South African Opposition Suspends Ex-Leader Over Colonialism Tweets

South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, suspended Helen Zille, its former leader and premier of the Western Cape province, from all party activities pending the outcome of a formal disciplinary inquiry after she appeared to defend colonialism in a series of posts on Twitter.

“For those claiming the legacy of colonialism was only negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport, infrastructure, piped water etc,” Zille wrote on social media site Twitter two months ago. “Would we have had a transition into specialized health care and medication without colonial influence? Just be honest please.”

Helen Zille

Photographer: Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images

The party has now decided to expedite a disciplinary hearing against Zille for bringing it into disrepute, DA leader Mmusi Maimane told reporters in Johannesburg on Saturday. Zille remains premier of the DA-run Western Cape province.

Failing to discipline Zille could frustrate the DA’s ambitions of securing a greater share of the black vote in national elections in 2019, but doing so could cost it the support of white and mixed-race voters in the Western Cape, where Zille has strong backing.

“Zille’s social media commentary and public utterances in connection with colonialism undermine our reconciliation project,” Maimane said. “There is no question that Zille’s original tweets and subsequent justifications have damaged our standing in the public mind.”

Although Zille has apologized for her comments, Maimane said she had refused to offer an unreserved apology to the party and the country. Many black South Africans whose ancestors lost their land and civil rights under colonial rule continue to feel the effects of its legacy.

“We live in a fragile democracy, which means our public representatives must, at all times, be sensitive to the legitimate anger that people still feel about our past and its legacy,” Maimane said.

Zille rejected the suspension, arguing it doesn’t comply with internal party rules and said the reason given by Mamaine “is not the full story.” This will emerge over time, she wrote in a statement posted on Twitter.

“I have not accepted that the DA has the right to find me guilty and penalise me before the hearing even takes place,” Zille wrote. “I cannot be bullied into resigning or incriminating myself.”

Zille is “prepared to face a full disciplinary hearing,” she said, adding that it isn’t correct to say she refused to apologise.

The DA won 27 percent of the vote in municipal elections in August last year, and together with other opposition parties seized control of several major cities, including the commercial hub of Johannesburg and the capital, Pretoria, from the ruling African National Congress.

“The suspension indicates a breakdown in the relationship between Maimane and Zille that is even more damaging than her comments,” independent political analyst Daniel Silke said by telephone from Cape Town. “It also proves the generally accepted notion that a former party leader should retire otherwise it causes tension with his or her replacement.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.