COMMENT

The DA’s grand racial experiment has failed

Frank Durand says the party gained nothing, and now risks losing everything, by betraying its non-racial roots

The ANC has always used race as a bludgeon. It gets the blood of its members stirred up by reminding them of the injustices suffered by black South Africans, solely on the grounds of their race. Vicious, systematised racial discrimination is so unfair, egregious, insulting and wasteful it has the power to unlock even stronger passions in young people who never experienced it than those who felt the sharp end of the myth of racial superiority.

For those seeking to challenge the ANC’s offering of crooked governance and failed socialism, the temptation to try and draw the sting from the ANC’s gut-level narrative became manifest.

After being told for years by the punditocracy that “The DA will never get anywhere without a black leader”, the party succumbed. More accurately perhaps, Helen Zille, advised by an inner circle who vastly overestimated the reach and influence of the hostile, left-wing bubble in which they operated, succumbed and decided that to advance the DA’s cause, she had to step down in favour of a black leader.

Underlying this was a patronising, even racist narrative that black people are intrinsically racist and would never be able to see beyond skin colour to judge any political party on policy or results. Therefore, they would only ever be able to vote for somebody who looked like them and could be trusted to advance their interests. There can be little doubt that this sort of thinking exists in every race group, in measure that can’t be quantified, but to pander to it and to place this at the centre of strategy showed a disdain for what the country needs to lift itself, and was cynical and wrong.

Zille stepped down and played a key role in elevating the relatively young and politically inexperienced Mmusi Maimane to the leadership. More than that, a sort of unofficial mantra echoed through the party that “You cannot stand for a leadership position if you are white”. This undercover hyper-consciousness of race, went directly against everything the party’s liberal history had advanced: that people would be judged on merit, on their talents, on willingness to work hard and on the morality and efficacy of the decisions they took. The wide spread, global appeal of the DA’s traditional liberal values was brushed aside.

The results came rapidly. By the time the 2019 election campaign began 8 of the 9 provincial leaders were not white, neither were the leaders of the women’s organisation, the youth or the student wings. The party’s ruling Federal Executive was dominated by people who were not white. Party spokespeople were only chosen from amongst black MPs and the party’s all-powerful paid staff leadership decried the success of white MPs in getting into the media, on the grounds that it portrayed the wrong image.

Then followed a string of statements by Maimane, designed to put the DA’s new racial thinking at the front and centre of its image. His first, “ If you do not see that I am black you do not see me”, caused some reflection amongst liberals of all colours, who wondered whether this was healthy and yet gave him the benefit of the doubt as a new leader finding his feet.

But then followed, “It's astounding how many domestic workers are walking their employers dogs. It's in my view, wrong and unjustifiable” and ““I am angry when I go shopping at certain shops - white people are shopping and black people are working.”. After this came the extraordinary reaction to a mistaken Facebook post by Dianne Kohler-Barnard who reposted a journalist’s rant about corruption which included the statement that things had been better under apartheid, a claim that had also been made in heartfelt frustration by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The post was taken down within hours, after she read its content more closely. Weeks later a screenshot resurfaced, causing a social media storm. Kohler-Barnard, despite being a courageous, phenomenally hard worker, famous for standing up for ordinary people crushed by the system, in other words the textbook description of what an opposition politician should be, was humiliated, stripped of position, fined and almost drummed out of the party. That was just a rehearsal for the infamous Helen Zille tweets, which caused a hysterical over-reaction on the part of ANC opponents, who scented a new DA button to press. Maimane, probably advised by his party staff, and expensive overseas consultants, tried to use the incident to break the DA-is-a white-party narrative, by threatening Zille with the Kohler Barnard treatment.

Through all this there was a consistent imbalance in the party’s treatment of criminality and insult involving different races. White insult and maltreatment of black people was highlighted and the DA tried to be first in decrying the perpetrators, the torture and murder of whites during farm attacks, by contrast, was largely ignored.

This led to clear signs of unease among voters who had supported the DA. As expected, this involved whites but also spread to other minorities and to black voters who saw through the expediency of the race project. Credibility began to drain away.

There was a apparently a belief among the leadership that black voters would not vote for the party until the majority of its parliamentary representatives were black, and a clear attempt was made to sway the process under which legislature lists were drawn up. Several effective, prominent white liberals, some of them long-time servants of the party were rendered unelectable.

The dimensions of the race project were reinforced on social media by certain members of the new black elite inside the party. With continual baiting, they justified the project on twitter and accused anybody who questioned it of racism all while they owed their elevated positions to racial preferment.

The cherry on the top was delivered at Schweizer Reinecke. The actions by youth leader Luyolo Mpithi exposed the true response of the race project to white voters, if it was not already clear. In spite of previous warnings to Maimane about the dangers of interventions before the facts were established, Mpithi was allowed to join an ANC/EFF racist chorus, and helped call down a protest mob on a white, junior schoolteacher who proved to be blameless. The following day saw a mob storming the school and the rapid evacuation of children. There was no apology. The photograph that started it all was explained as being innocent, a mumbled explanation was offered and Mpithi was defended by the senior leadership of the party.

That, for many minority voters, was that. The betrayal of the DA’s non-racial roots was too much. They punished the party at the polls, most by staying away, some by voting for the Freedom Front, ironically itself also a party promoting racial solidarity, but one promising to protect white interests. Suburban volunteer party workers also responded, many by drifting away. Whole branches collapsed.

Despite all this, black voters were unconvinced. Voter behaviour by race is very difficult to show. But analysis did show the DA has failed to gain significant black support since the DA fought the 2014 election under Helen Zille, a white leader. Perhaps the best explanation for this is that the DA simply lacked authenticity on race. In any attempt to contest the ANC in this arena, it will always fall short.

The initial response of the proponents of the race project has been bad. They’re greeted their poor results with denial. The enormity of its defeat continues to be exposed and their denials suck away their credibility. Eventually, they will be forced to accept their project has failed dismally. The alternative is to be extinguished at the polls.