A FAMOUS GROUSE
HELEN Zille is taking on judicial review the public protector’s findings that her “colonialism” tweet violated the Constitution and breached the executive members' ethics code.
This is perhaps ironic; she believes Busisiwe Mkhwebane’s report will stifle debate. And maybe it will — if, that is, you believe “debate” is possible on social media. In this regard, the premier’s preferred platform is Twitter, where “political” posts are especially meaningless and without context.
This, at least, is the thinking according to one Jared Lanier, philosopher and Silicon Valley guru.
Twitter is home to countless trolls and online bullies, many of whom were out in force when, in March 2017, Zille rashly tweeted, “For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport, infrastructure, piped water.”
Twitter, they say, “exploded” (oh, how we wished that was indeed the case, or at least quietly drowned itself) and there were reports of serious injury in the Gadarene scramble to take offence. After much fury, the matter was duly investigated by Mkhwebane.
Zille, of course, is right to take the matter on review. The public protector is not only a Zuptacularly compromised individual but one whose grasp of the Constitution and its principles appear — at best — to be rather tenuous.
Her report has been roundly slammed. In particular, constitutional law expert Professor Pierre de Vos dismissed her findings as “legal nonsense” that was so “misguided that it is difficult to believe that a qualified lawyer wrote it in good faith”.
De Vos’s comments had “shocked and “disturbed” her, Mkhwebane told journalists on Wednesday, and here at the Mahogany Ridge, there were uncharitable remarks about playing tiny violins at the suggestion that this was all somehow very unfair.
“Yes,” she said, “there was a lot of criticism, as if I don’t know my responsibilities, or I was acting beyond the Constitution. I’m applying the Constitution as is. I’m also showing my independence and the issue of doing my work without fear or favour irrespective of who is being accused.
“The perception that you cannot find against a certain, or other class, I don’t think we need to be encouraging that as a country.”
But it is not independence that is the issue, but rather incompetence, and it was on this basis that DA chief whip John Steenhuisen wanted a parliamentary inquiry into Mkhwebane’s fitness to hold office.
Zille, however, regards the report as a threat to freedom of expression; this after Mkhwebane ruled that the premier had breached the Bill of Rights section that deals with hate speech.
“The reaction of the South African public towards the premier’s tweets,” Mkhwebane wrote, “is indicative of the likelihood [of] stirring up violence based on race…”
This, certainly, was a clumsy, laughable attempt at silencing uncomfortable opinion, and Zille was quick to point out on talk radio this week that in 2004 the political analyst Moeletsi Mbeki had claimed that Africa was worse off than in colonial times.
Ditto EFF leader Julius Malema who, earlier this year, said that transport, infrastructure and healthcare were better under apartheid.
But when Zille suggested that colonialism’s legacy was not all negative, “there is this national meltdown, and the public protector concludes that I’m inciting people to imminent violence.
“Now that can’t stand, because every time anybody says something that someone else misinterprets and feels aggrieved by‚ they could be thought to be encouraging imminent violence. And that will have a very profound impact on freedom of speech and debate in this country.”
Part of that national meltdown could be attributed to the commentariat’s present antipathy towards the DA in general and Zille in particular. (“It’s very fashionable, isn’t it? And it’s fun! They’re so white, even the black ones. Who could ever support them?”))
The meltdown could also be due to the toxic nature of social media. As the aforementioned Lanier has pointed out, the rise of Twitter and Facebook has seen alarming setbacks for democracy.
Brexit, Donald Trump, Erdoğan the Turkish non-delight, the massacre of the Rohingya, the civil war in South Sudan … social media has played its part in all these crises and more.
Far from improving our lives, Lanier claims, social media has exposed us to the crudest, most selfish and least informed people imaginable. As he politely notes, “Anyone who isn’t an asshole gets hurt the most.”
But he has a simple solution: shut down all your social media accounts. There may be withdrawal hassles, but you’ll be happier in the long run. And by then it won’t matter what the premier tweets.
A version of this article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.