa’s leading news site, Daily Maverick, and a frequent contributor to publications all over the world. He is a member of Deca Stories, the international long-form non-fiction collective.

    His first book was the highly acclaimed Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa (Penguin, 2007); his follow-up was entitled The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop-Culture in the Muslim World (Soft Skull, 2010). Poplak has also written the experimental journalistic graphic novel Kenk: A Graphic Portrait (Pop Sandbox, 2010). His election coverage from South Africa’s 2014 election, written under the nom de plume Hannibal Elector, was collected as Until Julius Comes: Adventures in the Political Jungle (Tafelberg, 2014).  Ja, No, Man was longlisted for the Alan Paton Non-Fiction prize, shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Literary Award and voted one of the Top-10 books of 2007 by Now Magazine. Richard has won South Africa’s Media-24 Best Feature Writing Award and a National Magazine Award in Canada.

    Since 2010, Poplak has been travelling across Africa, seeking out the catalysts and characters behind the continent’s 21stcentury metamorphosis. The coming book, co-authored with Kevin Bloom, is called The Shift

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