There is an interesting irony about the tension between Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Mmusi Maimane and his predecessor, Helen Zille. The irony lies less in the fact that Zille mentored Maimane and more in how Zille changed the DA.
Maimane, as the first black leader of the party, is a direct product of the changes the DA underwent in its attempt to attract black people. Mostly, these changes coincided with Zille’s leadership. The question is whether Zille is about to destroy what she built.
With one tweet, Zille has sacrificed her achievements on the altar of an unfathomable crusade to find something positive about colonialism. The thrust of her argument is that colonialism was not all bad. Using the history of Singapore as her excuse for this racist sentiment, she contends that South Africa can learn from how Singapore ‘repurposed’ colonialism to its advantage. In the process of extolling the virtues of colonialism, she bemoans the fact that, in our postapartheid setting, we are ‘scapegoating’ minorities when, I suppose, we insist that the ravages of colonialism are part of the present.
In response to the anger that was caused by her defence of colonialism, she invokes her anti-apartheid credentials as if it is impossible to be a white person who fought against apartheid while believing in the myth of white superiority at the same time. She further patronises her critics by suggesting that their anger is informed by a lack of readiness to engage in a sophisticated intellectual debate about the virtues of colonialism. In other words, she refuses to understand why Maimane and other black people are upset, and her contention that those of us who are critical of her statements are not ready for a debate about colonialism is quite instructive. She is so blinded by hubris that she does not realise that her gaffes make no political sense.
Because of reasons we may never come to understand, she seems determined to destroy what she co-created, a party whose credibility among black voters has been improving.
Before I proceed, allow me to help her understand why her defence of colonialism makes people angry. Five hundred years ago or so, the so-called Enlightenment came with Western modernity, as well as what some scholars call the darker side of Western modernity, namely colonialism. The darker side of Western modernity, in turn, gave us something else: the belief that non-Europeans are ontologically and epistemologically inferior. In other words, non-Europeans are humanoid but are not human. Because they are humanoid but not human, they lack the capacity for thought. We can see traces of this logic in Zille when she says that colonialism was not all bad because it gave us goodies such as the translation of African languages into the written word, physical infrastructure and an independent judiciary; in other words; things that cannot be produced by the brains of beings who are ontologically and epistemologically inferior and, therefore, lack the capacity for thought. That is what Zille is saying and that is why Maimane is angry.
What does this mean for the DA?
The African National Congress (ANC) is in deep trouble. In the popular imagination, President Jacob Zuma has become the face of ‘State capture’ and all things venal and corrupt. The media is awash with allegations of nefarious activities against the Gupta family – a family that is believed to have captured both the State and the President.
There are growing calls within and outside the ANC for the President to resign as head of State. The Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party have also called on Zuma to step down as President of the country. All this is happening in the same year that the ruling party will be electing Zuma’s successor at its national conference, to be held in December. Both the ANC and the governing alliance are in tatters and Zuma’s image crisis is causing collateral damage to the image of the ANC.
Therefore, the last thing the DA needs is an own goal by Zille. The DA should be focusing on exploiting the weaknesses of the ANC instead of being put on the defensive by Zille’s ridiculous notions about colonialism. Instead of focusing on the weaknesses of the ANC, the DA finds itself having to fend off accusations that Zille’s statements about colonialism constitute evidence in the minds of many black people that the DA is a racist party of white interests. It is lending credence to the idea that Maimane and other black members of the DA are nothing but puppets of a white agenda that is using black voters as Trojan horses. Zille is asking the DA to choose between her, on the one hand, and Maimane and the black vote, on the other.