Newsroom/SA Today/

Personal Reflections on Three Weeks of "Outrage"

Helen Zille, Leader of the Democratic Alliance
8 April 2012

People in public life should be held accountable for what they say and do.

But should we do penance for the things that people claim, believe, allege or assume we said or did, irrespective of the facts? 

Politics is full of people who create “pseudo issues” to provoke “pseudo outrage”.   They then demand a “genuine apology”, in order to legitimise the outrage they provoked. 

Should we play along with this cynical game?

The obvious answer is no. But nothing is obvious in politics. Perversions of the truth soon become perceptions of the truth which then become indistinguishable from the truth. When this happens, there is no point in drawing attention to the truth itself.  This simply provides an opportunity for a new round of pseudo outrage.

Here’s an example. Some readers may recall the commotion that ensued when it was alleged that I had called singer Simphiwe Dana a “professional black”. Actually, that is precisely the opposite of what I said. I called her a “highly respected black professional”. No matter how many times I pointed out the difference, the false perception was reinforced by repetition. 

Some people don’t hear what you say. They hear what they want to hear. And those looking for reasons to feel offended will always find one. In politics there is an additional incentive to do so:  generating outrage is an effective way of mobilising a constituency.

This explains why there are so many people in politics whose primary purpose is to “prove” that I (and the DA) are “racist”. As that useful Afrikaans saying goes:   As jy ‘n hond wil slaan sal jy altyd ‘n stok kry  (If you want to beat a dog, you will always find a stick).

That brings me to the matter of the “education refugees”,  which is how I described the thousands of learners who arrive during the course of the first term in Western Cape schools, because their right to education has been betrayed in their home province, the Eastern Cape.  These learners accounted for 44% of all new registrations, from Grade 1 to Grade 12, in Western Cape schools this year.  This student migration is the major reason we are undertaking an emergency school building programme to complete 45 new schools within our term of office (while the Eastern Cape spent a paltry 28% of its infrastructure budget last year).  The difference is clear: We treat all children as full, legitimate South African citizens and we respect their right to education. The ANC does not.

This is the real scandal.  But it was buried by the eruption of pseudo outrage about the word “refugees” - which was conveniently uncoupled from its qualifying noun “education”. Very soon it became “self-evident” that I had referred to all black people in the Western Cape as “refugees”.  And, of course, this was irrefutable “proof” of my “racism”.

Reflecting on these events, I can see what a "chop" I was to have created such an obvious opportunity for pseudo outrage. I have also derived a simple test to recognise it.

Pseudo outrage can be identified by three clear tell-tale signs.

The first give-away is the manipulation of “language” and “context”.
In primary school, I was taught that the meaning of a noun could be qualified (ie changed) by an adjective or another noun.

Take the word “police”.  A common-place, everyday word.  Its meaning changes when one adds a “qualifier”.  Thus the terms “traffic police”, “security police”, or “fashion police” mean very different things. The “qualifier” makes the difference. The same applies to the word “refugee”. Used alone, it means something different from “education refugee” or “refugee from reason” or “traffic refugee”, as the latest Economist newspaper described commuters in Sao Paulo.  As far as I am aware, the use of this phrase has not sparked outrage in Brazil, where they clearly understand metaphor and analogy.  South Africans generally understand these linguistic devices too, unless they are looking for a reason to  brand an opponent as “racist”. 

The second tell-tale sign of pseudo outrage is that people who know the facts tend to remain rational.

At the height of the “refugee” outrage, I was fascinated to read an interview with Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga.  She described the state of education in the Eastern Cape as a “horror story”.  She was under no illusion about the real outrage.

Then there was Lwando Buwa, a 19-year-old learner from Centane in the Eastern Cape who is now studying at the Centre for Science and Technology (COSAT), the specialist maths and science school in Khayelitsha , launched during my term as MEC for Education 12 years ago.

He was interviewed by a weekly newspaper, which was clearly attempting to keep the “refugee outrage” on the boil. The reporter’s only problem was that Lwando could not see what the problem was.

The article reported that Buwa was aware of the “refugee spat”  --  “but isn’t sure what all the fuss is about”.

“I think it’s good to go to a place where you can get more knowledge about life, and where you can get more education than before,” Buwa is quoted as saying.

But the clincher came when I was invited to answer to the presumed “epicentre of outrage”, Khayelitsha, on the local community station, Radio Zibonele. The interviewer spent the first 20 minutes warming up the listeners’ sense of outrage.  She then “opened the lines”.  To my astonishment, not a single caller raised the so-called “refugee” issue.  Every caller raised a service delivery matter: When will a particular area be electrified? How can the refuse removal service be improved? When will a certain low-income housing project be completed? And so on.

I undertook to provide each caller with the information they requested.  But to say I was amazed was an understatement. Perhaps, I thought, out of politeness, people were not confronting me directly but would rather do so by SMS, (which the presenter kept encouraging them to send). But when my office later went through the scores of SMS’s, not a single one mentioned the focus of the programme -- “education refugees”. Instead, they all raised real issues of concern in day-to-day service delivery, which we are trying to resolve, one by one.

The third tell-tale sign of pseudo outrage is the “double standard”.

Here is an example. During a recent sitting of the Provincial Legislature, an ANC member, Chris Stali, made a profoundly racist speech in Xhosa,  during which he accused the Provincial Minister of Transport, Robin Carlisle, of “not caring” if  black people were injured or killed in traffic accidents.

I interjected:  “Ububhanxa” which in everyday discourse means “what nonsense”.  Our office dictionary translates the word as “foolishness”.

Well, you guessed it:  it was my interjection that caused the outrage.
The Speaker at first saw nothing wrong with my use of the term.  But after repeated angry objections, he requested me to withdraw it, because it could be perceived as an insult. I did.

Stali then took off again, this time about my use of Xhosa.

He turned to me and said:  “I want to move that the honourable member should not speak Xhosa because she is insulting our language……So she must stop talking Xhosa, because this is a language that we like, and it is our own language.”

Now, just substitute “English” for “Xhosa” in the above sentence.  And just imagine me saying this to a Xhosa speaking member of the legislature.

This would have provided good cause for genuine outrage.  But if an ANC member says these things?  Well, that’s another matter. After all, this is South African politics -- where pseudo-outrage is the name of the game.

The great tragedy is that this “outrage displacement” means that the real issues – such as access to basic services and the quality of education for disadvantaged children – get less and less public attention. And this, of course, suits the ANC’s purposes perfectly.

But whatever the efforts of the pseudo outrage machine, the Democratic Alliance will stay vocal on the real issues, on behalf of all South Africans, and in pursuit of a better life for all.