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.
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.