Helen Zille: Tweets from a 'twit'?
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Helen Zille: Tweets from a 'twit'?

Another offensive tweet from the outgoing Western Cape premier Helen Zille has sparked debate around the concept of privilege. Terence Pillay breaks down what the theory of privilege actually is. 

Helen Zille speaking
RODGER BOSCH / AFP

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Outgoing Western Cape premier Helen Zille is once again in the eye of a political storm after posting another offensive tweet. A Twitter user posted a video of an American woman talking about white privilege and Zille entered the conversation with an observation of her own and sparked a deluge of hate from around the country for her comments.

Her Tweet read: “Well you clearly don't understand black privilege. It is being able to loot a country and steal hundreds of billions and get re-elected. If ppl want permanent poverty for the masses they are going about it the right way. #BlackPrivilege

Zille ended her tweet with a hashtag that said “black privilege” and the whole thing was about “you can be corrupt, you can steal, you can do all these terrible things as the ANC and then you can get voted back into power – and that’s black privilege”

This is really stupid. First of all the concept of back privilege does not exist – it only exists in the chardonnay infused mind of the Helen Zilles of this country. The fact is, I don’t know if she drunk tweets or not, but she certainly sounds like it. So after the tweet emerged, Thuli Madonsela responded saying, “Helen, retract your tweet, it’s unacceptable” – and I’m just paraphrasing here – and then there was a whole diatribe about this stupid tweet – the usual black Twitter responses.

For me what was interesting was that Nick Spaull who’s an economist at Stellenbosch University replied to the tweet giving her a whole lot of stats around white privilege. He put up some graphs that show, for example, that only 5% of black people graduate university versus 23% of white males and 33% of white females that graduate. He also spoke about inter-generational privilege, land ownership, good education and all the other things that make up white privilege.

Zille then replied to that saying that her own family were impoverished and escaped Nazi Germany with nothing and yet they managed to prosper and build a good life and so on – again, I’m paraphrasing.  And Spaull’s reply was quite insightful in that he said that even as a Jewish person who had escaped persecution, she still had the privilege of being white in South Africa. And then he challenged her to an open debate on the subject and she didn’t respond.

The recent reports that I’ve read on the whole saga say she’s unapologetic about it, despite receiving such backlash on social media.

But Helen Zille, like Donald Trump, has a history of not engaging a filter from brain to keyboard and tweets whatever comes into her head. For a party that’s lost a lot of votes in this most recent election, they haven’t really learned much. Where they don’t get votes seems to be among black people so somebody like Helen Zille is not doing the DA any favours. It shows a level of insensitivity and to the issues and a political immaturity.

The KZN DA leadership as well as Mmusi Maimane himself have gone on record saying they want her chastised and she must apologize and I think this action is needed, as opposed to just letting her run her mouth off whenever she wants. And I think she should really be issuing a disclaimer on her Twitter profile because the link on her profile is to the DA website, so whether she is tweeting in her own capacity or not, she is a representative of the party.

I think we all need to educate ourselves on the concept of privilege, especially here in South Africa. Privilege is historical and inter-generational and in this country it’s something that has come with whiteness, as opposed to affirmative action or triple BEE and all these things that are meant to encourage and empower, socio-economically, black people because of their historical disadvantage. That’s not privilege. That’s reparations and restoration, which is completely different. So you can’t equate the two – conceptually, they are two completely different things. One is not the antithesis of the other.

You can have privilege in the sense that you can have two black people and one could be a little more privileged because they have things that enable them to do better in life; their parents were educated, they live in a middle-class community, they go to a good school, they have access to finance and housing and all those things that come with socio-economic advantage. That would make them more privileged than someone who lived in an informal settlement, with poor education, with no access to credit and all the things that make it really easy to get ahead in this world. That’s different. It’s not intrinsic to our blackness, whereas privilege is intrinsic to our whiteness.

The point is: people need to wake up to these facts. And Helen Zille doesn’t help the cause because we take the conversation forward, more and more people start to understand this historical advantage that we need to acknowledge and then she spews this drivel out there and we take three steps back. We go back to being this defensive, reactionary people. We know there’s corruption; we know all that; no one’s saying that is right or acceptable, but her narrative is completely ridiculous.

Someone should tell Zille that fact that the ANC got re-elected has got nothing to do with blackness. Derek Hanekom is a member of the ANC – he was re-elected – is this now black privilege? He is part of this same political movement that’s been tainted left, right and center by corruption scandals. The fact that they won the election is because they ran a good campaign. Cyril Ramaphosa convinced the nation, or the majority at least, I think it was something like 57%, that they had learnt from their past ills and they are going to do better. And 57% of the population believed them and said, “Okay, we’ll give you a chance for the next five years.”   That’s how politics works.

It’s really unfortunate that people who are in positions of leadership somehow manage to stoop to this kind of base, knee-jerk, reactionary conversations. Comments like Zille’s do nothing more than fuel paranoia and hysteria. 

You can email Terence Pillay at [email protected]  or follow him on Twitter: @terencepillay1 and tweet him your thoughts. 

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