Long Read | Helen Zille: more than just a jump to the right

Her journey from anti-apartheid journalist to tweeting politician has seen Zille become a purveyor of paranoid anti-intellectualism and right wing ideas.

On 7 October 1977, the Rand Daily Mail led with a front-page story that bravely exposed the lies the apartheid state had told about the murder of Steve Biko in police custody. The young journalist who wrote the piece, Helen Zille, received repeated death threats after the story was published.

Zille was acting within a tradition of South African liberalism that no longer has any meaningful political existence. Despite the limitations and failures of that political tradition, it can’t be denied that its leading figures, such as Helen Suzman and Alan Paton, saw themselves as fundamentally committed to antiracism and a general social progressiveness.

Today, many of the people who offer the most strident defence of liberalism in South Africa draw their inspiration from a growing Euro-American political sensibility that, while not uniform, is often organised around barely disguised racism, misogyny, xenophobia, Islamophobia and fervent support for socioeconomic inequality. The bulk of their public discourse is aimed at opposing limited antiracist measures and denouncing critiques of capitalism and patriarchy. 

From her views about “black privilege” to her support for the idea that colonialism had some upsides, Zille has become notorious for making comments about South Africa that strike many as more opposed to antiracism than to racism. 

A study of her Twitter timeline and opinion columns quickly reveals that her now often explicitly right-wing views extend beyond South African politics. For Zille, the world is entering a new dark age in which free speech and tolerance are under assault from fanatical, leftist “identity politics”. In her eyes, this left-wing world view, which she presents in Orwellian terms, holds that “white bad, the rest good; cishet bad, trans good”.

She claims that “the huge swing to [President Donald] Trump in the US was, in large measure, a reaction to the extreme form of left-wing identity politics that spread like a malignant tumour from American campuses into society as a whole, seeking to blame whiteness and white privilege for all the problems of minorities”. In other words, the electoral support in the United States for Trump’s racism and xenophobia is explained, and implicitly excused, as an understandable response to antiracist academic theory.

Zille sees a Manichean reality in which hardworking and decent people, free of racial ideology, are besieged by hordes of “social justice warriors” and infected with “identity politics” and a sense of “victimhood” by leftist academics. She positions herself as a voice of reason standing against a political Left that, in her conspiratorial vision, is at once a lunatic fringe with no real social support base and in charge of much of the world’s governments, universities and mass media.

This kind of paranoid anti-intellectualism is typical of the far right in North America, Australasia and Europe. In this milieu, the grasp of the academic thought subjected to attack is largely hallucinatory. For example, the assumption, shared by Zille, that postmodernism, critical race theory and “identity politics” all derive from Marxism is fundamentally incorrect.

Zille’s views accord with the right wing of the DA, which holds that South Africa is suffering from too much egalitarianism and government regulation, and needs to be steered on to a path of social austerity and a less regulated form of capitalism. 

In this ideological world, any attempts to redress or even discuss racial, gender and socioeconomic inequality are seen as inherently irrational and totalitarian. Every move against racial, gender and class hierarchy is interpreted as an attack on freedom, and any politics that offers an alternative to Hobbesian capitalism as dangerous heresy.  

The reactionary echo chamber

Zille presents her views as grounded in her undeniable accumulation of political experience. Her regular column in the Daily Maverick online newspaper is called From the Inside. But there is nothing original in her opinions. On the contrary, she offers a boilerplate expression of contemporary reactionary politics. 

Of course, there are substantial ideological and political differences within the politics of the Right. But a range of groups and individuals converge around ideas that “free speech” and “Western civilisation” are under attack from a variety of enemies. These can include everything from “cultural Marxism” to “postmodernism”, Muslim immigration and feminism.

These views are spread through social media and on YouTube, where there is an entire ecosystem of reactionary pundits who, as writer and columnist Kevin Roose puts it, portray themselves as “truth-telling rebels doing battle against humourless social justice warriors”. 

This opinion echo chamber is the cultural wing of the hard-right global political shift. The electoral victories of Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, the growing power of far-right political parties in the European Union (EU), Brexit, lone-wolf attacks like the shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the recent elections in Australia and India highlight the growing dangers of a politics that is explicitly organised around seething bigotry and cultural chauvinism. 

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Much of the current political Left fears that we may be witnessing a return to the fascism of the 1930s and the early 1940s, the darkest days of the past century in Europe. But as philosopher Enzo Traverso says, focusing on the continuities of today’s radical right with the past can obscure the novelty of an emerging authoritarian political style that arises from contemporary culture. The new radical right slouches out of a world of shopping malls, gated communities and YouTube rather than the apocalyptic catastrophe of World War I.

As Traverso puts it, Trump is not a Hitler or a Mussolini speaking over the radio to a mass audience hungry for torchlight rallies and conquest. Rather, he’s a reality show buffoon presiding over a culture of atomised individuals and espousing extreme policies in the name of freedom, democracy and entrepreneurship. 

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In turn, his core audience are in their McMansions gleefully watching migrant children being forced into cages on US television channel Fox News, before turning to Facebook to share deranged memes about how jihadists are coming to steal their guns. Spectacle and consumerism are mixed in with a voyeuristic support for revanchist social policy. 

By focusing exclusively on fascism as it appeared in Europe in the 1930s, the “F” word, we may miss the reality that there is a much bigger galaxy of right-wing ideologies, some of which may reject overt racism or nationalism while still fighting for a world of hyper-capitalism, brutal inequalities and vicious social hierarchies. Increasingly, it pursues this elitist politics under the guise of defending liberal freedom. 

The culture war 

In his book, The Reactionary Mind, political philosopher Corey Robin says conservatism is motivated by a profound sense of loss emanating from the belief that a long-established social hierarchy, a hierarchy that had come to seem natural to some, has been overthrown. 

Political conservatives feel that they have been profoundly and unjustly robbed of respect and entitlement. Politically, getting back what belongs to them requires putting social inferiors and the lower orders back in their place. But they also feel that they are themselves oppressed by nebulously defined elites. 

No matter how rich or powerful, right-wingers always feel that they are the underdog, as clearly seen in Trump’s persecution complex. Reactionary politics are not so much about returning to an idealised past as restoring a sense of power and control to people who feel their privilege and status, imagined as a natural expression of a virtuous social order, are under illegitimate threat in the present. 

A similar backlash shaped right-wing politics in the 1960s and 1970s. Social change swept the globe in the form of the civil rights movement, the antiwar counterculture, decolonisation, feminism, gay rights, labour militancy and even psychedelia. 

For the forward-thinking sections of the political Left, the road seemed open for new possibilities for equality, autonomy and freedom. But within the militant right, a sense of panic set in, driven by the belief that an organic order of Christian, white, male-led and pro-capitalist power was under attack from alien forces. It is notable that Zille approvingly retweeted a quote from Pope Benedict attacking the “permissiveness” of those decades.

But cultural changes also meant that overt racism and sexism were less acceptable in public discourse, with the result that reactionary political ideas needed to be repackaged in a new, more libertine guise. A key mechanism for the political Right to be able to advance was the promulgation of neoliberal economic policies, presented as a means of achieving individual freedom from bureaucratic state control, a rhetorical strategy successfully used by former US president Ronald Reagan and former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher to reorganise their respective societies in the interests of elites. 

Media war machine

Despite its economic successes, the political Right was convinced it was losing the battle for broader cultural influence. A large media apparatus of think-tanks, talk show radio hosts, campus groups, lobbyists, tabloid newspapers, and television and newspaper pundits emerged to push a simple message: progressive elites in the media and universities were using culture to remake society in their own depraved image. By contrast, the political Right was presented as a heroic group of rebels standing up to this Orwellian groupthink by defending traditional values. Bigotry and selfishness were presented as virtuous acts of resistance to a permissive mainstream consensus. 

Ironically, much of this “anti-elitist” politics was being funded by hugely wealthy, politically extreme conservatives like the Koch brothers who, as journalist Jane Mayer details in her book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, have spent enormous amounts funding reactionary politics and lobbying for deregulation and the destruction of state social programmes. 

It’s the old snake oil of centuries of racist and exploitative ideology poured into shiny new bottles with the aim of allowing the rich to grow ever richer while their electorates take psychological comfort in nationalism, racism and conservative gender identities.

While centred in the US, the vast echo chamber of the conservative media machine has a planetary reach. As journalist and author David Neiwert observes in Alt-America: The Rise of The Radical Right in the Age of Trump, the digital age allows us to construct our social lives online, allowing people to exist in toxic bubbles of propaganda and enabling new political possibilities for the political Right.

The Trump campaign convinced its supporters that a New York real estate baron living in a golden tower was an authentic man of the people. Brexit brought together the British super-rich, eager to escape EU taxation oversight, with nationalist sentiment and presented the leave vote as some kind of Churchillian resistance to foreign influence. As Dartmouth College professor of sociology Brooke Harrington puts it, “What has been sold to working-class and middle-class voters as ‘a war for the little guy’ is in practical terms the wish list of the ultra-wealthy worldwide”. 

Social media allowed extremist viewpoints new levels of cultural exposure. The alt-right, a loose conglomeration of neo-Nazis, misogynists and other extremists who used irony to try to make their message of racism, hatred and genocidal fantasies more palatable to a younger audience, was spawned on digital platforms. Their online support for Trump gave them substantial media notoriety, which figures like white nationalist Richard Spencer and former writer for far-right website Breitbart Milo Yiannopoulos unsuccessfully sought to convert into mainstream political and media success, only to find that their views were still considered too overtly toxic within the broader conservative movement. 

‘Intellectual Dark Web’

But while much of the alt-right has receded from view, many of its antiprogressive and misogynist beliefs are echoed in the more socially acceptable “intellectual Dark Web” centred around people like Canadian celebrity academic Jordan Peterson. 

Peterson and other less successful personalities market themselves as formidable intellectuals rationally dissecting the hysterical puritanism of the left. But in general, their books, YouTube videos and podcasts boil down to little more than simplistic, moralistic barking about “cultural Marxism” and “postmodernism”, concepts they clearly do not understand. 

While Peterson’s entire brand is based on his apparent heroic defence of masculinity and civilisation against corrosive socialist ideas, he recently acknowledged that all his insights into the red menace come from a single – and clearly inept – reading of The Communist Manifesto

Research has shown that conservative online pundits serve as the gateway to even more noxious politics, with YouTube algorithms pushing viewers to harder-right politics. 

While some conservative media stars may performatively disavow the far-right, their shared talking points on “cultural Marxism” and “free speech” help insert their fans into a network of radicalisation. These ideas have dangerous consequences in the real world. The Quebec mosque and Christchurch shooters followed alt-lite personalities like US conservative political commentators Ben Shapiro and Candace Owens. 

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The free-speech train

In South Africa, an entire cottage industry of right-wingers is trying to ride the free-speech train. And Zille is often happy to support it.  

She was a guest on Jerm Warfare, the YouTube channel of Jeremy “Jerm” Nell, who charitably describes himself as South Africa’s 39th best cartoonist. Nell’s poorly drawn cartoons are full of standard alt-right talking points. A report in The Citizen newspaper last year alleged that “Jerm appears to have lobbied to crowdfund cartoons on race and IQ theory”, referring to the crackpot racist pseudoscience popular with white supremacists.

Zille has also appeared on the Renegade Report podcast, formerly hosted by Cliff Central. The programme is co-hosted by one of the 10 founders of the libertarian Capitalist Party of South Africa, Roman Cabanac, another Zille enthusiast. While the show features primarily other libertarians complaining about socialism, it has also given a platform to outright white nationalists such as Afrikaans singer Steve Homeyr and filmmaker and AfriForum’s Ernst Roets.

Zille has retweeted from the account Conscious Caracal, which describes itself as offering thoughts on politics and philosophy, and regularly posts discredited claims about white genocide and farm murders.

That page, in turn, shares content from people like YouTuber Willem Petzer. As journalist Daniel Friedman reported, leaked chats showed that Petzer has shared pictures of himself reading Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler’s autobiographical manifesto, Mein Kampf, says former president Nelson Mandela was a “terrorist” and has bragged about hosting “the best racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic and Islamophobic chat in South Africa”.  

To be clear, this is not to say that Zille endorses such viewpoints – she plainly doesn’t. However, in the intellectual ecosystem of angry white conservatism that she inhabits, her reactionary talking points are often shared by outright blood-and-soil fascists. 

In 1977, she may have been on the liberal edge of the left. In 2019, she is undeniably inspired by and part of a diffuse new right. This political and cultural movement is fundamentally rooted in a backlash to challenges to white supremacy and “traditional” gender roles.

Zille’s ideological trajectory is designed to convince her core support base of privileged, primarily white South Africans that they are victims of oppression at the hands of people concerned about racism and ongoing black impoverishment. This often paranoid politics of resentment connects her, often directly, to an international, rightward shift that is trying to reboot toxic ideologies under new guises.

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