The DA should not dodge the tough questions

Kameel Premhid responds to Gareth van Onselen's critique of Mmusi Maimane

We Should Not Dodge the Tough Questions, We Must Give Tough Answers

Since leaving the Democratic Alliance, Gareth Van Onselen has been rather busy with upping his blogging and journalistic credentials. One imagines that now he has more free time on his hands not working for the DA, Van Onselen can dedicate himself and his enormous intellect to adding to the distinctly liberal commentary that is often missing in South African discourse.

A fine example of this kind of commentary was Van Onselen's recent critique of his one-time colleague, Mmusi Maimane, the DA's national spokesman and caucus leader in the City of Johannesburg. Van Onselen's critique was essentially this: Maimane's construction of what it meant to be African, namely the acceptance of Ubuntu, was at odds with the party's belief in liberalism and that the construction as presented, challenged the very idea of individuals being able to consider themselves being African whilst rejecting certain prescribed ideas of what it meant to be African.

This critique is not unique to this situation nor to Van Onselen. In a new South Africa where the hallmarks of identity, previously static and unchanging, are now forcibly being reformed as democracy and economic progress allows a greater degree of social fluidity and integration, what it means to be black, white, a Christian and even what it means to be a South African is being explored, challenged and changed all the time.     

Van Onselen was entirely right to challenge what he saw as an erosion of the DA's liberal beliefs by Maimane's construction. Indeed, having known Van Onselen for a while, I am not surprised that he would be willing to make things politically and socially awkward for his former colleagues by asking the tough and nuanced questions that journalists and other politicians (especially within the ANC) are not sharp enough (or in some cases are not brave enough) to ask. As a die-hard liberal, this is exactly what Van Onselen would do.

And increasingly, I hope that as people like Van Onselen start to pose tough questions to the DA about its future, the DA will rise to the challenge. As one of the many people who constantly complain that the ANC is closed off to the public and is only accessible to cronies, the DA must set an example of a different way of conducting public discourse.

Rather than be afraid of having hard discussions even if it means admitting that we may have been wrong, we must stand firm in the belief that voters will appreciate our frankness and our honesty, as well as our outright better ability to deliver services to them when compared to any other party. As uneasy as this suggestion sits with me, I have over the last few days realised that my own process of critical reflection can and should be replicated by my political party on macro-level as and where the need to do so arises. Not for any other reason that we must show voters that we listen in a meaningful way and that we are prepared to make our case and change it when we may be wrong.

That is not to say that the DA must become populist and have no creed by which it stands. Quite the opposite: we must be able to take our case to the country and stand in defence of it. Creating the opportunity for others however to make an input and engage with us does not mean that we will acquiesce. What it does mean is that we are more willing and able to seriously listen and engage with voters. In a country where voter apathy is increasing at a rate that makes uncomfortable reading for all parties, the DA should take the initiative to stem that trend by giving voters what they want: meaningful engagement. Perhaps if this were to occur, more voters would find a resonance with us as a political party than they do with popular but unsustainable non-political actors that seem to engage more with protest than with substance.

And as I suggested, whilst we may not like this form of public catharsis and discourse (I didn't and still struggle to come to grips with the meaning of this), I cannot but encourage my fellow DA members to do so more. Open and respectful engagement, even with each other, which presents and values the contestation of ideals rather than cheap and uninformed discourse that will otherwise fill the void, will do better for our party and our country. We must embrace dissent and we must show the country that we are different to the ANC, not only in how we conduct government but how we conduct our internal affairs too.

The United Kingdom is a great example of how this works. Much to the anathema of the party leaderships, all the main parties are subject to intense criticism from groups located within the party and outside it (usually, as it the case with Van Onselen, former party staffers and members). Whilst the leaderships may consider it embarrassing and feeding their political opponents ammunition, it actually doesn't have as much external impact as it does for the case with internal change.

The parties in the UK, whilst nowhere near perfect, accept that as part of the political process, this kind of ‘embarrassment' is something that comes with the political terrain. If anything, I think it adds to the maturity of engagement between the parties and goes a greater way to ensuring that the parties themselves enjoy the benefit of ideological clarity.

For one of the biggest criticisms that can be levelled against the ANC is that it lacks the ideological clarity in the policy formation and implementation process because of the various vested interests that hamper it in doing so. No programme the ANC ever envisions has the full success it could go on to achieve because the party has a failed ideological base that in its desperation to remain a mass movement appealing to a broad church, ends up sacrificing success on the altar of politics. 

This made worse of course by the fact that the ANC adopts a very insular approach to policy formulation and allows no genuine debate (inside or outside of it) because of the on-going factional jostling that it is infamous for. Policy ideas are never exchanged for fear that if an up-swell of support for alternative policy ideas to that of the leadership's comes about, the proponents of the change may be committing political suicide. Indeed, the only time that type of change ever occurs within the ANC is when the other side is certain that it has already won.

The DA must stand in contrast to this and show voters that politics should and can be different. It should rise above the fears that these internal debates create (they only entertain the chattering classes who in themselves are a minority) and realise that where it does so, it can only benefit from ideological clarity that means better policy implementation and better vote winning.

For ultimately, the DA is not a sophist society, it is a political party in the business of winning votes. Begrudgingly however, I would concede that sometimes paying the philosophers more than a cursory nod would benefit those of us who think these debates aren't as valuable as they are often presented to be.  

Kameel Premhid has been a member of the DA since he was 15 years old. He is now 23. In that time, Kameel has managed to be elected onto the party's Federal Council at age 17 and was 8th on the party's KZN list for parliament at age 20. He was the youngest candidate in the 2009 elections and was almost elected to parliament: the party won 7 seats. Kameel holds a BA and LLB from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and was recently awarded the prestigious KZN Rhodes Scholarship to pursue two years of study at the University of Oxford.

This first appeared on the ChirpRoom -

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