Jacob Zuma, Ebrahim Patel and  Helen Zille. Picture: GCIS
Jacob Zuma, Ebrahim Patel and Helen Zille. Picture: GCIS

Premier of the Western Cape Helen Zille has struck a nerve on the sensitive skin of our nation’s exposed body.

Why? She did not make offensive comments about black people; nor did she diminish black suffering.

She used Twitter to comment on Singapore’s stellar post-colonial achievements and recognised the infrastructural, technological and political legacy on which the country’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew built his economic miracle.

Still, many are baying for blood.

Agreed, Twitter is not the ideal medium for conducting this debate, given its restriction to 140 characters and, in her framing of the discussion, white Zille has clearly struck a black nerve.

Surely there is a gulf to be navigated and a route that intellectually honest, engaged citizens
need to investigate?

Perhaps we should examine why that nerve is so exposed, so susceptible to injury, and whether the injury derives from perception or fact. If we all react with immediate outrage, we do ourselves, and the country we are trying to build, no favours. Unless, of course, we are being pragmatic and see her comments as a potential detraction that will reduce the number of black votes the DA hopes to garner for electoral success in 2019.

Even so, President Jacob Zuma has characterised the voter segment the DA is targeting as comprising "clever blacks".

Paradoxically implicit in this disingenuous description is a recognition of an ability of voters to be open to evidentiary inquiry as opposed to the populist sway that identifies many of those influenced by patronage and relative ignorance. Surely dispassionate debate, by all concerned, is the very stuff that should be part of any political process — particularly in the run-up to elections.

If we seek to shield ourselves from such debate, we run the risk of glossing over important issues that deserve airing. To balk at any inquiring attempt at discourse around this — which, by its very nature, is often uncomfortable — represents a failing. Because in our divided society, only honest and respectful interrogation represents the road to understanding.

We cannot pander to taboos. If there is a boil, it has to be lanced lest it infect the very body of our society; lest it prevent us from building a future predicated on a clear understanding of the past.

What is so difficult about coming to terms with the need for open inquiry? It makes for honest politics and should be welcomed.

Of course, there is a body of people — mainly white — who will agree with this view, for the wrong reasons, because of a deep-seated racism that has now provided them with a perceived last stand.

And there is a body of people — largely black — who will balk at this view, because they see it as a removal of the bandage that covers a festering sore.

Issues of the past

Surely, between this proverbial bandanna and bandage, there is a gulf to be navigated and a route that intellectually honest, concerned and engaged citizens need to investigate?

We travelled this road, in part, when our new nation was born and we embraced the Truth & Reconciliation Commission.

Perhaps it’s time for version 2 of the truth commission. Perhaps it’s time for a nationwide colloquium on the subject — one where, in the words of Mao Zedong, we allow a hundred flowers to bloom and a thousand schools of thought to contend. But then let’s not, like Mao, silence the proponents of a particular view.

The pressing issues of policy that will determine our future — on land, the economy, health, housing transport, labour and more — are robustly debated.

Why this refusal to broach the thorny issues of the past?

These are the matters that, in our postcolonial and postapartheid society, need to be addressed.

If you are unable to deal with the past, you’re ill-equipped to deal with the future.

* Cachalia is a senior member of the DA. He writes in his personal capacity

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