My Interview with Helen Zille on her “refugee” Tweet

Democratic Alliance leader and Western Cape premier, Helen Zille, has been labelled a racist (and many other names) on social networks – especially Twitter. As previously argued in one of my blog posts that “If Twitter was IEC and one’s followers were voters…” Zille would have been our president – she is one of the only politicians (I know) who is not only active on Twitter but that she is has a sense of humour, too.

This, of course, is not an attempt to cover for Zille because we very well know that she can speak for herself (as she will indicate below). Following her “professional back” a few months back and now the “refugee” comments – both made on Twitter – I asked Zille what she made of the whole saga. 

But first I would like apologise to Zille for a delay in publishing this interview especially when she did not give me the hussle in getting her response. As noted elsewhere in my blog and above, she is one of the most active politicians, one who is very vocal but not racist. But many have continued to refer to her as such for being understood to referring to (mostly black) pupils from the Easter Cape province as “refugees” after many of them were dismally failed by that province’s education department for closing many of its schools (for a number of reasons).

Akanyang Africa: You were heavily criticised last week for your comments on Twitter on Tuesday that: “While ECape education collapsed, WC built 30 schools – 22 new, 8 replacement mainly 4 ECape edu refugees. 26 MORE new schools coming”. You later replied, clarifying “Refugees [as] ppl who have escaped because their rights are violated. That describes ECape exactly”. You went further to say it meant people who “have been forced to migrate within their home countries”. Why do you think your ‘refugees’ comments attracted such heavy criticism, especially from the black community?

Helen Zille: I was genuinely amazed that the entire point of my tweet was missed because of the words “education refugees”.  I have never thought of the word “refugee” as insulting, and certainly NOT an insult to the person so described.  If anything it is a term of empathy and sympathy to the people so described.  The word is an indictment of the circumstances that caused people to flee their home environment — in this case the collapse of education in the Eastern Cape.

I also think that the ANC and many commentators look for any reason to feel offended.  Their key strategy is to keep South Africans hating each other.  That is all they need to do to keep winning elections.  So they keep on looking for reasons why South Africans should continue to hate each other.  Both the present and the past are harnessed to maximise people’s sense of offence and hurt and translate it into hate. 

They are what has been called “professional offence takers” even when no offence is intended.  They need outrage and offence to keep people separate on the basis of race because this is the only way the ANC can keep winning elections. It is also a reflection of how xenophobic South Africans generally are.  Many people believe that the word “refugee” can only describe someone from a foreign country.  A refugee is, in its broad definition, a “person who takes refuge”.  There are various categories, including “internally displaced people” which is far too long for Twitter’s 140c

AA: Was the criticism informed, fair, balanced and racist?

HZ: Well, you judge.  Every day I am subjected to that kind of invective, and no-one bothers about it.  Over the past days I have been threatened with death, necklacing, attacked with all sorts of direct undisguised racist invective.

AA: The ANC criticised you, with its spokesperson Jackson Mthembu saying in a statement that you “referred to the people of Eastern CAPE WHO RELOCATE TO THE Western Cape as refugees”. He said this was a “racist statement [that] underpins the DA’s policy of exclusion of blacks” and that such “utterances… must not be tolerated as [it] generate a negative feeling in those who suffered under colonial and apartheid rule”.

HZ: As I said the ANC’s major strategy is to look for reasons to keep South Africans hating each other and to fan those fires to the full, even if they are devoid of truth.  This statement betrays just how xenophobic the ANC is.  They are convinced it is an insult (or they are turning it into one) when there is absolutely no reason to regard it as such. Also, and crucially, I did not talk about all people who choose to relocate freely.  I spoke about children who cannot be educated in the Eastern Cape and who need to come to the Western Cape to get their basic right of a decent education.

AA: Do you think the ANC misunderstood your meaning of “refugees” even after you clarified what you meant just as many people may have?

HZ: They did so on purpose.  It formed a good part of their strategy.

AA: Do you think your statement was racist as many have since suggested? If not, why not?

HZ: I do not think it is racist.  There is no racial connotation at all in the word “refugee”.  It implies a denial of rights by the place those people are coming from, whatever colour they are.

AA: ANC provincial secretary Songezo Mjongile asked that apologise while provincial leader Lynne Brown said you “must retract [your] labelling and apologise”.  Will you do that? If not, why not?

HZ: Everyone who knows me, lives with me or works with me, knows that I apologise readily if I have done wrong.  To apologise for calling children who have to leave E Cape to get an education “education refugees” is not an insult, nor was it meant to be.  It is not racist, nor was it meant to be. 

If I apologise, I imply that there is somehow an insult attached to being a refugee, and that it was a racist statement.  I don’t believe that is the case at all.   There are people trying to turn it into an insult for their own reasons.  The real scandal is the state of education in the Eastern Cape and the denial of children’s rights.

AA: Cosatu President Sedumo Dlamini said in his speech delivered at the SADTU 2012 Policy Conference in Gauteng on 23 March that your comments “revealed the reality of racism being harboured” by the DA which he claims sees Western Cape as a province where “Africans in particular can only go to… only by invitation or approval by the DA”. Is this true? If not, do you think Dlamini saw this and used it to score political scores for the ruling party which has been very critical of your government?

HZ: That is, frankly, nonsense.  Why would we in the Western Cape be building so many schools and doing so much to improve education if we were racist?  Why is the Eastern Cape spending just a fraction of its infrastructure budget and why are schools continuing to fall apart?  Why do children continue to learn under trees?  This, in fact, is an insult to these children.  That is the scandal — not the fact that Western Cape is fixing the problem. The ANC must keep people hating each other.  They never miss an opportunity, even when they have to twist a person’s words to create an opportunity.

AA: If this is the view held by many black South Africans that Western Cape is a “whites only” area, how do you intended to assure them it is not?

HZ: No, many people believe this judging by the very large number of people who keep coming to live in the Western Cape, and get the most generous package of free basic services in the country.

AA: Calling you a ‘White Madam’, SASCO PEC and COSAS PEC said in a statement that your remarks were “tantamount to bringing back apartheid through the backdoor” and “venomous”.

HZ: How so? Destroying Education (especially in the Eastern Cape) is bringing back apartheid, and making Verwoerdian education even worse for the most vulnerable children.  That is truly venomous.

AA: Do you get a sense that this is how most people understood your comments, or that those who do are only playing the ‘race card’?

HZ: Well, I really don’t know.  But all the twisting certainly makes me think so.

AA: Do you think South Africans need to have a Race Debate? If so, how should such a debate seek to achieve at end?

HZ: The ANC turns every single issue into a “race debate”.  When they haven’t got an argument, they close it down, by using the “race card”.

AA: Will we as South African ever seen each other – black and white people – as one human race as envisioned in the Rainbow Nation principle? If not, what should be done do achieve that?

HZ: In the DA we do.  We are building one nation, with one future.  That is why we do not give a racial connotation to everything. (I have answered these questions in good faith and I trust you will deal with them as such.)

Here’s what others have said about Zille’s “refugee” comments:

  • Mail & Guardian journalist, Nickolaus Bauer, accused Zille of being a “twit”, saying “You could even go so far as saying she’s lost the plot completely and is becoming a joke on Twitter”. Bauer said Zille “she tweets far too much” and wondered “where she finds the time to run a province”. Well, Mr. Bauer, she does not run the province alone, remember?
  • Khaya Dlanga, a News24 columnist, blogged, agreeing with me that Zille is not a racist. Dlanga said “Helen Zille is not racist, she’s just incredibly insensitive towards black people”
  • Moegamat Shareef Blankenberg bizarrely insinuated that Zille may have “contravened” the oath of office. He had also written to the South African Human Rights Commission to “find that her words are dangerous, as they are incitement, and thus could be declared hate speech”. And as if that was not enough, Blankenberg also wrote to the Public Protector because he claims “Zille feels nothing for the oath she swore when she assumed the office of the premier”. Oh please, man. Get a life. I am sure Public Protector Thuli Madonsela has a hell lot of investigations of government officials who have messed up out taxes.

The only balanced and interesting analysis I have read on this “refugee” saga is that of Gareth van Onselen, Head of DA election communications, who eloquently and brilliantly said the following:

“If the ANC really was concerned about offence, a good place to start would be an apology to the people of the Eastern Cape, for the disgarceful (sic) way in which it has managed that province since 1994. The people of the Eastern Cape placed their faith in the ANC and its (sic) has reneged on that deal. Rather than focusing on the word used, why not try dealing with the problem that underlies it. No one else is responsible for that situation but the ANC itself. And, if it is offence itself the ANC is worried about, perhaps some sort of commitment to reigning in its own racially loaded rhetoric. At the very least, take a few history lessons”.

Again – Zille’s DA policies may be seen by many blacks as racist and anti-black and all that nonsense – but she is definitely not a racist. As noted in my recent blog post “trying to analyse and make sense of what Zille had said – it is clear that there was nothing racist about her comments (in my view) and that those who criticised her and even suggested she apologises (because in their view by ‘refugees’ Zille implied us blacks) are just playing the racist card”.  She’s not you halfwits out there! 

Editor Note: This interview was conducted on 25 March 2012.

One thought on “My Interview with Helen Zille on her “refugee” Tweet

  1. Pingback: Blacks say Zille “deserves a bullet”. And her response? « Akanyang Africa

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