Why are we shocked by what we already know about Helen Zille?

The late great African-American poet, Maya Angelou, said: “When someone shows you who they are the first time, believe them.” Has South Africa simply refused to believe Western Cape Premier Helen Zille when she tells us who she is and what she thinks?

This morning, the Twittersphere was set ablaze when Zille published a number of tweets which seemingly implied that colonialism had been good for South Africa. Zille tweeted: “Would we have had a transition into specialised healthcare and medication without colonial influence? Just be honest, please”.

Naturally, a wave of criticisms followed and Zille eventually backed down with a mild apology. Zille should be corrected and her remarks are reckless for a seasoned politician. She did her party a disservice and Democratic Alliance leaders are now scrambling to do damage control. But I do not want to dwell on the content of her tweets. I instead want to explore why South Africans expect Zille to apologise for who she is.

Zille’s tweets follow a long history of controversial and, some may argue, racist remarks. She recently questioned why it was wrong for a restaurant to racially profile its patrons after two people were identified as “two blacks” on their bill at a Cape Town restaurant. She deleted that tweet. We all recall how she infamously referred to black learners from the Eastern Cape as “education refugees” on Twitter. She apologised.

Zille has also tweeted that if “woke” University of Cape Town students hate being there, then their funding should be withdrawn. She passionately defended her comments. A few years ago, Zille used Twitter to label musician Simphiwe Dana a “professional black” after Dana spoke out about her experience of racism in Cape Town. According to Zille, a “professional black” is a black person who exists to speak about black lived experiences as if being black is the reason for their existence. 

I know, right?

What is even more astounding is how she has managed to get away with saying all of the above without any fear of being reprimanded. Zille always believes she is right and because she has not been repudiated, she will continue thinking so.

The irony in all of this is that Zille has acted against people who have displayed attitudes she called out as racist and unacceptable. During the DA’s 2011 midterm parliamentary elections, Masizole Mnqasela, a member of Parliament said: “If you close your eyes and listen to Lindiwe Mazibuko speaking, you would think a white person is speaking to you.” 

Mazibuko was running for the caucus leadership against Nelson Mandela Bay mayor Athol Trollip and Mnqasela supported the latter. Zille was furious and accused Mnqasela of “Verwoerdian thinking” because he believed black people should all look and sound a particular way.

Mnqasela faced disciplinary action and had to publicly apologise to Mazibuko. Zille has never faced any such consequences.

It is also worth noting that Dianne Kohler-Barnard, a DA MP who reposted a Facebook statement calling for the return of PW Botha. I would like to place emphasis on the word “reposted”. Kohler Barnard was not the author of this statement but shared it. 

Zille has written her own tweets. Kohler-Barnard was stripped of her position in the DA’s shadow cabinet, had to resign from all party positions and had to pay a fine. It is difficult to imagine anyone telling Zille to do any of this.

Zille often reminds us that she fought against apartheid and that she was the journalist who exposed the truth about Steve Biko’s death. She does this to fight off anyone accusing her of racism whenever she is caught out on a racially insensitive remark. With this latest tweet, she once again reminded us of her struggle credentials in successive tweets. Zille later apologised, saying that she realises the tweet may have come across as a defence of colonialism.

Zille has a history of inflammatory rhetoric and this is simply who she is. Should we therefore expect Zille and others like her to apologise for showing us who they are and what they believe? Surely the problem lies with us. We are always shocked or surprised each time Zille exposes herself and we give her oxygen. We should stop hoping we can change her and accept her for who she is. Thereafter, we should decide if South Africa or the Western Cape needs a leader like her. Zille has shown us who she is and it is time to believe her.

Mondli Zondo is a Mandela Washington Fellow; former President Barack Obama’s initiative for young African leaders and he writes in his personal capacity.


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