One of the deadliest political put-downs I have seen was actually framed as a compliment. The then prime minister, BJ Vorster, when commenting on the performance of United Party leader Sir de Villiers Graaff, emphasised his gentleman-like qualities and concluded that no prime minister could have wished for a more suitable leader of the opposition. It was a calculated piece of damning with faint praise by Vorster. Graaff was, in truth, an ineffectual leader of an ineffectual party that from 1948 onwards consistently failed to challenge the rampant Nationalists, despite enjoying the support of a substantial section of the white electorate almost to the end.

Recently Jack Bloom, the long-serving DA MPL from Gauteng, told me bluntly that popularity with the ruling regime is the kiss of death for an opposition party. Opposition parties should seek not to be liked by the government, but respected. Those that are liked end up being consistently punished at the polls.

If being disliked by the ruling group is one of the requirements of being an effective opposition leader, Helen Zille has been doing rather well of late. The sheer viciousness of the ANC’s attacks on her indicates that she is at least taken seriously. This abuse has included several of its affiliates resorting to the crudest sexual slurs more appropriate to a school playground. The ANC Youth League and Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association have made the puerile and revolting assertions that Zille appointed men to her Western Cape Cabinet in return for sexual favours.

“The ANCYL has exposed itself as deeply sexist and racist, spewing out ill-composed nonsense, all the while exhibiting to all that its leaders do not possess an iota of understanding of the values upon which a successful democratic state should be built,” was Willem Punt’s take on the situation. Punt is an associate director of the Ethics Institute of SA. That about puts it in a nutshell, I’d say.

It was the composition of Zille’s cabinet that the ANC proper chose to exploit as a means of discrediting her. On May 18 it declared: “Zille is a racist (why, exactly?), who supports the patriarchal system that has upheld the subjugation and exclusion of women from participation in the running of the affairs of our country.”

Zille, you see, has committed heresy; she has disregarded the prevailing policy of racial and gender quotas and — shock, horror! — based her choice of MECs apparently on merit! How un-South African, lamented the ANC; how “out of touch with the mood of the nation, the region, the continent and the world”.

I think everyone will agree that when Zille selected her cabinet, she did not deliberately set out to exclude women. What on earth could she have gained, and how much was there to lose, by practising gender discrimination? It can only be assumed that she chose those whom she genuinely felt were best suited to do the job.

As a white, Jewish male, I abhor the whole concept of quotas. They remind of bygone times when only a limited number of Jews were allowed to attend universities. Some might argue that this is negative discrimination, whereas the quota system in this country is positive discrimination, but I don’t buy that. When someone is given an important position of responsibility solely for racial or gender reasons, it correspondingly means that someone else has missed out because they fail to satisfy those criteria. In other words, positive discrimination benefiting some inevitably results in negative discrimination disadvantaging others. There is no getting away from that.

Zille has been excoriated, in fact, not for discriminating against women but because she refused to discriminate against men. In doing so she has struck an important blow for those who believe that if you are good enough you will get ahead regardless of whether you stand up or sit down to urinate. Good for her!


David Saks

David Saks

David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African...

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