Anger over Helen Zille’s ‘colonialism’ tweets

Western Cape premier accused of ‘racism’ and faces disciplinary proceedings

Western Cape premier Helen Zille, a former leader of South Africa's Democratic Alliance (DA), will face disciplinary proceedings on Friday over tweets she made about colonialism, which the party claims were damaging to its public standing.

After a trip to former British colony Singapore in March, Ms Zille made comments on Twitter about colonialism and its impact on the Asian country and South Africa that outraged many users of the social media platform.

In one tweet Ms Zille said: “What a revelation Singapore has been. I can see why it prospers. Ppl understand the past but work in the present and plan for the future.” In another she commented: “For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc.”

Some of Ms Zille’s critics say the utterances were merely misguided and insensitive, but others claim they were racist and show she does not understand the effect colonialism has had on people subjected to it.


Out of context

Ms Zille has denied she is racist and said her tweets were taken out of context. She has insisted they were designed to highlight lessons that could be learned from Singapore around how it managed to repurpose some of its legacy of colonialism.

However, the ruling African National Congress party and other political parties claim the tweets prove that racism is alive in the DA, even if it currently has a black leader in Mmusi Maimane.

There are fears in the main opposition party that the scandal will negatively affect its image when it is trying to grow its support among black voters ahead of the 2019 general election. As a result, following an investigation, the DA’s federal executive found she had a case to answer.

‘Damaged our standing’

"There is no question that Ms Zille's original tweets and subsequent justifications have damaged our standing in the public mind," federal executive chairman James Selfe said on Wednesday.

Since the investigation began Ms Zille has stood by what she wrote, although she has apologised if the tweets appeared to be a defence of colonialism. However, it appears that did not go far enough for the DA.

Recently she has criticised her own party, saying she was only facing disciplinary charges because she is white, and that black people in the DA who share the same views as her on colonialism were treated differently.

Ms Zille has been suspended from participating in all DA activities until the outcome of her disciplinary hearing is known.

Bill Corcoran

Bill Corcoran

Bill Corcoran is a contributor to The Irish Times based in South Africa