Comment about refugees haunts Helen Zille

Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille’s recent “refugee” utterance has touched a raw nerve among top-­ranking party leaders, who have taken her on behind closed doors.

This week, former and current national leaders spoke about Zille’s recent labelling of pupils from the Eastern Cape, who move to the Western Cape in search of a better education, as “education refugees”.

Zille has argued that she was drawing attention to the appalling state of education in the Eastern Cape, which has been the subject of legal action and public protest.

The DA leaders said Zille was forced to state her case during private meetings over the past few weeks and that the issue would be discussed again during the parliamentary caucus next Thursday. Zille’s colleagues said that, instead of apologising, she defended her use of the word.

An MP, who asked not to be named, labelled her utterances as “insulting and provoking”.

“I have raised this matter and this must be debated during the caucus meeting next week,” he said.

Trollip concerned
Athol Trollip, a former DA parliamentary leader, who is rumoured to be considering whether to contend for the DA’s top job at its November elective conference in Soweto, said he had raised his concerns with Zille.

“My sentiment is that I would not have used the same word in referring to the pupils, but I support her sentiment 100%. In our country, politicians must be careful of using terminology. I have learned over time that one must be a little more sensitive.”

Trollip said Zille had “exhausted explanations” and “defended her position”, but failed to apologise.

“The closest Helen got to an apology was to say [during an interview] that if she offended anyone she was sorry.”

DA parliamentary chief whip Watty Watson confirmed that the matter had been raised and debated during at least two meetings. “Some people said that it was an unfortunate choice of words,” he said. But he pointed out that it was clear that Zille had “meant no harm”.

Winston Rabotapi, a party MP, concurred: “Obviously, from time to time we are warned to use better words to communicate where we are. But I think people misunderstood what Zille said. I’m not saying it was right, but people can say what they want to say about it.” Wilmot James, DA chairperson of the caucus in Parliament, defended Zille, saying: “I don’t think it is a big issue.”

Asked by the Mail & Guardian whether she would make a public apology, Zille said: “Look, I have written a weekly newsletter. Thank you,” before hanging up the call.

Later, she sent an email, saying: “If anyone in the DA has any issues or problems, they are free to call me or email me at any time. Everyone in the DA knows this.

There is no need to do this through the media.”

Zille also faces scrutiny from the South African Human Rights Commission regarding the “refugee” label. Commission spokesperson Vincent Moaga confirmed that three complaints had been lodged against her and said the commission was assessing whether Zille had a case to answer.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.


Safety at schools: ‘Keep your distance and your pen’

The department of basic education has developed guidelines to assist schools with minimising the spread of the coronavirus

‘Soon he’ll be seen as threatening, not cute’: What it’s...

There is no separating George Floyd’s killing from the struggles black people have faced ever since the first slave ships landed on these shores

How schools could work during Covid

Ahead of their opening, the basic education department has given schools three models to consider to ensure physical distancing

Press Releases

Covid-19 and Back to School Webinar

If our educators can take care of themselves, they can take care of the children they teach

5G technology is the future

Besides a healthcare problem Covid-19 is also a data issue and 5G technology, with its lightning speed, can help to curb its spread

JTI off to court for tobacco ban: Government not listening to industry or consumers

The tobacco ban places 109 000 jobs and 179 000 wholesalers and retailers at risk — including the livelihood of emerging farmers

Holistic Financial Planning for Professionals Webinar

Our lives are constantly in flux, so it makes sense that your financial planning must be reviewed frequently — preferably on an annual basis

Undeterred by Covid-19 pandemic, China and Africa hold hands, building a community of a shared future for mankind

It is clear that building a community with a shared future for all mankind has become a more pressing task than ever before

Wills, Estate Administration and Succession Planning Webinar

Capital Legacy has had no slowdown in lockdown regarding turnaround with clients, in storing or retrieving wills and in answering their questions

Call for Expression of Interest: Training supply and needs assessment to support the energy transition in South Africa

GIZ invites eligible and professional companies with local presence in South Africa to participate in this tender to support the energy transition

Obituary: Mohammed Tikly

His legacy will live on in the vision he shared for a brighter more socially just future, in which racism and discrimination are things of the past

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday