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Helen Zille’s political masterclass: The reverse-psychology self-vindication technique

Siya Khumalo writes about religion, politics and sex. He is the author of ‘You Have To Be Gay To Know God’ (Kwela Books, 2018), which won the Desmond Tutu-Gerrit Brand Literary Prize. Follow him on @SKhumalo1987 (Insta and Twitter), or like his Facebook page With Siya Khumalo.

Shouldn’t the pursuit of diversity produce a result that organically looks like representativity? I know a retired military major who rejected representativity, fought for diversity and merit instead — and ended with the same results he’d have got if he’d followed the instruction to achieve representativity.

I did not fight hard enough,” writes she of Not Without A Fight, “to prevent the DA from entering the ANC/EFF’s ‘race narrative’ arena. What’s more, I actually sometimes facilitated our entry and (even worse) proceeded to play their game.”

Such are the brave confessions you’ll find in Helen Zille’s reflections on her legacy. Implicit in them, and in their noble acceptance of some responsibility for the DA’s election result, is the premise that the “race narrative” is more narrative than substance. It shouldn’t have been entertained, for it undermines the majority of white South Africans’ readiness (as I heard her describe it on SAFM) to get on with the task of reconciling and building South Africa.

Zille further erodes the substance of critical race theory when she reduces it to “their game”. She passes the ANC’s lack of credibility off as the truth about the “race narrative” in its entirety in this and many other sentences in her News24 article:

So how, exactly, did I set off down the treacherous path of trying to satisfy our ANC opponents on the issue of race?” she wonders, further solidifying the association of the inexhaustibility of South Africa’s race problem with the inexhaustibility of the ANC’s corruption. “It started with the conscious pursuit of diversity, which I still strongly believe is a noble goal in and of itself. It is essential in a country like ours, and increasingly worldwide.”

I’ll explain the role these words play in a bit.

She then says diversity is different “from representativity in that it does not seek to reflect the precise demographic composition of society in the make-up of an organisation. It requires genuine opportunities and real support for people from all backgrounds, with the talent and commitment and work ethic required to progress in life.”

Zille is (understandably) conflating the fair and equitable extension of opportunities to all, with the noble goal of diversity. Let’s read into Zille’s words the notion that addressing unfair systemic barriers to access to opportunities, however, those barriers present themselves to different people, constitutes the pursuit of diversity and by extension, of meritocracy.

But then Zille distinguishes this goal from the pursuit of representativity (quotas) for its own sake. “Representivity,” she says, “pays little attention to broadening opportunities. It focuses primarily on manipulating outcomes to reflect society’s racial demography.” And who’d want to be stage-managed into an artificial, anti-meritorious end result? Wouldn’t that undermine the natural capabilities and inclinations of those co-opted (by cronyism or conspiracy) as window dressing? Yet the temptation to such window dressing, Zille suggests, is what the ANC goaded us into prioritising as we picked the party leadership. She also emphasises there isn’t any particular leader who’s the disappointing occasion for this epiphany.

The question I’d ask is: “Shouldn’t the pursuit of diversity produce a result that organically looks like representativity?” I know a retired military major who was involved in a recruitment process, rejected representativity, fought for diversity and merit instead — and ended with the same results he’d have got if he’d followed the instruction to achieve representativity.

Up until the end of her term, Zille’s potential successors included Lindiwe Mazibuko, who, it was rumoured, was less pliable than Mmusi Maimane on issues around economic transformation and Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE). Zille’s argument that stage-managing representativity can undermine authentic diversity and meritocracy works in situations where essentialisation and socialisation (nature and nurture) skew the results.

A nursing college doesn’t have to be embroiled in a conspiracy to exclude male candidates to end up in a situation where most of the candidates are female, though medical schools have had to systemically exclude women to end up with mostly male candidates. This issue shouldn’t have haunted a political organisation whose existing composition made it possible to align diversity, representativity and excellence in the selection of leadership. Zille preferred Mmusi Maimane for the same reasons she ended up undermining him.

Ernst Roets recently tweeted “the consequences of race-based BEE at the expense of merit are far more devastating than the consequences of corruption.” The premise hidden there is black incompetence — that diversity, representativity and merit never align; that you can’t have merit and BEE, only meritocracy or BEE.

Contrary to Zille’s statement that white South Africans have been waiting to reunite and build this country, we’ve seen more fronting from the private sector and corruption from public sector than good-faith efforts to use BEE to select for black competence. White South Africans generally haven’t learned indigenous languages, though people around them learn one another’s languages in addition to English and Afrikaans.

The ANC’s sins give Roets and Zille ideological ammunition with which to justify the economic status quo; Zille’s talk of the “conscious pursuit of diversity” being “a noble goal in and of itself” is the palatable dressing on the unpalatable salad of lessons that black South Africans don’t know what’s good for them and it’s impossible to get good (black) help around here.

As Jacob Zuma built rapport with South African voters who never had the opportunity to learn to read well by parading this fact (with the help of those who mocked it), Zille is playing the martyr.

It’s old-school, it’s reverse psychology for politicians — and apparently, it works. DM


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