Helen Zille and the Race Factor in Mandela’s ‘Rainbow Nation’

By James N. Kariuki*

Professor James Kariuki
Professor James Kariuki

In March 2012 South Africa’s Helen Zille triggered an animated public feud by referring to black students as refugees for flocking from black-ruled Eastern Cape Province to the Western Cape Province in search for better educational facilities. She spoke in her capacity as the Premier of the only white-ruled Western Cape Province and the former head of predominantly white Democratic Alliance (DA) political party.

Black South Africans were outraged that, consciously or not, Zille had attached a ‘foreign’ stigma to her fellow citizens in their own country. In response, Zille dismissed that innuendo of ‘foreign’ stigmatization and tried to debate substantively a largely knee-jerk public reaction. She failed drastically in the endeavor to direct the mind to an emotional issue.

Exactly five years latter in March this year, Zille again got caught in another political storm for suggesting publicly in a tweet that not all aspects of colonialism are negative; some of its legacies can still be adapted today to positive ends. Again, public response to this seemingly innocuous proposition has been brutally scathing. Against it, Zille has been charged by her own party for bringing it into disrepute and damaging it. Until further notice, she has been stripped of the rights to participate in her party’s activities except as the premier of the Western Cape.

In 2017, Zille has been specifically accused of racism for glorifying colonialism, the mother of slavery and African peoples’ ultimate anathema. In response, she has apologized profusely for sounding like an apologist for colonialism but, for a while she adamantly refused to retract her initial proposition that we can learn a thing or two from our bumpy encounter with colonialism. Was this also a case of Zille addressing an issue of the heart intellectually?  For several weeks, Zille and her critics, within and outside her party, were locked in a dialog of the deaf.

In subsequent statements, Zille emphasized that her public colonialism remarks were largely distorted by the South African specter of racial ‘bogeyman.’ Presumably, the colonial inference had touched a raw public nerve because it was she, a white public South African, who had uttered it, casting it into the public domain. The suggestion here was that the logic in Zille’s colonial statement was inherently sound; it had been disfigured by viewing it through the prism of ‘political correctness.’

To affirm the point, Zille reasoned publicly that others of different hues had made similar remarks regarding colonialism without triggering public outcry, arguably because the ‘others’ were non-whites. In her list, she included Kenya-born Professor Ali Mazrui by name as a case in point. He was one of those who had ventured into similar wilderness of wrongdoing as herself, with impunity. Was Zille trying to make the issue one of reverse racial discrimination? Whatever the case, in pointing to Professor Mazrui as having been spared of criticism on the grounds of his race, Zille was factually wrong.

Undoubtedly, late Professor Ali Mazrui possessed one of the finest scholarly minds in post-colonial Africa. But on his way to global intellectual stardom as an academic (not active a politician), he occasionally slipped and bruised African sensibilities in a manner akin to Zille’s. Yet, contrary to Zille’s beliefs, he was hardly spared of harsh treatment.  And his harshest critics were indeed fellow Africans, not white Africans.

Mazrui once ‘complimented’ Malawi’s Hastings Banda for being ‘open-minded’ about South Africa’s apartheid. Banda had welcomed the notion of doing ‘business as usual’ with the much detested apartheid regimes in southern Africa. He indeed went further to entertain the ‘outlandish’ notion of engaging a running ‘dialogue’ with the same white supremacist oligarchies of the region.

Banda’s views were considered inimical to the newly emergent post-colonial Africa’s thinking of ‘freedom indivisible,’ and corresponding continental policy of isolating what Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere once dubbed the ‘monster of un-freedom.’ The stipulation was that, as long as southern Africa denied freedom to any African on the grounds of his race, all Africans were not free.

Congo’s Moishe Tshombe was another homegrown iconoclast who scornfully challenged post-colonial Africa’s collective will. His most provocative offense against that African collective ‘will’ was to hire white mercenaries from southern Africa to fight in his country, first for the secession of mineral-rich Katanga Province and, subsequently, for a united Congo.

 Jacob Zuma and former Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille attend a media breakfast in Cape Town. AFP e Picture -
Jacob Zuma and former Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille attend a media breakfast in Cape Town. AFP e Picture –

Although  stated with misgivings, Mazrui saw a silver lining to the dark clouds of Banda’s and Tshombe’s self-serving practices and policies. In his logic, Banda’s political bent of thought reflected admirable pragmatism and courageous independent thinking.

Regarding Tshombe, Mazrui asserted the view that using white soldiers-of-fortune to commit some of the atrocities in the Congo was not necessarily a bad thing. After all, if foreign mercenaries perpetrated lasting damage on the country, Congolese had less to forgive each other for, and that could be a good thing for the realization of the country’s future peace.

Like Zille’s remarks on colonialism, Mazrui’s statements on Banda’s and Tshombe’s transgressions against continental African thought contained a grain of truth; they were beyond reproach if aimed exclusively at the mind. The assertions were indeed entirely consistent with the notion of ivory tower intellectualism and academic freedom, encouraged and welcomed in university settings.

Publicly, however, such proclamations were taboo precisely because human beings respond to more than the mind. We are also subject to emotional reactions that often transcend intellectual inquiry. In this context, Banda’s pragmatism and Tshombe’s contribution to future peace in the Congo were of little consolation to the deeply bruised African psyche, beleaguered as it was by the existence of repulsive apartheid and colonialism.  Mazrui’s semi-positive projection of the two African political iconoclasts’ was ‘politically incorrect’ and unwelcome.

That African reaction to Mazrui’s remarks was hardly unique.  Jewish people at home and their Diaspora in all likelihood would have been just as ‘tuned off’ as black South Africans have been by Zille’s twitters on colonialism were they approached to learn a thing or two from the holocaust. What about African-Americans if challenged to inherit something from their horrific past of slavery days or the 19th century Jim Crow laws?

Ali Mazrui was my fine friend and superb intellectual hero. Yet, in 1974 I became one of his early critics by objecting in print to his occasional trampling on African sensibilities as in the cases of Banda and Tshombe. Personalities bigger than me followed suit as critics in the years to come, including Nigerian Wole Soyinka and South Africa’s Archie Mafeje. The point here is that, even Professor Ali Mazrui, Africa’s beloved intellectual icon, at times yielded to the temptation to emphasize scholarship at the expense of observing African feelings in treating ultra-sensitive African issues. He was duly challenged.

To many informed Africans, it was ‘unthinkable’ to find anything positive in retired white South African soldiers perpetrating injury, destruction and death upon Congolese in their own country, for any reason. For this reason alone, even an iconic intellectual of Ali Mazrui’s proportions did not walk unscathed when he occasionally made stoic remarks on our tormented continent. Yet, Mazrui and his critics were neither white nor South African. Among them, the issue of ‘racial bogeyman’ did not arise.

Admittedly, Zille has a clear and penetrating mind. Perhaps that fact is what drives her to insist on deploying cold factual analyses which in turn push her into political controversies. Yet, unlike Mazrui whose central domain was in academia, Zille is a politician, a practitioner elected to serve a constituency of assorted expectations. Her legacy will ultimately be judged by the votes that she delivers to her party. That is why in a mixed society, the illustrious political leader is he who considers carefully both issues of the head and those of the heart.

*James N. Kariuki is a Kenyan Professor of International Relations (Emeritus).  He comments on public issues in various international publications.He runs the blog Global Africa

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