On black leadership of the DA

Kameel Premhid responds to RW Johnson's view that there may even be a positive side to the leader being white

A Reply to RW Johnson: Get Real!

Whenever I receive a Politicsweb email and RW Johnson's name appears as the author of the first article, my gut reaction is to delete it. But sometimes there is useful stuff in the email so I scroll on - trying my hardest to ignore Johnson's latest rant. More often than not though I end up reading it and immediately end up experiencing immense annoyance: at myself, for reading something that I knew would annoy me, and at the contents of the article too, which is usually on point in some areas and unforgivably wrong on others.

Johnson's opinions on the Agang/Democratic Alliance debacle were no different. Interestingly, while I agreed with much of what he said, one paragraph in particular highlighted the dualism one experiences when reading Johnson: both agreement and revulsion. It read:

‘This, in three different ways, was a grievous mistake. First, in a democratic party it is simply not up to her to choose the next leader. Slabbert did not choose Eglin; Eglin did not choose Leon; Leon did not choose Zille. Second, she thereby accepted the ANC logic that skin colour is the all-important thing. This assumption has no place in a liberal party. Third, she made the (ridiculous) assumption that a black leader would bring a flood of black support. If that were true Buthelezi, Lekota and Holomisa would now be leading very big parties. In fact all the DA's progress since 1994 has been achieved under white leaders and everything suggests that the party would gradually add more black voters under either a white or black leader - provided that that leader can hold the party together and keep it a party of liberal and democratic principle. There may even be a positive side to the leader being white. One notes how African, Coloured and Indian parents are eager that their children should attend formerly white schools - it is seen as a guarantee of quality - and also how, for the same reason, they do not want the whites to abandon the school to them: the ideal is to be racially diverse and keep the whites involved. Parties may be the same.'

My reaction after reading this, apart from wanting to throw my computer out the window given that paragraph's offensiveness, was to ignore it after I had calmed down. But listening to Eusebius McKaiser's brave attempt to engage with Johnson on this issue on air, only to have Johnson hang up on him, convinced me that a reply must be put in writing. As McKaiser said to me in a private conversation on the same matter: one has a moral obligation to engage publically with certain views and interlocutors no matter how distasteful they may be. This was in response to my suggestion that I was afraid that by engaging Johnson one only gave greater attention to his unfortunate views. McKaiser however was right. Thinking members of the public must refute whatever nonsense is put out there lest our silence is thought to give such views credibility - or worse, that our silence is taken as consent.

The last two lines of Johnson's racialised bile may be read to soften the overall bigoted attitude he displays. However, the impact of his sentiments cannot be ignored. For even though Johnson is correct in his assertion that Helen Zille's obsession with her own successor being black in order to allegedly put to bed all of the DA's problems with attracting black voters, his rubbishing of Zille and the DA's attempts to grow its own credible black leadership is wholly incorrect.

That is because Johnson fails to engage with the nuance of the political reality that the DA faces. The truth of the matter is that in our deeply racialised society, whether rightfully or wrongfully, not having a black leader costs the DA politically.

It is an issue that the DA is alive to and which explains why it was so eager to effectively hand over the leadership of the party to Mamphela Ramphele on more than one occasion. But that is not the same as the party's attempt to grow its own credible black leadership. Johnson was wholly correct in attacking the former as being illiberal for the justification that was offered but his overextension to attacking the latter, especially when it manifests as promotions and elevation up the party structure, is mistaken.

Handing the leadership to someone that has no proven political track-record and who comes with little political credibility like Ramphele is questionable from the get go. Like Johnson himself has written about, Ramphele is not necessarily as distinguished a person as she is made out to be. And her handling of the merger-non-merger devastatingly illustrated just how inept she is as a leader, specifically, and at the political game, generally.

This, coupled with the overt explanation that the move was motivated by the DA's need to overcome racial issues, adds credence to the idea that many black (and white) voters have of the DA: all its black leaders are window dressing token appointments. And when they fail, as spectacularly as Ramphele did, that stereotype is unfortunately compounded.

Why is it, then, that voters - and an increasing number of black voters in particular - find the likes of Lindiwe Mazibuko, Mbali Ntuli, Mmusi Maimane, Makashule Gana, Khume Ramulifho and others politically attractive - but not Ramphele? The answer lies in the fact that they have proven themselves and added value to the party. Ramphele did not.

Johnson's mistake, possibly like the DA's, is to treat all (black) voters as not being shrewd enough to tell the difference between a black leader of the party that adds value and one that is merely introduced for the sake that they are black. Indeed, in Johnson's opinion, he believes all of those that I mention fall into the latter category. Reality suggests that the opposite is true.   

And while Johnson attacks Zille for adding extra support and actively promoting new black talent, I do not. Institutional memory and institutional biases are real things. This is especially the case lower down the order to which the high ideals of politics take a while to trickle down. Given the DA's history and the dominance of white people in the party - a fact that is now changing - it makes sense for Zille to aid and/or accelerate the promotion of black candidates of merit who, without such support, may face difficulty in seeking and securing election despite their objectively being best for the job. Indeed, that is not to say that the DA's white members bear some racial prejudice against members of colour and that they actively keep non-whites out (although some may - for their own ambitions' sake).

These phenomenon are subliminal and can affect behaviour even when there is no intent in the way in which people exercise their choice. And the same is true for members of colour as well: when white leaders are constantly elected and thought of as being the best qualified, that is what is normalised. It is exactly the same struggle that women and those who fall outside the heteronormative construction of what is acceptable in the context of leadership, business and politics face all the time. Zille's actions are commendable because it breaks that kind of mentality and normalises credible black leadership. And that is important for the DA specifically and South Africa generally - especially when it comes to how the two view each other.

But Johnson's breath-taking denialism of this political reality is matched by how he misreads the story behind the DA's present growth. He asserts that all the DA's growth since 1994 (when it achieved under 2% of the vote) until now (when it achieved as much as 24% in the 2011 elections) were under white leaders. Therefore, he suggests, the DA will have no problem in gaining black support with a white leader - if you take this growth trajectory to its logical end. That is plainly wrong.

Johnson assumes that the DA presently enjoys support from black voters and so it will be able to easily attract more black support. That is not true: the DA itself recognises that of its present support, less than 3% comes from black voters. Further, the DA's growth in recent years, under white leaders, has been because the party has maximised (and maxed out) the support of minority voters. The party's professional decimation of the National Party, to become the Official Opposition, and then continued squeeze on other opposition forces, to retain that place, has been because the DA has aggressively pursued low-hanging fruit: minority voters who increasingly view the ANC as having abandoned its non-racialism. Johnson's assertion is a distortion of our recent political history at worst and is merely sloppy at best.

Then what about the other assertion Johnson makes: black leadership itself may not be decisive to winning black support. As evidence for this he cites other (black-led) political parties and points out how politically weak and irrelevant they are. As his argument goes, this demonstrates that having a black leader is not the be-all-and-end-all. It would be foolish to disagree.

The lack of support that those parties suffer from however has nothing to do with the race of their leaders; it has much to do with the parties themselves. In almost all cases, those parties, including Agang, amount to nothing more than vanity projects of their leaders. Where they have had some credibility, the party's subsequent implosion or mismanagement of their support explains their failure. This is made worse by the fact that the offer they make to voters are either parochial or non-existent: they either appeal to very few people for particular demographic reasons or they do not appeal to anyone at all because of the lack of a policy offer.

The Democratic Alliance stands out in stark contrast to this: its machinery, its vision, its policy platform and its stability as a party means that it cannot easily be compared to other opposition parties. Johnson's equating them is mischievous and should be ignored. The counter-examples are only valid in that they have black leaders but they are invalid to the extent that a direct comparison can be made between them and the DA. If anything, this suggests that the DA needs a strong party platform and a strong black leader in order to be truly competitive against the ANC. The DA at present has one but not the other.

But Johnson does not see that. His obstinate refusal to acknowledge, for whatever reason, that the DA could prospectively gain from having a black leader has rendered him adopting the most illogical and inconsistent positions - even when measuring his arguments on his own terms. I agree with him that installing a black leader for the sake of their being black is illiberal and indefensible. But as I suggest, a black leader with a track-record and proven ability can aid the DA. Incidentally, those are the same qualities that voters look for in any leader - including black ones. It seems to escape Johnson that such black leaders exist or that Zille's commendable attempts to help said leaders are worthy of praise.

But Johnson's soothsaying is not nearly as ludicrous as his understanding of race relations in a post-Apartheid South Africa. That he can blithely assert, in good conscience, that people of colour would be happy with white leadership because the same people of colour want to send their children to previously white schools confirms for me that Johnson lives on another planet.

Johnson's lack of explaining why previously white schools have obtained their structural advantage over other schools across South Africa is telling. The assertion that black people prefer their children to go to previously white schools because they are better illustrates just what Johnson thinks of whiteness and excellence. While Johnson is factually correct in the strictest sense, that previously all white schools are the top performing ones overall, his failure to substantiate why that is the case demonstrates his seeming underlying belief that because those institutions were dominated and run by white people they are, as a matter of fact, better.

Had Johnson been more truthful and critical, he would have qualified this egregious statement with the facts: white schools were (and are) better because Apartheid deliberately overdeveloped them at the expense of the possible development of people of colour. As states: in 1982, the government spent R1211 on the education of every white child whereas it spent R146 on every black child. That means spending per capita was astoundingly eight times higher for white children than black children. A pity such a discrepancy does not enter his calculation of excellence. It needs hardly any explanation as to why such disparate levels of government support will tend to create some schools better than others.

It should come as no surprise then that aspirational parents would want their children to attend these better ‘white' schools. This has nothing to do with the fact that they are white but everything to do with the fact that they are objectively offering a better education which they have been able to do as a result of their ill-gotten comparative advantage.

Embarrassingly, these schools continue to prejudice their selections towards white children and parents in any case - as recent studies have shown, white people still earn and own more than black people in South Africa. Given that these schools have significant powers to set fees - most of which are on the rise and are prohibitively expensive to the masses of our people - it should come as no surprise that they remain islands of cosseted white privilege. Their excellence has nothing to do with their whiteness per se but everything to do with their exclusivity which, unfortunately, in South Africa is one and the same thing.

To suggest then that whiteness is indicative of excellence may have been valid had white people built racially exclusive schools that excelled on an equal playing field. But Apartheid South Africa was not the case and Johnson is deluded to pretend otherwise.

But Johnson is not alone in his beliefs. Many people continue to believe that white people and attributes of whiteness are better. And both white and non-white people are guilty of harbouring those prejudices. That is a crying shame for it fails to adequately realise that over centuries and in our modern culture, whiteness continues to be socially normalised as being the standard to which we should aspire.

Observe television programmes, movies, advertisements, clothes and most things commercial and you will realise this. Some may suggest that this is reflective of consumer trends. That would be to deny the socialising power of the market itself. An underrepresentation of ‘others' - or even where ‘others' are represented but in a type-cast, stereotypical and predictable way - is not just an issue of demographic representivity, it is an issue of the fundamental way in which our society generally remains untransformed and how it thinks of what is acceptable and what is excellent. And it is in that untransformed and unenlightened reality that Johnson has firmly planted himself.

Essentialisation is a horrible thing. Johnson has distinguished himself in liberal circles by his trenchant opposition to the ‘illiberal' employment equity principles that most people support. His palpable disgust at race reductionism and tinkering is legendary. How unfortunate then that he has engaged in the exact opposite of what he supposedly stands up against. How ironic that this classical liberal ends up sounding like a racialised Nat. Get real Mr Johnson, get real.

A shortened version of this article first appeared on's voices.

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