Gillian Schutte: White faces, black masks: The Helen Zille syndrome

Gillian Schutte. Picture: Independent Newspapers

Gillian Schutte. Picture: Independent Newspapers

Published May 24, 2024


Back in the world of South African politics, the Democratic Alliance (DA) exemplifies a troubling inverse parallel to Frantz Fanon’s unparalleled 1952 exposé on colonialism and racism, “Black Skin, White Masks.”

I have termed this inverse parallel: “White Faces, Black Masks - the Helen Zille Syndrome.” This concept suggests that White figures conveniently adopt a Black facade to shield themselves from criticism.

It explains how White-dominated political parties and companies use Black personnel and voices to take the fall for negative events or to give a Black face to a White agenda.

It is a strategy that performs shallow tolerance for Black participation while still attributing negative traits solely to Black individuals and institutions when things go wrong.

The DA blatantly exploited this trope in their recent electoral advert, where the South African flag is burned and desecrated while a Black male voice-over points out how dangerous a coalition between the ANC, the violent EFF, and the MK Party, referred to as the Zuma Faction, would be to the survival and security of all South Africans.

Most recently, DA Federal Council Chairperson, Helen Zille, shared a doctored ANC poster suggesting the ruling party endorses crime, a move that represents a dangerous foray into misinformation.

By falsely claiming the ANC promotes criminal activity, Zille wilfully spreads engineered untruths in order to make her own party appear morally superior and corruption free.

In this positioning of themselves as champions of democracy and decency while blaming all societal issues on the ANC, the DA perpetuates a narrative that celebrates ‘White virtue’ and denigrates Black capabilities. This tactic sustains colonial legacies in post- apartheid South Africa, and is precisely the message Zille aims to convey.

Helen Zille Syndrome diagnosed

It is not the first of Zille’s public racist statements that have caused a furore. Her entire political career serves as a striking example of the ‘White Face, Black Mask’ giving rise to the term ‘The Helen Zille syndrome’.

In her rather desperate attempt to endear herself to Black voters as DA’s Party leader in 2007, Zille sought to present a facade of solidarity and cultural sensitivity. This she did through performative gestures like speaking broken isiXhosa to throngs of Africans and posing and dancing with Black communities in front of news cameras.

Contemporary history, however, reveals that this was a mere veneer of inclusivity that sharply contrasted with her actual White supremacist beliefs exemplified in her controversial remarks praising colonialism, which she claimed was beneficial for South Africa.

Such statements reveal a deep ideological alignment with White superiority, undermining her performative displays of allyship.

Zille’s approach underscores the notion that Black voices and experiences can be superficially acknowledged while maintaining a fundamentally colonial mindset. Zille has faced a litany of accusations and criticisms of racism throughout her political career.

One notable example is her 2017 tweet in which she suggested that not all aspects of colonialism were negative, stating that it brought “independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water, etc.”

This comment sparked widespread outrage, as it appeared to minimise the profound and damaging impact of colonialism on South Africa and its people.

Additionally, Zille has been criticised for her stance on affirmative action and Black economic empowerment policies, often arguing that they lead to reverse racism.

Her vocal opposition to these policies has been seen by many as a blatant disregard of the historical context and ongoing inequalities faced by Black South Africans.

Black privilege

Another incident occurred in 2019 when Zille tweeted about “Black privilege,” questioning why there was no term for it akin to “White privilege.” This tweet was widely condemned for being insensitive and for misrepresenting the systemic advantages historically and presently afforded to White individuals over Black individuals in South Africa.

These examples reflect a pattern where Zille’s comments and positions have been racially insensitive and out of touch with the lived realities of many South Africans, reinforcing the “White Face, Black Mask” critique. She is woefully disconnected with contemporary social discourses which are hypercritical of White privilege and subconscious bias. Or is she?

I suspect that Zille’s performative racism is not subconscious. It is the material of her deepest unconscious bias that she does not care to excavate and reflect upon. As all racists do, Zille endorses her own White privilege and impunity.

Nothing she puts out there is by accident. She knows what she is doing and acts within the boundaries demarcated by the ANC for White racism in South Africa, about which very little punitive action is taken. She is aware that she will get away with it and this is why she continues on this trajectory with abandon.

Her latest performance on twitter is a true reflection of her innermost thoughts. By positioning herself and the DA as champions of democracy while pinning all societal issues on the ANC, she perpetuates a narrative that celebrates White virtue and denigrates Black capabilities, thus sustaining colonial legacies in post-apartheid South Africa. And she simply does not care.

Furthermore the fact that the ANC has overlooked White racism as a matter of urgency that requires a special focus, works in Zille’s favour. She knows that Black people who make utterances critical of Whites are more likely to be accused of racism and end up at the equality court.

This is as a result of the symbiotic and dichotomous relationship ANC has with White monopoly capital, to which it kowtows while sacrificing the collective wellbeing of the majority.

In this way it is no different to the DA and is forced to remain obedient and passive aggressive rather than wholly taking on the problem of racism and dealing with it in harsh terms.

DA and ANC co-dependence

This co-dependent relationship between the African National Congress (ANC) and the Democratic Alliance (DA) is rooted in a complex interplay of neoliberalism, racial dynamics, and the struggle for genuine democracy.

I support neither party but I do believe that though the ANC has many times faced substantial criticism for its governance issues and instances of corruption, it is the DA that poses a more insidious threat.

This threat is mired in its neoliberal policies, masked by a façade of democracy, and bolstered by media manipulation funded by neoliberal interests. The DA’s approach will, in the long run, undermine African sovereignty further and exacerbate economic and racial inequalities on a larger scale than the ANC.

That is why they appear to have amassed massive corporate sponsorship, US backing as well as marked influence in the narrative of the mainstream White press that is supported by similar neoliberal sources.

The DA’s self-portrayal as a defender of democracy is not only very well-funded, it is a carefully crafted intelligence strategy aimed at attracting support both locally and internationally. It is a portrayal that is fundamentally misleading.

True democracy entails not only the right to vote but also the empowerment of the people to influence their own socio-economic conditions. The DA’s policies and practices, however, work against this empowerment.

They actively push media narratives shaped by allegedNED-funded outlets and other neoliberal think tanks. The democracy that the DA promotes is a version that aligns more with Western economic interests than with the aspirations of ordinary South Africans.

From a leftist perspective, the aim is to build a political movement that goes beyond the constraints of both the ANC and the DA. This movement should focus on addressing the needs of the poor and marginalised, challenging the dominance of neoliberal ideology, and reclaiming media spaces to foster genuine democratic dialogue.

A coalition between the EFF, the MK Party, and other Black-centric and leftist parties could potentially free us from the neoliberal pitfalls the DA has in store. Such a coalition might also put a judicial end to the impunity of figures like Helen Zille and her brand of racism, “The Helen Zille Syndrome.”

*Gillian Schutte is a well-known social justice and race-justice activist and public intellectual.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.

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