Helen Zille, the IRR and the increasingly crowded right-wing closet

SOUTH AFRICA - Cape Town - 25 July 2019 - Former premier of the Western Cape Hellen Zille speaking at the Kelvin Grove Press Club. Video: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA)

The former DA leader’s new role at the think-tank should surprise no one who has followed its trajectory.

Helen Zille wants to unite the middle.

At least this is what she says she wants to do, following her announcement that she is joining the Institute of Race Relations (IRR).

Others, however, have suggested that both Zille and the IRR are not centrists as they claim but right-wingers, especially relative to the political landscape in South Africa as a whole.

Perhaps Zille felt that, “unite the right”, while catchy, was not a good slogan, sharing its name as it does with a US rally that saw white supremacists demonstrating what they like to do when they unite: which is to be racist, antisemitic and violent.

It’s more likely, of course, that Zille believes she is indeed a centrist, and that the IRR believes they are too. This, I would argue, is a delusion.

Many have expressed surprise at Zille joining an organisation preoccupied with race relations. She is, after all, best known in recent years for expressing what many considered racist ideas on Twitter.

This shows that many take the IRR’s name at face value, rather than seeing it – as some who have followed their progress have suggested – as an ironic one. While the IRR in its current incarnation has many goals, from an outsider’s perspective creating more stable race relations is not one of them.

Where is my evidence, as I can hear the organisation’s small but extremely vocal following asking (they are generally people who claim to be more rational and concerned with facts than those on the left – who they often incorrectly assume are one uniform and unified front, consisting entirely of those concerned only with identity politics and “wokeness”)?

My evidence, then, would be as follows:

Exhibit A – David Bullard

Earlier this year, the IRR hosted a talk in Stellenbosch about what “the future really holds for South Africa”. Rather than a panel of diverse voices to give their views on this complex topic, they invited one man.

David Bullard. Not a political analyst, not a professor (although he refers to himself as one on Twitter), but a disgraced newspaper columnist infamous for a satirical column titled “Uncolonised Africa wouldn’t know what it was missing”.

The column imagined a world where colonisation never happened. Africans as a result would have had no access to television, internet, roads, cars, or – probably worst of all in Bullard’s estimation – whisky.

It was, basically, ahead of its time, taking its place in the same WhatsApp group as Zille’s later tweets, attempting to cast colonialism’s legacy as not only negative.

Reacting to the backlash their choice of guest received, the IRR phrased it as a freedom of speech issue, which I felt was disingenuous, as no one was arguing that Bullard shouldn’t be allowed to speak, only that an organisation claiming to be advancing race relations wouldn’t invite him to.

In a right of reply, the institute’s head of media, Michael Morris, said everyone should be allowed to speak, whether they were Bullard or the BLF’s Andile Mngxitama. Once again, disingenuous, as the IRR would never invite Mngxitama to speak. Nor should they.

Exhibit B – Allies with AfriForum

AfriForum and the IRR have enjoyed a fruitful relationship. While it isn’t currently listed as a donor, it used to be, and the two have released reports together, teaming up to oppose expropriation without compensation and to take AgriSA to task over their statistics on farm murders.

According to Morris, “AfriForum, AfriSake and Solidarity have in the past commissioned bespoke analyses and advice from the IRR”, which, he added, maintained editorial independence.

They don’t always see eye to eye – the IRR’s Gareth van Onselen had nothing nice to say about an AfriForum documentary some saw as glorifying the legacy of Hendrik Verwoerd, leading to an angry response from Ernst Roets, who asked if the organisation had changed its principles.

Even this public spat between AfriForum and the IRR was telling, as Roets seemed let down that the IRR dared disagree with his lobby group, describing the think-tank as a “respected ally” in “the battle for the free exchange of ideas”.

He also implied that the issue should have been discussed in private prior to Van Onselen’s column.

While AfriForum, like Zille and the IRR, do not consider themselves a right-wing organisation, this self-perception is, in my view, severely at odds with how the lobby group is seen by the majority of South Africans.

Exhibit C – ‘White people experience more racism’, and other polls

The institute has been accused of releasing biased polls, which political analyst Sinethemba Zonke described as asking “questions slanted so they would get the answers they wanted”.

Most recently, one of their polls, which was reported as concluding that white South Africans are more often the victims of racism than their black counterparts, received a strong reaction online.

It was slated as a “silly and simplistic poll on a serious and complex issue” and was accused of having “no supporting stats”, and for creating questions “to give a narrow outcome favourable to the IRR position” – although former IRR employee Gwen Ngwenya argued that the backlash was caused by the way the poll was reported on by TimesLive.

Previous polls on public opinion regarding land reform and employment equity conducted by the IRR, meanwhile, continue to be questioned.

Right wing? Who, me?

IRR supporters may argue that none of these things truly cast the IRR as a right-wing think tank, but that to me leads to a vexing question. Why are so many who are seen to be on the right – AfriForum, Zille, the IRR and Ngwenya, for example – apparently either unaware or unwilling to self-define as such?

If the entrance of Zille to the fray has one positive result, it will be that the discrepancy between what the IRR’s name implies they do and what they actually do will be better understood.

The IRR’s enthusiastic defenders, a fanbase mostly comprising a small but vocal and growing set of classical liberals, libertarians and conservatives which often overlaps with support for AfriForum, the Capitalist Party of South Africa and Zille, bring up the organisation’s record in opposing apartheid.

Something they have in common with Zille is that both were seen as belonging to the left during apartheid.

But due as much to changes in their own views as to the country’s shifted reality – driven by the majority black people who for the most part feel the political end of apartheid was only the beginning, and are now engaged in another fight, for economic freedom – they are now considered by many, whether they like it or not, as members of the reactionary, conservative right.

The IRR is not an organisation that deals with race relations, but is one pushing a specific classical liberal agenda.

Which they are, of course, welcome to be. They just shouldn’t be surprised when it gets pointed out that what’s inside does not appear to match what’s on the box.

The Citizen digital news editor Daniel Friedman. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark.

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