Why Helen Zille’s racism rhetoric is wrong

Helen Zille drew a line in the sand in front of white-on-black racists in her essay published on Sunday December 7 2014 entitled: “Racism is not free speech. It is an offence“. In her missive, Zille stated categorically that the DA would evict “nauseating” white bigots.

But the essay reveals that Zille’s thinking about white-on-black racism is flawed. At the same time the DA’s response to recent incidents of white-on-black bigotry in the party, and the provincial government it runs, exposes Zille’s rhetoric for what it is. 

“Today I am focusing only on white racists because they are all too often associated with the DA. I want to make one thing quite clear: Our party has no place for people like these. We are disgusted by them.”

The day before Zille made this statement –  intended to exorcise the spectre of race bigotry that haunts the DA –  the opposition party was the subject of outrage because of an incident that was perceived as racist by #BlackTwitter.

At lunchtime on Saturday 06 December 2014, Nomzamo Madikizela [[email protected]__] posted a tweet that read: “Just saw this at Cape Gate Engen garage. This is how @helenzille’s Democratic Alliance upholds the spirit of Madiba.” The Twitter entry was accompanied by a photo of a black man perched precariously on the edge of a trailer hitched to a large 4×4 emblazoned with opposition party decals, one of which read: “Vote DA”. The SUV was owned by the DA’s constituency officer for Atlantis, near Cape Town, Deon ‘Sakhumzi’ Basson.

The DA hates black people!” tweeted Sentletse Diakanyo, who describes himself as the “self-appointed EFF Supreme Commander of the Twitter battalion”. Amid similar tweets of protest, controversial former government spin doctor Jimmy Manyi ?[@KrilaGP] tweeted at Zille: “Let’s hear you spin this one.” The Western Cape Premier’s response? “I won’t. If that was scenario when trailer was moving, I’ll act.”

The response to the trailer photo was racially divided. #WhiteTwitter largely supported the DA view that this was merely a safety violation. #BlackTwitter (unaligned to the DA) saw the black worker sitting on the trailer as baasskap. 

A painful apartheid invention, baasskap speaks to white supremacy and patriarchal power. It is the subjugation and dehumanisation of black people. An act of domination, a symbol of baasskap was the apartheid era practice of the white boss riding upfront in his SUV, empty seats all around him, while black labourers were jammed into the open back of the bakkie.

The white voice of a National Party member describes what baasskap is in the book South Africa, the prospects of peaceful change: an empirical enquiry into the possibility of democratic conflict regulation. “We still use the concept of ‘white baasskap’. At every meeting we talk about baasskap, leadership and apartheid. The whites will always rule this country. We won’t share our power with the natives,” the conservative NP politician is quoted as saying. This book was published in 1981.

The concept of baasskap is still used in democratic politics. Shortly before floor-crossing to the DA, Patricia de Lille accused the opposition of having a “baasskap mentality”. “The DA’s problem is that they still have that baasskap mentality,” de Lille was quoted at a 2009 rally on the Cape Flats, while still leader of the now defunct Independent Democrats. “If you just stand up according to your rights and the Constitution, stand up for the people you represent, then they take it as an affront.”

‘I don’t speak to kaffirs’
But let’s get back to the Twitter storm about Basson’s bakkie and the person sitting behind it in a trailer. What neither Zille, nor #BlackTwitter were aware of was that Basson was already the subject of an internal investigation by the DA for making threatening remarks about his superior, Desiree Visagie, and for making an inappropriate statement about apartheid. A race categorisation follows for context: Basson is white and Visagie is a coloured woman. These events unfolded on November 27 2014, and the following day, at a DA metro training session that was held in Hermanus.

Evicting Basson from the party is something of a “Sophie’s choice” for the DA. Basson is well liked, as evidenced by the support WC MEC for human settlements, Bonginkosi Madikizela, showed the DA bakkie driver on Facebook. “I get very irritated when we trivialise racism for political expedience, when we see every incident through racial lenses. I’m referring here to Deon Sakhumzi Basson incident, Deon is not racist. I’ve known and worked with him for years. What happened might be an error of judgement, but jumping to racist conclusion is outrageous.”

Basson was active in the municipal by-elections held in the City of Cape Town on November 5, when the DA walked away with 95.33% of votes off a 71.92% poll. A trusted inside source at the DA tells me Basson was brought on board by a close friend of Zille’s, the party’s constituency head and MP, Denise Robinson.

In the run up to her missive of December 7 2014, Zille also faced pressure from the Economic Freedom Fighters [EFF] for another incident of racism in her province. The Cape leadership of the EFF warned Zille that they’d unleash “chaos” if the premier didn’t sack a provincial official for racist invectives.  

An open letter to the opposition leader from the EFF read: “the people your government has employed are contributing to the racial tension by referring to their subordinates as “kaffirs” within the confines of a government office.”

The letter details how criminal charges were laid against a Western Cape department of community safety official, Herman Kruger, who on November 21 2014 chased a black worker out of a government office in Wolseley in the upper Breede River Valley region. 

The EFF allege he did this by saying: “Get your black ass out of my office. I don’t speak to kaffirs.” The EFF protested that at the time of writing the letter on December 1 2014, the DA had taken no action against Kruger.

White-on-black racism on the rise
Then there’s the matter of Zille’s understanding of white bigotry. “Everyone knows that the people who perpetrate or condone racist attacks are a tiny minority,” the DA’s boss writes. “Fortunately, incorrigible racists are a small and dwindling group. As we move into our third decade of a free and democratic South Africa, their voices will likely become fewer and fainter,” she added. Zille links the apparent increase in white-on-black racism to the raised profiles of Steve Hofmeyr and Dan Roodt – SA’s self-appointed horsemen of social media white supremacy.

Zille is wrong on all accounts and reveals she hasn’t done her homework when it comes to white prejudice. If racism is so important to the party’s position and future, why didn’t she even bother to take the time to do a little research before tickling her keyboard?

If she had, Zille would have discovered that white-on-black racism is more evident in SA because it is on the rise. When the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) announced its annual results in mid-2014, it said that over 500 racism-related cases had been reported to the organisation that supports constitutional democracy. There was a spike of white-on-black incidents at universities and black students were targets in most of these cases. The SAHRC also reported that there was an increase in the use of the word “kaffir” at universities.

Zille’s view that Hofmeyr and Roodt are causal for increasing racial hatred is also a fallacy, and could be viewed as irresponsible because it accords these two men more power and influence than they’re entitled to. Further democracy is not some nirvana that dispenses with white-on-black racism, as evidenced by what’s currently unfolding in the US.

What does affect that dynamic that is racism? A good departure for understanding here is the 2014 Reconciliation Barometer published by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR). The barometer measures trust between race groups. 

“Trust is a concept that’s embedded deep in our systems of meaning,” explains Dr Kim Wale, who leads the Reconciliation Barometer project at IJR. “Apartheid was so influential it affected our cultural systems and our systems of meaning, as well as our emotional worlds,” she says.

“Changes in mistrust between races shows shifts in the deep psychology of how humans were affected by apartheid’s legacy,” she adds. The good news is that over time trust between race groups in SA has increased. The bad news is that the most recent data shows an uptick in white mistrust of other race groups.”

Source: IJR Reconciliation Barometer

What changes racial attitudes
Wale cautions that annual fluctuations don’t necessarily indicate a trend because attitudes shift slowly over time. It is important, though to watch the data over the next couple of years to see whether white trust in other races continues to erode.

Trust is affected by national events, like a recession which impacts racial attitudes significantly. “Scarcity increases fear and at times when resources dwindle people go into binary ‘us versus them’ type thinking. This is a regressive way of understanding reality and it makes sense that research shows that during this time the brain classifies and categorises in racial terms,” she says.  

Research findings by New York University in June 2014 support this, and reveal “the deep-seated prejudices of white people towards black faces when they experience financial pressures resulting from an economic downturn,” according to the UK Independent.

Wale said she disagreed with Zille’s understanding of white-on-black racism. “I think covert racism is still very prevalent in SA,” she said, adding: “if we label a few racists as bad apples, it is like putting your head in the sand. It is an incredibly irresponsible way of tackling racism,” she said.

What does change racial attitudes? Wale said the answer is integration and exposure to diversity. “If you live in a space where the suburbs are predominantly white, and the poor spaces are black, you constantly receive a message about whiteness and blackness that will affect perceptions of trust for people who aren’t black because of exclusion,” said Wale. “The more we understand each other as human beings and are exposed to each other’s lived experiences, the more mutual trust increases,” she added. Living separately only serves to increase mistrust.

DA software developer Adrian Frith did an interesting project on his personal blog site that maps racial distribution in South African cities. A look at the Johannesburg map and the Cape Town map speaks volumes about integration in the two different cities. The Jozi map shows that previously white neighbourhoods are becoming integrated. The Cape Town map shows that the city is far from integrated.

If Zille wants to change white-on-black racism in the Western Cape she’d need to effect changes to the very systems and structures that reinforce that racism. The line in the sand rhetoric is mere political posturing. Changing de facto structural racism like tackling the dominance of white business ownership and white land ownership, together with changing the city’s integration, is where ending racism really begins.

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