What is going on with the DA?

Mike Berger questions whether the party's current approach will win over potential supporters in the black community

It is always refreshing to read James Myburgh's carefully documented and meticulously argued contributions (Has the DA just put a bullet through its brain?). As pointed out by Stanley Uys, the expected (indeed necessary) response from the DA has yet to materialise. All we have to explain the DA's position are a poorly structured, ad hoc justification lifted from Parliamentary records (Why we support the Employment Equity Amendment Bill, 29 Oct).

So what is going on? One would have thought that an issue which cuts to the very heart of the DA's principled stand on non-racial, free market but socially progressive politics would elicit an answer from the highest echelons of the party, in fact from Zille herself. No political party should expect the unquestioning loyalty of its supporters, no matter what their regard may be for individual politicians or for many of the accomplishments of the party. And it seems to an increasing number of its followers that the DA is engaged in what can only be termed a frantic search for black support and has elevated the capture of political power above its initial focus on principle.

I well understand that such criticism can be readily dismissed as ivory tower posturing remote from the exigencies of real politics where a racially based and majority party uses its liberation credentials, raw ethnic-based populism and a host of other dubious devices to undermine democratic practice. And that without power, a political party can become simply another impotent talk shop unable to maintain its own financial support base and retain the services of a competent and loyal cadre of politicians. And more...

That is all undoubtedly true but the soft spot in this line of reasoning is simply this: the growth of the DA within the Black community, whatever window-dressing (real or ersatz), is limited under the current social, economic and cultural dispensation within the broad black community and South African society as a whole. And this is further undermined by the almost total absence of a consistent, principled and coherently articulated ideological alternative to the incoherent but potent brew of "liberationist", "revolutionary", "anti-imperialist", "multi-cultural" and often racist rhetoric dominating our political space.

The effectiveness of this hybrid populist-elitist rhetoric is buttressed by deliberately cultivated "memories" of racial oppression and humiliation, by the overcrowded living conditions of black communities rendering individuals vulnerable to group pressures and dynamics, by pockets of racism within white communities and by blatant persisting inequalities of wealth and its appurtenances. In this context any hint that the DA is attempting to  "buy" black loyalty will only earn it contempt from potential supporters within the black community and from its opponents (and supporters) alike.

That does not mean, of course, that the DA should remain oblivious to our history of white domination and "black" exclusion; far from it. But an authentic and principled response to that very real issue is far from the current emphasis on appearances, on buying into discriminatory and rentier initiatives riding piggy-back on the skills and enterprise of white and other groups and on a cheap and media-led focus on instances of "corruption" without going after the structural, cultural and more subtle dimensions of the problem.

So given these concerns, what would be a more effective, though long term role for the DA? The following thoughts are offered as a basis for debate and not the last word. I come with weak credentials in terms of direct political exposure (though considerable life experience) and a less than profound acquaintance with the nuts and bolts of governance and political theory.

First, and most importantly, continue with the good work on the ground. The DA's transformation of Cape Town and the Western Cape (imperfect and partial though it is) stands in striking contrast to the corrupt mess that it took over and which still obtains in other places in South Africa. This is its most important weapon as any private enterprise will tell you. No amount of propaganda can substitute for demonstrable accomplishments; a fact which simply cannot be over-emphasised. It must continually improve on its current performance (and there is plenty of room as personal experience attests) and new markers established.  

Secondly, ensure that principle ALWAYS takes precedence over expediency. If it is deeply unrealistic for the DA to contemplate becoming the dominant national party in the short to medium-term future, there can simply be no argument in favour of political expediency. I understand that time for South Africa is not unlimited and our politics can pass a point of no return. But that is a risk we must take while building systematically an alternative, a real and obvious alternative, to the failed policies of the ANC Coalition, its fringes and other opportunistic initiatives.

Thirdly, build an alternative discourse. We lack in this country a serious, liberal-realistic, free-market-socially responsible political discourse. What we have in abundance is stupid white racism from a minority, populist mythology and socialist-revolutionary posturing from a majority and shallow sloganeering from much of the media. There are indeed pockets (especially in some of the broadcast media) of reality-based, relatively non-ideological debate. But what is lacking is a forum (not affiliated or beholden to any political party) accessible in language and content to a broad segment of society in which ideas and practical proposals for the "repair" of South Africa can be discussed and refined.

Such a forum would need to deal with many issues ranging from the theoretical to the practical. One that needs urgent attention, for example, is addressing the unacceptable and racially skewed inequalities still undermining our future prospects. An interesting example of such a debate in the American context can be found here.

Fourthly, the DA needs councillors with people skills and authentic interest and concern for all their constituents. In my local experience that is sorely lacking and the impact of such personal experiences undermines emotional connection to the parent party. Councillors are the direct interface of the DA with its supporters and potential supporters. Perhaps it needs to relook at some of the criteria it uses in its selection process.

These are some, hopefully constructive thoughts, from someone on the fringe of politics. A recent short but provocative and intelligent e-book by Adam Garfinkle entitled "Broken: American Political Dysfunction and What To Do About It" is pertinent to South Africa and to the DA which, I imagine, shares much of Garfiinkle's worldview.

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