The DA is better dead than red

Jun 14, 2017
The trouble is that it rang hollow following the official statement which spells out that the leader personally found Zille’s comments offensive and it was precisely because it was painful that the discussion had to be closed. As a result it is not clear which discussion should continue.


By Gwen Ngwenya 

As the DA press conference unfolded Tuesday morning I was at the Gauteng Workers’ Indaba, held at the Ekurhuleni Council Chamber, and surrounded by workers and union leaders. Right in the red belly of the beast. Because legislative proceedings entail a plethora of protocol: the singing of anthems, the recognising of various officials, etc. it was not difficult to occupy my mind simultaneously with the events taking place not too far from Germiston in Rosebank.

While MEC Jacob Mamabolo spoke, his words drifted in one ear, Zille’s and Maimane’s apologia to South Africa drifted in the other through an earpiece. As the conference drew to a close Maimane’s response to a journalist made me strain to hear with both ears.

“..And I think it would be necessary for us, when we as the only party in South Africa that in fact still stands for both black and white, that we continue these discussions. Some are difficult, some are painful, but if we forgo getting in a room and having tough discussions I really believe we will build a nation that is borne out of an eye for an eye and ultimately the natural outcome for that is a blind nation.”

The trouble is that it rang hollow following the official statement which spells out that the leader personally found Zille’s comments offensive and it was precisely because it was painful that the discussion had to be closed. As a result it is not clear which discussion should continue. One has to assume discussions other than the one they are unreservedly apologetic for. And which are the other discussions that will be difficult and painful but will not offend anyone? Nobody asked, so no answer was given.

The DA had a choice to respond to the matter as a brand issue or as a values issue. Each of those require different sets of evidence. It has already been shown how the party’s favourability particularly among black voters has taken a knock in recent weeks, and that alone is sufficient if the reason comes down to brand damage. But the conference response veered quickly from a brand concern to instead suggesting a clash in values.

Maimane stated that, “Many South Africans suffered directly under colonialism”, and it needed to be made clear that these were not the DA’s views. But which views are not the DA’s views? The view that ‘many South Africans didn’t suffer directly under colonialism?’ That’s great, because Zille never expressed such a view either. The DA is in its most honest territory in this matter when it sticks to the branding concerns. When it starts to speak about values the cracks start to appear because it is not clear what those values are.

As I turned back to my own red audience the MEC jovially apologised for having a tendency to only look at the left flank of the Council Chamber. This left-wing bias he said reflected his roots in the labour movement and hoped that the audience understood. He would have to consciously remind himself to look right now and again. The DA might soon be in need of the same reminder.

The ordeal has brought to light a political schism, for those who look closely enough, that goes beyond race. A divide that separates those for whom the DA is home to an aspirational set of values and ideals, and those for whom the DA is merely a vehicle to fulfil the ANC’s mandate but without the corruption. Mmusi Maimane is a product primarily of the latter, essentially a leader of ANC defectors looking for a new home.

Maimane’s past in the ANC and his subsequent conversion to the DA is a selling point, and he is not the only DA politician whose ANC roots have been used to spin election gold. All this is said without any venom or malice, it is what it is. Not only is it understandable, but it is understood. Electorally future DA support must come from people who choose to withdraw their support of the ANC in favour of the DA. But even though I have only goodwill towards Maimane and the many he will successfully convince, there will be differences between a ‘gut liberal’ and a converted liberal.

There are liberals of different shades, but whatever liberalism may be in addition, it is at the very least this: a belief in the sovereignty of the individual. And from this realisation flows the defence of rights that belong to the sovereign man; such as the belief that he should be able to govern himself and his actions, to think and express his thoughts and that he should be protected from the tyranny of majoritarianism.

This idea is compelling not despite of our past but because of it. I can accept that being black still says something about a person; you can assume that I might have family in the townships, that I speak an indigenous language, that my parents were educated under Bantu education, etc. Many black people will share those experiences with me. But all those things exist outside of us. What I reject is that race defines not only common experiences but common thoughts and feelings.

The short of it is that before Maimane was a name in the party, I was a student who was drawn to the DA not because of Nelson Mandela’s ruined legacy, or because the ANC had disappointed me. The ANC has never disappointed me in the democratic era because it has never moved past racial determinism and mobilising on the basis of race. The roots and signs of a nascent nationalism in the liberation movement were always present. But if the ANC is your ideological home, it may be difficult to imagine that the DA’s value has long been about something more than governing well. We didn’t want an ANC that could govern well, we wanted a liberal party truly committed to moving away from racial nationalism.

Governing without corruption I took for granted, it was certainly not the attraction, getting the job done cleanly is simply what you do when you have been entrusted with the task. I suppose the best way to deal with the blue liberals is to brand them as cold, out of touch relics. But there was nothing cold about the liberalism I found as a young student. The fire in the belly came not only from an operational mandate to build a country we could live in, but an emotional attachment to a country we could also believe in. The DA might as well be dead if it is an ANC that governs without corruption.

The politics of the decision are understood, and I think are accepted by many on those terms. But out of the compromise is the challenge. The DA constantly asks those of principle to bend in favour of its pragmatic goals, and because many understand compromise they do.

But now the precedent the DA has set itself is that it cannot venture into difficult conversations that might fall foul of public sentiment. That represents trouble for a party in opposition unless it suppresses its positions in favour of more ‘correct’ and populist views. The term politically correct had pejorative origins in the left. It was used to deride those who took the orthodox line. It was viewed as problematic even by the left, long before the right adopted it as a stick to beat the left with.

So if the DA is going to move to the left of its values, this is one of the worst ways it can do so. After spending the day at the Worker’s Indaba it was not difficult to see that much work needs to be done to address the plight of vulnerable workers, and I would encourage any fundamentalist free marketers to become more red around the edges. The trouble is not that the DA is turning red, it’s just red in all the wrong places.

*Gwen Ngwenya is the COO at the South African Institute of Race Relations, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom.  

Read article on News24 here

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