A former Cape Town Mayor sparks anger after using a derogatory term online

The road to Twitter hell is paved with good intentions. Especially from politicians. So it proved for South Africa's opposition leader when she weighed into a debate on racism in Cape Town.

Singers, comedians and countless other tweeters had strong opinions on this perennial hot potato, and before long the tag #CapeTownIsRacist was a trending topic on Twitter's South African site.

But it was Helen Zille, a white woman and leader of the Democratic Alliance, who caused an online hurricane by using the term “professional black.”

It all began, according to the Times of South Africa, when model and singer Lindiwe Suttle tweeted about the racism she has suffered in Cape Town, the country's most popular tourist destination.

“No matter how famous/rich you are, you're still a 2nd class citizen if you're Black in Cape Town, @helenzille when's the change you spoke about happening,” she wrote.

Ms Zille, a former Mayor of Cape Town and now Premier of Western Cape province, shot back: “What complete nonsense,” going on to say it was “a baseless assertion”.

Then others waded in. Marang Setshwaelo, who describes herself as a publicist and entrepreneur, posted: “Someone says they feel racism, ‘What Nonsense!' is NOT an appropriate response.” Again Ms Zille, a prolific tweeter, countered: “They did NOT say they ‘feel' racism. They said Cape Town IS racist. BIG difference. I respect feelings but not blanket accusations.” As Ms Zille asked for proof of incidents of racism, many Twitter users gave examples of places where they were repeatedly refused entry.

Simphiwe Dana, a singer, sent Ms Zille a tweet: “Are you disputing/denying that Cape Town is racist? Is this because some of your friends are black?” Then, the Times reported, when one user tweeted that they had bumped into Ms Dana at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, Ms Zille tweeted: “Sorry? I thought she left Cape Town claiming it is ‘racist'”. Ms Dana responded: “Yes ma'am I did. Are you disputing that it's racist?”, before later tweeting: “It is embarrassing that as a leader you would deny people their experiences. Try live in a black skin for once. You have the power to change things. Use it!” Ms Zille then tweeted: “You're a highly respected black professional. Don't try to be a professional black. It demeans you.” One user asked her to define a “professional black”, to which Ms Zille replied: “People who base their life and purpose around their colour.” When asked by another user for a definition of a “professional white”, she said: “It is someone who is self-obsessed and claims victimhood because they are white.” By now criticism of Ms Zille was coming thick and fast, while #professionalblack also began trending. Lebo Mashile tweeted: “Thank you @helenzille for consistently coming up with innovative ways to alienate black people. Sincerely, professional black.” And Ms Dana herself hit back with: “So Helen Zille is gonna teach me how to be an acceptable black. I'm ever so so grateful.” Cape Town is the only major city in South Africa where black people are in the minority and not run by the governing African National Congress. Critics say it has moved more slowly than others in breaking down racial segregation and inequality.

Earlier this year President Jacob Zuma described Cape Town as a “racist” place with an “extremely apartheid system”.

Capetonian tweeters began a fightback with their own trending topic: #CapeTownIsAwesome. But comedian Loyiso Gola drew a simple lesson: “I have been on twitter 2 years and have 70 000 followers and what have I learnt. DON'T ARGUE ON TWITTER. #CapeTownIsRacist pointless.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011

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