by Hannes Wessels
With the sun setting on her stellar political career, there may be no contemporary politician who has done more good for more people for less reward than Helen Zille. Through her working and political career, she has been diligent, dedicated and fearless in working to protect the poor, remedy injustice and improve the common good. In the conduct of her personal life she has been beyond reproach.
She came to fame (or infamy in the eyes of some at the time) when, as a journalist she smelt a rat and went digging into the details surrounding the demise of the celebrated Black activist Steve Biko. She crossed into dangerous political territory and risked her life and reputation to expose an injustice that caused the government of John Vorster, enormous embarrassment and opened a sore that festers today. But unlike so many who were critical of the Nationalists and are now mute, she has maintained her principles and her angle of fire in the face of a new dispensation and a new nemesis led by people she supported in the dismantling of the old regime.
Unfortunately, however, she’s painfully white, so she is seldom praised in the press, routinely subjected to racial invective and savaged by politicians and the mainstream media the second she says anything that might be deemed, in any way offensive, no matter how true.
In 2009, in a response to gender-based criticism of her predominantly male provincial cabinet consisting of ‘boyfriends and concubines so that she can continue to sleep around with them’, she pointed an accusing finger at the then president and enthusiastic polygamist, Jacob Zuma. She quite correctly identified him as a risk to the legion of women who routinely succumbed to his charms in unprotected engagements, at considerable risk of being infected with the HIV virus. Stating what was blindingly obvious, did not deter the press and her myriad detractors from feigning outrage at this ‘extraordinary attack’ along with the all too familiar hysteria about her being a ‘racist’.
When she pointed out, again quite correctly, that people were fleeing ANC managed destruction of the public sector in the Eastern Cape and pouring into the Democratic Alliance (DA) controlled Western Cape in search of better schools, hospitals and social services she was again under the media lash because she had used the word ‘refugee’. This word was construed as ‘inhumane’ by the masters of misrule busily wreaking havoc on the people who had elected them to high office.
But the worst explosion was yet to come. After a visit to Singapore she ‘tweeted’ comments listing the advantages that accrued to the country in the wake of the end of British suzerainty. When she pointed out that a constructive and sensible debate about colonialism was essential while South Africa still has a ‘small window’ to decide ‘whether we go the route of Zimbabwe or Singapore’, she had them frothing at the mouth; and that, regrettably, included the leader and members of her own party.
The problem, of course, is once again she was absolutely right. The people of Singapore shed no tears when their occupiers departed but they had the intellect and foresight to recognise that the systems and laws that had been introduced were not all bad and that to them had fallen a windfall, in that they were in the enviable position of being able to cherry-pick the best parts they wanted to keep. They chose wisely and went on to build one of the most prosperous and peaceful countries on the planet.
In a collective vote of thanks to the British for what they had contributed, a statue of Thomas Raffles, who founded what became known as Singapore, stands at the point where he is believed to have landed in 1819. The statue was built four years after Singapore gained independence from Britain. There can be little doubt, had Cecil Rhodes expended his energies and money in Singapore rather than southern Africa the locals would not have defiled it.
This sort of prudence, referred to by Mrs. Zille, when introduced to the South African political discourse was deemed anathema and indeed highly offensive by a ruling class and supporters that has proved blessed with a genius for breaking and burning and little acumen in the actioning of anything constructive and uplifting. So blinkered and supine is the political mainstream in this country her own caucus and party leadership came within a whisker of expelling her from the party to which she has contributed so mightily.
In the context of South Africa, Helen Zille will probably be remembered more for her views on colonialism than all the immeasurable good she has done for the country she has devoted her life to. But then we should not be surprised. Winnie Mandela who lived a scandalous personal life, exhorted her followers to burn political opponents alive, was convicted of kidnapping, fraud and implicated in several beatings and murders is the venerated ‘Mother of the Nation’. To those who promote and enact violence comes the post mortem reward of sanctification. Those who speak the truth are abandoned in the cesspit of history.