A JAUNDICED EYE
In 1912 Edward Smith burst into in the annals of history by racing full steam through the Atlantic ice field. A comparison with Musi Maimane 105 years later is irresistible. Of course, Captain Smith of the Titanic hadn’t been looking for an iceberg. The iceberg found him.
Captain Maimane differs from Smith in that the Democratic Alliance leader has deliberately sought out the formidable, icy entity on which he intends to test his vessel. But one Helen Zille is as capable of holing the good ship DA below the waterline, as was that Atlantic ‘berg capable of sinking the Titanic.
The party membership of Zille, premier of the Western Cape and Maimane’s predecessor, has been suspended prior to a disciplinary hearing that her many foes – both within the DA and outside it – hope will end with the combative Zille being booted. It’s a monumental idiocy.
This is a time of acute African National Congress vulnerability, a moment when the DA should be trying to unite disparate opposition groups and splinter parties. Instead, it is hell-bent on alienating a significant number of its wealthiest supporters, in order to dump the person running the country’s only effective government administration.
But a political party shooting itself in the foot is not the most important thing at stake here. The ousting of Zille will have effects beyond the DA, most critically it means that political discourse in South Africa will be increasingly inhibited by a spurious desire at all costs not to offend.
Zille essentially faces two sets of accusations. The first is that she made a racist remark; the second is that she damaged the DA’s public standing.
The DA disciplinary action follows on her tweet saying that the rise of Singapore, which she had just visited, was a salutary reminder that despite all the negatives, colonialism had also brought infrastructural and judicial advantages. The sentiment brought a firestorm of social media outrage, assiduously fanned by the ANC, in which it was readily abetted by a swathe of cravenly ingratiating “public intellectuals”.
That this is a racist uttering, or that Zille is a racist, is ludicrous. While it is unwise to tackle in 140 characters a subject with such ramifications of oppression and pain, her assertions were intellectually credible, as the most nodding acquaintance with historical analysis will confirm.
Had that remained the issue, Zille would have been legally unassailable. Unfortunately, things quickly became personal and messy.
Maimane, sensitive to the vulnerability of the DA’s reputation among its growing black constituency, immediately sided with the outraged. And Zille, as is her wont, simply wouldn’t back off, sit down, and shut up.
Although she apologised unreservedly for any misunderstanding, she continued to debate the merits of the argument. But, for the DA leadership it was never about a difference of opinion. It was about tactical expediency and an unexpected opportunity to settle old scores.
The issue metastasised. The blemish became a canker and it seems most of the DA executive now thinks that surgical excision is the only solution.
That the DA brand has been damaged is probably true. However, that is not only among black voters, but also white voters.
And it is not only the fault of Zille’s stubborn outspokenness. She claims, with some justification, that the moves against her would never have been made against a black DA leader.
Maimane aggravated the polarisation by choosing to see Zille’s actions as a challenge to his leadership. Naively, he became a participant in the faux hysteria around her tweet, quickly announcing his intention to suspend her
In doing so, Maimane pre-empted the due process provisions of the DA’s own regulations. As Zille details in a now public letter to DA chairman James Selfe, there have been several other procedural snaffles and missteps.
It all makes for a legal shambles and a likely bloody nose for the DA, if Zille takes it to court, as she very well might. To forestall that happening, there have been calls from some of her old party colleagues for her to resign.
Hilariously, Tony Leon, who was ousted by her as party leader, has entered the fray to lecture Zille on embarrassing behaviour. This from the man who foolishly chose to fight a general election under the infamous “Fight Back” slogan, rendered by the ANC as “Fight Black”.
Ironically, if Zille is dumped, it will be hailed as a victory for enlightened, empathetic political discourse, while it is anything but. It should be seen for what it is: a political hatchet job that is going to further close down robust discourse, the last thing we need right now.
Unlike poor old Smith with the iceberg, Maimane may well vanquish Zille. But it will be an act of foolish pride that may prove to be a Pyrrhic victory.
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