DA debates 'diversity'

Makashule Gana says concept needs to include race and gender on account of SA's history

DA's race debate, a battle to decide what the party stands for

Cape Town - The Democratic Alliance's latest internal debate on race and representation must decide what the party will stand for in a post-Nasrec South Africa, some party members have said.

The DA will debate the inclusion of "diversity" as one of the party's constitutional pillars when delegates descend on Tshwane for its federal elective congress in April.

One of the 105 amendment suggestions seeks that the party "will to the best of its ability attempt to replicate diversity in its own ranks", in line with South Africa's Constitution.

The debate entered the public domain this week, after MPs Gavin Davis and Michael Cardo circulated a five-page letter to the party entitled "Real progressives reject groupthink".

At the heart of their submissions was their view that the current definition of diversity would force people to represent themselves along race and gender lines.

As a result, it could rob them as members of their identity as individuals. Talk of transformation and representivity was akin to "ANC-ese", they contended.

The letter has put race and representation at the centre of a congress that will define what the DA will stand for going into the 2019 general elections.

'If that's not diverse, I don't know what is'

Davis told News24 on Monday that the inclusion of a diversity clause was long overdue, and most party members support it.

But its definition shouldn't be mistaken for other ideas of representation that defines people solely along "ascriptive lines".

"We don't like the term 'representivity', since it assumes that only white people can represent white people, only women can represent women and so on," he said.

"We prefer the term 'diversity' because it does not reduce people to the sum of their demographic parts."

If the party was going to win the battle of ideas in South Africa, the party needed to be "absolutely clear about who we are and where we stand".

He rejected the common suggestion that the party was still a so-called bastion for white, liberal males.

"Our national leader is Mmusi Maimane. Our provincial leaders are: Bonginkosi Madikizela, Zwakele Mncwango, Nqaba Bhanga, John Moodey, Patricia Kopane, Jacques Smalle, Andrew Louw, Joe McGluwa and Jane Sithole," he said.

"If that's not a diverse leadership team, then I don't know what is."

Individuals needed to be protected from "being dominated by others in the name of culture, race, gender and religion", and individual thought should be championed.

'Our history demands it'

Others though, contended that, given the huge consequences of South Africa's past injustices, race and gender cannot be removed from the conversation.

"On diversity, my thoughts are that given our history as a nation and as a party, one can't talk of diversity when it does not include race and gender," said Makashule Gana, a former MP and current MPL in the Gauteng legislature.

"Our definition of diversity will differ from the definition of say England, Russia or Nigeria. We don't have the same history, thus the contexts differ.

"Thus over and above the other components of diversity, in my eyes, if it does not include race and gender it is not diverse enough, our history and context demands as much."

Gana accepted his version of diversity naturally would not be shared by all, but it was a position, and something that can be worked towards at congress.

Dismissing some in the party as not "real progressives", was not helping the debate, he said.

"To me we are all DA, and we are all working towards improving the lives of all South Africans. There's only one degree to DA-ness and not varying degrees. We need to build this DA of ours to be one."

'Lazy thinking'

DA MP Phumzile van Damme took to Twitter to bemoan the fact that party members are grouped into their races when such debate emerges, saying it was "lazy thinking".

"It is a pity that this battle of ideas in the DA is racialised and black DA supporters painted as supportive of a specific policy viewpoint, and white supporters, another.

"Politics is about a battle of ideas between parties, and also, from time-to-time - particularly at congresses or policy conferences - within parties."

She too acknowledged that delegates of all races needed to, and will, deal with the matter, and were looking forward to the debate.

"We are all individuals capable of thought beyond our skin colour. I happen to agree that the idea of diversity as a value is not inimical to liberalism."

South Africans should be careful about polarising the debate into some kind of race war, she warned. Most South Africans in any case just wanted to work together and live their lives.

'DA wants to occupy centre of politics'

DA Youth Leader Yusuf Cassim said he supported the adoption of diversity as an additional value of the party.

"It is integral to what makes the DA a party for all South Africans," he told News24.

DA MP Zak Mbhele said that the term battle was an overstatement, and the contestation was more about the semantics of the term "diverse".

Most in the party wanted the same thing.

"In a discussion like this, it's easy to come across as historically colour blind on the one hand, or racially obsessed with demographic bean-counting on the other, without intending to and while, in fact, everyone is in broad agreement," he said.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, Da leader Mmusi Maimane said the debate ultimately was an important one for the party and that the DA needed to speak to South Africa's past.

"This is not a battle of progressives or conservatism, but about the DA occupying the centre space of politics, where the rights of all South Africans are protected," he told City Press.

"It's about building a party that can give voice and leadership to all of society, an acknowledgement of our past and an appreciation of our diversity."

The party's federal congress will elect a new leadership and decide on its amendments on April 7 and 8.