On August 20 1983, 10 000 South Africans of all shapes, sizes and colours gathered in Mitchell’s Plain for the launch of the United Democratic Front (UDF).
The state, under leadership of P W Botha, responded by calling a limited state of emergency in July 1985 and a countrywide one in June 1986.
Hundreds of people died during these torrid years and thousands were arrested, mostly detained without charge.
It was the time of mass action, strikes and boycotts – anything to make the country “ungovernable”.
To quell it, the state gave itself power to do pretty much anything it pleased, which (ironically nè, Mr President?) included the banning of political funerals.
In among this upheaval and chaos, a woman fled into temporary hiding with her two-year-old son.
She’d already been arrested once for being in a group area without a permit and, with her husband, had been using her home as a safe house for activists.
At the time she was active in both the Black Sash and the End Conscription Campaign, but she was better known for uncovering the official lies about the death of Steve Biko, with her editor, Allister Sparks, in 1977. Fast forward to 2008. The same woman, as mayor of Cape Town, was awarded the World Mayor Prize, beating 820 other global nominees for the honour.
Having also served as leader of the DA, Helen Zille is currently the premier of the Western Cape.
On her way back from Singapore on March 16 this year, Zille set off a tweet storm or, as she calls it, a “tsunami”, by releasing 12 tweets about colonialism to her followers.
In the series of 140-character boxes she had questioned whether colonialism was “ONLY negative” and whether “EVERY aspect of colonial legacy was bad”.
Asking people to “just be honest, please”, she cited the examples of the independent judiciary, the transport infrastructure, piped water and specialised healthcare and medication to support her case.
The twitterverse erupted and polarised: on one side she was accused of being stupid and bigoted, and was charged by the Black First Land First for the “crime of racism”.
On the other, people leapt to defend her right to freedom of speech, bemoaned the playing of the race card (again) and some even argued that indeed she was factually correct – colonialism had brought (some) good to our African shores and that development-by-conquest was a global phenomenon.
Stop for a second to reflect. Why would Zille, skilled journalist, experienced activist and astute politician risk her political career, detract attention from President Jacob Zuma’s failings, throw her leader, Mmusi Maimane, (and the DA brand) under the populist bus by launching such a word-grenade into the political maelstrom?
Jetlag-induced temporary insanity? Mistaking Japanese sake for water in the airport lounge?
Her response in the Western Cape Legislature may offer some clues: “I am glad we are having this debate today because South Africa needs it. Debate requires rational argument. I have no intention of settling scores, only setting out facts.”
In summary, her full response went something like this: South Africa needs a rational debate (based on facts) about the challenges of poverty and building an inclusive economy. We need to look to the future not the past.
Reference to “whiteness” is simply a desperate ploy to detract from the government’s failings by fanning the narrative of past pain.
Trust me, you can – I have the struggle CV and I’ve seen it done in Singapore!
Up until this point Zille – other than being white, female and over 60 – shared very little with retired estate agent Penny Sparrow, the infamous monkeys-on-a-beach-can’t-you-tidyup 2016 Facebook phenomenon.
But there it was, within 12 tweets Zille the anti-apartheid activist became just another white racist with a limp apology.
You can just imagine every black person going, “I see you” to both the well-meaning grannies.
Both Zille and Sparrow had pointed to something wrong, something out of place within their universes, both wanted something to be done about it, a call for action and both used “heavy baggage” terms to describe what they saw.
Then when apologising neither said they’d actually done wrong, but that if they were perceived to have done so, then they were very sorry.
And the standard caveat: “I am not a racist”.
The message the same: I was not perceived as I intended to be. Perhaps Biko can be of assistance. According to him, whites in South Africa suffer from a superiority complex and blacks the opposite – inferiority.
If so, what sustains the constant pattern, this “psychological feeling” Biko referred to?
Could it explain why Zille and Sparrow fell into the same hole?
In turn, what is it that black persons see?
Why is the label of racism so readily (and constantly) applied?
Perhaps it helps if we change the labels a little.
Let’s call whites “Euro-Africans” and blacks “Ethno-Africans”?
Then, here’s the tough question: why do Euro-Africans need to feel superior and why do Ethno-Africans need to feel inferior?
If the pattern persists, what need is it fulfilling?
We know Euro-Africans come from a western mindset in which the individual and rationality are the priority.
Where material outputs are the mark of “civilisation”.
We know Ethno-Africans come from a tradition that values community above all else, where ubuntu (relationships and humanity) is the key measure of success.
So when Zille sees infrastructure, her black respondent sees the sweat (and blood) of his/her ancestors.
Where Zille sees the miracle of medicine, her Ethno-African counterpart sees the arrival of disease with the settlers.
But it still doesn’t solve the underlying puzzle.
Why can’t we escape the lens of race, why is it our go-to defence?
Is there something that lies deeper?
Could it be that underlying both Euro- and Ethno-Africans there is a common insecurity, a fear so deep that we use race as the get-out-of-jail card to avoid looking at this shadow?
Madam Zille, could the answer lie in the mirror, not in rational debate?
Gary Koekemoer is a facilitator (conflict, diversity, strategy), has lived in the Middle East, Europe and Africa, and has a doctorate on race currently under construction.