Pope Zille speaks her truth: Go woke stay broke

REVIEW: #StayWoke Go Broke by Helen Zille (Obsidian Worlds)


A few years ago, I wrote in this paper that, on the basis of her autobiography, Helen Zille seemed to be that rarity — an honest politician. Having read her new book, #StayWoke Go Broke, I wonder if that was a correct assessment. 

I don’t think she’s dishonest about her views, however mistaken, but her way of unpacking the issue of “woke” politics amounts, I think, to a kind of intellectual dishonesty — or, at the very least, it’s so selective and prone to over-generalisation and polemical simplification that it can only be seen as deliberately skewed argument.

Maybe that’s what happens when you take ideological battles personally, as she has clearly done. This is her retaliation against those woke people who attacked her for her tweets saying the effects of colonialism weren’t entirely bad. So she has put on a set of ideological blinkers and waded in, deploying artillery borrowed from the US culture wars while decrying those wars and pretending she’s not on one side or the other but in possession of the “objective truth”. She’s trying to hold the “centre”, but her weapons come from the right — and mostly they’re a collection of old blunderbusses.

Zille decries the use of personal “lived experience” in woke arguments, pointing out how this produces a hierarchy of victimhood. Then she goes on for pages and pages about how she was victimised by “Black Twitter” for her tweet about colonialism. She recycles at some length her explanations of what she really meant, based on her visit to Singapore (which, by the way, has a pretty repressive state) and what she saw there. The line from her experiences to objective truth is, in her mind, utterly direct.

To further her argument against affirmative action and ideological confusion within the Democratic Alliance, she brings to bear her lived experience of Mmusi Maimane’s elevation to the leadership of the DA and how he turned on her. Then she details her lived experience of how elements in the DA tried to shaft her. For someone who doesn’t believe lived experience has anything to contribute to “objective truth”, she certainly pumps it for all it’s worth. Ironically, this is the most interesting and enlightening part of the book; maybe she should’ve just written another autobiography.

Zille says that wokeness is a religion, but her understanding of truth is essentially religious — it’s revealed and absolute, like God’s word. That “objective truth”, of course, was undermined by the Enlightenment she so lauds, but political rhetoric can’t accommodate the idea that the truth it preaches is necessarily partial.

If she really tried to understand wokeness, her research didn’t go very deep. She takes as gospel the reactionary summations of what wokeness is, paying no further attention to the roots and causes of the different views and mindsets she is critiquing.

This plays out along the lines of “Post-Modernism says there is no objective truth”, as though that were a settled argument and not just the simplistic charge laid by right-wingers who feel their truths are under fire. So, to her, Post-Modernism (Zille is very free with the capital letters, though inconsistently so) is some great monolithic ideological unity against which she can rail — but it looks rather like the pope railing against Galileo.

Pope Helen won’t concede that every­one is trying to align a subjective truth (their own experience of the world) with a communal or consensual sense of the truth. No — for her, the truth exists outside and above this messy human contestation, and she owns it, like the pope has direct access to the will of God. Everyone else’s truth is heresy. And, moreover, because it’s only subjective it’s irrational.

In this, she reproduces colonialist ideology, in which the conquerors were bringing civilisation to the barbarians; the colonists are rational, hence fit to rule, and the savages were, by definition, irrational. Perhaps she recalls a time when men were seen as rational and women irrational, but if so she doesn’t mention that.

She is opposed to identity politics, which equals “neo-Marxism”. She seems unaware that today’s identity politics grows from feminism and Black Consciousness more than from Marxism, old or neo. (Marxism acknowledges only two identities: bourgeois and proletarian.) Rather late in the book, and rather too neatly, she defines wokeness as “the politics of racial and gender identity”. Would she like to believe that, with the advent of democracy in 1994, race and gender simply disappeared? That all the in­equalities that apartheid generated, based on racial classification, were wiped away when apartheid ended? 

Basically, any political or ideological claim made on the basis of race is, to her, wokeness — and she won’t stand for it. (She doesn’t tackle wokeness of the gender kind, perhaps fortunately for us — and her.)

For Zille, it’s only those harping on about racial and gendered oppression who are doing identity politics. She can’t see, or won’t say, that the American white conservative (and now the white South African) backlash against those “social justice warriors” she so detests is also a form of identity politics — white identity politics.

Using the term “neo-Marxist” is a giveaway. The term has been applied to a range of schools of thought, from the Frankfurt School in the 1920s to Michel Foucault in the 1980s, most of whom would reject it. Today it’s just a reactionary way to bunch together anything that looks socially progressive, just as Zille lumps together cadre deployment, black economic empowerment, critical race theory and even queer theory and calls it all “woke”. This would be similar to calling the DA “neo-Rhodesian”.

She claims the “Centre” (she loves those capital letters) and goes on about the need to confront “the populist Right”. But nowhere in the book does she define or describe the “populist Right”. Who is she talking about? Steve Hofmeyr?

She might have given some indication, in her brief discussion of the rise of Donald Trump to the US presidency, that this is what the “populist Right” looks like, but perhaps she doesn’t want to alienate DA supporters who could be Trump fans. She could have used Trump as a good example of how “objective truth” can be undermined, especially if she’s writing about the US’s culture wars, but she doesn’t. Her mapping of those culture wars on to the South African situation is inept. They won’t align.

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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