Dear Helen…

Dear Helen

What a rollercoaster ride these past 3 months have been.  After holding you in the highest esteem of all political leaders, to vehemently disagree (and, in some way, agree) with you on such a contentious issue as colonialism has been painful, confusing, and, in many ways, a watershed moment in my personal political development.

See, I agree with you that the vestiges of colonialism can be used to develop the communities that it disadvantaged. But, even in the tiniest of inclinations, to assert that colonialism wasn’t all bad was a gigantic error of judgement.

As someone who was disadvantaged by colonialism, that hurt.


You may not remember me, but I’ve had the privilege of having a few private conversations with you, the first being at our final dinner of the DA Young Leaders Program of 2008. In that brief chat, I was totally enthralled by what it took for you to get where you were at that time, and where you are today.

Back then, you were the mayor of Cape Town. The next year, you became the Premier of the Western Cape. What remained constant in these leadership positions was your untiring zeal to better the lives of everyone, through cogent policy positions and effective service delivery.

And it’s been wonderful to watch, as well as to be a benefactor of such leadership. Even today, after all the attention of yesterday, you chair a provincial executive meeting in Knysna and enact a strategy to help the people of the region recover from the devastating fires of last week. Your willingness to be on the ground as quickly as possible shows a level of compassionate, collaborative leadership that is sorely missing from the wider political discourse in our country (The fact that there hasn’t been any coverage of any senior national government officials visiting the area speaks volumes).

And we cannot lose that quality leadership, especially not now. This is why I fully agree that keeping you as Premier is the right thing to do. We need to show the electorate that even when we have vastly different views, we still put the needs of the people of South Africa first.

Moreover, there’s a generation of leaders after you that will do very well if we were half the leader you are. As written in your book, you leave a legacy of fighting for what’s right, speaking truth to power, and helping to better the lives of others. And it would be a travesty if that legacy were not to be continued through others that come after you.

In our most recent conversation on the occasion of a radio interview publicising your book, you mentioned that after your term as Premier ends, you’d like to spend the rest of your time in the party raising up and developing a new generation of activists. I sincerely hope that you will be afforded that opportunity, as our nation will benefit greatly from your expertise and experience.

I would be honoured if I could be one of those activists to sit at your feet and learn from you.

After all, the political transition in this country will happen ‘Not without a fight’. And who else to learn from than someone who’s been fighting, and winning, all her life.

Helen Zille and the Disorder of Things

So, the saga of the Helen Zille colonialism tweets will finally be brought before the DA’s Disciplinary Committee this week. Quite frankly, the fact that this saga has been drawn out over nearly 3 months, and the struggle between the current DA leader, Mmusi Maimane, and Zille, the former leader, has yielded nothing but damage to the party. Last weekend’s process faux pax, coupled with Zille’s continued legal delays did not sit well with those on social media, and everyone, either inside or outside the party, have taken sides. Unless a collaborative solution is found to this mess (which, I fear, will not be the case), one side will undoubtedly lose hard.

But, back to the tweets in question. Just about all the political commentators worth following in this country have slammed Helen for her tweets, calling them insensitive to the country’s ugly and horrific past. And I must agree with them. The book, Diamonds Gold and War by Martin Meredith, outlines in painstaking and heartbreaking detail just how colonialism from the British and the Boers decimated the African population, the effects of which we still very much experience today. And even though she repeatedly has said that it was not her intention to glorify colonialism in any way, that’s what unfortunately the perception turned out to be.

However, she does have a point. Like Nelson Mandela and many of our history textbook authors have said, some of the vestiges of colonialism left behind can be used to improve the lives of those who were disadvantaged by the system.

But here’s the point of departure. We, as South African society, are nowhere close to the point where we can debate this issue rationally and collaboratively to attain the outcomes that Helen wished that we attain. While Singapore might have successfully converted colonialism to its benefit, there are FAR too many differences between our situation and theirs. The first natural point that should come to mind is the widening gap between rich and poor. There can be absolutely no doubt that this a direct consequence of the cruel system set in place in the 19th century, and we cannot talk about reversing colonialism without first addressing our gini coefficient head on.

And herein, I believe, lies the crux of the differences between Maimane and Zille. Mmusi has directed the focus on the party squarely on, among others, building an inclusive economy by job creation. This future-orientated strategy is in direct contrast to Zille, who wants to look to the past to find solutions to the future.

The unfortunate reality of this situation is that these 2 views are so divergent that there is little hope of attaining a common ground that transcends the foundation of each view. And since, Helen still has a significant following in the party, coupled with her stubborn defense of her views and Mmusi’s duty to stamp his authority on the matter, the disciplinary hearing can only be seen as a dogfight between these 2 leaders.

This, of course, could not have come at a worse time for the party. The news leaks of the Gupta family influencing a plethora of government ministers and officials through email communication (commonly known as the #GuptaEmails) should have been cannon fodder for the DA to twist the knife into the chest of the ANC parliamentary caucus, ahead of the motion of no confidence to be heard once the legal challenges to whether it should be a secret ballot or not is concluded. But, alas, we focus on a leadership struggle of our own, thereby letting the ANC off the hook and compromising our position, momentarily, on corruption.

One thing is for sure, though. Helen Zille is no racist. In her book, Not without a Fight, she magnificently outlines her life, from a trace of her family roots in Nazi Germany, to her struggle with anorexia, her journalism career, her vital role in the struggle against apartheid and her subsequent career in the Democratic Alliance. It’s clear that her legacy is one of struggle, and victory, for freedom and opportunity for all.

But, because of this current matter, I fear her legacy is under serious threat. Max du Preez, in his latest column, calls on Helen to graciously step away from this last fight in order to preserve her legacy and retire. While I agree with his first point, I think she should be allowed to complete her term as Premier of the Western Cape, and then do what she has said she wanted to do; raise up a new crop of leaders and activists for the party.

It’s in the interest of all involved, as well as the nation. And this, essentially, is what Helen Zille is all about.