South Africa’s gaffe-ridden opposition party learns there’s never a good time to cheer colonialism

Democratic Alliance (DA) former leader Helen Zille
Democratic Alliance (DA) former leader Helen Zille
Image: Reuters/Mike Hutchings
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An influential member of South Africa’s main opposition party is facing a firestorm after lauding what she described as the virtues of colonialism.

Helen Zille, the controversial premier of the republic’s Western Cape province and a former leader of South Africa’s Democratic Alliance (DA), will face discipline from her party after tweeting Thursday that “for those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water, etc.” [emphasis in original]. She later added “specialized health care and medication” to the list before expressing gratitude that she was boarding an airplane, where, without an Internet connection, she could “cut off those who think EVERY aspect of colonial legacy was bad.” [emphasis in original]

Zille apologized for the tweets, which mark the latest in a series of missteps by the DA on race that have frustrated the party’s ability to connect with black South Africans, who constitute 80% of the population. Last year, Zille was accused of being racist for tweets about pulling funding from black students protesting at University of Cape Town. The party came under fire for tone deafness two years ago after Dianne Kohler Barnard, the shadow minister for police, shared a Facebook post that pined for the return of PW Botha, the last prime minster to lead the apartheid government.

The tweets by Zille also present a test for the DA’s Mmusi Maimane, the first black leader in the party’s history. Maimane has been working to persuade voters to consider the party an alternative to the country’s ruling ANC, which has governed South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994. In municipal elections last August, the DA capitalized on charges of corruption that have plagued the ANC under president Jacob Zuma to wrest control of local governments in the cities of Johannesburg, Pretoria and Nelson Mandela Bay.

On Thursday, Maimane, who is campaigning to build on that momentum in national elections slated for 2019, condemned Zille’s remarks, tweeting that “colonialism, like apartheid, was a system of oppression and subjugation” that “can never be justified.”

“I find that sentiment completely unacceptable,” Maimane, referring to Zille’s remarks, later told Radio 702. “We need to all come around and understand the history and pain of all South Africans. All of us… must be quick to denounce the evils of the past.

Though Maimane refused to prejudge the DA’s disciplinary process, fellow members of the party blasted Zille’s comments. “It’s like saying Nazism was good for German democracy and their advancements in technology,” tweeted Mbali Ntuli, a DA member of the provincial legislature in KwaZulu-Natal province.