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Helen Zille’s Composition in Three-Part Disharmony

Defend Truth


Helen Zille’s Composition in Three-Part Disharmony


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Amid the chaos and carnage in South Africa, Helen Zille’s song remains the same and it hurts like nine-inch nails.

It is unimaginably difficult to look away as parts of South Africa are literally in flames. I woke up yesterday morning (Tuesday), looked at the news and was shaken (again, as I have been over the past six months) by the serious head trauma I suffered during protests last October. I ducked back deeper into bed and tried to ignore stories of the smouldering ruins of the hate that our former president and his family seem to be spreading. You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you, a wise Russian once said. So after I dragged myself from bed I dabbled in a few things (I worked on my taxes) consciously avoiding the swirling violence from KwaZulu-Natal to Gauteng, but in the background I kept hearing Helen Zille’s musical notes from the letter she published last week.

The violence and looting has turned our faces away from Helen’s composition for now, but she will sing her aria over and again, as arias tend to be sung, when there is a lull in the maddening noise. And as arias tend to be Helen’s will be filled with her emotion as part of a larger piece. Since she left the leadership of the Democratic Alliance, Helen Zille, like Agrippina the Younger, has refused to be the second lady, and insisted on being the prima donna – the centre of her own attention. 

There are three main parts to Helen’s Letter; in parts a sweet mediocrity that is the church of liberalism (apologies to George Herbert). Helen’s Composition starts out gently (I want to say like Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie No 1, but it verges on cruelty to place the names of Satie and Zille in the same sentence), almost gracefully, but no less deceptively, telling us almost recitatively about the kindness of Jacob Zuma in a ballad wrapped, as we would come to find, in three-part (dis)harmony.

“…shortly after I had been suspended by my own party, during a time when I was almost completely shunned by people in the DA whose lives and careers I had helped build, it was Zuma who reached out to me. I was stunned into disbelief when he made contact with and urged me to ‘have courage’ and said he understood how difficult things must be for me. This conversation was one of the few times, during that personal ordeal, when the tears streamed down my face, because this encounter was so counter-intuitive. He did not have to reach out to me.

“He had nothing at all to gain from this. This act of personal kindness reflected who he was. Yes, politics turned him into a wily and crafty man, but the real Zuma, underneath it all, often shone through. Personal warmth and empathy lay at the heart of it. It was not an affected charm. It was sincere.”

Her froideur was short-lived, as Susan Sontag (1933-2004) may have said, when her composition rose in a cadenza – an over-extended virtuosic section of swirling disharmony – and Helen the politician slipped into the stream of paleo-conservative thought, that horrendous clash of civilisations trope popularised by Samuel Huntington (those damn Muslims, Hindus and Orthodox Christians), given cadence by his devoted student, Fareed Zakaria, and that fed into the modernity-or-bust argument of once-was-neo-conservative, Francis Fukuyama, in The End of History and the Last Man Standing. All at once, Helen’s Composition in Three-Part Disharmony now carried the white woman’s burden. Again, dear reader, allow me the essayist’s privilege of writing something formless like “a game that creates its own rules”. 

Suddenly she becomes maddening, not like the frustrating John Cage’s As Slow as Possible, but like Wagner’s Rienzi. In this Second Part of her Composition, Helen asks, “So where did it all go wrong? I have spent much time, during the past 10 years, observing and writing about politics, and especially seeking to bring Zuma to justice, trying to answer this question. At the heart of it, this tragedy is rooted in the enormous complexity of our collective decision to impose a modern constitutional democracy on what is largely a traditional, African feudal society. Former president Zuma is a traditionalist, totally unfamiliar with the concepts of constitutionalism, thrust into the role of president – whose primary duty is to serve and defend the Constitution. A total misalignment.” (Like that experiment with Mmusi Maimane, perhaps?)

To paraphrase Baudelaire on newspapers: it is impossible to read anything by Helen Zille “no matter what the day, the month, or the year, without finding the most frightful traces of perversity”. 

Coming down from the cadenza, and in a vague attempt at generous parataxis (stay with me) we hear echoes of Africanist scholars and thinkers. How different, we may ask, are her claims from Chinua Achebe’s assertion that “Africa’s post-colonial disposition is the result of a people who have lost the habit of ruling themselves. We have also had difficulty running the new systems foisted upon us at the dawn of independence by our ‘colonial masters’.” What more, or different is she saying than did the African-American scholar Richard Joseph with the concept of prebendalism during Nigeria’s painful attempts to establish a sustainable democracy. Joseph used the concept of prebendalism to describe “the appropriation of state offices – notably elected officials and government workers – and the diversion of their resources to serve themselves, their cronies and their ethnic and other identity groups”. 

We may ask, then, as did Wisdom Okwuoma Otaluka in his doctoral thesis in Ethics at the University of KwaZulu Natal: is corruption really in our “culture”? I think not, but I withhold my own views.

In the opening passages of his thesis, Otaluka asks (it’s worth citing at length): “Is there a cultural dimension to the problem of corruption, especially nepotism in Africa?… This cultural dimension creates some confusion on how to understand nepotism in relation to corruption in Africa. Thus, while some people denounce the high rate of corruption in Africa as it concerns nepotism, there are those who think they have justifiable reasons to engage in the practice. Still, there are others, who engage in the practice without the consciousness of the moral implication.

“Those who think that there is nothing wrong with nepotism anchor their argument on the fact that it is embedded in the culture of the people. For instance, many civil servants are involved in corruption because when they come into office, they are obliged by sense of family responsibilities to use their relatives who are not qualified against the qualified applicants who are not related to them, to build up public offices. Hence, while most civil servants are aware of the rules against nepotism, they still go ahead to indulge in the practice because they believe that such rules are contrary to African culture and therefore should not be obeyed.”

On what he described as “the moral problem of corruption” in Africa, Otaluka leaves us with questions and things to think about. 

“How does nepotism enshrined with African extended families encourage corruption? While acknowledging the fact that there are other factors which cause corruption in Africa [there are] various ways in which traditional cultural practices such as nepotism (abuse of the African extended family system) contribute to corruption.” 

He concludes his doctoral dissertation with the assertion that “nepotism or abuse of the African extended system featured as an African cultural practices and value that encourages corruption”.

The dissonance is between corruption, a practice ranging type from China to the US and the belief that the settler colonialists have been mistaken in trying to bring democracy to Africa – as is suggested in the second part of Helen’s Composition in Three-Part Disharmony. It reminded me of an observation by a professor at the London School of Economics almost 20 years ago who said Russia is not ready for liberal democracy because it has never had democracy. Russia, he said, went directly from 300 years of Tsarist rule to 70 years of communism, and is now (in the 1990s) attempting democracy. 

There’s a lot to think about in all of this. South Africa has, indeed, gone from 400 years of colonialism, settler colonialism and apartheid, and is now battling with deepening the roots of democracy. Helen Zille will sing the same song until her dying days. But the good people cannot afford to give up on building a better, more prosperous country, and a society with high levels of trust among the population – even though the birth pains are long and sometimes unbearable. DM

*For the record, the writer cannot read nor write music, and the late James Phillips refused to teach me how to play guitar: “Not until you accept that you have the instrument we all want, a good voice.” I love music and have only read a few books, so the analogies attempted in this essay may not hang together well. 


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All Comments 26

  • It is increasingly difficult to understand the point of Ismail Lagardien’s writings. It’s patently obvious that his knowledge of music is scant. It is also clear that nothing Helen Zille says will ever find favour with him, such is the depth of his personal antipathy towards her. And heaven forbid perhaps engage in the substance of her arguments, rather than always just this horrified ‘can you believe it’ outpouring. The main point of Zille’s letter was her personal reflections on the kindness shown her by an arch political enemy. This is interesting, to me at least. Any comment on that from Lagardien I wonder? The other is her ‘where did it all go wrong’ comment, and her musings about African feudal societies and the conflict this raises with the concept of a modern constitutional democracy and the Rule of Law. Hardly a controversial idea one would have though. Our modern SA State has not fully or successfully found a way to assimilate Traditional Leaders’ into our State and governance structures. Recently the completely unconstitutional decision to charge people rent to live on Ingonyama Trust land was overturned in court, a perfect example if we needed one that these worlds are indeed in conflict. Why not engage in the substance of this view if it is so obviously offensive to our writer?

    • Read my comment on the “humanity and kindness” of JZ towards HZ on a rather opportune moment below the 13/7 Ferial Haffajee article here on DM ” Heirs and disgraces: Duduzane Zuma uses the backdrop of anarchy to drive his campaign for the presidency.”
      The full title of original HZ article on 10/7 on News 24: “Helen Zille| The Jacob Zuma I came to know know was unfailingly warm and humane.”
      One can look for both articles with a search engine, I don’t think DM allows direct hyperlinks.
      I certainly believe she was grossly misled, by this cunning, sly master manipulator, who pounced on the right moment.

      • Ismail Lagardien is correct in his comments about Zille’s bizarre apologia of Zuma
        In recent times Zille appears to have lost the plot.
        She should stop posting nonsense on social media

  • I’m afraid I can’t read this nonsense. If, during an ANC insurrection and attempted coup, you’re airing your grievances about an old lady then choose a new career. In fact, you could team up with someone that was on the radio and compare chips.

  • South Africa has never had “400 years of colonialism, settler colonialism and apartheid,” This sort of historical nonsense is one of the factors of professional grievance peddlers. Fact! The OFSand SAR (republics)were formed by the convention in 1856. White encroachment over the Orange and Vaal rivers only started in 1832 .
    At that time there were many independent African kingdoms of Zulu, Pedi ,Swazi, Rolong . The real industrial start to SA was in diamonds in Kimberly and gold in the Witwatersrand from the 1870. That is when we started the colonialism, settler colonialism and apartheid this article complains about. One of the main reasons stated at the time for the exclusion of Africans in any power structures in the new dispensation was the primitive, superstitious and fractious nature of African politics. The recent events of wanton destruction and looting has given these old naysayers time to say “I told you so!” Everything has a silver lining even colonialism. Schools , potable water, electricity, universities , Constitutionalism , Statute law, property rights , roads , jobs. Hospitals… the beat goes on. Use what you have to build a better society and stop the navel gazing about the evil past.

    • Surely you are aware that the dispossession of Khoisan and Xhosa people started soon after Europeans established a permanent settlement at the Cape of Good Hope in the middle of the 17th century?

      • I am surprised you had to even raise this question … and the author did not even consider it ? Maybe he feels this place was just ’empty space’ waiting to be ‘discovered’ by my oom Jan van Riebeek !

  • Pathetic. SA burns, the ANC have destroyed any vestiges of good governance and Ismail gets his knickers in a knot on an article that Helen wrote. Helen gets my vote any day over this type of ” let’s be hip” character assassination.

  • For someone who write very well Ismail Lagardien needs some guidance on logic. Petty hate is not constructive in SA right now.

  • I write in defence of Ismail and of Helen. I thought the issues they both explored are completely pertinent to the crisis of leadership and democracy represented by this current moment. I thought Helen’s initial piece represented an attempt to understand why we are where we are, and her reflection on the conundrum of Jacob Zuma was touching and sincere. I appreciated that it sought to push the discourse around Jacob Zuma beyond caricature. Ismail’s piece pushed back at some of her assumptions in a robust manner but which was more engaged than personal and added useful perspectives. As always, I enjoyed his polemical tone, the harnessing of academic thought without being academic and his deployment of metaphor such as the musical riffs he improvised around on this occasion. He is always interesting and provocative – a great columnist. I thought their actual conclusions were actually not that divergent. And I hope there are rejoinders. Because we need more robust intellectual debate and discussion across the divides and the social media labels. Because when there is no engagement beyond partisan hackery and abusive point-scoring, then the democratic project withers and dies.

    • A robust debate could do without:
      “To paraphrase Baudelaire on newspapers: it is impossible to read anything by Helen Zille “no matter what the day, the month, or the year, without finding the most frightful traces of perversity”. ”
      That’s just pure hateful emotion permeating through purposefully misunderstanding any point that Zille is trying to make. This is neither intellectual nor in any way an engagement on topic.

      • Dear David
        Your reflective take on matters is one that requires considerable patience … penning a quick ‘gut’ response is unfortunately what most of us have become used to. The kinds of ‘quick’ media that we have access to today, facilitates that process.

  • One line in particular, right at the end, fully confirms the writers detachment from reality: “Helen Zille will sing the same song until her dying days. But the good people cannot afford to give up on building a better, more prosperous country, and a society with high levels of trust among the population…”

  • I simply cannot see the pertinence of this opinion piece when the country(as the writer acknowledges at the beginning) is in flames! It is obviously some type of personal vendetta, and it really is out of place at this time!

  • What a rambling bunch of incoherent thoughts strung together in a manner which might impress a few gullible undergrads, wide mouthed at the incredible intelligence of their erudite prof!! Your obvious disdain for HZ and her utterances shine through this pretentious piece, yet the last paragraph (minus the inevitable final swipe at HZ) shows that you actually are not that far off from finding a consensus with her!!

  • When I read vituperative rubbish like this, I always reflect back on Zille’s now infamous colonialism Twitter. I can only advise the author to YouTube the great historians, Monty Python and their Life of Brian. What did the Romans do for us?

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