Last week Western Cape premier and former DA leader Helen Zille faced a leadership moment. A leadership moment is when an individual, a player in some or other space, has a chance to rise above their own small corner, above the selfish interests of their own constituency, and embrace what could be termed the greater good.
It is never an easy thing to turn around to those who support you and ask them to listen to others. It is a lonely road.
Make no doubt about it, when Zille tweeted that colonialism had its positive aspects she was echoing the views of many of her fans and political supporters.
Zille, and these supporters, feel no qualms about her tweet: “For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc.”
There is so much that is wrong about this sentiment, and the arrogance behind it, that one feels too weak to even begin to count the ways in which it offends.
Zille’s leadership moment arrived when she sat down in front of her computer and wrote a column to explain herself.
In that column, published on the Daily Maverick website, Zille did everything that the people she has criticised for decades now always do.
She chose to blame others, to play the race card, to divert attention from the clear and immediate issue in front of her – her tweet was not only wrong, it was offensive in the extreme.
She sounded like Minister Bathabile Dlamini and President Jacob Zuma rolled into one.
First, there was no examination of the sentiment in her tweet and the incredible hurt and damage it did.
Instead, she rushed to proclaim that white South Africans were now a victim group that was not allowed to speak. Really?
Here is what she wrote: “While travel broadens the mind, I tend to forget that, on returning to South Africa, it is best to shrink your mind again to fit the contours of political correctness.
“Especially if you are white. We pay lip service to equal citizenship.
“In reality, every opinion is judged on the basis of the colour of the person who expresses it. ‘Speaking while white’ is considered the ultimate sin, in terms of the increasingly popular ideology called ‘critical race theory’.”
This is an extraordinary assertion from someone who has spoken loudly, freely and persuasively for decades in the new South Africa.
Many have taken Zille on; many others have urged her on. Yet here she is sounding like a cum laude graduate of the Jimmy Manyi school of the race card.
Her extraordinary lack of selfexamination does not extend to only her views of those she accuses of being “race theorists”, but to her own comrades in the DA.
She alleges that “the real danger is that the DA, in its quest for votes, may start to swallow every tenet, myth and shibboleth of African racial-nationalist propaganda, including the scapegoating of minorities, populist mobilisation and political patronage. Then the institutionalisation of corruption will only be a matter of time”.
Essentially, says Zille, every black person who expresses pain at the legacy of apartheid will in the next breath be embracing political patronage and populist mobilisation.
One has to wonder what she really thinks of her proteges Mmusi Maimane and Phumzile van Damme.
Her words betray her. In her universe, they feel and express their pain at what she has said, and therefore they will keep quiet about corruption.
There can be nothing more insulting.
Faced with the moment that Zille faced this past week, a real leader would have taken time off to reflect.
She would have looked at the heat and noise occasioned by the Spur restaurant incident. She would have examined some of the racial rhetoric emanating from some leaders at Human Rights Day rallies.
A leader would have realised that we are sinking, every day now, into a racial morass. We are shouting. Not talking. We are insulting each other, not seeking solutions.
The idea of a united, non-racial and democratic South Africa is a distant idea now only found in ANC documents from the 1980s.
Zille should have realised her tweets and writings were adding to the noise, not the solution.
She should have realised that she was pleasing a small minority of her supporters (not everyone in the DA holds her views) at the expense of a much bigger picture: a South Africa at ease with its past and its polyglot and diverse racial landscape.
Zille proved she was not a leader for the future. She was small, parochial, unable to grasp the real challenge of our future. She defended her small corner. She defended a tweet, not a great, encompassing idea of society.
That is not the cloth that the Nelson Mandelas of this world were cut from.