Opinionista Ismail Lagardien 30 July 2019

There is much more to Helen Zille’s shift to the right

One of the significant shifts in politics of the past decade or so has been the rise of a new rightist formation. which has emboldened several erstwhile decent, blue-blazer middle-class-type people to step out, as it were, and ‘fight back’. Into this loose affiliation has stepped Helen Zille.

Though not always a tight fit, it is part of what we have come to know as the “alt-right”. This movement, coupled with a distinctly white ethno-nationalism, as a sort of bulwark against dark-skinned or Muslim immigrants to “the West”, delivered Donald Trump, Brexit (and now Boris Johnson), right-wing populists in Italy, Hungary and Poland.

Debutant Zille was welcomed, so to speak, by David Bullard, unabashed and quite proud right-wing writer in the following way:

Now Helen Zille has finally shaken off the shackles of high political office, it has enabled her to attempt to educate her fellow citizens with some stark home truths based on a lifetime of political experience. The newly liberated Helen grabbed the attention of the Twitterati last weekend with her suggestion that if white privilege exists, then black privilege also exists; particularly among the rather lacklustre members of the ruling party who are quite happy to draw their vast taxpayer-sponsored salaries, claim as many perks as possible, then sit back and wait for the kickbacks to roll in; in short, ‘black privilege’ is being able to loot a country and get re-elected, she explained.”

Making like Zuma, but defending the indefensible

Much like Jacob Zuma, freed from the protocols of the presidency and able to now wave about lists of spies, traitors and sell-outs, Zille is ready to take on everyone she sees over her left shoulder. And to give her a platform, the South African Institute for Race Relations (SAIRR) appointed Zille as a Senior Policy Fellow. In what was presented as her acceptance, Zille said:

We must defeat the racial nationalist and neo-Marxist ideas that threaten the future of every South African. The IRR provides a platform for all concerned South Africans to contribute to this battle of ideas by doing three things — namely: uniting the middle; protecting property rights; and promoting individual freedoms.”

It all sounds terribly harmless, if anodyne, especially the “middle” part, the “property rights” part, and that bit about “individual freedoms”. This fixation with atomistic individualism is one of liberalism’s worst aspects, but let us leave that, at least for now.

Zille reproduces tired myths about “neo-Marxist ideas”, and presents us with that boogieman of “racial nationalist” tendencies.

These are bog-standard scare tactics and the general piffle that holds together the loose affiliation of right-wingers, mainly in Western Europe, who present themselves as “rationalists” or “race-realists”, as defenders of Western Civilisation, and at the extremes (which it would be unfair to label Zille), the likes of white supremacist Richard Spencer and any number of others who would insist that it was European colonisation and white supremacy that gave the world everything that is good and great.

Remember Zille’s defence of aspects of colonialism, that most dangerous expression of European and white supremacy? Well, during an interview with the Guardian’s Gary Younge, Spencer claimed that “Africans benefited from white supremacy”.

The intellectual company the liberated Zille keeps

By stepping into the alt-right, and hiding behind the fig leaf of “classical liberalism”, Zille joins a global intellectual community that includes the likes of Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, Jared Taylor and Steve Bannon. Again, Zille is way too smart to be as outspoken about white supremacy, and would insist instead that we look to the positives about European colonialism.

Her paean to dark-skinned others is to point to Singapore. Cute. But this echoes the views of Taylor (of the American Renaissance movement) and his local pal, Dan Roodt, who believe that whites are the world’s great people, but they make room for Asian industry. Domestically she will be in good company with South African intellectuals like Rian Malan, Roman Cabanac, Renaldo Gouws, Ivo Vegter and any number of soi-disant defenders of “liberty” and “free markets”.

With respect to free markets, Zille is a fond retweeter of anything that has to do with Tomas Sowell, the right-wing economist associated with the Hoover Institute in the United States that is home to some of the most notorious paleo-conservatives. Somewhere in his writing Sowell blamed homeless people for their plight. At some point, he criticised students for volunteering for, in his words, “feeding people who refuse to work”. In some ways, it makes sense when one recalls that in the best-run city in South Africa (no sarcasm intended) homeless people were fined for sleeping out on the streets.

Ivo Vegter’s passion for free markets is not worth discussing; not unless he, or anyone else, can provide evidence of where free markets (absolutely no government intervention or regulation) have worked successfully in a sustained way over time and produced an equitable distribution of wealth, prosperity and social cohesion.

If, dear reader, you think I am making too grand an association with the more odious characters of the world, Zille, for instance, has said that to build her ideal liberal world, people should not be frightened by being called racist. Speaking at a National Front Rally in France, Steve Bannon urged right-wingers to wear the label “racist” with pride.

Wokeness and its discontents

What David Bullard described as “Zille Unleashed” is rearing its head at everything and everyone who is mildly woke or politically correct. Of course, performance wokeness should be classified as criminal. Political correctness also has its limits.

For instance, I could say that Helen Zille is a white woman who benefits from at least three centuries of vertically-segmented white privilege. I could say, each time I drive along any of South Africa’s roads, that I don’t see white people dashing across the highway, toying with death, as they make their way from Khayelitsha to the north bank of the N2. I could say that Bishopscourt will not suffer the same plight as people who were left homeless in Masiphumelele in the cold of a Cape Town winter.

I could say that Helen Zille moved seamlessly from job to job because she is white and privileged. But political correctness means I cannot say any of that because, as Thomas Sowell, Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro and Helen Zille may insist, individual freedom is what is important. Liberal economics means that individuals are ultimately responsible for their own poverty, misery and alienation.

I could say that the structural damage of colonialism — what the British historian, JM Roberts described as “Europe’s assault on the world” — caused untold somatic and psychological damage to communities across the Global South, but I may not, because individual liberty, meritocracy, rational thought (all those delightful parts of classical liberalism) mean that black people in South Africa are responsible for their own misery and poverty.

In this trope, white people are not privileged and anyone who dares question the ways in which whites acquired and held on to power over more than 300 years, is simply a bully. And as Zille dismissively tweeted on 9 May about Sarah Britten-Pillay, partner of Kanthan Pillay, founder of the South African Capitalist Party (and home of the “classic liberals”):

One of the ironic joys of this election campaign is to see @Anatinus coming out if favour of the ZACP. That is serious evolution. She used to be woker than woke.”

In her opposition to “wokeness” and “political correctness” Zille falls in step with Jordan Peterson, especially with his emphasis on the individual (Zille fondly retweets Peterson):

It is possible to transcend slavish adherence to the group and its doctrines and, simultaneously, to avoid the pitfalls of its opposite extreme, nihilism. It is possible, instead, to find sufficient meaning in individual consciousness and experience.”

Peterson, for his part, has excited Fox News’s Tucker Carlson who described him (Peterson) as “one of the great interviews of all time”. The right-winger, Melanie Phillips, described Peterson as “a kind of secular prophet… in an era of lobotomised conformism”. The best description of Peterson I have come across, though, is that he is “the stupid man’s smart person”.

As for Zille, well, the democrat in me believes she has absolute right, as a public figure, to say and do as she pleases. But she will be held to account for the things she says and does without intellectual occlusion. As a parting shot, consider this statement by Zille:

Truth is elusive. The best we can do is to get as close to reality as possible and face (often uncomfortable) facts”.

Imagine that, a straight line between “truth” “reality” and “facts”. A most curious lexical legerdemain. But let us sit back and enjoy Helen Zille and Jacob Zuma Unleashed. DM

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