Christi van der Westhuizen, like so many commentators these days, seems determined to display her wokeness through repeated criticisms of the DA (News 24 15/11/19 and 2/12/19). However, her anecdotal and poorly researched pieces are unfortunately not what one would expect from a person of her standing.
It is clear from her response to the excellent critique by Zakhele Mbhele (News 24, 20/11/19) that she is able to adduce “alternative facts” when she is challenged on this front, that she is prepared to use innuendo rather than argument where she cannot answer the challenge, and that she ignores suggestions that she examines particular documents before making judgments.
Even more egregiously, her pieces are based upon a fundamentally flawed conceptual and methodological framework, which then taints her entire argument.
Prof van der Westhuizen works for the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy at Nelson Mandela University. It is instructive to look at the Centre’s own description of its research mission, in which it states: “South Africa’s history is one in which difference was weaponized and wielded to dehumanize people in the pursuit of racialized, gendered and classed extraction and distribution of material resources”.
“Today”, it states, ‘South Africa continues to suffer from the socially constructed expressions of race and ethnic differences. The false idea of racial categorization (a discontented heritage from colonialism), is proving to be a growing burden on nation states and ordinary people”.
So, according to the Centre’s own documents, race is “socially constructed” and the idea of racial categorization is “false”. Both race and ethnicity can be “weaponized” in socially destructive ways, as they were under apartheid. The Centre sees itself as working to undo the resulting social damage.
The view that our identities, including that of race, are ‘socially constructed” rather than immutable may seem startling to many. But this notion is part of a much-respected tradition in the social sciences. The idea (first floated over 40 years ago) that identities are socially constructed is by now pretty run-of-the-mill. Over the years it has spawned a massively complex and rich literature which has taken us in multiple directions.
Unsurprisingly, given its academic nature and complexity, this literature has no clear message for policymakers, however. Does the fact that identity is socially constructed (i.e. mythological or “false”) mean we need to deconstruct and de-mythologise it, and persuade people to look beyond the myth? Or does it mean that those caught in the mythology of identity need to be taken seriously by policymakers and their myths about themselves indulged? Do we show people how their identities have been constructed (sometimes as a result of historical events, but often consciously) or do we simply accept them as givens and base our politics upon that?
These two approaches map more or less onto differences between those who believe that “race” is mythological and needs to be deconstructed and those who believe in its enduring reality. But they can map onto other differences as well – in relation to gender, ethnicity or language group.
Prof van der Westhuizen’s critique of the DA centres on the fact that the party itself has in recent years argued for both positions at different times and through the voices of different people. On the one hand there are those who fall in the “deconstruct the mythology” camp, and on the other, those who believe that the mythology of identity is so embedded that it needs to be indulged. Such disagreements are not at all a matter for concern. Indeed, they are a perfectly understandable feature of any political party worth its salt.
The real harm in Prof van der Westhuizen’s argument is done by taking these differences of opinion and turning them into something else. Each argument, in her view, is overdetermined according to race, political ideology and political leaning.
She appears to believe that these two viewpoints coincide precisely with the race of the speaker (black people, she seems to think, automatically follow the “indulgent” school, while white people are somehow magically drawn to the “deconstructionist” school).
She also believes that they coincide precisely with a perceived split between nationalists (ie the “indulgent” school) and the liberals (ie the deconstructionist school). She also conveniently and simplistically equates “black” with “nationalist” and “white” with “deconstructionist”.
And, finally, she believes that what she sees as the nationalist “black” approach is progressive, while the liberal “white” approach is conservative.
She posits a naïve binary between white, “deconstructionist”, liberal conservatives on the one hand; and black, “indulgent”, nationalist progressives on the other. (Nationalist is not a word she uses, but it is how “indulgent” perspectives are normally described in public discourse; another term would be “identitarian”, or “identity politics”)
These labels are false, politically misguided and probably racist. Nobody within the DA fits neatly into the categories imposed by Prof van der Westhuizen. There is nothing within the “indulgent” point of view which necessarily means it will only be held by black, nationalist, “progressive” people. And there is nothing within the “deconstructionist” view which means it will only be held by white, liberal “conservative” people.
Either approach could be, and is, supported by anybody; and both nationalists and liberals can be conservative or progressive or anything along a spectrum of beliefs. So, you can, within the DA, find a white “indulgent” conservative, a black “deconstructionist” progressive, a white “deconstructionist” progressive, a black “indulgent” conservative, and any other permutation of these.
And this doesn’t even take into account the multiple other differences between people’s philosophies and beliefs within the party. That is the strength of a liberal party: the DA is accepting of many different perspectives, all under the broad umbrella of liberalism.
Finally, to challenge one of her more toxic ideas: there is nothing intrinsically “progressive” about arguing that people’s myths about themselves should be indulged. Indeed, precisely the opposite is the case. Deconstructing, rather than indulging, the myths that operate in society is an inherently radical exercise which contains the potential to liberate us from the multiple straitjackets in which we are bound by society and history and free us from those race or ethnic entrepreneurs who seek to weaponize identity to control us. If, as the Centre argues, racial, ethnic or any other categorization is a “false idea”, then shouldn’t we all, including Prof van der Westhuizen, be engaged in the activity of exposing the truth about it?
Prof van der Westhuizen encapsulates her analysis of the DA into a series of false, interlinked and mutually reinforcing binaries. Most of the argument in her two articles is simply setting this out, in ever more excruciating, and unpersuasive, detail. She uses anecdotes, snippets from the media and innuendo to bolster her viewpoint. But her argument is fundamentally unsound from a theoretical and conceptual point of view, and this is what makes it unpersuasive on multiple levels.
It is worrying when intellectuals such as Prof van der Westhuizen abandon their independence of thought in the face of complex political questions. And it is paradoxical that there appears to be more serious and compelling debate about the nature and policy implications of “constructed identity” within the DA than in University circles.
Belinda Bozzoli is DA Shadow Minister for Higher Education and Training.