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23 May 2017 10:50 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ian von Memerty

Helen Trumped by her Thumbs

  • Ian von Memerty
    Ian-von-Memerty-new.jpg
    Ian von Memerty

    Ian von Memerty is a Zimbabwean-born South African entertainer, actor, singer, musician, writer, director and television presenter. See his full biography here.

The following statements are all true. Mussolini made the trains run on time. Hitler reignited the German economy and national pride. Colonialism brought independent judiciary, piped water, and infrastructure.

But: none of that makes Mussolini, Hitler or colonialism defensible in any way. As one of Mrs Zille’s greatest fans, I was prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt after her gobsmackingly insensitive tweets last week. But her long justification in the Daily Maverick means that I have to do what I ask every ANC member to do when their leaders go astray. Speak Truth to Power.

Colonialists, of which all my forbearers are, came to exploit, control and dominate other people and their lands.

They put in roads to efficiently transport themselves, their armies and their spoils from one white enclave to another. The fact that black people are now “lucky enough” to use those roads as democratic equals is irrelevant. 

An “independent” judiciary was set-up in order to “legally” rob and disempower the colonised; the fact that our courts are now doing such a wonderful job of holding our government and executive to account is no more than a new young tree growing out of the manure of colonialism.

How much piped water did the colonised enjoy?

Zille will go down in history as one of the truly triumphantly transformative women of South Africa. An astute and tenacious politician who negotiated and managed the fragile Cape Town coalition, she began that city’s transformation into the success story of the nation, at the same time becoming a useful and necessary media magnet for her party.

As DA leader she not only doubled the size of her party, but she also turned a white party into a truly non-racial party so that when she stepped down as leader more than half of its voters were not white. As an administrator she stands head and shoulders above her colleagues, and is the most successful provincial head that South Africa has had since 1994.

Under her leadership the Western Cape’s record of corruption-free efficiency, soaring education results, continuous economic growth, falling unemployment and ever increasing infrastructure and service delivery is unparalleled. If this was the blueprint for South Africa, the poorest 50% of South Africa’s people could look forward to a future that is so much better, hopeful and healthier.

But none of that makes her tweets or her consequent reaction excusable. After apologising for her tweets, she then “does a Donald”, doubles down and takes more than 3,000 words to defend herself. First, her apology now looks insincere. Second, the sheer verbosity of her “justification” is a case of “the lady doth protest too much”.

Never did I think that I would say of Helen Zille that she shares anything in common with Jacob Zuma. But she does – the isolation of power.

In 2006, she became Mayor of Cape Town, and a year later she became party leader. She has been the magnificently successful leader of the Western Cape since 2009 and since stepping down as party leader in 2015 has enjoyed a position of almost unassailable moral authority, bolstered by her continuing success as provincial head. And therein lies the danger.

The experienced Queen of Twitter in this country knows that a tweet either dies in 24 hours or it explodes into a media mushroom cloud. And if that happens it is because a bomb was dropped.

You dropped the bomb, Helen.

Put on your editorial glasses for a second and see if you can spot the irony about defending the waste of South Africa’s “colonial heritage” while sitting in the VIP lounge at OR Tambo.

The first 3.5 of her tweets were accurate, true to her party and her personal history. And then she went wildly astray. She tweeted about our colonial “heritage”, not the detritus of colonialism, or the structures needed for colonialism to maintain power, or the useful tools of terrible system. No, she said heritage.

In South Africa we celebrate Heritage Day. To use that word which has become something that sings of being Proudly South African in conjunction with colonialism shows an alarming disconnect from her country and her party. She may say it is a semantic difference – but it is far more than that.

Germany and Japan were devastated in every way after World War II, but one of the reasons they recovered so quickly was that they had a “heritage” of strong systems passed down by their brutal, genocidal warmongering governments. That is nothing to celebrate.

If colonialism left some useful tools behind by all means we should use them, but we should not pretend that they were anything more than scatterings that fell out of the robber’s swag bag.

Mrs Zille ends her unsatisfactory and self-serving article with these words: “The real danger is that the DA, in its quest for votes, may start to swallow every tenet, myth and shibboleth of African racial-nationalist propaganda, including the scape-goating of minorities, populist mobilisation and political patronage. Then the institutionalisation of corruption will only be a matter of time.” That has the ring of paranoia, and is as morally and intellectually unsound as any speech made by any ANC politician that you have vilified.

Look in the mirror, Helen, that is not you speaking. That is a politician in denial.

I say it again. I am one of her greatest fans. The difference that she has made in the lives of millions of poor South Africans is reflected in the increased percentages of votes that her party gets wherever they have been in power. But for her to claim that the DA is “scape-goating minorities and encouraging political patronage” just because she was tired and frustrated and sent out a series of insensitive, sensationalist and ill-thought-through tweets is unforgiveable.

You are better than that, Helen, and you know it. We all make mistakes, and one of your greatest strengths in the past is that you have acknowledged them. Now you have made two mistakes – 3.5 terrible tweets, and then worse than that, a flawed and unnecessary defence.

Colonialism was terrible. In theory. In practice. By design. In sheer human cost.

Limited piped water, exclusive and unaffordable legal systems, and transport infrastructure that passes through hundreds of kilometers of devastated land crowded with disempowered people, are not defensible.

Can these sad artifacts be used to create a Singapore success? Yes. But only by applying the five rules that you tweeted before your blood sugar obviously dropped. To quote the thinking woman of tweet two 1) Meritocracy; 2) multiculturalism; 3) work ethic; 4) open to globalism; 4) English. 5) Future orientation, are what turned Singapore around.

Singapore would have triumphed if it applied those five things without the debris of colonialism. The goal of our party is for every South African to be educated, employed and empowered – and that is the exact opposite of what colonialism intended. 

So forget the taps, the roads, Thuli Madonsela’s legal beacon, and Groote Schuur’s heart unit, because more than half of our country are still living with the actual “heritage” of colonialism, and the bare bones of the colonial carcass that might help us build a future are just that. Nothing more than some useful offcuts from a diseased carcass, and for you to dress them up as anything else is just not true.

You were wrong. And if you believe you were right – then I could weep. Because you will be proving that the corrosive moral corruption of power has started to work on you. And you don’t deserve that, and neither do we. DM

  • Ian von Memerty
    Ian-von-Memerty-new.jpg
    Ian von Memerty

    Ian von Memerty is a Zimbabwean-born South African entertainer, actor, singer, musician, writer, director and television presenter. See his full biography here.

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