The DA: How did we get here? (II)

The second article in RW Johnson's series on the official opposition in crisis

The first article in this two part series can be accessed here.

How did we get here?

How on earth did South Africa's liberal tradition end up in this state? All else apart, support for the EEA Bill is flatly against liberal principle. When the Progressive Party was formed in 1959, after all, its founding slogan was "Merit, not Colour". And enormous emphasis was laid on the idea that the Progs' failure to win elections was less important than the fact that they were keeping liberal values alive. For example, take Colin Eglin's acceptance speech as Leader of the party in 1971:

"Never, never, never, must we step back from our goal....of the right of each and every South African to make his contribution to society and to the nation, not on the basis of his race, colour or creed, but on the basis of his ability and his worth."[1]

This is why rejection of the EEAB should have been a knee-jerk reaction, taking five seconds at most. Ask yourself how long would it take the ANC to reject a Bill which privatised all the state-owned industries? Five seconds? Maybe just one. The same should have been true of the DA,  No one conscious of the party's history or the liberal tradition could possibly have entertained the notion of demographic representivity, for it ignores merit.

It says "Colour, not Merit", the very opposite of "Merit, not Colour". This is why the DA's support for the EEAB does not really go away even now that Helen Zille has reversed herself on the Bill.  Never, never, never....until now. The fact that the DA, having made its U-turn, looks somewhat absurd and irresolute is not the point. The unanswered question is how on earth the party could have adopted "Colour, not Merit" for a single instant.

How on earth to explain this? A contributory cause, without doubt, is the fact that Helen Zille only performs her DA leadership role as a part-time job - a job she would clearly like to give away, for her provincial commitments are closer to her heart. No one can say that Ms. Zille has not worked tremendously hard - the party has probably never had such a hard-working leader. She has also been an admirable leader in all sorts of other ways, well worthy to take her place in the liberal pantheon.  But her over-commitment to two full-time jobs was always bound to mean that she would have to make too many snap decisions, that she was more or less bound, over time, to take her eye off the ball, lose focus or context, and make mistakes.

The problem is, of course, exacerbated by the DA's rise to be a challenger for national power. The DA now controls a province, a score of municipalities and as it gains a constituency in all four of South Africa's major racial communities, there is a concomitant increase in complexity of the tasks it faces. Just being the party's national leader is already a huge job and its occupant runs the risks of multi-tasking. As the Stanford University sociologist, Clifford Nass, showed, these are considerable. His research showed that "People who multi-task all the time show worse thinking abilities in every dimension we know of....It turns out that multi-taskers are terrible at every aspect of multi-tasking. They're terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they're terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organized; they're terrible at switching from one task to another."[2]

An essential part of party leadership is to have enough time for reflection and strategic thought. It is, in good part, a thinking job. In addition, of course, the separation of the national leadership from the parliamentary leadership has been a disaster, with strained relations between Ms Zille and every parliamentary leader in turn and she has got through three of them in six years. The DA caucus managers have come in for some criticism but by far their biggest error was not to insist that their national leader must be the party's parliamentary leader and have no other job.

The gravitational pull of the African bourgeoisie

However, something far more fundamental is happening here. The key point is that the period since 1994 has seen the growth of an African middle class which is now larger than its white counterpart. This is, quite clearly, the new ruling class. It is composed very heavily of those who were given important public service jobs as a result of government's "transformation" of that sector. ANC policy is directed in the main to keeping this group satisfied and all the other parties - the DA, EFF, and Agang - are bidding for its support. Both BEE and affirmative action policies are aimed pretty much exclusively at providing this already privileged group with more business and employment opportunities. After all, BEE and affirmative action have absolutely nothing to offer the vast majority of Africans, from mine-workers to domestics, which is doubtless why we found, when the Helen Suzman Foundation carried out opinion polls on the subject in 1997, that the large majority of black voters opposed affirmative action. This was, actually, hardly surprising: for them such a policy had no benefits and would almost certainly lead to worse service delivery and a growth in inequality. Which, of course, is exactly what has happened.

Nonetheless, the black middle class naturally loves BEE and affirmative action and, since they are in a position to do so, have made adherence to these policies a question of one's black-friendly credibility. It is rather like the way the home-ownership lobby in the UK continually pushes to the fore attractive young couples wanting to buy their own house, so that helping them with low mortgage interest is seen as a vital, iconic and humanitarian objective.

Yet the truth is, of course, that low mortgage interest rates merely enrich the upper 60% of the population who own houses and thus increase social inequality. BEE and affirmative action work in exactly the same way in South Africa, which is why we have become the most unequal country in the world. Thus the siren song of the African bourgeoisie which is intent on primitive accumulation by every and all means possible. The DA has clearly become bewitched by that siren song - which in fact it ought to have resisted absolutely.

Quite clearly, what the DA should have done is to stick to its liberal principles and champion the cause of the vast majority of Africans who are strongly disadvantaged by these policies, who do not like BEE or affirmative action.  After all, we have foreign companies publicly pointing out that BEE has pushed away a huge amount of investment, has cost South Africa large amounts of FDI and thus many thousands of jobs. BEE, indeed, is simply a mechanism to redistribute wealth away from the black poor towards the black rich. Affirmative action is much the same. It means more middle class blacks in R1m. a year public sector jobs which, on average, they do extremely badly, inflicting further suffering on poorer blacks. By overtly championing the cause of the black poor the DA would have usefully outflanked the ANC on the left and also provided real competition for the EFF.

In my mind, always, is a young black woman I met not long ago. She works for the DA in Cape Town. I asked her how that came about. She said she was the child of two schoolteachers in the Eastern Cape and all their lives their dream had been of a society in which race had simply ceased to matter. She had inherited that vision. I asked her about BEE and affirmative action. She said, "Those are policies of black revenge. They have no appeal for me. They may put black people on top but that is still not the same as the dream which my parents had - which became my dream." I wonder what will happen to that girl - and others like her - now? It is people like her, not the get-rich-quick BEE tenderpreneurs and affirmative job-hoppers, that the DA should be listening to.

However, the DA's own black representatives inevitably belong to that black middle class and are sensitive to its demands. And the DA leadership, in its desperate eagerness to break into the black vote, has accepted the notion that one's embrace of BEE and affirmative action are the necessary test of one's  credibility among blacks. This is, of course, an enormous strategic mistake - the party should clearly have championed poor blacks, greater social equality and liberal principle. But the new black middle class exercises a huge gravitational pull on all South African parties, the DA included and in effect the DA leadership has abandoned its national vision and surrendered to that. The re-tooling which this requires is so great that it requires a shift in the whole narrative and mythology of the DA. Which is indeed what has occurred.

The established liberal narrative

Up until now, the DA's narrative was essentially about the liberal tradition in modern times: the heroic fight of the Liberal Party under the leadership of such key figures as Margaret Ballinger, Jordan Ngubane, Peter Brown and Alan Paton; the historic breakaway of the Progs from the United Party in 1959, the thirteen years when Helen Suzman alone stood up for liberal principles in Parliament, the triumph of liberal ideas in our new Constitution and then the extraordinary resurrection of liberalism under Tony Leon's leadership which established the DA as the chief Opposition party and made it the clear alternative to the ANC. Naturally, as with any such narrative, there was an accompanying mythology, a narrative largely centering around Helen Suzman, of the sheer bravery of the early Progs, of favoured jokes, special moments and so on.

In effect this narrative has now been jettisoned and a new "black friendly" one is taking its place, one in which the DA leads all others in its Mandela worship, in its elision of all manner of awkward facts about the Mandela presidency, in which it even has fine words for Mbeki, in its characterization of the past 300 years as one of continuous 'asset-stripping" and even in assertions such as "we didn't leave the ANC, the ANC left us". In effect, the DA leadership has decided that it can excise Mandela from the rest of the ANC and try to be his heirs. This notion fails not only because Mandela was so deliberately illiberal in his Mafikeng speech but because he made his undying loyalty to the ANC crystal clear.

More important, it fails because of its refusal to realise that African nationalism is all one thing, the good, the bad and the ugly. One cannot simply detach the bits one likes and pretend they are not organically related to the parts one dislikes. The ANC itself insists on this - and it is quite right. The DA doesn't like Jacob Zuma but, looking back, the key moment was when Zuma became the ANC's deputy-president. After that, he couldn't really be stopped from succeeding Mbeki. So who was it who insisted that Zuma must have that job? Thabo Mbeki didn't want him; he wanted Joel Netshitenzhe. But Mandela insisted on Zuma. So if you say Yes to Mandela, you have to say Yes to Zuma. It's all one thing.

The shape of things to come

This new narrative and new mythology are thus far less truthful than those they replace - and they require that the DA embrace such iconic ANC policies as BEE and affirmative action. There is clearly a lot more of this to come. After all, one is told that the next contest for the DA leadership is likely to be between Ms Mazibuko (embracing everything done under the Mandela administration) and Mr Maimane, who embraces the Mbeki as well as the Mandela administrations. Whichever vision wins, there is no room here for anything to do with the Progs, Helen Suzman,Tony Leon or "Merit, not Colour".

This is a huge and historic mistake. Liberalism stands in opposition to any nationalism, Jingo, Afrikaner or African. It stands particularly strongly against any racial nationalism. Women have always led the way. Olive Schreiner, Harriette Colenso and Emily Hobhouse stood up against Jingo imperialism. Margaret Ballinger and Helen Suzman stood up against Afrikaner nationalism. That is the irony and the sadness of what is happening to the DA now. It has broken this proud line and is clearly seeking an accommodation of some kind with African racial nationalism. That is the larger significance of the recent pantomime over the party's support for BEE and the EEAB: it has clearly lost its way. And despite the course correction we have just seen, the party has lost the trust of many within its core constituency.

The obvious rejoinder to this is, of course, that the party needs to seek a new way in order to extend its appeal to black voters. But this is not actually as self-evident as it seems. After all, it is the old way that has actually worked. Originally the DP in 1994 was pretty solidly white but without changing its central liberal message it rapidly extended its constituency to include Coloureds, Indians and a slowly increasing number of Africans.

Similarly, the party has gone from 1.7% in 1994 to 25% in 2011 under leaders chosen purely on merit, not on their colour, and at each stage in its electoral advance the party has picked up a slightly larger share of the black vote. Even when the ANC tried to depict the "Fight Back" campaign of 1999 as "Fight Black", the truth was that that campaign saw the DA advance among all racial groups, Africans included. Thus the DA's best bet was to keep on keeping on. Maintaining a principled liberal line was working and it would have carried on working.

The illusion of redress

In its search for a new way the DA has accepted far too uncritically the notion that in order to extend its African footprint it must accept such keynote ANC concerns as "redress", BEE, affirmative action and making the skin colour of the leader of critical importance. The problem with this is not just that it moves the party away from its colour-blind liberal tradition but that it doesn't even work.

One should here pay attention to the phenomenon of Scottish nationalism. Once the Scottish National Party (SNP) won its first seats in 1974, Labour and the Liberals both panicked and endorsed the SNP objective of an independent Scottish Parliament. This led to such a thing being created. But by embracing a Scottish Parliament Labour and Liberals merely endorsed the legitimacy of such an objective. And, if one favoured a Scottish parliament, why vote Labour or Liberal? Why not vote for the party which had come up with that demand in the first place, for that was the authentic progenitor of that idea? Hence we end up today with a situation in which the Scottish electorate steadily rejects independence by a 2:1 majority but despite that Scotland is ruled by the SNP.

The same applies exactly with the DA. If you really like having economic opportunities and jobs distributed according to skin colour, why not vote for the ANC, whose idea it is - they are the real deal, so to speak - rather than the pale imitation DA? All the DA is achieving by pandering to racial nationalism is to legitimize it.

Part of the problem derives from the idea of "redress", another notion that the DA has taken over from the ANC. It sounds like a good idea, to "redress" the wrongs of apartheid. But in fact this is an absurd notion. Sadly, very sadly, there is no way now of providing redress for most black people who were unjustly treated under apartheid because, mainly, they are dead. If you look at affirmative action in America no one there is saying that this is redress for slavery. That is simply impossible. Affirmative action there is promoted because of a recognition that diversity is a good thing in itself, because black and Hispanic people need successful role models of those who have made their way up from the ghetto and because it is a good thing for the whole of American society not to have any groups in it who are hopelessly locked into ghettoes. If the American dream is to work, it has to be because every American child can dream it. And Americans do want things to work. They would quite certainly not countenance anything like the Equity Employment Amendment Bill which more or less guarantees that nothing much will work properly any more. There is also a huge difference in applying affirmative action for minorities, as in America, and applying it in favour of the large majority.

South Africa could usefully copy the American example. It should avoid notions of "redress" for the same reason that Western countries resist the notion of reparations for slavery or colonialism. We can all denounce slavery, colonialism and apartheid but it is simply not rational to base present policy on the impossible task of trying to "correct" past history. All one can do by such policies is to establish "victim groups" who have to be compensated over and over again so that they cling to their victimhood.

South Africa must do all it can to bring on and help a new, younger generation of black people - and go the extra mile to do so - but surely South Africa should not retreat back into its awful past of racial nationalism, racial classification and so on. The whole of the rest of the world has moved on from that and we cannot be the only ones moving backward in that stream. South Africa should be doing everything it can for young Africans not because anything it does for them can possibly "redress" the past but because it wants them to have happy and successful lives and to be able to contribute to the maximum of their potential.

Indeed, because that is true one may feel confident that this sort of nonsense - BEE and affirmative action based on demographic representivity and racial classification - cannot and will not last. Even the ANC will be forced to recognize this in time, which means that the DA will too. South Africans have already seen one racial nationalist party - the old National Party - recognize that this simply led them into a dead end. The new racial nationalist party, the ANC, will face a similar dead end when it realises that under its new regime, nothing works. What the DA will do it after it has sought an accommodation with African nationalism is harder to forecast. Having now cast off the liberal tradition to become some other sort of electoral rag-bag, it is no longer clear what it can regard as its home.


[1] C. Eglin, op.cit., p.121.

[2] The Telegraph (London), 7 Nov.2013.

This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.

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