Zille’s suspension, and the suspension of common sense

As those of you who care about these things know, Helen Zille was (on June 7) suspended from all Democratic Alliance roles, pending the outcome of a disciplinary hearing. The hearing began on Friday June 9, and it’s fairly safe to assume that Zille will contest any finding that doesn’t exonerate her.

Safe to assume, because if you read Zille’s reasons for contesting the suspension, it’s clear that she thinks she’s done nothing wrong, besides saying things that aren’t being interpreted fairly, thanks to the fact that she is white, and because she thinks that there have been procedural irregularities in how her case has been handled.

There is no shortage of opinion pieces on this matter (some of which I’ll link to), so I’ll both try to keep this short, as well as focus on issues that haven’t yet been sufficiently ventilated, at least as far as I’m concerned.

My views on the tweets that causes all the trouble have already been expressed, where I made the point that many defenses of her tweets are confusing necessary and sufficient causes, and in so doing, giving credit to colonialism, where colonialism might instead (or also) be a) too high a price to pay for advances that might have come in any case; b) not necessary for those advances; c) obscure that fact that we can’t have clear knowledge of what counterfactual situations might have obtained, and d) be something that any sensible political commentator is very careful about praising or appearing to praise.

These complications, as well as the complications inherent in a figurehead of a party that’s routinely assailed for being anti-poor (which means anti-black, in South Africa) acting in such a way as to reinforce that perception (of being oblivious to the politics of race), make it a strategic blunder to say what she said.

This is even more the case when you “double-down”, as she did, where her apologies (regardless of how convincing you might have found them) were followed up with columns and speeches defending herself against all detractors.

As usual, it’s not the case that you need to pick one of two extreme positions here, despite what social media tells you. As I quoted a friend saying (in my previous post), we “develop in large part as a consequence of exchange and interaction with outsiders”, and colonialism is one such interaction, but the point is that “it is possible to have that exchange and interaction without invasion and subjugation”.

So perhaps if Zille had chosen different words, in a different context (for example, a far less fractious conversation on exactly these issues might be held at a university seminar than on Twitter), we might not be in the current situation, where a former leader of the party now needs to defend herself against a current leader, who pretty much needs to show force whether or not the situation merits it.

But the situation is to some extent far more simple. On a policy level, I can see the merit in an argument that says Zille contravened the DA’s social media policy, in that this (and her defences) cause “risk or embarrassment” to the Party. Whether you think the policy too prescriptive or not, in other words, it might nevertheless be defensible.

The DA isn’t a liberal party in a J.S. Mill sense, even if they might still be ourĀ most liberal party. They are pragmatic in their defense of liberal goals, and are (rightly, to my mind) focused on both liberal ideals and gaining power, where that of course allows for getting the balance wrong in some instances.

So, suspending her from the DA would not obviously constitute a trampling of her rights. The party cannot – unless they pull a dodgy Mbeki-recall move – remove her as Premier of the Western Cape, and if they tried to do so, I would be in full support of the party/state separation, insisting that it’s the Provincial Legislature who choose the Premier.

I don’t agree with James Myburgh, who thinks that removing her from the DA would cause enormous self-harm to the party. This seems to me to overstate the electoral value of a tiny minority of historical supporters who see the reaction to Zille as an overreaction and a chilling of unpopular views, where it seems more likely to me that greater gains are to be had from shedding the party of its historical baggage.

I do agree with Zille, in the sense that the current leader, Mmusi Maimane, jumped the gun with his announcement of the suspension, and is also over-estimating the strength of the argument for that suspension.

I don’t agree with Gwen Ngwenya’s more meta point that intellectuals should mostly care about philosophical principles, while politicians should mostly care about messaging and the political brand. People can care, and write, about what they want to.

Mike Berger is pitifully wrong in saying that those who are (to his mind) beneficiaries of colonialism can’t criticise her tweets and subsequent defences of them, first because that begs the question (in the proper sense), and second because it’s a clear instance of the “genetic fallacy” – you can be right (or wrong) regardless of the origin of your arguments.

And lastly, I am in agreement with Max du Preez, in the sense thatĀ this fight can’t – in my view, of course – secure any long-term gains for the party or the liberal project that aren’t easily outweighed by the damage that a protracted internal fight will result in.

As he says, in a piece which offers fulsome and justified tribute to Zille’s contributions to South African politics and political thought:

Please, call it all off. Make a gracious speech and retire before you do more damage to yourself, your party and the exciting efforts of so many citizens to rewrite the compact between state and citizen.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.