Unwarranted media rejection of the DA difference
This week the Financial Times (FT) in London joined the South African media’s chorus of condemnation for the decision by the Democratic Alliance (DA) to adopt race-neutral policies of redress for apartheid’s manifold injustices.
An FT article on Mbali Ntuli’s challenge to John Steenhuisen for the position of DA leader implicitly endorses Ntuli’s perspective. As she sees it, the DA is now ignoring the black majority, can no longer credibly challenge the floundering African National Congress (ANC), and is ‘putting itself in a corner’ by ‘minimising the racial character of SA’s inequality’.
Ntuli goes so far as to claim that the DA will now be ‘going out on the ground and telling someone whose child has drowned in a pit toilet…that they are in that situation because they didn’t work hard enough, or life was hard’. The party will overlook the real reason for people’s suffering, which is that ‘they’re black’.
Though the FT article makes it clear that these are Ntuli’s views, it cites no contrary perspective. Instead, it quotes political analyst Ralph Mathekga as saying that Ntuli is unlikely to win the DA leadership contest, despite her broader electoral appeal, because Steenhuisen favours ‘an old guard’ seeking to ‘shore up the party’s traditional white vote’.
Ever since the DA recommitted itself to non-racialism – a founding value of South Africa’s democracy – media outrage at its decision has been astonishingly shrill. Journalists and other commentators have claimed that the decision entrenches race ‘denialism’, takes the party ‘back by half a century’, and reveals a ‘Trumpian turn’ (whatever this last might mean).
Make redress more effective
Much of the coverage assumes that the DA has turned its back on any attempt to provide redress for past racial wrongs. But the party’s policy documents clearly recognise the ‘myriad injustices’ arising from apartheid. They also seek to make redress much more effective by adopting race-neutral policies that are targeted at the poor and cannot be abused by a small black political elite.
Even the South African Communist Party (SACP), which helped develop black economic empowerment (BEE), has warned that the policy is wide open to abuse. As the party pointed out in 2017, BEE is ‘enriching a select few’ while keeping the remainder mired in ‘increasing poverty’ and ‘persisting (sic) mass unemployment’. BEE is thus the key reason for widening ‘intra-African inequality’ and has become ‘the main contributor to South Africa’s extraordinarily high Gini coefficient’ of income inequality.
Empowerment policies that persist in using race as a proxy for disadvantage are sure to perpetuate this pattern. Which is why the DA wants a race-neutral approach. From this foundation, it plans to prioritise the 30 million South Africans living below the poverty line and find effective ways to overcome the many barriers to their upward mobility.
Founding value of the new order
The DA’s decision is in line with a long tradition of non-racialism within the country. The Liberal Party was non-racial from its start in 1953. So too were the Progressive Federal Party and the Democratic Party. The Freedom Charter also endorses non-racialism, while the 1996 Constitution identifies it as a founding value of the new order.
In the apartheid era, the ANC was careful to claim a strong commitment to non-racialism, which helped it grow its local and global support. But once it had won power in 1994, the organisation swiftly set about re-racialising the country. It did so under the rubric of redress and by adopting race-based policies requiring the revival of the very racial categories the National Party government had abolished in 1991.
Against this background, why are so many in the media so determined to denigrate and stigmatise the DA?
In part, this reflects the growing strength of critical race theory (CRT) in the US and many other countries, including South Africa. CRT, in a cynical reversal of the celebrated words of Martin Luther King Jnr, demands that people be assessed and treated according to ‘the colour of their skin’, rather than ‘the content of their character’.
Equality of outcome
CRT rejects the equality of opportunity the DA is seeking to achieve. Instead, it requires an equality of outcome which cannot be attained in practice, given intrinsic differences in individual attributes and aptitudes.
CRT also repudiates race-neutral policies for the simple (though generally unacknowledged) reason that these are not sufficiently divisive to fuel the revolutionary fires needed to overturn both capitalism and Western democracy.
However, there is also more to the media’s long-standing hostility to the DA than the relatively recent growth of CRT. Many in the media have long seemed intrinsically opposed to any political party that is a serious rival to the ANC.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, it was the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) – which had far more black support than the ANC – that was unfairly demonised and held out as the primary villain in the political violence for which the ANC’s people’s war was mainly to blame.
Stigmatisation of the DA took off only in the post-apartheid era and as the party became a more potent rival to the ANC. It accelerated from the early 2000s, when the DA took control of both Cape Town and the Western Cape and began showing up the manifold failures of ANC governance elsewhere.
Hundreds of thousands of South Africans, both black and white, have taken note of the DA difference and moved to the Western Cape to draw the benefit of it. But many in the media still cannot bring themselves to acknowledge that the DA might be a better option than the ANC – not only on investment, growth, employment, education, health, clean governance, and the fight against Covid-19 – but also on non-racial and effective redress for the disadvantaged.
This article first appeared in the Daily Friend.