Intellectual Dishonesty in Max du Preez’s Open Letter to Helen Zille


Max du Preez recently wrote an open letter to Helen Zille regarding the tweets she made acknowledging colonialism has not had strictly bad consequences, and which landed her in trouble with the Democratic Alliance. His letter, titled “Dear Helen, please call it off”, however, has some significant instances of intellectual dishonesty. I will only speak to some of those instances here, and recommend you read Gwen Ngwenya’s brilliant analysis of Du Preez’s letter as well.

“The fact that you felt you had to make this obvious point on Twitter suggests that you meant something else, something more.”

Du Preez is not putting words in Zille’s mouth – he’s putting thoughts in her head. While most reasonable individuals agree on the “obvious point” that colonialism did not one-dimensionally yield a negative legacy for South Africa, the outrage to Zille’s tweet suggests that there is a notable segment of the population who disagree. Du Preez himself writes that it should have been clear to Zille that the tweet would be offensive. Why he decides to imply racism or some other kind of silly bigotry here is unclear, and unethical.

“Instead of quickly stating that your first tweet was a mistake and you were sorry about it when you saw the initial reactions…”

He does not mention against which standard the ‘mistake-worthiness’ of Zille’s tweet is being measured. Does Du Preez mean to say that when someone is insulted (“the initial reactions”), an apology should, by default, be extended? I struggle to believe that someone as intelligent as Du Preez would endorse such a dangerous level of relativism. I have, in the past, felt insulted by Du Preez’ articles, after all, and I know of others who found them equally offensive. Would it be reasonable for us to expect an apology from Du Preez? Zille’s public figure status, mind you, does not change the principle at play here. The truth is not only true if it is said by someone with a low profile.

“You have single-handedly made sure that the party you helped build [could not appeal to more South Africans opposing the ANC].”

Du Preez uses the word “single-handedly” incorrectly here. It takes, at least, two to tango. Maimane is not at all innocent in this saga, as he played the principal role in making a national controversy out of what can at most be described as a silly tweet on a silly platform which does not allow more than 140 characters.

“Mmusi Maimane should have been [standing against corruption by the ANC]. Instead your conduct undermined him…”

Surely, Du Preez cannot be endorsing what seems to be despot-level personality politics?

Are individual Democratic Alliance members – and the premier of a province – not at liberty to have their own political profiles, styles, and opinions? Is the DA this centralized that the pettiest and most innocent remark by a DA-affiliate can now be construed as “undermining” the party leader and thus be actionable?

Does Du Preez imply that the DA is such an immature party that it cannot afford to allow members their own identities? If this is true, the DA does not offer an alternative to the ANC.

This would be extremely worrying, but Du Preez says it, like much of the rest of the letter, without further ado. He appears to be riding the wave of anti-Zille sentiment rather than trying to construct considered arguments against the many imperfections that comprehend Helen Zille. He can do better – this is just petty.