The ugly legacy of the Maimane-Zille dispute

Izak Smuts on the DA leader's deeply illiberal response to the WCape Premier's tweets

The legacy of the Maimane-Zille spat

I use the word legacy in the title consciously – it was the word most ignored in the tweets and subsequent exchanges regarding Helen Zille’s apparent manifestation of boredom at an airport. Having reflected superficially on the legacy of colonialism – literally that which was left behind by the colonial system – she was attacked for being a proponent of colonialism, in a debate about an argument she had never advanced.

Enough has been said about the fact that it was politically ill-advised to raise the topic. In my view, not enough has been said about Zille’s assumption of the political vocabulary of her opponents, rather than focusing on the strengths of her own belief system and values. That was where she went seriously wrong. But that’s all over now, or is it?

What has not been considered seriously enough is Mmusi Maimane’s response, and where it leaves those liberals who still find themselves in the ranks of the Democratic Alliance. William the Silent is alleged to have said that it is not necessary to hope in order to undertake, and it is not necessary to succeed in order to persevere. That credo may be why some liberals stuck with the DA despite its disastrous foundation in an ill-advised and ill-planned marriage of convenience between Tony Leon and Kortbroek van Schalkwyk.

The marriage lasted just long enough for the Democratic Party to save the bankrupt New National Party from extinction in the local government elections, after which the NNP effected a divorce and went off to woo the ANC, its true ideological bedfellow. Some optimists among the liberals remained with Leon and his alliance of one.

There has been on-going disquiet among liberals in the ranks of the DA. The influence of the Broederbonders who stayed in the DA because their dislike of the ANC was even greater than their revulsion at liberal principle has been one cause of discontent. But optimists have followed the message of William.

The fall-out between Zille and Maimane has given new cause for concern. Not because Zille was guilty of another ill-considered tweet. But because of the utterly illiberal response of Maimane to her utterances. There was nothing improper about his recording that he and Zille held “fundamentally different views” about the topic, although it is still not clear whether he responded to what she had actually said about the legacy of colonialism, or whether he had fallen into the trap set by his political opponents of equating her comments on the legacy with praise for colonialism per se.

What was alarming, however, was the fact that he sought to initiate disciplinary proceedings against Zille because their views differed. Such an approach would not be unexpected in the majority party. It is utterly irreconcilable with the liberal legacy of the parties that preceded the DA. While it would be perfectly rational where a political party official or office bearer acts ill-advisedly to vote such office bearer out of power, or, in the terminology of the cadre, to recall such individual, disciplining someone because of a difference of views is fundamentally undemocratic.

Isaiah Berlin, in his essay ‘Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century’, published in the seminal collection ‘Four Essays on Liberty’, gave consideration to approaches adopted by those promoting emerging totalitarian ideologies in the twentieth century in the  aftermath of the earlier era of rational enquiry and debate on issues of significance.

Political questions, he argued, were previously addressed in many different ways. Some, he argued, sought answers in sacred books, others in direct personal revelation, some in metaphysical insight, others in the pronouncement of infallible sages or in speculative systems or in laborious empirical investigations.  Some sceptics doubted that final and absolute solutions to problems raised could be found. None of the participants, however, doubted the importance of the questions raised. And then came the twentieth century.

‘It was left to the twentieth century to do something more drastic than this. For the first time it was now conceived that the most effective way of dealing with questions, particularly those recurrent issues which had perplexed and often tormented original and honest minds in every generation, was not by employing the tools of reason, still less those of the most mysterious capacities called ‘insight’ and ‘intuition’, but by obliterating the questions themselves.

And this method consists in not removing them by rational means – by proving, for example, that they are founded on intellectual error or verbal muddles or ignorance of the facts – for to prove this would in its turn presuppose the need for rational methods of philosophical or psychological argument.

Rather it consists in so treating the questioner that problems which appeared at once overwhelmingly important and utterly insoluble vanish from the questioner’s consciousness like evil dreams and trouble him no more. It consists, not in developing the logical implications and elucidating the meaning, the context or the relevance and origin of a specific problem – in seeing what it ‘amounts to’ – but in altering the outlook which gave rise to it in the first place.

Questions for whose solution no ready-made technique could easily be produced are all too easily classified as obsessions from which the patient must be cured. Thus, if a man is haunted by the suspicion that, for example, full individual liberty is not compatible with coercion by the majority in a democratic State, and yet continues to hanker after both democracy and individual liberty, it may be possible by appropriate treatment to rid him of his idée fixe, so that it will disappear, to return no more. The worried questioner of political institutions is thereby relieved of his burden and freed to pursue socially useful tasks, unhampered by disturbing and distracting reflections which have been eliminated by the eradication of their cause.

The method has the bold simplicity of genius: it secures agreement on matters of political principle by removing the psychological possibility of alternatives, which itself depends, or is held to depend, on the older form of social organisation, rendered obsolete by the revolution and the new social order. And this is how Communist and Fascist States – and all other quasi- and semi-totalitarian societies and secular and religious creeds – have in fact proceeded in the task of imposing political and ideological conformity.’

We know now the aftermath of the totalitarian approach adopted by Maimane. He would not debate the issues raised by Zille. He suppressed them, in good twentieth century totalitarian fashion. She wilted. He won. Democracy lost.

The legacy of the dispute is distressing. The major opposition party in the country is led by one who does not brook debate. He appears to have the support of the majority of that party. As an alternative to the intolerance of the majority party, the DA offers intolerance with a different face. It is an unattractive option for liberals.

Berlin had thoughts too on the consequences of such an approach for our freedom.  In ‘Freedom and its Betrayal’, he wrote the following:

‘The essence of liberty has always lain in the ability to choose as you wish to choose, because you wish so to choose, uncoerced, unbullied, not swallowed up in some vast system; and in the right to resist, to be unpopular, to stand up for your convictions merely because they are your convictions. That is true freedom, and without it there is neither freedom of any kind, nor even the illusion of it.’

The DA has renounced even the illusion of a commitment to freedom. That is the ugly legacy of the dispute.