/Helen Zille: My biggest mistake

Helen Zille: My biggest mistake

2019-05-27 08:29

The more I worked to diversify the DA, and the more successful the party became, the more our opponents accused us of being a “white party” (with the backing of the usual media chorus), writes Helen Zille.

In the cut-and-thrust
of politics, especially in the run-up to an election, politicians constantly talk
about their past successes and future plans.

For years,
I have wanted to write a series of articles about my mistakes and failures. I
am, at last, free to do so.

It has been
an interesting exercise, working through documents drawn from almost 15 years
in executive office, trying to decide which of my many flops to analyse.

But today I
begin this series by analysing what I perceive as my greatest failure as DA
leader because it is the one that causes me the most anguish. It is difficult
to analyse honestly, because I have to face a self-initiated betrayal of my
life-long dedication to constitutionalism, non-racialism, and a culture of personal

To make
things easier for myself, let me first summarise the narrative on the “positives”
of my leadership term: the DA more than doubled its vote in ten years, to over
4 million. We made the crucial transition from being a party of opposition to
becoming a party of government. We demonstrated we could govern well. And where
we achieved this, we established a lasting shift in voter patterns.

However, my
greatest failure, by far, is that I did not fight hard enough to prevent the DA
from entering the ANC/EFF’s “race narrative” arena. What’s more, I
actually sometimes facilitated our entry and (even worse) proceeded to play their

It was a
game we should never have engaged because it was impossible to compete, and
undesirable to win. The rules of this game meant that winning would strip us of
one of our primary reasons for existence – to promote genuine and inclusive

That has
never been the ANC’s objective, and no-one should be fooled into believing it
is (or ever was) beyond the symbolism projected by former president Nelson
Mandela. This much was already evident to me in my political involvement 30
years ago. Rarely in history has there been such a disjuncture between the
personality of a president and the reality of the organisation he led.

I am aware
how risky it is to write about this particular failure of mine in the current
climate because my words are almost guaranteed to be wilfully misinterpreted
and manipulated.

One of the reasons
for this is that the ANC has successfully consolidated a huge weight of public
opinion (particularly among political commentators) behind the idea that the
pursuit of racial representivity, as an end in itself, is a noble goal.

This inevitably
means prioritising a person’s immutable biological characteristics above other
attributes necessary for value and accomplishment. Among the many morbid
consequences of this approach is that it inexorably degenerates into a smokescreen
for cronyism, corruption and the criminal, captured state.

So how,
exactly, did I set off down the treacherous path of trying to satisfy our ANC
opponents on the issue of race?

It started
with the conscious pursuit of diversity, which I still strongly believe is a noble
goal in and of itself. It is essential in a country like ours, and increasingly

is very different from representivity in that it does not seek to reflect the precise
demographic composition of society in the make-up of an organisation. It
requires genuine opportunities and real support for people from all
backgrounds, with the talent and commitment and work-ethic required to progress
in life.

on the other hand, pays little attention to broadening opportunities. It
focuses primarily on manipulating outcomes to reflect society’s racial
demography. This inevitably requires quotas that make genetic, biological
characteristics an impervious career barrier (for some), or a runway for
others, irrespective of their other attributes.

This is an
approach which the DA has always rejected entirely (and I believe still does).

But the
critical nuances of this debate are lost when you are playing against a
dominant team whose aim is total racial hegemony, and whose race narrative is
established as the moral yardstick in much of society at large.

Let me be
clear: when I became leader, it was crucial to diversify the DA, and to change
its style. We had to cross boundaries in our complex, divided society and
convince South Africans that the DA’s policies and principles would provide the
best foundation for successful governance in the interests of all, especially
the poor.

But I hadn’t
anticipated one crucial unintended consequence: the more I worked to diversify
the DA, and the more successful the party became, the more our opponents
accused us of being a “white party” (with the backing of the usual
media chorus).

I concluded that, if the party was led by a black person, and backed by a significant
majority of elected black provincial leaders, we would finally rid ourselves of
this tag.

And it
would become far easier to cross remaining barriers into new voting
communities, while remaining true to our principles.

I was wrong.
The more diverse we became, the more stridently our opponents resorted to the
race card. They had nothing else.

Trying to
win this argument is, as Tony Leon once said, like feeding steaks to a
crocodile in the hope that it will become vegetarian.  

By the time
I stepped down, we were well and truly into the game that I can only blame
myself for initiating (even if there were important and valid reasons for doing

Let me
emphasise that this self-criticism is not intended as a negative reflection on
any of the DA’s black leaders. The ANC would have continued to escalate the
race rhetoric even if they had been able to walk on water.

So when the
ANC and its fellow-travellers continued describing them as Zille’s “puppets”,
the strategic logic I had initiated inside the DA’s inner circle moved to the next
logical step, encouraged by advice from an American “expert” (straight
from the world capital of identity politics).

The DA election
strategists (ironically most of them white) concluded that if they could crush
me publicly, we would truly, at last, lose our “white-party” image. This
is not a conspiracy theory. I have a document that was circulated to the Federal
Executive, explaining it.

immediate “casus belli” was a statement I made, in a series of
tweeted observations on my “Lessons from Singapore”, that the LEGACY
of colonialism was not ONLY negative. This has been said scores of times
before, by black South African leaders including Nelson Mandela, and appears in
many post-apartheid history textbooks authored by black historians. It is a
statement backed by almost every respected historian in the world.

But because
it caused offence to our political opponents (most of them elite, university
educated devotees of identity politics who would never vote for us anyway), the
DA seized on the chance to further “purify” the party.

I was suspended,
and when this still didn’t work, they tried to entice me to leave South Africa.
The DA even found a donor to generously sponsor their strategy. If I
disappeared, they reckoned, the party would at last be seen as “transformed”.

When I
politely declined to resign as premier and leave the country, I was banished
from all party activities.

During the
election campaign, when the polling started reflecting problems, the party
approached me, through an intermediary, to request my assistance. I immediately
agreed, and was duly trotted out in scores of meetings, events and interviews, across
three provinces.

as soon as the last ballot was counted, the party took their finger off the pause
button of the “crush Zille” strategy.

I say this
not to play the victim. I have only myself to blame. I was the one who saddled
and mounted the Tiger. I thought we could manage it. When I dismounted it
attacked me. What did I expect?

I can
already hear the chorus of critics shouting that I only have myself to blame
because of my tweets. Here again, I disagree: my most recent tweets were
precisely geared at exposing the fallacy of racial generalisations, and the
double standards that lie behind the dominant narrative of identity politics (which
involves laying sole blame on minorities, for the country’s problems).  

I would
have thought that my attack on hypocrisy and double-standards would have dove-tailed
comfortably with the DA’s script. Liberalism 101. But I had again committed the
ultimate sin of offending our opponents (whom it is our first duty to please).

I certainly
have a lot to answer for. But not for the reasons most commentators think. And
I intend to spend the rest of my career in the political domain seeking to make
amends and being true to my belief in an inclusive form of non-racialism.

– Helen Zille is the former DA leader and premier of the Western Cape.

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