Helen Zille, Queen of South Africa’s alt-right

By Carien du Plessis
Posted on Friday, 10 September 2021 09:00

Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Helen Zille arrives for President Jacob Zuma's Sate of the Nation address at the opening session pf Parliament in Cape Town, February 12, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

Prominent South African opposition leader Helen Zille has attacked South Africa's highest court and the electoral commission (IEC) ahead of what could be the most difficult local government poll for her party in over two decades. The elections date has been set for 1 November.

“The ANC’s withdrawal from the Electoral Court indicates that they have been tipped off that the IEC’s application to postpone the election [to February 2022] was successful,” she wrote in a tweet. “If information is leaking from the Concourt to the ANC, it is nothing short of a Constitutional crisis.”

But when the Constitutional Court ruled during the week of 3 September that elections must go ahead this year, Zille turned on the IEC. She accused it of revising its timetable after the ruling solely to benefit the governing African National Congress, which failed to register all its candidates by the 23 August deadline.

It has now been moved to 21 September. The ANC originally approached the electoral court to ask for a postponement but then withdrew its application after criticism that it was shoddy and weak.

Zille’s views may appear paranoid, but the chairperson of the Democratic Alliance’s federal council has support from within her party, which has launched a legal challenge against the IEC’s concession on candidate registrations. No mention is made in the papers of her criticism that the commission was “captured” by the ANC.

Executive secretary of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, Lawson Naidoo, said Zille’s criticism against these democratic institutions was dangerous, and was “populist politics at play”, and the kind of slurs black populist opposition leader, Julius Malema, was often guilty of.

“There is not a shred of evidence to back up what she said,” Naidoo said.

Zille’s non-retirement

The DA’s share of the vote dropped in the 2019 general elections for the first time since its founding in 2000. A number of voters deserted the party for the Freedom Front Plus, a rightwing party supported mostly by white Afrikaans speakers.

I’m not going to be the leader…I’m going to be the background coordinator, pulling all the strings together, making sure that the interface between the politicians and the professional staff works very well.

Recent by-elections haven’t been better, and the party lost some previously safe municipal wards despite a track record of clean governance in most of its municipalities. Previously the DA also benefited from a backlash by black and largely urban voters against former president Jacob Zuma.

The 70-year-old Zille led the Democratic Alliance for eight years, until 2015 and returned to the leadership structures of the party as chair of the federal council – a senior administrative position – shortly after the 2019 general elections.

“I’m not going to be the leader,” she said in an interview with Radio 702 shortly after her election by the council. “I’m going to be the background coordinator, pulling all the strings together, making sure that the interface between the politicians and the professional staff works very well.”

She hasn’t done so quietly.

Mmusi Maimane, who became the party’s first black leader in 2015 with her support, said hours before her election that those who differed with his efforts to make the party more appealing to black voters could leave and form their own “pure liberal party”. But days later he resigned.

Liberal roots

“The Helen Zille I met early on, she exposed the murderous regime on Steve Biko,” Maimane told Power FM earlier this year. It was a reference to Zille’s early career as a journalist, when she revealed in 1977 that the Black Consciousness leader’s death in prison was not an accident as claimed by the apartheid government. This caused a political storm and her short journalism career came to an end soon after.

Zille, the daughter of immigrant parents who left Germany in the 1930s due to their Jewish descent, became involved in liberal anti-apartheid movements like the Black Sash in the 1980s. Her involvement with the Democratic Party – the DA’s liberal predecessor – saw her become Western Cape minister for education in 1999, and MP and parliamentary leader for the DA in 2004.

In 2006 she became Cape Town mayor after a DA-led opposition coalition ousted the ANC there. Her party’s successes grew from there, and in 2009 the DA wrested control of the Western Cape province from the ANC. Zille was premier and served for two five-year terms, the maximum allowed by the Constitution.

Reactionary politics

Zille has always been outspoken about her views, but social media has amplified her more controversial ones, like in 2012 when she likened pupils who came from the ANC-run Eastern Cape province to schools in the Western Cape as “education refugees”. She apologised after criticism even from fellow party leaders.

In March 2017 she unleashed another social media storm after a working visit to Singapore, which she thought could serve as an example to South Africa. She tweeted: “For those claiming legacy of colonialism was only negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water, etc. Would we have had a transition into specialised health care and medication without colonial influence? Just be honest, please.”

Again she had to apologise, but nevertheless continued defending the sentiments. Maimane later said she “saw a different side” to Zille after her Singapore trip.

There had been numerous other racist and insensitive tweets from her side, and she had been hauled before the party’s disciplinary body for these, but without lasting sanction. Her criticism of a growing movement of awareness of systemic inequalities, especially amongst South Africa’s younger “Born Free” generation, culminated in her book, #StayWoke Go Broke: Why South Africa won’t survive America’s culture wars, published earlier this year.

She argues that: “Apartheid was premised precisely on the ‘woke’ idea that a person should be judged by the colour of their skin, not the content of their character. The Woke generation, who never lived through apartheid’s racial engineering, would probably be highly offended to learn that they have embraced the policies of race classification and racial preferencing that lay at the heart of the system they claim to despise.”

Alt-right lite?

Zille has tried to position herself as a martyr for free speech on social media, but instead has become a rallying point for South Africa’s “alt-white”, data journalist Chris Roper last year wrote in the Financial Mail.

She has been converted from “grande dame of politics to gimcrack martyr”, he argued, adding: “Zille believes she is a lone superhero who created a support base to fight injustice and prejudice on social media. In reality, she is being used as a barker in the alt-right carnival of misinformation”.

Some, like New Frame writer Christopher McMichael, equated Zille’s politics to that of former United States president Donald Trump. “No matter how rich or powerful, right-wingers always feel that they are the underdog, as clearly seen in Trump’s persecution complex.”

Zille has faced a lot of criticism on social media, also from within her party. Phumzile van Damme, a black DA MP who resigned recently, accused Zille of repeatedly tweeting racist things and then backpedalling. “Reporting you to the [DA’s federal legal commission] mean nothing,” she tweeted at Zille last year. “We all know what our disciplinary processes have become.”

I don’t think any self-respecting liberal would condone her comments [about the judiciary and the IEC]…They would protect the integrity of the key institutions of our democracy. The impact of what she is saying is dangerous.

Van Damme, who had serious health problems in the months leading up to her resignation, declined an interview for this story, saying she would rather focus on her social media elections disinformation project. “I don’t really feel like talking about the DA,” she said.

Many in the party, however, support Zille and her views represent theirs too. They say she has remained true to the party’s founding liberal values. “There has been a shift in the political environment pertaining to core values and principles of our democracy and it would be wrong to equate the DA’s resistance thereto as political shift away from what the party has always stood for,” said attorney and DA caucus leader in the JB Marks Municipality in the North West province, Hans-Jurie Moolman.

He said despite the social media posts Zille is a “non-racial democrat, who is committed, as she always was, to the rule of law and a culture of accountability”.  He said: “She fought for this under apartheid, and I have no reason to believe that she is not continuing to fight for it today.  There is nothing progressive about defending the ANC and nothing rightwing or populist about exposing their power abuse.”

Moolman said the ANC’s failures were visible in the province, where all the municipalities have been under administration for years and where local councils have failed to maintain basic services like running water, electricity and functional roads.

Despite claims that Zille is only being true to her liberal roots, Naidoo said liberals would support the supremacy of the rule of law. “I don’t think any self-respecting liberal would condone her comments [about the judiciary and the IEC],” he said. “They would protect the integrity of the key institutions of our democracy. The impact of what she is saying is dangerous.”

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