The screen grab of a recent Twitter post by a DA supporter.

Johannesburg - As political parties ratchet up their election rhetoric, supporters of DA leader Helen Zille have taken to Twitter to liken ANC politicians to the Nazis.

Although the comments violate the Electoral Code of Conduct and skirt the boundaries of hate speech, the DA refuses to condemn them or distance the party’s leader from them.

In the latest incident, an apparently DA-supporting Twitter user using the handle @Blow_Back_Time tweeted Zille and party spokesman Gavin Davis: “@helenzille @gavdavis This is the real face of Gwede Mantashe.”

The tweet contained a photo of Adolf Hitler wearing a swastika armband, next to a picture of Mantashe, the ANC’s secretary-general. A swastika was photo-shopped onto the lapel of Mantashe’s jacket.

Hitler, the founder of modern white supremacist ideology, led the German Nazi party from 1921 until his suicide in 1945.

As dictator of Nazi Germany he was responsible for the violent extermination of 6 million Jews as well as countless Roma, black people, homosexuals, communists and political opponents.

While @Blow_Back_Time’s tweet did not come from a DA-linked account, it was directly addressed to Zille and Davis, her spokesman and senior adviser who has been nominated to go to Parliament on the party’s ticket after this year’s poll.

The two seemed to see nothing wrong with likening a black South African politician to a genocidal white supremacist, and refused to condemn the @Blow_Back_Time tweet despite a storm of protests from many of their own followers.

Instead Zille only seemed to encourage @Blow_Back_Time in her response to the tweet: “@Blow_Back_Time @gavdavis Ironic because that is what the ANC calls me,” she tweeted back.

She produced no evidence of the ANC calling her Hitler or a Nazi.

Several Twitter users responded to Zille saying they expected a more appropriate response from the official leader of the opposition, but she did not respond despite being prolific on the site.

Zille has over 400 000 followers on Twitter, and a response to the Nazi tweet would have gone to all of them.

The tweet in question is in clear violation of the country’s Electoral Code of Conduct of 1998 which states: “Registered parties and candidates are not permitted to speak or act in a way that incites violence or intimidation or publish false or defamatory allegations.”

Arguably the tweet would also easily meet the criteria to be labelled as hate speech or incitement, were it to be taken before the SA Human Rights Commission.

Despite this, Davis defended the Nazi slur on free speech grounds.

“Twitter is a place where freedom of speech reigns because there are no gatekeepers telling people what they can and can’t say. Long may it stay that way,” he said.

He said the tweet appeared to be comparing attempts to censor the DA’s SMSes and TV/radio adverts with the Gestapo’s clampdowns in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, although @Blow_Back_Time’s tweet made no mention of these incidents.

“As an aside: ANC members have on occasion described Helen Zille as Hitler, despite the fact that members of her family were murdered by the Nazis,” he alleged. Like Zille, Davis cited no specific incident in which the ruling party directed the slur at his party’s leader.

Although Davis and Zille seemed keen to accuse the ANC of using personal slurs against their opponents, recent examples actually show the ruling party coming out against members who use abusive language against opponents in public, even if sometimes the condemnation is prompted by public pressure.

Zille’s tacit approval of the Hitler slur may be explained by the fact that she herself is not above using Nazism to smear and silence people whose views she disagrees with.

In 2011 she used the term “the Aids Gestapo” to describe the Treatment Action Campaign and other Aids activists who thought her government’s use of a lottery scheme to encourage Western Cape residents to take HIV tests was not a good idea.

She’s also acquired a reputation on Twitter for intemperate, often race-baiting attacks on those who don’t see eye to eye with her.

Despite her party’s stated desire to attract more black support, particularly from the growing middle class, she has previously betrayed intolerance towards black professionals who disagreed with her on the social network. She dismissed musician Simphiwe Dana as “a professional black” over the latter’s complaints over stark racial inequalities in Cape Town.

An ANC NEC member on the sub-committee for elections monitoring, speaking off the record, said Zille’s actions created a bad environment for elections to take place in.

“We all accept elections are times of heightened contestation and robust discourse.

“We welcome robust engagement, but if you start peddling falsehoods and start using inciting or defamatory language that lowers the tone and the content of the discourse, it weakens the foundation on which people are meant to make an electoral choice,” he said.

In an e-mail, Zille dismissed queries over the tweet as “entirely pathetic”.

“One of the ANC’s MPs put something on her Facebook describing me directly as Hitler. That is why I said the tweet was ironic. I think we should absolutely ignore it. If you see what people call me on Twitter – you can see what a double standard this is. Someone tweeted me recently saying they wished I had been behind Oscar Pistorius’s bathroom door,” Zille said.

IEC spokeswoman, Kate Bapela said no political parties had yet engaged the elections watch-dog about any complaints about the comments.

She said the party liaison committees would be the first port of call for these complaints.

“We have seen opposition parties stooping to unprecedented lows in an effort to discreet the ANC in this campaign, because they have nothing to offer to the electorate,” said ANC spokeswoman Khusela Sangoni.

“They resort to falsifying information, unjustified claims and downright lies like in the photo you are referring to.”

She said the ANC remained committed to a clean and dignified campaign. - The Sunday Independent