Helen Zille’s attempt to define racism is a reminder of her absolutely remarkable “transformation” from protégé of the likes of Helen Suzman and widely respected agent against apartheid and other social injustices – to the denialist that many have come to believe she is. At the same time, her transformation is neither surprising nor anomalous.
As a youth, Zille subscribed to the liberalist ideologies and programme of action of the Black Sash. She used her journalistic power to expose political and social inequalities, like the truth behind the torture and death of (Steve) Bantu Biko.
She kicked ass as mayor of Cape Town, and won the World Mayor of the Year Award in 2008. She led the DA to unprecedented heights, growing the party from less than 135,000 votes in 1994 to more than four million in 2014, and inevitably threatening the hegemony of the ruling party over the electorate. These are undeniable, exceptional achievements.
Yet, at the centre of Zille’s post-apartheid achievements is the harmful notion that a political party, operating in a society that is structurally racist, can nonetheless transcend racial politics. The absurdity of this was evident when, in 2009, Zille was widely criticised for appointing only white men to her provincial cabinet.
Not bad for a party whose earlier exponential growth is owed to its opposition to the Employment Equity Bill of 1997.
The party is sustained by an ethos that is fundamentally against the transformation of structural inequalities.
When Lindiwe Mazibuko led the DA parliamentary caucus vote in favour of the Employment Equity Amendment Bill in 2013, what followed was intense intra-DA criticism for her decision.
Mazibuko resigned and went to Harvard. Zille’s reaction to Mazibuko, and Zille’s own seeming ideological transformation, has been the subject of much, often awkward, public debate.
Around this time, in 2014, the Sunday Times quoted a DA insider’s report of Zille’s conduct at a Federal Executive Meeting as “very hectic. Helen has changed. She is not the Helen Zille of 10, even five, years ago. One had the feeling that the empress no longer wore clothes, but that no one would say so because then she would turn on them with the same venom.”
In an interview on Morning Live in May 2014, Professor Tinyiko Maluleke told host Leanne Manas:
“… She has done a lot of good work for the DA, I mean, she has almost doubled the support of the DA since she came in. But one wonders if she has not reached that point where she becomes a bit overbearing and opens herself up to accusations that she handpicks people, she promotes them aggressively, and she attacks them if they don’t toe the line…”
Radio 702 host Eusebius McKaiser, in a series of tweets in March 2015, also warned:
“Helen Zille was brilliant in the early years… Right now, however, she is the worst person to lead the DA further … Helen Zille represents the worse of whiteness – assuming a monopoly on all issues; arrogant resistance to critique and incapable of reflecting… thinks – like many liberal whites – that reporting the death of Steve Biko makes them immune to the vestiges of racism … well, I’m afraid a liberal past doesn’t mean you’re incapable of less violent racism than a racist farmer.”
In her latest engagement with the notion of race, Zille likens racism to ketchup, and reduces it to subjective “feelings” of prejudice, discrimination, and antagonism. Subsequently, she used the typology of the 3-Ds: Double Standards, Delegitimation, and Demonisation, to conclude that black people who call white people 1652s are themselves racists.
Drawing on this framework, she attempts to deligitimise, without substance, the logic that black people cannot be racists because, as per her quote of Sobantu Mzwakali, “we never had the tools or power to institutionalise racial oppression”.
Her silence on the notion of institutionalised racism is a grave form of symbolic violence. It carries the potential to relegate “racism” to the domain of subjectivity and feelings. Left uncontested, this neocolonial doctrine can lead South Africa to a place where either “we are all racists so let’s call a truce” or “it’s all in your head” – as it has gradually been since the Democratic Party entered post-apartheid politics.
It also reduces race and racism to a matter of skin tone as opposed to the structural system of exclusion that it is. It also legitimates intra-DA views of racism and their equal opportunity approach, which perhaps justified Natasha Mazzone’s absurd correlation between her Italian father’s “darkness” and his alleged lack of privilege in a racist society.
Moreover, it demonstrates that Zille has firmly rooted herself in reactionary politics that overlook the injustices she once exposed. By this, Zille ironically proves McKaiser right that “she represents the worst of whiteness – assuming a monopoly on all issues; arrogant resistance to critique and incapable of reflecting”.
What is arguably most jarring is her reaction to anyone who comments on the counterproductivity of her utterances. Ask Mbali Ntuli and Mmusi Maimane about their “feelings”.
Rather bizarrely, in her article on racism, she appears to apportion blame to former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma for identifying the inequalities of the post-apartheid South African social structure.
The only reasonable justification for Zille’s “transformation” from courageous exposer of the truth about the death of one of the earliest critical race theorists, to the “most toxic kind of backbiting, historical reframing and reactionary right-wing style of politics”, as once described by Mazibuko – is that Zille has, in fact, not changed. Rather, she is now as she always has been.
She is history’s gift to us all, here to reminds us of the subtle, almost invisible ways that systems of domination recruit society to maintain unequal distributions of economic, political and social power.
Importantly, her actions highlight the importance, for all social movements, of occasionally revisiting their strategic and operational frameworks – recognising that in the leadership structures of justice movements are at times the most dangerous and toxic recruits of dominatory systems.
As the fictional Keyser Söze warned us all in The Usual Suspects, the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.
What thus appears as dramatic ideological and political transformation is not. It is instead a public exhibition of the power and danger of whiteness. One cannot propose the end of a deeply psychological and systematic problem by advocating for equal opportunities between those the system has long welcomed, and those it has historically excluded.
An alternative definition to one that likens racism to ketchup therefore requires, as a starting point, the recognition that racism refers to the structuring of society in such a manner that Eurocentric, capitalist ideologies that are fundamentally patriarchal govern dominant social structures.
Within this framework, racism denotes the subsequent “othering” of and delegitimisation of indigenous ideologies and cultural practices through power and control of religious doctrines, education systems, and the media.
It also refers to the demonstration of double standards by, on the one hand, advocating for social justice while on the other, throwing tantrums in debates about the meaningful transformation of society. DM
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