Helen Zille. Picture: ALON SKUY
Helen Zille. Picture: ALON SKUY

There’s an argument to be made that the DA’s Helen Zille is a greater threat to our democracy than EFF leader Julius Malema. He, at least, is upfront about his prejudices, and doesn’t cloak them in the guise of "centre-left-leaning" philosophy. And while Malema is presiding over the conscious marginalisation of the EFF into a populist party, Zille is blithely devolving what used to be a fairly credible opposition party into a foil for the stunted ideologies of the edgelords of the reactionary right.

It’s irksome to waste column inches on Zille, especially as this means we’re giving those alt-right remoras that feed off the scraps of the faecal ideas she scatters on Twitter the amplification they desire. And this is the sad truth of her conversion from grande dame of politics to gimcrack martyr — she’s been red-pilled by the alt-right lite of SA, and she doesn’t even know it. (For those not up on the terminology, red-pilling — derived from the film The Matrix — is the term used by the manchilds of cyberculture to refer to the gradual radicalisation of someone into a reactionary world view.)

Zille believes she is a lone superhero who created a support base to fight injustice and prejudice on social media. In reality, she is being used as the barker in the alt-right carnival of misinformation.

"My battle, over the past 2.5 years, to counter the woke lynchmob [sic] is beginning to show results. Previously, in the context of manufactured outrage over a deliberately distorted tweet, I would have fought almost solo. Now scores of people are with me. We must resist lynchmob [sic] rule!"

Ah, Helen — that exclamation mark is such a giveaway. As is the plaintive cry of the petulant prophet who is being ignored: "Don’t say you weren’t warned. Our democracy is dying."

Zille is, indeed, a novice in the world of digital disinformation. I would reply to all her tweets with "OK, Boomer", but it’s more of an "OK, Doomer" in her case.

Helen Zille.
Helen Zille.

She seems to truly believe she’s the only defender of democracy left standing, and that we’re all bound for hell in a handbasket — or "Zimbabwe", as it’s also known.

Zille believes the media is out to get her, and that white people are victims of "a concerted campaign to delegitimise and demonise minorities". According to her, "there is not a single mainstream English-speaking newspaper that begins to grasp [the values of free speech]".

She thinks that Afrikaans Sunday paper Rapport grasps this value, based on what she mistakenly thinks is an editorial, but is in fact an opinion piece about her retweeting, as she put it, "a cartoon of two people accusing each other falsely of heinous crimes in [sic] the basis of their race. That is despicable. You really have to do a lot of contortioning [sic] to twist the meaning of that cartoon.

"This aptly captures the fallacy and racism behind race generalisations."

Except, the cartoon in question isn’t about false accusations of "equally heinous crimes".

It shows an EFF member, in the party’s traditional festive red onesie, talking to a white man with a mysterious facial rash (don’t ask me what that’s about).

EFF man: "You should give back the land you stole."

White man: "You should be jailed for raping my wife!"

EFF man: "But I didn’t do that."

White man: "Exactly."

There’s been some terrible journalism about this, of the "he tweeted/she tweeted" variety. The Citizen, for example, ran a story with the headline "Zille accused of suggesting ‘all black men are rapists’ after sharing cartoon".

Zille clearly did not suggest that, and neither does the cartoon, and that headline was written by someone invested in clickbait over clarity. It’s a really underhanded use of quotation marks, too, making it look as if they’re quoting Zille.

The real issue is in the false equivalence set up between a current societal evil that affects all South Africans, and a legacy issue that very clearly predominantly affects those previously disadvantaged by apartheid.

Suggesting that we can’t redress the land issue based on data around who owns the land because "it’s racist to pick on whites" is just plain stupid. It’s also the classic whining martyrdom of our preternaturally sensitive white boys: "Stop picking on me!"

It would indeed be a false accusation to accuse any black man of being a rapist based on race. But it is not a false accusation to say that whites benefited from land ownership laws and policies under apartheid, and that this needs to be redressed.

As much as Zille and her pet cartoonist would love to suggest that all whites are being accused of stealing land, that is not the case. Well, except on social media, of course, or at EFF press conferences, where there are sock puppets and rabble-rousers who are invested in manufacturing outrage and dissent. But using them as evidence of trends in mainstream society is both stupid and self-serving.

Helen Zille. Picture: Jaco Marais
Helen Zille. Picture: Jaco Marais

Zille, that Che Guevara of the internet — "We need a counter-revolution where truth (in this case that all race generalisations are wrong and hateful) triumphs over the lynchmob [sic] of offense [sic] seekers. If we do not get this right, our democracy will die" — appears unable to tell the difference between trolls and reality.

She has just discovered, she tells us, "almost half my 1.4m followers are bots, which probably accounts for most of the anonymous ones run by political opponents. I’m flattered. They must think I am very influential to put this much effort into trying to destroy me on-line. They won’t succeed."

And "their handlers must spend a huge amount of time looking for anything to twist and spin to manufacture outrage and get me trending".

This is the same misapprehension that Zille’s new schoolyard chums, the alt-white snowflakes, labour under: that it’s all about them.

I asked Jean le Roux, a researcher at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Lab, a unit devoted to identifying, analysing and exposing digital disinformation and misinformation, to take a look at the Zille-bots. (Disclosure: the Digital Forensic Lab is a partner housed in the SA offices of my organisation, Code for Africa.)

According to Le Roux, there’s no factual evidence supporting Zille’s claims that her political opponents commissioned "bots" to vilify her. And "using Twitter Audit’s service as a basis to claim her political opponents are co-ordinating a social media campaign against her is ill-considered", he says.

"Third-party services such as Twitter Audit are notoriously inaccurate in identifying ‘fake’ followers, and Twitter itself has labelled Twitter Audit’s methodologies ‘deeply flawed’. Their algorithms rely on a tiny sampling of followers and an opaque scoring system to determine whether a user has a fake account or not.

"For example, the assessment Zille quoted in her original tweet was based on a statistically insignificant sample of only 0.003% of her followers. The original figure of 650,000 ‘fake accounts’ has since been revised to only 49,500 after she apparently paid them for their service."

And, of course, identifying suspicious accounts doesn’t in any way allow you to deduce the intent behind those accounts. They could just as well be suspicious accounts that are supporting Zille’s views. But, in the same way that it suits Malema to trumpet flawed data about minorities owning 80% of the land, it suits Zille to see facts where there’s just wishfulness.

But does she have to so faithfully mimic the flawed logic and crass stupidity of her new cheerleaders? How can one explain her response — "Interesting question too" — to this obviously racist misunderstanding of power and history, by a Twitter user commenting on the Cape Town Carnival: "I see ‘White Face’ is rampant in the Street Parade but ‘Black Face’ is a crime? How does that work?"

Can it really be possible that Zille thinks there is an equivalence between the practice of blackface — historically used to lampoon and belittle black people — and people painting their faces white?

Zille and her coterie of pusillanimous whiners seem to be intent on portraying themselves as some sort of intellectual army of good that is dedicated to exposing the flawed wokeness of deluded liberalism and driving us forward into a truly nonracial society. What they really are is a bunch of unethical opportunists willing to chip away at all our hard-won democratic gains so they don’t have to face up to their uncomfortable complicity in the current dystopia that is our broken country.

What "white monopoly capital" is to the EFF, "race generalisation" is to Zille and her new model army — a dog whistle that tells your supporters that you’re on their side, and that your guise of analytical discourse is just a front for the usual race-based interest groups.

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