Helen Zille and the politics of race
This past week, Western Cape Premier, Helen Zille made headlines after she was involved in an online racial spat with musician, Simphiwe Dana. Political Analysis South Africa explores this latest incident, in what is arguably the most divided society in the world, with an eye of answering the question, does Helen Zille, and certainly the Democratic Alliance (DA), truly understand the importance of race in South Africa?
“No matter how famous/ rich you are, you’re still a 2nd class citizen if you’re Black in Cape Town, @helenzille when’s the change you spoke about happening” read a message from Simphiwe Dana, to which Helen Zille responded “What complete nonsense.” This to and fro interaction continued until Premier Zille wrote “You’re a highly respected black professional. Don’t try to be a professional black. It demeans you.”
It was this response that saw seen Helen Zille draw harsh criticism from South Africa’s public, prompting some to even question if Zille actually understands the importance of racial identity and politics in South Africa.
To fully understand what prompted our inquiry, a proper context is needed. South Africa is a very divided society, comprising four distinct racial groupings, the majority black population, coloureds, whites and Indians. Historically, relations between these groups were of subjugation, notably between the white and black population, and rivalry, ordinarily between all the non-white groups – with all competing to be white.
With an almost non-existent governmental policy on national unity and reconciliation since the country’s first fully democratic elections in 1994, much of the same attitudes and antagonisms have remained ingrained in South African society.
In such an environment, with all people considered to be free, equal, at least on paper, longstanding terms such as white neighbourhoods, white towns, white schools, white clubs and so forth, are used almost on a daily basis.
Naturally, the country’s politics and political association are characterised by the same perceptions, terms like black party, white party, Afrikaans party, Zulu party are often tools of trade for the country’s many political analysts and its 23million strong electorate (eligible voters).
There is also little to no interaction between the various racial groupings, with every racial group preferring to stay in comfortable boundaries delineated to it by Apartheid crafters and persistently view other races with often unfathomable suspicion, coupled with envy, mostly directed at the country’s white population.
Their only encounters are at the workplace, often squabbling about the temperature of the air conditioner (aircon) – with the white office worker seeking to lower temperatures, while others; usually black, would like to see the aircon set at an optimum 25 degrees centigrade.
Their children also do meet at former Model C/white schools, but often these places of learning are a microcosm of the ‘outside world’, with each race group electing to confine itself in a nuclear settlement on the school playground.
At times, this interaction takes place on online platforms such as the one used by Premier Helen Zille and Simphiwe Dana, twitter. Websites such as news24.com are also renowned for rigorous interaction between the various race groups, but these are often riddled with brash racial stereotypes, mainly because of the protective veil of online anonymity, which ends up stifling meaningful debate.
Which brings us to the inquiry at hand, any reasonable politician with a vested interest of winning countrywide elections one day, would tread carefully when dealing with issues of race in a country such as South Africa. For a lack of a better term, ‘the wound is still fresh’, comes to mind, not just for the country’s black population, as often posited, but for all the race groups.
The tendency in South African society and politics is to dismiss another group’s views on race and Helen Zille was guilty of the same offence when without seeking to understand Simphiwe Dana’s complaint about Cape Town, she rejected her assertion almost immediately, and resorted to calling her “professional black”. According to Zille a “professional black” is a term used to describe “People who base their life and purpose around their colour.” Using the same logic, Helen Zille defines a “professional white” as “someone who is self-obsessed and claims victimhood because they are white.”
This is of course not different from statements that you often hear, such as blacks having a sense of entitlement, whites still enjoying the fruits of apartheid, Indians having no allegiance to South Africa and coloureds despising blacks while aspiring to be white.
By dismissing Dana’s comments, Helen Zille became the average South African, which is not necessarily wrong, but it demeans her to a level often not associated with a leader. Since the beginning of time, there has always been the thinking that we elect or select leaders not because of their popularity per se, but because of something that differentiates them from us. They, unlike us, are able to embody the collective will, are constantly aware of our whims, strengths, weaknesses and sensitivities as a society, and how to best manipulate these for our combined development.
While much of South Africa’s bitter racial relations are a result of the Apartheid-design, a lack of post-Apartheid policies encouraging racial integration, with an aim of harnessing ‘South Africaness’ among the country’s disparate racial groups, Helen Zille and by extension the DA, does not seem keen on altering the status quo, but maintaining it.
– Political Analysis South Africa