Zille's career in ruins

This column is probably best written at 32000 feet. Waiting in the airport lounge before my flight, I watched in numbed amazement as one of modern South Africa’s most important careers went up in flames.

Whatever happens to Helen Zille next, her political life has changed forever.

For those of you not on Twitter (the sane majority), Zille, the former leader of the DA, mayor of Cape Town and now premier of the Western Cape, easily the best-run province in the country, seems to have been at an airport on Thursday morning.

She has a million followers on Twitter and as she waited for her flight she engaged, as is her wont, in some argument with her followers and critics.

And then, for some maniacal reason, at 8.25am, she tweeted: “For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc.”

So powerful was the outrage from (mainly) black South Africans, who don’t have quite so rosy a memory of colonial South Africa, that by 9.59am she was obliged to tweet this: “I apologise unreservedly for a tweet that may have come across as a defence of colonialism. It was not.”

Except, of course, that it was. We are all prisoners of our time and our generations.

Zille’s (and mine) grew up genuinely believing that while we were in families opposed to racial segregation and the National Party, that at least we had good roads and hospitals and schools and airports and stuff. Things in South Africa worked. When majority rule came, they’d be grateful.

But we were dead wrong. Sure there was some manufactured outrage on Thursday but the tweet, on its own, was ruinous. No black person in South Africa today could have tweeted what she did. That is because the things that did work worked because they were needed only, but only, to serve the interests of the colonialists or Afrikaner nationalists who had ordered them built.

White people in South Africa need fundamentally to change the way they think. There is absolutely nothing, apart from the heroism in the face of threat of a very few whites over the centuries we have been here, to be proud of. We need to crush our sense of achievement and success and see those things for what they really are. Nowhere in the world is there a population quite so privileged as white South Africa. We came, we saw, we conquered and we lived like kings. And we remain deeply racist, pretty much all of us. I fight mine all the time. It is all you can do when you recognise it.

At the office, in the car, watching the politics. You have to be conscious of what that feeling that rises in you is. Racism is the sense one race has that it is superior to another. Our white ancestors brought it here, chasing slaves and then chasing land and gold. When will we ever know, or try to imagine, what it must have been like to be a black man or woman (or child) watching this happen around you and to you?

Read some of the judgments of the old (pre-apartheid) colonial courts. They were appalling. And that piped water? Well, if you were black and you had the luxury of a tap in your home, it was because your home was where the colonialists or Nats wanted you to stay.

I feel sorry for Zille. Twitter has been her weakness. It offers no context. And it has really done her now.

Mmusi Maimane, her successor as leader of the DA, was quick to denounce her. “Let’s make this clear,” he tweeted minutes after she had apologised. “Colonialism, like apartheid, was a system of oppression and subjugation. It can never be justified.”

Then he set in train a procedure that could see her face an internal party disciplinary inquiry into what she said and for breaching party rules on the use of social media. So serious is the offence she may even be asked to leave the DA.

I have little doubt Maimane would like that to happen. Zille has made herself a political liability and put Maimane into an impossible position. This is no time for messing around. There is a general election in two years’ time. The race is on for black middle-class votes.

The ANC, uselessly led, is fragmenting. After the 2016 local government elections, it was still possible to imagine the party recovering. Now it is hard to imagine.

The EFF under Julius Malema struggles to gain significant traction, though you can almost feel the ANC willing him back on board. It was Zille herself who told me three years ago that 2019 would be a struggle between the DA and EFF for pieces of the ANC. And while it seems she was right, she has now probably taken herself out of the fight.

Maimane has a shot at something, but he needs peace in his court. He needs to own the DA, change its bloody name and take it away from the older whites he inherited it from.

It can be done, and some of them will help him. Those who don’t will merely be coming to the rescue of Jacob Zuma and the Guptas.

Peter Bruce is editor-in-chief, BDFM