The anatomy of a hollow liberal mythology

Gavin Davis responds to Gareth van Onselen's critique of the DA in BDlive

The first thing they teach you at journalism school is that objectivity is an impossible goal, but one you should strive for nonetheless.

Gareth van Onselen is a strident critic of the ANC who also happens to be a former DA staff member. He would lose all credibility if he were to only criticise the ANC, so he makes sure that he balances things out by writing the odd critical piece on the DA.

There is not too much wrong with this, except for one thing. His knowledge of the inner workings of the DA, residual loyalties to certain party insiders and his own unhappy parting of ways with the party mean that he cannot write with any semblance of objectivity when it comes to matters involving the DA.

It is obvious to anybody familiar with the DA that Van Onselen selectively targets certain individuals in the party in his articles. His relentless attacks on Gauteng Premier Candidate Mmusi Maimane, for example, border on the obsessive.

column critical of Helen Zille's role in the Employment Equity Amendment Bill saga is the latest example of this selective targeting. Zille is singled out for criticism (even though she had the guts to admit the mistake), while those directly responsible for the systems failure that caused the mistake are barely mentioned. Van Onselen argues that the DA's initial support for the Bill was not due to the systems failure at all, but rather as a result of ideological drift at the centre of the party.

However, this argument quickly falls apart when one considers the correspondence (now in the public domain) which shows that both Zille and myself argued as far back as May that the DA must oppose this Bill on ideological grounds. Our argument to oppose the Employment Equity Amendment Bill was based entirely on long-held values of the DA - a commitment to non-racialism, reconciliation, redress and a priority to grow the economy and create jobs. Indeed, these are the values that underpin the DA's Green Paper on Economic Inclusion published on 9 September this year. That this policy framework was not used as the basis for the DA's deliberations on the Bill and subsequent vote in the National Assembly, is inexcusable and inexplicable. But it had nothing to do with ideological drift, as Van Onselen asserts.

I have written previously on the "self-appointed custodians of liberalism" who think they have a monopoly on the DA's values, and try to shut down anybody who disagrees with them. Perhaps these are the same people that Van Onselen refers to when he writes longingly of a time in recent DA history when:

"A small group of people guarded its principles and values jealously and, more often than not, acted as a bulwark against any fundamental encroachment of the DA's core political philosophy. As its borders become more porous and as it desperately seeks to better fit into that hostile environment, it has allowed into its ranks a series of people not fundamentally liberal."

Van Onselen goes on to lament the departure of former party strategist Ryan Coetzee who "understood well that the party must broaden its appeal but never at the expense of its liberal values."

A closer reading of  party history, however, shows that this notion of past DA liberal purity is more fiction than fact.

I will never forget a DP rally I attended as a student in Booysen's Park in the Northern Areas of Port Elizabeth back in 1999. The gathering was addressed by party leader Tony Leon who gave a characteristically forceful speech entitled ‘Every Minority Deserves a Place in the Sun'. I vividly recall the audience members decked out in both Democratic Party and National Party T-shirts. When I asked a woman why she was wearing an NP T-shirt at a DP rally, she hesitated for a moment before exclaiming: "Dis dieselfde!" 

Those were the days of the DP's ‘Fight Back' campaign - an aggressive election strategy to lure conservative voters away from the New National Party by stoking minority fears. As Tony Leon told an analyst on the campaign trail: "The DP does not care where its support comes from, as long as it obtains it."[i]

Sadly, this appetite for votes did not extend to townships where the DP was conspicuous by its absence. A long-standing liberal supporter  summed it up at a DP election meeting in Grahamstown when he said that the party "may have the guts to fight back, but it does not have the guts to put up Xhosa posters."[ii]

The ‘Fight Back' campaign certainly worked to broaden the DA's appeal beyond a handful of liberal mostly English-speaking white South Africans. But did it do so without compromising the DP's liberal values? That is open to debate. To my mind, it is difficult to reconcile a campaign aimed exclusively at minorities with the party's historical commitment to non-racialism and reconciliation.

The DP's merger with the National Party a year later in 2000 certainly did compromise the party's liberal ethos. It was the culmination of a strategy mapped out by Leon when he took over as DP Leader from Zach de Beer back in 1994.

Leon said at the time:

"Victory does not belong to the faint of heart. We must not be too fastidious, precious or prissy. Certainly not if we are to attract the numbers we need to make a difference. And we must make deals and arrangements, even pacts, wherever and whenever it will be to our advantage, and will cause our support to be maximised."[iii]

Van Onselen might argue that the small group of people at the centre who jealously guarded the party's liberal values acted as a bulwark against any nationalist encroachment. But this does not stand up to any real scrutiny. The very act of merging with a nationalist party whose ethos informed apartheid was a betrayal of the DP's values. What is more, a  ‘free vote' in Parliament on issues of conscience such as abortion, the death penalty and gay marriage (dating from the days of the Progressive Federal Party) meant that the nationalists in the caucus never had to align themselves with the liberal position on these issues.

Ironically, a few years after the break-up of the alliance with the NP, Tony Leon announced his own support for the death penalty at a 2004 election campaign stop in the Free State. The announcement was met with horror by liberal stalwarts and party grandees, including Helen Suzman. Prominent liberal thinker David Welsh accused the DA of a "blatant piece of political opportunism, masquerading behind the fig-leaf of a free vote." For its part, the National Party was furious that Leon had encroached so far on to its electoral turf. The NP said in a statement that Leon's "opportunism knew no end" and that he "knows full well that the DA as a party does not support the death penalty."

One can only wonder where the "small group of people" who jealously guarded the party's values and principles were on that particular day.

Perhaps the next time Van Onselen writes that "the centre is not as focused on principle as it used to be", more people will see through the mythology he is intent on trying to create. The truth is that the Progressive Party, the Democratic Party and the Democratic Alliance have never been, to use Tony Leon's words, a "pristine political priesthood".

It is certainly strange that Van Onselen is silent about the triumph of pragmatism over principle that characterised the DP's bid to attract conservative minority voters. And yet, when the DA of today allows a traditional leader to take up membership, or when a DA candidate mentions ubuntu in a speech, Van Onselen decries it as a fundamental breach of the party's liberal values.

Perhaps it is Van Onselen's own peculiar prejudice against African culture that causes him to worry more about the party's growth now than he did in the past.  As he wrote in April this year: "African culture in general and South African culture in particular is a nationalist one - it has at its heart group identity, in various different guises (race through ethnicity)."

It is nonsense that African culture and liberalism are fundamentally incompatible. If they were, then the DA might as well shut up shop. Cultures and ideologies are not immutable or single-faceted; they are shaped by ongoing debates and shifting contexts. It is therefore quite conceivable for a person to self-identify as an African and a liberal. Indeed, many people are starting to do so.

As the DA grapples with electoral growth in the context of a plural society, we must be mindful of the balance that needs to be struck between principle and pragmatism. Just as we must never allow expedience to dictate our position on issues, we must never allow ourselves to be held up to a hollow myth of past ideological purity either. If we do, we will fail in our mission to build a liberal, non-racial alternative in South Africa.

Gavin Davis is Director of Communications at the Democratic Alliance. He writes in his personal capacity.


[i] South African Election Update, Electoral Institute of South Africa, November 1998 - June 1999.

[ii] Unpublished report on a Democratic Party meeting by Megan Addis, 7 April 1999 St George's Hall, Grahamstown.

[iii] Tony Leon, ‘Acceptance Speech as DP leader: charting a new course and keeping faith with values', Durban 23 October 1994



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