Opinion Piece

Marelise van der Merwe: Hurricane Helen: When heavy words are lightly thrown

The popular “three gates” test of communication refers to a triple test that any statement must pass before it should be uttered. One, is it true? Two, is it kind? Three, is it necessary? I’d add a fourth, and say pick any three: does it build or destroy?

Take up the White Man’s burden -
Send forth the best ye breed -
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild -
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

Take up the White Man’s burden -
In patience to abide
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain,
To seek another’s profit,
And work another’s gain.

Take up the White Man’s burden -
The savage wars of peace -
Fill full the mouth of famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch Sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.

Take up the White Man’s burden -
And reap his old reward,
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard -
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah slowly!) towards the light:-
"Why brought ye us from bondage,
"Our loved Egyptian night?"

Take up the White Man’s burden -
Ye dare not stoop to less -
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloak your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent sullen peoples
Shall weigh your Gods and you.

- – Rudyard Kipling, 1899

Imperial and colonial powers from ancient to modern times have often regarded their rule over others as an aspect of their own destiny, which is to civilise, educate and bring order to the world.

The New World Encyclopaedia, undated entry

Helen Zille has tweeted a tempest into a teapot, making a series of assertions it’s unlikely she’ll bounce back from entirely. She apologised “unreservedly”, but the apology itself was ambiguous, stating that her comments were not supposed to “come across” as a defence of colonialism.

I’m not going to waste words debating the evils of colonialism and why it was not needed, or point out parallels between Zille’s argument and some of the better-known defenders of colonialism, some of which are quoted above. Two decades into democracy, we should be past that point. Instead, I want to look at (mis)use of language. Because if language is the representation of our reality and relationships, South Africa has big problems.

Defenders of the original tweet have chimed in that Zille was just being honest, that the country needs to learn to handle the truth, and the usual: freedom of speech! But that cuts both ways. You want honesty? Great. Directness must cut throughout. The apology that follows, if it is unreserved, cannot say: I’m sorry you thought I was defending colonialism. It should say: I said what I thought without interrogating it, and I’m sorry I hurt you. I will go and think about what you have said and try harder next time. If what we need is a cut with the blunt knife, then nobody gets to duck and dive (or, for that matter, “cut off the wi-fi”) when the blade turns in their direction. The honesty must apply to what we see in the mirror as well.

Then there are those who argue Zille has done the public a favour by showing her “true colours” as a racist. I find this reductionist; all South Africans must fight racism, and white South Africans must fight it from within. The greatest weapon we have here is introspection. Nobody is going to hang, draw and quarter you for having a debatable and/or hurtful thought or idea; but let it go unquestioned, unchallenged, and pass your lips or keyboard it as though it’s not problematic; and then to deliberately avoid dialogue or debate – that’s entirely another matter. If our leaders – municipal, provincial or otherwise – fail the self-interrogation test in this way, then we have a big problem. The only way we have out of the mess apartheid left is by examining ourselves, and by working hard with our thoughts, words and actions. Zille’s tweeting has more than once been careless, shot from the hip. This should concern us.

Any public statement should be weighed carefully, particularly if it’s by someone in a leadership position, who must surely be aware that they are understood to represent a larger group of people – whether their Twitter bio acknowledges it or not. In Zille’s case, her prominence gives her an inflated level of representivity. She has unfortunately done some reputational damage not only to the DA but to other white South Africans as well, and it’s going to be hard to undo. Especially when she has a credible history as a capable politician who helped the DA become more diverse and who had previously been a respected journalist – who, of all people, should understand the tremendous weight of words. If she can say and do such a thing, one might ask, who can be trusted?

The popular “three gates” test of communication, which has variously been attributed to all and sundry from Rumi to Buddha to Abraham Lincoln to the Quakers, refers to a triple test that any statement must pass before it should be uttered. One, is it true? Two, is it kind? Three, is it necessary? Realistically it’s not always possible to manage all three, I don’t think, but perhaps one can aim for at least two. I’d add a fourth, and say pick any three: does it build or destroy? Many of Zille’s tweets, her recent series most of all, fail at least three; sometimes all four.

And this is what disturbs me most about Zille’s trigger finger. Even if you think what she said was true – and if you do, I may be forced to pull you up short and sharply, but we’ll park that for now – what does it achieve to say it? Because I don’t see it building much; and I see it breaking a whole lot. I see it breaking the credibility of an opposition party that was growing in strength. I see it hurting millions of South Africans who already have had insult added to injury too many times. I see it further injuring the reputation of a formidable politician who contributed significantly as a female role model over previous decades. I see it taking Zille herself – who has previously not shied away from taking on errant politicians – backwards in the estimation of many who still respected her. I see it leaving leaders like Mmusi Maimane, who already has enough on his plate, having been branded a “sell-out” and other unflattering names, having to explain to critics who have called the DA a racist party. How can he?

But most of all, I see further harm to an already faltering democracy. South Africa is teetering, barely held together by its Chapter 9 institutions, but the load is heavy and we don’t know when it will simply become too much. A thriving democracy first of all needs a solid and credible ruling party, and second of all needs a solid and credible opposition. Jacob Zuma has taken care of the first, and right in the centre of perhaps the biggest crisis the country has seen in years, Zille has delivered a thundering blow to the second. EFF Commander-in-Chief Julius Malema might be the media’s flavour of the month, but South Africa needs all the healthy competition it can get. The second-largest party has more important things to do than damage control, and the public has more important things to be outraged about. In the absence of being able to fix the rapidly devolving ruling party, the best advice I can give our opposition parties is simply: get your shit together.

Freedom of speech is guaranteed by the Constitution, but this right comes with a responsibility, a responsibility that it is absolutely unacceptable to see neglected by political leadership. No, it’s not against the law to express an opinion that others will find hurtful or offensive. But considering the extensive damage and mopping up that is now following that series of tweets, was it worth it? Would it not have been better to take those 10 seconds to ask: what weighs more, my 140-character opinion, or the possible hurt and fallout? Those few words have cost so much, and it would have cost nothing to just… not say them. DM