How the DA 'westsplained' Biko

Chris Roper

The poor Democratic Alliance. They try so hard.

If we were being sympathetic, we’d say that their heart is in the right place, but their head is way off on another continent, gleefully picketing Bell Pottinger, or, in the case of their recent ‘Biko is MLK’ tweet, cosying up to western philosophy so as to make sense of their incomprehensible South African environment.

You probably know the tweet I mean. It was tweeted by @Our_DA, the Twitter handle with the covetous and unintentionally revealing pronoun.

Honestly, the DA are like the fat kid with the ball. Yes, yes, we get it. It’s your DA, you can take it away if we don’t play nicely. Thing is, political parties should actually belong to the people, not be in a negotiated relationship.

Still, in their defence, @Our_DA is a much better Twitter handle than @MyANC, which really does give away the fact that the party has been captured by one individual for his own ends (spoiler: it’s Jacob Zupta).

But back to the tweet. Tuesday, on the 40th anniversary of Steve Biko’s death, the DA tweets the following: “#SteveBiko stood for the idea which said that we are not defined by the colour of our skin but by the content of our character.”

Khaya Dlanga, a man who has mastered the art of being both stylish and acerbic, calls them out by tweeting: “Hey DA, wrong black guy. Also, wrong continent”.

And while it’s funny to suggest that the DA can’t tell one black guy from another, the killer insight is the fact that they can’t seem to tell one continent from another.

The DA’s answering tweet: “We were not suggesting he said it. We simply noted that it was an idea for which he stood.”

This is one of the reasons why the DA is so clueless when it comes to winning support: DA messages go on a strange journey. They seem to originate in the brains of people who have little empathy with the country and continent they inhabit, and who appear to be raised on a diet of Ayn Rand platitudes, highlights of Monty Python on YouTube, and all seven of the Rocky movies.

The messages are then filtered through a miasma of listicle websites designed to wash the lessons of revolutionaries, leaving only anodyne nuggets that have transformed the original anger into cute messages that fit onto t-shirts, and that pay lip service to the idea of change.

Finally, the messages are blown out of the ass of Mmusi Maimane, and gratefully breathed in by the coterie of middle-class capitalists who fervently believe that meritocracy is a real thing, rather than a convenient fiction to disguise privilege.

That’s the problem, dummies! Why use an American idea of freedom to explain the philosophy of a South African revolutionary, and worse, water it down so that it’ll be palatable to the same people who have turned Mandela into a Hallmark card?

Why do we always have to read ourselves against the West, and seek understanding and validation from outside? ‘Steve Biko: a world-class African thinker’, to paraphrase the City of Johannesburg’s awful slogan.

If we look at the DA article that their social media person was retweeting in bite-sized chunks, it’s clear that, superficially, the offending tweet was taken out of context, and in fact the DA were very firmly praising Biko.

But the real context is that it originates with a party with much of its ideological wherewithal still mired in the lessons and examples of the West, and where Helen Zille can actually believe that a discussion on the merits of colonialism is defensible.

As with the ‘Biko is MLK’ tweet, it matters not that there is a nuance to the argument. All that matters is that the DA have again revealed that they don’t speak the same language as the people they’re trying to woo.

- Chris Roper is an ICFJ Knight Fellow and editorial strategist for Code for Africa. He is also a director of the African Network of Centres for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR).

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.