An erosion of the DA's liberal values?

Gareth van Onselen takes issue with Mmusi Maimane's efforts to define "Africanness"


Democratic Alliance national spokesperson Mmusi Maimane wrote an article for yesterday's Sunday Times titled ‘Being an African extends beyond race'. It is a troubling piece. At various key points it is contradictory and, while seemingly consistent with Maimane's personal views on the subject of ‘Africaness' (he was speaking as the DA's national spokesperson so, one must assume, on behalf of the party), there are inherent to it a number of ideas which are profoundly illiberal. The article is, perhaps, illustrative of a certain vein of politically correct but ideologically incompatible rhetoric starting to creep into the DA's language.

[I cannot, unfortunately, link to the article in question, the Sunday Times has not yet posted it to its website.]

The position of national spokesperson is a powerful and influential one - externally, the voice of the party - and so one must take seriously the things advocated by its incumbent as representative of the party, its policy, philosophy and programme of action.

A defence gone awry

Essentially the article's purpose was an important and noble one: to contest the ANC's view that DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko's recent criticism of President Jacob Zuma, concerning his comments on party/business relations, was ‘un-African'. It was an ad hominem attack that worked so effectively a great many of the interviews with Mazibuko afterwards dealt exclusively with the question of whether or not she was indeed ‘African', as opposed to the actual issue. It is disturbing how often many journalists fall for this trick and it constitutes, in my opinion, an indictment of them. At any rate, the ANC must be laughing, as there now unfolds a national discussion about ‘Africaness'.

In adding his voice to this debate, Maimane took serious issue with ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu, who initially made the claim.

"What right does Mthembu or anyone else have to prescribe identity to others?" Maimane asks. Quite right. What a load of nonsense. And, in identifying the principles at stake with any such prescription, he wrote: "There can be no definition [of ‘Africaness'] based on culture or tradition, because they are always changing". Absolutely. So far so good.

At this point, from a liberal perspective, you would expect the defining counter-point: "We are each individuals, different and unique, and not merely a homogenous archetype of the single identity nationalism and collectivism advocates for, on the basis of race, or culture or religion or some geographic consideration".

That critical principle, however, is never expressed.

As the article unfolds it becomes clear that Maimane's problem is not with Mthembu using the idea of ‘Africaness', rather with the fact that he dared to define it. That, Maimane argues, was not Mthembu's or the ANC's place to do. Stereotyping was not the problem, merely the nature of the stereotype and who advocated for it. And so, somewhat ironically given he had just argued such things are beyond definition, he took it upon his own shoulders to provide a different denotation, presumably the DA's understanding of ‘Africaness'.

Maimane states:

"Africaness is defined by one's commitment to the issues and lives of the African people. And nothing can better measure that Africaness than one's commitment to the spirit of Ubuntu."

He continues:

"When the government - or a president - is corrupt and steals money from the collective wellbeing of our people, it violates the principles of Ubuntu. Corruption is therefore anathema to the spirit of Ubuntu and Africaness."

Before finally concluding:

"Being African means being part of a community. And no one can take away our Africaness."

So, as far as Maimane is concerned, there is indeed such a thing as ‘Africaness' and, in perhaps the greatest irony of all, the DA, not the ANC, can best define it.

Something is profoundly wrong when the bastion of liberal values starts having a discussion about how best to define collectivist ideas and archetypes.

The problem with ‘Africaness' and Ubuntu

From a liberal perspective the problems inherent to what the Maimane argues are fundamental.

First, from nothing more than a practical point of view, it is absurd to suggest there exists such a uniform thing as ‘Africaness' (by the way, the word does not exist in dictionary). One continent, with 54 countries - a number that changes regularly as its various citizens squabble and fight over identity, race, religion, culture, ethnicity and so on - and more than a billion people is not one thing. To suggest as much is simply obtuse. Few people are more divided, different and at odds with one another than those who reside on the African continent.

Second, ideologically and so far is liberalism is concerned, there is no such thing as Ubuntu. It happens to be the case that, practically, no such thing exists either but, even if it did, it, and not "corruption", would be anathema; and not to ‘Africaness' but basic human rights, individual civil liberties and liberal ideals.

Our constitution sets out in detail the basic rights, values and principles by which we try to breath life into our democracy. I know, for example, that corruption is wrong because of the moral code those rights demand, the attitude they are designed to engender and the legislation that enforces them. I have no such conception on the basis of Ubuntu. That is because there is no such thing, just a vague, politically correct abstraction that, if anything, seeks to make individual liberties subservient to majoritarian impulses, not to protect them. I know many liberals who would be appalled at the sentiment "Being African means being part of a community."

Our constitutional principles can be well defined and have, by a many great thinkers over the course of human history, been expounded upon, fought for and clearly and cogently understood.

Maimane talks of the "principles" of Ubuntu. I wonder, what are they? I have yet to see them written anywhere, least of all to see any agreement about what they actually and specifically are.

Thabo Mbeki has argued Ubuntu "does not allow for individualism that overrides the collective interests of a community" (a profoundly illiberal notion if ever there was one). The South African Ubuntu Foundation says Ubuntu represents the "deep spiritual truth" that "we are all one". All one? Like the Borg? No one can say exactly what it is but one thing everyone seems to agree upon is that the idea speaks to a common, single and homogenous identity. That puts it directly at odds with our constitution.

Is the DA now in the business of defining Ubuntu too?

Perhaps the DA should spell out these "principles", as it understands them - an ‘Ubuntu constitution'? Do they differ from the principles and values in our existing constitution? If so, how? If not, the idea is redundant anyway. Compassion, tolerance, accountability, sympathy, freedom, empathy, justice, and so forth, ideas such as these enjoy a literature and history as deep as it rich. It is simply not possible to define Ubuntu without reference too them. That is because they are foundational and Ubuntu an intangible attempt to allude to something else, something magical, additional but undefined - an abstraction that relies entirely on other ideals to exist, and would be rendered an empty shell without them.

Likewise, what is ‘a community'? Is it Africa? A nation state? Is it a cultural thing? Religious? Race-based? What are its boundaries? Where does it begin and end? Those are questions without answers; for it is in truth an artificial creation, another abstraction.

The problem with advocating these ideas is, the minute you accept them, someone has to define them - who is in and who is out, what you need to be and not be to in order to be part of a particular ‘community' - and when those in power start contemplating that sort of thing, it is not just individual liberties that suffer, difference and diversity, but you can be sure authoritarianism will follow suit.

A history of advocating for group identity

Maimane has a very clear idea of what ‘Africaness' is, clearly of a ‘community' too, he just doesn't like that the ANC sought to define it.

That fact is evident not just from the basis of the article in question, but on previous things he has written. Take this article, for example, from 2007, also written by Maimane: "The Soul of your African: Celebration".

The précis reads: "Aloysias Mainmane asks what makes someone an African". Upfront he questions what it means about one's identity to say you are ‘African': "Can I be an African by birth, and by choice?" In the subsequent argument Maimane makes the case that there are several characteristics inherent to ‘Africans', among which he uses ‘celebration' as the quintessential example.

"For as long as I can remember", he writes, "being an African has always been wrapped up in celebration". There follows a series of other, essentialist statements in and throughout the piece: "We [Africans] connect with natural and supernatural beings"; "Africans value the soil upon which they walk"; "[celebration] is part of the soul of Africa" and "[celebration] speaks deeper to the value of the continent and spirit of Africa".

That is not the language of liberalism.

What, in principle, is different from saying ‘Africans' intrinsically connect with the supernatural or inherently value the soil, from Jackson Mthembu saying giving gifts is ‘African'? Nothing. Only pragmatically could one disagree about whether or not you have the correct understanding of a people's intrinsic nature and character (something racial nationalists spend most of their time arguing about). If you are in the business of discussing the nature of such archetypes, you are in the business of discussing illiberal ideas.

Liberals believe otherwise. Liberalism holds each person is an individual. Some people value the soil, others do not; some people are religious (and ‘connect' with the supernatural), others do not; some people like to celebrate, others do not. And each one of those people is just as equal, legitimate and free as the next person to be themselves and to enjoy or not to enjoy what they want, so long as they bring no harm to others in doing so. Likewise, their identity is not ‘wrong', whether they do or do not embody such things. They are unique and special and that is where the wonder of human nature lies.

More to the point: some people do not relate to other Africans, some people do; some people feel part of a community, others do not, and that is okay too. One can try to engender in people, through argument, principle and best practice, a sense of national pride and social cohesion - done in the right way, that has its place - but if you are a liberal, you cannot advocate for a collective identity as the definitive way to be and behave, implicitly or explicitly. You cannot, if you are a liberal, enforce it and certainly you cannot start defining the nature of ideal racial, religious, cultural or geographic archetypes and then develop a series of "measurements" against which you judge their identity.

The consequences

One of the problems inherent to such thinking is its effect on power. Consider, for example, Maimane's suggestion that ‘celebration' is intrinsic to Africans (by the way, the other thing that implies, is that it is not intrinsic to others, which how nationalistic thought encourages an "us" and "them" mentality). If the need to celebrate is inherent, it should follow that, from first principles, the state should cater for it. So, it is no surprise that the article in question also contains the following:

"Celebrations are called and led by the leaders. So, if we have an African government, we will indeed have celebrations. The celebrations will always be big - purely because we can. The criticism is made consistently about how government spends money on celebrations that could be used for other perceived priorities, yet one needs to understand that celebrations speak to the soul of Africans. It is a sociological declaration of success and building of community. It is a requirement."

Celebration is a "requirement" of government? They will "be big"? Because "we can"? If that is true, who would deny any state celebration?

Well, the DA for starters.

The DA in the Free State wrote to the Public Protector last year, requesting her to investigate and rule on whether provincial resources allocated for the ANC centenary celebrations constituted an abuse of state resources. And that is before one gets to its very clear position on such things as end-of-year functions, World Cup tickets and Christmas parties. Indeed, the DA-run Western Cape government places much pride in demonstrating the lengths it is willing to go to, to curtail such extravagances in order to enhance service delivery.

So clearly celebration is not a requirement, at least not so far as the DA is concerned. Whether or not the state celebrates something is conditional on a whole range of other factors, cost, probity, ethical considerations and so on. That is because those things flow from the values and principles in our constitution and not an inherent idea of what it is to be ‘African'.

No doubt the ANC thinks the DA's opposition to its misuse of such monies is ‘unAfrican' (as must Maimane); the DA, in turn, would argue the ANC's indulgent actions are unconstitutional. And that is the key difference.

Liberals or something else?

Not everyone in the DA shares Maimane's belief in our intrinsic ‘Africaness'. In this interview with eNCA, and in response to the question "what makes someone African?", Lindiwe Mazibuko answered, "What makes someone African is whether or not they chose to self-identify that way". Certainly she had nothing to say about Ubuntu, or loving the soil, or connecting to the supernatural, or belonging to a community. Only that it was a choice, a personal prerogative. And that is the liberal understanding. Asking "are you an ‘African'?" is no different from asking are you a ‘real black'? (indeed, often it is a euphemism for that very thing). It is no different or less problematic. It is worrisome that the party's national spokesperson thinks otherwise.

What, I wonder is the DA's official position on Ubuntu and ‘Africaness'? That is, assuming Maimane was not speaking on behalf of the party. If it believes such a thing do actually it exist, how does it define them? If it can reconcile them with the constitution and the liberal principles and values it stands for (I cannot see how), what is their purpose? And, if it cannot, why does it not say so?

Mamphele Ramphele, touted by some as a future DA member, has strong views on Ubuntu. In her recent book, ‘Conversations with my sons and daughters', she advocates strongly for the idea, which she describes as: "an essential source of meaning and energy to engage life as individuals and communities". An essential source of energy? Really? Former ANC Eastern Cape Premier Nosimo Balindlela, who joined the DA recently amidst much fanfare, is also a strong advocate of Ubuntu. If the DA aims to give platforms to such people (liberal or otherwise) it needs to start to develop a clear position about where it stands in relation to ideas like Ubuntu, or someone else will decide for it.

You have to search hard these days to find the word ‘liberal' in any DA communication. Certainly the party engages far more in accommodating and indulging ideas like Ubuntu, ‘Africaness' and a single common identity than it used to. And so these sorts of questions are going to be become far more commonplace as it seeks to grow. Where do the DA's foundational values start and stop? Or is the DA going to become only the latest person on the politically correct soapbox, trying to advocate for and define those illiberal ideas about which the ANC and its alliance partners spend so much time trying to legislate for already.


In conclusion, it is not my intention in this piece to suggest that people do not share things in common and that many aspects of our individual identities are not powerfully informed by ideas such as race or culture. As Mazibuko suggests, one can self-identify anyway one chooses; and so understanding these more general forces in a society is important and no one should dismiss them out-of-hand as irrelevant. However, one must understand they are not absolute nor universally applicable, and certainly not an archetype to which people should be expected to adhere.

How the DA goes about relating to such things, understanding them and connecting with those people who feels strongly about them, without compromising its core beliefs, is the next great challenge for the party. Ryan Coetzee, the DA's former strategist, has written a quite excellent article on the subject, in which he addresses this problem, emphasises the need for and importance of human solidarity and suggests that meeting this challenge will be defining for the DA:

"[The DA] runs a great risk by pandering to group identity, as opposed to promoting the right of individuals to self-identify with groups. Because when we do that we divide people in a way that sets them up as antagonists, and we deny their individuality and agency, and so trample their dignity.

"And so we must embrace the legitimacy and importance of group identities, but we must not embrace "identity politics" which reduces people, whether implicitly or explicitly, to mere representatives of groups and seeks to advance or retard advancement on this basis."

Perhaps it is time, then, for the DA to reconsider this important sentiment; for the slope between individual and group identity is a slippery one indeed, and the DA is most certainly on it.

Gareth van Onselen (@GvanOnselen) is the Editor of Inside Politics (@insidepols) - Winner: Best Political Blog 2012 - where this article first appeared.

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