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02 August 2021 | Story Sanet Madonsela | Photo Supplied
Helen Zille unpacking the notion of ‘wokeness’ and its context within the broader South Africa during a virtual book discussion with Prof Hussein Solomon.

The Department of Political Studies and Governance at the University of the Free State hosted Helen Zille, Chairperson of the Federal Council of the Democratic Alliance, to discuss her book #StayWoke: Go Broke: Why South Africa won’t survive America’s culture wars (and what you can do about it). Zille was in discussion with the Academic Head of Department, Prof Hussein Solomon. She unpacked the notion of ‘wokeness’ – also known as the ‘critical theory’, as well as the emergence of a ‘cancel culture’ in broader society.

Zille explained how the woke ideology combines post-modernism and neo-Marxism and why intersectionality often features in the lexicons (vocabulary) of South African universities. 

Wokeness and its threat to our Constitution 

Zille explained that wokeness threatens South Africa’s constitutional democracy. “Unlike America, South Africa’s democratic institutions are fragile and new and may not be able to survive the wave of wokeness,” she said. She further explained how the ‘properly wokes’ request to have separate graduations for African students could not work and how South Africa’s Constitution promotes inclusion.  

Zille believes that the country needs its young people to be critical thinkers, as this can assist in stabilising the country’s economy and internal challenges. She believes that society needs a range of paradigms to make sense of the world, processes, programmes, and history and that it should not be overly reliant on a singular view, as this could have negative implications on the country in the long term. Zille concluded that she remains hopeful for the country, as its citizens are intelligent, sensible, ethical, and rational enough to move it forward and assist in reaching its full potential.  

Wokeness aims to overthrow societal hierarchy 

Zille notes in her book that 'wokeness is an attempt to invert ‘society’s conventional hierarchy of privilege in order to promote marginalised identities.'  This stems from a struggle against inborn attributes of personal identity such as race, sex, sexuality, gender, and disability. It believes that society comprises power hierarchies that determine what should be known and what shouldn’t, as well as how events and actions should be interpreted. It believes that social justice activists need to expose unequal power relations and dismantle them in order to achieve social justice. 

Unequal power relations in this regard include racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia, and other prejudices. Moreover, it argues that knowledge needs to be decolonised in order to achieve social justice. Decolonisation would require stripping knowledge of the methods and contents used in Western society. While it ‘seeks’ to promote inclusion, wokeness has begun to symbolise an extreme intolerance and is often used as a tool to enable a cancel culture. As a movement, it has been used to tear down statues, deface paintings, and monitor others’ speech infringements to ensure conformity. Rather than engage in rational debates with those who share dissenting views, online woke communities silence people with opposing views. This threatens social progress. Zille’s book represents a valuable contribution and a necessary attempt to understand the phenomenon and why it would not work in the South African context. 

Having personally experienced the wave of wokeness and cancel culture, Zille is well placed to advise others experiencing such tactics. She advises them to recognise what happened and to remain calm; to question whether they said or did anything objectionable or whether they just undermined the woke narrative; not to apologise or resign, as it feeds into the narrative that they have done something wrong; to seek legal counsel if they can afford it; not to engage online mobs; and not to give up. 

Watch recording of webinar below:

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