WILL Twitter outbursts eventually contribute to the downfall of Donald Trump as US President? Americans must surely be cringing at his remarks via a medium especially suited to the crass and the less articulate. But social media is also the Achilles Heel of other, far more intelligent and able politicians as the case of Western Cape premier Helen Zille has demonstrated.

In March, Zille visited Singapore and was highly impressed. On her return she immediately broadcast her view that Singapore had a number of advantages, one of which was a colonial inheritance. There was no word of South Africa, but when she was challenged repeated a view that colonialism had not been entirely negative. Contentious this may be – but hardly earth-shattering.

However, this is the twenty-first century and instant interconnectedness has unleashed an Internet mob. In South Africa, with an imploding governing party attempting the impossible feat of enriching its elite via criminal means while staving off the demands of the poverty-stricken masses, Zille’s tweets were a wonderful bonsella. Buti Manamela, deputy minister in the Presidency, in a windy speech to Parliament spoke of ‘Zille’s madness of colonial and apartheid glorification’. As a distraction from the real issues facing his fractured and fractious party this is a classic.

Such misleading rhetoric is to be expected, but harder to credit was Zille’s suspension from all Democratic Alliance (DA) activity pending a disciplinary hearing and the possibility that under South Africa’s system of political patronage she could be ousted as Western Cape premier. DA leader Mmusi Maimane demanded that Zille apologise to the party and nation. She claimed to have done so, but understandably refused to accept any misconduct on her part or to incriminate herself. Predictably, she argued that there were procedural problems with the DA’s case against her that amounted to a lack of fairness.

There is no doubt that Zille’s enthusiasm for Twitter led her into a political blunder, for which she deserved little sympathy. As a journalist of high repute and a seasoned and very successful politician of many years’ experience she should know better. The very format of tweets often makes opinions sound arrogant and unsubstantiated. They should be avoided by politicians except for the most banal, routine utterances. In this case there is little doubt that Zille harmed the DA’s image at a time when the ANC is vulnerable. Her party should have quietly told her that now is perhaps the time to announce her already imminent retirement from politics.

Instead it indulged in an orgy of breast-beating and a display of political correctness no doubt designed to outflank the ANC. Maimane claimed as an African to have been personally affronted by Zille’s tweets and that she had damaged the DA’s vote-capturing potential in the area of transformation. He also accused her of jeopardising the party’s reconciliation ‘project’ to build one nation. South Africa, said Maimane, is a country ‘in pain’ and in a crisis as a result of fear of the future. Most significantly, he claimed that South Africa’s is a fragile democracy due to anger about the past.

Political commentator James Myburgh described the reaction of Maimane and DA heavyweights as a ‘monumental act of self-harm’. Certainly they acted with political expedience rather than engaging in dialogue with Zille; and panicked in the face of ANC attacks based on Africanist outrage. At best this was very poor leadership. Nor was there an explanation about exactly what misdemeanour Zille had committed, political misjudgement aside.

She defended her comments on colonialism by saying, controversially again, that her view is ‘shared by almost every serious scholar of the legacy of colonialism.’ She goes on to argue, more persuasively, that the DA’s reputation is reliant on good governance (to which she has made a significant contribution), freedom and fairness; not historical interpretation. Eventually, the DA ceased its self-harm and came to an agreement that Zille would continue in office but withdraw from all party structures, a double case of having your cake and eating it.

There are broader issues in this drama that stretch beyond the interests of one political party: clues can be found in the utterances of both Zille and Maimane. What Zille could and should have said about reputable scholars is that every one of them would defend the right to raise a debatable issue. (And her original communications would have carried more weight if they had been put in more speculative, questioning terms.) But Maimane apparently believes that South Africa’s democracy is so threatened that raising the past can only be accepted in highly controlled, politically correct terms. The building of ‘one nation’, whatever that might mean, is seemingly jeopardised by one opinion about history. And the anger of some people is reason to embargo the views and utterances of some others.

This is a parody of democracy. Zille’s blunder has been compounded by the undermining of her freedom of speech. By that measure, how seriously does Maimane take the freedoms of other South Africans? While freedom of expression has its limits – racist and hate speech are unacceptable and should be prosecuted – there is a growing sense that it is increasingly circumscribed. Freedom of speech inevitably means that some people some of the time, or many people much of the time, will feel uncomfortable. That is part of the basic equation. The alternative is various levels of control of thought and expression that has no place in democracy and leads ultimately to dictatorship.

The antidote to a bad idea is a better, more rational argument. And if the latter cannot be found, then maybe it is not such a bad idea in the first place. The most disturbing evidence of this shrinking of debatable space lies in the universities – and not just in South Africa. In recent times there have been demands for ‘safe spaces’; in other words the exclusion from debate of certain controversial topics that may upset or discomfort individuals, or, more likely, noisy pressure groups. This is a fundamental threat to academic freedom and in South African terms both unconstitutional and undermining of democracy. Perhaps Maimane should be reminded of the importance of the ‘democratic project’ given the title of his party.

Power corrupts. There are already signs that where the DA has acquired power at municipal and provincial level its administration is not as clean as its apparent reputation. And a recent episode involving a lie detector test for DA councillors in Mogale City (West Rand) has revealed an authoritarian streak that the ANC, trying to stave off a secret House of Assembly ballot of conscience in the upcoming vote of no confidence in the President, has been able to exploit. This, and the recent furore over Zille, casts doubt on the commitment of South Africa’s main opposition party to constitutional values.

Maimane is absolutely correct: democracy is indeed fragile – which is why his handling of the Zille affair raises troubling questions.