Advice to Zille – don’t dance to the enemy’s tune

Were Helen Zille to follow Advocate Izak Smuts and political commentator Donwald Pressly’s advice to be more considered in her reaction to her vitriolic critics and reign in her feistiness, she may just find herself between a rock and a hard place. While it seems the dominant political discourse, with all its passengers and beneficiaries, has shifted well left of Zille nowadays, (witness the strategic apologies of her, Chris Hart and others for instantly controversial observations and opinions), the duo give her a stark choice. To paraphrase; why engage when the arguments are so fatuous – why feed the tiger? In fact, you’re letting your antagonists define the agenda. Well, the answer (for her) may lie in the way so many high-profile people who choose to remain silent are pilloried with ever-decreasing restraint the longer they refuse to pick up the cudgels. And of course, when they do, to cite two almost satirical combative examples, PW Botha and Donald Trump, (the latter comparison more tweet-appropriate), the game is really on. Hence the rock and a hard place. Where the two analysts have a telling point, is in suggesting that she be more considered in her responses and rather punt her own agenda. Take a breath, cool down. Make the point, but not while the tip is white hot. But then that is perhaps what almost defines Zille. A razor-sharp intellect, firmly held opinions and a penchant for engaging, not retreating. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is how many people have bought into the shallow common discourse, (aka the “moral high ground”), and cannot or will not, debate the actual point being made. Instead they resort to name calling and labelling the person making it. It’s time we raised the bar. – Chris Bateman

Western Cape Premier Helen Zille

COMMENT: Grahamstown advocate Izak Smuts – who is related to late South African Prime Minister General Jan Smuts – has, in his own words “been trying to figure out what the problem is with (Western Cape Premier and former Democratic Alliance leader) Helen Zille…She’s sharp, she has a great track record in opposing apartheid and the fascist-based strategies of the nationalist parties, both black and white, and she has brought an extraordinary insight to the necessity for accountable public administration in our public discourse”. So why, he asks, is she so often in the firing line for saying or doing the wrong thing? Smuts’ view is that she allows her political strategy to be defined by her opponents – which is a reactionary strategy. Just because Mandela could jive and Zuma has the moves does not mean that every political leader should dance. Especially if you can’t. Just because the governing party hands out free party t-shirts does not mean that party politics should be conducted in t-shirts, especially when some loyal party supporters don’t look that smart in t-shirts. And just because an ideologically bereft political party, which has nothing left to offer, conducts its political discourse in the terminology of race and colonialism, does not require a response in that vocabulary. It’s the irrelevance of that discourse which may require some response, but it should not become the focus of the discourse. Our constitution provides the relevant focus – equality, human dignity, freedom. Political leaders should not be distracted by the strategies of the politically bankrupt. Cape Messenger editor Donwald Pressly believes that Smuts – who is a colleague from the days when they were both involved in the Progressive Federal Party in the Eastern Cape –  has hit the nail on the head – DP

By Donwald Pressly*

Donwald Pressly

20 March 2017 – Many a journalist will have a tale to tell about the forensic mind of Helen Zille. I recently was the focus of this outstanding intellect that is Helen Zille. She took me to task about a story I carried on Cape Messenger about her autobiography, Not Without a Fight. Someone joked that the title should have been: I Am Always Right! (Actually that someone is somebody quite important, but I will never identity who he is).

But jokes aside, Zille has a remarkable knowledge and generally, I believe, a critical insight into human political behaviour, at least most of the time. That is, no doubt, why she has been able to build the Democratic Alliance into a force to be reckoned with in South African electoral politics. It is true that former DA leader Tony Leon took a devastated party – in 1994 – by the scruff of its neck and recreated it. Within five years of his leadership it rocketed from one of the smallest post-democracy political parties to official opposition.

But she added a new dimension after she took over the DA national leadership in 2007. She took the party into power, first in Cape Town – where she was mayor – in 2006 (that was before Leon left) and then to victory in the Western Cape in 2009, where of course, she remains Premier. There now seems a measure of doubt that she will see out two terms to 2019 given her tweet last Thursday about colonialism not all being bad. Zille tweeted: “For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water, etc.” In a second tweet she said: “Would we have had a transition into specialised healthcare and medication without colonial influence? Just be honest, please.”

Zille has been known to discuss journalists’ stories line-by-line pointing out grammatical, spelling and errors of fact. She did that with mine last year and I have to admit, she made a few telling points. At the end of it I declared that I was pleased that she wasn’t my sub (sub-editors are newspaper word mongers who edit reporters’ copy). The great thing about online news forums, is that one can alter and correct.

So it actually filled me with sadness that Zille sent out that tweet last Thursday. A blizzard of my liberal friends – former DA MP Mark Lowe, former DA MPL Shelley Joy Loe and of course, the rather acerbic, but intensely bright, human rights’ activist Rhoda Kadalie – took me on when I was critical of this tweet. Kadalie simply said I was talking ‘rubbish’. The problem is that the looney left – within the ANC and outside of it – have snatched the moral high ground. They have determined the narrative of our politics. We are at a point where colonialism is the new ‘k-word’ or ‘f-word’. It is deemed to be racist merely to use the word, well certainly with any positive associations, like suggesting that it is linked to electricity, running water and road infrastructure. Smuts – who was a Progressive Federal Party candidate for the provincial council in my days as a student at Rhodes – is right. We need to move away from engaging in the debates defined by the loony left. I wish to add the point that the ANC – and others on the left including the Black First Land First movement – have turned to an  ideologically bereft black – and in some cases, anti-white – nationalism. Smuts writes: “Just because an ideologically bereft political party… conducts its political discourse in the terminology of race and colonialism, does not require a response.” He adds that it is the irrelevance of that discourse which may require some response, but it should not become the focus of the discourse.

Yes, indeed. That is the point. One of the valuable lessons of Marxism One at university – which is what I dubbed my journalism and media studies course because most of the lecturers actually believed in socialist and Marxist inspired thought – was the notion of political hegemony. I regard hegemony as a rather nice Leftie word. It was normally used to describe all the evils of the apartheid regime – which were, of course, validly called ‘apartheid political hegemony‘. But now we have a new hegemony of language. For some reason Zille had not learnt the lesson from her previous social media lashing over her education refugee tweet from a few years ago – when she suggested, quite correctly, that people were migrating from the Eastern Cape to DA ruled Western Cape for education opportunities. See IOL. She tweeted then, back in 2012 on Human Rights Day incidentally: “While E Cape education collapsed, WC built 30 schools – 22 new, 8 replacement mainly 4 E Cape edu refugees. 26 MORE new schools coming.” Zille was forced to apologise profusely then. Since then we have had the case of investment strategist Chris Hart – now a Cape Messenger director – who tweeted:

After this tweet  it was announced by Standard Bank that Hart had left the bank in March 2016 after allegedly putting out a racist tweet early in 2016. See Mail & Guardian.

One would assume that Zille was fully informed of the consequences for Hart of his tweet, but she still did it…

The Cape Times and other black nationalist newspapers, of course, were waiting for Zille to mess up (They were particularly eager to do so after being forced to apologise to her on their front page just 10 days before). She didn’t fall into a trap laid by them – her opponents in the media establishments led by Independent Newspapers – but she created the political landmine herself. Quite frankly it was extraordinarily stupid of her. The Cape Times ran the headline on Friday 17 March:

One could almost hear the editor of the Cape Times laughing out loud.

Helen Zille’s book Not Without a Fight.

One wonders why she wants to enter this territory. Perhaps it is because Zille has the wrong advisers. I am no admirer of Ryan Coetzee, the man who almost became Leader of the Opposition in the national assembly as a back bench MP, but I doubt she would have tweeted about colonialism if he were still in place as her political adviser. Coetzee was close to Tony Leon and he moved seamlessly into the office of Zille when she became leader of the DA. Zille was apparently much devastated by his decision to go to England to assist the Liberal Democrats in 2012, but that is another story. Readers may wish to see Zille’s reference in her book to the ‘narcissistic’ group of young men who surrounded Leon, but that too is a story for another day.

It is an open question whether Zille will survive this. DA leader Mmusi Maimane has referred the matter to the party’s federal legal commission. In some ways she doesn’t deserve to survive it, but it would be a very sad end to a remarkable career. One could not help noticing that she did not come to the defence of national MP (and a most effective police spokesperson at the time) Dianne Kohler-Barnard in 2015 who landed in more than a spot of trouble – Kohler-Barnard was suspended and later fined heavily – for reposting a Facebook post by political journalist Paul Kirk, which seemingly praised PW Botha. (This post did, in fact, nothing of the kind*).  Zille did not, as far as I am aware, say anything at all about Kohler-Barnard, whose liberal pedigree over the decades is there for all to see. But, one supposes, there are one set of rules for the senior leadership of a political party – and another set for the mere underlings.

  • The Paul Kirk post read: “And so the new head of the Hawks – found to be without integrity and dishonest by the high court – has suspended ace detective Johan Booysen over a typing error. This is a bloody circus. Please come back PW Botha – you were far more honest than any of these ANC rogues, and you provided far better services to the public – we had a functioning education system, functioning health system and the police did not murder miners on behalf of government toadies as they do now.”
  • Donwald Pressly is editor of Cape Messenger
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