By Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh
After the DA leader’s first Twitter-related faux pas, describing voters as “supporting the ANC because they were given KFC”, I winced, bit my lip, and continued with my day. After her second slur, depicting Simphiwe Dana as a “professional black” for apparently trading on her race in criticising the Western Cape government’s approach to race relations, I furrowed my brow, deepened my breathing, and let it slide. However, in the wake of Zille’s third provocation, comparing Eastern Cape learners who migrate to the Western Cape in search of better educational opportunities as “refugees”, I cannot contain my disdain.
What puzzles me from the outset is how much the DA leader’s tweets impede her party’s progress. The DA’s 2011 election slogan “One Nation, One Future” and Zille’s own carefully crafted public refrains such as, “we are working hard to build Madiba’s vision”, show clear evidence that the DA is consciously attempting to rebrand itself as the rightful inheritor of South Africa’s non-racial tradition. But I’m afraid Zille’s own personal comments are inciteful, racialistic and represent just the opposite of what most of us understand by the so-called “Madiba” legacy. They make her beshu-wearing, kwaito-dancing electioneering appear increasingly as a calculated charade. One cannot help but think, therefore, that she has shot herself and her party in the foot by further alienating black voters who might have been prepared to consider her party as an option; voters I daresay the DA desperately needs if it is to stop being what Jeremy Cronin humorously describes as “the smallest opposition in the world”.
The comments are also inconsistent. When in September last year Jimmy Manyi was rightly criticised for a similar comment, remarking that the Western Cape possessed an “over-supply of coloureds”, Zille was quick to respond, calling his comments “racist” and “irresponsible” in her monthly newsletter. Indeed, she went further and accused Trevor Manuel – who publicly criticised Manyi – of “carefully coordinated damage control”, implying an attempt to rescue “coloured” votes. If the reason for Manyi’s “irresponsibility” is its infringement upon South Africa’s tenuous and fragile racial contract, how can the same criticism not apply to her three statements, too? Either racialistic comments ought to be removed from our public discourse altogether or not; our political leaders cannot sing to the tune of “Madiba” one minute, but when it suits them sing to the opposite tune the next.
Equally deserving of opprobrium is the DA leader’s initial refusal to apologise, which for political, if not moral reasons would appear to be the strategic thing to do, not to mention the lack of any public condemnation from within her own party qua Manuel. This also raises questions about how free other DA leaders feel to voice dissent, and to what lengths they will go to defend statements in contravention of their own party’s core message. Again, the statements make symbolic gestures like the appointments of Maimane and Mazibuko appear a mere smokescreen, preventing the public from seeing the real party; a party in which, despite the rhetoric, only 10 out of 73 parliamentarians and 2 out of 9 provincial leaders are black.
Moreover, Zille’s defence is equally problematic in that she attempts to divert attention from her own comment, by focusing on how poorly the ANC is mismanaging the education crisis in the Eastern Cape. This is a false dichotomy: either support poor standards of education in the EC or admit that young black school children in the WC can be described as “refugees”. The truth is that most South Africans agree that the Eastern Cape education system is in crisis but also do not believe this gives political leaders licence to Zill(e). To say that education is “the real issue” is a red herring: our public discourse and the way it relates to race is every bit as important as the state of education in the Eastern Cape. Our very nation’s unity and the stability of the evermore fragile racial compact in South Africa is the Mandela legacy, and depends largely on how our leaders treat race in the public sphere.
But was the uproar a case of much ado about nothing? Perhaps if we lived in another country, with another history, these statements could safely be relegated to the ash heap of common, puerile politics. But in South Africa, statements like these, from both sides of the political divide, should be treated with the utmost seriousness. Violent protest is again on the rise in our country, and is driven predominantly by poor black youths, the same youths that Zille might describe as “refugees”. For instance, according to a recent report released by the South African Institute of Race Relations, a typical violent gathering in South Africa now includes between 3000 and 4000 people. In 2009 alone, 800 of such gatherings were recorded, up by 10% from the year before. Just this past Human Rights day, in Ratanda, Evaton and Sharpeville, 110 people were arrested for damage to property in violent protests. Seventeen of these were minors.
We must therefore ask what message Zille’s statement sends to the residents of Mkwanaza, or the youth of Ratanda, or Evaton or Sharpeville, who are looking for any excuse to vent their justifiable frustrations in the wrong direction. Our political leaders should be seeking to mitigate these disastrous scenarios, as opposed to fuelling them. What can we expect to hear next and what consequences will this have for South Africa, in our already tense political context? Matthews Phosa spoke recently of our own “Arab Spring” emerging; surely the last thing our increasingly fragile democracy can handle is a poorly judged public statement every two months from the DA leader or anybody else for that matter, along with everything else.
Political leaders in South Africa are talking past most of us. The majority of South Africans neither want an Eastern Cape education crisis nor a leader (of the opposition) who is prone to making racialist, if not racist, comments on a regular basis. Perhaps the time has come for a third way: a democratic platform that caters for South Africans, whether they support the ANC or the DA; a movement à la UDF; a platform where young people in particular can voice their views on important issues, separate from the political baggage which constantly forces us into corners, either gagged, or defending positions we know better than to defend. Perhaps young South Africans ought to start creating that space because, as Zille’s comments show, our current political landscape is failing to create it for us.
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh is a final year undergraduate at the University of Cape Town, majoring in philosophy, politics and economics. He is a One Young World ambassador, a rapper and the founder of a youth leadership training company called Grow2Lead.